After our success at reuniting 15 year old Son with his family on Tuesday, we've had a more difficult time with the 14 year old boy, Hoang, who we've also been working with.
On Wednesday afternoon, Hoang agreed to go home to his family - and it turned out that our fears of his safety at home had been a little overstated. There were (and are) definitely some issues, but nothing that should really prevent Hoang from being with his folks.
Two of the staff accompanied Hoang back to the countryside, and spent some hours talking to his family. Our experience with runaways - all of whom are from rural areas - tells us that kids often leave home because there's a tremendous gulf between them and their parents. It's more than just a 'gap'.
Vietnamese teens are exposed to the world through TV and the internet; they see hip hop culture, city life, and fast money. It all seems so exciting and attractive, and a small problem at home (an argument with dad, a rude comment from a teacher) becomes the spark to cause the child to run away to Hanoi.
The parents, meantime, have no way of understanding such behaviour. Their own teenage years were spent in hardship and deprivation. Having lived in Vietnam for 8 years, I am yet to meet anybody aged 25 or over who does NOT have memories of going hungry. But to the kids, that might as well be a story from ancient history. There's so much more to the world now! Concerns about this are regularly raised in local papers, too, like this story.
Little Hoang is in exactly this position. His parents are strict and want him to do well at school; they don't understand his obsession with computer games. Every chance he has, Hoang is at the internet shop. He's been skipping school, borrowing money, and focusing entirely on games. Not knowing how to deal with that, his parents and teachers have simply tried being stricter and stricter - until he ran away some weeks ago.
Finally, though, we got him home and we thought everything would be fine - but Hoang only lasted one night. He ran away the next morning, and headed straight back to the internet cafes of Hanoi.
So... we still have some work to do. I think the next step will be to bring Hoang's parents to Hanoi and try to get both Hoang and his parents to attend some counselling.
Looks like this little guy is going to need some ongoing help to get through these difficult times.