Monday, February 05, 2007

I'm a big man, look at me!

Tet is looming... Lunar New Year, the one major holiday in Vietnam that the country really cherishes. Preparations have started, although Day One of the new year isn't until February 17. On the 17th, and for at least a few days afterwards, Vietnam will come to a stand still. It's a beautiful time to be in the country.

But the next weeks will be anything but beautiful. Everyone is madly racing around buying furniture or clothes, renovating their home, looking for the trees people traditionally put in their homes, washing their motorbikes, and visiting the relatives they've been avoiding since last Tet.

Here at Blue Dragon, we had an idea to help out one of our neighbours. Mrs Thanh lives close to our HQ, and gets around town in a wheelchair. Her chair has three wheels, and is driven by a hand-pumping mechanism.

We support Mrs Thanh's two kids to go to school, as the money she earns from selling soft drinks on the street at night is a pittance. She's had a tough life; she lost the use of her legs in a bomb blast during the Vietnam-America war, and has spent all of her life in poverty.

When I first met her, Mrs Thanh lived in a slum that she had built herself. Last year, the local council demolished the entire slum settlement - some hundreds or thousands of homes - and relocated all of the residents. Home owners were given advanced notice, and allocated a fairly generous compensation for their loss of a home.

Except Mrs Thanh.

Somehow, she was overlooked when it came to paying compensation. The money, which would have set her up for the rest of her life, has never appeared. Go figure!

So she's had to move from home to home, renting cheap places with dirt floors and holes in the roof.

On Friday last week, some of us decided to offer a small gesture to Mrs Thanh: an overhaul of her wheelchair. The plan was to wash it, replace the cushions, fix up the brakes and steering, and repaint it.

Step One: Wash it.

At the end of our street is the Group Leader's home. He's elected or appointed to oversee security on the street; it's his job to deal with neighbourhood complaints and report to the police the goings-on of residents and visitors. And he happens to run a small business, washing vehicles.

Some of our kids took Mrs Thanh's wheelchair to him, asking him to wash it. For money, of course, because that's his business.

But - no. He refused to wash the wheelchair.

"But we'll pay you."

"I don't wash wheelchairs."


"No. No wheelchairs."

End of story. It would seem that Tet is not a time for charity.

I still feel confused as to why this guy should refuse a fairly simple job. Some of my staff have suggested that it's because he would feel inferior by washing a wheelchair. He wants to be seen washing a Mercedes, or an expensive motorbike, not a rusty old wheelchair owned by a poor disabled woman.

So, he's a big man, and apparently too big to condescend to such a task.

This week, Blue Dragon is going to use this incident to teach a bit of community spirit to our kids. We're going to ask our kids to contribute a few cents each to pay for new cushions, paint, and any parts needed in the repairs. We're going to wash the bike ourselves.

And we're going to show Mrs Thanh that people do care for her.

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