Monday, March 7, 2011


One thing that I did not write about in my notes on the International Volunteerism seminar, because it was not relevant, was the thrill I got to see Le Ly Hayslip in person.

She was one of the speakers and I could hardly believe it when I saw her name in the program. I read her book years and years ago after watching the movie Heaven and Earth.

Le Ly grew up in the North of Vietnam in a poor peasant family in the time of the North-South Vietnam War. Ever so often, North Vietnamese would come to their family to indoctrinate them about the evil white devils who wanted to take over their country and the honour of defending their country, even as children.

Of course, on the other hand, the Americans would come, give out sweets, and throw bombs into the little hidden bunkers in the fields where Vietnamese families would hide, just in case North Vietnam soldiers were hidden there too.

Little Le Ly and her family did not understand. They were poor peasant farmers, barely eaking out a living on a little plot of land.

She was put in prison a few times, a little teenage girl - sometimes for sins against the Americans, sometimes against the North Vietnamese. It did not matter.

As she said, Communist, Capitalist, what did that mean to a little peasant girl from the North with no education? All she knew was to survive, and to do as she was told by whoever wielded a gun.

The family was starving, so soon she went to the city, to Saigon, where soldiers took advantage of this naive country girl.

Eventually she met and followed a man who promised to take care of her to America. Her first time in a supermarket, she grabbed packets and packets of food... she thought it was the last time she would have such a chance. Her husband had to stop her and reassure her that in this country, America, there was plenty of food for tomorrow.

Depressed and tormented by war, her husband was later to commit suicide. Alone, Le Ly thought about her own home country, and of how soldiers like her husband had been frustrated because they did not understand why the civilians of a country they were trying to 'free', refused to be free.

So she travelled back to Vietnam, back to a nation beginning to restore itself after years of war. And she built a foundation called the East Meets West Foundation, to restore understanding and to extend forgiveness and build peace between nations.

A heroine in my eyes years before I met her, and yet, when I saw Le Ly at the conference, she did not look like a heroine. She looked like any auntie that you will meet anywhere. Her English is not so good.

And yet I have read her story... and how incredible her life has been.

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