I understand why Elizabeth Van Meter, filmmaker and creator of Thao’s Library, fell in love with Vietnam. Back Story: Thao, now 30, born with severe birth defects from Agent Orange, taught herself to read and write, and built a library to help children in her village do the same. Thao’s Library tells of her struggles, as well as Elizabeth’s who, after the sudden death of her famed younger sister, was looking for a purpose – a reason to keep going. She found that in Thao. Despite the language and cultural barriers, the two forge an unlikely sisterhood and embark on an ambitious journey that will change their lives forever. (For the rest of the story, see the movie online and on demand. You’ll be forever changed click HERE.)
When I was questioning whether or not I’d join Elizabeth on her return trip to Vietnam, to put the final chapter on the film’s story, I was going through the same excuses as all do in life. I’m too busy, it’s too expensive, I have too much stuff to do. And if it were not for my husband, pressuring me to go, reassuring me that all would be alright and that this was a moment of a lifetime, I would have never hit the ‘click here to purchase’ button. And at the same time, I would have never felt more alive as a human being, even now now, months afterwards.
[Before I continue with what I learned in Vietnam, you should know that Elizabeth is currently performing her stage show of THAO’S Library, running right now at the Lion Theatre. For more information, click here.]
I am in fact forever a changed person, for so many reasons. I documented each day’s adventures on Facebook, but it wasn’t until I returned and was thrown back into my ‘normal’ life that I started to realize what I’ve truly learned.
Value #1 – the beauty of raw nature: We can all appreciate beautifully manicured gardens, set with dozens of caretakers and irrigation systems made to keep them in order. But it’s truly the raw nature which I found utterly mesmerizing. The lush trees, the wild flowers found alongside the roads, the mountains filled with green growing in each crack and crevice. Then there were the animals, living wild and free among the humans. Cats and dogs roaming naturally, timid and untamed.
Value #2 – the effects of war: I won’t get into the politics of the Vietnam War, but I will say that the long-term effects of what the US did by using Agent Orange was seen at every corner from the moment we landed until we left. We may not have known the effects of our actions then, but there’s no reason we can’t accept the blame for what can be seen every day since, over 40 years later. I saw young women and men born years afterwards, kids and babies, with bodies and brains ravaged. Some able to communicate fully, like Thao, and have a clear thinking mind. Some so ravaged so badly they are left to live their lives, sometimes in their own filth, hoping that you could understands what they’re thinking by purely looking into their eyes. And others, so far gone, it’s as if they were born with no soul to even know the difference between yesterday and tomorrow. (More on these kids below.) On the streets of Ho Chi Minh City it was the image of a father and son walking down the sidewalk that sticks with me. The son, no older than five, carrying several bags of groceries, while the father, born with no legs, walked around with sandals on his hands. Both of them striding along slowly, all the while rush hour mopeds weaved in and around them – on the sidewalk.
Value #3 – the need for human touch: Twice we visited the orphanage featured in the film, seeing some kids five years after Elizabeth first met them. The images will haunt me forever of not just kids, but also adults, abandoned. The able-bodied kids were thirsty for the slightest of attention. Those couldn’t move on their own were left to stay in their metal cribs, and you saw a sense of yearning by just looking into their eyes. Then there were the ones tied down for their own safety looking at you blankly as if you were a window. But when I passed by a metal crib, an arm grabbed mine. Taken aback, I couldn’t pull away because when I looked down it was a grown woman, body twisted, head shaved (to deter lice). I looked down at her and saw pure sadness, so I gave in as she slowly pulled my hand to my face. As I kept my hand there, her expression softened to one of pure content. She merely wanted me to touch her. It was a feeling of accomplishment like no other. One thing each of them yearned for was simply the human touch. We are all fortunate that we are born to the lives we’ve been given. Some have no choice in the matter. These souls, and so many others will never be given a chance at anything better than what you see here.
Value #4 – the gift of giving: Thao embodies this, but I truly saw it within almost every person I came into contact with, most importantly, the young adults. You can see teenagers and twenty somethings constantly going above and beyond to assist others, so willingly and with great devotion. It was so beautiful. It could have been the smallest of tasks, but there they were, present and able to help. We must remember that no matter where we are in our lives, we are ALWAYS in a position to help someone less fortunate.
Value #5 – the yearning to be educated: This is something that exists in our own country. But in a place where books, arts and education are lacking, it’s a wonder when you see a child rush into a room where there are books and be instantly consumed. Or when you pour a pack of crayons and paper hearts on the floor, how they suddenly are transitioned to another world. From the village children to those in the orphanage, it was the same. It was their basic human instinct to know and learn more, and it was a wonder to experience it unfold before my eyes.
Value #6 – the meaning of family: The concept of family in Vietnam is astounding. The caring, dedication, devotion and more. The unconditional love of Thao and her family and how beyond all odds they have created their own world which is the epitome of peace and commitment. At every hour of the day, they are there for one another. Some young adults were blown away that we didn’t live with or near our parents. Not appalled, just a concept that they never even considered, because being with their family was the most important connection they possess.
Value #7 – the appreciation of the ‘little things’: When you’re thrown into a world that is completely opposite of your own, it takes a couple of days to adjust. But then you see it. The little things that you constantly take for granted, you realize are the things that either mean the most to you or don’t matter at all. If you’re reading this, then nine times out of ten you have been born into an incredibly fortunate position in this world. You most likely have all the things you need to live – food, clothes, and an education. So for just one moment, stop. What if things were different? What if you were born with a disability without any blame to your parents, and they couldn’t care for you? Or even born healthy for that matter, but your parents didn’t have the means to support you? And then you were left, abandoned. Of even born into a loving family, but lack things we think we automatically deserve simply because, well, we do. Whether it be clean water, a hair dryer, the ability to feed yourself, the need for a Q-tip – all of it. When you’re in a world that doesn’t automatically afford you the luxuries that make your life at home so simple, you’re reminded of how lucky you are simply to born in society where things come easy and without effort.