25.12.2011 - 25.12.2011 75 °F
I’m honest to a fault, so I have to tell you that this Christmas has been quite a depressing one. Partly that’s to do with being away from family and friends (both in the States and China), partly that’s to do with not getting to church for Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, but mostly it’s to do with the fact that I chose today of all days to visit the War Remnants Museum here in Saigon.
The outside of the museum was fine – just a lot of tanks, planes & helicopters left over from different branches of the US Military after the war. I met a local man out there named Quy (pronounced We) selling some books. He had lost both of his arms from mid-forearm down and his right eye appeared damaged. He said he lost his arms in a mine explosion in 1978 when he was 8 years old. He’s only five years older than me, but his experiences seem to have made him even older than his years.
If you know anything about the war (I’m assuming people my age and younger reading this don’t have the knowledge that our parents and others from previous generations have), you know that the war officially ended in 1975 – April 30, 1975 to be exact. So Quy was hurt AFTER the war was already over. In fact, I read a statistic today that said about 2000 people a year are killed by mines left over from the American War. I guess Quy should be considered one of the lucky ones.
I told him that after I finished going through the exhibits inside, I’d see him outside again and maybe buy a book. And that was my intention. Lord knows, I have enough books, but I wanted to help someone who’s working for money, rather than begging for it. Quy touched me – physically and emotionally. He held out his stub for me to shake it and it was as soft as baby’s skin. He also gave me a sad look, like he’s probably heard that line before. And it WAS my intention to find him when I finished inside. However, after spending about 15 minutes inside, I had to get away from that museum.
Upon first entering the first floor, there are several human casualties of war on the left-hand side. None of them look to be older than 30 and all are deformed in some way. To me, the worst was a teenaged boy who was blind, sitting at a keyboard. He didn’t seem to have any other problems, but where there should have been eyes, it was just skin. Imagine a clay figurine before the artist creates the eyes – that’s precisely what he looked like. But these kids are there, working (and entertaining on the keyboard?) as best they can, to make souvenirs for the museum patrons to buy. Of course, the sale of these trinkets helps to pay for their needs, both physical and otherwise. I looked at the souvenirs, but after I saw the boy at the keyboard, I had to walk away or burst into tears right there.
Upstairs was worse, though it was mostly just pictures. We’ve probably all seen the picture of the little Vietnamese girl running naked down the road after being covered in napalm (in fact her name is Phan Thi Kim Phuc and she is now both a Canadian citizen and a Christian!), but that was only one of the pictures on display. Other pictures show disfigurements far worse than hers and the worst part of it is that many of these are in children born after the war. The chemical, “Agent Orange,” has been found to be very toxic, and it’s these toxins in the soil and water than have affected babies in utero. The museum also has some preserved misshapen fetuses on display, but I couldn’t linger there. In fact, I couldn’t stay in that place any longer. Again, I felt that if I stayed, I’d burst into tears.
I completely ignored the top floor of the museum and headed out. I looked briefly for Quy (and actually saw him with other tourists near the CH-47 Chinook helicopter), but in the end, didn’t buy anything from him. I was too ashamed, because my plan before going inside had been to buy a book, then ask to take his photo. I’m really into photography and thought he would make a great subject. When I saw him again, though, I realized that he might agree because he thought it would be the only way I would buy a book. Also, I didn’t want to risk offending him or seeming like an insensitive tourist. So in the end, I lied to him, probably just as he predicted, and left without buying anything from him.
After leaving the museum, I walked down the road a bit to a coffee house, went inside, ordered a coffee and sat for 2-3 hours. For at least the last hour there, I sat, sniffling and crying to myself over what humans are capable of doing to each other. Some people may leave the museum feeling anger or hatred towards Americans or towards war in general. But as an American, I can’t feel hatred towards my people. Instead, I feel guilt and grief. Vietnam was just one war, and while the method of inflicting pain or suffering during this war may have been different, there’s pain and suffering in every war. There’s even pain and suffering in a life that hasn’t been touched by war.
Being Christmas Day, I have to cry that we’ve messed up everything that God has created for us. He gave us the greatest gift ever when He gave us His Son, but we’ve gone as far from the perfection He created as possible. That’s why He sent His Son to earth for us. I know that there’s a lot of good on earth too, but it’s not always as easy to see the good. And I think I saw much more of the bad today than I ever had before, so it’s hit me pretty hard.
I’ve been having a rough few months (I won’t go into details, but let’s just say that crying fits haven’t exactly been unknown for me lately), but today was good for me in one respect. It definitely gave me some perspective – nothing that I’ve gone through can compare with what Quy or the blind boy or the others have gone through every day of their lives. And if they can endure with what life’s handed them, then I know that I can too.
I hope that each of you gets the gift of perspective this Christmas, without having to see the ugly reality that I witnessed today. Be grateful for what you have – your faith, your health, your family, your friends, your pets, your hobbies, your jobs – whatever it is that makes you happy. And if you can, reach out to help someone else. I’m looking into becoming a regular donor to some charity that can help the victims of mines or toxic poisoning here, but I’m also going to be looking to help people in Shanghai right where I live. It’s so easy to see the need around us, and so common to think “what can I, one person, really do to help?” So the usual course of action is to do nothing. But I want that to change and I’m going to make sure that it does.
It was a little embarrassing to sit in the coffee house and have the tears run down my face. I’m sure that people must have noticed, because I had to sniff and blow my nose at times, so I wasn’t exactly silent. I felt a little bit like Sally in the TV show “Third Rock from the Sun” who described crying as “leaking.” (A bit of background may be necessary here – this TV show is about a group of aliens who come to live on earth to research what it means to be human. Since this is the first time any of them has cried, they aren’t exactly sure what it is or why it’s happened. So when Sally cries for the first time, she panics and asks “what’s wrong with me? I’m leaking!)
It was a humorous part of the show, and one that I’ve never forgotten. Also an apt description for me today. That’s what my crying has been like – no loud sobs, no actual breaking down, but tears streaming down my face uncontrollably. I can stop for two minutes, ten minutes, even thirty minutes, but then it happens again. I’ve been leaking for the last six hours. And in that time I’ve been asking God, “why did you have to give me such a sensitive heart? If I didn’t have this heart, I would be able to control my feelings better.” But then He gave me the realization that these emotions, this sensitivity, this “leaking” is far better than the opposite, which is what I’ve been for too long. I’ve been able to walk past all sorts of deformity and suffering and poverty in Shanghai, past many an outstretched hand and feel nothing, do nothing. But like I said, that’s going to change.
I leave Saigon tomorrow evening and go to the beach in Vietnam for three days. But before I fly out, I have plenty of time to go back to see Quy and do what I said I would. I don’t know if he’ll remember me, but I hope that I don’t see the same sadness and disappointment that I saw there today when I initially put him off. Tomorrow is a new beginning for me and my sensitive heart.