Asian Notebook, continued

    On the evening of my visit to the school, I talked with a couple of mid-level government officers–party members–during a leisurely dinner in a restaurant overlooking the Saigon River. The meal included several kinds of spicy fish, and a platter of even spicier vegetables. The subject of the conversation was educational policy, not politics, but politics constantly and inevitably elbowed its way into our talk. The discussion made abundantly clear what I already knew: that nobody in Vietnam actually believes in communism anymore. (But then, who does, aside from the crackpots ruling in North Korea, and a handful of academic Marxists?) Everyone is scrambling to find the door that leads to the market economy, while hanging on to party privileges.
Thirty-seven thousand feet over the Pacific, Terry and I recollected that dinner, and other conversations, as we changed diapers, warmed bottles, and walked up and down the aisles of the plane with Baby Kim and Baby Park. (Not their real names, but even six-month-olds are entitled to a little privacy.) Kim was about as wide as he was long, shaped approximately like a softball attached to the top of a basketball, and blessed with a seraphic smile. Park was slimmer, more serious, given to long, silent eye contact. The pair of them resembled a kind of miniature, Korean Laurel and Hardy, and we found them irresistible. Having been through infant routines with four children of our own, we didn’t actually need help, but we got quite a lot, from the cabin crew, and from other passengers. What we did eventually need was a little sleep, but neither Kim nor Park was going to permit it. As if by prearranged plan, they took turns being awake, lively and charmingly demanding.
When a fellow passenger asked me where we had been, I found myself telling her first about Poipet, Cambodia, which is one of the world’s sad places. Just 10 years ago, it was a nondescript village of 10,000 people, not far from the last Khmer Rouge stronghold. Today, Poipet is home to something like 75,000 people, displaced by the country’s bitter civil wars, living in primitive shacks made of wood scraps and corrugated tin. Fighting was lethal in this region, and danger persists because of the thousands of landmines buried in the area. We saw adults and children with missing limbs, and we were sharply instructed to stay on the paths when we walked around. That useful if rather obvious advice was not always easy to follow when the "path" was a thin and slippery plank suspended a few inches over the muddy lane that served as a passage and sometimes sewer connecting one cluster of huts with the next.
Diseases associated with the absence of hygiene flourish here; we arrived in the midst of a cholera outbreak. With the end of the war, humanitarian efforts are becoming better organized, and PSBI is one of several NGOs commencing work in this area. We had a two-hour meeting with local health and education officials, who briefed us on some of the town’s needs. During the introductions, a Cambodian general, the regional commander, showed up unexpectedly. He was affable, low-keyed, and unarmed, but his presence obviously made the other Cambodians nervous, and he certainly spooked me. ("And what did you do during the war, Daddy?" crossed my mind, but I kept my sentiments to myself and smiled for the photo-op.)
Our Cambodian-speaking staff had gathered information through interviews with dozens of Poipet residents. Questions about nutrition, schooling and sanitation yielded fairly alarming answers. A health clinic, whose ill-trained nurses can provide little beyond aspirin, is open only two days each week. Unemployment is staggering, and no one was prepared to predict that the economy would improve.
We met a few of the town’s hundreds of commercial sex workers–girls and young women who service their clients in long rows of tiny, ramshackle cubicles, decorated with tawdry, wistfully innocent calendars and movie-magazine covers. The sex workers are mainly Cambodian and Vietnamese women, the customers are Cambodian and Thai men. The women charge between 30 and 40 Thai baht (a little over a dollar); the Vietnamese women can charge the Thais a few pennies more, because Thai men find Vietnamese women more attractive than Cambodians. The HIV infection rate among the sex workers is estimated to be 65-70 percent.
We talked about these findings with a number of experts, including the regional director of the United Nations AIDS project in Southeast Asia, an eloquent, compassionate man who endorsed our plans for HIV/AIDS education and counseling. Now we have to find the money.
We also met with a senior UNICEF official in Laos, a woman from Colorado who has spent 20 years in Southeast Asia, eight of them working in Cambodian refugee camps. Savvy and irrepressibly optimistic, she decided to transfer to Laos, a small, desperately poor country that has simply fallen off the journalistic map since the Vietnam War ended. Geography has been unkind to Laos, which is landlocked and mountainous, and is routinely bullied by its larger neighbors. If we can find the money, PSBI will try to help with a U.N.-initiated literacy project; Laotian children suffer from some of the poorest education in the region.
Eight hours after leaving Seoul, the plane stopped for a crew-change in Anchorage, Alaska. Terry and I, a little bleary-eyed, walked around the small terminal once or twice, trying to interest ourselves in the stuffed bears and wolves and salmon that make up the airport’s principal decorations. The babies attracted a good deal of attention, most of it sympathetic, some merely curious. We had learned years ago, when we went out with our daughter Jennifer, that complete strangers sometimes feel free to ask the most intimate questions when they meet adults and children who seem to be of different races: Who are these children? Where do they come from? Why are they with you? Who are you? The interlocutors are not usually hostile, but they consider themselves entitled to some basic information. I usually answer politely, though I find the intrusions tiresome and I’m sometimes tempted to ask return questions of my own: How many children do you have? How many are adopted? If none, why not? And who are you?
Indifferent to my irritation, Baby Kim and Baby Park seemed to enjoy the attention, and responded with some of their more seductive smiles.
Kim and Park are healthy babies. In Thailand, we had spent a day with less fortunate boys and girls, the sons and daughters of HIV/AIDS victims; many of the children also have the disease. The city of Chon Buri lies about two hours (by car) southeast of Bangkok. Terry and I arrived in the mid-morning, and met first for an hour with an HIV support committee that PSBI has organized: 15 men and women, all HIV-positive, who meet regularly as a group and who have been trained to provide counseling to AIDS patients in the local hospital. The committee’s members are impressively resilient and good-humored, and our conversation was an illuminating and (to me) humbling experience.
In the afternoon, we left Chon Buri’s main streets and drove to a muddy village nearby. Here we met with a few of the families PSBI works with, all of them victimized by AIDS. In one case, four of the family’s five members, the 30-year-old father and mother, and two of the three small children, have the illness. In another case, an uninfected three-year-old boy is being cared for by his 90-year-old great-grandmother. It is not clear what will happen when the great-grandmother is no longer able to look after him.
In each country we visited, Terry and I took full advantage of PSBI’s staff members, the local nationals who tutored and guided us. Our long conversations with these dedicated, knowledgeable men and women added the depth and texture that helped us understand what we were seeing. They kept us busy, but did give us time for some of the more predictable tourist activities. We knelt in the breathtakingly beautiful Temple of the Emerald Buddha near the Thai Royal Palace; watched the boat traffic on the Mekong River in Laos; had our pockets picked in Ho Chi Minh City. We walked around the ancient Korean city of Kyong-ju, and we had the dinner of our lives at the legendary Oriental Hotel in Bangkok. We spent time with friends in Korea and Thailand, and promised them that we would return soon. I believe we will.
We left Seoul at about 7:00 p.m. Sunday and, after crossing the dateline and stopping in Anchorage, arrived at Newark airport at 9:00 the same night: two hours on the clock, 16 in the air. A half-hour later, in a crowded arrivals hall that suddenly went quiet around us, we handed over the two babies to their adoptive parents. Another improvised ceremony, with more laughter and embraces and tears. Frankly, we relinquished the children with a twinge of reluctance: you do quite a lot of bonding with a baby on a journey like this.
Our daughter Jennifer, now an adult living and working in New York, came to the airport and joined in our homecoming; her presence drew a comforting circle around past and present. Baby Kim and Baby Park seemed instantly pleased by their new families, a response that was obviously and fully reciprocated. These two boys will do all right, I predict. And although they won’t remember the journey they made to their new home, Terry and I will never forget it.

To learn more about Pearl S. Buck International and its programs, go to http:// www.pearl-s-buck.org; call (215) 249-0100; or write to PSBI at Green Hills Farm, Perkasie, PA 18944.

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