Welcome to the Official VietACT Intern Blog! It provides an opportunity for the current VietACT Intern to engage in a dialogue with our members, the community, and those interested in our efforts and fight against human trafficking. This blog will feature updates and observations from the shelter in Taiwan, thoughts and feelings from the current VietACT Intern, as well as news updates and information about human trafficking in general. Thanks for visiting!

Sunday, October 10, 2010


Too much time has gone by since I posted. Truthfully, when I arrived back on U.S. soil, I wrote a very long post that never got finished between my feverish applying for jobs and transient living style, aka somewhat being homeless. In many ways, my life has mirrored the survivors of trafficking. I understood more, as an unemployed American, the feeling of hopelessness, depression and desperation that my trafficked Vietnamese brothers and sisters face than I did as a volunteer at the shelter. As each month rolled by and I got no responses from this stale economy, I considered certain lines of work I would never have considered had I not been so desperate. While I didn't submit to engaging in any of them, I certainly see how easy it is to prey upon vulnerable people.

I don't come from a family where my parents or siblings will put money in my bank account even in emergency times. The only person who takes care of me is me. The day came where I didn't know how I was going to eat the next month. That's a scary debilitating feeling. It's a complete feeling of failure when you can't find a job to save your life, and you've put as much time and energy into school as I have. I did the only thing I could. I applied for food stamps. Imagine what it must feel like if you had a masters degree and a decently running car, but you're waiting in line between a mother with 3 crying children and a man in traditional Burmese attire with one leg (who clearly recently arrived to the states)...all because you're homeless and unemployed. As I stood in line for 4 hours, I questioned how my choices in life led me to the same place as everyone else in line. And not that I saw myself as better than those people, but just as someone with more opportunity to change my situation, yet unable to do so when my own government was doing nothing to create sustainable jobs. Every trafficked man and woman I talked to had said the same thing, there were no jobs in their country. After I received my emergency food stamp card, I sat by the perfectly cut grass outside the Health and Human Services building, reveling in the irony of similar circumstances between me and the survivors, yet now understanding the deep impact that our public assistance programs can make on the lives of truly needy individuals. People too easily condemn our government, but in 1975 when my family of refugees landed in Arkansas without food and then in 2010 when I was in need, the social service programs created back in Roosevelt's day allowed me (and my family) to survive. In Vietnam and many countries around the world, if you don't have money for food you starve. Put that in your pipe and smoke it.

My caseworker was the kindest man who collected my information between little rivulets of tears running down my face. His kindness and my feeling of being swathed in failure created little unstoppable fountains in my eyes. I kept thinking how 3 months ago I had his job. I was helping others. This exacerbated the crying. Needless to say, he cheered me up and gave me hope to get through the day. He has a kind letter of thanks on it's way to him in the mail.

Things have started to look up in my life. The food stamps saw me through until I was able to find suitable work. When my own family member, knowing I was unemployed, turned me out on the street, a compassionate friend helped to house me in her living room. She and her family assisted me spiritually through their kindness and generosity. My days of driving in between San Diego and LA looking for work have ended. I have a good job counseling teens at a group home and last week, after months of not having a place to call home, I moved into my own place. It's a small room in a shared apartment, but hey, we all have to start somewhere. Never, at 26 (almost 27) did I see my life turning out this way. It's still a good life, just a little different than what I expected. Working with trafficked folks gave me the strength to get through a very dark time in my life -- the past 6 months. Everyday I look for things to celebrate, because life is a precious experience. The most impactful thing about Taiwan wasn't the big stuff like the trafficking stories of human degradation. It was the "little things" I learned about hope, kindness, and resilience that changed my life. Turns out those things aren't so little after all.

Please read on for an excerpt I wrote my friend after reading her thesis. Hope Pavich, an amazingly talented researcher and dedicated human rights advocate, worked side-by-side with me in Taiwan. Consider it an epilogue of sorts to my overseas experience:
Hope, as I continue to read this paper, I am brought back to our memories of TW in a different way. I actually cried about 5 pages in, because the weight of what we witnessed has had time to metabolize. When we were on the go, running from detention center to the shelter to grabbing boba in between a protest, it all flashed by so quickly. For 6 months that I’ve been back in the states, our experience has metastasized into a tumor in me of ugly truth about the world that I carry around, not bitterly but rather just fully aware, as I mull over my next opportunity to help fight slavery. Slavery in 2010. Maybe I let myself too easily be socialized to think of “slavery” as only a historically relevant term related to cotton picking and ancient times. History class has a way of depersonalizing the truth, eh? And yet, as I sit on my little futon and get ready to go to the gym, our little Taiwan seems surreal. How were we able to leave and go back to this – this life of normalcy – when even as I write there are millions of people, thousands of my own in fact, being treated like chattel. I find it amazing how people can so easily separate themselves from the ugly reality of those trafficked when our very lifestyle is fed by it. Well, my dear, I don’t know when I will as involved as we once were (for as long as we were!), but I am proud of everything we did. Especially, I am proud of your thesis, because you are helping to move this issue forward. Every action counts. I acknowledge every effort you made and continue to make, and I thank you for your kind and generous spirit that gives motivation, and inspiration to my life. I love you!

Sunday, March 14, 2010


There is a gentle breeze blowing through my office window today, warm and friendly, but somehow reminding me that I need to reconnect with this blog, especially as my days here wind down faster than I can blink. I was away in Vietnam for almost a month, celebrating Tet with my family and seeing the roots of the complex issues effecting migrant workers and brides in Taiwan. Vietnam was Vietnam. There were great things about that trip and there were awful things. That's life. I'll be using this blog more to prepare for my re-entry to the states, so I hope that you come with me on the last leg of my long trip.

18 days. That's all I have left before a variety of things happen. For certain, I will be an emotional mess upon my return. I already feel the horrible gnawing pains of loss in my stomach, and as each day speeds by the ironic question of, "how will I manage my life WITHOUT the chaotic frenzy that is Taiwan?" creeps into my heart. The other certainty is that I have changed. Figuring out how I fit the new me into an old space (in the states), a context that has stayed somewhat the same frightens me. Of course friends, family, and life back home has changed some, but the change has been more on my end as a default of this type of intensive work/life environment.

I'm at conflict. Part of me wants to take steps to prepare for the horrible feeling of loss looming at the end of this journey. Another part of me wants to just live as fully as possible and deal with whatever pain comes however intense at the time it shows up. I tested out the first path by trying to pack half my clothes in a suitcase the other night -- close up shop. Then I took down half my students' artwork in my office. When I got to the photo wall of me and various residents who have changed my life forever I couldn't do it. I couldn't pack them up. Instead, I started balling. Never in my life did I believe that acts of kindness from others could bring my life such joy. Of course I've given them bits of knowledge, my professional skills, my energy and time, but it doesn't compare to what I've received by witnessing their struggles and watching their minds open up in my classes. I've had the unique opportunity to bear witness as they repair their lives. I've helped them hope and believe that a better life is possible even though things may look bleak. They've made me believe that my message is true. Together, we've created meaningfulness where it didn't exist before.

At times in Taiwan, I've felt helpless, like evil was winning in the eternal battle between good and evil. Little by little, I conclude that I was wrong. The scales are always tipping; power is a fluid entity and at any time we can tip power our way through concerted efforts. As long as I am doing my best in the present moment to fight for justice, progress and a brighter future is possible in the most dire of situations.

The current break-up plan I'm deploying is the one-day-at-a-time plan. It's a combination strategy of closing up some things, like packing up my office gradually, but also not focusing so much on "the end". The end is going to come. That fact is certain, so it doesn't do me any good to keep thinking about it. A close friend helped me out with this message: if you keep focusing on the day you leave, there won't be any room for you to enjoy the time you have left. What's the VietACT intern in Taiwan up to at present? She's living her best life, trying to make each moment count, and enjoying life's joy and pain.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

One-Legged, Blind-Folded Gymnastics

That's how my life feels sometimes, but in a good way. It's obvious to me that I need either a publicist or an assistant to help keep my readers looped into the super cool projects I've got my hands in at the VMWBO office. Freshly showered with icy water during TW's chilly winter month of February, I received a message from the universe that I would not be sent a publicist or a flying pony. I've decided to handle one disappointment at a time. Thus, I write.

Of course the art classes are still going. My Survivor-Students have torn down artist obstacles and are creating masterpieces worthy of being framed and mounted.

The support groups have been developed further and tweaked to fit the unique needs of this population. For the men, we're now discussing emotions through interactive exercises involving art, games, and overall creative out-of-the-box thinking. This change happened after a few failed sessions of traditional sitting around in a circle to talk about feelings. The change in the men has been significant and they are able to utilize the some of the new skills they are exposed to. The women are practicing healing through community and self-empowerment. We work on such things as self-soothing techniques, leadership skills, and practice self-respect and self-value, yet from a culturally appropriate approach.

I've wrapped up the last of my counseling cases in preparation for my journey to the motherland of Vietnam for Tet, wherein, I will return to the shelter one month and then head for the states.

NEW STUFF: The donations from the Human Trafficking Awareness Event (HTAN) a couple months back have supplied over 45 Survivors with materials to knit scarves. Only 3 women knew how to knit in my class. They not only taught 43 women how to knit, but they also developed leadership and managerial skills, which included a method for lending out knitting supplies. I estimate there are still enough materials for 20-25 more people to knit scarves. You were able to help keep over 70 people warm this winter! It was quite a site to see 20 women huddled in a tight space, knitting with one another, cracking jokes, arguing, and discussing fashion -- women who only one week earlier were milling about or crying while discussing their court cases and disappointments.

The donations also went to a different kind of healing, nair-apy. Pretty corny, but hey, it's past my bedtime. Nail therapy: different settings call for different ways of healing. I used a portion of the HTAN donations to buy nail supplies. 1) It gives the women another craft and skillset. 2) They can be with me in my office doing their nails and experience care, respect, relief, and fun without having to sit nervously face-to-face to discuss at length their counseling needs. 3) They take pride in their paint job. 4 of my clients worked for 2 years in a Taiwanese nursing home 7 days a week, 16 hrs a day of hard labor with wages withheld and were never allowed outside. Those women deserve at least a manicure.

With Tet on the horizon, I've been asked to teach a dance routine for the big celebration in the Vietnamese migrant worker community. Naturally, I chose Michael Jackson's PYT, Pretty Young Thing. Eight brave young folks have journeyed with me this week through the scary initiation of first time dance classes and must be wondering how they got volunteered for dance camp. Try dancing to a song that's not only in a language foreign to you, but fast, and being asked to do moves that are 100% unfamiliar, such as the shoulder and upper back shimmy. They were actually frightened the first time they saw me 'shake it' for them. We've since moved past the fear and into looking like a dance group. I'll be in Vietnam when they astound the masses with their smooth moves, but I'm proud of them and believe they will surprise themselves with how much fun they will have. Sunday is glove day. I'm going to bestow a single mitt, fingertip free to each dancer. Michael may just have whew-hoo-ed in his grave. Each dancer can now say clearly, "I want to love you, PYT pretty young thing!" Their love, their relentless energy is a beautiful thing to behold. I'm lucky to be a part of it.

* Artists used their names to make abstract designs. Creativity is much more embraced in the states, because this was a super difficult day in art class, but they got it eventually!

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Start a Love Trend

After 4 months of washing my clothes by hand, I cracked and went to the laundromat today. When I first arrived, the shelter was housing about 34 residents. Now there are 46, if not close to 50. I really enjoy hand-washing, but there's limited space to dry.

I also have less time to hand-wash. Cha Cuong (Father Cuong) is visiting the states for two months. This man does so much for the shelter. I am in awe of how much time and thought he puts into the messages we send to the survivors. We love him and miss him dearly and wish him safe travels. The shelter has 10 classes a week, morning and afternoon sessions. Cha Cuong teaches about 3/4 of the classes. I'm helping to cover some of his slots plus the ones I teach already. In total I teach Computers, Art (not to be confused with arts and crafts), Dance (hip hop and salsa), facilitate 2 support groups, and teach two English classes, a beginner and more advanced. I'm learning a lot about lesson planning, how to communicate effectively, what topics survivors of human trafficking find boring, and how to make boring things more exciting.

Tomorrow there's a big protest. Should be 1000 people gathered at the Council of Labor Affairs to protest the domestic workers not being included in laws that mandate a day of rest every week. Currently, domestic workers and caregivers are expected to work 7 days a week, which is why we call it SLAVERY. They are treated like machines and regardless if they get sick, they are forced to keep working.

I appreciate humor more than ever at the VMWBO. I tutor two young men English. Each has lost a hand, and finding a job in Vietnam will be much easier if they can speak basic English. I try to make the lessons relevant so they're easier to remember. For a week I had taught Minh, "I have a girlfriend. Her name is Hang. She is beautiful. She likes the color yellow." During Hope's English class, which I do interpretation for, Hope pointed to a young girl and asked, "Who is this?" Everyone replied, "She is Hang." Then another voice shouted quite clearly, "She is my girlfriend. She is beautiful!" Without a doubt it was Minh, bolder and badder than ever. I was quite proud, and the other 45 students had a good long laugh.

Conclusion: I love my life. I love teaching. I love sharing my life and the time and space it's in with the survivors. I even love doing laundry. Perspective is a beautiful thing. To everyone else at the shelter, that girl is Hang. To Minh, she is his sunshine. And we all could use a little more of that.

*Names have been changed to protect confidentiality.
*Photo: Cha Cuong and myself at his birthday party! Party on down, Cha!

Monday, November 30, 2009

What You Say and How You Say It

One of my biggest challenges in Taiwan has been discovering how to work effectively with service providers in the NGO world. Strong personalities are drawn to this type of work, so at times I find myself at odds with those who have the same goals as I do -- protecting and fighting for human rights.

Many social workers, case workers, administrative staff and the people who manage the aforementioned people fight so hard for clients that sometimes I think it leads to them fighting with the people who are on the same side of the fence with them. It becomes one big fight for power and control that results in service providers who are tired and unhappy.

Lately, I've been caught up in this vicious cycle; I'm not a fan. It makes this type of work that is already hard even harder. I have to remind myself why I came to the VMWBO in the first place. I have to remember that communication friction, while it slows people down, reminds me how human we are -- how flexible or rigid we can become depending on our environment. Being human is a good thing. I firmly believe life would be meaningless without these trip-ups, these social hiccups.

Knowing how to speak a language, Mandarin, Vietnamese, English, is not even half of the communication battle. Just because you speak another language well, doesn't always result in a understanding between people. Effective communication is hard! Somedays, when there is a discrepancy on how to get an objective accomplished, I struggle to manage the strong personalities in this line of work, including my own. Service providers need their problems listened to and compassion extended to them as much as the residents of VMWBO. We are bridge-builders, are we not?

While my skills are not being used the way I'd like and I have to get breathing room more often than normal, I remember I'm in Taiwan. I consider this a lesson learned. And there's always 'running it off 'on my nightly exercise head-clearing trots.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Depression: A Common Mental Health Issue Among Survivors of Human Trafficking

Link to the video I made for the Human Trafficking Awareness Event in San Diego. It's the first time I used my mac, so it's not the most riveting footage, especially because I can't show the shelter and people here due to safety issues. Little secret, but because I felt uncomfortable talking to myself on the computer I talked to a stuffed animal as my inanimate interviewer. :)

The topic of the vid is a summary of mental health concerns for survivors of human trafficking.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Hey Everyone,

This is Anthony (Vinh) Nguyen, VietACT's 2007 Intern and current Coordinator for our International Internship Program. Thank you for reading our VietACT Intern Blog and supporting Calix in her efforts in combating human trafficking at the VMWBO in Taoyuan, Taiwan.

I just wanted to extend an invitation to those in the San Diego area about an upcoming anti-human trafficking event taking place this Saturday. The event is entitled "Human Trafficking Awareness Night", a "Call to Action" type event, collaboratively hosted by the Vietnamese American Youth Alliance of San Diego (http://www.vayasd.org/), the Vietnamese Student Association of UCSD (http://vsasd.org/), and the Vietnamese Student Association of SDSU (http://www.vsa-sdsu.org/).

The event will be held on the campus of UCSD (Multi-Purpose Room) on Saturday November 21, 2009 (door opens at 6:00 PM with the event starting at 6:30 PM until 8:30 PM). The first hour will feature speakers from VietACT (http://www.vietact.org/) and BSCC (www.bsccoalition.org/) along with performances by Viet Mai (Spoken Words) and Trinity (monologue). The second hour will feature various "Action Stations" where audiences can make greeting cards to the victims/survivors of human trafficking, take a photo for VietACT's "Not For Sale" Campaign, write a letter to Congress to support legislation against human trafficking, and MUCH more.

Bring a roll of Yarn or any Knitting tools you have for the cause. Calix will be using the yarn/knitting tools to start a new "Knitting Workshop" so that the people at the shelter can make something warm to wear for the winter season ahead. Your donation is deeply appreciated. Hoping to see everyone at the event. Thanks! And keep reading the blog everyone! Thanks Calix for your inspiring updates!

Saturday November 21: VAYA/UCSD-VSA/VSA-SDSU presents "Human Trafficking Awareness Night" @ Multi-Purpose Room / UCSD (UC San Diego 9500 Gilman Dr. La Jolla, CA 92093). (6:30 PM - 8:30 PM, Doors Open @ 6:00 PM). Facebook Event Page: http://www.facebook.com/#/event.php?eid=167965752877&index=1.