Some believe that a person’s worth is not measured in years, but it seems that with time and experience, some of us reveal treasures of humanity. Such is the case of Mr. Trang*, who in central Vietnam is fighting a relentless battle against injustice and poverty. He is surrounded by an army of young people with huge hearts, for whom he is a source of inspiration. Meet Mr. Trang.
Text and photo: Antoine Besson
When they name him or address him, those who know him always call him Mr. Trang. The fact that everyone refers to him as such is a sign of respect towards the retired French teacher. This tall, elderly man with a youthful twinkle in his eyes, strides hesitantly through the noisy city. But do not be fooled: Mr. Trang is anything but an idle old man. If he is hesitant, it’s only because he wants to do things right. He is determined to be as efficient as possible.
The seventy-seven-year-old retired teacher makes his way around the city and meets up with a dozen young people in a trendy café. The students greet him with the respect and deference befitting his age. But beyond the polite greetings, you can feel the genuine attachment and admiration of the younger students towards this man, towards everything his stands for and towards the role model he represents. Tâm is in her 6th year of medical studies. She comes from a poor family and she benefits from a sponsorship to help her continue her studies. One might think that all her free time is devoted to studying, to internships and jobs that enable her to make a living, but somehow, she still finds the time to help Mr. Trang on a regular basis. ” He helps me acquire new skills. He has taught me the importance of being thorough in my work”, she exclaims cheerfully, as if her former teacher had given her the greatest of all gifts.
“I would much rather help Mr. Trang than have more free time.”
So, what is this enigmatic activity that attracts Mr. Trang’s students and for which they are so grateful? ” I am in charge of coordinating the activities that enable Children of the Mekong to sponsor children in Vietnam. All these students help me visit villages, meet the people in charge and the families in need”, explains Mr. Trang, surrounded by his helpers. Tâm adds: ” I would much rather help Mr. Trang than have more free time. Thanks to him, I have met many poor families and I have realised that there are not only children who are worse off than I am, but more importantly, that I can learn a lot from them.” In one programme, Tâm met a little girl whose father had died after contracting AIDS. Deeply moved, she says: “Her life is extremely difficult, but she is brave and keeps fighting to survive. She is an incredible source of inspiration!” Amongst the group, a boy comments excitedly: ” What we do with Mr. Trang may not be a real job, but it helps a lot of people and it all makes sense because we are helping children to go to school. It is so important to help others!” Surrounded by all these enthusiastic young people, Mr. Trang is over the moon. There is no doubt he has achieved what he set out to do: to get students involved in his charity work so as to ” ‘nurture love'”, as he puts it. “It opens the hearts of these young people when they find out about the children we sponsor. It teaches them to love, and to love the poorest in particular.”
Mr. Trang lives in the house where he was born in 1946. An old wooden building with lacquered tiles in the purest Vietnamese tradition. Proud of this legacy, he likes to talk about himself and his family: one of seven children, he saw his family torn apart by war. First of all, the Indochina War, in which his father, a civil engineer, joined the Vietminh from the very beginning, shortly after Mr. Trang was born. Meanwhile, his mother, a devoted Catholic, raised her children alone in an anti-Communist spirit. One of Mr. Trang’s older brothers became an officer in the South Vietnamese army. He died fighting against his father and his communist comrades in the Vietnam War, which opposed the communist North to the more conservative Republic of South Vietnam.
Having graduated from the University of Arts in Saigon, young Mr. Trang was an idealist torn between two legacies. “I was fascinated by the communist ideology: to fight for the poor. But at the time I was also involved in a Catholic student movement.” However, this period of hesitation was short-lived. It was history that would convince Mr. Trang once and for all: on 30 April 1975, Saigon fell into the hands of the Communists, and the young idealistic student who had by then become a French teacher, discovered the reality behind the ideals. “I gave up all illusions after the liberation of the South. The Communists were not the liberators I had hoped for. They took all we had and left us nothing but inequality and poverty.”
A new mission
This disappointment was to weigh heavily on the life of Mr. Trang. Nevertheless, his enthusiasm to help young people build their future remained intact throughout his life as a teacher. However, he never succeeded in becoming a headmaster or holding a senior position because of his anti-communist convictions. “I was offered membership of the Party because my father had become a senior civil servant in Hanoi before he died in 1963. I refused without hesitation. Throughout my career, I have seen a number of incompetent people rise through the ranks because they had the right connections.” Having abandoned the idea of pursuing a career, Mr. Trang concentrated on a different ideal: “I had witnessed that our modern Vietnamese society generated a lot of poverty and misfortune. I made it my life’s mission to help those in need.”
He shares this calling with his wife. In 2007, when they both retired, they decided to dedicate themselves to Children of the Mekong.
“The only power I have is to help those most in need”, admits this frail old man with a radiant smile and unwavering determination. The tremors in his voice are a sign of indignation. Mr. Trang cannot stand injustice. “Over time, I have realised that humanitarian organisations are sometimes very biased. Instead of selecting people according to poverty criteria, they foster a form of communitarianism: some Catholic priests help Catholic families, while other organisations only help certain ethnic groups…”
“The only power I have is to help those most in need”
“With Children of the Mekong, I want all children to have the same opportunities to go to school”, says the man who still remembers the emotion that gripped him during a recent visit. “Some time ago, I came across a little girl who had been abandoned by her mother and father. She couldn’t smile. I arranged for her to be sponsored and recently went back to see her. She has become an open and cheerful little girl who loves to study.
Mr. Trang’s happiness is simple: it is the happiness of all the children he helps, and this is precisely the joy he wants to pass on to the students around him. He only has one regret: “The problem with students is that they end up leaving me”, says he with a touch of melancholy, and yet he is so proud of the work carried out by his protégés. Just like this young girl who lost her father, mother and younger brother in an explosion while collecting iron from ammunition left behind after the war. “She lived in a miserable house,” whispers the old man, deeply affected by this child’s fate, ” and yet she stood her ground and even went to university. She was one of the students who helped me visit the programmes. Today she has a degree in marketing and economics.”
It is hard to imagine a prouder man than Mr. Trang. In the darkness of his old wooden house, he writes this story in his notebook, adding it to all those he has already written, and so many others yet to be told. ” When I was a teacher, I never imagined that a child could get into university without extra tuition, but the determination of the children I now look after has proved me wrong!” It just goes to show that even a retired teacher can still learn from the courage of the very young.
*Personal names and places have been altered to ensure the safety of witnesses.
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