I’m on a bus outside Sai Gon; heading towards one of those tourist attractions I’ve been saying I should visit for months. The journey will take about two hours and there isn’t much to do except look out of the windows. It is an inconceivably boring trip and I am delighted.
I love talking to strangers, especially ones who offer sweeties (don’t tell my mother) and the one thing I dislike about living in Viet Nam is that I don’t share a language with many of the strangers I meet. My Vietnamese is still very rudimentary and doesn’t go far beyond asking about someone’s day and complimenting the cuteness of their children (I can usually stretch this into a five minute conversation because people love talking about their kids and I’m good at nodding and smiling.)
So imagine my happiness to be travelling with a bus full of captive Anglophones, just waiting for me to chat with them! I strike up a conversation with some excitable Canadians with giant bags of M&M’s and Jolly Ranchers – “Would you like some?” they ask. “Oh God, yes!” I drool.
Turns out they are two university students on break, travelling around South East Asia and have loved everything they have done so far.
“Where are you off to next?” I ask, between fistfuls of blue, raspberry flavoured sugar.
“Cambodia! We’re going start in Phnom Penh to visit the Killing Fields, see some Temples and Museums, stay overnight in an Orphanage so we can feed the kids breakfast the next day, and there are also some interesting Royal Palaces…”
Oh damn; they said one of my trigger phrases… ‘staying overnight in an orphanage,’ as in – ORPHANAGE TOURISM. Let’s be clear; no decent children’s home would allow complete strangers to stay overnight with unimpeded access to vulnerable children, in exchange for money. These places use children as tourist attractions and profit from the poverty and misery of the community. And more tourists visit these places and hand over money, the more of these places open up.*
The Canadians had just inadvertently stumbled onto one of my rant-inducing topics and I’m about to go from ‘that nice Aussie we shared candy with’ to ‘remember that deranged Australian that raved at us for a half hour on that bus trip?’
But there is still a chance we can salvage this; maybe they don’t know that orphanage tourism can be extremely exploitative of children and families living in poverty. I ask if they know much about Orphanage Tourism; have they done much research?
They respond that they have heard a couple of bad things about some orphanages in Cambodia, but that stuff is probably exaggerated, and it isn’t like they’re going to do anything bad to the kids and it would be fun to spend some time with them, and they want do some good while they are traveling…
I’ve heard enough and I feel wretched for what is about to happen, I really do, but they displayed wilful disregard for the rights and safety of children and there is no stopping the surge now.
I never remember exactly what I say during one of these tirades; I imagine it is how Bruce Banner feels when he snaps out of Hulk Rage. Though for me, it is more like Hulk Frustration.
I know for certain there are elements of;
“Ask yourself – would you be happy to have complete strangers come into your house, and pay money to stay overnight with your children with only limited supervision?”
“Then why is it okay for it to happen to these children?”
I also like to bring stats in it.
“Seventy-five percent of those children aren’t orphans. They are there because the directors of the orphanage convinced their parents, family members or guardians that the children would be given an education and a better life – but they get neither!”
Maybe I’ll bring their darkest imaginings into it.
“Do you think those unscrupulous orphanages keep the kids around when they’re over thirteen, pimply and don’t enjoying colouring in with tourists anymore?”
“Because they don’t, the children get kicked out onto the streets but they usually find employment quickly because they have some foreign language skills and are comfortable faking affection with strangers…”
I usually pause around this point; I have plenty more to say but they’ve probably had enough.**
You might wonder how this normally calm person went from happily talking about travel plans to Hulk Frustration so quickly; well that’s my secret… I’m always frustrated.
You see, I work in a job that is about advocating for human rights, child rights, women’s rights, migrant rights, and preventing exploitation, trafficking and abuse. I live and breathe this stuff and if there was one practice that encapsulates all these things, it would be exploitative, unethical Orphanage Tourism.
Gentle readers, if you travel and feel compelled to give money to assist children living in poverty; consider helping community-based programmes, which support families and enable the children to live at home. Maybe support the work of medical, nutritional or educational organisations working in the community (of course, you should research them before you contribute). This sort of community assistance probably won’t result in many pictures of you with a couple of cute kids to put on your social media accounts but hopefully the knowledge that you haven’t been involved in the exploitation of children will comfort you.
Even if you don’t give money, you can still travel child-ethnically:
- Eat at food stalls and small family-run cafes; this gives income to local parents to provide for their kids.
- Go to shops owned by locals, not foreigners; again this is to allow money to stay in the community.
- Buy souvenirs directly from the person making them, cut out the middleman. Some guidebook recommended shops and artisan collectives. You’re going to have a better memory of that purchase than just picking something up from a tourist gift shop.
- Don’t undermine local livelihoods – if people have traditionally been weaving a certain cloth and a foreign factory starts making that cloth at a cut price, the weaver loses work and runs out of money.
These hints are just the tip of the ice berg; I also believe that people should do their research before they travel, but if you can’t manage that then at least exercise some awareness and try to behave around children in the same way you would want people to behave around yours.
* In the interests of full disclosure; I have been to children’s homes in Viet Nam. There have been a couple of places I have visited in a professional capacity on behalf of my organization and also to a Home for Disabled Children where my friend works as a Physiotherapist. I’m glad to say that none of the Children’s Homes I have visited were profit making ventures and the children seemed well cared for.
** I didn’t even mention the damaging effects of children being raised by an endless series of temporary carers (even when abuse isn’t present); it can lead to the inability to form long-term attachments or displaying over attachment to strangers, etc.