Vietnam: When a smile can change everything

By Yumi Wilson

A child at an orphanage about an hour outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Photo by Yumi Wilson

Before arriving in Vietnam, I spent an entire summer trying to “understand” the story of Agent Orange in Vietnam. The goal was to tell stories about how the herbicide containing dioxin has affected people in Vietnam.

Yet I am reminded, on Day Four of my first visit to this lush and thriving country, that life’s greatest lessons often come when you least expect it.

At an orphanage about an hour outside of Ho Chi Minh City, I was among a small group of journalists and students allowed to photograph children who for the most part cannot walk or talk without assistance. My original mission was to find out whether Agent Orange is responsible for the deformities and other conditions that I witnessed at the orphanages.

From a journalistic standpoint, it has been difficult to answer that question. There is some debate over who and what is to blame for the suffering of the children with disabilities.

Yet as an individual, a woman on a mission to discover her sense of identity and place in the world, I am struck by the images I took of some of the children at the orphanages.

The photos, originally taken just so I could remember my trip, are what remind me now that a news story, any kind of story, is not just the revelation of fact. It is everything and anything in between. It is what you see, you feel and touch. And it only happens when one is willing to see what is really in front of them, not what others tell you to think or even read, can a story be told.

It’s something I can confess now, not simply because I was fortunate enough to visit to the orphanages, but because I have been trying to explain what a story is to two students (see Next Generation iView) who are helping to report stories related to Agent Orange from Vietnam. In trying to explain what news is and isn’t, I am forced to challenge everything I thought and knew about journalism. I thought I knew, but now I am not so sure.

In looking at the smiling boys and girls at the orphanages, I am amazed by the number of photos that embody happiness, curiosity and hope. I’m even more grateful that I took the time to take my camera and share them with friends.

About yumi wilson

Yumi Wilson is an award-winning journalist whose been work has been published in the Associated Press, the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Jose Mercury News, Los Angeles Herald Examiner, SF Gate, Hokubei Mainichi,, MAMM magazine and the online edition of Hyphen magazine. She is the editor of her own news site, SF News Hub, a blogger for City Brights and personal essay editor for Hyphen magazine. Yumi teaches reporting, news writing, opinion and literary journalism at San Francisco State University.

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