Vietnamese fluency lifts villagers in Cambodia
Tess Rivers, Baptist Press
June 27, 2011

Vietnamese fluency lifts villagers in Cambodia

Vietnamese fluency lifts villagers in Cambodia
Tess Rivers, Baptist Press
June 27, 2011

KBAL TAOL, Cambodia

— For a moment, Josh Nguyen thought he was back in Vietnam.

Rubbing the wooden floor of a floating home in a remote village on Cambodia’s

Tonle Sap Lake,

the 44-year-old physician from Texas

remembered the country he left as a refugee in 1975.

Nguyen joined a team of nine other medical and dental volunteers working with

the Vietnamese living in floating villages on Cambodia’s

Tonle Sap Lake,

the largest freshwater lake in Southeast Asia. He and

three nurses divided into two groups and visited from boat to boat, assessing

medical needs and sharing the gospel. Nguyen, who speaks Vietnamese, also

translated for the nurse who assisted him.

The trip was revealing to Nguyen, who saw himself not only in the floorboards

but also in the faces and experiences of those he met on the lake.

Photo by Tess Rivers

Children living in the floating villages on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake learn to paddle roughly hewn wooden boats to visit in each other’s homes from an early age. See photo gallery.

“I thought we were back,” said Nguyen, a member of Second

Baptist Church

in Houston. “I thought we were boat

people again.”

While the trip spawned memories for the doctor, it was a wake-up call for Gina

Nguyen, 30, a pharmacist from Plano, Texas

(no relation to Josh Nguyen).

Gina left Vietnam

in 1991 under less difficult circumstances. Although she returned to Southeast

Asia two years ago on a trip with her father, this was her first

volunteer trip.

The member of Plano Vietnamese

Baptist Church

admitted she reluctantly signed up for the trip, which included medical and

dental personnel from seven Baptist churches, four states and four different

ethnic groups. She struggled initially with how best to contribute to the team.

“I can’t diagnose. I’m not trained. I didn’t think I knew the Bible well

enough. I’ve never been a translator,” Gina said. “Until this trip, I thought

my apartment in Texas was the

center of the universe.”

Once on the lake, Gina also experienced the full force of the difficulty

villagers experience every day.

There was no air conditioning, nor any electric fans. The toilet and shower

facilities were rudimentary. Sleeping arrangements were uncomfortable, cramped

and hot. Python was the main course for dinner. The nearby karaoke bar ran

until all hours of the night.

Gina’s culture shock was obvious.

“We look at these people and ask, ‘Why would they swim in this water? Why would

they eat and drink in this water?” Gina said.

When Gina shared these complaints with Josh, he said simply, “Gina, this could

have been us.”

Once the team began its work, however, Gina, who speaks Vietnamese, realized

she could serve not only as translator for the two nurses on her team, but she

also could share the gospel with villagers in their heart language.

“I was afraid,” Gina said. “What do I do? What do I say? But I knew God was

speaking through me. So I kept praying inside, ‘God, just tell me what to say.’”

By visiting in their homes and sharing the gospel, Gina came to understand that

the physical challenges facing the villagers are nothing compared to the

spiritual ones.

“They’re lost,” Gina said. “They worship different kinds of gods. They don’t

know anything else.”

She also realized God was giving her a chance to “give back” — using the

material blessings she gained in America

to share the spiritual blessings of her faith in Christ with the people on the


“God chose us,” Gina said, referring to the salvation she and other

Vietnamese-Americans have found in Jesus Christ while living in America.

“He brought us to America

and gave us the opportunity to live in nice conditions. This is our chance to

spread the gospel to the Vietnamese.”

In fact, Gina hopes to come back to the lake, noting, “I know that the weather

and the living conditions have been tough on me, but I see what we’re doing

here. I know it goes beyond medical needs.”

In spite of the difficulties, she encourages other Vietnamese-Americans to come

as well because of their ethnic credibility with villagers and the Vietnamese

language skills they provide to volunteer teams.

“We (Vietnamese-Americans) have a great opportunity to reach

the Vietnamese in Cambodia,”

Gina said. “We can speak the language. We can approach them better than

non-Vietnamese speakers.”

“You don’t have to be a doctor or a nurse,” Gina said. “You

can be the voice.”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Rivers is a writer for the International Mission Board based

in Southeast Asia. For more stories about Cambodia’s

Lake Dwellers,

visit www.asiastories.com.)

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