KBAL TAOL, Cambodia—For a moment, Josh Nguyen thought he was back in Vietnam. Rubbing the wooden floor of a floating home in this remote village on Cambodia’s Tonle Sap Lake, the 44-year-old physician from Houston 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.
“I thought we were back,” 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, who is no relation to Josh Nguyen. She 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,” she said. “Until this trip, I thought my apartment in Texas was the center of the universe.”
Once on the lake, she also experienced the full force of the difficulty villagers experience everyday. There was no air conditioning or electric fans. The toilet and shower facilities were rudimentary and 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. Her 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?” she said.
When she shared these complaints with Josh Nguyen, he said simply, “Gina, this could have been us.”
Once the team began its work, however, Gina Nguyen, who speaks Vietnamese, realized she could serve not only as translator for the two nurses on her team, but she could also share the gospel with villagers in their heart language.
“I was afraid,” she 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, she 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 lake.
“God chose us,” she said, referring to the salvation she and other Vietnamese-Americans 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, she 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,” she 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. You can be the voice.”