Born with agent orange, Hanoi teacher escapes fate

By Pham Ngoc   May 29, 2020 | 03:00 am PT
Born with agent orange, Hanoi teacher escapes fate
Teacher Lan Anh and her students. Photo courtesy of Lan Anh.
Whenever Lan Anh wants to give up, she remembers her family and reaches back out to life.

In a room in Xuan Mai Town of Hanoi's Chuong My District, Le Thi Lan Anh shows her students some photos taken on a recent trip to central Vietnam. At only 1.3 meters in height, there seems to be little difference between the beaming teacher and her pupils.

Forty four years prior, Do Thi Lan had struggled to hide her tears when first holding the 1-kilogram, convulsing Lan Anh. Her father Le Huy Toan, a veteran of the war in central Vietnam, immediately knew the cause of his newborn daughter’s agony.

"Take her home and care for here. If she lives, that is good. If she does not, we can do nothing," the couple were told after visiting several hospitals in search of answers.

Lan Anh’s mother was unable to properly feed her daughter due to constant bouts of crying.

"The baby cried, then I cried," said Lan, who had to send her daughter to her mother-in-law after eight months of maternal leave. 

All of their neighbors were skeptical, thinking Anh would not survive.

"This is my granddaughter, I’ll take care of her," maintained her grandmother, who used wet towels to daily wipe Lan Anh's fingers and toes in the hope her joints would stretch and heal.

Whenever Lan Anh fell sick as a child, her father would drop everything and take her to hospital. When she finally started walking, her grandmother gave her a heavy pair of sandals to ease the pressure of spinal deformity.

Illness could do little to prevent Lan Anh from nurturing a passion for learning, her grandmother carrying her to school on rainy days.

"Once it rained heavily and we fell to the ground. Returning home to change our clothes, we were determined to set out again," she recalled.

Little Lan Anh was teased by her friends, a boy once saying she looked like a monkey, causing her to burst into tears after studying herself face in the mirror. 

"But I had good friends at school, and my teacher loved me. When I was too weak, my friends carried my bag, and my teacher took me home. That was my motivation," she maintained.

In grade nine, she was hit by a storm of poor health, forcing her to exit school, entirely dependent on her mother and sister with her father away on business. 

"Will I live, or will I die?" Lan Anh constantly asked herself, only to be reminded of her grandmothers’ determination for her to succeed.

The family tried all they could to save Lan Anh, who slowly recovered and decided to learn English via a radio program.

"I cannot live a boring life, or be a burden to my family."

Anh (L) and her mother in a trip to Nha Trangg Town, coastal Khanh Hoa Province in 2019, Photo courtesy of Anh.

Anh (L) and her mother in a trip to Nha Trang Town, coastal Khanh Hoa Province in 2019. Photo courtesy of Anh.

Lan Anh convinced her parents to let her stay with her uncle in Hanoi to improve her English for a year, but eventually they could not afford the private tutor after a year.

Buying grammar books and using a dictionary donated by her younger sister, Lan Anh studied on her own, returning home to work in her parent's grocery store. When there were no shoppers, she learned English. Some neighbors asked her to teach their children.

Seeing Anh's English improve, her mother told her to open her own class in a corner of the store, where she taught her first five students for free. Their parents soon told Lan Anh to let them pay, "or they would not let their children join the class." 

The first time she earned money, a mere VND40,000 ($1.73), she bought a grammar book.

On Vietnamese Teachers' Day 21 years ago, a mother rode her child to Lan Anh's house carrying a bunch of flowers.

"I want my child to study in your class because I want him to learn English, as well as your vigor," said the mother, also a teacher.

At the time, Lan Anh's childhood memories flooded back, assuring her she had found her calling. 

In the past two decades, Lan Anh has never ceased growing and progressing as a teacher, despite having no formal qualification. 

Disabled students do not have to pay when joining her class, while the poor get a 50 percent discount.

Residing three kilometers away, Nguyen Thi Tuat, 59, regularly takes her disabled daughter to Lan Anh's class. According to Tuat, her daughter has gained way more knowledge and confidence since joining up.

Vu Viet Tung, 18, was in Lan Anh's class from grade two to nine. 

"I had studied English with two other teachers, but had not found inspiration until I met teacher Lan Anh," the former student confirmed, now chasing his study abroad dream after scoring 6.0 in his IELTS test.

In 2019, Lan Anh earned the "Good People, Good Job" award from the Hanoi chairman, alongside the "Live Beautifully" prize, which honors Vietnamese from different walks of life.

Now, she and her disabled friends often meet to talk, travel and encourage each other to overcome life’s challenges. 

"My fate has made me stronger. Amid many difficulties and heartache, I will never stop inspiring others."

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