Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam: April, 1998: My flight from Vietnam to Denver seemed unusually long. The flight segment from Bangkok to Los Angeles was almost eighteen flying hours. I am eager to get back to my own home along Upper Bear Creek, where I can be with my wonderful wife and family. It will be a short stay of three days at home and then back on an airplane to Paris, France, and south to the Ivory Coast, Ghana, and Benin, West Africa.
As I rested my head against the coach seat, I reflected on a situation I had observed in Viet Tri over the past few days. Many elements of the episode, such as hardship, love, perseverance, rejection, dashed hopes, and deep emotion, I had seen at work in my own life under different circumstances. But the emotionally packed principles involved allowed me to vicariously revisit some of these elements once again in the following saga of the “little princess.”
Binh Rybacki had poured her heart and their family money into the orphanages she had established in Vietnam. Her living now in Colorado, and endeavoring to manage the orphanages in Vietnam, required her to make the tiresome trip many times a year, But it was almost as if she were driven on the inside to make a difference in the lives of the abandoned children. Had she not been able to escape to America there was a big possibility that she too, would have lived the fate of an orphan.
When rice harvest is finished in a local Vietnamese village, the workers will sometimes walk to another village where the harvest is just beginning and work for wages in the neighboring community. Once the harvest there is complete, they will return to their local village or sometimes choose to continue on northward following the maturing harvest.
An attractive, young Vietnamese mother left her two children with her husband and traveled with some of her close friends to work at a neighboring harvest. The family was having financial problems, and it was decided the wage labor could ease some of the pressure. Later it was revealed that the problems at home may have included more than just financial troubles.
When the pretty mother from the village failed to return home, the community gossip machine flared with fury. Some of the older women swore they knew the girl had simply decided not to go back to the stress but, rather, had decided to take up residence in a mountainous area far away. But some said she had been lured away into crossing the border into China. Others declared they had read of kidnappers who had captured her and sold her into slavery and prostitution in China because of her beauty.
One thing was known for certain: She never returned. No one had heard from her or of her since the day she departed. Her husband was left with two small children—the oldest was age five, and the youngest, eighteen months. The father was overwhelmed. An old relative took the older child but wanted nothing to do with the baby, who was still nursing. Malnourished and dirty, the baby was brought to Binh Rybacki’s orphanage and abandoned by the father, who wanted nothing more to do with the child.
Binh and her workers took the baby and began cleaning and caring for her. She began to gain weight and function physically, but emotionally something was wrong. As a result of trauma or unknown abuse, the baby would only sit and stare. She would not focus, nor would she respond. Soon she was affectionately dubbed “Stone Face” in Vietnamese vernacular. The only word that passed her lips was “more” when they stopped feeding her before she was satisfied.
Everyone who came to the orphanage was immediately attracted to Stone Face. She had inherited the fine features of her beautiful mother. She was the most beautiful baby to ever be brought to the orphanage. But what was going on behind the blank eyes of Stone Face? She would neither play with the other children nor reach out for an adult.
Binh’s two sons, Preston and Craig, went to the orphanage in Viet Tri to work after school was out in Loveland, Colorado. Stone Face was now three and a half years old. Another teen, Joel, went with Preston and Craig, and when they set foot inside the orphanage compound, they were attracted to Stone Face as if she were a magnet. They were taken with her rare beauty but puzzled by her unresponsive and empty stares. “She’s spooky,” they said as they increased their efforts over the following days to try to get Stone Face to smile or speak. But there was no response.
The boys decided to take on the challenge to awaken Stone Face. Binh told them they would each be presented a ten-dollar bill if they could succeed in awakening her. The contest was on. The boys’ clowning and goofy antics fully deserved an Oscar award. Love and attention flowed to Stone Face like a river on a rampage. From morning to night, the boys packed her around on their backs, on their hips, or on their shoulders. They laughed, coaxed, stood on their heads. They were determined to awaken the inner beauty of this little princess. They just knew they could help her respond. Little by little the abuse of the past was replaced by confidence in her new friends. Little by little she began to anticipate when they would be coming for her and would turn and look for them. She then began reaching for them to pack her around. A light began to slowly—ever so slowly—be rekindled behind her blank eyes and her stone face began to soften. Little Princess was coming to life.
Before the summer was over, the boys earned their ten bucks each. Princess was not only smiling; she was walking and singing and eating on her own. She was tagging along everywhere her new teenage friends went and even began making friends with another little orphan girl named Peanut. Princess was like a beautiful butterfly that had been freed from the long nightmare of the cocoon. The metamorphosis had been stimulated by nothing but love and affection. The young boys went shopping and brought Princess a complete new wardrobe and pretty new shoes.
Princess was now nearly five, and the flow of love and affection was soon to be shut off. Binh was back in the United States with her family when she received a most disconcerting call from Mr. Minh, the orphanage director: “They have come to take Princess away from us. Her father has remarried, and he is trying to save face with his new wife by denying that he abandoned his children. He cares not one whit for the child, only for what he wants this new woman to think.”
“Over my dead body” was Binh’s reply. “The cruelty of that child’s abuse and trauma will not be repeated again in her little life. We shall protect her and fight to preserve our successful efforts on her behalf. She was for all purposes dead when we received her. She is now alive. I will not allow her spirit to be killed again by abuse, rejection, and cruel neglect.”
But the determined father appealed to the court, and permission was granted for him to take Princess back to his home. When the day came for Princess to leave the orphanage, the workers packed all her pretty new dresses in a box, along with her new pairs of shoes. But Princess refused to leave. She perceived very well what was happening. At the sight of her father, she became uncontrollable. Eventually it was necessary for an orphanage worker to load Princess and her box of belongings into a car and take her to her former rural village miles away.
For the entire trip, Princess clung to the neck of the driver, sobbing and begging him to take her back to the orphanage and her friends. Once inside the house, she spotted the father and grabbed hold of the car driver’s leg and would not let go.
Next Week: Little Princess (Part 2)
© Dr. James W. Jackson
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