Simple Video Flash Player Module

Get the Flash Player to see this player.

time2online Extensions: Simple Video Flash Player Module

One month at the Harmony Home Association Taiwan Knowing nothing of nothing!

By: Matteo Tricarico, MBA, International Volunteer

Kathmandu, Nepal 15 December 2010

Everything began here, in the Nepalese capital Kathmandu in mid-September 2010. I happen to be in this corner of the Himalayas as a stopover of a sporty-humanitarian journey, that is taking me riding solo on a bicycle from Vietnam to my motherland Italy, stopping on the way to visit centres for disabled people. A trip of about 30.000 kilometres in two years throughout South-east and Central Asia, Persia and Turkey up to the Mediterranean shores, following a flexible itinerary connecting dots made by the different institutions, hospitals, schools for disadvantaged young people. In Nepal I just concluded a month-long volunteer period, teaching English and computer in a rural school in Charikot, a town on the way to Mount Everest. On my return to Kathmandu, I became acquired with a Taiwanese woman, who was also spending a short volunteer period in a local primary school, and who spoke to me so extensively and with such a sincere patriotic love for her country, that I started to fancy the idea of taking a break from cycling and visiting the island. A few days after her departure from Nepal, I received an email from a friend of hers who invited me to Taiwan, introducing me, for the first time, 'The Harmony Home Association Taiwan'. In these last two nomadic years of my existence, a commodity that I have a large supply of is time. Thus, my new Taiwanese friends did not need to twist my arm or to send me a second invitation to convince me to abandon my bicycle for a month and to fly to Far-east.

Despite the fact that I have been dwelling and working in continental South-east Asia for the last seven years, therefore I am not new to Asian culture, I was very curious and much looking forward to visit the mysterious island of Taiwan, which is not exactly a place one would just pass through and it is not a land that makes much international newspaper headlines. I knew about the history of the country, its diplomatic difficulty with “big brother”, continental China and I also recalled in my memory that 20 years earlier, in 1991, while I was a young exchange student at the University of Leeds in England, I became good friends with a group of Taiwanese students, who were the first real Chinese people I had ever met in my life, and who introduced me to their land delicious cuisine. I remember that eating those dishes, prepared with the same ingredients of the Italian food, yet with such a different taste, I discovered that my motherland cuisine had a serious culinary opponent to be feared! Except these almost insignificant facts and due to my ignorance, I did not know what to expect in Taiwan and even less I knew that my month spent in this scarcely familiar island, would leave an unforgettable mark on me, and even change my vision of life...

I landed at Taipei International airport on November the 5th at 8:00 pm, after a two-day flight via Delhi and Bangkok, and I was picked up by the mini van of the Harmony Home Association, driven by a pretty Chinese young woman, who spoke almost no English, but who kept on smiling courteously during the hour-transfer to the association shelter. From these first moments in the island, I learnt two great truths: looking at the infrastructures, Taiwan is a fully industrialised and first world country and that, despite the language barrier, I would be able to communicate with the locals through hand signs and body language. This fact was confirmed by an article of UDN newspaper on November the 20th stating that: “Even if Matteo does not speak a single word of Chinese, his body language and his actions are the best way to promote and to show love and affection”. Once I reached the shelter, I was taken care of by a Filipina social worker, the only one fluent in English, who led me to the third floor of the building in a small room where there was a bunk bed and many wardrobes. She asked me if it was OK for me to sleep on the lower bed, I replied positively and I started to unpack my bag. Suddenly, four children entered the room, curious to see the newcomer, they asked me questions in Chinese, looked in my luggage and played with some clothing. The Filipina re-entered the room and sent the children out, apologizing for their intrusion. There, I realised that I was actually going to sleep in the same place with the 40 children guests of the shelter and that, although I had my bed in a room separated from the rest of the dwellers, I would have been in close contact with them. In my life, I have been sleeping in various strange and funny places, especially in this last year on the move. Some previous dwellings have comprised of: a cattle shed with cows and outdoor in the Indian countryside, where I had to fight with monkeys who tried to steal my water and cookie supply. However, I have never slumbered in an orphanage with kids as young as a few months old. That first night, I was in bed by 10 pm, and I did not lock the door of the room because I did not think it to be necessary, but also because there was no door handle! I soon learnt that some of the social workers employed at the shelter, kept their belongings in the wardrobes and that they would enter the room in the middle of the night to get what they needed. They would turn on the light and apologize for waking me up. After the first couple of nights, I got so perfectly used to this coming and going of people that I managed to keep sleep soundly like a baby. I must also add that after having spent last year cycling alone, to have so many people around, it made a pleasant difference and I highly enjoyed their presence. I felt like being part of a large family, where there is no place for personal space.

Cycling with HH Children and other volunteers

The first morning I woke up late and after a quick shower I descended to the ground floor to the loud sounds of children laughing, crying, shouting, playing and doing what youngster's normally do. What a wonderful scene presented to my eyes! These little human beings were just adorable, busy with their vociferous activities; some of them stared at me with their narrow eyes, looking with a mix of curiosity and fear to see a new face, long in shape, with blondish hair and a big nose between two wide eyes. The Filipina, who took upon herself the task to look after me in almost the same way she would have done if I were another child, served me breakfast and introduced me to the rest of the staff: all Taiwanese women with the exception of a Burmese and an Indonesian girl. In fact, I was the only male resident in the building and, therefore, the children quickly, and naturally, identified me with the paternal figure, calling me “pa pa”! Being in my early 40s, unmarried and childless - at least none of my ex-girlfriends has informed me of fatherhood -, this situation was quite a shocking and a dramatic change to my life. I quickly fitted in the daily routine of the shelter. Initially, lacking any experience in the babies' management business, my handling of the children was awkward and clumsy, but I guess, after a while, Mother Nature kicks in and one instinctively knows how to deal with young creatures. By the time I left Taiwan, I could properly hold, feed, diaper change and cradle a baby in my arms until he would stop crying. I even understood most of his immediate needs by the way he was crying for hunger or mourning for tiredness. Merry moments for the kids were the weekend days spent outdoor in amusement parks, fairs or at the night market. That required a good deal of logistic and extra people, mostly volunteers, to look after the children, who incidentally would run about trying different merry-go-rounds. The older ones, aged 10 or 12, were also keeping attentive eyes on the youngsters and behaved like older brothers would to younger sisters, showing the solidarity of a real large family. Normally, I was assigned to four children aged five and six, the easiest to control. I also had the only disabled one of the company, who could not walk, so I carried him on my shoulders. The more time I spent with the children, the more they got accustomed to my presence and they would come up to me for food or drink, to recover a toy taken away by another child. They would even exploit my soft heart to get things that the nannies would forbid them, like candies and chocolate kept on shelves safely out of their reach. As much as they got used to me, I got used to them, to their shouting and crying and, in time, I also managed to isolate myself from their presence around me to do my personal things, like to keep my correspondence and update my travel blog without being distracted by them.

The first week of my stay in Taipei, I spent most of my time with the kids and only left the shelter for short walks in the surrounding areas. However, my life suddenly changed with the return of Nicole from her trip to America. Nicole is the founder, cornerstone and soul of the association and I was honoured to have met such a positive, generous and inspiring person. I learned much from her on how love for people in need and personal determination can alleviate the suffering of so many young and old human beings. Like a Circus that would parade exotic animals to get spectators to the performance, she made the best use out of me by taking me with her to various schools, universities, an Army base and even to a female prison for an information campaign on HIV-AIDS. I had up to 30 minutes to present my sporty-humanitarian project, to show some of my videos, and to tell my travelling experiences. Nicole has a great sense of humour and she applied it while translating my speech from English to Chinese, by adding her own funny comments to my words with the result to make the audience burst in happy and loud laugh. I am also glad that she exploited my presence in Taiwan to generate media coverage for the association organising two events: a cycling tour of Daan park in Taipei with the children following me on their small bicycles and the cycling crossing of the island from the capital to south in Ping Tong, where the association manages another shelter for HIV-positive patients. Frankly, I was amazed by the media attention that these two events attracted, but, I guess, that an Italian cycling throughout Asia with a humanitarian purpose, doing volunteer work in Taiwan, it is not a piece of news that local media can report every day.

It is almost two weeks since I have returned to Kathmandu before continuing my journey to India and then westwards and I feel sad and miserable... I feel like I have been cast under a spell by the children of Harmony Home who, not only have settled themselves in my heart forever, but have also placed their smiling little faces in my subconscious, popping up in my unconscious dreaming. They are not leaving me alone even in my conscious daily thinking! I sincerely miss living with those disadvantaged young human creatures and the adults who look after them. The short time I lived with them in Taipei, they made me feel at home, active and, I also hope, useful.


with Nicole Yang, founder of Harmony Home