On a certain September evening, Ha Bich Hao was talking to a friend in central Nghe An Province about the latter’s psychological issues. Around 1 a.m., she stretched her shoulders and unconsciously touched the right side of her face.
Beneath her fingers lay wrinkled skin, a sunken cheek, deformed jawbone, and a scar running up her head, leaving no space for hair.
Hao, 26, from northern Nam Dinh Province, has borne this terrible burden all her life.
After work, Hao usually spends several hours a day listening to the stories of those suffering mentally due to their appearance or disabilities, occasionally offering them some hard-earned advice.
“Five years ago, I read a story on Facebook about a woman falling for a man. Saddened, she did not dare express her feelings because she thought herself fat and ugly. I took a selfie and posted it in the comment section, simply wanting her to feel more confident,” Hao recalled.
Ha Bich Hao has the right side of her face deformed. Photo by VnExpress/Thuy Quynh.
Hao’s trouble started when she was diagnosed with infantile hemangioma (dense birthmark) at six months. During surgery, she got burned by a laser, which lead to a facial deformity. Following the accident, Hao could no longer drink breast milk and had to use rice water.
Aged six, she was classified disabled on entering a public primary school, spending her days at the back of the class as a mere visiting student. In grade two, thanks to support from a vice principal, she could officially enroll in school. However, her classmates’ disdain never let up.
In class, Hao had books and rags thrown at her, often accompanied by a few cruel words, and sometimes, violence. Retreating into silence, she blamed her appearance, hoping in five or 10 years she would be able to live “like normal people.”
In secondary school, Hao learned there were no miracles, and that hatred was a persistent foe.
Used to being called evil, zombie, or ugly thing, the sixth-grader finally lashed out when a friend insulted her parents.
“Being bad is ok if it means everyone is scared of me,” she reassured herself.
During her four years at secondary school, Hao’s parents were called in four times to deal with their low-performing and aggressive daughter. With support from her older sister, she was admitted to a private school, where little seemed to change.
In her first eight weeks of high school, Hao’s friends kept reminding her that “she did not deserve” to join them in class. Tired out, she decided to stay home.
Speechless, she decided to take charge of her life.
Hao now teaches autistic children and works as an activist. Photo by VnExpress/Thuy Quynh.
Her renewed efforts helped her become a top student in her class and earn greater sympathy from her friends.
In grade 12, Hao applied to the Literature Department at Hanoi National University of Education.
In summer 2014, failing to receive her entry results on time, her parents decided to buy her some cows in order to earn a living.
Hao’s admission letter subsequently arrived two days before the new academic year commenced, catching everyone pleasantly off guard. After her first year, however, she realized being a literature teacher was not for her.
Discovering her love for social activities, Hao took the university entrance exam once more, and was admitted to the university’s Faculty of Special Education.
In her first year, Hao started volunteering at a center for autistic children. After two months, her manager told her, in front of all her colleagues: “Starting tomorrow, you don’t have to come here anymore. If you do, the children will be affected.”
A shocked Hao had no idea what to make of such a ridiculous request.
“Parents don’t like to see you at the center because you scare their kids,” the manager kept on saying.
Hao, 21, biked to Vinh Tuy Bridge, thinking suicide was the only answer. Remembering the sacrifices her parents had made on her behalf, however, she desisted with taking her own life.
In the following year, her life revolved around school, the library, embroidery, and music.
A TV program on Nick Vujicic, an Australian-American evangelist and motivational speaker born with tetra-amelia syndrome, sparked her own dreams of becoming an inspiration to others. Despite a host of rejections, she kept volunteering as a teacher.
“I was invited for many interviews, but got turned down after recruiters met me in person,” Hao recalled.
After graduation, she worked at a center for autistic children in Hanoi’s Hai Ba Trung District, nursing the desire of becoming an activist.
During this time, Hao enrolled in a postgraduate course to improve herself, proud of the fact she was the only disabled person from her commune to finish high school, pass the university entrance exams twice, and now, pursue a master’s degree.
A year ago, Hao founded “Mam Va Nhung Nguoi Ban” (Seed And Friends) to support children unable to attend school. So far, the fund has assisted around six children, with long term sponsorship toward future education.
With few resources other than her own income and help from friends, Hao has funded scholarships of around VND30 million ($1,293), raising an additional VND200 million for young cancer patients and children blighted by traffic accidents.
Hao attends a community program. Photo courtesy of Ha Bich Hao.
Once, a South Korean friend, whom she calls “adoptive father,” took her to South Korea for surgery. Learning of the severe pain involved and 10 year recovery duration, Hao gave up, stating she would rather spend her time improving herself intellectually.
To the surprise of many, Hao decided to split with her partner of four years.
“Having a boyfriend is great, why so picky?” Hoa’s friends told her.
“I am still waiting for a partner who understands and supports the community programs I run. Once we understand each other, love will last,” she maintained optimistically, aiming to spread her positivity far and wide.