Residing and Abiding

Finding Ourselves at Home in a Vibrant Vietnam

Express Your Soul: Time for Tea

by Michael Ong |

Image: Express Your Soul: Time for Tea
the new home Café Tea Talk in Hanoi

The journey started in spring 2009 in St. Louis, Missouri. I had enrolled in a social entrepreneurship class during my graduate program at George Warren Brown School of Social Work hoping to gain some knowledge about business and how to marriage it with a traditionally not-for-profit endeavor, social work. Mr. Ken Harrington, my professor, started the class in a fashion similar to Donald Trump’s reality TV show, The Apprentice. Our instructions were as follows: “In the next week, each of you need to come up with a innovative idea that will have a high social impact value. Come pitch your idea at our next class meeting and then we will vote together on the best ideas. Students for the top five ideas will then build a team to actually develop a full-fledged project. The rest of you: Find a job, or, you are fired!” I am not sure if these were the exact words spoken by my professor but I certainly registered it that way.

I did not expect the class to be conducted this way. I was hoping to learn basic business fundamentals, such as how to read a profit and loss table or to evaluate other people’s business ventures. Scared and cowardly, I looked for an easy way out. Hoping to secure my “job” in a company, I told a friend in class that if he will take me on his team, I would vote for his idea as one of top five. Graciously, he agreed. Whew! At least with him taking the lead in the project, I can learn the ropes of doing a business as a team member. Or so I thought.

Voting day arrived! YES! My friend’s idea was voted to be among the top 5 ideas. Not surprisingly, my idea was in the bottom 5. I congratulated my friend and asked him when we could start meeting to work on his project. He looked at my, very apologetically, and said, “I have my team already. There are no more spaces.” Yikes! Certainly it must have been a miscommunication. I thought he had agreed to take me on his team, but then maybe I mistook his friendliness as a “YES”. Whatever the case, I was stranded without “job”.

I came home that evening after the class feeling dejected. I shared the situation with my wife, Jacqueline. In fact, I broke down in tears. Jacqueline put her arms around me and allowed me to finish sobbing. Then she asked, “Why can’t you do your own project?” Then I remembered the professor saying, “If anyone one of you wants to set up his own company even though your idea is not in the top five spots, you are welcome to form a team of your own.” I remember him saying something like, “In the business world, no one can stop you from doing what you want to do - if you are willing to be that fool!”

What is excites me most about Tea Talk is to see how friends, relatives, long lost acquaintances, and even strangers are
all pitching in to help make Tea Talk happen.

Reluctantly, I wrote an email to 3 friends in class whom I knew were in similar predicament. A Japanese lady, a Korean lady and an American lady. Quickly, they replied and we met up to discuss whose idea to work on. Before I could say anything, each of them pointed to me and said, “We’ll do your idea.”

To cut to the chase, at the end of the semester each team had to present their project. There were 8 teams all together. At the end of the presentations, the class, together with the professor, voted. This time, only one idea would win the coveted prize: $250 dollars. Tea Talk was the last to present – and the best! To my surprise, Tea Talk came in first and won the prize! (If only the prize was also similar to what the winning team receives from Donald Trump on The Apprentice!) The professor congratulated the team and said, “You should really consider doing this in Vietnam.” So that was how Tea Talk came to life.

What excites me most about Tea Talk is not that it is my idea, my brain-child. Nor is it about my ability to make it work. In fact, I was the first to want an escape when faced with difficulties. What is exciting is to see how friends, relatives, long lost acquaintances, and even strangers are all pitching in to help make Tea Talk happen. Some of my readers are like the brain, giving invaluable suggestions and feedback. Others give of their time by designing the website and the Tea Talk logo. Several of you are the hands and feet. You run around with me to look for suitable locations and investigate the options. We even have several mouths who help! Others in Singapore and the United States have assisted in collecting donated items. Brown School professors at Washington University in St. Louis, for example, have given 60 social work books that will be made available for reference in the Tea Talk library. Some have helped to raise funds, like my beloved friends at the McDonnell International Scholars Academy. Like the eyes, many of you took your own initiative to look for donated items like teacups, mixers, fruit juicers and desktop computers to help cut down our setup cost. Many of you, like the mouth, have been sharing with your friends about Tea Talk (or sampling potential menu items – yum, yum!) I have been receiving emails from friends all over asking me when is Tea Talk opening. A social work professor came from England and looked me up, and asked, "Where is tea Talk located? I want to visit." I had to disappoint her by saying, "We are still at the planning stage, but you are welcome to come to my house for tea." She came to my house for tea indeed.

Today, March 1, 2012, after 3 years of incubation, Tea Talk is finally coming to Hanoi, Vietnam. We have finally signed a lease on a property for the cafe and even the landlord decided not to charge Tea Talk rent for the first month while we renovate the house! Donations, both in cash and in kind, are pouring in from Singapore, USA, Israel, China, Hong Kong, Korea, the Philippines and Vietnam. Many are giving sacrificially. It is exciting to see Vietnamese people rising up and giving back to their communities.

Again, thanks for all your encouragement and support. Hopefully, I can show you some pictures of the Tea Talk café by the next update.

To find out more about Tea Talk, you can go to:

  • Tea Talk logo

    About the author: Michael & Jacqueline Ong Michael & Jacqueline Ong

    Michael Ong serves in the University of Labour and Social Affairs in Hanoi as a social work consultant. He assists with the development of social work curriculum, enrichment workshops, and training for both the faculty and students. Michael graduated from Washington University, St Louis, Mo. with a Masters Degree in Social Work. Jacqueline taught for six years after receiving a teaching degree from the National Institute of Education in Singapore. Currently Jacqueline devotes her energy to homeschooling their daughter Grace. Michael and Jacqueline have served with REI-VN since 2001.

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