Friday, August 30, 2019

Character must be taught!

Sunday, 25/8/19, marked a new era for Tea Talk Vietnam. Families with young children came to celebrate the opening of Tea Talk@Ngoai Giao Doan; a partnership with Australian Skills Institute (ASI).

“Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don't have,” claimed celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain who had bun Cha with president Obama. I personally choose to defer. Though not as easy to teach, character must be taught and cultivated. Put it in another words, character must be taught and caught.

The question is “Who are we leaving the development and cultivation of character of our next generation to?” I guess the answer is easy. Whoever spends the most time with our children. I cannot help but think that maybe Bourdain is right after all. He said “character you either have or you don’t.” Maybe he is talking of the outcome. Or is he saying that each of us are organically made to be who we are as a person; some have character and some don’t?

Researchers are discovering the importance of character development over skills development. Larry Brendtro and Dr. Scott J.Larson in the article “The Resilience Code: Finding Greatness in Youth” reported that researchers are now exploring ways to cultivate qualities such as courage, responsibility and hope. They asserted that when children have opportunities to develop belongingness, mastery, independence, and generosity, they thrive. When lacking, children are at risk.

It was February 2001, my 3 year old daughter and my wife relocated to Hanoi. I wanted to start an orphanage. After spending 6 months learning the Vietnamese language and observing the culture, I still could not find any headway to start an orphanage. I was ready to pack my bag and return to Singapore.

By August 2001, I received an invitation to volunteer at the then College of Labor and Social Affairs. It’s a state owned educational institution that trained social workers for the Ministry of Labour and Social Affair (Vietnam). That invitation launched my whole career of international social work here in Hanoi, Vietnam.

Michael, Dr. Tiệp, Dr Mai and Mr. Khoái at CoLISA
Generosity! Dr. Tiep was generous. He knew little of me. Yet he had the faith to let me teach as his college. Dr. Tiep was generous. I only have a bachelor's degree in social work from the National University of Singapore. Yet he had the courage to endorse my new teaching methodologies. Courage! Faith! Generosity! These are synonyms.

Dr.Trang and Michael at Tea Talk Ngoai Giao Doan

Last Sunday, at Tea Talk opening stood another lady. My god-daughter Linda in Singapore saw the facebook post and asked “Who is that lady standing besides me?” That lady standing beside me is the director of ASI, strategic partner of Tea Talk Vietnam. But, who is she. She, like Dr. Tiep is generous. She heard that I am back from sabbatical and offered her space at ASI to host Tea Talk. She is a woman of courage. I told her I have nothing to offer, except the spirit and culture of Tea Talk. “That’s what I want. I need you to bring back that spirit of Tea Talk.” That lady is Dr. Trang.

18 years also, Dr. Tiep offered me a position to teach at the university when I only had a bachelor's degree. I don’t think I have much to offer. Now, 18 years later. Dr. Trang, offered a space at ASI to host Tea Talk. Both Dr. Tiep and Dr. Trang are very generous.

By the way, did I tell you that they happened to be father and daughter?

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Let's Celebtate - Tea Talk is closed!

April 10, It’s Tea Talk 6th Anniversary.  
But Tea Talk is closed. 
And many people are sad and asked WHY?  
Outsiders look in and ask “What went wrong?” 
“Why didn’t more be done to keep it going?”

Those of us who are insiders knows why.  
We may be sad but not disappointed. 
In fact, many of the Vietnamese who have 
expressed sadness also wrote me to tell me 
how thankful and grateful they are for 
Tea Talk. And that is true, my own sadness 
has turn to thanksgiving, then to gratefulness 
and finally celebration.  So why celebrate the 
closure of Tea Talk, a space that had
cultivated hearts and nourished souls?

This is just a fraction of the Tea Talk family.

Fun days! Learning to bake! Or is it?
Learning to serve on another!
Learning to love one another: Love does not keep records of wrongs.
Just some of the many young lives that Tea Talk has been working with.  Each of them represents at least a 1000 lives. For who they are is at the core of what we do as professionals.

It is good from a development social work 
perspective it is good that Tea Talk is closed.  
Is Tea Talk’s mission accomplished? 
Not really. Just partially, not all! 
Tea Talk is closed for a very simple reason.  
No money no (Tea) Talk. The fiscal realities 
make its very challenging to keep Tea Talk 
going. That said, Tea Talk has impacted 
many young lives.  These young lives are 
like the bud breaks that signify the coming 
of spring. They are ready to spring forward. 
It's time for me, an international development 
social worker to step back, and let these 
young lives take over.  Oh, the letting go is not 
easy. The image and statues are the easy part 
to let go. It is the sense of significance and joy 
when working with these young lives that is 
hard to let go. Let go I must for this is fitting 
with what Prof Robert Chambers in his book, 
Development: Whose Reality Counts? Putting 
the First Last, asserts.  Prof Chambers 
“reflects on the view that listening and 
participation isn’t enough: the whole idea of 
empowerment means development 
institutions need to disempower themselves 
too.” (I did not read the book but read an article 
located here: Click.) 

Over the past 6 years of developing Tea Talk, 
it has empowered many young lives. But 
unknowingly, I have empowered myself and 
many other international development workers 
too.  I remembering reading a wise saying that 
goes like this: “For the mission to be deeply 
ingrained, one must become less and less.” 
And like Mr. Tien, one of the co-founder of 
Tea Talk said: “Unless a seed dies, it remains 
only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces 
many seeds.”  So, it is good that Tea Talk 
is closed. It is time for us outsiders 
to disempower ourselves. 

I took this picture at the end of Autumn.  The sun setting, the tree lost all its leaves.  Signifying Letting Go!

It is good from a psychological point of view. 
For almost 6 years, the volunteers, staff, 
donors and many others have toil.  Many toil 
with real sweat and blood. If I may use a 
farming analogy, the past few years were 
seasons of plowing the soil. It's hard work. 
Do you know why farmers need to plow the 
soil? Truth is, seed requires two things 
for germination.  They are moisture 
and warmth. To get moisture, the seed to soil 
contact must be firm. To get warmth from the 
Sun, we plant seed when the temperature is 
favorable. Likewise, it is with developmental 
work. The person-to-person contact 
must be firm.  To be firm, we must work 
alongside our local counterparts to share 
skills and knowledge (moisture). Warmth 
can only come from the sun. In winter, some 
farmers try to create warmth by using the 
greenhouse effect. However, nothing can 
be compared with real Sun. Planting the seed 
at the right time is crucial.  Too early, you kill it. 
Because it too cool. Too late, we miss the 
season and so have nothing to do but wait for
the next planting cycle. I guess this was hard 
for me to understand when I was living and 
growing up in Singapore. All kinds of fruits and 
vegetables are available all reason round and 
often in an instance. We get it anytime and 
want it now! But the natural cycle of the 
creation the creator has installed is 
different.  There is a time for everything 
under heaven. So it is good that Tea Talk 
is closed. The time has come for the 
natural process of germination to do its 
work. For April rain comes spring flowers.

An antique plow frozen in time and in the snow along the path that I usually takes my walk.  Reminding me that winter is a season of rest from toil and wait for the first sign of spring.

Its April but it is still very cold outside so I bought a pot of tulip.  Can't wait to see what Spring will be like!

It is very good indeed.  In fact, it calls for a 
celebration. I can’t wait to see what will
spring be like. I want to be able to smell 
very flowers.  I want to look at them, admire 
them and take pictures of them and with them. 
And this is the call to celebrate Tea Talk as it 
closed it door at the end of its 6th year.  

The 7th year, will be a time of rest, of waiting 
and anticipation, that the natural process and 
power of nature will do it germinating work, 
then when the bud breaks, flowers blossom 
and plants that have been dominant in the 
winter months begin another cycle of life, of 
growth, then shedding and dormancy later 
in winter. It is also a time to re-imagine. 
It is with this same spirit that I see the young 
lives of Tea Talk, spring up and carry on the 
work of building people, deepening 
relationships, loving and sharing with one 
another, growing in joy and peace, 
being patient and kind, 
cultivating goodness, faithfulness and doing 
everything gently and with self-control. 
If you were to ask Luong if she was aware that behind her was the word "re-imagine", she probably don't.  Yes, moving forward, the young people have to re-imagine what the Tea Talk community means to them and how they can continue to keep it going.  Touching lives, one at a time.

Very simply, Tea Talk believes in LOVE.  
Literally, some found their love at Tea Talk, 
some fall in love with Tea Talk, 
some felt loved at Tea Talk, and still some 
found LOVE at Tea Talk, and this is Love. 
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, 
it does not boast, it is not proud. 
It does not dishonor others, it is not 
self-seeking, it is not easily angered, 
it keeps no record of wrongs. 
Love does not delight in evil but rejoices 
with the truth. It always protects, 
always trusts, always hopes, 
always perseveres. Love never fails. 
It is my Vietnamese friends, volunteers 
and colleagues who have taught me 
what it means to be loved. So let’s celebrate 
that Tea Talk is closed even as we 
celebrate it 6th anniversary.  We celebrate, 
because, it is in the closing that the 
LOVE we experienced can be shared to 
those outside of Tea Talk. 
Then, we can all really say, it is so! 
Mission Accomplished!

I painted this picture.  The tree is now a log, A resting place for the worn out bicycle wheel. Flowers blooming in the distance leading to a path of light. Signifying something wonderfully new is inviting us to explore.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

A New Book Stands Ready To Be Opened ✨

Dear our beloved Tea Talk customers and friends,
The time has come to share with you what may be surprising news. Tea Talk is going through a period of restructuring. Due to fiscal realities, Tea Talk Management has decided to close the Cafe. Tea Talk’s mission will continue through the work of its social arm - CoRE (Center for Counseling, Research, and Empowering Community). This was not an easy decision, of course, but one that was finally made with confidence – and hope.

Why HOPE?  
Because this is what Tea Talk has always been about. Is it sad to close the doors of a Café that has stored up so many memories? Indeed. But it is likewise difficult not to celebrate those memories, those stories – the people – who have made Tea Talk so successful over the past 5-plus years. We have so much to be thankful for. And so much to look forward to! 

CoRE, the social arm of Tea Talk in the form of a local NGO, will continue, and is in the process of reorganizing. We are excited about what the future holds. We trust that as the Tea Talk book closes, a new book stands ready to be opened. What great stories will it include? We have learned so, so much in our years of work together (often with you!) at Tea Talk, and we trust that we can take what we’ve learned and not only utilize it in a new setting, but improve upon it, and continue to invest in the lives of those who need help in the community around us.
We will notify you (stay tuned to these newsletters!) when the reorganization is complete. Please contact us at if you have any further queries. Thank you!

The beat went on last month for Let’s Chat and Let’s Share, as this community of young people continued to meet together twice a week, even after moving from the previous Tea Talk building into a modern shared workspace location. Several local Resource Exchange International-Vietnam staff shared, including Let’s Chat/Share founder Presley McFadden, as well as Zonia Go, who helped us to say “goodbye” to the Tea Talk Café building by facilitating a time of expressing our souls via art journaling that seemed all too appropriately titled “When Words Are Not Enough”, given how many of us were feeling. The month was also highlighted by the completion of Beka Riese’s 5-part series, Think Deep, where she challenged us in the final sharing to wrestle with the question of “How Should We Live?” However, the top highlight this month was simply that we were able to move from the Tea Talk location to the co-working space location, and continue to have meaningful times of sharing and learning together.

And so, as Tea Talk Café closes, it seems all the more fitting now that Michael published a book to help secure the story and stories of Tea Talk in his book, “Tea Talk: One Story at a Time”. Now would be a great time for you to encounter the incredible account of the journey it took for the social venture, Tea Talk Café, to become a reality, even as you now follow our latest updates to see what will be next! The book chronicles the beauty and wonder of Vietnam that Michael became familiar with, as well as the challenges he would face in a foreign land. If you never got a chance to walk through the doors of Tea Talk, where so many lives have been changed, then you still have this opportunity to have the doors opened to you as you turn the pages of this book. We trust that after you read this account, you’ll look eagerly with us to see what is ahead!

Tea Talk Story Book is available at:
📚 Leave us a message via this email (for those who are based in Vietnam);
📚 Write Ms Linda Sim at to purchase a copy in Singapore.
Electronic version on Kindle is available too.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Thank You for Making our 2017 Awesome! 😇

Dear our beloved Tea Talk customers and friends,
2017 has been a year full of challenges for Tea Talk since we relocated to a new place. You may still remember the hassles we went through around this time last year. Thankfully, at the same time, 2017 has also been a journey full of hope, grace, love and kindness from people around us. And undoubtedly, no one else but you who made it happen!

On 9th Dec, Tea Talk had the privilege to welcome Wai Kuen and Li Fang, our faithful advocates from Singapore, back for a Christmas Talk with local youths. This time, they not only brought along their family members and church friends but also engaged their contribution to Tea Talk. We were grateful for their precious time sharing about the Christmas story, their generosity in providing food and presents to everyone, and especially, their ongoing trust and support towards our work for the community in Hanoi. All participants expressed how great a time they had that night and are excited to see their dear Singaporean friends again.

On 18th Dec, Tea Talk was honored to be one of the destinations on the exploring journey of 16 teenagers from My First Break (Singapore). On this study tour, the students learned about the Tea Talk work model, in addition to exploring the core values behind our work via different exciting activities. We hope this trip helped them understand our mission in Hanoi, and most importantly, inspired them to contribute their kindness to their home countries in the future.

Some of you may have heard that Michael published a book before he left Vietnam for a sabbatical. This is the incredible account of the journey it took for a social venture called Tea Talk Cafe to shift from dream to reality. "Tea Talk: One Story at a Time" shows us the beauty and wonder of Vietnam and her people through Michael's challenges of starting up a social enterprise in a foreign land. If you have yet to walk through the doors of Tea Talk, where so many lives have been changed, then let this be your opportunity to have the doors opened to you, with the fragrances of faith, hope, and love touching your nose and inviting you to be the next in line to "express your soul".

Tea Talk Story Book is still available for sale! If you want to order one, please:
📚 Leave us a message via this email (for those who are based in Vietnam);
📚 Kindly drop Mrs Linda Sim an email at for a copy in Singapore.

Monday, December 11, 2017

In November

November was another full month of speakers from around the world at our Youth Clubs - Let’s Chat and Let’s Share! We had our first guest speaker from The Netherlands, Sander Huizer, share with us about Dutch culture and people. Outside of this, November’s chief contributors were from REI-Vietnam, as Zonia Go and Ellen Piencenaves (Philippines) led sessions that invited us to have a growth mentality that fosters a more creative mindset. Then Alyssa Meyer (USA) brought an entirely new topic to us on motivation, which was centered around her passion for dogs and how they respond more effectively to positive reinforcement. She wonderfully demonstrated how, on this front, people might not be all that different! A final REI-VN contribution came from Randy and Jill Vernon, who shared about the differences between introverts and extroverts, helping us to identify what kind of personalities we have, along with their implications. We are truly thankful for the offerings of REI-VN staff! And on that note of thanksgiving, we cannot forget Thang Tran’s (Vietnam) sharing on the holiday itself. Thang facilitated a refreshing time of expressing what we we are all thankful for on Thanksgiving. Finally, we said goodbye to three-time Let’s Share speaker and regular member Alex Joyce, who was to leave for Australia the next morning - but not before he shared one more time with us!  Alex communicated, “I can’t think of a better way to spend my last night in Vietnam than to be with my friends at Tea Talk and Let’s Share.” We are grateful for all of these friends from around the world, including those of you who are reading this and continue to support us in any way you can from afar. Thank you all!

The loss of a loved one leaves us seeking answers to questions about grief. Our culture is often unhelpful when making our way through the maze of feelings that we experience. Grief truly is a journey of emotions, accompanied by both physical and social changes. On 4th of November, Mrs Cristina Co (MA.Counseling, Philippines) brought to Let’s Talk 8 students a special mentoring session about “Grief & Loss”. This session aims to give participants the language, tools, and materials they need to effectively help people deal with their loss. At the end of workshop, all students wished they could have more time to go further. But the most important truth they received: That comfort and support can make all the difference to your loved one’s healing. While you can’t take away the intense pain of their loss, there are many ways to show someone who’s grieving how much you care and to help them through this difficult time. Be confident with what you have been equipped with, Let’s Talkers!

This November, CoRE - the charity arm of Tea Talk successfully implemented the training phase of the Wife Together project in Ba Vi, Hanoi. Wife Together is sponsored by a Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative Micro-Grant. This project aims to equip women with skills to work with men to prevent intimate partner violence for 20 staff from Vietnam Women’s Union of Ba Vi suburban district (Hanoi). By understanding gender equality and learning basic counseling skills, trained staff will be able to provide 20 – 40 violence victims with effective support and treatment as well as raise awareness of intimate partner violence among the community.

Some of you may have heard that Michael published a book before he left Vietnam for a sabbatical. This is the incredible account of the journey it took for a social venture called Tea Talk Cafe to shift from dream to reality. "Tea Talk: One Story at a Time" shows us the beauty and wonder of Vietnam and her people through Michael's challenges of starting up a social enterprise in a foreign land. If you have yet to walk through the doors of Tea Talk, where so many lives have been changed, then let this be your opportunity to have the doors opened to you, with the fragrances of faith, hope, and love touching your nose and inviting you to be the next in line to "express your soul".

Tea Talk Story Book is still available for sale! If you want to order one, please:
📚 Leave us a message via this email (for those who are based in Vietnam);
📚 Kindly drop Mrs Linda Sim an email at for a copy in Singapore.