Welcome to the “Someone You Should Know” feature – a new series to showcase NAAAP members and their incredible stories. NAAAP members in various chapters all across North America live rich, complex lives and endure powerful experiences that motivate and challenge us to grow and learn along with them. This series brings you their stories. We believe that the strength of NAAAP is in its network of members, Furthermore, one of the tenets of our membership value is that any NAAAP member is just one introduction away to another NAAAP member who is doing some amazing stuff out there. Well, join us as we introduce and celebrate some of the most interesting, inspiring NAAAP members in their journeys – may their stories inspire you to learn, connect, act.
In this issue, we meet a leader at heart: Thomas Tu was the founder and president of NAAAP Dallas-Fort Worth in 2011. In the fall of 2013, Thomas resigned from a successful career at Raytheon Company and his teaching post at Colorado Tech University to embark on a 6-month global trek across Asia as part of a personal journey to immerse himself in that region. Unbeknownst to him, his travel plans would lead him to the Philippines within days of when Typhoon Haiyan made its devastating landfall. Thomas shares his recollection of the days following his arrival.
How did you find yourself in the Philippines during the typhoon?
I was in Hong Kong at the time and I had already booked my flight to the Philippines a couple of days prior to Yolanda. The Philippines was actually one of the countries I was looking forward to visiting the most since my son is half-Filipino and I’ve always wanted to learn more about his heritage, so there was no way I was going to alter my plans.
How did you get involved with the rescue and disaster relief operation?
When I was on the ground in Manila, I kept thinking back to the tsunami that hit Sendai, Japan in 2011 and how active NAAAP was with the relief efforts from abroad. My own local chapter in DFW officially launched around the same time and sold NAAAP-DFW 4 Japan bracelets to help raise funds. With Yolanda, I was inspired to see many local Filipinos not only donating money, but actually rolling up their sleeves to do real relief work. I felt compelled to be on the ground too and do direct work so I headed straight to the Air Force base where I learned that relief supplies would be cargoed out to the victims.
What left you with the strongest impressions about the relief efforts as you saw it?
I went in with no expectations and left feeling overwhelmed to see so many local Filipinos and volunteers from all around the world coming together for a common cause. One British fellow told me he was on holiday and how he felt guilty traveling and enjoying himself while so many were suffering so he put his holiday on hold. I heard many similar accounts from other travelers too. There were some local Filipinos who spent almost their daily wage on a taxi ride just to head to the air force base to help out. Everyone I talked to had a story as to why they were there and they were all equally inspiring.
We ended up bagging dry food, hauling 50 kg rice bags from trucks, and loading food into the warehouse throughout the evening.
Overall, I’m most impressed by the spirit of the Filipinos. Despite unthinkable hardships, they are resilient people who always find a way to see sunshine through darkness with their impromptu songs, happy dances, and easy smiles during the whole volunteering effort.
Switching topics for a minute: what inspired you to travel the world in such an immersive manner? Share with us some of the experiences that stood out.
With vacations in the past, I was always left with the feeling that I just had the same experience that countless tourists before me had. This time around I wanted to experience things differently and travel in a different manner. I did not want to go into a country with a checklist of tourist spots to visit nor go on any set tour. By not having anything set, I allowed myself to just live and take in any adventure that came my way. Everyone has their preferred way to travel, and this was what I discovered to work best for me.
In China I was originally only going to visit for a couple of weeks but along the way I reconnected with my Chinese heritage and ended up staying 40 days in total. I was inspired to search for the tiny village that my grandfather lived in as a youth. It was an overwhelming feeling to walk through the same fields that my late grandfather walked almost 90 years ago. My dad was very surprised because I was the first person in the family to relocate the village and he asked me for detailed instructions on how to find the area too.
After my experience in China, I was motivated to find my mother’s home in Saigon, Vietnam too. As part of the communist takeover in the late 70s, my family and I fled Vietnam as refugees. I was able to locate the house that my mother grew up in and discovered that it was seized by the government and converted into a coffee shop. Vietnam was also the country where I was fortunate enough to spend time with children at an orphanage. The kids from this orphanage are from unwanted pregnancies, and they are so pure and innocent. They would jump and hang onto you the minute you step in the door, and be extremely sad when you leave.
In Thailand I found myself riding in the back of some stranger’s pickup truck, stuck in the middle of a mob protest rallying to oust their prime minister. I even ended up in the protest campsite and received a free head shave and food! The situation in Thailand has received quite a bit of press around Asia and the mob has shut down much of the city.
What are some “a-ha” moments on your journey so far?
The obvious one is that the world is really big and each country has a rich history and their own culture and way of life. You can agree or disagree but it’s their country and they get to make the rules. We have to learn that the way we do things back home is not universal and it’s important to be open minded when you are a guest in another country.
What would you like to share with NAAAP members?
I had always wanted to do some extended travel but every year I would talk myself out of it with a variety of reasons such as family responsibilities, work, etc. This time around I told myself that I couldn’t keep making excuses and to just do it so I put in my resignation and went all in on this adventure. This journey has allowed me to learn more about my inner self, my roots and humanity on a very different level for me. Life is too short and you don’t want to look back with regret about things you didn’t do. Don’t let excuses keep you from living your dreams – whatever they may be.