'I am more than how I look,' says 27-year-old Ngo Quy Hai. 'Do not call me harsh words. I am a survivor.'
Today, Ngo Quy Hai is the proud owner of a prize bakery in Vietnam. Behind the bright and cheerful facade of Sunhouse Coffee lies his inspiring story of courage in the face of ridicule and ostracism. "I am more than how I look," the 27-year-old told The Epoch Times. "Do not call me harsh words. I am a survivor." Hai was just a toddler when he fell into a woodstove while pushing a baby walker in the kitchen and suffered burns on a large part of his body. "Baby walkers were common back then and there wasn’t knowledge about how dangerous they can be," he said.
Following the accident, Hai was taken to Children’s Hospital 1 in Saigon where he remained for two years, undergoing various lifesaving treatments and intensive care. Despite countless reconstruction surgeries, he was left with significant scarring on his face and body. "I felt alone growing up and didn't have many friends," said Hai. "I felt ostracized from society. When I tried to find work, I was mocked and ridiculed. I didn't leave my house at one point for almost two years." He was ruthlessly bullied in school, resulting in him falling behind in his studies.
His only source of comfort during those difficult years was the one friend—who himself had disabilities—he bonded with. "Sometimes I think it is fate that brought us together," Hai said of his friend. "We've played together since we were very young and have experienced many joys and sorrows as we both shared the same sadness that no one wanted to play with us." Opening up a bakery had been a childhood dream for Hai who vividly remembers a childhood incident that fostered this dream.
It happened when he was around 10 years old, Hai recalled, when he and his friend passed by a beautiful bakery that caught their attention. Since they couldn't afford to purchase anything at the time, they saved up for months until they had enough money to buy a cake. "The price was quite high for us country kids but as soon as we had it, we returned to the bakery," said Hai. "It was my friend's birthday and I was so excited that we would eat cake on his birthday." However, as soon as they entered the bakery, the boys were kicked out by the security guard and staff.
"We were very poor so our clothes weren't as fancy as some people's and they didn't listen to our explanation either. They chased us away," said Hai. "It was humiliating. But it's an experience that has made me who I am today. It made me know in my heart what I wanted to do. I was going to open up my own bakery so I could bake delicious and beautiful cakes and serve good food to everyone, whether they be rich or poor. I would not discriminate; everyone would be welcome." Life finally turned around for him in 2016—when sponsored by charity organization Interplast—he was able to fly to Germany for surgery that separated the skin under his chin that was attached to the skin on his chest.
"The nurses and doctors at the hospital were so kind to me," Hai recalled. "They played music from my hometown and even learned basic Vietnamese greetings. The work of the surgeons there changed my life. I felt positive in myself and in my future for the first time ever. I am forever, so thankful." With the help of his family and a course in a hospitality training school in Hano through KOTO, Hai finally learned how to write and explore his passion for music. "I met so many people and my classmates always included me. For the first time, people put their arms around me in photos. Everyone there at KOTO has their own story. We see each other as brothers and sisters and there's no difference between us," he said.
Despite everything he's been through, Hai considers himself lucky. "Funnily enough, many times I've been in the hospital, I've seen people come in with more severe burns but they're still optimistic," he said. "I see myself now as being a lucky person. I am here now to help others. People may be better than me in luck, but I may be better in effort." Hai credits his family for being his biggest supporters. "They are a source of positive energy for me to overcome the difficulties of society that I will continue to experience because of the way I look," he said. "I ask that people look past that. There is more to me." The inspiring young man now focuses his efforts to raise money to help children in difficult circumstances, and bring joy to underprivileged children in his hometown.
"I see a lot of children on the streets selling lottery tickets and I always invite them in for a piece of cake. We don't know the hardships others have faced. Be kind," he said. "It's my dream now to help others through similar hardships that I have been through. It is by giving back that one can make a difference in society."