Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Activism home grown


My siblings and I frequently talk about our “activist” upbringing. We grew up with parents who walked their talk. Our mom hung out with the radical nuns protesting around Rocky Flats. And I can’t remember a single Thanksgiving where we didn’t have a couple of homeless men sitting at our dinner table. Our parents introduced them by name and we were expected to be gracious and make interesting conversation.

Then there was Robin, a retarded young man who was obsessed with a pair of moccasins that we had in our front closet. My mom made a rule that the front door be always open so that Robin could come in for his moccasins any time he wanted. As a mother, I question the wisdom of this now but, at the time, we just accepted that at any time Robin might walk in and open our front closet. It wasn’t anything we worried about….just another one of mom's people.

At the 1975 fall of Saigon, Divine Redeemer, our home church with hundreds of families, decided to sponsor a family fleeing Communist oppression. They asked that someone step forward to host a family of 8 people for several months. Guess who stepped forward? Much to our horror, my mom and dad did. We had 6 of our own children, aged 6 to 15, living in a small house and suddenly we had 16 people living under the same roof. They didn’t speak a word of English. We certainly didn’t speak Vietnamese. Our mom and their dad were able to communicate in broken French.

We reminisce about how our mom used to read little kid books to them, VERY LOUDLY, as though she could make them understand English if only she shouted. They used to stare at us and we back at them while she did this...all of us trying hard not to laugh.

Because my dad had been a part of the war in Viet Nam and a number of families we knew had been widowed during that war, we lost friends because of the choice we made to support this family. I didn't understand this at all at the time. It's taken many years for me to understand that to stand for something, anything, is to risk the wrath of those who don't agree.

As kids, we remember it as crazy fun. We made Chef Boyardee pizzas and they chopped off the heads of weird little fish and made carrots look like flowers. We were all about the same age, they dressed weird, we dressed weird….we laughed and figured out how to communicate even without words. They showed us martial arts. We taught them to hula hoop. We laughed our asses off day after day.

Once, the 10-year-old girl, incredibly beautiful, her name was Ngoc (pronounced Nop), and I sat on the swing in the front yard. She placed her hand in front of my face, put up her index finger and said “Mot.” “Mo,” I said, knowing that she was counting. “Hai.” “Hi.” “Bah. Bon. Nam. Sau.” After she taught me to count to ten she grabbed my hand and rushed me into the living room where 15-20 people sat, always at the ready, listening to the Vietnamese singing American anthems, which was both lovely and hilarious since they didn’t really understand the words. “Ma cunry tis a vee. Swe lan a liverty.” Ngoc got everyone’s attention and suddenly 20 people were staring at me, a 14-year-old, not exactly at the age where I wanted a lot of scrutiny, and she said, encouragingly, “Mot.” I felt like throwing up but I understood that the stakes were high so with red cheeks I recited what I just learned. When I finished a loud roar went up….I swear there were even a few tears from the Vietnamese parents.

This family went on to become a success story. Ultimately, the boys, Phat, Dat and Loi, became Tony and Billy and Joey. They went to DU, studied engineering. Mom and Dad opened a successful restaurant on Federal Boulevard in Denver. The girls married Vietnamese men and carried on Vietnamese tradition on their new soil. Oddly, my two brothers married Asian women, one Vietnamese, one Thai.

This family had another baby after they came to the United States. They wanted to choose an American name to honor the country that had given them a second chance. They chose Helen. My mother’s name.

I’ve spent a lot of time over the past two decades “wasting” my time doing things that may or may not ever register on anyone’s radar. One of my inspirations has been Margaret Mead who said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” That’s what my family taught me….and what I’d like to teach my own.

1 comment:

Kathy Verlo said...

Comment from Kathy Verlo | Edit comment
Time: October 29, 2006, 6:38 pm

What a wonderful tribute to your parents and their efforts to provide a meaningful education for their children whlle assisting a refugee family. By sharing the story you affirm those same values of your parents at a time in history when consumerism and selfish gain appear more predominate. Thank you.