Young man approached me. He had to push through the throng of children who were exuberantly attempting communication with a foreigner. My husband was busy photographing the color and activity surrounding the annual Tet festival, welcoming the new year in Vietnam, while I shook the many small outstretched hands.
"Where do you come from?" was the young man's first eager question, followed by, "Could I practice speaking English with you?" His smile, warmth, and desire to utilize this fleeting moment stopped my progress across Quang Trung Park in Hanoi. He told me of his village upcountry near the border with China and Laos, and that he had come here to study at the Hanoi Banking College. I told him something about the Midwestern United States where I live.
His dedication to learning English was evident as he struggled to find words to converse with me. I, too, struggled to find words he could understand, and in the 10 minutes of joyous attempts at communication, we truly connected. Agreeing to write to each other, we quickly exchanged addresses as my impatient van pulled us apart.
A four-year correspondence thus began, as we shared our cultures. I learned more about Vietnamese village life from his delightful letters, while Duyen read of American traditions and culture. We sent pictures and met each other's families vicariously. When he wrote, grieving over his mother's death, I telephoned him for the first time. "I am so proud," he exulted, "to be speaking to America!" He had written earlier, "I always take care for your country, which is very large, rich, with intelligent people. Making friend with your country is making friend with the most modern civilization on this earth."
Duyen had now finished college and was working for the Vietnam Mobile Telecom Services Company in Hanoi. Learning English continued to be a high priority in his life.
Utilizing "snail mail" communications to each other took almost a month each way. When Duyen wrote, "May you be strong more and more with blessings," I knew I wanted the same for him. We wrote of the possibility of meeting again. I checked into English-language courses in our community. To study in an English-speaking environment had long been an inconceivable hope for Duyen. Yet his letters had conveyed qualities of character that convinced me of his potential for utilizing more education to good advantage.
So when the possibility of a trip to another exotic corner of the world was offered to me, I did not pursue it. I had new priorities. My life had been deeply enriched by other cultures. Why not provide an opportunity to this deserving young man who surely could benefit from broadening his horizons?
MONTHS of faxing documents to Hanoi from this end, and endless efforts to get a passport and visa at that end, only resulted in two denials at the American Embassy. It appeared that the dream stopped here. Yet Duyen and I knew that although an arrow shot at the moon might not reach it, it would go farther than an arrow shot at a bush.
A telephone call to the chief American consular officer in Hanoi found a compassionate ear, helping to reverse my stereotype of bureaucracy. "Tell him to come in once more. Perhaps we could reconsider." He did, and they did.
Our entire local family waited at the airport with a colorful "Welcome to Duyen" sign as he stepped off the plane with a short-term visa in his hand. After hugs from everyone, Duyen settled into the newness of our home. The months are ticking away as we share more of our cultures with one another, enriching not only our family, but our entire community.
Friends thought we had taken a big risk. We have experienced only rewards. The respect Duyen shows for each member of our family has alerted us to show more respect toward one another. When he walks into a room, his smile and gift of radiance brightens the whole scene. We never hear criticism or detrimental comparisons. Instead, he exhibits delighted surprise at everything new and different. He seems incapable of taking offense. Daily we witness an utter selflessness in his desire to serve and to benefit others. The result of the "risk" has been pure gain as we learn from another culture.
We have learned Vietnamese songs and to savor his Vietnamese cuisine managed with chopsticks. He is learning to cross-country ski and becoming more fluent in English. What a challenge for a novice ear to detect the subtle difference between "celery" and "salary." Vocal gymnastics are necessary to enunciate the distinction between "oxen" and "auction." He must wrestle his tongue arduously into unfamiliar positions to pronounce "multiculturalism" or "fulcrum." Or simply "wolves." We struggle with Vietnamese.
Love and laughter abound! We have all recognized that goodness is not limited by nationality or geography. Our dreams have come true. We have a new and cherished son. Duyen has an expanding education and an American family who loves and respects him. His dreams have come true, too. As he leaps into the air waving the letter acknowledging his acceptance for business courses at a nearby college, we all join the joyous dance.
I once questioned an African friend who took a destitute man off the streets in California and fed, clothed, and schooled him. I asked this Kenyan friend, who was struggling to support his own education, "Is this man worthy of your efforts?" He looked at me in disbelief. His answer was immediate: "Everyone is worthy!"
All of us are awakening to our interconnectedness. Perhaps the real risk in life is that we do not avail ourselves of opportunities to reach out to one another.
The rewards can be exhilarating.