I ARRIVE in the morning for my Vietnamese lesson with a Zen monk living in the Temple, or Buddhist Congregational Church, in which the Buddhist Social Service has its offices.
When I walk into his room, he is, as usual, down on the floor on all fours reading the newspaper. Though he reads English, whenever I ask him a question in English, his stock answer to everything seems to be, "Yes." This apparently positive view on life has been confirmed as I've come to know him.
I announce that I hope to learn to speak Vietnamese quickly because, among other reasons, I've never met a Zen monk before and want to take this opportunity to ask him many questions about himself. He accepts this news with great equanimity -- the way a Zen monk should.
An hour later I enter the office and nearly trip over three generations of the Tran family, as they are later identified, sleeping on mattresses spread all over the floor. Although they have relatives in California and wished to be resettled there, they have somehow landed here in our midst. I spend the rest of the morning on the telephone trying to contact these relatives and arrange for their trip west.
The head of the family, a fisherman speaking only Cantonese, meanwhile sits watching us expectantly, surrounded by his small children and aged parents. The problem in communication is solved when someone produces a slight, 18-year-old girl from another refugee family holed up temporarily in the basement, who seems to speak every known language of Southeast Asia.
The rest of the day I sit at my desk writing letters, filling out various forms and preparing a small Vietnamese-English dictionary. Tuesday
After my Vietnamese lesson, I find that the Trans have been replaced on the mattresses by the Lys, a Mandarin Chinese-speaking family from Vietnam consisting of a woman, her son and daughter and their grandmother. The mother is interested in contacting some of her friends and relatives. She pulls out a small, worn notebook and opens it to a list of addresses. As I leaf through it, I find Vietnamese and Chinese names, addresses and in some cases even telephone numbers from all over the United States and seemingly all seven continents of the globe except Antarctica. While I can't help but admire her foresight in preparing for all contingencies of relocation, thinking of our telephone bill, I encourage her to limit herself to one number in Virginia.
One of the staff members asks me to help another new arrival fill out the necessary papers to try to round up the rest of his family members still scattered about in various camps, one in each of three camps. I barely have time to wonder how this came about, before a heavy-set, weatherbeaten man sits down in front of my desk. He is sporting a Cal Tech jacket and a T-shirt printed with the words, "I'm OK, you're so-so." While I'm digesting this message, his son comes in and joins him. His T-shirt reads "Charlie's Angels."
he father speaks a little English, so I'm able to ask him something about his life in Vietnam. Apparently he was a well-to-do wool merchant in Saigon and has arrived in the United States with nothing.
He tells me about the reaction of some of the North Vietnamese who had been told how poor the south was when, after the fall of Saigon, they were able to see the south for themselves.
What he can't express in words, he conveys through facial expressions and gestures, imitating a man walking along stonily with his hands tied before him to demonstrate life among the communists.
During the course of the conversation, he points to his left ear lobe and says something in Vietnamese to one of the other members. This is translated that the shape of my ear lobe indicates I will soon be rich. My interest in our conversation increases. Wednesday
Not being able to speak Vietnamese and being the only non-Vietnamese in the organization, I can't say I never feel isolated. This is not to say, however, that I miss out out on all the gossip which seems to come out of the woodwork in any office.
Today I feel a certain weariness among the staff. The job is such a thankless one. Many of the refugees come with such high expectations, and though the American community is very helpful, ultimately they must turn to the Vietnamese-speaking people for help, especially with their problems and complaints. The staff must deal with the frustrations of people wanting to know why their relatives haven't arrived from the camps yet, with Americans who have had misunderstandings with refugees they are sponsoring due to differences in language and culture, as well as with the refugees themselves who call with all their problems, including anything from a toothache to requests to help them move a second or third time.
Today, for example, two brothers called after one night in their new home wanting to move out because they somehow didn't feel comfortable there. An old woman staying temporarily in the third floor came in leading her little grandchild and said she didn't want to move out but wanted to stay in the temple. Apparently she was from North Vietnam and not used to living among Americans. She was apprehensive about just what she was going to encounter out there surrounded by Americans. Thursday
I feel I progressing with my Vietnamese thought it still seems that while I can ask a few questions, I can't always understand the answers. At other times I feel that instead of learning Vietnamese, I'm just learning to speak English with a Vietnamese accent. Besides, it seems much more interesting to learn about Zen Buddhism than how to carry on an ordinary conversation. Thus, while my vocabulary is growing in Buddhist terminology, I'm still at a loss when I pick up the phone and hear a stream of Vietnamese at the other end.
In the morning I spend some time filing background documents compiled by interviewers in the camps on refugees soon to arrive. Some of them include brief remarks such as these from the file on a young man: "Family imprisoned for attempting to escape. Only he escaped." While this is not unusual, I try not to forget what hell some of these patient, cheerful people I see in the office everyday have gone throught to get here.
At lunch today we find an unusual array of dishes and I'm told it is a special Buddhist occasion. Ordinarily our daily fare is so simple that just eating it sometimes makes me feel terribly humble and ascetic, though never hungry. But today we are greeted by a wide variety of colorful dishes, including small dishes placed at intervals around the table with what looks like chocolate pudding. However, prior experience leads me to rule out this possibility.
I'm immediately intrigued by a plate piled high with rolls wrapped in something I take to be waxed paper. Before I have time to examine them more closely, one of the staff members picks up one in his chopsticks, dips an end in the small dish of sauce, puts it in his mouth and munches happily. This is my introduction to the Vietnamese rice paper roll. Several of the other dishes are explained to me as being "special" or "famous" Vietmese dishes. At the end of the meal, all the staff members ask me at least twice whether I like them or not. Fortunately I did. Friday
I spend the morning filling out various documents for incoming refugees and talking to some recently resettled refugees about how they're coming in their new life. Most are still struggling with English. In the afternoon we are to move out three large families totaling 25 people to a distant town in Virginia where apartments have been rented. In this initial move, they will be taken to their apartments and then to a nearby grocery store to become familiar with the art of grocery shopping.
To move the entire worldly possessions of these three families, one small truck is rented and filled mostly with donated beds and mattresses and a few odds and ends of other furniture. In my car I take three young refugees and one staff member to give directions. As our caravan gets stuck in traffic in a suburban area particularly lacking in charm and oppressive from the heavy concrete buildings and the dense jungle of store signs and billboards, something touches off my companion's thought of Vietnam and his childhood in Saigon.
Amid this seemingly unevocative landscape he suddenly calls forth a rush of memories from all the corners of his past and the people and places he knew and is gripped with melancholy homesickness. Listening to him almost makes me feel homesick too, despite the fact that I'm driving through the very town I grew up in.
Several miles and a sudden heavy downpour later, we get into a loud argument about raising children. Western and Oriental values clash noisily. Though it's good-natured, I can't help wondering what the three non-English-speaking refugees in the back seat must be thinking of us yelling away at each other.
Suddenly my partner falls silent and just when I'm beginning to think maybe I won the argument, he asks worriedly, "Did you notice if we passed a sign for Manassas?" I can't help laughing. Such are the pleasures of my work.