Sunday, January 30, 2011

Don Bosco

Today is Sunday and we will go to an afternoon Mass. But in the morning I was able to visit two charities. The first one was a school for the blind that is operated under the auspices of the Salesians. I noticed this immediately for there was a large statue of St. John Bosco near the entrance. This was important to me because the priests with whom the St. Juan Diego youth group worked in Tijuana in the Los Embajadores program were also Salesians, founded by St. John Bosco. Don Bosco (as he is affectionately called) was known for his dedication to children, especially the poor. He is an Italian saint (1815-1888) and was known for his service for poor children. There are Salesian programs for children everywhere in the world. I remember seeing a Salesian School in Krakow during my vacation there. Interestingly enough, his feast day is tomorrow, January 31!

Phong (Mr. Quang’s second son) took me to the school which has 30 live-in students. The second thing I noticed (after Don Bosco’s statue) was the impressive number of medals from participation of students in the Paralympics (the Olympics for disabled children).

One of the teachers, Troung, gave us a tour. He, himself, was a student at this school and is now back to teach the elementary students in various subjects, including English. He was all but fluent in English.

Troung had one of the students, Vinh, show me how she could read and say aloud the words from her English vocabulary textbook in Braille. They also showed us their computers with special software that “speaks” the letters as one types (in English or Vietnamese). The computer can read back what one just wrote. There was a music room with many instruments to choose from. In the kitchen and dining areas Troung explained that the children do many of the chores around the house and for meal preparation and clean up. I told him that this was just like my family growing up. That is how we learned responsibility. He laughed when I told him that I didn’t really want to learn responsibility at that age.

They also have a room for teaching Japanese massage, complete with life-sized models of the human body to learn pressure points. This can become a trade and livelihood for the graduates.

Another nice feature was that there were Braille numbers for each floor on the stairway banisters at each landinịg. They also have elevators for students who are in wheelchairs. I had noticed that there were no elevators in the other charities I had visited thus far.

The next place we visited was a home for disabled adults. There was a Franciscan priest who happened to be there who had been ordained only six months! It seemed that he visits that house on a regular basis.

In both these locations, most of the students were away for the Tết holiday to visit their families in various parts of southern Vietnam.

The high point of the day for me was to concelebrate with Mrs. Quang’s uncle at the parish church. He is elderly and doesn’t speak English. I had thought I was going to sit with the family for Mass, but Mr. Quang motioned to me, just before we left and made it clear that I will have to say something during the Mass: Anh chị em hãy chúc bình an cho nhau. – Let us offer each other the sign of peace. Then I realized that I would be concelebrating. Fr. Binh had told me to bring my own alb on this trip because none of the churches would have an alb long enough for me. So I ran upstairs and grabbed my alb. Then Mr. & Mrs. Quang and their daughter Ngoc kept repeating the line to me until I got it right.

When we got to the church we went first to the rectory to greet the pastor and thank him for letting me concelebrate. Then we went to the sacristy and waited. The servers came in who knew a few greetings in English, then a sacristan picked out the longest green chasuble he could find. When the elderly priest entered we greeted each other in Vietnamese and we got vested and lined up for the procession. It was then that I realized that I needed to know how to say “The body of Christ.” for communion. Fortunately, I had a copy of the Mass in Vietnamese in one column and English in the other. Ngoc had helped me find it on the internet and then printed it out for me. I pointed to those words and asked the servers how to pronounce them: Mình Thánh Chúa Kitô. Then many times through the Mass I kept repeating to myself: Mình Thánh Chúa Kitô, Mình Thánh Chúa Kitô…

In the end I got through all my parts. But what made the greatest impression upon me was the chanting of the Vietnamese Mass. You see, the language is tonal, so it lends itself very easily to chant and the communal prayers, the Confetior, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, are all chanted. It is a remarkable sound and draws one into the mystery of it all. As we all said at the end of Mass: Tạ ơn Chúa – Thanks be to God!

Troug gave us a tour of the Salesian School for the Blind. He was a student there himself, went to university and is now back to teach elementary students in all subjects including English.

Students from this school participated and won events in the Paralympics held in various parts of Asia.

My driver, Phoug, is shown an impressive array of Paralympics’ medals.

Vinh, one of the students, shows me how she can read in Braille from her English vocabulary book. Her English pronunciation was excellent.

The dining hall where the students take their meals.

Troung’s sister (on the left) was on break from the university (Schools are out for a month for the Lunar New Year) and is helping prepare lunch. She spoke a beginner’s English.

A life-sized skeleton, whose acquaintance I was pleased to make, is used in the massage room to teach pressure points for Japanese Massage. A skill which can lead to jobs for graduates from this school.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Giver of Gifts January 29, 2011

Last evening my hosts, the Quang family, threw an anniversary party celebrating one year since… well, I’m not really sure what they were celebrating because Fr. Binh is away for a few days so I was left to communicate with my hosts whose children only speak little English, but enough to get by. At the party I was told that it was a one year anniversary, but of what I don’t know, it didn’t translate. I do know that all present were part of the area church group of which Mr. Quang is the head. If you took the combined English vocabulary of all who were present for the party one could have filled almost a whole page of a dictionary. But that didn’t stop us from communicating.

The evening started quite slowly. As each person showed up we exchanged pleasantries. Those who knew a sentence or two in English – “How long are you here?” – would ask those questions and we would be done. Then, to be polite, no one felt comfortable launching into a conversation in Vietnamese since I, the priest and guest, to whom they wanted to show respect, would be excluded. So there we sat in silence, me feeling bad that I might be the demise of the party. One of Mr. Quang’s sons, Phong, did his best to translate a few things, but it was a lot to ask of him.

After about 15 minutes they asked if I would wait while they conducted their meeting. They opened with a prayer, then, from what I could tell, there were a few speeches and applause, then concerns about this or that were expressed, then they closed with a prayer and adjourned for dinner. And what a meal it was with Mrs. Quang’s homemade wine! Once they taught me how to toast in Vietnamese: mot, hai, ba YO! (One, two three CHEERS!), we were underway. I ended up sitting next to a man who used to serve as an interpreter for the American military police up until 1975. He had not spoken much English in 36 years, but it slowly started coming back. It seemed that the more we toasted, the more English everyone remembered. By the end of the evening we were singing songs to each other, and clapping, and having a grand old time. I was invited to numerous houses, depending on Fr. Binh’s and my availability in the coming weeks.

Today I walked to a new neighborhood restaurant with Phu and Ngoc (the Quang’s oldest son, and their daughter) for a breakfast of Pho. Pho (Fuh – A soup with choice of meat and broth with flat noodles and a fresh greens garnish) seems to be served for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Afterwards I went to a different orphanage and then to visit the Cathedral, Nha Tho Duc Ba (Holy Lady Church).

Today Phu was to be my guide. On the way to the orphanage he took a wrong turn.
After a while he said: “I think we are going the wrong way on a one-way street.” Honestly, I couldn’t tell, and I wondered what difference it made since we weren’t the only ones. Anyone who has seen the motorcycle traffic in Saigon will agree with my wonderment at the apparent randomness of traffic patterns.

Eventually, we arrived safely at the orphanage and before we could get off the motorcycle the children were surrounding us, hugging us, saying “Hello” and taking our hands. There are 58 children under the care of three religious sisters and some helpers. Most arrive as infants because their parents have no fiscal means of caring for them. One baby was just three months old. The older children (pre-teens?) were helping to feed some of the babies.

One little boy, about 4, handed me a little stuffed frog key fob. I looked at it approvingly and gave it back, but he pushed my hands away and pointed to me that he clearly wanted me to keep it as his gift. I smiled and said Cam on (Thank you) and he jumped for joy and ran around in circles. He could not contain his delight. This little guy has nothing, he has no parents, he has to share with 57 other kids the attention of three religios sisters (and some helpers that we saw), and he wants to give me something. Yes, I eventually did give the sisters a red envelope (Lucky Money) containing a portion of what our Oregon parishes donated, but this little fella was adamant that he give me, a total stranger, something of his. Amazing.

One of the sisters gave us a tour. Their facilities were recently upgraded, some parts as recently as days before our arrival. Their library was stellar (even had “Harry Potter” books!). A sign in that room read in Vietnamese and English: Library of Hope. Great care is being offered and I was happy that we could contribute to that.

Again, the children wanted to sing for us. Someone told me that Vietnamese people just LOVE to sing. The two songs the children knew in English were: “If Your Happy and You Know It” (apparently a standard) and “One Little, Two Little, Three Little Indians”, a song which has probably drifted from favor in the USA but is still popular at this orphanage.

I gave our churches’ gift to the sisters and we said our good byes. I mentioned to Phu as we drove away that it is delightful and fulfilling to be able to deliver these gifts and get a great reception, but the real heroes are the sisters and all the workers at the orphanage who provide hope for these children at great personal sacrifice.

The neo-gothic Cathedral of Saigon, dedicated to Our Lady, was built in 1880. A huge statue of Mary, erected in 1959 in front of the church, has her holding a globe and is entitled Regina Pacis, Ora pro nobis (Queen of Peace, pray for us – someone may correct me on my Latin). In 1959 there was a great need for peace for a war was looming that caused untold suffering.

I took Phu to lunch at “Pho 24”, a global chain of Vietnamese restaurants, we went by the travel agency to pick up a few items for the Trip that Fr. Binh and I are taking to Cambodia, and we went home.

Blessing a three-month-old baby at the orphanage.

A child so beautiful, peaceful and fortunate to be in the care of the sisters.

Some of the children who greeted us.

This older girl got to practice some of her English with me while she helped to prepare lunch.

One of the sisters telling Phu about the library.

This picture book is a great tool for teaching the children English and Vietnamese. In my right hand is the stuffed frog key fob that was given to me by one of the children.

Harry Potter is Popular in Vietnam, too!

Some of the older children help feed and care for the babies.

The children all sang and I gave a contribution to this orphanage. I have learned to remove my sandals when entering a house.

What people will transport on a motorcycle!

Ingenuity of load balance.

Nha Tho Duc Ba (Holy Lady Church), the Saigon cathedral.

Saigon Motorcycle traffic

Friday, January 28, 2011

Orphanage January 27,2011

We ate breakfast at another local establishment, this time with Mr. Quang’s second son, Phong (Prounounced: fowm). Mr. Quang and his wife, Hong (howm) have three children. The oldest son’s name is Phu aged 21, his second son is named Phong at 19, and they have a daughter named Ngoc (ngow) who is 15. The children are all learning English in school and they have been very helpful to me with spelling names for this blog, logging on to the internet, and communicating with their parents. Fr. Binh left today to visit a friend for a few days. I was worried about losing my translator, but Phu, Phong and Ngoc have become much more comfortable in using English with me. I think I am the first native English speaker they have met.

Because this is the time of Tet, the Lunar New Year, the children have a month off of school. No one goes to work at all next week. The parents have both been home all day everyday for family time. Tonight they are throwing a party for the parishioners in their parish “area group”, of which Mr. Quang is the leader. I am hoping that there are a few English speakers who come.

After breakfast this morning Phong, the 19 year old, took me on his motorcycle to an orphanage where some of the resident children have disabilities. Our mandate from Fr. Binh was to give each child some “Lucky Money”, a Lunar New Year tradition. We were to give them each a gift of 20,000 Dong (Pronounced: dowm) which is about $1. There are smaller bills, but the 20,000D bill seems the standard. When we arrived it appeared that no one was expecting us, but Fr. Binh, who could not accompany us on this excursion, had set every thing up. As soon as we walked in the children all came to us with big smiles, took our hands and wanted to visit. I sat on the floor and the kids took very quickly to Phong and me. Some knew a couple English expressions like “What is your name?”. As soon as I answered “Cha John.” (Father John) they would ask me the same question again, and laugh. This went on for a while. One of the boys kept stroking my beard and then would point at a picture of a bearded Jesus on the wall. I pointed to the picture and said the Vietnamese word for God, “Chua” (Choo-ah), and showed him the cross around my neck. He smiled and shouted “Chua!” The smaller children enjoyed pushing the button on my watch which makes the face light up.

One of the workers called the sister who runs the orphanage, but had stepped out for the morning. A phone was handed to me and the sister, who spoke a little English, expressed her appreciation that we were there and that she was sorry she missed us. She thanked us for what we were doing for the children.

When we eventually started giving out the gifts, one little boy, about 5 yrs old, wanted to make sure that everyone received a gift. He did this by taking me by the hand and leading me from room to room pointing to children who had not yet received a gift. Then a group of the older children started to sing for us. Some of their songs involved clapping. So when they asked me to sing, the first thing that came to mind was: “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands! (clap-clap)”. To my surprise, they knew that song, in English! The only other song they knew in English was “We Wish You a Merry Christmas!” Phong video taped us singing those songs and I will have to find a way to upload it so that it is available on the blog. Like his brother, Phu, did for us on yesterday’s excursion, Phong took almost all the pictures.

On the way home Phong thought we should stop for a refreshing drink. It was hot, like a dry summer day in Portland. So I bought us each a couple of coconuts that were being sold as a beverage on the side of the road.

I’m told that Vietnam has two seasons, dry and wet. Right now it is hot and dry. I have slight burns on my arms from all the transportation via motorcycle. So now I wear long sleeves. Most of the motorcyclists wear long sleeves. Some women wear these gold-ish gloves that go all the way up their arms to cover their short sleeves. They also wear scarves. This way they have sun protection. Many wear masks over their faces because the smog is so bad. Imagine being in a tightly packed group of small motorcycles at a stop light on a hot day, their engines producing even MORE heat, and exhaust filling the air around you. Not to mention the noise.

Phong and I made it home time for lunch. Phu helped me figure out how to upload video to YouTube, but we haven’t been successful yet. Fr. Binh took off for a few days with a friend and the Quang family is stuck with me. But they are great. They heard me sniffling and sneezing and offered me medicine. I already have some that I brought. I took a nap after lunch, which is also a marvelous Vietnamese custom that they share with the French, Italians and, of course, the Mexican siesta. I don’t know why we in the United States haven’t figured that one out, yet.

The little guy in the green shirt was just fascinated by my calculator watch which would light up when you pushed a button.

Children in this orphanage ranged from infancy to teenagers.

Some kids just LOVE having their picture taken.

Some of the children helping in the kitchen. Food is often prepared on the floor in Vietnam, but the floors are clean and people don’t wear shoes or sandals in the house. Everyone is barefoot at home.

What a cute kid!

Children singing for us in the stairwell. Their “thank you” for receiving the “Lucky Money”.

This little guy in the green striped shirt is the one who took my hand to lead me from room to room to make sure every child received a gift.

Getting ready to sing “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” and “If You’re Happy and You Know It” for the video camera.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

School for the Blind

We went out for breakfast this morning to a neighboring restaurant owned by Catholics (in fact most of the businesses we have entered have a large crucifix on display or an image of Mary). Our host, Mr. Quang is a leader of one of the area groups in his parish of 26,000 members (yes, that’s 3 zeros!) So he knows lots of people and patronizes their businesses. Breakfast consisted of rice crepes with ground seasoned meat in them, chopped into 2 inch lengths and piled with vegetables like bean sprouts. Twice I received compliments on how well I do with chopsticks. It helped to have gone to lunch with Fr. Binh a few times at Vietnamese Restaurants to plan this trip.

Then we got on the scooters again and made visits all day to the charities Fr. Binh had told me about. We made two stops, first to an orphanage for blind children, and then to the motherhouse of the Sisters Adorers of the Holy Cross of Thu Thiem who have a community in Beaverton.

The children at the orphanage were amazing. There are 28 students on site. The religious sisters who run the orphanage had the children demonstrate some of their activities: Braille class, arts and crafts where they create products that are sold to support the orphanage, and, most delightfully they put on an impromptu concert of songs they had composed and recorded (I even got a DVD with some of the songs and videos!). They sang a song about the experience of blindness that leads to hope, and a song about feeling alone and finding God, a song for a happy (Lunar) New Year song, and one song in English. (They could all say, “Pleased to meet you!” with gusto!) Then we gave our greetings and gift, thanks to donations from parishioners of St. Stephen and St. Juan Diego parishes. Fr. Binh asked me to sing a couple songs (Prayer of St. Francis and Ave Maria in chant form). They were very receptive.

Next we went to visit the beautiful motherhouse of the Sisters Adorers of the Holy Cross of Thu Thiem. The grounds were beautiful. The community has about 400 sisters and additionally 200 in formation. They serve in parishes in the Archdiocese as Catechists and service to the poor. The Superior General of the order, Sr. Thao greeted us along with Sr. Thu who has just returned from New Jersey having studied theology there. They offered us coconuts that had straws in them for us to drink the milk from. They support them selves by selling the tropical fruit from trees on their property, making incense charcoal, wine, milk cows, and making liturgical vestments. Fr. Binh and I both bought albs and chasubles. These women work hard and, of course, integrate their work lives with prayer. Their beautiful grounds and buildings were centered on their chapel and a “mountain” that replicates the mountains in Vietnam. As one climbs the “mountain” on steps and path, the stations of the cross are displayed in metal plates of bronze relief. Behind the plates are the niches where they place the cremated remains of their deceased sisters. They came up on this plan to preserve land (Sustainablity, although they did not use that word) and to keep their departed community members in the center of their communal life.

We gave them three gifts in red envelopes (also called “lucky money” which is commonly given during the Lunar New Year) to help the poor children and the elderly sisters that the community cares for. This was, again, given through the generosity of our parishes.

We went home after a 40 minute ride on the back of a scooter, feeling exhausted from the heat and a cold I’m fighting. We went to the 5:30 Mass at the local parish and had dinner with the Quang family after that. I went to bed early and missed a posting that day to the blog. So you may be getting two days worth in one shot.

This is how they make rice crepes. Pour rice batter on a screen over steaming water till it takes form, using a chopstick place the crepe on table where it can be filled with meat and rolled, and voila!

Our host, Mr. Quang and one of his sons took us to breakfast at a corner restaurant where we met the owner.

Normal traffic in the neighborhood where we are staying. Notice the complexity of powerlines.

Fr. Binh rides on the back of Mr. Quang’s motorcycle. I had my camera strapped tightly to my body as I just pointed, not looking through the viewfinder, and kept clicking knowing that a few shots would turn out okay.

Motorcycles are also a primary means of transporting goods. Who is that in the rear view mirror?

At the Orphanage for the Blind one of the students (apparently the “Big Man on Campus”), shows us how quickly he can write in Braille. Very impressive.

One of the students works on paper crafts and creates darling statues of animals that are sold to support the school.

Giving the gift of “Lucky Money” in a red envelop. Kathy Yee wisely sent a few along with me so that I could use them to give your contributions to the various charities we will be visiting.

After the children sang for us and we gave and received gifts, we stood for a group photo.

Saying goodbye to the children.

It was delightful for me to watch Fr. Binh as he greeted everyone with his great reverence for those who operate the orphanage as well as the students.

At the Motherhouse of the Sisters Adorers of the Holy Cross of Thu Thiem we met the General of the Order, Sr. Thao and Sr. Thu who just returned from studying Theology in New Jersey. For hospitality they greeted us with coconuts as seen on the table.

We are standing in front of the community mausoleum, shaped like a mountain. On the back side there is a path to the top lined with the stations of the cross.

Pictures and names of the sisters entombed in the mausoleum.

One of the stations of the cross in the mausoleum “mountain”. The plaque can be removed to expose the niches in which the deceased sisters’ cremated remains are entombed.

The view from the top of the mausoleum looking toward the church and downtown Saigon where the highest skyscraper in Vietnam looms large.

This composite statue of the Vietnamese Martyrs was sculpted by Sr. Thau,
the General of the Order.

We visited the infirmary for the elderly sisters. I heard a loud “Bonjour!” and turned to see this woman who was the previous General of the Order. I put my high school French to use and introduced myself and Fr. Binh. Many elderly Vietnamese speak French which was mandatory in the schools at one time. Now that is the case for English.

Fr. Binh visits with one of the elderly sisters.

A view of the community chapel and a statue of Jesus and the Children,
also sculpted by Sr. Thau.

The sisters make charcoal for incense that they sell to churches to support the community.

Another means of financial support are milk cows. The sister in charge of the cows has had that role for 20 years.

Fr. Binh and I do a little shopping. These hand embroidered vestments are made right here by members of the community. Their prices were quite reasonable: $85 for a chasuble, $50 for an alb, both of which are tailor made (we were even measured). But Fr. Binh told me, “But we will give them $100 for each.” Another reminder to me that we can afford many things in the United States which are well beyond the reach of most Vietnamese. Therefore, in justice, we should pay more.