Finding My Brothers in Vietnam
March 2005 by Huy Pham
I am Vietnamese--but I wasn't always proud of it. When I was younger, I used to mock the students who just came from Vietnam and laugh at their elementary grasp of English. The new students would ask me for help and I would systematically ignore them. "Anh! Anh! (Brother! Brother!),"they would shout, relieved to see a familiar face in a foreign land. All they desperately wanted was for someone to point them in the right direction. I, their Vietnamese brother, betrayed their trust.
My parents tried to teach me differently but I wouldn't listen. They forced me to attend Vietnamese language classes at a Catholic church every weekend for eight years. I was impossible. As soon as the nun turned to write on the board, I would jump out of the window and run to the local arcade. I was busy learning the intricacies of the Ryu uppercut and fireball combo. Street Fighter was more important to me.
Alas, 23 years later and I still speak Vietnamese with the vocabulary of a five-year-old. I have problems remembering the accents for "ba" and "ma" (father and mother), and reading Vietnamese is out of the question. I am not alone. I am a Vietnamese American, but like most of my generation I am forever attempting to grasp the meaning of my heritage. In March 2005, I received a scholarship to attend a joint Sunflower Mission and YMCA International Services Houston work camp in Vietnam. The first week consisted of building six elementary school classrooms in the povertystricken Ben Tre Province. The second was spent touring the countryside. In Vietnam we met a YMCA Vietnam contingent composed of eight young volunteers. We spent the first week building the classrooms. Witnessing the poverty of Vietnam made me sad; though spending time with the carefree children made me long to be a kid again. Seeing the dilapidated condition of the Vietnamese school system made me angry. But helping to create six new classrooms made me feel like I was making a positive change and made me understand more deeply the charter of Sunflower Mission.