Saturday, April 1, 2017

The Color Purple

Life gets a little rough sometimes.  Everyone takes a few knocks.  We all get a bit bruised and purple.  Purple symbolizes sorrow and suffering, purple represents the penitential period of Lent.  While sitting alone during this time in the desert we may start to stare too intently at the sand.  We often overlook the abundant blessings bestowed upon us and place our pebble sized problems so close to our eyes that we begin to see them as boulders.  This blinds us to the heaviness of the burdens that others are carrying and we miss the opportunity to offer them the helping hand of the Cyrenian.  We don’t always look beyond the tough exterior of people and see that glimmer of goodness inside our brothers and sisters, that image of our Loving Creator.  Sometimes instead of siblings, they’re seen as rivals.  But this isn’t a competition.  We are called to support and encourage each other.  If we fail to recognize that we are a pilgrim people journeying together in this desert life then the world will continue to be parched for peace.

Although at times it's tiring, I am enjoying my new assignment in Ho Chi Minh City.  In addition to tutoring the Priests and Brothers, I also have the privilege of teaching some classes for students in the local school.   The school provides a free education for about 500 children.  Most of these kids are from poor immigrant families and would be unable to obtain an education without the assistance of the Salesians.  I have a number of formal lessons for 6th/7th and 8th/9th graders, but before school and during recesses I try to teach the smaller children (1st-5th graders) using English/Vietnamese flashcards.  The little kids are an absolute pleasure.  Their laughter is infectious.  They often crowd around in a circle, eager to learn and play.  They try their best to pronounce the words in English after me and I try my best to repeat the words back to them in Vietnamese.  I think half of the fun for them is laughing at my feeble attempts at Vietnamese.

It isn’t all fun and games though.  There are some kids that make it a point every day to let me know how displeased they are with my presence.  They roam around the playground like a pack of wolves bullying the younger children.  They will come by the table where I teach and thumb through the flashcards.  One boy will hold up the picture of something simple, like an apple, and repeat in a mocking tone, “Apoe, apoe, apoe.  APOE, APOE, APOE!”.  They do their best to disturb and discourage the others before they go on their way to stalk their next prey.  On a number of occasions the boys have approached and said something in Vietnamese, like “Speak English? Speak English?!” before making obscene gestures, flipping me off, and firing off series of expletives in English.

When this first happened, it was difficult to keep my peace, but I resolved not yell at them or rat them out to the principal.  Instead, I chose to smile at them until they finished their rant.  Whenever I saw them I would grin and give a greeting in English or Vietnamese, “Good morning!/Chào buổi sáng?", "How are you?/Bạn khỏe không?", or flash the customary peace sign with a "Hello./Chào".  At first, they looked at me like I was crazy, but eventually they started to return the smile and the greeting.

Earlier this week as I was shuffling through the deck of cards the wolfpack came back.  One boy flipped me off, pointed to his hand and asked, “What’s this?”.  I said, “That’s called a middle finger.”  He looked surprised at my answer.  They started holding up flashcards and asking me the names of the objects.  I started repeating in Vietnamese.  They weren’t laughing much because my pronunciation was correct.  One of them then found a picture of something that interested him.  “What’s this?”, he asked.  I told him the name in Vietnamese.  “No, no, in English.”, he replied.  I repeated slowly a few times.  On the third attempt his pronunciation was correct.  I said, “Good.” and gave him a thumbs up.  I repeated the words from the cards they held up and they corrected my Vietnamese before they repeated after me in English.  This began an unexpected back and forth volley of “Goods” and giving the thumbs up sign.  When one of them tried to act up again one of the boys in their group shouted at him, “Be quiet! I want to learn English.”
As I spend more time here I get a more complete picture of the daily struggles of these children.  A number of them come from broken homes.  Some are neglected and abused.  Some live in a cramped 12ft x 9ft shack with as many as nine people.  I hear of cases where kids are digging through the trash for food when others aren’t looking because they have no money and nothing to eat.  Some have no time to study because they must walk around the city after school selling lottery tickets to help support their families.  Half of the school has failed, or is failing English.  Before completing the 9th grade many give up, drop out and look for work.  No wonder some loathe the sight of an English lesson.  Their little shoulders carry heavy boulders.  My yoke is easy and my burden is light.  My trials are trivial.  I am abundantly blessed.  How will I share those blessings?  How will you share your blessings?  How will we help carry each other as we travel through this desert together?  How will we help quench each other's thirst until we reach that ultimate oasis, the spring of eternal life?