Ever have an experience where you’ve heard something multiple times, but suddenly it strikes you at a deeper level and you don’t know why?
That happened to me this week. Some passionate World Vision supporters invited their friends to hear Dr. Vinh Chung and his wife Leisle tell their story. Vinh has a powerful testimony of having been rescued at 3-years-old from the South China Sea with his family of Vietnamese refugees by Seasweep, World Vision’s rescue vessel back then. It’s a powerful story, and you can hear the short version here or enjoy his book at this link.
I’ve heard Vinh’s life-story several times, including the episode when he first traveled back to Vietnam as a newlywed and grad student at Harvard Medical School. He met cousins and uncles who had lived that intervening 20 years in Vietnam, while his own family of 13 had struggled in Arkansas as disoriented and out-of-place refugees.
Up until his trip to Vietnam, Vinh’s self-image had always been as a struggling refugee, a recipient of whatever donated shirt and pants and underwear was available in the clean clothes baskets, regardless of color or size. “Matching” his outfit wasn’t a concept he could even consider. Yet he had worked hard, made excellent grades in school, won scholarships and was now married and successfully attending one of the world’s elite medical universities!
But it was there in Vietnam that he realized the incredible advantages he’d been afforded simply by “the accident of place”, by the opportunities he had available in his new country. Sure, he’d had to make the most of those opportunities–and had certainly done so–but the idea of him being a “self-made man” who had triumphed over long odds was ridiculous. His relatives back in Vietnam had sold everything to escape too, but while Vinh’s disabled boat had been rescued by World Vision, his relatives’ disabled vessel had floated helplessly back to Vietnam. They arrived virtually penniless and homeless, and at times even resorted to begging for food. Twenty years later, they were making the best of their opportunities and doing OK, yet toiling with their hands and living a life of far fewer opportunities or resources.
This visit drove home powerfully not how much he had accomplished, but how much he had been given. And, as one who had been given much, he realized that much was expected from him. This realization has gradually permeated Vinh and Leisle’s lives such that it affects not only their money, but their attention, their time, how they run their business and how they raise their family. They have joyfully integrated this revelation into their lives as well as anyone I know.
Though Janet and I had read Vinh’s book and heard his story multiple times, something about that trip back to his homeland struck both of us in a new way. As we talked afterwards, Janet realized why, this time, it seemed especially poignant and powerful…
This summer, we vacationed in the Czech Republic. That’s my cultural heritage (Bohemian, to be specific) from several generations back. Though I knew very little about the ancestors of my father, who died over 40 years ago, we thought it would be nice to experience the country they came from. Then, less than two weeks before our departure date, our daughter discovered that all immigration records from Ellis Island are now available online, and she discovered an unmistakable connection to my dad’s maternal grandmother, Anna Brodina. That discovery began a frenzied search, which yielded literally dozens of ancestors, ancestral towns and even house numbers!
So one day, we traveled–with a translator I hired–to Anna’s little farming village and the home where she was born, where her father was born, his father was born, and his father was born! Though there was no information on who resided there now, of any Brodina connection, or how to reach the owners in advance, thankfully someone was home and came to the gate. When the translator asked if this had been the Brodina home or if she knew anything about that family, she slapped her chest and exclaimed, “I’m Brodina. I’m Brodina!”
What ensued was an impromptu reunion. Her daughter brought out tea and cakes, they rustled up some chairs and we had a very nice visit with lots of smiling photos and hugs. Her 6-year-old granddaughter even became play-friends with our 6-year-old grandson…born just two weeks apart! We added to the family tree, as her grandfather was Anna’s brother.
But despite the lovely scene you’ve just conjured in your mind’s eye, the reality was much more disturbing to me. The old L-shaped home was now filled with junk, and the newer house next to it seemed in a long-term state of partial completeness, covered only in sheets of insulation hammered to the beams. The yard was full of dog excrement which the granddaughter deftly avoided, and littered with rusty discardables that just might come in handy someday. There was no thought of inviting us into either house on the small property, and instead an old resin table and flimsy chairs were pulled together for our dialog. Neither Jitka nor her daughter are married any longer, and life alone is clearly not easy for these three females spanning three generations. The granddaughter ran around only in a t-shirt and underpants—a bit of a culture shock to our grandson, but a fitting complement to their partially-clad home.
Anna, my bobitchka, was the only family member who had left the country. For reasons I’ll likely never discover, she had been sent to America alone at age 18, in 1903, to live with the family of her father’s brother, and she eventually married one of his sons, Frank Brodina, her first cousin. They made a modest life as farmers in rural North Dakota; Frank sometimes played tuba in a family polka band. I last saw my dear Czech-speaking bobitchka when I was a teen and her breasts came down to her waist.
Jitka and the translator referred to her as “Anna, the one who emigrated,” or “Anna who left.” Partly this was to differentiate her from all the other Annas and Jitkas and Jans and Vaclavs whose names were lovingly bequeathed to nieces and nephews, cross-pollinating each generation in turn. But in view of the life Jitka and her offspring were now living in Czechia, and the contrast with the life I and my offspring enjoyed a couple generations later in Anna’s America, it felt just slightly accusatory to hear, in a guilt-by-association way that was probably not intended but stung nonetheless. Anna left, while the rest stayed… through two world wars, through foreign domination by Austria-Hungary, later by Nazi Germany, followed by 70 years of Communist oppression. But not for Anna, not for her offspring; not for me.
Some years ago, I visited the Harry Truman Presidential Library. The most memorable section illustrated the post-WWII suburban tract-housing boom which sprung up in America during his presidency, including the quintessential bright-and-modern 1950’s kitchen most of us grew up with back then. I always shudder a bit to remember that décor. Then, to the side, in a darkened passageway was a display of a typical French kitchen during this same period—rough board cabinets, stiff wooden chairs and tables, minimal appliances, cramped spaces, poor lighting. Surrounding this ‘kitchen’ were photos of the bombed-out ruins of buildings, with rubble strewn everywhere into the streets. The two countries fought side-by-side in the same vicious war. But the war was actually waged in only one, and as a result that country was suddenly at a huge disadvantage, stuck with rebuilding just to get back to where it had been, while the other advanced rapidly ahead. Let’s avoid the debate over whether tract housing was actually an “advancement;” you get my point here—in the course of just a few years, a huge disparity had arisen between the reality for the “average American family” and the “average French family.” As a 1954 arrival onto the scene, I of course was completely oblivious to this disparity and the advantages I now enjoyed over a French child simply because of where we each grew up. I even have the privilege of turning up my nose at décor which would have been beyond the wildest dreams of my contemporaries in most of Europe.
Those gathered last night to hear Vinh’s story seemed to sense the power and the immediacy of his experience while revisiting his birthplace, the “accident of place,” the advantages we have that we didn’t earn, and the responsibility we have as those who “have been given much”… that none of us in America can claim to be self-made. No matter what self-perceptions we grew up with, the truth is, compared to most of the world, we were born on third base.
Two months ago, without planning it that way, I leaped back 3-4 generations and suddenly was confronted by the same truth in my own life. “Confronted” isn’t the right word… it was a wonderful experience I’ll always treasure to walk where my forebears walked, to visit their homes, to kneel in the churches where they were baptised, married and buried, and see the family gravesites.
But just like Vinh, my visit drove home the point that I too was the one who had left, who therefore became the beneficiary of the immense opportunities within my reach, the one to whom much has been given and to whom much is expected.