When God Surprises: How a Boy from Vietnam Became Family
I sat with my family in the small American Vietnamese church listening to the unfamiliar sounds of their Lunar New Year celebration. Carrying fuchsia and yellow bouquets, groups of children, men, and women clad in traditional attire took the stage to perform joyful songs whose lyrics welcomed spring. Though the service was almost entirely in Vietnamese, it was difficult to miss the hopeful message delivered by brothers and sisters whose faces radiated their love for Christ and each other.
During the welcome time, people flocked to greet us with wishes of “Happy New Year!” Women in áo dàis, fitted silk tunics worn over trousers, complimented me on my own Hanoi-made áo dài. Our three children were delighted when smiling strangers handed them shiny red and gold envelopes filled with li xi, or “lucky money”.
In the church basement after the service, we sampled plates of rice, spring rolls, and bun cha amidst the strains of Vietnamese karaoke. An animated emcee commanded the microphone, challenging congregants to recite Bible verses for a chance to draw lucky money from the prize box.
Chatting at the table with my new friend, Lai, I couldn’t help but marvel at how I had become a part of such a rich and foreign culture.
Up until 2016, my understanding of Vietnam was limited to the war I had learned about in high school history class and the gory battle scenes from the movie, Forrest Gump. I’d never had the desire to learn more about this strange Asian country nor any of its neighbors. Give me Europe’s romantic castles and culinary delights, our countries' shared histories and language roots. Dragons and temples and foreign tourists in America with selfie sticks glued to their hands? No thank you.
So what happened? In a word, David.
Nearing the end of summer 2016, a local exchange student program coordinator (LC) called seeking placement for students who’d been wait listed. Since our family had hosted two students in the past, Jorge from Venezuela and Ayleen from Germany (both positive experiences), we always received an eleventh-hour call in August. This time, I had prepared for the onslaught with a list of reasons why we would (definitely not) be hosting this year. I rattled off my list, certain I had made a firm case. Three kids. Full-time jobs. Our aging minivan already taxed with running to and from soccer practice, track meets, and dentist/ortho/doctor appointments.
I had foolishly hoped for a polite “Oh I see” from the coordinator and a swift “Thanks anyway. Maybe next year” (A word to the wise: This never happens. LCs are bubbly bulldogs for their students). Instead, I heard, “Oh, that’s too bad because I think I have the perfect student for your family.”
I bit my lip. I was not falling for that, no way. We were not going to host this year and that was that! Then I heard myself say, “Oh really? Who’s that?”
“Well,” Molly, the LC, replied, “there’s this kid from Vietnam...”
Ha ha! There we had it. Vietnam? Molly had nearly trapped me, but this was an easy no. I had no interest in a student from Vietnam and his/her shaky English skills. Please. Did she think I was an amateur?
“He sings and plays piano and cajón, and—let me see if I can find his app—I think I remember something about...yep, here it is. His name is David and his letter says he wants to be placed in a Christian home or none at all. Sure seems like a perfect fit for your family.”
My stomach clenched. My palms perspired. My thoughts raced. No, no, no, my inner voice chanted.
Then Molly removed all the stops.
“You know, you could be a ‘welcoming family’ for David for six weeks while we find a permanent home for him. That will allow him to get to the U.S. before the deadline.”
“Okay, let me talk to Mark about it and get back to you,” I blurted.
What had just happened? I cursed my lack of willpower.
My husband guffawed when I relayed the conversation over pizza and pop, our Friday night family ritual. “Who are you kidding? Yes, we can host him, but you know he’s not going anywhere after six weeks.” The kids cheered. I cleaned up the kitchen and perused Craigslist for a bunk bed. Ready or not, David would be joining us in two weeks.
The year that followed included a boat load of lessons for all of us. Communication breakdowns that resulted in fuming and frustration. Eye-opening experiences for David about the importance of planning ahead in a suburban community sans public transportation. The beauty of adding another member to our family band.
Perhaps the most surprising lesson for me came in the form of a new respect and admiration for the values of the Vietnamese people who represent a collectivist culture in stark contrast to America’s individualist one. The willingness to serve of this boy from a working-class family in contrast to the me-first attitudes of our own pampered kids.
At dinnertime, David was the first to offer to set the table and the first to hop up afterward to start cleaning up. He raked leaves in the fall and shoveled the sidewalk in the winter. He cleaned bathrooms and made beds alongside our kids and did so with a smile. I had to kick him out of the kitchen so I could do the cooking in peace and later kick him out of the house on weekends.
“You’re a high schooler in America, for the love! You should be hanging out with your friends and doing teenage stuff,” I scolded.
When Mark and I discovered Hershey’s wrappers under our bed, there were reprimands about hidden chocolate in the bedroom, a draw for ants and a danger to our two terriers. And don’t get me started on that boy’s potato chip addiction. “Potato chips are not going to fill you up; have a sandwich or something,” I admonished when David dived into a bag of sour cream & onion after school. There were late night tears and dinnertime laughter over our attempts to speak Vietnamese (In an entire year, we were only able to master the Vietnamese phrase for "Shake your bootie") and David’s mispronunciation of English.
By the time David graduated in May, it was clear that experiencing the ups and downs of living under the same roof had made us a family. David was our son -- our kids’ brother -- and despite their pleas and tears, he was heading back to Vietnam over 8,000 miles away.
Thankfully, David returned to us six months later to attend community college only 20 minutes away. He still comes “home” for holidays and family gatherings and heads back to his apartment with containers of his favorite homemade mac ‘n cheese.
As David’s American family, his Vietnamese church family had welcomed us as honored guests. "Show them where to hang their coats," a man in a suit directed David. "They can sit over here," a smiling woman told him. Our white faces and zero language skills mattered none. Somehow, David's belonging to us meant we belonged to him, which meant we belonged there in that little community, swimming in a sea of foreign customs and sounds.
Taking in the celebration all around us, I marveled at God's gentle but powerful teaching. For all of us, our ties to each other have little to do with blood or proximity, and everything to do with our willingness to open our lives to another and welcome the lessons and love that follow.
Interested in learning more about hosting an exchange student? Send me an email and I'll get in touch!
Until next time,