A good meal bridges cultures and conflicts
Sunday July 15 was a dramatic day. I had dinner at the home of a man who proudly points to a certificate on his wall that rewards his 40-year membership in the Communist Party.
After a rather sumptuous banquet, his son escorted me to a mass attended by more than 1,000 people. The son is not a Catholic but is pondering becoming one.
These events did not occur in Western New York but in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), Vietnam. I have been here for five days, and it has been an overwhelming experience.
Since six of my boys come from Vietnam, this is a nation I have desired to visit for quite a long time. As one growing up in the 1960s, Vietnam has always been a ‘special place’ in my mind. A thousand images come to mind when I think of that era: Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, Tet Offensive, a naked girl running in terror toward a photographer, Lt Calley, friends of mine wounded and killed, napalm, Agent Orange, the shape of the table for the Paris peace talks, the helicopters lifting the last Americans from the roof of the US embassy in 1975.
Now, I have stood on that roof and visited no fewer than three museums that proclaim American barbarism and Vietnamese virtue. If it is true that history is written by winners, it is more true that museums are designed by winners, at least in Vietnam. I hold a thousand thoughts and pains in my heart here.
But today was one of joy. While I taught at Wabash College, I had a Vietnamese student who twice traveled with groups I taught in Italy. He has a flexible work schedule and offered to accompany me and a Geneseo student, Dale Iglesia, around this complex and enormous city.
I had met this Vietnamese student’s parents at his graduation, and today I was a guest in their home. I learned that the father spent 11 years as a Vietcong soldier and that his mother was also a part of the war against the US in South Vietnam.
The student explained that his dad was something of a war hero and pointed to a framed certificate that proclaimed his faithfulness to the Communist Party. There is also a large photo of Ho Chi Minh in the main room of the house.
We shared a wonderful meal and good fellowship (through translation, although the student’s mom spoke a little English). We did not talk of war and cruelties, both of which these people had seen so much of.
We talked of the present and the future, especially that of their American-educated son. The parents of this student and I are about the same age. What radically different journeys we have taken to that table of good food and fellowship! Could I have imagined when I was Dale’s age that some day I would have a joyful dinner in Ho Chi Minh City with a Vietcong veteran? Could he imagine that he would invite to his table a Yankee?
One of this student’s friends is Catholic and joined us for dinner and then took Dale, my student, and me to his parish for mass. I was expecting a rather old and quiet group.
There were at least 1,000 people in attendance, almost all of whom were young. There were at least 500 more outside because they could not fit inside. There were even some sitting on motor scooters and attending mass and later receiving communion. There was joyful and vigorous singing.
Before arriving here, I had some sense that in this communist state, Christianity was probably subdued; but I was wrong. I have no doubt that the Church is closely watched and even monitored, and I imagine that the priests watch their words and actions carefully. Still, it was a joy and a surprise to find my faith being practiced vigorously and openly by a large group of faithful.
One lesson from today is that being here provides a much better understanding of a place than reading or watching a documentary. Experience is a great teacher.
More importantly, today shows me the possibilities of change and reconciliation and forgiveness. The couple in whose home I ate dinner could have shot my college senior class’ president. My nation’s army no doubt killed many of their friends and perhaps dropped noxious and toxic things on them.
My Church came here with French colonial imperialism. Now it is deeply enculturated into the Vietnamese culture with the gong proclaiming the consecration of the host and statues of dragons ‘guarding’ the entrance.
It was a remarkable day. If the experience I had today is possible, so is reconciliation of Palestinians and Israelis, Sudanese and the people in Darfur, Tutsis and Hutus.
A few years ago, I organized a peace banquet between the pro- and anti-Lowes folks. It was tense and perhaps had little effect on our political life in Geneseo. But, as I saw here in Ho Chi Minh City, a lot of healing can be done over good food and a belief in a shared humanity.