Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Then, In A Late Evening, Last Minute Conversation, I Remember A Gift Given To Me By A Vietnamese Student. Paid it Forward.

In 2005, a Vietnamese-American student (in her second year of the United States) was invited to represent Kentucky at an assembly for high school students to work with congress in Washington, D.C.. I don't remember all the details or why she was there, but I remember that she returned to Louisville and presented me with a box.

She said, "Bryan, I want you to have this. This belongs to you as much as it belongs to me. You've helped me to become an American and to understand my role in the United States." Her dad was a Vietnamese soldier who aided the United States. She came to the U.S. driven to make it to medical school (which she has) and quickly became a successful graduate of the Brown School, even though she only had two years of English at our school.

I thanked her, but never opened the box. Instead, I kept it in a pile of materials from my teaching days and brought it with me while I've moved from Kentucky to New York, and now to Connecticut. I always assumed it was an American flag, and it's always been placed in my living room underneath a table I use to hold plants. Yet, I never opened it.

Last night, however, I pulled out a sweatshirt my dad gave me last year - one that was printed by the Cicero American legion with Superbowl teams on it. I asked Chitunga if he needed another sweatshirt and he said sure. But he didn't know what an American legion was. I explained and he put it on immediately. With ambition to serve in the Marines, he said it was an honor to wear the product (a sweatshirt) from the legion my parents belong to because of my grandfather Spencer's service in World War II.

When he put the sweatshirt on I remembered the flag that was once given to me by a student in Kentucky. He came downstairs to ask about tape and tacks to hang up a map of the world in his bedroom. I said, "I have them, but if you're hanging up things in your room, I have an early holiday gift for you. It seems logical to give it to you tonight."

I gave him the American flag that was given to me by my Vietnamese student. Given the fact that 125+ young people were killed in Pakistan today by ISIS, I continue to understand the stories of why so many young people I work with have a completely different narrative of what they feel the United States offers them. I understand what the flag stands for, symbolically, for me. It means something else to the Vietnamese students I've taught and to the many young men from Africa  I've worked with over the last decade. I know that what we know here is not the norm of what is known elsewhere. The narratives told within out nation aren't always aligned with the stories people in other countries wish they could tell of themselves.

Minutes after I gave Chitunga the flag I heard a hammer. A few seconds later I heard footsteps coming down the stairs and then the question, "Do you want to come upstairs and see what it looks like?"

I did. And I was able to get this photograph.

For those men and women who served in World War II (like my Grandfather), I post this as a compliment to the work the greatest generation contributed to our nation. Because of them, a post like this can occur today.

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