Monday, March 10, 2008

A Life of Changes


Ever since I decided to join the Society of the Divine Word, on average, I have moved place of residence once a year – from one house to another, from one city to another, from one state to another, or from one country to another. Each time I moved meant a whole series of decisions of deciding on what to pack up, what to keep, what to discard, or what to give away. Sometimes, it wasn’t just about the material things such as books, clothes, or memorabilias, but also non-physical things like plans, relationships, and projects.

In 1998, when I graduated from Berkeley with my bachelor degree and decided to enter Divine Word College as a postulant, I put away my biochemistry books, canceled my plan of going to medical school, and headed for something that was going to be quite exciting in, of all places, Epworth, Iowa – the cornfield town of the cornfield state.

Then a year later, I moved to Techny for the Novitiate Year. After taking my first vows in 2000, I moved to Chicago for theology, then to Vietnam for the Cross-Cultural Program, then back to Chicago. I took my final vows in September, 2005 and was ordained to the priesthood in May, 2006. At this time, I again packed up my belongings. The task of deciding what to keep and what to discard was even more intense this time because my assignment was going to be to the Australian province. That meant going to a different country for a long time, and possibly forever.

But Australia wasn’t going to be my last stop, because from Australia, I was assigned by the Provincial to the mission of Thailand. So in February 2006, I made my way to Bangkok to start my Thai language study program. With the exception of a 2-month hiatus in which I had to leave the country because of visa complications, I have been in Thailand since.

But as I write this, I have to tell the reader that I am no longer in Bangkok. As of three weeks ago, I have moved to Udon Thani, a province in the Northeast of Thailand, near Laos, where I am in the process of adapting to the new environment, memorizing new names of people I meet and of places I go to, learning how to recognize the tones of the new dialect (which is very different from the dialect that I learned in Bangkok), getting to know the new customs, learning how to eat even spicier food than what I had in Bangkok, and sometimes…. just feeling very overwhelmed at everything that is happening to me.

But before anyone thinks that I’m settled down….Not yet. As I am only in the stage of being inculturated into the local church and environment, I am now staying at the cathedral in Udon Thani for a short time until a long-term work is decided for me. That means I expect to move again not too long from now. And wherever that is, is a question that I am praying will come to me more clearly by the grace of God.

Our SVD Thailand mission is a small mission. We have now only four people, two brothers, and two new priests (myself and another confrere studying Thai in Bangkok). My addition to the Thai mission is part of the plan of the SVD to expand our work in this country where there are only 300,000 Catholics in a population of 63 million people. But expansion is a tricky experiment in which trial and error can occur as we find directions for our work that meets the need of the local church as well as corresponds to the SVD charism.

And so in the midst of uncertainty and explorations, we depend on the Holy Spirit to help us recognize the path that we should venture down in order to respond appropriately to the mission needs and aspirations of the church in which we serve. Standing before many paths stretching themselves before my eyes, I wonder with the greatest sincerity about what I have been called to do in this country.

Last Saturday, two Vincent de Paul sisters invited me to a school in the village where they teach English to students on the weekend. I accepted the invitation and was allowed to be guest teacher for the day. Standing before a group of 35 students, speaking Thai and English, teaching the kids how to sing the Barnie song, making them laugh when I said some jokes, I felt like working with young people continues to be something that is always in my list of pastoral activities.

After the sisters took over, I went to sit on one of the benches. A 70 year-old grandmother came to sit down next to me. She held my hand in hers and said, “Father, you’re so cute. The way you teach make the kids laugh and enjoy learning. I hope you will come here again next time.” I thanked her for her kind words and asked about her life, if she ate well and slept well at night. “Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night,” she said. “You think about something, and then it’s hard to fall asleep.”

“Grandmother, you’re old already. You shouldn’t be thinking anymore,” I told her.

“How can you not think?” she said. “There are grandchildren to take care, and the children don’t have good jobs. Before, it was easy to find money. But now, there are too many expenses and no way to make money.”

Life is hard in the villages, but the people are friendly and good-hearted. And I think to myself, should I stay in the city or do I prefer the village? Both has its own needs. Here in the city, I have met a group of people who definitely has a need for a priest who can speak Vietnamese. That’s the young Vietnamese people from the central provinces of Vietnam who have made their way to Thailand and stayed illegally in order to work in restaurants, sewing shops, and other manual labor work. I met them when I was in Bangkok and I have met some since I’ve come to Udon Thani.

No one knows how many Vietnamese illegal workers there are in Thailand, but in Bangkok, when a Vietnamese language Mass was organized, up to 600 attended. But these Masses only happen once every two months because it is difficult to find a church that allows for the mass to take place. The main reason has to do with the illegal status of the Vietnamese workers, most of whom are young people in their teens and twenties. Virtually everytime that a mass was organized, someone was arrested on the way to or from church as they were stopped by the police to check for documents. Because of the fear of being arrested, many don’t go to church on Sunday. However, if there were a Vietnamese language mass, many would risk it because they longed to attend mass in their own language and to have an opportunity to meet with their friends.

During my stay in Bangkok, I have gotten to know many of these young people and have helped another Vietnamese priest who works with the community. Here in Udon Thani, there are also many and they also long for a Vietnamese language mass or to have a Vietnamese to hear their confession. In reality, many of these workers, after living in Thailand for a significant amount of time, can speak Thai quite well, but there is nothing better than using one’s own mother tongue for very personal things like confession and worship.

Before coming to Thailand, it never came into my mind that there would be illegal Vietnamese migrant workers in this country who needed me pastorally. I did know, however, that there are Vietnamese-Thai who migrated to this country since the the first half of the 1900s and even several hundred years ago, during the persecution of Catholics in Vietnam. Vietnamese-Thai grow up in an environment where being Vietnamese was discriminated. As a result, many hid their identity, took on Thai names, and tried to live as Thai. Freedom and citizenship have been granted to people of Vietnamese ancestry only over a decade ago, so the mentality to hide their identity is still prevalent in the Vietnamese-Thai consciousness. Vietnamese-Thai, having migrated here long ago, speak the kind of Vietnamese that we find in Vietnam a hundred years ago – that is the one who can speak.

The first time I met a Vietnamese Thai who was able to speak to me in Vietnamese, she greeted, “Chao ong cha.” I was quite surprised because normally, Vietnamese people only say “Chao cha”. The word “Ong” usually used for men who are older is not used in conjunction with the word “cha” which means “father”. After being greeted this way many times by Vietnamese-Thai, I decided to ask why was I greeted in this way, especially when I am only a little over 30 years old. I was told that this was how priests were to be addressed, “ong cha”.

A large percentage of the Catholic population in Udon Thani, and in Thailand are of Vietnamese ancestry. And among the priests and religious, there are no few Vietnamese. But the ones who can speak their ancestor language are far and few. But my coming to Udon Thani has also brought about some interest to the Vietnamese-Thai here, especially the older people who still use the language and like to be able to use it with a Vietnamese speaking priest.

At this moment of relating to my conferes and readers of my work and experience in Thailand, I can only say this much. Choices and options are many. There are much to be reflected over and to be decided upon. When I made my decision to come to Thailand, I came for the Thai people and I am resolved to work with the Thai people. But nothing ever is exactly the way I plan it. Before me, there are Thai people, Vietnamese- Thai, and Vietnamese migrants. Before me are three groups of people, all of whom I would like to serve, all of whom I would like to get to know, and I hope all of whom would welcome me into their midst. Is there a place to work, a position, or an environment that would allow me to be in contact with all three groups? It is something that I am wondering and praying over at this time.

Uncertainty is prevalent. But there is one thing that I am sure of, and that is, I am moving…always moving. Moving physically, moving spiritually, moving culturally, and moving emotionally. There are moments where English-Vietnamese-Thai all seem to try to come out of my mouth at the same time as I try to have a conversation with someone standing before me. There are moments where I am filled with hope one instant then anxiety the next. There are moments where I wish I could settle down to a long-term assignment one minute, then suddenly become so grateful that these constant changes have brought me into so many encounters, some of which would never be possible if I had only stayed in one place the entire time.

2 comments:

TheresaCatbui said...

Hi Fr. Tam Le,
Thanks for saying "YES", and I enjoy reading your blog. May God bless your hard works and your Divide Word Order always!
Online Friend,
Catbui

_________________ Hong Kong/Macau said...

Hi Fr. Tam Le,

I and some other SVDs want to come and visit your work. What is the airport closest to your place of ministry?

Fr. James Liebner, SVD