The Wonderment Of It All

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I was awake this morning literally at the crack of dawn. Rockets red glare? The bombs bursting in air? Nah, just a freak Colorado thunderstorm at 5:45 A.M! Since our 4th of July festivities won't start for like – 14 HOURS! – I've had plenty of time to read the paper, cup of tea in hand on my slightly soggy deck. So I give to you, on this day of independence, a lump-in-your-throat story that makes me feel patriotic from this morning's New York Times. Happy parade watching, barbequeing, sunscreen covered, fireworks watching day!

It is
for a special

occasion one recent Sunday that I pull my car into the Jumbo Buffet & Grill
parking lot in Harrisburg, Pa., with three of my four foster Vietnamese
grandchildren in tow. Jonah, who is 8, just received his first communion in a
magnificent midtown church where Masses are held in English and Vietnamese.
Lunch at Jumbo Buffet, an Asian-style, all-you-can-eat restaurant, always
involves overeating, but we’re excited to celebrate Jonah’s new status in the
church.

The
rest of the family soon follows — a total of 10 adults and 9 children, all
friends of our foster son, Phuoc Nguyen, and his wife, Loan. My husband, even
though it’s Sunday, is in his office preparing for a busy week, so I’m the only
non-Asian and the oldest in our party.

Phuoc
(pronounced fook), who is 46, became part of our family through his own
initiative. He arrived in Harrisburg in 1989 after a decade of trying to escape
his country following the fall of Saigon in ’75. He experienced incredible
hardship, even torture, until the day the skipper of a Finnish freighter
sighted his broken-down boat. After being picked up at sea, Phuoc was sent to a
displaced-person camp in Indonesia and eventually found his way to
Pennsylvania, where his uncle, an early refugee, ended up almost 15 years
before.

Living
in a house filled with his uncle’s family, and with no means of income, Phuoc
eventually found a job with Menashe, an Israeli house painter who was finishing
the exterior of our home. He was incredibly energetic but seemed to be lonely.
Each day after work was done, we would invite him inside for water and a few
moments of conversation. He didn’t know much English, and so at first there was
much hand-gesturing. Over time he would hang around later and later, and
sometimes we’d ask him to stay for dinner. Phuoc would speak lovingly of his
parents back in Vietnam, and we would help him interpret the nuances of
American life. About a year after we first met, Phuoc, then in his 20s, asked
us to become his American parents.

We
were surprised and touched but apprehensive about any additional
responsibility, especially financial. At the time, our children — my husband’s
two daughters and my two sons — were all in private schools or private
colleges. Phuoc assured us that he would remain totally independent of us, with
no legal or financial connection; he wanted our guidance and moral support. The
only time he’d expect special treatment, he told us, smiling, was on his
birthday.

We
agreed, and called our children to tell them of this new, strange arrangement.
My husband helped Phuoc, our faux foster son, find a steady job. He began to
refer to us as his “adopted parents” and to call us Mom and Daddy (pronounced
DA-dee). Sometimes I got too much information about his active dating life
before he married Loan, but he could depend on me to make his favorite salad
dressing as well as to talk him out of any get-rich-quick schemes that may have
caught his eye. In 1996, with tears streaming down our faces, we watched him
become an American citizen. (Along the way, he also became a Republican, and
has the card in his wallet to prove it.)

The
Nguyens are Catholics — at least they have been since Phuoc explained Jesus to
his young Buddhist bride years ago. My husband and I are Jewish. We belong to a
synagogue, light candles on Friday night and have been known to use Yiddish
expressions. Early on, I had to explain to Phuoc that since we were Jews, it
wasn’t appropriate to keep sending us birthday or anniversary cards that
featured the Virgin Mary. But somehow we have managed to achieve a relationship
that includes attending church services for baptisms or other occasions,
hosting Phuoc’s family for Rosh Hashana dinner and eating his homemade egg
rolls at Thanksgiving.

Today
it’s the celebration at Jumbo Buffet. My foster grandchildren all want to sit
next to me or have me take them to the endless rows of food stations. Phuoc,
his family and his friends chat, and I listen and laugh as if I understand
Vietnamese.

I
go to leave, and Phuoc — the ever-proud father and foster son — walks me to the
door and awkwardly puts his arm around my shoulder. When I’m alone in the car,
something sweeps over me, and I feel as if I’m going to cry. It’s not sadness,
but wonderment. Of how all this came about.

Susan
Silver Cohen contributes to The Patriot News, in Harrisburg, Pa. She is working
on a children’s book.

3 Responses to The Wonderment Of It All

  1. rebecca says:

    i love this
    taking in.
    willingness to love.
    include.
    extend.
    believe.

    we are always
    all ways
    richer for it.

    thank you for sharing this.

  2. Leah says:

    This caused me to flash on my own naturalization ceremony, which recently was delivered in a box on my door step. My parent’s purge during their move created a box of long ago memories. I was a flag waving smiling little Asian girl in a US courtroom in St. Louis, MO. We do indeed live in a (mostly) wonderful melting pot.

  3. susan silver cohen says:

    Thank you for sharing my article from the NYTimes. It was a surprise to see it posted and I feel honored.

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