Monday, February 25, 2008


Ever have one of those days when everything seems to be out of whack, only to realize (once you get to Plan B or C or Z) that you're right where you're supposed to be? I had one of those last night, when I went to the latest Mass I knew of--the 6pm at St. Paul Cathedral in Oakland. There was a special ceremony for students of local colleges who are going on service trips over their spring breaks, which, despite the weather here, is starting within the next week or two, depending on the college.

I'm amazed and fascinated by young people who make those trips--it was a rare thing back when I was in college way back when, and as the bishop pointed out, wasn't even on the radar when he was their age.

He also spoke about a woman and her daughter who asked to join him for dinner one night at the local McDonald's, and how he had no idea at the time of the significance of his decision to allow them to join him. (It was the woman who asked, and he wasn't particularly in the mood for company, but agreed.) It turned out to be a turning point in the life of the woman and her daughter, but he didn't learn that until years later.

Tonight I had a rare and wonderful thing happen--a bus home showed up just as I was leaving work, and I had enough time (just barely!) to catch that bus. On the bus was a young woman who'd endured with me one of those long, cold nights waiting for that bus to show up. She said she'd just been thinking about me and hoped I'd catch that bus, and that we'd be so happy to get home on time. Which is exactly what happened. But what made me pay attention to the situation wasn't so much her saying that, but that when she was on her cell phone (at the intersection facing St. Paul Cathedral) she spoke of someone named Noreen. Not me, but I rarely run across anyone who knows anyone named Noreen.

So now I'm thinking about the bishop, and McDonald's, and about being nice to people I don't know all that well...and how I'm going on this (sort of) service trip soon, not all that different, maybe, from what those college students are doing. Now if I could only figure out how to get college students to go on a service trip to Vietnam.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Bridges and Chilly Weather

Near where I work, a major bridge--it handles over 20,000 cars per day--is closed while inspectors try to figure out why one of the approach ramps dropped eight inches about a week and a half ago. This unexpected closure combined with an in-progress construction project (right now at a stage where yes, another bridge is closed) is wreaking havoc on commuting.

Tonight the traffic was worse than usual, and I waited an hour in 20-degree weather for my bus. I wasn't alone, though, and met two other commuters waiting for the same bus.

I received news this week that the Hoi Yen Bridge, in Vietnam, is nearing completion. I'll be there with Friends of Danang for the bridge dedication. The people in these villages have dealt with economic hardship and one village was cut off from the larger village during the rainy season, which can last up to four months. I can understand their joy about a bridge opening. They've asked us to bring light jackets for them, since they've been having unusually cold weather in that part of the world. Standing for an hour in the cold tonight was a good reminder of the importance of having adequate outerwear.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Winter's Angels

It's cold here in February. I should be used to it, but nothing makes Vietnam sound better to me right now than the promise of leaving sub-zero wind chills behind. Today, I was frozen out of my house. The moisture on the inside of my screen door and melted, and then froze, at the bottom of the door. I had to kick off the ice, and yank at the door handle, hoping that the glass panels didn't come tumbling out onto me in the process.

Once I got inside, and thawed a bit, I headed to the grocery store, and hoped my car would start again once I left the store. And--my friend Star would appreciate this--what came on the radio while I was in the car? One of Star's song cues, "Calling All Angels." (Star and I are convinced that our dads mess with our car radios.) When I left the store, I got into the car just before some big scary guy walked towards me, and I locked the doors and turned the ignition. The car started right up! And in my rear-view mirror, I watched said big scary guy walk through the parking lot. I would have been flipped out had my car not started.

Thanks, Angels!

I heard an odd string of songs on the car radio on Saturday just before my uncle called me to tell me he'd locked himself out of the house. I'd been planning on driving to the grocery store then, but something kept me from going...I was just driving around the East End laughing at the radio. And good thing, because I was about five minutes from the house when he'd called, and it was freeze-your-nostrils cold outside.

Friday, February 08, 2008

What would Angelina wear?

This week I've had a few dear friends tell me they're praying for me and my upcoming trip. I'm not worrying about dying--maybe because I work in a hospital and death is never very far from me there. I'm worrying a little bit about the traffic, and the weather, but I can't control any of those things.

My main worry right now is clothing. On my first trip, I wasn't aware that the Vietnamese people would look so professional and proper, even in the heat and humidity. I felt very American in my t-shirts and cropped pants on the last trip. This time, I have been buying nicer tops on the 75% off clearance rack at Target. Since spring clothing is out now, I might have time to snag a few sale skirts before it's time to pack. Shorts are out, for both cultural and practical reasons--I have very white legs that mosquitoes might love.

I've made up in my head this Angelina Jolie standard: not just on the idea of looking good in tropical weather, but on the idea of the whole goodwill ambassador thing. Like, I'll be meeting diplomats. But not Brad Pitt (which is okay, because I'm just not into him.)

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Talking with my neighbors

Last night I spoke for about 30 seconds at the monthly Polish Hill Civic Association meeting. I was there at the invitation of my cousin, PHCA president Terry Doloughty. I talked about Friends of Danang, and my upcoming trip, and of donations I'm accepting (school supplies, gum, candy, toothbrushes, toothpaste, pony tail holders) for the children I'll meet there. My Polish Hill neighbor Mark Knobil was on the last trip with me, filming the WQED documentary "In Country: A Vietnam Story", and it was great to see Mark with the lovely Catherine last night. And I got to see many of the neighbors I've known my whole life, and talk with them about the trip. Someone mentioned the TV series "Northern Exposure" last night, and that little Alaskan town is a lot like Polish Hill. Quirky, inhabited by interesting people, a little isolated--even though we're in a medium-sized city. And speaking of Mark, he's got photos from Polish Hill, Vietnam, and much of the rest of the world on his Flickr site.

Monday, February 04, 2008

I'm going back!

I'm getting ready for my second trip to Vietnam with Friends of Danang. We depart on Friday, March 28, 2008. My cousin Gene is joining me on this trip. Gene's blog is here. He writes mostly about poker, but I have a feeling we'll both be doing a lot of writing on this trip.

Gene lost his uncle (my dad) in the Vietnam War, and earlier today I was talking to Shelby, the wife of my cousin Jim. Jim's dad is my dad's big brother, and Jim's mom served as a nurse in Vietnam. Shelby mentioned that Jim would be interested in going to Vietnam, except he couldn't put his mother through that. (And dad, too, I'm thinking.)

I debated that a great deal before I made the decision to go to Vietnam two years ago. I had no idea what it would do to my mom. I think she did okay with it, and I was able to stay in contact through this blog and through a midway-through-the-trip phone call. (Phone calls are difficult, with the 12-hour time difference, and expensive, something like a dollar a minute from the hotel.)

As for my going back, my mom and her fiance donated money for me to buy gifts for the children I'll see on this trip. They're a huge reason for my decision to return. There are other, more selfish reasons, as well, like the weather, and the food, and the shopping. And being able to go without a documentary crew following me around at least part of the time. Granted, they were great, but I felt like I was playing the role of "the daughter"--and I know I wasn't then, and never will be, representative of all of us daughters and sons who lost our dads in the war. We are just as different from each other as Vietnam veterans are from each other, all with our own stories, opinions and sometimes very raw emotions. And that's true not just of Americans but of the Vietnamese people as well.

This time, I'm going to be my sometimes goofy, sometimes serious self. I'm going to be Gene's cousin. (Hopefully I will behave better than I did back when we were sharing a playpen.) And I will still be "the daughter," one who is excited to know I'm going back to a place that, when I think back to being there before, seems like home.

This week a lot of the Vietnamese Americans I know are making the trip back to Vietnam for Tet, the lunar new year, a time to return home and spend time with their families, and to honor their ancestors. This also happens to be a difficult time of the year for my "little sister" Star, who started a blog of her own. You can read it here.

I hope some day Star, and my "little brother" Peter, might want to go to Vietnam with me. But even if that isn't a part of their journeys, I wish them the peace that I've somehow found--I still don't know exactly how it happened with me, but going to Vietnam definitely played a big role in it. (I think it was the children there.)