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Starting Point

With love, even a hot dog helps


Her name was Chi. She was a “boat” person who fled her native Vietnam when that country swiftly altered course in the mid 1970s. She and her husband and three children came to live in the rectory of the parish where I was then assigned, in northern New Jersey.

Her husband’s name was Joe. He had an advanced degree in chemistry. Their children were small, and Chi was pregnant. She cooked for the priests, and Joe took care of the grounds.

Everything American was new and, looking back, frightening to them. So many things that the average American takes for granted hit Joe and Chi all at once. Our language, customs, dress, culinary tastes and social comportment were totally new, strange and painful. Whereas they had successfully negotiated a treacherous sea with an unsure boat and future, their safe arrival in the United States thrust them into a different sea, and they experienced the massive vertigo of the loss of all that was familiar. They were suffering from an overload of the new.

Chi sat at the kitchen table every morning with a modest pile of books -- English/Vietnamese dictionaries, grammar books and guide books to American culture printed in Vietnamese. I would stop in every morning and say hello, and she would smile at me and try out new words. She beamed when she knew she made the connection between an English word and a Vietnamese word. She would frown, smile, look at the books, thumb through the pages and word-by-word begin to unravel English.

One day she heard from someone that hot dogs were a favorite American meal. She asked me in the morning if I liked them and I said yes.

“Everyone like?” she asked again, and knowing that the other priests liked them, I smiled and told her yes.

Lunchtime came, and I could see her through the kitchen door, smiling and checking the oven. After a few minutes she brought in a platter of little hot dogs, the hors d’oeuvre kind. There must have been at least a hundred of them. Chi smiled, placed the platter on the table and stepped back, checking the faces of the priests and in particular the pastor. Her eyes read faces like a blind person’s fingers read Braille.

The pastor frowned. The rest of us -- there were four in those days -- smiled in encouragement to Chi, but it was too late. I will never forget her look of pain and anguish. She held her hands to her face, started to cry and ran back into the kitchen. The pastor said something stupid to us, a comment meant to brush off the whole incident.

I got up and went into the kitchen, and Chi was sitting at the table crying and pointing to a picture of hot dogs she had found in an American glossy magazine. I tried my best to tell her it was all right, that they were good, that we ate such things all the time, but I sensed that the hot dog incident was the proverbial straw that (momentarily) broke the camel’s back.

She needed to cry, and perhaps some of the ugliness of seas that she never wanted to sail poured from her eyes and her heart. I hugged her and hoped she understood that everything would be good again and OK.

Months passed, and Chi and Joe came to find a comfort and ease with the American way of life. I could tell that a world that they so wanted was coming to them, its access made possible through many kind people and an ever-growing use of English. Chi smiled more and became more herself. She gave birth to a baby boy, who would be in his early 20s now. Not long ago I asked about them and was told that they opened a business of their own and have prospered and are happy.

How secure things seem when we assume that we know our world, know who we are and who are neighbors are. Such a world is smooth sailing all the way.

But I think that beneath each and every human face there is a seeking, unsure self. Comportment keeps us smiling and chatting, agreeing as best we can as to a mutually “assured” and taken for granted world.

In Chi’s anguished face and her tears, I saw something of myself, something of everyone, something of the whole world. We want to do good, be good, learn the good. But all we really have are little hot dogs. But with time, patience, love and a hug when our platters are not quite right, even little hot dogs go a long, long way.

Trappist Fr. James Stephen Behrens lives at Holy Spirit Monastery in Conyers, Ga.

National Catholic Reporter, January 28, 2000