Restless in Seattle

by Minh T. Nguyen

Author's note: "Chi" is a Vietnamese word that literally translates into "older sister". It is a word used to address an older female of your generation. "Em" is a Vietnamese word that literally translates into "younger brother/sister". It is used to address persons that are younger than you. Because both words are used very frequently, I have decided not to omit them in this essay.

When I moved to Seattle for my summer internship, I was stranded in an entirely new place. I did not know anyone. Unlike school, the internship gave me much free time in the evenings, and as a result, I wanted to quickly find ways to do community service and to meet people. Being Vietnamese and having mentored Vietnamese children back home, I knew I wanted to do something similar in Seattle. My search for such an organization led me to Helping Link and retrospectively, I wish that I would have found them right at the beginning of my summer, for Helping Link has created some very beautiful memories of Seattle for me. I was involved in their mentorship program for teenagers as well as their ESL tutoring program for newly immigrated Vietnamese.

I found the Helping Link organization through a website that provided volunteer-matching services. After a few emails and phone conversations, I met the program's coordinator, chi Minh Duc Nguyen, in her office one evening.

On the very first day that I met the Helping Link organization, I met some of the teenagers that happened to stop by to help chi Minh Duc with her immense paperwork. I remember the two inseparable Thuy Trang and Hai Chau, who bursted out in laughter while entering chi Minh Duc's office, and simply could not stop laughing although I was present in the office. This moment, as trivial as it might sound, was what made me recall how much I enjoy being around teenagers and children, and I could see clearly that there would be exciting months to come. By then I could already see that Helping Link promised much fun and refreshing laughter. After the initial introduction and paperwork, we agreed that I would be mentoring a teenage boy by the name of em Thanh.

Meeting with my mentee Thanh in the Seattle library was a little bit scary because I was concerned about whether or not em Thanh would learn to trust me or consider me a friend. Thanh turned out to be very mature for his age, always eager to learn, and he was very pleasant to work with. I think I was fortunate to have Thanh as my mentee, for I can remember having less-motivated children in my previous mentoring experiences. Thanh was very easy to talk to, despite my insufficient Vietnamese. Outside of our tutoring sessions, he was simply a very funny boy. We met about once a week, and we spent the sessions reading and writing English. At that time, the children of the program were working on a group project, assembling a website about the Vietnamese culture in Seattle. Thanh wrote about Vietnamese history. I must admit that it has been a very enriching experience working with Thanh, for he knew more about Vietnam than I did - how lucky I was to have learned so much from a younger person.

In addition to wanting to spend more time with Thanh, I wanted meet the other teenagers. Luckily, there was a Helping Link picnic that seemed a good opportunity to accomplish both endeavors. I was a little intimidated when I first drove down to the picnic but this quickly subsided once I arrived at the picnic. The teenagers were lively, playing games and having a barbecue by the time that I arrived, and they welcomed me in a way that I will not easily forget. With no hesitation to approach an elder, an ever-so-talkative mentee by the name of Quyen introduced herself to me with some twenty made-up names. I decided to remember her simply by her hairstyle. I assimilated quite quickly as I joined their games, and I even introduced some games that I remember from my mentorship program back home. Teenagers and children have this immense power to brighten up your life, as long as you are willing to let them approach you. I really enjoyed being around them that evening, and we quickly started to make plans for new events.

I started to love the kids, and I always looked forward to the activities that Helping Link had planned. Helping Link has given me an immense joy with these children-the kind of joy that makes you smile all of the time. Unfortunately, most of the activities that were scheduled were on weekdays, and a conflict with my work schedule did not permit me to join many of them. Yet, for all the activities that I was able to attend, I enjoyed them so much. I joined the children on several Karaoke and game nights at chi Quynh Giao's house. Chi Quynh Giao was the other main coordinator of Helping Link.

When the time came for me to leave Seattle, we were very sad. As a good-bye ritual, the kids all decided to run after me and pinch me-the price I pay for leaving them, I assume. I really have no idea where this ritual comes from, but the spontaneity is what I love so much in children.

I wish that I might soon visit them again. I hope that they have not forgotten me, for I have not and will not forget them and the fun we shared in my short little visit up there. I miss the "folks" very much, and I wish that I had participated in more activities, and that I had joined the group much earlier than I did.

In addition to providing mentorship for children, the organization provides free ESL tutoring for recently immigrated Vietnamese adults. Mentoring children is something that I have done for a long time, and I think I enjoy it because of the playfulness and happiness that children give me. However, it is through Helping Link that I have ventured to the other side of the generational bridge. One can imagine the difficulties that these adults face here in the United States.

I have never taught English to adults before, and I figured that I should give it a try, despite my insufficient Vietnamese. I expressed my interest to help the two current volunteers Sheryl and Dave with the weekly evening ESL sessions, and they welcomed my help immediately.

One thing that concerned me was whether the Vietnamese adults were offended by my age-that is, I wondered whether they were offended that they were being taught by someone at least ten years their junior. I am Vietnamese and I know the common Vietnamese customs. I knew that in addition to having to face the challenges of adapting to a new environment, they also had to face new customs and ways. I was afraid that they might have felt like they were being "lectured" to by a member of the younger Vietnamese generation-a scenario unacceptable in the Vietnamese tradition.

So, I did my very best to show them utmost respect, and I also wanted to make sure that they felt comfortable in asking me questions. However, I found my worries unnecessary, for they greatly welcomed having a Vietnamese person as a teacher in the first place, for Sheryl and Dave were not Vietnamese, and therefore, occasionally faced difficulties in explaining abstract English words and sentences. Having a teacher who spoke Vietnamese alleviated many of the communication obstacles. As it turned out, though, although I was able to help explain certain words, there were many questions that I myself could not answer because my Vietnamese vocabulary was not too expansive.

Tutoring took place in a bi-directional way. I taught English as best I could, and in turn, I also learned and improved my own Vietnamese. For instance, while I was teaching the different colors, I realized that the same Vietnamese word, vang, was used to describe both gold and yellow. I've never noticed that. Similar to my experience with em Thanh, I found that it was very uplifting to see these adults make use of newly acquired knowledge. I was quite impressed by one man who learned things so quickly and asked me many questions after class. I had made "friends" with members of the older generation, something that is not necessarily common in Vietnamese culture. We often joked and talked about cultural differences, and I felt very appreciated when I was called upon to help with problems outside of the class. Explaining the difference between a checking account and a savings account, how to catch connecting flights in a connecting city on their way to Little Saigon, how to make a library card, are a few aspects of common American life that I helped to elucidate for them, and I enjoyed doing so.

I enjoyed role-playing with the other tutor Dave in some everyday-scenarios, such as buying groceries at the supermarket. I enjoyed having them smile and laugh at jokes that Dave told, and I enjoyed seeing them exchange revelations they had about certain English words among each other in Vietnamese.

I hope that they have learned from me, and that they have enjoyed doing so on top of that. I hope that they have become more confident in approaching Westerners. On my last day of class, I assigned them to go to the supermarket and ask where they can find milk, because this was a scenario we practiced a gazillion times. I hope that they did.

I truly have very fond memories of the teenagers and the adults of Helping Link. Above all, I became a part of Seattle's Vietnamese community-and that's not just because I ate "pho" (the Vietnamese famous beef-noodle soup) at the various Vietnamese restaurants on Rainer Avenue and International Avenue. I came to realize just how involved I had become in the Vietnamese community when I unexpectedly bumped into one of my ESL "students" at the Vietnamese pagoda on Vu Lan, the Buddhist equivalent to the American Mother's Day. I have made friends up in Seattle, and I know that the first thing I will do the next time I am in town will be to visit them. May the grown-ups always find the milk (and more) and the kids never forget to carry it for them.