Christmas in HCMC
I’m sitting on a dirt covered tile floor at a tiny orphanage surrounded by a small group of barefooted children, all boys. It’s late morning on Christmas eve in Ho Chi MInh City but the heat is already beginning to kick in. I can feel a pool of sweat in the small of my back. When I take off my hat to wipe my forehead I can see that my audience is transfixed by the mess of very short, very bleached hair I’m sporting these days. Their deep brown eyes shift to the top of my head, virtually in unison. They smile, giggle. I’m as unfamiliar as a two-headed alien that just landed her spaceship and sat down in their midst.
Sang, my motorbike driver/guide/translator stands nearby. He is leaning on his “breadmaker” and grinning at me as he smokes a hand rolled cigarette. “Can you find an orphanage for me?” He is on a mission from me.
I've sought them out with a stash of coconut candy in my backpack and a digital camera over my shoulder. Long, twisting alleyways led us to this spot on this warm day.
My audience includes a young mother and her child who happened to be nearby when I arrived. They have decided to sit three feet from me so they can get a really good look. All of them are waiting to see what I will do. I work on my own piece of candy and return the smile, buying time.
They continue to stare, silently chewing the candy I have handed out. I can understand their reaction, but I still don’t know what to do about it. I'm stage struck.
In Los Angeles, I am a teacher of both children and adults. I spend my days going from class to class delivering art lessons and conferring with other teachers. I am never at a loss for words. Today is different. I am tongue tied.
Finally, I look to the teacher. She is standing to the side, waiting for a cue from me. “Can we sing some songs?”, I ask. She nods, relieved to give the boys some instruction. The children beam when they hear her request and they break into song. It’s a Christmas song. In English.
My initial reaction is disbelief but I soon recover and join in. ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ we sing. Everyone is beaming now, including the mother and child. Incredibly, they scoot even closer. The toddler’s foot is resting against my right leg.
Such a small effort on my part creates this moment of spontaneity, love, joy, song. Add some local coconut candy and this holiday is special, unique. So easy to share. The boys have a glimpse that their alleyway is not a dead end. It’s a road that leads to anywhere and anyone.