Paying Forward

January 22, 2019
Nguyen Minh Nguyet, PIVOT member

Last week, at the dinner table, my grandson, Hung, talked about his classroom fundraising for his school trip to Washington, DC in April. Hung is 13 years old, an 8th grader. His group of four close friends are all very excited about the project. They plan to sell baked goods. Ray's mom will help him make chocolate chip cookies, Marc plans to bring pies, and Sam's mom will make Japanese rice balls.

“What can we make, Papa?” asked Hung.

“What do you want to make? Oatmeal cookies? We can make a bunch of different things…”

“What about Vietnamese egg rolls?” I said. The idea of different culturally significant foods sounded good to me: Japanese rice balls, Vietnamese egg rolls...foods as diverse as the kids are, made for a trip to a place that is supposed to represent them all.

“I can help you make them,” I offered.

“Really, grandma? That'd be fantastic! People love egg rolls! And yours are so good! They'd sell out fast!”

So the next day, I headed to the grocery store. And the next, we started work from ten in the morning: washing, slicing and dicing the vegetables, seasoning the meat, peeling and mincing shrimp...all the prep work required to make the filling for the egg rolls. Since the mixture consisted of ground pork, shrimp, taro, onions, carrots, wood ears, jicamas, mung bean threads, and various seasonings, the prep work took the whole morning. In the afternoon, Hung's mom and his aunt came in to make the rolls. It took the three of them two hours to roll 150 egg rolls, and me three hours to fry them all. We made half regular with meat, and half vegetarian, since Berkeley people are very health conscious.

And today, on Martin Luther King Memorial Day, the four kids eagerly set up their booth at Berkeley Bowl West, selling their homemade baked goods for a good cause. They were not doing it for themselves, but to contribute to the school’s general fund to help the less fortunate students who otherwise could not afford the cost. They called their booth 14th amendment baked goods, wholeheartedly believing that economic disadvantage should not separate one group of students from the rest, or prevent those students from experiencing and receiving the same educational opportunities. The fundraising was their idea of equal protection for their classmates.

So even though the day's work was long and tiring, I felt good helping my grandson, helping him help others. It reminded me of the first few years of my own life in the U.S., when my family were newcomers, struggling to understand and adjust to the American ways of living, while trying to hold onto our ancestral, familial beliefs. We came from a war-torn Vietnam to rich, opulent America with nothing but the hope for a good education and a bright future for our children. We were destitute, having left with literally nothing but the clothes on our back, but we worked hard to keep our family together. All those projects at school, field trips, etc...we could not afford them. And the kids rarely asked to participate, knowing our financial situation. I remember my shame, my tears when I had to say no to any request for participation. But, for significant events that involved the entire class, their schools didn’t let them down. Teachers and fellow students joining efforts to raise funds for my kids to go. Without their help, my oldest daughter would not have experienced her first trip to France as part of a student exchange program. Without their help, my second daughter would not have made her first visit to Washington DC in the 11th grade, when she was selected for participation in a national leadership conference. And my third daughter, Hung’s own mother, went through a similar fundraising experience when she, too, got to go with her 8th grade class to Washington, D.C. These are just some of many more smaller instances that I cannot recall…

But what I will never forget is the result of it all. Over forty years ago, after the fall of Saigon, so many of us left our country, desperate for freedom. Had America not opened its arms for us, we would not have been able to rebuild our life. If we were denied the right to work, how would we feed our kids, how would we have a place to call home? My heart bleeds when I now see so many refugees being denied entry, refugees who fled their country the same way we did forty years ago, with the same hope for a bright future for their kids. And the ones that are already here: how could anyone think that it’s okay to take away public assistance from people new to the country? How would they survive? No mother should be afraid to use food stamps to feed her kids because she might get deported. That is just beyond cruel. It was the help we received in the first few years that was crucial to my own family’s surviving, then thriving, then contributing to this country.

And that is why I see this fundraising that my grandson is participating in as a good cause, well worth my efforts and sore back the next few days. By helping, we’re not just paying back what we’ve received. Watching how the kids are learning to protect and support each other, I realized that, by participating, we are truly paying it forward, for our kids, for their future and also our own.

Vietnamese version published in Viet Bao: