Failing to Practice True Charity, I Wish You Faith

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Tong Phuoc Phuoc Tam, 7, looks chubbier and yet exactly as beautiful as the last time I visited her in July this year. Her beauty reminds me of Love (with a capital “L”) and wickedly the 1.2 to 1.6 million abortions recorded throughout Vietnam each year.

An update on the child I adore and the Tong Phuoc Phuc Shelter

Phuoc Tam – as I’ve learned to love her just by the sound of her name – has lost two teeth, is in second grade and enjoys Mathematics lessons. Being an orphan in the sense that her birth parents abandoned her very early in life, Phuoc Tam still lives at the Tong Phuoc Phuc Shelter in Nha Trang—a coastal city so far from my home that I can’t afford to visit her as often as I wish.

Phuoc Tam has lost two teeth

Phuoc Tam has lost two teeth

The Shelter is fine and the kids’ conditions have improved a great deal, I heard. Since I came across Blush of Fruit (2012)—a film claimed to document the child abuses where Phuoc Tam lives—I haven’t been able to purchase a DVD or find a way to watch it. My emails to the documentary director have yielded no responses. I have no idea why he has dragged the film around the world, organized many screenings, received quite a few awards and yet shown it to no one in Vietnam.

Frankly, this is mental (which people with the mentality of a colonialist do a lot these days): The nearly two dozens of children at the Tong Phuoc Phuc Shelter, obviously the film’s subject, have never seen it. Tong Phuoc Phuc himself, accused of being an evil orphanage owner, has never seen it. The Vietnamese people, who are supposed to get involved and solve the problem right on their land, have never seen it.

Bearing both frustration and confusion, I consulted Catholic priest Joseph Le Quang Uy—a prominent figure among Saigon’s pro-life community members. At first I was upset because of his dry comment. “If you keep being skeptical and get trapped in investigating whether the shelter owner is good or evil, you’ll waste time helping no one,” Fr. Uy said.

“Here’s a tip,” he continued while my face lit up, “if the children feel at ease with the shelter owner, it should prove that he’s a good man. Kids don’t lie.” Somehow I became relieved; I’d seen the kids, including Phuoc Tam, give Mr. Phuc many kisses and hugs.

Mr. Phuc is still as determined as ever, when it comes to raising the children himself instead of having them adopted. If he let someone adopt—for example—Phuoc Tam, then one day when her birth mother wants to have her back, she wouldn’t have that chance. This idea, I’m very glad of, but it’s no easy task. Mr. Phuc has a new “hack” though, which he’s learned just recently, after ten years in the fight against abortion: If he succeeds in persuading the mother to breastfeed her baby for two months or more, she will likely bring the child home rather than abandon it.

Another update: Abortion

Five months ago, I learned that Vietnam is number one in Southeast Asia when it comes to abortion among minors. Now the country’s set a new record: It’s ranked first in Asia and fifth in the world for the number of abortions among both minors and adults.

A World Health Organization (May 2014) report estimates that each year in Vietnam, 40 percent of all pregnancies end up being terminated. According to Hanoi’s Central Obstetrics Hospital, of these abortions, up to two-thirds result reportedly from unwanted pregnancies. That means their mothers, fathers or who knows which connections, do not want them (!). That means the reason can be as simple as “too busy to raise a child” and has nothing to do with rape, incest, deformity or the health of the mother/fetus. That means 0.8 to 1.2 million Vietnamese babies are murdered each year for the mere reason that their supposedly loved ones think they’re unworthy of life.

First, it’s lame.

Second, it’s evil.

But throughout the country—believe it or not—the Tong Phuoc Phuc Shelter is the only non-State actor (thus the full name Cơ Sở Bảo Trợ Xã Hội Ngoài Công Lập Tống Phước Phúc) allowed to have some sort of organized work against abortion, including burying aborted fetuses, sheltering expectant mothers who are neglected by their families and of course raising unwanted and fantastic kids like Phuoc Tam.

Why this dumb situation? A reason is that Catholics are the most steadfast, among all Vietnamese populations that ever have a collective name, in combating abortion and yet—poor you Vietnam—they’re also a source of concern for the Party-State. It’s okay for individuals to do good here and there. But if you uphold a religious value, live in Vietnam and want to come together to do good? Forget it.

After over two decades of straight economic growth, Vietnam is pretty much stuck at the poverty rate of 17.2 percent (even at national poverty lines, as reported by the World Bank in 2012). Poor country, it is, definitely. But at least it has more than enough rice to feed some 90 million Vietnamese. A more rooted form of poverty is poverty of debate. Every default the law professes—even when it’s been written by a legislative body that has nothing other than a name and tangles with a downright corrupt government as well as a bleak judicial branch—we must obey. Whatever they say, we must hold as truth even though they’re too atheistic to be God and too confident to care if truth matters at all.

Soon the Vietnamese National Assembly will pass a law on population, replacing the 2003 Population Ordinance, just to confirm that abortion is legal and also legal when the pregnancy is up to 22 weeks old. That is, it’s fine to kill a human being 5.5 months old in case you simply don’t want him/her. Or is it because poverty is a crime? Aren’t we so poor that our right to debate is taken away? Let’s have the rich do the talking, take care of the superstructure and give us whatever they claim to be self-righteous, shall we? To abort or not to abort—we’re the infrastructure and therefore that’s not our question.

May the meaning of Charity not be corrupt

This week I touched base with Phuoc Tam, although only through a friend. In missing her and wanting to do something fun for her Christmas, I relapsed to the feeling of guilt. I wasn’t miserable, however, for I’ve come to accept that nobody is perfect and only God is.

Is it legitimate to love Phuoc Tam, who I’ve met in person only once? Mom has never protested in words, yet I know if I’d given what I spent on gifts for the girl to my relatives, Mom would be much happier. I don’t relate to any particular relatives and wouldn’t want to do anything for them, which is a shame. At the same time though, why must it always be that “charity begins at home”? Why don’t we instead reach beyond our family and show solidarity with a needy stranger? For this, I have a reason to spoil the little child, whose birth mother is in hiding.

What doesn’t seem right, still, is that I paid all my attention to Phuoc Tam while the other 17 kids at the Tong Phuoc Phuc Shelter share the same plight. What is even a bit wrong is that I only care for her in my free time and with my disposable income. It looks like giving others someone’s leftovers and that is by no means the Charity (with a capital “C”) taught by Jesus.

These days the meaning of charity has been distorted, so much so that it has come to describe the act of giving away material goods. It has even been contrasted with “philanthropy” and “social investment” all in an imaginary battle against things old-fashioned, stupid, unsustainable, unprofitable—you name it. We’re free to choose our word use, but need not downgrade charity, especially when Charity is a virtue at the very heart of the Catholic foundation. The Latin root of “Charity” is “Caritas,” which connotes a form of divine love infused into the soul urging it to make a commitment to doing good for others. In certain circumstances, Charity requires self-sacrifice, like Jesus dying on the Cross for the salvation of man.

I’m too human and have way too many shortfalls to earn the virtue of Charity the way Jesus preached and practiced it. Nonetheless, as I’m learning to choose reason over emotion, duty over inclination, and universalism over relativism, I hope people will stop the hype and take Charity for what God meant it to be.

If we really love someone, we’d better give them Faith

True Charity—I’m not yet qualified for it. In thinking how I could make up for my mundane act of giving Phuoc Tam just presents, I sent her what I expected to enrich her Faith.

Faith

Have Faith

Like Charity, Faith is a theological virtue. Moving forward, as long as I’m alive, I hold it ultimately true that if I love someone, I’d better help them find Faith. Okay to believe generally in goodness, but the best gift I believe one can ever send others is the Faith in a supreme, divine being who reigns over us.

All my life I’d invested heavily in my intellect, which came to the best fruition when a friend called me by my right name (although I’d never heard it before): “Daughter of God”.

I thus hope, the people I hold dearest to my heart will realize, if they haven’t, that they are all Children of God.

What Is Good about Killing and Saving Babies?

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I met Phuoc Tam in Khanh Hoa on Friday last week, when she was playing with her peers. Somewhat influenced by a friend of mine who had told me about this seven-year-old kid, I thought Phuoc Tam is a real angel – cute, shy, beautiful and smiling. The three hours spent with her and the other girls and boys at the Phuoc Phuc Shelter at 56/3 Phuong Sai, Nha Trang City was insanely happy, something I’d never expected to see and something that contrasted with the dream I’d had the day before.

Phuoc Tam smiling

Phuoc Tam smiling!

Haunting Dream

The night prior to visiting the Phuoc Phuc Shelter, I didn’t mean to think much about what I would learn. “Let’s go in with no expectations,” I told myself. The trick is no one can lie to their subconscious.

In a dream, I saw myself speaking with Mr. Phuc, who established the shelter where Phuoc Tam is staying. Before I was allowed to speak to him, however, I was asked by an old man to “kneel down and pray to God desperately” so that He could hear me. Then came Mr. Phuc – gray-haired and sick.

In the middle of our conversation, a kid ran to me and her appearance scared me to death. She had small tumors all over her body, especially the head, where there was no hair whatsoever. Trying to be calm, I reassured her that good things would come and she would be fine.

Another kid joined us. Then two, three, and several more with similar tumor conditions. I ran away panicking, feeling threatened, sad, guilty and hopeless all at the same time. I screamed quietly and woke up at about three o’clock after midnight.

Reality #1: Fantastic Kids

When I arrived at the shelter, the first impression was “How can there be so many beautiful kids in the same place?”

Mr. Phuc, who has no birth relationships with the 11 girls and six boys here and who they call “Daddy,” was preparing for the kids to have a shower before the dinner. I was afraid my presence would disrupt their routine, but was instead welcomed with Five Little Ducks – a song I could sing a long, some kisses and an overwhelming scene of kids running around and sitting on my lap. I still couldn’t stop asking myself, “How come they’re so lovely?”

Although I’d brought a big box of milk for everyone, I had a few dolls for only Phuoc Tam. Stupid was that I didn’t anticipate Phuoc Tam’s peers wanting to have the same things. Khanh Tam cried. An Tam wanted to have a “big doll.” Toan Tam asked me where I’d bought the toys. The girls in Mr. Phuc’s care are all named “Tam” – only their middle names are different. The boys, sharing the same first name of “Vinh,” were funnily aggressive, “Where are my Power Rangers?” Ignoring the literature about orphans trained to be cute and skillfully ask for material donations, I went to the market as an act of self-gratification and did what I’d always deemed superficial, i.e. buying a bunch of playthings for each and every of the little darlings I’d known for less than an hour. And Phuoc Tam is such a nice kid – she shared what she had with her peers before helping me to distribute the newly-bought dolls and Power Rangers.

The oldest of Mr. Phuc’s adopted kids is ten, so they – girls and boys alike – are equally into the world of toys. But when they get older, Mr. Phuc said, he will probably need to, “separate them into different houses – females in one and males in another.”

“How about money? Have you found enough funding to do that?”

“I’ve been thinking about it,” said Mr. Phuc.

Abortion

Mrs. Tu, one of Mr. Phuc’s siblings who had helped him begin the journey of fighting against abortion back in 2004, asked if I would want to visit the cemetery where they bury unborn babies – the fetuses collected from many hospitals in Khanh Hoa. It was already late in the evening, so I said No.

Although I’m not a practicing Catholic, I’ve always been inclined to love and feel comfortable with everything Catholic, including the religion’s teachings, ideals and principles. When I saw Phuoc Tam and her non-birth siblings sitting in front of an altar and saying their prayers before they went to bed – knowing that they may not have been born without Mr. Phuc taking care of their abandoned mothers – there was a miracle of joy.

For many days in a row, I kept coming back to this joy – already ultimate and yet getting elevated with more thoughts. I stretched my thinking to come up with ways to rightfully praise Mr. Phuc and his effort against abortion.

Perhaps because abortion is legal in Vietnam and due to the puzzling societal deterioration brought about by the “market economy with socialist orientations,” Vietnam – as of this year – is “among the top five countries in the world and ranks first in Southeast Asia in terms of abortion in minors, with 300,000 cases per year on average.” It’s fashionable these days to advocate choice, self-determination and all those trendy concepts in our century of the Self, but I’m downright pro-life, even if this position would risk me losing many people I call friends. Two months ago, a girl told me that giving someone the option of abortion is respecting her right, her individual liberty. But how about the right of the baby? The moment a woman is pregnant, it’s already a human being inside her womb. Putting the right of a woman above that of a baby – isn’t it crazily selfish, especially when the tiny human being has no capacity whatsoever to defend herself/himself?

And so I wished I would be able to do something to contribute to Mr. Phuc’s cause. I rationalized to make him my hero. I admired his initiative of civil society – a truly organic one. I compared his rather spontaneous enterprise with the world of professionalized Non-Governmental Organizations in which I live, accordingly concluding that Mr. Phuc’s civil society was more real than the majority of Vietnam’s civil society organizations existing to absorb foreign money and materialize international donors’ agenda. I thought I would suggest Mr. Phuc to set up a weekly English class for his adopted kids, give them a competitive edge early in life and lead them to a range of scholarships before their studies might become a burden to him and a stress to themselves.

Reality #2: “Blush of Fruit”

All the Is and wonderful good things that a person usually impressed by ideals and typically inclined to rationalize all things big and small to make her beliefs appear logical could think of – they came to a dramatic end when I discovered http://www.BlushofFruit.com.

Blush of Fruit (2012) is a documentary about how (1) the mothers are forced to work in order to stay at the Phuoc Phuc Shelter, (2) the kids are abused and (3) Mr. Phuc has run the shelter as a business and made a fortune for himself.

Because I’d been so much in love with the kids, especially the gorgeous Phuoc Tam, the imagined hero Phuc that actually works towards the ideal I follow and my own rationalizations, I became devastated. In the documentary trailer, I can see a younger version of my angel Phuoc Tam. On the About page of the website, I can see my dear Phuoc Tam crying, probably after being beaten by one of the shelter’s nannies.

Phuoc Tam crying

Phuoc Tam cried…

The website, with a documentary I haven’t watched and yet really want to, says, “In ten years, he has amassed three farms, six houses and a car. The money raised are [sic] from the children’s visitors.” It portrays Mr. Phuc as a gangster/devil making profits out of the adopted kids, as well as the Catholic/pro-choice trademark, which is totally different from what Mrs. Tu told me, “We raise the kids instead of having them adopted elsewhere. We don’t want to be seen as a business selling babies.” Mr. Phuc himself said the children are not up for adoption, since he wants to keep them and nurtures even the slightest chance of them getting reunited with their birth mothers, who used to consider abortion.

I haven’t made up my mind about the true story of Mr. Phuc’s shelter yet. I’m trying to be skeptical, rational and logical the way I always wish myself to be, although there’s always a tendency to turn to rationalization. I love the kids regardless, love them when the visuals of Blush of Fruit are so heartbreaking.

Between 2 May and 2 June: This Sino-Vietnamese flirtation caused me headache

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Mom recently asked me whether there would be a war between China and Vietnam, given the heightened tension between the two countries over South China Sea issues. I was so tired of justifying my position that I in short told Mom my conclusion, “You should be worried about not having a war, not not having a war.”

For many days in a row, I had to eat dinner while hearing Mom cite the Vietnamese Prime Minister’s text messages, those probably sent to every single mobile-phone subscriber in the country. They all said different sorts of the same thing: Keep calm and don’t rebel against China. She didn’t know she was adding too much noise to the already-jammed head of mine.

What was the fuss with China and Vietnam? These moments between 2 May and 2 June

The following nouns sum up what it was all about: (1) Rig, (2) Protest, and (3) Violence.

On 2 May, China placed HD-981, a $1 billion oil rig, in Block 143 of the South China Sea. The block is about 120 miles from Vietnam’s Central Coast and considered by the Vietnamese government to be inside Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone, whereas China calls this spot its own territory.

Who’s right? I don’t know. Isn’t it funny I’m a Vietnamese and I don’t believe that Block 143 belongs to Vietnam? There’s nothing simple about this story though. I have neither the historical nor legal knowledge to shout out to the world that the Paracel islands, close to the mentioned block, are Vietnam’s possession. What I know for a fact is that China, by force, took the Paracels from South Vietnam in 1974. I believe it’s waters in dispute. So, China, wasn’t it wrong to camp on a disputed land and to claim that it was your thing?

At first the Chinese oil rig was “protected” by 80 ships and it was later joined by at least 120 ships in an effort to stay firm in Block 143 and confront Vietnam’s Coast Guard vessels. Deliberately rammed were the vessels of Vietnam.

Whose child is this_A Vietnamese boat

Whose child is this? A Vietnamese boat

China declared that it would only remove the oil rig in mid-August – the start of typhoon season. Vietnam was just as firm, having repeatedly called on China to get out of the disputed waters.

Was the Chinese move – rather sudden – a slap in the face of the so-called comprehensive and strategic partnership between China and Vietnam? Since late 2013, despite the Vietnamese people’s worries and those of international observers, the two countries had been talking about joint resource development in the South China Sea. Until early May when the HD-981 rig was towed.

“Don’t worry, Vietnam. There’s no dispute between us,” said China. “Let’s have a dispute. I want one,” responded Vietnam. This seemed to be the conversation between the two Communist nations. To China, the Paracels are already part of its sovereignty and there’s no way China will recognize it as a dispute. This is the first time I’ve understood why a Vietnamese-American professor – with jaw-dropping confidence – told me last November that it would be good to have a dispute. His confidence probably didn’t come from the all-proud attitude of someone living in New York, but from the fact that “when the waters is recognized as a dispute, there’s a legitimate possibility that it belongs to Vietnam.”

The tension in the South China Sea quickly made its way to the streets of Vietnam, where, in an unprecedented move, the Vietnamese authority allowed for anti-China protests on 11 May 2014 and even embedded its very own power – kids mobilized and hired from the Youth Union – in the first wave of protests in the capital city Hanoi and economic hub Saigon.

Soon the anti-China sentiment was felt in many more parts of Vietnam and the heat of street action hit a total of 22 provinces from North to South. Hanoi and Saigon lighted the torch but it wasn’t these two cities that received the most international press coverage. Rather, the spotlight was quickly given to Binh Duong and Dong Nai – Southeast region of Vietnam – on 13 May, when huge numbers of workers and protesters vandalized, burned and looted many China-related factories. Vietnam’s media attention the next day, on 14 May, was shifted up North to the province of Ha Tinh, where serious riots took place amidst the “f-ck you China” thought hovering in the Vietnamese collective consciousness.

Together, the two-day violence made at least 200 people wounded. There were also deaths, whose number went from one to two, as the Vietnamese government reluctantly confirmed. International news agencies, nonetheless, reported much heavier casualties – some said 4 while others 16 or 21. Of the people involved in the riots, some 1,000 were arrested. At least 400 companies throughout Vietnam were directly damaged and 1,100 others forced to shut down.

The Sunday of 18 May saw the majority of protests, in Northern and Southern Vietnam alike, being suppressed by the police and other local security forces. The Sunday of 25 May in Saigon was quiet. There were no protests anywhere in the city then. In fact we’d already known there would be no more protests. “The Party-State had taken care of everything and will continue to do so,” according to a friend of mine who came out of a meeting with the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam the day before.

The rig. “The why” of China’s actions?

Here in an aggregation of what I’d read, which is, at best an educated guess about why China brought HD-981 into the South China Sea causing a seen rupture in Sino-Vietnamese relations. The reasons I’m going to report can be understood as targeting different audiences.

As for China and the Chinese, they may have simply believed that Block 143 was their very own territory and so they could go there drilling for oil anytime. We don’t know how strong this belief was inside China and how widely it was held; what we do know, though, is that the Chinese government has an ambitious claim, saying that up to 80-90 percent of the South China Sea belongs to their nation.

Second, the Communist Party of China probably wanted to show the Chinese people that they could get whatever they wanted and that the Party is an invincible leadership, which is very important to the legitimacy of its political monopoly.

Third, it could be just another activity in China’s quest for resources (oil in this case) to accommodate its large and aging population, as well as the rising not-so-peaceful Chinese Dream.

Fourth – and this is a bit too clever – the Chinese leadership was trying to divert the world’s attention to something controversial on the surface, i.e. the drilling near Vietnam’s Central Coast undertaken by the China National Offshore Oil Corporation. The real important thing, whereas, was John Reef, where Chinese forces were engaged in a large-scale civil engineering project and with which China wanted no one to interfere. Why? Because some good comrades from China and Vietnam had already struck more than enough publicity over the reef in 1988. World, please be quiet for China to implement its perfect plan!

Next, the Chinese move in Block 143 could have been interpreted as a message for both the US and Vietnam, who are respectively cheering ExxonMobil and PetroVietnam amidst their joint project of Ca Voi Xanh—a huge gas field in Vietnam’s sea blocks numbered 117, 118 and 119. Was it a Chinese gesture to deter Vietnam and the US from exploiting resources in more parts of the South China Sea? We have to put it as a question.

To the so-called international community, HD-981 was probably a test for the Obama administration and ASEAN. Starting the operation of the oil rig very soon after Obama’s eight-day visit to Asia, China may have been intent on challenging the US’s “pivot to Asia” and making Obama appear like a “tiger paper” – all useless in Asian crises.

As for ASEAN, I find it tempting to reason that China just again applied the divide-and-rule strategy, something as old as the earth. We actually saw that, two years ago, the Chinese leadership divided ASEAN into pro-China and anti-China factions, the former of which ruled spectacularly. Because China had bought the leadership of Cambodia—who served as the host of the first ASEAN summit in 2012, Phnom Penh failed to issue any communiqué on how to deal with China’s claims on disputed waters in the South China Sea, which was a concern among many ASEAN countries—including of course Vietnam. The problem is China didn’t succeed in influencing Myanmar, the chair of ASEAN this year. China must have gone mad, instead of laughing, when on 10 May in Nay Pyi Taw, ASEAN reached an agreement on the developments in the South China Sea, expressing “serious concerns” over the area’s increased tensions, though the name “China” was never mentioned in their joint statement.

Now speaking of Vietnam, why China staged a blunt presence (remember that it was not just a $1 billion drilling machine, but an oil rig now looked after by 120+ ships) out in the sea is rather sophisticated. The first layer of sophistication says that a commercial exploration activity in Block 143 would confirm China’s ownership of the area. It’s like saying the more you use something, the more you’re entitled to declare it’s your stuff.

The second layer of sophistication decodes China’s intention as testing how well the Vietnamese Communist Party could endure using hedging as a foreign policy, which means promoting cooperation and at the same time taking advantage of competitive elements to prepare a nation against a partner’s security threats. Vietnam and China had been in this love-and-hate relationship for so long that China now had to ask how much longer they could call each other ideological brothers/comrades. Vietnam’s hedging strategy towards China had been in place for at least two reasons: (1) Vietnam couldn’t afford to confront its big neighbor despite the two countries’ historical animosity, and (2) the ultimate leadership of Vietnam, i.e. the Vietnamese Communist Party, was in a strained relation between the pro-West and pro-China camps, the latter of which – many suspect – had been better-fed and thus outweighed the other.

The third and last layer of sophistication – as far as the crushed nerves of mine can bear – says that China was a master of drama: It staged the gigantic rig at sea either in anticipation of anti-China violence in Vietnam or as a lead towards engineering a series of riots in Ha Tinh, Binh Duong and Dong Nai – all in an effort to kill Vietnam’s possible Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The logic? To tell the Vietnamese government that the little country shouldn’t join TPP or else unmanageable, US-style labor strikes would just become a Vietnamese way of life.

Even though this blog post is a reflection of only the 2 May – 2 June period, something that clearly belongs to the past, I should have added a question mark at the end of every sentence above.

 

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