Khanh Ho is a featured columnist interested in documenting all things forgotten: the mental dust bunnies underneath the bookshelf of the mind. This essay is part of a series that explores the author’s religious background in the context of a larger conversation about spirituality—cultural, institutional, personal– in the diaspora.
To think about my Mormon identity, I would first have to think of how I became one. Like all questions that involve personal inventory, this can be painful. “Were you a Mormon in Vietnam or did this happen in America?” is the follow up question to my revelation–an innocent query that breaks my life into moments that I naturally think of in terms that are Biblical: the prelapsarian, that ideal moment before the Fall from Paradise; the postlapsarian, the world of clay, of toil, of suffering. This figure of speech has a certain felicity, because Vietnamese people already think of our life arcs in terms of a moment—an absolute marker of before and after–that we call a Fall.
I’ve never had a great response—a zinger—to deliver when asked the question of my religious origins. To be honest, I don’t really know exactly how I became a Mormon. I’m too afraid to ask. I guess it would be easy to ask my parents. But I don’t. What does this say about me?
If I were to take out the magnifying glass and play Sherlock Holmes, I would make certain deductions that are elementary. First off, I would say that without a doubt my folks were converted, that they were not at all Mormons in Vietnam. Why? Like so many first wave refugees who left in 1975 (the year that Saigon fell to the Communists) my father and my mother were people of high station, of consequence, of connection. Missionaries go after the powerless, the wretched of the earth. 1975 and the decade thereafter would have been the period we would have come closest to that status: cast out, reviled and naked before the world.
If we proceed from this assumption, then we must posit that this happened during the interlude when my family members were stateless refugees. My mother and father were separated for a short period—my father landed on Wake Island, my mother on Guam—but they reunited at Camp Pendleton. Camp Pendleton is a Marine base in Southern California and the entry point for over 50,000 Vietnamese who lived in tent cities for a period of six months, while they got acclimated to the United States.
There was a reason why a connection to the Mormons would prove a benefit. While all South Vietnamese were allowed to enter the country legally as allies who had fought against Communism, they were to be assigned sponsors—individual or organizational—that would help speed their integration into the United States. This was because, unlike other groups, Vietnamese were to be scattered throughout the rest of the country in unlikely spots—from Minnesota to Kansas, Virginia to Washington, Texas to Vermont—in order to avoid clumping.
The encounter that my family had with Mormonism is probably one that numerous Vietnamese experienced with that religion and others: Baptist, Episcopal, Methodist, Lutheran, Pentecostal and Catholic. The exact details of this encounter, though, is a mystery to me. I was too young to come fully into consciousness: my world, incoherent, a blur.
And so I have to rely on my own personal mythology: I imagine that there must have been two Mormon elders with white shirts and black slacks who came to our tent. Our trajectory would have matched their trajectory, the lineaments of which I could trace more clearly than my own: for the Mormon church was in the midst of the greatest expansion it had ever experienced, becoming a worldwide church–the fastest growing religion in the world. These young elders were fulfilling the two year mission, the rite of passage among all Mormon males.
In this sense, they were displaced people on a journey, just like us. If I were to imagine this event—this meeting—not as a degraded experience of two missionaries and a family of heathens but an exalted phenomenon, a rare occurrence, I might think of it as a singular event; by logic and by chance, two trajectories crossed–heavenly bodies in a void—pulling each other into each other’s orbit. Is it delusional to think that life should have that poetry?
Were you sponsored? Was it by a church? If so, was it a good experience?