A Matter of Faith: The immigrant and the squeezebox


By Joyce Holdread
Special to The PREVIEW
Nguyen Da Minh sat amidst his Vietnamese classmates, his head inclined downward, shoulders slumped, gaze listless. It was obvious to me he didn’t want to be there, but his sponsor and the parish priest had encouraged him to attend the free English classes at the local community college. He had only been in the United States for three months.
This was my first ESL (English as a second language) class. All the students had recently arrived from Vietnam and were adjusting to life in a totally foreign situation. Many had lost everything and some had barely gotten out of Vietnam with their families intact. Da Minh had escaped with no family, but with vivid memories of horrific events he had witnessed. His despondency was palpable and I longed to do something to help him connect with this new reality. The other students were struggling, but slowly gaining a basic proficiency in their new language. Da Minh sat and stared, sometimes on the verge of total breakdown. Any effort to form new words resulted in a tongue so tangled or taut he could emit only syllabic gasps of nothingness.
“Oh Lord,” I prayed, “please show me something I can do to help him.”
Not long afterward, a colleague told me she had learned from the parish priest that Da Minh played the accordion for Mass in Vietnam and that this was something he sorely missed. Now, I had a plan.
“God, I’m just a poor student, barely able to support myself, but you have deep pockets, so I’m asking you for an accordion. Music can be so healing … and it’s non-verbal.”
One night at dinner, I shared my concern for Da Minh with Len and Pat, the couple from whom I was renting a room. Pat was a Meals on Wheels deliverer in the local community and had been taking midday meals to a retired accordion teacher.
“I’ll ask Henrietta if she might have an extra accordion she wouldn’t mind parting with. She doesn’t teach any longer, so she may.” My host mom winked in our new conspiracy.
A few days later, I came in the back door and spied a beautiful accordion perched on the kitchen table. I looked in wonder at Pat.
“Henrietta had this extra accordion and she doesn’t want anything for it.” Pat smiled, bright as the sun’s rays streaming through the window.
I lugged the squeezebox to school the next day, but had to leave it in the ESL office before I rushed off to biology class. I asked my colleague to make sure that Da Minh got it before he left that afternoon. When I inquired later, she told me a classmate had helped him understand that the accordion was for him. He left with a look of astonishment and the slightest upward stretch of his mouth.
A small miracle, but for Da Minh, a tender sign of God’s love, and for me, a big building block in the edifice of my faith.