In case you haven't noticed, 1) I love to read, 2) I love history, and 3) I'm fascinated by other cultures. Woven throughout the fabric of this threefold passion is also a love for unique cultural/historical words. When I find one, I commit to learning it and working it into my own philosophy of life (e.g. how I view God, the world, humanity, and my place within it all). Doing so makes it easier to enact positive change within my own life, instead of simply hoping for eventual change.
One of the recent words I stumbled across is "Quan Am." Quan Am is an ancient Vietnamese word that traces its roots back to a popular folktale found in many Eastern cultures. In fact, its fame is so great that there's even a seventy-five foot statue of the word's namesake in Houston, Texas, where a large community of Vietnamese immigrants live.
In a nutshell, Quan Am Thi Kinh was a young Vietnamese woman who was falsely accused by her in-laws of attempting to murder her husband. Knowing she had done no wrong, Quan Am refused to beg for forgiveness. Instead, she suffered the disgrace of divorce by quietly leaving town on her own accord. After a few days of wandering in solitude, she happened upon a temple. As a young girl, Quan Am's dream had been to study, serve, and worship in a temple. The only problem? Women were forbidden from doing so. That day, while listening to the temple's abbot teach from afar, Quan Am realized she had nothing left to lose. The outcast quietly concealed her identity and enrolled as a (male) monk.
About a year after arriving, Quan Am became the object of a female villager's infatuation. A few months later, the same villager falsely accused Quan Am of being the father of the child she was carrying. Although Quan Am emphatically denied the accusation, she refused to humiliate her accuser any further. Making matters worse, Quan Am's accuser soon abandoned the newborn baby on the monastery footsteps once she had given birth.
Adding to the confusion of the entire monastery, Quan Am - in an act of compassion and empathy - decided to raise the abandoned boy as her own. What followed was an outcry for reason and clarity. Why would Quan Am willingly take on such a heavy burden, especially after strenuously denying her guilt in the matter? "The merit of building an elaborate temple nine stories high," she argued, "cannot compare to that of saving the life of one person." Eventually her fellow monks backed down, but not before casting a shadow of suspicion over Quan Am that would never dissipate.
Eight years later, Quan Am passed away. It didn't take long for the temple and nearby villagers to learn her shocking secret: Quan Am was, in fact, a woman and not a man. Everyone was amazed at her selfless love- a love that bravely withstood false accusations, gossip, finger-pointing, a brutal beating in the street, loneliness, and years of misunderstanding. Because of Quan Am's radical love for the helpless child and the humility she endured while under pressure to save her own skin, her dying wish was granted by the temple's abbot: that an all-female monastery would be built in Vietnam so that all women could worship and serve without prejudice.
Today, if you were to hear the word Quan Am in a sentence, do you know what it would mean? "To observe or listen deeply to the cries of the world." Or, as peace activist, monk, and author Thich Nhat Hanh has said, Quan Am is "the capacity to listen to the suffering of people, to understand, and to find those people in pain and help them."
Wow. Pause for a moment, reread the definition, and let it soak in. Beautiful, is it not?
Perhaps you can understand why Quan Am is a word worth adding to your own philosophy of life. Can you picture what your community would look like if more people listened to and understood the suffering of their neighbors and acted on it? Or if you and I made it our mission to find people in need and lend them a hand regardless of how others viewed us?
Can you imagine a city - even a street, church, or organization - with a purpose like that? I'll tell you what you would find:
A city of walking hospitals. A place where the lonely, afraid, damaged, abused, neglected, and alone are welcomed with selfless love. A land where gossip has no power, loneliness has no weight, false accusations have no merit. It's a street where neighbors love each neighbor. A church where orphans are cared for, widows are looked after, and foreigners are accepted.
A nation whose name means compassion.
Does your city, church, or street love like that? Do you wish it would?
We have the capacity and the means to make it happen. Are you willing to say yes?
"He defends the cause of the orphan and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing."
If you were to close your eyes, could you picture the face of your neighbor?
I'll be honest. I've been trying really hard to revamp my identity as a neighbor. I even started the year in a constructive way- by reading a handful of books about community, hospitality, and what it looks like to love and serve within a neighborhood. As an introvert, each book was challenging and highly convicting. While none of the books offered a way to measure one's neighborliness, I knew that I was sorely lacking in that area. For although I may have been close to my immediate neighbors, the same could not be said for those living two or three houses down. If we happened to run into each other at the store, would I even recognize them? Sadly, my answer was no.
Now that we've moved to a new house in a new neighborhood, I figured there's no better time to implement some much-needed changes in my life. I began by asking myself some very pointed questions: "How do I become a better neighbor?" "How do I love others with sincerity?" One of the most intriguing questions that came to mind was, "In a perfect world, which neighbor from my past would I choose to model myself after?"
It didn't take long to find my answer. His name was Piyup (PIE-yup) but I called him Siopao (show-POW). Back when my wife and I lived in Thailand, Siopao was a teacher at a rural school I also taught at. After school he'd transition from teacher to chef and work on his siopao side business (Don't know what siopao is? It's a steamed bun filled with meat or another kind of filling that's melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Think of it as an Asian calzone or kolache, but soft instead of flaky. You can buy frozen ones at your local Asian market).
Siopao was famous in the town he lived in. Not only was he a beloved teacher and famous chef, but he couldn't walk ten feet without running into someone he knew and loved. Every encounter in the street delayed his progress. Each conversation turned a five minute errand into a twenty minute one. I always wondered if the interruptions ever became frustrating for him because you'd never know it just by looking at him. Siopao always had a smile on his face and was never in too much of a hurry that he couldn't give you a few minutes of time before sending you on your way with a kind word and a bag of freshly steamed siopao.
Lucky for me, Siopao took an interest in my life a few weeks after I came on board as an English teacher. While eating lunch and holding a conversation with another teacher, he spoke to me from across the room. A few long-distance questions and answers later, and soon enough he switched seats to take the one directly across from me. He was fascinated that a foreigner would come all the way to a rural village in Thailand to teach and excited that he could now work on his English skills with a native speaker.
The first time my wife met Siopao was on a very special occasion. He asked us over for lunch one weekend and, of course, we graciously accepted. The meal was exquisite and something like seven courses. Each time I thought the last dish had been brought out, Siopao's wife returned with more. In my forty-one years on earth, I've never been treated like such an honored guest as we were at that meal?and that includes my own wedding!
Towards the end of the meal, Siopao asked if we had yet to explore the historic sites around the region. Having only been in Thailand for two or three months, we said no. Siopao then took it as his personal mission to take us to as many as possible over the next two years- not just the touristy hot spots, but the oft-overlooked landmarks that held special significance for Thais. On each adventure, Siopao served as our personal tour guide, interpreter, Thai language instructor, transportation organizer, meal planner, and all-around beloved companion. Without his kindness, we would have never explored Thailand to quite the same extent.
Although it's been a few years since we've seen him - twelve to be exact - I can still picture Siopao's face and the undying smile in his eyes. Looking through old photos is bittersweet. Although grateful for the time we spent as neighbors, I feel a sort of sorrow that he's on the other side of the earth. Thinking such thoughts leads me down another path: if I were to move to the other side of the earth, would any of my neighbors feel the same about me?
So, in the quest to revamp my identity as a neighbor, that's where I begin. How do we, as neighbors, get to the place where our presence is felt and our absence grieved? How do we get to the place where others look at us and wonder, "How do I become that kind of person?" How do we love so fiercely and exude so much kindness that others take notice and remember it twelve years later?
The great thing is, the entire system at NeighborLink serves as a launching pad for us to become just that: neighbors that others will remember long after we're gone. The beautiful part is that you don't have to figure it all out on your own. You don't have to listen to a few podcasts first or read through a handful of books to give you the necessary head knowledge it takes to become a better neighbor.
All you have to do is volunteer.
By taking that step, you flex your neighboring muscles one project at a time. Start simple. Micro scale. Soon enough, you'll see and feel a difference within you (that's just you becoming a stronger, healthier neighbor). And then something odd happens: you'll start seeing other needs in the community around you that you hadn't even noticed before. Eventually, you may even feel compelled to bring dinner to a neighbor you've never even met before, for no other reason than it's a nice thing to do.
My suggestion? A plate of Thai food and a couple of siopao on the side sounds like a delicious idea to me.
In light of Governor Holcomb's recent "Stay-At-Home" order, we at NeighborLink wanted to clarify our role is it relates to essential and non-essential activities over the coming weeks.
First and foremost, we believe the very act of displaying practical, neighbor-to-neighbor expressions of God's love is as essential today as ever before. We will continue to love our neighbors and to be present and available should any need arise, regardless of the uncertainties right outside our door.
All of our staff are safe and have shifted to working remotely from home. Regular staff meetings will continue to be held remotely, as we believe it's important to stay on top of all new developments in our city, county, state, and country, and to keep NeighborLink staff at the forefront of all COVID-19 related information.
Despite the change in scenery, we continue to operate much as we always have. New requests continue to pour in regularly, for the urgent needs our neighbors face refuse to take vacations or call in sick, and there are no remote days when such needs arise.
Although our volunteer efforts have shifted to projects that are deemed appropriate in times of physical distancing, they will continue as normal. Volunteers are encouraged to sign up, find projects that are emergent or necessary, and proceed as directed. NeighborLink staff are available to guide and help volunteers in navigate what's essential or non-essential as we currently understand it and as things adapt.
Aside from volunteer opportunities, NeighborLink is also working alongside many other local nonprofits with the collective goal of meeting tangible needs related to food and financial insecurities that have increased over the past two weeks. We will outline opportunities for focused, decentralized efforts as they arise.
We encourage you to stay in the loop by liking and following our Facebook page and by checking our website, www.nlfw.org, on a regular basis.