Buddhism and Life on the Mississippi
Mark Twain, that Connecticut Yankee, chose as the preface for his Life on the Mississippi an assertion drawn from Harper's Magazine (Feb., 1863) that " ... the basin of the Mississippi is the Body of the Nation ... As a dwelling-place for civilized man it is by far the first upon our globe.'' I found this to be reassuring when I left familiar haunts in Pennsylvania with the intention of testing my fortunes on the Mississippi gulf coast.
Festivals, I have found, are an integral part of Mississippi life. A short list of these would include catfish, watermelon, and blues festivals, the Fourth of July, Mardi Gras, and the National Tobacco Spit Contest. The Buddha, facing north, presides over all of this from a position on the Mississippi beach at one of the miniature golf courses in Biloxi. The Buddha can also be found at the Van Duc Buddhist Temple on Oak Avenue in East Biloxi.
On Oak Avenue, Tet is celebrated in the new year and there is something called a Mid-Autumn Celebration for Kids, which commences soon. At this festival, it is promised that Thang Cuoi, the Man of the Moon, and Chi Hang, the Beautiful Lady of the Moon, will return to earth to join with all children to celebrate a special day.
If you were new to this community and attending the celebration for the first time, you might not notice a man named Minh Duc. He is, however, one of the people who make sure that the Man of the Moon and the Beautiful Lady of the Moon actually arrive on Oak Avenue to work their magic.
A community of at least 5,000 Vietnamese residents has developed in Biloxi, Miss. Vietnamese people first arrived on the Gulf Coast and settled near Port Arthur, Tex., and in Louisiana in the 1970's. Moving from west to east, along the corridor south of U.S. Interstate Route 10, which runs from Los Angeles, through the Southwest, past New Orleans, and continues on to Florida, many immigrants from Southeast Asia began making lives for themselves and their families by the early 1980's.
While many Vietnamese children in Biloxi and other communities along the Mississippi gulf coast are encouraged by their parents to value education, there have been problems at school. Some of them lack confidence in American school settings and some struggle or fail to find appropriate role models to emulate. Minh Duc and others have noticed this.
Cultural differences and expectations are sometimes hard to bridge generationally. Vietnamese parents in Biloxi have not always understood what their children were learning in American schools, and Vietnamese children there have not always known how to explain what they are learning to their parents. The language of home, and even the local community, is often Vietnamese, while the language of school and the larger community is English. Sometimes cultural gulfs develop and silences set in.
Celebrations such as the Mid-Autumn Celebration for Kids are one way that Minh Duc and others have tried to support and encourage Vietnamese children and their families. Another way they have tried to do this has been to lead programs of summer activities based on traditional Vietnamese moral, religious, and cultural values. These are things that Vietnamese children growing up in the United States are not often taught explicitly.
One recent summer, with the support of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Action Agency, Minh led a program for over 40 children (most of whom were Vietnamese), using the language and traditions of Vietnam as a curriculum. I visitied Minh's program and was so impressed that I invited my university students to attend the "graduation ceremony'' that was scheduled for the children. I also invited Minh to meet with my teaching-methods class to speak on the topic of education and teaching.
On the day of the "graduation,'' Minh was unable to meet with my class due to a serious illness. Despite this, though, he went ahead with, and led, his small program's graduation festivities, which many of my students attended. Obviously ill, Minh drew on his strength and will to get through the afternoon, and thus modeled the convictions and beliefs that he had passed on to my class in written form to compensate for his absence.
His message for them was this:
An educational career is not simply a job, but it is an art, an ambition to create our future. The educator has a special way to perform his duty. He mobilizes himself to devote his life to his students, whom he will consider as masterpieces of an artist. To approach this goal, the educator has to learn that students are precious and not replaceable. Each and every student is a pearl to be cultivated and polished. ...
If you choose education as a career, but choose it with the sole purpose of making plenty of money, I would say that you may be making the wrong choice. There are many jobs that provide more money than teaching jobs. To perform a good teaching career, you have to effectively learn many different subjects, both human and scientific, among them being human love. ...
To evaluate the difference that Minh Duc has made on the Mississippi gulf coast, it helps to know that some of the activities he leads forge connections between parents and children that otherwise might not have been made. I have been told that some parents whose children have learned songs and poems from Minh have had chances to share memories from their childhood with their children. They know the songs and poems that their children have learned in Vietnamese and they can complete the poems and sing along with their children in ways that might otherwise not have been possible. This is fun for parents and children. It also establishes value for traditions and culture that for some Vietnamese children seemed alien and foreign, and which might otherwise have been viewed as useless barriers to adjustment to life, American-style.
While the Vietnamese that I have met in Biloxi may have arrived there by taking a westward to easterly route, I arrived on the Mississippi gulf coast by going from north to south. It may not be true that "the coast'' is the first civilized dwelling place that we nouveau Mississippians have experienced. However, it does seem to be the case that as a dwelling place for civilized men, women, and children, life goes on in Biloxi, Gulfport, Long Beach, Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, and in Ocean Springs, and with neighbors, such as the like of Minh Duc, it is good.
Vol. 12, Issue 04, Page 28Published in Print: September 30, 1992, as Buddhism and Life on the Mississippi