Kennedy: Finding truth in a fortune cookie

Kennedy: Finding truth in a fortune cookie

January 7th, 2016 by Mark Kennedy in Opinion Columns
Rachael Weaver interacts with a food vendor outside a Saigon post office.

Rachael Weaver interacts with a food vendor outside...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

One of the joys of aging in place as a journalist is seeing stories unfold across generations.

About 20 years ago, I wrote a column about a young Chattanooga woman, Karen Weaver, who traveled abroad to adopt a 3-month-old baby girl from a Vietnamese orphanage.

For years, Karen, along with her late husband Larry, ran downtown restaurants, first on East 10th Street and later in Warehouse Row. When they decided to adopt internationally in 1995 it was a happy human interest story.

That child, Rachael, is now a radiant 20-year-old woman. I met with Rachael and her mother, Karen, one day last week at Chef Lin Buffet in East Ridge. They were just back from Rachael's first return visit to Vietnam, a 13-day journey to the capital city of Saigon.

Rachael, a student at O'More College of Design in Franklin, Tenn., opened her fortune cookie during our lunch at Chef Lin and read the message to the table.

"Traveling to the East will bring you a great reward," she announced with a smile.

Indeed.

As a child, Rachael had often bristled when asked if she wanted to visit her birth country.

"I'm an American," she would insist.

But as she grew older, her resolve softened, replaced by a gnawing curiosity about her native land. As she reached her teen years, and became more self aware, a pilgrimage seemed inevitable.

"I began to feel like I existed from a past life," said the Soddy-Daisy High School graduate. "It was almost like having amnesia. I felt like I was American, but surrounded by people that didn't look like me."

Karen Weaver said her return trip to Vietnam revealed Saigon had been transformed in a generation, from a dreary post-war environment to a 21st century metropolis full of modern culture and commerce.

"My memories of Vietnam [in 1995] were not good," she says. "It was a poor country. The people were not very friendly. Almost nobody spoke English, and the power grid went out for several hours a day."

The adoption, on the other hand, went splendidly.

"Rachael was precocious; a beautiful, smart child," Karen says. "She talked and read very early. She was fun and inquisitive. I won the child lottery."

During their recent journey back to Vietnam, mother and daughter stayed in a five-star hotel in Saigon and found the Vietnamese people to be plugged into American influences. Rachael saw "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" with Vietnamese subtitles. Meanwhile, she soaked in Vietnamese culture, which she discovered was heavily influenced by French colonialism, from the architecture to the strong coffee and hard-crusted bread.

She befriended a 22-year-old Vietnamese student who went by the American name "Dandy." Dandy taught Rachael snippets of the Vietnamese language and took her on moped rides around the city.

Slowly, Rachael began to feel drawn to the slower pace and gentle temperament of the Vietnamese people. By contrast, people at home in America often seemed rushed and anxious. Even the hot, humid climate suited her.

"Now, I know why I've been cold my whole life," she says. "I felt like I belonged there [in Vietnam]. I didn't feel like a transplant."

The Weavers also visited the orphanage where Rachael lived as an infant.

As often happens to first-time international travelers, Rachael began to see the world as a bigger place where whole cultures flourish outside the orbit of the familiar.

"You see all these complete strangers, and you realize how insignificant things can be [at home]," she said. "It made me want to investigate my [native] culture more, learn the [Vietnamese] language, travel more."

In a nation of immigrants, we sometimes forget that we each have genetic traits linked to thousands of years of culture.

Sometimes travel can be the spark that causes a reawakening.

And sometimes, fortune cookies get it right.

Contact Mark Kennedy at mkennedy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6645. Follow him on Twitter @TFPCOLUMNIST. Subscribe to his Facebook updates at www.facebook.com/mkennedycolumnist.

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