One of the pleasures of working and traveling abroad is the unexpected opportunity to look back at your homeland with fresh eyes, like an astronaut viewing Earth from space.
That happened to me 42 years ago amid the crowded anguish of frightened Vietnamese refugees arriving on Guam as the North Vietnamese Army conquered the South. I was covering the Asian exodus for my newspaper.
But among the 125,000 new American immigrants on that U.S. island were two interpreters from our Saigon bureau and their extended families, about two dozen children, wives and grandparents, all of whom would have been targeted for their long, loyal association with Americans. None of these people had ever been outside Vietnam before. Everything they owned now was inside a suitcase.
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I would visit them daily in the camp bringing extra foods, reassurances of waiting jobs and needed clothing. I had never before purchased bras for Asian women.
It was Easter season. They’d heard on the radio about the holiday and were curious what to expect. Since these men had guided me and my colleagues safely and productively through a deadly war zone for years, I felt obligated to assist. Reluctant to delve into comparative religions, I opted on the fly to focus on the secular aspect of Easter.
That was a mistake. Big one.
Well, usually just before Easter, I explained, parents buy a large supply of eggs and …
What kind of eggs – bird eggs, snake eggs?
No, chicken eggs. Always chicken eggs.
This was translated for the gathering crowd of refugees, all disdaining chairs to squat on the floor. Nods all around. They were eager to prepare themselves for American culture. This man could help. Chicken eggs they knew.
Then, I continued, parents hard-boil the chicken eggs and with the children they color them all different colors.
Uh, well, it’s tradition. They look pretty. He translated. The crowd was slightly puzzled.
Do you eat them?
No. Well, not right then.
What do you do with these colored chicken eggs?
Well, at night when the children are sleeping, the parents and grandparents hide all the chicken eggs around the house.
Translation. OK, that made absolutely no sense. But they seemed willing to listen.
And then in the morning, I said, the parents tell the children that a large rabbit had sneaked into the house during the night and hidden all the chicken eggs.
A large rabbit?
Yes, a large rabbit. The Easter bunny. That’s what the large rabbit is called.
He repeated that in Vietnamese. Enlarged silence. Children looked worried. Everyone stared. At me. I smiled. Wanly.
This seminar on their approaching American life had taken a disturbing turn. An elderly man in back raised his hand.
How large exactly are American rabbits?
Well, big enough to carry the eggs for hiding. I laughed, inviting agreement. None came. But, see, they’re not real rabbits, you understand. They’re just made-up bunnies. In the story. To explain the eggs disappearing.
Pause. Is it always rabbits that hide the chicken eggs?
Yes. Always rabbits. In the story. That parents tell. To their children. On Easter morning. But, remember, it was really the adults who hid the chicken eggs.
The newcomers stared back blankly. They didn’t want to offend, but this Easter bunny tale had turned PG.
I rushed to break the silence. Well, then the children run all over the house looking for the chicken eggs. They yell when they find one. And they find most of them. Everybody eats too much candy. And they dress up in new clothes and share a nice family meal.
What kind of candy? Oh, jelly beans. And chocolate rabbits. Wait, not real chocolate rabbits. Candy chocolate rabbits. In the shape of bunnies. But not real. Definitely.
What about the decorated chicken eggs? Do you take them as gifts to the temple?
Uh, no. No. The eggs go in the refrigerator. And children get them in school lunches for the next month.
I smiled. Alone.
Gentle applause, as I fled for the day.
Fortunately, these new Americans were long-settled in their adopted country by the time they could ask about that fat man with a flying sled and magic reindeer.
Andrew Malcolm began writing on U.S. politics in 1968. Follow him on Twitter @AHMalcolm. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.