Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Human Interest

Dispatches from next door: Keeping a lifelong promise

Lealman — She closed her eyes and bowed her head. She pressed her hands together beneath her chin. Words fluttered from her lips.

Oanh Kim Tran is 59, with dark eyes and short, curly black hair. On a lot between two aging white houses in this pocked Pinellas neighborhood, atop a three-tiered tile pyramid, a pristine white statue of the Buddhist deity Quan Am towered 10 feet over her. Across the street a man wobbled in a chair next to a rusting, cream Winnebago. He was shirtless and tattooed from shoulder blades to ankles. A Busch beer balanced on his knee. He didn't seem to notice Oanh's prayers.

Decades ago, Oanh made a promise. If she escaped Vietnam's war, if she made it to America, if she survived, then she would build the shrine.

When Oanh was 12, she curled under a table as bullets and bomb blasts tore through the walls. Shrapnel sliced her left eye. She tasted gunpowder as she prayed to Quan Am. Oanh and her sister ran into the rice paddies, onto the battlefield. Out there, she thought, her father would at least find their bodies.

When Oanh was 31, she tried to flee her country for an eighth time. She and her 6-year-old daughter packed onto a wooden riverboat with 80 others. Halfway to Malaysia, a typhoon struck. Screams. Vomiting. Hands strangling the rails. The ivory deity dangled from her necklace. She held it tight. She prayed.

When Oanh was 38, the year after she became an American citizen, she was working alone at a jewelry store in St. Petersburg when a man walked in, raised a hammer and bashed her across the temple. Oanh stumbled back. She gripped her necklace. In court, Oanh forgave him. Change, she told him. Do good.

On a visit to Vietnam soon after, she remembered her promise. For six years, she searched for a statue of Quan Am. Then, in 1998, from a Vietnamese factory 9,700 miles away, one found its place here. In this neighborhood known for drug houses and domestic beatings, the shrine has endured. The deity, which symbolizes mercy, has had its face smashed and its hand snapped off. But Oanh and her husband, Mang, have always rebuilt.

On that recent evening, above Oanh's bowed head, the blue sky had dimmed to a dusky purple. Frogs mumbled and crickets chattered. The air was thick, the mosquitoes hungry. Still, she prayed. "For everyone we know," she said. "And for everybody we don't know." Like the unsteady man across the street whose pancreas is failing and whose lungs are diseased and who, two years ago, tried to kill himself with a beer and 12 Xanax.

She prayed the same for them all. That they do good. That they are happy. That, like her, they always keep faith.

 

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