ONCE IN A WHILE—QUITE OFTEN, IN FACT—I take a ‘round-the-world’ trip. Vicariously, via my address book, I visit people whose names appear therein. I flip through the pages and am instantly with them. Reviewing what I know about them, I wish them well in every way. I regularly visit people in lands like Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, The Philippines, Japan, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Nepal, Germany, Portugal, Denmark, Norway, Holland, England, the US, and Canada. And each person I visit has his or her own unique story, quite unlike that of anyone else.
Many people I used to write to are/were refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia or Laos. When they were in their Camps, waiting for resettlement in other countries, unsure about their situation and future, writing letters was a thing most of them did assiduously. And how sweet their names sounded to them on the Camp P.A. system, when they were called to collect letters from the post office; their ears were finely attuned to such announcements!
Now, mail delivery is no longer a joyful thing for them, when it often brings only bills. They got what they wanted—resettlement in places like Australia, America or Norway—but the happiness they expected to find there has—in most cases —receded from them, like the horizon. Are they any happier now than they were before? Indeed, I met several people in America and other countries who I had earlier known in the Camps, who told me that although they now had things on the material level beyond their previous dreams, they weren’t happy because they had no time, and would like to be back in the Refugee Camps again!
Here is a man who walked across Cambodia from Vietnam to Thailand, facing torture and death at the hands of the Khmer Rouge and the booby traps liberally strewn on jungle trails; frequently having to step over human bones, he felt he was passing through hell (I believe he was!) He has recovered from the horror of that ordeal, but will never forget what he saw there. Happiness is an illusion, he says.
There is someone who escaped his country by overcrowded boat, but after a few days at sea they had run out of food. One by one, his companions starved to death; unable to face such slow death, others jumped into the sea to drown. Those who survived did so only by eating the flesh of the dead. Filled with revulsion at what he was forced to do, this man has since become a vegetarian; he says he can no longer put meat into his mouth.
I know a couple in San Jose whose boat was wrecked on a small island in the South China Sea, far from the shipping lanes. Marooned for months until rescued by a fishing boat, they managed to survive by catching and eating sea birds and shellfish. Their deprivation and despair led them to devote themselves to alleviating the sufferings of others whenever possible; they now run a clinic.
Another man helplessly watched his children drown, and lived a nightmare thereafter until I told him he wasn’t to blame, and should not carry the burden of their deaths forever. The sea-bed is strewn with the bones of those who left their homeland in search of peace and happiness, but never made it.
A lady with two children was eagerly waiting to be reunited with her husband who had gone to the US first; just before she left the Camp, however, she received the news that her husband had been killed in a car smash in Texas. Numb with grief, she went to begin a life of struggle in her new country.
In Chicago is a family who suffered the loss of one of their daughters while in the Camp; unable to get adequate medical treatment, she succumbed to fever and was buried in a plywood coffin that was too small for her, leaving her feet sticking out at the bottom.
All had tales of sorrow and woe, but many hid them and wept alone, feeling, that since others had similar stories, nobody wanted to hear theirs.
But there were also tales of courage and success—so many. Through their hardships and suffering, many people became aware of a spiritual dimension to their lives that they previously did not know was there.
Some years ago, I reached the point of writing about 150 letters per month (an average of 3 per day), and my letters are always individually written, not stereotyped as in a newsletter. Several times, I was asked why I don’t write a newsletter instead, but I don’t like to receive such impersonal things, so I don’t send them. I’m lucky if I get replies to half the letters I write, of course, so after some time I give up writing to people who don’t respond; how do I know if they are receiving my letters, or even if they are still alive, if I get no replies? It’s a bit like writing to ghosts or Santa Claus! I write now between seventy and a hundred letters monthly.
Whenever I periodically update my address book, some names are added and others omitted—those who didn’t bother to reply to my letters. It’s not my fault that we lose contact. Maybe—in the case of the refugees—I am part of their past that they prefer to put behind them and forget as they forge new lives for themselves.
Here is Michael in Germany, who was a monk in Thailand many years ago; he regrets he didn’t continue. In England is my sister Glennie; we’ve become closer since her husband died. Here’s my Indian friend, Ramesh, who lives in the US and who faces his troubles with such fortitude. Over in Norway is Hanh, who was felled by a stroke some years ago and has difficulty in writing more than a few words to me, yet she still tries. In Java, there is Vajira, kind and loyal, who has kept in touch with me for the past 20 years. In K. L. is Wongsy, who lends me his ear when I need to let off steam, and who will do anything for me. Goh, Going, Gone is a promising young man from Malacca. Sad Minh, in Atlanta, tells me anything, knowing he’ll get a sympathetic response. Tor Hor’s letters from Penang are informative and full, but don’t come very often; that is so—the latter part—with many people. In a US jail is Barry, who found one of my books in his prison library; though only 22, he writes a good letter and expresses himself well. The Vo family started out empty handed, but later did so well with their Sydney bakery business that I asked them what they put in their bread. Perth is the home of Sheila Sharpeyes, a teacher; we correspond as if we’ve known each other ages, although we’ve never met; she reads my books thoroughly and spots all the mistakes (hence the nick name I gave her), and encourages me to go on writing when I feel like giving up. In Melbourne is Tuan, who had many a hard time translating for me, but who came through it okay. And in Turkey is my new friend, Ali, who I’ve written about elsewhere in this book.
Different names, faces and stories. When I write to anyone, I see their face in my mind’s eye, and it is as if I’m talking with them in person; each one is important to me in some way.
Seize the moment, instead of putting it off until another day; sit down and write. You would be surprised at what comes out if you did that; it’s not as difficult as you think it is.
Take a trip, whenever you like; you don’t need a ticket or passport; no need to pack a bag or make hotel reservations. Just go!