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Mixed Blessing


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A priest is coming to say evening mass at Riem Nguyen's new house. It's good luck, says Riem.

He's bought 25 white plastic lawn chairs for the occasion and packed them into the small living room. A few people are already seated, fanning themselves in the heat. His mother is in the steamy kitchen with several other women, cutting up meat and vegetables. She's smiling and her face is flushed.

Riem, who arrived with his mother in this country only five years ago, is moving quickly, setting up a fan, scraping price stickers off a huge stack of new rice bowls. As the men arrive they shake his hand, pat his arm, his back. The women smile and nod. An older man says something to him in Vietnamese and Riem looks a little embarrassed, then throws his head back laughing.

The new town house is one of 28 recently built in Uptown by Voice of the People, a community-based development organization. They were built on city-owned vacant land, and the city is subsidizing their purchase. The owners, chosen by lottery from a pool of 156 applicants, reflect the races and ethnicities of Uptown: African, African American, Asian, Native American, white, Latino, Middle Eastern.

Riem was second on the waiting list for his house; the financing fell through for the man ahead of him. The house has three bedrooms and a full basement. It's a long way from the streets of Saigon, where Riem once sold cigarettes and lotto tickets and was taunted for his American features and unruly brown hair. His father was an American doctor stationed in Saigon during the war who disappeared when his son was little more than a year old.

Riem says he still senses that some Vietnamese look down on him because he's Amerasian and because he finished only five years of school. His mother sent him to a Catholic school until 1975, when the North Vietnamese took over and it was forced to close. Later he paid for school himself out of the money he made on the streets, but the children made fun of his different face, and the teacher finally told him he should quit.

He sets his chin, then laughs and says he doesn't care what people think of him now. He says he has his friends, and he has a good job, as a machine operator in a cookie factory. And he has plans to set up his own business someday. And plans for his personal life. I have to get married this year, he says. He thinks 28 is getting old to be single and childless, but he doesn't have a girlfriend.

He's stepped out onto the front porch to smoke a cigarette. He says he would rather have bought a house in the suburbs, but his mother wanted to stay in Uptown, where her friends are. Still, he says, the neighborhood is getting safer. He points out nearby buildings that are being rehabbed and two private security guards who are patrolling the street.

The man from India who just bought the town house a couple doors east comes home, and Riem lopes over to tell him he's having a mass said. Later when the African family a few doors west come out for a walk he strides over and explains to them.

A small, thin man with bloodshot eyes and a whiff of alcohol about him comes up the steps and slaps Riem's shoulder, then takes over seating guests as they arrive. The chairs are nearly filled, and people are already leaning on the porch railing. Several men set up an altar on top of the TV, below a crucifix and a large portrait of the Virgin Mary.

The priest arrives, and the call-and-response service begins. The chanting inside the house drifts out through the open door, and the people on the porch chant along softly or simply stand with their heads slightly bowed. Riem, who's leaning against the wall near the door, is sometimes silent, sometimes joins in.

It's getting dark, and the street is quiet. But suddenly there's a loud crack just to the side of the door and a rock drops onto the porch. Heads whip around. The only people out are across the street, a group of black teenagers strolling down the sidewalk. They're talking and laughing, looking at the house.

On the porch eyes narrow and mouths tighten, but no one looks surprised. The man with bloodshot eyes heads down the steps toward the street, his back straight, his chin jutting. Riem calls out to him and the man stops, then retreats to the bottom of the steps, muttering.

The people on the porch turn away and begin chanting along with the voices inside again. The teenagers move on.

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