By Theresa Carson
As the ninth child born to a traditional Vietnamese family, Father Tuan Khoi Hoang SVD, 37, knows well the value of paying respect to one’s elders. Yet, his childhood may not have been what most would call traditional.
Born in Stockton, Calif., Father Tuan and another brother were the only two of the nine siblings born in the United States. His first language was Vietnamese, which the family spoke in the home, but when Father Tuan entered school, his Vietnamese language skills started to wane.
“As soon as I started school, I adapted to American culture and language,” he said. “My parents tried to teach me about Vietnamese culture, customs and tradition. They want me to maintain who I am.”
Yet, despite his parents’ efforts, he still was not at peace with himself. He ran with a rough crowd in high school and felt he had lost his Vietnamese identity. Then, he entered Divine Word College. That experience put him back on a familiar path.
“We [the Society of the Divine Word] have a lot of brothers and confreres who are from Vietnam,” said Father Tuan, who professed vows in 2004. “They shared with me their stories, helped me to regain my Vietnamese identity. One of the important aspects of being a Divine Word Missionary trying to be actively engaged in every culture you encounter.”
His understanding of her parents’ homeland deepened when the Society of the Divine Word sent him to Vietnam for his Cross-Cultural Training Program (CTP). While there, he learned that in Vietnam, religious sisters, brothers and priests are revered and considered unapproachable.
“Being a religious in Vietnam was tough for me,” Father Tuan said. “I don’t like to put on clericals, and I want to be closer to the people.”
As part of his ministry, he served as a house fellow at a boarding school for children whose families struggled to provide food and education. He, two Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters and a layperson oversaw the operation of the home and took care of 26 children, ages four to 17. They planned activities for the students and regularly attended meetings with parents and school officials.
The troublemakers had a special place in his heart. “I would pull them aside and go over what they did wrong and what they can do to change,” he said.
He remains in touch with one of his coworkers and is encouraged when he hears how the students have matured.
He recalled one 12-year-old boy who regularly engaged in mischief. He would steal and then coax younger children to cause trouble so that he could deflect attention from his pilfering. Every week or so, Father Tuan would talk with the young thief about their behavior.
The young student is now in his early 20s. The year of behavior modification paid off. He has turned his wayward ways around. He has a job working with a printing press, financially independent and engaged to be married.
Thinking back on his time in Vietnam, Father Tuan said, “I miss the culture itself. It’s more communal. People talk with you as you walk down the street people.”
Father Tuan struggled during his first year back in the United States. “The first few months, I had to sleep on the floor under the fan because I was used to sleeping on a hard bed.”
Yet, the change of cultures was not a complete shock to him. At Catholic Theological Union, he took a course that prepared him for culture shock and counter-culture shock.
Soon, he will put that training to use again as he begins his first assignment as a priest in Ecuador. Having graduated from Catholic Theological Union in 2017, Father Tuan was ordained to the diaconate in October and served as a transitional deacon at Immaculate Conception parish in Liberty, Texas.
He honed the Spanish that he learned in high school and college. At first, he and the Spanish-speaking parishioners communicated through gestures. With the help of a tutor, he eventually was able to converse in Spanish. He said he learns through doing. That’s how he approaches his first assignment as well.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen; Ecuador just captured my mind,” he said.
Father Tuan’s first Mass was on May 27 at Queenship of Mary in Joliet. He will celebrate with two other newly ordained priests, Fathers Ben Le SVD and Viet Hoang SVD.