One must guard against wealth which corrupts noble intentions
During my city engineering career, I mentored a young fellow worker. When he was a child, Michael—whom I nicknamed Grasshopper (Kung Fu)—had a narrow escape with his parents from Vietnam just before the Communists took over. He later graduated from UCSD and started working as a civil engineer.
Back in the 1980s at lunch time, he’d join me in a small conference room to eat and discuss finance or world affairs.
Michael was raised Catholic and felt it his moral duty to restore the Catholic religion and democracy in Vietnam after the war.
In his early 30s, he announced his engagement to a Vietnamese woman. At his wedding I sat on the right side of the nave, the only Caucasian among his guests. His bride was a stunning beauty. Later Michael told me how he and his wife in 2004 started a small but lucrative business on the side, importing handmade elegant jewel boxes from Saigon. They both had extended family there who could participate in the venture.
One day I had nearly finished eating when he entered the lunch room. He sat down, then unwrapped his Italian submarine sandwich wafting with Sicilian aromas. He took a bite and closed his eyes, slowly chewing and smiling in bliss. Reminded of my Italian heritage, I discovered myself salivating.
A few bites later he said, “I need to do something that could help restore Vietnam—maybe build schools there. And I’ve been wondering what it’d take to be ambassador.”
“Building schools would be feasible after you retire in 20 years. But to become the U.S. ambassador would be much more difficult. A president must want to nominate you, due to gratitude for your time, effort, and money in his campaign. Then the U.S. Senate would have to approve of his choice.”
“Sounds like I’d have to sell my soul to the devil,” he said, between bites.
“Pretty much. Difficult to find a government official who isn’t sullied by politics. But I’ve heard Vietnam has improved its economy a lot in the past 30 years. Is that true?”
“They’ve reduced poverty and illiteracy from over 90% to 32%.”
“How’d they accomplish that?”
“Peasants previously growing crops only as the agricultural commune directed were permitted to sell profitable produce at roadside stands.”
He described how idealistic Vietnamese communism finally caved to Western pressure to privatize businesses. America then lifted its embargo to allow the vital international trade the starving economy needed. Small shops could now make a profit and save some extra money for schooling and clothes. State owned conglomerates were privatized, such that the Vietnamese economy started to flourish with its own form of hybrid-capitalism.
“I think we can make enough there from my import business to do some good.”
I heard the zealous idealism that I once had in my flower-power hippie days. Grasshopper finished the last of his sandwich with gusto.
“I understand your need to help, but be careful. By achieving great wealth to accomplish your noble goal, you run the risk of losing your moral integrity. “For what shall it profit a man to gain the whole world in exchange for his soul?” (Matt 16:26)
He nodded, then we went back to work. That was the last I saw him, for he soon after transferred to another department. He’d email me on occasion about some financial issue. But whenever I would inquire about his personal life, he did not respond. In the ten years since I retired, all I could do was pray for his charitable intentions.
If I had to guess, I’d say he retired early at 55 because his work email began to bounce. The city isn’t permitted to reveal forwarding addresses, and I had no luck with social media. I imagine that he and his family are living now in Vietnam, donating their time, talent, and treasure to rebuilding orphanages and schools—to help ongoing recovery from the severe damage done by American bombs.
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