How a Knock on Astronaut Neil Armstrong’s Door in 1969 Is Still Reverberating

From a Washington Post column by Theresa Vargas headlined “How a knock on Neil Armstrong’s door in 1969 is still reverberating”:

The extraordinary story spilled out in the most ordinary of ways: at a dinner party.

Jo Chim and Anisha Abraham were both living in Hong Kong at the time, and during a get together one night, Chim listened as Abraham talked about the day her family met Neil Armstrong’s family.

She listened as Abraham described how the encounter occurred months after the astronaut walked on the moon, an event that brought people together, even as other issues pulled them apart. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated only a year earlier.

She listened as Abraham described how she was a baby when her parents and grandmother, who had migrated from India to the United States, went on a road trip and found themselves passing a sign that announced the small town of Wapakoneta, Ohio, as the home of Neil Armstrong.

She listened as Abraham described the stares and whispers her mother, Nirmala Abraham, and grandmother, Elizabeth George, drew as they walked through the town in their flowing saris and how her father grew nervous when her grandmother suggested they knock on the door of Armstrong’s childhood home to pay their respect.

The family didn’t know if anyone would be home, and if they were, how they might react to immigrants standing on their doorstep. Elsewhere in the country, White people had set dogs on Black and Brown people who showed up uninvited on their property.

Abraham’s grandmother decided to knock anyway.

What happened next is the subject of a short film Chim wrote and directed called “One Small Visit.” The actress hadn’t written a screenplay before hearing that story, but it stayed with her, and in 2020, she started working on a draft.

“This story was just too wonderful to keep within one family,” Chim told me on a recent morning. “I thought we should share it.”

The film recently won Best Foreign Picture at the LA Shorts Film Festival and has been viewed at screenings across the world, including at NASA’s D.C. headquarters. It will also be shown at the Kennedy Center to high school students, at the DC South Asian Film Festival and at the newly reopened National Air and Space Museum.

I have watched it, but I am not a movie critic, and this is not a review. I don’t trust my film scrutinizing skills enough to offer you that. But I can tell you how a small family story grew into a big screen production, and why 53 years after that nervous knock came another one. This time on a D.C. door.

It’s not incidental that a story about a South Asian family’s experience comes at a time of increased anti-Asian hate crimes. As a Chinese Canadian woman who has lived in multiple countries, Chim found herself troubled by the global divides she was seeing during the pandemic. With the film, she saw an opportunity to address issues of race, identity and belonging. The screenings, she said, have taken on the feel of symposiums, with audience members sharing their own experiences.

Chim has described the film in this way: “Ultimately, it’s a story between two very different families finding connection and a shared humanity; a testament to taking leaps of faith and small acts of openness and kindness that make a difference.”

Chim said she also sees it as a story about strong women. Abraham’s grandmother, Elizabeth George, didn’t let the perceptions of others limit her experiences. In the film, when people stare at her, she waves unbothered in a queen like manner at them. She also teaches her granddaughter, Anisha, to do the same.

While making the film, Chim said, “There were so many times I was nervous and anxious and I literally sat back and said, ‘What would Elizabeth George do?’ ”

“I do come from a family of go-getter women who don’t take no for an answer,” said Anisha Abraham. “We had women who really didn’t perceive barriers.”

Abraham lives in D.C. and works as a pediatrician who specializes in adolescent medicine. She is also the author of the book “Raising Global Teens.” But in the film, she is depicted as an infant.

She was only months old when her family took that trip, making her too young to remember it. But she grew up hearing about it and seeing a reminder of it in her family’s photo album. In the photo, her parents and grandmother stand in front of Neil Armstrong’s childhood home, alongside his parents, Viola and Stephen Armstrong. In her arms, Viola holds Anisha.

The photo was taken after the Armstrong family invited the Abraham family inside and they spent time talking and connecting. But one of the most interesting details about that photo occurred out of the frame. The person who took it was Neil Armstrong, who had recently returned from a world tour that included India and happened to be at his parents’ house when the Abrahams showed up.

In the film, Neil Armstrong talks about how looking at earth from space made him feel small and the planet look fragile. He describes the view as allowing a person to see that borders between countries don’t exist. The phrase “the overview effect” does not appear in the film but it has been used to explain the shift in perspective that can occur when people travel to space and return feeling more connected to the planet and the humans on it.

“We’ve now done screenings in several places and it’s always interesting to see what people come in with and what they take away,” Anisha Abraham said. I asked what she hopes they take away, and she said: “The importance of compassion and tolerance and openness in a time when we’ve seen people more polarized than ever.

Her father, who is called O.C. in the film, traveled to the United States on a Spanish cargo ship, she said. When her parents made that road trip in 1969, they were graduate students who didn’t have much. Chim interviewed Abraham’s parents for the film and Abraham said she learned things about them she hadn’t known. One of those things: Her dad had once been invited by a rotary club to give a speech at a restaurant, and when he went back to the same place the next day, without the rotary club members, he was told he couldn’t come through the front door.

“My dad is in his late 80s and my mom is about to turn 80,” Abraham said, “and it’s been such an empowering thing for them to be able to share their story.”

Several weeks ago, Abraham’s parents were at her home in Chevy Chase, along with the cast and crew of the film. Abraham was hosting them for breakfast before the screening at NASA. But she also had another reason for bringing everyone together.

Neil Armstrong’s son, Mark, had seen the film, and he and his wife, Wendy, wanted to surprise her parents.

That morning, the Armstrongs knocked on the door and the Abrahams opened it.

Theresa Vargas is a local columnist for The Washington Post. Before coming to The Post, she worked at Newsday in New York. She has degrees from Stanford University and Columbia University School of Journalism.

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