No matter how fast you run, no matter where you try to hide, it inevitably finds you, for better or worse.
I was born in Vietnam, a child of the war. Here, it’s referred to as the American War while everywhere else in the world, it’s known as the Vietnam War.
Growing up in the US since the age of 2, I was blissfully unaware of the world I was born into, a country which no longer exists. In fact, I was perfectly happy being a “banana”, yellowy Asian on the outside, more White than anything else on the inside, living in suburban Virginia, going to the best, predominantly White schools. There’s even a newspaper article of me at the age of 6, dutifully translating for my fellow “boat people” schoolmates.
My father’s family came from Thai Binh, 100km south of Hanoi, in the north of Vietnam. Part of the Bac 54 movement, the Northerners who moved to the South in 1954 as France lost its grip on Vietnam, they settled in Saigon. My grandfather was a civil servant and old family photos tell a tale of carefree children with good teeth, fashionably dressed posing in front of a landscaped garden with an automobile in the background, servants to help around the house.
Even then, my father’s family was open-minded, sophisticated, well-traveled. My own parents got married in Germany, while away on scholarship, my father also studying in France and Morocco. One uncle met his Australian wife on a cruise. Another aunt met her Swiss husband while hanging out in a kibbutz in Israel. Yet another uncle was stationed as a diplomat in Paris, London and New York. Photos show graduations all around the US.
To this day, it’s kind of surreal to me that I have sets of cousins who look nothing like me, including a second cousin with the blondest of hair.
My baby book is full of photos of a comfortable life. A happy family of four, perched on a shiny new Vespa which I’m told was quite the status symbol in the day.
Perhaps my love of beaches was kindled by early visits to Cap Saint Jacques, the French coastal playground now known as Vung Tau. One of my favorite photos is of my mom wiping sand off my one-year-old feet, as moms do.
While the country was at war, my privileged family felt little of it, insulated in Saigon. We experienced no deprivations, no shortages to speak of. Those with money could still find whatever they wanted. Of course, by then, the war had been going on for nearly 20 years. People kept up with it in the newspapers, but there was little panic. It kindly left our family alone. Sure, my father witnessed the aftermath of battles as a teacher in the southern provinces of Vietnam. And my parents carefully monitored the news of the 1968 Tet Offensive from far away Germany, worried for the newborn daughter they had sent back to live with my grandparents in Saigon.
In fact, the only person in my family to go to war was my uncle, Giap. He came home uninjured but no longer whole. A few years later, and three years before I was born, Giap took his own life.
I still hear the heartbreaking wistfulness in my father’s voice on the rare occasion he speaks of his brother, younger by four years, the one uncle I never knew. In old photos, I see kind eyes looking back at me. How much did his suicide have to do with the things he experienced as a soldier?
By the early 70’s, most of my father’s surviving six brothers and sisters were already living abroad. Our little family remained in our tenuous bubble of security. Things came to a head, though, in the early part of 1975. Now the war was no longer just on the fringes of consciousness. It was inexorably moving towards Saigon. In those final moments, my parents spent every waking minute listening to the radio in a torturous, helpless exercise of tracking exactly how close the front lines had become. The end of life as they knew it was measured in days and hours, not weeks and years.
One of my aunts, who had by then returned from a study tour in the US and gained citizenship, went to the US Embassy in Saigon to arrange evacuation. She was told there was no space. So she went directly to the airport and was able to sign herself up along with our family and two of my mother’s brothers and sisters for evacuation. My mother recalls that they had less than one day’s notice. What do you take when you have just a few hours to liquidate your entire life? Packing what little you could bring, giving away what you couldn’t. Even though my maternal grandparents lived only 15 minutes away, there was not even time enough for good-byes. We left five days before what is now called the “Liberation” of Vietnam, before the infamous scenes of people desperately clinging to the last few helicopters. My mom tells me that the night we left, I asked my parents why we were still outside at night despite the curfew.
The word “curfew” should not be in any 2 year old child’s vocabulary.
Safely in the US, our family photo albums depict a happy kid who rode ponies and hugged Disney characters, as always, shielded from the past. But over the years, small chinks appeared in the armor.
I vividly recall one late afternoon in 1977. I would’ve been four. My mom was drying her hair with one of those old fashioned contraptions that included a light green bonnet, a hose and a very loud fan. The phone rang. And in an instant, my mother was doubled over, sobbing inconsolably over the news that my grandmother had died in a land far away. The one there was no time to say good-bye to. A kind woman who I had no memory of. The family left behind.
Other than that, I cannot recall one instance where we talked about the war growing up. I think my parents were just happy to be living abroad, especially as we started meeting “boat people” who in most cases paid a terrible price to get to where we were.
Then came the war on Iraq during my teen years. Again, there was 24/7 coverage of war, but this time with live images. My father was transfixed. Not only did he watch the news when he was home, he taped it when he wasn’t. Even after all those years, he had an intense visceral reaction to what he was seeing, the final crack in the floodgates of his memory, a trigger which led to more serious issues that carry on until this day. I have never asked him what terrible things he must have seen in those country provinces long before I was born. I’m not sure I want to know.
The young are rarely burdened by the weight of history. It’s usually when we see our lives as history mostly written that we start looking back. My parents have since come back to Vietnam on many occasions. They marvel at how much everything has changed. I tell them of new 50 story buildings going up and mega cities being planned.
This is actually one of the reasons I’ve decided to come back to the land of my birth. I’m no longer happy being a “banana”. I want to know the country that shaped my parents, even though that country, on paper at least, does not exist anymore. I want to confront the past and allow it to speak to me. While I straddle both worlds, I’m not sure I can say I truly belong in either.
Even if I wanted to forget my childhood connection to this country, I can’t. It’s everywhere I turn, even now, almost 40 years later. It’s in the mural that I pass by three times a week on the way to my tennis courts, defiant faces ripping an American flag as fires rage in the distance.
It’s in the landscape of the city, previously known as the Pearl of the Far East. Where are the slick monorails like Bangkok or the impressive skylines like Hong Kong?
It’s in my childhood home that I drive past, strangers now living in it, squatters who had their pick of homes abandoned by the fortunate / desperate. I wonder whether it looks anything like the neat, cheerful home in my baby photos, filled with toys and books?
It’s in the missing tip of the right forefinger of the security guard who scans my parking pass, an all too common sign among men of a certain age who voluntarily amputated their trigger finger to avoid a soldier’s life.
It’s in the gaunt face of a woman I randomly met who happened to have been in the same graduating class as my mother and taught at the same all girls’ school as she did. I came back to show her a recent photo of our family and she stared at my mother’s now aged face for a long time. “I hardly recognize her,” she told me quietly. “I remember your mother as a very pretty girl with a round face.” I don’t know if the years have been kind to her either. Or whether this was the life she envisioned for herself.
All I know is that our past undeniably shapes who we are. It’s nothing we can change or should be fearful of, but it is something we can choose to embrace or choose to let go.
I for one choose to embrace.
This blog post has been a long time in coming. I thought more and more about it when I recently interviewed Nick Ut, the Pulitzer prize winning photographer who captured the image of the “Napalm Girl”, that has been called the photo that ended the war. Click on the image to read the article in Oi Vietnam.
Then, fortuitously this month, both my uncle (the former diplomat, now in Canada) and my aunt (now in Virginia, pictured at the very top of the post) came for a visit. It was a serendipitous chance for me to fill in some of the gaps in our family’s history. And very special thanks to Foodpanda for our reunion dinner. If spending time with family was awesome, being able to do so in my own home over a dinner of Vietnamese comfort food without having to cook was priceless.
Now since I’ve overshared, it’s your turn! What challenge have you embraced or are struggling to overcome? Tell your story in the comments. Or if it’s too personal, email me with it.
The story that resonates most with me will receive a free copy of the newly launched, Love with a Chance of Drowning, by fellow blogger turned novelist Torre DeRoche.
This post is part of the My Fearful Adventure series, which is celebrating the launch of Torre DeRoche’s debut book Love with a Chance of Drowning, a true adventure story about one girl’s leap into the deep end of her fears.
“Wow, what a book. Exciting. Dramatic. Honest. Torre DeRoche is an author to follow.” Australian Associated Press
“… a story about conquering the fears that keep you from living your dreams.” Nomadicmatt.com
“In her debut, DeRoche has penned such a beautiful, thrilling story you’ll have to remind yourself it’s not fiction.” Courier Mail