I came into the world early in the Year of the Monkey, during the Tet Offensive, when long strings of fireworks hanging from the houses exploded in polyphony with the sound of machine guns.
Saigon was my birthplace, and thousands of bits of old firecrackers covered the soil in red as if they were petals from a cherry tree, or the blood of two million soldiers, scattered through the towns and villages of a Vietnam torn in two.
I was born in the shadows of skies embroidered with fireworks, hung in luminous garlands shot through with rockets and missiles. My birth was to replace the lost lives. My life was to prolong my mother’s.
My name is Nguyên An Tinh, and my mother’s, Nguyên An Tinh. The tiny variation of a dot under the i sets us apart, makes me distinct, for I was an extension of her, right down to the meaning of my name. In Vietnamese, hers meant “peaceful surroundings,” and mine meant “peaceful inner world.” Through these almost interchangeable names, my mother confirmed me as an outgrowth of herself, the continuation of her story.
The history of Vietnam, with a capital H, upset her plans though. When she took us across the Gulf of Siam thirty years ago, those accents were dropped in the water. She also stripped our names of their meaning, making them merely strange and foreign sounds when pronounced in French. Above all, she overthrew my role as a natural extension of her from the age of ten.
Exile made it so my children would never be extensions of either my story or myself. Their names are Pascal and Henri, and they look nothing like me. They have light-colored hair, white skin and thick eyelashes. The natural maternal instinct just wasn’t there when they hung onto my breasts at three in the morning. That came much later, after many sleepless nights, dirty diapers, candid smiles and unexpected joys.
Then, and only then, was I swept up in the love of a mother sitting across from me in the hold of our boat, clutching a baby with a head covered in scabs and stinking sores. I have held that picture in my head for days and perhaps nights as well. One small bulb hanging from a cord held in place by a rusty nail cast a weak light, always the same, through the hold. In the depths of the boat, day and night were one, and the ever-faithful light sheltered us from the immensity of sea and sky surrounding us. People sitting on the bridge told us there was no visible line between the blue of sea and sky any more. There was no way to know if we were rearing skyward or plunging to the depths. Heaven and hell met in a single embrace within the belly of our ship. Heaven held out the promise of change, a new future, a new story for our lives. Hell, though, became our fears: pirates, hunger, intoxication on biscuits soaked in motor oil, lack of water, not being able to stand again, having to urinate in the red pot that was passed from hand to hand, possible contagion from the child’s scabby head, never stepping on dry land again, never again seeing the faces of family members sitting in the dark somewhere in the middle of two hundred others.
Before we weighed anchor in the middle of the night on the shores of Rach Giá, most of the passengers had only one fear: the communists. This is who they were fleeing, but once surrounded, encircled by a uniform blue horizon, fear became a monster with a hundred faces, that amputated our legs and prevented us from feeling how stiff our cramped muscles really were. We were frozen in fear, by fear. We no longer even closed our eyes when the scabby-headed baby peed in our faces. We no longer held our noses when our neighbors vomited. We were numbed and imprisoned by the shoulders of some, the legs of others, and everyone’s fear. We were paralyzed.
The story of the little girl who went for a walk on the rim of the deck, lost her footing and was swallowed up by the sea flowed through the odorous belly of the boat like an anesthetic or laughing gas that transformed the one light bulb into a pole star and the oil-soaked dried slices of bread into the loveliest of tea-biscuits. The taste of oil in one’s head and throat and on one’s tongue put us to sleep to the rhythm of a lullaby sung by our neighbor.
My first glimpses of snowbanks through the porthole at Mirabel Airport made me feel bare and defenseless. The short-sleeved orange pullover from the refugee camp in Malaysia and the loose-knit brown woolen sweater made by Vietnamese women still left me completely exposed. Several of us rushed to the windows of the plane, mouths and eyes wide in amazement. After having lived for so long in unlit places, such a white, virginal landscape was dazzling, blinding, even intoxicating.
I was also stunned by the foreign sounds that welcomed us, by the size of the ice sculpture that kept watch over the table of canapés, hors d’œuvres and snacks of all shapes and colors. I didn’t recognize a single one of them, though I realized this had to be a land of delights and dreams. Just like my son Henri now, I could say or understand nothing, though I was not deaf or dumb. I had lost all reference points, lost all ways to dream or project into the future, even to live in the present.
My first teacher in Canada accompanied us, the seven youngest Vietnamese, across the bridge which took us to the present. She oversaw our transplantation with the delicacy of a mother for a premature infant. We were hypnotized by the slow, reassuring sway of her round hips and fully curved behind. Like a mother duck, she marched ahead, inviting us to follow her to the haven where we would become children once again, just children, surrounded by colors and drawings and trifles. I will always be grateful to her for my very first immigrant wish: to be able to sway the fat on my behind just like her. None of the Vietnamese in our group was endowed with such generous and nonchalant curves. We were all hard, bony, and angular. So when she leaned over me, placed her hands on mine and said, “My name is Marie-France; what is yours?” I repeated each syllable without blinking, not even needing to understand, but just feeling lulled by a cloud of freshness, lightness and sweet perfume. I did not understand the words she spoke, but I did understand the melody of her voice, and that was more than enough.
Once we were in our home, I repeated the same sequence of sounds to my parents: “My name is Marie-France; what is yours?” They asked me if I’d changed my name, and that was the instant the present caught up with me, when the deafness and muteness of the moment erased my dreams and, with them, the ability to see far, far ahead.
My parents already spoke French, but even so, they couldn’t see far ahead either; they’d been expelled from their Beginners’ French course, meaning no payment of 40 dollars a week, because they were overqualified for this course but underqualified for everything else. Unable to look ahead for themselves, they looked ahead for their children instead.
Because of us, they did not see the blackboards they cleaned or the school toilets they washed or the imperial rolls they delivered. They saw only our future. My brothers and I moved forward by following the trails of their gaze. I have met parents whose gaze has been extinguished under the weight of a pirate’s body, or from too many years in communist re-education camps—not war camps during wartime, but postwar camps during peace time.
When I was little, I believed war and peace were opposites. Yet I lived in peace while Vietnam was on fire and knew war only after it laid down its weapons. I believe war and peace are actually friends that mock us. They treat us as enemies when they want, as they want, regardless of what definitions we give them. We cannot trust appearances where they are concerned. I was fortunate in having parents who could maintain their outlook, no matter the particular complexion of the times; my mother often quoted the proverb on her eighth-grade blackboard in Saigon: “Ðòi là chiên trân, nêu buôn là thua– Life is a struggle, and the price of sadness is defeat.”
My mother wanted me to speak and to learn French as quickly as possible, English too, since my mother tongue had become, not ridiculous, but useless. In my second year in Québec, she sent me to an English-speaking cadet barracks. A way to learn English free, she said. She was wrong. There was nothing free about it, and it cost me dearly. There were about forty of them, all big, lively, and most of all, adolescent. They’d take themselves oh-so-seriously as they minutely examined the fold of a collar, the angle of a beret or the shine of a boot. The older ones yelled at the younger ones. They’d played at war, at absurdity, without understanding, without knowing. I couldn’t imagine why the name of the person next to me in line was endlessly repeated by our superior. Why would he want me to remember the name of this kid who was twice my size. My very first English conversation started with the greeting, “Bye, Asshole.”
When the communists entered Saigon, my family gave up half their property because we had become vulnerable. A brick wall was put up to separate the two addresses: one for us and one for the neighborhood police station. A year later, the authorities of the new communist administration came back for the rest of our house and us, what was left of us. Inspectors came into our yard without warning or warrant or reason and asked everyone there to meet in the living room. My parents were away, so the inspectors sat on the edges of the straight-backed Art-Deco chairs and waited without once touching the two finely embroidered white-linen squares which lay on the arms. My mother was the first to appear at the glass-and-forged-iron door. She had on her white pleated miniskirt and running shoes. My father, just behind her, was carrying the tennis rackets, his face covered in perspiration. This impromptu visit from the inspectors propelled us forward into the present; until now, we had been savoring one final taste of the past. All the adults were asked to remain in the living room while inventory was taken.
We kids could follow them from floor to floor, room by room. They sealed dressers, cupboards, dressing-tables, strongboxes. They even sealed the big dresser my grandmother and her six daughters kept for their brassieres, though they didn’t write down the description of the contents. I thought that maybe the young inspector was embarrassed by the thought of all these round-breasted girls sitting around in the living room dressed in fine Parisian silk. I also thought he left that page blank because he was too overcome by desire to write, but I was wrong: he didn’t know what a brassiere was. He thought they looked like his mother’s coffee filters, stitched round a metal hoop ended with a handle.
At the foot of Long Biên Bridge, which crosses the Red River in Hanoi, his mother filled her coffee filter before soaking it in the aluminum pot so she could sell cups to passersby. In winter, she kept her glasses, which contained about three mouthfuls each, in a bowl of hot water to keep the chill off them while the men chatted on benches that were barely raised off the ground. Customers could spot her by the flame from the tiny oil lamp on her tiny table, next to three cigarettes in a dish on display. Every morning, the young inspector, still a child really, awoke with a much reused brown coffee filter, still damp, hanging from a nail above his head. I heard him in conversation with the other inspectors in a stairway corner. He could not understand why my family had so many coffee filters filed away in drawers lined with tissue paper. And why were they doubled up? Was that because one always drinks coffee with a friend?
In high school, I remember hearing students complaining about their history class. We were young. We did not know that only a country at peace could afford history classes. Elsewhere, people are too busy with their day-to-day survival to devote time to the writing of their shared story. If I had not lived in the majestic silence of great frozen lakes, in the daily monotony of peacetime, with love celebrated in balloons, confetti, and chocolate, I would probably never have noticed the arched back of the old woman who lived near my great-grandfather’s grave in the Mekong Delta. She was old, so very old that her sweat ran down her wrinkles like a gentle and persistent stream furrowing the earth. One step at a time, she walked down the stairs backward in order to keep her balance and avoid plunging forward, head first. How many grains of rice has she planted? How long has she kept her feet in the mud? How many times has she witnessed the sun setting on her rice field? How many dreams has she abandoned to find herself bent double thirty years, forty years later?
We tend to forget these women who have borne Vietnam on their backs while their men bore guns on theirs. We forget them because under their cone-shaped hats they never looked up to the sky. They only waited for the sun to beat down upon them so they could pass out instead of falling asleep. If they had let sleep come to them, they would have had time to picture their sons blown into pieces or their husbands floating on a river like pieces of wreckage. The slaves of the cotton fields knew how to chant out their pain, but these women only let their sadness grow inside the chambers of their heart. The weight of their grief made them so heavy they could no longer stand up straight. Even after the men had come back from the jungle, walking the dikes again, circling the rice fields, these women continued to carry the weight of the inaudible story of Vietnam on their backs. More often than not, they would disappear in silence under this weight.
The woman I knew died by losing her footing while sitting in an openair toilet built over a catfish pond. Her plastic slippers skidded on one of the two wooden planks. If someone had been watching, he would have seen her cone-shaped hat suddenly drop behind the four wood panels that barely hid her crouching body. The panels surrounded her without protecting her. She died in her septic tank, right behind her hut. She fell between two planks and drowned in a hole of excrement as the catfish with their yellowed flesh, slippery skin, no scales and no memory rallied around her.
From RU. Published 2009 by Éditions Libre Expression. Copyright 2009 by Éditions Libre Expression. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.