Child of War, Woman of Peace - Le Ly Hayslip, James Hayslip, Jenny Wurts (1993)


Song of the Sau Dau Tree

A LONG TIME AGO, before the world knew better, a young man went to war. Like his brothers, he traveled to all points of the compass, fought many battles, and saw many wondrous and terrifying things—but none so terrible as when, twenty-five years later, he returned to find his village abandoned.

The wind-swept streets were full of weeds and the once fruitful fields were bare and scabbed. The sky was red with dust and the river—once filled with fish—was reduced to a murky trickle. Coconut palms stood like broken flagpoles, their fronds scattered by the summer monsoon; the farmers’ houses were collapsed or empty. Only a lone sau dau tree, ancient branches still green with peppers, stood on the riverbank to remind him of the world he used to know.

And remember it he did.

The soldier stretched out under the tree and turned his face to the empty streets. The spiders in their webs became old people gossiping in the shade; the scurrying lizards became children chasing after ducks; the swooping birds, lithe maidens carrying water—casting languorous glances at village boys chopping wood and mending carts. A dust devil spinning up from a bone-dry garden became dinner smoke rising from his mother’s kitchen. As if part of the dream, an elderly woman dressed in black and thin as death hobbled up from a nearby shack.

The soldier jumped to his feet: first in fear that the figure was a spirit-guardian of the village graveyard, then to help the old woman gather peppers when he saw that she was real.

“I used to live in this village,” the soldier said, pleased to be helping now, instead of killing. “My family lived there, where the ferry crossed the river. I used to drink coconut milk on hot days and listen to the ferry girl sing.”

The old woman did not care for his stories and sullenly went about her labors. “Your old house is ruined now,” she told him bluntly, “and the ferryboat ran aground and rotted when the armies dammed the river. The girl was raped and, with her fatherless child, fled to the city where she sings no more. And no coconuts grow since the trees were shot to pieces. Now everything’s dried up and shriveled like me. If you’re wise, you’ll run away before the sun goes down. The village isn’t safe at night: too many ghosts. Too many ghosts!”

With infinite sadness, the soldier watched the old woman hobble back toward her house. The sun sank lower and the shadow of the sau dau tree crept down the empty street to the place where his own house had stood in happier times. Suddenly, in a voice full of confidence and compassion, born of a soldier’s triumphs but tempered with a soldier’s regrets, he sang:

The sau dau tree stands in the sunset

Leaves flowing around you like river sand.

Wind and rain have followed my footsteps,

I have been too long la nuoc la cai—

Lost and lonely in a foreign land.

Tu has been my shadow;

Dao has been my sun.

What fear can a darkened house hold

When it used to be your own?

The old lady turned and saw the man bathed in radiant light, twisted limbs of the sau dau tree hanging above him like a crown, glittering with life. Heat rose from the peppers in her basket and the scars of the years melted from her body and the birds became maidens and the lizards became children and the water flowed again and the ferry girl returned and the song she sang was the Song of the Sau Dau Tree.

Today, when exiles have been away from home too long and their eyes are cried dry and their mouths are full of dust, they need only look into the sunset and sing the Song of the Sau Dau Tree, and the ghosts that haunt them flee and the scars of the years melt away and the soil underfoot, wherever it is, becomes the soil of home. That which was halved becomes whole and they no longer fear the darkened house that used to be their home.

In May 1970, I stepped from the Pan Am airliner that had taken me from the hell my country had become to the heaven I hoped America would be. I was twenty years old with two sons, both by different fathers. I didn’t speak much English, and my manners were better suited to peasant villages and Saigon street corners than a suburb of San Diego, which was to be my new home—a place stranger to a Vietnamese farm girl than the dark side of the moon.

My background was not like that of my American neighbors. By age twelve I had lost two brothers and countless uncles, aunts, and cousins to the war. By age fifteen I had been in battle, captured, tortured by the South Vietnamese Republicans, and had been condemned to death and raped by the Viet Cong. By sixteen I was an unwed mother supporting my family on Danang’s black market. By the time I was nineteen my father had committed suicide rather than involve me again with the Viet Cong, and I was married to de quoc My, “the enemy”—a middle-aged American civilian construction engineer, Ed Munro—in the desperate hope that he would save me and my children from the war.

When he finally brought me to the United States, I learned quickly that the skills I needed to survive in the jungles and corrupt back alleys of my native land didn’t count in U.S. supermarkets, department stores, and employment offices. The “traffic signs” I obeyed weren’t posted on crosswalks and freeways but were chiseled in my heart as Dao lam nguoi: natural law, universal law, the law of karma and life and death. I suddenly faced a world without ancestors—without cause and effect—where I had no yesterday and no tomorrow. I was in dat khach que nguoi—lost and lonely in a strange and hostile land. The propaganda of the Viet Cong’s midnight meetings in the swamps outside my village was still fresh in my memory. De quoc thuc dan, they would tell us: liberate Vietnam from the “capitalist colonial empire.” Now the soil of that “evil empire” had become my home. I had condemned myself to live song tren dat dich—in the land of the enemy.

This book is the story of my life in the land of “the enemy”—a Vietnamese woman struggling to survive among the “cat-eyed” Westerners whom I had been taught since birth to fear and hate. But it is also something more. It is the story of discovering treasure where you least expect it; of searching for two halves that make a perfect whole. It is about say me khoai lac: seeing similarities in different things, and taking delight—finding what is unique and precious—in what is ordinary and overlooked. It is about finding and losing love, letting go of hurt, and getting on with life. Most of all, it is about coming to terms with the past while reaching out for a better future. I have been told it is America’s story, written with a bamboo pen. It is the story of anyone—Oriental, European, African, Pacific Island, Middle Eastern, American—who ever found herself dispossessed, abandoned, and swallowed up by the world only to be spat out: a stranger in a strange new place.

I invite you to share in these pages a journey that took me twenty years to complete. Although we’ll experience many terrible and wondrous things, none may be more terrible than the fears my story may awake inside you, nor more wondrous than the peace you’ll find at its end: for I have seen the sau dau tree and sung its song.