Child of War, Woman of Peace - Le Ly Hayslip, James Hayslip, Jenny Wurts (1993)
PART THREE. Taking the Long Road Back (1987-92)
11. Two Halves Make a Whole
AFTER A FINAL WEEK at Tinh’s, I realized my mother had been right. Actions speak louder than words, even when those words come from the heart. It was time to demonstrate my good intentions.
Immediately upon my return to the States, Jimmy and I began writing follow-up letters to everyone I had met on the trip, and I developed a slide presentation about the war and its effects on the Vietnamese people. Some of it was pretty rough stuff, like my pictures of Tu Du hospital’s “specimen room” whose shelves were lined with deformed fetuses with three heads and split-open stomachs and monstrous faces—all products of Agent Orange and other wartime chemicals. I also put myself on the mailing list of as many humanitarian organizations as I could find. On a quest into a land so dark, many people must carry torches.
One of the first to reply was Fredy Champagne, founder of Veterans-Vietnam Restoration Project. VVRP was a nonprofit organization in Garberville, California, that takes U.S. vets back to Vietnam in order to build medical facilities. We agreed to meet on his upcoming fund-raising trip to San Diego.
In person, Fredy was far from the polished executives I had run into in big foundations. Like many of the vets he recruited, Fredy was wrestling with middle age while coming to terms with his own Vietnam trauma. Instead of a “presidential” necktie and suit he wore jeans, old tennis shoes, and a T-shirt. His fuzzy mustache and ever-present baseball cap crowned a ready smile and lively eyes. He greeted me with “Han hanh duoc gap co”—a rusty “Nice to meet you.”
I got a lot of good information from Fredy about organizing a grass-roots foundation while Fredy learned a lot from me about establishing contact and doing business with the Vietnamese bureaucracy. He subsequently went to the UN Mission in New York and received permission to build a small health clinic in the village of Vung Tau.
“Why Vung Tau?” I asked when Fredy called with the good news. I was a little disappointed that we could not collaborate to put the first facility near Danang, which had a bigger population and more pressing needs.
“Because my group passed through Vung Tau on our last visit and the village council asked us to build one. I didn’t know of a better place and the Health Ministry honchos liked the idea because I already had local permission. Anyway, it’s a start. The next one goes to Danang, I promise.”
Despite my disappointment, it was good news for Vietnam and a good start for both of our organizations. Our collaboration quickly took the form of friendly competition to see who could raise more money and contribute most to our joint goal. Fredy’s VVRP had the advantage of mailing lists and contributors and volunteer workers to draw on. I had none of these yet, and as East Meets West’s organizational costs spiraled—for long-distance telephone calls, flyers, and travel—I had trouble paying my bills. Even worse, a lot of people perceived me as “the enemy”—not a U.S. vet, but somebody who was on the wrong side of the war. However, what I lacked in personal resources, I made up for in another way.
In May 1989, my book was published.
Virtually overnight, hundreds of thousands of Americans, not just book buyers, but people who heard, saw, or read my interviews or the book’s reviews, learned about my life during the war and my return to find my family in 1986.
The first phase of my life’s mission was accomplished. The steep climb toward the goal my father had set for me, and that I had accepted reluctantly, began to level off. The stumbling blocks around me—hearts stone cold with prejudice and wartime hate—miraculously began to bloom with empathy and compassion. We were on our way.
After When Heaven and Earth Changed Places arrived in bookstores, my own life turned upside down. Requests for interviews and lecture invitations multiplied. Major newspapers and magazines all over the country recommended it to their readers, calling it a unique look into the face of the enemy and the dark heart of war.
I felt terribly excited, but terribly unprepared. I wanted very much to reach these big new audiences, but felt my accent and old clothes and farm girl manners just weren’t up to the task. What gave me the courage to persevere—to say yes to these opportunities instead of copping out—was to take my own advice. People were hailing my book for its message of forgiveness, and that meant forgiving myself for my own shortcomings. It also required me to acknowledge that my purpose for writing it had been fulfilled. Even if I died tomorrow, if no clinic were built, if things somehow just got worse, the book—my father’s message of hope—would live on, a beacon to light the way for someone else.
And that’s nearly the way it happened.
The Los Angeles Times ran a condensed excerpt and many of my family pictures in a cover story in their February 5, 1989 Sunday magazine. I was in New York when the piece came out. When I returned, my answering machine (that and my kitchen table were all there was to East Meets West—we wouldn’t get a real office until a San Diego patron donated storefront space in 1990) was filled with messages, not all of them congratulatory.
“I’m going to kill you, damn Viet Cong bitch and Communist sympathizer!”—beep—“Sister Ly, this is Representative Tran at the UN Mission, please call us right away. We must discuss your article!”—beep—“Ly, this is your sister Lan. Have you seen the Vietnamese newspapers in Little Saigon? They’re out for your blood! What did you do?”—beep I
Although many of the calls were favorable and supportive, my attention was naturally focused on the complaints and threats: Why didn’t I reach this person? As it turned out, many people who disapproved of the piece hadn’t even taken the time to read it.
“All I saw was the word ‘Viet Cong’ and I picked up the phone,” one person who had complained wrote after reading the whole book. “It was my old hurt and prejudice that motivated me, not anything you or the reporter said. To tell you the truth, I didn’t even read the article.”
That attitude was confirmed by the magazine’s editor, who said the article drew the largest negative response of any similar piece published in her years with the paper. One of the messages (all calls to the editors are recorded) contained a particularly credible threat that was referred to the FBI. Although I didn’t speak with my old friend Agent Tracy, the case was passed to the local police, who located and interrogated the caller. The man making the threat, it turned out, was not Vietnamese—not Chong Cong, the right-wing militarists (which relieved me greatly)—but a U.S. vet who saw the magazine’s cover while drinking with his buddies and decided to impress them. Like so many other callers, he did not bother to acquaint himself with “the other side” before he drew his conclusions. I told the man through the authorities I would not press charges as long as he read the whole book, even if he had to borrow it from the library. I never heard from him again, which I assume is good news.
I realized that truth and clarity alone were not enough to overcome some people’s deep-seated hatred and fear. If books alone could improve the world, we would need none other than the Bible, the Koran, the Tu-Khe Tinh Tam, and the other great spiritual testaments. The road to nirvana is always steep and winding.
In the same month the book was published, Fredy Champagne and fourteen of his Garberville veterans completed the first structure built in Vietnam by American hands since the war: a fourteen-room, 2,500-square-foot clinic in the coastal village of Vung Tau. In a television interview following their accomplishment, Fredy said, “We are giving back to the people what we took away during the war—life. The first time we came, we came with guns and bombs. Now we come with hammers and shovels.” In a small but tangible way, East and West had met and helped each other. It was a partnership that, having sprouted, could only produce more flowers.
Danang and my home village were next.
I gained approval from the minister of foreign affairs in Hanoi for East Meets West to operate in the country, and after that, I traveled to Danang with Fredy and met with officials in the Foreign Economic Relations Department, International Red Cross, and Ministry of Health in Danang. During a break in these sessions, I went to visit Tinh and check on my family for the first time since my arrival. The news was not good.
“Your mother is very ill,” Tinh said, looking suddenly much older than her thirty-five years. “She can’t get out of bed. Hai is caring for her, but it doesn’t look good.”
I felt the floor drop out from under me. “What about Bon Nghe? Has he been told? Has he brought a good doctor? He must be able to do something!” This was what my relief work was all about. What horrible irony it would be if my Ky La clinic was not ready in time to save the one person I wanted most to help!
“He’s come up to visit her, of course, but he won’t stick around. He knows you’re in the country and is still afraid to be seen with you at the village.”
“That’s absurd!” I cried. “Our mother’s sick, maybe dying, and he’s still afraid of the village committee? That’s got to stop. This has all gone far enough!”
I left Tinh’s house determined to resolve this endless cold war. The place to start was the high council in Danang.
This time I was armed for my committee meeting with a group of American veterans who were more than tourists. They were officially designated heroes for their charitable work at Vung Tau. The commissars had no choice but to approve my visit, and they did. My escorts to Ky La would be the first Caucasian-Americans to set foot in my village since the last marine withdrew in 1973.
Fredy, three vets, and I arrived at the old dike road shortly after sunrise and set out for the village. The horde of curious children met us again, but this time kept their distance, even though the My Bo Doi American “soldiers” carried cameras and tote bags full of gifts, not guns and grenades.
We entered the village like a circus parade. My house was one of the first buildings on the right, and I headed straight for it. I could see Hai—who had just propped open the doors for what looked to be a hot and dusty morning—regard us with puzzlement, then terror.
“It’s okay,” I said, smiling as I drew close. I didn’t want to violate village protocol by being too familiar or too pushy with my older sister, particularly in front of Americans. “We have permission to be here from the high council in Danang. I’m here to see our mother.”
I ducked into the doorway and encountered her lying in a scuffed wooden bed facing the wall.
“Mama Du,” I said softly. Outside Hai, Fredy’s men, and half the village stared in through the door and windows.
The old, gray-topped face turned toward my voice. Her thin purple lids opened over sunken eyes. A bulb-knuckled hand, tough as a work glove, trembled in the air.
“Bay Ly,” her dry lips whispered, “little one. I didn’t think I’d see you again.”
I cried and embraced what little was left of her. I heard cameras click behind me and a fist curled in my stomach. I wanted to shout Go away!, but these were friends and the only reason I was allowed to come. I gritted my teeth and let it pass.
I reached into my bag and withdrew a copy of my book. Its cover was as tan as the sand at China Beach; the letters of the title as red as warrior’s blood. A frosty blue picture of me decorated the jacket.
“When heaven and earth changed places, Mama Du.” I showed her the book. “Remember when you said that on my first visit? When you were telling me what happened after the war? Look, these are your words, right here, over my picture! People will see them all over the world. What do you think about that?”
I couldn’t tell if the curl on her betel-black lip was a smile, but she said, “It almost makes me wish I had learned to read, Bay Ly.”
“It’s the story of our family—the story of my life and what everybody we knew went through in the war. It’s the story of my visit three years ago. You’re in it too, Mama Du, all over the place!”
“Nobody cares about that,” she said, as if it were true.
“They will, Mama Du. I promise.”
She looked at the doorway, “Ho la ai?—Who the hell are all these people?”
“They are my friends, Mama Du. You said to bring Ong Ba My—Mr. and Mrs. American—to the village. Here they are.”
“Okay, they can stay. But the kids have to go. They’re too noisy.”
Hai turned to shoo the children away but they returned as soon as the shooing stopped. Fredy and the rest of the men blinked back tears.
I turned to Hai. “Where is brother Bon?”
“Gone to get supplies.” She edged away from Fredy’s veterans, still afraid to get too close, “Some of the neighbors have been giving him and Mama Du a hard time. They think you’ve been bringing her lots of money and can’t understand why she doesn’t share it with them. Bon’s angry because you brought all this trouble with you. Mostly though, he’s frustrated because he can’t do anything about it.”
I looked back at my mother. “You’re not going to die, are you, Mama Du?”
“I should be so lucky! No, I’m not going to die. I’m just a sick old lady. I’ve been through worse. Right now I just want to sleep.”
“Okay. Rest well, Mama Du.”
I kissed her on the forehead and went to the family altar to burn incense to my father and pray for her recovery.
Despite my preoccupation with my mother’s illness, the work session in Danang was very productive. The Health Ministry had drawn up plans for a small clinic near Ky La, but kept postponing it for lack of funds. Fredy brought out the blueprints his group had used for the new facility at Vung Tau, and everyone agreed the new plan was better—especially if it was funded by Americans! It was a good time to bring up my brother’s problem.
“Some of you know that I have not seen my brother during my last two visits.” I cast my eyes along the row of officials on the other side of the table. “Most of you don’t know why. I am an American citizen—a Viet Kieu—trying to use the resources of my new country to help my old one. When I’m not here, I will have to leave my affairs in the hands of somebody I can trust. I know I can trust my brother, but he is afraid to trust me. He’s worried that if he gets too close to me, he will lose your confidence and respect. My mother’s jealous neighbors only make matters worse. I respectfully wish to place this issue before the committee so that we can work out a solution.”
To my mild surprise, the second lieutenant governor of the Quang Nam People’s Committee, Nguyen Dinh An, spoke right up.
“We have already discussed this problem with your brother. We agreed that if he gets involved with your foundation—to receive materials on your behalf, for example, to ensure they do not fall into the hands of black marketeers—he must first give up his current duties so that there can be no conflict of interest. I am prepared to submit a written request that he be transferred to the Health Ministry or to the Red Cross or to whatever other department you and he desire. As far as the problem with your neighbors go, I suggest we hold an open forum in Ky La to finalize the plan so that everyone can witness things for themselves.”
The following day the People’s Committee of Quan Nam Province convened a “town hall” meeting among our group, representatives of the Red Cross, Ministry of Health, the Foreign Economic Committee, and virtually every ambulatory resident of Ky La. As the villagers crowded around our long table, I was surprised and pleased, and ultimately a little saddened, to see my brother Bon Nghe, dignified in a clean white shirt and dark pants, slip into the back of the crowd. Although his future was the focus of the meeting, he was still too afraid of “village justice” to take a place at the main table. After all, our group would go back to America and the high officials would go back to their city offices, but residents of Ky La would stay on—to police themselves and their kind as they had for a thousand years.
The president of the committee convened the meeting and read a declaration authorizing a clinic to be built with the aid of foreign labor and materials. Several officials made short speeches, then the president opened the floor to questions.
I was astonished to see that the first person standing to speak was my sister Hai.
“Sister Ly,” she shouted in my direction, though her eyes cut around the crowd, “you have caused our family a lot of pain. You come to the village and talk about everything you are going to do. You act as if you are rich and can build a whole hospital like that”—she snapped her fingers—“no problem! I want you to know, Sister Ly, that people talk. People say that if you are rich enough to do this, you are rich enough to give your family money, although we have received nothing except a little cloth and candy and medicine. Still the rumors fly. That’s how it has been since you first came back—nothing but trouble for everyone. Our poor mother has no peace anymore. I have no peace anymore. When I try to sell snails in the market, people ask me, ‘Why don’t you just use your American dollars to buy what you want?’ When our mother eats her bowl of brown rice, people ask her, ‘Why don’t you just use your American money and eat beef and duck or go to a restaurant in town? It’s always the same thing now—money, money, money! I wish you had never come back!”
Hai sat down and covered her face and I felt the blood rush into mine. Of course, she had to make some show in front of the neighbors—at least a symbolic rejection of me and what I represented. Nobody could conceive that a “rich” American sister would not first line the pockets of her family before she undertook any charity for her village. I would have to make a similar, suitable reply.
I stood up and cleared my throat. “Okay, it’s time everyone knew what is going on. I have been an ungrateful daughter and sister and I now admit it to you with great shame. When I first came back in 1986, I could have given my mother and brother and sisters great wealth but I did not. I was too afraid of going to jail. When I came back a second time, my fortunes had changed and I did not have much money at all—just enough to come home for Tet. During that time, I decided to devote my life in America to helping the people in my homeland. I can make the same promise to my relatives here, though, that I make to you all: the money I raise in the future will be spent in Vietnam for the good of our people—for things everyone can use, like this health clinic. All I ask from you is that you allow my brother Bon Nghe to work on your behalf—to receive the money and material I send in to the country for our work. Otherwise I will do nothing and things will go on for you as they have in the past. As for my sister Hai and my mother, I ask that you take pity on them for having such an ungrateful sister and daughter. Don’t make their burden any more difficult to bear. That’s all I have to say.”
The meeting broke up and Hai went home in the company of some neighbors who seemed to be consoling her. But Bon Nghe slipped away. Fredy and his group left for Danang, where they would depart from Vietnam the next day. The crowd dispersed and I went quietly to our house.
My mother was feeling better and was able to sit up and go out to the latrine. Hai brought some vegetables home for dinner and we hugged, each understanding the other. At least everything was out in the open now, which made gossip a lot less profitable. After dinner people began hanging around the house to eavesdrop, although now they seemed more like curious neighbors than jealous spies.
“Bay Ly,” my mother said after dinner, “everything is in your hands now—the future of the whole family. Mot nguoi lam nen ca ho duoc cay; mot nguoi lam bay ca ho mang nho—If one of us is successful, we all depend on her; if one disgraces us, we all share her shame. If you don’t build your clinic, people will be convinced you’ve just used it as an excuse to ship money in for us and if they don’t kill us outright, we’ll be ostracized to death.”
“Mama Du, I will build the clinic. You’ll hold your head up high and laugh at all the people who caused you trouble. Bon Nghe will be a respected man and loved by the village just like Father was before the war.”
I had to apply through State Department channels for permission to export aid to Vietnam, then to seek collateral waivers from the Treasury and Commerce Departments to avoid penalties under the Trading with the Enemy Act, which went all the way back to World War II. I also needed testimonial letters from a variety of senators and congressmen known to be both for and against normalized relations with Vietnam. You would think I was running for office!
To finance the campaign, I wrote pamphlets and traded volunteer labor for a couple of good mailing lists and made countless calls. When I got too tired from phone calling and letter writing, I prayed at my shrine for providence to keep my mother alive. I now wanted more than anything for her to see me fulfill my promise and restore our family’s good name in the village.
I also sponsored, alone and with other groups, Oriental banquets (doing most of the cooking myself) and auctioned off some of the artwork I had brought from Vietnam a long time ago. But the funds produced from these events, plus dues from East Meets West’s growing membership, weren’t enough to complete the clinic, although we shipped a half ton of medical supplies and broke ground for the project. We needed a lucky break and hadn’t a clue as to where it might come from.
A few months later, my financial outlook and the prospects for East Meets West improved when a paperback publisher and book clubs and foreign presses began to discover When Heaven and Earth Changed Places. People unfamiliar with publishing, like me, thought this would mean lots of money, but what it really meant was the promise of future earnings. Still, these sales were enough to make second-mortgage payments and keep Tommy and Alan fed and clothed and healthy until they finished school. It also allowed me to finally take my three sons on my next trip to Vietnam—to meet their Vietnamese relatives and, in Jimmy’s case, to meet the father he had never known.
My boys envisioned a Vietnam not too different from the Mexican towns familiar to American tourists. They were therefore astonished by what poverty actually meant in the rest of the world.
Clearing customs with our cases of medicine was still tedious, but easier than it would have been even a few months before. And as icing on the cake, the boys were received like rock stars. Even Jimmy, who is one hundred percent Vietnamese, stuck out like a sore thumb—his average American college-student clothes flashier to his ethnic countrymen than an Elvis suit. The biggest difference, of course, was in my kids’ height and healthy bodies. Although they were average by American standards, their well-fed physiques towered over their Vietnamese counterparts. When I had first arrived in America, I thought the huge refrigerators, jammed with food, were the reason Americans grew so big. Perhaps that ignorant little farm girl’s naive observation wasn’t so far from the truth.
Our first big event was at our hotel in Saigon, where Jimmy would meet his father for the very first time. An American news crew was traveling with us, and it was the first of several occasions when I would question the high emotional cost of publicity, however much my struggling foundation needed it. I did not want to put more stress on Jimmy and Anh than they would already feel, and the scurrying technicians and bright lights did nothing to calm our nerves. Even worse, Jimmy was closeted in his room so he would not stumble onto his father prematurely, spoiling the genuine moment the producer wanted to capture. I could not understand how something so contrived could be anything but awkward and uncomfortable. It just seemed like another way of betraying your soul—of “selling out”—but it is what I had agreed to do, so I kept my mouth shut and so did my son.
Just before Anh was scheduled to arrive, I went to see Jimmy in his room.
“How are you doing, Mr. Movie Star? Do you want to throw up?”
“No,” my big son grinned. “I just don’t know what I should do.”
“The producer says just be yourself. Whatever you feel like doing will be fine.”
“But what should I say? I don’t even know how to say ‘Hi, Dad’ in Vietnamese!”
“Chao Ba,” I said. “See how easy it is?”
“Chao Ba. Chao Ba. So, should I shake his hand or hug him or what?”
I laughed. “It’s best if you bow. That’s how Vietnamese do it. Just be polite and go with your feelings and you’ll be fine. They want you to be natural, so it’s impossible to make a mistake. Still, I’ll ask them to turn off the cameras as soon as possible.”
“That’s the best idea yet,” Jimmy said nervously.
A moment later, the producer came to the door and said, “He’s here! Come on!”
Jimmy entered the room from one door and his father, Anh, entered the other. The camera was already whirring and a few flash bulbs popped. Jimmy stopped and crossed his arms and bowed stiffly like Charlie Chan.
“Chow Bah,” he said gravely.
Anh paused, smiled in amusement—a genuine moment—and replied in Vietnamese. I was so taken with the image of my firstborn son towering over his middle-aged father—both of them bathed in white light like angels—that I forgot to translate.
Of course, Jimmy didn’t know what Anh said and could only reply in English, “It’s good to see you after all these years.” I finally snapped out of it and called them to the table, where I served some tea.
I translated their small talk and began to feel that things were very anticlimactic. I had built these two halves of my life up so big that their coming together could never match my romantic and motherly fantasies. And there was no reason that it should. These were two men in front of me, strangers tied in blood, knowing each other only by stories, pictures, and reputation. Both had reasons for old grievances—Jimmy’s birth had embarrassed Anh and caused him problems with his marriage; Anh’s abandonment had caused his son a lot of hardship. Yet both survived worse things and now were here together. More than anything else, I felt Jimmy’s life—his fate and future—being taken from my hands and placed into his own. No mother likes that feeling, yet we all pray for the day when a young man finally grows beyond his parents. In truth, it didn’t make any difference if Anh had never seen Jimmy before or if Jimmy had lived with Anh every day of his life. Jimmy was now embarked on his own life circle. Universal law was working. I was one step closer to my ancestors and Jimmy was one step further on his own adventure. The sparkling aura that surrounded and bound us was an image the camera could never see.
“Tiep tuc hoc, lam nhieu. Dung hoc huot can sa bich phien,” Anh said. “Continue your studies, work hard. Stay away from drugs.”
Jimmy laughed. “Now you sound just like Mom!” A native Vietnamese son would never be so familiar under such circumstances, but would be humbler and more subservient. It reminded me of just how Westernized my boys really were.
Anh knew Jimmy was about to graduate from college. “Ba rat tiet la ba khong lo cho con duoc.”
I leaned toward Jimmy. “He says he regrets not taking care of you when you were little.”
Jimmy shrugged, still smiling. “I understand. Tell him, if he had, I would never have gone to America. My life has been good—just fine. He has nothing to feel bad about.”
I translated this for Anh and he leaned into me and spoke quickly, seriously.
When he finished, I said, “Okay, everybody, can we turn off the lights? Did you get enough pictures?”
Anh had said he was at a loss for words. He felt uncomfortable with all these strangers around. This was not a public event. Gratefully, the lights snapped off.
Anh rose and shook hands with the crew and our traveling companions. He shook Jimmy’s hand, paused, then pulled him close, something he would never have done with the camera turning. Jimmy hugged him back and looked, despite his greater size, like a little boy in his father’s arms.
The next morning we flew to Danang where we distributed our medical supplies among several local orphanages and the hospital. The facilities were full because of a recent typhoon that had struck Quang Nam, killing 78 people and leaving another 150,000 homeless. The materials didn’t last long. The doctors took only enough time to accept our provisions ceremonially and pose for a picture or two, before ripping desperately into the supplies. Accommodating this need was genuinely satisfying, although I felt anxious to move along. I had received permission to take my boys and the crew into Ky La and the long fingers of home were already beckoning me.
Our little caravan turned off the highway at the familiar dike road and, with my warning to the driver unheeded, we immediately bogged down in the dirt. We crossed the last blistering mile on foot, carrying the video equipment like ants.
As we passed the new cemetery, the usual gang of village children ran out. “Ong Ba My!” they cried. “Mr. and Mrs. American are back!” By the time we reached my house, we had attracted an enormous crowd. With all our equipment, we must have looked like the marines returning to China Beach!
Because they knew we were coming and had, after my last visit, made peace with the gossip-mongers, my brother Bon Nghe and sister Ba Xuan were there to greet us, as well as Hai and my mother. I was doubly moved when my brother, the Communist, produced an offering of food and incense for our father’s shrine—a practice strictly discouraged under the postwar regime. In a Communist state, even a small step backward can mean a giant leap forward for the common people.
“Thang Hung dau?” my mother called when she saw us approach, asking where Jimmy (Hung, in Vietnamese) was.
“Ba Ngoai!” Jimmy hugged his startled grandmother.
“Oi chu cha troi, oi Ion qua!” she gasped.
“What did she say,” Jimmy asked, eyes dancing.
“She says she can’t believe your size,” I translated. “She says you’re a giant!”
My mother asked if Jimmy remembered her.
“Of course,” Jimmy grinned. “You’re the woman who used to scratch her back on the wooden posts in our house!”
I translated this for my mother and everyone laughed. In accordance with family protocol, my mother next turned to Tommy, saying “Con thang Chau dau?—And where is Chau?”
“Hi, Ba Ngoai!” Tommy, too, smothered this frail old lady.
She looked into his face a moment, perhaps wondering if her attempts to darken his skin and flatten his nose as an infant—her attempt to make Ed’s boy look more Vietnamese—bore any fruit. Whatever she saw, it continued to make her happy.
“And this is Alan,” I said in Vietnamese. “The grandson you haven’t met. His father saved Nam Lan and her boys in 1975.”
She squinted at Dennis’s son, who, although still in elementary school, towered above her. She squeezed his meaty arms and gave me a wide, toothless grin, obviously pleased.
She asked the boys many grandmother’s questions: “What do you study in school? Do you have many friends? Do you stay out of trouble and do your homework? Do you help your widowed mother get along?” To Jimmy, whom she regarded as a handsome young god just jumped down from a temple ornament, “Do you have a girl picked out yet? When are you going to give your mother grandsons? Do you remember the things we used to do in Danang? Do you miss me at all?”
I burned incense and other offerings at our shrine and my mother thoroughly enjoyed her role as hostess and matriarch. She gathered everyone around and sang a song. Her voice had surprising strength and sweetness:
Who will come to Ky La
With its sands like fluffy cotton?
Steer clear of the flooding river,
And her mud-washed roads.
Why go to Bai Gian, or see
The rich farms of Thi An?
Kai Thay is surrounded by graves,
Filled with casualties from Hai An.
And in Hue Dong, the land is poor, Where people burrow for rice.
All year they work in the fields,
And forget what it’s like to live.
But in Ky La we sing proudly,
“Don’t work so hard to be unhappy,
“When you can work a little harder
“And get so much more!”
Other villages have two seasons,
In Ky La we have four—
Like the corners of the earth.
In Ky La we fight bravely;
And bow our heads to no one
Except Mr. Sky.
She laughed and covered her mouth shyly while everyone applauded. I translated the words, changing only the last line, which as she sang it went, “After they destroyed our village, many Americans were killed by our leaders.” Hardly an ancient song existed that had not, in the course of two decades of fighting, lost its original words to war.
Just before sundown, the TV crew asked if I would take them into the swamp and show them the spot where I was raped and terrorized by the Viet Cong. It was a short enough walk—I remembered seeing the lights of my house easily from the little island where it all happened. But the spiritual distance was enormous, and I was not sure I had the strength to tell the story on the very place it happened. Nonetheless, it was a rare chance to document for others what still burned so vividly in my mind, and (as I had been advising U.S. vets for years) there might be some healing quality in revisiting the site of old wounds.
Crossing the checkerboard rice paddies on the dikes with the setting sun warm on my face was like moving back in time. As we splashed through a shallow causeway onto the island, my legs felt younger and a song popped into my head—one I remembered hearing my mother and sister Hai sing during the war with the French. It’s about a Viet Minh fighter returning home after being too long at the front. I sang it softly:
So long ago I left this place
Of home-cooked meals,
Rau muon soup and purple eggplant,
And villagers toiling in the fields.
Under hot noon sun or foggy morning,
They carry buckets and plant new rice.
I must return to this sacred spot:
The motherland that gave me life.
Back I’ve come now to my farm.
I’ll plant crops and take
One meal in the morning and one at night,
From the land, all that she gives.
Vietnam gives rain
To wash away death and make plants grow;
And from the draught inside my heart
Make rivers of happiness overflow.
When the song ended, we were standing in a clearing just big enough for a couple of kids to kick around a ball. Near a line of brush a few yards away was a shallow indentation, barely perceptible, and its sister pile of dirt eroded by twenty years of wind and rain—yin and yang of what this nighmare playground and those years had been all about. I think the crew was a little disappointed at this pint-sized “killing field.” It was not a graveyard or even a place of execution, but an area set aside by the Viet Cong to make its victims think it so. Still, at the time, it had been enough to do its job. I always felt very uncomfortable thinking about this place and now I realized why. It was not just the unfair trial and threatened execution or even my rape—as horrible as those things were—that tormented me. What I hated and feared most about this place was that, for at least a little while during my stay on earth, other humans had taken away my spirit—my will to love. I had talked and written a lot in the last few years about forgiveness. I had been able to forgive the two VC guards, Loi and Tau, for the terrible things they did to me, but that was easy compared to what the cosmic god was now calling on me to do. I now had to forgive myself for the biggest sin of all from those years: turning my back on life. I now knew why coming back to this place, and starting the clinic nearby, was so important. Others may call it charity, but I was really saving my soul.
In the vans going back to the hotel, I asked the boys what they thought about the place where their mom grew up.
“Is it always this hot?” Jimmy asked.
“This is a nice day,” I laughed. “Wait for the summer monsoon!”
“We had enough trouble carrying all that video gear in shorts and T-shirts,” Tommy added. “I can’t imagine GIs patroling the paddies in fatigues and backpacks. Even if you got up the energy to move, you’d sink in the mud up to your knees. Unbelievable! I wonder why they never dressed for the occasion?”
“At least I got to ride on a water buffalo,” Jimmy said.
“You mean that dinky little cow I saw you sitting on when we got back?” I teased.
“Well—it’s a lot bigger when you get close up.”
“It was just a small cow!”
“Let’s just tell people I rode a water buffalo, okay? And leave it at that.”
The next day, after seeing the television crew off, Tommy met some girls who invited him to a concert in Danang. When he returned, the other boys teased him to death.
“Hey, Tom,” Jimmy said, “you want Mom to call the village matchmaker?”
“You’re just jealous ’cause they’re cuter than that cow you dated in Ky La.”
Bathroom towels, wrapped into whips, snapped like gunfire and I thought they would wreck the hotel room.
“Okay, okay, that’s enough!” I shouted. “Of course, Jimmy, Grandma Phung is right. You’re a young man now. Pretty soon you’ll be finished with college and ready to settle down. I can have Ba Ngoai start looking for a nice Vietnamese girl for you.”
“Whoaa—hold it! Time out!” Jimmy made a T with his hands. “Vietnamese girls are too shy. Tom says you can’t even hold their hands while you’re dancing. All they want to do is practice their English and talk about school.”
“Of course,” I said proudly. “These are village girls! They want to impress you with their seriousness. You have to be patient. In America, finding love is like grabbing a Big Mac. Here, it’s like planting rice. You can’t sow and reap in the same evening, for goodness sake!”
“How about just spreading some fertilizer?” Tommy asked.
I belted him with a pillow myself and the other boys jumped on top of him.
“If you talk like that, you’ll never find a girlfriend in Vietnam,” I said. “These girls are too nice for you!”
I sounded just like my mother. Secretly, though, I could think of nothing better than for my sons to discover the love of their life among the poor girls of Vietnam—I knew what strong hearts and willing hands they could bring to a marriage, to complement and fulfill a good man’s life. I also knew, of course, what any rural girl would be up against in America, even though my boys had my example—written down now, like a textbook!—to advise them. But I wouldn’t hold my breath. There were some things, in the East and West, each generation insists on learning for itself.
We left Vietnam a slightly different family. In many respects, the trip had brought us closer together. The boys had seen their mother’s origin and no longer had to imagine it from books, old photos, and stories. In other ways, though, the hairline gap of age and culture that had always existed between me and my sons now grew into the gulf that always and inevitably separates the generations, especially in the West. I could no longer pretend that my boys were somehow displaced Vietnamese—surrogate villagers provided by god to decorate my life with familiar things. More clearly than I, they saw Vietnam’s wretchedness as part of the bigger wretchedness of all mankind. Their perspective was one of globe-straddling, well-educated Americans—businessmen, doctors, lawyers, artists, whatever they would become—not a country girl with a third-grade education trying to heal in a day the wounds of an entire people. Just as each trip instructed me further about my mission, so it caused me to realize that my American sons truly had life missions of their own. Without question, our lives and missions would intersect from time to time, but their karma was their own. Such is the discovery every mother makes and the lesson every child must learn. As for us, we could not have asked for better teachers.
Back in the United States, the movie rights to my book were optioned by Oliver Stone, an Oscar-winning filmmaker who was a Vietnam veteran himself. He saw in my story the third installment of his great Vietnam trilogy, which began with Platoon and continued with Born on the Fourth of July. We met to discuss the project and I found him to be a down-to-earth, creative person who tried unsuccessfully to hide his big heart and generous spirit. Like so many veterans I had worked with, he still held in a lot of anger about the war. But he also had the god-given soul of an artist, which allowed him to appreciate his feelings and transform them into compelling, and ultimately healing, images on film. I saw in Oliver a kindred spirit who could help my story touch a much bigger world audience that only movies can reach.
He was also a man who liked to make things happen.
Three days after he had asked to see plans for the Mother’s Love Clinic and background information about East Meets West, he donated a check for the amount needed to finish our work. Just as miraculously, as if triggered by this first domino, we received our license from the State Department to build our clinic and our waivers to the 1942 Trading with the Enemy Act. Brick by brick, the wall that had isolated my old from my new country was coming down.
In September 1989, I was back in Vietnam. Several uncles had arrived at Danang and were going to Ky La for the clinic’s grand opening two days hence. I hitched a ride with them and appeared at my mother’s door shortly after sundown.
“I’m going to spend the night in my village,” I announced to my mother and Hai. Once the clinic was opened, the village and its spirits would enter a new life cycle. These would be the last two nights I could recapture the world of my youth.
Hai checked all the windows for eavesdroppers and my mother blew out the lights to discourage visitors. With my uncles, we sat together on the floor like kids telling ghost stories in the dark.
“This reminds me of 1975,” Hai said with a laugh, “when the North took over Danang. Everyone ran to the American Army PX at China Beach because they were giving away the food. I grabbed a couple of empty sacks and went down myself. I was a little angry that the Republicans were charging an entry fee, but I paid and filled my bags. When I came out, a Southern soldier took my loot—yes, just grabbed it. They were using the peasants to do their dirty work! I started shouting and punching the soldier when shots rang out. Somebody yelled ‘Giai phong, giai phong!—Liberate the people!’—and quick as a wink, the Republicans had shed their uniforms and hidden their rifles. The man who had just stolen my bag tried to trade it back for some of my clothes—can you believe it? Anyway, the Northern soldiers surrounded the place. They arrested the Republicans and tied them to the heavy bags so they couldn’t run away, then let the peasants go. I hated to lose that big bag of loot, but it was good to see those bullies get what they deserved!”
Everyone laughed but my mother. “Tonight reminds me of the night the village psychic told me about Sau Ban—”
I stopped laughing, too. This was news to me.
“Somebody told you what happened to my brother?” I asked.
My mother shifted her tiny body on the mat and looked up, as if she could see the stars through our thatched roof.
“Not long ago, Bon Nghe hired an ong thay xac dong down South to locate Sau Ban’s remains. He interviewed a lot of villagers and believes he knows what happened. Sau Ban was serving with a cannon squad in the Dai Loc District just before the Tet Offensive in 1968—just before your father died. He was scouting from a hilltop fort and spotted a column of American tanks. He signaled his gun crew to fire but they missed the lead tank, and a moment later every cannon in the U.S. column had zeroed in on their position. His crew was wiped out in the first salvo, although Sau Ban, who was gravely wounded, was able to crawl away before the American troopers came. He lay in the sun all day until a VC medical team came along and took him to an underground hospital. They arrived about midnight, but it was too late. Your brother died and his body was buried at Dai Hong. Some of the older villagers have corroborated this story. That’s where we’ll go to find him—someday.”
A mosquito buzzed in my ear and I swatted it away. My mother was right. The house—each building in every village—had a spirit separate and apart from the generations of people who inhabited it. That spark of life, granted by Mother Earth, is what animates the world and binds a people to a place. Into this ancient, vibrant web, I was about to introduce a new entity, a place of healing, like a wandering herbalist come to help the sick and give the dying a little comfort. The day after tomorrow, my old world would be gone forever. We could only hope the new one would be better.
After talking a little more about Sau Ban, I turned to my mother, “So, Mama Du, you’re happy with your life?”
“What kind of question is that for an old lady? You have to be my age to realize that just being alive is a blessing—a miracle! From the smallest bug to the biggest whale, everything rejoices at being alive. When you stop to think about it, that’s all that counts. Hai Ngai and the others talk about independence from invaders and I suppose that’s okay. It gives people something to think about from the time they’re born and have everything to learn and the time they die and have forgotten it all. To tell you the truth, I’m looking forward to passing over into the spirit world. We have a lot of new ghosts out here in the countryside.”
“What do you mean, Mama Du?”
“I mean that a lot of people sacrificed in the war have come back as babies, and many of those are now young men and women. They’re dissatisfied with what now passes for peace. They want to make things better and, one way or another, they’re going to do it. How do you think your clinic got built? If the old ghosts didn’t want it, it wouldn’t be here. That’s what this country is all about now, Bay Ly—life, not death. Your clinic is just one of its new green shoots.”
At eight the next morning, all the honored guests had arrived: officials from the Health Ministry and Red Cross; physicians and nurses from town who would rotate shifts in the clinic; minor functionaries from a variety of provincial departments; and, of course, every villager who could walk and many who could not.
Bon Nghe’s crew set up a podium and PA system and a few dozen folding chairs for the dignitaries. From the roof of the clinic, they unfurled two banners: one reading GRAND OPENING, with the Red Cross and East Meets West logos, like a new drugstore in a California shopping mall; the other WELCOME TO THE MOTHER’S LOVE HEALTH CLINIC. A marble plaque by the front door bore this name and the names of many of our benefactors, including Oliver Stone’s.
After a lot of speeches and handshakes the village children in the back were getting restless. I was the last to be asked to get up and say something. As I walked up, it seemed like a thousand years since I had been a little kid like them, but in reality it had been only forty-two years. Forty-two—the Ong Thay’s magic number! I floated to the microphone, amazed and grateful.
My mother was too timid to sit up front, where I had saved her a seat. I spotted her in the back, where she stood proudly in a fluttering ao dai—the one I had seen her wear only twice before in my life: at Sau Ban’s wedding and at my father’s funeral. Next to her in his worn white shirt was my oldest brother, Bon Nghe, head of the Phung Trong family.
After thanking everyone, including fate or luck or god, for giving me a chance to heal myself with this project, I said, “To the people of Hoa Qui, or Ky La, as it was called when I lived here, I want to humbly apologize. Everybody wanted my sisters and me to marry nice village boys and raise traditional Vietnamese families. Well, I didn’t do that. My karma took me elsewhere, to America. I can tell you now, though, from firsthand experience, that America is not your enemy and never was, even during the war. Back then, America picked me up when I was scared and bloody and cared for me and educated me and helped me to raise my three wonderful sons. It made me a citizen and has let me come back with these presents which she gives you freely and without reservations. What she wants more than anything, I think, is to forgive you and be forgiven by you in return. When she comes to you over the next few years with businessmen and tourists and assistance workers, please welcome her with open arms. We are all brothers and sisters. We must all repay our mother’s love.”
Big scissors then cut the red banner and fireworks exploded overhead. Little kids beat on drums and the evil spirits that had been lurking in the swamps grew thin and fled before the joyful noise.