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

EPILOGUE. A Song of Tu and Dao

OUR CLINIC’S FIRST PATIENT was a former soldier who had carried pieces of a fragmentation grenade in his hand for the last twenty years. Government doctors who had last examined him thought the operation was too minor to consume their valuable time, so the patient was advised to “grin and bear it.” Until today, that’s just what he did.

Today, he had come to ask the local doctors if there was anything they could do. They X-rayed the damage and saw three metal slivers embedded near the bone. With the patient lying comfortably on a sparkling white table, the doctors administered a local anesthetic, just arrived from America.

When the hand was numb and swabbed with disinfectant, they began to work, using the X-ray as their guide. A half hour later, they presented three jagged fragments to the soldier as a souvenir, his last from the war.

In the clinic’s log book, the first patient’s name was entered: “Louis Block, U.S. Viet Nam Veteran from Plummer, ID, USA; On tour-of-duty mission with East Meets West Foundation, Oct. 22, 1989; Da Nang, Quang Nam Province, Viet Nam.”

Since the Mother’s Love clinic opened, it has treated more than 16,500 patients and delivered 300 babies. East Meets West is currently constructing a twenty-acre rehabilitation center for the homeless and handicapped amid the white sands and tall pines of China Beach. Called Peace Village, it occupies a site where, exactly twenty-five years earlier, more than 3,500 marines landed to begin the American buildup. Phase one of the project—a full-service medical center that treats over seven hundred patients a day, and a school for a like number of poor children—has already been completed.

Also since the clinic has opened, a bloody and tragic—but blessedly short—American-led war was fought in Iraq, paying off and creating soul debt all its own. The Vietnamese government has ended its military occupation of Cambodia, opening the door to the first real peace in Indochina since before World War II. North Vietnam’s staunch ally, the Soviet Union, has vanished, not even leaving its name. East Germany has met West Germany and that nation no longer stands divided. Except for China, North Korea, and Cuba, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam stands alone, pondering from a distance a world rediscovering freedom. Internally, it has begun a vast policy of doi moi, or economic renovation, designed to improve the standard of living for everyone in the country. The leopard has not changed its spots, but it has certainly changed its diet. Whether this will be enough to save the country is anyone’s guess, but at least it is a start.

For America’s longest war, the circle of vengeance appears to be breaking. The U.S. State Department has devised a four-phase plan for normalization of political and economic relations with Vietnam, beginning with the March 1992 lifting of its ban on organized travel to the country and a grant of $4 million for humanitarian assistance. Further steps depend on continued Vietnamese cooperation in search for American MIAs and progress toward free elections in Cambodia. Hat tieu no be no cay; dong tien no be no hay cua guyen—The pepper is small but hot; the banknote is small but powerful!

Still, not everyone agrees that the circle should be broken.

One Green Beret vet responded to my invitation to return to Vietnam with, “Hell, no, I’ll never go! Not while the Communists are in charge!”

After I gave a lecture on a midwestern college campus, one Vietnamese in the audience asked, “Who is paying you to do this work?”

“Nobody is paying me,” I answered. “Everything I do in Vietnam comes from donations or my own pocket. I have refinanced my house twice and borrowed against my car to raise money. I am ten thousand dollars in debt to my friends. I wish what you say was true, but it simply isn’t. This job has cost me a lot of money.”

Another asks, “In your story you say that the Southern government and the Americans did terrible things to you. What about all the people in the Communist re-education camps right now? What about the POWs and MI As? Why don’t you talk about them?”

I answered, “I would talk about them if I had any information, but I don’t. I only know what others have told me, and that is that the government has exhausted all means of locating their remains. Whenever a reward is offered, people fabricate evidence to get rich. Whenever the government exacts penalties, people complain about brutality. The government wants to put the POW/MIA issue behind them, too, just as much as people in the United States. The problem is, some people in Vietnam, just like some people in America, refuse to admit the war is over. They have been terribly hurt and want to keep on hurting ‘the enemy.’”

A Vietnamese woman stood up and said, “What about the refugees from the South—the boat people and all the hardships we’ve had to endure? We’ve suffered, too! Why don’t you write about us?”

“I didn’t write about the boat people because I did not come over on a boat. Personally, I think every side of the story should be told.”

Another young woman stood up and shouted, “If the Buddha ignores my prayers and lets you live, please take this message back to your Communist masters in Vietnam: Tell them to go to hell! Tell them to let all the people out of the torture camps! When we go back, it will be with guns in our hands and we do not want to find our relatives dead!”

I answered, “Do you really think that forty years of war—with the Japanese, the French, the Americans, the Khmer, and with each other, isn’t enough for us Vietnamese? Do you think that all we need is a few more years of fighting and everything will be fine? Do you think that is what we were put on earth to accomplish?”

After sessions like these, I am usually greeted by older Vietnamese and more mature students, who quietly say things like “It is terrible that some Vietnamese act like that in front of Americans. It makes me feel like a barbarian. I am ashamed to be Vietnamese.”

“Don’t be,” I reply. “Be proud of yourself and our people. Would you scold your child for feeling ill? After all we’ve been through, our future is bound to be wonderful. Ai oi hay o cho lanh kiep nay chang gap de danh kiep sau—Live a good life: if in this existence you do not find happiness, then you surely will in the next.

Time and again, images of healing appear in my talks, in what I write, in my informal conversations, in my dreams. Of course, much of it has to do with my work, but I had not forgotten the words of the Ong Thay Vu Tai Loc and Paul, the medium who told me about the ancient guardian spirit, the medicine man, that has dogged my steps since birth—a higher entity, a soul older even than even my father’s—whose identity would eventually be revealed.

In 1990, I went to Ky La to visit my mother, now eighty-four and more fragile than ever. I knew the number of times we would meet on future trips was numbered, although god only knew what that final number would be.

“Mama Du,” I asked, “if you had one wish, what would it be?” I was hoping she’d give me a clue about something from the West that would make her remaining time easier.

“One wish? Oh, that’s easy,” she said. “You know, after all those years of war, we have relatives scattered in shallow graves all over Vietnam. Their souls are lost and lonely—I can hear them howling, sometimes, when the wind comes up from China Beach. If I had one last wish, it would be to gather up all the remains and bury them in the new cemetery near your father. That would make him happy, I think. And make me very happy, too.”

“Find all the old bodies, eh?” I couldn’t even conceive how that might be done.

“Oh, don’t look so glum,” my mother poked me. “All you need to do is hire an ong thay xac dong.”

“A spirit guide? Like the man who looked for Sau Ban? What can he do?”

“Why, contact the wandering ghosts. They’ll lead him to their graves. All he’ll have to do then is dig them up and bring them to Ky La.”

“How many remains are we talking about?” I asked, still unconvinced.

“About fifty or sixty,” she said as if it were nothing. “Of course, that’s all I can remember. That only goes back six generations. Your father knew about many more.”

My mother seemed very animated by this project and I wanted very much to complete it for her, but my time on this visit was short. Besides, only the head of the family could authorize such an undertaking, and now that was my brother Bon Nghe.

“Surely you’re joking,” he said when I asked.

“No, I’m not. And neither is our mother. I’ve heard stories and seen newspaper articles about some government officials using mediums to try and locate American MIAs. You did it before for Sau Ban. Can we do any less for our ancestors?”

Bon Nghe shook his head and grumbled, but I knew what his answer would be. We had already accomplished bigger miracles than this.

On my next trip to Vietnam in March 1991, the ong thay xac dong Bon Nghe hired greeted me.

“The remains of all your ancestors on your father’s side are waiting for you at the graveyard, young lady,” the nearly toothless old fellow said. “The spirit energy around Quang Nam is a lot lower now that they’ve found a proper place to rest, I’ll tell you! I even sleep better myself.”

I went to fetch my mother and Hai and we followed the ong thay to the cemetery by the old dike road where the reliquary jars, linen-wrapped bone fragments, transplanted caskets, and marble markers were all lined up like troops for inspection.

I had no way of telling if these bones—especially the ones without inscriptions—were true Phung ancestors or not; but my mother seemed happy. I lit a stack of incense and passed in review, praying to each spirit as it identified itself through its tablet or through the ong thay’s voice.

At the end of the line was the oldest ancestor of all. The finely carved antique marble showed that the interred either died very rich or was highly revered by his contemporaries. I placed a smoking stick of incense by the headstone and a chill ran down my spine. The inscription read:

ONG TIEN HIEN THAY THUOC—Ancestral Herb Healer

I dropped the incense but quickly picked it up and replaced it. The tree leaves rustled—a spirit voice laughing. Tu and Dao, it said, the spiritual way and the earthly way coming together as one. Was that so difficult a lesson to learn?

The afternoon sun sank onto the western hills. Workmen placed the remains into a specially excavated plot and carefully arranged the new headstones. My mother and sister Hai stood close together in the sunset, chatting like schoolgirls—rejuvenated by the reunion of so many generations. Farther down, the group from America chatted pleasantly through their guide with a handful of villagers—East meeting West as naturally and easily as the roaring surf kisses the sand at China Beach.

In the distance, the shadow of the old pepper tree by our house inched closer to the Mother’s Love clinic. Now—at last!—it made no difference if the soil beneath my feet was American or Vietnamese. Mother Earth was my home and all her children, my brothers and sisters.

I could feel the herb-man turn over and sleep soundly in his new bed. One dream was ending. Another had begun.