Child of War, Woman of Peace - Le Ly Hayslip, James Hayslip, Jenny Wurts (1993)
PART ONE. Living with the Enemy (1970-82)
1. Yearning to Breathe Free
HONOLULU’S WARM BREEZE caressed me like a mother’s hands. A pretty hula girl put a flowered lei—a victor’s garland—around my neck. For the first time in my life, I gulped the heady air of a world at peace.
May 27, 1970, the day I stepped onto the ramp at Honolulu International Airport after fleeing the war in Vietnam, marked the beginning of my new life as an apprentice American. It may have been my imagination, but the attendants on the big American jetliner from Saigon seemed exceptionally kind to me and my two boys—three-year-old Jimmy (whose father, a wealthy Saigon industrialist, he never knew) and Tommy, the three-month-old son of my new American husband, Ed Munro, whom we were on our way to join. Liberty and goodwill, like corruption and cruelty, seem to hold each other’s hand.
Still, Hawaii was too much like Vietnam to really count as the United States. For one, it was a tropical island—covered with palms and sand—and Honolulu, despite its modern hotels and shops and restaurants, was too much like Saigon: filled with Asians and GIs, tawdry bars and taxis, and people in transit, khong hieu qua khu—without a past or future, like me. The thrill of great America would have to wait for our next landing.
As it turned out, San Diego was another Honolulu, if written on a larger page. Our plane arrived after midnight, not a good time for sightseeing, especially by timid immigrants. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong feared the light, so “friendly” areas—cities, towns, air bases, and outposts—were lit up like American Christmas trees. Perhaps to show it was safe for GIs coming back from the war, San Diego, too, left its lights burning all night.
Ed met us at the arrival gate, just as he’d promised. He had been staying with his mother, Erma, in the suburb of El Cajon. Although he looked tanned and healthy and was a welcome familiar face after thousands of miles of strangers, my heart sagged when I saw him. Born in 1915 (seven years after my mother’s birth) in Mount Vernon, Washington, he was old enough to be my father—no twenty-year-old’s dream husband. Yet, with two brothers and three sisters, he was no stranger to small towns and big families—one reason, in addition to his own maturity, that he understood me so well. His mother had been a waitress at something called a “drive-in” and his father, like mine, had died. Both had been honest, family-loving men who tackled life barehanded. My father had been a farmer who seldom went farther than a day’s walk from our home village of Ky La. Ed’s dad had been a carpenter and hunter who ventured to Alaska: a wondrous place where, Ed said, ice fell stinging from the sky. In all, Ed’s relatives were solid working-class people. Like my peasant family, they loved one another, loved their country, and lived their values every day.
Ed had been married twice before. He knew, as I did, how it felt to lose the game of love. His first wife gave him two sons, Ron and Ed Jr. (navy boys whom we visited in Vietnam), then divorced him and moved to Nevada. His second wife was unfaithful and when Ed found out about it, he did not beat her as a Vietnamese husband would, but sent her a dozen roses and wished her good luck with her new man. In a way, that was what Ed was all about. He put the wishes of those he loved above his own right to be happy. This constant sacrifice, I think, whittled him down and eventually cost him what he treasured most. In this, I would discover, he was not alone among Americans.
The long drive from San Diego’s Lindbergh Field to El Cajon was not much different from a drive to Saigon’s suburbs, except for more cars and fewer motorbikes on the highway’s six broad lanes. Off the freeway, we drove through blocks of tidy homes, all dark except for streetlamps standing like GI basketball hoops in the gloom. We parked in the driveway of a pale yellow house—“ranch style,” Ed said, although I couldn’t smell any animals—and we went up the narrow walk to a front door bright with light. Before Ed could reach the bell, a shadow hobbled up behind the curtain. The door opened onto a large American woman in curlers, backlit in a nightgown as big as a sheet.
Startled, I bowed low—to be polite and to put the big creature out of sight while I collected my sleep-starved wits.
“Ohhh!” Erma, Ed’s sister, screamed, slapping her cheeks, and pulling me to her with beefy arms. “She’s so cute—like a little china doll! I want to hug her to pieces!”
She very nearly did—a big, sloppy American bearhug, a show of emotion no proper Vietnamese would dare display on first meeting. It amazed me how quick Americans were to show affection to strangers, even those their menfolk had gone so far from home to destroy.
“And the children—?” Erma peeked around my helmet of ratted hair. Ed had shown her pictures of my two sons.
“In the car!” He poked a dad’s boastful thumb over his shoulder.
“Ooo—I can’t wait to see them!” Erma scuttled down the walk. “I’ll just eat them up!”
Eat them up—my god! Of course, it was just another American figure of speech. I was beginning to discover that English was as full of booby traps as the jungle outside Ky La.
Anyway, Ed’s new family impressed her, for better and for worse. Jimmy was cranky from crossing time zones, and since he spoke mostly Vietnamese, he cried when this giant brown-haired bear-lady tried to crush him with her paws. Tommy, however, who had slept fourteen hours on the plane and was ready for fun, screeched with delight. Erma knew right away which boy had the bright, upstanding, red-white-and-blue American father and which child was the pitiful third-world refugee. First impressions are lasting. I think that midnight meeting forever biased her in Tommy’s favor, although I never dreamed of saying it.
We unloaded the luggage and put the boys to bed, where I stayed with them until they fell asleep. From the depths of this strange-smelling, thick-walled American house, I listened to Ed and Erma chat in too fast English over coffee. I still didn’t know what to make of my new environment: American kitchens smelled like sickly hospitals, reeking of disinfectant, not Ong Tao, “Mr. Stove’s,” healthy food. The darkness outside the house was as terrifying as a midnight cadre meeting. I wanted to join them and gossip and laugh like real family, but I understood only a fraction of what they said and part of that was whispered, which to me meant danger, not good manners. Fortunately, the deep, even breathing of the kids won me over and I fell asleep, reminding myself to pay special attention to any spirits who might visit me in my first American dream.
My first full day as an American housewife didn’t go so well. I slept poorly in Erma’s tight-sealed house and my body still awoke and made water and got hungry on Saigon time. Nobody explained jet lag to me and I thought my strange waves of sleepiness in the middle of the day and spunkiness at four in the morning were just signs of how out of place Orientals were in round-eyed America. I hoped it would pass, like the flu, without my having to consult the neighborhood psychic or witch doctor.
My alarm clock on that first day was a playful slap on the rump.
“Get up, sleepyhead!” Ed yelled with a grin as wide as the band of sunlight streaming in through the window. He looked so happy to have his wife and family with him again that I thought he was going to burst. Like a slug in my mother’s garden, I slithered around the sunburst to the shower where I took another ten minutes to wake up.
I dressed and made up with great care, partly because of my new surroundings (unlike Vietnamese peasant houses, American homes have their owner’s fingerprints all over them: no two housewives ever put wastebaskets and tissues in the same place!) and partly because I could take no chances with my appearance. Daylight and in-laws are terrible critics.
“Hurry up and dress the kids,” Ed commanded. “After breakfast, I want you to meet my mother!”
In Vietnam, meeting in-laws is always a tricky business. This is true especially when the marriage has not been arranged through matchmakers and the couple are of vastly different ages, let alone races—quen nha ma, la nha chong, I am at home in my mother’s house, but a stranger to my in-laws! I would sooner have met an American battle tank on Erma’s lawn than to walk next door unescorted and introduce myself to Ed’s mother—which, for some unknown reason, was my husband’s harebrained plan.
When Jimmy was dressed and fed (Tommy was still asleep and nobody had the courage to wake him) Ed booted us out and pointed to the shingled green house next door.
“Oh, go on!” he laughed. “You girls get acquainted. Mom won’t bite your head off!”
Well, I certainly hoped not, but Ed hadn’t met a real Vietnamese mother-in-law. Back in Danang, my mother had never accepted our marriage, and so never treated Ed like a new family-member-in-training, with all the horror the position inspires. I dragged my son across the sunny lawn like a goat on the way to the slaughterhouse.
I squeezed Jimmy’s spit-slick fingers and knocked on the door. Dogbarks from hell—we jumped back! The shadow of a big, Erma-like figure waddled toward us behind lacy curtains. A grandmother’s high-pitched voice scolded the yappy dogs.
Had this been a Vietnamese house, I would have known instantly what to do. I would have bowed low, recited the ritual greeting of an unworthy daughter-in-law to the witch-queen who would transform me over the next few years into a deserving wife for her son, then gone into the kitchen and made us both some tea, humbly serving it with two hands, the old-fashioned way. Then I would have sat silently and waited to be instructed.
But this was an American house: a great sand-castle trap for a Vietnamese fish out of water. In Vietnam, a matchmaker would have prepared the way—sold my mother-in-law on my maidenly virtues, few as those might be. Now I would have to do my own selling, encumbered with my fatherless child, remembering how I had lost my virginity not once, but three times: bodily to the Viet Cong who raped me after my kangaroo court-martial; spiritually to Anh, Jimmy’s father, with whom I fell into girlish love; and morally to the sad little GI in Danang who kept my family off the street by paying me four hundred U.S. dollars green money for a last happy memory of my country. By any measure, I was unworthy to stand on this fine woman’s stoop, let alone pretend to the honors and duties of a daughter-in-law. It was only because of my continuing bad karma that the earth did not swallow me up.
Despite my fears, the door opened onto the most angelic old face I had ever seen.
Leatha (whom I would always call “Mom Munro” and never impolitely by her first name) was seventy-five and had silver-blond hair that circled her cherub face the way white smoke twists around a storybook cottage. In Vietnam, such women aged like plucked berries: from the blush of virgin freshness to old age it was quick and downhill. Although a woman’s post-birth buon de ritual, like our daily regimen of outdoor labor, kept our bodies lean and hard, we had no time or money for beauty treatments. Indeed, in a culture where reaching old age was a real accomplishment, we revered our elderly for being one step closer to the ancestors we worshiped. Old women and old men were sometimes mistaken for one another, and that was no cause for shame. In a way, this blending of sexes with its release from the trials of youth—concern for appearance and catching a mate—was one of aging’s big rewards.
But not for Leatha.
Although Ed and Erma later assured me that she was “just an average grandma,” I thought her angelic hair, well-fed happy face, plump saggy arms, solid girth, and movie star makeup made her even more spectacular than the painted Buddhas in the shrine beneath Marble Mountain near my village. Her appearance was even more astonishing, since in Vietnam I had seen no American women over fifty. (Most outsiders were men—soldiers or civilian contractors like Ed—or young female nurses.) Although her big hug made me feel better, I continued to stare at her. I tried to imagine my mother’s face beneath the silver wreath and felt strangely envious and sad. Until I later found out how most Americans treat their elderly parents, the thought of growing old, fat, and pretty in America seemed to be another dividend of peace.
Of course, Leatha knew who I was at once and invited us inside. We talked only a minute before our polite smiles hurt and our rootless conversation slowed to head nods and empty laughter. I volunteered to make tea but she insisted that was the hostess’s duty. Unfortunately, such was my mood that even this unexpected kindness seemed like a slap in the face—a reminder of my foreignness and incapacity. How bad must a daughter-in-law be, I thought, not even to merit a stern lecture on family rules?
Eventually, Ed and Erma came over with Tommy and I felt more at ease. To be strictly proper, I should have sung the “new bride” song in the presence of both my husband and his mother—a kind of ceremonial acceptance of the collar of obedience:
A risen moon is supposed to shine
Except through clouds, when it is dim and weak,
I come young and innocent to be your wife
Please speak of me kindly in your mother’s ear.
People plant trees to grow big and strong,
People have children to prosper and protect them.
I cross my arms and bow my head
To please my husband and his mother.
If I do something wrong, please teach me right.
Don’t beat me or scold me in public
For some will laugh and others will say
The fist is my husband,
The tongue is she from whence he came.
Instead, Ed put his arm around his mother and told her all about Vietnam, leaving out everything of importance in my black and bloody past—most of which he didn’t know himself. Instead, he bragged about his mother’s blue-ribbon pies at the Skagit Valley Fair, and I nodded enthusiastically even though I hadn’t the slightest idea what pies, blue ribbons, or county fairs really were. After Ed’s father died, I learned, Leatha had moved south to California where she took up residence next door to Erma, who shared a house with her husband, Larry, and adult son, Larry Jr., who was seldom around.
I saw much more of her pixie-faced daughter, Kathy, a young woman about my age, who lived with her husband in the neighboring town of Santee. Why Leatha didn’t move in with her daughter, who had more than enough room and could share housekeeping and cooking chores Vietnamese style, was beyond my understanding. I guessed that Americans loved their possessions so much that even a lonely old woman valued her own TV set, kitchen, bathroom, spare bedrooms, and garage for a car she couldn’t drive more than living with a daughter in her sunset years.
Anyway, the longing in Leatha’s eyes told me that she probably would have traded all her possessions for a little room among her family. Her “children” these days were six little dogs that jumped around like kids and yapped at the TV and pestered you for snacks and attention whenever you sat down. She even bought canned food for them at the store, which I thought was the height of decadence.
In Vietnam, a dog was a guardian first, then a pet, and sometimes dinner. It fed itself by foraging, not at the family’s expense. I chalked up Leatha’s behavior to American ignorance, and it helped me feel less like a bumpkin in their magnificent homes. After all, if they knew that the soul of the dog was really a transient spirit (usually a greedy person who had to earn a new human body by suffering a dog’s life—most of it spent guarding someone else’s wealth), they wouldn’t be so quick to put them up on pedestals and deny them penance. I shuddered to think how Leatha’s six “children” must have laughed among themselves in dogbark about their naive American mistress.
Ed and Leatha gossiped away the morning until Erma’s son, Larry, joined us. I soon felt like the decorative china doll Erma had dubbed me when I arrived—just unwrapped and put on a shelf, worthy of an occasional glance but no conversation. Jet lag (as Ed now explained it) soon caught up with me again and, depressed and exhausted, I bowed and apologized in Vietnamese, which I knew would sound more sincere, and went for a nap, leaving Ed to contend with the kids. I fell asleep wondering how quickly Ed’s womenfolk would begin to complain about the “lazy new wife” he had brought to California.
When I awoke, most of our things had been moved from Erma’s house to Leatha’s. Ed preferred the company of his aged mom to imposing on his sister, and I agreed enthusiastically. Whereas Leatha seemed to look down on me as one of her puppies, Erma just seemed to look down. I was not prepared for this reversal of roles, for the sister-in-law was supposed to be the young bride’s ally—someone who would comfort her when the rigors of wife-training got too bad. In America, it seems, who you are is more important than the role society gives you. Even as Ed’s wife, though, I did not seem to be worth too much.
That evening, Erma and Larry came over and I tried to help the women fix dinner. Unfortunately, between my ignorance of American kitchens and a strong desire to avoid looking dumber than I had already, I didn’t contribute much.
The first thing that astounded me was the refrigerator—a two-door monster that dwarfed our knee-high Vietnamese models—every nook and cranny of which was packed with food! It occurred to me that this was why Americans got so big: the bigger the refrigerators, the bigger the people. I thanked fate or luck or god that Jimmy would now grow up to be twice the size of Anh, his wealthy Vietnamese father. For a second I held a fantasy reunion: me, more rich and beautiful than Lien (Anh’s wife who had thrown me out of their mansion when I got pregnant); my mother—plump and queenly as Leatha; and Jimmy—called Phung Quoc Hung in Vietnamese—tall and powerful as an American Green Beret, stooping to shake his father’s little hand. It was a scene that could never come true, although, as everybody said, all things are possible in America.
Erma took out a frosty box with the picture of a glowering green giant (no doubt a character from American fables who devoured children who didn’t eat their vegetables), then a slab of meat, frozen solid in a little Styrofoam boat covered with plastic.
“How we eat this?” I asked as the clumpy peas, hard as marbles, rattled into a pan. I was not ready to live in a country where vegetables and meat were sucked like ice cubes.
“Oh, the peas will cook in no time,” Erma said, adding water and flipping on her stove’s magic, matchless flame. “The round steak we’ll have tomorrow. I’ll just defrost it in the fridge.”
Why not just go to the market and get what you want before you eat it? Maybe that was why Americans had to invent frozen food, so they would have something to put in their expensive freezers. Little by little, I was beginning to understand capitalism.
We sat down for my first American dinner and I shyly waited to see what everyone else did first. I knew some Americans said prayers for their food, perhaps to honor the dead animal they were about to eat, but this seemed like a silly custom. There was a time for praying and a time for eating. Did those same people say prayers when they did other ordinary things—when they made love or went shopping or relieved themselves? I just didn’t understand their reasoning, particularly since Americans didn’t seem like a particularly spiritual people. Their houses lacked shrines for their ancestors where prayers were said. Anyway, I was happy to see the Munros reach for the food all at once—“digging in,” as Leatha called it—like an Oriental family, as soon as we sat down.
My next hurdle was faking the use of their cumbersome eating utensils. In Vietnam, all food was taken with chopsticks or slurped from a bowl. Here, Americans employed as many utensils as the cook had used to prepare the meal. I was sure I’d never master them all, particularly the fork, which everyone held like a pencil, then juggled like acrobats between hands to cut their meat. Why didn’t the cook just slice the food into bite-size strips the way we did in the Orient? I went along with the game as far as I could, grasping my fork like a club and politely smacking my lips very loudly so that Erma and Leatha would know I enjoyed the meal—despite the rich sauces that filled me up after two bites. Fortunately, after a few seconds of this, nobody looked at me anymore and Jimmy and I finished our meal winking and poking each other at the kids’ end of the table.
After dinner, I wanted to show my new mother-in-law that I could be a good housewife, so I volunteered to do dishes. At first, I was shocked by all the uneaten food. In Vietnam, we believed that the more food you waste in this life, the hungrier you’ll be in the next. Then I remembered the full refrigerator and guessed that if people rationed their food as we did in Vietnam, all the freezers and freezer makers would be out of business and go hungry; so, in America, waste was really thrift. I began scraping the plates into the garbage can and, predictably, Ed came up behind me and laughed his amused-daddy laugh.
“No, no,” he said. “Dump the garbage into the sink.”
“What?” I knew he must be kidding. “You want to clog drain?” I might be new to America, but I wasn’t born yesterday.
“It won’t get stopped up. Go ahead. Just dump it down the drain. I’ll show you some magic.”
I peevishly did as he instructed. Okay, Mister Smart Man, if you want to play plumber after your supper, that’s okay with me!
When a heap of leavings blocked the drain, I turned on the tap and stood back. Sure enough, the water started to rise. Without blinking an eye, Ed threw a switch over the stove and the pile of sludge became a shaking, squirting volcano, and miraculously, the pile collapsed and disappeared. The grinding earthquake became a hum and Ed turned off the switch. Tap water ran merrily down the drain.
Pale and humiliated—again—I could only look at the floor. Tears came to my eyes.
“Here now,” Ed put his arm around me. “I didn’t mean to scare you. That’s just a garbage disposal. A motor under the sink grinds everything up.”
I took the wrapper the peas came in and started to shove it down the monster’s rubbery throat.
“No, no,” Ed corrected me again.
I stopped and blew a wisp of hair from my face.
“No paper,” Ed warned, “or bones or plastic or anything like that.”
“But you say put trash in sink!” This American miracle now seemed a little fickle to be real magic.
“No trash. Just soft food.”
Again, I did as I was told, feeling Erma’s critical eyes on my back. With the sink now empty, I could at last get on with washing the dishes—something even an ignorant Vietnamese farm girl knew quite well how to do.
“No, no,” Ed said when he saw me stacking the dishes in the sink. “Just load them in the dishwasher.” He had the same irritating little smile and I had absolutely no idea if he was making fun of me or trying to be helpful.
“What you talk about?” I slammed the silverware into the sink. I was getting tired again and my tone was not properly humble and subservient. I looked over my shoulder into the dining room. Erma and Leatha politely pretended to be absorbed in their coffee and conversation.
“Here—” Ed flipped down the big metal door beside the sink. Inside was a queer wire basket. “Just put the dishes here.” He demonstrated with a plate.
“Okay, but how we wash them when they inside?” It seemed a logical question, but it only made Ed laugh. Under his close supervision, I loaded all the dishes in the stupid machine, wondering how even these mechanically inclined Americans got greasy plates and the tines of their silly, useless forks clean without rags and fingers. When I was finished, he poured some powder into a little box on the door and shut it tight. He punched a few buttons and turned a big dial and the growling noise began again. I thought for a minute that the dishes would be ground up, but the whirring was friendlier this time and I could hear the water splashing.
“See?” Ed smiled proudly. “Nothing to it!”
“Okay,” I replied, “so how long we wait to dry them?” I fished for a dishtowel.
Ed laughed again. “You don’t have to wait. You wipe the counter and go watch TV!”
Okay—I can do that! My first long day in America was coming to an end and I was ready to accept anything he said at face value. I decided I wouldn’t even ask about the machine that put the dishes away.
At the end of the week, Ed went looking for a new construction job so that we could move out on our own. We showed our gratitude to Leatha by doing chores around the house, and Ed even poured a new concrete patio for her backyard. He also paid Leatha rent, although I never knew how much. This last arrangement struck me as odd because, in Vietnam, adult children often lived with their parents to care for them as they got older. Charging even modest rent to your own family seemed like free enterprise gone haywire—a ridiculous contradiction. After all, if the purpose of American freedom was to pursue happiness, what could make a mother happier than to surround herself with her kids? Charging money for something most mothers enjoy seemed silly at best, and in the long run, self-defeating. After all, if you can’t be charitable to your own flesh and blood, why would you be charitable to strangers?
That was not the last contradiction I discovered while living with Leatha. For the first time in our married life, Ed and I had our own room and Tommy and Jimmy shared another. In Vietnam, children sleep with their parents until they are married—who else will protect them from evil spirits that stalk the night? When children sleep alone in Vietnam, we give them a knife or sharp stick with which to defend themselves, or put the skull or teeth of a watchdog by their beds. Some Americans think toy animals—little bears and kittens—have the same power; but, having seen bad war ghosts as a kid, I always put my faith in the stick.
For the year we lived in Vietnam, Ed and I slept with only a curtain between ourselves and the boys. I wore my black pajamas; peasants everywhere in Vietnam slept in their clothes, ready to jump for shelter instantly when explosions or gunfire rocked the night. Even when Ed demanded his husband’s rights, I tried to keep something on because this impulse to stay covered was so strong. The first lesson I learned growing up in a war zone was to be ready to flee at a moment’s notice and never look back. Even in the suburban silence, I couldn’t shake the impulse to stay dressed and keep my money handy. When part of your mind is waiting for shells to fall, it’s hard to concentrate fully on the task at hand, even when that task is making love.
And making love to Ed—or rather, allowing him to make love to me—was always a task. This problem stemmed not only from our age difference but the entire basis for our marriage, which for me was one of survival, not mutual attraction. (One can honor and serve a savior, but passion takes something more.) Another source of my discomfort was the way I had been raised, as well as everything that had happened to me to that point in my life.
For us, the claustrophobic life of the village—where everything was done in groups and nobody had any privacy—caused us to suppress those urges Americans express so freely. In the paddies, when a young man and woman catch each other’s fancy, one will sing a song that requires the other to answer. Leaning on one’s hoe and flirting openly just isn’t the way it’s done. If the girl wants to impress the boy, she does so by working extra hard—gaining a reputation for her serious attitude and dedication to her family. When the boy wants to court the girl, he labors beside her in a village work group, sits nearby during village entertainments (where the young people tell ghost stories or sing songs for the adults), or simply waits to walk with her like a loyal puppy to and from the paddies.
In no case, however, would either reveal their feelings, for that would lead to catastrophe. Sex was a taboo subject, discussed only by distraught mothers and dirty old men. Village girls were brought up to submit to it only for the purpose of creating a family, a duty we took very seriously. When a wife proved barren, in fact, it was her duty to recruit a second or third wife in which her husband could plant his seed. As the old saying went, “A man can have three wives and seven lovers; a woman has but one husband.”
We also had practical reasons for disliking the sexual act. As peasants, we slept in the same clothes we wore in the fields. Coming home at the end of the day, we washed our feet and hands so as not so soil our home and food, and braved the dangers of river bathing as infrequently as we could. Women had no underwear or tampons or sanitary napkins, so our “unclean” period messed up more than our happy mood. Besides, after a long day in the fields (which in summertime could last until two or three in the morning, since the daytime was too hot for work), nobody felt like sex—for recreational, procreational, or any other reason.
Even our clothing contributed to our puritanical habits. Our lightweight pants were held up with a single drawstring which, when tightly knotted, posed a formidable obstacle to sex or even urinating in the fields. (We would simply pull up a loose pant leg rather than wrestle with the knot.) In fact, my introduction to this symbolic difference between East and West came when my American boyfriends—and later Ed—gave me Western-style underwear with an elastic waistband. In America clothes implied “no waiting;” in Vietnam, they declared “no way.”
So Ed inherited everything I had learned to mistrust and dislike about sex. As a child, I never saw any form of sexual contact until my own double rape at the hands of the Viet Cong. Not even teenage hugging and kissing were permitted. When my female relatives learned of my impending marriage to an older American, they balanced their disapproval with relief that I would at least receive dispensation from sex. “Chong gia vo tre,” they would say with a wink, “Old husband, young wife,” recalling the title of a cautionary folktale on that subject. Older men were thought to care less about physical pleasure; and every girl carried within her chaste distinctions about fatherly—as opposed to husbandly—love.
In reality, Ed’s sex drive was stronger than anyone imagined—fully equal to that of the young Americans I’d known in Danang. In bed, I would let Ed jump on and jump off (frequently twice a day), trying to hurry the process as much as possible. I’d had younger lovers before, of course, and had learned what to pull and where to push to give a man what he needed—but it was all very mechanical, like a machine in a factory. Although I knew the secret attraction every woman feels for forbidden fruit—the delicious inner tingle one gets from a flirtatious glance or the accidental brush of a young man’s hand—I neither felt nor expected pleasure during the act of sex. I had been instructed only too well that such was not the woman’s privilege. Romance for me remained in the heart and mind, not the body. What you don’t know exists, you do not think to ask for, even in the language of love.
Anyway, my string-tied pants and stern moral upbringing were barriers to more than sex. The only dress I had on arrival in America was an ao dai, the traditional long-paneled tunic worn by Vietnamese ladies since ancient times. On my first Saturday (shopping day in America), I would find out that dressing up in a way that was right in my old country was very wrong in my new one.
In Vietnam, we had two kinds of shopping: dao pho mua sam, which is “dress up and go to town”; and di cho, which is to buy food in the local market. So when Ed said, “Get dressed, we’re going to get groceries,” I assumed he meant we were going to the neighborhood fish market.
“I am dressed,” I answered, pointing to my black pajamas—the kind I had worn to the village market all my life.
“Not that!” Ed almost choked. “People will think you’re lazy or sick. Put on pants or a dress. You know, something you’d wear outside.”
Ed’s huffy tone left me confused and a little insulted. Although I was young, I wasn’t stupid or without experience. I knew my ao dai would leave me overdressed for haggling with fish peddlers, but with my lousy record of mistakes, I figured it was better to be safe than sorry.
Although I was dressed and perfumed for a night on the town, everyone else was dressed for the beach—or bedroom.
“Look at that girl!” I whispered to Ed as we approached the local Safeway. Her big breasts bounced around inside a spongy tube top. Ed had already noticed. Behind her came another woman in high, creased shorts that showed things her doctor would be ashamed to see. I was scandalized and grateful I had left my innocent kids at home with Leatha and Erma. These housewives and schoolgirls were more provocative than anything I had seen outside the sleaziest nightclubs in Danang. In my country, a polite woman hid her body out of consideration for society (what man could work with such distractions?) as well as self-respect. If we felt free to dress like tramps, the men around us would feel free to behave like bums. In a war zone, temptation was the same as provocation.
“So, you don’t like my pajamas, eh?” I poked Ed in the ribs. “Maybe next time I shop in my underwear!” The spirits guarding Safeway, obviously pleased at my proper attire, opened the door with unseen hands.
That’s when I noticed: American markets don’t smell like markets at all. Everything is canned, packaged, wrapped in cellophane, and hidden in boxes where, instead of seeing and smelling the fruit or vegetable or meat or whatever, you get a pretty picture of what the seller wants you to think the product looks like. You pay so much money for a pretty picture! Everything in the supermarket reeked of freon or cleanser or corrugated cardboard boxes. How was I to tell if my husband’s steak and potatoes—hidden behind plastic and frost in a refrigerator too cold to touch—was fit to eat? And the produce counters weren’t much better. Everything was air conditioned or on crushed ice. I felt as if I were visiting a “fruit hotel” rather than picking out tomorrow’s dinner. It was all so strange that my stomach began to hurt. Ed mistook my pained expression for amazement.
“So—what do you think of our big American supermarkets?” he asked proudly, steering our huge metal cart down the aisle. “Pretty impressive, huh?”
“Oh, there are too many choices!” I replied, trying to find something nice to say. “And the wagon they give you is very nice,” which was true enough. I was used to shopping day by day, not for a week of groceries at a time.
Ed stopped in the middle of a rainbow of packages.
“Here now,” he said, adjusting his glasses like a professor, “you always say we don’t eat enough rice—what do you think of this?”
He waved his hand along the shelf. From the pictures on the labels, all the boxes contained rice, although I had no idea what distinguished one kind from another. Of course, I had complained (in the nicest way possible) that I sorely missed my daily bowl of rice. The Munros were a steak and potatoes family and liked thick sandwiches of bread and meat for lunch instead of the greens and rice and noodle soup even wealthy Orientals preferred.
In the village, we had a dozen names for rice depending on its stage of preparation. Generally, we had three kinds of finished rice: tam rice, or bran rice, which was fit only for animals and beggars; brown (or “autumn”—gao mua) rice, which most of us ate every day; and sweet rice, called xoi—the white kind served at ceremonies, on holidays, or sacrificed to our ancestors. Here, Americans ate Spanish rice, fried rice, converted rice, steamed rice, wild rice, paella rice, rice pilaf, risotto rice, and dozens more I couldn’t pronounce. Ed must’ve thought I had been a poor rice farmer, because I couldn’t tell the difference. Finally, I grabbed a nice-looking box.
“Great,” Ed said. “What kind did you get?”
Timidly, I showed him.
“Uncle Ben’s?” he said. “Why Uncle Ben’s?”
“The label,” I tapped it like a smart American shopper. “I want number-one rice for family, right? So, this brand called ‘Uncle Ben.’ Vietnamese call trusted friend ‘Uncle,’ right? Like ‘Uncle Ho’ for Ho Chi Minh? So, Uncle Ben must be very good rice—trusted very much by all Americans, right?”
Ed laughed again and shook his head. I began filling the cart with Uncle Ben’s but Ed stopped me after a few boxes.
“Whoa—hold on!” he said. “We aren’t feeding the whole neighborhood!”
I was still battling old reflexes—to clean out American goods for resale on the black market. Our credo had been: Stash, hoard, and survive. It was also customary in the Orient to buy rice in hundred-kilo bags, not tiny boxes printed like colorful storybooks. As things turned out, it wasn’t the kind of rice I thought it was after all, and Leatha let me spoil a batch before stepping in to show me how converted rice was cooked. She, too, must’ve thought I was a terrible farmer as well as an incompetent wife. Imagine—an Asian woman who can’t cook rice!
When we went to the checkout counter, the male clerk, seeing my ao dai, gave me a nasty stare. It was an expression I had seen before—mostly from Vietnamese in Danang who disapproved of my American boyfriends—but here it was something more. The clerk was too young to have been in the service, but he had the warrior’s look: hate and fear and sorrow all mixed. Maybe he had a brother or father killed in my country. Maybe he was just one of the many Americans I would meet who were so fed up with the war that they hated anyone who reminded them of it.
Still, this was his country, not mine, so I lowered my eyes. I tried to make myself look humble and even smaller, which was easy next to my big American husband.
Like many in my village, I never really hated American soldiers. We resented them for invading our country, of course, but we didn’t take it personally. As a rule, they weren’t mean to us for meanness’ sake—like the Moroccans or Koreans, or the Japanese in World War II. Americans’ funny racial differences—big noses and round eyes on long faces—were objects of amusement and sometimes fear, but seldom hate. As a result, I was surprised to see those embers glowing in the eyes of this angry young clerk.
Even worse, I began to take it personally. I thought I must look funny or was standing or gesturing in some way that gave offense. I tried to summon up the guilt I often felt for planting jungle booby traps as a twelve-year-old conscript for the Viet Cong. What had once seemed right and necessary now seemed cruel and useless. Had I actually helped to wound or maim this young man’s brother? Had I led his hapless father into a Viet Cong ambush? Today, the breezy, bustling Americans around me seemed no more threatening than a load of tourists. War and “real life” were now as opposite as night and day. War guilt, I had learned, was partly the chagrin you feel for outliving a crisis that once consumed you. One does not strike a match where there is no darkness, although one may still be afraid of the dark.
So I tried to play the role this young man gave me, but I could not. What alarmed me most was the racial anger that popped up inside me like the flame on a GI’s lighter. People can reason about anything they have the power to change, like their attitude or their clothes, but when condemned for their race they react like cornered rats. I longed for my father’s spirit to cool me, as it had so often those last years in Vietnam. “Con o dau—ong ba theo do,” he used to say, assuring me that wherever his children wandered, our ancestors would surely go to comfort and protect us. But how could they find me so far from home? More than a stranger in a strange new land, I was becoming a stranger to myself. I didn’t like that feeling one bit.
The clerk rang everything up and Ed didn’t haggle about price or freshness, and when the boy told us how much we owed, I almost fell over. Ed, however, wasn’t fazed. Instead of handing out cash, he simply wrote the amount on a slip of paper, which he signed and tore out of a book.
“What’s that?” I asked.
“A check. I’m paying for our groceries. Surely you’ve seen somebody write a check!”
“Of course!” I sniffed. I didn’t want to appear ignorant in front of the surly cashier.
“Well, maybe our American checks are different,” Ed said softly as the clerk copied down more numbers from some cards Ed showed him. “You see, the store gives the check to our bank, which gives them money for us.”
No money for food! I was astonished, Just a paper check! No wonder Americans eat so much! And no wonder wealthy Vietnamese were the only people in my country to use banks. That’s how the rich got rich—because the banks paid all their bills! It also explained why Ed guarded his checkbook the way I guarded my kids. Checks were better than money!
Over the next few weeks, I met many more of Ed’s friends and relatives. Usually, I served them tea Vietnamese style, offering the cup with both hands and bowing slightly when they took it. Word must have gotten around, because sometimes they would clap after my “performance.” Each visitor would congratulate Ed on his beautiful young wife—as if I were a new TV set or lawn mower—ask me how I liked America, then begin talking to Ed as if I weren’t there. True, my English wasn’t the best, but I understood a lot and was willing to learn more. For some reason they always asked me questions through Ed—although he spoke no Vietnamese—and I was assumed to be incapable of anything except pouring tea, looking pretty, and caring for my children, who were greeted with a mix of amusement and distaste. “Cute kids,” I would hear them say, “but such urchins—especially the one that isn’t Ed’s.” Did they think I didn’t have ears?
During these long conversations, I often wondered what these “wise” Americans really knew about life and living, let alone death and survival. How many of them had their world split in two—saw brother fight brother with bullets, bombs, and bayonets? How many had their homes invaded by strange-looking, strange-smelling giants? Had to hide in leech-filled swamps or were tortured with snakes and electricity for information they didn’t have? How many sent wives and husbands and brothers and sisters out to work in the morning only to have their pieces come back in a basket? What had their cozy houses and bulging refrigerators and big, fast cars and noisy TV sets really taught them about the world: about back-breaking labor, bone-grinding poverty, and death’s edge starvation? Could they imagine their sons and husbands, so peaceful and happy in civilian life, coming into my village and making old men and women beg for their lives? “Xin ong dung giet toi!”—“Please, sir, don’t kill me!”—was our standard greeting for the American boys in uniform who came our way.
We once watched a TV war correspondent interview a young GI in front of a burning village.
“Do you think your operation was successful?” the journalist asked.
“Yeah, we burned down a lot of Charlie’s homes and destroyed the village—really killed a lot of gooks!” the soot-faced young man said with a big grin.
I could only imagine the wailing villagers, unseen by the camera and Ed’s relatives. How successful had the “operation” been for them? Did anyone realize how many lifetimes we villagers crammed into our first twenty years on earth? Tre chua qua, gia da den—Before youth has left, old age has come! Did Ed’s relatives realize what an old lady looked back at them through the tear-moistened eyes of Ed’s “lovely young bride”?
When I started crying like this—“for no reason at all,” Ed would say after the visitors had gone—I felt more foolish than ever. “The poor dear is homesick,” Leatha would say, just out of hearing. “She misses her mother,” and that was true enough. “She’s just a spoiled crybaby,” young Kathy would add, going off to her own lovely house and young husband. Erma would sniff into her coffee mug after glancing around to see if I was near, and say things like, Not that she lifts a finger to help out. She leaves long black hairs around the house and those poor children would starve if I didn’t fix them a proper meal. Nothing but rice and noodles—how can they live on that? And she never socializes with our guests, have you noticed? Just bows and bats her eyes, then goes into her dream world. Lord knows what she thinks about—probably all the things Ed’s going to buy her. He’s going through his second childhood, all right, and he’s found the perfect playmate!
To tell the truth, I didn’t feel like much of a playmate, or even much of a wife or mother. Because Ed enjoyed telling the story of how we met—on a Danang street corner through a girlfriend of mine who used to be a hooker—his family concluded I had been a streetwalker. Even in their more charitable moods, they seemed sure I’d married Ed for his money and a life of ease in America. They couldn’t conceive of mere survival as a motive, with gratitude, not greed, the consequence.
I tried to solve their problem with my hair, which now flowed like a waterfall down to my waist, by lopping it off with kitchen scissors—short, like a Chinese rice-bowl haircut. I redoubled my efforts to impress both Leatha and Erma in the only way I knew—by working harder and longer than anyone, but even this tactic only widened the gap between us. When I tried to wash clothes by hand, Erma chided me for not using the automatic washer and dryer. When I scrubbed the floor on my knees, Leatha chuckled at my stupidity and told me to use the mop. When I cooked good fish and rice, they turned up their noses and wondered why I was starving “my boys” of old-fashioned meat and potatoes. When I picked up my kids and carried them around, even when they weren’t crying—handling them the way all kids need to be handled if they are to learn love and affection—Leatha pointed to the playpen and said, “Leave them alone, or they’ll never become independent!” In a land of instant gratification and miracle conveniences, apparently, there was no room for a spontaneous show of love through the labor of one’s heart and hands.
On top of it all, whenever the women took me shopping, the only sizes I could wear were in the children’s department, so the kids and I bought our clothes together. I felt more like a foster child than an honorable daughter-in-law with a family of my own.
After a few weeks of this, I began to hate myself as the useless teenager everyone supposed me to be. I hated my hair for being Oriental black, not European brown or blond or silver. I hated my body for being Vietnamese puny and not Polish plump or German hardy or big-boobed and long-legged like the glossy American girls Ed ogled on the sidewalk.
For that matter, being married to “my father” made me feel even more like a child, which was how I responded as a wife, and I hated myself for that. Unable to communicate with anyone in any of the ways I knew, I felt alone, like a stone at the bottom of the sea.
As much as I hated the war, I began to miss Vietnam very much—not for the dangerous and depressing life I used to live, but for the home and family I remembered as a child. The more I tried to make such a family here, the more I ached for the one I had left behind. I waited like a puppy for the American mail carrier, hoping for a letter or postcard from my family. At sunset, I would sit in Leatha’s yard and sing to the blood-red sun—in the direction of my absent mother—but the palms of Southern California were not magical sau dau trees, and my soul did not flower in the dirt beneath my feet.
Worst of all was when we gathered after dinner for an evening of TV, which in those days always began with war news from Vietnam—the U.S. invasion of Cambodia and the Kent State massacre that had followed.
“Look at those awful people!” Erma would say when stories about “Viet Cong atrocities” filled the screen. To her and Larry, the enemy had one face. Ed and Leatha, like me, just sat in silence, speaking only when Jimmy’s playing got too loud or little Tommy began to cry. I understood the newscasters, and the pictures spoke for themselves. But where the Munros saw faceless Orientals fleeing burning villages, tied up as prisoners, or as rag dolls in a roadside trench (even innocent villagers were “VC” or “Charlie”), I saw my brother Bon Nghe, who fought twenty-five years for the North; my mother’s nephew, who was a lieutenant for the South; my sister Lan, who hustled drinks to Americans in Danang; and my sister Hai, who shared sleepless nights with my mother in our family bunker at Ky La. I saw floating on the smoke of battle the soul of my dead brother, Sau Ban, victim of an American land mine, and the spirit of my father, who drank acid to avoid involving me again with Viet Cong terrorists. I saw in those tiny electronic lines, as I saw in my dreams, the ghosts of a hundred relatives, family friends, and playmates who died fighting for this side or that, or merely trying to survive.
When the news changed to a story about a little girl who fell into a well, however, the whole room filled with compassion. In the Vietnam newsreel, children and women and old people had been blown to bits and everyone just yawned, because they were the enemy—bad guys on a real-life “cops and robbers” show. Now that one little girl-in-the-well made my in-laws weep bitter tears: because she was one of them. I wanted to tell these kind, well-meaning, but ignorant people the truth about my war, their war—our war—that my brothers and sisters and that poor trapped little girl were really all one family.
But I didn’t know the words, even in Vietnamese.
After striking out in his local job search, Ed finally decided to accept a contract with his old employer in a place called Utah. Ed decided we would visit Yellowstone Park before he reported to work. Erma said it would be a great chance for me to see the country, but I think she and Kathy were secretly pleased to see me leave. When it came time to plan our trip, I was not surprised when they volunteered to keep Tommy in order to make our travels easier. I didn’t like the idea of leaving one of my boys with near-strangers, but their affection for Tommy seemed genuine and they were his blood relations. With a strained smile, I agreed.
On the appointed day, we packed the car and pulled out of the driveway. The last thing I saw was Kathy grinning on the curb, holding my little boy like a prize and waving his tiny arm as we drove away.
“Oh, turn off the waterworks!” Ed said gruffly, trying to cheer me up. “Tommy will have a wonderful time. The girls will treat him like he was their own.”
I cried even harder.
Within hours of leaving San Diego, though, I had other things to think about: big, desolate America had swallowed us up. The horizon jumped back and I felt smaller and more insignificant than ever. If Vietnam were a delicate teacup, America—with its craggy peaks and endless, dusty plains—was a gigantic banquet platter, inviting hungry immigrants from all over the world to come and sup, to indulge their appetite for a better life. Still, immigrants like me don’t arrive with our dreams full-blown. Rather, it seems, we expand our hopes to fit this country’s vast horizons.
When our car radio went fuzzy, I sang all the songs I knew (in Vietnamese, of course—Ed couldn’t understand a word) and realized that for the first time in five years I could shout anything I wanted—about the damned Viet Cong or greedy Republicans or backbreaking paddy work, or ridicule American soldiers—and not get into trouble. In America, I was as big as my voice and I liked that feeling a lot.
When we were still driving at sunset, however, I began to get nervous. In Vietnam, driving after dark in the middle of nowhere was a quick ticket to your next life. Even if you escaped the land mines and enemy patrols, you could easily be ambushed by what we Vietnamese called “cowboys”: renegade Republican soldiers or big-city gangsters who robbed and killed anyone who traveled unescorted—crimes usually blamed on the Viet Cong. Although my head reassured me that the war was thousands of miles away, my heart told me to play it safe.
“You drive down middle,” I said, nudging Ed’s arm. I knew mines were usually seeded on the shoulder of the road and that cowboys often rolled boulders down from narrow passes to stop a car. I supposed that was why smart Americans painted yellow guide lines in the middle of their highways.
“Don’t be silly,” Ed replied. “You want us to get killed?”
We chased our headlights into the deepening night and I only felt worse and worse. Finally, a car pulled up to pass.
“Good,” I blurted out as the vehicle—our convoy—roared by on the left. “Keep up with him! Don’t let him get away!” The sight of those big taillights ahead of us in the vast American wilderness was immensely comforting and I didn’t want to lose it.
“What?” Ed laughed. “You’re crazy! He must be going ninety!”
I clamped my lips over gritted teeth and didn’t say another word. Fortunately, our next stop was at a place that was famous for its lights.
Ed’s sons, Ron and Ed Jr., had just left the navy and lived in Las Vegas. I assumed a family reunion would be the main reason for our visit—what else could you do in the middle of a desert?
I soon found out.
We arrived about midnight, but the streets were as bright as day. All I could think of was Saigon, which had the same effect on me when I arrived there as a teenager a half-dozen years before. We were inside a giant jukebox, with the tunes of a thousand upside-down lives spinning all around us: sailors five hundred miles from the sea; husbands looking for girlfriends and wives looking for lovers; poor people dreaming of riches and rich people terrified of losing whatever they had.
Ed told me a joke about a man who “struck it rich” in Las Vegas, arriving in a ten-thousand-dollar Cadillac and leaving in a forty-thousand-dollar bus! I knew we were not among the people arriving rich, despite our comfortable (and by Vietnamese standards, lavish) lifestyle, when Ed told me to look for a motel. I pointed to the first building I saw, a towering high-rise with uniformed doormen, and he said, “No, a motel, not a hotel.”
More American word tricks. “Okay,” I asked, “what is difference between hotel and motel?”
“About fifty bucks a night,” Ed replied, and laughed his big-daddy laugh.
Finally, he spotted a place he liked and we checked in. It was too late to call Ed’s sons, so I suggested we go to bed. Ed would hear nothing of it.
“You don’t come to Las Vegas to sleep!” he exclaimed, astonished at my latest stupid idea. “I’ll call a baby-sitter so we can go gamble.”
Gambling I understood; but calling for someone to sit on my baby was something else. My worry showed on my face.
“You know,” Ed explained, “a person to look after Jimmy.”
“You mean Ron and Kim?”
“No, a baby-sitter.”
“You mean a friend you know in Las Vegas?”
“Nope. You just call the front desk and they send someone up, like room service. Watch.”
He picked up the phone and a few minutes later a teenager in high-spun hair, miniskirt, and bracelets appeared at our door. My mouth dropped open. No way was I going to leave my child with a stranger, let alone a girl young enough to need a nanny herself. Besides, when it came to strangers, I’d heard rumors about Asian children being kidnapped for sale on the black market—and my beautiful little Jimmy had all the best features of his race. No way, Charlie! We had escaped cowboys on the highway and I wasn’t about to press my luck. Ed could go gamble if he wanted to; I would stay with my baby.
Five minutes later, on our way to the casino, Ed explained how he hadn’t brought a pretty wife to Las Vegas just to wander around like a bachelor. Frowning, sleepy, and miserable, I followed him into a giant room that looked like a cho, a frenzied Vietnamese meat and vegetable market.
“Here’s ten bucks,” Ed said, slipping a bill into my hand. “Turn it into a million.”
I stared at the money as Ed disappeared into a canyon of one-armed bandits. As well-off as we were, Ed rarely gave me cash for anything; he either bought it at my suggestion, gave me a check, or used one of several plastic cards. The first thing I thought of was how much ten dollars in “green” money would buy in Danang: a week’s worth of food for me, my mother, and Jimmy; or enough PX goods to breed five times that amount on the suburban black market.
I also recalled how many Vietnamese men had a special weakness for gambling, so it was not something daughters and wives approved of. In the village, whenever we kids passed a man whose habit had harmed his family, we softly sang, “Co bac bac thang ban; cua nha ban het ra than an may”—“Gambling is the uncle of the poor and miserable; bet your house and lose your belongings, win a new job as a beggar!” We didn’t sing it to be mean, but to show the man we cared about his family. Anyway, despairing of my husband’s order, I changed the whole thing into nickels, which had a comforting heft, and began depositing them into the slots like a child feeding goats at the zoo.
Fortunately, Ed wasn’t much of a gambler either. I felt a little better when I returned a few dollars a couple of hours later. The Chinese say “where there is no gain, the loss is obvious,” and we Vietnamese know the opposite is true as well.
To my great relief, Jimmy survived being sat on by his rock-and-roll nanny, and the next day’s visit with Ed’s sons went well. Being Vietnam veterans, they understood not only some of what I had gone through, but what both veterans and Vietnamese were still going through in America: the “baby killer” sneers for them and the smoldering “VC Commie” looks for me. We all had regained the ability to see each other as people instead of shooting-gallery targets, and I felt a little sad for ever having accepted war as a way of life. I would later find out that this strange, out-of-body feeling of disconnectedness from life and helpless shame over the past was what many U.S. vets called guilt. I could hear it crackle in the voices of Ed’s sons and see its shadow in their eyes. In this respect, encountering a Vietnam vet (soldier or civilian, it didn’t matter), whether he hated, respected, or just tolerated me, was like finding a long-lost cousin. A distant cousin may dislike you, but you are united by a bond of blood. For many Vietnamese and Americans alike, the blood bond of battle was stronger than the blood tie of birth. We were all orphans of the same shattered dream.
In Utah, the job Ed had been promised fell through, so after another night in a motel we drove straight on to Yellowstone. I was secretly pleased we didn’t stay in Utah. The Indian name must’ve meant “rocks and dirt”! I felt more at home once we had climbed into the mountains. The superhighway narrowed to more Vietnamese proportions and the view beyond the windows turned cool and green. Eventually, we passed patches of funny white dust—like China Beach!—by the road, then more and more of it, piled even on the rocks.
“What on earth is that?” I asked Ed, rolling up my window. The air had turned frosty like a draft from Erma’s freezer.
Ed laughed his famous laugh and I knew I was about to get another lesson on America. “Don’t you know what that is? That’s snow! You know—frozen water!”
I knew Ed was kidding, because frozen water was ice cubes. Nobody would go to the trouble of freezing water then grinding it up and dumping it all over the ground for miles and miles, especially where nobody lived.
Ed saw my doubtful expression and pulled the car off the road. He grabbed Jimmy like a sack of potatoes and plunked him down in the nearest patch of white. Jimmy started to laugh, then cry, then laugh again. I knelt and put my hand in the snow. It crunched like cotton candy and was very, very cold.
“Ow!” I pulled my hand back. “It burn! Where does it come from?”
“The sky,” Ed said cryptically.
More American magic. I glanced upward, half expecting a freezerload of ice cubes to tumble down on my head. It was strange to feel cold in a green forest—another American contradiction: a freezing jungle.
Farther down the road, we parked with other tourists and Ed led us from the car. I walked, bundled up like an Eskimo, to the edge of a boiling pond. I cried out and jumped back.
Ed, in shirtsleeves, holding Jimmy’s hand, asked, “What’s wrong?”
“My god! It’s hell! I see pictures!”
Buddhists, like Christians, believe in the heaven and hell vividly explained to them as children. One difference is that Vietnamese think virtually nobody makes it to heaven whereas Western saints admit almost everyone if they repent before they die. Unlike Christians, though, we Buddhists must atone for the sins of many former lives, not just our current incarnation, so a simple deathbed confession won’t do the job.
For example, if I spent my life accumulating wealth and never helped the poor, I might return in my next life as a beggar until I learned the rule of charity. Even good souls have to spend ninety days in limbo before they’re assigned a future. It’s not that the cosmic god is cruel; just practical. Consequently, his holy men on earth talk mostly about hell because that’s where their congregation is likely to wind up. As a Buddhist, I knew from what I had already been through in my short life that I must be atoning for a lot of bad karma.
That day, I remembered especially one book a monk gave me when I was young. It showed ordinary people with the heads of beasts. One man had the head of a water buffalo and another looked like a terrible devil. The buffalo-man, they said, had been cruel to animals, and the witch-headed fellow had had evil thoughts when he was alive, so these were their punishments in hell. The idea that these pictures were really clever symbols meaning something else—that “bull-headed” and “malicious” thinking could create a hellish life—never occurred to us. The notion that a bad act in life would lead to retribution in kind after death, though, made us little kids really sit up and take notice.
The worst picture, I thought, was one of a beautiful woman hanging upside down over a boiling pond, tormented by demons. The devils were sawing off parts of her body and throwing them into molten lava—the punishment for someone who cheats on her husband. The idea of body parts writhing like skewered worms made me sick with horror. A village elder, of course, might have seen in the picture a symbol of how broken vows can “dismember” a family, but such thinking was for monks and wise men, not little kids. Because I was ashamed of many things I had done in Vietnam and was now questioning my new marriage in America, I teetered on the edge of that boiling pond like a woman poked by demons.
“Be careful”—Ed steadied me with a hand—“people have fallen in there and died.”
“I don’t want to see this,” I blurted out, shivering and confused, and ran back to the car.
I heard Ed tell Jimmy in a fatherly voice, “That’s okay. Mama’s just tired. We’ll go see something more fun.”
We drove farther into the mountains with the heat on full blast for my benefit—past wedges of snow plowed against the curvy highway. After a while we came to another smoking lake that Ed thought would cheer me up. But when we pulled up to this smoking lake, surrounded by mist and shadows and looking very much like the home of the Buddhist’s Mang Xa snake—a fire-breathing monster—I refused to get out. “You go ahead,” I told Ed. “Show Jimmy the sights. I’m too cold to walk around.”
“Okay,” Ed said. “We’re just going to climb the bridge. We’ll be back in a jiffy.”
I didn’t know how long a jiffy was, but it was long enough to do a lot of worrying. As they were about to disappear from the foggy windshield, I saw something that confirmed everything I had suspected about the United States.
From the edge of the forest, a lone stag approached the lake, antlers bobbing above its shoulders. In the face of such terror—before the very gates of hell—the deer was proud, calm, and strong. I knew then that America really wasas magical as I had heard—that the mystical things I had been taught as a child were true. To Buddhists, the deer is a symbol of goodness, purity, and peace. When their antlers are prepared nai to—cut as buds and ground into a potion—they are said to cure illness and extend life, like the unicorn horns of Western myth. Even more startling, in one of our stories of a great smoking lake, the Buddha himself crossed a bridge and was confronted by the serpent. Instead of crying and trying to run away like other people, the Buddha reached out and quenched the flames with his compassion. Now, in the middle of this hell on earth, I had seen with my own eyes the symbol of purity come down to quench his thirst at the lake of evil. This was no coincidence—and was possibly an omen for me. In a land where ponds boil and ice falls from the sky, my son had walked the Mang Xa lake and been kissed by the Buddha deer. Good and evil lie down together and peace blooms like the buds of enchanted antlers. This was why Americans revered this holy place. This was what America is all about!
When Ed and Jimmy came back with rosy cheeks and smoky breath, I gave them each a big hug and asked Ed when we were going to eat. I was starving now and ready for anything from the great American banquet.
We returned to San Diego and four months passed before Ed’s Utah boss recalled him. Our life didn’t improve much in the interim because we were “short-timers” in San Diego and Ed’s faith in his old company kept him from seeking employment elsewhere and allowing us to move away from my in-laws and into a house we could call our own.
Not knowing what his future held, Ed began to smoke too much. Like a dutiful wife, I told him to cut down, pouting like a child when he barked back. When we argued I called him an old man, which to a Vietnamese is a compliment, not a curse. With the best of intentions, I would say, “Old men shouldn’t smoke so much!” Ed always took it like a bullet through the heart. Leatha pulled me aside after one of these exchanges and told me never to shout at my husband—her perfect son—again. I found myself responding more like an American wife than a Vietnamese daughter-in-law: with frowns and grunts instead of chastened silence. I began to realize why so many American relatives—fractured by hectic, materialistic lives—preferred to live apart. Like leaky pots hastily mended, broken hearts can’t hold much love.
Our bedroom life, for me at least, went from bad to miserable. After Tommy was born, Ed had had a vasectomy. This tinkering with god’s plumbing seemed to change other things as well. “The blocked ditch always overflows,” my father had said, and he was right. Tormented by backed-up seed (or freed, perhaps, from worry about another child), Ed became insatiable. To make matters worse, the false teeth Ed wore (which he never removed in Vietnam) came out with the stars, contributing nothing to the appeal of this wheezing old giant who loomed over me like a rain squall twice a day.
Fortunately, Ed’s return to work gave us both relief from our frustrations: me from sex, Ed from his fear of aging. Everyone had told him (sometimes joking, sometimes not) that he was too old for construction work. He’d only laugh and give his almost-a-teenage wife a squeeze or bounce his feisty son on his knee to prove them wrong. Now his old boss had confirmed the myth he had been trying to prove in bed, so he gave up trying so hard with me. Our drive north, with both the boys this time, was much happier than the first.
We arrived in Orem, Utah, on a hot August night and the next day went looking for a place to live. Neither of us wanted to settle down in Utah and Ed knew his project wouldn’t last forever. Because, as a construction man, he was used to living in mobile homes and I had seldom lived in a place with more than two rooms, we agreed that buying a house trailer made good sense. We wound up with a fully furnished three-bedroom, two-bath palace with living room and kitchen—just like Leatha’s house!—with hot and cold running water and flames that popped out of the stove and a flushing toilet that let you relieve yourself without running into the bushes. The best two things about it, though, were that the carpet and furnishings were red—a lucky color in the Orient. And it was mine—no in-laws to ambush me from the cover of language or past relationships. Unfortunately, Ed hated red, though he bought the trailer to please me—a pattern that was becoming all too familiar in our Asian-American marriage.
I showed him my appreciation the only way I knew: with my body, hands, and hard work. In bed, I didn’t make him climax so soon but touched him softly. Although we still never kissed or hugged, I made him feel more welcome. Around the house, I treated him like one of my babies: massaging his back and neck, cleansing his skin and pores, trimming hairs from his ears and nose. Now that I had my own territory—my first real home—I would let nothing prevent me from being the good wife my mother had trained.
While Ed puttered with the trailer’s connections, I scouted out the local markets and stocked the cupboard with good American brands. As in Ky La, everything I needed was footsteps from my house: food, a place for the kids to play, and friendly, if curious, neighbors—including a retired couple next door whom I wound up calling Mom and Pop. Like any small village, Orem had its festivals and feuds, good gossip and bad feelings, saintly spirits and wounded souls. For a brief time at least, I was back in a world I understood.
Being there, in fact, gave me the peace of mind to do something I had not even contemplated since I arrived in the United States: to write to my mother, whom I had left in Danang without a word of explanation for my “defection” to America. It was not an easy letter to write, especially when it came time to tell—honestly and completely—about my rape by the two Viet Cong guards who had been sent to kill me. Until that letter, my mother never knew the truth. This was important not just to clear my conscience, but to prepare better karma for Jimmy. I knew that if fate or luck or god threw my mother and Anh, Jimmy’s father, together again, she must know that he did not take my virginity: that it was sacrificed to the war.
I also wrote to my sister Lan, who, a lifetime ago, first counseled me to find an American husband. I knew she was anxious to marry one herself, so I offered a little sisterly advice.
“Don’t be in a hurry to sacrifice your freedom,” I wrote in big letters. “Life in America is two parts sour for each part sweet, even if your man is a prince!” I exaggerated a little. After all, how terrible can life be when you have a nice house, good food, and no bombs falling on your head? Still, I wanted to make a point. “Don’t marry a GI. Your own war wounds will be hard enough to heal without trusting your soul to an injured doctor. Don’t marry an old man, either. You can only have one father, and he doesn’t belong in your bed.”
To celebrate Ed’s first day at work, I decided to make his favorite American dish, pork and beans. I bought some dry beans at the store and soaked them overnight as I had seen Leatha do in San Diego. After Ed left, I put the soaked beans on the stove to boil, gave the kids breakfast, and started their morning: Jimmy in front of the TV, and Tommy chewing on toys in his playpen. I wanted nothing to interrupt the preparation of the perfect meal I owed my husband.
After a couple of hours’ boiling, I took the beans off the stove and drained them. I cut into one and realized it was still hard—not soft like Leatha’s—so I figured the skins prevented them from cooking. No problem. I had the whole day, so I emptied the beans into a big bowl and began peeling each bean with a paring knife in front of the TV, the way, I discovered, most of my American neighbors did their housework.
After all the beans were peeled, I put them back in the pan, added the pork and some water, and put the whole thing back on to cook. It was now lunchtime and two little neighbor girls, Sara and Mary, came over to see if Jimmy could play. So young and already the girls are after him! Jimmy picked up English very quickly (he knew a lot already from my American boyfriends in Danang) and remembered every TV jingle and cartoon noise he ever heard. He also remembered his Vietnamese, though less and less of it over time, and it brought tears to my eyes to hear his little voice chirp “Chao ma” to me every morning before demanding his Cheerios and Flintstone vitamins.
I made them some sandwiches and they went out to play with Kool-Aid mustaches. Sara was blond, fond of sucking her fingers, and always dressed in blue. Actually, she wore the same blue dress all the time—you could count the days of the week by the spots that bloomed across her skirt. Mary was dark-haired and had sad eyes. I knew they lived in the trailer park, but didn’t know where, so I sometimes tried to match them up to residents as they walked down the road in the evenings, but never with any luck.
The remaining daytime shows were spent cleaning and dusting and getting everything ready for Ed’s supper when he returned from his ten-hour shift. I set the table with our best dishes and even made myself up a little so that he would know it was a special occasion.
When Ed finally walked through the door, though, I was shocked. He looked like a bum: covered with mud from head to toe. Fortunately, he was already well schooled in Vietnamese manners and left his shoes outside, but his appearance amazed me. In Vietnam, as a supervisor, he wore a tie and told everyone else what to do. Here, as low man on the totem pole, he did roughneck work like everyone else. I could see he was a little dismayed by things himself—not just his loss of status, but his own exhaustion and realization that despite his young wife and towheaded son, he was no longer a youngster. I really felt sorry for him and gave him a kiss, telling him to wash quickly because I had a big surprise. He could smell the beans, of course, so my treat wasn’t such a surprise, except that it was me, his little wife, who had cooked them and not his mother—my first victory in the battle between generations. I toted the pot over to Ed and removed the lid, reaching in to serve a big helping of savory beans—but the spoon stuck fast in the bottom.
My smile slid down my face. I withdrew a spoonful of mush and watched it fall back like clay into a swamp. My eyes teared up and I told Ed what had happened.
He laughed his hearty “aren’t-you-stupid-but-don’t-feel-too-bad-about-it” laugh and went to the refrigerator and fixed himself a sandwich.
“It’s the thought that counts,” Ed said wearily, then took a shower and went to bed.
The next morning I got up before the sun, determined to make pancakes better than Leatha’s or die in the attempt—a Vietnamese suicide attack against a kitchen full of lethal American utensils. Although I couldn’t make much sense of the instructions on the box of Bisquick, I tried to remember the ingredients Leatha used; but pancakes were treacherous opponents and I would not underestimate them. Unfortunately, between too few eggs, too much milk, and a lukewarm skillet, Ed had the choice of drinking his pancake milkshake or throwing it out with the beans. This time, though, I was able to laugh with him, but cried as soon as he left. Orem had no Oriental market, so the ingredients I knew from home were unavailable, and every American meal I tried was a flop. I was beginning to believe my karma was to fail as an American wife. How long could my husband persist, let alone survive doing heavy work, on a diet of cold cereal and toast?
About this time, too, I started feeling uneasy about going out alone. Ed never seemed anxious to teach me to drive, so I became the American equivalent of a Vietnamese man without legs. My concern was not so much getting around, although that was a problem, but the good opinion of those around me. The town was friendly enough, and our Mom-and-Pop neighbors often invited me in for coffee—yet my village inhibitions and crushing sense of duty to Ed made me worry about provoking gossip: a young woman should not run around by herself, even with two babies. Thus I always turned down Pop’s offer of hospitality when Mom was running errands—not because I was afraid of Ed’s jealousy, but from fear of what wagging tongues might say. In Vietnam, my family and I had learned just how dangerous neighbors could be.
Two things saved me from getting depressed.
One was neighbor Mom herself, who saw my growing distress and began to counsel me on the facts of life about “May-December” marriages. As I gradually revealed the details of my relationship with Ed, she would laugh and slap her knee (and sometimes mine) and explain the difference between an “American wife” and a “Vietnamese slave”—a distinction that was only now becoming clear. If nothing else, Mom taught me the many ways in which an American wife says no.
My second savior was Mary and Sara’s mother.
The two girls had become such steady lunch customers that their mother got curious about who was caring for her children all afternoon. Of course, I didn’t mind. I liked having kids around and they kept Jimmy occupied.
One afternoon their mother appeared at the door and inquired after her daughters. Judy was about ten years older than me, short and round, with frizzy red hair that topped her once pretty face like a TV clown’s ratty wig. Her worn-out clothes reeked of cigarettes (one always dangled from her mouth), which at least masked the smell of whiskey when she belched—which was often enough to delight the kids. Nonetheless, she was the first American neighbor-friend I’d met who was remotely close to my age, and I greeted her with full ceremonial honors.
“My name is Le Ly,” I said, bowing politely. “Won’t you please come into my house?”
“Well, I can only stay a minute.” Judy huffed up the steps and flopped down into Ed’s favorite chair. I moved to turn off “I Love Lucy,” but she said, “Don’t touch that dial! I love this one! Lookit that damn Ricky! Ain’t he a piece of work?”
I offered her some tea and found out she liked any kind of beer. She asked me where I came from and I told her.
“Well,” she said, looking down into the can, “I guess we can’t pick our parents.”
We talked a long time about our favorite TV shows and how “the damn coin changer in the laundry room rips off the tenants,” then the kids started fighting and she decided it was time to go. She thanked me again for watching and feeding her girls and invited me over for lunch the next day at her trailer, two rows behind us. I accepted with gratitude.
That evening, Ed came home to a perfect dinner of Top Ramen—a packaged noodle dish Judy assured me “even a shithead can’t screw up.” I liked it because it actually resembled Vietnamese noodles, cooked quickly, and went with a number of American foods Ed liked.
The next day I got made up and went to my luncheon date in my lucky red ao dai. Judy’s mobile home was rusted through like an old tin can and had cardboard instead of glass in one of the windows. The area under her tattered awning was littered with junk and the inside was even worse because it didn’t show to neighbors.
“I meant to clean the place up for company,” Judy said, sliding a stack of dirty laundry down the kitchen counter to make way for eight slices of stale bread. She was still in curlers and a nightgown, stained chenille bathrobe open to the waist, with smoke from her ever-present cigarette curling around her red head like the fuse on a stick of dynamite. “But, you know how it goes: the damn kids start squawkin’ and one thing leads to another. Grab a seat anywhere. TV’s busted again, so it don’t matter. I got some old tuna salad in the icebox—or do you want peanut butter?”
“Oh, peanut butter sound very delicious,” I answered, realizing now it must have been the aging tuna that gave the trailer its distinctive aroma. I could see no space anywhere, including the floor, that was completely free of toys or clothes or half-filled drinking cups or dirty ashtrays, so I carved a place on the cushionless couch. She produced my sandwich on a paper plate and offered me a sudsy beer like hers, which I declined.
“Sorry,” I said meekly, “I have ulcer,” and pressed my long, painted nails into my slim, firm tummy. She looked at me the way a bullfrog contemplates a mayfly, then shrugged.
“Suit yourself.” She chugged the rest of her beer then took a swallow from mine. “Waste not, want not.” She belched noisily, crushed the empty can, and tossed it into the sink. “How ’bout some moo juice?”
We ate our sandwiches with Judy swilling her beer and me watching my sour milk curdle in a sunny window. She knew a lot about eating, though, and gave me valuable information on which potato chips to buy and how to make gravy nice and lumpy. Because I came from a big family, I paid her back with tips on how to help her two girls get along. I already sensed that this funny, dumpy lady had a heart as big as her belly, and knew from what she said that she held no illusions about herself or her situation.
“I sure do appreciate you watching the girls like you do,” she said for the third or fourth time. “Some folks just have a knack for that shit—like sewing clothes and baking pies. Not me. Hell, most nights I’m lucky just to get the rascals in bed!”
She laughed a not-so-funny laugh and stared out the dirty window. When she wasn’t making fun of herself, she spent a lot of time staring out of the window. During one such lull, I glanced at the framed pictures of her relatives—photos of Sara and Mary as babies and a white-haired grandma who looked like Leatha. She also had a photo of a tough-looking, jug-eared, knob-throated man in a military uniform, which she saw me notice.
“You ready for an afternoon eye-opener?” she asked, getting up. “No—that’s right, you got a ulcer. I forgot.”
She went to the kitchen, poured some bourbon in a coffee mug and came out. She sat down, lit another cigarette, then blew out the match: a blast from a potbellied locomotive gathering steam for an uphill climb.
“Men are assholes,” she said finally, as if commenting on the weather.
“Well—some, I guess,” I responded in a tiny voice and looked down at the curled linoleum.
“You’re probably wondering why you don’t see a man around my place, right?”
It was true I’d never seen a man with Judy’s children, but, seeing now how she lived, it wasn’t such a wonder.
“That man in the picture,” she continued, taking a pull from her cup. “That there’s my husband. Handsome S.O.B., wasn’t he?”
“He’s very nice—very nice-looking.” I cleared my throat. I knew the beers and the bourbon hadn’t been Judy’s first, and I had learned long ago from GI boyfriends that the best way to handle moody drunks was to let them do the talking.
“Course, that’s an old picture. Vietnam,” she said solemnly, tamping out her cigarette as if that said everything.
“I’m sorry,” I assumed he’d been killed in action or was a POW.
“You’re sorry!” Judy laughed a gravelly laugh like Ed’s—the laugh of too many cigarettes. “Son of a bitch wrote me a letter six months ago saying how he met this Vietnamese twat. Says he wants to marry the little bitch, can you believe it? Says he wants a goddamn fucking divorce!”
One of the children screamed outside, then all of them laughed.
“I better check the kids,” I suggested. I couldn’t see the conversation going anywhere good from here.
“Oh, hell, they’re fine, Le Ly,” Judy said in a pleasant voice, and lit another cigarette. She may have been mad at the Vietnamese girl in the letter, but she didn’t seem mad at me. In fact, I got the feeling she wanted very much to tell me the whole story.
“Course, he still sends money stateside for the girls,” she added, shaking out the match. “The bastard has to send money. The army makes sure of that. And Mom and Dad help out, too, but you can see how far that gets us.” She gestured hopelessly around the room. After another long glance out the window, she looked at me directly and said, “You know, I don’t really blame that Vietnamese gal. Hell, she’s just trying to get by. And I fell in love with the bastard too, didn’t I, so who am I to point fingers?” She folded her bathrobe across her lap. “Course, I let myself go a little—out here in the boonies, who the hell you gonna dress up for? No, I blame the fuckin’ army. The goddamn war fucked up my family, not that little Vietnamese gal.”
Listening to Judy in her sad little trailer made my inside eyes get wider. She didn’t blame me. She thought I was the “good” kind of Vietnamese who were just like Americans. But I could’ve been the girl who stole her husband. I had tried to make Red, the navy med tech, fall in love with me then Jim, the civilian mechanic, then Paul, the air force lieutenant—to make me feel more alive and save my little boy and me from the war. By the time I left Vietnam, I had been through the mill and was tired of the killing and cheating and cruelty that passed for normal life in a war zone. It was up to our GI boyfriends to worry about their stateside wives and girlfriends, not us local girls. We treated our men like kings because that’s the way we were raised, the way we were taught to treat any man who helped us. We were just trying to discharge our obligations honorably and survive. With luck, a few of us were even able to get the hell out of the bloody sewer our country had become.
More often than not, though, our GI lover just got on a plane at the end of his tour and that was that. Even if we bore his kids, we got no promise of marriage, no “dependent support,” not even a goodbye kiss. The best we could hope for was a wink from another GI, and begin it all again—until we got too old, too strung out from whiskey or dope, or dead. These things which I had forgotten in the land of supermarkets and shiny cars and TV now flooded back into my heart as Judy puffed blue rings and bad memories like a mortar spewing shells. I couldn’t say what I felt to her face, but I knew she saw what I was thinking.
“Well, we all got our cross to bear, don’t we, sweetie pie?” With brave, moist eyes, she gave me the best smile she had—her last treasure, the one she spent most sparingly. “I bet you could tell some stories, couldn’t you? About the war and all?”
“You are very kind to ask,” I said, wiping a tear before it streaked my cheek. “Oh dear, it getting late. I’m such a bad cook, I have to start Ed’s supper early so I can throw it out before he come home. Maybe some time he come over, eh?—looking for lady to make good mashed potatoes. Then American woman can steal Vietnamese girl’s husband. Wouldn’t that—oh, how you say it? Wouldn’t that be a pisser?”
We laughed together and Judy hugged me like a sister.
“Okay, boys,” I clapped my hands on her doorstep like a farmer herding ducks. “It time to go. Say goodbye to Sara and Mary. Say goodbye to Judy. Bye-bye. Bye-bye.” I turned to wave.
“What the hell.” Judy raised her mug of whiskey as we shuffled away. “If the ol’ man can fix a TV set, send the bastard over!”