Child of War, Woman of Peace - Le Ly Hayslip, James Hayslip, Jenny Wurts (1993)
PART ONE. Living with the Enemy (1970-82)
4. The Day Heaven Fell
GUNS AND MEN!
I slammed the door on Dennis, grabbed Jimmy, and ran into Tommy’s room. I pushed the lock button and wondered what to do next.
It didn’t occur to me to call the police because, in Vietnam, domestic problems were nobody else’s business and violent husbands were part of almost every marriage. Also, not being an American citizen, I couldn’t imagine the police taking the word of a pitiful immigrant over a red-white-and-blue, gun-loving American, particularly one who used to be a policeman himself. I didn’t even think to call a friend because it was very late and I was afraid of being impolite. I didn’t even know Dennis liked to drink so much until he brought liquor into the house, like a security blanket. I didn’t even know he had a gun until that moment.
Although the kids didn’t know what was happening, we had spent enough time huddled together in the middle of the night for them to realize something was wrong. The anxious seconds turned to minutes and minutes into hours. I know I dozed off because all of a sudden the black outside was light.
I shook Jimmy awake and told him to get ready for school. I crept into the hall. Dennis’s door was open. His belongings were in place but his bed had not been slept in. On his pillow I found a hand-scrawled note. It repeated all his arguments about Dan and how unfair I was and how unfair life had been and how he had decided finally to do something that would make everybody happy because they would never have to deal with him again. I looked out the kitchen window and saw his car was gone.
I flew to the phone. I called Linda and Huong and even Erma to see if they had heard from Dennis.
“See what you caused?” Linda said. “He was so nice to you and the boys and look how you repaid him!”
“You should just be thankful he loves you so much,” Huong said. “Pray you haven’t killed him!”
“I don’t know how you do it, Ly,” Erma said. “I suggest you call the police and let them handle it.”
No matter whom I called, they seemed more anxious to blame me for what might be happening than to help me try to prevent it.
I dropped Jimmy at school and with Tommy squawking in the back, drove around looking for Dennis. I went first to all the places I thought might appeal to him as suicide spots: the local bridges, parks, the cowboy bar where we met—places that had meaning for us both. Then I stopped at the local police station (I could always communicate with Americans better in person than over the phone) and told them the situation. The desk sergeant was sympathetic but said they couldn’t do anything unless a crime had been committed. Had Dennis threatened me with the gun? No. Did Dennis’s note actually say he was committing suicide? No, just that he would “do something” to make us feel sorry for the way we treated him. The sergeant said that could mean anything, including just dropping out of sight for a while to make us worry.
Tommy and I drove around for the rest of the day. When school was out, I picked up Jimmy and drove around some more. After a while, I gave up searching and just thought about how much trouble my love for Dan was causing so many innocent people. How could something so good lead to so many bad things?
We returned late that night to find Dennis’s car in the driveway. The man of the hour was passed out face down on the lawn in the back. I smelled the alcohol from a dozen feet away so I decided to let him sleep it off. I put the kids to bed and made a quick search of Dennis’s room and his car to impound the handgun, but with no luck. I only hoped it wasn’t tucked into his pants and ready to go off—like the other dangerous weapon men seemed so anxious to use on the women who displeased them!
Later that evening while I was reading in the living room, Dennis came in. He looked contrite, like a spanked puppy, so I swallowed the angry remark I wanted to make. Instead, I asked if he was feeling better and he smiled and said yes. He apologized for “going a little crazy” and said the thought of losing me was too much for him to take. I wanted to tell him that in order to lose my love, he must possess it first. I never considered us anything but good friends, regardless of his secret desires. However, I thought it would be wiser to let things cool off. We could resume our discussion about him getting a job and moving out later. Unfortunately, that discussion never took place.
In October 1974, Dennis received a job offer from the City of San Diego based on a referral from Huong’s husband. Dennis was thrilled, of course, and the good news launched a weeklong celebration. He treated me and the boys and our friends to a night on the town, gifts, and—best of all—a happy face. Although he still drank socially, he cut way back and he busied himself preparing for his new job. He was like a new man and I just couldn’t spoil things by kicking him out, especially when the reason for doing so seemed so distant—like another bad dream. This only gave my girlfriends more ammunition in their campaign to make Dennis and me into a couple.
“See what you nearly lost?” Linda pointed out one day over lunch. Like everyone else, she was treating Dennis’s “recovery” from depression as if he were a returning POW. “All he needed was a little support until his luck turned around.”
What Linda and Huong overlooked was the fact that I still didn’t love him. Even if I was forced by circumstances to put Dan out of my life, at least for the time being, I had no power to get Major Daddy out of my mind. As it had been with Ed, a sexual relationship with Dennis—in or out of marriage—just seemed sacrilegious.
So life went on. The TV and newspapers were full of Watergate. I never paid much attention to it—South Vietnamese politics was so full of scandal and corruption that I just couldn’t see what the shouting was about. Nearly all of the U.S. forces were withdrawn from Vietnam. The U.S. draft ended in 1973, and with it the civil disturbances that seemed to annoy Americans as much as the war itself. The Paris Treaty went into full effect and Washington “declared peace.” The next year, of course, President Nixon resigned and his replacement, President Ford, proposed amnesty for America’s Vietnam War deserters and draft evaders. Although Dennis thought it was a terrible idea, I secretly applauded it and said a prayer for this enlightened new U.S. president. Only by ending the war in people’s hearts, as well as on the battlefield, could it ever be truly over.
So it was that with my old and my new worlds one step closer to the peace and tranquility I longed for, I accepted Dennis into my bed. I did this partly out of loneliness, to see if I could put the memory of Dan behind me for good. But mostly I did it to remove the thick blanket of sexual tension that had begun to envelop my little home. As long as he thought himself a failure, Dennis had no trouble respecting the rules I had set. Now, with a paycheck of his own, he began to feel like “the man of the house,” with all the rights and privileges he thought should go with that role.
Although sex with Dennis was easier than with Ed, it was for me still duty, not love—or even pleasure. I knew that sleeping with Dennis—crossing that important threshold—was not the smartest thing to do, but it seemed the least of several evils. I could send Dennis packing, but after accepting him this long, the risk of another outburst of drinking and violence just seemed too great. I was also reluctant to rob the boys of the father figure they needed so badly—he really did love the kids. In any event, Dennis’s contribution to our household expenses allowed me to save a small amount of my housekeeping money as an emergency fund. I made up my mind that I would never again be caught in a crisis without enough cash to bail myself out.
Unfortunately, such a crisis already loomed on our horizon, and no amount of money was going to make it go away.
In the spring of 1975, television began to show the tortured breakup of my native land: burning cities, refugee buses fishtailing along dirt roads, interviews with somber South Vietnamese and American officials who tried to put a positive face on the Republican collapse. Part of me wanted to believe their lies were true—not because a continuation of the war would be good for Vietnam, but because it was at least a situation my family had learned to cope with. But when I saw the Soviet-made North Vietnamese tanks roll by China Beach, once a stronghold of the American presence, and the ragged, malnourished Viet Cong prisoners released after years of confinement by the South—I knew the war was all but over. With one side finally ascendant in what had been a struggle of inhuman proportions, I couldn’t believe that the victors would offer the losers anything but hell.
“I bet I know some of those people,” I said, commenting on the crowds of farmers, kids, and old people who had gathered along the roads south of Danang to cheer (or just sullenly watch) the advancing Northern armor. “I wish the camera didn’t go so fast.”
Dennis answered like a good American. “If the Commies take over Danang, your friends won’t be around for long. Remember the massacres in Hue after the sixty-eight Tet offensive? Even if the Commies don’t kill them, we should nuke the whole goddamn country. Better dead than red!”
I realized Dennis’s blood was up, so I didn’t remind him that my mother and sisters would be among those charred skeletons grinning from the rubble. He didn’t realize that the Viet Cong were often merciful to Central Coast villagers—their own kinsmen, many of them secretly favoring the North, although nobody knew what Hanoi’s regulars would do. Dinh chien, dinh chien, I chanted under my breath, like the mothers in the newsreel—“The war is over, the war is over.” I knew the people beside the road weren’t cheering for the troops, only celebrating the fact that the fighting had stopped. If the terror of the police state was yet to come, at least their endless trial by combat was over.
I began to wonder what the end of the war would mean to each member of my family.
My mother and eldest sister, Hai, oddly enough, were probably safest of all—at least for the time being. Ky La was a poor rural village, decimated by the war, and nobody would bother them much until old scores were settled in the cities. At least my mother would have a chance now to learn what had happened to her relatives, including my eldest brother, Bon Nghe, who would assume my father’s role as patriarch. Nobody had seen or heard from him since 1954, when he was conscripted by Hanoi.
Of more immediate concern was my sister Ba, whose village husband had also been conscripted and shipped north. A few years later, Ba had been forced to marry a South Vietnamese policeman, Chinh, to keep him from sending my father to a Republican prison. I also worried for my niece Thinh, a girl slightly younger than me who had been a good friend while I grew up. Her husband, Bien, was in the South Vietnamese Navy, which at least offered a chance of escape since Danang was a big port and Bien had access to ships.
The fate of Anh, Jimmy’s father, and his aristocratic wife, Lien, was another matter. As a rich industrialist, he would be high on the list of state enemies. I actually received some letters from Lien, who was grateful that I never made legal troubles for Anh over my pregnancy. She told me that Anh had a brother in Minnesota and I could see their thoughts turning to their exile in the States.
But mostly I worried for Lan, the sister I knew best, having spent the last few years before I met Ed in her company, learning the tricks of the black market and bar-girl trade. Ban than cho de quoc My, the Communist inquisitors would call her: “She who sells herself to the American empire.” To make matters worse, she had two Amerasian children—mau ngoai xam, “carriers of foreign aggressor blood.” The Viet Cong and Northern Communists really hated people like her—and me—since we betrayed our countrymen and gave our bodies to American soldiers. To the very puritanical and righteous socialist leaders who would take over the government, the necessities of war, of just surviving, would be forgotten in favor of a moralism so strict that normal people couldn’t have observed it even during peace. Try as I might, I could not imagine a future for Lan in Vietnam that would be anything but painful, bleak, and short.
On March 28, 1975, the TV news showed a red flag with a single yellow star being raised over “the White Elephant Club” beside the Danang River. I was secretly amused that the Northern army had chosen this spot—familiar to everyone in Danang—to hold their symbolic flag-raising ceremony. More than just a well-known government building, it was a tony meeting place for high-ranking South Vietnamese and American businessmen and officials. The Viet Cong had tried for a decade to infiltrate the place—to assassinate bigwigs or blow it up—but had failed every time. Now, as a symbol of fat-cat capitalism and “U.S. imperialism” as well as Southern rule, its downfall must have been especially satisfying to local cadremen.
This typical Viet Cong preoccupation with political as well as military objectives made me worry most. Both rumor and public records would show that I had “defected” to the United States and the local cadremen (who already had a grievance against my mother and plenty of other reasons to resent my family) might see my actions as the straw that broke the camel’s back. All it would take was one accusation by a jealous neighbor—that my relatives were spying for me and sending information about Vietnam to the United States—to bring the ax down on their necks. Not only had I put my family through hell while I was there, but it seemed now that I might yet be the death of them, although I was five thousand miles away.
Naturally, I prayed often that all this wouldn’t come to pass, but my prayers seemed impotent. I wanted and needed to do more, something brave and decisive to help my relatives, but every road seemed blocked.
On April 19, 1975, I received the following telegram, in Vietnamese, from Lan: PLEASE HELP, ALL THREE OF US WILL BE KILLED BECAUSE OF CONG LAI [my Amerasian children].
I began to cry—both from terror and relief: terror at the obvious danger Lan was facing; relief because I finally knew she was alive. Even better, the telegram had been sent from Saigon, which was still several weeks, if not months, away from Hanoi’s legions. I also had the information—the excuse and the documentation—I needed to get involved in her rescue.
I read the telegram to Dennis and he exploded. Although he hadn’t served in Vietnam, he hated Communists everywhere and Lan’s telegram and the exodus of Vietnamese only seemed to prove what he had been saying all along: that the VC and Northern army weren’t supported by the people. In a moment of weakness, though, he volunteered to do what he could to get my family out.
I asked him to call the State Department (he was, after all, a government employee as well as a man and was certain to get more cooperation than I would) and ask how we might get Lan and her boys evacuated. Unfortunately, the machinery that had gotten America so heavily involved in the war—the State Department, the military, the CIA—now backed off like frightened children from the fire they had started. They said we would have to take Lan’s inquiry to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the INS, just like any other foreign national seeking asylum. The fact that each day’s delay was a lifetime for refugees made no difference. We would have to “go through channels.”
And those channels were already clogged. Tens of thousands of other Vietnamese were trying to get out via American sponsors and while we slogged through the swamp of paperwork and dead-end phone calls, I received more heartbreaking telegrams from Lan—each more urgent than the last. One thing we did learn from the INS: because I was not a U.S. citizen, if I left the United States to help Lan get back there was no guarantee I would be allowed to return myself. Since I had made a vow after An Khe never to put Jimmy and Tommy in harm’s way again or to take any risks that would leave them motherless, this seemed like the final blow. I cabled Lan, telling her I could not come personally, and she wired back: TRY PETEY BAILEY IN NEW JERSEY.
Peter T. Bailey (called “P.T.” or Petey by those who knew him) had been one of Lan’s boyfriends in Vietnam and had always treated her son, Eddie, kindly. If anyone outside the family had a reason to help, it would be Pete. He had not answered her letters or wires, but a stateside phone call had never been tried.
“Hello, is this Mr. Bailey?” I asked when a male voice came on the line. I had been given his number by long-distance information.
“Yes. Who’s this?”
“The Petey Bailey who worked for the navy in Danang? Who had a Vietnamese girlfriend named Lan?”
I actually heard Petey choke. Maybe he thought I was Lan.
“I was in ’Nam, yes. Who’s this?”
“This is Le Ly, Lan’s sister. You probably don’t remember me—”
“Oh yes.” The voice tried to sound pleasant. “How are you? Where are you?”
“I am in Southern California. I live here since 1972. So Petey, you probably wonder why I’m calling you, right?”
After a pause he said, “It’s probably about your sister. I hear things are pretty bad over there.”
“She want to come to the United States, Pete. She’s afraid of the Viet Cong—for herself and her sons. You get her letters? Her telegrams?”
“Yes, but there’s nothing I can do. I can’t go back—I have a life here now. And even if I could, I don’t have the money.”
“That no problem.” I tried to sound optimistic. “My husband passed away and I have some cash—”
“It doesn’t matter. I can’t go.”
“But what about Lan’s sons? The VC will kill them when they take over!”
“I feel terrible about that, Ly. I feel terrible about what’s happening to your country. But I can’t do anything about it. I wish I could. I wish you both good luck. I hope things work out for you and Lan. But please don’t call here again.”
He hung up, leaving me with a heavy heart and no plan. We were back to square one.
After more days of unreturned phone calls to the INS, I received a desperate telegram from Lan. She said this would be her last message: she was running out of time and money and had to save what little she could for a last-ditch effort to escape.
I crumpled the telegram and bawled like a baby—Lan’s spoiled baby sister who had shared with her so many adventures and horrors over our too short, too terrible, too wonderful lives together. I just couldn’t bear losing her. Not this way! For the last two months, my life beyond the telephone, TV set, and Lan’s telegrams had barely registered. I hadn’t been able to eat or sleep and even my periods had dried up. If my family wasn’t going to survive the war, I apparently wouldn’t either.
Dennis put his arm around my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Ly,” he said softly. “If there’s no other way, I’ll go.”
At first, I couldn’t believe what I heard. “What do you mean?”
“I mean I will go to Vietnam and bring your sister Lan and her sons to the United States—if that’s what it takes to make you happy.”
“Make me happy!” Now I really couldn’t believe it. “You are saving my life! Saving Lan’s life! How could I ever repay you?”
He smiled. “Can’t you think of a way? I already have.”
I was confused. I had already given Dennis everything I had to give—my body, my house, the love of my boys—what else could he want?
“I want you to marry me when I get back,” he said. “That’s my only condition.”
“Well, you take my breath away.” That was no exaggeration. I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. “I guess I need to think about that.”
“Sure. But don’t take too long. It takes time to get a visa and who knows how long your country can last.”
Ta phai hy sink—more debt of guilt and duty! My father used to say, “Cuu mot nguoi tren duong gian hon ngan nguoi duoi am phu”: it’s better to save one life on earth than one thousand souls in hell. Now I knew that he was right, especially when that life was my sister’s: my father’s—and my own—flesh and blood.
“Okay,” I said finally. “That is a fair price to pay.”
“It’s not a price, Ly.” Dennis kissed me. “It’s your future. Dan’s out of your life forever. It’s time you and the boys shared that life with me—officially.”
Dennis worked like a man inspired. Since January, he had been employed by the U.S. Customs Service. As a GS-5, his pay wasn’t great, but it gave him an inside track in renewing his passport and expediting a Vietnamese visa. With equal determination, I cleaned out my life’s savings—almost ten thousand dollars, which I had set aside for my own old age and the boys’ education—and gave it to Dennis. I was used to trusting fate or luck or god for my salvation. Now, through dire necessity, I would have to add Dennis to that list.
When Dennis’s visa was approved on the grounds he was a “missionary” going into the country to “save a life,” I called all my Vietnamese friends and asked if they wanted to send husbands and/or money with him in order to bring their own families out. To the last, they all refused.
“He’s crazy to go there,” Huong said, although she, too, had relatives in danger. “And you’re even crazier to risk losing him.”
In the end, I felt almost as bad for Dennis as I did my family. Here he was, going into a war-torn capital on the verge of collapse—into a country he didn’t know with a language he couldn’t speak—all to bring out a woman he’d never met with kids who were not his own. His prize was the hand in marriage of someone who did not and could not love him—but what was all that to Dennis? He was desperately and foolishly in love. Hadn’t I taken similar foolish risks to be with Dan?
With Dennis on his way, I sent a telegram to Lan, telling her that a man named Dennis Hayslip would meet her at the Embassy Hotel in Saigon in two days. I did not tell her he was carrying money, since the chance was too great that the message would be intercepted and read by an opportunist, a corrupt official, or worse.
This thought rekindled all my old wartime paranoia. Since he now possessed my life savings, I could imagine Dennis simply “skipping town” with my sons’ future. I also imagined him getting blown up as he got off the plane or being ambushed in the street by cowboys. I knew he might be torn apart, too, by a mob of ordinary citizens simply because he was an American. The newsreel in my head was worse than the one on TV.
I also fretted over my duty to Dennis’s family should the worst happen and he not come back. How would I explain to his mother, a solid midwesterner like Leatha, that her son had been killed on a dangerous errand for a fickle Vietnamese girl who had already buried one husband? How would I feel if Jimmy grew up to run a similar “errand” for a woman who was not his wife and who did not return his love? The whole situation was awful, terrible, and unavoidable. It was like the war itself.
Of course, my bad stomach picked this moment to show how much it shared my worry. I couldn’t keep anything down and, on several occasions, was in too much pain even to stand up straight. As the days wore on, I tried to keep track of both Dennis’s progress as I imagined it, and the actual course of the war. TV news was like a countdown—it was only a matter of time before Saigon was blasted from the face of the earth!
To make things worse, four-year-old Tommy and seven-year-old Jimmy (who tried to help by not fighting and by doing chores, like washing the dishes—which I always had to repeat anyway) asked periodically “Where is Daddy?” I could only point to the TV and say, “With Ba Ngoai—Grandma.” Who knew if it was true?
Finally, the situation in Vietnam was so bad that the State Department put a phone number on the screen where relatives of servicemen and Vietnamese citizens could receive detailed information. When I finally got through to the number, all I heard was a recorded voice saying that all communications between the United States and the Republic of Vietnam had been interrupted, including airline flights.
I slammed down the phone—knocked it off the table—and cursed through my tears. If Lan and her boys lived, she would owe it to her Phung Thi grit and guile—not my puny effort. Dennis was never coming back. For the first time, I felt sympathy with the U.S. military officers who had been forced to send novices into combat—boys on a man’s mission—in the name of some higher goal. There was no higher purpose than survival, and right now, for virtually everyone I cared about, that goal seemed far away.
I added pictures of Dennis and Lan and her two boys to my little shrine and lit incense and cooked sacrificial rice and burned paper money and paper clothes and prayed sincerely for their souls once an hour, every hour, as long as I was awake.
Finally, the cramps in my stomach became excruciating. I could no longer stand up. I curled over my knees and lay on the floor, watching the shadows come and go—praying, cursing, thinking, mourning. My boys cried for food and lay beside me like little puppies around a dying she-dog. I could not remember the last time I had fed them. As if drugged—locked in a dream—I crawled to the phone and dialed Linda. This is Ly. You must come over. After seconds or hours or days, she appeared in my smoky living room, beside my blazing altar, blaring TV, and terrified little kids. She took Jimmy and Tommy to a neighbor’s. She drove me straight to the hospital.
In the sterile green room, I told the cat-eyed doctor through my tears about everything that troubled me—overwhelmed me—half in English, half in Vietnamese, just like my life. My story was part medical history, part family history, and part deathbed confession. I had no idea how much he comprehended, if anything, and I really didn’t care. He gave me a thorough examination and a shot to calm me down. He said I should stay in the hospital at least overnight to get a good night’s sleep—my first since “my husband” had been away. Then, as the shot took effect, he smiled and told me something he hoped would give me pleasant dreams.
“Have a good sleep, Mrs. Munro. You and that little baby you’re carrying are going to need it!”
Another child—just what I needed! And a soon-to-be-fatherless child at that!
While they ran tests to confirm my pregnancy, the hospital staff worked hard to keep me quiet so I would not miscarry. They wouldn’t let me watch TV, so I had a chance to think things through and communicate with my higher self. I consulted with my father and Ed and other ghosts who visited me, from time to time, during dreams and deep meditation. I had been trusted once again as the repository for a soul in transit. In one way, it was yet another burden on the narrow shoulders of one who had already showed herself unworthy. From another perspective, though, it reminded me of who I was: Phung Thi Le Ly. It confirmed for me my role in life—at least as I understood it. It gave me, perhaps, one last chance to show the power of love over hate.
Despite my doctor’s advice, the first thing I did when I got home on April 23 was to turn on the TV. President Ford was giving a speech in New Orleans declaring that the war was “finished”—not won or lost, but stopped like a hopeless argument. Two days later, Republican President Thieu abandoned Saigon and four days after that, General “Big” Minh took over the government. Most pictures now came from the U.S. naval vessels offshore: horrifying shots of rescue helicopters ditching at sea (there was no place for them to land) or empty helicopters being thrown from crowded decks to make room for new arrivals. I watched these pictures closely, hoping against hope to see Lan or Dennis, but after a while all the refugees looked the same: bedraggled, terrified, Vu lan—spooks.
The few TV pictures we got from the mainland were even worse: people climbing the fence of the U.S. Embassy on Thong Nhat street, defying MPs with batons and rifles, while the “cherry picker” helicopter lifted the chosen few from the roof.
On April 30, a North Vietnamese tank crashed through the gates of the Republican president’s palace and parked rudely on the lawn. The tank commander waved his arms and grinned like the defiant teenager he probably was. If the war had been “finished” a week before by the politicians, it was now finally over for the people. I sighed the sigh of ages—a chill wind from the mountain of corpses my homeland had become.
I got out my address book.
I called everyone I knew: to share my relief, to share my tears, to get information, to rejoin the human race.
Sadly, what little news they had to share was bad. Nobody knew anything that hadn’t already been on TV. Communications were still down and all flights in or out of the country had been stopped for the foreseeable future. Vietnam was sealed like a tomb.
Even worse, American television began to look elsewhere to amuse its fickle audience. When Vietnam was mentioned at all, it was by politicians and analysts. Americans don’t like losers and Vietnam was one story people had heard more than enough about. Fortunately, local newscasters couldn’t turn a blind eye to the thousands of refugees arriving daily at Southern California ports and airports—especially Camp Pendleton on the coast just north of San Diego. Watching them mill around by the surf, U.S. troop ships in the distance, was like an eerie replay of the marines’ first landing ten years before at China Beach—but with all the actors reversed. Having failed to bring American peace to Vietnam, the marines were now bringing peace-starved Vietnam to America. I was not optimistic about the reception—or the life—these refugees would find, but I knew it would be better than the one they left behind.
Almost three weeks after Dennis left and a week after the South had fallen, I had resigned myself to facing life alone. Consequently, when the doorbell rang late one night, I assumed it was the telegram—a message from the State Department or military or Red Cross or Dennis’s church that would finally confirm his fate.
“Who’s there?” I asked through the door.
The answer was not “Western Union” but a child’s giggle.
I opened the door onto my sister. Lan looked exhausted and as old as our mother, but beautifully alive. Her two little boys crouched behind her.
“Troi oi!—Oh my god, I can’t believe it’s you!” I hugged her rag-doll body as tight as I could and she hugged her little sister and we both started laughing through our tears.
“Where’s Dennis?” I hugged the boys and looked behind her. In the darkness, the man of the hour was dutifully unloading their bags from the cab that had brought them from the airport. I ran out—immodestly in my nightgown—and hugged him for all I was worth. In the porchlight his face was unshaved and gray, having seen a decade of life crammed into the last ten days.
We took our reunion inside where I woke the boys and reintroduced them to seven-year-old Eddie—the Vietnamese cousin they barely remembered—and four-year-old Robert. The boys looked neglected and underfed, which was understandable, but nothing America couldn’t cure. More disturbing was the fear in their movements, as if, like timid rabbits, they couldn’t trust the shadows around them. They referred to Dennis deferentially—reverentially—as Ong My, “Mr. American,” even when he wasn’t in the room.
While the kids got acquainted with American toys and bathrooms, I took Lan on a quick tour of my American palace. My own previous reaction to everyday American luxury was mirrored in her face.
“Everything is so nice—so beautiful!” Lan said in Vietnamese, afraid even to touch the light switches. “Dennis must be very wealthy. He treats you like a queen!”
“Oh no—this is all mine. Dennis works, but aside from paying part of the mortgage and some household expenses, I pay for everything. Anyway, to Americans, all this is nothing special. I’m better off than some, but not as rich as many.”
I could see that Lan, if unwilling to believe me, would at least suspend her judgment in this strange land where everything—including the customary big sister/little sister relationship—was upside down. Too excited for sleep, I asked them to sit around the table and tell me of their escape. I told them how terrible the pictures of the fall of Saigon looked on TV.
“The pictures were nothing,” Lan said, brushing aside my three weeks in hell. “Everybody in authority ran away at the end of March. President Nguyen Van Thieu split with six tons of gold and left a recording for the troops to stand and fight alongside him, can you believe it? Many times I’d have given a month’s pay to see a real policeman—even a corrupt one—but everybody who served the Americans was looking for the door. In the last few weeks, the cab drivers, siclo drivers, laborers, shopkeepers, the angriest refugees—they ran the city. They used the anarchy to strike back at the people who lost the country—the government soldiers, bureaucrats, and any Americans stupid enough to be hanging around. Dennis barely made it out alive.”
“Did you find Lan okay at the hotel?” They looked as if the question was ancient history.
“Oh yes,” Dennis said. “The cab driver tried to rip me off and we got into a scuffle. He was a little guy, but he had a knife.”
“But you okay now?” I looked him over.
Dennis laughed. “Hey—I used to be a cop! Anyway, Lan got a crooked lawyer to draw up a phony marriage certificate. He said it was the only way a Vietnamese national could get out of the country. Problem was, even that bastard tried to hold us up. After we paid him, he waved the certificates at us and asked for more money. I told him to piss off and left, but Lan stayed to negotiate. The asshole finally got her to transfer everything in her bank account to his name. It wasn’t a lot, but it was everything she had.”
“Not quite. I still got some gold out of the country,” Lan said proudly. Of course, Lan was no different from other Vietnamese refugees. Gold, like a child, was their future. Later I would learn that some Chinese businessmen made a killing that spring meeting the refugee planes and boats and buying smuggled-out gold for half the market price. Nobody in this world is ever so pitiful that somebody somewhere won’t try to take advantage of him!
“How much?” I tried to sound impressed but was really quite angry at them both. After all, Dennis still had over half the ten thousand dollars I had given him to pay for their escape. Getting nabbed and tossed back for smuggling contraband after all he had risked seemed the height of greed and folly.
Lan beamed. “About a half-dozen twenty-four-karat gold leaves. Dennis wore them in his boots.”
“So, then you got your visas to the U.S.?” I asked.
“Yeah, after we got the marriage certificate, we didn’t have any problems,” Dennis said. “The Commies were so close that the State Department figured no American would jerk them around. They wanted me out as badly as I wanted to leave. Lan and the boys were just baggage.”
“So when did you actually leave the country?”
“My god—two days before they took the city!” I slapped my cheeks.
“That’s what they tell me,” Dennis shrugged. I was relieved to know they had been out of danger during those last desperate hours, then recalled how sick I had made myself during those same few days. “You probably know more about what happened after that than we do,” Dennis concluded. “We got shipped to Guam, then finally got a plane to Pendleton. It was just like being in the goddamn army again.”
“So why didn’t you call?”
Dennis and Lan exchanged blank stares. “To tell you the truth, it didn’t occur to me for the first few days. I mean, we were okay—we’d made it. The rest was just getting home. When I finally did think to call, there were either no phones or the lines were too long or some other damn thing. Anyway, we’re here now and that’s what counts.”
“So—you two are married?” This tactic was not part of the plan. I had assumed Dennis would simply bribe their way out or buy phony missionary papers or something like that. I smiled a congratulatory smile, half waiting to be told that the union had been consummated and both newlyweds liked the arrangement and that I would not be held to my end of the bargain.
“Only in the eyes of the State Department,” Dennis said. “That means we’ll have to show an annulment. If worse comes to worst, we can always drive down to Mexico for a quick divorce.”
“Well, all this is quite a surprise.” I forced a smile, letting out one long breath, then taking in another. “Now I have a surprise for you!”
Dennis was ecstatic to hear he would be a father; not just because he liked children, but because he believed that a child would draw us together—perhaps even make me love him as much as he loved me.
We got on with daily life. Lan received her green card but when she tried to change her name by claiming an annulment without proof, the INS took it back. Dennis made arrangements for their Mexican divorce.
Like me, Lan had to learn to be an American. I showed her how to use the dishwasher, the clothes washer and dryer, garbage disposal, and the other indispensables of American homemaking. I gave Lan one bedroom for herself, a real luxury in our country. All the boys shared the second (although Robert usually slept with his mother), and Dennis and I shared the third. Although Eddie was Jimmy’s age, he still had nightmares about the war and, when he wasn’t screaming in terror, was screaming for his mother. I realized all Vietnamese women treated their firstborn sons like kings, and Lan and I were no exceptions. But Jimmy’s quick acceptance of American-style independence made Vietnamese son-coddling seem archaic and more than a little useless. In fact, this was the first of many instances in which my own Americanization—much further along than I had dreamed—was magnified by my sister’s example. However, this realization didn’t upset me. On the contrary, since I observed all the important Vietnamese holidays and traditions, I felt these changes only made me a better person—a woman with two cultures instead of one. Not everyone agreed.
After a month or so, when Eddie was settled in school (where he began learning how not to be a prince) we drove down to Tijuana and got in line at the American “divorce mill.” Needless to say, Lan’s and Dennis’s was not the only interracial marriage-of-convenience being annulled that day. The place seemed full of Caucasian men and Oriental women, more than a few of whom were Vietnamese. Right up to the last minute, I kept telling Dennis and Lan what a fine couple they made and (secretly to Lan) didn’t she feel more comfortable in America with a legal husband? But Dennis was adamant and Lan still had ideas of getting back together with Petey Bailey. The divorce went ahead.
That same day, July 21, 1975, my marker was called in. Before the ink was dry on their divorce decree, Dennis and I obtained our marriage certificate. As it turned out, no respectable U.S. institution would acknowledge our Mexican marriage, so a year later we went to Las Vegas and did it all over again at a little wedding chapel. I recited the strange sounding English-Christian vows and the hired witnesses clapped, but the tears in my eyes were from anything but joy.
The months rolled by and our odd extended family put its roots down farther in American soil. The boys became the best of friends and relished telling people they each had three brothers, two mothers, and one father. While Jimmy and Tommy helped Lan’s boys with their English, Eddie and Robert showed them how to make musical instruments and toys out of aluminum cans and other junk they’d grown up with in the poor streets of Saigon and Danang.
Not everybody appreciated this mix of cultures. Jimmy and Tommy had gotten used to turning their backs on catcalls of “chink” and “gook” and so forth—but Eddie and Robert had not. More than once they came back from a neighborhood “day of play” with black eyes and bloody noses.
Eventually, all the boys took steps to hide their true heritage: that they were of the “enemy” race their friends’ fathers and older brothers had fought against. Sometimes this was as simple as telling people they were Hawaiian or Mexican. Sometimes the contrivance took a little more thought, and was bought at a higher price. Once, Jimmy’s teacher told his class to write a brief autobiography. He “interviewed” me and asked me to tell him everything I could remember about his early years, which I was happy and proud to do. When he was finished, he read the completed paper to me and I was moved to tears as I heard my own recollections woven together with my son’s with such innocence and clarity.
A few weeks later, at parents’ night at his school, I met with his teacher and asked many questions about how America was educating my child. The teacher pointed with pride to a wall covered with student autobiographies. I looked for Jimmy’s and couldn’t find it. I asked the teacher where it could be—my son had always been very conscientious about his school work and I remembered well the evening we spent evoking our memories of his young life.
The teacher shook her head and said, “You know, that was the only assignment Jimmy never turned in!”
Lan continued to talk about P.T. Bailey. At first, I told her to forget him, just as my friends had tried to get me to forget about Dan. Like Ed, Petey was an older man and a civilian contractor, not military. But unlike Ed, he liked to spend money, which was one reason Lan never pressed him too hard for marriage—it was unclear who would be supporting whom. Now, in her loneliness, Lan was talking herself into believing that Petey would be different in the United States—especially if they were married. In fact, the more Lan isolated herself from American society, the more she romanticized Petey. Since she didn’t have a job and was making no effort to find one, I began to agree that having a man take her and the two boys off my hands might not be such a bad idea.
But not P.T. Bailey!
In this case, “Mother Ly” knew best. I did not want to see my sister spoil her new beginning by making the same bad choices I had. I put my foot down. I told her all this talk about Petey had to stop, no two ways about it.
So Lan invited Petey for a visit. He was just as I remembered, but now, of course, much older. He was tall, very thin, didn’t talk much, and smoked even more than Ed. If he had any money, it was not apparent from his clothes or personal habits. He dressed poorly and rarely volunteered to pay for anything, even the expenses of “his woman” when we went out, which was seldom and only to McDonald’s.
Because Petey had been out of work since he returned from Vietnam, he was in no hurry to end his visit. After a month, our three-bedroom house, just right for me, Dennis, and my boys, now looked like a refugee camp. Dennis’s salary and benefits were some help, but what was left after his withholding and various bar tabs was barely enough to make ends meet. With a household of seven living on the income of one uneducated Vietnamese housekeeper, some social security, and a debt-ridden civil servant, we could not get by forever.
One day, I tried to talk about this with Lan, which was tricky. In Vietnam, I had been her worthless little sister and when our parents finally shamed her into taking me in—an unwed teenage mother on the run from the Viet Cong—she began a reign of terror that still gave me chills to think about. Although I knew we must talk candidly about Petey and her getting a job and place to live, I didn’t want to enrage her because I didn’t want to get socked, which was not entirely out of the question. So I waited until Dennis’s day off, then coaxed him into lounging around the house—within earshot—while Lan and I worked things out over coffee.
“You know, Nam Lan,” I said in Vietnamese, using her family number name (sister “number five”) and trying to sound very deferential, “you are very lucky. When I arrived, I didn’t have any gold leaf to help get me started. I was like Ed’s daughter and a little-nothing fly to his relatives. With your money and good English and experience as a nurse’s aide, you can get a good job and rent a nice place to live. You can sell your gold and put the money in the bank to get interest and use a little to buy your boys nice clothes for school instead of having to borrow Jimmy’s and Tommy’s and—”
“Okay, I get the point.” Lan got up, went to her room, and returned with two sheaves of gold from the stash she kept under her mattress. She tossed them down in front of me. “I didn’t know you were so poor. If you were so poor, you shouldn’t have brought me from Vietnam—you know why? Because now you’re responsible for me. That’s right! You and the Americans. You Americans turned me into a refugee, so you can just damn well pay for it! That’s how I feel. But I’m no miser. If you want my gold—here it is, all I have in the world. Spend it on clothes and hamburgers, I don’t care.”
“Please—I don’t want your gold. It’s just that Pete—”
“Oh, that’s very nice! Now you’re going to complain about Petey, eh? Well, what about Dennis? You took him in when he was down and out. Why don’t you give Pete the same chance? My god, Bay Ly, Dennis doesn’t even make enough to support you, and he has a job! How can you complain about Petey? Anyway, Dennis signed papers in Vietnam that he would be responsible for me in the United States. Maybe you should talk to him and make him live up to his promise.”
Our “discussion” got no better, but at least I didn’t get punched. Dennis looked in briefly, waved, then ambled out to his favorite bar. Lan stalked off to her room and I spent the rest of the morning crying until I had to get ready for work.
Of course, not every discussion with Lan was about money or our current problems. We often reminisced about our family—especially the years before and at the beginning of the American war. People forget that life is hard for peasants even during peace. Natural disasters—typhoons and droughts—can take their toll as surely as bombs and bullets. In peacetime, however, such tragedies are easier to accept as acts of god. We talked about working in the moonlight when the rice paddies got too hot; about steering our water buffalo around with a stick, as if it were a little duck instead of a thousand-pound ox. We talked about making mud houses and taking warm-rain baths and playing card games at Tet. The more we talked, the more our memories and tears flowed out of us and dissolved our sisterly troubles.
“Remember, Bay Ly,” Lan said, “when I was working for that rich family in Saigon and our brother Sau Ban came to visit? I filled him up with leftovers from the master’s lunch and talked about this and that, then Sau Ban hugged me and said he was being sent far away and didn’t know when he’d be back. In those days, everybody knew what that meant—he was being sent to the front, but I thought he’d been drafted by the government. I was afraid to press him for details, but I saw Hai a couple of weeks later and she said he had joined Uncle Ho. If I had known he was going off with the Viet Cong, I would’ve tried to stop him. The family I worked for was very rich and influential. I know I could’ve persuaded them to help him get a desk job or something—safe in Saigon away from the fighting.”
The pain in Lan’s voice revealed another side of her soul—the loving big sister to everyone in our family except Hai, who was the eldest and sort of “above it all,” more like another parent or aunt than sibling. I had forgotten that Lan had taken care of Sau Ban, just as she had taken care of me, in the earliest years of our lives, while our mother worked in the fields. Bon Nghe was closest to her in age, but he was a boy—and the eldest boy at that, the bearer of our family name. Our parents had poured every ounce of love and concern they possessed into his care and well-being, leaving not too much for Lan, who had to stay home to take care of us kids or work in the fields herself, often for hire in our neighbors’ paddies.
One time when Lan and Bon Nghe were out tending our cows, French shells began to fall. The cows scattered and Bon Nghe went one way while Lan went the other. Bon Nghe made it home and explained what happened, but Lan never showed up. Our parents didn’t go looking for her for several days, after which Lan made it back on her own. My mother always excused their delay on grounds that they assumed Lan had been killed, but I don’t think that carried much weight with Lan. When she was fifteen, our mother sent her to Danang to help support the family. Of course, as an ignorant farm girl, she was given only dirty, menial jobs and was constantly abused by her employers. She says she understood our mother’s reasons, but she probably felt as if she had been kicked out—as if her value as a daughter was measured only by how much money she could send home. We never discussed it, but I think this was one reason Lan became a loner—the black sheep of the family—at least in the years before I could claim that title. I always tried to remind myself of this before I got too righteous about anything she said and did.
By mid-November 1975, time had cured some of our odd, extended family’s ills—but aggravated others.
Pete Bailey got a year’s contract in Greenland and promised to send monthly checks to help Lan and the boys get established in America. I helped Lan find a job as a nurse’s aide at a hospital not too far away. On the negative side, my pregnancy was starting to show and it was only a matter of time until we would have to convert Lan’s private bedroom to a nursery. We would have to have another cai va voi nhau—sisterly argument—but this time I took matters into my own hands, to give Lan’s better nature a gentle push.
“Look here!” I beamed one day, showing Lan a shiny new set of keys. “Look what I have for you!”
“You changed the locks?” Lan grunted. “You’re kicking Dennis out? Good.”
“No—don’t be silly. They’re keys to a new apartment I’ve rented for you and Eddie and Robert. It’s only a few miles away, isn’t that nice? We can visit whenever we want. And it’s a short walk to the hospital where you work—you won’t even have to ride the bus. You’ll love it. I’ve already stocked the cupboard with a month’s supply of food.”
“So—we’ll starve after one month. I can’t believe we’re having this discussion again, Bay Ly. You want more gold—to rob my boys of their future? Go ahead, take what you want!”
There was no use trying to reason with her, since her reasoning was so peculiar and didn’t admit another point of view. When all else failed, she relied on the fact that she was my elder sister and my senior in all family matters. Since it was questionable whether any other members of our once proud and happy family survived the fall of the South, that fact alone was usually enough to win the argument.
Except today. Today Dennis and I were going to play hardball, but in a sporting way.
Lan often went with me to pick up the boys after school. Today, instead of taking everyone home, I simply drove Lan and her sons to the new apartment. It was an older building in an older neighborhood (not as nice as our tract in Santee, but it was all I could afford) and still much nicer than the nicest place she had in Vietnam. I arranged to have Dennis meet us there—partly for security, in case Lan made a scene, and partly to show that we meant business, that it was a family decision: a decision made by my new American family, husband and all.
Lan got out looking shocked and numb, as if she were going to her own execution. I led them on a tour of the two-bedroom, kitchenette apartment. It was furnished with old, knockabout furniture, but nothing Lan couldn’t replace after a few months’ work or a few checks from Petey. For a woman who, six months before, couldn’t have gotten odds on her life, it might as well have been a suite at the Ritz. We left them wandering through the rooms and promised to return with their things, which we did, that same afternoon.
Fortunately, Lan’s purgatory didn’t last long. Within the year, Petey returned, true to his word, and they were married. I was not thrilled with their chances for success, but who was I to talk? Lan was happy, and because of that, so was I.
Now it was Dennis’s turn to make waves.
Dennis was deeply religious, and I had made the mistake on more than one occasion of sharing with him my mystical visits with Ed. At first, he discounted them as figments of my imagination, my heathen culture.
“If you threw away that stupid shrine,” Dennis remarked, “you’d stop having these silly hallucinations.”
He was right, of course, but for the wrong reason. If I destroyed my ancestors’ spirit house, they would abandon me, but our problems would only get worse. Still, Dennis agreed that “funny things” went on in our house; things even his Western education and Baptist upbringing couldn’t explain.
One afternoon as I was putting our dishes away in the high American cupboard and Jimmy was eating a sandwich at the kitchen table, I opened a cupboard door and was instantly blinded by a shaft of light. It darted left and right, then disappeared.
“Cool, Mom!” Jimmy shouted, drinking his milk. “How’d you make that light snake?”
He was so used to oddities in this land of technological miracles that it didn’t even occur to him to be scared.
“You saw it? You saw it too?” I felt my heart pound in my ears.
“Sure. How’d you do it?”
I told Dennis later about our “magic trick” and he took me seriously enough to ask Jimmy what he saw. Dennis came out of the boys’ room puzzled, but unconvinced.
“Jimmy saw something.” Dennis shook his head. “It was more than a reflection or anything like that. I’ll be damned if I can tell you what it was. Maybe static electricity.”
Not too long after that, while I was reading in bed waiting for Dennis to turn in, he appeared in the doorway, pale and sweating.
“Son of a bitch!” he gasped—not in anger but amazement.
“What’s wrong?” I got up. “You sick? You want some water?”
He wiped his face with a towel. “You won’t believe this—or maybe you will. I just saw Ed!”
“Of course. I see him all the time.”
“You don’t understand. I saw Ed—standing ten feet in front of me! It was like a color slide: click, he was there, click, he was gone. Christ, I’ve never even seen the guy except in a snapshot! But there he was. I’ll tell you one thing”—Dennis shut the door as if that would be any barrier to hallway ghosts, “we’re getting out of this house!”
On December 19, 1975, not long after Dennis had his vision, I gave birth to Alan—my third son by as many men. Like all my boys, he was a beautiful baby, bringing into my world with Dennis a sweet dollop of love where before there had been only the thick crust of duty. Dennis was so proud of this new little man who bore his name that he allowed that name to be extended to my other two sons as well, although he never adopted them formally. It takes more than a name to make a family, but at least we had a start.
Once again, when Dennis made up his mind to do something, he couldn’t be stopped. He fell in love with a big five-bedroom, two-story house on a San Diego cul-de-sac and used the equity from my Santee house, plus his own VA loan, to take possession in March 1976. I questioned our ability to make the payments, which were much more than those for Ed’s house, but Dennis was buying an exorcism, not just a roof over our heads. For him, the cost of his own peace of mind was no object.
Although for Dennis the new house was a move up, it was for us a move backward. Santee was a navy community with many working-class families. Our new San Diego neighborhood, however, was mostly white collar, so the people were more reserved and not too interested in this ex-GI and his Oriental wife. In Ed’s world, I had at least been an exotic decoration. On Dennis’s new block, I was no more welcome than another Asian gardener.
We did one thing right, though. I hired a Vietnamese geomancer to evaluate the house. In the East, thoughtful couples won’t move into a home until an astrologer has studied its aspects: the alignment of its front door and which way the bed should face and so on. The man we hired came for his interview in the old Santee house. He sniffed the interior suspiciously as soon as I let him in.
“How long have you lived in this house?” he asked.
“About four years,” I answered.
“And your sign? Wait—don’t tell me. Ky suu con trau”—he scratched his chin—“another water buffalo, eh? I’m surprised you and your husband are still together. Your door faces the sunset. Hasn’t that ever bothered you?”
I thought about all the evenings I had sat in the front yard staring at the setting sun, hoping for some miracle that would take me home, or at least make me feel at home in this strange place called America.
“No, I don’t think so,” I lied.
“Hmph. Well, think about it.”
I offered him some tea. He asked about Ed’s sign and I told him I thought Ed had been a cat or a rabbit.
“You should’ve paid more attention, my dear. It sounds like he was man thap hon—a man with a lower destiny. Perhaps his mission on earth had been to bring you from Vietnam. When it was over, he had no further function, so he died. The universe is very economical, Mrs. Hayslip. People think they can do whatever they want with their time on earth. Where do they get such silly ideas?”
I agreed, and pointed out that since our time was so precious, we probably shouldn’t waste any more of it in the house we were leaving, and analyze instead our new home. He agreed, but not before finishing his tea and cookies.
The geomancer walked through the new house like a city building inspector, taking measurements and checking his compass.
“The kitchen’s okay,” he said, squinting at the walls like an exterminator, “but the front door will give you problems. I suggest you remodel as soon as possible and have it open onto the sunrise.”
“That really won’t be possible,” Dennis said, struggling to keep from laughing. “The house costs enough already. We can’t afford any big changes.”
“Suit yourself. It’s your happiness we’re talking about, not mine.”
The astrologer made some additional comments—things we couldn’t do much about, and suggested that if I wanted to say some conciliatory prayers, he would give me directions to a Buddhist temple that was not too far away.
My heart jumped. I had been looking for a proper place to pray on high holidays and, even more important, to consult with priests and monks about the things that troubled me. Now this funny little man had presented me with just what I’d been seeking. My generous tip beyond his nominal fee surprised him, but it was still much cheaper than a new front door.
The little Buddhist temple had been established by expatriate Vietnamese, donating whatever they could to gain a spiritual foothold in this strange new land. Although most of the money had come from wealthier immigrants, the temple was sparse: less a sign of rich-man parsimony than traditional Buddhist asceticism. At one end of the empty hall was a shelf with a contemplative stone Buddha. Around it was arrayed smoking incense and plates of offerings—mostly withering fruit and stale cookies. Like most temples, even the walls smelled of incense, a reminder of ever-present divinity. What I liked best, though, was the constant drone of the caretakers’ chants and the sound of the mo and chuong—the wooden knocker and metal bowl which were beaten like drums and cymbals to summon certain spirits and ward off others. The monks themselves could have come from any Saigon street corner: barefoot, saffron robed, shave-headed men who always greeted you with a smile and a prayerful bow. Because they spoke no English, they were totally dependent on their sponsors for news of the outside world as well as food or money deposited respectfully in their binh bat, little begging bowls. Over the coming months, I would make myself a fixture around the place.
The demands of setting up our new household were many—getting the kids settled in a new school; planting the front yard to look like our neighbors’, and tilling the back to look like a farm (with bananas, guavas, bamboo, lemon grass, mint, and all kinds of vegetables); and meeting our neighbors, Pat (a blond “surfer chick”) and her husband, Mike, a sympathetic Vietnam vet.
When I wasn’t working at home, I was visiting the temple. The monks (whom I called su, or “master”) appreciated my knowledge of the old traditions and desire to learn more. Before long, even the Hoa Thuong—the chief priest—started calling me phat tu, “my child,” which is both a term of endearment and acknowledgment of my special status as his student. I even had the luxury of using one of our extra rooms as a “temple room” for my ancestral shrine and a book-case that soon overflowed with literature about religion and philosophy, Eastern and Western. The tension between these instincts of mine—to observe my family’s traditions while trying to understand new ideas—and Dennis’s low tolerance of anything beyond the Christian gospel quickly led to difficulties even the geomancer had not foreseen.
At first, we tried to be even-steven about things. Dennis came to my temple a couple of times just to see what it was like. I didn’t force my beliefs on him any more than I had forced them on Jimmy or Tommy. Like my father before me, my only instruction to my children would be by my example. If they became curious and asked questions, I would be glad to answer. If they did not, that was fine too. Thus has spiritual education always gone forward in the East: novices asking the master, not the teacher demanding answers. In matters of spiritual sustenance, the su learned long ago that it was not only foolish, but harmful, to force nourishment on someone who was not hungry.
Dennis’s approach—and that of his church—was considerably different. Because the congregation was half Oriental, services were conducted in both English and Mandarin, and the associated Bible school had a playground that was open to the kids all week. The playground was one reason Jimmy and Tommy liked the church better than the temple—even when it came to religion, Americans were better at marketing their product! But in place of the Buddha’s message of transcendence and reincarnation was a nonnegotiable demand that we sinners renounce Satan and get on with Christ’s work. One particularly adamant evangelist was a pretty young college student named Janet, who boasted Chinese ancestry. She asked me after one church potluck if I would like to meet with her the following Thursday to study the Bible. I was always impressed with scholarship and said yes enthusiastically. I invited her to come by about lunch-time.
I did not know what to cook for a good Baptist. Dennis and I had entertained both Occidentals and Orientals from his church and had argued about every dish. My Western-style meals always had a kind of “soy-and-ginger” flavor and my Vietnamese food was often deemed unpalatable—and sometimes poisonous.
“Besides,” Dennis once said, holding up a piece of banh tac (rice wrapped in banana leaves) with obvious disgust, “our church friends don’t like the idea of eating the same kind of food that you offer to the devil.”
“Offer to the devil! What you talking about? Buddha is not the devil!”
“Well, he’s a graven image—a golden calf—read the Bible and you’ll see. Anyway, they feel wrong accepting the hospitality of a pagan—you know, somebody who doesn’t believe in God.”
“But I do believe in god!”
“Not their God—our God—the Lord our God in Heaven.”
That sounded a lot like Ong Troi—Mr. Sky. He and Mother Earth are the parents of everything. But I thought it was unwise to point this out just now.
“Buddha was just a man,” Dennis continued. “You can’t worship just a man.”
“I don’t worship him, I only offer prayers and respect. And there are many Buddhas, not just one—”
“What about your burnt offerings? Isn’t that idolatry—worship of the dead?”
“What about your funeral flowers? Aren’t you worshiping the dead with them?”
“That’s different. You don’t understand. You really need to study the Bible.”
I didn’t know how different our customs really were, but at least we agreed I was too ignorant to tell him the facts about his own religion. I wanted to learn from Janet, not debate her. I decided to prepare a big lunch using mostly American packaged foods, so Janet wouldn’t get sick, but I made some Vietnamese dishes, too. She arrived right on time, a half hour before noon, sporting a big leather-bound Bible with lots of pages marked by ribbons. When she saw me, her pretty sienna lips parted like Moses’ Red Sea.
“Hello, Janet,” I said, “it’s very good to see you. Please come in.”
She did so, taking off her shoes, impressing me with her knowledge of our customs. She looked into the kitchen.
“So much food!” she said. “I hope it’s not all for us.”
“Don’t worry, the boys will finish what we don’t eat.”
“Well, I was also worried about time.” She looked at the watch on her delicate wrist. “Do you mind if we start our lesson while we have lunch?”
I thought we were going to have a discussion—questions and answers—like the ones I had with the monks. American “lessons,” I had learned in community college, tended toward one-way conversations, from all-knowing teacher to stupid little students. I didn’t think that was the way the universe was built, so it did not seem to be the right way to talk about the cosmic god. But I also did not want to be impolite, so I said, “Yes, of course. Why not?”
While I dipped an egg roll in nuoc mam fish sauce, Janet said, “First, let me explain about God. He is the Father of us all and created us to love one another, and to love Him most of all. He is so perfect, though, that He cannot tolerate any sin around Him.”
“But Pastor Chun say we are all sinners,” I interrupted. “Does that mean no Baptists go to Heaven?”
“Oh, no,” Janet laughed, “that’s why God sent His only begotten son, Jesus Christ, to earth in order to show us how to live a sinless life. He then caused Jesus to be crucified so that the rest of us could be saved. Do you understand so far?”
I wrinkled my nose and shook my head. She talked some more about how God could not, apparently, forgive me directly, but only if I professed my belief in His son. It all seemed so complicated—like the procedure for getting passports rather than getting into Heaven. After a while, she gave up on theology and told me about her Buddhist family in rural China and why she converted to Christianity.
“Like you, Le Ly, my parents and some of the other villagers were Buddhists and often left food offerings outdoors by their family shrines. One day, when I was a little girl, we had a terrible drought in the hills. Some tigers came into the village and attacked people, but only those with food by their houses. All the Christian families were saved. The missionaries said it was a sign from God and I believed them. Everybody in the village converted after that.”
Although I was moved by Janet’s sincerity, I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at her story. I was an old hand at reading animal signs, but it was unlikely that the cosmic god would send tigers to disprove his own existence. This inconsistency in so important a family legend did not seem to disturb her.
We finished our meal talking about the other strange (if secular) differences between Asia and America. Then Janet decided it was time to go.
“Shall we meet again next week?” she asked.
I wasn’t sure where these sessions would lead, but Dennis seemed happy I was having them, so I said, “Yes, of course. Why not?”
About this time I met a Vietnamese woman named Huyen at the temple. Like me, she was married to an American but had free time to devote to charity. The first time I went to her house, I was surprised to find it was in a poor neighborhood with weedy yards, cars without wheels in driveways and wheels without cars hanging from tree limbs for the local kids to play on. I banged on her flimsy aluminum screen door, afraid I had overdressed for the occasion, but she gave me a royal greeting.
“Khoe khong Chi Ly—How are you, Sister Ly?” she said, bowing her short-cropped head politely. “You probably wonder why I’ve asked you here!”
“Not at all.” The house was dark as a movie theater and I pulled off my sunglasses. It was summer and she had no cooler. All the shades had been drawn to keep out the heat. “I always enjoy our visits.”
“Well, this one is very special.” She called out for three boys, eleven, thirteen, and fifteen, who arrayed themselves by height. I knew they weren’t hers because she told me she had only one daughter, Rose—a girl as pretty as her name—whom I had already met. She went down the line, “This is Anh, An, and Hiep—the man of the family. They are my late sister’s children. My brother-in-law can’t raise them, so now they are mine.”
They were good-looking boys, although, like so many refugees still flooding into the United States, they had not yet learned to smile. I mentioned this to Huyen, mostly as a joke to loosen them up, but she agreed.
“They’re very unhappy here,” she lamented. “Look at this house—it’s so small! It’s like living on that terrible boat they took to escape Vietnam. And I only have one small daughter, so who can they play with? They need a better place to stay, where they can learn about America.”
I guessed where the conversation was going, but I didn’t mind. Our new house was too large for the five of us, and Dennis always said he liked big families. I volunteered to take the boys on a regular basis, including several nights each week—provided they got along with my kids, which they did, swimmingly, at first meeting. Jimmy and Tommy had Caucasian friends at school, but they still felt more at home with the Oriental kids at Dennis’s church. Having Huyen’s nephews in the house was like moving the church playground to our backyard!
The new boys spoke very little at first, even when I addressed them in Vietnamese, but they snapped to for all sorts of chores, showing they came from a thoughtful, disciplined family. They were polite to the point of formality, saying da thua di, “Yes, Auntie,” which was the Vietnamese equivalent of “Yes, ma’am.” They also preferred Vietnamese food, which was considerably cheaper than meat-heavy American meals. This pleased even Dennis, who agreed they could stay as long as they liked. This was the crucial ingredient for Huyen’s next request.
“The boys like your family—good!” she said. “Maybe they have a future. I’m told I cannot apply for welfare because they are my sister’s children, so their life with us would be poor. The only way for them to get a good start is to find sponsors for the foster parent program. The state will pay their expenses, but you must provide the love. Do you think you can do it?”
The love part was no problem, but I had some concerns about the paperwork. To qualify as foster parents, we had to have blood tests (for drugs and diseases) and give our fingerprints to the police. Two social workers, including one of the foster children’s race, had to come out and inspect our house—to see that we could shelter and feed the kids properly. In Vietnam—at least before I left—each of these steps was an opportunity for corruption. I was very worried that we would be compelled to pay fee after fee and donate to various administrative “coffee funds” before we could earn a foster parents’ license. But my fears were unfounded. The authorities seemed delighted to place at least a few of the thousands of homeless Vietnamese children who were swamping their resources. A week or so later, Anh, An, and Hiep moved in to begin their new lives as Americans.
For the first year, everything went well. The State of California paid the newcomers’ medical bills plus a little over two hundred dollars per child (little Anh received less), so we were able to make ends meet. Dennis was moved to the second shift at work, which meant he got a little more money and was gone from two in the afternoon until midnight. He slept late, rising after the kids had gone to school, so he hardly ever saw them except on weekends. He busied himself with lots of “man hobbies,” which was all right with me. I didn’t, however, appreciate his gun collecting. He seemed to buy a new one every month: shotgun, hunting rifle, or handgun. And his motorcycles seemed more dangerous than the American warplanes that used to streak above my village. I got shivers of fear just looking at his big cruiser. He also started drinking, not too much but at the wrong times—alone after a fight with me or after a bad day at work.
Unfortunately, Dennis splurged on our first Christmas with the foster kids and money got very tight. Since I paid the bills each month, I was astonished at the big balances he ran up on our credit cards, particularly since I never took my cards out of the drawer and Dennis, like Ed, never went anywhere without them. Gas and electricity and automobile costs had all gone up since the fuel crisis of the middle seventies, and we now used more of everything because of our bigger household. I finally told Dennis that our high living couldn’t continue. He inspected our checkbook.
“The new kids eat too much,” Dennis said with a frown. “Buy less meat and more peanut butter. And forget about McDonald’s and new school clothes, at least for Anh, An, and Hiep.”
“I can’t do that,” I protested. “The state has certain rules. The foster kids are supposed to get clothes and entertainment like the other boys.”
Dennis grunted. “You Vietnamese really stick together, don’t you? Still taking advantage of the Americans! Whose side are you on now, anyway?”
His attitude had changed. He was wary of all the boat people and hated them for taking American jobs. He was shocked at the Khmer Rouge’s “killing fields” and saw in Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia “just another domino falling.” He was upset by Watergate and cynical about his government.
Religion, too, was no longer a comfort. The Baptist and Catholic sponsors insisted that all Vietnamese refugees join their church, including the Buddhists. This caused the local Buddhists to react strongly to prevent conversions, so the old religious wars that had troubled the Vietnamese soul for decades began afresh on American soil. All these big problems converged on our little house and took their toll on everyone. As the old Vietnamese saying went: Gop gio thanh bao—Small winds gather to make a tempest!
I had to admit that I spent a lot of time with the new boys. They still preferred Vietnamese to English and hearing it reminded me of home and made me feel better. They also needed a lot of love and counseling, and there was no substitute for the many hours of sympathetic listening I had to put in. Because of this, Dennis began to feel neglected.
“I’m on the family’s side,” I said. “But these poor kids have had such a hard time already. We just have to follow the rules. I see the monthly bills. You spend money for guns and for your motorcycle, but—”
“Leave my things out of it!” Dennis slammed the table. “Those guns are an investment. They go up in value—they’ll pay for Alan’s education. And the bike gives me the only freedom I have in this place. Working on it relaxes me, okay? So just leave my stuff out of it.”
Dennis walked away and poured himself another glass of scotch: his usual way of ending an argument.
But our financial problems couldn’t be ignored. When we couldn’t cover our monthly bills, I went back to work as a housekeeper and, whenever possible, as a private nurse’s aide. One of my clients was an elderly man named Charlie who had been paralyzed after a stroke. He had been a “gun nut” in his younger days and I drew him out on this subject whenever I could, hoping to get some insights into what made Dennis tick. Sometimes, Charlie said, he used to go hunting for food, but usually it was to kill for the sport of it: to disembowel the animals and mount their heads and skins for trophies—just as some French and Koreans and Americans had done to villagers in my country. I couldn’t understand how men—how anyone—could view such brutalities as sport. Even if they didn’t commit such acts themselves, just keeping the guns that made them possible seemed an invitation to more atrocities. Having been through what I had been through, I knew I could never be rational about firearms or the men who loved them. More important, I saw no reason to be.
Meanwhile, my Bible “education” wasn’t exactly paving my way to Christian Heaven. After a few awkward sessions, I looked for reasons to put Janet off, until we met less than once a month. When Dennis and I became foster parents, I told her I would have no more time for “lessons,” although I promised to keep reading the Bible on my own, consulting Dennis when I had questions. In reality, I read the Bible less and spent more time with the Buddhist monks, who, more and more, seemed to be the only people who understood me.
“You have a nice family, a nice house,” my favorite teacher said one day after I had unburdened myself of all my problems. “And your husband is faithful and never beats you. How many rich women can say the same thing?”
“I know I should be happy with my life, master, but I feel I am being pulled down when I must move upward.”
“You are still paying nang nghiep—soul debt—and heavy karma, phat tu. Whatever is disturbing you, there is a reason for it. Learn from it. The road to nirvana is never broad and safe, but always winding and treacherous. The best bowl of rice is the one for which you have worked the hardest, isn’t that true?”
He used my agreement to make that road a little twistier.
“You are good with children,” he said. “Perhaps they will be your salvation. O hien thi lai gap lanh, nhung nguoi nhan-duc troi danh phuc cho—Blessings and luck come to those who are kindhearted.”
I thought for a long time about what that comment meant. It would be many years until either Jimmy or Tommy was old enough to help support his family financially or in any other way than the normal joy of being a kid. It then occurred to me that the same psychic energy and skills I was applying to clients like Charlie, who were hopelessly bogged down with nang nghiep themselves, might be better applied to little children who could benefit right away from my spiritual sense. It seemed to me that by increasing my commitment to the foster children program, I would hasten my own salvation.
Fortunately, our reviews by the social workers had always been A+. Almost as soon as I applied, we were approved for two more parentless Vietnamese refugees. Our total kid-count now came to eight.
As my master promised, the happiness these children brought our household quickly balanced our spiritual and emotional ledgers. Dennis was pleased because what I lacked in Christian knowledge I made up for in Christian charity—which won him praise from his congregation. What they didn’t know was that I needed these stray kids as much as they needed me! One woman who worked for National Semi-Conductor was so impressed with my confidence and spirit that she offered me a job with her company for considerably more than I was paid to take care of Charlie. Of course, I took it in a flash. With a little luck, the extra money would repair our family checkbook the way the foster children were rehabilitating my lost and lonely soul.
Then, just as my happy little world looked brightest, the cosmic god spread his shadow across the light.