Child of War, Woman of Peace - Le Ly Hayslip, James Hayslip, Jenny Wurts (1993)
PART TWO. Finding the American Dream (1983-86)
7. Pursuit of Happiness
AFTER DENNIS’S FRETFUL SOUL was put to rest, I found greater peace in every other part of my life.
The boys did well in school and expanded their interest in religion from Baptist dogma to include the teachings of Buddha, karma, and the natural order of things. Jimmy, in fact, found in this philosophy the God of Einstein as well as the Christian God of Abraham. Our debates became discussions and all four of us learned a lot more about dao lam nguoi—how to become a human being.
I worked even harder on my family’s history, although now that I approached the story of my own teenage years, the memories brought cold sweats, cramps, and tears, like a mother’s hard labor. Because putting the manuscript aside even for a day was much easier than going on, I began to doubt my will to finish it. Yet I persevered. How could I not? I had a million lost souls behind me: pushing, wailing, singing a joyful chorus at every completed page.
One day while I was loading my car with groceries, mulling around this memory and that, I spotted an unusual little store across the street called the Philosophical Library. Although I had never studied “philosophy” as it is classified by American colleges, I had often been told by instructors and classmates that I had a “philosophical turn of mind.” I couldn’t help but wonder what a bookstore devoted entirely to my turn of mind would be like.
Instead of shouting best-sellers and coffee-table books of warplanes and bikini-girl calendars, the walls were adorned with spiritual posters: fantastic cloud cities, lush jungles, eclipsing moons, sorcerers, and images from both the Western and Eastern zodiacs. Along with Buddha statues stood racks of packaged herbs, incense, healing crystals, and tapes of soothing music. Instead of shelves lined with dust-dry books by dead European authors, there were lively volumes on Taoism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and both amateur and professional guides to astrology—most written by people with Oriental surnames. As Jimmy would later say after seeing the store, “Gee, Mom, looks like you died and went to heaven!” He was half right. When I finally came back out, all my frozen foods had melted and the fruit had sprouted leaves.
The little shop became my second home. I attended the many lectures and seminars held at the store and bought every tape they had for sale and borrowed or rented those that weren’t. I made friends with the owners, the staff, and the customers. For some of them, the bookstore was an introduction to a “new age” in Western thinking about spiritual and religious matters. To me, it was like meeting old friends and family. Best of all, this discovery came at a time when I needed it most, when my spirit was almost drained dry by the confrontation with my own war memories. Before, I didn’t believe Americans could care about the spiritual life of my people. Now, after seeing America’s new awareness firsthand, I decided that to tell the story of a Vietnamese family without its soul would be like giving stillbirth to a baby: a lifeless imitation of what god and nature intended to be vital and complete. As I studied, I went back to my self-appointed task with new energy and hope.
Some of my “library” friends lived in Rancho Bernardo, an exclusive suburb filled with almost wealthy people, many of them retired. During one of my visits, my friends and I ate at a new Oriental restaurant called the Royal Eagle. The food was good but the servers were young and inexperienced. They had trouble meeting the needs and expectations of Rancho Bernardo’s older crowd. Coincidentally, one of the waitresses had worked with me at NSC in San Diego. Alone on a return visit, I spoke to her as soon as it was convenient.
“Thuan em—Sister Thuan!” I met her by the busser’s station. “How are you doing?”
“Chi Ly!” she responded, “It’s been a long time!”
We chatted only a minute or two—I didn’t want our reunion to make the service worse. It was almost six o’clock, and diners were arriving in a steady stream.
“Tell me,” I asked, “who owns this place? Do they have a manager?”
“No, no manager. The place just opened. Kenneth—the owner—is trying to save money. Would you like to meet him?”
She disappeared into the kitchen. Maybe Thuan thought I wanted a job as a waitress and had visions of our gossiping during breaks like the old days. I had something different in mind.
A young, thin Chinese-Vietnamese man came back through the swinging doors. His shoulder-length hair bulged beneath the state-required hairnet; his face was coated with perspiration above a soy-stained apron.
“Hello,” he said pleasantly, offering his hand. “You are Miss Hayslip? My name is Kenneth. What can I do for you?”
“Ong chu, please call me Ly. Your restaurant is very nice”—I gestured to the lucky red wallpaper and gold trim—“very beautiful.”
“Well, thank you very much! We’re doing the best we can. I hope you’re not interested in a job. I can’t hire anyone else until business picks up. Maybe later in the year—”
“That’s why I wanted to talk to you. I would like to work for you, but not as a waitress. Take a look.” I stood back and let Kenneth’s own operation make my point. “Here it is, the beginning of supper rush, and people are turning away because of the long line by the register. The retired people who eat early are trying to pay their checks while the people getting off work have to wait for tables. Your waiters and waitresses are bumping into each other trying to seat people and take orders and serve food and run the cash register and handle the take-out and nobody’s coordinating anything. I’ll bet half of them don’t know enough English to read the menu! You don’t need more servers or cooks, Kenneth, you need a manager: somebody who can get your people to work together as a team and give your customers professional service.”
Kenneth shook his head, “I try to keep an eye on things from the kitchen, but—I don’t know. Managers are expensive and this is a family business, you know? Still, if you want to fill out an application, I’ll let you know when business gets good enough for me to interview you for—”
“No,” I smiled at him. “I don’t want an application, I want you to watch me!”
I was dressed in a nice ao dai anyway and had nothing to lose, so I thought I’d give Kenneth an audition. I went straight to the half-dozen people waiting inside the door, introduced myself to the first couple, thanked them for coming, grabbed a pair of menus, and showed them to the nearest clean table for two. I went back to the register, checked out an elderly customer and his wife (“Thank you for bearing with us,” I said with a smile. “This is our grand opening. I hope you will become our regular guests”), seated another pair and signaled a busser to begin clearing a table for a party of four. After a couple of minutes, the logjam by the register was cleared and I went back to Kenneth.
“See?” I grinned. “All it takes is a little coordination—knowing what to do and thinking ahead. And a little show business!”
Kenneth scanned the tables—all smiling faces and quiet conversations. Servers and bussers came and went without colliding. “Come inside,” he said, taking off his apron. “Let’s talk.”
Before Kenneth could give me his well-rehearsed (and, I’m sure, very sincere) speech about how little he could pay a hostess/manager, I relieved him of his anxiety.
“Look, Kenneth,” I said, “I don’t want to work for wages. I’ve done that already. Let me show you what I can do for two weeks—just like tonight—for free. After that, let’s sit down again and talk about my compensation.”
Because my short-term costs were zero and the benefits I promised were immediate, Kenneth jumped at my proposition. For the next two weeks, I came in early and went home late. I learned the names and favorite dishes of many customers and remembered them when they returned. I made friends with the food servers and helped them adjust their schedules to get the hours they wanted. I helped clear tables and realigned several sections so we could get to and from the tables easier with less noise and fewer accidents. I spent as much time as I could with the kitchen staff, sharing praise from the customers and joking with them about everything from the peculiarities of American taste (“You know that guy at table twelve actually eats ketchup with his egg rolls!”) to the mysteries of the clipper machine, which our young dishwasher operated with as much pride as the captain of a 747. Absenteeism dropped and repeat business soared. Daily receipts climbed. Many of the customers began asking for me by name and thought I owned the restaurant.
When it came time to discuss my compensation, Kenneth was less concerned about how much I would cost than how much I had shown my services could pay.
“Okay,” I said, “I will give you three choices. “I already said I didn’t want wages and that’s still true. You may pay me a salary if you wish, but I warn you, it will be high. I would much prefer to work for a percentage of the day’s receipts or, even better, to work for a percentage of the profits, as a co-owner. That way, my pay is based not only on how much money I help bring in, but on how well I help you to hold down costs. That way, we make money together, right? What do you think?”
Kenneth could see the wisdom of my offer, but he was still the “proud parent” of a fledgling business and I could see it was too soon for him to consider taking on a partner. Instead, we negotiated a modest salary with a sales incentive, which suited me fine. I told him that, under such an arrangement, I could work only the lunch and dinner rush hours—eleven to two and five to nine—and he agreed.
Meanwhile, I kept working on my war memoir: dictating story after story to Jimmy, who dutifully typed them into his computer. These sessions were very emotional, particularly when it came time to talk about adventures Jimmy shared, but was too young to remember. I still cried at the mention of my departed father and brother, whom I still mourned and prayed for daily, and my mother, whom I hadn’t seen for more than thirteen years and missed beyond measure. When things were going good and neither of us wanted to stop, Tommy became responsible for meals and brought us tea and snacks. When the going got tough or we broke down in tears, little Alan would bring the tissues, which we stocked like pencils and paper. A day didn’t go by that I didn’t gather my boys into my arms and cry out of relief that the war was over. Often I grieved that they would never know the Vietnamese family life I loved and feared I would never see again.
By the end of summer, 1985, Jimmy and I had completed three hundred pages, which to me seemed bigger than an encyclopedia: a mouse giving birth to an elephant! Although it was only a fraction of what I wanted to say, it was enough to test the publishing waters.
From the reference desk at the local library, I got a listing of all American publishers and sent out a hundred copies of my rough draft. After a few weeks, the replies trickled in. Some were curt and businesslike, and made me feel sorry for wasting the publisher’s valuable time with my stupid ideas. Some said they liked the idea of telling a Vietnamese peasant woman’s story to Americans—to give identities to the “faceless” Asians who once crowded their TV screens—but Vietnam “really wasn’t our thing” or “isn’t very hot right now.” Others thought its time had yet to come (“We need the benefit of historical perspective that another generation will bring”). Well, I didn’t have time to wait for the next generation. If history had taught me one lesson, it was that each generation must learn for itself what love, war, child-rearing, and universal law are all about. Unless people took it upon themselves to share what they had learned, each country would never be anything more to another than colors on a map. One reply—“It would be hard for our readers to accept because the subject matter is based on the viewpoint of enemies who killed our people in war”—only made me more determined to get my side of the story published.
After six months of watching me work hard to learn the food service craft, Kenneth made it clear that he was not ready to admit a partner. I would have to satisfy my proprietor’s dreams—lam chu tu minh, to command my own destiny—elsewhere.
“I’ve decided to open my own restaurant,” I told Kenneth one day after my shift. “I’ll give you a couple of weeks to find a new hostess and manager, if you want to replace me, but I’ve already applied for a second mortgage on my house and withdrawn twenty thousand from the bank. With that and a little luck, I think I can start a business of my own.”
He looked a little disappointed, but not surprised, then brightened. “I don’t suppose you’re looking for an investor—?”
I brightened too. “You know of somebody?”
“Sure. Me! I know what you can do. I’m sure you’ll be successful at anything you try. You understand why I can’t give away part of this business now—but if you’re willing to take on partners, I’ll be happy to participate in a new one.”
We talked another hour, my excitement growing by the minute. Kenneth didn’t have a lot of ready cash, but he knew people who did. He also had a wealth of ideas, experience, and contacts. What about menus and food preparation? No problem—Kenneth had trained a good chef who was itching to run his own kitchen. What about startup costs and renovations? Kenneth had friends in the construction business who did great work at good rates. I left feeling lucky to be the Royal Eagle’s hatchling instead of an extra “mother.”
Along with Mr. Ho, our third partner, Kenneth and I signed the lease for five thousand square feet of preapproved space in Temecula, Riverside County.
I put about fifty thousand dollars and three months’ hard labor into getting things started and we opened the doors of the Hollylinh (Mr. “Ho,” Le “Ly,” and Kenneth “Linh”) Restaurant on schedule with assets of over $150,000. We tried to strike a balance between traditional Chinese decor and California ambience: tropical fish and glass-topped tables in place of the usual red pillars and porcelain dragons. We ran into the usual problems, though, when it came to staff. Most of the Chinese or Vietnamese who were willing to work for restaurant wages were “FOB” (fresh off the boat, as Jimmy’s school friends liked to say), and knew little English and less about American customs. We hired eight workers in this category, and I decided to try something radical in order to speed their learning. What made my plan especially satisfying was that it relied on nothing more than an age-old Vietnamese custom
In Vietnam, restaurant owners were expected to be very paternalistic with their employees. If you treated your workers like family, it was thought, they would respond in kind. “Good parents” deserved “good children,” so considerate, generous bosses were usually rewarded with loyalty and hard work. Stingy or cruel bosses, on the other hand, often created “lazy” workers, or worse. As one saying went: “Giet nguoi bang muoi”—A bad cook kills the customers!
Our problem was that the eight workers we hired all shared a two-bedroom apartment in Los Angeles and the restaurant was in Temecula, where few Orientals lived. Kenneth offered to rent them a similar apartment in Temecula, but I couldn’t imagine “happy workers” living four to a room, especially in the “land of gold.” I offered to let all of them live in my house and commute with me to work, which pleased them enormously (especially after they saw my dream house!) and completely baffled my partners. However, the compromise made sense, so that’s exactly what we did. In my house, we spoke English all the time and watched TV, where they learned about American lifestyles and attitudes. At work, everyone cooperated and immediately applied what they learned.
Of course, I knew this could not go on indefinitely. If our crew had any ambition, some would soon seek better-paying jobs or go to school. I didn’t really want to run a permanent halfway house for immigrants anyway.
The solution was for the partners to invest in another house a few minutes from the restaurant and allow the employees to live in it rent free. This not only solved our housing crisis, but created an excellent store of cash for growth and emergencies. Because I had the money, I made the down payment and the title was in my name, although the restaurant made the monthly payments and had a claim against the future equity.
I remember sitting down at my kitchen table to catch my breath on the day we closed. I now owned three houses in and around a major American city and a third of a growing business—no mean feat for a meo con kitten so scrawny at birth that the peasant midwife wanted to choke me and throw me away! My sons were healthy, happy, safe, and well on their way to becoming young men their grandparents in both cultures would be proud of. And (although I still collected rejection slips) my book was ripening on its vine along with my bank account.
Was there anything more a woman like me could want?
One day at the Philosophical Library I saw an ad for a spiritual retreat in the town of Harmony Grove—a tranquil place, surrounded by elfin forest in the mountains between Escondido and the sea. Since I knew location made a big difference in spiritual matters as well as real estate, I visited the town as soon as I could. To passing travelers, Harmony Grove might be just another hamlet. To me, it was nirvana—a supermarket of psychics, mediums, and soothsayers.
The first swami I consulted was Paul, a handsome, softspoken young man about my age. If Jesus had been a surfer, he would’ve looked like this blond-haired namesake of his disciple. Like the Baptists’ conception of Jesus, too, Paul never smiled.
On the morning of our appointment, I met him in a rough-hewn cabin. It was sparsely furnished with a single wooden chair, which he occupied, and a couch by the window which was meant for me—psychiatrist and patient. Unlike a Western psychologist, though, he would do the talking and I would ask the questions. Like a good monk who meditates before engaging in any spiritual activity, Paul wanted us to relax. We both closed our eyes.
“Feel the sunbeams on your skin,” he said in a soothing, hypnotic voice. “Its yellow light turns your warming flesh to butter. Ever softer, more relaxed. As your body gives way, your mind becomes clearer. As your mind clears, your soul rises from the murky depths to the surface of a crystal pond. Its energy pours forth and rides the light beams to every part of the room. I open myself to the energy of your spirit, to its knowledge of past and future …”
We sat in silence for several minutes, then he said, “I see you at the base of a mountain, Le Ly. You are tired from climbing, yet your journey has hardly begun. I see you climbing: slowly, but with determination. The lower slope is steep with jagged rocks. Farther on, the slope begins to flatten, the rocks become smaller. Each stone you touch becomes a flower. Near the summit, flowers are all around you. People at the base of the mountain cheer and reach up with their hands. The mountain is not in the United States. The sunlight on the mountaintop is pure—no clouds—”
I opened my eyes to peek at the guru. He pinched the bridge of his nose and frowned, as if, by looking, I had thrown static into his vision. I closed my eyes and let the warm sunlight carry me off again.
“I am writing a book,” I said. “Will it be published?”
He sighed. “Yes. But not soon. It is a milestone on your path, but it is not your destination. It lies half again the distance you have already climbed.”
I calculated quickly, trying not to disturb the channel again. It was now 1985 and I had been in America thirteen years. It had been ten years since the fall of South Vietnam and my absolute cutoff from my family, the time when I really felt I stood “at the base of my mountain.” Did he mean my book would be published in 1990?
“Do I have a companion on this climb?” I had three soulmates so far, two of whom, Ed and Dennis, were dead and another, Anh, who was locked away in Communist purgatory. As a woman, I wanted to know if I was destined to end my days alone, in the company of spirits, or in the cradling arms of a flesh-and-blood man that I could love and call my own.
“I see a very old man—”
My heart sank. Ed? The prematurely aged soul of Dennis? The vision of yet another older man who would marry me and begin another endless round of hy sink? I could not bear to think so. “Is it my father?” I asked.
Paul shifted in his chair. “No. No, this is someone much older. Very much older. His time on earth, hundreds of years ago, most of the 1500s. He smells of herbs. He says he was a medicine man.”
“And he will join me on my journey? On my climb? When?” This was an intriguing, unexpected development. I tried to remember what I had learned in my books about transmigration of souls.
For the first time, I heard the hint of a smile in Paul’s voice, “He has been with you a long time. Always, in fact.”
My god! Who is this person—this guardian spirit? “What does he want from me?”
“You will become a healer, just as he was in his lifetime.”
“You mean a doctor? A physician?” This didn’t make sense.
“Your healing art is not of the body.”
“Who is this spirit? Who was the man?”
Paul was silent for what seemed like an eternity—ten or fifteen minutes. I heard his chair creak several times, as if engaged in an energetic, wordless debate. As much as I wanted to open my eyes and see what was going on—to see, perhaps, if there was an apparition in the room—I dared not for fear of breaking the channel.
At last Paul said, sounding a little exasperated, “He will not tell me. He says you will find out in the proper course of things.”
“Then why is he communicating with me now? Why haven’t I heard from him before? Why hasn’t my father told me about him?”
“Your father is on a much lower spiritual plane. He says his connection to you goes back much further than your parents. And this is not the first time he has communicated with you. You have been visited by him in prior lives. He says that you will discover his identity only after you have accomplished your mission in life.”
Questions began to tumble out of me: What, exactly, was my mission? I knew I had many karmic lessons to learn, but which were tied to my destiny—my purpose for this incarnation? And what did he mean that my healing art would not be “of the body”? Was I supposed to become a nico, a Buddhist nun, and renounce the world and concern myself only with spiritual matters? That didn’t seem likely. By now my conscious energy was so high I knew I had narrowed, if not shut completely, the door on my psychic channel. I looked over at Paul who was sitting easily in his chair. Contrary to my expectation, he did not look tired or worn out by the experience, but refreshed.
We discussed the possible meanings of his reading and I visited other gurus in Harmony Grove as well, but the message was always the same: I was to lead a crowd in a long, hard climb. I was to practice the healing arts but not as a doctor, medicine man, or nun. Somehow I must find a way to be in the world but not of it. Like the flowering stones in Paul’s vision, I must find life and color where before there had only been flint and darkness.
I returned from Harmony Grove with absolutely no idea what to do next.
Jimmy, eighteen, was at the nearby University of California, San Diego. It seemed as if the only time I saw him now was when he got tired of Big Macs and came back for a home-cooked meal—and maybe to do a little work on the manuscript. He never talked much about his studies (what did I know about computers anyway?) but his grades showed he was doing well.
Tommy was fifteen and took up with a crowd that thought school was not so hot. One day he came home and said, “Some army guys came to the school today. The recruiter’s speech was really neat. What would you do if I joined up?”
I grunted. “If you go to jail, I’ll bring you rice every day. If you join the army, I won’t even bury you when you get killed. Does that answer your question?”
Gratefully, he took his restless energy out on the wrestling team, which made it as far as the state championships. He had to skip meals in order to keep his weight down and qualify for a lighter division, which upset me a lot. Why live in America if you can’t eat everything your mother cooks?
Alan’s life was much calmer. His closest friends came from a nice Filipino family with traditions a lot like ours. He never got into trouble and had pretty much climbed out of the dark hole into which he’d descended after his father died. As his older brothers found their way further into the world, we became the best of friends.
The time I didn’t spend with my boys or at the Hollylinh restaurant, I spent in our yard—a compulsive gardner. On sunny days, I planted flowers and hoed weeds and plucked vegetables and turned and watered San Diego’s dry earth. I sang half-forgotten songs from my youth as vivid images of my father’s cement-walled, thatch-roofed house and my own bamboo bed and my mother’s well-swept kitchen floor danced through my mind. As I hosed down my driveway I remembered taking showers on the cement pad by our well and pouring buckets of water over our plough ox to rid it of mud and flies. With a closetful of fine American shoes, I went barefoot so that I could imagine the loamy soil of China Beach, and I wore my ragged black pajamas instead of fancy sundresses. After a while the nodding trees became my father, Phung Trong, and my brother, Sau Ban, working beside me in the paddies. At the end of the day, when the sun was setting, I felt the urge to go home—not to my American mansion, but home to Vietnam, where my aging mother, sisters, cousins, and the bones of my ancestors called with increasingly urgent voices.
It had been thirteen years since my final escape from the war. My mother was nearly eighty and even under the best of circumstances (and rumors and letters from Communist Vietnam told only of the worst) she had only a few years left. Few people except diplomats, lawmakers, or military men had ventured into the country since 1975, and most of those were on official government missions to account for MIAs or press various claims arising from the war.
Tears and wishes had sustained me many years in America, but they had not brought me one step closer to my mother’s door. If I was going to do anything about it, I would have to disregard a host of naysayers and give it everything I had.
I decided to start at the top. I sat Jimmy down at his computer and dictated a letter to President Ronald Reagan.
“Mommmm!” Jimmy complained. “You can’t start a letter to the president, ‘How are you? I am fine.’”
“Why not? That’s how we do it in English class.”
“Never mind. Just tell me what you want to say and I’ll do it the right way.”
What I wanted to say was that I had to go back to Vietnam. I wanted President Reagan to understand that the Vietnamese people—almost all Asians—feel strong bonds with their families overseas. I wanted, needed, make a pilgrimage to my village to say goodbye to Mama Du, my “mother of the breast,” before she died. I didn’t care about politics. I didn’t know anything about communism or democracy and never had. I felt sorry for everyone who had been harmed by the war, on either side. But I was just one person. What I cared about was comforting my mother in her old age, helping my family with a few goods from America, and praying at my father’s grave. Couldn’t this great U.S. president help a little Vietnamese woman visit her family?
Just to be certain, I had Jimmy write similar letters to California’s governor, senators, representatives, and the mayors of Escondido and San Diego. I made appointments with the local politicians and hand delivered my letters. I carried a copy of my President Reagan letter with me at all times just in case fate or luck or god brought me in contact with someone who could help. It was also a talisman, a constant reminder of my objective.
It also occurred to me that Dan might be able to help. I had last seen him in 1973 and last heard from him in ’76. Those letters that Ed didn’t burn were later destroyed by Dennis, so I didn’t even have Dan’s “last-known” address. I wrote to the Defense Department, saying that I was Colonel Dante DeParma’s lost Vietnamese wife, which, in a sense, was true. I had his social security number and some photos of us together with Tommy and Jimmy and the note he had given me during our helicopter evacuation from An Khe, so my credentials were better than the typical refugee tea-girl looking for an American sugar daddy. I thought it was ironic that the note that was supposed to help me get out of Vietnam might now somehow serve as my passport the other way.
I received a surprising response: Dan’s address in Korea. It was almost Christmas, so I scrawled out a brief message on a greeting card and put it in the mail. I almost fainted when I received Dan’s letter in return.
In cramped handwriting showing his years, he said how happy he was to hear from me after all this time. He had divorced his first wife, as he had promised, but remarried shortly after we broke contact—about the same time Dennis and I were getting married in Mexico! He said he still regarded us as his “Vietnam family” and wanted to keep in touch. I had to remind myself that my mission was to go to Vietnam, not Korea to take up again with Dan, but his support seemed to make it easier than it would have been even a few months before. Although I believed our original soul connection remained, I think Major Daddy would have been pleased to see that the confused, love-hungry young girl at An Khe had ripened into something else.
About three months after the start of my letter-writing campaign, I gave in to my girlfriends’ protestations that I was again taking life too seriously and went with Kathy Greenwood for a “girls’ night out.” We spent most of the time chatting at a quiet piano bar and I realized they were right—I had needed a break. I went to the restroom and when I came back, Kathy was talking to a dignified gray-haired man at the adjoining table. She introduced me as I sat down.
“I understand you want to go back to Vietnam,” the man said, smiling the indulgent smile I’d seen on the faces of dozens of officials over the last three months.
“Yes.” I tried not to sound too cynical. “I want to see my poor old mother before she dies—and try to make amends with the family I left behind when I came to the United States. I’m not having much luck, though.”
“Why not? Who have you talked to?”
“Just about everybody. Here—take a look.” I pulled Jimmy’s letter to President Reagan out of my purse. Although it didn’t start with my ESL niceties, it made my case well enough. The man’s indulgent smile faded.
“Well, I can see you’re serious about this,” he said, taking a pen out of his shirt pocket. On the back of one of my business cards he wrote a Vietnamese name and title. “Here, give this fellow a try.”
“Who is it?” I asked.
“The Counselor to the Vietnamese Mission to the UN—the United Nations in New York.”
I looked at the name, assuming the man must be an expatriate Republican—one of the high officials who still maintained a liaison with the American government hoping for the day they could return to power in our country. “How do you know this man?” I asked.
The man smiled. “I do business with the UN from time to time. My mother used to live in New York. But I was always on the road and didn’t see her for years. When I finally returned for a visit, she had already died. I don’t think that should happen to anyone.”
On Monday, the United Nations operator routed me to the Vietnamese Mission. It was answered by a man with a thick accent.
“Hello,” I replied. “Do you speak Vietnamese?”
“Van a, Chi muon hoi gi a—Yes, of course, what does Sister want?”
I continued in our native language. “Brother, I am Vietnamese, too, and want to go home to pay my respects to my mother before she passes away. She is seventy-eight years old and I don’t think she has much more time.”
“Certainly, I understand. Why don’t you go?”
“I don’t follow you.” For a minute I thought this fellow was joking.
“I mean, why don’t you book an airline ticket and go?” he said. “Who’s stopping you?”
For a “counselor,” I couldn’t believe how stupid this man was! Didn’t he know about the war? Surely an ex-official would know about the Vietnamese Communist government and America’s official policy of “no contact”! I assumed I would have to educate him.
“Who’s stopping me? Well, for one, I am a U.S. citizen now, and the Hanoi regime controls the South. If I go there, the government could throw me in prison or send me to a re-education camp. And even if they let me out, the U.S. government might not let me back in. I’ve talked to a lot of refugees and many American officials. The whole problem is with the Communist government.”
“Sister, do you know who you’re talking to now?”
“Well—no, not really.”
“You’re talking to a Communist. I am a representative of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. We have a small Mission here in New York to coordinate relations with the United Nations and the United States. We hope one day to have full diplomatic recognition, but—”
I hung up the phone.
My hands were shaking so violently my pencil clattered to the floor. I sank back into my chair. The last Communist—Cong San—I’d knowingly talked to was at a graveside—my grave!—after my kangaroo trial with the Viet Cong. My warder, Loi, a village youth who had become a VC fighter after the Americans arrived, decided on a more terrible punishment than the merciful bullet in my head. Instead, he and his comrade, Mau, raped me and forbade me to return to my village, beginning the years-long odyssey that would eventually bring me to America. Now, like a vicious, dormant disease, the chills and fever of those years swept over me again.
With trembling fingers, I lit incense at my shrine and said several prayers. I wondered what to do next. If the police were monitoring the Communist’s telephone lines, they would surely trace the call and come here next, probably in the dead of night like the Republican and American VC hunters and blow my brains out. I called my sympathetic girlfriends and asked what they knew about Hanoi’s UN Mission. All knew less than me. Like it or not, my determination to revisit my homeland was turning me into an expert on matters I’d just as soon let molder in the grave. But what was I to do? What was the alternative? Just give up?
After a week without a call from the FBI or CIA or army intelligence or any officials from anywhere, I got the nerve to try again. I talked to the same man, Sy Liem, so I had a chance to apologize; I also learned I was not the first expatriate to panic on the phone when the identity of the other voice was made known. In fact, I felt like a member of a pretty exclusive club: the first wave of Viet Kieu—Vietnamese expatriates lost and lonely in foreign lands—wanting to re-establish communication with their families.
We spoke for half an hour, clearing up my misconceptions about what the UN Mission was for and gaining each other’s confidence. He was not a double agent trying to snare people who had former links to the VC and I was not a right-wing “hit lady” trying to set him up for a kidnapping or assassination. He also told me a lot about conditions in the country without the usual gloss of Hanoi propaganda: the poverty, the disease, the lingering effects of the war. Even if only a fraction of what he said was true, the Communist government seemed a bigger menace to itself than any right-wing exiles or American hawks could ever be. Finally, we got to the real purpose of my call.
“So, if you really want Viet Kieu to come and visit,” I said, “where do I begin?”
“First,” he replied, “you must write a letter telling us when you want to travel, how long you want to stay, and where you want to go. After we’ve received your request, we’ll send you an application for a visa. You don’t need U.S. government permission to leave or return to the country. Just book your ticket into Bangkok, Thailand, then make your reservations to Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi from there. There’s really nothing to it. We’ll send you a list of the things you’re allowed to bring into the country. We know you want to take gifts to your relatives, but we don’t want to spoil the market for our own workers’ goods and services.”
Liem made it sound easy and fun, like a vacation to Acapulco, but I had my doubts. I didn’t tell him too much about myself in case the phones were tapped; I had spent too many years playing both ends against the middle to quickly identify myself with either the VC or American factions. The best policy would be to stick to the simple truth: I was a homesick Vietnamese who, having had some good luck in America, now wanted to share that good fortune with her relatives. Beyond these simple facts, what more was needed?
I wrote my letter, burned some incense, and prayed.
One evening, not long thereafter, I learned that the University of California, San Diego, was holding a writers’ conference in La Jolla. Knowing I could leave no path untrodden, I sent in my application along with a sample chapter of my story and, just as I waited for the Vietnamese UN Mission to approve my visa, I marked time for the organizers’ response. With Tommy and Alan involved more and more with school and friends, I spent a lot of time at the restaurant, anything to stay busy and keep from worrying about my manuscript or my trip.
Business at the Hollylinh was better than ever. Although I wasn’t there every day, I quickly developed some “regulars” who asked for me by name and with whom I always spent a little extra time sharing stories about my childhood and adventures during the war.
For like-minded customers, my conversation sometimes turned to spiritual matters. Sometimes, just for fun, I would read their fortunes from their palms or in a deck of cards. At first, I did it as a joke, answering their questions—“Will I be rich? Does my boyfriend love me? Will I marry soon?”—in a lighthearted way, making sure not to mislead anybody or make anyone feel bad. The question the women asked most was “When will I find Mr. Right?” I could only respond that I was still looking too and couldn’t help them out!
Sometimes, though, I got very strong sensations from a palm or from the unusual way a deck of cards was dealt. Then the funny business stopped and I would tell them that I really wasn’t qualified to tell fortunes. But everybody would egg me on so I just did what I had seen other psychics do during many seminars, consultations, and séances: I let myself be open to the feelings they were having. Even in the bustle of a busy restaurant, you’d be surprised how intense and specific some feelings can be. Only much later would I learn that this, in fact, is how most psychics get their start; not from schools or tutelage with a master, but by plumbing the depths of their own intuition and thinking a lot about what certain feelings and images seem to mean.
Eventually, word got around that “Miss Ly” was, at the very least, an entertaining psychic and, if the stars were right, the conduit for some very interesting insights. Although I didn’t perform on cue and never charged for my services, I was flattered by the attention and always tried to follow the professional psychic’s ethic: first, never divulge really bad news, particularly feelings of impending death or serious illness, because you could be wrong; and second, always qualify your precognitions as things that might happen, not something that’s inevitable, because that, too, was the truth. If people didn’t realize they alone were responsible for their lives and the consequences of their actions—including good or bad karma—they had no business consulting a psychic, whose messages could always be misinterpreted.
One day a group of five came in for lunch and asked for Miss Ly. They were all Caucasian, well dressed, and very lively and intelligent. We talked a little about Vietnam, past and present, and they asked for a reading, which I gave each of them in turn. Everything was lighthearted and fun and they left full and happy. A week later, an article about Hollylinh and its proprietor, the “fascinating Miss Ly Hayslip,” appeared in the local newspaper. The group had been reporters, including a restaurant reviewer. The article was so favorable that reservations flooded in from Surrounding towns and I was obliged to make appointments for people who demanded psychic readings with or without chow mein.
It also put Hollylinh and Ly Hayslip on the map for a very different sort of customer as well.
A week or two after the article appeared, another group of men came in, but these were not well-dressed, happy reporters. They were all my age or slightly older and dressed like workmen. Some had beards; some walked with a limp; and all had the furtive, uncertain glance I had come to associate with angry soldiers. I sat down at their table—a little out of place in my makeup and ao dai, but the ice was quickly broken. One of the men said they were all Vietnam veterans who were curious about “the other side.” Despite their cumulative ten or twelve years “in country,” they all admitted they knew next to nothing about the people, land, and culture they had gone so far to destroy. They also knew that I had firsthand experience with the war, which their wives and girlfriends could never understand. They were hungry, they admitted, not for noodles and rice but peace of mind.
We talked a little more about their experiences in “’Nam” and I told them my impressions as a stranger in America. We laughed as they tried out their rusty Vietnamese in thick American accents which, to Vietnamese ears, always sounds like lyrics without the music. A couple of them asked for palm readings and I kept things light, although the electricity in their hands was enough to scorch my fingers.
Word spread and more and more veterans sought me out for information, comfort, companionship, and solace. Of course, not all vets who came through my door were interested in putting the war behind them.
“We shouldn’t have pulled out until all the MIAs were accounted for,” one angry man said. He was not speaking for his group, but I could see traces of his feelings in their eyes. “And we should send every one of those damned boat people back where they came from!” In a different voice, with a different face, he could be Dennis. I thanked god that my husband’s spirit was safely at rest in the Buddhist temple, where it could recuperate and learn instead of floating on boiling clouds of hate. Some other vets were angry about the way they had been treated when they returned: by their government, the Veteran’s Administration, the public, even their families, who had shunned them as if they bore some contagious tropical disease.
As I listened to their bitter stories, I became aware that, like the other vets, they knew little about the enemy they still hated with such passion. They had few questions, but plenty of answers, although their curses seemed hollow and unsatisfying even as they were spoken.
To these bloodied and worn-out souls, I could only offer my father’s advice: Lay thu lam ban, an oan xoa ngay—Turn enemies into friends and your hate will yield to joy. Forgive yourself, forget the sins of others, and get on with your life. It was easy to say but very difficult to show, particularly since my own wartime feelings had been rekindled by my growing desire to return to Vietnam. Beneath the spiritual serenity I tried to project was a cornered little animal who, fangs bared, was ready to fight for her life.
One veteran, Gary, came in by himself. He had read the article about me and talked to some of his buddies who had been to the restaurant. He said he published the Rancho News and wanted to do a serious feature story about my views on the war, Vietnam vets, and life in America. He asked if he could send a female reporter to do an interview, but I said I wasn’t sure. I told him that women hearing my story either got swamped with pity and wanted to mother me or they are so turned off by my experiences that they pulled away and couldn’t deal with it.
“Either way,” I said, “you would not get a very good article.” He thought a moment, then decided to write the piece himself.
We spent the next afternoon in my office reliving the worst years of my life: my brothers’ conscription by Hanoi; the formation of Republican and Viet Cong “youth brigades” in our village (we kids were required to join both!); my torture by the Republican army, and my trial and rape by the Viet Cong; my mother and I in exile in Saigon; the birth of Jimmy out of wedlock and my years on the Danang black market; and my American jobs and boyfriends before Ed appeared and saved me. For the first time in front of any American, including my husbands, I told everything that had happened to me.
Unfortunately, Gary wasn’t much interested in my fonder memories: of village life between the wars; of my family and the love of life we found in the midst of death and hate—all the things that kept me going and gave my life its purpose during those terrible years. In telling only half my story, he revealed the cause of my beliefs but not what I had learned. I was afraid the article might further disturb troubled souls who had not achieved even this modest level of enlightenment.
My fears were well founded. The article hit our local community like a bombshell—nobody could read it without strong feelings. Many people called or stopped by to express their empathy and even to apologize for their country, which was completely unnecessary and was a total misreading of what my life had been about. The negative reactions were even stronger.
“We don’t want to eat food prepared by some damn Viet Cong!” one veteran shouted outside our restaurant. He had made a scene inside and a couple of waiters and our chef had asked him to leave. “We should go back and nuke every damn Communist! People like you shouldn’t be here!”
He stalked off and some of the staff worried that he would come back with a gun but I didn’t think so. He wore his hatred like a suit of armor and armor is defensive—it protects what’s weak and does not threaten the strong. I had stood and listened to his angry outburst without protesting. I looked him in the eye and nodded that I understood, even if I didn’t and couldn’t agree with him. After all, he was not trying to convince me, just make me as angry and afraid as he was. The best defense, I felt, was not to be steel, but sponge—to soak up whatever bile he threw out and ask for more. Only the unvented steam kettle explodes. The man who wants you to live in fear threatens death. The man who wants you dead simply kills you. We had both suffered much in the war and now he, too, realized that was a kind of bond.
Still, my partners and our employees were concerned.
“Even if that guy doesn’t come back,” one waiter said, “what if somebody else decides to firebomb the place, or shoot at us as they drive by?”
The fact was, lots of people didn’t like the idea of someone with a past association with “the enemy”—however oblique—living and prospering in America. Kenneth said I was endangering the business with all this talk about my past and I couldn’t disagree. They decided to change our ads to stress that we were a Chinese restaurant, not Vietnamese, and that was true enough. But I couldn’t promise that I wouldn’t say anything more about the war or my feelings about Vietnam and America. In fact, unlike the rest of them, I was more anxious than ever to hear from the disgruntled, troubled vets. Their picture of the world was too important and widespread to ignore simply because I didn’t agree with it. Whether it was post-traumatic stress, bad karma, or just sour grapes, I felt I had to learn more about these sad, angry, terrified men and, in doing so, learn more about myself and my purpose in this life. Besides, I was writing a book. Now more than ever people needed a vehicle, a reason, to look past the war and desolation to understanding and forgiveness. I had to be about my father’s business.
Being hostess, manager, and floor show eats up a lot of time. On a typical day I would leave home at ten A.M. and not return until midnight. Jimmy was still away at college, and Tommy and Alan were in bed by the time I got home. I had a full and successful life—economic security, fine sons, and lots of friends—but something at my very core was still lacking. It was as if my fancy Escondido house, looking great from the outside, was completely unfurnished within. I was preoccupied with discovering the mysterious “mission” Paul had prophesied and I felt in my bones that it now had something to do with these troubled Vietnam vets. Some already said they felt more healed after an hour with me than after ten years of conventional therapy. But even that didn’t seem right. Any wisdom I had came from my heart and intuition, not great learning and great deeds. What uncommon “mission” can there be for such a common person? I couldn’t begin to guess.
I was also lonely. With my boys finding their lives more and more fulfilled outside our home and the memories, both good and bad, of Ed and Dennis fading, I felt the need for someone with whom I could share my life. I was also getting very anxious about my relatives—particularly my mother—in Vietnam. As the chances for a visit to that country gradually moved from impossible to probable, I began to worry that some sort of “cosmic countdown” had started: a race pitting my own initiative and ingenuity against the forces (disease, poverty, old age, oppression) threatening those I loved.
In February 1986, I received a call from Sy Liem in New York. He said my visa had been approved for a two-week visit during Tet—Vietnam’s big New Year’s celebration.
For a full minute, I was too overcome to speak. Fortunately, Mr. Liem continued: “Your visa will be good for three months, so you don’t have to pack your bags right away. Take your time and make sure you want to do this. In the meantime, we will send you a list of rules and regulations for your visit. When you’ve decided and bought your ticket, just send us a photocopy of it.”
I thanked him as best I could, hung up, and sat down. Now I knew the meaning of the saying “Be careful what you wish for, you just might get it!” My fondest desire was on the verge of coming true. No more dreams and wishful thinking. As Ed would say, it was time to fish or cut bait.
I was willing to endure some risks to return to Vietnam, but how much risk was too much? Was I willing to risk never seeing my sons again? Was I willing to risk bringing danger to my relatives? Despite the affability of their UN representative, I knew the local cadremen and commissars could be very nasty and emotional when it came to dispensing “people’s justice” to a returning black-sheep, black-market “traitor” and the family who gave her comfort and support. Just where did my risks end and those of my loved ones—inflicted on them without their consent—begin?
At the end of my soul-searching, I was left without a hairsbreadth of difference between the forces of caution and the forces of growth and change. Like a pupa in a silk cocoon, I was trapped between the safety of my gilded American cage and my primal instinct to break free, spread my wings, and fly.
At work, I tried out the concept of the trip on Kenneth.
“I have good news,” I beamed. “They’ve approved my visa to go to Vietnam! Now I can visit my mother!”
Kenneth sighed and shook his head. “Are you sure that’s the right thing to do? Are you sure they’ll let you come back?”
“Of course I’m not sure,” I said, as if it didn’t make any difference. “I don’t have the luxury of being sure. For that matter, I could be killed in a traffic accident on the way home tonight. The only way to be safe is to stay home, and my mother will die and I’ll never see her again. I’ll never have the chance to tell her”—even the thought of it choked me up—“that I love her and miss her and and will make sacrifices for her when she’s gone and—”
“Okay, all right.” Kenneth put his arm around me like a big brother. “I just want you to be happy with your choice—to know what you’re getting into. We all want to see you come back in one piece.”
Another employee, a Vietnamese waiter not too long in America who had a hair-raising escape still fresh in his mind, grunted. “The UN Mission must think you’re a Communist. Why else would they let you in? To spy on them? To spread discontent? More likely it’s to grab you and put you on trial. Or just send you straight to a camp—that’s more their style. I think it’s a stupid idea.”
He gave me the number of someone he termed a “high official” in the old regime who had spent many years in the re-education camps before his escape. “Give him a call,” the waiter said, “he’ll tell you what to expect.”
I rang the number as soon as I got home. The man answered my request for information with a long silence, then said, “As soon as your feet touch Vietnamese soil, they’ll place you under arrest. They’ll take you to a small cell and leave you there to think and worry. You’ll have no food, water, or toilet facilities. The air will be so thin and hot you’ll think your lungs will burst. Then, if that doesn’t kill you, they’ll bring you out for beatings and torture. They’ll tell you to confess your crimes and retell your life’s story from the Communist perspective. When you’ve confessed to loving your family and worshiping god and honoring our old customs and traditions, they’ll indoctrinate you to the new social order. If you do everything they tell you and sound sincere and are very lucky, they may move you to a work camp where, if you don’t starve or die of disease, you’ll at least be able to sleep on a mat and use a regular latrine. Or they may just take you out and shoot you. Their brand of communism has nothing to do with politics. It’s about owning people’s souls.”
His words bore into my head like the barrel of Loi’s rifle beside my grave. I still knew virtually nothing about communism, and this man painted it as an evangelical religion more severe and dangerous to nonbelievers than the Crusades or the Inquisition. And I already knew too much about Christian crusaders!
One of the cooks who had legal trouble in America said, “Forget about the Vietnamese: they’re nothing compared to the feds. The U.S. government has been fighting Communists for years. They especially hate the Vietnamese Communists for winning the war. If they don’t yank your citizenship and deport you, they’ll make your life here miserable. The FBI will think you’re a spy and the CIA will try to get you to spy for them the next time you go abroad. If you don’t cooperate, they’ll call all your friends and customers and employers and spread lies about you until you do. Believe me, I know how they operate!”
One waitress, a young woman, had other fears. “Even if the Communists let you go and the U.S. lets you back in, you’ll have hell to pay with Little Saigon. I’ve heard of people getting their houses bombed and shops set on fire just for talking about going to Vietnam. If you actually do it, people will assume you’re Viet Cong. They’ll never leave you alone. You’ll be fighting the war all over again. Is that what you really want?”
The war all over again! That’s exactly what was happening to me with my own people—the paranoia, the endless second-guessing and gut-twisting fear that no matter what you did, it would be a fatal mistake to somebody. And my friends were caught up in it as well, becoming chup mu—suspicious busybodies. Fear was making them belligerent or fatalistic, worried that a friendly smile or handshake would be misconstrued as complicity with “the enemy,” whoever that might be. If I learned nothing else from my first twenty years on earth, it was that wars weren’t waged just with guns, tanks, and bombs, but with the human heart.
Finally, I turned to my monk for guidance. After laying out all the warnings I had received, I put the question to him, “What do you think? Should I go or should I stay?”
He smiled and said, “I will answer your question with a question. If your house were on fire, and you could only save one person, who would it be: your child, your husband, or your mother?”
“That’s easy,” I said quickly, “my child.”
“Ah. That is the mother’s choice. Do you think Buddha would have done the same?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, you are thinking like a Westerner, not a child of the cosmic god, the god of our motherland. Remember, our highest duty is nang tinh—loyalty to our ancestors. You can marry another husband and conceive a new child, but it is impossible to replace your maker. To choose a descendant is to play at being god yourself. To choose the one who made you is to honor god, the maker, above all else—including husband and children. The world can be painful, but pain is cruel only if it is unjust. How can anyone accuse you of cruelty or injustice if you act in accordance with our highest natural law?”
“So you advise me to do my duty to my mother? To go to Vietnam even if it puts me and my son and my other family at risk?”
“I advise you only to look into your heart and do what you know is right. Trong cay nhan, hoi qua tat—A good seed bears only good fruit.”
To my surprise, I left the temple with a sense of calm and resolution. Although my father’s spirit had been unusually quiet since my séance with Paul, I believed I heard his voice in the words of the monk.
I went directly to my travel agent and made reservations for a flight to Bangkok departing one month hence.
The UCSD writers’ conference came and went. I don’t think I was a very good student. I met lots of people, including editors, agents, and writers, and received suggestions on my manuscript. But I could not apply any of it—at least not right away. I was caught between heaven and earth, between my spiritual and human responsibilities. Yet I had chosen a path. Sometime between now and the middle of April I would either sink into the mud—troi trong—like a sinner swallowed by the earth never to be seen again, or enter the rarefied heights of “Paul’s mountain.”
I consulted my lawyer, Milton Low, now a family friend, and he advised me to get my affairs in order. This meant writing a will and leaving last-minute instructions for the disposition of my property, debts, and children. I also had to contact the State Department in Washington, D.C., for last-minute advice and information. The first was easy; the latter, harder than it looked.
The man on the phone in the State Department was courteous but discouraging.
“As you probably know,” he said, “we have no formal diplomatic relations with Vietnam. We have no embassy in their country and they have none in ours. American citizens are forbidden to travel directly into Vietnam from U.S. territory or possessions, and American companies cannot trade with or do business with the Communist government. If anything should happen to you, there’s little or nothing we can do to help. The best we could do is file a protest through the United Nations, but they have no formal power to intervene in such matters. For your information, two U.S. citizens are currently being detained by the Vietnamese government. We’ve been trying for several months to get them released—or at least to have a third party, like the Red Cross, admitted to assess their condition, but so far with no luck. I can only give you the same advice we gave them: be very careful about what you do, whom you associate with, and what you say.”
I mulled over his advice and began to pack. The first decision I made was to realize that the trip was not an all-or-nothing proposition. I could and should approach it in phases, like a mountain climber assaulting a high and dangerous peak. Between each step, I would give full ear to my rational and intuitive powers. I would have several days in Bangkok, for example, to check things out at the Vietnamese Embassy while having my visa stamped. The idea of assertively, but not recklessly, pursuing my objective gave me new courage and peace of mind that, I’m sure, only bewildered my friends.
“I never knew Ly was so brave!” I imagined them saying; but what they really meant was “How could she be so stupid?”
The UN Mission gave me a list of things I could bring into the country. Most severely proscribed were useful items like bicycles and sewing machines that Vietnam made itself and for which they would brook no foreign competition. My younger girlfriends (many of whom were too young to remember the war) thought I should bring in luxury goods—knickknacks and fancy electronic appliances—which were simply unobtainable in the primitive Vietnamese economy. I thanked them for their suggestions, but stuck to practical things like medicines, tea, children’s garments, black fabric for homemade work clothes, and even some sweets—things that would make my relatives’ hard life a little more bearable. Most of these things I bought in Orange County’s Little Saigon, partly to help the local immigrant merchants, but also to indulge my sense of symmetry: American goods going from Vietnamese hands in America to Vietnamese hands in the motherland. The more I shopped and packed and planned the happier and more confident I became.
When everything was just about ready, I thought I’d have one last psychic reading—to check on my family, primarily, but also to see if anything had changed within me. I treated myself to the services of Mr. Vu Tai Loc, the seer everyone in Little Saigon said was the best in the business. I remembered his name, too, from “Big” Saigon, where his startling visions and the accuracy of his predictions were legendary.
He lived in a nice, middle-class neighborhood and greeted me at his door smiling and bowing like a monk, although he was dressed in a sports shirt, slacks, and sandals. His gray head had seen fifty-five years of this incarnation, but he looked infinitely older and wiser—mostly because of the long hair growing from a mole on his chin. Westerners always marvel at this venerable Oriental custom—leaving a mole whisker untrimmed—but it is a tradition that goes back millennia and is worn as a badge of wisdom, like the lotus growing from the Buddha’s navel, a symbol of universal knowledge gained over many karmic cycles. He stroked the hair serenely as we talked at his dining table. His house was dark-shaded and smelled of incense and ginger.
“Pull back your hair, child, so I can see all of your face” was the first thing he said after we sat down. He studied me carefully, the way a gem-cutter appraises a stone, and started right off—no preliminary meditation or incantations. “You are going di xa—far away—that much is certain.”
“Yes.” I was amazed. “I’m going to Vietnam to see my mother. How did you know?”
Mr. Loc smiled and stroked his whisker. “You would be disappointed if I did not know, isn’t that true?” His face darkened. “Anyway, I advise you against it. The time is not yet right.”
I could have fallen through my chair. This was not the news I came to hear. “But I already have my ticket. I’ve got my visa and bought presents and made arrangements for my children and everything. How long would I have to wait before the time was right?”
Mr. Loc closed his eyes. “I see the number forty-two.”
“Yes?” I asked hopefully. “Does that mean forty-two hours or forty-two days?”
The seer shrugged. “Perhaps it means forty-two months, or until your age is forty-two.”
“I don’t think my mother can wait five years until I am forty-two!”
“Your mother will be there for you, don’t worry. Your psychic fount flows with energy for your journey. Its bright colors hide the darker shadows. Where you see only the joy of a reunion and the clear air of understanding, I see a ruined temple.”
“What kind of temple?” I was shocked by the image.
“I see a ruined temple,” he repeated. “The image is very clear. Make of it what you will. In America, some people think of their wealth as a temple; others think of their bodies. Some people worship at temples completely unknown to them until the day they die.”
Perhaps his vision spoke of my big Escondido house and the “temple of consumption” it had become in my quest to make it a perfect American home. Did a home really need fine furniture and expensive carpets and elegant drapes? Wasn’t my father’s poor house in Ky La, with its cement walls and thatch roof and dirt floor the finest home I had ever known?
“Could it represent my business? I own a restaurant, you know, and two rental houses.” Maybe he meant the federal mint—the temple of money shown on dollar bills and stock certificates. “How about my investments?”
“The ruined temple used to be quite grand, yes. You must not neglect your business if you expect to retain it. Do you have partners?”
“Yes, two of them.”
He leaned closer and took my face in his hands. He brushed away some hair and studied me deeply, then said, “This is not good. You must be first among equals. You are cao so—highly destined—and cannot be burdened with the interests of a lower plane. That may sound cruel, but it is true. It applies to husbands as well as business partners. You must be the leader; always on top. For you, compromise is capitulation and since you carry the fate of others in your hands, your victories are shared by many. You are nguoi gieo nhan—a seed spreader. Your job is to scatter and plant the seeds. It is the duty of others to tend and harvest them. If you leave now, the seeds you have recently planted will die, no question about it. I say again, you should postpone your trip. Tend to business, which means buy out your partners or sell your interest to them, and wait for forty-two.”
I mulled over the seer’s advice on the long drive back to Escondido. Mr. Loc’s reputation was unimpeachable. Everyone who consulted him and followed his advice had prospered. Everyone who ignored it was soon sorry. But now, my trip had assumed a life of its own—the energy of a boulder rolling downhill. It could be stopped, but only with great force; and then, what would I gain? According to Mr. Loc, nothing more than I already have. I had to ask myself: Was my duty to my mother, as the monk described it, worth the hardship a loss of wealth would bring my sons? Universal law and my own feelings said yes. Without my mother, I would not exist and neither would that wealth. If my temple had to burn, I should at least save from its ashes the one who made me. During the war, I had abandoned my village when my father needed me most, and he died while I was gone. If Mr. Loc was wrong in at least one detail, and my mother died before I was forty-two or forty-two months rolled by or whatever, I would never forgive myself. I might save my treasure but I would lose my soul. I decided that I would not commit the same sin twice.
A few days before I was to leave, I assembled my three boys, Anh’s children (Chanh and Tran), my sister Lan, and Milton, my attorney. I told them that I had finally and irrevocably decided to go and that raised the very real possibility that I might not come back. I told them I was not careless of my life or my duty to my sons, but that I had a higher duty to my mother. If they could not understand that now, I promised they would in time.
I also told them that I did not want to overvalue my own life. I admitted that I had contributed to the death of my two husbands. If those poor men hadn’t married me, they might still be alive. Their estates—social security and insurance and real estate—became the foundation of the wealth we now enjoyed. I had done so many things wrong in my life that sacrificing what was not really mine to begin with was a small price to pay for doing something right. Nonetheless, I gave Milton the power of attorney over my assets, to be administered to the benefit of my sons until Jimmy was old enough to manage the money himself.
“If I am not back on April fifteenth,” I told Milton, “you are to sell my interest in the restaurant and put the money into safe investments. Lan is my first choice to take the boys as guardian, but if she cannot or will not do it, you should help the authorities find them a good foster home.”
Lan said she would be happy to take the boys, but I had learned from experience in this quarter not to take any chances.
“That’s fine,” I acknowledged, but added firmly, “Lan will care for the boys, but Milton will mind the money.”
“What about Tran and Chanh?” Jimmy said. “They’re of legal age. Why can’t they be our guardians?”
Anh’s sons were hard-working, level-headed young men and, although I loved my sister and wanted my sons to grow up with their natural family, I couldn’t help but think that, with all the history between me and Lan, they might be better off with Jimmy’s half brother.
“What do you say, Milton?” I asked the lawyer. “Would the court have problems with that?”
“Not if you state in writing that that is your preference, and the boys agree, and Chanh and Tran are willing to accept the responsibility.”
Lan looked disappointed, but I felt relieved and so did the boys. Milton and I spent the rest of the evening going over my assets and liabilities.
The next day, I phoned the San Diego Tribune in a last attempt to get current information about conditions in Vietnam. I had met a Tribune columnist at the writers’ conference and knew they had an editor who stayed on top of the latest developments in Southeast Asia.
It turned out he had very little information but wanted a lot from me.
“To tell you the truth,” the editor said, “I don’t know anyone who’s been there recently. If you’re willing, I’d like to interview you before you go and after you return. I know our readers would be interested in your impressions.”
Despite my misgivings about the previous newspaper article and the tempest it created, I felt a little better knowing a big newspaper was keeping its eye on me—would be watching for my return—so I said yes.
The reporter they sent was a young man about thirty—far too young to remember much about the war. I served him tea and we talked all afternoon about my experiences growing up, the things that happened to me during the war, why I was going back to Vietnam now, and what I expected to find. I told him there was a chance, however slight, that I might not be coming back, and he praised my courage, misunderstanding completely that such a “sacrifice” was to me no sacrifice at all, but the duty of a daughter who had been for too long lost and lonely in a foreign land. When the interview was over, I promised to keep a journal—pencil notes and tapes—of the trip for use in a second interview when, and if, I got back. He thanked me for the tea, promised the article would be published soon, and, just before getting into his car, suggested I cancel the trip.
I spent the next few days with last-minute packing and saying goodbye to friends. I had two big boxes of gifts and a small suitcase for myself even though I couldn’t imagine bringing back my clothes when they would be like gold to my female relatives. My girlfriends cried and I cried too, although I knew a few of them called me noi doc—clever liar—behind my back. People still couldn’t believe that anyone who had safely escaped Vietnam’s hell on earth would ever want to go back. Perhaps they thought I was going to spend two weeks in Bangkok and would return with tall tales and a nice tan.
The day before I was scheduled to leave, the Tribune published the story. It was a fair article, which, unlike the earlier piece, did not emphasize the sensationalism of my adventures over my recollections of peace and family life and my quest for love and forgiveness. However, from midmorning through the rest of the day, the phone did not stop ringing. At that time, I was listed in the directory and everyone with an opinion about my life, good or bad, wanted to tell me about it personally. Consequently, I answered only the first few calls and by evening unplugged the phone just to have some rest. I didn’t need any last-minute doubts or recriminations. I was satisfied with my decision and was ready to move on.
Jimmy, Tommy, Alan, and I had a quiet dinner that evening. We were all aware that this might be our last meal together, so we all took our time and just enjoyed being together. Jimmy had decided to cut classes and drive me to the airport. Alan wanted to see me off, too, so I gave him a note for school. Tommy was red-eyed all evening, but refused to cry. He went to his room early “to study,” then went to sleep. He said he could not afford to miss school and would not go to the airport. I think he was having trouble accepting my decision. He had seen too much sadness in his short life—losing his own father and then his stepfather—and was in no mood to see his mother follow in those footsteps. He preferred anger to unbearable sorrow and the rest of us understood.
That night, I stumbled through foggy dreams until I came to the front door of our old house in Ky La. My father was sitting on his haunches, finishing a smoke. For some reason, I couldn’t approach him closely; something held me back. But I could hear him and feel his presence.
“You’re doing the right thing, little peach blossom,” he said, exhaling smoke and mist. “You’ve done well for yourself and your children. Now it’s time to do something more.”