Thirty years after fleeing Vietnam, the author rediscovers old family letters and tries to recognize the childhood innocence he left behind.
I have forgotten you—you who sang the Vietnamese national anthem with tears in your eyes and who believed that borders, like the Great Wall of China, were real demarcations, not easily crossed—you read Tintin and Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Hugo’s Les Miserables. I have committed so much to remembrance, yet somehow I have omitted the sense of you.
But there you were, with the rest of our family, before the fall, before our abrupt departure and subsequent transformation. Finding you again was really something of a shock. Three decades after the war ended, and the past suddenly came spilling out in the form of letters in a shoebox as I helped Mother clear out the family closet. The house she and father lived in for more than a quarter of a century in peaceful suburban America was finally up for sale.
The round, undisciplined handwriting bordering on chaos I instantly recognized as my own, but the boy who wrote them was someone I scarcely remembered. In fact, it took time—months—before I found the courage to really take the plunge and read the letters. No doubt I was afraid of what I would find: a conflicting version of the past to the one that I have told and retold others and myself all these years in America.
Saigon, March 12, 1975: “Yoo-hoo brother, have you seen snow? Aunt Cuc has a new dog. So very cute. I’m going to get one too, maybe in two months. It’s going to be so very beautiful.” This letter you wrote to your older brother, then a foreign student in America, six weeks before that fateful day: April 30, 1975, when the war came to an ignominious end as communist tanks crashed through the gilded iron gates of the Independent Palace in Saigon while overhead helicopters frantically flew refugees out to sea.
“My friend told me half of your classmates are now drafted. His brother is going too,” you informed Brother, seemingly oblivious of what it really meant, because the next sentence was about your childhood obsession with stamp collecting: “I wrote to Uncle Tho in Dalat to ask for stamps. No results yet.”
What could you have been thinking, considering that a few days after this letter, Uncle—father’s older brother, a two-star general and administrator of the Vo Bi Military Academy—was forced to detonate portions of that school, one built by the Americans to mirror West Point, before evacuating with his cadets a day ahead of the advancing communist army?
At 11, you seemed glibly unaware of how intricately your own life was connected to current events, even if history was about to sweep like a tsunami through your world and leave shattered lives in its wake. For, as it turned out, not only would you not get a new dog, but the three dogs that you had dearly loved, along with the house you lived in, your neighbors, relatives, schoolmates, teachers, servants, and, ultimately, a way of life, would all be taken away from you, too.
The words written by everyone else in these letters near the end of the war pointed toward this impending doom. “Hey bud, talk to your father if you can,” Brother’s high school friend begged him in a letter dated March 26, 1975. “Your father can use his influences to send me out of the country. I would be indebted to you forever.” Though trying to sound cool, Brother’s friend could barely mask his desperation. Like all my brother’s classmates, he was being drafted.
This passage from Sister, too, in a letter marked April 12, 1975, was as ominous as it was unintentionally comical: “Cousin Phuong and I talked about how things look so bad now. If the Vietcong come into Saigon, we will go out to the countryside, and there we will take up arms and become guerillas.” How she would do this would be beyond anyone’s imagination. The pampered teenager who was chauffeured to school, and whose routine was piano lessons at home, then swimming at the country club called “Le Cercle Sportif,” didn’t even know how to cook or wash her own clothes. But there is no denying the seriousness of her tone, and, considering the odds, its hopelessness.
And here, on April 2, 1975, in atypically uneven handwriting that betrayed great distress, is a passage to Brother by Mother: “The situation is chaotic. I hope that because we have been good people we will manage to escape this dire situation. No matter what, listen to me carefully: don’t come home. Even if you get a letter from me or your father, later, do not believe it.”
Father, who just barely survived the evacuation of Danang, and who was sick with malaria, had just come back to Saigon that morning, and managed to write a succinct paragraph to say the same thing in that letter. “I’m safe. No matter what, continue your education. If we ever tell you to come home, you are to stay put and continue your studies.” Both were afraid that after the war ended, they would be forced by the communists to send for their oldest son in America, and he too would suffer their fate were he to come home.
Yet in a letter written two days before that, dated March 30, 1975, when we still did not know for sure if Father would make it back alive to Saigon from Danang, upon learning that Brother now worked in a supermarket in San Francisco, you, my younger self, wrote to him: “Be careful stacking chicken eggs and don’t break them! The Exorcist is about to be shown here. Oh how scary! Goodbye.”
Goodbye indeed. Not too many people have their childhood ended so precisely. But that was what happened to me. The war ended. I fled. And I became someone else entirely.
When I came to America, I suffered a certain kind of self-imposed amnesia. Pubescent and not fully formed, I was old enough to remember Vietnam, but young enough to embrace America and to be reshaped by it. A few months after my arrival, my voice broke. Going through puberty, I began realizing that America was not just changing me on the outside but on the inside, too—that is, I believed my Americanization process was somehow magical, and that English had altered my vocal cords.
If a part of me was mourning for what was lost and gone, another part was enthralled at my own rapid transformation. I couldn’t wait to put all the chaos and sadness of Vietnam behind me, to bury the shock of exile with newness. I desperately embraced English so I wouldn’t stand out. I would mimic characters from sitcoms, and memorize entire TV commercials, reciting lines like sutras. Each morning, in the shower, I would practice new vocabulary words out loud. “Business,” I would pronounce. “Stress!” I would shout. “Necessary!” I could almost see the words with their sharp edges and round arches taking shape in the steamy air.
So much so that by the time I went to high school a few years later, I had stopped speaking Vietnamese altogether, had shaved the accent from my American tongue, and at times pretended that I was American born. I even said so to a few who asked. Left behind to cobwebs and dust was you, the Vietnamese boy who sat writing these letters, dreaming of fabled America, its 31 flavors of ice cream, its majestic high-rises, its falling snow.
I have seen plenty of snow. Snow lining the Mirabeau bridge in Paris, snow on temple rooftops of Kyoto, snow at Lake Tahoe. But I have largely forgotten who I used to be. In reading these letters three decades later, I am pulled back to a childhood that had all but faded. I did not, for instance, remember The Exorcist being shown in Saigon, but having now read that passage, I regained that long-lost afternoon in an instant. I remember: In the newspaper called Black and White, a woman had a miscarriage at the premiere. You had wanted to go see the movie, but considering the situation at the time, and the subject matter, Mother strictly forbade it, and you had sulked.
It all comes back. I see you again in a courtyard drenched in sunlight; the dogs asleep in the doorway, the red bougainvillea wavering above the iron gates, the shading blue sky. At your desk, you struggle for words to the brother overseas, and above that desk I see your treasures: stamp collection, French comic books, and Chinese martial arts novels. I hear again the street vendor’s lyrical and nostalgic voice, echoing in: Ai an bong co hot luu khong?—“Who wants grass jelly and passion fruit soup?” and the faint but constant roar of motorcycle mufflers. I can almost feel the coolness of the tile floor under my bare feet, and smell that burning wood smoke that emanates from the kitchen.
And the nights. Cool spring breezes that carried the sound of distant bombs in through the open windows from the countryside. Not loud. But the rhythmic explosion echoing like a childhood lullaby. And how, hearing Mother weeping in the next room, you struggled toward sleep.
I hold the letters and I have a glimpse of that past again: a sense of being insulated within a structure of family and clan, of being shrouded in my primal language that held me and everyone I knew within its Confucian familial embrace, a life within a walled garden.
And I remember you, you who had guarded your innocence the way you guarded your stamp collection, the only item from that era that, by the way, survived the escape and subsequent exile; you the reader of books, who hadn’t made that jump yet between those who loved reading and those who loved writing: that one passion could often lead to the other.
It may surprise you then that you who lived so much in the present, who pretended history had nothing to do with you, would grow into an American writer with a Proustian obsession with the past, with what was robbed from you, from us. You may not know that history was alive and often unpredictable, but the man who writes these words has grown acutely aware of how the personal and the historical are but rivers to the sea. You had thought the borders were nearly impossible to cross, but I have for a long while now discovered that the borders have always been porous, and that epic loss can loosen one’s tongue.
So I write. The past is gone, but the past is ever-present. And was it not Edward Said, the cultural critic, who once noted that if one wishes to transcend one’s provincial and national limits, one should not reject attachments to the past but work through them? Irretrievable, the past should therefore be at least remembered and assimilated.
All those letters in which our family left no space unfilled once addressed the faraway brother, and now address me. They tell me that it is so easy to forget all the sadness and joy and the love, forget who we used to be, and how we used to feel. But in reading them again, they also tell me impossible distances can be filled with love, with the written word.
Andrew Lam ’86 is an editor for Pacific News Service and a regular contributor to California magazine. Perfume Dreams, his book of essays on the Vietnamese diaspora, won the 2006 PEN/Beyond Margins Award for authors of ethnic diversity. His preview of The Peony Pavilion appeared in the July/August issue of this magazine
From the November December 2006 Life After Bush issue of California.