A forest called Humanity.
I was born the youngest in the family and grew up during the long years of wars in VietNam from 1940 to 1965. My father was a well-known entrepreneur in North Viet Nam who specialized in public-works projects, that is to say, the construction of bridges, highways, and municipal buildings. But he also worked on tourist-resort projects and private residences. The Economic Depression in 1929 ruined him; one of his business partners, a French gentleman, committed suicide. We had to sell everything we owned at the time and moved to Hanoi to stay with my grandfather and with my dad's stepmother who was also my grandmother's sister. My three brothers, as well as most of my cousins were already there at Grandpa's, who actually raised them while my parents, uncles and aunts were away in different parts of the country.
My grandparents played an improtant role in my extended family. My father, whose work often took him hundreds of miles away from the big cities, could not provide us with the stability and continuity needed for a good education. When we reached Junior High, we were therefore sent to the Capital (Hanoi) to stay with Grandpa, so that we could go to the best schools in the country. My uncle and my aunts did the same with their children, and Grandpa's home became a fun and loving place where my cousins brothers and sisters studied and played. There were always more than a dozen of us there at the time, ranging from 12 to 16 year-olds. Meal times were Happy Hours, as we all came home for lunch. Grandpa never asked money from his children, though he was not a wealthy man, for he was living on his pension and income from the rental of half of his estate, which consisted of two stores in front and a huge two story-house where he, my stepgrandmother, the grandchildren and 2 helpers lived.
We were all crowded in that house, but we never felt cramped. We felt loved and taken care of. My grandparents had their own quarters, the helpers had theirs, and we had part of the first floor, the garden and the second floor all to ourselves. We felt free and happy. Our parents visited often, bringing us warm love, food and presents.
It was in the late 30’s when my parents and I had to move in with Grandpa for a while, before my father could find work again. My Mom was looking everywhere for a place where we could move into with a reasonable rent. We finally settled for the Southern part of Hanoi, my parents and the 5 of us, my 2 brothers, my 2 sisters and me, my older brother had moved out to stay with his college class mates. My grandparents, my aunts, and practically all our friends and relatives came to help. They took care of me, sending me to school and set up businesses for my Mom.
The War against the French from 1946 to 1954 was hard on us again. My 3 brothers were killed in the war against the French in 1947. My grandparents passed away, and we had to move South again, this time further South, in a small resort town named Dalat, where my sister had gotten a job with the Pasteur Institute. I got married and had 2 children. I also went back to school.
Looking back, it doesn't seem that I could have much to say about the Vietnamese culture, since my upbringing was so disturbed by the chaos of war and the constant relocation of my family. I was even born outside of Viet Nam, in Laos. Though I have spent my childhood in Hanoi and have attended High Schools and College in Saigon, I have spent a large part of my adult life in the United States and gone through so much ups and downs that I often wondered if any part of the culture heritage of Viet Nam would have a chance to root and blossom anywhere in me.
That has kept me wondering for a long time. Does it matter how long one has to stay in one’s homeland to have this warm and sweet feeling of being connected? Does it matter how long one has to live with someone to feel the special bonding and the beauty of togetherness that may last one’s whole life? One day it just dawned on me that what really matters was the intensity and truthfulness of the experiences at the moment . Time has nothing to say about it. It was my grand parents who have sustained the connection that I have had with my homeland and with the 4 generations of people and things around me when I was little. He was like the hidden string that bound all the pearls together to make a chain of inseparable pearls. I am simply one of the little new born pearl that is still hanging in there. Either I realize it or not, I am still part of that beautiful chain.
During my 30 plus years in the U.S, I have spent 3 years in College, 4 in Graduate School. I learned everything I could about the Western world and have become almost as American as some of my native born American friends. I bloomed in the Land of Freedom and Democracy, but I always felt I had something original and different to offer. In 1996, I went back to Hanoi to attend a school-reunion with all my friends from Grade School, when I was 7-12 years old. In 1998 I went back there again, found all my relatives in my hometown. By then "I knew". I re-experienced again this time, with all awareness, the strength of this fragile string that has sustained and bound us all together, my grandparents, parents, friends and relatives, my brothers and sisters, my cousins and theirs friends; I felt how much they were still alive in me. The support and the teachings I got from that Elementary School half a century ago were still strong and alive in me, and still guiding me forward. I was amazed to discover the same feelings in my classmates and teachers, now 65 to 80 years old.
It is as if we had all come from a very old tree, a big, solid one, and no matter who we have become, and where we end up with, we still bear the characteristics of that tree. My Grandpa, as one of the first leaves of that tree, had already long ago fallen away from the tree, but he had contributed to so many other lives beyond his own. My granddaughter, who is but a young bud on the branch, will continue to give life to this tree. They are in fact inseparable, maintained by a huge system of mutual support and love connection. And all of us are bound together by stories from an heroic past, our traditional customs and sweet folklores, not to mention our glorious cuisine, and a language that has been enriched through the centuries.
From that old tree, I discover the forest where all the trees meet and live in harmony. They too, bear the same characteristics and grow up under the same conditions, share light and food through all seasons; They help and protect the young new ones. My grand daughter Clara, who happens to be proudly half Vietnamese and half American, will be one of these young trees who grow up in this beautiful forest called Humanity. In finding my own identity as a Vietnamese Woman, I have found my place in the world, among humans, for which I am immensely grateful.
Jan 08-1998 USA