My grand parents
My grand parents, Hanoi 1930
My grand parents were typical role models of correctness, who held the torch, and defended social and family values of their time. Personal freedom was secondary to the survival and honor of the group. There was no happiness possible for the individual alone. One couldn’t survive alone in a milieu in which there was no way to educate oneself, and no means of transportation or communication. Yet, responsibilities weighted heavily. To secure the future one looked to preserve and reinforce the roots.
Role-playing, class differences, and gender separatism were inevitable side effects of an effort to control and to bully each other. There was an ethical rule for women that went like this:” When at home, obeying the father, when married obeying the husband, when being widow, obeying the sons.” What can I say?
Uneducated, and unable to have a payable job outside the home women couldn’t make it without a husband and were loathed, rejected if having no children. It was considered even degrading to think of working outside for other people and getting paid. Men were to protect, and procreate. Some took advantage of the situation and abused others.
Amidst this social chaos, my grand father served his family with humanity and my grandmas and co-Nam (the live-in concubine) fulfilled their destinies with grace. I don’t think they were unhappy. They didn’t have any other alternative. Yet they had their part of pain and sorrow during the invasion of the French in the early century. They tried to build up a normal life but had little freedom and no technical knowledge or means. Inner strength was all they have got. My grand father as a patriarch ran the dynasty with iron discipline and devotion. He had had ten generations behind him and he intended to lead ten more future ones into the world with honor and prosperity.
My brothers grew up with him as role model with an insatiable desire to better themselves through education in freedom and independence. My older brother “But” left Brick Street as soon as Grandpa died and never again lived with my parents and us. He was 18, working himself through college to become a lawyer, a lawyer for the poor only, he said. Either he would come home to visit us now and then or my sister Le and I would take a daylong tramway trip to go to Yen Phu to visit him and his friends and roommates. Yen Phu was one of the 5 gates of Hanoi, the North East one, on the side of the famous Great Lake.
I will have to save a whole chapter for my brother But later because he was my hero way way back before he became a national hero. We were 12 years apart to the day, month and year of the lunar calendar and it was said that it was the most favorable sign of compatibility between two people. It is true, because although I didn’t see him often, may be once every other month, the bond between my older brother and me got stronger and stronger everyday in my heart. I experienced true happiness when he visited and he took special care of me like a little mother and like a little friend. Later, after he got involved in a “mysterious” political party, his visits became rare and “dangerous.” He came home only after dark and once burned a lot of paper document in the back yard. He never asked my parents for financial help, instead he gave out unconditional love and support to all of us.
After my grand father died, my brothers Nghien and Mac moved in with us, in a modest 2-story house South East of Hanoi. We started a new life in scarcity and worries, for the war lured at every corner. It was in the early 40’s. World War II burned in the West. My father could not find jobs partly because of his pride, partly because he was angry at the political situation. He once tried to kill himself by refusing food for a month but survived. It was quite an overwhelming experience for me who was a small kid at the time.
My mother who until then never went outside of the sheltered mansion we had in Vinh, did the most courageous thing in her life to save the family from starving: She went to work for my aunt, the younger one, and got sent to the northern border between China and Vietnam where rednecks and pirates polluted the Golf of Tonkin, smuggling whatever they could back and forth. As my mother didn’t speak Chinese, she was provided with a secretary and an interpreter. She was supposed to buy scrap copper and brass at a very cheap price from those Chinese brutes for my aunt and her husband. What did they do with it? I am not sure. To this day I guess it had something to do with the Resistance movement who could very well make good use of the metal. Could my uncle and aunt had been working for the underground Resistance ?
What gave me that extravagant idea? Well, my aunt and her family, being part of the very wealthy high society then, was considered to be capitalist enemy public #1 of the Socialist Communist Regime. However, when the Communist took over Hanoi in 1954 they got away without a scratch. Their daughter married the highest-ranked M.D. officer in the Vietcong Army. The other 7 or 8 children are doing fine in Hanoi after 1975 and my aunt is still alive, living in a small apartment she always owns. She rents the store in front and is allowed to keep the rent money for herself. When Le and I saw her in 1996 she said to me:
“I give to the children only some of the money, I am keeping the rest of it in here (pointing to her pocket) in case I die they (the children) don’t have to go borrow from somebody for my funerals.”
Can you see how important it was for them not to have to borrow money to pay for a loved one’s last goodbye? For them it would be degrading and shameful. It would be an indignant death where honor and reputation are damaged for good.
At this point I would like to come back to a moving story I was told about my grand father and that I have promised to tell you earlier.
On his death bed in Vinh Yen my grand father had an outrageous request: that his properties on Brick Street be sold out as soon as possible, that his one of the kind collection of Antique China be
auctioned right away and the the money be divided while he was still conscious. My uncle’s wife, then a widow had no reaction, but my aunts, especially the older one exploded. There was a reason:
The Hoang have been honored by the authorities above, respected by equals and looked up to by younger generations and they (my aunts) wanted to keep it that way. The properties on Brick Street, they said, will stay there as witness of the glory of my grandparents and their parents and will serve as the place of ancestors worship for the generations to come. To sell one own’s properties before one dies would be a shame and dishonor for both the dead and the living.
My grandfather then got very angry and, with the little strength left in him, sat up to scold his daughters, while pointing at my Mom: “I want you to look at this woman, you selfish spoiled women! This is the money I made with my own hands and sweat and I will do what I want to do with it. I want to give your brother and his wife their part of the heritage Now. (We are near starving
then) and I will never let this poor woman to have to come to you to beg you to sign the paper so that they could sell the place! Why on earth do they have to do that? It’s my properties and nobody will have to bow their head to nobody.” After that he instructed my uncle his son-in-laws to go seek an attorney and ignored my aunts completely. The place got sold before he died and my parents got their part of the money and some of the China, the most beautiful pieces of Antique China I have ever seen. One vase could keep the water down low to less than 10 degree C. Another can keep the flowers fresh and the water unspoiled under any condition. Later, we had to sell them one by one for food and rent. My Mom cried every time she wrapped them off to go to the Chinese dealer in town. Until the day she died, she kept my Grand Father’s picture at the most honored place on the altar and burned incense to him every day, a tradition that Le and I still continue with love and gratitude.