How I remember Vietnam

It’s taken a while, but after some days and nights ruminating in the Brown Monster, assisted by cold weather, I’ve finally been able to write about my trip to Vietnam this past winter break. It was a profound trip to commemorate my grandfather, who peacefully passed last summer. I warn you that this is a long’un; more pictures can be found way at the bittimy bottom. So without further ado…

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Old Quarter, Hanoi

The truth is, I remember Vietnam very differently than my grandmother and my father do. I didn’t grow up there, in a smallish town just downriver from Cambodia, like my grandmother. I wasn’t a budding teenager, as my father was, in a wartime Saigon that took in American GIs and their rock music.

I remember Vietnam as a collection of little things: strange syllables tossed around in the sea of languages used by my grandparents, crispy spring rolls and sour fish soup in family restaurants, slender women clothed in long, traditional ao dais smiling divinely down from the photo calendars my grandmother would hang up in her many American houses.

I can write now, a little removed from myself, that I’ve had far from an idyllic relationship with these things. I want to buy into their purported significance – to be that insufferably unfazed and knowing friend at an Asian restaurant who deftly handles her chopsticks, smugly talks about her grandma’s cooking, or doesn’t bat an eyelash when the patrons at the next table start eating fish eyeballs out of the steamed carcass. But I can’t (and not only for the fact that being an obnoxious snob is no fun at all to anyone).

I want to tell stories about how my Chinese-Vietnamese grandmother held on to wisps of tradition in a foreign, American land, and how I try to cling to them as well. But I have always been put off by the conflicted and mournful reverence that seems to be the intimation of every Asian-American daughter’s memoir. (Forgive me, Amy Tan, and all those wonderful memoirists – perhaps I haven’t read you deeply enough.) My track record of embracing Chinese culture in America hasn’t been… well, the warmest, by any means.

The truth is, if you ask me a direct question about Vietnam, I’ll crumple helplessly, lacking an answer. Maybe it’s honest ignorance, maybe it’s shame from honest ignorance, maybe it’s shame from the shame of honest ignorance. All I can tell you is that there are threads of family history there, and I wish I knew how they tied me to that distant country.

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First day in Hanoi

No family history has passed through Hanoi, but it is my first stop before Saigon. It certainly surprises me when I land there as a dusty Peace Corps volunteer from Azerbaijan. The air is planty, even jungly. But that might be my imagination. Anyway, it’s a continent away from Azerbaijan’s dryness and dust. I arrive with a backpack full of worn-out clothes and heightened sense of expectancy – and Hanoi answers by being indifferent to both.

It is a quaint city, as much as any city in Asia thrumming with energy can be “quaint.” It’s bustling with signs of economic activity: young families gathering in the night around small plastic chairs and tables at local shops, eating bowls of noodles or grilled meats; a neighboring countryside of pale green rice paddies and villages boasting some ugly new glass and metal houses.

I am conscious of the history here, but I find it too difficult to imagine what connotation it could hold for a previous American generation – a nest of enemies and hostility and venom, to be bombed repeatedly by the Americans during the war, I suppose?

Now, the people are friendly enough, and especially friendly to any tourist who can shell out an extra buck. I can’t help noting how slender and fine-boned they are, a change from the taller Azeris I am so used to maneuvering around. The voices – plaintive, lyrical rambles – have a strange effect one. Their language is remote. I can’t speak it or understand it, like I do in Azerbaijan, and I’m not sure what to think.

Because, really, Vietnam doesn’t owe me or my expectations of familiarity. It makes it clear to me as I walk around Hanoi’s Old Quarter, my language useless and a camera dangling around my neck. I would have slung it over my shoulder, but the hotel staff gently warned me not to have my camera behind me. Please be careful, they had said in voices inflected with Vietnamese accents, they snatch cameras from tourists here.

When I have taken my fill of photos of vendors selling stacks of tamarind, ginger, lemongrass, onions and chili peppers – when I am tired of trying to cut the American and European travelers, rendered hulking ogres by the slim Vietnamese pedestrians, out of my shots – I return to my hotel room. There I wash up in a luxurious, red-tiled shower, wrap myself up in a soft bathrobe, and wait for Saigon.

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Vendor in Hanoi

My grandmother, it appears, had been waiting for Saigon as well. As soon as we arrive, she becomes a mass of bubbling energy. The previous day, we had taken a drive out of Hanoi and hired a boat to see Halong Bay’s haunting, slanted mountains. I had drunk a can of beer in the cabin while stuffing myself with seafood, then snapped away with my camera.

My grandmother had posed for perfunctory photos. She doesn’t like northern Vietnam, or its people. She thinks it’s poor and dirty, and the people cunning. She is a daughter of a Chinese family, and its first child born in Vietnam. They had originally come from Chaozhou in southern China, seeking better prospects and finding it in Vietnam, the so-called land of fish and rice. Like many enterprising Chaozhou people, scattered across Thailand, Cambodia, and Singapore, spreading their Teochew tongue, they settled and dug their roots deep into southeast Asia. My grandmother’s family shipped goods to and from Cambodia, down the river to a small town named Chau Doc, where my grandmother grew up in the family-run teashop before marrying my grandfather, also a full-blooded Chinese living in Vietnam. She said that she instantly noticed his auspiciously large nose – good for business.

Together, they moved to Saigon, where they lived, worked, and raised my father and his two brothers, before and during the war. When the victorious communists conquered the south and nationalist sentiments ran high, prosperous Chinese merchants, well established in Saigon at the time, were ripe for harassment. They were forbidden to speak Mandarin and their sons sent to do manual labor. For my grandmother, it was the northern Vietnamese who signified everything that had driven her out of the country, into a small fishing-turned-smuggling boat, heavy with refugees, bound for Malaysian waters and uncertain future.

This all seemed to happen in a place far, far away as we climbed into the taxi at the airport. My grandmother’s previous brittleness disappears. No longer in enemy territory, she is alive with conversation, accosting the taxi driver, an impressively mustachioed man with aviator sunglasses. She demands food recommendations, the latest news, everything. His accent twangs and crackles in answer, a different strain from the gentler one used by his northern countrymen. From every sign and billboard, Saigon proclaims itself. Saigon tours. Saigon taxis. The city rejects that tactless misnomer, “Ho Chi Minh City.”

I am an anonymous traveler among the glass high rises, the throngs of tourists, and the new prosperity. I remember cranky but discerning Paul Theroux, and his words from his memoir, Ghost Train to the Eastern Star, on Saigon’s impression:

“It was possible to see in the photographs that one of the aims of the American generals was to flatten Vietnam, to burn it to the ground in order to flush out the Vietcong – the fury, the revenge, the despair, the irrationality, the nihilism that possess the demoralized warrior when he sees there is no way out. And we failed.

The Vietnamese have had their own revenge in the expression of the most rampant, selfish, and opportunistic capitalism. Copyright infringement, Mickey Mouse piracy, fake Rolex watches, knockoff designer goods, bootleg books and CDs and DVDs of popular music and successful films – it was all available, as was the wholesale imitation and manufacture of virtually everything we’ve ever tried to make. It was astonishing paradox that, after we had failed to destroy their dream of a socialist paradise, divide their loyalties, and visit ruin upon them for our own profit, they had risen – in spite of all our efforts to demolish them – and become businessmen and entrepreneurs. Saigon was one big bazaar of ruthless capitalism, of frenzied moneymaking, of beating us at our own game.”

I see nothing to contradict him. The mopeds and scooters clutter and dart around us during the ride to the Hotel Majestic, a colonial-style artifact from an older era. My grandmother couldn’t have dreamed of staying here as a young woman, working as a nurse, watching those swaggering, foreign GIs at a distance. And yet now, flush with American wealth, she returns and has her own room, all wood panels and clean white sheets.

I don’t see too much of Saigon the first day, only the big market hall, Cho Ben Thanh. We walk down the main avenue of Le Loi, bounded on one end by the Opera House, and adjoined on one side by Ho Chi Minh City Hall, a co-opted French colonial building that serves as a backdrop for zipping traffic. I am hassled occasionally by pedicab drivers looking to get a fare. With the help of my dad’s twanging Vietnamese, I buy a fresh coconut from an elderly vendor, a woman who has set down her hanging shoulder pole and sits on the street awaiting customers. I sip its water through a straw, and try to take some photos of pedicab drivers lounging around and waiting for tourists.

In the evening, we have dinner in an upscale restaurant, its tables full of western and Japanese tourists purring discreet conversation in a tastefully dim dining room. Some Vietnamese musicians play on traditional instruments, two women and one man, the women in yellow ao dais. They sit in an alcove of the room that’s been framed by a wooden latticework, as stately as portraits. I delight in the spicy food, but shiver in the air conditioning. Ill-prepared, I had only worn a white tank top, just a bit of fabric, really – expecting humid Saigon night air.

When we return to the hotel, I feel a day of unreviewed reflections catch up with me. They pile up behind my eyes, weigh them down, and suddenly, I feel the tears.

I go out onto the hotel room balcony. I stare down onto the street, pretty quiet on the weeknight, but not quiet enough to keep a few prostitutes from sitting outside seedy bars, cleavage thrusting out of their too-tight tube dresses. The dark width of Saigon river passes to my right. On the opposite side is an expanse of black, besides some commercial billboards sprouting up and promising future development of the flat blackness behind them.

These are distractions. These only draw out the road to some painful self-realization. I wish I had something more profound to offer, some deeply considered thoughts on storytelling or memory or tradition, something wry and gently sad, maybe even Amy Tan-esque. But there’s only one thing that preoccupies me.

I’m thinking about how I will never belong here.

Why? Because somehow, my blood is considered Chinese, not Vietnamese. Because (and I want this to be the reason) I am American, with all the innate independence, the occasional faulty arrogance, and the dreams of a happy future that come with a blessedly comfortable American childhood.

But I turn over these thoughts ruthlessly, for what they are: stones covering insects. I want to reveal the seam of insecurity scurrying beneath.

Because Saigon would stare right through me. It would stare right through me, then look up and down my too-tall figure, even if I was all trussed up in an ao dai, ask me if I wanted a pedicab ride back to the Hotel Majestic, and inexplicably that would shame me.

And just like that, it’s gone. Did I destroy it with sunshine, self-admission? Or is it simply under some other rock, lying in wait?

There was a war here, once, Saigon seems to say through a haze of night sounds, scooters beeping. There were people and families that lived and suffered here, my grandmother and father among them. This sobers me up. I try to pull apart my personal hang-ups into non-existence, where they belong.

As I open the door to go back inside, I conjure up an image of the prostitutes I had seen on the street below. But any related thoughts to them taper away, and the image doesn’t stick. I go inside, and go to bed.

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“A big bazaar of ruthless capitalism.”

In Azerbaijan, I travel by local bus. I’m used to stares within the bus, but at least to the external world, I’m secure in anonymity, shut away in a shoddy vehicle that sometimes threatens to fall to pieces on the road.

Consequently, I am shocked by the huge black Mercedes parked outside the hotel. I’m already an awkward giant, towering above everyone. Add this to the mix, and I’m a beacon of all things foreign and wealthy and well-fed. A hotel driver in a porter’s uniform awaits my aging grandmother, and helps us load up the car. He is driving us to Chau Doc, five hours outside Saigon, where my grandmother grew up.

I settle in for the drive and gaze out the black-tinted windows. I look for second glances from Vietnamese at our too-nice car. I try to look, for a couple minutes anyway, at Vietnam through my grandma’s eyes, attempting to transpose pleasant intimacy on the faces of moped drivers around me. But it’s not working. All I see are weatherworn, dark young men, squinting in the sunlight, no friends of mine.

The scenes of the city give way to the countryside and little individual dramas as we go: a young woman in a flowing ao dai driving her scooter, her hat suddenly flung onto the ground behind her by the wind. She is followed shortly by a chubby kid laboring on a bike. His white school shirt valiantly strains to hold together its fabric, but his belly still shows in ellipses between buttons are close to popping off. Despite the heat, I see girl after girl wearing long sleeves, to protect against the sun, presumably.

I stretch out my browning arms, my tank top’s neckline falling precariously low on my chest. I wonder if my great-grandmother imagined that her descendent would be traveling in a Mercedes back to her grave.

To pass time, I listen to my dad’s translations of my grandma’s version of family history. So much for picturesque women smiling divinely while laboring in rice paddies: it’s a twisting, rambling course of events. Though the family remains mostly Chinese, an abusive Vietnamese husband appears on the scene, a drinker and a gambler who leaves behind my Chinese-Vietnamese second cousin with their son – or maybe she left him. Relatives here and there have children, or none at all. Some stay in China, some stay in Vietnam, and some move to Canada.

I listen and these people become storybook characters with worldly troubles. Dutiful wives, spoiled children, people bad with money and good with it. For the first time, I’m introduced to my grandmother’s brother. He’s like a character from a Chinese fable, always busy with antics. The only son who was spoiled as a result of it, he was disciplined solely by his Vietnamese step-mother, who didn’t care at all if she laid down the law.

As a boy, he peed in the water meant for pickling vegetables. As a young man, he snapped a picture on his shiny new camera while on vacation to China. Upon developing the pictures, he found he had taken a photograph incidentally of a beautiful young village girl; and, as revenge to his parents, with whom he was having a feud at the time, he demanded they bring her back to Vietnam to be his wife, at great expense. They conceded, she came to Vietnam, and gave him at least eight children.

I wonder, a little self-importantly, if these people thought about where their children and their children’s children would be – if they thought about the ever-multiplying offshoots of the family tree. Then I realize, like me, they probably gave it just a passing glance. Wars, hardship, and countries had divided them, and to survive they had formed bonds where they could. They didn’t look back, but neither could they reflect too much further down the road.

Suddenly I wake up from a nap, and on the outskirts of Chau Doc. It’s a busy town, backpackers pacing the streets as they wait for the boats to take them up the river to Cambodia.

My grandmother becomes frenzied. As soon as we check into the nicest hotel in town, she’s out the door, hailing down anyone, anything – oh, good, a pedicab driver, to the market, to the main market in town, and make it quick. Any rational word makes her even more irate. She’s practically spitting words out to the confused pedicab drivers. She must reach her mother’s grave by dark. She won’t rest until she has.

We hop onto some pedicabs and cycle through Chau Doc. I see local shops cluttered with merchandise that spills out onto the street – bicycles, washing machines, tea, and toys. It doesn’t have Saigon’s tumult, but it has the same spirit of feverish commerce. Before I know what’s happening, though, we are pulling into a cramped outdoor market, hawkers carrying noodles to each other, stacks of red onions, vegetables, and fruits sitting beneath makeshift tarpaulin roofs. Old women tending to their wares gawk at me from beneath the rims of their conical straw hats.

We’re in front a shop, the fabled teashop shop that my grandmother grew up in as a child. And this is it, now offering up a hodgepodge of goods. They appear, relatives and neighbors, small, Vietnamese-speaking, bewildered. We’re ushered into the back, given some noodles to eat, a gangly teenage boy introduced as my second cousin, children and fortunes discussed and talked about, all in Vietnamese, and I try to comprehend that these people have something in their veins, some minuscule strand of DNA floating around, that marks them as my relatives. They’re all weatherworn and small; my gray-haired grandmother seems plump and old by comparison.

I can’t understand any of it as I’m introduced as the American granddaughter, a remote trickle of family blood elsewhere. The conversation is swirling, swirling and it carries us out of the shop, into a taxi, and the chatter unfolds in Teochew, Mandarin and Vietnamese as we pull up in front of a graveyard on a gentle slope. My grandmother steps down from the car and begins to climb the steps up the hill, and I follow uncertainly, the graves staring at me with hundreds of indecipherable Chinese characters, names and families I will never know about.

I climb and climb, I see my grandmother light up some joss sticks as her – our – relatives clear away some brambles and weed from her mother’s grave. The smoke hangs and smolders in the air, fragrant, thick. The joss sticks are doing their work. I take a picture, then let my camera hang by my side.

I look for a moment at the little mound behind the gravestone, where my great-grandmother lays, by my great-grandfather. She had bought her plot early, for the good view it had of the nearby rice paddy. She had known she would be at rest here, and that her daughter would return to this place. I think about her physical body, by now only dust and bones, underneath the grass, and how close I am to it. There, there is her body, breaking apart and becoming soil – physical cells that had once multiplied to become my grandmother, that had gone on to multiply again and become my father, and how they were now me, and dozens of men and women elsewhere.

I am handed a bundle of joss sticks, burning. I wave them and inhale the smoke. I put them on the concrete before the grave, and breathe. My mind is quiet. Now, here I am. And it’s enough.

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My grandmother is a brisk businesswoman. It’s what drove her all the way to America. When she finishes one task, she moves on to the other and doesn’t look back. The trip goes quickly after that. We visit the house that my grandmother helped build with her remittances to remaining relatives. I meet my great-aunt, a tiny, frail woman surrounded by attentive children. There are pictures of my grandmother and my grandfather in their well-fed primes, hung up on the wall as a shrine of gratitude.

We eat dinner in a local restaurant, me chowing down spring rolls, and we leave the next morning. Enough is enough. My grandmother is relieved by the visit, but she can’t live here any more, she says. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s the physical comfort that she has so easily in America. As she helps herself to the hotel’s buffet breakfast, she looks over the river for the last time and recalls how, when she was little, she used to swim there – but not too much. The grown-ups told the children that the spirits of the dead lived there and would drag them down into the depths. The young Vietnamese hostess attending us overhears, and laughs gently as she takes away our used bowls. It’s only an old wives’ tale, she says.

We board the black Mercedes. On our drive back to Saigon, we stop briefly in Can Tho to visit my grandfather’s side of the family, so my grandmother can pay her respects. They have followed the tradition of being wealthy Chinese merchants, all right, well set up with a home appliances store on a big thoroughfare. My grandfather’s brother, sporting my grandfather’s same enormous nose, shovels food generously onto my plate as we eat lunch at a local restaurant, his brood (my second cousins) sitting around us, though lacking one errant daughter who ran away as a lesbian and is no longer welcome. I wish I could hear more of her story, but the talk begins to revolve around business, always a favorite topic of my grandmother’s, and the hotel driver, in his conspicuous porter’s uniform, joins us and sips a coke as my Chinese relatives josh him around. Five hours to Chau Doc? You couldn’t drive faster? they ask. He chuckles. I’ve learned my lesson, he said, I got a speeding ticket once – a story that provokes a giant laugh around the table. I nod and smile, nod and smile, lost again in a sea of unfamiliar languages.

We return to Saigon. I don’t have much time left, only enough to sip a beer with my dad on the rooftop of the hotel and contemplate the glass high rises. I recall my experience in Chau Doc, on a hill overlooking a rice paddy.

I said before that I want to tell stories of family tradition – and that I also am afraid of over-sentimentalizing a receding past. It seems so overly demonstrative, pointless.

But on a hillside, in Chau Doc, rests someone who came before me. I never knew her. She could not have dreamed of my life. Somehow I had bridged years and countries to come and rest joss sticks in front of her name. The thought demands silence. It happened.

Forget my agonized grip on memories and relationships with the past, my contention with the way stories are told. The joss sticks I placed burned down to nubs and dust when I left, but they left a trace, even if it was only for an hour, a day. Their minute, disintegrating particles weigh more than anything invisible, weightless, that chases itself around in my head.

As I pack up for Azerbaijan, my grandmother gives me a stern hug. Be careful, she says, you’re a woman in the world. I know, I say. I know, but don’t worry about me. I climb into the taxi. The trip is over and, just another traveler, I disappear into Saigon traffic.



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