A Letter to My Young Self

An exile's dormant memories of a distant childhood in Vietnam


| Utne Reader May / June 2007


I have forgotten you -- you who sang the Vietnamese national anthem with tears in your eyes, who believed that borders, like the Great Wall of China, were real demarcations, not easily crossed, who 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 of Saigon, before our abrupt departure and subsequent transformation. Finding you again was a shock. Three decades after the war ended, the past 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 I instantly recognized as my own, but the boy who wrote them I scarcely remembered. In fact, it took months before I found the courage to read the letters. No doubt I was afraid of what I would find: a version of the past that conflicts with 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 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 Vietnamese National 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?