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?
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. 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 he was 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 guerrillas.’ 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, didn’t even know how to cook or wash clothes.
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.’
Both Father, who just barely survived the evacuation of Danang, and Mother 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.
Yet in a letter written two days before that, when we still did not know for sure if Father would make it back alive 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! Good-bye.’
Good-bye 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 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 thought that America was changing me not just on the outside but on the inside, too — that is, I believed my Americanization process was 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 TV commercials, reciting lines like sutras.
By the time I went to high school, I had stopped speaking Vietnamese altogether, had shaved the accent from my tongue, and at times pretended that I was American born. 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.
In reading these letters I am pulled back to a childhood that had all but faded.
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 write to the brother overseas, and above that desk I see your treasures: stamp collection, French comic books, Chinese martial arts novels. I hear again the street vendor’s lyrical and nostalgic voice 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 the 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.
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 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.
All those letters 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 they also tell me impossible distances can be filled with love, with the written word.
Andrew Lam is an editor at New America Media, a national collaboration of ethnic news organizations; www.newamericamedia.org. He is also the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora (Heyday, 2005). Reprinted from California, the University of California at Berkeley’s alumni magazine. Subscriptions: $19.95/yr. (6 issues); www.alumni.berkeley.edu.