My Country: The New Age
I love my mother, that’s undeniable. It’s no accident that in all the Themes of the Month I’ve volunteered writing for, she’s mentioned in the majority of them. She’s always had a flare for the dramatic because her tumultuous history begets the drama she bears.
She’s the oldest of four children and her father was murdered when she was only 9 years old. She’s not really positive herself, but my dad tells me that grandpa was a notorious gambler who was shot for not paying his gambling debt, leaving my grandmother to raise four children, the youngest being just an infant. My mother doesn’t even know if she was 9 at the time because her good-for-nothing-dad didn’t even register her birth until she was two or three years old. (We joke that she’s really 3 years older than her stated age and who gets to say that legally?)
But I digress…This was in the 1960s and Vietnam in the sixties was already at war. The old imperialist nation, under French colonial rule, was replaced in North Vietnam with communism, and in the South there was a fledgling democracy with pro-Western backing and agenda. When the North Vietnamese leaders began their mission of “unifying” Vietnam under one government, my mother’s family was caught literally in the middle. Every time the Viet Cong captured a village, my grandmother would flee, being pushed further and further south. This was also the age of McCarthyism in the U.S. and communism was the ultimate evil. Even those with just a shallow interest in American history are aware of the Vietnam War and how it divided one nation as it unified another. I shouldn’t say completely unified though, because there were many Vietnamese who loved GI’s and the U.S. and were devastated that the war was lost. There still are, almost 50 years later. Accounts from my father, who had been told by my mother, (she would not share events of her traumatic childhood with anyone else) speak of abuse from uncles they were forced to live with, to starvation and homelessness. That, in addition to difficulty cultivating relationships and friendships by constantly being displaced. And romance? Ha! That was the stuff of movies and dreams.
Until one fateful day.
My Country: The New Age
My father has an interesting history as well. His father was the eldest son in a strictly Buddhist family. He was ostracized from his family after converting to Christianity when he was 15 years old. From then on, he lived with the pastor who converted him. He met and married another newly converted Christian and had seven children, the eldest of whom was my dear old dad. My grandfather would do mission trips to nearby war-ravaged towns in the early 1970s and give food and the Gospel to migrant families displaced from the war–families of widows and orphans. So guess who he should come across at one of these tent missions? A pretty teenager who was my mom! He basically ran home to tell my grandmother and dad that he had found him a future wife. They were young, really young, like 18 years young. But war has a way of making you grow up faster than you intended.
My mom and dad started dating, and she was smitten with my dad’s looks, musical talent (he played in a mandolin band), and all around happy-go-lucky attitude. It was this attitude that would drive her crazy later, but it did draw her to him initially. My dad just thought she was pretty (typical hormonal teenager). She spent most of her time in the nearby town, Saigon, where my dad and his family lived. One day, she left home to get on the motorbike with him as she did so often, and said bye to her mother and little 9-year-old sister–for the last time. It was nine years prior that she had to say goodbye to her dad. Her mom told her that if she had the chance to leave Vietnam, to do so without looking back. No one knew what would happen, but things were so unstable and if my dad’s family had a chance to leave, she should go with them.
My Country: The New Age
She didn’t see her mom or siblings for over 20 years.
I could tell you about the way they escaped huddled in the hull of a small fishing boat, how they were refugees in a new country, how they were married in California, how they had my brother and me in quick succession after that, and how I never understood how quick-tempered my mom could be and why she was like that. She threatened to divorce my dad at least a dozen times and it only scared me once when I actually saw divorce papers in the car (she’d actually seen a lawyer!). But I’ll skip all of that to tell you that my maternal grandmother finally came to America and lived with her daughter until she died, and that the 9-year-old little sister, after 43 years, will finally come to America for the first time next month for her nephew’s wedding.
My mom is the most normal around her sister. We visited her when I graduated from college 20 years ago, and she was very much the yin to my mother’s yang. I can only imagine that she took after my grandmother while my mom must have taken after my grandfather. She never wanted to leave Vietnam and was content raising her own children there. I’ve wondered what would have happened had my mother refused to leave her family to forge a new life with my father and his family in an unknown foreign country, but then I realize that isn’t her. Her story is about suffering, but also about discontent, adventure, ambition, and strife (a lot of strife). She will always be the first person to leave everything behind and start over (and she’s done so here in the U.S. as well). Trauma. Fate. War. Separation. Reunion. That’s what makes her life compelling and not only theme-of-the-month-worthy, but oh-so-drama-worthy.
Tale of Nokdu