Nonfiction Award: Spiritual Essay

Good news:

I recently submitted this piece to my school’s English department awards and received the Nonfiction Award. I am absolutely ecstatic about this accomplishment, and my parents are also proud of me too 🙂

Thank you to my mother for her courage and to my aunt for being there. After receiving the news, I called my mother and emailed her a copy. I’m a bit scared and nervous of her reaction. I just hope she likes it. Thanks to other people who probably don’t know that I’m thanking them: Amber Nowak for copy editing the piece, Benjamin Chapman, a friend from Figment, for reading through the essay and giving me really nice comments, and lastly, my whole Memoir Writing class for ‘workshopping’ this essay. The class was taught by the amazing and knowledgeable Sonya Huber.

My story

For this assignment, the class had to write a spiritual essay, meaning we had to discuss something that moves us in ways that we never tried to verbalize before. Of course, this was a hard task for me, since I had never spoken to anyone about this particular topic. One, because they might convince me to think otherwise. Two, because the idea might seem weird to someone who doesn’t know me. However, I felt like the resulting product was definitely worth the trouble and procrastination. I am immensely proud of the finished product.

As with many of my pieces I couldn’t think of a good enough title, so right now, this story is nameless!

Please Enjoy!

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I stared at my dead aunt’s photo that hung in the living room, noting, as my insides twisted, that I looked quite similar to her.

In summer of 2011, I had returned to my mom’s childhood home in Vietnam after ten years. When we arrived, my mom told me to explore the house and take pictures.

I came across the living room that had its doors and windows wide open. Any person or dog could have roamed into the room. Just outside, the motorcycles roared as they drove through the narrow street next to our house. In the early morning, the rays of the sun that couldn’t be blocked by the coconut and banana trees trickled into the room. The homely smell of star anise and cinnamon, from the phở sold on the streets, wafted on a summer breeze.

In the middle of the room was a small shrine. Two giant candles sat on top of a tall mahogany table. A vase of flowers and a plate of fresh pineapple and mangosteen flanked a large framed slate engraved with Chinese characters. In front of it was a ceramic bowl filled with rice and a forest of burnt joss sticks. A floor fan lazily twisted left and right. The walls that enclosed the shrine displayed my mother’s past through grainy photos which captured her father and mother and siblings – all of whom passed too early in life. I knew my aunt’s photo would be there.

I immediately found her because her face was the most youthful one out of all the pictures – and the one that was eerily like mine.

My vision shrunk for a moment when I saw my aunt for the first time, and the room disappeared. Even though I’ve heard about her so often as a child, I never saw her face. I wasn’t born yet when she was alive, so I can only learn about her from stories told in the family. When my relatives speak of her, they get hazy eyes and the ghosts of sad smiles appear on their faces.

She was 18 when she died.

I liked her eyes. Even though she stared back at me in faded black and white color I saw life in her eyes. I wished that she smiled in her photo, because I always thought she’d have a pretty smile. My mother often tells me that my aunt was very bright. She liked to sew her own clothes. She volunteered at summer schools for kids who didn’t have any money because she loved children.

She was the youngest of the family, and in moments when I felt so fed up with being the youngest of my siblings, I talked to her in my mind. I used to ask her how she dealt with so many people treating you like you weren’t old enough to understand anything. Even though she was never physically there for me she still managed to comfort me.

In the past, I’ve thought about the idea of reincarnation, how the spirit of a dead person can come back in another form. I don’t have a particular religious belief, but I’ve always liked the idea of living again in a different form. Perhaps my aunt was reincarnated into me. Maybe her spirit waited for so long at the threshold between pre-existence and birth, that when my time came, she sensed me somehow, and maybe she decided to go along for the ride. That might explain why, out of my siblings, I’m the closest to my mother. I like that thought a lot. Then, I realize, what a conceited thought to have! To think that I might be worthy enough for my aunt to pick me? I can never replace my mother’s sister. I don’t want to.

I can’t pinpoint how I see myself in her. Is it our eyes? Our mouths? Our cheeks? When my eyes first took in her face, I felt like the breath was sucked out of me, and sorrow crept up behind me. My aunt never reached my age.

But my sorrow can never amount to my mother’s, for my aunt’s death left an intangible mark on her. My grandfather passed away in 1980. Forty-eight days later, my grandmother died of a broken heart. Nine months later, my mom lost my aunt.  Within a year, God, or fate, or whoever is in charge, snatched away the three most important people from her life.

As my eyes focused on my aunt’s photo, my mind flashed back to that Sunday when my mother told me something that she never told my brother and my sister before, something I’ve only started to think about now.

She blames herself for her sister’s death.

I always loved Sundays. When we were little, my parents would sleep in. To wake them up, my sister and I would crawl under the covers and burrow ourselves against their bodies. My brother, though he now denies us any physical contact, used to come in and sprawl his body horizontally across the bed, and I, being the annoying little sister, would try to kick him off. I used to bury my nose in my dad’s pillow, breathing in the scent of his sweat, Head & Shoulder, and Gillete aftershave. He would wake up, snorting, then he’d complain like a spoiled child that we took up all the room on the bed. My mom would wake up groggy, but laughing. She’d plant a nose kiss on my cheek; she never gives me lip kisses, she’d only press her nose against my cheek and sniff it, as if testing the scent. When she was ‘hungry,’ she’d playfully bite my chin and say I was delicious and in her arms, I’d try to squirm away from her morning breath.

One morning in my freshman year of college, my mother and I sat at the breakfast table. Because of school, it had been a while since we spent a Sunday together. We’d just finished eating my mother’s overdone eggs and burnt sausages, and I was watching the fallen leaves outside the window as they seemed to dance along our deck. The branches of the trees swayed, naked, in an unheard symphony. A movement pulled me from my reverie and I turned, my eyes meeting my mom’s. She looked dazed, probably looked very much like I did a few minutes ago. I poked her in the arm. My mom smiled slightly then glanced down at my hand.

Sometimes she did that. Anyone who knew her well could tell that she had something to say. If she doesn’t voluntarily speak, something must be wrong. I asked her if she was okay.

“I was thinking about my sister,” she told me quietly in Vietnamese.

I didn’t think it was strange. Her past is always, in some ways, in her mind. The past made her into the person she is today. She tells us all the time about how she escaped Vietnam with her sister and nieces and nephew. How hard she worked to provide food and shelter for us. How much she sacrificed.

As a teenager, like all stupid teenagers, I took my parents for granted.  Every time I did something wrong, like get a bad grade on my biology test or stayed out too late one night without calling them, my mom reminded me of her story. I used to wave her off, calling it her ‘sob story,’ and then I’d slam the door in her face. I still don’t know what she thought when I did this. I don’t want to know. I already hate myself enough for the way I acted as a naïve, selfish, and privileged 13-year-old. That Sunday, I was an adult.

“Is her birthday coming up?” I asked her. I never keep track of these dates, but my mom always offered prayers to honor her family in some ways.

“It’s her death anniversary.”

Her lips trembled, and she turned her head, trying to hide the oncoming tears, and I couldn’t help but watch her. It’s always hard to see a strong person break down like that. At the same time, the breaking down of these walls can provide the most fascinating display. Broken beauty. That’s what I think when I see my mother in moments like these.

“I remember being in the hospital, sitting next to her bed,” she said, her eyes looking beyond me. “She was always sick. Her white cells kept killing her red ones.”

I suspect that my aunt might have had anemia, but I’m not completely sure.  It was hard – still is – to keep track of medical records in Vietnam, because the hospitals were poorly run and understaffed.

My mom began to tear her napkin apart, bit by bit. “She asked me to take her home. She didn’t want to die in a hospital.” It was just her and her sister in the hospital that night. Her sisters were home, taking care of the house and trying to hold together the remnants of their happy times amidst the war and the pressures of the communist government.

“But I told her –” my mom laughed, and I knew what she was thinking of couldn’t be funny “– I told she wasn’t going to die. Then she said that she wanted to die, because it took too much of her to live.”

Mom glanced at me.

“I should have taken her home. She wanted to be home, so why didn’t I just bring her back? She could have died in peace, knowing she was back where she belonged.”

People sometimes say that their “hearts go out” for others who are less fortunate. I’ve only learned to understand that phrase after applying it to my mother. My mother loved her sister. She was her favorite, and while her older sisters protected her, my mother took care of my aunt.

It’s hard to imagine such a time. I have An, my sister, who’s one year older, and though she’s at another college, she’s still just a text message away. But what would happen if—

No.

I can’t even think of that now. She – and I – are too young to die.

Then I think about my aunt, whose time came too soon. It makes me want to hold An tighter the next time we have to leave each other again.

Four weeks after the first time I laid eyes on my aunt’s face, I went with my parents to the site where my aunt was buried.

It’s a shame to think that her youngest sister couldn’t be buried alongside her parents. Her grave had to be in some backyard of a stranger, because back then, the area was actually a rice field, a special place to be buried. But times had changed, and the rice fields gave way to houses and train tracks. It’s a shame to see that my aunt’s grave is the dumping site for dogs, cows, and hens. My mom didn’t say anything when she spotted the feces in the grass. She tightened her grip on the bundle of joss sticks in her hands.

She ignored the curious stares of people looking out from the houses as she stood in front of the tomb. They probably weren’t used to people visiting it.

I should have memorized the name on that grave, but I didn’t. I didn’t even know my aunt’s name until now: Pham Thi Mai Thương. It sounds like the singing wind. It makes me sad to know that I can never truly know anything beyond her beautiful name.

Surviving

This is my second essay from my Memoir Writing class. We were assigned to write a political memoir, so naturally I decided to write about my parents during and after the Vietnam War. Hope you like it.

1975. Fall of Saigon. Agent Orange. Viet Cong. My Lai Massacre.

These facts bombard my mind when I think of the Vietnam War. Sometimes I can’t conceive that parts of my family’s history and my very being lie beneath these stone cold, memorized truths that teachers used to throw at me in classes. Today, I’ve already forgotten most of the names of politicians and military schemes within this war. Truth be told, they’re just names that can be circled on multiple-choice tests.

I didn’t need teachers to tell me what happened because I considered my parents as sufficient proof that the war did happen – that years ago, constant terror, fear of the communists, and soul-splitting loss had my parents’ lives in their tight-clenched fists.

I look at my parents, and see how life is wonderful for them. All of their children are either undergraduates or graduates of a university. My parents can do what they please. My mom just started taking private swimming lessons. My dad is working on making his potbelly disappear by going on walks in the early morning.

I admit: The story about my family and parents is not simple. It’s an onion that always needs to be peeled. One layer contains the political history that my parents had lived through: the Vietnamese War. Underneath that layer might be one that captures the struggles that occurred after they relocated to America, a foreign country. Directly below, or perhaps a few more layers down, my own life and my siblings’ lives subsist in such an area, and it covers the hopes and dreams my parents came to grasp for not just their own reasons but for the children who are the carriers of their torch, their legacy. In the end, there might be a story outside of my parents’ stories, but it’d take years or my whole life to write such a thing. So, I’ll start with what I know.

I’ve realized that my dad never talks about his past unless he is asked about it. Which means, he only talked to me about his past when I approached him during spring break. That’s how my dad and I are similar. We would rather be moved than move on our own. My mom’s story had always been the story of the family, but I didn’t want to make it seem like my father’s story wasn’t just as important as my mother’s.

As a newborn in 1947, my father was born oblivious into a bloody, beaten world that had just crawled out from the battlefields of World War II, and he was caught in another war that would go on to cause more inconceivable damage to the world’s political relations. Lê Phung grew up in a poor village enclosed by old, rotting Catholic churches that stood as remnants of the French occupation in the late 19th century. Even in the summer of 2011, when I visited my father’s home, the decrepit nature of the village could not be relieved. The main road to my dad’s home remained unpaved. The tunnels still only allowed people as its passersby, and cars were forced to turn around.

When my dad was young, he lived with his mother in a two-room cemented house. In this place, he felt perfectly content. My dad said he liked that he had his mother, because he only needed her.

As the Communists gained momentum, South Vietnam and the United States needed more men to enlist in armies. In my dad’s school, if a student couldn’t earn enough credits for school, he was forced into the army. My dad said that he enlisted because that was normal thing to do at that time. My father wanted to enlist, because his friends did the same. To this day, he always reunites with his buddies when some anniversary of the naval academy comes up or when his friend invites him over for a chat.

And so, my dad left South Vietnam. At this time, he never knew that he’d leave his country at the age of 22, to join forces with the Vietnamese and American Navy. He couldn’t know that when he was able to receive sponsorship for entrance in the United States, he wouldn’t be able to contact or hear his mother’s voice for many years.

Now, I suppose after this, I can say that my dad happened to meet my mom over in the United States, got married, and fell in love. But I can’t. That’s just too simple.

In 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson II to become the 34th President of the United States. My mother, Pham Đông, came into the world around that time, born to Pham Duyên and Mai Thi Cat, a couple who ran a small, but marketable rice company in Nha Trang, Vietnam. At this time, Nha Trang had the cộng-sản, Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese communists, at the fringes of its boundaries.

“It was during the time of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year,” she said, as she sat in front of the computer in the middle of a Youtube video about some obscure Vietnamese singer, “when I really noticed the world was ending. But I forgot what – oh wait—”

“Ba! Ba!” she said, using the Vietnamese word for my father who was actually sitting ten feet away from her, only he’s a bit hard of hearing. “What year was the –” and she went off talking in Vietnamese that I couldn’t understand.

“Ah,” my dad said back, his eyes thoughtful. He stood up, his hands slipping into his pockets. “It was 1968.”

“Really? But I thought –” My mom looked like she wanted to protest the date but stopped. Dates get fuzzy as one ages in years. “No, that’s right.”

On January 30 of 1968, the Viet Cong launched what is called Tết Offensive. Tết is the Vietnamese term for the New Lunar Year celebration. The communists and the South Vietnamese government had signed an agreement to put the Lunar New Year as a time of ‘cease fire.’

However, the Tết truce ended; my parents said the communists had broken their side of the agreement. During this time, my uncle, Xon, returned from his position as part of a special force tasks in the Vietnamese army. When the Americans needed help landing on Vietnamese soil, they needed to make sure that the land was safe for their feet. The Viet Cong used to place boobytraps into the ground and if the Americans were dropped off in such areas, they’d lose more than just their feet.

My uncle’s job was to detect these bombs, in aid of the Americans. As the Vietnamese celebrated Tết, a time of color and loud, the air suddenly filled with cracks of what people thought were firecrackers.

But they weren’t firecrackers.

Xon knew this from his experience. Within minutes, he rushed his family, including my mom who was 12, into a tunnel located underneath the house’s kitchen. They stayed there for hours. When I went to Vietnam in 2011, I stood in that same kitchen many times. We held family breakfast and dinners in such a tranquil space. I had no way of knowing that one of the safest places during 1968 existed underneath that kitchen. The numbers were never officially calculated, but in the aftermath of this offensive, the government estimated over 14, 000 dead victims due to the mass mortar attacks and ground assaults. Even underneath the tunnel, as she huddled with her family, my mom remembers bracing herself against the brisance of the mortar projectiles and hearing the rumbling of the aftershock, which sounded like the roar of a lion.

A few months later, Xon died.

In 1975, Saigon fell. Along with its government, its name also went away. The United States withdrew their forces. The war ended.

Hồ Chí Minh City, named after the leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, stands today as one of the most populous cities in the country. This is the time that many people remember. Thousands of Vietnamese demanded for relief, frightened by the prospects of the communist state that would rise from their beloved Saigon. The name Hồ Chí Minh roughly translates to “Bringer of Light.” But this light was not the benevolent light that one looks forward to in a summer’s day. The fall brought the scorch of the Communist forces that would leave many of the Vietnamese screaming.

The United States amassed the largest helicopter rescue mission in history. My mom tells me that when the Operation Frequent Wind started, the sky was never silent and never still. Operation Frequent Wind saw helicopters arrive in Saigon, to rescue the Americans who were still stationed there and the Vietnamese whose family had been part of the South Vietnamese government. Desperate families pushed through to take that one step onto the helicopter in hopes of escaping an uncertain future.

My mother and her family ran against time. Her half-brother, Con, used to be a high ranked official in the Hậu Nghĩa province, but when the Communists took over, they sent him to a reeducation camp. The term reeducation was only a euphemism; instead, former South Vietnamese government members were forced into labor, a means seen as repression tactics.

Con did all sorts of manual labor, from cutting crops in the fields to the dangerously scouring the mines. My uncle, already pompous and cranky, before his time in camp, became more sullen and quiet after emerging from this, my mom said. His experience changed him. With him imprisoned, my family became more exposed. They, along with much of their neighborhood, stood as opposition to the government.

With the impending danger prowling in the rice fields and jungles of Vietnam and the dead bodies of North and South Vietnamese scattered across the grounds of the country like leaves during the fall season, my mother began to plan her escapes.

“Two nights a week, the government would shut down all of the electricity,” my mom told me. “So in our homes, let’s see, we didn’t have light. The streets were also dark.”

“Wait, so how did you escape, Mẹ?” I asked her. “If it was so dark out –”

“That’s right. It was really dark. But that’s why it was the perfect time for us to escape,” she said in a conspiratorial tone as she leaned forward.

Escapees had two means of escapes that had the greatest chances of succeeding: go by foot into Thailand or go by boat to another country. Two of my closest cousins took the former route, because when they went in 1988, they had less money.

My mom, however, became a boat person.

If I told a stranger that I need to leave Connecticut and wanted him to give me a ride, I doubt that the stranger would say yes. But this was what escapees had to do. To escape, they had to know or meet someone with a boat. Instead of paying them with đồng, paper money, they paid them in gold. Gold had more valuable than paper, whose value constantly changed.

“We had to trust our guts,” my mom said. “And sometimes, we were wrong.”

She tried to escape seven times. One time, her “helper” carried her into the South China Sea by boat, but then took her money, jumped ship, and left her there. Other times, she paid her helpers beforehand, but they never showed up. At least one time, officials caught her in the act. When this happened, my mom had two choices: go to jail or bribe the officials and get away. Her choice was a no-brainer.

Her father, mother, and sister passed away in a rapid span of time, which furthered her determination to leave in order to live. Live when others couldn’t.

Freedom. Freedom. The sweet taste of mango on a summer’s day. That jump down a waterfall. The open air of an abandoned flower field. My mom wanted all of this so badly.

My mom found that chance of escape, that chance founded by luck, and she escaped with her 11-year-old nephew. Her sister, the sister’s husband, and their 13-month-old child also went along.

For seven days, my mom shared a wooden fisherman’s boat with 39 people. They had no food. Sickness did not discriminate by age or gender. Other boats had capsized, and no one was saved – even the children. When I was little, my mom told me stories about cannibals. She heard from other Vietnamese refugees that on one boat, a man was so hungry that he couldn’t contain himself. He snatched the nearest person, a girl about the age of 5, and took a bite of her arm. Then her leg. Then the other leg. No one stopped him. As a child, I thought this couldn’t be true.

In reality, there might be truth in these stories. Other horrible and inconceivable crimes against humans occurred during this time. Thai pirates scooped the Vietnamese women from the boats, in guise of offering help, but then they ended up brutally raping and pilfering them. Women suffered – but for what? They had only their skin and bones.

My mom didn’t want to meet her end in a boat, a boat that likely led to freedom. She had to move on. If anything, my mom had learned how to press forward in times of struggles. Some of the Vietnamese had to choose: either suffer at the hands of others or suffer in their own journey when they still controlled their lives.

In escaping, my mom came closer to touching freedom.

Before my mom left Vietnam, she went to see an old woman that used to buy rice from her parents. That woman had lost her son years before, and she couldn’t find him. She missed him dearly because he was her only relative that she cared about. My mom told her about her plan to escape, and said that if she made it, if she survived to step foot on American soil, she’d look for that missing son.

That woman was my grandmother.

My mother kept her promise. She didn’t know anything about my father, and she wasn’t that close to my grandmother at first. Yet she did keep that promise for an old, forlorn woman. After spending a few years in Palawan, Philippines, as a refugee and also as a volunteer French translator, she entered the United States. There, she met up with a brother in Washington who had left before Saigon fell. Soon after, she moved to Connecticut with her sister who escaped with her.

The Vietnamese have the uncanny ability to keep in touch, even after years of separation. I know that my mom keeps a booklet that has all the names of refugees in the Philippines, friends in Vietnam and family all over the United States.

A friend of my father’s also kept such a phonebook. He lived in San Diego and saw that ad in the newspaper, so he told my father.

After a series of love letters that my dad refuses to admit to writing, in 1988, my father and my mother met and wed.

“So she won me over,” my father finished. The 63-year-old at the end of his tale gave me a nearly toothless smile. “And that was the end of my freedom.”

When I told my mother the first part (the second part just ruined the whole sentimental value), my mom didn’t burst into tears or anything like that. She just turned to my dad, who stood next to me. “You idiot,” she muttered in Vietnamese, a smile on her face. My dad started to laugh. I didn’t understand them, but I didn’t ask.

In college, I’m becoming more aware that I exist, and therefore my successes exist, because of my parents. One time, just like I am now as a young journalist uncertain of my paths in life, they were scared and uncertain about the future. But, I am the child of fighters.

Pham Thi Đông. Lê Phung.

I am Lê Đông Loan. My brother and sister also share the same middle name and last name.

In this way, I like to think that my parents gave their names to their children so that we too are marked as fighters, capable of taking on any task which we might have to encounter. Like my mother, my father, and other brave relatives, I know how to move forward. And I will, with the reminder of the past in mind.