Jan 10, 2012

Back to Square One: Childhood memories

Original Title in English : Back to Square One 
By Author: Anh Tho Andres
Vietnamese Translation by YourVietBooks Translators

Excerpts from my book:

As far as I remember, with the help of my childhood photos, and stories from my mother, we as children were very happy. I cannot remember the house where I spent my first years, nor the nanny who took care of me, but had a vivid memory of the house where I lived until age 18 before I left for university in Saigon.

My parents were working at the Pasteur Institute, and of course my childhood stories were intimately linked to the relationship with this institution. My mother is a great Francophile (adept of French culture), being French educated herself in the most re-known school of Dong Khanh in Hue, and my father was also trained as a Mechanist with French background.

Due to the general call for the arms by Ho Chi Minh for a general upheaval against the comeback of the French in 1945, as most youth of his times did, my father – aged 17 - joined the resistance in Upper Dong Nai River, where my grandfather was leading that division of resistants. My mother was 16 at that time, and was caught into the war while visiting her father’s plantation. My great-grand mother was a pioneer woman  - one of the first in South Vietnam,  I was told, to be an entrepreneur at the time where Vietnam was still  reserving a quite Confucian view of the women’s role.  She later got the main street of the region named after her, until today.

My parents met in these circumstances. Had it not been for the war, their fate would have never crossed each other. In fact, feodal Vietnam was quite particular in the arranged marriage which was based on the principle of “mon dang ho doi” (equivalent or matching social conditions).

My mother’s social background was totally out-of-reach for my father, who was issued from another social background, the lowest class of peasantry, the peasant with no land (ban co nong). What initially was a mismatch, later on turned out to be an advantage for my family, and possibly had saved us to be the victim of what is known in the books as Marxist land reforms in Vietnam in those early post-war years.

My father was shy and never made any advances to my mother who had a very long queue of admirers, including the personal assistant of my grandfather. How he managed to get married to my mother was really due to fate. But fate does interfere in certain people or most people’s lives, doesn't it?. In any case, the result is a very happy family life, with five children, of which I came second child, but first daughter.

It is important to stress the role of the first child in an Asian society, and Vietnam did not forego this rule. In an agricultural society such as my own,  where land ownership was important to the survival of the economy, the main heir would be the first son, who inherits the majority of the land, and the rest of land was equally distributed to the rest of the siblings, which is around the average number of 12 by Vietnamese standards. Having the privilege as main heir to the family fortune, the first male child also has to bear the responsibility to take care of the worship of the ancestors, and the education and welfare of their siblings and in-laws.

In the case of my mother, as the unique heir to my great-grand mother - her own mother died shortly at her birth, the whole heritage of the land came to my mother who was the first and only child. So in theory, the xx has of land owned by my great grand mother would have been my mother’s heritage.

My mother told us how my grandfather became a revolutionary inspite of his social status as landlord. Like all other landlords, my grandfather had abandoned the property to join the resistance against the French. As landlord of the biggest plantation – the tea plantation of Di linh and Baoloc – he had influence over all the tribal ethnic villages of the Highlands. Whether he was forced or invited to join the resistance was immaterial to the story. The fact was that suddenly my mother, heiress to the plantation, found herself sucked into the movement of the upheaval, and from a nice young girl educated in the best French school of Imperial Hue, destined to a mundane life, she was overnight made nurse to tend for the soldiers and teacher to the ethnic tribal villagers.

My great grand mother, being the richest woman of the region was of course solicited by the resistance to contribute in nature and in men to support the movement. She later on got the main street baptized after her name.

It is interesting to know how she spotted my grandfather to be her son-in-law. The story is very similar to a Hollywood story of Margaret Mitchell’s time. During one of her inspection trip to the plantation, her car broke down in the middle of the night. Desperate for help, she was relieved to see a gentleman stop by to help and drive her back to the main residence in his car. By his good manners  during this short encounter, she found that this handsome and intelligent young man was worth to be a matching party to one of her two daughters. From my mother’s description and the photo on the altar, I noticed indeed that my grandfather had Indian features with a big nose, white skin and round big black eyes.  Unfortunately for my mother – and consequently for me,  my mother did not inherit of his tallness  - 1m80 which is quite exceptional to Vietnamese standards - and so this genetic features was not passed on to me (sigh!!!). 

So, to cut the story short, my grandfather,  a geom├Ętre by profession,  got the job as plantation manager and husband of my grandmother. Once again, fate wanted that grandmother – also a beauty of her time – died very young, and left two young children to the grieving husband. Her sister, my auntie, also died shortly at a young age. Consequently, after Great-grand-mother’s death, my mother was sent to boarding school in Hue, and lived with the rest of our clan, most of whom were high ranking mandarins and later on technocrats of the French administration (Ong Tham).  My mother got a French education and the taste for French manners, so we in turn were educated in this trend, although my grandfather died in an ambush and was killed by the French.

It was really a pure caprice of fate that my mother came to visit him just at that particular time when the war broke out. Her whole world also vanished in no time. Grandfather left the plantation, led the war, and so instead of inheriting the plantation, she got a new job as a nurse and educator for the ethnic minorities who became the troops of resistance under my grandfather’s leadership.  As a nurse,  she was sent to different tribes to ‘convert’ them to the cause of the resistance. She had learnt some dialects and used to teach us songs in these dialects. Until today, I still remember some of the melodies she sang to us when we were younger. Her stories of her youth are so fascinating that we could listen for days. I think somehow I inherit part of her talent and charm, but not her physical beauty.  Oops, Mdm Modesty!!! Unfortunately, noboby is perfect!

One of the anecdotes that she used to tell us, was when she was lost during 2 days in the Jungle, had no food to eat and no means to call for help. Her instinct of survival had taught her to climb into the hollow of a big tree where she had slept soundly waiting for the rescuers sent by her unit, in search for her. Actually, half of the troops were under her charm so I guess the troops were very active in their search. In any case, they found her safe and sound.  We must remember that in 1945, there were still tigers and other beasts in the Jungle in that part of Vietnam. And my mother used to hear stories how the big shepherd dogs owned by grandfather were attacked by tigers (we call Ong Ho – meaning Sire Tiger to show respect to him). The fact that she survived after such an adventure reinforced Mother’s belief that she was protected by a supernatural power, or by the spirit of her deceased young mother. So many similar stories on how narrowly she escaped the worst incidents motivated her to start worshipping Kwan Yin Buddha, the God of Compassion some years later, and consequently, we were all raised in this faith.

Another favorite anecdote of her peripetie as a resistant was about how she was arrested by French troops and put in jail during one whole year in Phan Thiet. Thanks to her looks and her very sweet ‘Hue’ accent, one of the guards fell in love with her and wanted to keep her for himself as wife. As she spoke French fluently, she was spared of all the chores in prison. In fact, during that year in jail, she learnt how to embroider, to knit and got all the material from her protector, the prison guard. He even spared her from being abused by the French ‘Cau Hai’ (Highest title of respect in Vietnamese ranking) who would systematically ‘convoked’ one girl per night for interrogation, but actually to pass the night with her.  When it came to my mother’s turn who was last on the list, she simulated to be having her ‘monthly problem’ which prompted the ‘Cau Hai’ to dismiss her immediately. One year later, she was released from jail, together with hundreds of other young women and men, the fate of whom was not so fortunate as hers.

During that time, although my father and mother were married by order of the Party, they did not stay together. Father was sent for courses by the border of Cambodia, and it took four months to get a letter to reach him. So when the news came to him that my mother was in jail, she was almost freed by the time he came back from his course. Later they both established in Dalat, where the five of us were born and raised.

I like to listen to my parents stories and it was amazing to me the paradox in how friends turn into enemies, then former enemies turn into friends, and so on in this period of turmoil. It shows that nothing is permanent, and there is no real black-or-white situation.

For example, my grandfather was killed by the French. Yet my mother sent us to French School. She herself was French educated, and later worked for the French Pasteur Institute. But in her youth she was a resistant against the French and was put in jail by French troops.

My father as a former resistant, was anti-American, but he allowed me to go to the English evening classes taught by young GI’s. My parents were good Buddhist practicants, yet they allowed me to go to Sunday Baptist Church and sent all the 3 daughters to the Nun Catholic School. 

In the same family, we also represent this patchwork of all colours. My uncle – the half-brother of my mother died in his first battle at age 18, killed by the Vietcong in the Mau Than Tet Offensive of 1968. On the other hand, my father’s cousin – of the same age as my uncle’s -  who spent her youth together with him, joined the resistance, and some 8 years later, came back from the jungle as a communist cadre. Then another cousin of my father’s, somewhat the age of my auntie, joined the South Vietnamese Police Corps and was made Captain. But his younger brother, a rebel, joined the resistance and came back also some years later as a hero. Similar things happened on my mother’s side among her cousins.

I guess all Vietnamese families do have this kind of entertwined criss-cross of destinies. We are all the products of the historical events which shaped our country since the beginning of the nineteenth or even earlier. All our stories are the same more or less based on the same pattern, the outcome of each may be different, but all have their own role to play as witness to a part of history for the upcoming generations.

Of course as children, we were not told about all these stories. Until now, I am incapable of remembering my parents’ birthdays because they never told us the exact dates. I was even shocked to discover that officially my mother was the second wife of my father – even if it was only on paper – but somehow, I felt weird. We also do not bear my father’s family name but instead was named after my mother’s.

In fact another anecdote is worth mentioning here. My mother was telling us how she invented her parents name out of panic while being interrogated by the security police. And this was the situation of these transitional period where there was a huge migration of people in all over  Vietnam. When questioned about her identify, she answered that her father’s name was Nguyen van xxx, and her mother’s Le thi yyy. The investigator did not react further.  It was a name which millions of people could have, the Nguyen family name being the most used name – I think over 95% of the population was named after the latest Nguyen Dynasty – and the family name as ‘Le’ is the most known name from the Le Dynasty.  All males have ‘van’ as middle name, and all females have ‘thi’ as middle name. In fact, it seems that the French Administrators had imposed this rule of the male and female middle names to help them identify from the names by sex. So to make the stories short, my mother could just invent the names of her parents without raising any suspicions by the logic of Vietnamese thinking. In any case, there was no possible further investigation, and with the war, everything was in chaos. I guess it was how the title deed of Great-grand-mother’s property also vanished in the burning archives of the French administration, and that’s how the whole heritage evaporated with the smoke of the revolutionary guns.

I think my parents must have lived in fear all their lives. In fact, another anecdote which my mother did not tell, but I was mature enough to understand was when my father lost his job after being investigated – and interrogated – for his past belongings to the resistance in his youth, mainly based on denunciation by his jealous colleagues. After his release from jail,  and of course lost his promised position as General Manager of the Pasteur Institute, my mother had to sail the boat alone, to feed five children whose school fees alone cost 7 times the normal local tuition fees.  I guess it was not easy for her to manage during the war times, struggling with two jobs and a husband whose fate was marked for life.

To occupy my father, she had set up a store offering hand-knitted wool sweater which are tailor-made to rich tourists coming to Dalat, my hometown, where the climate is much cooler than the rest of the country.  So juggling between two jobs to afford the exuberant tuition fees of the French schools for the five or us, she did somehow magically managed to make the pot cooked with the result I mentioned above.  

The irony of fate was that she had learnt her knitting skills during her jail times, and later made a living from these skills. She had later created a workshop employing all her colleagues at the Pasteur Institute to take on knitting assignments, and had transformed our big house into a mini-school but also a kind of help center for battered women – mainly her colleagues. During this period, I also learnt how to knit, to embroider, to crochet all kinds of designs for the shop from age 12 or so. My father also helped and I discovered his infinite patience when all the threads were entangled because of the complicated patchwork. We later on learnt also to knit with the SINGER knitting machine imported from France through my mother’s director. Somehow it was good training, as later on, I made a living by knitting beautiful handmade bags out of fishing net threads during post-war early years while studying at the U, and even knitted and sewed my own clothes and my siblings’ with various designs.

I also have a great admiration for Vietnamese mothers, when I see how hard they work for raising their children and give them the best education they could afford. My mother was no exception to this pattern. During the war which was considered as the most violent and dreadful war of all times, as a single bread-earner of the family, she risked her life many times to support and feed us. For example, while making her multiple trips by bus to Saigon – about 8 hours from my hometown - to renew her stocks, she had to walk through barricades set up by the resistants on the main national road to collect fees. It was the practice that some of travellers would be taken away and forced to join the guerrilla. As to the threat of explosion, a confrontation between the Southern Army and these so-called terrorist guerrilla units who blow up the whole convoy. Very often, she came back home relating her adventure. Listening to her stories, I was even more thankful both for her courage and her determination to give us a good life. I guess, my mother had a very strong conviction of her being protected by a supernatural power in the person of Kwan Yin Buddha, the Goddess of Mercy, and this faith helped her go though insurmountable difficulties.

I must say that when thinking back, after having so much trouble of bringing up only two children by myself, in a safe environment such as Singapore and Switzerland, and with the help of my maids, I really admire the courage of my parents and the hardship they had gone through, raising us to get private French School and later on getting to the best Higher education available in those circumstances. In fact, it is already difficult to get one graduate in the whole family, in the situation of my parents, we were all five graduates. All that was absolutely not due to hazard, but was the result of a very strong determination,  and a high level of personal sacrifice and commitment by my parents.

Strangely, my father’s presence is only perceived through my relationship to my mother.  I know that he was always behind my mother and us but somehow, I tend to think first of my mother or talk about my mother without thinking to mention my father. It is so natural that he was there, that when he was gone, I still felt as if he was still alive. In fact,  I only learnt to know my father, about his dreams after he was gone, when years later I received the “recueil of poems” he wrote, entitled “In Memory of a Certain Past” in which he translated all his dreams into poems (Note: Read my next posting). For me, he was a real Buddha in person, good in his heart, responsible and forgiving. But as the relationship between father-daughter was restricted in our Confucian culture, all my memories of him are now confined in this little booklet as sole legacy of his generation.

ME and Books

One of the reasons I love books, mainly books on history is because of all the stories my parents used to tell us. I am not quite sure where lies the reality as there are so many contradictory versions of the same story and the interpretation of each side of the story can lead to fighting to defend one’s truth. It is also the reason why I am dedicated in promoting the book project, with the intention to get more exchange of views, plant more seeds in the rich soil of the memories of  generations to come and help them understand and value the efforts of their predecessors.

(Geneva, January 2012)

Original Title in English
Back to Square One 
By Author: Anh Tho Andres

About the Book:

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