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Vietnamese Authors, Anh Tho Andres, Back To Square One: My Cinderella Tale


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

My Cinderella Tale

My Cinderella Tale started on a Valentine’s Day when I met Kurt on the Beach of Vungtau. One year later, he chose my birthday to come and asked for my hand. It was some 30 years ago. We later had three (3) happy years together before he died.



Here are some excerpts of my diary:

"5. I met Kurt on my last day’s work in Vung Tau on Valentine’s day. Later I moved back to Saigon. Started a new job in the Seamen’s Club, where international ships come and go. This is also one of the prestigious position where only privileged workers are selected as it is also in contact with foreigners, but a different kind. I led a very low profile, as I decided to find a way to escape the country with the boat. I talked to many ship captains under different flags and nationalities: Greek, Filipinos, Indonesian, Polish, German…

During this period of my life, I discovered the underworld of prostitution, drug, black market traffic, smuggling and the likes. I was also preparing my flight as a “boat people”. Had a very interesting experience interacting with seamen and their world."

*****

The encounter with Kurt was decisive to my life. At that stage, I never dreamt of marrying. I had consulted a fortune-teller on my star and my Zodiac said I should never marry. The reason was that, in my zodiac ‘tech-sheet’ the position on ‘marriage’ showed ‘pha quân’ which meant that whoever would be my husband would turn bad. So, in spite of a certain popularity among my tourists, I was accepting my fate of ending up a spinner. In any case, even if I did give in to the advances I received from these, nothing would have come out in the circumstances where I was finding myself. May be that was what saved me also because the rules of the company on relationship with foreign visitors were then very strict. Except on duty, we were not allowed to mix with foreigners. All assignments were heavily controlled and supervised by the security police.

Nevertheless, being one of the few with the privilege of being in contact with foreigners, I enjoyed a special status. I was allowed to plan my days as I wanted with the groups under my responsibility, following some to go chasing butterflies as I did with a German group, or bird watching with another, playing table tennis at the club, or spending time on the beach, swimming, sunbathing, chit-chatting under the discrete supervision of my invisible colleagues. I was also allowed to arrange short tours from Vung Tau to Hochiminh City (Saigon),  Nhatrang or Dalat, accompanying them as a tour guide following my own schedule. It happened that in some cases, I was even escorted by the police when my guests were VIP guests such as the case of Pham Tuan, the First Vietnamese Astronaut and his suite. I was also often photographed – like a movie star – by most of my tourists, but was not allowed to reveal my personal address. In rare cases, I was also allowed to guide French-speaking or English-speaking groups.

By that time, I did not know that only sympathizing (Western) journalists were allowed into the country. As it happened, one of the few American journalists was one of my tourists. He took a strong interest in me and started to send letters from wherever he went through private channels to me. Both he and I did not know that all his letters were checked by the security. And I could not understand why I was not allowed to guide American groups any more. Years later, I learnt that because of one sentence, my tour career with Western tourists was doomed: in fact my answer to this same journalist when asked about what the Russian tourists liked best was something like“Gold and Silver stuff” was reported to the security or whomever it was, as a ‘negative remark on the socialist brothers’ and that ended my short career.  Maybe I should have said “Vodka” instead, and it would be in line with what should be said. In any case, such small incidents piled up and I found myself struggling to protect the last bit of freedom left to me.

So in spite of enjoying the privileges due to our profession, this lack of freedom, lack of personal contact was becoming a burden for me who had been raised in free Southern Vietnam. Consequently, I chose to defend my own freedom, pushing to the limit what was allowed, at my own risk, whereas most of my colleagues would be more cautious to talk to foreigners unless under strict necessity. Most oil expatriates with whom I dealt in my daily job came to accept that as a fact, although they also suffered of this isolation. They were living as on an island, cut off from the local population, except for the strict necessary communication pertaining to their logistics needs.

Paradoxically, some of them suspected me of being a spy for taking so much freedom. In turn, I felt myself isolated. I needed to communicate, but not to say what was dictated to me, I needed to exchange, but not on the basis of suspicion nor fear. In the end, I came to a point that I would need more than being a smiling statue for tourist blitz or an automatic multi-lingual playback of some repeated censured speeches. I needed more air to breathe, more exchange to keep me alive, more real sympathy than just a polite handshake. The sight of groups of tourist coming and going, and ME left behind after they are gone with their photographs were slowly becoming a torture for me. I felt a growing sadness inside my isolation.

[¨...]
¨
Destiny had decided that at my last day of work in Vung Tau, I met Kurt. I was not ready for marriage, neither with him nor with any other tourist, as that would be like dreaming to fly to the moon. Firstly, I believed such a romance only existed in my ‘3 sous’ (cheap) love stories that my maid used to share with me in my younger days, and in my mind, all the antagonists must be top beauties and handsome charming princes. I was too plain in Vietnamese standards to even dream about that. Secondly, even if it happened, there was no precedent case that allowed a mix marriage with a foreigner, let alone a Westerner. Thirdly, I was extremely influenced by my zodiac sign, believing that my fate would be only unhappy with marriage. So, all pointed out to my non-interest in seeking a relationship. My thoughts were more geared towards taking the boat as half of the Vietnamese population would have opted to do at that point of time, had they had the means to do it.

In that state of mind, after my departure from Vung Tau,  I applied for a job in the port of Saigon at the Seamen’s Club, where big cargo ships come and go. Working there would give me a possibility to reach my objective. But it proved later that I was wrong.

In French, there is a saying: “L’homme propose, Dieu dispose”, meaning man proposes and God approves. I did not expect that Kurt was a very determined person and went all the way through his commitment. Nor did I expect that our relationship would evolve into a deep love which went beyond all the conventions set by men or by circumstances. Somehow, I was chosen to come and settle down in Switzerland and destiny keeps on holding me to this place. But at that time, I did not think in these lines. 

Indeed, although I got his address in my hands as an invitation, I had other priorities. First I was busy with my move back to Saigon, then I had to get used to my new job. I had decided to keep a low profile. I knew that I was still not out of danger, and the police – at least some people in the police – did not forgive me for having escaped them.

The first day in my new job, I immediately felt the pressure. My boss was a big and fat woman from the North, with very strong Chinese features. She hated foreign-educated people, and I was falling into that category. I was assigned to the Souvenir shop on the second floor, as a Sales Assistant.

You may easily guess that seamen arriving at a new port would seek other interests than buying some rattan or wooden souvenirs. At most, they would take a five-second glance at our shop to look if there is a nice girl to talk to, but the focus of attention would be the bar-restaurant on the ground floor, where they would find over-made-up dancing girls, or they would go to the massage parlor on the third floor where they could get some human touch in compensation for their long stay at sea. I later learnt about some other night traffic from the other side of the river where prostitutes and other stuff were smuggled on board, under the supervision of the border police,  but those activities were not part of the official settings of the Seamen’s Club where I worked. 

The Souvenir shop had the look of any state-owned shop that you would find in most communist countries before 1990. Why did it exist at all in the centre of a Seamen’s Club was a mystery. In a capitalist world, it would have died of its own death since day one.

We were a team of 7 girls with not much to do. Our time was spent sitting and waiting for clients who never came, except on rare occasions. I used most of my free time working on my language skills: I would plan at least 2 hours working on my German, and two on my Russian to keep up the level. The rest of the time was used to write letters when I started corresponding with Kurt and thus brushed up my failing French. I think my best writings were during that period as he was my only audience and I poured out all my dreams to his eager attention.

One person should be happy with the shop’s activities though. My boss’ business – actually she ran the state-owned business but put the profit in her pocket – was good because she earned 50 times more than what she bought and used us girls to do the slave jobs of carrying ceramic elephants from the private factories to load them onboard. Each elephant cost ONE dollar from the supplier, but was sold to the shipper at the price of FIFTY dollars each unit, without us having one cent as payment for our cores. My salary was still ONE dollar a month, but bad luck for me, I got always a fine for indiscipline as I talked too often to clients. Result:  20% of my salary was cut, so by the end of the month, I got paid 80 US cts, working from Mondays till Sundays included, pedaling on my brakeless bicycle 7 km each way, risking my life in the dense and lightless traffic of Saigon. I used to come home late, exhausted from the long ride and but satisfied from the little pleasures I got during that boring period of my life.

Indeed, although I confined myself to this very humble post to hide from the jealousy of colleagues and curiosity of the security police who was tracking my every movement,  I  was living in fear of being arrested most of the time although I did nothing illegal. I would feel my heart freeze at the mere sight of some traffic police while biking home even in full daylight. But on the other hand, I had some pleasant surprises which brought some sweet memories on the gentleness of mankind. Once more, my language skills brought me another circle of admirers. As most seamen who came on shore were speaking German or Russian besides their broken English, they were delighted to have somebody to converse on matters beyond their basic needs. There I was, promoted to be their confidante.  I since learnt that behind their tough appearance, men do hide some sensitivity ready to break out when addressed at the right level. I discovered a new experience in these exchangeshich were mostly on a platonic level. That was a kind of exchanges that I rarely have later on in my professional world in the West, where everything must be “politically right” and any sign of weakness is considered as a flaw to the eyes of colleagues and partners.

I recall how I started to use my senses to literally smell  the visitors in order to determine which nationality I was dealing with. It’s true. Russian sailors used a particular eau-de-toilette which is typical to them, and so do the Polish and East German sailors. By sniffing which eau-de-toilette they used, I would address them with the language of their choice. The surprise effect was instantaneous. I do not know for sure whether it was because people never expected such a thing to occur in a shop in the backyard of a Seamen’s club, where people would expect some other level of entertainment, or because these men were confined in a place where they had nothing to do, being not allowed to visit the city, so they had to make do with girls who did not speak the language, so I was like a lifesaving ring (bouée de sauvetage) to bring some fresh air to their stay.

Nonetheless whatever reasons their visits were to our obscure shop, I soon had my little audience which filled up my long and boring hours. I became famous with my palm-reading skills, telling their fortune and entertaining them, I was just happy to practice my languages and I had a lot of fun. Actually I had developed a kind of special skills that allow me to get very quickly on the right channel of communication, which I later use in my dealings in my professional negotiations, even nowadays, and the results I got always encouraged me to go further in this direction. Years later I discovered  Daniel Coleman‘s book on Emotional Intelligence.

In any case, during that period, I discovered another world which brought me some simple joy. As we were not allowed to entertain clients, unless we sold them something, in order not to cause us problems, the clients would just grab at something within their hand’s reach, and while I pretended to take care of their purchase, we could talk. I slowly got my own load of suitors which left me a pleasant memory.

Three of them bore the same name: one is Polish, Mischeslaw or Mike, the second one is East German, Michael, and another one whose nationality I forgot was Mickael (?). The results of these exchanges were that I always came home with lots of gifts from them: a cake of soap, a packet of cigarettes, some apples, some polish cakes, some aquavit, some t-shirts, some music, some perfume,  even some electronic watches. It was touching, as the case of Michael, who offered me all the stuffs he initially bought for his wife.

Mischeslaw left me with a very fond souvenir. He would hide behind a gate where we had our bicycles parked, would sprint out of his dark hiding place, would quickly pour into our (mostly mine) basket a load of presents and would quickly disappear in the dark again, to save us from the trouble of getting scolded or even reported to the security police. The last day before he departed for Hai Phong, he came with a lot more presents, even gave me some money. I was so sad of his departure that I did not pay attention when coming through the checkpoint, so all the presents I received was confiscated. Thank you anyway, Mischelaw, wherever you are, if you ever read these lines from me, your Annieschka !!!

Actually my guests did not suspect that when we crossed the checkpoint on our way out of the big gate, we had to undergo a body search, not for security reason, but to confiscate these gifts that we would have received from guests. This policy was applied to all the personnel of the Port, and I was no exception. But usually we could always manage to keep something for us, and so my siblings always had the joy of welcoming me home with some kind of surprises. I felt like being Santa Klaus every day. The gift was not worth much, but the pleasant feeling of being an object of attention, and knowing how tight these sailors were financially, especially those from the East Bloc countries, made me appreciate even more their token gifts. Usually I never complained of my material life, nor asked for anything, I guess they saw the poverty lying everywhere in the country and I was fortunate to be once more the point of focus on their way. One of the contact I made at that time, a German engineer, Ralf later learnt of my stay in East Germany, and sent me spontaneously by post some hundred East Marks to the address I was staying without me asking. I was very touched by these gifts from their heart. Most did not even know my real name, they would call me Anna, Anita, Annieschka, Antonia, as it sounds easier for their memory…

Another detail which I remembered from my favorite admirer, Micheslaw,  was that he always bought a cone hat (non la) to be allowed to talk to me. I guess by the end of his stay, he must have heaps of cone hats in his room. One day he came with two kiss-spots on his neck, and ignoring what it was, I asked him what happened. He became red like a tomato and later on I learnt that the girls (prostitutes) were allowed on board against an entrance levy to the border police who stationed permanently on board during the whole stay. Micheslaw probably felt very shy to tell me on such activities.

Meanwhile, I did not forget my main objective, which was to look for a captain who would take me on board. I learnt from some captains who also became my regular clients, that they would be fined of USD 30’000 per person if they get caught trying to smuggle people out. So, I concluded that it was out of question to try my escape by that way. Nonetheless, I had the feeling that only by trying to plan my escape, I was nearer to the freedom I was longing for.

During these conversations that I had with my new friends I learnt quite a lot of interesting things, but also some quite tragic facts. I had promised myself to write it down one day and share with readers for what happened. One case involved an Indian engineer who married a Vietnamese refugee whom he smuggled out this way, risking the fine of 30K. He managed to do it, and registered her in Singapore upon arrival where he paid the fine but kept the girl as his wife. Her sister who was still in Vietnam, out of gratitude, risked her life to come and thank him by smuggling herself as a false prostitute on board. I learnt from his story that his young bride, before she managed to escape, had been cheated by some Cuban seamen who kept her on board for several weeks before releasing her. They knew they could not help her escape but encouraged her nonetheless to come on board, for what purpose, I think you may guess.

Another story was even more dreadful. A Greek Captain who also often came to my shop, on the day his ship was departing, run to me in panic, and told me: “Anita, we have a disaster now”.  From his panicky expression, I could see the seriousness of the situation. I could not understand what upset him so much, as I knew his ship was scheduled to leave that day. We all rushed to the boat quay to find out that special divers who sent down to  track the refugees who  had been hiding on the ship and had dived into the dark river when the alarm was given. By ignorance, they had chosen to hide in the anchor ‘hole’ (coque) which could hide up to ten people. They did not know that when the ship pulled up the anchor, they would be crashed and ground as chopped meat. Had it not been for the loud conversation they were holding with each other while waiting for the ship departure, which alerted the second-engineer, they would not have been spared of that dreadful fate. There might have been other cases where people were less talkative before their departure, or the ship owner had not performed their security check before leaving. I do not dare to think beyond that point…

Fortunately for me, this transition period of my life finally came to an end. As my correspondence with Kurt continued, I had the great joy of seeing him again on my 27th birthday. He chose my birthday (15th January) to visit me and ask for my hand.  He had made a special trip to Hanoi to get help from the Swiss Ambassador to backup his application for our marriage. My Cinderella tale had begun. Only in fairy tales, it never said how to deal with paper work for my exit visa, nor how to deal with other realities of life beside the happy ending: and they had a very happy life together, with lots of children….

6. 1984: It took another 24 months to get the permission from the authorities to get married. In the history of Swiss diplomacy, my marriage file must be the thickest of all.  And so was the case in Vietnam. I was among the first five Vietnamese girls who were granted the permission to marry a foreigner by that time.



Some dates had a special meaning for me: my birthday, St-Valentine's Day, Christmas, New Year's Eve, Tet. All have their share of memories in my Cinderella Tale.

Geneva, 15 January 2012
 
Original Title in English : Back to Square One 
By Author: Anh Tho Andres

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