(It was quite a struggle for me to write this because I had to relive my mother's traumatic past. It has been nearly 3 years since I last saw her in person, thanks to the pandemic, which has worsened her health conditions. I will get to see her 1st week of April. I also hadn't written on this platform in a very long time. Forgot how to navigate the many functions -- old & new. I thank you for reading. Comments & feedback will be greatly appreciated.)
This was taken in 2016.
Nearly everything about me, whom I've become has been shaped by my seventy-nine years old mother -- who she was and what she hadexperienced. I think about her nearly every waking hour.
The lead up to Lunar New Year is the most difficult time of year for me, this year was even more so. For Vietnamese, the Lunar New Year, known as Tết, is Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year all rolled into one.
This was on my 1st trip back to Vietnam in 1992. My three siblings were barely out of their teens, which was framed and prominently hung in my parents' home.
On this same trip I got to meet most the cousins who were not yet born when I left in 1979.
It's the one family gathering that I've been dreaming of for forty-three years. That's how long I've been separated from my family -- father, mother, and three younger siblings, one brother and two sisters. Life in America is as such that you have money, but not the time, or time, but not money. You rarely have both.
I now regret for not having set everything aside to be there with my family during Lunar New Year, especially my mother, at least once. I visited Vietnam last in 2019 and already noticed her rapidly declining health, including what seemed like onset dementia. I had planned to be there again in 2020, but only to have the coronavirus get in the way.
I'm the oldest, next is my brother, 2 years younger, my mother, my youngest sister, then the 2nd sister.
These two photos were taken on my last trip in 2019.
As the pandemic drags on, my mother's health, as well as my father's, seems to have worsened. I shared my fear in an op-ed written for work on the state's vaccination campaign. In recent weeks, my youngest sister relays that my mother has begun to speak of me as if I were there. She speaks of me being in her dreams nightly. As for my father, I had to rush back to Vietnam in 2019 because he had suffered a series of minor strokes. They, like the elderly everywhere, have suffered the most in the last two years. I had hoped to visit them again in the fall of 2020 when I would have finished with the 2020 Census, which was scheduled to end in July, 2020.
With my youngest sister and my mother in December 2009, right before the three busiest months of the US decennial census, which takes place on April 1 during the tenth year of the decade. I also took a similar trip in 1999, and did likewise in 2019. I worked on the 2000, 2010 and 2020 Census.
Thích Nhất Hạnh's passing on January 22, ten days before the beginning of Tết, sent me on an unexpected learning journey. My knowledge of him and his teachings were cursory at best, so I decided to learn more about him, reading and watching online copiously, in both English and Vietnamese. (Will share my reflection on what I've learned about him in another post.)
For the next few days I read everything about Thích Nhất Hạnh I could find on the internet. The more I read, the more I wanted to know about him and his life. One particular video, a 26-minute long talk at Plum Village on 2014 Lunar New Year's eve. The talk itself is essentially about ancestral worship practices that all Vietnamese observe during Lunar New Year, but the words he used hit me hard, had me in tears as I watched it.
He begins the talk with "As we all know, trees have roots, rivers have headwaters (the original source), and people have ancestors... a person who's not connected to his roots, cut off from his ancestors cannot be a happy person." Oh, how much I wish I could be with family, my mother as I was listening to these words.
Here's Thích Nhất Hạnh speaking to his Vietnamese follower about the meaning of reconnecting
with one's roots during Lunar New Year, and acknowledging one's mother. I'd love to find out if this video has English captions. It has me crying every time I watch it.
Who I am is firmly rooted in how I was brought up. My Vietnamese roots are not in question, but according to Thích Nhất Hạnh, Tết is an occasion to reconnect with and reaffirm one's roots, pay respect to one's ancestors, and acknowledge one's mother. Mother, the person who gives you life, to him is the source of your happiness. Happiness is not an individual's attainment independent of or without your mother also being happy. If your mother is suffering, so are you, and vice versa.
I then learned that the most emotionally-charged Vietnamese ballad about a mother's love was based on a poem written by no other than Thích Nhất Hạnh himself not long after he had lost his own mother. It's a song enumerating the many ways a mother shows her love for her child. It also urges those whose mothers are still alive to acknowledge their mothers for her love and suffering.
Two young Buddhist monks singing "A Rose for Your Lapel/Pocket".
Here he is providing the back story and meaning of his prose poem that was set to music, and went on to become the most powerful ballad about a mother's love in Vietnamese popular culture. Would love to see English (and other languages) caption for this interview, and the song.
"Mother is a boundless source of love, an inexhaustible treasure. But unfortunately, we sometimes forget. A mother is the most beautiful gift life offers us. Those of you who still have your mother near, please don't wait for her death to say, "My God, I have lived beside my mother all these years without ever looking closely at her." Read more here.
A Chinese Merchant's DaughterRealizing that my mother would soon be suffering from dementia due her frequent memory lapses quite early on, I decided to find out more about her childhood and upbringing every time I visited Vietnam the past few years. She had also experienced quite a few traumatic episodes in her life, including my leaving Vietnam without her knowing. Based on my own recollections from as early as five years old and the many conversations I've had with her older sister, below is a snapshot of who my mother was, up until now.
Born into an ethnic Chinese merchant family in a predominantly ethnic Khmer/Cambodian Mekong town in Kiên Giang Province, my mother is Teochew on her father's side and Hainanese on her mother's side. In southern Vietnam, more so in the Mekong Delta region, certain privileges were (still are) afforded ethnic Chinese regardless of wealth. Up to 80% of privately-owned business and enterprises were in the hand of the Chinese even though they made up less than 6% of an estimated forty five million people that made up South Vietnam in 1970. Chinese ethnicity has been a class onto itself.
One of only two photos I have of my maternal grandparents. Taken on my 1st trip back in 1992. My first sister standing over my grandmother. My father standing behind my grandfather. Aunt, my mother's older sister and her husband.
My aunt is in much better shape despite being two years older than my mother. This was taken in 2019.
My mother's father -- among the many aunts and uncles -- owned a lumberyard and sawmill, then later on a fleet of intercity buses and freight hauling trucks.
When she was thirteen years old, her mother, my maternal grandmother, answered her "calling," entered a Buddhist monastery, heaving behind two teenage daughters and a six years old son. My mother, together with her older sister and their brother were brought up by a nanny after that.
My grandmother eventually became a well-respected and influential religious figure, but she always seemed to convey a sense of guilt for having abandoned her three children. A calling to be become a devout Buddhist may have been the result, but from what I had gathered, my grandmother suffered from the hardship of being a daughter-in-law as well as a series of miscarriages. Walking out on her family was perhaps the only solution to end her own suffering, and Buddhism offered her refuge.
My maternal grandmother also suffered much in her life until she found refuge in Buddhism.
My grandmother was the reason I chose to study social work and to become a community organizer, taking a vow of poverty working in the nonprofit sector.
My mother's older sister some years later also walked out on her younger sister, my mother, and her little brother. My uncle, whom I adored, was tragically killed in an automobile accident when he just turned eighteen. My grandfather was behind the steering wheel. I was also on that bus, which nearly killed my youngest sister. We were on a our way to a holy site to celebrate the Buddha's birthday.
Opposite Sides of the Delta
The Chinese community in Vietnam, like in neighboring Southeast Asian countries, was (is still to a large degree) quite insular, having their own schools and hospitals, whose members stick together for protection and financial support. Most towns, big and small, have areas akin to Chinatown with rows of storefronts comprise of Chinese-owned businesses.
My mother attended Chinese primary school, taught by Taiwanese teachers. She was a tomboy, excelling in basketball and sharpshooting, and had a knack for singing. Her love for popular Vietnamese ballads was what drew her to my father who was at that time working for my maternal grandfather as a clerk and accountant.
The oft-told story was that my father would sit outside on the balcony of his apartment above the sawmill drumming his guitar, playing those very sappy ballads that my mother couldn't get enough of. The dashing young man with quick wit and loud laughter had stolen the boss's daughter's heart. They were married soon afterwards.
This was taken in 2012 when both them were still in very good health.
My parents, though both native to the Mekong Delta, came from opposite sides of the southern Vietnam, geographically and culturally. He came from a large land-owning family in An Giang Province, along the Mekong River bank; whereas she came from a Chinese merchant family in the coastal Kiên Giang Province -- freshwater met saltwater literally.
Soon after my parents were married, like all young men who graduated high school at the time, my father was called up to attend Thủ Đức Military Academy/Trường Sĩ Quan Trừ bị Thủ Đức, joining the Signal Corps. My mother remained with her family while my father was at the academy for two years.
Upon graduation, with the rank of lieutenant, my father was assigned to Tân Châu, a county-level town on the Mekong River bordering Cambodia, not far from where he came from and where I was born. His job was essentially to monitor radio communications among undercover communist guerillas, particularly the to and fro traffic between Vietnam and Cambodia.
From my earliest recollections, things were not all well with our family, especially for my mother. She was not prepared for the role of a homemaker, and particularly a subserviently daughter-in-law.
During that period in the former South Vietnam or Republic of Vietnam, men with governmental power, especially military rank, were either corrupt, enriching themselves and their family or allowing themselves to be wined and dined. My father was the latter. Every week he was either feted by someone who were trying to curry favor with him or they showed up at our house with all kinds of delicacies and treats for my mother and me. My mother often had to cook elaborate meals for my father and his "friends," which she was not good at nor too happy about it.
Instead of being corrupt, bringing money home, my father spent most of his earnings on treating others. We were poor compared to my father's colleagues, a point of contention that often led to arguments between my parents.
Another aspect of life in wartime, in that society was extramarital affairs that most men in power seemed to engage in, and my father was no exception. An ugly byproduct, which often involved violence, called đánh ghen, which is literally translated as "jealousy fight". These jealousy fights often were carried out by goons hired by the "official" or 1st wife of the philandering husband warning the mistress to stay away from her husband. One horrendous act often took place was the use of battery acid thrown in the mistress' face, causing disfigurement, which led to suicide.
My father was known to have been carrying on with another woman and may have had a child or two with her. This woman also happened to own a bar frequented by men of power in town. Seemed my mother may have confronted this woman on more than one occasion. One night someone came to our house to tell my mother that my father was meeting up with this woman at so and so place. In a jealous rage, my mother asked a neighbor to watch after my brother and me, while she set out to catch my father "in the act with this woman".
It was a set up. In a dark alley on the way to said location, my mother was slashed in the back with a kitchen knife. Luckily the cut was not deep enough to cause life-threatening damage and that the hospital was nearby where passerby brought her quickly to get stitched up. The hospital knew who my father was and called for him. She came home the next day with a six-inch gash on her back, near the should blade and a blood-soaked blouse that she kept to remind my father for over ten years, until it was eaten up by termites.
To atone for his misdeed, my father resigned from his post and requested a transfer to the Mekong Delta regional military headquarters in Cần Thơ, known as the Fourth Corps where he stationed until the Fall of Saigon in 1975. My mother decided to move back to the house where she grew up in, now with the Buddhist temple her mother had founded next door. By the this time I had a second sibling, a sister.
The house my mother grew up in is the left with my grandmother's Buddhist temple to the right. I spent part of my childhood eating meat and fish for lunch, then strict vegetarian meals for dinner in the temple next door.
We visited my father at his new post a few times, six grueling hours on woeful public transportation. I remember my mother struggling with three young children in tow -- no baby stroller, no suitcases with wheels. It was sheer superhuman strength called maternal instincts and a mother's love. She gave up on him, grumbling that she no longer cared if he took up with another woman.
An Outspoken Outsider
While my father was stationed in Cần Thơ, we, by now four of us -- two boys and two girls -- would go visit my paternal grandparents on a regular basis, especially during the summer break. These times were the best part of my childhood -- fishing, catching crickets and dragonflies, picking and steaming fresh corn, fresh off the field sugarcane, fresh fruit everywhere, and best of all, lots and lots of cousins to play with.
My father came from a family of ten children, and he was the fifth child. Furthermore, his own father, my paternal grandfather was the youngest of eleven children. I was related to nearly everyone in a thirty-kilometer radius. The two villages bordering Cambodia, Vĩnh Xương and Vĩnh Hòa, were essentially the ancestral land of the Lê Clan. Everyone knew who he was.
My father and his two younger brothers. All three served in South Vietnamese military, and all three spent a few years each in hard labor camp for being on the losing side of the Vietnam War.
The respect and deference conferred upon the Lê Clan were primarily due to my grandfather's status among the HòaHảo followers and that he was a mandarin scholar, one who could read and write Nôm, the pre-Latinized Vietnamese language based on Chinese characters -- Sino-Vietnamese. He was self taught.
My mother was a novelty of sort because she was the only Chinese, and not native to An Giang province, among the Lês. Even though native to Vietnam, the 4th generation born in Vietnam, she was treated to some degree like a foreigner. Vietnamese and Chinese often see each other through stereotypical lens, even today, despite how much we have in common, more than we want to admit.
My paternal grandfather never seemed to warm up to my mother. It was mostly had to do with my mother's uncharacteristically outgoing personality, unlike his other daughters-in-law. Perhaps it was also she could read Chinese characters better than he, which could minizine the mystic of his being a mandarin scholar. He was also a very strict and fastidious man, particularly towards the rambunctious grandchildren. I don't recall he ever talked to me, or nearly all of my cousins, for that matter. He epitomized the patriarchal head of a family.
In addition to being the birthplace of HòaHảo, Tân Châu was (and still is), its stronghold, but up to the Fall of Saigon in 1975, it was akin to state religion in the area. One of its unique characteristics was the reading of its founder's purported teaching broadcast via loudspeakers from a steeple-like structure. It was similar to the Islamic call to prayers. The readings had a sing-song quality to it.
For whatever reason, my mother took to it like a duck to water despite not knowing anything about HòaHảo or its founder's, Huỳnh Phú Sổ, teachings. Eventually my mother became the voice of these readings over the town's loudspeakers to the dismay and disapproval of her father-in-law. She was told that it was unbecoming for a Lê's daughter-in-law, particularly one that was not a HòaHảo follower. However, my grandfather conveyed his disapproval indirectly through his wife, my paternal grandmother, who adored my mother.
My paternal grandmother (center) taken on my 1992 or 1993 trip. She adored my mother.
It's incredible that she gave birth to ten (10!) children.
In many ways, I've taken after my mother, who learned how to live among strangers, adapted and blended in but never lost sight of who she truly was.
The Fighting Stopped, But Not the Suffering
From 1964 to 1975, my mother was essentially a single mom, bringing the four of us up while my father serving in the South Vietnamese military's Signal Corps. Other than being the wife and children of a relatively influential man, we benefited very little from my father's position. We were recognized, received more attentive care from the local hospital's staff. My father's friends and colleagues came bearing gifts and treats whenever they came over. That was pretty much it.
The war, and its end particularly, wasn't kind to my mother. She gave birth to her last child, a son, in 1976, right after the end of the Vietnam War, during the height of privation and persecution against individuals where were part of the old regime and their families. Birthing complications occurred, a C-section was performed, but it was done without general anesthetics or sedatives. All competent and trained medical staff in former South Vietnam were either sent off hard labor camps, had escaped from Vietnam or had been relieved of their duties. Those who took over these duties were mostly former National Liberation Front (communist guerillas in the the south) medics who performed meatball surgeries in the jungle during the war.
It was either the hospital didn't have anesthetics or sedatives to offer or that because my mother was the wife of a former regime's officer. We suspected it was both.
An aunt who accompanied my mother to the hospital reported that my mother was screaming throughout the procedure and afterwards, begging for pain killers to no avail. The poorly performed surgery led to infections, requiring reopening of the not-yet healed wound to remove the abscess.
This child whose birth caused her so much pain and suffering did not live to see his first birthday. My youngest brother needlessly died of hemorrhagic fever thanks to lack of medical care and medicines.
A few years later, during the height of the war between Vietnam and the Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodia, I was sent off to join my father on a boat building venture, which was essentially a clandestine operation to smuggle refugees out of Vietnam by boat. I would haver been drafted to fight in Cambodia, had I stayed.
To avoid arousing suspicion, risking imprisonment, the boat my father and his brothers were constructing was masqueraded as a river-going long-distance transport. Family members and relatives those involved were kept in the dark. No loose lips.
In May 1979, I, along with 303 others, left Vietnam on a moonless night, aiming for the South China Sea full throttle, not know whether we would make it the other side. Thankfully we did, but with the help of an oil tanker belong to the Getty Oil Company of California.
My mother did not know her son had escaped from Vietnam, whether he was still alive, not until 12 years later. I was told that she cried nearly everyday for all that time I was gone, often dreaming that I had come back to her... alive.
She survived the war and its aftermath, but with a six-inch gash on her back, a mutilated mutilated tummy, and perhaps a permanently damaged her mind that has led to dementia and a whole host of other chronic conditions.
A Free Spirit
It seemed my mother never lost her tomboy's spirit and personality. She was goofy, silly, outspoken, stubborn, prone to start singing along to songs being played on the radio or audio cassette players.
This was (still is) my mother's favorite album by Thanh Tuyền, and it has also become my favorite. I have had the same recording, leased in the late 1960s.
I listen to these songs nearly everyday for the past 40 years.
The house where my other shared with her older sister and their baby brother was festooned with posters of popular Vietnamese pop singers at the time. My uncle, who was sixteen, seventeen at the time, like teenagers everywhere, was obsessed with the pop idols. I was only seven or eight, but I knew all these singers by names -- Băng Châu, Duy Khánh, Giao Linh, Nhật Trường, Phương Hồng Quế, among others. My uncle had also bought a reel-to-reel player, allowing my mother to sing along to the music playing. Her favorite was, and remains to this day, is Thanh Tuyền, who has also become my fave. Thanh Tuyền, at 74, still sounds like she was in those days, even more seductive, I must say.
And here is Thanh Tuyền last year, aged 74... an unbelievable set of pipes!
I may not have been born a ham, but I certainly began rehearsing to be one as early as four or five years. By that time television broadcast in South Vietnam had begun to show Vietnamese soap operas and southern musical theater, a variation of Chinese opera. There was also radio and theater troupes that played on makeship stages in on Buddhist temple grounds outdoor markets at night, as well as soccer fields. I was hooked on their theatrics.
I was asked to entertain family members, acting out the characters I had seen or heard, often standing on tabletop. My maternal grandmother was most entertained by my antics, and I was happy to oblige.
The fondest memory I have of my mother showcasing her vocal chops was when the two of us alone working in the field on going to the market to sell our produce.
After 1975, to get away from the prying eyes of the new regime, we moved to an isolated newly created farmland quaintly called "new economic zone" in those days. The soil was not that fertile, swamped with mosquitos and infested with leeches, rats and snakes, but we had to survive. Barely. We eked out a living growing watermelons, bananas, sugarcane, chili peppers, squashes, sweet potatoes, catching fish and crabs, raising chickens and pigs.
Being the oldest, I had to help on the farm, often working along my mother's side from dusk to dawn. In those moments my mother would often sing out loud to pass the time and to forget the backbreaking work. During vegetable crops, she and I would get up at four, five in the morning to bring our crops, chickens and/or their eggs to the Sunday market to sell once twice a month.
Again, it was backbreaking work paddling a canoe to the market three hours away, often against strong currents. My mother would be singing the whole way to keep herself awake. I love those moments with her. They are still vivid in my mind.
I did want become an entertainer of sort, at least learn how to sing or act, but alas the war put a stop to a boy's dream. Not sure what would have become of me had I not left home at the age of fourteen. There are a many things about me that I attribute to my father -- a love for books and news, geopolitics and history, and a curiosity about the world.
In second grade my father would pick me up from school on his bicycle on his way home from work for lunch. We would stop by the local post office to pick up the newspapers and magazines that he subscribed. He would read the stories to me while waiting for my mother to make lunch. Then every evening after dinner he would tune into either Voice of America or the BBC on his shortwave radio, with me sitting in his lap. My earliest window to the world was the shortwave radio.
My father in 2019, trying to regain his strength and to stay fit after a series of mini strokes.
My father would often quiz me the names of capital of different countries around the world, their leaders' names and which continents those countries were on. We listened to the spectators' roar after Pelé scoring the first goal that led to Brazil winning the 1970 World Cup. And of course, I and all other boys around the world wanted to be Pelé, practicing his famous bicycle kick. Instead of a football, I had to make do with a dry coconut.
The biggest dream yet for a little boy in a small Vietnam's Mekong Delta was to become an astronaut, or phi hành gia in Vietnamese, thanks to the Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin's moon landing of the Apollo 11 in 1969 that my father and I were listening to on Voice of America. Of course I had no idea what becoming an astronaut would entail, but the shortwave radio shortened the distance between where I was and where NASA was.
I see both my mother and father in me as I get older, but who my mother was, what she went through and how she carried herself have shaped me into who I am today, more so than my father. Where I belong or do not belong, my identity of being neither here nor there -- Chinese and/or Vietnamese -- but seemingly both -- it's all my mother.
My father and his immediate younger brother. The strokes had caused his mouth to be crooked.
He has difficulty chewing ever since.
I love music, nearly everyday still listening to the same songs that my mother sang to me while we were working in the field or paddling our produce to the market at four am in the morning. I've learned to blend in, to find a place to be who I truly am for the past forty-three years. My mother has been my role model.
I last saw her in 2019 and had planned to see her again in August or September 2020 when I'd have done with the 2020 Census had it not been for the COVID-19 pandemic. My worst fear about her health may have come true the past two years, which I had written about. Her memory lapses presented themselves quite early on and I knew that it would be just a matter of time she would suffer from dementia.
In recent weeks my youngest sister has relayed that my mother would often say that she saw me in her dreams and that she would speak of me as if I were there in Vietnam. When we speak via Facebook, she'd often lose her train of thought, forgetting or repeating what she was saying.
I'll be seeing her for one week in April, all the time I can afford to take off. Tickets were a bit difficult to come by and the COVID-19 restrictions and guidance are still somewhat not entirely clear, but I can't wait. I need to see her as soon as I can, before she forgets who I am.
I came to America with the shirt, a 1979 Lunar New Year gift from my mother. The right father was taken a few days after I had arrived at the Singapore refugee camp, after having cheated death on the high seas. I will take that shirt back to Vietnam for my mother to see at the end of this month.