The preparation for the trip back to Vietnam was almost as unsettling as the trip itself. Mom didn’t want me to go because she was afraid something might happen to me. I had planned to go with several other people, including a Vietnamese guy who goes by his Catholic name of ‘Matthew,’ and I had assured mom that Matthew would look after me since he had gone back several times already. Father had demanded that I not go because he didn’t want me to be associating with the communists in any way. I told father that I was going back to see the old neighborhood and that any association with the communists would be completely coincidental.
There was supposed to be five of us going on that trip. In the weeks prior to the trip, three of the people who were going to go had changed their minds. None of them were Vietnamese though, and I hadn’t been relying on any of them to guide me through my first trip back. As long as Matthew was going, I didn’t care who wasn’t going, and I was all set to go until I got a phone call from Matthew a week before our scheduled departure.
“Um, Al,” Matthew hesitated. “No one else wants to go on this trip.”
I told him it didn’t matter. I told him as long as he was going, the trip was still on.
Matthew didn’t answer right away, and when he did, I couldn’t believe what he was saying. “Well, Al. I don’t want to go either,” Matthew mumbled as he finally coughed up his admission.
When he hit me with that bit of news, I had to take a moment to regain my composure, and when I was finally able to speak calmly, I gave Matthew a list of why I had been depending on him to go. He’s older than I am, he speaks Vietnamese much better than I do, he’s familiar with the streets of Saigon, and he could help me if I were to get into any kind of trouble. In the end, I failed to persuade Matthew, and he hung up with the weakest of apologies.
For the next few days, I debated whether I should proceed with the trip and go by myself. I’d heard about stories about people like myself who had gone back to Vietnam and had found themselves victims of theft and extortion. Furthermore, I have to admit I was also reluctant to go alone because of a peculiar response I was getting from my coworkers at work.
In the weeks leading up to the trip, I was telling several people at work that I couldn’t wait for my vacation to start. Whenever I mentioned that I had two weeks of vacation coming up, my coworkers would ask me where I was going. If I had said something like, “I’m going to Hawaii” ‘I’m sure they would have said something like, “Oh, enjoy your trip,” but their response when I told them of my true destination was far removed from wishing me a pleasant journey. Whenever I told anyone I was going to Vietnam, their voice always registered an alarm as they cautioned me, “Oh, be careful!”
Despite those unexpected caveats, I decided to go ahead with the trip and go by myself. Mom definitely didn’t want me to go when she learned that Matthew had abandoned ship. She told me I was taking a risk. I told her she might be right but quickly added that the risk was well worth taking. I had been waiting for so long to walk through the open field at the entrance to our old neighborhood. I was yearning to touch the trunk of the mango tree that stood in front of the old house. Although I knew my pet cricket would be long gone by now, I did want to step inside the house and perhaps hear the chirping of another cricket to remind myself of the delight I’d felt when I heard the chirping of the crickets I’d kept as pets. With all those hopes packed into my mind and with a fair amount of clothing packed into my suitcases, I flew back to Vietnam.
As the plane was circling over Saigon, a peculiar memory surfaced in my mind. The last time I was in a plane flying over Saigon, our plane was rising and falling as it fled from the home of my birth. The plane’s unrelenting upward jolts and downward drops had made me vomit uncontrollably. The memory of that previous flight over the skies of Saigon prompted me into a palpitating fear. What would I find down there once the plane had landed? Would it be anything as tumultuous as what I remember from the night we fled from Vietnam decades ago? Was I a bit foolhardy in deciding to make this trip alone? I thought about all those questions and told myself I was worrying needlessly. The flight, this flight that was now flying over a peacetime Vietnam, was going smoothly, and with an effort that was hardly effortless, I told myself that the past was the past and that the present was the present and that this present would not be anything as calamitous as that unnerving past.
As our plane began its descent into Tan Son Nhat Airport, I could see some of the buildings and houses below me with a distinctive clarity. Their appearances were sharply different from what I had become accustomed to in America. The buildings had a gray, unkempt look to them. A lot of the buildings were tightly packed together to make a labyrinth out of the narrow streets, and the houses were not so well hidden beneath their roofing of aluminum sheets. The collective sight below gave off a dingy, dilapidated look. I took another look at those houses hiding beneath those aluminum roofs and was thankful I’d never had to, and would never have to, live in such a house.
The plane landed, and when the wheels touched the runway, a surprising thought entered my mind. I’m home, I thought, and that was when I began to wonder where my home truly was. I had left my home in America to come to Vietnam, but how could Vietnam also be my home if I had just left my home in America to come to Vietnam?
Everyone walked off the plane, down the stairs, and into the sluggish night. I tugged at my shirt collar in my attempt to adjust to the moist, tropical heat then followed the crowd into the Customs area that reminded me of an unfinished basement in any house in the states. Would the authorities demand any extra “payments” from me, I wondered? If they did, how much of a bribe was I supposed to fork over to them? Mom had told me that five dollars would get me through the Customs checkpoint without any hassles. Five dollars was five dollars too much as far as I was concerned. Play it by ear, I told myself, and to my credit, that’s exactly what I did.
Luckily for me, I got through Customs without any undue requests from the authorities. I got my bags and walked out into the parking lot where I came face to face with a hoard of people who were waiting for us new arrivals.
I had never met Aunt Duc and her family before that first trip back to Vietnam. Once mom had learned that Matthew wouldn’t be coming with me, she kept insisting that I stay with Aunt Duc. I felt it would have been awkward for me to stay with a family I’d never met before for an entire week, even if that family was a part of our extended family. I wanted to check into a hotel then make a few perfunctory visits to Aunt Duc’s house to pay my respects. Mom and I debated this back and forth, and by the time I had finished packing my suitcases, I thought I had won the debate.
There was a man standing outside the Arrivals area with a sign that read, “Seymour, Luc Al.” I was concerned that the hotel I had contacted had not received my request to send a porter out to the airport to meet me. The sight of that sign allowed me to relax a bit. I had been worried someone would run off with my suitcases once I’d stepped outside of the Arrivals area. Now that I had the hotel porter to escort me to the hotel, I felt that my bags, as well as myself, could at least make it to the hotel safe and sound. I waved to the porter and started walking toward him when I heard someone call out, “Al! Al!” I turned around and saw a man holding up a sign that read, “Seymour, Luc Al.”
That man was wearing an enormous grin. His sign had my last name, middle name, and first name. He definitely knew who I was. I looked at him and tried to recognize him but couldn’t. He walked toward me, and after he’d stopped right in front of me, I still couldn’t figure out who he was. All I could do was stand there and wait for him to introduce himself.
Chau Al, hah?” he asked me.
“Da,” I told him, confirming that, yes, I was his nephew.
The confusion on my face must have been too apparent. “Cau Tao na,” he laughed as he slapped me on the back.
This is Uncle Tao? I hadn’t seen him since we moved from Qui Nhon to Saigon when I was six years old. I had planned to go see him along with the rest of my relatives after I’d gotten settled in my hotel. What was he doing here at the airport?
Mom, being a mom, had made sure there would be someone in Vietnam to constantly look after me. Against my wishes, she had called ahead and told Uncle Tao to pick me up at the airport.
Now I had a decision to make. Should I go with the hotel porter or should I go with Uncle Tao? It took me only a moment to arrive at my decision since my obligation to familial duty had already made my decision for me. If I had gone to the hotel, I would have inflicted a serious insult upon my relatives. So I put on a cordial face and gave the porter $15, the cost of one night’s stay at the hotel, and told him I would be going to Aunt Duc’s house.
On the way to my aunt’s house, I asked Uncle Tao how he was able to recognize me after more than twenty years. He said he just followed mom’s description of me. He looked for a tall, skinny guy in his twenties. I’d never thought of myself as that tall, but in comparison to most of the people in Vietnam, I could see how Uncle Tao didn’t have any trouble picking me out of a crowd.
As Uncle Tao and I continued our conversation, I became thankful I was still at least conversant in Vietnamese because he, like the rest of the relatives whom I would later meet, didn’t speak any English at all.
Uncle Tao and I kept up our conversation during the taxi ride and were so busy chatting that I didn’t have much of a chance to notice any of the city. When our conversation had come to a pause, I took a look outside the window and began to absorb the city I had left so abruptly 22 years earlier. The first thing that grabbed at my attention, as it would anyone who has a natural fear of getting into car accidents, was the traffic. Theoretically, Vietnam’s traffic laws dictate that everyone drive on the right side of the road. Realistically though, everyone in Vietnam just drives anywhere they damn well please.
Back in Kansas, there had been a few instances in which I was driving along on a highway and had found myself stuck behind a slow car. To get around that car, I had to swing out left into the lane of oncoming traffic, speed up past that slow-moving car, then swing back into the right lane before an oncoming car could catch me head on. Once or twice, an oncoming car did come at me too fast, and the precarious situation did get a bit too close for comfort. In those instances, I had to quickly get back into the right lane before the oncoming car could catch me. My heart would always skip a beat or two whenever that happened, and my heart was skipping a lot of beats on that drive to Aunt Duc’s house.
Our Saigon taxi wasn’t going as fast as it would have been if we had been cruising down a Kansas highway, but I was still suffering a lot of anxiety attacks during that taxi ride. Every time I looked out the front windshield, we were in the opposing left lane, getting around another car or swerving around another person who was pedaling a cyclo or maneuvering a scooter. The oncoming cars would honk. Our taxi would speed up past that obstacle, swerve back into the right lane, let that oncoming car pass by, then veer back into the left lane to repeat the process over again.
Despite my numerous visits back to Vietnam since that first visit, I still haven’t gotten used to the Saigon traffic. On the contrary, my fear of getting into an accident has risen because the number of cars in Saigon has risen. More and more people are moving into the city and, as more and more people are making more and more money, more and more people are shedding their bicycles and driving more and more cars.
During the moments when I was able to tear my fear-filled eyes away from the traffic, I took a closer look at Saigon. The narrow, dirty streets were cluttered with vendors, shoppers, motor scooters, refuse, food carts, bicycles, cyclos, open sewage drains, cars, and a whole lot of noise. Every time a scooter or a car wanted to get by someone or something, which was all the time, they would honk their horns and would keep honking until they had gotten around that someone or something. Unlike the traffic scene itself, I did eventually get used to the traffic noise. The cacophony from the traffic was so continuous that it soon became a constant background noise that ceased to be noisy.
About twenty minutes after Uncle Tao and I had stepped into the taxi, we turned left into a narrow alleyway, squeezed in between the walls of two gray buildings, and stopped in front of Aunt Duc’s house. I got out of the taxi, took a look at the sea of concrete around me, then turned to face Aunt Duc’s house.
The house was one of those aluminum-roofed houses I had seen from the plane on our approach to the airport. It was cramped in between a horizontal stack of other concrete blockhouses, all of which looked as though they were in a permanent state of disrepair. As I stared at the house I would be living in for the coming week, I started to question if I shouldn’t have turned a blind eye to familial obligation and instead have gone to the hotel with that porter.
We stepped inside the house. Aunt Duc and one of her sons, Loc, introduced themselves to me. They showed me around the house, and while I was following them from room to room, I couldn’t help but notice how dark and gaunt my relatives were. Their appearance, as I would later learn from listening to the stories of their lives, was a testament to a lifetime of menial labor carried out under a harsh, glaring sun.
The house, like the majority of the houses in Saigon, had a makeshift appearance to it. There were three rooms on the bottom floor. There was the living room that also served as the dining room. There was the bedroom that held one wooden bed in which several of my relatives slept at night. Then there was the room in the back of the house that served as the kitchen, bathroom, and at one point years before my arrival, a pigpen.
As we were bringing my suitcases upstairs to where I would be sleeping, I tripped on one of the steps. When I looked down, I saw that a fragmented board on the step had come loose. The sight of that splintered board made me worry about the sturdiness of that particular step and, soon enough, the entire stairway itself.
The boards on the steps were so thin that they bent and creaked under my 145-pound weight. The steps themselves were also so narrow that I could only place not much more than half the length of my foot on any one step. Whenever I had to walk down the stairs, the descent was so awkward that I had to be careful as to not fall face-first down the stairs. After a couple of haphazard trips up and down the stairs in which I almost tripped, I found it was easier to walk down the stairs in a backwards kind of way. Instead of facing forward and away from the steps in a regular descent, I turned around and faced the steps while carefully walking down the stairs backwards.
When it came to bedtime, I slept on a mattress on the floor in the corner of the upstairs room. That room, like the rest of the house, could be depicted as a place that was halfway being built up or halfway being torn down. The paint on the walls had peeled away until there wasn’t any more paint to peel away. The electrical wires hung loose and lively from the ceilings and the walls. The wooden planks on the upstairs floor threatened to give me splinters if I’d been foolish enough to walk around barefoot. When it rained, the hefty, pelting raindrops would bombard the aluminum roofing with such an invasive staccato that the consequent noise made it nearly impossible to carry on a conversation up there.
After a few days at Aunt Duc’s house, I had managed to get settled in and was able to get comfortable with the house. I got used to using a squatting toilet, and I got used to bathing from a bucket, but I could not get used to my relatives waiting on me hand and foot. They were attentive to my needs, and I appreciated that, but their constant attention was sometimes too attentive. I didn’t want a glass of lemonade every time I turned around. I didn’t want the choicest piece of meat at the dinner table. Simply put, I didn’t want them to think of me as another stereotypical Viet Kieu.
Those of us who were born in Vietnam but who now live in another country are commonly referred to in Vietnam as Viet Kieu, or literally, “Arrogant Vietnamese.” These days, the term has evolved to become a simple term of description. Now, Viet Kieu has come to mean “Overseas Vietnamese” and is used as no more than a reference to those of us who have returned to Vietnam from our home overseas. There are times, however, when Viet Kieu is spoken with an unmistakable tone of disdain toward us expatriates. That disdain is sometimes uncalled for but, too often, it is more deserving than we’d care to admit. Many of us Viet Kieus have been deserving of that disdain because, as much as we’ve tried to hide it, we cannot deny the fact that we have a difficult time adjusting to a way of life to which we have become estranged and to which we find less than comfortable.
It’s a safe bet that a lot of us Viet Kieus experienced a culture shock when we discovered our birth country to be what it is, a Third World Country. We were flabbergasted at the crowded, jammed-packed city streets. The flies that swarmed all over the uncovered slabs of meat at the market made us think twice about enjoying our next meal. The trash that littered the streets and the odor from the open sewers made us gag as we tried to weave our way down a street that was devoid of any sidewalks but was chock full of pedestrians, cyclos, livestock, motor scooters, cars, more livestock, and bicycles. I’m pretty sure a lot of Viet Kieus felt that way because that was certainly how I was feeling during my first trip back to Vietnam.
And while I was able to somewhat hide from my relatives the discomfort I was having with the way of life that is their way of life, I wasn’t able to hide from myself an all-too-obvious fact when I finally ventured out to see my old house. It had been two days since my arrival in Saigon. I’d already asked Uncle Tao to take me to the old house, but he kept putting it off until he saw that I wouldn’t stop asking. He couldn’t understand why I was so intent on seeing the old house but eventually relented to take me there anyway.
Uncle Tao and I weaved our way out of the alleys that led out of Aunt Duc’s neighborhood then continued out onto the main road. He flagged down a taxi then gave the driver the address to my old house. When he mentioned the thriving market that was right outside my old neighborhood, the driver shook his head, and a surge of hope went through me. Just like the taxi drivers whom mom had flagged down 22 years earlier, this driver had shaken his head as soon as he’d heard that our house was next to that market place.
The taxi driver said the market was too busy and too crowded. He said he didn’t want to take us through there. Uncle Tao assured him he didn’t have to drive us through the market, that all he had to do was drop us off right outside the throngs of vendors and shoppers, and that arrangement appeased the driver enough to start the meter and tell us to get in.
Uncle Tao and I got in the back, and as we began the taxi ride to my old house, that surge of hope that had sparked up inside me was gaining in intensity. I began to hope, with a longing that I thought had dissipated by now, that if the old market was still there to instill a trepidation upon the taxi drivers, then maybe everything else from my childhood was also still there and waiting for my return.
While I was packing my bags and getting ready for this trip, I was reminding myself of that old adage, “You can never go home again.” I was well aware that as the years pass by, people change and places change. I told myself not to expect the old neighborhood to still be there. Yet, my penchant for nostalgia still held on to the hope that if my home had undergone any changes, then the changes would have been minor and unnoticeable.
We reached the market, and I smiled to myself before I even got out of the car. The market was at a high hustle and bustle just like it had been when I’d walked home from school decades earlier. I scooted around the shifting crowds of vendors and customers and scampered my way around the livestock and fruit stands as I followed Uncle Tao to my old house. We walked through some alleyways and sidewinded our way between a few buildings. I didn’t recognize those buildings and thought Uncle Tao was taking me on an alternate route to my house, but once we had escaped from those buildings, I asked my uncle when we would be reaching the big field that was at the entrance to the old neighborhood. Uncle tao pointed back to the buildings we’d just sidewinded our way out of and gave me the news. We had just come out of that big field, he said. That field is gone and has been gone for a long time, he told me too offhandedly before moving on.
I stood there, motionless, staring at the structures of brick and cement that had trespassed onto my memory. I wanted to drive in a bulldozer and raze those infestations from my sight, but all I could do was stand there and stare in disbelief.
I’m not sure how long I had been standing there before Uncle Tao called out to me, telling me to keep up with him so that he could tear me away from one disappointment and drag me over to another.
He told me to follow him. I complied, and we walked down the street that led up to my old house. I began to look up and down the street to see if I could recognize any of the neighborhood houses. None of them looked familiar. I looked for the trash dump that had stood near the entrance to the neighborhood, but even that eyesore was now nowhere in sight. We reached the end of the cul-de-sac. Uncle Tao pointed to a house. “Nha nay la nha cu,” he told me. I stood and stared at the house for a long, perplexing moment before I could recognize that the house was indeed my old house.
The house had been divided lengthwise into two. That division had thrown off my memory, but when I saw the bench that was still on the front porch, I began to recognize the rest of the house.
The bench that I had sat on while drinking my hot, morning coffee with Grandfather before the sleeping sun had peeled back the blanket of the night was still there. The bench wasn’t so much of a bench any more. It was more a pile of still-standing splinters, but it was still there. My eyes drifted from the bench over to the double doors and the window, and I allowed myself to drift back to a childhood spent running in and out of those doors and peering through the windows to take a look at our American visitors who spoke a foreign language that I thought I could never begin to comprehend much less saunter through like a lazy walk in the park.
The mango tree! The sudden reminder jolted me back to the present. Is it still here? I whipped around, expecting to see a mango tree that had grown to majestic heights since I had last stood under its sheltering shade, but when I turned around, all I saw were some scattered brushes. I asked Uncle Tao what had happened to the mango tree. He shook his head and said he didn’t know.
A voice called out to us from behind. Uncle Tao and I turned around to see the current resident of the house. She said she’d heard us talking and had come out to see if someone had come to pay her a visit. Uncle Tao informed her I used to live in the house and had come back to visit the old neighborhood. She asked me if I was a member of the Seymour family? I told her I was. She said she knew my Uncle Dat and asked me if I wanted to come in and take a look around. I quickly took her up on her offer but first had to ask her the question that had been pressing on my mind.
Where was the mango tree that had given me soft shade and many delicious mangos when I was a child, I asked her in my truncated Vietnamese vocabulary. She paused a moment to decipher my question, one that I’d wanted to ask using the specific words for “mango tree shade,” but had to cut short at “mango tree” because I couldn’t think of the word for “shade.”
Once she’d understood what I was asking, the new hostess of the house found my inquiry about a mango tree to be humorous and started laughing. She waved her hand at me as if she had found my question trivial. She said the mango tree had become too big and had been cut down years ago. I went along with her laugher and smiled while choking down on her severing news. She motioned for me to follow her into the house, and I quickly complied in my eagerness to get away from where my mango tree still should have been standing.
Surprisingly enough, the rooms at the front of the house had remained as they were when I left. All the rooms were smaller since the house had been divided into two. Otherwise, they didn’t look that much different. The checkered tile on the living room floor was still there. The walls I had bashed my head into while playing tag indoors were still there. Grandmother’s room hadn’t changed at all. The house looked the same until I reached the back.
The big, concrete water tank that was right outside my parents’ room was gone. I wanted to ask the woman about the water tank but couldn’t think of the word for “water tank” and had to resort to describing it as “the thing that contained the water.” She glanced at the spot where the tank used to sit and told me that the house now had indoor plumbing and that they had torn down the water tank several years earlier.
We continued to the back of the house. The bath room was still there as the room in which we would take only our baths. The separate toilet room was still in place as the toilet room, but the chicken coop that Grandfather had kept in the back was gone. I started to ask her about the chicken coop but then realized I didn’t know the Vietnamese word for “coop.” I tried to think of a synonym for “coop” and came up with “cages.” I opened my mouth to ask about the chicken cages but then realized I didn’t know the Vietnamese word for “cages” either. I shut my mouth and kept it shut. The tour down memory lane had become too frustrating. I thanked the woman for her time and went outside to tell Uncle Tao I was ready to leave.
Uncle Tao and I retraced our steps out of the neighborhood. As the two of us sidewinded our way out of the alleys where my open field used to be, I forced myself to accept what I had already known but had not wanted to admit to.
When I left Vietnam and came to Kansas as a boy, I felt like a fish out of water. Now that I was back in Vietnam, I felt like a fish who had sprouted legs and could walk on land but could no longer swim in the sea where he came from because he had allowed his fins to wither away. Before I had set foot back in Vietnam, I was already having trouble speaking Vietnamese, but I was having that trouble in America. It’s one thing to know something. It’s another thing to be forced into a full admission. I knew I wasn’t fluent in Vietnamese, but that realization had never been hammered home. Whenever I was speaking Vietnamese to my parents or a friend in Kansas, Oklahoma, or California, I could always switch back to English if I stumbled onto a word I didn’t know in Vietnamese. That fallback option, that bilingual safety net that I’d had in the states was no longer available. I was now in Vietnam, and my safety net was back there on the other side of the ocean.
Since the moment that I first set foot back in Vietnam, I’d found myself floundering my way through one remedial conversation after another. With each stumbling Vietnamese word that I tried to piece together, I was taking one more tumbling step toward the realization that the language barrier that I’d once had with English had undergone a complete reversal and that it was now time for me to admit to something I hadn’t wanted to admit to. Because I didn’t know the Vietnamese words for “shade” or “water tank” or “cages,” I finally had to admit to the serrated truth. Vietnamese, the natural language of my birth, had become my foreign language.