A few days after April 30, 1975, two uncles of mine from the North and both of whom I have never met came to our house in Saigon.
The uncle who came first was the youngest son my paternal grandmother. He worked as field laborer in a farm cooperative. Taller than average, a little bent, skinny and rather bony, with a slightly pained smile that oddly appeared to be permanently fixed on his face, my uncle spent his first night in the South in my room on the rooftop of the family townhouse. He went to bed early that night after telling me he will be up at the crack of dawn. I woke up before him. When he opened his eyes and sat up in his bed, I was already sitting on a little stool at the head of his bed with a breakfast tray. The tray held a cup of hot coffee still dripping down a cup-size filter, half a loaf of still warm bread, and a dinner plate containing two sunny side up fried eggs pre-sprinkled with salt and pepper. Perhaps the smell of fresh drip coffee did wake him up earlier than he planned to.
In any case, I sat there and watched him eat breakfast. As his sipped the coffee, and ate the French bread dipped in egg yolk, he leaned over to me and spoke softly, as if fearing that someone would overheard what he said: “This, this is heaven…” And when he was done eating, his placed his mouth real close to my ear and whispered softy, again, as if fearing that someone would hear what he said: “And why on Earth are you guys still here…?” And then he was up, and downstairs he went.
Uncle stayed with us about a week. He told us about the two years he spent chained inside a pen full of live pigs for the crime of being a landowner in 1954, but he didn’t have a lot to say, and he didn’t praise or condemn anyone. All he asked was for one of us to take him to this place and that place. And then, after about a week, he bid us good bye to go back to the North. He asked nothing from nobody, he ate whatever was placed on the dinner table, he marveled at oh how so good each and every dish was, and the entire family broke in tears silently when we saw him to the door for his trip back North. After he left, Mother told us the children privately that “Uncle will walk back North on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, hoping to find the bodies of his two sons who died there while making their way to the South…”
My second uncle, the older brother of the first uncle who came, arrived at our door two days later. He never told us what he did, but he seemed to be a very high ranking official. He came to our house in a chauffeured command car with three or four bodyguards. These bodyguards wore the green military uniform and the pith helmets. Some have AK-47 while others have holstered side pistols. Standing in the middle of the living room, in dark pants and a white short sleeve shirt, my uncle looked very well fed, imposing, and awe inspiring. He grasped my father in his arms and gave him a very long bear hug, as if to make up for the decades when the brothers did not get to see each other and suddenly he let out a short, audible, and tearful sob. But he controlled himself very quickly, and turning toward us, the children who were already assembled around him, he intoned in a most authoritative and serious manner: “ Tell me who is who, your names, your field of study, your job, and where do you work”. Just like that. And then he sat down on a big chair, and chatted alone with Father until noon.
Just before he left, he called me out and gave an order: “Get me a good bicycle, and do it quickly. I will come back in two days to pick it up.” And so I went with another brother to a bicycle shop on Le Thanh Ton street, near the Ben Thanh Market, and ordered a custom bicycle. I told the bicycle shop owner to select the most robust and the longest lasting components and that money is no object – just do it and we will pay.
My second uncle did come back precisely two days later. He lifted the newly assembled bicycle, squeezed the tires, inspected expertly every component, and then issued his solemn orders for part replacements. The frame must be exchanged, because it wasn’t true “dura”, whatever it was. The disk was not of the highest quality because it wasn’t made in France, so it too had to be replaced. And the tires and the rubber brake pads of course they all have to go, for they were made in the extremely reactionary country of Taiwan rather than in France, or even Italy for that matter. My brother and I got the parts replaced as specified in a day. We leaned the “new” new bicycle against the wall in a corner of the living room where it waited for my uncle to come and pick it up. One afternoon after I returned from a trip into the city, I saw that the bicycle had disappeared. I asked Mother and she said: “No, your uncle did not come to pick it up; his bodyguards did, and they took it away in their command car…”
We are now in the last days of April 2012, thirty seven years after April 30, 1975. My two uncles passed away a long time ago. But what I heard and learned from them through the days and months and years past still haunt me, still provide me a sense of direction in life, and still change the way I think about nothing and everything.
From my uncle the big official from the North, I gained a visceral understand of what absolute power is about, what is greed that is so unbounded that the greedy – a person accustomed to be always the one sitting at the head of the table and the first to be served – doesn’t even realized that his greed has long ago crossed any limits decreed by common decency, and above all, the absolute ability of absolute power to erase all traces of humanity from the men who hold it. And, from my interactions with him and regardless of what I might see right in front of me, I realized and firmly believed that this world never belonged, and will never belong to those who hold absolute power, and that whatever they thought they have taken through power and violence ultimately will turn out to be mere illusions. This is because they have never lived, even for a second, in the heart of the people around them, be these people their children or relatives.
Face to face with people such as my uncle the big official, I believe that we the people of this Earth have only one choice: to resist them to the bitter end; to do everything we can to expose their cruel and inhumane calculations; to let everyone see the shameless lies hiding behind flowery words that promised independence, freedom, and happiness; and to fight on until their ability to establish their totalitarian regimes has been utterly neutralized, destroyed, and erased forever from the face of this Earth. So that each and every people from anywhere may live free, free to develop their abilities, free to pursue their dreams of happiness within a just society, a society that is of the people, by the people, and for the people, as a great man had said long ago.
From my uncle the field laborer, I have learned the way to live when everything that is sacred and dear to you – be it your honor, your freedom, your family, your life, or your belongings – one day may all be taken away from you by some irresistible and absolute external powers. That way, my uncle’s way, is very simple: keep your eyes open, see everything, forget nothing, stay alive to bear witness, quietly accept and just as quietly thank and try to repay all those who are kind to you, and above all, listen to your heart and just follow it to wherever it wants to go.
During some of those very hard winter nights in a strange country, when the snow on the ground was thick and the cold, unbearable, I often remembered and thought and sometimes dreamed about my uncle. In my mind’s eye, I saw an image of him as a bent old man leaning on a walking stick and making his way hurriedly against the flow, going up the Ho Chi Minh Trail searching for the bodies of his sons. At times, I also saw superimposed on this image of him, just like a dancing shadow, a second image: my uncle as a tragically heroic free man, a man at peace with himself, precisely because he was a man who simply followed his heart, the heart of a father who forever loved and longed for his lost sons.
I cherished these two images even when at times they obsessed and tortured me. Yet, in mind, I felt for a very long time that there was something unsettling, something restless, and something painful in the images I had of my uncle.
Many nights I stayed awake and asked myself this question. If every lowly and voiceless peasant – like my uncle – in a country where peasants make up 80% of the population decides to live just like him – notwithstanding that to do so isn’t that easy – then what would happen to that country, which is my country, Vietnam? Would Vietnam become a soul-less corpse doomed to merely exist and float though the long and dark nights of history as a country under a totalitarian regime internally, and as a mere nation-slave to a foreign country externally?
In history I found the answer.
Vietnam, my country, and countless other countries, have successfully escaped from these long and dark nights of history, and have thrived through shiny periods of great independence, freedom, and self-determination. All these countries could do so because they all have peasants in simple cotton cloth, children who lost their parents, mothers who lost their husbands and children through unbearable injustice, and people from the lowest rungs of society who were subjected daily to the most demeaning indignities at the hands of the security forces, all of them humble people who in one magical day decided to listen to a different call from their heart.
And this is the call they heard: do not be afraid, rise up and reclaim your right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for your loved ones and yourselves, rise up and reclaim the country as your own. Like immense and surging rivers breaking out of their banks, these people swept away the foreigners who lorded on them back to where they came from, punished the totalitarians that sold their country for personal gains, and most magically, turned despair into hope.
In the last days of April 2012, it seems that something is stirring in Vietnam, my country. Somewhere up North, many peasants who lost their lands and their houses in massive and illegal land grabs, many people who lost their fathers and their mothers and their children through random acts of incredible and senseless violence by the security forces, have taken to the fields or the streets. It is as if they are on the move and acting in response to a new and different call from their heart. And I believe that, this time around, they might just be able to go all the way to the end of the long road their hearts have chosen for them. All you need is a heart…
All you need is a heart, and the world shall be remade. It is this guiding principle, and the calls to arms, and the memories, and the obsessions, and the dreams, and the insights that came with it, that are parts and parcels of the mark that April 30, 1975 has left on me.
April 28, 2012