Ba Ria, my grandparents' hometown was in the 1950's a small transit town no one had ever heard of had it not been situated in a strategic
position between Saigon, the bustling capital of South Vietnam, and the seaside resort of Vung Tau. Buses loaded with passengers and
belongings that bulged from its backsides and rooftop made many daily trips between the two cities. Tilting heavily on one side or
another under its cumbersome load, they sputtered through the crowded streets of downtown Ba Ria. In the process, they generated a lot
of noise-helpers bang on the bus door to signal the driver to stop-and left a trail of diesel black smoke behind them. They frequently
made a ten-minute stop at the transportation center close to the market where they disgorged people, belongings, and at times live
poultry destined for sale at the local market. They took on new passengers before heading toward its final destination.
The ten-minute stop could, however, last up to half-an-hour depending upon the circumstances. In a land where rice and food had
always been plentiful and where peace had been present for sometime, the South Vietnamese tended to take it easy and to enjoy
life. They took their time and dragged their feet because there was no pressure to complete any task. Work although necessary
in life was never intended to be a goal in itself. Celebrations took precedent over other matters and people competed against
each other to throw parties to entertain their guests. And there were plenty of reasons to celebrate: weddings, engagements,
births, deaths, promotions, and new acquisitions besides the regular holidays. Time in this environment became "elastic" and
punctuality is not a recognized Vietnamese virtue.
The passengers who were left sitting in one hundred-degree heat without air conditioning got angry and demanded an explanation.
The driver's assistant while apologizing for the delay stated he was waiting for a few customers or a shipment that had not yet
arrived. He promised the bus would leave "soon". That remark was punctuated by either a big smile or a smirk. The Vietnamese
smiled frequently (1). Their smile, however, does not have any sarcastic meaning as elsewhere in the world. Intended to deflect
the attention away from any embarrassing situation, it sometimes contributed to inflame the anger and irritation of westerners
who perceived the inappropriate behavior as an insult. The Vietnamese smiled not only when they were happy, but also when they
were sad or ambivalent about something. They smiled because as straightforward people they could not fib very well and were often
short for words to explain their complex feelings. They smiled also when they were caught in an embarrassing situation. Unable to
produce an adequate explanation for what they had done right or wrong or in order to express the deep regret they felt, they just
awkwardly smiled. This is known as a "sorry-smile", a unique Vietnamese trait that had been misunderstood by westerners and
Vietnamese alike. On the other hand if they did not smile, they could become angry or answer in a blunt manner in order to protect
the deep emotions they experienced. For beneath this smile or bluntness ran a wealth of often complex if not contradictory feelings
My grandparents who moved to Vung Tau in the early 1940's bought a two-acre orchard planted with longan trees. My grandfather must
have passed away shortly right after. The orchard turned out to be a good investment for the future and stability of the family,
since my grandmother a housewife with at most an elementary education did not work. Women were not allowed to go to school in the
1920's and 1930's and without education they could not get a decent job. The orchard therefore provided the family with a steady
source of income although it was not big enough to feed a large family.
They also bought a townhouse with running water and electricity, which was rather uncommon in the countryside at the time. I still
remember that house which was located about a mile away from the orchard. It was the first of a row of seven one-story brick
houses. It was divided into three almost equal sections: a family room, a bedroom, and a kitchen area with a bathroom. The front
door opened directly into the family room that contained a hutch and a dining table as well as a five-foot tall altar made of
fine wood and encrusted with lacquered designs.
On top of the altar was the picture of a handsome man I wished I knew: my grandfather. He passed away before I had the chance
to meet him. On the side of the picture were two brass candleholders, an incense holder, a gong, and a brass plate with fruit
offerings. Once a week my grandmother brought bananas, mangoes, or any other fruit depending on the season, lit up a few incenses,
beat the gong a few times, and mumbled prayers after bowing many times in front of the picture. I understood that this was
"ancestor worship" through which the living conveyed their respects and debt to the deceased and kept the relatives' soul happy in
the other world (ben kia the gioi). In return the appeased soul would protect the family from disaster or unhappy circumstances.
If a soul was not cared for properly through that worship, it could become an angry ghost and hurt the family.
The whole family slept in the middle room on three large dark-brown large divans about seven feet long by five feet wide each.
No mattress was used. We slept on the hard wooden surface that remained cool therefore very inviting in the hot summer weather
but definitely cold and unfriendly during winter. At night each person was required to spread his/her mat out and hang up his/her
own mosquito net, which would have to be folded back and taken down each morning. Without exception, everyone had to go through
the same routine everyday. Life thus became a daily monotonous routine that was necessary in order to fight against the buzzing
and blood thirsty mosquitoes. The latter were so hungry that they would dart on any unprotected skin. The end-result would be
sharp and painful mosquito bites that swelled into raised and painful lesions or could lead to severe medical conditions like
malaria or dengue fever.
The backroom of the townhouse consisted of a bathroom, kitchen and dining room and led to a small enclosed courtyard. Cooking was
done with charcoal or wood. Smoke would fill up the kitchen area and darken its walls. Since refrigeration was not frequently used
at the time, my grandmother like other housewives would go to the market every day to get fresh food, meat and vegetables. Cooking
was therefore done daily.
According to Confucian rules that were ingrained in the psyche of the Vietnamese and were a relic of past Chinese influence
(111 BC - 939 AD), the wife should be obedient to her husband. He provided for her needs and she faithfully served him. Should
the husband die, his wife would faithfully raise the children, especially her eldest son who in the absence or death of the father
represented the authority in the family. Family ties in a Confucian world were vital to the stability of the society and back then
no one dared to challenge these two-millennium old rules unless he was willing to be ostracized. The family was a miniature
society with its own often unwritten rules and regulations, etiquettes and structured on many generations. As long as they were
alive, grand parents, parents, children, uncles, aunts, and cousins were all part of the family. Everyone knew his/her own place
in this "extended family", for respect of the elders was de rigueur in this hierarchical society. The eldest person in the family
occupied the best place at the table and was cared for until his death. The family concept took precedent over the individual,
as evidence by the fact that the Vietnamese and Chinese family names contrary to western rules came first followed by the middle
then the first names. People therefore addressed themselves by their titles and first names, like Mr. Paul, Ms. Mary, or Dr. Bill
rather than by their last names.
I spent a couple of years with my grandmother in the simple countryside and quiet atmosphere of Vung Tau. She first lived at the
townhouse but later moved to the house at the orchard and rented out the townhouse to weekenders. The stay at the farm gave me a
unique experience without which I would never have known what country life would be like. Since there was no running water at the
farm, rainwater was collected during rainy season and stored in huge earthen jars that sat on the side of the house. During the
dry season, workers were hired to carry water from the nearby well to fill up the jars. Because the water was sitting idle a long
time, it served as the ideal breeding ground for a swarm of mosquitoes. Geckos-up to six or seven-inch long-used to crawl on the
walls and made their presence felt by making their characteristic noises: Cac Ke ... Cac Ke ... Cac Ke ... Outside hens
warned us they had laid their eggs with their Cu Tac ... Ca Tac ... Cu Tac ... calls. I knew it was time to run out and
collect the fresh eggs.