Revisiting a Country that Consumed My Youth
I spent my 20s bonded to a people I never knew and a world I might never have seen. Images remain, embedded in memory: the horror of seeing a Buddhist Monk protest religious repression under the government of Ngo Dinh Diem by setting fire to his gasoline-soaked robes; American soldiers looking for ‘Charlie’ (code name for “Viet Cong,” the Vietnamese Communist Party) in the sweltering, dense, tropical rain forests; thousands of people marching on Washington to protest the “dirty little Asian War;” President Johnson being forced to resign in 1968; and President Nixon’s promise to “bring our boys home.” He kept his word, but the war did not end there; the scars remain to the present day.
The ride to the orphanage took two hours through moist green rice paddies where people wearing conical hats worked many hours. We passed villages where chickens, water buffalo and pigs roamed the dirt roads, walking in and out of houses with ease.
Arriving at dusk, I saw children of different ages throwing wooden tops, playing volleyball and sitting on benches talking. They looked unkempt, some with untended open sores, insect bites and obvious eye infections. Medical care at that time was difficult, nearly impossible to find in Vietnam, as were up-to-date medications.
The children’s spirits, however, were lively and undaunted. A total of 167 children called the orphanage their home. They ranged in age from one day old to about 16; boys outnumbered girls by about two to one.
Soon I began to observe their very distinct personalities, and I couldn’t help create pet names for some of them. One little boy who loved the English class was ‘the Brain,” another who kept falling asleep became “Meow, Meow,’ and one who always had ideas of business, “the Entrepreneur.”
My English class began at nine a.m. and continued until the last child finished about two hours later. An afternoon class, which was primarily review, was held at three. The children arrived barefoot and sat on benches under hard wooden desks. They were enthusiastic and eager to learn, gratified when acknowledged. Music, the universal language, became an important part of our days: “If You Are Happy and You Know it Clap Your Hands” was a favorite.
Every morning I rode a bicycle to the little village near the orphanage. Sometimes two older boys, who took me on a tour through the market, making sure we got the best prices for our purchases, accompanied me. I soon became very fond of the staff at Center Tay Dang, the place where I worked, and we were all soon laughing with each other — the test of real communication.
I am a vegetarian, and pork was a staple of the Northern Vietnamese diet. The staff noticed this because I was eating a disproportionate amount of the spinach and ignoring the meat at meals. So one day they brought out the rice and placed the biggest bowl of spinach in front of me! We all burst out laughing!
After six weeks, I was very torn about leaving Center Tay Dang. It is very difficult to come into people’s lives and have them come into yours, only to leave abruptly. The headmaster of the school came over to see me, asking me to address the staff. I walked into a room, and there the staff of the orphanage sat around a conference table, some of which were members of the Viet Cong. As an American who lived through the war, this was truly amazing.
They asked me to speak about my experiences. I spoke of the love that I had seen at this orphanage. I mentioned how the children cared for an abandoned baby with such maturity and tenderness. I really can’t say how much of my talk was understood, but I hope that the feeling got across. It probably did, because they asked me to come back and teach again or just to stay on and not go back home at all.
Across the years and thousands of miles with a war between us, here we were: committed teachers focused on the job at hand, helping the youngsters given up to our care.
Several hours later, the staff and children organized a banquet. We dined on rice noodles and no spinach, for which they apologized. I was told the children had prepared a program to say goodbye. It would be starting at 8 p.m.
I arrived early, before the children, so I could write them a note on the blackboard. One by one they came over and said goodbye. I tried to sing but couldn’t get out more than a few verses. We were all crying.
All my life I have cried when I feel touched by love, pain and empathy, which sometimes embarrasses others. Now I was with more than 100 people who had the same reaction. There was a flow of genuine emotion, tears and more tears. Little “Meow-Meow” would not leave my side.
The next day, the director of Center Tay Dang called the children together to say a final goodbye. He told me they would never forget me, and I should never forget them. “You are,” he said, and then, caught for words, “you are very friend friendly.”
Over the past several years, we have felt the horrors of war. Pictures in the newspapers and on television capture weeping families, limbless children and small coffins carried to their final resting place. Young impressionable children will carry these images that will perhaps erupt in anxiety and nightmares: such was my experience coming to maturity during the war in Vietnam. Part of me was tied, inextricably bound, to that far off place until I was able to go there, meet people and quietly close a page in my life.
I have a poster on my wall painted by an Inuit artist for an exhibition, at the bottom of which is a phrase: “When an act of love occurs healing is accomplished.” Many years have passed since my trip to Vietnam. Perhaps you or your children will make an exploration of the heart to a former battleground and find the wounds healed in peace.
Editor: Kate Bartolotta.