ONE FAMILY 4

But in a lean-to, covered by a mosquito net, he found an old woman who peered at him with a glimmer of recognition. Heavy-set with thick glasses, he bore little resemblance to the thirteen-year-old who had left home so long ago. Not until he showed the woman his birthmark—a brown spot on the right side of his neck—did Mrs. Nheh know for sure that she had reclaimed a son. She could offer him only a sweet potato in celebration for dinner, but all night, unable to sleep, she sat by his bed, touching his hands, his feet, his face.
The unified Vietnam that Nghien returned to was a dark-spirited place. Everything smelled of poverty. Everyone was hungry. No one smiled. Just owning a bicycle qualified a man for middle-class status. Nghien sold the motorcycle he had brought back from East Germany and with the money rebuilt his mother’s house and supplemented his family’s monthly rations: thirty-five pounds of rice, half a pound each of sugar and vegetables, one pound of meat. Mostly the meat was Mongo¬lian lamb fat.
Dong, the son born to Dr. Nghien while he was in East Germany, went to school dressed in old, ripped clothes and shoes with flapping soles. The only boy Dong knew who did not wear a badge of poverty was the son of a high Communist Party official. He always had nice shoes, new jeans, and clean shirts. Dong said to himself one day, “Wow, that’s amazing. How does he get them?”
Slowly, ever so slowly, the Communist Party took the first timid steps toward a free-market economy in the late 1980s. The fog of desperation lifted, and the Nguyens realized some fruits of peace. Dr. Nghien’s brother Tinh received a one-acre plot from the government and earned enough from his plentiful rice harvests to buy ten oxen. His other brother, Kien, became the communist equivalent of a city councilman, a member of the Dong Ha People’s Committee, and worked on plans to promote tourism in Quang Tri Province. Dr. Nghien’s wife got a televi¬sion, then a refrigerator, and finally a motor scooter, which, as in most Vietnamese homes, she parked in the living room. Dr. Nghien’s interna¬tional reputation as the talented head of orthopedics at Bach Mai Hospi¬tal spread. By the time I met him in Dong Ha, his salary had reached $50 per month.
The better things got, the more the lingering animosity toward the United States faded. It was replaced by a sense of relief that life was on the mend. Hating took energy—energy the Vietnamese wanted to ex¬pend in more productive pursuits. “I tell you this from the bottom of my heart, and I think I also speak for the Vietnamese people when I say this: We never hated the Americans,” Dr. Nghien said. “It was the American leaders who set out to destroy us, not the people. We got great support from your people. They were of service to Vietnam. They protested against the war policy and the Voice of Vietnam gave us news every day of the demonstrations. It encouraged us. Your people were an important force in stopping the war. So were the reporters. They were the social conscience of a country.”
It was ironic to hear this from a member of the Communist Party. What Dr. Nghien so admired in the United States—the right to dissent, to freely challenge the policy of elected leaders—was precisely what his own government denied him. Nghien and his countrymen did not elect their leaders. They did not have access to a press that debated policy. They could not demonstrate. Strangely, that lack of basic freedoms did not seem to bother him.
Sometimes Dr. Nghien talked to his sons about the benefits of joining the Party. The boys were grown now, in their twenties. Dong had become a doctor, and his younger brother, Ha, was finishing his university eco¬nomics studies. Their father would tell them that the Party was about na¬tionalism, not theory, that it was a vehicle for development. “If I could pay back my country a hundred times for educating me and giving me in¬dependence, that would not be enough. I would still owe,” he told them. The boys would listen politely and silently, their eyes wandering, before focusing on the floor. Once Dong whispered to Ha: “Another generation talking.”
I became good friends with Dong as the months passed and asked him one day if he wanted to join the Party. “I was in the Youth Association, but I’m not a communist,” he said. “In my father’s time, if you wanted a good job, wanted to get ahead, you needed to be in the Party. All good people were in the Party. So I can understand why it is important to him. But times have changed. You can get ahead now by knowledge, and you don’t really need to be a communist. Right now you just need to abide by the law and try to be of service. That is enough to do well.”
And times had changed for the Nguyens because the enmity between the Americans and the Vietnamese was melting. Not only had the U.S. veterans’ grant been a godsend for the Bach Mai clinic; English had re¬placed German as Dr. Nhgien’s second language. Pepsi, Marlboro, Compaq, and Procter & Gamble were brand names that were now part of the family’s daily life. Dong was preparing to leave for Baltimore to study at Johns Hopkins University. And he had brought home to introduce to his parents the first real love of his life—a young American woman who worked for the Vietnam Veterans of America Foundation in Hanoi. Her father was a former Marine who had fought in Quang Tri Province.

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