Returning Viet Kieu walked a fine line and arrived with two strikes against them. Many Vietnamese resented them—on first meeting at least—because they or their parents had deserted their country in a mo¬ment of hardship and had not shared the suffering of the Dark Years. Others complained Viet Kieu had an air of superiority, like city dudes come to visit their country cousins. The government was suspicious of them. Jealousy fitted into the equation as well: A native Vietnamese who toiled on pauper wages and might not have finished high school envied an emigrant with a college education, a good job, and money in his pocket. A natural thought crossed his or her mind: If I’d done what you did twenty-five years ago, what would my life be like today?
Lan Ai Trinh, who was twenty-seven, had given up a successful career as a TV producer in Hong Kong to return to Vietnam. I met her in Ho Chi Minh City, where she was holed up in a $25o-a-month studio apart¬ment over a food shop. Trinh had left in the 1978 purge against Viet¬namese of Chinese origin; her return, to research a book on the family’s saga, stirred bittersweet memories: There was the transformation of her family from prosperous to impoverished, the imprisonment, and the es¬cape—her father by boat to Thailand, her mother on foot to China, where she and scores of others were held hostage to their ethnicity, forced to camp out for weeks in cardboard cartons on a bridge that spanned the border. At the north end of the bridge, Chinese authorities denied them entry because they were Vietnamese; at the south end Vietnam blocked their return because it considered them Chinese. Then, there was starting a new life. It seemed to Trinh the family was always starting over. In Houston. New York. Australia. Hong Kong. And now, for Trinh, Viet¬nam. Again.
“I’m determined not to be plagued by the past,” she said as we sat in her small apartment. We had to speak in loud voices to be heard over the din of honking car and motor-scooter horns in the street below. “I keep saying I want Vietnam to be my last stop. I’ve made so many stops. But I’m not sure exactly what will happen. All I can say for sure is that for now, this is home. I feel comfortable. As far as the Vietnamese reaction to me goes, well, I think I’m seen as just a foreigner coming back with U.S. dollars. I don’t mean that to sound cynical, because I have cultivated some very good and real associations with local Vietnamese. I eat at food stalls on the street. I fit in. Yesterday I tried on an ao dai [the traditional flow¬ing pants suit] for the first time and it felt pretty natural.
“My initial feeling when I arrived at the airport was, I’ve gone too far to come back now. I’d moved on, put Vietnam behind me. But, although it took me a while to realize it, the me who left is not the same me who is returning. The same goes for Vietnam. It’s changed too.”
I KNEW WHAT SHE MEANT. I had celebrated my twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth birthdays in wartime Vietnam and don’t remember either day. But I do remember that I felt immortal in those days, that I would survive the risks I took, that life felt endless. It was a comforting thought. Now my sixtieth birthday was approaching. I went to Bangkok for laser surgery to remove potentially cancerous spots on my face. Happily, the procedure took away some facial wrinkles as well. I hadn’t quit smoking, despite my promises to the contrary, but I was in good health and, I think, aging fairly gracefully. The enthusiasm to sniff out a good story, to poke into the lives of strangers, to share what I discovered with readers hadn’t deserted me. Journalism was still a lot of fun. I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning. Sandy had acquiesced to my request that my birthday be a quiet affair—just dinner with a couple of friends—and I thought I had pulled it off. The day I turned sixty, we stopped for lunch at a deli near the office. “There’s someone over there trying to get your at¬tention,” Sandy said. I turned, and at the table in the corner were seven of my closest friends, fresh off the plane from the United States. One I had known since the first grade, one since high school, two since college. Sandy has a picture of me, speechless, open-mouthed, looking utterly perplexed. They told me later all I could get out was, “Oh, my God! What are you doing here?” They stayed for a week. Sandy and I toured with them to Hue and the DMZ and Ho Chi Minh City. We took them everywhere in Hanoi, to the war museum and Ho’s mausoleum, through the crowded lanes of the Old Quarter and the wide tree-lined boulevards graced by old French villas, into noodle shops and art galleries. They were smitten with Vietnam, and I hated to see them leave. Their presence had reminded me that sharing love and friendship is all that really matters at the end of the day. It had been one of the happiest weeks of my life.