This is the Mekong Delta today.
This was the Mekong Delta 40 years ago.
No, I’m not just saying. There are reasons I’m swimming upstream in time through inglorious mangroves swamps and incalculable shrimp farms to traumatic events in the Mekong Delta.
But…I do still find “just sayin” jokes funny, just like I find a well-delivered “psyche” joke funny. (I have conducted a fairly heavy-handed sociolinguistic analysis of why “psyche” jokes are funny, but “not” jokes are not.)
I can only remember “psyche” jokes because I am a creature from a certain era, and indeed my DNA strands were first double-helixing right around the time of the frantic American embassy rooftop evacuation of Saigon.
Lately I have been a bit imaginatively obsessed with the Vietnam War (those of you who remember my World War I, World War II, French Revolution and Russian Revolution benders will find this a refreshing change!)…probably because: 1) I’m planning a trek through Vietnam next summer 2) where “The Vietnam War” is known as “The American War.” Because: 3) Some of my most beloved students are Vietnamese; and 4) my grandmother just delivered an impressive Moth-like set of Vietnam War refugee stories from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania.
Below are the salient points of my grandmother’s monologue (my grandmother sheerly monologues at this point, and specializes in topic derailments, but you can nudge her this way or that. Here I asked her about the war refugees sponsored by her church, some of whom lived on our family farm). She said that:
1. A Vietnamese refugee whose “boat was hijacked” and “went through the Philippines” asked to hold me on his knee when he was visiting my grandparents’ farmhouse, because I reminded him of his own daughter back in Vietnam; I was “tiny,” you see, and had “dark hair.”
2. When my grandmother went to pick up a Hmong Laotian family at the Lancaster train station, it was raining and the little girls “were not wearing any pants!” “The Lord” told her to “take some towels” when she was leaving for the train station, and, boy, is she glad she did, because, “they weren’t wearing any pants!” By “no pants,” I figured out she means they were wearing short, tropical-clime dresses.
3. My grandmother is not in favor of women wearing pants. Nor was the lady who lived across the hall at the retirement home. Nor was my grandfather.
4. I “will never catch” her “wearing pants,” that’s for certain.
5. When my grandmother visited another Vietnamese family she found their fridge shockingly bare except for some “chicken wings and backs,” so she hightailed it to the store to stock them up. Years later, the father invited her to an all-you-can-eat buffet and told her to fill her plate “many times,” because she had loaded his family’s fridge when he was hungry so long ago. “I don’t eat like I used to, I have a small appetite!” she said. “Then you will fill these styrofoam boxes and take them home with you!!” he replied. And she did.
6. My family’s grandfather clock clonging in the background is “from the 1830s.” I do the quick and dirty mental math and realize that’s almost 200 years old. Also: My grandmother recently got rid of her car and that’s good, because the cherry tree over the driveway would drop cherry blossoms on the windshield and hood cracks. That was a nuisance.
7. Here the conversation ended because I had finished my glass of wine and my grandmother was doubling back on things she had already said.
The two little Hmong girls sans pants (Dawn and Mary Ann) would become our playmates in the yards and water-cress meadows of my grandparents’ farm. Only the provocative details like their pierced ears strung through with knotted thread, their queerly flavored cold cuts, and translucent clots of sticky rice have survived the ravages of time on memory. I had no sense of context beyond that narrow eyelet world.
Mary Ann, the younger girl, attended my grandfather’s funeral four years ago, which led to us reconnecting on you-know-what– that great wrecking ball of time and space, and concomitantly, nostalgia–Facebook.
Now, thirty-some years later I’m applying for jobs in north Thailand not far from the Laos border where the Hmong live, and trying to get some kind of grip on Vietnam.
The point is: life backflips back onto itself, over and over. Time moves and doesn’t move, simultaneously. The Vietnam vet who asked me for money on the street last week– where is he? Here, there, or somewhere in between?
The young don’t care about water under old bridges, says this Atlantic article from 2015. The war is immaterial since they didn’t experience it themselves. “Old people often reminisce. We young people can’t relate, so we mind our own business.”
History pretty well confirms the massive loss of life and environmental damage of the war in Vietnam as a politically and morally pointless nightmare. But the search for meaning happens on multiple levels…
Time is not a line; memory will always arc inwards. Points from decades ago connect with points in the present, relaunching back to other points, in roulette curves. In this way, our lives become stunningly three-dimensional– past shooting through the present, the present re-illuminating the past.
How else could I be a river boat baby and an American baby at the same time?
This is what I am determined to find out.