It was mid-1989 when the letter arrived from Viet Nam, from my friend Hai’s brother, asking, as most letters from Viet Nam the past few years had, for him to send money. Amazingly, it had been forwarded to California from a Virginia address more than ten years old.
Hai’s response to receiving it was the same as it always was when he got such requests. Each time a letter arrived, he would become morose as he put it aside and complain about how his family or friends thought all Americans in general (and Hai in particular) were rich. Sometimes he would send the money. But more often than not, he wouldn’t have it and would become remorseful. Remorse turned into depression that would last a day or two, and then he would simply not respond.
“Write,” I would sometimes advise. “Tell them you got the letter but that you can’t send anything right now.”
He would look at me a moment, as if attempting to contemplate what was beyond comprehension, then shake his head defiantly as he silently moved away.
But this time was different.
“I have to,” he asserted urgently. “If I don’t, they will be homeless.”
Homelessness was something Hai had come to fear. Living first on the East Coast, and then for many years in San Francisco, he had seen the numbers of homeless people grow. The idea that someone in his immediate family, someone he hadn’t corresponded with in more than a decade, but someone he had grown up with might be in that situation was more than he could accept.
I saw his dilemma. But I also knew his history all too well. I met him in Viet Nam in 1971.I had been in the Air Force, teaching English to Vietnamese military, and living in Saigon. My first apartment away from the MACV military compound was near the Van Hanh Buddhist University, just down the alley from where Hai was living with his college-student cousins.
I learned early that Hai’s family life had been nontraditional, to say the least. He had been born out of wedlock when his mother was barely 15 years old. His mother’s family, who evidently had been one of a fair degree of substance and position at one time, had not been happy with their daughter’s situation. Her father tried unsuccessfully to terminate the pregnancy, and when Hai was finally born, her mother took the baby and gave it to a poor woman with several other children. This family’s only boy was about a year older than Hai, and the woman thought accepting another male child would bring luck to the family.
But growing up in such a situation hadn’t been easy for Hai. Their poverty prevented more than basic education, and the fact that he wasn’t born to the family caused a certain ostracism within the family unit that allowed mean-spirited aunts to beat him and others to make sure he was excluded from the few family advantages. But the woman who raised him, the one he knew as his mother, loved him. And her real son, a year older, was as close to him as a real brother could be.
It wasn’t until Hai was in his teens and his real father returned to Nha Trang, ran into Hai’s natural mother, and inquired about the child, that Hai knew who his real parents were. Both had married and had families-his father to a Vietnamese woman, with whom he had five children; his mother several times, to foreigners who were stationed in Viet Nam and by whom she had had six children of various national mixes.
And so suddenly, at the age of 17, Hai was a part of three families. Initially hurt and angered because his real mother, who continued to live within blocks of where Hai grew up, had waited so long to make contact with him, and because his real father had waited so long to seek him out, he nonetheless hungered for what he perceived to be the love only real parents could give to their child.
But over the years he had gone through much with both natural parents and his siblings, and had ended up being used and abused in an adult way until he finally put an end to it. I had known his father’s family in Saigon in the early 1970’s and later, when they came as refugees to the United States. And I had met his real mother and three of her children more recently when they came to live in California as part of the Orderly Departure Program for Vietnamese children of American fathers.
Now, it was the third family, the one that had taken him in as an unwanted and discarded baby, the one that had raised him as best it could, the one he had spoken so little to me about, that he felt mattered. The woman he called mother had died. And it was his older brother from that family who needed money.
“How much?” I asked.
“He didn’t say. But I think two hundred.”
“Why don’t you send a hundred,” I countered.
But his mind was made up. And his logic being what it is, he sent three hundred-the two hundred he proposed and the hundred I had suggested.
Two-and-a-half years later, sitting with Hai in the tiny living room of his brother’s house in Nha Trang, Viet Nam, I recalled this particular transaction very clearly.
Going to Nha Trang that first time in 1991 was not easy. I was an American returning to Viet Nam at a time when not many had returned. Leaving Saigon (as it was still called by everyone) to go to Nha Trang required permission, a driver, and an authorized guide. The fact that I was traveling with a Vietnamese-American friend, Hai, and that he, being from Viet Nam, required only permission and not the entourage, didn’t matter at all.
It was dark as our car approached Nha Trang, but Hai’s excitement was infectious as he strained to make out landmarks he had grown up with. We made a couple of abortive attempts to find a hotel near the beach, but the ones our guide inquired at either didn’t take foreigners or demanded what we felt were unreasonable rates. In the end, we registered at a hotel near the center of town, only a few blocks from Hai’s neighborhood.
We unpacked the car, then found a restaurant nearby for a late dinner. I knew Hai was anxious to find his family. I told him to go on alone, that I could meet everyone the next day. But he wouldn’t hear of it. It was necessary that I go with him.
The neighborhood Hai thought of as home started as a narrow break in a wall on the main street. Too narrow to be an alley, it nonetheless was the avenue that led to where he had grown up. The path was dark and uneven, and as I followed, I wondered if my coming was actually a good idea or not.
The darkness gave way to dim lights from open doorways that fronted the path. Smells of nuoc mam, the pungent fish sauce that is an integral part of any Vietnamese cooking, bled from every home. He recognized someone, spoke, and they responded with obvious surprise and delight. And then they noticed me, standing in the background, and would follow. At each opening, each doorway, the number grew, and soon I became anxious at the size of the crowd and the noise they were making.
“You’re the first American to come here,” Hai whispered at one point. I didn’t know whether to feel honored or alarmed.
We finally settled at one house, his best friend’s, he told me, and the crowd dissipated. He spoke rapidly to his friend and his friend’s wife and their three sons and two daughters. I found myself laughing along with everyone even though I understood nothing of what was being said. But within moments Hai was gone, leaving me to sit at a narrow wooden table with a tiny cracked cup of tea before me. While I didn’t feel unwelcome, I felt what I didn’t like feeling-conspicuous. I noted they, too, seemed to feel the discomfort. And so I sat and waited, absorbing what I could of what was around me.
The immensity of their poverty began to fill me. Except for the table and three chairs, and two narrow wooden platforms pushed to the side and covered with mats woven from palm fronds that I knew served as beds, the room was bare. The cement floor was clean, but cracked.
I shifted uncomfortably. Hai’s friend motioned for me to drink some of the tea. I sipped it cautiously, looking into his and his wife’s faces. There was something about their eyes I noticed. But before I could decipher my feelings, Hai returned.
“My brother lives down there.” He pointed excitedly into the dark.
“He is so happy to see me. Do you want to come?”
I stood, nodding to Hai’s friend, relieved to be moving on.
Outside the tiny yard, the crowd waited, and soon our entourage was moving down the narrow dirt pathway, past more open doors and gaping faces. Within seconds, we stopped again, looking from the path through a set of double French doors into a room barely a third the size of Hai’s friend’s.
“My brother, Anh Nam,” he said, motioning to a tiny, bent, gaunt looking man standing just inside. Anh Nam smiled broadly, nodding. He was obviously blind in one eye. Two very small children-a boy and a girl—stood next to him, and an older boy, his face drawn and serious, his eyes down, behind.
Hai stepped into the room and placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder. While he spoke quietly to him in Vietnamese, I looked beyond the family to the wooden chest with the simple Buddhist alter.
From the narrow dirt walkway that fronted the house, it was easy to see that the chest dominated the small room. Through open doors, past the weak white flicker of a fluorescent tube, it quietly demanded to be noticed.
Standing four feet high, close to five across, with a depth of two, it lacked ornate carving or even compelling grain. Its twin doors with their elongated wooden handles were separated in the center by a solid wooden strip eight inches -wide.The chest was obviously very old, constructed of a thick, hard, quality wood, that had been subjected to years, if not decades, of neglect. The stain of the wood had faded, marred by heat and humidity and dust, bleached by rain that leaked through the loose roof tiles during the rainy season, wasted by time that could afford neither the interest nor the resources to maintain or restore its beauty.
On top, that first evening, was a simple shallow bowl holding two oranges and several sticks of incense set before a photograph of an old woman.
As I looked back, the oldest boy’s eyes rose, and again I saw the expression I had noticed at Hai’s friend’s house moments before. Only this time it was more intense. An incredible sadness filled me as I realized now what it meant. It wasn’t the crippling poverty I felt in the boy’s gaze. It was the hopelessness. There seemed to be no way out.
I looked at Hai, This was his neighborhood. He grew up with these people, shared his early life with them. And there but for fortune he might have remained.
Later, in the hotel, I tried to sort it all out. And my feelings, much as they had been when I was in Viet Nam 20 years earlier, were mixed. There were no easy answers, nothing was black and white. There was blame and misunderstanding to be placed everywhere. And solutions to be found nowhere. Or so it seemed. I wanted to help, both for Hai’s sake and, more importantly, for mine. But I didn’t know how.
Our first stay in Nha Trang, because of the car and the guide we had committed to, was really only two full days. Most of the time was spent visiting as many people as we could, and when that became overbearing for Hai, escaping (with the guide and driver) to the beach or hills outside of Nha Trang to relax and play tourists as we tried to put matters in perspective helped.
But it wasn’t enough. As we left for the drive back to Saigon, we both knew that there were too many things that had remained unsettled. And so, six months later, in time for the lunar New Year celebration, Tet, we returned.
This time, because restrictions had been eased, we had three weeks in Nha Trang without a guide or a driver.
A few days after the actual Tet holiday, Hai and his brother and sister-in-law and nephew were sitting in the tiny living room of their home. It looked amazingly different from that first night six months before. Everything had been repainted. New curtains had been hung. Potted plants decorated the doorway. The old wooden chest had been restained, and the tiny bowl of fruit that I had noticed that first night replaced with the antique family brass altar that had been used as collateral for a loan years before.
On the table before us were plates of coconut candy and fresh fruit, and cups of tea. This was the first Tet in many years the family could recall that was actually happy. The first Tet when they had new clothes to wear, and when food, or lack of it, wasn’t a problem.
But as we were all sitting there, I noticed the mood subtly change. Anh Nam’s wife, who was sitting next to me, was speaking. Hai and his brother were across from us, the nephew slightly behind, his hand on the back of my chair. As she spoke, I noticed a strange tremor in her voice. She pointed at the door, then at the chest. Anh Nam grinned, as he always did, but I had learned that he wore that grin as a mask.
Hai was unusually quiet as he listened. Then I noticed his head bend slightly. I glanced sideways to Chi Nam, watching as she gestured, pointing to her husband, bringing her fist into a ball, then releasing it. Her voice broke. I looked at Hai. His head lowered even more, his tears fell on the glass top of the table. Anh Nam, his grin never fading, was also crying.
With Hai’s broken translation, I learned she was talking about the years before. About how hard it had been. They had very little, and most of what they had they sold to those who could afford to pay anything. They went for months, years without any meat at all. Often they would have to search garbage heaps for scraps of whatever they could find to feed themselves. Sometimes someone would take pity and give them burned crusts of rice that they would grind down to recover what nutrition they could.
Anh Nam’s (and Hai’s) mother moved with other children who lived in a tiny village outside of Nha Trang, but their situation was even worse and she would wander the streets, begging what she could. At one point, she visited Hai’s natural mother, asking for Hai’s address in the States. His natural mother, having corresponded with Hai and managing to get money from him occasionally, lied, saying she didn’t have it. Months later, the woman Hai knew as his mother, the woman who raised him, the only one he felt truly loved him, was dead.
As Anh Nam’s children got older, they, too, were sent to forage for whatever they could. In his early teens, the oldest son spent his days scrounging the streets and garbage heaps for plastic bags and other scraps of anything salvageable to sell. He might, if lucky, have enough at the end of the day to cover a fraction of the cost of a cup of rice.
Anh Nam and his oldest daughter would get up at five in the morning and travel 50 kilometers out of Nha Trang to get limes or lettuce or whatever herbs they could find and bring them back to the central market area where they would squat for hours, hoping for someone to buy them.
When he had to, he would borrow money, hoping to sell something or find something that would pay the debt back. But it was hopeless. And when those he owed money to came to collect, he would hide in the cramped space of the wooden chest while his wife told them he was not at home. This was not the way he was brought up, not the way he wanted to live, but he felt he had no choice.
Finally, he owed so much to one person that that person and his family took up residence in the already overcrowded home. Anh Nam’s oldest son, who had some carpentry skills but could find no work, built a thin wall to separate the families.
It got worse. The debt grew larger. And finally, hoping against hope, Anh Nam had written to Hai. It was the last thing he knew to do. But since Hai had not been heard from in years, since the last address he had was in Virginia, he expected nothing.
The word that someone was looking for him preceded the caller, giving Anh Nam time to hide in the chest. His wife answered the knock on the door.
“Is your husband here?” the man in the clean white shirt and new shoes asked.
“Why do you want him?” Chi Nam had responded. “He’s not here.”
“When will he return?” the visitor persisted.
“I don’t know. We don’t expect him. What is it about?”
“Can I wait?” Chi Nam didn’t know what to do. “Why do you want to see him?”
“Does he have a brother in the United States?” the man asked. Chi Nam nodded. “Why?”
“He has sent something for him. But I must see him personally. Check his identification to be sure.”
“What do you mean?”
“His brother in the United States. He has sent some money for him.”
At that moment, Anh Nam pushed open the door to the chest, startling the visitor with his excitement.
The man told Anh Nam that his brother had sent him the equivalent of three hundred dollars. Anh Nam’s hand shook as he showed his identification papers. He was barely able to sign his name on the receipt. Anh Nam’s tears flowed freely. He collapsed on the floor, sobbing uncontrollably.
For the first time since his wife had been speaking, Anh Nam interrupted. He reached over and took Hai’s hand in his.”I was dead,” he said quietly.”I was in hell. And a hand reached down, the hand of an angel, and pulled me out. I cannot say Thank you, ’ because that means too little. I can only say that I will never forget it. And neither will my family.”
But Hai pushed his brother’s hand away. He was angry: with his mother for having left Nha Trang for the village; with his siblings there for not taking better care of her; with Anh Nam for not bringing her back; with his natural mother for not giving her his address when she knew it and was herself asking him to send money. But when he looked at me, I knew that he was angry most of all with himself, for all the things he didn’t do and felt he should have done.
A few days later, before we left Nha Trang for Saigon, I saw Hai and Anh Nam’s oldest son standing before the chest and family altar. The photograph of his mother was placed prominently next to the brass shrine. I knew that Hai was Catholic, so I was surprised to see him gather up some sticks of incense and have Anh Nam’s son light them. Hai then placed them between his hands, prayer-like, and raised his hands to his forehead, bowing to the photograph as he spoke in low, even tones.
When he finished, he turned, flushing as he noticed I had been watching. Then he smiled.”I told my mother I am sorry about everything.” His smile disappeared as he looked past me, out the doorway.”I see her begging on the street. My mother.” His eyes filled with tears again.”I promise to help my brother and his family. Maybe she will forgive me.”
I put my hand on his shoulder. I knew no matter what I said or did, he would carry the guilt with him for a long time. I then looked at Hai’s nephew, who was standing quietly behind. The poverty was still there, the toll from the years of lack and want still evident, but the look of hopelessness I had noted that first night was gone.
Since that time, Hai has traveled back to his hometown several times, helping his brother’s family rebuild their home and their lives. The economy in Viet Nam has improved, helped by the normalization of ties with the United States and other countries. But the noticeable effects of that improvement are slow in reaching Nha Trang.
Hai’s brother, now crippled by illnesses resulting from the years of hardship and medical neglect, ekes out a meager living by selling government-issued lottery tickets from a small stand on the street. His wife, Chi Nam, buys and sells at the local market, where the competition is fierce and profits low. Because of Hai’s help, one niece is now a trained seamstress who is able to work and help support the family; the youngest boy goes to public school and hopefully will have a future grounded in basic education his older brother and sisters have been denied; the oldest son studies English and computer applications in the hope of eventually working for one of the many foreign companies establishing themselves in Viet Nam.
Hai’s dream that his family will once more become self-sufficient and prosperous is still not within reach. But with each visit, as Hai lights incense at the family altar, that dream, fueled by his silent promise to his mother’s memory, comes closer to fulfillment.