The funny thing about gathering stories is, you never get them all at once. You start by picking up bits and pieces from conversations and offhand remarks and such. Then you start really asking around and every person gives you another page or so. You keep finding new scenes, all out of order or jumbled up, so stories like this can never really be complete.
But they can be told. Here’s a story I like.
One day, a diplomat came to China on business. He was Vietnamese, but he knew English, French, Chinese, and several minor languages too. He worked as a translator and linguist for a diplomatic organization. This was the beginning of the 1940s, and the Chinese civil war was going on, in addition to the tail-end of the Sino-Japanese war. So there he was in China. One day, he he got himself chased by a couple soldiers.
A girl saw what was happening from her doorway and motioned him to run in. She gave him tea, hid him, and they talked. He found out she’d been living in this house with 3 younger brothers, after running away from her family house, after smashing a chair over her step-mother’s head, when she saw the step-mother hitting her youngest brother. They had run away after that and she took care of her brothers while dealing with bombings and other shit from the wars. Now her brothers were self-sufficient.
Then it was safe for the diplomat to go back to his hotel room. But that’s just the beginning of the story. He kept coming back, to visit her, and later he even got her a room to stay in when it became unsafe for her to live in the house on account of the fighting. They had fallen in love gradually, naturally, quite by accident. But it became increasingly unsafe to stay in China, and one day, they found themselves joining a line of refugees running out of the country. He was going back to Vietnam, she had decided to come with him. They walked across China together, camping in forests, hiding from soldiers, moving at night. They escaped, made it to north Vietnam on foot.
They stayed here for some time. It was a completely new world to her, but she learned the language quickly enough. But war came here too, and they found themselves escaping again. Together, they walked across all of Vietnam, running away from the Viet-Cong, camping in forests, hiding from soldiers, moving at night, all over again, except this time, she with two baby girls strapped to her back. She carried them across Vietnam, and the family settled in a mountain village to the south.
They built up a life together, and she was enterprising, always finding something to sell, something work to do. They built a house, and she rented out rooms, and they lived on this money. She had 4 daughters, and 1 son. Her greatest flaw, as it was, was valuing boy children over girls, but her daughters never held it against her, and overall, she was a good mother. She provided for them. But war came again.
He died when her children were teenagers. I think she never quite buried the grief. After he died, things got harder, South Vietnam lost the war, there was no rice, only yams, and whatever they could find to eat. She carried on alone, tried to smuggle her daughters out of Vietnam on boats, but it failed, and her daughters were sent to jail or concentration camps, although they all got out. Her only son ran away to France, because he would have been killed by the VC had he stayed. Her daughters, ironically the ones she valued less, remained to support her, as she sold piece by piece of the house she and her husband had built together, sold their possessions, and burned his papers, for fear that the VC should see them and arrest her family.
She grew older. She survived a stroke, but lost her hearing, and began to show signs of Alzheimer’s. Soon, her daughters were taking care of her, while she was taking care of their children, because Vietnamese families stay together. I know her as a sweet woman who can’t quite pronounce my name right, on account of her being Chinese, who is forever asking if I have a boyfriend yet, and before I knew of her story, I didn’t realize what the concept meant to her. Because most old ladies in Vietnam will ask you this first thing, so it didn’t seem like anything too special. But, see, she knew about love.
She ran away from her family and everything she had known, across China to what was pretty much a new world to be with him. And she never stopped loving him. Or missing him. She no longer remembers names or faces all the time, but she NEVER forgets his. She talks to ghosts, now, and at dawn, you can hear her talking to his ghost. Sometimes it’s sad, “I’m ready to be with you. I want to see you again. I miss you, I miss you.” Other times, she just talks to him like he never left at all, like he was still there. And sometimes, she waits up for him. They couldn’t grow old together, but she never stopped loving him either. So she knew about love. And I want to believe they’ll see each other again someday. I hope that isn’t too silly. I don’t know of where souls go, but I do know if any two souls can find each other again, these two will.
Presenting my grandma, folks. The lady’s a boss.