Day One in Nông Sơn
Journal entry: A storm is blowing in. Under my feet is a pistachio tile floor on the front porch of a house in Quảng Nam Province, and beyond the edges of the pistachio tile is the garden of a woman who lives alone. There are aging clay pots containing flowering plants and miniature trees whose names I will never know, and a white statue of Di Lặc, with his double chin, his generous belly and utterly liberated laugh, and a sand path leading out to the curving dirt road, and beyond that is a sea of lime green—actually, it is the phosphorescent green of a sprouted rice field, reaching as far as the base of the nearby mountains where American helicopters once hovered and planes sliced through the sky gods, sharp as knives. There is a bird whose call I’ve never heard before. There is a red-tiled-roof house across the rice field, large colorful blankets blowing on a clothesline and a child chasing chickens with brown feathers, and off in the distance, there is a tall white church with a cross on the roof, the sounds of roosters and water buffalo and pigs, and all of the trees are bowing in the direction of the great mountain that the Champa people worshiped, their backs curved and decorous limbs twitching in the rising wind, and it is somebody’s fatherland. A land of fathers: fathers killed by war and fathers with guns slung to their sweaty backs, fathers ancient with long-hanging beards and fathers crying for their mothers, fathers who carried tanks on their bicycles, father Hồ and father Giáp, fathers whose bones still lie in these mountains, sheltered by trees who see everything and speak in breaths, fathers whose daughters peddled fish on pirogues to keep their younger siblings fed and fathers with young sons who would never become fathers, fathers interrogated and starved of salt, father interrogators withholding food, fathers who re-built bombed-out bridges overnight, fathers who came here to kill other fathers in operations named after beautiful hillsides and rivers and vistas an ocean and a world of hurt away from this one. In that other world, of Chevys and air-conditioning, that other world of football and Zenith color TVs, where everything is neat and clean, everything in its right place.
To the ignorant eye, the eye of the visitor or the stranger, the eye of the backpacker or the three-day-tour tourist, disconnected and free to see and not to see, there are no remnants of the blitz that blew a fiery wind through Quảng Nam Province in 1966, but they are here. From the back seat of the spotless, air-conditioned Honda Accord that drove me through Quảng Nam Province and into the village of Nông Sơn, I could see winding sand or dirt or cement roads, brown-skinned people on motorbikes, holding on with slip-off sandals and plastic flip-flops and rice water boots, hills that survived, a wide, generous sky with clouds, rice fields and houses with nineteenth-century tile roofs and twenty-first century tile porches, adolescent trees in deep yogic bends, skinny boys leading water buffalo by a rope, stray dogs that stare, and green: the brightest green that I have ever seen, the green of life that will not be destroyed, not by fire or fuel, not by poison or terror, not by grenade or landmine, the green of life that will not be destroyed by memory or history, the fiery green of life that will not now and not ever be put out.
To my eye, the eye of a historian, a writer, a newcomer who loves this place, to my eye, the foreigner, the mixed race, the remnants of 1966 settle on every surface like incense dust that hovers in the air early in the morning when the pagoda bell rings and the daily mantras sung by Buddhist nuns and monks begin, remnants like dew that barely touches the ground, like the lightest rain that whispers its name and then dissolves without making a sound. Remnants dangle from the stamen of every flower, from the tip of every blade of rice, from the berry of every coffee tree, from every waxy hair of rambutan; remnants dangle from every lucky earlobe, from every person’s eyelash, every person born in Quảng Nam Province.
Remnants rise subtle and bold in the home of Miss Năm, which squarely faces the rice waters and the electronic pulse of karaoke that blares from the house across the field when the sun goes down. It is more a pagoda than a home: the first room that I entered dwarfed me with tall statues of the Pure Land Buddhas, photographs of her dead parents, and offerings of fresh fruit, sweets, and incense. I bowed to the altar, to A Di Đà, Buddha of Infinite Light, to Quan Âm, the Hearer of the Cries of the World, to Địa Tạng Vương, Earth Store Bodhisattva, and I bowed deeply and slowly to the photograph of her father, her barely middle-aged father whose life ended at the blunted, hollow mouth of a rifle held by one of my countrymen, her father’s death leaving her mother to raise her daughter on her own, a hard life in this land of fathers, this fatherland, and Miss Năm opened her windows, her doors, her guestroom, her warm and fine face to me, my English language, my strange tongue, my father, who has lived much longer than hers.
Miss Năm welcomed me to her home with food and lots of it, and we ate at a circular metal table unfolded and erected in front of the Pure Land Buddhas and the ancestral altar, where Miss Năm placed bowls of rice and small plates of fried tofu. We sat on plastic stools with thin bracings where I rested my bare feet and I ate as Miss Năm watched me, chopsticks in my left hand, little bowl nestled in my right, me saying delicious! in the common language of the grinning and nodding face. Her hot-weather, quick-drying, South Vietnam-style polyester shirt matched her pants, a pattern of light-colored flowers on a dark blue background, and my grey temple clothes exposed my temporary life as a temporary nun. There was rice and tofu and fruit and fresh yogurt, a combination I came to expect when eating in the home of a Buddhist.
While we were eating, Miss Năm’s friend, Miss Nuôi, joined us, bringing with her white corn that was prepared Vietnam-style (cooked inside the husk) and smiling eyes that didn’t leave my face. Her hair was cut unusually short and she wore a blazer over her polyester clothes, a blazer in this 90˚ heat. Offering me a cob of corn, she watched as I meticulously plucked each strand of silk from the white cob. It’s all right for Older Sister to eat, she said in Vietnamese, nó sẽ giúp chị ngủ ngon. It will help her sleep.
It is dusk and a dog is barking. At me. The dog is standing a few feet away, at the edge of the road, where people who live in Nông Sơn walk or bicycle or motorbike by, and tonight they are slowing down, turning their heads, and staring at me, staring in disbelief or shock, some in obvious fear, and the dog is barking in my direction, telling the people who live in this village: a stranger is among us.
There are two plastic stools in the front courtyard of a house with a sloping, tiled roof. One stool is occupied by me: tall, brown-skinned, short salt-and-pepper wavy hair, eyeglasses, meditation beads in hand, passing through my fingers one at a time. The other stool is occupied by she: very small, very thin, brown-skinned, grey hair held back by hair clips, polyester matching outfit. She appears to be thirty years my senior. She and I sit on our opposing stools while the dog barks. We smile at each other awkwardly, neither of us conversant in the other’s language but both occupying a small space, alone and without a translator, so we continue to look at each other and smile. She goes inside the house and comes out with a water bottle, hands it to me, bowing her head, and I manage to say, Cám ơn, Cô. Thank you, Auntie.
The dog barks and two people approach the courtyard but don’t enter it. I smile and quick-bow my head at them and Cô says something to them that I understand because they are words that I have heard countless times in association with me. Foreigner. American. Dinner. No, she cannot speak Vietnamese.
A few excruciating minutes later, Miss Nuôi arrives at her house, carrying my friend, Thuận, who will eat with us and translate the long list of questions asked about me. Where does she come from? Is she married? Why is she here? How old is she? Why is she wearing those clothes? Miss Nuôi sees the awkwardness on my face and on the face of her eldest sister, so she nervously laughs as she carries bags of vegetables and bottled water into her home, which resembles the colonial-style homes of Hội An, where I spent a few days walking through streets that reminded me vaguely of New Orleans.
A young woman with a child approaches the courtyard. Self-conscious of my accent, I say, Xin chào, Em, addressing her as Little Sister, and her face changes from curiosity to utter confusion. Xin chào, Chị, her voice hesitating, calling me Older Sister, her face working hard to fix the dissonance of the scene. Crossing into the courtyard, presuming that I can actually speak Vietnamese, she proceeds to say something more to me that I cannot decipher. I smile my usual I’m sorry I don’t understand you face and redirect my attention to her child, who is wearing a shirt and nothing more. I look at the young woman’s face, her eyes and nose, her jawline and hairline, the strong hint of whiteness, of Americanness, there, the young woman’s body, another remnant of the war.
We eat in the courtyard while termites swarm the lights above us. I carefully swat them from my food while chew-smiling at the people who stand by the table, watching me eat. My friend tells me that Cô was a little girl during the American War. She remembers 1966:
running, running from her home, running through the village, running from the sound of airplanes and helicopters, running, running from bombs dropping from the sky, running from poison falling like a foul-smelling mist, running, running from Operation Suwanee and Operation Mississippi, from Operation Shasta and Operation Big Lodge, from Operation Kansas and Operation Allegheny, running from Operation Teton and Operation Macon, running from Operation Seaside and Operation Arcadia, running from American men who transformed their daydreams of home into search and destroy, running and hiding underground, in a tunnel, hiding with her father’s father, hiding for their lives, hiding for weeks, for months, hiding for so long that people died in the tunnels. People died hiding in tunnels, under the surface of their beautiful, scorched country.
I look at Cô as she tells this story, feeling guilt fill my belly along with the rice noodles and morning glory. Having lost interest in me, the barking dog has taken to slumbering across the road. Miss Nuôi is smiling wide: I am her guest, and she will be remembered for this night, she who had a foreigner for dinner in her courtyard, she who was born after the war.
Tôi xin lôi, I say to Cô, using the wrong words for this kind of apology.
It’s all right, Little Sister, she says in Vietnamese, it’s all right. And I wonder if she says, I’m alive, but I wouldn’t have understood those words if she’d said them.
Journal entry: Here I am in the pagoda. It is a brutally hot day and I am standing in an open doorway, my grey robe blowing in the steamy breeze that I’ve been waiting for all day. The altars boast generous offerings for the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas and the ancestors, their faces staring at us from picture frames surrounded by food in little bowls, hot tea and tiny tea cups, and urns that hold their dusty remains. The marble floor is shining clean. My hands are pressed together in the shape of an unopened lotus flower. We chant the opening sutra, offering the incense—Trầm hương đốt, xông ngát mười phương, nguyện nguyện kính đức Nghiêm Từ vô lượng—and I glance at the monk in the orange robe. He is tall, taller than everyone in the pagoda, taller even than I, the người nước ngoài. The foreigner. He has freckles on his face and his nose angles down. His eyelashes and eyebrows are an ash brown, the color of the sand in Quảng Nam Province, and his hands are huge. I stare at him. His body seems out of place here, it grabs and holds my attention and I am unable to look away. My stare follows him as he lights the large stick of incense, as he places it in the brass pot at the center of the altar, as he bows from the waist, slowly, my stare follows him as he descends onto his knees, elegantly, without the help of his hands or arms, down to his knees and bending forward, his face on the floor, a prostration, he rises back onto his feet and bows again, and then on his knees again, fluidly, face on the floor, my stare follows him as he finishes a ritual that he has probably performed since he was a child, a little freckled boy whose father came here to kill other fathers, growing up a fatherless child in the pagoda because children like him were often too heavy a burden on their mothers. My stare follows him, examines his profile, recognizes him. I turn to the woman next to me, trying to find a way to politely ask an impolite question. The monk, I say quietly. He is like me? He is mixed like me? I use the impolite Vietnamese because that’s all I know. Con lai: a mixed child. Khong, khong, she says, no, no, he is not like you, not like you, and I wonder if she means that I am not a remnant of the war, but she returns her attention to the chanting and says nothing more.