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memories of vietnam

A Tale of Two Wives

According to my mom, my dad married two women on the same night.  One of them was my mom, the other was his real love.  This my mom told me, and of course I didn’t fully believe her.  That’s so crazy, like something out of a television drama!

(old family pic with youngest aunt, mom and dad,
grandma and grandpa, and us kids)

It was in Cho Lon, a city near Saigon, around the mid 70s.  My dad was a poor man living in an apartment on the fourth floor of a run down complex that serves as a temple to Guan Yu Gong, the god of War and Righteousness.  For the free rent and a meager salary, he had acted as the undertaker for the temple.  But when the communists took over, the organization that owned the temple could no longer pay him, and he had to find other means of income.

Nga, the woman whom he loved, was the sole daughter of a wealthy family, the youngest sister with five older brothers.  Because of the communist revolution, all their wealth was stripped away.  Her mom had left her tons of jewelry, and Nga would make the occasional trip from her smaller village to the big city to pawn them for money.

She was introduced to my dad by a mutual friend, and he helped her find buyers for her jewelry.  My dad was great at making friends, and had a lot of connections.  He was also the most honest and trustworthy person anyone could ever meet.  Perhaps those were some qualities that made her fall in love with him.

So they started their love affair.  And even though my dad didn’t have much money, she didn’t care.  He didn’t have much family either, but he had many friends who loved him, and together they pooled their resources and bought gifts and went to the village where Nga’s family lived to ask permission for her hand in marriage.  But, because my dad was poor and didn’t have a promising future, Nga’s father rejected him.  My dad was not worthy of marrying his daughter.

So that was that.  Maybe they dragged their love affair out a little longer in secrecy, but the relationship was going nowhere;  My dad couldn’t make Nga his wife.

read part 2 >

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memories of vietnam

A Tale of Two Wives, pt 4

< read part 3

There’s even more craziness to how this story ends.  Being the only daughter he had, Nga’s father had given her an ultimatum after the wedding.  She’d be excommunicated from the family if she didn’t leave my dad.  So that particular night when she was visiting them, she made her decision, took a few of her clothes, and left her family.  She loved my dad so much that she left everything behind to be with him and my mom.

And then, around the early 1980s, my mom isn’t quite clear on the exact dates, Nga’s family decided to charter a boat to sneak out of Vietnam.  Lots of people were doing this at that time, because the communist oppression was getting quite out of hand.  Vietnamese refugees would brave the harsh waters of the South China Sea to Malaysia, Hong Kong, the Philippines, or wherever there was a first world country presence that would accept them.

(random image I found of the “boat people”,
this was probably what the conditions were like on that boat)

Nga’s father sent one of her brothers to Cho Lon to find her, and told her that the family was leaving the country, and she should come home to say goodbye to her dad, as they may never see each other again.  Nga agreed, and left with her brother to go back to her village.

The “saying goodbye” part was really a trick, as they wanted her to go with them!  When she refused, they tied her up and threw her on to the boat.  Nga was kidnapped by her own family as they escaped into the ocean that night.

My parents had no idea what happened to Nga. They looked everywhere and asked everyone if they had seen her, but all to no avail.  She just disappeared.  They suspected that she left with her family, without saying goodbye.

A few months later, they received a letter from Nga.  She had written it while on the boat, with our address on it, and a kind fisherman had delivered it back to my mom and dad.  Nga poured her heart out explaining to them what had happened, that her family had forced her against her will to go with them.  She said she loved my mom and dad and us kids very much, and hope to find her way home someday.

Nga eventually made it to France, but there was no way for her to return to Vietnam, or my parents to go visit her.  Back then, everyone was poor and it was really hard to fly between countries just to visit.  They kept in touch through letters for a few years. When we left Vietnam to come to America in 1987, they lost touch with each other.  While in transit to the Philippines, the authorities somehow lost a container carrying important documents and photos, including Nga’s correspondence.  My mom was devastated.

We don’t know where Nga is now.  She is probably still in France, with a family of her own.  She is 5 years older than my mom, which means she is about 60 years old right now.  I wish there were some way we can meet her, I know my mom and dad would still very much like to see her again.

So that was the story of how my dad had two wives, and how we had two moms.  I’m not sure how much of it is true, but it is quite a story.  And from the photos and the conviction in my mom’s voice when she told us the story, I have to believe that at least some of it is true.

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If you’re interested and know Cantonese, here is the sound byte of my mom telling me the story.  I’ve heard it before in passing, but didn’t believe her until I saw the photograph of her and my dad and Nga.  So when I visited her last year, I made her retell the story as we go do some shopping.  I’m so glad I recorded it because I would’ve gotten a lot of the details wrong.  Love ya mom :).

Sound byte of the interview with my mom about Nga

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memories of vietnam

A Tale of Two Wives, pt 3

< read part 2

But my mom noticed a strange woman at the wedding that tagged along all through out the day.  She had a gloom about her, and was always a step behind, looking sad and forlorn.  She even fought her way to sit in the front seat of the wedding car.  Who is this crazy woman? thought my mom.  All through this my dad kept silent, and it was too hectic for my mom to continue to care.

(mom and dad in their wedding car)

Then at the banquet that night, my mom noticed the exchanged looks and began to suspect that there was something between the strange woman and my dad.  Eventually, someone told her that she was my dad’s ex-girlfriend. They told her my dad and Nga’s entire story.  My mom was of course angry, she’d never heard of this woman until then.  After most of the guests had left, Nga was still there!  She was sittting at another table, looking sad and confused.  My mom made up her mind and went straight to her table, to the horror of my dad and a few older women, who thought she was about to start a fight.

But that wasn’t her intention, my mom is one of the most kind-hearted person I know.  She felt really sorry for the woman.  She asked her, “What is your name?”.  But Nga didn’t reply, and just stared at her.  She then asked, “Do you really love him that much?”.  Nga still didn’t answer.

My mom thought, well, my granddad had three wives.  It’ll be okay if my husband have two.  So she placed her wedding veil on the woman’s head.  She then took off her ring and my dad’s ring and placed them in my dad’s hand.  She asked the manager of the restaurant to set up a new table, they were going to have a second ceremony.

And so, that day, my dad married two women within a few hours of each other.  I know this sounds crazy, I didn’t believe it either when mom first told me the story.  Who would be so open-hearted that she would allow her husband to marry a different woman on the same wedding night?  But, knowing my mom’s unusual generous personality, I couldn’t completely dismiss it.  Then one day, we found a photo in her old stuff, and my doubts were even further appeased.  It was a photo of my mom, my dad, and a woman to his right also wearing a bridal veil.  I snapped a picture of it with my phone, because I knew I would want to write their story down one day.

(my dad and his two wives, my mom is on the left, Nga on the right)

After that, the three of them lived together in quite happy circumstances, according to my mom.  The two of them were like sisters, and did everything together.  She said Nga stayed with us and was our second mom until Vinny and I were three or four years old!  However, I don’t really have any recollection of her.

read part 4 >

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memories of vietnam

A Tale of Two Wives, pt 2

< read part 1

At the same time, my mom’s granddad had developed a close relationship with my dad.  They were great friends, and my dad reminded him of his lost son who had died years earlier.  There were also other reasons my mom explained involving the compatibility of our last names and such, but it went over my head.

In any case, my great granddad saw that my dad was already 39 years old and unmarried, and decided to rectify the situation.  He had four grand daughters, but the youngest one wasn’t of age yet, so he showed pictures of my mom and her two older sisters to my dad and told him to choose one of them.  At first, he probably refused, he was still in love with Nga.  But he eventually had some sense talked into him and gave in.  He picked my mom, she was 21 years old at the time.


(a younger photo of my mom)

My mom had of course refused, she hardly knew this man and he was so much older than her!  And she had plans of becoming a nurse.  She even ran away for a while, but being the obedient child that she was, she returned home, and begged her grandfather to change his mind.  Her grandfather then took a nail, handed it my mom, and told her to nail it into the mango tree in their garden, and said “Leave older businesses to older people!  If you can take that nail out of the tree, then you can make your own decisions.”  But try as she might, she couldn’t do it.  If I were her, I would’ve chopped the darn tree down.

So my mom agreed to the marriage.  Not soon after she agreed, her granddad passed away.   They had to mourn his death, as all chinese families do, for 100 days.  On November 10, 1975, the 105th day after her granddad’s death,  my mom and dad had their wedding.

(mom and dad on their wedding day)

Lots of people came.  As I mentioned before, my dad was well liked by everyone and had a lot of friends.  He was a really good person and had a lot of “yi hei” (Cantonese word meaning “personal loyalty”;  Someone who is willing to stand up for or help their friends in need).  His friends probably helped chipped in for the wedding.  In any case, from the photos and what my mom told me, it sounded like a glorious wedding.

read part 3 >

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memories of vietnam

Growing up in Vietnam: Flaming Paper Airplanes

Vinny and I caused a lot of trouble when we were kids.  I mean, we weren’t spoiled brats or anything.  We were obedient, respectful of our elders, and fairly good kids, considering.  But man, we were curious and active and got into everything! Case in point, here’s a memory I have of one of our misdeeds.

Growing up in Vietnam, we didn’t have TVs or Playstations to keep us from being bored, so we had to come up with creative ways to entertain ourselves.  One day, we decided to light paper airplanes on fire to see what they would look like floating down.  Our family lived on the fourth floor of a huge apartment complex that had a narrow alley way on the side.  We could look down on to the alley way through a small window in our kitchen, and it looked fairly safe.

So, we made paper airplanes, lit a match, and set one on fire.  Then we tossed the airplane out the window to watch it float to the alley below.  To our horror, the fire didn’t go out on the way down as we expected, and the plane landed on a pile of rubbish!  Even worse, the fire started getting bigger!  Being the creative problem solving young minds that we were, Vinny and I started running back and forth between the faucet and the window, carrying these little cups of water and dumping them down at the burning rubble four stories below.

Needless to say, our efforts proved futile.  The fire got progressively bigger and bigger as we panicked and frantically dumped water faster and faster out the window.  Eventually, an adult downstairs poked his head out and looked up at us.  When he noticed our two panic-stricken heads looking down, he shook his fist at us and started yelling something obscene.  He then went and put out the fire as we ran away to hide. The adult told on us later that day, and we got a beating from our dad.

Memories like these are faint and fading.  I’ve forgotten so many of these tidbits as the years roll by.  The environments of the clean and orderly U.S. is night and day compared to the chaotic environments of Vietnam, and there is very little mnemonic landscape for us to hang on to.  I’m only grateful that I can still remember some of these memories, if only a glimmering trace. We never tried flying flaming paper airplanes again.

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memories of vietnam

My Uncle, Who Is Named Sam

I’ve always wanted to hear the story of how my uncle came to America, because without him, the rest of our family wouldn’t be here.  One day I decided to give him an interview about his trip from Vietnam to the U.S.  It is such an amazing story, and I’m glad I had the opportunity to jot it down before it becomes a lost piece of our family’s history. Had an interesting time writing it, hope you enjoy reading it too.

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My family worked really hard to save money to buy gold, because the boat owners didn’t take cash.  Once they’ve saved up nine gold rings to pay the boat owners, they sent my uncle out to shore in the darkness of night so he can board the boat to sneak out of Vietnam.

(family pic of grandma and grandpa and our aunts and uncle Sam in the middle)

This was in 1979, the war had ended a few years prior and conditions in communist Vietnam were getting worse.  Thousands of Vietnamese were escaping the country to any other places that would take them.  They were dubbed “the boat people” by the international community, and my uncle was one of them.  He was twenty one years old.

The plan was to have small groups of about twenty people per group sneak out secretly in separate boats to a bigger rig waiting further offshore.  From there they would aim for one of the countries that would take them:  Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, or Hong Kong.  If they were caught, they would be thrown in jail, fined, and severely punished.

The four small boats had met up where the rig should be, but there was no rig.  They searched and waited until around five in the morning and still nothing.  Either something had happened or they’ve been cheated.

Some of the men became aggressive.  They saw a bigger fishing boat nearby and decided to hijack it.  By this time two of the four boats had disappeared.  The three fisherman on board the fishing boat was forcefully agreed to help, and the people from the leftover boats boarded the bigger fishing rig and they headed for Malaysia.

The trip was only meant to last two to three days, and they’ve only loaded enough provision for that amount of time.  By day three, all the food were gone.  They had to find help or they would starve!  Luckily, they spotted another fishing boat and flagged them down for help.

What they thought were another fishing boat turned out to be a group of bandits.   Men with machetes boarded their boat and proceeded to rob them of everything valuable.  Jewelry, watches, nice clothes, they took everything.  The refugees were too scared to fight back.  My uncle lost his watch and a bunch of his clothing.  But luckily, the gold ring that was hidden in his pants stayed safe.

After robbing them of everything worth taking, the bandits left them.  No one was killed but they were very much shaken, and still without food.  They sailed on.  Eventually they spotted another boat.   They were scared that it may yet be another group of bandits, but they were desperate.  Luckily, these people weren’t bandits and actually threw some fish and water into their boat before moving on.

Some time later, they encountered an oil rig.  He said it was a huge ship, several stories high.  My uncle’s riggity fishing boat pulled along side and yelled for help, claiming that they were refugees and that they didn’t have any food or water on board.  The people in the rig threw down provision and water, but they didn’t let them board.  So my uncle’s boat attached itself to the rig and wouldn’t leave.

They were along side for three days until they lost patience and started climbing up the rig.  It was very dangerous, and he said the people on the rig eventually threw down ladders and helped them up.  They were fed western food and taken to a refugee camp in Malaysia.  It had been one week since my uncle began his journey.

(picture I found in a wiki article about “Boat People”)

He was in the refugee camp in Malaysia for another week before they rounded everyone up to send them to an island where there was a bigger camp.  Nine small boats were tied together, and a big ship lead the pack and towed them out to sea.  On board, my uncle saw that there were lots of food and water and thought it was their supply for the next camp.  But this was not the case, they were lied to.  The camps were getting overcrowded and there were no room for the new refugees.  The ship towed the boats to open water, cut them loose, and sailed away.   The refugees were left floundering at sea.

My uncle said the boats were overcrowded, with barely any elbow room.  There were about two hundred people spread across the boats.  Some of the men took charge and they decided to head for Indonesia, where another refugee camp may take them in.  Four of the boats agreed and followed them, but the next day, they were somehow separated and my uncle’s boat was all alone.  They spent two weeks in the ocean before making it to Indonesia.

Aides from the U.N. and various nations were there to help the refugees.  My uncle stayed in the refugee camp in Indonesia for five months, during which time he registered to the countries that were accepting immigrants.  First, Canada rejected him.  Then he tried Australlia, but also to no avail.  But on the third try, the U.S. accepted him and soon after, he and a smaller group of refugees were flown to the States.

By this time, the plight of the boat people were in the world news.  Reports about drownings and piracy were generating concerns in the global theater.  Luckily for my uncle (and for us), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) had negotiated an agreement with the government of Vietnam.  What came to be known as the “Orderly Departure Program” that lasted from 1980 to 1994, thousands of Vietnamese refugees were able to obtain green cards in a relatively short time.  At that point, he was able to “sponsor” any members of his immediate family over to the U.S., and that was what he did.

My grand parents and the three unmarried aunts went first, in 1985.  My family followed after in 1987, my brother and I were nine years old.  My uncle became a U.S. citizen that year, the rest of the family followed suit over the decades that follow.

So now we are all here, drinking koolaid, watching football, and living the American dream.   We escaped the oppressive land that was Vietnam, and came to the land of opportunity, to pursue whatever hopes and dreams we care to pursue.  And it is all thanks to my uncle, who is also named Sam.

(uncle Sam is furthest right, sporting a big smile)

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memories of vietnam

The Greatest Mom in the World

When my dad married my mom, he was 39 and she was 21.   When they were young, my mom’s granddad loved my dad like a son.  One day, he asked my dad to pick one of his oldest three granddaughters to be his wife.  My mom was granddaughter number 3, and he picked her.  She said that when she found out about the arranged marriage, she ran away into the woods nearby and spent the night there crying her heart out.  But in the middle of the night the Buddhist goddess Tara came to her and told her she need to be an obedient child, and for her to return home to fulfill her duty as a granddaughter.  And that is what she did.

My dad is a great friend to his pals, and strives to be a respectable and good man.  But he was not a good husband.  He was an alcoholic, and on nights when his temper flared he would become abusive for something trivial.  I wouldn’t say he was an evil man, this was accepted practice in the backward culture that was Vietnam.  A man is allowed to hit his wife and kids with very little social stigma or consequences.  But those nights make me wonder how she could’ve stayed with him for so long.

One particular occassion, I was playing with my brother when our neighbors came running to tell us, “Your dad is coming home!  And he is drunk!”  This gives you a sense of how bad things were, when even our neighbors knew to warn us when our alcoholic dad was coming home drunk.  I remember the three of us, my twin brother and younger sister, ran into the house and hid all things that were breakable.  Ceramic bowls, drinking glasses, mirrors and such.  We only kept the plastic cups out.  And we did good, because not long after he was throwing things against the walls and cursing at everything in sight.

So my mom dealt with the temper, the alcohol, and raised three kids despite all that.  They owned a business selling irons at a market nearby and life was good for what it was.  The thing is, my mom is the most forgiving person I know.  She cares a lot about everyone, accepted their flaws and misgivings.  With an attitude like that you can overcome anything.  The good news was, when we moved to the States my dad did change.   But occassionally he still came home drunk and let loose a punch here and there.  My mom would stop talking to him for the next week or so but eventually things would return to normal.  The important thing was, he did strive to change.  He knew the errors of his ways, but the culture was so ingrained in him and the alcohol didn’t help.

My mom was borned in 1956, that makes her 54 years old.  She was married to my dad when she was 21 so they’ve been married 33 years.  I believe she came to love him after all these years, as much as anyone can love another person she’s stuck with.  Did she ever considered getting a divorce?  Maybe she did at times, but she never did.  And despite everything I’ve told you, I know my dad loves her very much.  He just wasn’t capable of being a good husband.

My dad had a major stroke about a year ago.  Half of his brain is now gone.  He can’t speak but a few phrases and half of his body is paralyzed.  He is in a wheel chair and has to wear diapers and be fed his food.  Right before the stroke, my mom actually did want to leave him, I’m not sure if it was temporary or if she even had it planned out.  But she bought a one-way ticket, told my sister to take care of the younger sis, and flew to California to take care of my granddad.  She had been away for a month before she got a call that her husband had suffered a massive stroke.  Of course, she flew back to Virginia right away when she heard the news.

Secretly, I suspect the stroke was caused by my mom leaving.  My dad wasn’t in the best of shape, and perhaps the thought of losing her ripped out a vein in his brain.  Nevertheless, she is now with him again.  He is in a child like state, behaving like a little kid. But she puts up with it.  No nursing home she said.  It is her duty as a wife to take care of him.  So she’s now his caretaker, him in his wheelchair and she pushing him around and together they go about their daily lives.  We let her drive his car for a brief period of time, but she isn’t a good driver at all, and after a few months of driving she crashed it into her house and totaled it.  After that we decided that dad was right and we shouldn’t let her drive.  So we help out when we can, driving her and dad around to where they need to go.  On occassions when we can’t drive her, she still pushes him in his wheel chair to the bus station and subway and does what she need to do.  It’s so crazy, but that’s my mom.

After what I’ve told you, wouldn’t you agree my mom is one of the greatest woman in the world?  I do, and love her very much for who she is.  If I were to list all the people that affected my life, she would be at the top of the list.