My parents say that they are from Hue in the same way that I say that I am from Atlanta. They are both catchall geographical terms that allow people not familiar with the area to attach location and meaning to your origins. But just as Atlanta area people have a sense of the subtle variations between Alpharetta and Doraville, the people of Hue draw distinctions between different villages. People around here can even pick up on what village or province you are from just by dialect. On Wednesday, we got an opportunity to visit the villages that make up my parent's past. In honor of the release of The Dark Knight, I will tell the tale of the uncovering of my parent's own origin stories using analogies from the Batman franchise.
Gotham City: My Mom was born in a small village called Vinh Hoa about 30 km away from Hue. It's a small, quiet beach town where my mother's family goes back at least two generations. My father was also born on the coast, but further to the south, not far from Nha Trang, but his mother's family is also from a village near Vinh Hoa. The entire region is dominated by rice farms. For those of you who have never seen one, a rice farm looks like an absolutely perfect emerald green lawn, except that the grass is about a foot high and submerged in six or so inches of water. The wind ripples its surface, making it look like the east Asian version of the American prairie. Rice in place of wheat, water in lieu of dust. At the right angles, at the right time of day, you can see the sparkle of silver water between the blades as farmers wade through their fields maintaining their livelihoods. Rice cultivation is one of the few major modern subsistence crops that resists industrialization, so everything is done by hand and oxen. There is no diesel-powered behemoth combine, the only motorized vehicles are the ubiquitous motos, buzzing like overgrown cicadas. Being a coastal village, the other industry of the area is fishing, a trade plied on long skinny wooden boats propelled by a thin paddle like the one used by a gondolier. My mother's family was actually involved in construction, but I guess it turns out that both my Mom and Dad were really kind of beach kids. Which is weird.
Wayne Manor: My Aunt Dien and Uncle Han took us to the house where my mother was born. I don't think it takes a rocket scientist to understand how powerful of an experience this was, to see the house that my grandfather built, where my uncles lived, where my mother cried because my uncle Han (her cousin) wouldn't give her some of the fruit he had picked from a tree in their yard. Inside the house was the same shrine to the ancestors that you'll find in every home and business in Vietnam, but this one was unique to me and my family, tracing a line from me to someone who lived so long ago their portraits were sketches on paper. Generations of my family are buried there.
It was my experience as a child of immigrants to have a loose connection to my parent's homeland. It was not see-able, or really know-able, even though it was an ever present spectre in our daily lives. I think that's why I have such a strong feeling of connectedness to my places, the Athens's, the Oakland's and Boston's that have made up the fabric of my life. To understate what has clearly been a theme for this whole trip: it has been nice to see where my parents grew up.
The Batcave: Anyone who knows my parents knows that the only place where they would seek refuge and rest, to rearm and prepare for any upcoming challenges is a church. And lo and behold, my Mom grew up about 10 feet from the Catholic church in town. My grandfather was a lay deacon, and my family has given money over the years to build up new additions and upgrades to the facility.
Cast of Characters...a Female lead and a bunch of really really old people like Alfred: We visited a lot of distant family. For my family's sake and the fact that it is extremely unlikely I will remember them later, I will briefly outline their relationship to me under each picture.
Here's the classic multi-generational Vietnamese household.
Believe it or not, these two very elderly women in the background are my father's cousins. My grandmother was one of the youngest of her large family and these women are the children of the oldest. They are still kickin' well into their eighties. Bodes well for me.
She is the younger sister of my father's mother. Also amazingly robust. Go Asians.
What a cutie. The Byzantine maze that describes her relationship to me is not important, but she was an enchanting little lady. They were all amazed that I would come to visit them and were patient through my limited Vietnamese as we outlined their relationships to me and mine.
As we drove away, I wondered if I could ever have much of an idea what it's like to live their lives, to see what they've seen, to do what they must do everyday. Did they see the vast asymmetry, that what divides our stations in life isn't genetics or race or any other scapegoat for poverty, but zip code? A daring parental act 35 years ago created a rift between us, with tile and porcelain and limitless opportunity on the one hand and concrete and bamboo and mildewed squalor on the other. It's hard not to think that my parents slipped through an ever narrowing door, that the world will not receive these sons and daughters with the same sort of jaw dropping generosity it gave me and my sisters.