In 1981, I befriended a young man who fled Vietnam in April 1975, when Saigon fell to the communists. His story proved extra poignant because he was 21 in 1975 and had taken three of his siblings, ages 17, 14, and 8, with him. His mother had passed away a few years before, and his father had refused to leave Vietnam. He told his son that he wouldn’t know how to survive outside his country. Back in 1954, the family had fled Hanoi. By Vietnamese standards, they were well-to-do.
My friend became guardian for his younger siblings, which was a heavy burden for someone who was just 21. When we met, he was 27 and I was 28, and his youngest brother, who was then 13, was living with him. We became fast friends, and he introduced me to others commonly referred to as “the boat people”. He practiced Vietnamese Buddhism, and I attended their services, mostly in the homes of the diasporic community in San Jose. I met a former South Vietnamese general, who was such a kind, old gentleman. Often, I was the only Caucasian person at the services, but I felt welcomed, and they treated me like an honored guest. I’m Catholic, and exposure to another religion uplifted me and helped me understand my own faith better.
My friend was self-employed. He opened a business which imitated the Supercuts model for haircuts and styling, and after expanding to two salons, he was making much more money than I. Because his ability to read English was poor, I did his bookkeeping. He had never received any formal education in English, but he had an excellent American accent, surely acquired from listening to, and speaking with, hundreds and hundreds of American soldiers on the streets of Saigon. In 2004, I purchased a tutoring franchise and used what I had learned from him to maximize my profits.
Once, during our years of friendship, we attended a Vietnamese concert in San Jose, and he asked the featured singer, Lệ Thu, to sing a song and dedicate it to me. I was flattered. My friend had come to know Lệ Thu and Khánh Ly, another famous singer, when he was still living in Saigon.
Another time, my friend introduced me to a Vietnamese woman running a brothel in San Francisco near the Stockton tunnel. I won’t say the name, to protect the innocent (or the guilty). We visited for several hours, and, no, not for nefarious reasons. She prepared lunch for us, which was delicious, and we sat on floor mats covering the floor of her office. At one point, we were interrupted by one of her girls, complaining or asking for direction (in Vietnamese), and she, too, was lovely. My eyes opened to the reality of survival, and I found that I had no negative feelings for her business. This experience left me with a new understanding and empathy for others.
My overall experience with the Vietnamese community in America was extremely positive and greatly enriched my life. As a tribute to the community, I made one of the police inspectors in my novel a Vietnamese-American. I fashioned him after a patrol officer I had worked with at the Academy of Art University. He was Cambodian, not Vietnamese, but I needed a visual while I wrote, and he was so unusual and interesting that he became the visual. He knows he’s in the book.
I get excited whenever I hear the Vietnamese language. Though I don’t speak a word, I know it when I hear it. I follow current Vietnamese singers on You Tube, such as the lovely Băng Tâm https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1NYLOzPb3V4, just so I can hear the language. In my time spent with the Vietnamese community, I attempted to learn how to speak the language but whenever I uttered a Vietnamese phrase, such as “Saigon Dep Lam,” my dear listeners would say, “What?” My pronunciation was so bad that I knew I would have to immediately follow up with what I had to say – in English.
Although I’ve never been to Vietnam, I have a fond spot for this country in my heart. Vietnamese cuisine is definitely among my top five, and, yes, I can smell fish sauce a mile away, and Phở is the best soup in the world. Today, the country is recovering because it is an entrepreneurial society with great investment potential. Religion is making a resurgence. Catholicism always does well under persecution.
There are many videos of Saigon and Hanoi on YouTube, and I encourage you to take a look.
Here is a current video of the Saigon streets, motorcycles, and businesses. Listen to a song known by almost every Vietnamese man, woman, and child (I hope you will take a look and a listen!) www.youtube.com/watch?v=UMrYd__jGnQ
I would love to hear from American soldiers or people who did business, or are doing business in Vietnam, and, of course, I would love to hear from the diasporic community and readers in Vietnam today.
If you’d like to see my Asian character in action, the Amazon link is below.
Thank you so much for reading!
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