|The little girl in MY picture|
Saturday, May 28, 2011
You’ve heard the name. You’ve listened your uncle’s stories. You’ve read about it in a history book. You’ve seen the documentaries, the movies and the mini-series. You have seen the images. You have seen the image.
I remember the first time I encountered it while flipping through the pages of Life Magazine. An image that my memory has never shed, and likely never will: the naked girl running though a storm of agony and napalm. I was about eight when I first came face to face with the tears that streamed down her face. Ever since, I have wanted to know what happened next.
Thuan and Gam are a young couple in their early thirties who own a seafood restaurant in the picturesque coastal town of Hoi An. Cahn Buom Trang, The White Sail Café, is Thuan’s fourth project in his budding career as a restaurateur. It opened for business just weeks before we arrived in Hoi An. A spin-off of his other restaurant of the same name that is hugely popular amongst the locals, the new White Sail is geared to attract the tourist dollar. On our first night in Hoi An we walked by and liked the vibe. We sat in the wicker chairs out front and ordered dinner. Even though the verbal communication was limited by our ignorance of Vietnamese and their limited English, the couple went out of their way to make us feel at home.
I ordered the “shrimp drumsticks” with vermicelli. Finely chopped fresh shrimp are mixed with egg, tapioca flour, herbs and spices. The resulting paste is wrapped around a stalk of lemongrass, leaving the bottom exposed to give it the drumstick shape. The otherwise heavy and monotonous shrimp paste becomes infused with the subtle aroma of lemongrass making it very light and sophisticated. Not only did I think it was clever, but the flavor blew my mind. I went over to give the man some well-deserved props. An hour goes by and we don’t even notice. Turns out we have one thing in common we love food.
For the next week I spent most of my waking hours in Hoi An inside Thuan’s kitchen learning how to cook Hoi An style, helping out with the prep work and as every novice, washing dishes. It’s the best cooking class I’ve ever had. It also provided me the opportunity make a new friend and get to know the story.
Thuan is the oldest of three siblings. “We were poor”, he said. Both of his parents had to work, he was responsible for doing the cooking for the whole family. I ask if his mother taught him to cook, he simply replies “No. I try and try and learn.” He started off with the traditional dishes, steamed rice, meat, fish and vegetables in clay pot, and of course, pho, the ubiquitous beef-broth soup. As a teenager he started working as a cook, but he eventually wanted to have his own restaurant. To gather some extra cash, he would go to the markets in Hoi An and buy fresh crab directly from the fishermen, then hop on his motorbike and go an hour north to Danang to sell it to fancy restaurants. Doing this, he got enough money to open a small restaurant on the way to the beach. His father worried that he was too young and when Thuan approached his dad to get a signature for a loan to open the first Cahn Buom Trang, his father declined. He didn’t get discouraged. He continued working until he got enough money to open the restaurant and it was a hit. “All the locals eat there.” After an unsuccessful venture in a restaurant by the beach where “the money went into the sea”, here we are now, the fourth restaurant in 10 years. He is only 31.
Needless to say, this guy works hard. A passionate perfectionist, he is as meticulous as a surgeon when it comes to the presentation of his dishes. But, what struck me the most was his vision and relentless devotion to learning more about his craft, his business and everything that crosses his path. “I want to learn everything in my life. If you come back in 5, 10 years, I can prepare better food, taste better. I will have the best restaurant in Hoi An.” His positivity and drive were truly captivating, but he is quick to dismiss that he is unique. He says most young people in Hoi An start their own business and everyone works hard.
After a few days of talk about food, many visits to the market and plenty of conversations about our respective cultures and traditions I feel comfortable enough to broach the topic. I ask him about the war, the effects that it had on his parents and others who lived through it, how young people view the war, how they view Americans, foreigners in general. To my interrogation he responds with a puzzled look. I assumed it made him uncomfortable, but the simplicity and clarity of his response accompanied by a reassuring smile reflected otherwise: “I don’t think of that. It is the past.”
Mr. Hoang was born in 1952. He could be my father, in fact also born in ‘52, but he treats the strangers who ambled into his shop on a hot and humid spring afternoon like old friends. Our fatigue apparently visible, he brings us cold tea. His warm, soft voice inquires if we would like something else in flowing English. Not sure of what I want I say I’ll stick to the tea. He smiles and walks away to fetch coffee for himself. It is hot and I am thirsty, but I don’t waste the opportunity to join him in the joys of caffeine. Stimulants always ease social interaction. As he prepares the super strong brew I take a big gulp of tea. In the background, his wife does the days’ dishes, his younger brother sitting close by takes a drag of his cig’ while he stares into infinity.
We came down this non-descript alley in Saigon’s Sector 3 in search of a vegan restaurant we dug up online. It was not yet open for dinner. Serendipitously sitting in this, literally, whole–in-the-wall restaurant waiting for the fancier spot on the next corner to open we got another take on the story.
Mr. Hoang was alive during the war and the war is still alive in him. Not the trauma of battle, he was spared from combat, but the scars of chaos and instability. A sense of defeat still lurks in the minds of Southerners who were less than thrilled to have communism come blasting into their lives. He brings me a short glass full of dark brown java, sits next to me, offers me a smoke from his brother’s pack. Eager to converse, he leans back as his mind drift into the past. Unprompted he says: “I worked for the Americans and the Australians. Foreigners gave us jobs.” After a sip of coffee he stands up and fetches an envelope with letters of recommendation from his previous posts; a security guard at both the American Embassy and for an Australian contractor brought in for the rebuilding process. His chest fills up with pride as I read the docs filled with high praise for his work ethic and trust. He wonders back in time telling me stories which are inextricably linked to a point in time; everything is prefaced by “Before 1975…” or “After 1975…” speckles of resentment still color his mind.
I sit and listen with intent as he recalls moments when they had little to eat, when he had to go out and do but never dare say; even to this day, he won’t speak ill of authority. I venture to say that things seem to have changed; progress is evident through the modern Ho Chi Minh City – large skyscrapers rising from the shores of the Mekong, luxury and opulence around every corner – the reflections of a flourishing economy. He shakes his head and puts down his cup: “That is not progress.” He pauses. “Build and build hotels and restaurants, but no hospitals, no schools.” I sink deep into my tiny plastic chair to process the weighty words. Not everything that glitters is gold.
As I recover from the smack of reality, I sense as Mr. Hoang springs up from his chair; hope fills the room. His daughter walks down the wooden steps descending from their home above. He asks her to join us and he is immediately transformed from a gloomy realist into a glowing father. He brags about her marks at the University and her fluency in English as she shyly blushes. The dynamics of the interaction are permanently transformed; the conversation lightens up and returns to small talk.
Mr. Hoang and I chat away. He tells me about the restaurant, his daily routine of starting to make rice at 3:30 AM before he goes out to fetch the fresh ingredients for the day’s cooking. He waits the tables while his wife cooks. “My wife keeps the money”, he jokingly says while he motions to his pocket. I tell him mine does the same and we share a loud laugh, both wives looking on with a “that’s not funny” face which defies borders. To make up for this gratuitous jab, he goes and finishes helping with the dishes.
We chat with the daughter, her face covered with amazement and curiosity about our journey and our home on the other side of the world. After a while of chitchat and the unbearable growling of our stomachs, we decide to go for dinner. Mr. Hoang, grateful for our visit, invites us to come back for lunch another day. He does not allow me to pay. The daughter asks us for our emails so she can befriend us on facebook. “Isn’t facebook blocked in Vietnam”, I say. “Everyone is on facebook”, she says matter-of-factly, “We find a way.”
Tran said we could meet at the Ben Thanh Market. We first met her while we were volunteering at The Organic Farm in Laos. We were milking goats as she was developing a new business plan and marketing strategy for the owners. Once we told her we would be in Vietnam in a few weeks she told us to please call her when we arrived in Saigon. Hence, we’re waiting outside the market.
As middle aged men stroll by in their cyclos offering us a ride, Tran shows up on her scooter wearing a beautiful traditional dress; an allegory of modern Vietnam – a young entrepreneurial woman striving for success without forgetting her roots. University educated, well travelled and perfectly fluent in English, Tran is a business consultant and soon-to-be Lecturer at the University. She also plans to start her own company to cater to the needs of women of her generation by designing a line of modern professional business attire. She excuses herself for being late as we walk over to the park across the street and sit under the trees. We talk to her about our meetings with Thuan and Gam, and Mr. Hoang’s family. She is excited about our interest. We say that we feel compelled to share our experience in Vietnam with others, especially with our friends and family back in The Colony, since their ideas about her country are mostly shaped by, as I told heart the time, “imperialist propaganda”. She laughs at my cynicism.
A young University student walks by. Filled with curiosity and wanting to practice his English, he jumps into our conversation, as we share some of the observations gathered along the way to get their impressions. They both agree on the one thing that everyone here agrees on, the North and the South are different; conservative, brutalist, red, eastern-minded, North and the more open, modern, “dolla’ bill green”, western-minded South. Also the generational differences, generally young and old, or to echo Mr. Hoang, before and after the war, ones scarred by the war and the others striving for a better future. Tran does point out, that the youngest generation, those born in the 90s or 00s have no frame of reference when it comes to the struggles of the past and are “lazy and spoiled”. The young student, likely of that age, does not disagree. Regional and generational differences asides, they both concur that in general the Vietnamese people are hard working and have a forward looking attitude, which is precisely what has helped the move on from the blunders of history. We chat for hours until again our stomachs interrupt.
T hat evening we go out for a stroll to enjoy the cool evening air. We walk through the same park where we had our morning conversation with Tran and The Student and sense the vibrations of the energy that surrounds us. A young couple pushes a stroller, lovers passionately enveloped in the moment as lovers do, an endless stream of children and laughter.
Music comes from a distance. They dance, as the many ideas that tumble through my mind they dance. Vietnam has joined the global party to share and enjoy the comforts, the culture and the connectivity that we all aspire to acquire.
And now, now I know what happened.
Life went on.
“Forgiveness made me free from hatred. I still have many scars on my body and severe pain most days but my heart is cleansed. Napalm is very powerful, but faith, forgiveness, and love are much more powerful. We would not have war at all if everyone could learn how to live with true love, hope, and forgiveness. If that little girl in the picture can do it, ask yourself: Can you?”
Phan Thị Kim Phúc–“the little girl in the picture”