Autobiography of Daddy’s Sister – Part 1

Thân phận của một người Việt lúc 75 năm trước

By Amy Mori (*)

Throughout my life, I’ve been climbing an endless ladder that gives me ten challenges before every success. This ladder has grown taller than mountains, with so many struggles and valuable lessons I’ve learned along the way. It can take several years to climb even one step up, and as I look back down I realize that I have climbed thousands. It has never been easy for me to move up this ladder of my life, but the earliest steps I remember climbing were the hardest not to fall from.

I was born during a time when life was very fragile and could be taken from you at any moment. Vietnam was in the middle of the war for independence from France, and Ho Chi Minh led the Viet Minh army that would later become the Viet Cong. The history books make the fight for independence sound very noble and full of honor on paper, but I only remember the fear of not seeing tomorrow. To still be alive every morning was a miracle for many reasons aside from the war. I came to understand at an early age how the government affected us from my father, who always made very difficult decisions and worked hard for our family to survive. Life under communism was exhausting.

I can still remember the terrible living conditions in Vietnam from the time I was only four or five years old. During these days, misfortune was everywhere. If we turned our eyes towards the sky, we’d see bombs from the French army that fell almost every day, as well as their airplanes with guns carrying out orders to shoot anything that moved below. When we looked at ourselves, we saw taxes and a list of impossible expectations from the Viet Minh. And when we looked down at the ground, we were searching desperately for anything we could eat. The struggle to avoid starving to death was the most exhausting challenge of all. Everyone started their day at 4am to 5am working in the rice fields, including children my age and younger. Any time outside the field was spent looking for other possible sources of food. If I was lucky, I could find wild vegetables, grasshoppers, snails, and sea creatures inside the river before someone else took it first. Everyone worked like this every day of the year without resting, but no matter how hard we tried, there was never enough food to eat. The difficulties did not stop there, however. Our small, insufficient supply of food was decreased even more when we factored in taxes from the Viet Minh. These taxes were impossibly expensive and required 50% of the harvest from our rice fields, no matter how little there was. The rules stated that every time we cooked rice, the amount we ate would have to match the amount of rice given to the Viet Minh. This did not change whether it was a good or bad year of harvest, and the Viet Minh came to our door every week to collect our forced donation. In order to avoid being thrown into jail, we often had to find other ways to meet the quota when the harvest fell short. I cannot count how many times I saw people being forced to sell their homes and all their belongings, and even that was not always enough to satisfy the Viet Minh. The war had lethal bombs and guns from the enemy that could kill us, but so many people in Vietnam died just from being unable to meet the communist government’s requirements.

Everyone who lived in that harsh world prioritized two things: to stay alive, and to save enough food to continue staying alive. There was no room to wish for more. How could we think about material luxuries in life when it was so hard just to avoid death from both the sky and the ground? But despite all the evils of that world, being with my family brought enough joy to make my childhood worth it. Close families can overcome almost anything when they face hardships together. It’s a powerful force that refuses to let death win, many times kicking it away and simply yelling, “Not today!” My mother and father kept my family strong with a fierce love that gave them unimaginable strength to protect me and all eleven of my siblings from the danger surrounding us. Some people may think it’s impossible to raise twelve bright and healthy children during such terrible times, but my parents made sure that each of us would live to see a better world where we could afford to dream and also keep all our food. Whenever they stopped to enjoy precious time with us, it would only motivate them to work even harder because that time could have been spent gathering extra food to make us less hungry. There were twelve of us to feed, and most of the time we had to share a single bowl of rice. My mother couldn’t stand to see us hungry all the time, and if my father didn’t stop her she might have cooked the entire harvest for us and forget about the Viet Minh. He sometimes had to remind her that she wouldn’t be able to feed any children if she’s in jail.

My older brothers were also parental figures in the family because of the large age differences between the children; I was only four or five years old while they were already responsible young adults who helped my parents support us however they could. They had the same kind of authority to tell the younger children what was allowed or not allowed behavior, and many times they had to stop my younger brothers from doing crazy and dangerous things. It was a different kind of relationship compared to the children closer to my age. However, all of my brothers and sisters were very close no matter how old or how different each person was. Even though our family was extremely poor, we loved each other dearly. We would talk and laugh together as we worked in the rice fields, and we helped each other overcome anything. My large, happy family was all I needed to smile every day.

When I was six years old, however, my parents made the decision to send me away to live with my grandparents. They told me that I was going there to help with errands around the house, and I wouldn’t have to endure so many exhausting hours in rice field. It was a less harsh place to live, but I was terrified because I had never been away from home before. I cried and couldn’t imagine myself spending a single day without seeing my beloved brothers and sisters. It was like being told to move to a different planet.

I was extremely upset and thought that being isolated from my family was the worst idea ever. But my oldest sibling, brother Thong, could see the bigger picture and sat down next to me to share his wisdom. He was my family’s strongest support foundation who singlehandedly covered everything for us multiple times, and he naturally knew how to analyze my situation. Thong explained to me that living with my grandparents was not really about helping with house errands, but about helping my family save food and resources. My unconsumed portion was only 1/14th of a shared bowl of rice each meal, but everyone could at least have a bit more to eat. Starvation was happening everywhere in Vietnam, so each grain of rice was valuable.

Thong helped me understand the impact of this difficult choice, and he encouraged me to stay with my grandparents for the sake of our brothers and sisters. I trusted him and followed his advice, even though I was still frightened. The right choice didn’t change the fact that being away from my family was the last thing I wanted to do. However, I had no idea that it was the first step up the ladder towards the true beginning of my life.

A few days later, I was in a new home with a new family. It was much emptier without my eleven brothers and sisters, but my grandparents welcomed me into their arms and made me feel less lonely. Their love for me showed on their faces with such warm and peaceful expressions, which differed from my stern parents whose love had to fight constantly for my siblings not to starve. With one child to look after of instead of twelve, my grandparents could afford to smile and enjoy the little moments with me. They became very dear to me and had their own way of bringing joy into my life. My grandmother was my best friend, who read me bedtime stories and listened to my hopes and fears about life. She knew how to comfort me and always understood me without needing me to explain.

There was a small school near my grandparents’ house that caught my attention as the days passed, and I began a habit of looking through the window to watch the class going on inside. I had never gone to school before, but it was the one thing I wished for in life besides enough food to eat and a happy family. Whenever the teacher wrote on the board with a piece of chalk, I could only see unfamiliar symbols arranged into different combinations. But the students saw something else, and their hands all moved the same way and produced the same markings in the same order on their papers. They recognized the same language I spoke, but I had no idea where they found the words; the window was not the only thing separating me from the class. These students had the power to reach far beyond the borders of Vietnam and communicate my language with people they could not see or even hear. Watching them read and write made me feel like my world was only half of theirs, and I wanted so badly have what they did.

I never mentioned my desire to learn how to read and write, however, because I had accepted being unable to go to school a long time ago. Staying alive was already expensive during these years, and the single bowl of rice feeding my family of fourteen each day wouldn’t cover tuition for even one lesson; school was completely out of the question. But even so, I always came back to the window to watch the class studying. It was the closest to being a student that I could experience.

The impossible suddenly happened one day when I found out that my grandma had been paying attention. She came to me and addressed the hopeless dream that I had never spoken out loud. “I’ve noticed that you spend a lot of time around the school,” she said. “Why do you stand outside the window so much? I see you there almost every day.” My grandma smiled like she knew the answer. I was already surprised that someone was even aware, but it was a shock like no other when she then asked me, “Do you want to go to school?”

No sound came out of my mouth as I went completely still without blinking. I was numb with shock and had no idea what on earth to say. My grandma was offering me something that had been impossible my whole life, that I thought my ears weren’t working properly. How could I believe what I just heard? I only knew a harsh world that taught me how to expect less and to be prepared for the worst. Nothing had ever prepared me for the best to happen, if there was even such thing. Was this real?

As I stared at my grandma, still completely frozen and unsure of what was happening, she looked at me with her remarkable ability to read my emotions and sensed the racing thoughts in my head. She reached forward and gently took my hand before repeating the question. “Do you want to go to school?” she asked softly. I began to believe her this time. It was a happiness that I had never dared to hope for, and it swelled in my chest and radiated through my body. I still wasn’t able to answer her and started crying uncontrollably instead. My grandma held me in her arms as I sobbed. “Shhh, it’s okay… I’ll send you to school, don’t worry.” She wiped my tears and calmed me with her soothing voice. “Just promise me that you’ll study hard.”

That moment was a miracle to me, to see an impossible dream suddenly greeting me and waiting for me to take it into my hands. My grandparents loved me so much that they used their entire harvest, three kilograms of rice, to pay for three months of my school tuition. Three kilograms of rice would change my life forever. I was overwhelmed with excitement the night before school began, but the more excited I was the more I feared that something would happen and take my dream back away. These harsh years rarely granted such happiness to anyone, and I was so scared that it would disappear as quickly as it came. It was the longest night in my life, and every hour seemed to take years to pass.

The sun finally rose and began a new morning. I arrived at my new school and came to the door this time, not the window. I could hardly breathe as I slowly walked through the entrance. When I entered the classroom, everyone turned to look towards my direction. These students were my classmates, and I saw my new teacher greeted me as he stood in front of the chalkboard. It was a new world, and three kilograms of rice would keep the door open for three whole months.

However, I suddenly noticed a big problem. Everyone in this room except me had a pen and paper, while I had come here with nothing except for a paid tuition. The three kilograms of rice were only enough to get me through the door, but there were other things needed for school once I actually entered the classroom. How was I going to learn with everyone without a pen or paper? My dream felt like it was already over and that I was going to get kicked out, and I wanted to cry again.

Luckily, my teacher turned around the disaster. He smiled and pointed to a banana tree outside the window. These plants had huge, flat leaves that became my paper, and my teacher handed me a small stick as my pen. He explained that I could learn just like everyone else if I used the stick to write on the banana leaves, because scratches stood out on them and could be read the same way as ink letters.

I felt my dream come back to life as I ran outside and gathered several leaves, and the world of education kept its door wide open. My first day of school became absolutely amazing when I put my unique school supplies to use. Everything I imagined was even more wonderful in real life as my teacher taught me the alphabet by writing and identifying the symbols on the board that I had never understood until now. After he finished going through the letters, he asked me to read the alphabet again and showed me the correct motions to reproduce the letters on my banana leaf. I discovered the Vietnamese language all over again on that leaf, and I had written it myself. I could hardly believe it; I could write! I could see the world now through the same eyes as my classmates, and I finally understood the universal code that connected people all over the world.

I felt reborn and more alive than I had ever been, from that moment forward. I was part of a world much greater and everlasting than the one being crippled by communism and war. Every day I returned from school, I excitedly told my grandparents about the new things I learned. My happiness was also their happiness, they smiled brightly as they watched my dream come true.

Those were the best months of my life that shined light onto those dark years. I loved every minute in the classroom.

The days came and went, and I said my goodbyes at the end of the third month. My grandparents had given up so much for my dream that they only had enough food left for us to eat, and tuition was no longer an affordable luxury. I was sad that my days in the classroom were over, but I understood. I was never able to go back to school again. However, it did not stop me from learning. My short time as a student had given me the gifts of reading and writing, so I had a permanent connection to the new world. I did the most I could with what I’d been taught, and with my banana leaves and stick-pen I continued to study on my own. The poverty in my life prevented me from having any books, but I found friends who could let me borrow them instead. I copied the lines of the books onto my endless supply of banana leaves. I would re-read the information on each leaf until it dried and faded the scratch marks, but I would just copy the lines onto another one and repeat the process. Storybooks could immerse me in their own, exciting worlds, while education books fascinated me and expanded my knowledge.

I look fondly back upon these early years, and I am so glad that I made the choice that led me to the place where my life would change forever. And I am so blessed for the loving people in my family who made it all possible. I came to a place with new opportunities because of Brother Thong, and those opportunities carried me higher than I could ever imagine with three kilograms of rice from my grandparents.

My childhood had many hardships, yet many blessings that moved me forward. So much happened in only a few years. I thought I had seen the extremes of the world, but it was only the beginning of a long, long climb.


(*) Amy Mori : Exryu Nisei - Ái nữ Exryu NT Đủ 71 - Gunma-dai