My father was born in China. His family left for Vietnam on a boat when he was a boy – when is still a bit of an enigma. He nodded when asked if it was somewhere between 5 and 10 years of age, but I’m not certain that he truly understood what was being asked. Later he may have said that he was around 15, but this little detail is not important. Back to the boat. Now when I say a boat, I don’t mean a cruise ship where you’d have food, a room, and entertainment. I don’t have specifics for you, but I imagine that my father and his family crossed over in a fishing boat like this:
Fast forward to the times around and during the Vietnam war. By the age of 15, Dad was fluent in various dialects of Chinese, Vietnamese, and French. This really came as no surprise to me because I’ve always known my dad to be amazingly intelligent, despite challenges with the English language. In fact, I have frequently said that if Dad had the chance to learn English rather than having to face the struggles of working to support a large family (there are 9 of us), he would have made an excellent diplomat – not only for his voracious appetite for politics, but for his astounding ability to pick up new languages. I remember once during my later high school years, my family had a small business in a predominantly hispanic neighborhood. I would go there afterschool and spend the evening with my dad, translating for the customers who only spoke Spanish. One day, we had a customer who asked when he needed to come back and before I could reply, Dad proudly stood up and said “Mañana!” Boy, that sure surprised the heck out of me! I can tell you that taught me a lesson – NEVER assume that the person next you doesn’t understand what you’re saying, especially if that person is my dad!
The world had moved on. ~Stephen King
Times continued to change in Vietnam. The Việt cộng began to use French as a way to identify folks that they should “interrogate” and who should happen to “disappear.” They figured that those who understood French had the means to be educated and to educate their children, marking them as “aristocrats.” Dad had the propensity to acquire new languages, but he had the brilliance to forget it when it was necessary to do so. When the Việt cộng army started to drive around beckoning to people, Dad taught himself to forget the language so that he wouldn’t accidentally turn around when spoken to in French.
Allow me to take a moment to share some history to put things into context. The Việt Minh launched a rebellion against the French, in effect starting the First Indochina War. This war ended shortly after the Battle of Điện Biên Phủ (1954), which ended in French defeat, and which heavily influenced negotiations at the Geneva Conference that year. The 1954 Geneva Accords divided the country at the 17th parallel (Vietnamese demilitarized zone), giving the North to the Việt Minh under Hồ Chí Minh and the South to Emperor Bảo Đại. In the midst of all this history, Dad once piqued the interest of some bad dudes with some serious fire power. He was rescued by a friend who said no, he’s ok – he’s Việt Minh – meaning he’s an old school native and didn’t take sides, North or South (later, Việt Minh or not, it did not matter). During the course of sharing this story with us, Dad had brought up the French leaving because of the Geneva convention and was truly surprised when Eddie nodded in understanding and circled it back to Điện Biên Phủ. It was another piece of magic – the urging to continue telling the story in a way that Dad could honestly understand and relate to.