Hanh meets her original mother

(No.4, Vol.2 Apr 2012 Vietnam Heritage Magazine)

As our plane banked steeply in preparation for our landing on the short runway of the Noi Bai airport, out _side Hanoi, Vietnam, I thought about all of the different people I had been on my many previous trips to Vietnam. I had come first as an eighteen-year-old soldier in 1967, ignorant of the people and of their ancient and elegantly beautiful culture; ignorant even of my reasons for being there. What followed was twenty years of nightmares and ambiguous feelings of guilt and hopelessness, although for me there was also always a deep and abiding longing for the lush green mountains and the beautiful people I had come to love.
So when I had the opportunity to return to Vietnam a second time, this time in the role of the guest of a retired North Vietnamese Army general named Kinh Chi, I agreed to go without ever thinking that the trip would really happen. The US had no formal diplomatic relationship with the Hanoi regime, and Vietnam was still very isolated and poor because of the force of our embargo. But it did happen, and, twenty eight years after my first visit, I came to Vietnam for a second time, and saw the children playing safely in the streets, and saw that the sky was free of our gunships.
My hectic agenda during that first return trip to Vietnam included a visit to an orphanage not far from Hanoi. I fell in love a hundred times that day, and before our afternoon visit had ended several children were hanging from my arms and tugging at my trousers and pulling me by my hands. I wanted to sweep them all up into my arms and take them home with me. I even inquired, imagining I was serious, about the possibility of adoption, but I was made quickly to feel that given the political climate, it was not a good time to ask about such matters.
I went home having made many new friends in Vietnam, and having found that lushness that had called to me for all those years, and with the faces of the children of the orphanage printed in my brain so that on the long flight home across the dark ocean, I kept seeing them lined up at the flowered gate, waving good-bye.

The plane bumped down hard on the runway and I looked over at my thirteen-year-old daughter, whose eyes were as wide as I had ever seen them, and who was craning her neck to get a glimpse of the country she had left behind four years earlier

Three years later I returned again to Vietnam, this time as a writer and translator of Vietnamese poetry. I would return several more times throughout the nineties, working on a variety of translation projects, trying to learn Vietnamese, and rediscovering a country my own country had tried to bomb asunder. With each trip I felt more and more at ease in Vietnam, especially in Hanoi, which I have come to love as I love my own city. Vietnam stopped being a war, and started being a country in my mind.

Picture: Hanh and her mother,
Nguyen Thi Ve

The plane bumped down hard on the runway and I looked over at my thirteen-year-old daughter, whose eyes were as wide as I had ever seen them, and who was craning her neck to get a glimpse of the country she had left behind four years earlier. I thought about how different my role was now compared to all of the other selves I had been. Now I was the father to my daughter, Nguyen Thi Hanh, and the possibilities of what might happen on this trip were in some ways more frightening to me than they had been on any of my previous trips, even that first time as a soldier.
Four years earlier when my wife, Jean, and I had made the decision, along with our son, Andrew, to adopt Hanh, we had learned what we had thought was a great deal about her life and her background, including information about her mother, who had never married. Nguyen Thi Ve had come from a poor family in Chung Luong, Ha Nam Province, some thirty miles southwest of Hanoi.
We learned that in the early years of Hanh’s life her mother had become gravely ill and, combined with her poverty and the lack of government support because of her unwed status, she could no longer care for her daughter.
Good fortune had built a small, rural orphanage among the unfolding rice fields before the green mountains of Ha Nam, and Nguyen Thi Ve sought and was granted permission to place her daughter Hanh in the orphanage only a few kilometres away. Although the orphanage was poor, and I know now that on some days the children did not have enough to eat, it was also a breathtakingly beautiful place, where the children seemed happy as they worked and played among the areca palms and the lush gardens. There was also a school there where Hanh could continue her studies that had been interrupted by her mother’s illness.
When the time came for me to travel to Vietnam to bring Hanh home into our family, Jean and I had been led to believe that Hanh’s mother’s illness was grave, and that her death seemed imminent. I wasn’t surprised then when in spite of my insistent requests to meet Hanh’s mother during the adoption process she never showed up, and we were never taken to her, although I knew she lived nearby. When I continued to ask about her I was told with firm politeness to drop the subject, so I did.
During the early weeks and months of Hanh’s life with us, we had tried to keep her in touch with the director of the orphanage, a lovely and exuberantly kind woman named Van, with some of the children at the orphanage, and even a few times with her mother by phone when Van could travel the few kilometres to Binh Luc and bring Hanh’s mother to a telephone at her office. I had also made a commitment to Hanh’s caretakers that I would never allow Hanh to forget who she was, and where she was from, and I promised too that she would not forget her language.
Eventually we lost touch with the orphanage. Van left for another position, and her old phone number at the office no longer worked, so the calls stopped altogether, and although we encouraged Hanh to write letters to her mother that we were promised by the adoption agency would be delivered, Hanh heard very little in response. Once, when Jean and I asked for some help in finding out more about Hanh’s mother, we were told that she was gravely ill with some unspecified disease that sounded like cancer. We struggled about how we should tell Hanh about her mother given the uncertainty of her condition, and given the fact that the adoption agency had forwarded a message to us from Nguyen Thi Ve, asking that we not share information about her condition with Hanh.
Three years later, in the summer of 1999, I began to make plans to return to Vietnam. I had promised Hanh that I would take her back, and I was now in a position to combine a working visit with a social visit. Because these trips, for a variety of complicated reasons, don’t always work out, I didn’t tell Hanh about our travel plans until the fall. She was very happy about the news once I did tell her, and hardly any day would go by without her asking ‘Are we going to Vietnam?’
As Hanh and I moved closer to our January 2000 departure, Jean and I made a renewed effort to find out about the condition of Hanh’s mother. It had been almost two years since we’d heard anything definite, and we thought that she might be more ill than the last report had described, or even dead. Representatives from the adoption agency were kind enough to send someone from their Hanoi office to the small village where Hanh was born and where her mother still lived. In December, less than a month before our scheduled departure for Vietnam, we received a small package from the adoption agency. Inside were copies of a long fax from the Hanoi office reporting on the visit of the agency’s representative with Hanh’s mother, some photographs of Nguyen Thi Ve, and a letter from her to Hanh, written in Vietnamese.
Not only was Nguyen Thi Ve still alive, but she had nearly recovered from her illness and was able to care for herself. I read the fax that reported this news more than once to myself, refusing to let what felt like an inevitable fear come into my mind. When Jean came home I read the fax to her and showed her the pictures. We looked at each other without speaking and I could see in her eyes the same fear I would not allow myself to feel. When Hanh came home from school I handed her the letter from her mother, and the recent photographs of Nguyen Thi Ve.
‘Oh my God’ she said when she saw the photographs, ‘It’s my mother! It’s my mother!’ She left to read her letter in private, and then came down an hour later happy and very excited. She told us briefly about the letter, and then asked me if we could go and see her mother when we went to Vietnam. I told her of course, and promised that I would make the arrangements. Hanh ran off to read her letter again, and an odd and ambiguous dread began to come over me.
When I spoke to my family and my close friends about my plans to take my adoptive daughter back to Vietnam to visit her birth mother, many of them responded with the same question, asking wasn’t I afraid that Hanh might want to stay in Vietnam with her mother and not come back with me. I would always dismiss that idea, assuring the concerned party that of course that was not a possibility, yet inside I had to admit to myself that I had thought the same thing; that the fear I had felt a glimpse of when I first learned that Hanh’s mother was alive and well had been growing inside to the point where it had become impossible to ignore.
That night I shared these fears with my wife who confessed to imagining the same possibility. I didn’t know what to do. I felt ashamed as I thought about how I might cancel or delay our trip to Vietnam. What I felt was a father’s unimaginable fear of losing his child. In the four years that Hanh had been with us, she had made her way bravely and gracefully into the web of our family, and her feelings for all of us had grown far beyond my original expectations. She had truly become my daughter, no less than if she had been born to us, and the thought that there was even the remotest possibility that she would want to stay in Vietnam with her mother sent shudders through my body. Always though, throughout the weeks before our departure, I forced myself to remember that taking Hanh back to Vietnam, no matter what the consequences, was the only right thing to do.
One late night, sleepless with worry and the trip only days away, I played out all of those fears again in my mind, and when I had reconciled them, I had an image of Nguyen Thi Ve, Hanh’s mother, whom I’d seen only in photographs. I tried to imagine how she must have felt once she had made the decision to put Hanh in the orphanage, and then allow her to be adopted. I tried to imagine what kind of love one must feel that allows them to give up what they love the most. I wondered if I was capable of such extraordinary love.
As we taxied toward the terminal, all of those fears came back and washed over me, soothed only by the happiness I felt imagining how wonderful it would be for my daughter to see her mother again, and the happiness of being back in Vietnam. We were met at the airport by some old friends, and after processing thorough customs and loading our bags into a van provided by the Vietnam Writers Association, we drove the forty minutes or so into the heart of Hanoi where we would stay in a small family-style hotel during our three days in the city before travelling south to Hue and then eventually to Ho Chi Minh City. We had dinner and then I spent the rest of the evening double-checking the arrangements I had made to have Hanh’s mother brought to our hotel the next morning.

In the dark hotel room that night, just before sleep, my daughter and I spoke to each other in that drowsy, dreamy way that comes from being exhausted and invigorated at the same time. Throughout our transit through the airport, our ride in the van into the city, and our dinner with friends, Hanh had been reluctant to speak Vietnamese, and it seemed that the few times she did try to engage in an extended conversation, she’d become frustrated. English words could come out of her mouth on their own, and she would throw her hands up, shake her head and stop talking. As we lay across the room from each other in our separate, foreign beds, I encouraged Hanh to keep trying. I told her that I was certain her language would come back to her, and she answered yes in a way that made me know she thought my optimism was dubious. In my own mind I began to worry that I had failed in my attempts to keep the language with her. Without the language there is no culture, and without the culture, no memory. I wanted Hanh to remember, but now I wasn’t certain that I’d done enough.
When I opened my eyes the next morning the first thing I saw was Hanh, standing in front of the mirror, combing her hair back. It was still many hours before her mother would arrive but she was dressed and ready, and she called to me to get up so we could go out and buy her mother another gift.
Out on the busy early morning street we found a woman from the country carrying two large baskets of red roses cut that morning in the dark. We bought three dozen and then walked a few blocks to the flower shop where we paid a small amount to have the roses cleaned of thorns and wrapped in coloured tissue paper. Hanh carried the bouquet before her, and it was so big I could barely see her face. Back at the hotel I called our contact at the adoption agency again, and he confirmed that Nguyen Thi Ve had been picked up that morning, and that she would arrive at any time. Hanh and I stood out in front of the small hotel, talking with some hotel employees: doormen and delivery men who were studying to be bankers and engineers. Everyone at the hotel seemed as excited as we were. Hanh was pacing now, away from the rest of us, the roses still held up high before her, when I saw the agency’s van suddenly sweep up before us on the narrow street and stop. The driver stepped out and greeted us; Hanh was holding back with me so I nudged her gently towards the car and with my eyes I told her to go to her mother. As she walked away from me I wondered if she would ever come back.
I greeted Hanh’s mother from a distance. She was a small woman, and her eyes darted with distraction and with shyness away from my eyes. I could see the same bright intelligence I had seen in the eyes of my daughter when I had first seen her squatting near the fish pond at the orphanage. I watched Hanh and her mother awkwardly half embrace. Hanh’s mother seemed the shiest. She bowed her head and covered her laughter, even before her daughter. I asked Hanh if she wanted to take her mother up to our room. There were pictures there from Hanh’s other life, and a video of her ice-skating, and gifts for her mother. (Many years later, after Hanh’s mother died, we found out that she had kept all the presents we had ever given her, and treasured them by keeping them all in one place, unused.)
I sat outside on the stoop with the doorman and contemplated how my world had changed. I knew Hanh and her mother had to have this time alone. I took a short walk to Mai Hac De Street and a neighbourhood that I love. I was killing time and I was feeling the foreignness of where I was and who I was more than usual. I didn’t know who would be waiting for me when I got back.
As I walked up the hotel’s stairs, I could see Hanh and her mother sitting in the lobby. They were holding hands and smiling, a radiance upon them. I sat next to Hanh’s mother and greeted her in Vietnamese, using the familiar pronoun chị, which means sister. She laughed when she heard my Vietnamese, and she covered her mouth. I heard her tell Hanh that my Vietnamese was good, and then they both laughed and they both covered their mouths, and I could see the mother in the daughter. I could also tell that Nguyen Thi Ve was warming to me, and I had already come to like her very much. Upstairs in our room we sat on the beds and talked. Nguyen Thi Ve asked Hanh to translate, and then she told me she was very happy to see how well Hanh was doing: how beautiful she was, how strong and how smart. She told me to please thank Jean, my wife, for bringing Hanh into her life and for treating her like her own daughter. She said that knowing Hanh had this life had made her happy.
After a while, Hanh pulled me aside and told me that her mother had frightened her. She said she had asked her to look towards heaven and to pray to Mother Mary, and had laughed out loud. Now that the three of us were together, Nguyen Thi Ve offered to sing and to dance for us in the small room. I watched Hanh for some clue to explain what I didn’t understand, but she seemed as bewildered as I was as her mother spun around the room, singing a song about Holy Mother Mary, twisting her hands above her head and then laughing so loud it was frightening. Later I told Hanh that some people were so religious that they sometimes couldn’t help themselves from expressing what they felt about God. I told her that it was all right, and that she shouldn’t be concerned about her mother’s behaviour, but I wondered myself what it meant.
That night Hanh slept in one bed with her mother and I slept in the other across the small room. Once we were all tucked in and the lights were out, I could hear them talking in lively, hushed tones. I realized that being with her mother again had allowed Hanh to find her Vietnamese. She had found her voice and I could hear her speaking as easily and as naturally as when I had brought her home four years before. I was gladder for that than for anything, but it also made me feel a kind of sadness that is hard to name but that has to do with loss or with loneliness. I fell asleep lulled by the music of their quiet conversation in the dark.
The following morning Hanh said that she wanted to take her mother to the hairdresser to have her hair cut and permed. She said that her mother had never been to a hairdresser before, and that when Hanh had asked her what she wanted, she said she only wanted to have her hair done. Hanh and her mother were giddy about this plan, like two teenagers, giggling, holding hands and speaking Vietnamese so rapidly I could only pick out a word or two here and there. My doorman friend walked the three of us across a few busy streets to an even busier three-way intersection, and then across to the hairdresser. I settled up with the owner and then left them there for the three-hour ritual.
When they caught up with me later in the afternoon, Hanh’s mother was beaming. She turned a circle to show me her hair and tossed the curled ends up in the air. Hanh seemed distracted, and a bit down. When I asked her what was wrong, she said that it made her sad to see her mother’s hair cut off. I told her to think about how happy it made her mother, and she told me that of course she knew that, but that it still had made her sad to watch her mother’s hair fall to the floor.
Back at the hotel, we packed up Nguyen Thi Ve’s few things, along with her presents, two bouquets of flowers and a basket of oranges and then climbed into the agency’s van for the two-hour drive back to Chung Luong, the village where my daughter was born, and where her mother still lived. I had made this trip once before, when I had come to get my daughter four years earlier, and I remembered now how the landscape opened up as we entered the river valley and moved towards the rice fields. On the long, bumpy and noisy ride, I thought about what it meant to be a good father. I had wanted only to give this small girl a life of possibility when I took her away from her mother and her country and her village where already, as we would learn later, they were beginning to gather for our visit. In the three days that we had been in the country, Hanh had found her other self, and her other language and they were both tugging at her heart in powerful ways. Over and over she told me how much she loved Hanoi, and how she wanted to live there.
The last quarter mile to the village was down a very narrow road that ran along a rice paddy’s dike. Bulky water buffalo would sometimes block our way. As we neared the circle of small houses, the shape of the village came clear to me. All around us I could see people smiling and putting down their work as our van entered the centre of Chung Luong and then came to a stop. By the time we got out of the van we were surrounded by the people of my daughter’s village. Chung Luong was partly very poor, with no plumbing or electricity, but it was also exquisitely beautiful, and the people there smiled openly and easily in a way that made you feel at home at once.
One by one from the circle of faces that surrounded us, voices called out to Hanh, asking if she remembered them. Everyone laughed when she sometimes struggled to remember, and scolded her that she’d been away from home for too long. The village elder and his wife spoke up next, and told a story from my daughter’s childhood and she said it made her remember. Hanh was shy at first among these people of her earliest life, but more and more she entered into the stream of words and stories emerging all around her. She was a most amazing picture there: dressed in her tailored two-piece suit, her hair cut fashionably short, standing among the people of her most ancient village by the thatched huts of memory.
And then it was time to leave. It would be dark soon, and the road to Hanoi was more dangerous at night. We took the ritual photographs. We stood inside Hanh’s mother’s tiny thatched house and we promised each other we would have another one built for her. There are never long good-byes in Vietnam. Their history has taught them too well how to bear loss and separation from those they love the most. Hanh stood facing her mother, once again their shyness keeping them apart. Many villagers were gathered close by. I put my arms around their shoulders and brought them together. Many people of the village showed their sweet approval with their laughter and with the clapping of their hands, and at that moment, Hanh was more my daughter than she had ever been before, and more the daughter of the country of her heart.

By Bruce Wiegl
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