What We Cannot Say Can Hurt Us - How to Heal Invisible War Wounds
The lady in the red velvet cap sat crosslegged, shoes barely touching the floor but she leaned forward in her chair, intently listening and hanging on to my every word and raised her hand during the Q&A session. She volunteered that she was my age, also born on the year of the Tiger from a small town in Vietnam. We exchanged a nodded greeting; We were fellow refugees. I will call her Trang. It’s not her real name.
Earlier that morning, ten minutes into my Saturday presentation at the Belmont Library, Trang rushed into the room, and everyone turned their heads toward the opened door, breaking their concentration and mine. She nervously and quietly took a seat near the back. I welcomed her, just as I did with any other straggler with a Good morning. Glad to have you join us, and continued in front of a dozen guests in the audience, mostly seniors. In fact, when I took a poll, the majority were retired educators from the neighboring Palo Alto University, bordering the City of Belmont.
My eyes went back to her periodically as she scribbled feverishly in a notebook on her lap while I spoke and moved around the room, sometimes pointing at the posters of my book cover and the map of Vietnam displayed in front. Folks had a lot of questions at the end. When it was her turn, in a halting voice, guarded at first, then her words burst like a broken dam, with every moment an increased confidence and urgency she told the audience how and why she fled three years after the Fall of Saigon with first-hand account on Vietnam after my family had already escaped to the United States.
In the beginning, we didn’t feel the need to escape, she said. Her father was a merchant, not in the military, and was elated that the country was finally liberated and unified. Everyone was equally dirt poor right after the war, so no one questioned the communists. Life went on under the new regime, and she enrolled in college, and then it happened. She and all her college friends got drafted to serve in the Vietnamese Communist Military to fight against the Chinese and the Cambodians, she clarified.
Per her account, during the Vietnam War, the Chinese and the Russians backed the Vietnamese communists, but after the Fall of Saigon, they turned their backs on the Chinese and remained a strong ally with the Russians. As a result, the Chinese wanted to teach the Vietnamese a lesson on being ingrates by waging war against them. The college girls had to enlist and trained as nurses and the boys as soldiers. At first, her voice trembled but mostly sounded relief to shed the lifelong burden of untold secrets.
I continued with my Q&A, and to my surprise, she broke down tearfully, undoubtedly, a relived trauma triggered by something I addressed with the audience. Her sobs were audible, and her body shook like a child’s. I stopped and said something unhelpful like I’m so sorry because I was but didn’t know how to comfort her in front of perfect strangers. She dried her eyes with the back of her sleeve, scribbled some more notes then remained calm for fifteen more minutes until the presentation ended.
After my book discussions, I sat at a table, chatting and signing books for my guests. Many shared their experience with Vietnam or their Vietnamese friends and colleagues. A couple was going to Vietnam, after the husband’s knee surgery, hopefully soon and if it went well, they lamented, but they were determined to embark on their trip as soon as they could safely leave.
When I finished with the book signing, the librarians graciously allowed me to stay as long as I liked to chat with the patrons, even long after they finished cleaning up the coffee, water, cookies, and pastries at a side table. I looked for Trang. I wanted to give her my full and undivided attention. I wanted to hear her story that she desperately needed to get off her chest, something she’s buried deeply for too long.
Many came up to her and listened to her stories. Many comforted her and told her that she’s in a safe place now to share her private struggles. You are among people who care, they would say. You no longer have to hide or be ashamed of what you’ve gone through. I could see that she’s gained the confidence and comfort level to speak about her escape in 1978 around people who would not make her feel like an unwanted refugee.
I hugged her and told her that the audience and I appreciated her courage in sharing her story. She seemed to have welcomed the embrace and cried convulsively while apologizing profusely. I’m so sorry I didn’t mean to say all that during your talk. She continued, It just came out! I’ve never told anyone, not even my husband or kids. I was so ashamed of everything that I buried it so deep, until now. She confided, I watched the Thai pirates took my friends from our boat, one or two at a time each day onto their ship. I knew it would be my turn soon but luckily, we escaped after almost two weeks at sea. No food and water!
I stayed silent and listened. When Trang stopped, I confessed that I didn’t talk about my diaspora to anyone for a long time either. I explained that as refugees, most of us we have experienced Delayed Grief and Survivor’s Guilts. We were too grateful to be alive and too busy with acculturation to grieve, and it manifested in destructible ways like anger, shame, and depression, among other symptoms. In my early thirties, I went through a major identity crisis, unexplainable outrage, and sadness that I resorted to writing my memoir and reading the teaching of Zen Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh to find my way forward. Trang’s eyes opened widely, and she admitted that, yes, she too, got mad at her husband and children, for no reasons, and didn't know why.
She said she wanted to feel better, too. She wanted to write her story like mine to ease her pain and guilt, but she didn’t know how. I knew from my own experience that I just wanted someone who’s gone through similar struggles to tell me what to do and how to fix it because it was such a daunting task, seemingly insurmountable. I wanted a step-by-step instruction book when there was none available. So, I took the liberty and gave her writing assignments at least half an hour daily. But I don’t know how she protested.
Write down exactly what you’ve told the audience this morning, I explained. The guests were spellbound! You have the gift of storytelling. Just use your voice as is right now, for a starter. Later on, when you finished telling your story, then get help with the editing. But for now, you must get all of it off your chest to feel better, to heal. Write at least half an hour each day, before you forget all the details.
Trang felt insecure about her language skills. But I can’t write in English or Vietnamese very well.
Write with personal storytelling voice whether in English or Vietnamese, or both. Work on the writing and worry about the translation later. Again, your job, I said, is to get all of your story and emotions off your chest. Someday, perhaps your children can help you with the finished story. Would you promise to do that for yourself? Promise to make this your writing assignment your highest priority? Trang wiped her eyes again with the back of her sleeve and nodded. Okay, I can do that.
I introduced her to the librarian and asked if she could help Trang with writing resources for English Language Learners as some libraries offer this service to their patrons, like the King Library in San Jose, California, or any available Immigrant Oral History Project or Life History Writing classes. They both nodded and smiled at each other, and I hope that Trang would take that step to get some writing or audio recording assistance.
Promise me you’ll write to me and let me know how you are doing and when you are ready for more input, or anything writing help or encouragement. Let me give you my phone number and email. Trang opened up her notebook where the pages filled with cutout articles and notes in different color inks and pointed to a blank corner. You can write your name and number here.
We conversed in Vietnamese for a long time in the event room after everyone left. I could hear our voice rose and fell and the occasional sniffles from Trang. I finally told her that I had to go as I had a long drive back home to Sacramento and I needed to beat the Saturday afternoon traffic jam. She nodded. We hugged, and I told her that I loved and cared about her.
We are refugees, no matter how long ago when it happened. We understand each other’s pain, and most of us want to help one another, even a perfect stranger. I hope I will hear from her soon.