Summer Blog-a-Day Author Feature-August 25th
Hello, there book lovers!
Thank you for stopping by this weekend for the Navigating Indieworld Summer Blog-a-Day, hosted by our generous and lovely Kay McCleod on her blog, as well as on the Navigating Indieworld Facebook Group.
Reading is both a luxury and a necessity for me ever since I was a child growing up in Vietnam. It was my expedition and journey to the world beyond my war-torn country. I invite you to read an excerpt of my memoir TigerFish and my writing on my blog as well as on Medium and HuffPost.
Excerpt of TigerFish, a Memoir
The American GIs
My father worked with American advisors, and on occasion invited them to our home for dinner. They dressed in olive drab uniforms decorated with stripes, stars, and medals earned in that wretched war. They were big men who towered over my father, and when they walked through the front door, we were always in awe of their enormous stature. These men reeked of deodorant and aftershave. It was a joke amongst Vietnamese that we could smell an American before we could see them, and it was true in this case.
My mother and the cook prepared specialties and delicacies for the parties, crab farcies (stuffed and fried meat filling in crab shell), beef ragout, asparagus crab soup, steamed freshwater fish, jellyfish cucumber salad, and of course, the lovely, fragrant Jasmine rice. Our driver brought in crates of Tiger orange soda, and “33” beers. The American guests brought their gifts of Hennessy, Johnnie Walker, and other cognacs.
Sometimes we ate with the American guests. My father taught us to use knives and forks on steaks and how to break our bread to bite sized pieces, not to slurp soups or shovel rice from bowls to our mouths. We used plates, forks, and knives like the Westerners, not rice bowls and chopsticks. He taught us table manners like they taught him in the academy. Sometimes when my father had parties for his American friends, we ate separately, and we didn’t mind that at all because we could talk, laugh and eat with our chopsticks and rice bowls. We didn’t have to be stiff and wonder all the time if we behaved appropriately for our father and his friends.
From Left to Right – My father, Lieutenant Colonel working with his US counterpart, Lieutenant Colonel W. Ray Bradley, circa 1969 (General Bradley’s son)
My limited experience with the Americans was also outside our home, away from my dad’s parties. We often saw young soldiers with their bleached hair in the tropical sun. They complained that it was too hot and humid and rode in the back of their GMC trucks, the kind with long benches along both sides of the vehicle. It was indeed hot and humid, and the GIs devoured watermelons, riding shirtless, tan and muscular, for they were young men that had been through rigorous training. They flashed their white teeth and looked at us with their exotic colored eyes. I felt sorry that they had to leave their families to come here and fight in this wretched war. Unfortunately, so many died or were injured.
The Americans couldn’t tell us apart. They thought we all wore pajamas on the streets and that’s what the Việt Cộng also wore, except that they wore black pajamas and carried guns. This assumption proved to be problematic. It wasn’t as simple as that, and many young GIs couldn’t tell Việt Cộngs from innocent civilians. The young American soldiers were scared for their lives, and if they were in doubt, they would kill a peasant. Both Vietnamese and American soldiers had been sniped or maimed on minefields during their routine surveillance. I felt very guilty when I saw injured soldiers or those sent home in coffins, whether they were Vietnamese or Americans.
We also saw American GIs in their civilian clothes around town. They mainly went to bars and did whatever they did in them. Some women worked in those bars as waitresses or dancers, and they were frowned at and looked down upon by our society. These women made the American GIs forget their sorrow for a while with their drinks and their companionship. The young soldiers were very scared and confused. I assumed that they wanted to go home to their families, girlfriends, wives, and to their homes where rockets didn’t launch at night. Some of the soldiers resorted to girls and drugs to make them feel “A-OK” momentarily. I felt sad for them because they were victims just like us.
Father’s Home Visits
My father’s visit home included his review of our grades. He stressed higher education and respect for our elders. “Discipline and perseverance will pave the way to success,” he always said, and I strived to please my father. He told us stories about making good choices in friends and choosing our environment, for these decisions would impact our future.
When we did well in school, my father rewarded us with money. I spent my award as fast as my feet could carry me to the bookstores. I spent my summers reading a broad range of books, including One Thousand and One Arabian Nights; The Good Earth, by Pearl Buck; and Aesop’s fables in Vietnamese versions. I immersed myself in young readers’ literature, in foreign travels and exotic safari animals, and more childlike comic books of adventures of TinTin and the Smurfs. I read as many books as I could rent, borrow, or buy.
Our school library had a limited number of books and many restrictions on when and how many a student could check out. It also closed in the summer, and we didn’t have a city library at our disposal, so my siblings and I rented volumes from the cheaper book shops to feed our hunger for entertainment. We also spent our reward money on sheet music and tapes because we loved to listen to them and practice singing for the annual school talent shows.
Besides checking our grades and rewarding us with good report card monies, my father held family meetings and reminded us what not to do. It was also about working on respect, perseverance, and hard work. We got reprimanded a lot, it seemed, for misbehaving and disrespecting our grandmother. She lived with us for a few months at a time, rotating between all of her children. She’d tell us stories as we swung her flabby triceps like pendulums of grandfather clocks. When we grew tired of this game, we plotted pranks on her. It was barely a month after Tết, or Vietnamese New Year’s, and we had a few strands of firecrackers left over, the kind that looked like magazines of ammunitions for machine guns. The strings of these festive and loud firecrackers tempted us, and we couldn’t wait to light them. Being restless and mischievous children, my brothers Thọ and Thông conspired to scare my grandmother with the firecrackers. We’d watched one too many episodes of Mission Impossible on American TV and had successfully poisoned our war-mongered brains. We wanted to apply some espionage techniques on our “oppressive villain,” my grandmother.
Initially, Kim Chi and I had to reconnoiter my grandmother’s site where she was sitting. Later, our brothers sent us as diversions to entertain her while they planted the firecrackers near her chair. The wick line was long enough to reach Thọ and Thông in another room where they lit the fuse. They signaled with a cough for us to evacuate. Our mission was to make sure the wick burned to some marked distance, and then flee. The tile floor had saved our house from being burned down on several occasions, and this was one of those times. My sister and I quickly and politely excused ourselves from the room, “so you can rest, grandmother!”
The firecrackers failed to go off, but the burned wick fumed the porch and my grandmother discovered our failed mission. She scolded us soundly and went straight to my mother, telling her to punish us for our unruly and disrespectful plot. We were all spanked, scolded and severely disciplined. In retrospect, we needed a reminder of our boundaries, and of what it is to be well-behaved children. The lesson learned was that we cannot disrespect and mistreat an elderly grandparent no matter how poorly she treated our mother.
My father lectured us on his home visits for these bad behaviors and some other reasons. In the seventies, the American’s involvement in the war brought not only American television shows, music, magazines, but also the dreaded “hippie” flower decals. My father didn’t want to see any more hippie flowers in our home, not on our book covers, not on our clothes, not on our reel-to-reel album covers. He said that we didn’t understand the lyrics of these American anti-war songs. He was fighting the war against communism, and our generation could not be weak-minded and apathetic about it. He fought this war for us so we wouldn’t end up dead or calling each other comrades. He didn’t want his children to be the followers of Stalin or Marx, sitting high and mighty in Leningrad.
I didn’t know hippie flowers were that wrong, but I peeled the evil flowers off of my book bag as he instructed. My father didn’t want us to give in to the Westerner’s way and lose our heritage. It was disrespectful to abandon our ancestry and become westernized, labeled as the “Lost roots” generation.
We loved our American and French music and still listened to them in secret, since we didn’t understand the lyrics anyway, it was just the tunes that we liked. We secretly listened to Procol Harum’s “A Whiter Shade of Pale”, Three Dog Night, Creedence Clearwater Revival, The Doobie Brothers, The Beatles, and some other obscure groups that probably overdosed on LSD.
My father’s visits made us fear him, but we also respected and believed what he said was genuine and meaningful. We never doubted our father’s intellect and integrity, and most especially his patriotism.
While my dad was home visiting, I wandered around to see why he brought so many soldiers with him. There was a driver and two men in the back, armed with M16s, grenades, and army phones - the bulky block kind you had to turn the cranks to call.
The soldiers didn’t mind me being around. I think I was invisible to them because they always cursed some rude sounding words. I knew they were bad words because I had never heard them from my mother, father, teachers or anyone else. I thought that since they fought in battles, it made them numb and callous, so they had to use expletives to feel better.
I saw their rifles, sometimes with bayonets. I watched them taking the guns apart, cleaning them with oily rags. The soldiers stuck their packs of Salem cigarettes in their netted helmets for that much-needed smoke after firing a shot at the Việt Cộng, who looked and talked just like them and had families who loved them very much. I would probably smoke something stronger than a Salem if I were a soldier who had to kill in a battle to preserve my life.
The soldiers were not discreet about their smokes, their guns, their language, or the girlie magazines they got from their American counterparts and posted the centerfolds inside their window shutters. These men guarded our house, kept us safe, and lived in the next quarters, a minimal facility with only cots, army blankets, and provisions. They ate what we ate, and kept our family safe, out of harm’s way, around the clock.
These home guards still considered themselves lucky since they didn’t have to go to the battlefront. Some Vietnamese soldiers came back from the battles missing legs and arms, and resorted to selling lottery tickets from wheelchairs or other odd jobs to make a living. Occasionally, I saw army trucks carrying coffins of dead soldiers to their loved ones, and one day, they delivered it to a family across the street from us. I didn’t know them, but I felt anguish rising inside me. I couldn’t help but cry, except I also felt an intense anger with this wretched war that took away too many lives.
Latest blogs on Writings
One of my latest blogs on writing memoir is called Memoirs are for Famous People. Who are you to Write One?
As a new indie author, I was honored and proud to be invited to speak at my alma mater Hoover high school and Fresno State in California, but the most incredible honor was to be the Keynote speaker at the commencement this Summer at Fresno City College which I wrote in this blog where you can also read the speech HERE.
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For more blogs on my writing, please visit this PAGE.
Goodreads Reading Challenge, Reviews, and Recommendations
Join me on Goodreads to check out my 2018 reading challenge, reviews, and recommendations.