American guilt

We were standing beside the statue of V.I. Lenin on a steamy afternoon, my boy with his skateboard and me with my thoughts.

A large floral arrangement had been erected in the square to herald National Day, the latest obstruction to cramp the style of boys and men playing football and older folks playing badminton – and, sadly, the skaters, too.

Amid the frenetic scene, a gray-haired woman on crutches and a single leg, the other amputated at mid-thigh, came into view.

She wore a flowered silk outfit that Westerners liken to pajamas.

She inched along, as if oblivious to the frenetic footballers around her, and the young men simply played on, as if she wasn’t there.

She made me think of Gracie, and of an expat sensation that, in Vietnam, is as American as apple pie:


Actually, I don’t know the woman’s name.

A friend of mine dubbed her Gracie after reading a draft of an essay I wrote more than a year ago; it has been rejected once, so let’s call it a work in slow progress.

Here’s how it begins:

She was slender and pretty and would have looked elegant even if she hadn’t been standing outside Gucci.

Her blouse was silk and simple.

She was not a shopper.

If courage is grace under pressure, this forty-something woman wore it well.

It was in her smile and the way her eyes met mine.

It was in the way she carried herself, figuratively and literally, on two metal canes and a single leg, the other having been amputated close to her hip…

The narrative meandered off in an effort to describe the cognitive dissonance that greets newcomers to Vietnam – about Gucci in the land of women who wear conical hats and shoulder the yoke-like gánh, and, yes, about my patriotic brand of guilt.

I couldn’t help but wonder whether this woman was a victim of the landmines and ordnance that still lethally pollutes much of rural Vietnam.

On my first visit to Vietnam, reporting about an American charity that recycles donated wheelchairs to struggling countries, I encountered dozens of Vietnamese who, long after 1975, were crippled by the explosives America left behind, as well as dozens whose birth defects were said to be the result of Agent Orange.

Of course I figured she would ask for money.

She was graceful about that, too, a lilt in her English.

“Excuse me, are you living in Hanoi or visiting?”


“Where are you from?”


“Do you like Vietnam?”

Her eyes never left mine – yet she seemed to sense Gucci’s security guard approaching at a just-doing-my-job pace.

“You see my circumstance,” she said quickly.

She pulled a plastic bag from her purse.

“I am selling mangoes.

Will you buy two mangoes from me?”

Three minutes later, I was in my wife’s office, explaining how I’d just paid 100,000 dong for two mangoes – about $5, or perhaps six times the going rate on the street.

Oanh laughed.

For all I really knew, she pointed out, the woman might have lost her leg in Hanoi’s dangerous traffic and because of substandard medical care – that I was paying the premium for American guilt…

Well, OK, but so what?

Her circumstances were her circumstances.

In another country, I may have bought the mangoes for that alone. She was not playing the American angle.

My experience, one shared by many, is that the Vietnamese evince little or no grudge to the mighty nation that exploited their land as the chief battleground in the global struggle of capitalism and communism.

But why was I so shy with the mango peddler?

Reporters ask intrusive questions all the time.

I left my wife’s office and went to the street to look for the woman with one leg and ask the obvious questions.

It had occurred to me that landmine victims were country people.

Her English and elegance spoke of the city.

Yes, probably just a traffic accident…

Then another thought occurred to me:

The “Christmas bombings” of 1972 that hammered Hanoi and Hai Phong.

She’d have been a young child then.

The attacks were a tactic of negotiations – a brutal prelude to what President Nixon called “peace with honor” – a phrase that Americans wanted to hear.

She was gone – but I figured I was bound to bump into her again.

She must be a regular around HoanKiemLake, looking for foreigners willing to buy overpriced fruit.

More than a year later, I still haven’t seen Gracie, and I still don’t know her story.

But that’s what I was thinking about as I watched the old woman with one leg labor across Lenin Square.

In 1972, she’d have probably been in her 20s.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s