Meeting the in-laws


My kids never address my mother as grandma.

She loves being called bà nội, and my Vietnamese in-laws are of course bà ngoại and ông ngoại.

So now I sometimes use those terms too, just as I’ll call mom bà nội.

And so this was a special Tết for us, with the two ngoạis journeying from Orange County, California to visit us and a Việt Nam very different from their memories.

Through my American eyes, I’ve come to think of Tết as Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day all rolled into one:

A long holiday that is a pilgrimage of homecoming, a time devoted to family and generosity – and to continuity and renewal.

And for some, perhaps, reconciliation.

Ông ngoại and bà ngoại were young parents with three children, my future bride being the eldest, when they left their homeland during the hard times after the end of what the Vietnamese call the American War.

Before this visit, they had only returned to Vietnam once – and that was more than 20 years ago, to visit family in Sài Gòn.

Things change, and so this time they would improbably and auspiciously arrive in Hà Nội, where their daughter works as a journalist.

Ông ngoại expressed pleasure upon seeing banners advertising Bia Sài Gòn, thinking the name Sài Gòn wouldn’t be used in Hà Nội.

We were with them for much of a journey to places they had never seen, first-hand, when they were coming of age during the war years.

The modernity of Đà Nẵng, aglow for Tết festivities, dazzled them.

They enjoyed the beach and a climb into the caves and temples of the Marble Mountain and the touristy charm of Hội An.

At the Citadel of Huế, bà ngoại found herself sympathizing with hundreds of women who in earlier times were plucked as wives by the emperors.

Perhaps bà ngoại, who passed her beauty to four daughters, imagined what her own fate may have been had she been born centuries earlier, and not in 1954 as the French were banished from Việt Nam and the Americans blundered in.

Sài Gòn startled with its growth and vibrancy, while the familiar added sentimental notes.

Ông ngoại pointed out a butcher shop advertising wild game meat – just as it had more than 40 years ago.

“Remember me?”

He called out in Vietnamese to an elderly woman in his old neighborhood.

She did, from when this 60-year-old man was just a boy.

And bà ngoại couldn’t stop smiling as she told me how they found the same restaurant near the spot where they first met, when she was a teenager selling sandwiches and he worked in the port.

But family, of course, mattered most.

Ông ngoại’s mother and father and several siblings all left the country, but three of his maternal aunts remain in Sài Gòn.

We visited with ông ngoại’s aunts and cousins in Sài Gòn, and also with bà ngoại’s half-brother and his pigs in a village on the northern edge of the Mekong Delta.

Family values, Việt style, were on display in the way ông ngoại referred to his cousins as “brothers” and in how he seemed to hold special status as the first-born of his generation.

We spent time with bà sáu and bà mười – aunt No. 6 and aunt No. 10 – and the families united for to a day trip to Vũng Tàu, joining thousands on the beach.

Bà mười’s brood included two sons and a daughter who had come home for Tết from Australia.

If Vietnamese Americans in our party represent one harsh passage of history, these nominal Aussies represented another phase of the later Vietnamese diaspora, an important source of remittances that go far beyond Tet’s red envelopes.

They are the post-war generation in the land that ông ngoại, despite his hard-earned American citizenship, will always refer to as “my country.”

On another day ba ngoai’s gracious older brother, a retired school teacher, welcomed us to his home where he raises a small number of pigs and fish.

The first time I met him, in 1999, it was a two-hour journey on country roads; now we seemed to be the far outskirts of Sài Gòn’s sprawl.

To him, bà ngoại will always be his baby sister, the only child of his father’s second marriage.

As a child she doted on this brother who is 17 years her senior and who now, she says, looks exactly like their father.

We visited their father’s tomb, across an ocean from where bà ngoại’s mother is buried.

(I scored points with the ngoạis when my uncle-in-law spoke of surprise in seeing my picture and column in Tuổi Trẻ.)

We returned to Hà Nội first, leaving the ngoạis down south for more visits, including a poignant one with bà ngoại’s elderly sister, now in her 80s.

Back in 1999, this tiny woman warmly greeted us in the small home that had electricity and a floor of hard-packed earth.

An alter honored her late husband and Hồ Chí Minh – a testament to a fissure in a family.

She now lives in more comfortable circumstances, with a son I hope to meet someday.

He was born inside the jail where South Vietnamese authorities had placed his mother for words and deeds they considered treason.

But this time, our presence might have spoiled the moment.

When the old woman met her little sister, she wept.




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