An American woman, Heather Woodward, expresses her admiration for a Vietnamese man she calls her ‘older brother,’ who symbolizes Vietnamese characteristics.
It is hard to know where to begin because this story represents the very essence of what it is to be Vietnamese.
It is so much a part of it that when I look back one day, many years from now, as I remember my life in Việt Name, I will be, at the same time, remembering him.
It is my hope that by writing this, I will share with readers an incredible story about a person who has touched the lives of everyone around him.
Three years ago, I moved to Hồ Chí Minh City.
My first year here was very difficult.
Basically, I believed that Vietnamese people would hate me because I was an American.
In my U.S. middle school, I had learned about the Việt Nam War and the brutality of it.
I saw morbid images of what the soldiers had done and was upset by it.
Because of this, during my first year of living in Việt Nam, I resorted to telling people that I was British and avoided making Vietnamese friends.
During this first year, I was focused on finishing my teaching contract and leaving Việt Nam for good.
Gradually, I became so depressed that I could not sleep at night.
Early one morning, I wandered into a local park near my house, and as I was walking through it, I found a group of middle-aged men and women doing kung fu.
I was a bit intimidated; after all, they were wearing black outfits, but when they saw me, they all smiled and lit up.
They asked if I would like to join them, and I did.
After the practice finished, I first met him.
He introduced himself as Cường.
He was my height with humble eyes and a kind smile.
He could speak English well.
So well that when the other kung fu students asked me questions in Vietnamese, he would translate them into English.
During their practice and afterwards, the kung fu students were laughing and having such a fun time, I could not help but gravitate towards their love of life.
I started coming back morning after morning to practice kung fu with them.
I became friends with them.
The group invited me to other activities:
Karaoke, the Củ Chi tunnels, traditional ceremonies, cafes, and even to their own homes for lunch.
Cường was at the center of it all.
He was always there helping me to better understand his culture by translating everything.
In this way, he opened the door for me to understand Vietnamese culture, and thereby sowed the seeds of my newfound passion for this country.
Later, I learned that he had spent four years teaching himself English.
As an English teacher, I was astounded that he had taught himself; I fully appreciate how much patience and discipline is needed to learn another language.
He also told me stories of his childhood.
He told me that he was a boy in northern Việt Nam during the Việt Nam War.
His family lived in underground tunnels at a time when Cường remembers he was still a child struggling to walk.
He told me of the time his cousins were killed, and of the time he and his sister were almost killed by an American bomb, which blasted into one of the tunnels.
He told me of the time he tried to study by candlelight in the tunnels and how the soot from the lantern would blacken his nostrils.
I remember stopping his stories and shouting back:
“Don’t you know that I’m American?
How could you be so kind to me when your childhood had been so difficult because of my people?”
All of this pent-up energy burst forth from me.
For months, he had been treating me so well; but yet I know that most people, after such traumatic experiences, would have held great resentment and felt deeply hurt.
But he said that he had found forgiveness and that now our two countries are good friends.
We agreed that I will always be his younger sister and that he will be my older brother.
Ever since we met, Cường has treated me with so much kindness and generosity.
When I needed a motorbike, he let me borrow his indefinitely; when I wanted to travel around Việt Nam, he invited me to his hometown in Thái Nguyên Province to meet his friends and family.
When I wanted flowers on my porch, he built a place to hang them.
When my family came to Việt Nam, he was the first person to join me at the airport and he made them truly feel like Việt Nam was a home away rom home, just as he had done with me.
Cường also bought me my first tailor-made áo dài (Vietnamese national costume, consisting of a tight-fitting silk tunic worn over pantaloons) and two áo bà bas (long-sleeved, button-down silk shirts worn mostly by southern Vietnamese women).
When my sister came to visit me, he had an áo dài made for her as well.
My family and I are so grateful to him for his kindness.
My older brother is there whenever I need help.
He has done so many kind things for me that I am afraid that I cannot do him enough justice or ever repay him sufficiently for his kindness.
All I can say is that for me, he represents what it is to be Vietnamese, that I am so grateful to have him as my Vietnamese older brother, and that because of him, I have fallen in love with this beautiful country.
One day, when I go back home to America, it is my dream to have him come to visit my family and me; to show him around my country with as much hospitality and kindness as he has shown me here.
I can only hope that I will have a chance to make him feel the same warmth and love for my country as he has made me feel for his homeland, Việt Nam.
By HEATHER WOODWARD
(*) Interviewed by CÔNG NHẬT
Source: Tuổi Trẻ News