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April 30th of Ly Ky Kiet

0 bình luận ♦ 26.08.2006

  • An earlier, slightly shorter version of this piece was published in Nha Magazine, March-April 2005. The Vietnamese version appeared in Hợp Lưu, April-May 2005.

  • The most recent Vietnamese version has been published on (Aug. 2006)






In April of 1975, I was 11 and ½ and living with my father, brother and paternal grandmother across the street from Saigon‘s An Dong Market. My mother divorced my father two years earlier to marry her lover. Her squeeze had been my father’s chauffeur when both were still in the police. A narcotics expert, a real spook, this dude was a 007 who would later punch in and out for the FBI. He was younger, taller, better built and more handsome than my father. He was also attentive and soft-spoken, unlike my father. Perhaps he was also a better lover than my father. More rhythmic, longer lasting, capable of small talks afterwards. Objectively speaking, perhaps this man and my mother were a good match. Arguing with her new husband, she would curse him after receiving a slap: “You chauffeur!”


Technically, my father was a lawyer, but about the only thing I ever saw him do was play mahjong in an air-conditioned garret. The water buffalo bone tiles clacked clacked nonstop on the green felt table. He competed with his Chinese friends because he loved the Chinese. “The Chinese are brilliant,” he said. “Like grass, you’ll find them everywhere.” He made my brother and I study Chinese, English and French.


“Chen dow knee hang cow sing.”


“How are you?”


“Mere see beau coo.”


He himself spoke no languages. “I’m already 43,” he explained. “My brain is no longer a blank sheet of paper, and can no longer be written on.” Tired of mahjong, he’d drive to the sporting club, where his skin darkened from whacking a yellow, fuzzy ball for hours and hours under a tropical sun. My brother and I also studied the piano, but we could only bang on it, not make melodies. Chasing music, my fingers kept tripping over each other. At that time, all I wanted to do was draw relatively accurate diagrams of the male and female anatomies. It’s hard to draw things you haven’t seen clearly. Standing on the third-floor balcony, looking at the market, my father blurted, “Would the Americans really abandon Vietnam?”


There weren’t too many Americans left in Saigon. The South Koreans were all gone. Growing up in Saigon, I did not witness the war, only its apparatus: tanks, jeeps, jets and helicopters… I often heard the rhythmic, out of breath fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck of chopper blades rotating overhead. Before 1975, the war only came to Saigon during the 1968 Tet Offensive, but my only memories of that cataclysm were TV images of people buried alive in Hue being exhumed.


The war came to me only through the media. Open a newspaper and you would see VC corpses lying in disarray. Turn on the radio and you could hear how our side was winning. In the middle of the war, Saigon movie theaters even showed American movies of World War II. Saigonese could sit in air-conditioned rooms and enjoy elaborate, expensively-staged war scenes, employing countless actors. From diving jets to exploding bombs to engulfing smoke. From burning houses to devastated cities and bridges. Hundreds of corpses sprawled all over, without arms, legs and drenched in blood. On the big screen, Saigonese could check out a fake war, while a real killing war was raging and outraging about 80 miles from the theater.


It was hard to see a VC in Saigon. Once, in Phu Lam district, I saw four blindfolded young men standing on a military truck. Maybe they were VC. The truth is the VC were just a rumor, a legend, bogey men you could evoke to scare the children, a nightmare. If someone took a bad photo, you called him a VC. “Your ID photo looks like crap. You look just like a VC!” Only after April 30th, 1975, did Saigonese realize there were plenty of VC among them. Not as frightening as the VC, but still contemptible, were the hicks from the sticks. “You’re an absolute hick. You’re out of it!” Saigonese, and Vietnamese in general, sentimentalized their rural past even as they were destroying it. They also looked down on their own soldiers. Only those who couldn’t bribe government officials entered the Army. It was better to cross-dress or chop your trigger finger off than to join the Army.


“The three no’s of Communism,” my father lectured, “are no family! no country! and no religion!” Every often he’d take us to watch soccer at the Republican Stadium. Small stadium, lots of people, going to a soccer match meant pushing and shoving just to get inside, sometimes losing a sandal in the process. Same with going to a Bruce Lee film. The Little Dragon was a little man with big talent, too bad he had to die so young. I also admired the Blind Swordsman with his truncated sword the size of a meat cleaver.


At the beginning of 1975, I read a story about an African Emperor, Jean-Beudel Bokassa, who returned to Saigon to look for his daughter. A member of the French Army during Colonial time, he married a Vietnamese woman in 1953, but left her when he went home. Finding his daughter working in a cement factory, Bokassa took her back to the Central African Republic. Only later did I find out that Bokassa was a dictator famous for his cruelty, and even accused of cannibalism. But thanks to this tyrant, his daughter had an opportunity to escape from Vietnam before the “Liberation.”


My father arranged for his secretary, me and my brother to evacuate with a Chinese family. They had a daughter working for the Americans. Not wanting to lose their properties, some of them chose to stay behind. That’s why they sold my father three spots. My fake name was Ly Ky Kiet. My brother’s was Ly Ky Vinh. I can no longer remember the secretary’s fake name but her real name was Diep The Ha. My father had to hire her to come along to take care of my brother and I. She was 22, Chinese, with a very short temper, her face round and puffy like a dumpling, liberally sprinkled with meaty pimples. Sister Ha, as I was calling her, would later become my stepmother. At that time, Hue, Da Nang and Da Lat were already in the hands of the North Vietnamese. My family were also North Vietnamese, but they had gone South in 1954, Catholics refugees from Bui Chu.


In South Vietnam, many people from Bui Chu lived in Tan Mai, near Bien Hoa. My father’s brother, Uncle Bao, a medic in the South Vietnamese Marines, died in 1972 and was buried in Tan Mai. He was the most handsome in my family. He died unmarried. Going to his funeral, I saw a soldier with “Kill Commies” tattooed on his darkened arm, and it made a great impression on me. Almost every time I went to Tan Mai, I was fed dogmeat and blood pudding. Unlike Scottish or Spanish black pudding, which are dry and innocuous, the Vietnamese version jiggles and bleeds, always a heart-warming gothic feast. Until 9, I was a good Catholic. I feared going to hell and wanted to become a priest. Gradually, I got tired of going to church. Each time I entered a church, I just wanted to go home.


At that time, my paternal grandfather was living in Thi Nghe district. His backdoor opened right into the zoo, so I never had to buy a ticket. My fondest memories from childhood were of wandering around this zoo. They had rhinos, hippos, tigers and panthers but no lions, zebras or giraffes. I still remember one blue faced, red-assed monkey. His fur was a bit dirty but his face was very contemplative and intellectual, a sort of Jean Paul Sartre behind bars. I also enjoyed going to the museum to look at the statues and bronze drums. My grandfather was skinny and tall. He didn’t know I was about to leave. Placing me on his lap, he said: “Who cares if other people are leaving, you’re staying here with grandfather.”


On April 8th, Nguyen Thanh Trung bombed the Presidential Palace. One bomb hit the terrace, another landed in the garden. I was downtown that day and saw all the commotion. Because of the security situation, I had to quit my judo class at night. I was an orange belt then. I loved all the martial arts and fighting, in general. I particularly liked to practice with girls so I could wrestle them, then lie on top of their soft, still flat bodies, if only for a few seconds. I also dreamt of taking showers with girls but I wasn’t allowed. Sitting in class, I kept drawing relatively accurate diagrams of the male and female anatomies. On April 21st, I saw President Thieu coming on TV to curse the Americans before resigning. On the black and white TV, I saw him wipe his tears.


Before I left, my father gave me 2,000 Dollars. He said: “2,000 bucks should last you a year.” American bills, I noticed, were less colorful than Vietnamese ones, though longer and crisper. My grandmother sewed the money into the hem of my blue shorts, made of rayon and extremely hot. She said: “Whatever you do, don’t take these shorts off.” Way back, in prehistory maybe, an ant crawled into my grandmother’s ear. She used a twig to get rid of the itch. That’s why she’s deaf in one ear. My grandmother went to church twice a day. Each morning, she had to be the first to stand in front of the gate, waiting for the priest to let her in. At home, she prayed nonstop. Pointing to Jesus, some pink guy with a reddish beard, she said, “God is very beautiful.”


Before boarding the plane, I stayed at an American compound for four days. Already, Saigon seemed very far away. On the evening of April 27th, I got on a C-130 to fly to Guam. I had been on a plane once before, when I was six, to go to Da Lat. As a transporter, the C-130 was huge, stuffy, with only one window and no seats. People were sprawled all over the floor. Sitting next to Sister Ha, I watched a kid eat raw instant noodles. When the plane landed, it was pitch dark. No one knew a thing about Guam, only that it was no longer a part of Vietnam. Where to go from there, and do what, no one knew. At that moment, I was not thinking about my father, Saigon or Vietnam at all. I was just super excited because, for the first time in my life, I was allowed to go very far away.

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