March 20, 2003. It was the day America declared war on Iraq. The biggest loss of my life also occurred on that day – my father stopped calling me his “wine daughter”.
I first heard my father using the term “wine daughter” when I turned three; when Thanh Truc, my elder and only sister died at Ba Chieu District Hospital from a bout of dengue fever. Later, I learned about the reasons of her death from my family aunties and uncles. That she died simply because my parents were so poor and could not afford the cost of an early treatment at the hospital. That she died, simply because after 1975, the Viet Cong prohibited my father to continue his law practice as a means of living. I could not remember much about the details of her death, and even now, I can only vaguely remember my sister’s face; my elder sister, who all members of my family would recall fondly as “the most filial and obedient child”. My father was standing next to her casket, carrying me in his arms, and whispered to me: “Beautiful Truc is my obedient daughter. Dark Dao is my wine daughter”. That was my only recollection of that time. It took me a while to grasp the meaning conveyed by that term, when my mother explained that “wine daughter” is usually used by a father to call his most favourite daughter, especially if she helps to serve drinks to his friends during their visits.
That year, life was still hard, very hard in Vietnam. My family was very poor; there was hardly any money to buy meat to prepare meals. My mother used to send me to go to the ‘pho’ shop located at the start of the laneway leading to our house. There, I would ask for any surplus soup base, which we used to mix with plain boiled rice to add flavour, to make the food easier to swallow. There was no spare cash to buy drinks for my father. Later, even when our situation improved, my father still could not indulge himself in drinking; he never sent me out to buy alcoholic drinks. I, however, understood that endearing name; and I was always there to serve whenever he entertained his friends at home. It was my most important mission in life. “Wine daughter” was my first and foremost my own defined identity.
The day US President George W Bush declared on Iraq, I was working as a translator at UCLA. That night, I joined in the anti-war demonstration parade organized by its students, and did not bother to come home to my parents. He was reading a newspaper in the kitchen when I arrived home. I said hello and gave him a kiss on the cheek. Usually this was the time that he would tenderly said “Been out raging, haven’t you, my wine daughter?” But on this occasion, it was different. He silently looked at me, a strange look that I had not seen before. A critical and disappointed look, one reserved for a traitor. My simple act of joining the anti-war parade was against the very principles that bound my father, who had lived most of his life in the Republic of South Vietnam, to the US Republican Party. To him, it mocked his law profession, made fun of his slowly-disappearing youth, the result of numerous attempts to escape his beloved country by sea, and betrayed the death of his eldest daughter.
The Vietnam War occurred long before I was born, it was not my war. Somehow, it still manages to steal one of most treasured part of my life.
Statistics published about the Vietnam War reveal that there are more than five millions deaths, uncountable more survive but suffer mentally its aftermath. Am I so selfish to complain – what I lost is just a name that my father used to call me!