My aunt and I were sitting on the couch at her home. It has been three months since the last time I saw her, and her chemo treatments have been harsh on her body. She was frailer than I remember, much more fragile when I went in for a hug. Her hair and eyebrows were gone, and her nails turned dark from all the side effects of the chemotherapy. Although her physical look has changed due to battling cancer for the third time, her fierce fighting spirit still remained and the glow in her eyes was still as bright as I remembered.
Ngoc Nga Pham was born in Saigon, Vietnam in 1960. She escaped Vietnam after the war in 1979 when she was eighteen years old. Along with her were my cousin, Nicole, who was eight years old at the time, and two other relatives. After arriving in the U.S in 1980, she married her husband and had a son, Chris. Through years of hard work, they were able to put both of my cousins through college. My cousins also got families of their own, and they gave her four adorable grandchildren. I decided her story was important to capture because I wanted to find a way for her story to be read by her grandchildren when they grow older. Since they probably have a hard time understanding Vietnamese, I wanted to be her translator so one day, her grandchildren will know where they came from.
I opened up our interview by asking her to recall her childhood memories. I wondered what it was like for her to grew up in a war-torn country that plagued our family with poverty. My childhood was filled with candies, toys, schooling and children music, a world away from her world. I tried to search for a few her fondest memories, as I asked the question inside my head “did you even have a childhood?” The question then translated into a fifteen-minute recount of our family and little snippets of the Vietnam War.
My childhood? Oh lord, I guess happy and poor. Mostly happy because I was with my family, and poor because we didn’t have much and we had to share everything. Even underwears and bras. Each of us would have two or three outfits, and if I want to share an outfit with sister Seven, who was taller than me, so I cuffed the pants. And when she wants to wear them, then she rolled them down. When we were young, we were going to school and helping Bà Nội’s (grandmother) broken rice food stall. We had to maintain our grades while still helping with chores and the family food stall. If we were to receive a bad grade then we received a good beating, and when we did well, all we got was a “good job, keep going!” from her.
I remember 1968 during the Tet Mau Than (Tet Offensive), our family was hungry and the fighting was closed to our house. Bà Nội took uncle Six, sister Seven, myself, sister Nine, and our baby brother to seek shelters at nearby villages. Our district was next to a river, and the fighting was at the district across from ours, so people ran across the bridge into our district to seek shelter. Your Ông Nội (grandfather), sister Four and sister Five were making bright fruit cake (bánh trái sáng). The name came from the bullet casings that fell down after being shot, and they collected them and used them as cake molds. Ông Nội washed them and used them to cook cake mix and sold them to people in order to make money for his family. The money was for rice for Bà Nội and his children, I remember a small can of milk that was just enough to feed everyone. I was little, so I didn’t understand what was going on. I thought that we were on a fun trip, running from district to district. Looking back was not fun. I remember we ran into a school and then a hospital in County Five, called Chieu Chau. Across from it was a retirement home that also housed the disables.
We were on the run along with Bà Nội’s sister’s family, grandma Two, who was rich and had money. They slept next to us, and they had a mosquito net, pillows, and blankets. Our family slept out in the open, with only a large piece of paper to cover, which ideal when it rained. For food, we were given little to eat, whereas grandma Two’s family had rice, meat, vegetables, and fish. Once in a while, Ông Nội and your aunts would bring rice over but no food.
The war started for a while, and I was eight during the worst attacks from the North. I remember after each battle, there were GMC Army Trucks that collected dead bodies, doesn’t matter if you were American or Vietnamese, they dumped all of the bodies into big pits and buried them. The school I went to, Luong Van Can, they built another school and before they can build one, they needed to make a big pit to set the foundation, and that school was built on top of dead bodies. I was nosy, and I stood there and watched them buried the bodies. I was eight, so I thought we were going on field trips. Tet Mau Than was the worst year during the war.
We were poor, but one of my fondest memories was during a power outage. We were sitting on the kitchen floor, surrounding Bà Nội, and she told us her life stories. When I was nine years old, our family was so poor and we didn’t have anything to eat. So my mom went to her sister, grandma Two, and asked to borrow money to buy rice for us. Grandma Two said “do you even have the money to pay me back?”, and she didn’t loan my mom the money. She had a broken rice food stall, and the leftover rice was actually burnt rice from the bottom of the pot that wasn’t sellable. She gave old leftover broken rice that has been dried and can add water to rehydrate. It was a food source in case they needed to run and seek shelter. So Bà Nội took it home, cooked it and divided among her children, my parents didn’t eat any. That rice wasn’t even rice, and it wasn’t even congee, but it was good enough.
Although grandma Two wasn’t the best person, we were lucky that my mom’s mother really loved my mom. My mom was a little handicapped, so my grandma was good to her. So my grandma had three kids, grandma Two, grandpa Five and my mom, so like a triangle. She would stay with each of them, and if she gets upset with one, she would go and live with another, one point to the next. My grandma used to drink Beer 33, mostly to help her sleep. So whenever she wants a beer, she would go to a stall near our house and buy them, and they would make note of how many she owed, and grandma Two would pay for all of them at the end of the month. She would drink three beers per month, but she would tell them to write for ten beers. The extra money would be used to buy rice for my mom. That was the only she was able to help Bà Nội and our family.
If I can live another life, and I can pick another mom and older sister, I will want my mom and sister Three again because they are the kindest hearted people. My mom chose to endure hardship for her children’s sake. One day she was craving a bowl of noodles, and she paced back and forth in front of the noodles stall. But she decided to use that money to buy food to bring home to her children instead, she didn’t want to be full while her children were left hungry. In Vietnam proverbs, there is the phrase “gạo chạy từ nồi.”, which has the same meaning as living paycheck to paycheck. We never knew when our next meal was going to be.
My sister-Three was in charge of cooking for the whole family, and every time she would take out a handful of rice and put them into a small jar for an emergency. So when we didn’t have money for rice, she would bring out the emergency rice, enough to feed everyone for a day. I think that was where I got the idea of always setting aside extras for a rainy day. Their ways of life are the things that have been ingrained in me were valuable during my escape for freedom and life away from my family.
To be continued…
Thank you for reading ^.^