“My village, I don’t even know the name, it was napalmed and my parents died,” he said dispassionately. “Hit my eyes. I was blinded, and it took a while to get my sight back.”
I had a mouthful of Vietnamese food, thankful that I could not respond, at least not at that moment. It was a child’s birthday party, a small gathering to celebrate the young lady’s first birth anniversary. Up to that point we’d been having too much to eat, a lot of laughs, and huge pieces of sugary cake. The baby was passed around.
“I moved to an orphanage, and then my parents, my new ones, came and adopted me,” he said, twisting his fork in circles on the gaudy paper plate. “I moved to Long Island.”
I was looking for a trace of bitterness, a sense that somehow I and others who’d been involved in that war were to be hated. It wasn’t there. In fact, this man born of a violent time, was funny and engaging, couldn’t even speak Vietnamese. He remembered that his middle name was Mua, which someone told him was a common first name in his country. He smiled, nodding, hearing the news for the first time, unlocking a secret of decades.
Soon, others at the party came to tell their stories. Many had been lucky enough to escape the communists with only the clothes they wore. Sponsored by someone here they came by many routes, ending up here in the middle of California. They made their way to jobs that others didn’t want, or couldn’t do. Each was successful in his own way, making a life in a foreign land where the language was like code.
One, a man whose mother was Vietnamese and father was a black GI, seemed to be the outcast, the one everyone avoided. He nursed a beer, and then standing unsteadily, announced that he was going home. There were a few half-hearted handshakes and bows, and what seemed to be relief when he left.
“My parents are ministers, they have taken trips all over the world, helped to bring back other kids. I have two younger brothers; they’re real American kids, not adopted.” He smiled again, taking a bite from an egg roll. “I had a brother, he was older, over in Vietnam. I don’t know if….” His voice trailed off.
I didn’t know what to say since my thoughts were back in 1969, on that crack in time. At work I read the reports from the US Saigon Military Command. Reports came in all the time, in triplicate, from MACV. It never got to the level of villages destroyed, but spoke instead of sorties, missions flown, and of bomb damage assessment. I gave briefings telling what had happened the night before, how the war was progressing. It was formulaic, monotone, I was a talking head, someone who read rather than wrote most of the stuff, that was me. Slides appeared over my shoulder, emphasizing the movement of men and materiel over the countryside of South Vietnam.
After work I threaded the ranks of antiwar protesters. Seemed there was an active insurrection in the United States, and hate was everywhere. Men, good men, were rotting in cells in Hanoi, wondering if the propaganda their captors were telling them was true, afraid that it might be. There were threats, constant reminders that I was the enemy.
Back to that meeting, that meal. This man, an orphan, had come to tell me that life is not fair, that revenge is never good, but that forgiveness is really the mark of a man at peace with himself.