(written on March 1, 2007)
Newbie. Up until that moment, I had never been referred to as a “newbie” and didn’t quite know if I liked the connotation the word had for the situation I was in.
I was only about a year old when the American soldiers pulled out of Saigon in 1975, leaving the South Vietnamese to fend for themselves against the Vietcong soldiers, who were quickly making their way down towards the once-powerful capital city. Being as young as I was, my still developing mind merely took in the sensations and stimuli of the events unfolding before me, storing them in my subconscious with the possibility of never resurfacing again. At the age of 23, my consciousness never knew that those infant eyes once watched as grown men ran crying out of their homes and into the streets in search of their wives and children; American soldiers pushing past Vietnamese citizens to get to their helicopters or ships that were quickly abandoning the city; mothers grasping their young ones and what little possessions they could carry in hopes that some way, somehow, they would safely get out of the city before the Communist North arrived. My mother was one of those women and as I innocently sat in my mother’s arms, I did not know that what I was looking at was the scene of great terror and turmoil that would overcome the city — and eventually the whole country — for twenty-plus years to come.
In 1997, my mother asked me if I wanted to go with her back to Vietnam to see our family again. She had gone back once prior to that moment but the city of Saigon (now renamed Ho Chi Minh City) was still a poor struggling country and the experience was very difficult for her at that time, having been away for so long. This time though, with news that the country of Vietnam had been slowly evolving into a more civilized economy, with hopes of becoming more advanced and connected to the rest of the world, my mother wanted her closest child to return with her in this time of growth for the country.
I had not considered going back to Vietnam up until that point. I never had any desire to do so. I grew up in America and having been raised by American television and radio, I only knew how to be cool like Fonzie and to talk like Mork from Orc. What could a struggling third world country ever offer me? But each time my mother asked about going, I could see in her face the deep, deep emotional scarring that had affected her through her journey from Vietnam to America. Those dark pupils held the remorse of a woman who was left to care for herself and two young children while waiting to learn of her family’s uncertain future in a Korean refugee camp. Each line on her forehead marked the torments that went through her mind when we were transferred to America to live once more in yet another refugee camp. The frown that had become a permanent part of her everyday expression reflected how she felt about her new life in America, after leaving the camp, knowing that she had an old life back in Vietnam that she may never get to see again. More important than my own selfish fears of going back to a country I never knew was the very fact that my going back may not only help prevent any more lines from breaking my mother’s gentle face, but there was a chance that this trip would also open areas of my mind that I had never bothered to explore before.
The city of Saigon was dark when our plane arrived. It was nearly midnight and having never been in an airplane for more than three to four hours at the most, the thirteen-plus hour flight had made me restless and anxious to get back on the solid ground. My already squinty eyes narrowed more as I tried to shake the sand from my eyelids and focus on anything that could be seen out the window from where I was sitting. The moonlight twisted and coiled as it reflected off of the barbed wire that lined the tops of the thick concrete walls that surrounded the landing grounds of the Ho Chi Minh City airport. The occasional flash of a military truck peeked out of the blackness, just barely under the sporadically spaced lamp posts, reminded me that this was a country that was once living day-by-day under the oppression of war and conflict and even now, was considered not entirely safe.
My fingers caressed the buckle of my seatbelt, as I patiently waited for the seatbelt light to go off. My mother’s face was the same intense, serious face that I had grown accustomed to over the years. It was only when she looked over at me when I was able to see that warm smile that was often hidden away, along with most of her pains and memories of the time past.
“You are back home.” Her voice was quiet, soft. Barely audible over the hustling of anxious passengers rummaging through the overhead compartments, frantically grabbing suitcases and bags, ignoring the fact that the plane had not completely come to a full stop, the flight attendants did not notice, though, due to their own anxiousness to get off of the plane themselves.
“Yes,” I hesitated. “I’m back home.”
The ping of the seatbelt light going off told me that it was time to step out into the Vietnamese air and take in the hot, humid breath that was only last taken twenty-two years prior to that trip. A nervousness overcame me and I recall getting up then sitting back down, hoping that the seatbelt light would come back on and the plane would turn itself around and go back to the States. Fortunately, the sea of black hair and almond-shaped eyes that filled the cabin of the plane reminded my stubborn self that I was not in Kansas anymore and the very fact that my skin color did not stand out in this crowd reminded me that this was something that I needed to do.
Once out into the open air, something in the back of my mind awoke. I can’t entirely say what it was and what went through my mind at that very moment, but I can say that it was a good feeling. What was once fear and nervousness became comfort and calm. Whether that was simply a reaction to actually being on the ground after the long flight or something deeper, like the lost memories that were last explored at the age of one and a half coming back to the foreground, I will never know. Alas, my stubborn self pushed its way back to the inside of my forehead where my consciousness dwelled, and that feeling of calm and contentment, just as quickly as it had come, began to fade as I was reminded of where I was and how little I knew of that place.
The box-shaped bus that arrived to shuttle us to the terminal brought to mind the image of a laboratory cage. The kind that scientists kept mice in just before performing insidious experiments on the poor rodents. I became anxious and played back in my head all the stories of the Jewish prisoners during World War II and the gas chambers that killed so many of them. I looked to the reflection on the large glass windows of the bus and suddenly the anxiousness once again subsided. This time, it wasn’t just the inkling of a possible childhood memory that calmed me but the image of my own self in the glass, dark shadows in place of eyes, strongly mirroring that of my mother’s face. I saw for the first time an expression that I had always had in me but it wasn’t until I came back to my place of birth that I would realize what that expression meant. There was a piece of my soul missing, buried deep with the memories of a baby, now resurfacing and bringing me back to that day when my mother said goodbye to her closest sister, making my aunt swear not to tell their parents and other siblings that she and her two young children were leaving Vietnam. It was that feeling that made climbing onto the bus a little less scary.
Once inside, my mother stood quietly next to me. She smiled once again and the tightness of her lips told me that she was proud of me for taking that journey with her. Something in her eyes told me that having me walking next to her back into Saigon was the perfect compliment of the memory of her carrying me out of Saigon in 1975.
I looked around me as the bus stammered forward and everyone’s arms tensed up to keep from falling back onto each other. I saw many older Vietnamese men and women, who, just like my mother, had a strong desire to be back home and was relieved to be living at that moment. Just a mere three to four feet away from me were two teenagers, about twelve and thirteen in age. I hadn’t really spoken to anyone besides my mother during the whole trip but seeing the highlighted streaks of red in the girl’s hair and the Green Day logo on the boy’s shirt gave me the slightest feeling of still being in touch with America, and so I awkwardly tried to break the serious silence that was enveloping the bus inside.
“First time in Vietnam?” I had forgotten that being the age that I was, even trying to talk to teenagers was like when an old uncle or your grandfather is trying to rap. As my words reflected off the humid atmosphere and ricocheted back into my own ear canals, I realized how incredibly dorky I must have sounded to those teenagers. Alas, they were kind enough to spare me any humiliation and actually responded.
“Nope. My sister and I have been back twice now.”
“Wow. Twice? So this is your third time?” And it was at that point when I realized that it only seemed like the teenagers were trying to spare me any embarrassment but in all actuality, they were really just patronizing me. “Third time to go back.”
“Yeah. That would make three.”
The girl was a bit nicer. “Is this your first time?”
“Ha. Is it that obvious?”
The boy, not so nice. “Very.”
“You’re a newbie,” rounded off the conversation, the girl’s calm voice echoing in the back of my mind. Her tone was very confident, as if she had just discovered a new species of butterfly or unearthed a new type of dinosaur bone.
Up until that moment, I had never been referred to as a “newbie” and didn’t quite know if I liked the connotation the word had for the situation I was in. But as I choked down the last bit of pride that was lodged in my throat and realized that the bus was slowing down to let us off at the terminal, the word began to make sense. And not just because this was my first time back in Vietnam but because this was my first time fully realizing that part of me that I had forgotten about — or had chosen not to think about — was coming to light. But being in the humid Vietnam air with its dark starless sky above me and the contrast of the people-filled terminal ahead of me, lined with military police and airport officials, a voice in my head was telling me that this was the right thing to do and that after the next three weeks, the word “newbie” would no longer apply to me.