Last Updated on March 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1387
As an adult, Thi’s relationship with her father has improved, but she wants to know what made him the father he was. Bo’s first story begins in 1951, in Hai Phong, Vietnam. Bo’s grandfather and great-uncle were building new houses, and as they dug for clay, they created a large hole. The hole filled with rainwater became a lake, and people added fish and plants. But when a fabric dyer moved in, he disposed of his dyes in the lake, killing everything.
In the 1930s, in Loi Dong village, north of Hai Phong, Bo’s grandfather arrived in the village with his young son, Bo’s father. He became secretary to the village chief and married the chief’s daughter, a wealthy widow. When he was older, Bo’s father married Bo’s mother, whom Thi describes as being a “plain woman.”
Bo was born in 1940, during the Second World War, a time when people had to do what they could to survive. Bo’s grandmother was hiding jars of opium, and his grandfather planned, together with his son, to steal a jar and run away to Lang Son. But when war, corrupt officials, and Bo falling ill ruined their plans, they went to the city instead. There was a shortage of food there, and Bo remembers being hungry for days at a time.
In 1945, Bo’s father had an affair. He threw his wife out of the house, and she never returned. Bo’s father then left to join the Viet Minh, and Bo’s grandfather returned to Loi Dong with Bo to beg his wife’s forgiveness. Later that year, America dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, leaving a power vacuum in Indochina, and the Viet Minh took control of Ha Noi City. When the war ended, Hồ Chí Minh declared Vietnam independent, and the Chinese Nationalist Army arrived to disarm the Japanese. Although Bo believed his mother might have died, she actually married a Chinese soldier and had three more children.
North and South Vietnam could have created a peaceful democracy, but the French invaded again. When they arrived in Bo’s village, Bo was hidden in an underground shelter, where he was left for four days while his neighbors were massacred. Finally, the village chief, Bo’s great-grandfather, surrendered to the French, and he and his family, including Bo, escaped to Hai Phong. Bo was still only seven years old.
Thi returns to the narrative to reflect on her own childhood, writing of Bo, “the terror I felt was only the long shadow of his own.”
Thi sits at her workstation looking at a childhood photograph of her mother and admits she finds it hard to write about Hang, “maybe because my image of her is too tied up with my opinion of myself.”
Hang was born in Cambodia in 1943. Her father, a civil engineer, worked for the French government, who provided their home and servants. Her family was wealthy and had a comfortable life, but when Cambodians began killing Vietnamese people, they were forced to return to Vietnam, to the coastal city of Nha Trang.
Hang, the youngest of five children, was adored by her father and, due to her academic ability, attended an exclusive French school. But she and her siblings were scared of their mother, who hit them and the servants. After teaching herself to read Vietnamese, Hang began reading history books and learned how the French had colonized their country. She became a nationalist and refused to speak French outside of school. Hang didn’t want to get married; instead, she wanted to study and become a doctor. Thi comments that she knows what happened next: Hang married Bo. She wonders how two such different people could have even met.
After Bo moved to the Rue de Commerce in Hải Phòng, his life improved. His grandmother opened a grocery store, his grandfather sold Chinese medicine, and Bo was sent to an elite French school. But as he got older, he began to notice that while some...
(The entire section contains 1387 words.)
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