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...
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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 people had everything, others had nothing. He read newspapers and was influenced by revolutionary ideas. His grandparents, who had always lived under French domination, were unhappy with his political views.
When his grandparents’ property was seized, Bo and his grandfather signed up to return to South Vietnam with the Americans. His grandmother chose not sign up after a fight with his grandfather put her in the hospital. Bo and his grandfather left Hai Phong in March 1955, just as the border closed. Seven hours later they arrived in Ha Long Bay.
An illustration shows Thi looking out at the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, next to her father looking out over Saigon in South Vietnam. Thi writes,
I imagine that the awe and excitement I felt for New York when I moved there after college must be something like what my father felt when he arrived in Saigon in 1955.
Bo and his grandfather were happy in Saigon, as they were free to walk down the streets and eat in restaurants. Bo’s grandmother relocated shortly after they arrived, moving into an apartment with two other women. But when her opium jars, the source of her income, were destroyed, she was forced to return to her husband. Bo, then fourteen years old, was happy they were a family again. His grandparents bought a small house, and Thi remembers that she lived there as a child and that, in 2001, she and her family—without her father—had returned.
Bo was offered a scholarship to one of the best schools in Saigon and then enrolled in a teacher’s college. It was there, in 1962, that he met Hang. Thi wishes she could illustrate this as a happy story, but her mother says that her school years, before she met Bo, were the happiest of her life. Due to political turmoil, college was not a happy time. Hang’s parents worried, and she wasn’t allowed to socialize with many people. Then, when she met Bo, he monopolized her time. Hang became pregnant, and at the end of their first year in college, Bo was seriously ill. Hang didn’t think he would live for long, so they married. Ultimately, they lost the baby, and Bo’s health improved.
In 1965, Hang and Bo moved to Ha Tien, a rural town in the Mekong Delta, to take up teaching positions. The Vietnam War was approaching. Thi was born three months before South Vietnam lost the war.
It was April 30, 1975: Liberation Day. But for many, like Thi’s parents, it was “the day we lost our country.” Bo was working for the Ministry of Education at the time, and Hang was a schoolteacher. Believing him to be a spy, the new regime took Bo’s job and offered him a position doing hard labor in the New Economic Zone instead. Hang and Bo struggled to make ends meet, and as each of their escape plans was thwarted, Bo became even more depressed. Bo’s grandmother, who remembered the land reforms, worried about her family.
Hang became pregnant again, and eight months later, the family was offered the chance to escape by boat. They took an early bus from Saigon to Can Tha and boarded the boat with other refugees. When the boat hit a river island, they were almost discovered by patrols, and the captain became so distressed that he was unable to continue. It was decided that Bo would take over as captain and lead the boat out into international waters and on to Malaysia. Bo and the other passengers were faced with many challenges, including sickness and pirates.
Finally, seeing land ahead and fishermen sailing toward them, they lit a communication lantern, but Bo was hit by an oar and fell into the sea. Managing to swim to shore, he was soon joined by the boat and his fellow passengers. In exchange for the boat and some gold, a man invited Bo and his family to stay in his village. Hang, who was about to give birth, went to a hospital, while Lan, Bich, and Thi stayed with their father. The next day the four of them set off for the Pulau Besar refugee camp, where Hang would meet them.