The decision to travel to Vietnam felt inspired by some unknown force. It felt like a manifestation I had created. I had very little doubt I was meant to go on this trip with Kin.
My brother Kin and I were greeted at the local airport outside the village of Da Me with bouquets of flowers from his nieces. Ruth handed me a beautiful bouquet of roses in all shades of pink and yellow, splays of greenery and her eager personality. She was forthcoming, gracious and intimate with her kindness. I noticed this with the two other nieces who met us at the larger airport in Ho Chi Minh city they day before. They came forward immediately and gently guided us with light touches to the small of my back that instantly felt warm and sisterly. I would soon learn they were the young progressives of the family. The children of the villagers who ventured out into the big city to be able to expand past their tribal lives.
When we arrived at Kin’s mother’s house (Grandmother) just a few minutes ride in the “Big Boy” – a late model blue Toyota Highlander Kin’s brother Ha’Lin had purchased a few months before, his driver and one other gentleman who I believe was a brother-in-law and Kin’s two nieces. My first thought was that all the girls looked so young, and the older men looked so old. The men’s skin looks like warn sixty-year-old leather that had been given birth in the full sun, and had worked every single day since then. Which of course, these men have been doing. No desk jobs for the Montagards living in the villages. They are mostly farmers growing the food their family needs to eat with a little left over to sell in the market.
Our arrival was a celebration the whole village knew about. Kin’s mother was ninety-eight years old and had given birth to eleven children, survived a war while her husband, the local pastor, was in a re-education camp for two years, buried a few of her own children and was now meeting her eldest son for the sixth time in fifty years. The child who left. The prodigal son was returning home and she was waiting for him. Grandmother had stopped eating months before and the family was concerned for her health. Kin and his wife Mickie Skype quite often with the family from their home in Rhode Island. The Koho Montagards are a poor people but their wifi service is excellent. Kin had told his mother to keep eating and stay strong because he was coming home for a visit. The other family members and villagers were there to witness the mother and son reunion. Tears and hugs were abundant. Touching, grasping, kissing and snuggling on the couch and taking pictures. Grandmother kept looking up into Kin’s eyes with amazement. I think she was trying to recall or decided if the image she was seeing was real. She caressed him constantly like a mother cat would to her kitten. I sat on the other side of her and she took my hand which sat in my lap with her surprisingly strong grip. Grandmother didn’t let go of either one of us. If we moved or adjusted our body or hands, she adjusted with us. Ruth sat across from us on a matching small couch where she was Skyping the whole reunion with Mickie back home. I felt Grandmother’s small leathery hand in mine and knew this is why I had come.
The room was small and simple white painted paneling. It reminded me of a basement room from the 70’s with drop ceiling, plastic chairs, linoleum floor and simple furnishings. The windows were open and I could smell the earth just outside but it was pitch dark. I could hear the sounds of singing at the Karaoke bar a couple of yards away, across the dirt courtyard. The windows had molding that was painted a silver metallic color. I found that amusing thinking about who picked out the paint color and did they get it on sale. Kin had mentioned that they had “spruced the place up” knowing that I was coming. They wanted me to be comfortable. I can’t say that I was. Brothers and brother-in-laws streamed into the room to greet us and shake my hand and to give Kin a hug. Most of the men were missing a large portion of their teeth as were some of the women. I met a few of Kin’s sisters and sister-in-laws. They all wore knee length dresses and a light matching sweaters. The sisters smiled a lot and gave reassuring nods to me. They had on necklaces and earrings and slipped into house sandals to walk across the linoleum floor.
In America, we are taught to be fearful of anyone who has bad teeth. Bad teeth means bad people. All the scary villains in the movies are missing teeth. Homeless people are missing teeth. Poor people are missing teeth. Why is this? Why do we associate someone’s likability with teeth? I soon realized these are the most kindest, gracious people.
The anxious feeling of traveling half way around the world into a village where I didn’t speak the language had started to bubble up into my throat as all the people coming to greet me had neither the dental hygiene or the language I could associate with. I thought, What have I done? I can’t even leave if I wanted to. I’m at the mercy of these people. No, no, Eileen, don’t think that way.
While sitting and saying hello to friends and family I was suddenly back-handed by Grandmother. I was slapped in the mouth by the back of her incredibly strong and boney brown knuckle!
“Oh, my! I’m so sorry.” said Ruth. Besides Kin, Ruth was the only other person within miles who I could communicate with. She studied English at University and now teaches English to her students in De Lat.
I unclasped my hand from Grandmother and brought both my hands to my mouth and was completely shocked by the slap. I wasn’t even looking in her direction when it happened. I thought I was bleeding and checked by dabbing the tissue I was holding due to reunion tears a few minutes before. “She hits people she likes.” said Ruth
“She did that to Anna when she came to visit. It made her cry.” said Kin as a way of explanation that the same thing happened to his daughter a few years ago during their last visit.
I was hit off kilter and my sense of calm started to become unhinged. It felt Grandmother was swatting a fly, aiming to kill it, not giving me a love tap. Some of the men offered Kin a can of 333 beer popular in the area. They asked if I would like one. “Um, yes please.” was my immediately reply. I didn’t care that none of the women were drinking. They looked at me with some skepticism and distain when I finished my first beer at the same time Kin finished his. The beer was cold and my body knew what to do with it. I took my second beer and third beer when it was handed to me. I was keeping up with the men. If I’m going to survive this trip and get some sleep, I better find a way to relax.
“We have to go!” said Kin as he jumped up and walked out the door. “We are staying at my sister’s house and they want us to go there now. They will come over with our bags.”
I got up from the couch having my small cross-body bag that held my passport and my promotional Coca-Cola backpack that contained a few “travel safe” toiletries and walked outside into the dark. The “Big Boy” truck was no longer there. In the place were a few motor bikes. “You go on that one.” said Kin
“Wait, what? Are you serious?” I asked. We had just come from Ho Chi Minh city where the motorcyclist were absolutely insane, driving in and out of traffic, going the wrong way all while having their families or small children or dogs or office furniture sat on the back of their motorbikes. Lots of people die everyday on motor bikes in Vietnam. It’s probably hundred of people.
With the three beers thankfully in my belly, I straddled the motorbike and grasped on to a man without any teeth to sped off towards the house I would be staying at, without my luggage. I was told it was a short ride, past the karaoke bar, around the corner, past the pig pen (you could smell it) and down the road that had open puddles of water… from the pig pen?? God, I hope that doesn’t spray on my legs. I held tighter to the stranger at his waist and my knees instinctively clenched his outer thighs in a gesture too intimate for my New York sensibilities. I leaned into him, my breasts pushing up against his back as we hit a bump and my backpack pressed against my lower back that gave me a reassuring grounding feeling that I still had a connection to America. We swayed around the puddle as single unit. The stranger and I few past few buildings in the dark. The light from which poured a dreamy light onto the road. I saw a silhouette from a horse or was that a cow in the empty lot….I hope they have more beer at the house.
The pastor’s house, although I didn’t realize it that night, was a robin’s egg blue painted French looking villa, and they don’t drink alcohol. They had built the house a few years before from the original structure that was the kitchen, bathroom and shed that remained in the same location. There were about nine small bedrooms that surrounded one open living and dining room area that fed into the kitchen area where the toilet and wash room were located in the back.
As custom we took off our shoes, as not to track any chicken poop inside, at the door and I was lead to my room upstairs that belonged to one of the eldest daughters. The double bed held a thin mattress with a quilted cover (the thickness of a yoga mat) I was showed how to use the mosquito net. I was shown the one bathroom in the house and the one wash room, which were down stairs, through two rooms, off the kitchen by the back shed. I was dead tired from the trip and the few hours of trying to communicate without a similar language. Now I was going to wash and go to the bathroom without much privacy. How was I going to handle this week?
Kin had the room next door, which I was thankful for. He had originally said he was going to stay at his mother’s house. We had both hoped that we didn’t have to use the bathroom in the middle of the night. Even Kin was scared to be walking across the house with a flashlight in hand, hoping not to run into anything or anybody.
That night I started my uncomfortable journey and the realization,
I manifested this.
You are going to be O.K. – Eileen