I shouldn’t hate anything because it’s sinful to hate, but I can’t help but hate chocolate. I don’t like chocolate. It’s sticky, it’s gooey, it stains, it hurts my teeth. It’s sweet, it’s dark, it’s unpleasant to my taste buds.
“Mama. Why don’t you like chocolate?” my children asked.
“Because, ” I tell them, “No one won a war against the communists by eating chocolate and sweets.”
“Huh?” they said.
“Mommmmm! That’s ridiculous!”
“That’s the truth,” I said, and they are unconvinced.
But what do my children know about war and the ways of war? They are born in American, standing on constitutional rights, living in cushioned comforts, sitting on the lap of luxury, and enjoying the security of safety nets. If someone tramples on their rights, the ACLU is there. If they are incarcerated, a free lawyer is afforded to them. They live in a huge Victorian, gingerbread house for free. Their meals are free. Their needs are met and more, and on top of that, they get free money to spend on themselves. And when their parents die, they are entitled to an inheritance. They are living the blessed lives that all children are entitled to. They have no concept of hunger – desperate hunger- and especially the desperate, dying hunger of a starving, war-torn country. They have no clue as what it feels like to live a real nightmare. For them, terrible things like war, bombs, killings, dead bodies, desperation, chaos are only in the movies. Those things are as unreal to them as the Greek myths, and they only happen in another time, in another world.
But once upon a time, in another world, I grew up in a country torn apart by civil war. I was born the in the year when the war was near ending, and battles were still raging. My mother remembered the bombings, and the desperate searches to locate her daughter, and the bizarre safe-havens that she found her daughter in. Angels my mother said. It could only be angels that knew where the bombs would land, and only angels could have covered me when shrapnel, debris, concrete, or anything could have ended me there in Vietnam. We were living in Saigon, and there were days when some mastermind must have gone mad with the bombing campaigns – the bombings seemed like last ditch efforts to win the war by simply killing everyone. The logic must have been that if everyone were killed, then there wouldn’t be any enemies left. Anytime, anywhere, people could be doing anything when the bombs fell. No one knew what would happen to them. Life and death – the ending of one and beginning of another – sometimes happened so quickly that people never knew that they had died. And other times, people heard the planes coming, the bombs raining down, and they had time to taste fear and feel death. No one knew their fate until the earth stopped rumbling and wailing sounds of grief arose. Then would they know if they survived or not. If they survived, they would be the desperate ones searching and calling out for loved ones. If they were dead, they could look down and see their own body. Many times, my mother could have lost me, but she has found me under a car, under concrete slabs, and, one time, in a strange house. She couldn’t explain how a toddler could have found shelter so quickly and so unexpectedly.
The Americans tried to help, and even with their help, the south lost. The communists won. In ’74 my whole family escaped on a boat. They made it to America – everyone, except my grandmother, my mother, and me. And it was my fault. I was in the hospital with a potentially fatal illness. My mother couldn’t leave without me, and my grandmother refused to leave without my mother. Despite all the protests and the pleadings, my grandmother refused to leave as long as she had a child left in Vietnam. So she stepped off the boat and stayed behind. And I think I remember that hospital stay. My earliest memory, a very young memory, was when I was in a hospital. I remember waking up one night in an empty room. I was on a padded mattress, and was surrounded by a square enclosure of steel bars that must have been a crib. I was young enough to wear diapers ,and my cloth diaper was wet and cold. I knew that my diaper was wet and cold, but I couldn’t find the words to say it. I was too scared and confused by the strange surrounding and the sounds of Vietnamese voices. By the doorway were women in white uniform, speaking hushed voices about my medical condition. I didn’t understand what they were saying said, but I knew that they were talking about me. Their discussion was brief and they left quickly without looking in on me. If they had bothered to just walk into the room and peek into my crib, they would have seen me awake, wet, and cold. But they didn’t, and so I remember that lonely night when my diaper was wet and cold.
Because of me, we were stuck in Vietnam when everyone was trying to leave. My grandmother, who chose not to leave, was the mother to me. My mother came and went and I don’t even have a memory of her during those years. Those were the years that I remember as the “Grandma and me” years. Those were the years when my grandma showed me a fighting spirit. We may have the lost the war, but the personal and private battles continued. The communists may have taken the land, but they haven’t gotten us. We were to wait and leave Vietnam when the time came. And until then we resisted.
My grandma had money. I was told, later, that she stuffed all her money under a step. But we lived poor because everyone else was impoverished, and anyone could be a spy. We had a concrete home that was built before the war, but other than that, there were hardly anything left that spoke of wealth. Whatever she had, the soldiers stole. All the soldiers stole. They took her gold, they took her animals, the fruits and vegetables growing in her garden, and the cooked food off her table. And so grandma was careful, watchful and quick. And I was expected to keep my mouth closed, to keep my eyes and ears open, and to learn.
Grandma had a huge garden with high walls enclosing it. And a front gate made of corrugated sheet metal. Within her garden she grew fruits that I remember eating. She had huge papayas that horrified me with their thousands of black eyes that stared out when the fruit was opened. I remember the mangoes, the spiky fruits, the jack-fruits, and the sugarcane. We spent so many afternoons just sitting on the front steps of her concrete home, behind the metal gate, enjoying the fruits and listening for approaching footsteps on the other side of the gate.
And one afternoon, as my grandmother and I sat on the steps to eat a meal, we heard someone approaching the gate. Grandma got up quickly to hide our cooked chicken under the false bottom of the salt barrel, pinched some salt, and returned to me. I watched her return and sprinkle salt in her rice bowl, and then sprinkle the rest on my own rice bowl.
“Eat,” she said. “It will make you grow.”
And I ate the salty rice. It was white rice with a salty, grit taste.
The stranger went through our gate without knocking. He was a soldier. He stood before us with an authority to anything he pleased.
“Grandmother, could I kindly have a bowl of rice?” he asked.
“Have a bowl with us, son. We have little rice, but plenty of salt.”
My grandma’s body slowly got up, and she slowly hobbled her weak frame to the soldier and handed him a bowl of rice with salt.
“Grandmother, why are you eating rice with salt when I smell fried chicken?” the man asked.
“My son, you came too late.” Grandma cried. “If you had been here earlier, then maybe you could have saved our chicken dinner for us. Two soldiers came by an hour ago and took our dinner. I begged them to leave me enough rice to cook another meal for me and my granddaughter.”
“I would never steal from an old woman,” the man said.
He finished the bowl of rice, thank my grandma, and left us in peace. And we continued to eat our rice and salt. I don’t remember eating the rest of that chicken, but the rice and salt was memorable. And so was the lesson.
Eat rice and salt, it will make you grow. Chocolates and sweets are wasteful and dangerous. Rich people are the only ones that can afford them. And if people knew that you have money, then the soldiers will come to rob you clean. Don’t touch chocolate, don’t accept chocolate, and don’t bring home chocolate. Chocolates can only come from American soldiers. And if people knew that you have chocolate, then everyone will think that you have worked with Americans – you are spying for the Americans now. Everyone is watching everyone else, and anyone can be informants for the communists. Touch chocolate and you will only have stirred suspicion and envy amongst your neighbors, and you will call attention to yourself. The communists have already taken the land and they will take you next. Don’t touch the chocolate.