At seven years old, Jimmy was just a boy with light hair and light eyes in a homogenous world at the end of a long war. Just a babe when his American father had been lost to him and only five when South Vietnam fell, he did not yet have the faculties to understand the poetic irony of the first lines of the poem that opened up the novel his grandmother had placed in his hands:
“The gushing waters of the Yangzi River pour and disappear into the East…” Jimmy read, slipping over each word, over enunciating the diacritics of each word.
“And the next line?” his grandmother asked from under her arm. She was laying, her eyes closed, her black hair loosened from its bun and fanned down the side of the hammock. Jimmy spied the few short strands of gray hair that were peeking out atop his grandmother’s head, tell tale signs that she was aging. He wanted to count the strands, maybe do a math problem with them – something other than read the incomprehensible words in the book.
“…washing away past heroes: their triumphs and failures, all vanish into nothingness in an instant. Yet, the green hills stood as before, along with the perpetual rosy sunset,” he read.
“Good, good boy,” his grandmother murmured, “Keep going.” Jimmy flipped through a few pages of the book. His grandmother had called him from his work on their small farm just a few minutes before.
“Grab the first book and read to me,” she had said as she climbed onto a hammock. He had dutifully grabbed the book. It was thick. He could barely read the title: “Tam Quốc Diễn Nghĩa” (The Romance of the Three Kingdoms). It was China’s greatest literary feat. With 120 chapters over 5 big books with over 800,000 words and hundreds of characters, it was a soap opera of epic proportions. Jimmy’s eyes bulged at the sight of all the words. He flipped through the pages looking for pictures, but found none. There was nothing in it but words. He stared at the first page.
I can do this! He thought to himself. He was the number one, top ace student in his class. Well, that is until he got kicked out of his school. He was only rivaled in his third grade class at Chữ Vạn Trượng in Phú Nhuận in Saigon by a little girl – his greatest competitor. They often raced each other in math class to see who could finish their math problems the quickest with the fewest errors.
Jimmy piped up and mustered as strong a voice as his seven-year-old larynx could. He started with the first sentence of the story: ““The empire, long divided, must unite; long united, must divide. Thus it has ever been,” he read.
“Good boy, keep going, read for grandma.” His grandma closed her eyes. She fanned herself in the midday heat. The family was resting. His grandmother had woken up early, earlier than he had. She had been busy in the garden, then busy in the kitchen, then busy around the house. She had made him breakfast, she had woken him up and fed him and his little brother and now that everyone had eaten and worked a little, it was time to do his job – which was to entertain his grandmother while she rested. The book she selected was one five that rested on a shelf in his grandmother’s living room.
Jimmy struggled through the first paragraph. He had never even heard some of the words before. But he had learned the Vietnamese alphabet and had committed all of the sounds of the many vowels with their diacritics to memory. He sounded out each word. His grandma rocked on her hammock, encouraging him. He rocked on his own matching hammock next to her. She didn’t care if it took him a long time to finish a sentence. She waited, patient. Sometimes, she dozed off. Jimmy managed to make it through a few pages before their hour was over and it was time to go back to work.
The next day, his grandmother called him to join her again, pointing to the book. Resting her arm over her eyes to block out the hot sun, she listened to him, helping him out from time to time if he mispronounced words. Sometimes Jimmy’s soothing child voice would put his grandmother to sleep and he’d be left alone to work out some of the hardest words.
The first book started out with the story of boy, much like him, who was made into an emperor only to be used by all the adults around him in a game of feudal power struggles. The book took Jimmy away from his world where his life was made harder by the American blood flowing through his veins. The more he read the book and met the characters – the noble-hearted heroes and the power hungry feudal governors and imperial cortiers – the more he lost himself in a world of traitorous drama that often played out in bloody battlefields. Before long, Jimmy was hooked. If he wasn’t helping his grandmother prepare items to sell at the market, he was tucked away in some corner, reading and re-reading the book even if his grandmother was not near to hear him.
He hadn’t always lived with his grandmother. He once lived with his mother, his stepfather, and his siblings, a brother and a sister, in Saigon where his mother had a small shop, Gạo Tân Dách, selling rice. For years, his mother had ran a thriving rice business selling rice retail and wholesale with long standing customers and contracts.
Then came the Fall.
When the Communist came with their new regime, his family was earmarked for punishment. His mother had close ties to Americans and he was the evidence. Married to his father, a high ranking American soldier, Jimmy had started out his life with both parents before his father got injured during the Tet Offensive. Lost to each other by the time the country fell to communism, his mother’s marriage, with Jimmy as their brown hair dusted child, immediately tagged her for the new regime’s discriminatory policies. [LINK TO “The Postcard”]
Overnight, his mother’s business was confiscated and marching orders sent to his family to report to the regime’s “New Economic Zone” – the NEZ – a deadly unsettled area. In the NEZ, their family would be expected to cultivate the land with little tools and experience and few resources. It was where many South Republic families were being sent to die. His step father didn’t fare too well either. As a former Judge under the South Republic, he was immediately selected for punishment and sentenced to a labor camp in Hà Nội.
Fearful that her children would not be able to survive in the NEZ, his mother delivered him and his siblings into his grandmother’s care in a small city by the sea called Vũng Tàu. His mother then ventured to Saigon – renamed “Ho Chi Minh City” – to find ways to scrounge money to send home to her mother to support her three children.
In Vũng Tàu, Jimmy wasn’t allowed to attend school either. His “school” became the five thick volumes of Tam Quốc Diễn Nghĩa which he read over and over again for next the ten years when he would be forbidden to attend school. Where he didn’t have math classes, Jimmy learned finances and how to count money hands on, helping his grandmother grow, harvest and sell rau muốn in a bog pond in the backyard of their small brick house. Once JImmy was old enough to head to market by himself, he’d wake up every morning before the sun rose to harvest rau muốn and pack them on his bike to sell wholesale to merchants at the market. As a teenager blessed with his father’s genes, he towered at 5’11” over the petite merchants.
After market, he’d head to the ocean after the market to fish until noon. He’d catch shrimp and fish to sell to the market or his neighbors, saving the smaller catches to feed his family. If there was money left over, he’d save it up for bus fare to see his mother or his uncle, both of whom had been snatched by the government to serve time in labor camps for their attempts over the years to escape Vietnam by boat.
Seeing his love of books, one of his neighbors, a former professor, snuck to his grandmother’s house when he was a teen to tutor him in English. By the time he was processed through the Amerasian Homecoming Act to come to America, Jimmy was literate in both Vietnamese and English.
Time and again he found himself drawn to the five volume tome over the course of his life both in Vietnam and in America, the first lines of the book, both the poem and the opening sentence marking his struggle first to keep his family together despite the Communist regime’s policies which tore his family apart.
“The empire, long divided, must unite…” Living in America, he relished living with his mother, his step-father and his siblings all under one roof. The words became a mantra that manifested itself in his life once again when he reunited with his father. It then became an obsession to bring as many Amerasians to America as he possibly could with his organization, “Amerasians Without Borders,” which continues to reunite Amerasians with their American families through DNA tests. Walking through a community home he set up to bring Amerasians together when they first arrive in the U.S., Jimmy is often hit with a bout of nostalgia – thinking about his own journey which started with noon–time reading sessions with his grandmother.
In 2000, as he was making his treks back and forth to Vietnam to smuggle in DNA tests to Amerasians, Jimmy often visited his grandmother. In 2001, he took his son and wife to spend time with her three days before she passed away.
. On his last visit in 2001, he was able to see her three days before she passed away.
The nice tome novel now lines his own bookshelf in America where, every now and then, Jimmy will peek inside the books to remember his grandmother and reminisce on the many ways people find ways even when the way before them is blocked.