After the second video, the participants were asked to make comments, and the mother could only guess at what they were saying.
“Opinions are varied,” the daughter said later, summing up the discussion.
“I support the idea that women have as much right to sensual pleasure as men do; that we should understand ourselves and our bodies; that we should respect and take good care of our bodies for our own benefit - not for the benefit of men.”
The mother had contradictory views about the education her daughter was receiving and the way she was growing up. And because she realized her inability to mould her daughter after the model of her own ideal of a woman - in fact she did not know and dared not know what kind of a woman she herself would like to be - the mother had to accept the woman that her daughter was becoming, taking consolation in the fact that the girl could not help being a product of the society to which they had come for refuge.
“So why did you lie to me?” the girl asked as they the video of her visit to Vietnam (Refer Vietnam Travel Guide here) kept rolling.
“You said my father died soon after I was born on Bijoux Island in the Pacific. I’ve been to Bijoux. It was a desert, with no traces of any refugee camp, without any documents concerning a Mr. Nguyễn Văn Ba. My father was not known in Việt Nam either, perhaps because the name was too common. According to our relatives, you left as a students, came over alone and got married here.”
The mother sighed. She did not remember what she had told the girl about the name of Nguyễn Văn Ba. It was the first name that crossed her mind, but it was also one that had stuck in the mind of the girl and one that had travelled with her to Việt Nam in her search for her roots.
Actually, the girl had stopped asking about her father a long time ago, probably, like her mother, she had resigned herself to the absence of the man. Single-parent families were not uncommon here.
The girl repositioned herself to sit opposite her mother and held her hands in hers. “Can’t you understand, Mom?” she asked, keeping her face only inches from her mother’s. "I'm not going to get Mr. Nguyễn Văn Ba dead or alive. But I must know who I am.”
"You're my daughter. I came alone because I was pregnant without a husband. This would be a great shame to your grandparents, so I left the country, gave birth to you on a desert island, came to the United States, and had a picture taken of ourselves and a certain man so that back at home your grandparents could show it to people and say that I was a married woman with a legitimate child.”
The mother could no longer contain her tears. The girl squeezed the hands she was holding and pressed her forehead against her mother’s. Gradually, the mother calmed down. However sympathetic the girl might be, she would never be able to grasp all the implications of a past that had just been retold in a few brief sentences.
Neither did the mother want to share everything with her daughter. The fact was that her parents had kept silent about this “stain on the family’s honor” until they died. Relatives and neighbors had all believed what they saw in the picture and the whole matter had slipped from their minds.
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A few minutes passed. The girl released her mother’s hands and sat back.
“Listen, Mom. You’ve a right to keep your secrets to yourself, but I’ve a right to know who I am. My birthplace is said to be Bijoux Island, but it is an uninhabited island. My father is said to be Nguyễn Văn Ba, but he does not exist. You’ve cut yourself loose from your past to live a different life, but do you know how it feels to be born an American without an identity?”
“Alright, I’ll tell you now. When I was in college, I fell in love with a man. My love was reciprocated. To the public however, our affair was considered illegal. It had to stop and I that’s that.”
‘‘I don't understand. Mom. Love is not prohibited in Vietnam. Thai much I could see while I was there.”
“You can’t understand things that happened immediately after the war.”
“It’s all right. I don't condemn either you or father. I only ask you to tell me who the man is.”
“Trần Văn Nam.”
The girl clutched her mother in a tight embrace and planted a kiss on her forehead.
“Thank you, Mom. Have a good sleep.” She gathered up the pictures scattered across the carpet and switched off the video player.
The mother knew her daughter had settled one problem. Now, armed with the new information, she would embark on a new search for her roots.
She would dig into college records and might come up with half a dozen persons called Trần Văn Nam. She would trace each man to his native village and there, would delve into his family records, scrutinize headstones on the graves of his ancestors and study tablets in the village communal house. Until, by deductive reasoning or some other scientific methods American education had taught her, she might finally locate the man who had sown the seed of her existence in this world.
“Father, I don’t invoke your responsibility as my father. But I have a right to be me.”
Translated by Song Kiều