The Washington Post Magazine has a heart-wrenching story about a Vietnamese family that was separated at the end of the war and reunited only to have their home destroyed by Katrina. While this is just one of the innumerable tragedies this year’s natural disasters have caused, the story of the divided family struck home.
My wife was born in Vietnam. Her childhood memories of Vietnam are dim and scattered. She remembers things like the smell of soup being sold on street corners and her grandmother’s funeral. She remembers various places she lived and pets she had, but was unaware of the war around her. These are things a small child doesn’t have the life experience to put into perspective.
When she was just an infant, her parents divorced and her natural father got custody of her two older sisters. She remained with her mother who remarried to an American officer. The three of them moved to the U.S. in 1972 well ahead of the “reunification” of Vietnam which would bring many more fellow countrymen to America. My wife entered the public school system as a second-grader and quickly caught up with her native-born classmates. I met her in high school and we eventually married.
In the mid-eighties, the middle sister wished to move to the United States. My wife's step-father never knew of the older sisters but gladly did all he could to reunite his wife with her lost daughter. This took years of paperwork and probably a good bit of bribery, but she eventually made it to America. Once in America, she took English language classes where she met a Cuban “Marielito”. They married and now have a teenaged daughter who is tri-cultural.
The eldest sister remained in Vietnam. We knew little of her except for the reports my mother-in-law would make from the annual trips back to Vietnam she had been making ever since travel to Vietnam was allowed to US citizens. We knew that if we were to ever meet my wife's other sister we would have to go to Vietnam.
This summer my family figured this was our best chance to visit Vietnam before the demands of our son's education made such a trip logistically impossible. We had several goals. We wanted to freshen my wife’s vague childhood memories. We wanted to see how the country has adjusted to thirty years of communist rule. We wanted to expose our son to his cultural heritage. And of course we wanted to meet the last remaining member of my wife’s family in Vietnam.
Her sister speaks four languages, Vietnamese, French, English, and Russian. She and her boyfriend live in a four story rowhouse in Saigon that has more rooms that they need but is clean and spartan. Their life has not always been easy and there are many things about the past they are reluctant to discuss. They are now living a solid middle-class life in a country that is rapidly embracing a market economy while still in a single party political system.
It is difficult to make bonds between family members that have spent over forty years apart. They may share blood, but their lives could not have been more different. My wife will never be close to her sisters, but she is happy to know them and share some small connection.
My wife and I often talk about the strange twists of fate that take people all sorts of directions. Any small change along the way and my wife and I would never met. We were born two hours and a half a world apart. We met when I transferred into her high school English class and the only available seat was next to her.
This week Americans spend time with their family in thanks for their many blessings. Sometimes we are not even aware of how much we are blessed we are until we ponder the way things could have been different. The wondrful family my wife and I have forged together would never have happened if not for an innumerable number of events that had to occur the way they did to bring us together. For each of them I am giving thanks.