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Golf balls and refugees

September 11, 2010

It’s Friday afternoon in Hanoi. I hear the crack of a club on a ball as men drive golf balls off the two-story range adjacent to our hotel room. The balls go out across the water of West Lake, and I have to wonder how the fisherman, up to his thighs in the lake, doesn’t ever get hit. As the men stand around waiting to hit they all stretch. Hands on the hips twisting seems to be a favorite. At the pool they are also always stretching. Arms behind. Then legs high out in front. Interesting.

It’s almost 5pm and the sky is already getting dim.

Jonathan and I have spent the afternoon reading, emailing, and trying to stay awake. I just made some Starbucks instant coffee (thank you, Peter.) Hopefully it helps. For some reason it was easy to stay awake yesterday. Maybe because we slept until nine in the morning. Maybe because it was our first day, and we were excited. Maybe because we weren’t sitting in our room.

I’m almost finished with my second book about Vietnam. The first one was a novel about three generations of Vietnamese women starting with a paddle girl on a jungle river and ending with a lawyer in New York City. This one is a memoir by a Viet-Kieu (a Vietnamese living abroad) about my age who rides his bicycle from San Francisco to Washington, through Japan, and then all through Vietnam. Both of these people escaped Vietnam during the 1970s. I’m beginning to get a perspective on the war, something I was previously clueless about, and the general history of this country.

On Saturday before I left my mother took me to meet a Vietnamese acquaintance of hers. She runs a nail shop out of her home so I made an appointment to get my toes done and ask her questions. I was fascinated to hear that she was one of the boat people who escaped (with 13 family members.) She sat there scrubbing my feet and explaining how they rode for ten days on what sounded like an 8’x25’ boat with 57 other people to get to Malaysia. She said only one time did a storm come up that made them think they would get flipped over by the waves. They were bailing by hand, but the storm only lasted 30 minutes. Only!

They ended up in a refugee camp for a year before the United States called them. She said you had to apply at each country you wanted to go to. They wanted to go to Australia because they already had family there, but they were rejected because their group was too big. Then they applied at the US. Her father then persuaded their five cousins to apply separately so their group would be smaller. While waiting for Australia the US called them and they had to go because to turn a country down was too risky. A week after they left Australia called them.

I ended up with pink toenails and a heightened respect and admiration for her and Vietnamese people like her who have suffered and struggle so much. It’s hard for someone like me, whose only knowledge of war is thousands of miles away in someone else’s land, to comprehend the loss and hardship these people have suffered.

Currently reading: Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham

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