In what I remember as early mid-November, a Vietnamese boy of about twelve knocked on my door at the end of siesta. Siesta, what a wonderful idea: a real break in the middle of the heat of day.
The boy talked in broken English and pointed to a young woman standing on the roadside. She was his sister. He was asking me to their parent’s house, where I was to meet them and be introduced to her. I understood that proper protocol required me to not acknowledge her until I had been formally introduced.
Her parent’s motives for wanting me to teach their daughter English remains unclear to me unto this day. I understood from cultural training classes that Vietnamese women, particularly young and unmarried, who interacted with the enemy were viewed as consorting with something unclean and sullied by association within their own culture. The willingness of Vietnamese women to associate with Americans, whatever the intent and motivation may be, was a cultural surprise to me. Since that time, reflecting upon the nature of humankind, I now wonder if these women were not doing their part to make peace with the foreigner…a kind of deeper reproductive code surfacing in human behavior. And perhaps it was also within the American’s deeper, unconscious instinctual needs as well. The children born from these unions is, as I understand it, to this day a problem in Vietnamese society.
I observed that foreign men in substantial numbers entered various kinds of relationships with Vietnamese women—consented and willingly, married or not, whatever their conscious intention and motivation. In truth though, a high percentage of the sexual contacts would be of a forced nature, even onto rape. If the Japanese apologized for their use of “comfort women” during war, shouldn’t Americans do the same?
In truth, it was the exceptional American male who did not have some sexual contact with a Vietnamese woman at some point. Where there were Americans, “steam baths” and “bars” were there in large numbers. For the Vietnamese, the provisioning of these services was a way to make money and gather intelligence. These sexual services, tacitly supported by official American authority to satisfy the sexual appetites of men, were shut down when high-ranking authorities came to inspect the forces. From my observations, loneliness and boredom were the prime factors in motivating patronage. Some of these “bars” did indeed create a sense of safety and home, however false. I believe the superior intelligence gathered in these settings, and the accurate handling and processing of this information, was a major factor in the Communist’s success. I constantly remembered the first thing a Vietnamese man said to me upon entering Vietnam, “Remember, a nation at war with itself is a nation of spies.” He was from the north. To this day, I wonder if he was one of those spies, so many of which I would later encounter. It was spies on both sides who I came to rely upon in order to stay alive; although, I did not think about such things at the time. I did what I needed to do to stay alive. It was more instinctual. There were times when I made packs with the devil…it seemed so even at that time. I ask forgiveness. War is evil, the devil personified. I know his sound.
Was I about to make myself part of some scheme that could bring harm to this woman? Was I a pawn in a larger struggle? This was my state of mind as I followed her as she rode gracefully poised on the back of her brother’s motorcycle. Her long black hair and ao dai7 was streaming in the wind. From the cut of her hair and clothing, I knew her family was from the north and probably Catholic. Surviving is about intelligence. I wondered if they knew I was Roman Catholic. A nation in civil war is a nation of spies, I remembered.
I forgot for a moment about traditional customs, and I asked through her brother for her to ride with me in my pale yellow old American army jeep. And felt stupid for asking—how quickly I became unconscious and reverted to improper American behavior. But at least I remembered not to look directly at or speak to her. I felt both excited and a little scared knowing that I had been observed as a “safe man;” I was on the verge of accomplishing one of my first goals in Vietnam—entry into Vietnamese society. Whatever my concerns and fears, I was moving forward.
The parents wanted me to teach their daughter English. In exchange, I could practice my Vietnamese, in their beautiful and very upscale French stone villa. I formally met my student, Miss Q, after being sized-up by her parents. Over tea, I agreed to meet with their daughter twice weekly for an hour. Tuesdays and Thursdays, after siesta. I could practice my Vietnamese with her, but the focus was on her learning to speak English.
In our meetings, we conversed about everyday things: my family, her family, the weather, but never war. Her brother always present. And then, the Tet Offensive of 1968 came in full fury and ended that.
I went back to their home after Tet. Their beautiful home was a victim of war and the family was nowhere to be seen. I have often wondered where the story of me and Miss Q might have gone if that relationship continued. I have imagined engaging a writer, perhaps Vietnamese, to project herself into that time to tell their story, an imagination based on this introduction in real time. And so, the story of Miss Q and JanStephen will perhaps one day emerge8.
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