Searching for the Lost Eden

Hoàng Linh

In summer 1988, Mr. “easy-to-sob” Thao arrived in the Promised Land, the United States, at the age that was long past his “self-established” thirty. In those early days, when he went to church to attend a Sunday Mass, the tough, old, female gossip mongers often glanced at his wrinkled pants and sarcastically mocked,” Look at this filthy fellow, he appears to be educated! But at his age, his having neither a house, a degree, nor a job… makes him suitable only to join the ‘clergymen’ to be an old Frere (Brother)… rather than to find the other half in the real world.”

They spoke loudly enough to let Thao hear them. So, he swallowed his pride and thought, “Noble men once wish to revenge, ten years of waiting¬ is still never too late.” 
Then, in less than a week after his arrival to the United States, Thao urged his uncle to find him some work to do right away. On the day he went for an interview for a maintenance job — one that his “Annam” language called “easy going”, “aimless” work, he vowed to accept any available work that he could lay hands on. He was lucky to be chosen for the job immediately, after he answered his boss’s question below, ” What kind of work have you done in Vietnam?”

He promptly replied, “I’ve done many different jobs, from one which required a college degree or license by the Board of Education such as a high school teacher to one which required no skill but strength and diligence such as farming.”

The boss happily briefed him,” So, you are going to start the gardening work tomorrow, right?”  
Then, on that same day, she led him to the warehouse, showing him the gardening tools such as wheel barrel (the VC language is “xe cút kít”), showels, hoes, rakes… She asked Thao whether he had touched them before. Thao smiled and replied, “I had used them every day when I was in the VC prison. You don’t have to worry about my not having experience on that. I will definitely dig better than the time I did in Vietnam because over there the VC policemen starved me while ordering me to dig holes to plant ‘trees’ each day without any payment incentive, whereas over here I get paid for my work, enough to buy food to eat. So, please rest assured that I will ‘plow’ better.”

When carrying the hoe and the shovel to the garden for the boss to give him a “skill test”, Thao melodically hummed the following verses: 
 “The young man with a noble lineage, 
Puts aside the pen and the (ink) pot to pursue… hoe… shovel… ”  
Thao’s last name is Nguyen. But he might be ancestrally “hybrid”… a little Chinese blood leaked over a thousand years being colonized by the Chinese. He also carried in him a little blood of being “inferior” kid…. Bearing such “inferiority” feeling from being a laborer against his will, he tried to detach from his old acquaintances, esp., the close friend from the Galang refugee camp.

Until the fall of that year, his old friend from California also got his phone number. She called and “eagerly” boasted about her almost completing the first semester at a community college. Then, she inquired after his schooling. He amusingly replied, “still not finished the flirting course… with the California girl,” but confessed at the end that he was not unemployed… but too busy being his bread-winner to going to school… thus still “illiterated” since arriving in the Promised Land.

Thao’s friend was surprised; she told him immediately, “You are not illiterate because your English writing ability is so much better than mine! When you were in the Galang refugee camp, you demonstrated your ability to read long poems written in French or English and then explain each verse in Vietnamese to me! You also sat down to write hundreds of idioms (English proverbs/idioms) and explained their meanings and usages! Please tell me the truth, what are you doing now? Have you had a hard time?”

Thao continued to give his meandering answers:” When it is dry, ‘I’ am a private. When it isn’t rainny, ‘I’ am a corporal. When it is hot, I’m a sergeant. Currently, it’s going to be cold, ‘I’ was just promoted to the old sergeant major.

His good friend didn’t understand what the heck he was talking about. She started to “beg” him, “Honey! Please tell me the truth! What is your current job now?”

Grievously he was obliged to tell her the truth, “I’ve been an ‘outstanding farmer’ in a huge nursing home. My basic salary is $4.50 an hour.  After-tax earning is about $3 an hour. I work eight hours each day. The work is a drudgery. When it is dry, the private drove the truck into some farm to collect the manures to fertilize the plants. When there is no rain, the corporal lowered himself into some artificial ponds to pump water out. After that, we wait for the bottom layer of the pond to dry, then collect and mix that new soil with animal dung to be used as fertilizer. After days of rain, the grass grow faster. By then, I will do the sergeant’s job–cutting grass on the hillside and singing openly: “My hometown is in the central region, taking refugee to go across the border… in order to ‘plow’…” Today is late autumn, the sky is getting cold; trees are changing to red and yellow, which looks very… romantic. I have no more outdoor work to do. So, I was promoted to Sergeant and was transferred to do the indoor work inside the large buildings. In the past week or so, I had to “hang loose” on a few windows to replace the window screens with glass frame to prepare for the cold winter to come.

When Thao finished his words, his kind-hearted friend burst into tears. She told him, “Or would you like to move to this sunny state (California)? I will change from full-time program to part-time one, then look for a full-time job to help you go to school full-time first. When you finish your schooling, I will go back full-time later.”

Thao was deeply touched by her sincere love for him. However, he still tried to provoke her anger with some bitter explanation, “The Vietnamese Community who took refuge in the United States are in a state of ‘Women dominating men’ because the male bachelors outnumber the female singles. Do you know that you are ‘swimming against the historical stream’? Let’s better consider our relationship had never existed. You should not worry about me but go on finishing up your Medical Lab Technician program. After that, get married to live the remainder of a refugee life… “The cozy dew falls witheringly….” And if possible, let’s sing together the choral verse, “That’s it… you go on your way…” from now on!

It was to Thao’s surprise that his friend was not angry but slowly told him: 
- You are not a woman, so you don’t understand woman. Despite that the Vietnamese women in this country are very “valuable”. But being a woman, I only have “one time to love and one time to… become bachelorette” or “old maid”! {She mimicked the “language” of a title of a famous novel “A Time to Love and a Time to Die” (Eine Und Eine Zeith Zeleben Zeith Sterben) by a German writer Eric Marie Remarque that Thao had told her the summary of the content in the refugee camp in Galang}. Moreover, you and I were no longer young. Leaving our motherland for an expatriate life, our fellow men scattered in places… Thus, looking for a mate having a good background is not an easy task. According to the U.S. Statistics, women in this country can be categorized as:
* Under 18 years of age, woman is an untouchable displayed sample. Violated, one might be subjected to jail.
* From 18 to 25 years of age, woman is a new merchandise; price cannot be marked off.
* From 25 to 30 years of age, woman is “a bit old” merchandise; price can be marked 25% off.
* From 30 to 35 is inventory item; price can be 50% off. You and I are at this age.
* From 35 to 40 is “in-stock for too long” item; price can be marked 75% off.
* Above 40 years of age is “charitable” item at Saint Vincent De Paul… everything is … free!
You don’t have such a mean heart to see me “step by step” quietly become the goods at Saint Vincent De Paul’s, do you?
Thao did not have the courage to hear her cry, so he lied to her that he was too depressed to live in this cold, always-in-rush society, and that he only waited for a green card to go on a mission to Africa. At that point, she begged Thao to go to California to meet face-to-face and say goodbye for the last time before they permanently separated.
And for more than twenty years after Thao disappeared from her life, he found out that she was still single and pretty!
There was one thing that made Thao feel unease at heart when he heard some acquaintance tell him that she still secretly prayed and thanked God to let Thao escape safely from the jail in Vietnam. She also asked God to protect him and help him keep up with his “providential” will (sic!) He was very sad to know this heartbreaking story. But he did not have enough courage to email or phone her to say “thank you” and “apologize” for telling her a lie. Instead, he only “quietly” wrote a very romantic poem in remembrance of her. The “toady” poem was as below:
From the autumn in Galang: 
In one autumn on Galang Island, 
We walked shoulder-by-shoulder, hand-in-hand.
Falling for each other in those initial moments, 
How sweet it was to catch the breeze on the bridge. 
Speechless… as “farewell” we bid.
Bataan’s where we thought we would meet. 
Phillipines became a Wonder Land, 
Surrounded by romantic, quiet seas and green mountains. 
Then, I had to depart that autumn.
And (we) sadly wished to meet in California. 
Oh, torn apart when one left, one stayed!
You killed time waiting in Bataan, while I in Philly. 
Re-encountering in California was just like a fantasy, 
(But) it is worth the time longing for each other.
But then, that autumn has gone with the tide, 
(And our) past year’s wish sublimed.
It’s been over twenty leaf-falling seasons, 
The path to my heart is closed without utterance. 
Oh, Almighty! It was a broken relationship!
But deep down in me, that bond remains forever intact. 
………………………………………….. ………….
Thao’s life after fleeing from the Vietnamese communists was thought to forever linger on to the filthy letter Ts — out of VC jail (tù tội) followed by the touchy relationship (tính tình tang) under the “blue” elegance of autumn (trời thu thanh thoát).

Until one winter day in 1989, Thao met a native woman who insulted him as if she “had splashed a bucket of cold water in the face” of the exiled intellectual, getting him out of a dream… of becoming a clerical man to “wade in the snow looking for the lost juvenile years” at the age of ‘turning’ into autumn (I guess the author compares his hair turning gray to the leaves turning yellow in the Fall). That day, the snow is pouring outside as much as 7, 8 inches. Thao’s new boss assigned him to do indoor cleaning and painting the bathrooms, the type of work, that, after having landed a professional job a few years after that, he looked back and told his children with an amusing tone, “before becoming Specialist 3 to supervise a number of native men, I had learned how to wipe their asses” and how to control myself when being insulted painfully. As a result, I hope you, my children, try hard in school to lift yourselves out of that situation.”
Before initiating the chores assigned by his boss, Thao was told not to hang his coat anywhere but in the bathroom closet. That noon, before going to the lunch room to eat, Thao wore his warm coat to go to his car to remove the snow on the windshield since the snow had stopped falling. After having had lunch, Thao headed back to do his painting job, forgetting his coat on the back of his seat.

At 5 pm when he was ready to drive home, Thao suddenly remembered having left the coat in the lunch room. Slowly Thao went to the dining room to look for his coat. He found it thrown on the floor so bypassers could step on it… for fun. He was very angry, thus asked the chef if she knew who tossed his coat on the floor. She timidly said that was the new boss who had assigned him the work that morning. After hearing that reply, Thao went to the storage room immediately to quickly gather all the tools used to dig, to clean glass and to paint the house into an “improved” wheelbarrow. With his angry face still, he pushed the car straightly to the boss’s office and knocked her door.
Thao said very quickly to her:
– Today is my last working day. After New Year Day, I will start school full time so I cannot continue working for you anymore.
She had asked him to walk with her to the warehouse to reshelve the tools neatly in it. 
After having washed and wiped dry all the “tools”, Thao put all into one neat place on the ground and “respectfully” bowed to them three bows to “bid goodbye” before putting them back into places in the warehouse.
The boss asked with her eyes wide open: 
- Are you crazy, boy?
He said slowly, bitterly the final words of farewell:
– First of all, I sincerely thank you for offering me a job over the past year. I must bow to these faithful companions because they have worked closely with me from the time I was in the communists’ jail in my miserable hometown in Vietnam until I came over here, the Land of Opportunities and freedom. After working over a year, I have had enough money to go to school, so I have to quickly take this opportunity to go back to school. Shalom in Jesus Christ!

She pouted with skeptical expression as she heard about his plan to return to school because the “majority” of the children in the City of Philadelphia dropped out before they graduated from high school. It is like a “gook” speaking about “Monkey King” going to college…

Thao shook her hand and bid his goodbyes. After igniting the car, he rested his head on the steering wheel crying. Then, he wiped his tears and murmured to himself within his heart, “The long road measures the horse’s strength; the communist prison and turbulent waves of the East Sea were not able to kill me, then I will not die, dear Kim Cuc!”
And he pressed the gas pedal, leaving Dominican Retreat House. Inside him, Thao started to worry when thinking about Jeff, the owner of the French restaurant, whether he would let him work full time instead of his current ( second ) part time job. Although a bit nervous, he was convinced that that French man, who had treated him very well, would need an Annamist (the Frenchmen called the Vietnamese “Annamist” when they were on their land) waiter who could speak French to serve his fellow men.

Thao sped up when he turned onto Highway 309. While driving, he started to hum, “Que sera sera!” and then, smiled and continued: 
The young man coming from a noble lineage,
Threw away the hoe and shovel to pursue an education …
He suddenly missed Kim Cuc badly. He planned that, once getting home, he would call to let her know the good news that he was about to carry out “her commands” to go to school full time. But inside him also sprouted a bit of worry because it had been over a year that he had deliberately avoided her contact and thus no longer knew whether she still lived at the same old place. As predicted, he had fallen into the same situation as Emmanuel Kant, the philosopher living a life of self-denial, which he still admired and adored as an idol. Emmanuel lived an ascetic, celibate life… One day, he thought of reconnecting with his ex-girlfriend to find out that she had married… 17 years ago. After moving out of his uncle’s home, Thao has instructed his cousins that if Kim Cuc called to look for him, then please tell her that he had gone on an evangelical mission to Africa. After a number of unsuccessful attempts to contact him, Kim Cuc left California for another state, her former landlady told Thao so. And by now, she did not know her whereabouts.

Thao’s expartriate life quietly went on. He was married and has had two daughters named after two historical Princesses of the Vietnamese history. Once in a while, he drove the two “princesses” to the place where he sat crying on the steering wheel in “the historical moment” that he “determined to wade through the snow to find the Lost Eden” with a hope that it would set an example for his daughters to study harder and better. The Nursing Home now has new owners. The sign “Dominican Retreat House” is no longer there, but is replaced with the new name: the Temple University – Art School. The maple planted by Thao, after nearly a quarter century, has grown bigger than a man’s two armlengths and risen superbly into the sky like giant trees.

Thao ofter told to his children that he arrived in the Promised Land with “only two white hands” (only two bare hands), and began to rebuild his life from a negative number. He called it “negative” because starting from the time he set foot on the US soil, he had jumped right into the work field to earn bit by bit to send money home to pay off the debts that had been accumulated during the nine years he “paddled the canoe to search for a way out to the free world.” Yet he still tried to swallow his pride to rise. He also explained to his children that the Vietnamese war has taken away the “spring” – the fruitful life — of the youths born in the 50s of the 20th century like him. Before the war ended, many had experienced with the bombardments. After the war ended, we started to experience starvation, the imprisonment through the revenge of those who claimed “victory”. Then, when we arrived in a foreign country, we have to struggle to survive and shoulder the family responsibility by supporting those were left behind in our home country. Through such long process, some had to endure some despicable acts from some unfriendly natives, but many people have succeeded through the “search for the Lost Eden”.
Thao pointed at the maple tree planted by his own hand 26 years ago and told his children that although he had suffered so many bitter humiliations that he considered having lost his youthful life (he avoided using the word “the loved one”), he was able to stand firmly on his feet like that maple in the sky despite all the harsh seasons. And he added that he hoped that his children should follow his footsteps by studying really hard to reach their educational goals…

Yesterday afternoon while the weather is still cold below 50O Fahrenheit, Thao suddenly felt warmer inside when his first born daughter called to let him know a great news. She informed him briefly that Drexel University has accepted her application. Thao anxiously asked her about Drexel’s tuition, and wondered if she would earn enough to pay the student loan later. On the other hand, she told him that she would take the train to his office to surprise him with the good news. When “the Princess” arrived at the State Building, Thao already left the third floor, wearing a warm coat (one that did not have any paint on, and has not been trashed on the floor as Thao now is the big boss’s aide) to see his daughter. After reading the letter from Drexel University to Ngoc Tran, Thao shed tears with joys. Drexel’s tuition is not cheap, but is about 44 thousand dollars a year. The Federal Government and the financial assistance from the school would help pay 26 thousand dollars. The remaining amount is 18 thousand to be paid in full this year. Next year the cost will be cut in half because she won’t be considered as out-of-state student any more. Thao happily pointed at the inscription on the wall on the right of the State Building: KNOWLEDGE IS POWER, and that on the left: MIGHT makes RIGHT, and jokingly commented:
- This guy who wrote those two sentences… his English… is worse than mine because he should emphasize that KNOWLEDGE IS POWER, IGNORANCE IS DEATH (for knowledge is the superior power and ignorance is synonymous with death). Therefore, you must study really hard, or else, some day you will have to go…. gather cows’ dung — as I had done when I just arrived in the United States.

Spring 2014

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