Sunday, January 3, 2010

Half Bitter Jokes

As a young and brash teenager, my father allowed his equally insolent friends to shame him from taking his placement exams for university. It was only a half bitter joke within his circle that his father's prestigious position, as a locally reputed and high ranking police officer, had handed him life on a gold platter – a network of doting girlfriends and teachers, the freedom to come and go and to do as he pleased throughout his childhood; he could talk his way into and out of just about anything. In those days, young men in Viet Nam had but two acceptable paths to travel: pass your exams and lead a comfortable bourgeois life, or join the military.

My father has always been one with an ego and a loose enough tongue to dish out insult and ridicule. But when the butt of a joke involved him in any way–especially if it threatened his alpha male status–he would show the world what he was made of. My father balked at taking his exams and joined the military. He'd always had itchy feet.

The first time he left home was 1952. My father was eight years old. Earning a living through menial work, he sold newspapers and delivered bread for a baker. He crashed at friends' houses, and sometimes his grandmother's. Wandering about the city, he learned to play cards and hang out at hip cafes where locals often jammed together with acoustic instruments. After a couple of years he would run out of money and come home. The cycle repeated three times before he joined the military at 18.

My father's only constant during his traveling years was his grandmother. He names her as the most influential, and single parental figure in his youth. A vegetarian Buddhist, she ran a small local temple and lived charitably. She was a local household name; the saintly woman who cooked and fed meals daily to those in need. For years I struggled to understand my father's vehement contempt and almost violent disapproval for animal sympathists; He was more or less raised on a vegetarian diet most of his childhood when he lived with her. One day, he off-handedly mentioned, very matter-of-factly, that her diet was responsible for her chronic illness and eventual death.

At 17 he came home, (it was hoped permanently, this time) to fulfill an obligation. He had been betrothed to a girl from a well to do family in the city. His mother commissioned a custom tailored suit from the finest tailor in Saigon for the traditional ceremony a day before the wedding, in which he would ask permission to "take" the bride. His father and grandparents boasted to their friends about the bright prospects of their eldest son. He had demonstrated a special aptitude for engineering at a national level, and going to university would remove him from the trauma and atrocities of the ongoing war . There was even a warrant out for my father's arrest if he was caught attempting to skip town.

Just hours before the confirmation ceremony, he was no where to be found.