“You should go,” my brother said “You have Parkinson’s. If you don’t go now, you may never get to go.”
My other siblings often asked why I have not gone back to Vietnam, the country of my birth, the country that I left 30 plus years ago as an eleven year old. Especially the one sister who still lives in Vietnam, after hearing about my numerous trips to many other parts of the world, “How come you go everywhere but never come back to Viet Nam for a visit?”
“I will, sis. Someday, I definitely have to go back,” I promised. To be blunt, I don't know why I haven't gone back. Most Vietnamese living abroad love to go back, like an annual pilgrimage to the motherland. Some go back to look for a wife, some go back to behave as sex tourists, some go back to take their foreign-born children to discover their ancestral roots, some return to open businesses, or simply to see their loved ones. Whatever reasons – most have gone back since the Vietnamese government started welcoming the “Viet Kieu”, literally means “Overseas Vietnamese”, and their remittance wealth.
I have a brother-in-law who never wants to go back either, but he has his reasons, he fought in the war for the South Vietnamese Army, the side that “lost”. So either out of pride of having to meet that faceless victor or simply a personal vow, he never wants to go back. But I’m different; what’s my reason for avoiding a return to my roots? I wondered at myself for that lack of desire. Have I turned “banana”, yellow outside and white inside as a lot of Asians joke among themselves? “No” is the conclusion upon my brief but decisive self-examination. I still speak Vietnamese perfectly, still listen to its music, still pay attention to whatever success and fame the Vietnamese community brought forth just for the sake of ethnocentricity (a false belief that seems to be infecting every immigrant community).
I even intuited that my ambivalence towards going back to Vietnam could be the psychological dread of having been a boat person. May be I’ve been masking that dread with the natural resiliency (or ignorance) of youth. Unlike a war trauma, wherein the sufferers have to endure re-living of the experience; if you survive the boating voyage, things always look better. The boating experience is usually comprised of confronting the forces of nature with feebly empowered engines, shortage of food & water, plus limited if any navigational experience of the crew, thrown in with the occasional sightings of pirates etc. But if you make it to land - the future is brighter, you get to re-locate somewhere in the first world, you become a landed immigrant, you have a chance to pursue an education, a job opportunity.
I just have to re-live that past dread of fearing the unknown before having to go on to face the next dread: the likely horrific conditions associated with a chronically worsening disease. Like a Karma circle, life does repeat itself – but in different forms, except that one does not even have to go through death to see life repeating itself. What I’m going through with Parkinson’s is also like what I went through as a boat person; fear, uncertainty, unknown future. Thus I decided to make my return to Viet Nam.
So this year I will take an Asian cruise that I carefully selected, one that has the most stopovers in Vietnam. I thought that I must step in the same-yet-different river all over again to reminisce about the survival of the first crossing and let it be an encouragement to my now second crossing of this river of fear. Thirty years ago, I was on an overcrowded wooden boat. In a month from now, barring any mishaps, I’ll be on a luxurious cruise ship.
What a difference a 30-year-period can make. I can’t wait to experience the feelings of being in the same waters in two diametrically opposing sets of circumstances. Hopefully only then will I understand the meaning behind the Greek philosopher Heraclitus’ quote from 2500 yrs ago “No man can ever step in the same river twice.” A popular quote first heard in Philosophy 101 but of which I always failed to fully appreciate over the years.
This one and the other quote “There’s nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so” by that great 16th century British playwright always gave me a headache back in my early education (imagine an immigrant youth with broken English having to grasp the meaning of Shakespeare).
Will I be able to experience life behind these abstract thoughts? Absolutely not, because Life is meant to be “lived”. More likely the saying “Enjoy what you can and Endure what you must” may ring truer to life. Different times bring about different conditions and situations, nothing is good or bad but living makes it so. As I might be indulging in the opulence and excess of a cruise with my rigor mortis-like health conditions now Or back then, enduring the perils of the seas and facing uncertain future with inspiring courage and hope.
Indeed, for it's not the same river and I’m not the same man…