Even though both of my parents are alive, much of my childhood was spent in a special orphanage dedicated to the children of martyrs – soldiers who gave their lives on the battlefield. Growing up, I felt as if my voice was stifled, and this impelled me to seek refuge in the written word.
I can’t pinpoint the exact moment I began writing, but recording my thoughts undoubtedly served as a profound source of personal healing and introspection. I penned tales of my experiences, my reflections on the world around me, and the emotions I dared not voice aloud.
In May 2022, I began a new chapter by immigrating to Canada. Despite the various challenges life has thrown my way, my passion for writing remains as clear and untainted as when I was a child. I am still writing and am committed to continuing.
This short story was drawn from my unpublished novel, House with the Roof Blown Away. I would like to thank author Caroline Vu for her encouragement, support and editing advice.
School and I
I swayed on a guava branch by the river’s edge. Through the crystal-clear water, I watched a school of sharpbelly fish swim frantically, occasionally changing direction and shooting glimmers of light into my eyes like someone throwing a handful of coins into the water.
On days when I had no school, I would often hide behind the guava tree. There, I would spend hours admiring the river. I imagined its rapacious, murky water during the flood season. I imagined its exposed sandy banks during the dry season. From my spot I could also see the cornfield beyond the river. I loved watching that cornfield’s new leaves as they stretched out like tiny green hands. With each gust of wind, the corn leaves would rustle, creating waves that shimmered like the water of the river below them.
Every so often, there would be a moment of stillness when the wavering leaves would suddenly stand upright next to a farmer’s cone-hat. The pure white hat made a distinct punctuation mark amidst the lush green cornrows. It reminded me of the lines of text in my notebook that I wrote with great care, using thick and thin strokes, as if the letters also yearned to join the beckoning dance of the corn leaves. School had been an adventure in boredom. Yet everything I saw related to it. Yes, I knew that being a well-behaved child meant being polite and obedient to grown-ups. I had tried my best. But how could I be good enough for them when the boredom they imposed on me only grew each day? It didn’t ebb and flow with the seasons like the water in the river.
By the age of eight, we were thoroughly versed on Uncle Ho History. Uncle Ho did this! Uncle Ho did that! There was no dearth of information on Vietnam’s hero. We were taught to love his sparse white beard, and imagine its tickle on our foreheads as we sat mesmerized on his lap. May 19th was Uncle Ho’s birthday. The day was marked by an annual end-of-year award ceremony celebrated throughout the country. A celebration, yes, but also very solemn! I remember a stone-faced teacher leading us to the auditorium for rehearsal. For younger students like me, the main focus was to practice sitting still throughout the ceremony. Thanks to these rehearsals, our teachers could readily identify who the “rebellious elements” were among us. By the end of the second rehearsal session, any student labeled as a “rebellious element” was weeded out.
For us kids, it felt like a big challenge, but for the teachers, it seemed so easy to spot those of us who just couldn’t sit still or were ready to disrupt order. Lumped into the rebellious category were average students who had achieved nothing worthy of a rehearsal for the awards ceremony. At the end of our pre-school year, perhaps we were too young and naive to train, so the teacher kept both my classmates and me out of the end-of-year ceremony. Yet at least we had been spared the label “rebellious elements” by our teachers. By the end of first grade, however, the situation was completely different. Being an average student – and thus excluded from the end-of-year ceremony – turned me into a “rebellious element” in the eyes of many, despite my attempts to go unnoticed.
My mother worked at the school. Humiliated in front of her colleagues who were also our neighbours, she directed her frustration toward me. “You not invited! Huh! Look at them! Same class as you, children of other families like Phuc, Lan, Dan, some excellent, some good. You are a disgrace to us!” When Mom shouted, her voice squeezed through her teeth like a gust of wind tearing through a filao tree during a storm.
Through my mother’s anger, I understood that my academic performance was not only average, it was terrible. My mother’s hot-tempered “wind” could turn into a “storm of spankings” on my buttocks at any moment. Unable to predict my mother’s angry outbursts, I’d spend my time standing next to one of her favourite plates or pretending to be busy carrying something delicate, the more fragile the better. I knew how my mother loved her plates. She would be cautious with those “delicate things.” She would refrain from hitting me. She would only scream instead.
Dodging a spanking was usually a good thing, but not always! My poor academic performance colliding with my mother’s random bouts of anger was like the weather, which couldn’t be predicted. Stormy or sunny? Stormy or sunny? I checked the clouds for hints every day. There were none.
My classmates and I walked to school together. As soon as school finished, we ran to the field to play. Homework was far from our minds. It was the same for the teachers. At the sound of the bell, they would rush home. Some would tend to their gardens, others would chop wood for cooking or knit sweaters… Everyone was busy with their own household chores. If I wanted to study more, who could I study with? No one.
I decided to learn how to deal with my mother’s temper instead. Unlike the “urgent storm warning” on the loudspeaker, my mother’s raging explosions didn’t give students a day off to help gather chickens. They didn’t cause roofs to fly into the air. But they did burn a little hole in my stomach. I shivered, dreading my mother’s fury and likening it to a violent storm. Both were equally frightening. Luckily, my love for outdoor games distracted me from my budding anxiety. For a few hours a day, I was spared the fear. For a few fanciful minutes, I imagined being free, soaring like a falcon above our house.
“No pain, no fear,” was my mom’s educational motto as she fiercely unleashed a flurry of spankings on my behind.
“No punishment, still scared,” was my body’s response.
Second grade passed! I worked hard and earned the merit award for excellence. No longer a “rebellious element,” I would be on stage to receive my prize. My heart felt like bursting as the drum team marched into the hall, all dressed in crisp white uniforms and white canoe-caps adorned with gold stripes. Leading the team was a girl carrying a red-and-gold flag, waving it up and down in time with the music. Behind her was a boy holding a very big drum and a long instrument shaped like my brother’s tipcat stick. Six students followed on smaller drums, their drumsticks twirling nimbly in their hands.
“Attention! Salute the flag… Salute!” the Young Pioneer Commander shouted.
Right after the command, five horns blared, “toot, toot… toot…” I hardly recognized the music, even though the horn team had been practicing continuously for months. Perhaps I was sick of their blaring sounds echoing from the auditorium like the trumpeting of caged elephants in a zoo.
I succeeded in ignoring the dissonant sound of the trumpet clashing with the drums. Back straight, eyes wide open, I sat eagerly waiting. For a second-grader who had never experienced such a grand ceremony, my heart pounded to the rhythm of my fidgeting fingers.
“The national anthem!” the Young Pioneer Commander directed.
I stumbled through the lyrics, “… marching on to victory, Vietnam’s army…”
“Alright, everyone sit down, please! I would like to invite the Headmistress to give a speech!” the Commander continued with his commanding voice.
“Hello… hello!” the Headmistress tested the microphone. “Respected comrade Deputy Minister of Interior, respected comrade Director of the Veterans’ Affairs Department, respected comrade Head of the Education Administration Department, respected comrade… and respected…,” she began her speech.
I couldn’t force myself to listen to the rest. Second grade was over! My feet, unable to touch the floor, swung back and forth restlessly. A few steps away from my bench, rays of sun sneaked through the glass windows, licking the floral tiles, daring me to look at the playground outside. Two sparrows were fighting, their fierce chirping drowning out the sound of the loudspeakers in my head. Thinking of Barankin’s adventure as a sparrow, I couldn’t help but giggle. Barankin, Be a Man!1 – oh, how I loved that book! I could read it again and again. That Russian book made me laugh and dream.
Suddenly, I heard a shout, “Determination, determination, determination…,” and the sound of applause filled the room. I quickly clapped along with everybody else, looking up at the stage to see what part of the ceremony we were at. The Headmistress had stepped down, and another person was giving a speech. This person didn’t need to look at any notes and waved his hand high, mentioning the word “Party” quite often.
I wondered if the word “Party” he used had the same meaning as the word “PARTY” in the line “LONG LIVE THE COMMUNIST PARTY OF VIETNAM” on the red velvet backdrop? And underneath that line shone an embossed, golden five-pointed star. Was it made of real gold? I began to question just like I always did when I had nothing else to do. My mom had two gold rings that she treasured greatly. To store them safely, she would wrap them in a cotton handkerchief that she placed inside her hand-stitched cloth bag. She would regularly change their hiding places: inside an old vase, behind her night table or under her bed. I always knew where to look. But I never told my teacher about mom’s bourgeois possession.
“Next, I would like to respectfully invite Mr. Khang, on behalf of all the teachers, to come up and give a speech!” the Commander continued.
“Honorable guests, dear Headmistress, and beloved students! It is our great honour to educate the children of martyrs. The children of those who have sacrificed their lives for our nation. In addition to our roles as teachers, we also have the responsibility of being State-parents to our students. We must build a second home for these children. We are determined to not let the sacrifices of the martyrs be in vain. Thank you!”
Mr. Khang taught secondary-level math. My brother said he was good and considerate. A man with a gentle heart.
“Does Mr. Khang teach well?” I had asked my brother once.
And my brother had snapped, “You’re so dumb! Of course, a teacher has to teach well!” At the time of our conversation and even now, I wasn’t satisfied with his answer but remained silent since I couldn’t find any reason to argue further. Mr. Khang’s speech caught my attention, even though I didn’t fully understand it. I liked its briefness. His choked-up voice also moved me.
“Please welcome student representative Tạo. He will give a speech!”
Tạo held a stack of papers and read a long speech, repeatedly mentioning the two words, “We promise.”
I felt tired as I fidgeted on my wooden bench. My back ached. My bum itched at a spot I couldn’t reach. Impatiently I crossed and uncrossed my arms. Why hadn’t the award ceremony started? At home, I had practiced standing at attention, saluting like a team member and then receiving the award with both hands, slightly bowing my head and saying “Thank you.” My private rehearsal for that award ceremony was playing like a movie in my head.
The noisy singing and dancing performances by the seventh-graders couldn’t hold my attention any longer. I had already watched the entire rehearsal earlier. Now I couldn’t stop yawning. Struggling to stay awake, I caught sight of the new plaster statue of Uncle Ho on a wooden pedestal. It was as white as a fresh piece of chalk right out of the box. To keep my mind occupied, I asked myself where the old chipped statue could be. Then I envisioned it tucked away in a dim corner, cloaked in layers of dust. Yes, I had encountered some like it that no longer stood reverently but were lying about carelessly. While I was still daydreaming, my homeroom teacher approached me. Quietly she sat down next to me. She smiled as she handed me a pink-wrapped gift with a certificate of merit on top. She held one end of the certificate, letting the other end flutter as she whispered, “You should have borrowed a uniform from one of the martyrs’ children. You can’t go onstage dressed like that. So, I’ll give you your award here, okay?”
Hearing that, my legs suddenly started swinging uncontrollably. They swung harder and harder. My eyes stayed fixed on my two skinny shanks kicking the air. Had there been a hand on my shoulder at that moment, I would’ve surely burst out sobbing, great tearful sobs that would’ve echoed down the hall. Fortunately, no such hand appeared!
The award ceremony didn’t go as I had hoped because I was not a “child of martyrs.” I had parents. Parents who sent me to a school for children of martyrs because it was convenient for them. Because my mother worked as a chief accountant in that school. Because my house was located within the school area. Because nobody knew how important the ceremony was to an eight-year-old girl who’d worked so hard for it. Why were accolades reserved only for the children of people who had died for the nation? What about the children of people who worked for the nation? What about children of accountants, the ones who added and subtracted for the nation? My friends were the children of martyrs. We played the same games at recess and recited the same lessons in class. I had thought we were all equal in Uncle Ho’s eyes. I was wrong. Addition. Subtraction. Equality. Unfortunately, I was not yet old enough to understand these kinds of calculations.
“It’s only an end-of-school year ceremony! Summer is waiting outside,” I grumbled to myself as various familiar and unfamiliar sounds continued to come from the stage. I looked away from my teacher and ignored the wrapped prize. I turned a deaf ear to the applause and drum roll for high-achieving students in academics and moral education. I focused all my attention instead on my swinging legs. They would help me escape the ceremony and return to my unspoiled summer.
1 Valery Medvedev, Barankin, be a man! (published by AST, 2004).