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March / April 2009

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March / April 2009

Today, AVVA life member Linda West  is a successful real estate broker in Tucson. But years ago, little Tran Thi Bach Yen Oanh watched from behind her grandmother’s skirts as American troops marched through her small village in Bien Hoa, listened at night to the Viet Cong gunfire or ducked for cover in the dugout beneath her bed, and tried to comprehend the historic events that surrounded and threatened her.

Her self-published book, Beyond the Rice Paddies, in which she expresses special gratitude to Herbert Robert West, her stepfather, describes her life in war-torn Vietnam from a child’s perspective. It is excerpted below.

In January, Linda West spoke to the Arizona State Council. She is available for other speaking engagements and can be reached at lindafwest@msn.com


Girl Next Door

Mai, an older girl who lives next door, plays with me now and then. Today, I am at her house. We are playing pickup sticks.

Her family is from China, and it is known in the village that they are rich.

I heard some grownups talk one time about how most of the Chinese in Vietnam are very wealthy. I can see that Mai’s family is. They own a store that carries all sorts of things: rice, soy sauce, fish sauce, dried seasonings, dried mushrooms, tea, seaweed, flour, sugar, noodles, ointment for pain and fever, Chinese herbal medicine, hairbrushes, barrettes, clothes, paper, writing pens, ink, some toys and games. Sometimes her father lets us play with some of the toys in the store.

Their store also has a special glass case with a lock on it. In this case, all the precious and expensive goods are held, such as a pack of American cigarettes and a lighter, an American watch with “Timex” printed on it, gold bracelets, gold necklaces, a couple of jade Buddha pendants, and medicine.

Mai is so lucky. She lives in a huge house. The front of the house is the store; both her mother and father live with her in the back. Theirs is the pretty corner house directly across the dirt road from the open market.

Mai and her family have such beautiful furniture from China. Mai’s bed is so soft and comfortable, much more so than my bed with its thin straw mattress.

I think it is mean that some of the other children sing a song about Chinese people. It goes like this: “Every Chinese is like the other. The ones that give me trouble, I will kick them back to China.”
Mai’s father and mother are always so polite to Ba Noi and me. I like Mai and her family very much and will not sing that song about them.

I shared with Mai a piece of American chewing gum that my mother, the beautiful lady with the wonderful, sweet, flowery smell and the prettiest smile, had given me. She knows my mother lives in the big city of Saigon and visits me a few times a year. Mai and her mother and father always stare at our house when my mother visits.

Today, I am very excited to show Mai the beautiful new American dress I have on. It comes down to my knees, gathers around the waist and is light blue with little flowers around the bottom. It is especially precious because it was a gift from my mother.

I don’t understand. Mai pushes me away from her and tries to pull the dress off me. I am so hurt and shocked; I don’t know what to do. I would never try to tear her clothes. She wears such beautiful clothes all the time. I especially like the bright, colorful traditional Chinese outfits made of silk. When she shows them to me, I always ask if I can touch them. The silk feels so cool and smooth.

She pushes me away again and tells me that my dress is very ugly. In a most monstrous voice, she says something about my mother working in Saigon as a bargirl. She also says my mother sells her body to American GIs for money.

What is she talking about? What is a bargirl? How does one sell her body?

Mai continues shouting at me about how the whole village knows what my mother does. She says everyone talks about it. She says I should be ashamed of my mother and myself.

No one has said anything to me about my mother. If there were anything wrong, Ba Noi would have told me.

I want to run away from Mai. I try to lift my feet off the ground, but they are cemented to the floor. Finally, my body listens to me; I am able to turn away from her. All I want to do is go home, but she shoves her face next to mine, spits at me, and grabs my dress, trying to tear it.

She starts yelling at me: “You are a daughter of a bargirl. Your mother is a bargirl. The reason you are living with your Ba Noi is because your father is ashamed of your mother. Your mother is a bargirl. I know how she got that dress.”

My eyes are filling up with tears, and I can’t really see her. Her mouth keeps opening and closing, but I hear no more. Each word from her is sizzling fire from a dragon, burning every part of me.

At last, my legs are strong and I am able to move my cemented feet. As fast as I can, I run. Tears roll down my face, and I cannot see where I am running. I stumble on something and fall to the ground. I just lay there and cry.

Mai is so cruel making up all these lies. I hate her. I hate her. I want to kick her back to China.


American Soldiers

What is all that thundering and rumbling under our feet? The earth is shaking! The ground is moving! What is happening?

“The Americans are coming. The Americans are coming,” a few of the village children shout as they run down the dirt road in excitement.

Ba Noi and I rush out to the road, too. Yes, the Americans are here!

Under our feet, the vibrations are getting stronger and stronger as the American troops march toward us. Ba Noi pulls me away from the dirt road. We stand very close to our mango tree, and there before our eyes is the beginning of a parade. American music, very loud American music, plays.

I love parades, especially the Chinese Lunar New Year Parade. People dress in costumes of a big red dragon and dance down the dirt roads. They make music with drums and gongs, and they pop firecrackers. It is a very festive time. We celebrate for days and days.

In the American parade, no one dresses in dragon costumes. The gigantic American soldiers on foot are dressed in dark green uniforms and big black boots, and a few have heavy metal green helmets on their heads.

Ba Noi and I step back behind the mango tree as they continue to march toward us. The American music gets louder and louder.

Oh my goodness! These American soldiers are strange and kind of scary looking. They look very different than those who came to our village a few months ago. The soldiers who came with Miss Le were nice and gentle. They had grand smiles, showing shiny white teeth as they gave us medical checkups to help us stay healthy. And afterward, we were given little gifts, which I still keep in my treasure chest.

Ba Noi must know that I am uncomfortable with these American soldiers. She takes my hand and holds it firmly.

One of the soldiers has a face with dark marks drawn under his eyes, and another has skin as dark as the black water buffalo. Some wear belts on their chests and waists with all kinds of things hanging off them—bullets, knives, and round metal things.

And, they all carry big guns! Some of the guns have lots of bullets hanging on them.

They remind me of a drawing I have seen—in one of my schoolbooks—of Chinese warriors dressed in their war clothes, heavily armed and fierce looking.

It’s so hot and muggy. I wonder how the Americans stay cool with all the stuff they have on.

As the soldiers walk by us, some wave hello. Some greet us in Vietnamese. A few smile at us, but I do not see any shiny white teeth. Oh, one of them just spit some yucky, black tobacco close to our mango tree.

The soldiers talk and laugh with each other. A few smoke cigarettes and pass them around among themselves.

Two or three Vietnamese soldiers march along with the Americans. They look similar to the soldiers at the military compound across the streets. They are not outfitted like these Americans. The Vietnamese soldiers wear sandals or regular shoes, no big black boots.

I can’t imagine that the American with the tangerine hair, brown spots on his face and strange blue eyes—the one who gave me a shot in my arm so I could stay healthy and who said I had beautiful eyes—would be with these soldiers.

Then I see something that I know Ba Noi will not allow me to do. A couple of children in the village walk and talk with the American soldiers. They call out, “GI! GI! GI!” The soldiers give them candies. One boy asks for money, too. The soldier looks like he is having fun with the little boy. He gives the little boy some cigarettes instead.

Other children stand along the dirt road and yell, “GI, candy! GI, candy!” The soldiers are very amused by them and toss candies to them. Still other children run after the soldiers, begging for more candies.

Ba Noi looks at me and gives me a look to let me know that she does not like the children asking for candies and money from strangers. I dare not leave her side. She does not have to worry about me.

Next come the jeeps and trucks. The music blasts away as the vehicles approach us. The trucks mostly are filled with American soldiers, but there are a few Vietnamese soldiers, too. There are three or four trucks, each loaded with soldiers, talking, laughing and teasing each other.

Some soldiers wave to us from their jeeps and trucks. Ba Noi never waves back. She does not even nod her head to greet them, nor does she look straight at them. She just stands still. I follow Ba Noi’s example and stand still, too.

I have never seen anything like this. A green metal monster moving machine creeps up closer to us; it makes me shudder. The vibrations from the ground become stronger. It feels like I am being shaken off the earth. The monster is like a ferocious green dragon. It has many wheels, like the dragon with many legs. Instead of a mouth filled with fire, soldiers emerge from the big green monster’s mouth, which has the biggest gun attached to it. This gun is bigger than any gun at the military compound across the dirt road.

An American soldier pops his head and shoulders out of the mouth of this thing. He sways and shakes his head to the loud music. He waves to another soldier in a different green metal monster moving machine behind him. The monsters pass by us unaware of the rumbling of earth beneath them and the goose bumps forming on my arms and legs.

One more truck of GIs trails behind.

Our eyes follow the parade. The vibrations get weaker and the music becomes softer as we watch the parade getting smaller and smaller as it moves farther and farther from our mango tree, past my school, past my uncle’s orchard, and toward the rice paddies. The parade fades away, leaving only a cloud of dust. The crowd dissipates.

I ask Ba Noi: “Where are they going? Where does the parade end?”

“Oanh, this is not a parade. The Americans are going beyond the rice paddies.” She gently shakes her head, and a worried look appears on her face as her eyes follow the cloud of dust near the rice paddies. “They are going to find the Viet Cong.”

In a gush, the fresh memories of the Viet Cong behind our wall, the sounds of gunfire, the screams of pain and the smell of the fresh dirt in the dugout under my bed fill my mind. How frightened I was, especially when Ba Noi was not at my side.

The vibrations disturb my thoughts. So many trucks filled with American GIs, so many big monster green metal moving machines, so many huge guns—yes they will find the Viet Cong. No longer will we have to hide in the dugout. Beyond the rice paddies, they will find all the Viet Cong—I hope.

I give the GIs a little wave as I look toward the rice paddies.

A Measure Of Comfort At The Arizona State Council

BY LINDA WEST


The meeting room, crowded with veterans and spouses, had fallen into stony silence. Glancing up while reading aloud a chapter of my memoir, Beyond the Rice Paddies, I saw all eyes and sensed all ears were on me. It was more than polite attention for a guest speaker.

Minutes earlier, the room had been abuzz with activity. The veterans had splintered into groups to discuss Arizona VVA State Council business. Others caught up with old friends.

And, of course, it all was punctuated by good-natured ribbing. Army vets talked smack with former Marines. Air Force vets unloaded on former foot soldiers. Tough guys playing rough.

I read on about a dangerous night when I was a young girl in South Vietnam. Looking up again, I saw women and men teary-eyed. That wasn’t my only surprise that crisp Saturday morning in January.

Immediately after my presentation, Bill Messer, the president of the VVA Arizona State Council, gave me thank-you gifts. And then more gifts came—all so unexpected, all so precious.

Sisto, a stocky, white-haired veteran, gave me the biggest and warmest embrace. His eyes were moist as he whispered, “Thank you.”

Les, a thin veteran with a trimmed beard who wears a ball cap pulled low over his face and sports a pin-filled vest, presented me his treasured infantry pin. He had worn it for 40 years.

Joe, a beefy, gregarious veteran, thanked me for triggering some good memories of a time he had thought was devoid of any pleasantness. One memory was of a village boy he had treated to a case of apples.

Walt, who is as tall as a tree, and his sweet wife told me how the reading moved them. Walt also told me that I was the first Vietnamese he had spoken to in 40 years.

More veterans opened up, and by the end of the day I had received several challenge coins and enough service and VVA pins to fill the collar of my turtleneck sweater.

The next day, I received a heartrending email from a veteran who had been at the meeting. The note seized my heart and redefined my goals for the book. It read: “In my mind, I feel as if I raped your country. I am sorry for my sins and at one time gave little thought to your people in my anguish. Yet, as time and age is given to me by God, I see beauty in the darkness. You are one of a few Vietnamese who has given light and comfort to my inner tortures.”

Tough guys opening their beautiful hearts.

My book originally had two purposes. One was to honor my American GI stepfather and all veterans for making me feel safe in my war-torn village. The other was to support veterans’ causes, as the book’s net proceeds go to VVA and other organizations supporting veterans and soldiers.

Now, I’m hoping it also can provide some measure of comfort, answer some questions, and spark some good thoughts from a dark time.

 

 

 

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