By Monique Truong, Novelist
MY father never read my first novel, which was dedicated to him. He died in 2002, a year before it was published. The dedication was simple: ”For my father, a traveler who has finally come home.” He would have liked being called a traveler, because tucked inside this word is the story of his life.
My father was not an old man by first-world standards. But at the Vietnamese-American-owned funeral home his third wife had chosen for him, the prevailing sentiment was that the deceased, age 65, was entitled to red roses on his coffin. If he had died a year earlier, the color red would not have been recommended. Red signifies the luck of having lived a long life. His funeral was held in Houston, where the yellow and red flag of the former South Vietnam flies high above suburban strip malls, a place where the sensibility of the third world can trump the first.
My father was a mixture of both. He was born in Vietnam, sent at an early age to France and England for schooling, and returned home with a Swiss wife and a baby daughter. Upon his arrival to a country that, in his absence, had split itself in half, he had to relearn its language. He could speak Vietnamese, but he could not write it. Not a business letter. Not a love letter.
My father was instead fluent in French and English, the languages that raised him. Along with his flat nose and his hot temper, I as an adult would share with him the frustration of having to reach for Vietnamese words, like an itch at the middle of our backs.
I know little about his life during the first years of his return. I know that his marriage dissolved, that his Swiss wife and baby returned to Europe. I know that he was movie-idol dashing. I know that my mother, breathtaking at the age of 20, fell in love with him, and that he converted from Buddhism to Catholicism to marry her. His wealthy parents were relieved that this time he had chosen a Vietnamese woman, but they frowned at her family of intellectuals and dreamers. Five years later, in 1968, my mother gave birth to me, my father’s second daughter. Between contractions, my mother heard the sounds of bombs cratering Saigon.
A photograph shows my father in army fatigues holding me. I am crying, infant arms and legs pushing away from him. My mother tells me that this was the first time I had seen him, that I was afraid of him, of his crew cut, of his uniform.
I think the fear she remembers was hers. She was the one who knew enough to be discomforted by the sight of the movie idol dressed to die. From that awkward introduction on, whenever my father left on an overnight trip or longer, I would get a cold. Always a sniffle, a slight fever, an ache. I take that as proof that I had not feared him but loved him at first sight.
My father was not a soldier for long. He soon returned to civilian life and to his position with a Dutch-owned oil company. He was multinational, multilingual and multitalented. He was a businessman for the future of South Vietnam. Unfortunately, that country did not have a future.
In 1975, a few weeks before the fall of Saigon, my mother and I were airlifted out in an American Army cargo plane. His company had asked him to stay behind to oversee its operation. When he finally left, he went by boat. It was a pitiful journey during which he had little to eat, and someone tried to steal his shoes.
The theme of flight, albeit with a different meaning, accompanied my father’s life here. As refugees, we first lived in North Carolina, where the license plates proclaim ”First in Flight” in commemoration of the Wright brothers’ feat at Kitty Hawk. Four years later in Kettering, Ohio — dubbed the ”Birthplace of Aviation,” also in honor of the Wright brothers — my father and mother had a baby girl. By 1982, our family had moved on to Houston, home to NASA.
This dream of air travel, which hovered in the background of all the places where my father tried to make a home for us, brought with it visions of heavy bodies soaring, of fair winds and infinite possibilities. All the things my father had lost and tried to regain.
When my father came to the United States, he was 38. He went back to school and got a Bachelor of Science and an M.B.A. because he believed Americans respected their own degrees more than the French and English ones he had already earned. He then went to work for the American counterpart of his former employer. The company hired him without recognizing his seniority or the retirement benefits he had accrued in Vietnam. Technically, the company was two separate entities. Technically, their employee was not the same man.
His co-workers called him Charlie. Not an unusual riff on his name, Charles, but to my ears and surely his, it was also synonymous with the military’s name for the enemy. V as in Victor. C as in Charlie.
By the time I was in college, my father had been forced into early retirement. He was too proud to sit still and too financially unsteady to stop bringing home a paycheck, so he took a position in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. My mother and young sister stayed in Houston.
I met my father’s third wife for the first time at his funeral. I had flown in from New York City with my husband. My half-sister flew in from Switzerland with her son, the youngest of my father’s three grandchildren. My younger sister was already living in Houston.
We tied white strips of mourning cloth around our foreheads. Then we stood and addressed those in attendance. My half-sister spoke in French. My younger sister spoke in English. I, the one who should have said my goodbyes in Vietnamese, apologized for not being able to do so. I wanted to say in the language of our birth that my father was a lucky man, that he had lived a long life. Instead, I said in English that my father was a complicated man who had lived a complicated life.
I wanted to recount the facts of his life, the names of the places that shaped him, the world events that took their toll on his life. Most of all, I wanted to say that I did not believe red roses were appropriate, that my father was a man with many more years of life ahead of him, time during which my sisters and I would finally have had a chance to get to know him, time during which this man, who had circumnavigated the globe, would have been able to stay awhile and rest.
A version of this essay titled, “My Father’s Vietnam Syndrome” was originally published in The New York Times on June 18, 2006.