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HIS RETURN

On the first day of Tet (Lunar New Year) of 1976, nearly ten months after the fall of South Vietnam…

The old man slowed his Honda motorcycle to a stop, took off his goggles and rubbed his eyes. He let the engine run idly for a little while before turning it off and looking at a shady path dotted with white pebbles. The path wound through a yard up to a discreetly magnificent villa. He leaned the Honda against a star apple tree, straightened his white shirt and pushed a button on the gate post. No one appeared. He stepped back and stared up at the second floor, causing his green colonial-style hat to fall to the ground behind him.

            A young girl in Southern pajamas – a blue blouse and unusually long black pantaloons – came out to meet him.

            “Who are you looking for?” she asked shyly, clearly surprised at his presence.

            “I want to see Mrs. Nam Tan,” he replied. “Does she live here, Miss?”

            “Wait here. I’ll go and see.”

            She disappeared inside. About five minutes later, a middle-aged woman appeared.

            “Could you tell me if Mrs. Nam Tan lives here?” he asked again.

            Instead of answering, she looked at the strange man from head to toe. He was a communist cadre of about 60 years of age, just like hundreds of thousands of other rustic people who had been appearing everywhere in the city since its fall on April 30, 1975. He had high cheekbones, a dark face and thin, awkward limbs. By a natural defensive reaction, she began to worry about the possible consequences that a communist like him, dressed in typical sandals made of old automobile tires and a colonial hat, could bring to her properties. People like that didn’t normally come and offer their best wishes for Tet. They normally brought trouble.

            “Could you tell me why you want to see Mrs. Nam Tan?” she asked, after searching his face for familiar traits. “She isn’t… I’m afraid she doesn’t… uh… actually it’s me. I’m her, I’m Mrs. Nam Tan.”

            He opened his eyes wide and stared at her fine complexion and rosy face. She was about 50 years old, and her slow voice revealed all the sadness, worry, and emotions typical of most well-off women in Saigon after the fall.

            “Do you work here?” he asked. “Do you remember me?”

            “I do.” There was doubt in her voice, but she was clearly moved. “Where have you been? When did you get back? Why has it taken you so long time to come and visit us? And why now, on the first day of Tet?”

            “I’ve been looking for your address and I wondered if I found it here. I can’t believe my eyes. Are you a servant in this house? How long have you been…?”

            “Well, come in…”

            She opened the gate and showed him in to the living room, where four dark brown leather chairs were positioned around a shiny black lacquer coffee table. Inside a glass cabinet, a few pieces of chinaware were displayed probably the remnants of a larger collection now hidden away. The man hesitated before sitting down on an armchair, sinking his body deep in it and placing his hands clumsily next to his hat on his legs.

            “Relax,” she advised him. “There’s no need to worry.”

            “Your master and mistress… will blame our carelessness…”

            “Don’t worry!” She tried to speak softly to reassure him.

            “After more than twenty years of separation,” he began, “I finally found your address, but I kept worrying it might not be the right one. I was going to leave… You look quite young, whereas I’m much older, the price of constant loyalty to Uncle Ho and the party, one mission after another, ending with the liberation of the South… Now I’m with you again…”

            “Hai,” she called to her daughter, “bring me some tea, will you?”

            “We don’t need that,” the man suggested in a low voice. “Let’s not bother the master during the three days of Tet.”

            Mrs Nam went upstairs to dress herself in simple but clean and decent clothes. She returned with a young girl who placed a tea tray on a cane chair, and glanced in surprise at this strange visitor she had never seen before. He wondered how a servant wife’s visiting husband dared sit so comfortably in an armchair and drink tea. She’d surely be reprimanded after he left.

            “How are they?” He asked uneasily. “The owners, I mean.”

            “Keep your patience. I’ll tell you about them.”        

            “Have you been exploited by them?” he asked, moving his face close to hers, “Tell me the truth. I bet they’ve been wicked and ruthless. That’s nothing new to me. As your husband, I’ll denounce them to the authorities and request that all your salaries be rightly and entirely paid. I can’t stand the labor exploitation of workers by American stooges…”

            “Calm down… actually they’ve been very.”

            He looked round the living room, taking in the air conditioner at the back, the white walls and the bright black lacquer screens dotted with pictures of yellow fishes. There was a slight air of neglect, although the objects were clearly still cherished. His surprise increased however, and he began to believe what his wife had told him, although he was uncomfortable at her unusually familiar reception. She had not behaved like a servant at all. Perhaps she had become rebellious, or wanted to show off in the absence of her boss.

            Being a fanatical, mechanical-thinking communist cadre, he couldn’t think how to relax his complex state of mind. His wife’s remarkable calmness, by contrast, provided a stark counterpoint to his mental embarrassment. He kept silent for a while, staring at a wooden stand topped by an ancient ceramic vase filled with dark, drooping chrysanthemums. He leaned forwards, took up his cup and slowly sipped the tea. Why were there no flowers, jams, or shreds of firecrackers in front of the house for Tet? The house seemed luxurious enough. The inside was equally quiet and sad, devoid of any signs of the New Year. The fallen leaves that had been swept and gathered into a heap in the front yard were still there. How strange.

            “This is very good tea!” he said. “It’s probably intended for respectable guests, isn’t it? I don’t want to get us into trouble. By the way, you still haven’t told me about her.”

            After a moment of silence, he seemed to remember something.

            “Where’s our eldest son, Hai?” he asked. “And the others?”

            “He lives nearby. We can go and see him if you like… I’ll take you right now.”

            As soon as she finished the sentence, she went upstairs to put on her darker clothes. Back outside, she led him toward the gate. He quickly rushed to his motorcycle and was about to start it when he heard her.

            “No,” she said, “leave it by the tree over there. You’ll get it back when we return. We’ll go by car.”

            She opened the garage and invited him in.

            “But we can’t take the master’s vehicle without his permission!”

            “No problem. They’re very nice people.”

            “So what? We must keep our position, especially during Tet…”

            She started the car, backed up, and drove away with him sitting next to her, unable to believe that the wife he had left twenty years ago still retained so many familiar traits. She seemed  sadder and indescribably different, but familiar in so many ways: except for her manner of dress, and gestures that were more confident and mature. She parked in front of a house on PDP Street, opened the gate, passed a narrow yard, opened the wooden door painted white with borders in dark blue, and went inside. Here too there was no trace of firecrackers or Tet flower vases out front, and the atmosphere was abnormally quiet. After they had rung the bell for some time, a young man of about thirty hurried out.

            “Mom!” he exclaimed. “Are you here to see me? But you have told me to stay home during the three days of Tet …”

            He looked at the worn-looking cadre in the colonial hat standing by his mother’s side.

            “Good day, Sir… You must be…”

            He looked at his mother with questioning eyes.

            “Do you know who he is?” she tried to prick his curiosity. “He’s your father!”

            He couldn’t take his eyes off of the man, suddenly feeling confused and uneasy. It was as though he had to accept a stranger as a blood relative.

            “Please come in, Mom and Sir,” he said, almost inaudibly. “I’ll go and get dressed.”

            He ran upstairs, forgetting to invite them to sit down.

            “Is he also a servant in this house?” the cadre inquired.

            “Yeah. He’s a servant here, too.” Mrs Nam replied without hesitation.

            For the second time that morning, he let himself fall into a chair and thought hard, trying to comprehend the situation. He felt as though he were lost in a maze, unable to comprehend his surroundings. He took a furtive glance round the living room, which was filled with the sort of entertainment equipment young people so often have: a complete Hi-Fi set, with LP records, cassette tapes, and books scattered around the floor. This house too was devoid of Tet decorations. He wondered once again how come his wife and son were servants, but still acted as though they could do whatever they wanted in these magnificent and wealthy houses. Where were their masters? It was beyond his comprehension!

            “Who is the owner of this house?” he asked timidly, after looking around in silence.

            “OK, I’ll tell you the truth. This is Hai’s house. He’s the owner. I own the other house. We’re servants to no one.”

            The young man, properly dressed, came down the stairs and sat beside his mother. He looked at the cadre, unsure how to address him. The visitor, however, was stunned.

            “How can you possibly own such huge properties?” he said slowly. “Have you … married an American?”

            She turned purple. Her eyes burned into him, filled with insuppressible anger. Her son, extremely moved by his father’s improper question and the fury she was unable to disguise, began to speak hurriedly.

            “Good God! Dad, it’s been twenty years since you left us. We’ve been through years of hard work, saving and suffering. What you see is the result of that… that and our schooling. I’m a physician, and my brother Ba is a public works engineer and Tu is an electrical technician. Twenty year’s hard work… don’t you see, dad?”

            “God bless you!” his mother continued. “How could you suggest I married an American? You’re wrong, dead wrong. You think that’s the only way I could have these big houses and a successful career for my children, don’t you? This is Saigon! All over South Vietnam, anyone who has been hard working, resourceful, patient, knowledgeable, and lucky, could eventually obtain things like this, even feeble women like me. There was no need to marry Americans. Stop thinking about marriage with Americans… I own that other house. And the kids have jobs and houses, thanks to their hard work, their labor… communists like you are supposed to praise hard labor…”

            The long speech was a reflection of the anger and sadness so clearly visible on her face. As soon as she uttered her last word, she began to look serious and unhappy, partly because the reunion she had awaited for so long, a deeply emotional event that should have been pleasant and comfortable, had turned so sour, and partly because her former husband, who turned out to be just another ageing, prejudiced communist cadre, had displayed such an untrustworthy and childish attitude toward his own wife and children. He had no inkling of the effort it had taken to survive without him, let alone of the value of their achievements among the middle classes of South Vietnam. He had just swallowed the party line: South Vietnam was a society of brutal exploiters, its people made hungry and poor by the American puppets.

            She sighed deeply. “Listen. During these three days of Tet, we don’t have scented tea, sweet jams, good wines, or traditional rice cakes. Our houses are quiet and dark, as though we were in mourning. Which we really are. Look around and you’ll see that it’s not just our two houses: all the others are in the same situation. Stores and shops are closed, there’s no laughter to be heard, no best wishes offered as in previous Tet occasions. Why? Because of your presence. The people of Saigon have unanimously agreed to observe the first Tet of national mourning this way. If you hear firecrackers once in a while, that’s just a few people praying God and Buddha to help chase you communists away, the sooner the better, so people can enjoy again the happy days of Tet like before… Alas! Everything has been ruined. Your return means total collapse. The kids and I know for sure we’ll soon lose our houses, our future… Calamities have fallen upon us and on everyone in this city of Saigon. It’s the end! And here you are back. Bringing a cruel and complete collapse!”

            The old cadre remained mute, unable to respond to so many sudden changes. Twenty years absent, and it came to this: bitter denouncements from people he no longer knew. He bent his head, and lightly and rhythmically tapped his rugged tire sandals on the red carpet.

            Ten months later, Mrs Nam Tan’s whole family was resettled in Northern California. Minus the cadre.