MY VILLAGE TEACHER

            My hometown was in Central Vietnam, neighboring a land of mountains covered by clouds and white fog all year round. Now and then, silver strips of cloud floated lazily in the sky high above the blue mountain tops.

In that rugged and almost inaccessible region, villages were so far apart that after the French established their domination, teaching the new Vietnamese writing system took an age. Naturally, there were a few intellectuals in the area, although relatively few as access to education was so limited, and schools and teachers were few and far between. It was therefore a big cultural event and a matter of great pride for a village to be permitted to open a two-grade elementary school for children to learn the Vietnamese alphabets. The arrival of a new, “civilized” teacher was therefore a rare political and social event.

As a matter of fact he even came to board with us, as our house was located near the village school and my parents were relatively well-off. My father’s adequate education meant he could hold discussions with the teacher when he had time, and his standing in the village rose slightly as a result. My generous mother repeatedly told our servants to treat him well, so that he could devote all his efforts to the teaching the village kids, starting at home with us, her own children. Her reverential attitude was complemented by my father’s stock of traditional sayings: “An unschooled child will make a worthless adult,” and, “What good would you be without a teacher?

Although we had never really understood the real meaning of his proverbs, our innocent minds got some significant benefit from these folksy sayings, and jogged our memory about our previous teacher. He would stroll to school at seven o’clock in the morning after checking the time on the watch he kept tied on a safety pin inside his dark colored coat. Five minutes later, the drum on the school veranda would start up –one long roll followed by three separate beats – drawing in the early arrivals, who would surround him and stare with respectful admiration. How they longed to grab the wooden drum stick, bash away on that circular skin of buffalo hide, and split the air with ear-wrenching sounds! But they were all too short to reach up high enough, and they would never have generated the volume required. The drum beats meant far more than the teacher’s orders: they also told the time for everyone out in the fields. Playtime was over for the kids, but everyone else took a break. Laborers in the paddy fields would stop for a moment to drink tea, or bite into a boiled potato they had brought along early in the morning.

I was only six years old, but, as a favor to my parents, the teacher allowed me to sit on an extra chair beside the table that separated the first and second grades, instead of having to learn at home with my elder siblings.

One morning, as he was drawing a human head on the blackboard for a natural science lesson, a thick-set man in a Western suit, a hat and glasses, ceremoniously entered the room carrying a leather briefcase. The teacher ran over and turned me out of my chair with a look of fear in his eyes.

“Whose son is this?” he asked in a serious tone.

I was scared and about to leave when the visitor picked me up and held me in his arms.

“Sir, he’s the son of Mr. X. in the village,” said the teacher.

The inspector looked through each of the teacher’s books then at the board, measuring his performance. He left in about an hour, after saluting him. The engine of a car parked at the top of the village roared to life, and a palpable sense of relief spread through the class. Break was announced fifteen minutes early, and the pupils burst into noisy conversations. One or two even cried for joy and ran out of the classroom, leaving damp patches on the floor, so tense they’d been unable to control their bladder.

Break should have been over long since, but some of the children carried on picking small ripe fruits from the plants that grew by the fence, while others climbed on the back of a cow that was quietly munching the grass in the rice field. Discipline and order didn’t always go so smoothly. I still remembered well the obvious joy and happiness of these pupils during a basic French vocabulary course one morning. To help their memory, the teacher took the whole class out to the field to practice the word ‘soleil’ [sun]. He stood with his hard cover vocabulary book in his hand and said loudly, his finger pointing to the sun: “Voilà le soleil!” [There’s the sun!].As soon as the kids finished their third repetition, a pair of black oxen appeared from nowhere and started fighting, causing the students to retreat in chaos, not toward the classroom but away from it. They took advantage of the situation and ran as far as the narrow paths that wound through the bamboos, and only returned to class when they heard the end-of-class drum roll. The next practice was about the phrase “Voici la cour.” [This is the yard]. This time, though the yard was just a few steps from the classroom, and the entire class was kept inside, lest the chaotic scene recur. He didn’t want to hear the villagers accusing him, a salaried teacher, of being unable to keep his charges in order.

Three or four years later, a well-built European man accompanied by two Vietnamese, all of them dressed in shorts, knocked loudly at the door of our house one rainy winter night.

“Is there anyone by the name Nguyen Quang H (my teacher’s name) here?” asked one of the Vietnamese. He looked angry, and clutched a revolver in his hand.

“That would be… me,” said my teacher, his voice trembling.

They searched through the books, clothes and personal belongings he kept in a box in the corner of the room, then told him to put everything in a bag. The Frenchman asked him a few questions through the interpreter, and ordered him to follow them out. He had just enough time to get dressed decently and leave, taking his bag.

My parents were speechless, wondering what had happened. They did not expect an honest, polite, and kind person like him to suffer unexpected misfortune for his quiet life.

“Poor teacher!” my mother lamented. “He’s too good for such misfortune. Just last week, he gave us that beautiful gift, a great big container of that snow-white salt from his hometown of Vinh Dien.”

He’d been there for a visit, and it had been a valuable gift. The village was over sixty kilometers away, and famous for its bricks and tiles. At the beginning of each production shift, the workers traditionally put some raw salt in a clay pot and placed it in the center of the furnace. It was transformed into a fine white powder, and was used only as a special present to respectable dignitaries.

We knew nothing of his fate for quite some time. The school was sealed off by a district clerk, accompanied by the head of the village, who himself had to report to the district office for interrogation not long after.

Through the replacement teacher and the village head, my parents began to understand everything about the case of my former teacher, including the suspicions about his secret activities. The story started with the father of one of the pupils nicknamed ‘cross-eyed Si’, who, while digging for manioc in his back yard, unexpectedly found a heavy square seal made of brass. Si innocently disclosed the finding to the teacher who, out of curiosity, asked to see the seal for himself. By then it had been thoroughly cleaned and polished, and looking at the fine relief Chinese characters on its surface, he insisted on taking it home for careful study, promising to return it intact. He was so attracted to the characters that he asked to use my father’s red ink to stamp them next to his official blue-ink seal, issued by the protectorate authorities, on the administrative papers he was supposed to send to the provincial Education Inspector.

The existence of the seal was discovered later by the district and provincial authorities, who believed it to be an ancient royal item unknown even to my teacher. During his summer break, he urged cross-eyed Si’s father to let him take it back to his home village and hide it there. Some time after his arrest, my mother cleaned his room and happened across a paper stamped with the seal. She showed it to my father who recognized the characters, thanks to his knowledge of an ancient Chinese writing system. Four beautiful clear-cut and symmetric words were carved there in relief, meaning Emperor Quang Trung.

He explained to my mother that teacher H was probably arrested because he was suspected of planning an anti-French plot by using the former emperor’s seal to stimulate the people. The seal was certainly outstanding proofof the staunch determination of one of the Vietnamese royal dynasties to resist foreign oppression. In 1788, Chinese troops invaded our capital of Thang Long, pretending they were shoring up support for Le Kings’ descendants, with the intention of taking over the whole country. Nguyen Hue, an ingenious peasant who was a born military strategist, rose up at Tay Son (now An Khe in the province of Binh Dinh) to help his brother Nguyen Nhac. Thanks to his remarkable successes, he was renamed Bac Binh Vuong (North Pacification King), responsible for the liberation of the country. He proclaimed himself Emperor Quang Trung and marched north at the head of a great force, to an area then in the hands of the Chinese enemy. Early in 1789, he achieved a complete and perfect victory, ridding the country entirely of invaders. The seal was a reminder of his glorious military campaign. On the long, tough and ultimately joyous northward march, the emperor’s trusted courtiers might have accidentally dropped the seal and our village happened to be on that long route. It was hard to imagine that when he, one of our greatest national heroes, reached the province of Thanh Hoa at the tip of Central Vietnam, he had gathered under his command something like one hundred thousand volunteers and one hundred white elephants for the campaign. In the terrible battles that took place shortly afterwards, the entire Chinese army was destroyed, and its commanding general was compelled to commit suicide.

The seal found in our village might simply be a secondary one, as the main seal would have needed to be many times bigger to be a sovereign’s symbol, and to leave a sufficiently impressive mark on the excellent white paper then produced in North Vietnam.

***

We heard nothing from teacher H for over ten years, during which time four or five teachers succeeded him at the school. One evening in 1945, after we had dinner, a robust man entered our house, carrying a small leather bag on his shoulder. The entire Vietnamese population was in a ferment, desperate to  dislodge the weakened government led by Tran Trong Kim, in what a group of little known persons termed a “revolution”.

My parents were old then, and because of their weak eyes, they didn’t recognize the visitor. He introduced himself as former teacher H. of over a dozen years before.

“Oh, it’s you!” My father joyfully exclaimed, before talking to him warm-heartedly. “Where have you been all this time and what are you doing now? We tried to find out about you but in vain. You came to our house quietly but you left it suddenly… you were in big trouble back then. We had a lot of sympathy for you.”

“I was arrested when I left your house,” he said with a smile. “I was held at the Hoi An Secret Police station for some time before being transferred to the provincial prison. Because of the seal, remember? I underwent tremendous hardships for many years and my name was on the police black list. After my release, I was living under supervision in my village for a few more years before I asked to go away to look for ways to survive, but was denied. I escaped to the mountainous region and stayed there until the government was changed and I returned to my village again…”

“Are you part of the revolution?”

“Yes. Along with some others, I’m a member of the Patriotic Front of Cuu Long (a disguised name for the Viet Minh Front of Quang Nam province in 1945).”

A special dinner was prepared, so that my father could treat this old friend he hadn’t seen for so long. During the discussion, my teacher was sometimes sincere and sometimes serious, causing me to believe he had found the right direction for his future. He looked healthy and fit for a middle-aged man, but he was careful not to boast about his current activities. My father wanted to dig deeper into his past, but he skillfully avoided the question and changed the subject.

As someone returning home from Hanoi, I was struck by the situation. During my time as a student in the North, I had been vaguely briefed by my classmates about the Viet Minh Front’s activities in the mountainous region of North Vietnam. My memory led me back to the Indochinese Student Association with Luu Huu Phuoc and Mai Van Bo, and the song “Call to the Students”. Back then many nationalists were still untainted by the coming indoctrination, and the noisy agitators on the student stage or in musical performances at the auditorium of the University of Indochina in Hanoi. I listened and followed the dialog between my father and teacher H., but when dinner was served, I began to have a different opinion about him, based on his disclosure about his zealous participation in Viet Minh. My sweet memory from my childhood of him, a village teacher so kind and close to me as a kid; nevertheless, prevented me from showing how my attitude towards him had changed.

“Teacher,” I asked him politely, “when did you become a member of the Viet Minh? From what you’ve just told my father about your past thoughts and activities, it seems you’re still holding something back.”

“What grade are you in now? What about your siblings?” He was changing the subject again.

“It’s true,” my father chimed in, “you haven’t answered his questions about your participation in the revolution that led to the recent seizure of power. Was it when you stayed here with us?”

“Not really,” he said. “It was more recently, a few years ago. While I was being detained in Vinh Dien, I was farming in the forest zone near Thu Bon, away from all relatives and friends, there I happened to meet an old colleague, a village teacher like me, from the Dien Ban district. We became friends, and he introduced me to the party… well, to the revolutionary group.”

“I see! I heard that some people were arrested by the French for trivial reasons, tortured, and then released. When they returned, the revolutionaries didn’t trust them, in case any of them had been convinced to work against the revolution undercover. Our former anti-French ‘Loyalist Movement’ or ‘Eastward Movement’ was in the same situation. Mr. Tich of the neighboring village is an example.”

“It depends,” teacher H. said. “The suspicion may sometimes be correct; but not in my case. I was thoroughly investigated, followed, closely watched, guided, then finally allowed to become a sympathizer before becoming a party member. It was a lengthy process, for both them and me. My comrades believed I was arrested by the colonialists on a triviality and consequently denied of means of survival, so it was easy to believe that I hated the colonialist-feudalist regime wholeheartedly. Like all my former colleagues, I had no idea about the revolution at first, but when I started to understand the plight of the poor and the severe injustices and mistreatment so common in society, I began to realize my comrades’ propaganda was really helpful in making me a believer of historical materialism and class loyalty. Don’t you see? In our province, everyone has earnestly and enthusiastically been enlightened, and those pioneering in the seizure of power at district and provincial levels were us village teachers: Mr. H. in Tien Phuong; Mr. V. and Mr. B. in Que Son; Mr. M. and Mr. B. in Duy Xuyen and Dien Ban; Mr. S., Mr. T. and two comrades, Phan Thi N. and Vo T. (i.e. Vo Chi Cong, Head of State of communist Vietnam – note by the writer) in Tam Ky, the last two party members had only finished elementary schools.”

“I see!” said my father absent-mindedly. “Revolutionary perception must be gradually absorbed. A bit like drinking wine… sip by sip, until the alcohol penetrates the brain to produce the first, second, and terminal stages of drunkenness, which is the ultimate objective of those people who want to turn us into alcoholics. Is that right, teacher?”

The teacher laughed so politely that I couldn’t decide if he had noticed the irony in my father’s response. I wanted to add my passing thoughts to the discussion, but for reasons I couldn’t understand, I kept quiet, lost in my thoughts. My father was right, of course. When a silly person has drunk to the point of losing his self control and becoming foolish, he could be shown the darkness of a tunnel and told that it was a bright halo, the leadership of the proletariat, a class-saving bible, and then gradually be turned into a murderer who would kill even his compatriots and congeners if he considered them enemies of the class… Only then did the proletarian revolutionary yeast produce its sacred effect of a fanatical religion… My teacher H. seemed not to have reached that level of drunkenness yet. But he wasn’t far from it.

One month later, the people in my district were mobilized in great numbers to gather at the district office site to participate in a meeting. Under a forest of red flags flapping in the wind, the participants each carried a container for drinking water and a knife in a yellow hide sheath, exhibiting their determination to fight for the success of the revolution against internal and external foes. After the veneration of Nguyen Ai Quoc (as Ho Chi Minh was then known) and under a large piece of coarse cloth bearing the words “Donating gold is a patriotic act”, a man stepped out to announce the reason for the meeting and launched into an endless speech. In unison, the human sea before him loudly repeated: “Long live the Viet Minh Front” and “Donating gold is patriotic”. Standing on my tiptoes, I could see the speaker on the stage: it was teacher H. himself. He talked about the uselessness, insignificance, and danger of keeping gold at home, which he said, at some point, might be regarded as severe betrayal. Instead, gold, he urged, should rather be donated to the revolution, so that it could be best used in national defense when the people were ready to fight the enemy who was attempting to return.

“Donating gold is a measure of everybody’s patriotism”, “An ounce of gold is a gun to fight invaders…” Teacher H. was truly an orator.

I found myself repeating an expression my father always used: “That’s that!” he’d nod, whenever he spoke of someone like provincial finance committee member teacher H.. As he talked, on and on without pausing, the villagers obediently brought old necklaces and rings to the stage, or slowly turned out their pockets to regretfully donate gold items they had saved all their life.

***

After that we lost track of him for over thirty years, as the country suffered like a paralyzed patient gradually bleeding to death.

One afternoon in 1977, during the Tet holidays, after my release from a second detention by the Saigon police, an old and ailing man who walked with a stick came to see me at home, accompanied by a girl of about 20 years of age wearing a North Vietnamese regulation issue white blouse and green khaki trousers. I was astonished by their presence, but I invited them both inside. He began by introducing himself as teacher H., a former acquaintance of my parents. This was a pleasant surprise after the country’s terrible upheavals, following that second encounter with him so long ago. I was pleased to see he still called himself a teacher. His voice was slow as before but his gestures much weaker, while his face looked entirely different, as you’d expect from a man who must have been over 70 years old.

“Your parents must have passed away,” he started. “Is anyone left in the village? I was regrouped to North Vietnam in 1954, and I haven’t been in the South since then.”

“What are you doing? Are you living here in Saigon?”

“I don’t know where I’m going to live yet.”

“With your great service in the past, you will have no difficulty asking the party to provide you with a decent house to live in and a car to go around.”

“Not quite! My service to the people was significant, but the term ‘great’ must be used only for Uncle Ho’s national protection. Don’t use that word with me.”

“My neighbor is an old retired cadre, younger than you are, but he was issued a house and a car confiscated from the ‘puppets’. Also, he often receives food rations from the City Cooperative, a pork leg and up to three kilograms of fresh mackerel, or a few 20-liter cans of fish sauce for his family.”

“I don’t care about these things, my dear boy” He then talked about something else. “I came to see you and your family this time to learn more about you. You remind me of your parents. I missed them a lot.”

“But why don’t you care for material things? They’re the benefits that show you deserve the party’s gratitude.” I wanted to come back to the topics I had talked about with him earlier.

“A big house, a nice car, good food and fine clothes, things like that are for those high ranking bastards to enjoy. I don’t really care about things like that. I have a lot of recognition and commendation certificates issued by the party at all levels…”  His hands trembled as he took two thick pieces of old yellow paper out of the chest pocket of his dark, short-sleeved shirt and threw them on the table. They slid across it and fell to the floor next to where he was sitting… I waited for him to pick them up, but to my surprise he didn’t move. To break the tension, I bent down, picked them up and took a look. They were two “Ho Chi Minh medals,” certificates with his name printed in capital letters under a red circle with a yellow star in the center, surrounded by the drawing of a cog-wheel between two sprigs of paddy.

“But why didn’t you ask for a house and a car?” I repeated the materialistic idea without considering the possibility that my teacher might have always lived alone, and remained so with a noble ideology in mind. I felt I had been inconsiderate, being a ‘puppet’ who had just been released from a second imprisonment and could be jailed again indefinitely. But here I was trying to advise teacher H., a cadre of over 40 years seniority with the party, on materialistic demands.

“I no longer need them, dear boy! They are trash at all levels, top to bottom. Degenerate, corrupt, greedy, they can’t even remember the class they came from. In the jungle they advocated one thing, and now they fight each other tooth and nail for a house, a position… Anyone with an ounce of honesty and party ideals left has tuned out… they look after what they have before it’s gone, and are too frightened to cleanse the world of the dirty rats that are ruining the regime.”

I gave him back his certificates which he carelessly held between his bony fingers before putting them in his pocket.

The girl who was with him kept silent throughout, her vacant eyes looking outside to the openness.

The cold and gloomy darkness of the second evening of Tet began to fall, slowly covering everything in an atmosphere of mourning.