An exhibition entitled “Vietnamese Contemporary Art: The Colours of Vietnam” is now on show at the Washington Arts Club in the USA from September 7-29.
My mother’s fate was not fair. She was born to a farming family in the northern port city of Hai Phong. My parents were followers of Ho Chi Minh so in 1954, they packed and moved to Hanoi, the political capital of the country. We kids jokingly called it the “Promise Land”. I was born and spent my earliest years in a small alley of Kham Thien, where in 1972, the B-52 destroyed most of what was left of the area.
While other artists of my day romanticized about mother’s warm embraces and sweet songs, I enjoyed none of these (or maybe I was too young to remember). When I became aware of the world around me, it was the sound of bombers, antiaircraft explosions, and the musty odor of air-raid tunnels. In contrast, I remember the beautiful countryside where we children went to escape the terrors of war. I also remember the hunger we all suffered in those times with our small rations of food. We innocents happily accepted all these realities as though “this is what life is all about”. The image I have of my mother during that period was of a stressed and tired woman.
We grew up on stories of the 1945 famine. Back then, Mother’s job was to sell sticky rice in the market. In one year she brought home no less than abandoned 5 little girls she found on the streets. Perhaps she wanted a sister. Each time Grandma would send them off explaining that the family did not have enough food to feed them all. That year was the saddest, as every family lost someone to starvation. It became as though my generation accepted that fate as our mission in life.
My eldest brother went to fight on the Southern Front of the American War. Mother maintained a pleasant face for people around her but was always on the verge of tears. Her main focus at that time became caring for other soldiers. We often had them eating at home with no idea where she’d met them. She addressed them all as “my child” so neighbors never knew how many children she really had. No one will ever know how many of those she fed ever returned home. Those meals left a strong impression on me because Mother always cried afterward.
Maybe I remember the meals because they were better than our normal ones. We kids could never figure out where she got the money to host that way. Now, years later I’ve realised that she sold her jewelry & fine clothes to feed her “children” – those whose names she never knew. Mother felt the pain of war keenly while feeding the soldiers – remembering her son on the Southern Front.
As city children, growing up during wartime allowed us to create a special bond between each other. No locked doors or fences. Everything was shared. Mother was an enthusiastic participant in this community solidarity. She volunteered in humanitarian organisations providing clothing and food to the needy, which meant she had friends everywhere she went.
Mother was treated like a close friend by everyone around us. She represented families on our street in civil and private affairs. If arguments arose, Mother brought peace and reconciliation. My friends nicknamed her Minister of Foreign Relations. They joked that if Mother went to the Paris Peace negotiations, the Vietnam War would be over.
After 1975, Vietnam suffered the post-war economic privation of our closed-door policy and wars with Cambodia & China. Mother opened a restaurant – not to make money but to help feed the destitute neighbors surrounding us. I guess she was constantly reminded of the starvation of her childhood in the 40’s so was moved by the poor people who came to her kitchen. Then came my war.
Many nights were spent with my face buried in the mud dodging Khmer Rouge rockets. I fought hard to survive because I knew my death would add to Mother’s suffering. I held on to the memories of her eating burnt rice at the bottom of the pot, leaving the good rice for others – Mother’s tearful eyes watching military transport boats returning from the South hoping to see her eldest son’s face on one of them – she never did.
When I returned from the Cambodian front, I refused awards and invitations to enter the Party. I wanted Freedom. Because of this everyone deemed me a malefactor, someone not to be trusted, even mentally deranged. Only Mother supported me.
After the war half of me wanted to live abroad for artistic stimulation and to avoid those dark economic times. I had the chance to go but chose to stay to be close to Her.
The last three months of her life were spent in ICU, covered with a light blanket, tubes protruding everywhere and machines humming to keep her alive. Cold nights, worn-out machines, and unconcerned medical staff. That was her final reality. She maintained the smiling appearance for others to see – not wishing to be pitied or cause pain on her visitors. There is no greater sadness in my life than seeing my mother cold and hungry as death approached – one who has fed and clothed so many in her lifetime. I imagine that my mother’s friends could see her now in heaven’s arms feeding hungry souls – continuing her life’s work. Loving and caring for others but forgetting to love and care for herself. My mother’s fate was not fair.’
The two artworks and articles have been sent to the charity organization “God’s Love We Deliver”.