I first met Tung in the spring of 2008. Everyone in the family told me that my fiancee's grandfather had lived through some incredible experiences.
“One day someone should write them down.”
The arrival of my work permit timed in perfectly with the economic crash that year. So between shooting off resumes and figuring out the differences between UK and U.S. driving codes, I began reading up on the Vietnam War.
Three things quickly became apparent.
First, Tung's journey intersected with many of the pivotal moments in that conflict and those that had preceded it.
Second, that most of the published material out there was written from an American or Vietnamese Communist perspective, with very little by or about the South Vietnamese.
And third, U.S. drivers are permitted to turn right at a red signal. A rule that - to my mind - invites conflict.
Uprooted morphed through several versions. My wife put down the first draft after six heavy chapters with a barely concealed sigh. “There's not much about my family yet is there.” I had essentially written a history book into which I hoped to insert episodes of Tung's life. Writing the context had overtaken writing the family's story. Interviewing Tung was the most challenging part of the whole project, and was taking much longer than expected.
I discovered that when you ask an eighty year old Asian man, “How did that make you feel?” he will not elaborate for five or ten minutes on his feelings. He will say, “I was scared” or “I was angry”, and then wait politely for the next question. Nor could I leave an awkward pause in the air, one that a westerner would instinctively fill by talking some more. That technique merely provoked more silence and I would be the one to crack. Our interviews were a learning process that needed patience and time.
Over the months we did begin to get into the detail of his experiences. Research and conversations with other family members enabled me to be more precise in my questions. But the gaps between interviews became longer. I was asking him to relive memories that had been buried for many years.
“We came from hell, and now we are in heaven.”
He repeated that phrase many times, gesturing to his living room of worn furniture, mottled fly-screens and curling lino. Coming to America had been a new start. Past traumas had been forgotten until I began asking questions and teasing out his answers. Some experiences were over sixty years old. Some involved cloudy motives, family divisions, and the death of close relatives.
In spite of all those he saved, he carries inevitable guilt over those he saw perish.
As a new member of the family, I was probably the only person sufficiently ignorant of his revered status, to have the temerity to ask such detailed questions.
While we progressed at his pace, and I tried to be careful with my approach, he began suffering from nightmares and insomnia. His brother Co experienced the same post-traumatic stress symptoms and was told by his doctor not to continue our interviews.
I turned to his children and was able to cover the ground and fill in the gaps. It also became clear that the book would be more accessible and readable if I introduced imagined conversations and some peripheral characters.
Uprooted is presented as a novel based on real events.
Research and interviews with extended family members have enabled me to extrapolate scenes, conversations and people that Tung would have encountered. The mask of “fiction” is in one sense a cop-out, but it enables me to tell more of his story than would have been possible otherwise.
It is unlikely that Tung will read the book. While Vietnam has shaped who he is, his time there is a closed chapter. A dark cloud receding on the horizon. It is with an eye to my children's generation that I wrote it.
I'd like to say something pithy and deep about how understanding our lives within a larger context is good, particularly if it can reduce our own self-absorption. But at the same time I can not escape the fact that, despite platitudes, this is something of a vanity project for me as well.
Hopefully, beyond all that, it provides a great read about an incredible journey, sustained by perseverance, ingenuity and improbable good luck.
Uprooted will be available from March 8th, 2015. This date marks fifty years since the first American combat troops arrived in South Vietnam, a country that had already seen enough of outside intervention and internal division.
Friday's post will provide a brief overview of the decisions that led to American boots landing on a beach outside of Danang. It was, if you will forgive the crude metaphor, a driver turning across a pedestrian's right-of-way. An efficient solution for those behind a wheel; a problem for everyone on foot.