Not Bad for a Country Girl

Mai Donohue

Our daughter Aileen graduated from Bowdoin College on her birthday, May 23rd. 1998. The day before, my husband Brian and I had driven up from Rhode Island to be with her. At noon we had reached the Bowden campus. The sun was bright and the air was cool. The tall pines and the red brick buildings looked so peaceful. Aileen had been waiting for us. She looked great with her short haircut and her tan. Her beautiful face and her happy smile went with her personality. We were so happy to see her. We hadn't seen her for more than three months.

Aileen, the fifth of our six children who went to college, had been All-American soccer player in high school. Her first year at Bowdoin she was chosen to play on the varsity team. A few games into the season, injuries ended her soccer career. Today, six operations later, Aileen can walk without pain. She can also skydive, with her teddy bear tucked in her parachute, and bungee jump off cliffs in New Zealand, and Heaven knows what else she hasn't told us about. Still, after four years of hard work-- and `well trained boyfriends' her father says-- Aileen was to receive her B.A. in Biology.

Nothing makes a mother more happy than to see her children do well. On the long drive up, Brian and I had reminisced over our children. We couldn't believe the last four years had gone so fast. One by one our children were leaving our nest. In two years our youngest, Eirene, will graduate from Brown University. It is both exciting and sad to see them grow up and leave us. I know I have been blessed. Especially since I have also found my own long-lost son.

Near the end of World War II a young girl named "Mai" was born in Quang Ngai, one of the poorest provinces in central VietNam. Mai's grandfather, the patriarch, was a major landowner in the valley and possessed hereditary power and wealth. He had also chosen, in a valley of Buddhists, to become a Cao Dai. One night, when Mai was one year old, jealous local Viet Minh came to her home and killed her grandfather, her father and her uncles. They threw Mai's mother, seven months pregnant with her fourth child, into jail. Then they seized the family home and slaughtered all the animals for a banquet. As their excuse, the Viet Minh-- who were also Mai's neighbors-- said Mai's grandfather was supporting the Japanese. That was a cowardly lie. The truth was that he was Cao Dai. He had worshiped the wrong religion.

Mai grew up with her older sister and brother, and her youngest bother. She had no father, and the family no longer had wealth. Mai's mother was in and out of jail so many times she soon stopped caring what happened to her. She became fearful and angry, hard and full of hatred. She beat up her children whenever her fear took over her heart, which was quite often as Mai remembered it.

Even as a young girl, Mai knew she was different from the other girls in her village. She had her dream and her goals. She dreamed to be educated, to be a teacher, to be free. She would not accept the traditional roles her village society would allow her-- either to marry someone she didn't love or become a man's `second' or `third' wife. But such dreams as she had were forbidden for a girl without family wealth. When she was thirteen, her mother forced her into marriage. Because of Mai's strong will, that was the beginning of terror for her. Mai did everything she could to stop the marriage but it was no use. After two years of rape and beatings, during which she had a son, Mai decided enough was enough. She couldn't live like this any more. She took her child and ran back home to her mother. But in her village the married woman no longer belonged to her family. She was her husband's property, either she like it or not. So the husband and the father-in-law came to her mother's home and dragged her outside and beat her nearly to death and left her in the rice field to die. Somehow Mai lived, and very soon she ran away again, with her child. So the story went on and on, a long sad story.

And in the end, Mai's child was taken from her.

Later, and with God's help, Mai would meet the most wonderful woman, in Saigon, who would take her in, and give her a faith, and teach her how to forgive herself. And one day her luck would change forever when she would meet and fall in love with a handsome, young American naval officer, and they would marry and have six children together, and her life would become like the movie `The Sound of Music' . But always the memory of her lost child would be a knife in her heart.

This is my own life, a life I am still trying to understand, to heal. There are so many things I need to write --the stories of my life that run through my head and keep me awake so many nights. I am working all the time to learn correct English but it is hard. My friends, my family, all tell me not to worry so much, that if the computer can't fix it then they will correct it. I try. So here I am, sentence by sentence, trying to connect my worlds, writing the only way I know how.

That afternoon went well. Bowdoin College was showing its best. The sun was shining and the birds were singing to welcome this special, warm day of Spring. Proud parents and their sons and daughters with happy faces were strolling around the campus. There was laughter, and cheerful handshakes, and the congratulations to each other for the job well done. For our family also, it was a shining day. Our four daughters were together again: Maura, the dance choreographer and director, had come up from New York City with her boyfriend Perry; Maeve, the artist, had flown home from Spain; and Eirene had just finished her finals. Our sons Bernard, in Hollywood, and Patrick, in Ireland, couldn't make it. And my son Anh, in Florida, had just become a father again.

We went to the Baccalaureate Service in the old white church on Maine Street.

The church was filled to the rafters. It was so strong to see all the families together. An opera star sang. A student gave a beautiful speech. Then everyone began to sing the old school songs. But I am tiny, and it was hot, and there was no air, and I had to go outside for the fresh air. My husband and Aileen stayed for the service and we got separated. They rest of us walked around the campus for a while. When we thought the service was over, we walked over to the front lawn of President Roberts' house for his reception for the graduates and their families. It was still early and only a few people were there.

Under an oak tree sat an old Asian man.

He wore a blue sport coat, an open-necked shirt with ascot, and a French fisherman's cap. The shade from the strong sun was hiding part of his face. There were no guards, no TV reporters, and no heavy machine guns nearby-- just a peaceful, old man sitting by himself. No one noticed, no one cared, and no one asked who he was.

As I walked onto the lawn, I saw my husband and Aileen were already there, sitting near the old man. I glanced over at them and I saw the old man look at me. Suddenly I felt I was going to faint. My head was spinning, my checks were hot and my vision was blurred. I couldn't breathe. I was in shock. I had seen a ghost.

When I was young there were no pencils or books for me. I wanted my children to have everything I couldn't have. And my children earned the right to have the best education anybody could offer. I was so happy for them as they went off to college, but I was also afraid that my husband and my children would enter the new world and I would not. I wanted so much to be in that world, too. I wanted them to be proud of me. I wanted my education.

My husband and my children gave me the strength and the support I needed. In 1991, 1 entered the two-year Community College of Rhode Island. For me it was six long years, but with the help of family and friends and professors, I graduated last year. Since September, I have been a student at the University of Rhode Island. Now everything is within my reach.

This past semester in one of my classes, the professors allowed the students to pick the topics for the two big research papers. I chose to write about Lt. William Calley and the My Lai Massacre, and also about the Tet Offensive. I thought I had chosen subjects I knew best but when I started to read about My Lai I couldn't help but cry. My village was not far from My Lai, in Quang Ngai province, and the pictures of the old women and those children reminded me so much of my own mother and my son that I had lost. Many of those books and those pictures brought back a lot of unbearable memories.

I don't remember how I got inside the tent. I must have looked sick because the waitress asked me did I need help. I didn't answer her. I leaned onto the table to catch my breath. Just like a home-made movie, all the pictures I had cut out for my project were slowly reviewed inside my head. The old man's picture was there. Was I dreaming? I wanted to yell out loud to see but I was afraid so I pinched myself to see if it hurt. The waitress once again asked me did I need help. I asked for something to drink: my throat was dry. When Brian came inside the tent and stood beside me I knew it was real.

I said, "That old man sitting by himself under the oak tree-- it's him."

Brian said it couldn't be. No way would the man be sitting there without security or protection of any kind. After all, he was no ordinary citizen, and even though he was no longer in power our countries had been allies, and the U.S. government would still be guarding him, if only to make sure nothing happened to him that would embarrass the United States. What Brian said had made sense. I hate it when he is right. Of course, I love it when he isn't. He had almost changed my mind but when I took another look at the man I knew it was him. Brian asked me, "How do you know he is even VietNamese?" When I told my daughters, they said the same thing. "Oh, Mom, here you go again. You're always seeing things. You've become so American you think all Asian people look alike-- and you think all Asians are VietNamese." Then they gave me hugs and kisses to comfort me and went about the party.

Nothing helped. Whatever the reasons, I knew that man. In some way I knew that face even though the man was much older than the pictures I had cut out. As the other guests arrived, I kept my eyes on him most of the time. Sometimes being 4'10" tall is a gift. Like a small child, I could watch him through all the tall Americans without anyone noticing. By this time I was determined to find out who he really was, but how?

My family knows that I don't give up that easy. I can also be annoying to no end. Half an hour later I was still saying, "It's him, it's him." Brian was the one who had to listen to my whining. He was getting annoyed. He asked me, "What will you say to him? `Hey, you!' Are you going to shout out his name here?" I said, "I am not that stupid." Brian sighed, "Then go ask him." Maeve was standing with us. She said, "Let's get this over with. I'll go with you." I suppressed my fear and nervousness, put on my sweet little VietNamese face, and Maeve and I walked over to him.

I had a very difficult time with the class project but I decided to stick with it and I am glad I did because it helped to heal part of my past. As part of my finals grade, I also xeroxed copies of over fifty pictures for my media presentation to the class. Among the pictures of war I also chose to put the pictures of many leaders whom I thought were important and who related to my project. There were pictures of the U.S. Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon, as well as pictures of Ho Chi Minh, Ngo Dinh Diem, Nguyen Van Thieu and many of the generals. I worked days and nights on it: I checked and rechecked every detail to the point that each of those faces became imprinted inside my head. Ironically, I came to know more about VietNam's leaders from my project than from when I was growing up there. As a child out in the countryside I never knew who was my President, nor did anyone else in my village. We were just the country folk. We did what we were told. Each new government that came into power made us pay dearly. The first `history' I learned was from leaflets dropped over our village by the French and I knew they were fighting at Dien Bien Phu. Bombs also dropped and we would run for the bunkers. When we heard that the French had left the country we cheered, but I for one didn't really know who I was cheering for. Then came Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem and the fighting kept on. There were many northerners that came to our village. Later, when I had escaped into the Big City of Saigon, I remember Diem because he was the first and because he was assassinated while I was hiding from my ex-husband in Tan Son Nhut airbase, living as a nanny with a pilot's family.

By this time, also, my family was finally ripped apart. My older sister was married to a Viet Cong; my younger brother had run away to the North to serve `Uncle Ho'; and my older brother had gone South to fight for President Ngo Dinh Diem. But after Diem, there were so many changes in the leadership I couldn't keep up. I hardly knew who were the good guys and who were the bad guys. I had heard of Premier Nguyen Cao Key because he was famous for his playboy style. Then there was Nguyen Van Thieu, who was a quiet man and the son of a fisherman. He was smart and had done well for himself. He was the one leader in South VietNam strong enough to stay in the power the longest time. I thought Thieu was a decent man. Diem, Key and Thieu were the three names I remembered most. And when I came to the U.S. I saw some of their pictures on the paper or on the TV screen. Of the VietNam leaders whose pictures I had carefully cut out and pasted for my presentation, Ngo Dinh Diem was dead and Nguyen Cao Key owned a restaurant in California, and the longest lasting President of South VietNam-- where was Nguyen Van Thieu? I couldn't help but wonder what happened to him?

I walked straight toward him and pretended I was full of confidence. He was wearing reddish sunglasses but I knew he was looking right at us. My hands were rubbing together like a school girl. I tried not to let him know that I was nervous. I apologized for bothering him. I told him that I might be wrong but he looked so much like someone I knew, but couldn't remember where. I said if I am wrong, please forgive me. I was so nervous I was mumbling without knowing it.

He took off his cap to scratch his head. His hair was white and thinner than in the pictures. His face was also thinner with some wrinkles but he was still very good looking for a man his age. He was courteous but cautious. He was also surprised that I recognized him. He asked me if I was VietNamese. When I said "Yes," he replied, `Well, that is where you saw me. You saw me in VietNam." At this point I was sure, but I wanted him to say so. I took a deep breath.

"Please forgive me, sir. Are you President Nguyen Van Thieu?"

He smiled kindly and said, "Yes, I am."

I could no longer keep down my excitement. In VietNamese I blurted out,

"What are you doing here?"

He chuckled, "My youngest son goes to school here. He will graduate tomorrow."

"It can't be," I said stupidly. "How-- how old is your son?"

I couldn't stop. I kept asking him one dumb question after another.

Maeve was as excited as I was. She ran off to find the rest of our family. Soon Aileen and Maura and Maeve and Eirene and Perry were crowded around him. Some of Aileen's friends stopped by to be introduced to him and shake his hand.

President Thieu was curious about me. He wanted to know where I lived and what I did and who I knew back in VietNam. I was hesitant. I told him only a few things, not knowing what he would think. I told him I was from Quang Ngai in central VietNam, and that my Godfather was Nguyen Dinh Quat, the man who had ran for the Presidency against Ngo Dinh Diem in the 60's.

President Thieu said that, like me, he was from central VietNam. He also knew who my Godfather was, and asked where he was now. I told him that after Saigon fell the Communists had put my Godfather in prison and that he died there.

President Thieu said, "Quat didn't involve himself in politics for a long time. He never did anything while I was in power. Why did they jail him?"

I could only shrug, "They were Communist."

He looked puzzled. "Quat was from the North originally, before he came to the South. And you are from Quang Ngai. How did you know Quat?"

This man doesn't miss a trick, I told myself.

I explained plainly and clearly so he would not think I was lying.

Then I asked him where he had been and what he was doing now. He said he had been in England for ten years. "But now I just do a little fishing, a little reading."

I said, "Why don't you write a book?"

He laughed and said, "I let other people write them for me."

By now Brian had joined us and I introduced him to President Thieu. He asked Brian what he had done in VietNam. Brian told him he was an Annapolis graduate, that he had fought in river combat and later had been the director of `turnover' training for the Viet Navy, serving under Admiral Zumwalt and General Creighton Abrams. President Thieu nodded, he remembered them. As I watched President Thieu talking with my family, with all of them surrounding him, I was overwhelmed by his presence. Years had passed, and he was older, but he still had the same look.

Here I am, standing on the same grass, talking to the most powerful man of my life!

Then Perry suggested we should have a picture taken. Maura asked President Thieu if he would mind, that we would like to have our picture taken with him. He happily took off his cap and we all surrounded him and Perry took the pictures. I was thrilled. I couldn't wait to tell all my friends! I couldn't wait to tell my Viet Cong brother! He will not believe it when I say,

"Brother, I met my President. When did you ever see your `Uncle Ho'?"

I still couldn't believe it was happening. There are almost a million VietNamese in the United States, but only one ex-President, and there I was, standing beside him and talking to him. And my daughter went to the same college with his son. Only in America could this happen. In VietNam, I would have been shot before I ever got near him.

He is smarter than what the American reporters had written about him, which is not surprising, since too many American reporters in other countries look only for what they already know, what they already think. But when President Thieu took his sunglasses off and I first saw his eyes I could tell he was a very intelligent man. He had to be, to survive. And to stay in power that long in South VietNam's government, he must have been respected by his men, otherwise they would have overthrown him like all the other leaders. In my own opinion, there was no other leader of that time who was a better choice, or who did a better job to run South VietNam than Nguyen Van Thieu. He was more than an American puppet. He was much wiser and cooler than many people gave him the credit. The VietNam war and the South VietNam-American relationship were very complex. Thieu did his best to preserve South VietNam as long as he could.

He is still very keen, funny and witty. I wanted to ask him more questions but I thought I should not abuse his hospitality. We all thanked him for the pictures and his kindness. Brian and I congratulated him for his youngest son's achievement. I wished him peace and much happiness to come and we all left the reception.

As we walked back to Aileen' s campus house my feet hardly touched the ground. I was still very high. My mind was spinning like a spool of silk. How extraordinary it was for me to meet President Thieu. It was almost fateful. If I hadn't felt so sick at the Baccalaureate service I wouldn't have left early. If I had been ten minutes later arriving at the reception, the crowd of people would have been so thick I would not have seen him, much less recognized him. Four thousand people on campus this weekend, but there he was, under an oak tree. This was meant to be. Someone up above is always looking down upon me with love. I looked up to the blue sky and thanked Him. I wished my mother was still alive to see me now. I would make her proud.

Last year, when my mother was dying in her bed in the village, Maura had come to VietNam with me. Maura knows where I am from, and what kind of life it was, and what I must be thinking. She must have read my mind, because she walked alongside me, squeezed my shoulders, and said,

"Not bad for a country girl. Huh, Mom?"

That same evening, at the Lobster Bake under the huge tents on the Field House lawn, Aileen's friends had reserved seats at a long table for all of us. When we sat down to eat, I saw President Thieu and his family seated at the long table next to us.

After everyone had eaten I went over to introduce myself to his wife. She was shy. Their oldest daughter was more talkative. Thieu has a pretty wife and good looking children. Then our families mingled together between the tables and we took more pictures. We joked, we laughed and we all had a good time. Maura's boyfriend Perry filmed us with the video camera. When Thieu saw this he pointed at Perry and laughed. I asked them if they would like to go to the Parents & Seniors Dance with us but they said they were too tired. We weren't. We had a `ball'.

The next morning at the graduation ceremony I hoped to see him again. Of course, with so many guests and parents and students, it was hard to find anyone. Later, after the graduation ceremony, and the hugs, and the tears, and more pictures, and happy graduates all hugging each other, everyone paraded through the campus back to the field house lawn for a final brunch.

And there he was.

He had lost his family in the crowd. He asked me if I had seen them. I couldn't help but think, if South VietNam had won the war, where would he be now? Would he be walking by himself through a crowd, looking for his family? Or would the American Government be surrounding him with Secret Service, and laying out the red carpet? In some ways, I thought, this is better for him and his family because no one knows who he is. It was a chance to enjoy his family, and his son's graduation.

Everyone went through the serving lines and found a spot on the beautiful green grass. Just like all the other families there, the Nguyen family got their own food, and sat on the grass, and enjoyed the sun. With the lunch almost over, Brian was wandering through the tents looking for the families of Aileen's friends. I was sitting with my daughters when President Thieu walked over with his camera and asked if he could videotape our family for his souvenir. As he was filming he commented on how beautiful my daughters were. "Why don't they get married?" he asked again, as he had the previous day. I told him my husband is Irish and daughters with double blood are too wild for any man. He laughed. He has a good laugh.

Before we left I came over to his family to say hello and goodbye. I asked his beautiful wife how she liked the buffet food. They all looked at each other. She said it was ok but nothing that special. I told her for sure it was nothing like VietNamese food. Everyone laughed. I almost said if you guys want good food to come down to my house tomorrow, for Aileen's party, and I will cook a lot of good VietNamese foods. But I stopped myself in time. "Good thing, too," said my husband later when I told him.

Then I told them that I had written a cookbook, "Mai Goodness", with my own recipes and also with the stories and the myths of VietNam. Many publishers liked it but they said I was a `nobody' that didn't even own a restaurant, that I was not a famous person. I told President Thieu that if I was a famous person like him I wouldn't have any problem. His oldest daughter said, "Use Father's name. He's famous." I said, "I wish," and we all laughed.

That weekend has ended but the memory is still alive.

I still see President Thieu's kind face and how contentedly he sat by himself under the oak tree waiting for his family, and later how he sat on the green grass under the warm sun, sharing the meal with his beautiful family at Bowdoin. I think to myself that President Thieu has finally found the peace at the end of the road.

Then I smile and think about myself, about my own life and my beautiful, talented family, and especially about this weekend and President Thieu, and about my second favorite movie, `My Fair Lady.'

Maura was right.

Not bad for a country girl.