The moments I treasured most when I was younger were the lazy afternoons, when I climbed onto the bed and waited for my grandma to finish her prayers. I don’t remember what started this tradition, but I remember her patient smile and the anticipation I felt, the way I held my breath as she started to speak. The stories my grandma wove in her gentle voice went something like this:
The legend goes that the mountain fairy princess Âu Cơ and the sea dragon lord Lạc Long Quân loved each other very much. But one being from the mountain and one being from the sea, their natures were so different from each other that their love for each other could not overcome their longing for their homes. So they divided their 100 children, Âu Cơ taking 50 up to the high mountains with her, and Lạc Long Quân taking 50 down to the sea.
What I got from this story was that Vietnamese people are a union of two things that were never meant to be together. That we are a blending of things so different from each other like fire and water, and sometimes, as much love as we have for each other, we also repel each other. It makes sense of our messy, contradictory natures. I remember thinking it was funny to be considered the children of the mountain fairy and the sea dragon, because all I had heard about Vietnam before was war, war, and more war. I always thought it was beautiful in a way. That in the aftermath of horrible, human decisions, we still dare to dream that we are descended from gods. We have such a marked memory of pain, and still we desperately hold on to what precious good we can. Doesn’t it make sense though? That from the beginning, we were always meant to be broken apart. Aren’t we separated now? Decades ago, we were separated on the same land by an artificial boundary, and then some of us did end up leaving for the seas, scattering away to different homes. Maybe that’s in our heritage. The push and pull of our natures. The need to pack up our bags and leave.
But I guess there can also be light in the story. Even though Âu Cơ and Lạc Long Quân separated, they still loved each other, and their children were supposed to live together in harmony. No matter what elements we are made of, we were meant to survive. And we have survived.
I think about sitting cross legged on the bed as a child, listening to my grandma’s stories. This tiny lady with the wrinkled, spotted hands, whose skin I would pinch to see the length of time it would rise and fall, hinting at the years and secrets it had seen. These were the hands that desperately buried my grandpa’s uniform in the ground as the neighborhood shook with rumors that the Việt Cộng were approaching the city gates, and God help you if they found those things in your home. These were the hands that rose to take off the wedding ring she had worn for so many years and to deliberately place it in her mouth, Swallowing.
I think about where I come from — a little piece of heaven and a little piece of earth, a long line of strong women and strong people — and I hope to make them proud.
Originally published in Stanford University's STATIC zine series Vol. 2 Issue 2: Origin.