“Hi, Ông Nội!”
Every morning at roughly 8 am, my grandfather would be outside my house in his car, waiting for me to fling open the passenger car door and climb in so that he could drive me the few blocks to school. Of the few memories I have of kindergarten, I still remember vividly the sound of the car door slamming shut, Ông Nội’s big hands adjusting my seat belt, and the feel of my backpack knocking against my back as I shimmied out of the car and ran to my classroom.
That same year, I had to make a diorama of a groundhog’s den for Groundhog’s Day, an American holiday my Chinese and Vietnamese family probably did not know anything about. My mother had spent the evening before helping me turn one of her shoeboxes into a little palace for my paper groundhog, a room replete with wallpaper, a bed, and even a picture frame.
The next morning, I proudly carried my diorama to Ông Nội’s car, and he drove a little slower that day, making sure that nothing in my diorama would come loose. When we got to school, I stepped out and realized that my paper groundhog was missing, and I frantically began scanning the ground around me to see if it had somehow slipped out. I remember Ông Nội helping me search the car, reassuring me that everything would be as okay as he reached under car seats and examined even the tiniest nooks and crannies, all while I stood helplessly nearby. I never found the paper groundhog, but the lengths he went to for me in a five year old’s idea of a crisis always stayed with me.
My grandfather was a colonel in the South Vietnamese army, commanding tens of thousands of men. After the North’s victory, he was sent to a re-education camp where he was imprisoned for ten years. By the time of his release, he came back to find out that five of his nine children had managed to escape and find their way to the United States. However, because they had been so young when Ông Nội was taken away, two of his youngest children saw him as a stranger upon his return.
“Tâm An, ơi!”
My paternal grandparents and the remainder of my father’s siblings were finally able to come to the United States in 1991. There are home videos of their arrival at San Francisco International Airport (SFO). Though I was there, I was only a toddler then, too young to remember anything from that moment. Looking closely though, as my dad pans the video camera from face to face, you can see the wealth of emotions that permeate the reunion, from happiness and relief to shock and disbelief. Against all odds, my father’s siblings who were Vietnamese Boat People all managed to survive the journey; against all odds, Ông Nội was released from re-education camp; against all odds, this family was finally reunited years after war had fractured them.
What must have been going through Ông Nội’s mind as he transitioned into American life? His tongue had to navigate the strange intricacies of the English language - all his grandchildren had American names, and mine, starting with “J,” a letter that does not exist in the Vietnamese language, led to my Vietnamese name becoming my de facto designation. His eyes had to become accustomed to a foreign landscape and his mind to a totally different way of life.
When Ông Nội got sick, my dad took my brother and I to visit him in the hospital almost every day. It was so jarring to see Ông Nội so small and frail, the total opposite of the man I had known for most of my life.
Probably as a result of his military background, Ông Nội had always commanded every space he inhabited. Even when he was just sitting quietly in his favorite rocking chair watching TV, you could feel his presence. As the patriarch of the family, he gave toasts and speeches at every family gathering, his voice effortlessly booming, deep and passionate.
He exuded strength and love, and was never afraid to show the softer side of him. As the family historian, he collected every photo, invitation, certificate, card, and newspaper clipping to create this treasure trove of albums. In essence they are more like scrapbooks, and as you flip through the pages, you find little captions that Ông Nội typed on his trusty antique typewriter. Punctuated throughout the albums are his own writings, including love letters for my grandmother, and poems that commemorate the births of his grandchildren. In his cabinet drawers, he hid chocolate coins that he doled out lovingly on each of our visits.
Ông Nội’s sneezes were legendary. They seemed to emanate from the very depths of his being, and the echoes would reverberate through every room in the house. He would laugh when we would run away screaming or tease him for their ferocious quality. To this day, no one has mastered the sneeze quite like he did.
“Doors are closing.”
I looked over at Ông Nội as he sat across from me on the BART train. My brother leaned against the window, staring out at the rows of trees and houses and buildings that made up the East Bay. We were on an adventure that day: Ông Nội was showing his friend around town, with my brother and I in tow.
We rode the entire line that afternoon, the only constants as waves of commuters and tourists weaved in and out. Always impeccably dressed, Ông Nội oozed confidence as he described to his friend each of the cities we passed and the ins and outs of the BART system.
My brother and I giggled loudly as we passed through the BART turnstile together, trying to count as one individual, and thus one fare. My brother was just a toddler and so he probably didn’t merit a second ticket anyway, but Ông Nội had turned this mundane act into a game, egging us on as he made his own way through the turnstile: “Giỏi, giỏi!”
While going through a box of my high school keepsakes, one bursting with old letters, cards, Valentines, post-it notes, and report cards, an envelope peeked out at me, singular for its typewriter print.
From: Ông Bà nội
It’s strange how just seeing the print makes me nostalgic. I am instantly taken back to the many times I found my grandfather hunched over his vintage Vietnamese typewriter, peering over his glasses as he double checked his spelling and tone marks. I can hear the click-clack sounds as he pressed on the keys, the loud shifting of the carriage, the low hum of the metal lamp that emitted a yellow glow over him as he worked late into the night.
Ông Nội passed in 2007, during my first year in college. I knew him best as a loving grandfather, but there are so many things that I wish I got to ask him, so many things I still don’t really know about. What was his childhood like? How did he meet my grandmother? How did he handle dealing with the weight of being responsible for thousands of soldiers? What really happened when he was sent to re-education camp? What were his greatest joys, his greatest regrets?
The stories of his military acumen, his patriotism, and the love for his family - all these anecdotes dance their way into every family gathering, every reunion, every conversation with those who knew him. However, he passed on to me much more than genes and a long and proud family legacy; I carry his love of writing, his conviction when it came to fighting for what he believed in, and hopefully, his resilience.