i know what you mean!

…will make us stronger…

Posted on: August 30, 2006

An has always been the most scholarly achieved one in our family, it showed even when she was in elementary school.  She always ranked first, all the way through fourth grade, after which her 5th grade teacher decided that her usual Composition bullshits were actually crap, and gave her no chance to rise thanks to his 5/8 and 6/8 gradings.

I have no idea how Huy did in school, because he was raised by my grandpa, but I don’t think he was ranked first in elementary.  Same thing went for Tram, Chau, Tin, and me, at least in our first few years anyways. We were always hovering around 8th,9th,10th place, or sometimes we slipped to 18th,19th.  One time i think I slipped to 20th or 28th, after I stole stuffs from my classmate and got caught red-handed.  Oops.  “Virtue” was a grade you know, VIRTUE.

Anyways, that’s why An was so special.  She was the pride of the family as she brought home prizes and gold colored certificates semestes after semesters, years after years.  She was quiet, humble, obedient, and she had a dimple when she smiled, what’s not to like about her? A true teacher’s pet.

Me, I was a handful.  First grade, I had girls following me to my house the first day of class I think.  I promised them that my sisters were bigger and meaner than theirs, so they brought theirs to my house (next to school) and wanted see.  Then I climbed the school’s gate and went up the bougainvillea’s vine, that got my sisters dragging me kicking & screaming over to the school where I got punished.

Second grade, I stole all sorts of things from my classmates, lost my notebook and told my teacher that she lost it (I didn’t lie, I really thought she had it).  My teacher broke down in front of me for some reason (she thought she had lost her mind?), and then she bought me a new notebook, with my name lovingly written on the cover.  I showed it to An.  An said, “huh?  but your math notebook is right here, if fell through the crack see?”  Oops.  My teacher’s reaction was really dramatic.  That whole damn 2nd year was dramatic.  I think my 2nd grade teacher, co Tuyet, really loved me.  She was the first of the many teachers who had come to care for me over the years.  If it wasn’t for their love, I don’t think I could have done as well in school as I did.  Yet, co Tuyet was very torn.  She found it hard to believe that the same sweet child who had a gift that she believed in could be the conniving, blackmailing, stealing immoral kid that I was often cited as guilty of.  It was one incident after another, each one more outrageous than the last.  That must have broken her heart.  She still loved me though, all the way through fifth grade, when I left VN for the US.

Third grade I got, what do you call it, the isolated seat from the rest of the class, what do you call that in America anyways?  I got that thing.  I sat all by myself because I talked too much.  Blah.  But we had 2 interns who came to us midyear, and they took over the class from our teacher.  They did not share the prejudice of my teacher, and bless their young hearts, they believed in me.  My ranking jumped like, 6 or 10 places during their stay, and for our midterm, the essays that we wrote were switched, so that teachers from another class graded my class’ essays instead.  That was a moment of exhileration for me, because I was the first 3rd grader to have received a 9 out of 8 posibble points.  But then they left, my angels, and life sucked as before, in my little isolated corner.

What parents could have been proud of a kid like me?  One whose teachers knew by name because of so many bad records.  In fact, Tram was sent to every single PTA meeting, because my parents didn’t care to deal with my mischiefs.

I think most of the time they didn’t think about it, our education.  They sent us to school as they should, and the only annoying reminder of our progress was the yearly tuition due date.  Communism blew itself over high gassy ideas and shitty planning, you add a few more gallons of greed and petty personal agendas, take away basic education and logic, and top the whole thing off with HUMAN NATURE and you get the pile of crap that we call communist idealism taught in schools.  That’s not to say the whole thing sucked.  Son always says that I’m sarcastic no matter what, and that sarcasm runs deep in my family.  A lot of VNese people I know has it too, so it’s probably a product of a communist education.  You get pushed to praise something so much that you just come to doubt it altogether and see it for what it is, a pile of crap, you know?

Anyways, back to elementary school.  Education wasn’t free, even though it was public education.  The tuition was pretty hefty.  I think back when a bowl of beef noodles was about $200 VND, then tuition ran about $4000VND per year.  I could be wrong, enlighten me if you know the exact figures back then.  For some funky reason, my mom held tuition fees over our heads as if it were Xmas presents from Santa Claus.  Everytime I went home with the news, mom, here’s the paper that asks for tution fees, please give me some money, it took about a month or two before the money got to the teacher.  I was always the last kid to bring in money, even after the daughter of the garbage person had turned in hers.  Chau, An, and I all went through that phase, we don’t quite know why.  It was pretty humiliating the way the teacher called you to stand up each day of class, asking you where’s the money?  Your house is right next to school, it’s a big house too.  I see your dad driving in and out with a “Cup” blue or red, you guys are loaded.  So, where’s the money?

You just stood there looking at all the scratch marks on the table, thinking maybe the teacher will give up in about 30 seconds.  Then you came home asking mom for the money again, and mom said nope, you had been a bad kid today so you don’t get money.  And then one sunny day, the money landed into your palm, saved at last, and it was over.

Strange, like I’ve said.

So, by third grade, I was known as the kid who never paid tuition on time, a thief, a liar, a blackmailer, a delinquent who started all sorts of massive girl fights (oops, I was bored you know, it was kinda fun…) AND I also accused the daughter of some big name Chairman so and so of stealing my barrette.  In co Tuyet’s class.  Oh boy that was dramatic.  But I was also that kid who knew the “right” answers to all the questions, I would not raise my hands and say “How come uncle Ho always hugs little girls but not little boys?” or questions like that.  I was more of the “Praise be uncle Ho, how did he get his goatie so shiny?”  type.  You could stick me in any class when the inspectors came by (teachers were always so nervous and freaked out when they received the news that the inspectors would sit in during their lesson) and you would feel confident that I would not screw things up.  Teachers who knew how to use me when I was being useful and discard me when I was being obnoxious got by pretty well.  Teachers like co Tuyet and thay Tan who came to love me as a human being, they really struggled morally, poor them.  It was not that I was evil.  I was just freely being myself, without a moral compass.

You take home.  Home was a volatile environment where there was a combination of neglect AND extreme scrutiny.  I came home with mumps one day and no one knew what was going on.   I passed out for a longer period of time and was told to put up my mosquito net and go sleep in there.  It was not until the 3rd day or something when dad said this is serious, I probably needed medical attention or … something.  I never went to the doctor, but was up and running again in a week.  Then you take another situation where I was always running up and down stairs, bumping into the steps and bruising myself.  My mom suddenly took interest in it one day and decided to cure me of that unlady like habbit by taking a string and tying my two ankles together, so that I could only take one step at a time.  It was like that at home, plus plenty of beatings.  Each beating was followed by a lecture of some sort: “Had you been truthful from the start, I would have spared you…”  Next time I was absolutely truthful, and I got the same beatings, plus “Had you been [something else] from the start…”

That kind of inconsistency in teaching just got me into survivor mode, so I went to school preying on other kids because they had things I didn’t.  I liked a book, but wasn’t sure she’d lend it to me.  No problem, I just stole it.  Saved us both from the awkwardness.  I think if my kid ever turns out like me back then, I would probably go psycho too.  I wasn’t that kid for no reason, you know.  I really called attention to myself back then, never intended to.  Like I knew my mom had strict rules about asking for permission for going out, most of the time she didn’t grant permission anyways, but yet, I can recall at least two occasions where I just decided to take off after school.  I took off to wander from one friend’s house to another, played hide and seek, then walked along the big strange roads, watching the last rays of the sun disappearing.  Both times I was gone for at least 3,4 hours past the permitted time.  Mom was livid when I got home, and the beatings were harsh, but that didn’t stop me from just taking off on a whim.  Then there were times I stole money from my mom, straight from her purse, just for, I don’t know, snacks.  I got caught, punished, and resolved to be even more sneaky afterward.  I stole money from Tram and An, because they were not organized.  Chau had always been a neat freak, so I left her money alone, knowing that she kept track of them down to the penny.  If not getting dinner was my punishment for the day, I looked around for food or money to steal so that I could eat.  Worse to worst, I could just go to Tin (baby at the time) and asked him for whatever food he had, most of the time he was handed a cookie or a piece of chocolate.  Tin, to his everlasting credit, always gave.  One time he had some piece of candy in his mouth already, I asked for it, he took it out and gave to me so I could suck on it for a bit.  An also gave me food whenever she could, I think those starving days really got me one way or another.  For one thing, I remember who had been kind to me back then.  For the rest, I have not figured out where they have nibbed me, but I will always remember them.  And it was always people feeding my mom ideas, while telling her that her kid is just horrible horrible kid (they didn’t even know me), and gave her hints and tips on how to discipline me.  That’s why I hate people who freely give out advise without taking responsibility for the consequences of their words.

If what I have just described to you sounds like my life was a living hell and if you were a social worker, you would love to take me away from my family, then you will need to understand that every dysfunctional family sounds just as bad on papers.  Yet millions of them still exist in our vincinity, and the children still thrive.  They continue to grow up without turning into serial killers and sociopaths.  They get jobs, they fall in love, and they can have functional families of their own.  That’s because members of those families are often without malice, and they can be illogical and cruel one moment, but perfectly sympathetic and reasonable the next, so that in my childhood, too, I have had my share of fun, days that my dad drove me and Tin in the back of his bike, and took us out to some park to see the birds fly.  I have my share of memories when my mom woke me up in the night, because my coughing was heard and she put the baby down, went to my mosquitoes net, got me some medicine, and made some warm milk for me.  And things got progessively easier as I grew older.  The people who gave bad advises about childrearing to my mom slowly left, and the unusual punishments, not surprisingly, also left with them.  We are open about our past, my family, and we used to blame my mom for many bad decisions that she made.  But lately, when my sisters, too, have become mothers themselves, suddenly we felt a sense of … cameraderie with my mom.  We asked ourselves how would we have survived if we were giving birth to one “oops” after another “uh oh” (catholics, you know, no birth control). How would we have felt, giving those births alone.  How would we have felt when those babies cried every night, exhausting our last nerves, in a third world country, during the worst period of the communist regime.  We are slowly undoing the sentiments that had built up from those days, changing our views perhaps, and bringing closures to things that we have forgotten, but yet are still haunting us.

Like this story that will tie the beginning of this piece to the end:

When An was in elementary schools, my dad used to reward her for being ranked 1st in her class.  I found a book, or two, in our house, with my dad’s writing in it:

For An my daughter,

a gift for placing 1st in your class. 



In fourth and fifth grade, just as An’s grades were declining, my grades went way way up.  By the time I was in fifth grade, I was also ranked first in my class, in addition to having won first place in district-wide writing competition, second place in city-wide tournament, and was placed in a special training course to prepare for the national test (uh, I failed that one).  I raked in a big chunk of money prize too, but somehow my parents had lost interest in their kids’ academic endeavors or something, but no one ever did so much as to just congratulate me.  The day my school had an assembly to honor me and gave out the prize money, I was just all by myself.  My teacher asked “Where are your parents?  You guys live right next door!” and I can’t remember what lies I told her that day.  All along, An’s book haunted me.  I won so many prizes in the last two years of elementary school to make up for the slow start, so I got plenty of books, but no book was ever given to me as a reward.  One day in fifth grade, I took a book that was unclaimed, took a pen and wrote in it:

For Linh, my child

a gift for placing 2nd in city-wide contest

your father,

[name signed]

Who was I fooling?  No one ever bothered to look at the page, my friends didn’t even care when I told them my dad rewarded me with a gift, and a year or two later, after I got to the US, I found out that my mom knew about it.  She said it sarcastically during one of her lectures preparing me for punishment.  But I knew as soon as it escaped her lips, she felt guilty.  She only said it once, and quickly moved on to the next thing.  She never mentioned it again, I don’t know if she told anyone.

Some one in VN has that book right now, some thick book that I had read, and it has some childish scribbles on it.

I just recently told this to Son one night when we were out in some chinese restaurant, waiting for our bowls of noodles.  I said, “listen, I’ll tell you a really sad tragic story…”

Afterward, Son said “You’re so sad.  You should write it down.”


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