Sample Autobiography (3)

September 2013

*All names have been changed or omitted for personal use as a portfolio sample


I was about five years old the first time I went and helped my grandma work in the fields. My job was to help carry the lunch bag she packed for the two of us. Inside of it was sweet sticky-rice and banana. My other job was to keep her company in the fields, or water the tomatoes. I sat on one side of the tomato field watching her work at pulling weeds while I poured water over the plants. Most of the time I played in the mud that was created by the water more than I tended to the plants. Still, she would come to me and put a gentle arm around my, saying, “This will all be yours someday.” We were out in the fields from five in the morning to four in the evening. Each morning, we would wake up and eat a big breakfast, usually of rice, hard-boiled eggs and soy sauce. For lunch we sometimes ate sweet potatoes dipped in coconut milk. Working in the rice field was not like working a nine-to-five job. Working out in the rice field required a lot of hard labor; a lot of bending over to pull the weeds out by hand, standing under the hot sun. Grandma constantly made sure the crops had enough water. Then, when we came in from the fields we would prepare and eat dinner at about 6:30 pm. For dinner, we had rice, green tomatoes and fish, or fixed a big pot of beef and rice noodle soup.

            I never understood why my grandma would not eat with me. She always told me to eat, and made sure I finished my meal. One day I asked her, “Grandma, why do you keep telling me to ‘eat, eat’? If you’re not eating with me, I won’t eat either.” Then she told me, “I do it because I love you and it is my job to make sure that your stomach is full before mine.” That same night, just like every other night, I was lying in bed beside her and kept looking at her. I asked God to bless our rice field. She would tell me if I ever felt scared or sad to talk to God. Sometimes I asked too much about my mother and she would tell me to go light an incense stick and talk to my mother’s spirit. It always made me feel better. I got up from my bed and sat on the floor in my room where it was quiet and still. I crossed my legs, and lit three incense sticks, holding them with both hands. I closed my eyes.

“Mother? I know you’re there,” I whispered, “I know it. Please protect me and grandma. Grandma and I worked in the fields today and I got dirty, but she let me help with dinner anyway. And I miss you.”

I felt better then and every time since when I have tried to talk with my mother’s spirit. More than that, I felt heard.

            One week before the New Year, all of the kids in the village got new clothes to wear on New Year’s Day. I did not have new clothes and I felt sad, but I tried very hard not to let my grandma see me crying. I didn’t want her to feel bad, but I could see the sadness in her eyes too. She would tell me that when I grew up, if I worked very hard to save money then I could have anything that I wanted. I would reply to her, “Yes, Grandma,” with a big smile on my face. My childhood in Vietnam was difficult. My grandmother had little money, and together we worked in the fields to support ourselves. There was not enough money, then, to send me to school or to properly feed or take care of me. My friend, Suong, often showed me what she bought from the market, like colored material to make clothes for her and her mom. Each of them would get four or five new sets of clothes throughout the year. Suong didn’t have to wait until the New Year to get them. She also got to eat meat more often than we did. But I never felt neglected or unloved by my grandma. Sometimes I knew my grandma was very tired but I never heard her complain. She spent at least ten to twelve hours every day working in the field. The job I set for myself was to make sure that she rested when she got home from working in the fields all day. I usually helped her prepare dinner and kept the house clean, or watered the tomatoes in the field while trying very hard not to play in them. Every evening, Grandma would teach me how to read and write and she would tell me about my mom. My mom was her only child, my grandfather died when my mom was seventeen. My grandma never told me how my grandfather died. Only once in a while would she say she missed them. The rest of the time, she just kept going.

Grandma said the road between Saigon and our village was becoming more dangerous all the time. The North Vietnamese soldiers had begun dressing like farmers and kidnapping people or hijacking busses to steal food from them. Grandma and I were always worried about my father’s safety. One night, when my father was home on leave, he and I were outside sitting on the grass, looking up the sky and he told me that my mother was up in heaven and she was looking down at us right then. He said that I looked just like her with long black hair just like hers. “Soon I will bring you and your grandma to live with me in Saigon, where everything is beautiful and very busy. There are lots of cars in the city. I will take you and your grandma to shop in the market there.”

            “And can I go to school in Saigon?”

            “Yes,” he laughed, “You can go to school.” 

My grandma was a very special lady. She was smart and small, with a big heart. She never let negative things bring her down and she was funny. She was the type of person who would take the shirt off of her back to give to you. I loved when she told stories about when she was young and things were peaceful. She told me about a time she and her friend Theo went to Saigon city shopping. They spent all of their money and didn’t have enough left for the bus home, so they had to walk. It took them almost six hours to get home.

The year was 1968 and I was six years old. The war going on made everything more difficult. Sometimes we could hear the noise of gun fights. For over two and a half years, my father had not come to the village to see my grandma and me. So when my grandma said to me one day that my father would be coming to the village to see us and that he would bring us to live with him in Saigon city, I was very excited. I told some of the kids in the village that I would have lots of new clothes for the New Year and that my father would take me and my grandma to see the dragon dance on New Year’s Day. Since I heard my grandma tell me how beautiful Saigon city was, with lots of cars and nice houses, I thought how much nicer it would be to go anywhere we wanted and not have to worry about the airplanes dropping bombs. “I can’t wait to go live in Saigon city,” I said to her, “I will go to school and work hard to make lots of money so I can take care of you, Grandma.” She gave me one of her warm smiles in return.

As I got ready for bed one night, a couple of neighbors came over and brought some food for grandma to make Cha Gion Pho for my father to eat when he arrived the following day. I was so excited that I couldn’t go to sleep; I could hardly wait to see my father. Grandma kept saying, “Go to sleep! Your father will be here when you wake up.” I must have done so at last.

When I woke up the next morning, my father was outside talking to my grandma and some of our neighbors. I ran to hug him and he looked just as I remembered; tall and skinny with short, black hair and a big smile. “Linh!” he shouted and pulled me up into his arms. It was a beautiful, sunny Saturday; a temperate day for late fall. It was about two months before the New Year. My grandma continued cooking delicious Vietnamese food all through the day to celebrate my father’s return. Every time my father came home, he gave her some money and brought things for me like ban me, which are Vietnamese sandwiches, or beautiful material for grandma to make clothes for her and me. My father asked me if I was excited about our trip to Saigon city to live with him. His voice was deep and confidant and his hands were soft. I told him I was excited and that I couldn't wait to go to school, too. “And I’m happy,” I told him, “but I also feel sad, too.” He assured me that the reason I felt sad was because I was leaving all of my friends and neighbors behind.

As we sat down to eat that night, I began to have a pain in my chest that steadily grew worse. I told my grandma before I went to sleep, that I felt something was wrong. “I’m afraid something bad is going to happen,” I said.

“Shhh, Linh. Go to sleep and you will feel better in the morning,” my grandma reassured me. My father, too, came in the room and rubbed my hair, “We are together now,” he said. “Nothing bad is going to happen to us.”

            When next I awoke, it was because I heard my grandma’s voice and felt her hand touching my feet, telling me to get up. As I opened my eyes I saw the scared look on her face. Behind her there was a North Vietnamese soldier holding a gun and telling us to hurry up. As soon as I walked outside I saw all of my neighbors with their children kneeling on the ground with their hands tied behind their backs. I had no idea what was going on. The soldier told me and my grandma to kneel next to my father, who was already on his knees with the others. The soldiers all wore black clothes and carried hand grenades around their waists, guns in their arms. I looked at my father and he looked back at me and slightly nodded his head to let me know to kneel next to him and put my hands behind my head as the soldier directed. Meanwhile, my grandma was crying and holding my hand so it couldn’t be tied. One of the soldiers that stood behind my father yelled at my grandma, “Hey, old lady, stop crying!” and kept his gun pointed at us. I was so scared my whole body was shaking, and then, again, the soldier pointed the gun at my father’s head. “Women and children go back inside your houses. Except you,” the soldier shouted, gesturing with his gun to my father, my grandma, and me.

            Suddenly I saw three more soldiers walking toward us and one North Vietnamese soldier pulled out a small gun and pointed it at my grandma and said, “You all should die because your son is a traitor. Your son fights for the wrong side.”

“Now you decide which of them you want to live,” said the soldier whose gun was trained on my father. The soldier looked at me and said nothing and then he asked my father the question again. I reached out to hold my father’s hand and on the other side of me, my grandma whispered, “Close your eyes and pray.” I started praying in my head and the last thing I felt was a gentle squeeze from my father’s hand. The next thing I knew, I was opening my eyes to see my father laying on the ground next to me, his face covered with blood. I continue to sit next to him for what might have been a couple of hours. My grandma was crying but I had completely shut down. My whole body went cold and I could not cry. All of the North Vietnamese soldiers left after my father was executed. In time, Mr. An and his next door neighbor came over to help my grandma carry my father’s body into our house, but I did not move.

I found out later that my father was executed because someone in the village told the North Vietnamese soldiers that my father fought with the South Vietnamese Army. During the night, the soldiers came to our village, taking food from the people and refusing to leave until they had what they came for. Two months later Mrs. Nguyen came over to bring material for grandma to make some clothes for me. She was crying and she asked my grandma to forgive her son and told Grandma how sorry she was for his betrayal. She said that a North Vietnamese soldier held a gun to his head and questioned him. He was scared and he told them that my father served with the South Vietnamese. My grandma began to cry, too and said to Mrs. Nguyen, “I am also sorry. I was very angry at first, but I understand how scared your son was. I had their guns pointed at my head, too.”

There I was, having just lost my father, one of the most important people in my life, and day in and day out I had to put up with kids in the village making fun of me. Every time they saw me go outside to play with my Suong they would make noises like gun shots and point their fingers at me, pretending to shoot. I would start shaking and the memories would come flooding back until all I wanted to do was go to the corner of my bedroom and hide. Suong was the only one that was still nice to me and sometimes she brought me sweet, sticky rice mixed with monk bean as a treat. One time, a boy threw a mandarin skin at me and my grandma saw it and told me to go back inside the hut. A few minutes later Grandma came inside our house with the boy and his parents, who made an apology to me.

            Things were only getting worse. No one tended to our crops. Out in the fields there was nowhere to hide if the airplanes came by, dropping bombs. Mr. An told my grandmother that two of our neighbors were also shot and killed because they were suspected traitors. After this, some of the neighbors left their farms and their homes and fled to Saigon city. The airplanes would fly over the village constantly, so the people of the village were always afraid. Sometimes the American planes would drop bombs, during the day and at night. Every time I heard an airplane I would listen for the bomb to explode. I would close my eyes and ask God not to let them drop the bomb near my home, and to please protect us.

One night, Mr. and Mrs. An and Suong decided to come over and stay with us. As it got dark outside, I heard my grandma yell for us to go down to the bunker. “The airplanes are coming!” she shouted. It happened so fast, all I heard was the bomb going off and in the next moment, dirt rained down on top of us. I was so afraid we were all going to die. It was a month later when my grandma decided to take me, with all of our belongings, to Saigon city to live. She told me it would be an easier, safer life and we would have friends near us to help us financially. Suong and I cried when we had to say goodbye, and Mrs. An told her that she would bring her to the city to see me soon. Grandma and I never went back to the village to visit and I never saw Suong and her parents again.

By the time Grandma and I got to Saigon, I was happy. I said to my grandma, “We are safe now, right Grandma?” I was amazed to see people all over the streets. The city was beautiful. I saw big cars and lots of buildings standing close and tall. There was so much noise and the smell of gasoline made me feel sick. Our very first stop was the market, where Grandma bought me a sugary drink in a can. Everywhere we went I saw pretty clothes and shops and lights. Everything was bright and music played on radios. It seemed like magic to me and I asked my grandma how people got inside of the TV’s we saw inside the shop windows. She tried to explain to me the best she could, but I was already marveling at the next thing; a bathroom that was private and clean. No more outhouse!

We stayed with grandma’s friend, Mrs. Quan and her family, and tried to rebuild our life with what we had. Mrs. Quan lent my grandma some money and also one of the booths next to hers at the market so Grandma and I could go and buy products from wholesalers and then resell them at the market. We sold things like sweet potatoes, and ban me, the Vietnamese sandwich similar to a French baguette stuffed with grilled pork or chicken, cilantro, sliced cucumber, carrot, radishes or daikon, and soy sauce. Next to us at the market was Mrs. Quan’s booth which sold pho, Vietnamese noodle soup. The market was a typical open-air market with many different vendors selling food and clothing and almost anything else you could name. On the weekends, a lot of people ate out because there was no school and Grandma and I would make five to six-thousand dong a day, which is equivalent to about one-thousand U.S. dollars. During the week we made much less since most people ate at home.

My grandma and I worked harder than most because we were facing different challenges. Everything cost more in the city, from toilet paper to rice. When I was ten years old I took a job baby-sitting for our neighbor while Grandma continued to operate our stall. When I was not baby-sitting, I would go help her sell ban me at the market. Sometimes I felt sad because my grandma was getting older. She must have been seventy years old by then, though we never talked about her age. I knew she was getting tired. Her back would hurt from sitting for ten to twelve hours on the hard wooden bench at her stall, but still I never once heard her complain. I hoped that once we moved to Saigon I would be able to go to school, but I never did have that opportunity. My grandma continued teaching me at home. Usually, after dinner, I studied for one hour every night. Sometimes Grandma would teach sewing—showing me how to make my own shirt and pants—or cooking. She taught me to make Cha Goin, or Vietnamese egg roll, pho, and caramelized fish.

One night, I wanted to surprise my grandma by having dinner ready when she came home from her long day. I tried to fix the caramelized fish dish. In the process, I forgot to remove gauze from the fish, added white sugar instead of brown sugar, added too much salt and pepper and put too much water into the rice, making it soupy. I will never forget the look on Grandma’s face after she took one bite of the fish dish. Her eyes opened wide, and she tried hard not to make a funny face. Then she burst out laughing and said, “We are going to drink a lot of hot tea after this meal! How proud I am of you, Linh.”

I was happy that I now lived in the city. Yes, it was beautiful, but I was disappointed that people there were not friendly. Life in the city could be very materialistic and the rich people looked down on the poor.  The rich people drove cars, had nice cloths, well-kept homes with TV’s, and hands and faces white as pearls. It was difficult to make friends. There were a few kids who lived next door to us who sometimes said hello to me, but that was it. After what had happen to us in the village, I had a hard time going to sleep as well. I continued having bad dreams about my father, filled with noise from gun fights or the sounds of airplanes. If I closed my eyes, I would not rest. I would worry that something may happen to my grandma. It took me a very long time to be able to sleep through the night. Yet time marched on, at the speed of the city. I too became older.