I was not a very good writer, but I was an imaginative child. I should have studied harder in secondary school, but I used to daydream for hours in class. When I was eleven, I would invent stories of beautiful things and I liked to write articles to send to the children’s section of the local newspaper. I didn’t care very much for social activities or schoolwork because I just lived in my own dream world.
My mother was quite pretty and she was the youngest daughter of an eleven-child family including nine boys and two girls. She only had a third-grade education. She had basic reading and writing skills, but she was not formally educated. Fortunately, she was clever and she could make VietNamese specialty dresses called áo dài. She used a sewing machine that my grandmother had given her. That sewing machine was with us for over twenty years until we had to sell it during my last year of medical school. That sewing machine was very special to my mother because it reminded my mother of my grandmother. In addition to knitting sweaters, socks and hats, she could repair electrical appliances such as irons, fans, and lamps. My mother gave birth to me when she was twenty years old. My brother came a year later and yet another brother was born twelve years afterwards. Even though my mother worked hard and did the best she could, we never had enough money to meet our needs.
When my parents were young, their families lived close together and they fell in love. My dad’s family was rich and well-educated. He was a civil engineer and the fourth son of a nine-child family. He could build bridges, roads and even ships. He was also a ship captain and in 1979, he traveled overseas on his own ship. Even though he was a man of education and wealth, he was not brave enough to publicly acknowledge his love for my mother.
My father’s family did not approve of my parents’ love because they were not of the same social class. My father never married my mother, but he rented a small house for us and a year later he married another woman of his social class. During his 20-year relationship with my mother, my father was married and he fathered six children with his wife. My brother and I met my father’s wife before they were married. In this meeting at my mother’s house, my father’s wife promised that she would not marry my father because he already had two children by another woman. She quickly proved to be a liar and she married my father anyway. My mother must have felt completely deceived.
Occasionally, my father would visit us and pay alimony and child support according to the court’s order. Even though my paternal grandfather was a municipal judge, my mother won custody of us and the court forced my father to support us until we reached the age of eighteen. My brother and I were also given my father’s name. In spite of the court’s order, my father gradually neglected to send us money each month. Even though my father had not taken responsibility for his first two children, twelve years after my birth, my mother had another son with him. I always resented him because of what he did to us. I still cannot forgive what he did to my mother, my siblings, and me. I don’t think he has ever realized how much he hurt us. He has never recognized his guilt. I have never felt love for him and I will never forgive him as long as I live. In my mind, my father is a greedy, cowardly, spineless and irresponsible man.
My mother was a Christian and she used to take my brother and me to the Church of God every Sunday morning. When she was seventeen years old, she witnessed a mysterious phenomenon in which her sister suddenly took off all of her clothes and rolled on the ground as she passed under an old banyan tree. She screamed madly and fought against the help of passersby. People said that she was possessed by a ghost. Fortunately, there was a priest who was present at the time and he asked God’s blessing on her. Soon after, my aunt was back to normal and the experience gave the two sisters a deep faith in God. Both my mother and aunt have been devout Christians ever since then.
When I was seven years old, I was baptized even though I was not old enough to understand what it meant. I was given the Saint’s name of Teresa. In the eyes of my family and community, I was an ugly child. However, on that day I suddenly became pretty in my white dress with my beautiful floral crown. I held a candle in one hand and my Bible in the other. Even though I didn’t completely understand its significance, I took my baptism seriously and I was very excited that day. As a young child I had absolute faith in God and I prayed to God everyday to help my family. However, my prayers were never answered and we continued to live in poverty. After many years of struggling just to survive, I realized that I must overcome life’s difficulties on my own. This realization led me to have a absolute lack of faith in God. To this day, I do not believe that He will help us through the hard times.
The Church of God was built during the French colonial period and it is located in a spacious area of Saigon with lots of green trees. In front of the church, there is a cave with a statue of the Mother Mary where I often prayed and asked Jesus to have mercy on my family. The space inside the cathedral was very airy because there were no heavy pillars blocking the view. In my mind, the domes of the church were shaped like two grasping hands with intertwined fingers. The light pouring in from the stained glass windows illuminated the church during the day. I always felt a deep sense of peace when I was in that church.
On Sunday morning everyone dressed in their best clothes and they walked to church slowly and solemnly. In church they sat perfectly motionless with their eyes fixed on the priest who was reading a verse from the Bible. Then they knelt down and said a prayer, but I could never sit still. I was constantly fidgeting on the hard bench, swinging my feet, looking out the windows, and staring at the walls and the domed ceiling of the church. Even though it was hard for me to pay attention to the sermon, I prayed that the Lord would bless me and give me all of the beautiful garments which the other members of the congregation were wearing. This story sounds funny, but that was really the dream of a poor child of seven years.
In a corner of the church, there was a confessional box where members of the congregation could make confession and ask forgiveness. That was the small room where I used to tell my sins to a priest through a wire mesh window. My most common sins were fights at school, arguments with my brother, telling lies, and disobeying mother. But once I committed the sin of stealing.
There was a homeless shelter that was on the grounds of the “Church of God” called “The Priest House”. My family lived there for two years. The 300-square-meter house which included 30 beds was located at the end of a long alley. Each family had a small living space with one bed. At the top of the alley, there was a public fountain where we gathered to take baths and do the washing every afternoon. The scene at that time was bustling with the laughter and screams of children and there were sometimes quarrels between neighbors. I used to wash our clothes, and bathe my brother and myself under the public tap. I was responsible for keeping an eye on my little brother, and sometimes my mother even took the precaution of tying his legs to the foot of the bed while she was away. Looking after my brother at such a young age was a burden. I was always happy when my mother allowed me to be free of the responsibility of watching after him.
When I was in the second grade, I used to admire the Christmas decorations on the way to school. At Christmas time, there were many shops selling Christmas trees, gifts, ornaments and cards covered in glitter. On those cards, there were images of angels, fantastic sleigh rides in the snow, beautiful cathedrals, and Christmas trees adorned in lights. I spent many hours in front of those shops admiring the glittered Christmas cards. I wished I could run my fingers along the glittered surface of the cards, but I didn’t have any money to buy them. Finally, I found a way to buy one of those cards.
After several days of observation and calculation, I found my victim. She was a peddler woman with a child my age who lived in the bed next to ours. Just before going to bed each evening, she hung her coat with puffy pockets on the headboard. One night when everyone was sleeping, I crept to her bed, climbed on a chair, and I stole some money from her coat pocket. I scurried back to my bed with my heart pounding wildly, but the next day my heart skipped with the joy of holding the glittered cards in my hand. Only the priest knew my secret. I confessed my sin to him and he forgave me. But I still feel guilty to this day. Is it possible that God will erase all our sins if we confess them to Him? I don’t believe that.
After every church service, my mother would take my brother and me to a sidewalk food stand where she treated us to wonderful bowls of noodle soup that looked and smelled delicious. I sat enthroned slurping the hot soup and eagerly eating the rice stick noodles along with thinly sliced beef which was lightly grilled and meatballs. Starting on Monday, I always looked forward to Sunday because I knew that I would have my favorite food just after church. In my dreams, I used to smell the sweet-scented noodle soup and see the steam rising up from my bowl.
Students often ate during recess and I relished the snacks that were sold in the schoolyard. My favorite snack was a piece of buttered toast with a shrimp on it. I always found a way to get money for my snacks. Even though most of my classmates did not like me, they still admired my good grades in class. I set a condition that anyone who wanted to copy my schoolwork had to pay me. I gradually had some regular customers, and soon I had so much money that I could treat myself to chocolate ice cream, cakes, cheese and buttered toast during recess.
I was not always good in my business dealings. Therefore, when I didn’t have any paying clients, I often went hungry. After class I hurried home for lunch, but our meals were simple, just rice and vegetables. My mother could not afford to buy food for us, so I had to queue up to get some rice from the church which was given to the residents of the Priest House on the weekends. I always liked to go to church on Sunday and I greatly appreciated those delicious bowls of noodle soup. While I was kneeling in the church to hear the sermon, I could smell the pleasant aroma of the steaming bowls of noodle soup that awaited me after the church service. It was the only day of the week that my mother could afford to take us out to eat.
I was a good student during my elementary years, so my record card often read ‘“Well-behaved and has excellent study skills”. I was always at the top of my class and I often represented my class in regional academic competitions. I was given the responsibility of keeping order in the classroom when my teacher had to step out. I guess you could say that I was the teacher’s pet. When the teacher was out of the room, I stood in front of the class watching everyone. My teacher entrusted me with the task of writing the names of the students who talked together on the blackboard. Additionally, I helped my teacher carry our workbooks home each day and I called roll at the beginning of class. This made me detestable to my classmates, but I felt honored and I quickly became self-righteous toward my classmates because of my special task.
At the end of each school year, I always received awards given to students who had excellent academic achievement. I also got awards for students who came from poor families. These awards included notebooks, textbooks, school supplies and white cloth to make school uniforms. My mother seemed to be proud of me and she never worried about my studies. She was very pleased with me because I helped reduce the cost of preparing for the new school year. I was not an obedient student, however.
Outside of class, I often got in fights with other students and most of my classmates did not like me. Many of them were scared of me because I often harassed the weaker students. I was a bully who extorted money from them for helping them cheat. My school was located in an alley and the students had to push past each other when they were leaving school on their way home. I used to bully two of students who were sisters by pulling their hair when I walked behind them. I could always see them trembling, but they never fought back. But, I didn’t care at all and I still cursed and yelled at them, “Cowards!”. Then one day I saw their grandmother picking them up from school. She scolded me fiercely and told me that I had to stop my aggressive behavior. That didn’t stop me, though. I just found other victims for my aggression. I was like a weed growing in the garden of my childhood