The Memories I Never Had

— from “ Giấy Nháp ” —

Growing up in Việt Nam, I only heard gentle whispers
Of generations and civilization that no longer exist
Of lime wash walls crackling with time to reveal some remaining bits
Of a faded and tattered flag painted near our front door
Of wealth, freedom, hypocrisy, abandonment and dreams manifesting in distant shores
Of leftover land mines settling deep in our garden,
The same place where my parents buried their youth
To survive through a war that I could only read between truths and half-truths

Remember when…” is often the start of “…it was still good”
As if the remaining Việt diaspora is a stain on our “Thousand Years of Greatness”
We speak with pride about our many wars
with history of victories we’ve tasted
But we never got a chance to close out the last war
So the light stays on for some of us to recount and measure our past scars
The same ones some try to hide
Because victory is nothing if they can’t fall asleep at night

I remember my uncle,
With a chest full of relics from the time he lived
Coins, money in different colors and rusty bayonets illegal to keep
He did it anyway because they reminded him of something he once had
And every story he told me echoed the resentment of being left behind and of regrets
He replaced the word “sacrifice” with “cowardice”
in the appropriated national anthem from the call to the Việt youth
To some, he’s just a cripple counting his remaining days
So they just let him say what he needed to say
But to me, at least he has memories to pave his way back

Now when April comes, I see the old flags
Waving in the cold breeze to commemorate the Black Month
Yet, I can’t seem to connect emotionally
Because the truth is, I’m not part of that generation of Vietnamese
And no matter how much I feel for our fathers, aunts and uncles
Who has gone through all the “re-education” or oceans
I can’t remember the memories I never had
So I won’t pretend to be sad to make others happy
But I have and will continue to try
To understand and to show my sympathy
For the ones who were raised in gunpowder, survived the past
and even after so many years, whose future has yet arrived

But I can’t go quietly into the night
Because even if I abstain from yesterday and tomorrow
I’m still partly responsible for today and our people’s present woes
We are still disconnected
In an age where we can easily bond
We don’t need to build a Tower of Babel
But I think it’s time we start getting out of our little ponds
And see that our umbilical cords are still tied to the same womb
So let’s tug on them and see where it hurts
for healing a failing body is better than reviving a tomb.

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