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A Dragon Child: Reflections of a Daughter of Annam in America

A Dragon Child: Reflections of a Daughter of Annam in America

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A Dragon Child: Reflections of a Daughter of Annam in America

253 pagine
4 ore
Oct 11, 2004


A Dragon Child: Reflections of a Daughter of Annam in America is the story of a Vietnamese Catholic raised within the structure of the French colonial system. Her upbringing was somewhat privileged as the daughter of a provincial administrator in the central highlands of Vietnam. As a child, and later as a young woman, she embraced French culture and aspired to French ideals. She was educated at a French boarding school for the children of the elite. Subsequently she received a degree in French teaching from the University of Saigon and became a lycee teacher and administrator.

In 1975, she left on one of the last military planes accompanied by her four children and entered a new life as a refugee in the U.S. She ultimately resettled in Western Massachusetts. She then went back to school and obtained her Ph.D. in Francophone literature. After seeing to her children's education she began her academic career and started to teach French in the Five College academic community. She has fulfilled the "American dream" as have her children. In the process she has rediscovered her cultural roots and has helped others to negotiate the same path.

Oct 11, 2004

Informazioni sull'autore

Lucy Nguyen-Hong-Nhiem, former administrator and teacher of French in Vietnam, is adjunct professor of Asian Languages & Literatures at the University of Massachusetts, Anherst. She has co-edited with Joel M. Halpern, The Far East Comes Near, autobiographical accounts of Southeast Asian students in America. She lives in Western Massachusetts.

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A Dragon Child - Lucy Nguyen-Hong-Nhiem


All Rights Reserved © 2004 by Lucy Nguyen-Hong-Nhiem

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, graphic, electronic, or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, taping, or by any information storage retrieval system, without the written permission of the publisher.

iUniverse, Inc.

For information address:

iUniverse, Inc. 2021 Pine Lake Road, Suite 100

Lincoln, NE 68512

ISBN: 0-595-32839-3

ISBN: 9780595776399 (ebk)

Printed in the United States of America

To the memory of my father Nguyen Due Thanh

And my mother Quach Thi Dau










Marriage & Family


A War-time Career




Leaving Vietnam & Resettlement in the U.S.


The University of Massachusetts in Amherst—Being a Graduate Student


My New Career





I wish to begin by thanking the many members of my family, children and grandchildren, for providing the indispensable psychological support which has seen me through a decade of intermittent attention to this manuscript. Their constant gentle reminders and queries have served as a goad. Specifically my gratitude to my older sister Nguyen Thi Hong Ai and her husband, Huynh Kim Mien, now living in retirement in San José, California; younger brother Nguyen Bùc Mau, a priest, now a resident of Long Beach, California for providing detailed recollection of family life; younger brother Nguyen Bùc Bùu and his wife, Tran Le Nu, who now live in Randolph, Massachusetts; youngest brother Nguyen Bùc An and his wife, Nguyen Ngoc Tu, who returned to Vietnam, for the use of their photos of Vietnam.

From another viewpoint, my many friends in the Vietnamese community in Massachusetts have provided a life-line of essential support services enabling me to engage in my dual careers as university administrator and in my academic pursuits such as reflected in this book, especially Father John Pham Minh Hùa, Juliette Nguyen Ngoc Hanh, Nguyen Duy Tien, and Tran Ba XÙ.

The final push to complete the manuscript was immeasurably aided by a formal subsidized sabbatical-administrative leave arranged by Joseph C. Marshall, Assistant Vice Chancellor for Enrollment Services and Dr. Gloria de Guevara, Associate Dean of Enrollment Services. Joe Marshall has aided in the completion of this manuscript not only by providing needed assistance but he along with my friend Goggie have given essential encouragement. They have stressed to me how important my efforts to chronicle the development of student programs at UMass are to contributing to an understanding of the long-term role of Student Affairs. They have both expressed a breath of vision not always seen among university administrators.

Dr. Ann Quinley was instrumental in the creation of the United Asia Cultural Center (UACC) and then the United Asia Learning Resource Center (UALRC) which provided me with a permanent structural role in Asian student affairs at UMass. Her actions were helpfully implemented by Kenneth W. Burnham, Associate Dean of Enrollment Services.

From the academic side, my former co-editor, Joel M. Halpern took time to discuss my many analyses and reflections and provided suggestions about overall organization of the manuscript. Some of my analyses concerning time


relate to our joint publication projects. Elizabeth A. Petroff spoke with me at length about my work and read the manuscript and offered useful comments. Julieann Rapoport kindly repeated her editing efforts earlier made for the Far East Comes Near.

The french department at umass has been a constant and strong source of support dating from my student days and aided in my dissertation, portions of which, in revised form, are included here. This assistance included professors thomas cassirer and marie-rose carre for my dissertation. Professors william gugli, ursula chen and nancy lamb furnished both personal assistance and intellectual stimulation. Professor donald e. Gjertson and nina m. Rose-racine of asian languages and literatures have, through their long-term support, made it possible for me, as an adjunct professor, to continue to offer courses in vietnamese language and culture. Professor james t. Fisher of st. Louis university provided needed references and other information on the history of american catholicism. Last but not least, i would like to thank linda asai olf, chanthava chanthavong and chona lauyan for organizing the office in my absence during my leave, and especially chona for her technical support of this manuscript.


Within the past few decades there has been a substantial output of memoir literature from the peoples of the former French Indochina who have come to live in the U.S. since 1975, after the collapse of the non-communist governments of South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. Lucy Nguyen’s autobiography is, of course, very much in that tradition which chronicles the culture of origin and then the transition from refugee to hyphenated American within our multicultural American landscape.

But that is only an outline of part of her story. For the writer writes from the perspective of a much broader theme. Lucy Nguyen is one of the gifted few, who has not only maintained her former career as an educator, but has expanded that role in the American setting as a University administrator of Asian-American student affairs and, at the same time, in an academic context, as a Professor of Asian Languages and Literatures. While her life story is simultaneously a chronicle of her life experiences, at that same time, it contains reflections on the ways in which she has been involved in the creation not only of a Vietnamese-American culture but, more broadly, of a new diversified Asian-American tradition. This has been done on the university level within an organized context known as ALANA (African, Latino, Asian and Native Americans). As a result, the use of the term minority is no longer relevant.

This biography is an outgrowth of an earlier publication, The Far-East Comes Near, edited by Nguyen-Hong-Nhiem and Halpern. That volume presented a selection of autobiographies of Cambodian, Lao, and Vietnamese students who were enrolled in the Nguyen-Halpern course. Also included in this book is a brief extract of Nguyen’s experiences. In her foreword to that book Deirdre Ling, a Chinese-American and former Vice Chancellor at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, noted the diverse histories of Asian-Americans dating from the 1800’s and foresaw their growth as a group to some ten million in the 21st century.

Nguyen’s story is obviously only a part of that epic of immigration. Her role has been constantly evolving. Her essay in that volume (pp. 13-22), Becoming a Refugee, Being a Refugee and Ceasing to Be a Refugee, has now become only a part of her experience and now rests in a chronological niche. A powerful determining factor has been the emergence of subsequent generations. In the not too distant future those who grew up in Vietnam will gradually disappear from the scene and loose their authoritative voice in defining the interests of the community of Vietnamese-Americans. Nguyen articulates this change as she notes the changing nature of the student population. Today many of the present generation of Vietnamese-American students are no longer fluent in their native language or knowledgeable about their ancestral culture.

As for so much of our lives, our history, September 11, 2001 has become a marker. This volume takes its place as a contribution oriented toward our future, toward building an evolving diverse society. It is by a person who has endured the trauma of war, the shock of separation from her native culture and been involved in creating a new life for herself and her children in a strange land. At times it has been a frustrating experience but purposeful creation of bridges of communication in this new country. All of this Nguyen has done within an overall optimistic outlook and a sense of humor.

Joel M. Halpern

Professor Emeritus of Anthropology

University of Massachusetts, Amherst





My Native Town Kontum, My Native Village Tan Huong

I was born in 1939, the year of the Cat, in Kontum. Kontum is a little town on the highland in the central part of Vietnam called Annam by the French. It is embraced by the Dakbla River on one side, with villages jostling one another and protected on the other side by a long range of mountains called La Chaine Annamitique. My village, Tan Huong (meaning new district), was distinguished by its white church. One could see it from the bridge crossing the Dakbla River. This church followed me through my childhood. Whenever I came home for vacation from the Catholic boarding school in Dalat, when the car brought me from the Pleiku Airport to Kontum, I saw the bell tower of this white church from far away, many kilometers before we even reached the Dakbla River.

We crossed the bridge, went up the hill, drove along the river bordered by fire-trees (the French called them flamboyants), and passed the church. Next to it was the elementary school, St. Teresa. In front of the school was the famous tamarind tree of my childhood. Here was the main road of the village, Nguyen Hue Street. From the church to my father’s house, it was about a ten-minute walk.

The street was bordered by tall trees (cay tram) which bore delicious sweet purple fruit that we children so much enjoyed eating. The houses along this road all had fences in front beautified by pink bougainvilleas (hoa giay) or yellow golden trumpet flowers (hoa chuong vang). Twenty years later, in Florida, memories of my native place surrounded me when I saw similar flowers.

But not all was pleasant to that little Catholic girl returning from the nuns’ boarding school. The stories of the villagers scared me. My father’s neighbor had a frangipani tree bearing beautiful white plumerias (hoa sv hay hoa dai). Some said that the tree was haunted by ghosts and that as soon as it got dark, one could hear murmurs and cries coming from the tree. I think some of those sounds are still with me.

My Father’s House and My Mother’s Garden

My father’s house was the most notable in the village, in part because of the tall and shady jack tree out front. To me it seemed like the tree had been there beyond time. Its shade was so extensive that all who walked by would stop underneath to have a moment of protection from the relentless tropical sun before they continued their walk. Next to the jack tree was a tall coconut tree. It was so tall I thought it would touch the sky; every year my father organized a contest to find the most skillful man to climb it and pick the coconuts. The front fence of my father’s house was also bordered by pink bougainvilleas. The side fences were strengthened by dense bushes of cactus so that no one could penetrate the property. The back fence was reinforced by a row of pineapple plants whose leaves with sharp spines scared invaders away. This combination of beauty and security shaped my early life.

In the protected garden surrounding the house was an amazing variety of trees planted and cherished by my mother. Even now, almost half a century later, I can still remember not only the kinds of trees but the number of each: there were two grapefruit trees, four short fire coconuts (dua lua), four orange and five guava (oi) trees of three different varieties (white, pink, and yellow), one tall guanabana tree, and a dozen banana trees of three different species. Green tea plants occupied at least a quarter of the garden, which encompassed about an acre. There was a special palm-tree called areca that I particularly liked. It grew thin but was tall and graceful. This palm-tree produced clusters of heart shaped, rust-colored nuts about the size of an adult’s big toe. Betel vines twisted around its trunk. My mother told me the popular folktale about the betel leaf and the areca nut which was told to her by her mother.

Once upon a time, there were two twin brothers. They were so identical that people could not tell them apart and they mistook one for another. Both brothers fell in love with a virtuous maiden of the village. According to Vietnamese custom, the older brother was to marry first. Of course, he married the woman he so much loved to the disappointment of his younger brother.

One day, the younger brother went into the study looking for his brother, but what he found instead was his sister-in-law, who was waiting for her husband. Since the two brothers were so much alike, she mistook her brother-in-law for her husband. She went to him, and the young man could not resist the caresses of the woman he still loved passionately.

Nobody knew about the love scene, but the younger brother felt very guilty and ashamed. He left his brother’s house and like an insane man he wandered hopelessly, regretful of his irrevocable sin, until he tired out and dropped dead near a brook. As soon as he drew his last breath and his body melted in the water, a slender tree sprang up with a tuft of leaves at the top, at the spot where he died. The tree was to be known as the areca tree. It bears clusters of heart-shaped nuts the size of a big toe.

The married brother, noticing his younger brother’s absence, left his wife and went to search for his lost brother. He entered many villages and inquired about his brother, but no one had seen him. Tired and exhausted by this fruitless search the older brother, as if guided by Fate, stopped by the same brook where his brother had died, leaned against the areca tree, and rested. But he never woke up from his sleep. Instead, he turned into a block of limestone.

The young wife waited for her husband, who never came home. Feeling that something very wrong had happened to her brother-in-law and her husband, the woman left the house to look for them. As if guided by her husband’s spirit, she went to the spot where the two men had died. There, as she cried for their loss, she hit her head gently against the stone and died. She was then transformed into a betel creeper, twining around the limestone and climbing up the areca tree.

A few months after the death of the woman, the Vietnamese Emperor passed by the brook on his journey. He stopped near the limestone and was told the sad story of the two brothers. He asked that the areca nut, the betel leaf, and some lime from the limestone be brought to him. He chewed the three together and soon experienced a sensation of comfort and pleasure like that given by the best wine. He then spat on the limestone and to his great astonishment, the liquid was red like blood.

From that time on betel chewing became very popular as a symbol of love and marriage. At every engagement and wedding ceremony, a tray of areca nuts and betel leaves must be part of the gifts that the groom offers to his bride and her parents.

If you visit a Vietnamese family, you can expect to be offered a tray of tea, cigarettes, and betel quids. For, as the Vietnamese say, mieng trau la dau cau chuyen, that is the beginning of a conversation.

It was amazing to see how my mother used every bit of land. Underneath those trees, she planted herbs such as basil, coriander, cilantro, culantro, and mint. The garden colors were especially intense when the hot peppers were red and ripe. My mother nurtured those trees, plants, herbs, and bushes with great care and tenderness. Many times I heard her talk to them. She was so attached to them that it seemed her soul stayed with them for many years after she passed away. My sister-in-law told me that her brother, on one of his visits to the house, fell from the guava tree he was climbing after carelessly breaking one of its branches. Some felt my mother had wanted to make her spirit’s presence known by throwing him from the tree!

It was notable that my father’s house, with the large jack tree and the tall coconut in front of the house, presented to the public the pride of the chef de canton while my mother’s humble garden was concealed within his domain.


At the very end of the garden there was a stable for my father’s horse. The stable had a low roof and a beam across the entrance. Every morning, I saw my father walk from the house to the stable. I was curious to know why he went there every day, so one day I decided to follow him from a distance. Since I was little, it was easy to hide myself behind the bushes and spy on him. To my great surprise I saw him hit his head against the beam as he entered the stable. Then he backed up and did it again. I thought he must be crazy. Why would anyone do this? Perhaps he wanted to punish himself for a bad deed.

After spying on my father for three days, I could not keep my discovery to myself any longer. I gathered all my courage and asked him why he hit himself against the beam. He told me:

One time, by negligence, I came in without bending my back and hit the beam. Because it hurt, I cursed the stable; but I realized immediately that this was the behavior of a low man. A gentleman should know how to contain his anger, master his language, and avoid bad words. I wanted to learn to stay calm, to control myself. This was why I practiced hitting myself at the stable.

What a lesson for me! Now, in reflecting on this, I can also see how his behavior related to his strong Catholic beliefs and Confucian teachings. He had once wanted to become a priest.

Beauty, security, discipline—these teachings of the garden shaped my life.

For me, then, it is natural to describe the garden before describing the house. The house was hidden behind those trees; one could discover it only after going through my mother’s jungle. My father organized our affairs but my mother enveloped the house with the presence of her garden.

The house itself was on stilts. Vietnamese people customarily built their houses on the ground, in contrast to the Lao, the Cambodians, and the mountaineers ("Montagnards"), who have their houses on stilts. My father believed it was healthier to live above the ground. He believed the humidity from the earth (he called it the ground breath) could cause arthritis and other diseases. My father’s idea of having his home on stilts may have come from seeing the homes of the montagnards.

Once up the stairway, one entered the large main room which served as a living room. It was dominated by an altar, not for the cult of ancestors as in many Vietnamese homes, but with statues of the Sacred Heart and the Virgin Mary. My father wanted to affirm his faith and reserved the most prominent part of the house to place the altar. He taught us that his house was a sacred home, a spiritual place for the family. From the living room, one could step into the dining room, which had a wonderful view of the universe of my mother’s garden. There were bedrooms on either side of the living room. My bedroom overlooked the banana trees. Many times I stayed up at night listening to the rain falling on the banana leaves, and later, after I got married and came back to visit my parents, I would hum the song, Giot mwa tren la…(Rain on the Leaves) by Pham Duy, a popular song on the radio: "The rain on the leaves Is the tear ofjoy Of the girl whose boy Returns from the war; The rain on the leaves Is the bitter tears When a mother hears Her son is no more…

The rain on the leaves

Is the cry that is torn

From a baby just born

As life

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