The Vietnamese Uncle

Whenever he met us, he smiled and slightly lowered his head while he was taking off his hat as a sign of showing respect. He often did that when he greeted my parents. He was not one of my Cambodian uncles. He was a Vietnamese soldier who was stationed in our village during the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia after the fall of the Khmer Rouge regime. He was probably in his late 20s or early 30s, tall, fair, and thin. He had an honest and sincere facial expression. I was about 8 or 9 years old back then. All of my friends called him Chu, a Vietnamese word for ‘uncle’. My village is ‘Potakouy Village’, Lolok Sar Commune, Sampov Meas district, Pursat province while he was stationed in a village next to my village divided by a railway. I remember him until now and tears often swelled up in my eyes when I am wondering about him.

The most memorable picture of him is how he waved at me from the rice field from an ox cart. Behind him was full of recently cultivated rice. His hut was built by mostly straw and some small wooden wall. The hut was facing the railway. He shared the little hut with one or two of his friends. I usually played along the not so busy railway that divided my village, which was on the north side, and his village, which was located on the south side. He was working in the rice field helping villagers transport their rice.  The way he waved looked as if he saw his own children returning from school. It was heartfelt for a child to receive such a sweet, welcoming smile and exciting wave.

We used to hear many stories of misbehaved Vietnamese soldiers, which made us hate them and scared of them. However, with his wide smile on his lips, the Chu made the opposite effect. Once in a while, he invited us for a feast. It was great fun!

One fine day, he came to our family home. I did not know what he told my parents, but I remember being told to dress up. I happily put on my best student uniform: a white shirt and a black or blue skirt. My parents might have told that Chu wanted to bring me to a photography shop to take us both a photo. I hopped on an old bicycle with him as the driver. On the way, I am sure he must have told me something but I didn’t remember. Or perhaps he told me in Vietnamese language which I don’t understand? I only remember I got a mixed feeling. I wasn’t sure whether it was an exciting time or an anxious one. And I might have known that he was about to leave our village. Forever. Or no, not exactly. Maybe I did not believe such a lifelong separation could happen for someone that I knew, especially this ‘Chu’.

I went along with him. The photography shop was about one kilometre from our house. At the shop, we were told to go inside the studio. It was a small, dark room with a background made of a wide cloth with a sailing boat, which looked like it was about to hit a mountain. I can’t tell whether it is colour or black and white. It must have been a cool artwork for that time. Although it was about ten years after the genocide, the war had not stopped yet. This memory had been buried for quite a while until one day I found this photo again hidden in one of the family albums.

This is the photo of him and me.

This is him whom I called Chu, the Vietnamese Chu!

In the photo, I am standing between his legs. We are both wearing white shirts. The difference is that my shirt fitted me very well with my skinny body, while his shirt was rather loose and a little bigger than his body. Neither of us are smiling, but I can see there is a little expression on his face. I looked a little worried. He is sitting on a small chair, putting his left hand on my waist and I put my left arm on his left foot. We are both almost expressionless as if we were facing a great uncertainty of the universe.

That is the last memory of him since 1989, which was the year most of the Vietnamese troops were ordered to leave Cambodia. I have no idea how the photo was left with me now. I didn’t remember one bit how did he leave. I didn’t remember if he came to say goodbye. I didn’t remember what did I had felt at that time. Though I do not have this memory at all, I have always wanted to believe that he came to our house while I was playing around the village. He might have handed the photograph to my parents and then said a proper goodbye. I don’t remember if I knew that he was going to leave. Forever.

I remembered I was standing along the National Road number 5 with thousands of students and villagers to see off the Vietnamese soldiers. After a decade stationed in Cambodia, those soldiers were told to withdraw. I also remembered they looked really happy and probably high in excitement for being able to return home and meet their family and loved ones. I looked for him everywhere but there was not a single trace of him. There were so many trucks full of cheerful soldiers. I kept thinking he might be in one of those trucks. I left one truck to the next hoping I could see him once more. There was no luck at all.

I remember I bought a pack of grilled bananas and handed it to an unknown soldier. He happily received them and gave me a beautiful smile as if I were a twenty-year-old charming Khmer woman who had just given him a love potion. That young Vietnamese soldier was not him. Unfortunately.

After that day, we still played in the rice field where he used to live and work. I do not remember if I missed him or not. Maybe not. Maybe yes. I only remember that life went on.

Now as a middle-aged woman, I look at the photo of a very thin girl standing between the legs of a man whose name she does not know. What she remembers is that he must be the ‘Chu’ who left her without a trace since 1989.

In 2017, I met Tran Luong, an independent performance and visual artist from Hanoi, Vietnam. He was invited to Siem Reap and be a mentor for CLA’s Living Arts Fellows. When Luong saw us, a group of artists, who were waiting for him, he waved his right hand just a little above his eyebrow, lowered his head a bit and smiled. It was a deja vu feeling and a wakeup call from a trace that I had intentionally buried three decades ago. After I introduced myself, I observed Luong and I started to wonder how old would he be now? Where does he live? Or if he remembers me like I remember him just now? Whether he is still alive?

I finally told Luong about my story at lunch before he flew back to Hanoi. We ordered Banh Xiao, a Khmer version of soft yellowish pancake with fresh vegetables and fish sauce. The calm expression on his face made me feel comfortable telling him the story. However, I was quite aware that I had to skip some parts and shorten it because I was almost in tears when I was telling the story. Luong was truly touched as if he had been told a bittersweet love story.

I still have hope that I might find him one day. Some days I think to myself, although I might not meet him again, the emotions and flood of memories which come and go are enough for me to go on with my everyday life. I end this story with a slight hope and a sweet memory. Maybe one day if I am lucky enough I might meet the ‘Chu’ again. Who knows?