Creative non-fiction / June 2014 (Issue 24)

Paradise Regained

by Qui-Phiet Tran

This piece is excerpted from the author's autobiographical novel Pangs of Memory and Love.

Dalat University through the Vietnam Fulbright program invites me to give a workshop on US literature to its English faculty. I have planned to travel around the country in the summer, but decide instead to accept the invitation. Visiting the place where I was born and spent my early childhood, the starting point of my quest of lost time, the genesis of this book, is a golden opportunity for me. I cannot help waiting for my return to that dreamland. 

Most passengers who travel with me on the bus are Western tourists (I hear their conversation in English, French and some other languages I do not understand), who probably are going to Dalat for sightseeing. Judging by their look and clothing, they must belong to a colony of Westerners living in an inexpensive area in Phạm Ngũ Lảo Street adjacent to Bến Thành Market. Vietnamese lump this type of traveller under the common appellation "Tây Ba lô" (Western backpackers), so called because of their modest belongings and living accommodations. They want to live as economically as they can to save money for travelling. Dalat is just part of their exploration of Vietnam after the war.

I am going to Dalat not for sightseeing but to teach and take some time off to search for my past. I want to see if visiting my birthplace can help me regain my lost paradise, the early years of my childhood, to complete my book and my quest of the past at the same time. Some forty years ago after graduation from college, I visited Dalat to get a "feel" of my childhood city. Although being back at my birthplace brought back wondrous memories, I did not pay much attention to it as there were a lot of things on my mind then. Like most college students in the late 1950s, I was infatuated for a while with the popular corrupt form of French existentialism, foolishly embracing its philosophy of carpe diem. After I got married, working hard for my future and my family took precedence over everything. Young, practical, optimistic and busy, I did not care as much about the past as about my future. The past that I had cherished so much in my boyhood after my leaving Quảng Bình grew dimmer and dimmer in my memory.

My dream-building came to an abrupt end on March 26, 1975, after news of the loss of Huế reached me in America. The comfortable life I had enjoyed as a graduating doctoral student immediately turned into an interminable nightmarish present after my loss of contact with my family. This lasted a few years. Though later I was able to resume normal activities, I lost forever my ability to dream. I was involved in research and professional activities to improve my credentials and to keep my job rather than to satisfy my desire to become a good scholar. I started developing a tendency to shun human contact (except in the classroom where I strove to be a good teacher) and a propensity for taking refuge in memories. The more time went by, the better my remembrance of things past grew. 

March 26, 1975 marked not only the end of my future but also the coming full circle of a person's life, as far I am concerned. It did happen too early for a person in his prime physically and intellectually, which was me. In America, it is not unusual for a senior citizen to talk about his dreams, to continue making plans for his future.

I wake up from a doze when the bus stops for a break at Bảo Lộc, about 110 kilometers from Dalat. Located at the foot of the Langbiang Highlands, this little town enjoys a year-round cool atmosphere and green landscape. We get off at a very busy shop which carries a wide selection of highland products like coffee and oolong tea. To aid our selection, we are invited to sample each of the brands on display. While Vietnamese customers busily go about their shopping, noisily haranguing the sellers, my fellow passengers, the Tây Ba lô, quietly sip their tea or coffee, casting their curious looks at this interesting part of the world.

About an hour later, our bus begins climbing a route winding through a pine forest. The trees are tall, serene and majestic in contrast with the dense, wet, awe-inspiring tropical rainforest of the lowlands below. In front of me is range after range of blue mountains half hidden in white clouds. It is a little after noon in early June, and yet it is so cool and pleasant. Suddenly, I feel a slight quivering in my heart. We must be at the outskirts of Dalat.

After twenty-eight years, the nightmare ended but only after I had lost my father and everything—my home, my country, my life dreams. As I sit on this bus taking me to my birthplace, images of my other past—my lost paradise—surge in me. They rise like waves, one coming after the other, sending a tremor running through my body. The bus is slowly climbing the last steep road before arriving at its destination. Opening wide the window and closing my eyes, I inhale the scents of the Langbiang mountains and listen to the rustling of pine trees. Images of my childhood hover before my eyes, getting clearer and clearer in my mind. I feel a tingle of joy and excitement mixed with stinging pain, and know what it means. It is an anguished search for paradise that I engage in, and I know I only see its images, not its real existence. Granted the sounds and scents I now perceive are the same ones I had perceived as a child, but this is because nature is unchanging rather than because I have fully recovered my past. It is long gone with the people whom I loved and who loved me. I realise that in the days ahead my search will be confined to the images, sounds and scents of yesteryear, as I will be encountering only strangers in the seminar and elsewhere in this city.

The bus pulls in the driveway of a beautiful villa, and we get off in the chilly crisp air of a limpid sky that I can recognise right away. I am met by a young attractive woman who says she is from the Office of International Relations. I learn from her nametag that her name is Trần Thu Huyền (strangely I feel she is not a stranger, though we are meeting for the first time, probably because we have the same family name and I am back in my hometown). I am taken to the campus in a Toyota where Thu Huyền says I will be staying during the seminar.

My US literature workshop meets in the afternoon. The university makes it "important" by hanging an "American Literature Workshop" banner in the auditorium. The participants include the English faculty and graduating seniors. I notice some strange faces, and a hunch tells me they must be the police as they sit in the back, seemingly intent on watching me rather than following my lecture. They are gone after the first day.

After my lecture, we have a short break. I am surrounded by the enthusiastic audience, with many questions about America. I notice in their exchanges a great interest in and also an unabashed admiration for their country's former foe, a "sensitive issue" that Dr Đông, the university's president, had earlier asked me to avoid discussing with the seminar participants. It is amazing that while the authorities are anxious to keep themselves in line, my colleagues here maintain such a relaxed attitude toward politics. 

As the workshop progresses and as we get to know each other better, I discover that my audience is more enthusiastic about the subject I teach than about what I was doing in the United States. We adhere to a tight schedule trying to cover as many topics as we can, ranging from major currents in American literature, to techniques for teaching US literature to Vietnamese students, to evaluating students' writing about literature. Some seminar members even express their willingness to "sign up" for teaching American literature in the near future, should such an opportunity turn up. What I find moving is that during my visit they trust me so much that they share with me their concerns and aspirations. They tell me they lack many things: books for their library, scholarships for advanced study in the US, professional assistance in designing course syllabi, teaching tips, etc., etc. They make me feel as though represent America and have authority in all these matters!

While I am embarrassed by their misunderstanding of my role as a Fulbright scholar, I am deeply touched by their taking me into their confidence. Their kind gesture I interpret as a sign of their acceptance of me as their fellow man. I thought I had lost Dalat forever, so being back here is like regaining my lost paradise. I can't resist rushing to connect with them, as if they were people I'd long lost but now found again. They seem to be in shock to find me so friendly and so enthusiastic, which is quite unusual for a teacher (in Vietnamese culture a teacher is supposed to keep an appropriate distance from his class), let alone a professor from America! They do not understand that I can't help acting that way because I am desperate to be accepted by Dalat people!

My fortune of being accepted by my colleagues puts an end to my earlier worry that I would encounter only inhospitable, unfriendly strangers here. Having successfully passed that formidable hurdle, I feel ready to set out searching for my past. I must do it now. The seminar will end this week, and I don't have much time left. Since my arrival, this is the first time I find myself in the mood for devoting all my time to doing what is important to me. The people I associate with here do not entirely represent the world I lost. It belonged to the dead, the absentees, whom I knew or might not know but who made my birthplace a true paradise. It is this past and these people that I want to evoke and connect with the most.

As I tread the cobblestones of the alley I might have set foot on forty years ago, I drift into a delicious moment of the past. Evoking the dead who were dear to me like Uncle and Auntie Gia, Auntie Hoa and particularly Như Cẩm (before I return to Saigon I plan to visit again the cemetery where my little sister is buried, but whose grave I couldn't locate on my first visit) becomes an effortless, quick process for me now. All it requires is returning to the old earth where we had lived our lives together. Their resurrection will be powerful, their images vivid and compelling, and I will be reliving for a short while my happy past. How exciting for an old exile to be in touch with the old earth again! Though I am still not yet at Cây S Sáu (where my home once was), I already hear echoes of the past from that section of Dalat, when treading the grounds of the university five kilometres away. Not only are the currents of the earth connected, all the souls of the past—Uncle and Auntie Gia, Auntie Hoa, my sister Như Cẩm, and all the people unknown to me—gather with me. Because these people are now phantoms, not in the flesh, they appear and vanish quickly. Images of the past appear constantly, but intermittently, as if my memory was having trouble catching up with lost time, with lost opportunities due to long absence from home, as if I was running out of time. Images of the past are as fragile as my health, my human condition. Not shielded any more by youth and idealism, which had made me take for granted the pleasure of remembering my past in my 1960 visit, and still recovering from the bout of serious illness I contracted two years ago, I become acutely aware of my mortality, feeling more than ever the urgency to dig up my forgotten past, to relive it as much as possible during the remainder of my stay.

After the workshop when Thu Huyền comes to take me on a tour of Dalat, I tell her that I want to move out to a hotel and stay a few more days to explore more of my birthplace and former hometown. I want to be on my own, in my privacy, in this so-called pilgrimage to the land that used to be my paradise. I tell Thu Huyền I don't want to see the city's attractions. It doesn't seem to me that just seeing the city will satisfy the purpose of my visit. It's hard to find anything here that can help me remember Dalat as the city of my childhood. Now that I can put behind me the seminar and all its constraints—lectures, contact with participants and the administration, paying attention to Dr Đông's request for political correctness—I want to be alone in the very place where I was born and spent my brief but heavenly childhood.

My hotel is on a hilltop. Thu Huyền points to an area with little red cottages interspersed with row after row of green beds of vegetation and says it is Cây S Sáu. There are more houses now than in 1960 when I visited the Gia family, but these neat, unbroken and lush green rows of vegetables strike me as achingly familiar. There is a sharp squeeze on my heart when I glance at a white hill facing the hotel and glittering in the afternoon sun that Thu Huyền says is the city's cemetery. It's here that Như Cẩm was buried, but whose grave I couldn't find on my last visit. The past must be lurking around, and I will have to be confronted with it in no time.

The same sensation that overcame me when I first got off the bus and set foot on Dalat a week ago is returning to me, except that it is getting more intense. I both feel and see images of the past not only rising inside me but also pouring out on me from the air, the earth, the landscape, the objects around me, uninterruptedly and uncontrollably. They must have been accumulated and repressed for such a long time! Suddenly, I feel dizzy. A tremor courses through my veins in a combined attack of neuralgia and neurasthenia. Standing out in the mass of recovered images are the dead— Như Cẩm, Ngành, Uncle and Auntie Gia, Auntie Hoa. Even my parents, my daughter Đoan Nghiêm who were buried in different places assemble here. It is like a family reunion to me. Unknown people, objects, things, events, landscapes also compete to emerge, though not as sharply. The montagnards with their sad faces silently, resignedly filing in front of my childhood home on their way to town to trade for salt and rice, my coming out at night to chant a mantra I'd memorised from a Chinese book written in the same vein as Arabian Nights in an attempt to summon the genii to my service, my family eating lunch with the old abbot of Linh Sơn Temple where I saw a giant tortoise that was said to return to pay its respects to the temple's founder on the anniversary of his death … Compressed with many long years and months, the excavated past explodes into my consciousness, its attack seizing me, penetrating the core of my body and soul, making me feel dazed, making me feel the loss of the sense of time. No sooner is an old scene about to vanish than a new one overtakes it, and the process continues ad infinitum. I feel its power, its weight on me, but I can't articulate it. I close my eyes to feel, hear, listen to my beloved past—my beloved ones, my beloved land—coming to life.

In my quest of the past, my beloved are those who are long dead or absent. Finding them means finding my past. After so many years, I now come to realise that the past is not lost but is at my fingertips, for the people whom I loved and who loved me are still around and can be invoked instantly. Just as the earth—Dalat and its landscapes—is, remains unchanged, can't be destroyed, so are my people not subject to the law of mutability. The dead are not gone forever, but they lie dormant on this land, nurtured and sustained in their sleep by the earth until I return to exhume them for our reunion.

The dead when invoked bring back with them their world—my lost world—with its full colours, imagery and sounds. Remembering heals our traumatised mind by enabling us to dwell on our pleasurable moments and shut off those marked by suffering and sorrow. I vividly remember the time when my sister was living, not when she drew her last breath. The air raid alert that sent Ngành, me and the other school children rushing to the shelter was a terror, but I only recall a sweet Ngành, my beloved sister-figure, who was holding my hand in hers as she led me to safety. When I remember her today, a most delightful sensation akin to the thrill of first love arises. The entire process of reliving the past involves involuntary memory, as I am making no mental effort to recall and dig up the past: it just comes out from the recesses of my soul spontaneously and unobtrusively. When that blissful state ceases because I am exhausted or consciousness interferes, then another past event immediately arises and plunges me into the next bout of reverie. 

Being back in the country where the only people I knew are long dead or absent and which, in my observation, is busily building a new future of its own, at first I found myself a total stranger and a lost soul. In the earlier days of my stay, I still felt I was an exile because this country and its new generation belong to a regime we fled almost five decades ago. Only when I return to my birthplace do I clearly understand the purpose of my quest. It is the past world and its people—the dead and the absentees—that I want to recover in this trip. Psychologically and emotionally, this world is the only one that I can relate to, where I feel at home because it and its people are recognisable, familiar, precious and important to me. I can relate to and identify with them and their world because invoking them means invoking my former self, my darling cohort. I see me, the little boy, as having his most pleasurable time in their company. In his pristine world, he knows only joy and merriment, entirely free from problems and worries, unaware of the passage of time that made him wiser but was the cause of his suffering and sorrow. By reconnecting with my people in the past, I can emulate their ability to conquer time. Because they no longer exist in the temporal world, cease to be mortals and are free of sorrow and suffering, their world and mine remain intact. When my past is conjured up, my sister is still a two-year-old baby, my family the happiest one in the world, and me an innocent, happy-go-lucky seven-year-old boy.

I decide not to visit the cemetery. Forty years ago, I couldn't find Như Cẩm's grave, so it is useless to try again this time. Nor do I want to try to find where Uncle and Auntie Gia, Auntie Hoa and Ngành last lived. They, all the landscapes of Dalat in the past and the entirety of my childhood are within me, not to be found anywhere. 

Before returning to Saigon I want to see instead the pine grove not far from my former childhood home. I used to get up there to daydream after reading. I used to follow the scents of my favourite characters—fictional and yet so real and fascinating. After my sister's death, I also often went there to cry because I didn't want anyone to know that I was mourning her. (Beside my father, it was me who was most visibly affected by the tragedy.) 

Things I experience today are not different from what has existed in my memory ever since my childhood—the sky-high shady trees rustling in the breeze, the sharp fragrance of the pine forest, the pleasant feeling of peace and security to be home. Halfway to the top of the hill as I turn around and look down at the city far below, I am overcome by a sensation of dizziness, exhaustion and fear. My head swims, my feet tremble. Do I have enough strength and time to get up there within my remaining life? Can I successfully recover a happy past that didn't last, is getting more and more distant and remote and is beyond the reach of my flimsy memory? My quest is often frustrated by interfering memories of a different past that has haunted me since the loss of Huế on March 26, 1975, and won't let go of me although I try not to think about it. Can I call this past "past"; that is, when it began after the end of my happy childhood and young adulthood, spanned almost thirty years of exile in America, and though it ended with my family reunion in America, still reverberates and rankles in my consciousness like a fresh wound? In my sleep, and sometimes when I am awake, the same old terror comes back and attacks me with the same force though less frequently than it did in the nightmarish years after I lost contact with my family. Because this "past" is not over, but only a permanent painful present for me, it is not the purpose of my quest. Although being back in my birthplace allows me to catch a glimpse of my lost home, will this vision last? Is it powerful enough to counteract the trauma that has haunted me since I lost all my life dreams and went into exile, the cause of my return to search for my paradise lost?

Fatigue already sets in before I try to reach my old favourite hilltop. Across from where I am, Dalat cemetery, where my sister is lying, is gleaming in the last daylight. She and the other dead who were dear to me have left this world of sorrow for a long time and are resting in peace. But tomorrow I will have to return to Saigon and prepare for our trip back to the United States. I have to return to live out my destined life of exile. I fear that this could be my last effort to regain my true paradise. I don't think I can do it again because I will be too old for such a formidable endeavour and paradise can be recovered only once in a person's lifetime. Nevertheless, while my quest of paradise is not totally successful (no quest of paradise is totally successful!), it allows me to exhume my past and enjoy it for a short while, which is more than I could hope for before this trip. Now that I have found my past with its landscapes, objects and people, I will take them with me back to America. It is like taking your country and people into exile with you. This will increase my nostalgia as it is a constant reminder of our uprooting. But all things considered, it is better than pining away in sorrow and guilt because you can derive consolation and even strength from those that were—and still are—dear to you.

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