I have often thought I could have lived many different lives, that I was in Joseph Campbell’s words, some sort of “hero with a thousand faces.” This is not because I am a New Ager: I don’t believe in crystals. No, my idea about these past lives is that they could all happen in the now, simultaneously, as opposed to the classic past lives of regression therapy, which are like beads on a stringed rosary, following one upon the other, in a click of succession.
My family left Vietnam on a ship after the fall of Saigon and stayed at two holding centers before being released into the American population: one, on Wake Island and the other, a Marine Base called Camp Pendleton. In Camp Pendleton, we waited for nice people to sponsor us and this waiting lasted for six months. During that time, my father fielded many offers of places to stay, each in radically different parts of the United States, each attached to a different life.
We could have lived in rural Oregon; my childhood would have been coniferous and woodsy; perhaps I would have learned to hunt; my body would have developed the whittled, sinuous quality of an outdoorsman.
We could have lived in the plains of Oklahoma; I might have developed a distinctive twang, a fondness for country music and line dancing; perhaps later, I would have found employment in an Indian casino.
We also could have lived in a town of five thousand souls in Northern Minnesota; there I would have learned to love cold weather and developed a taste for the many culinary delicacies of the native Scandinavians. I would have lived for the potlucks in church basements, the sense of warmth that comes from masses of bodies together.
No doubt, there were many more places in this abbreviated roster but these are the highlights of a story my father has often told me, often enough that it has become worn like beach glass. My childhood was spent giving flesh to these alternate lives, which seemed more real, more palpable, more textured, than the one I was actually living.
Your life is shaped by where you make it. My family, we ended up in a very nice part of Los Angeles near a major research university and, as a result, I became a professor. But when we arrived in Los Angeles, the rosary of our life forked in a bewildering number of directions. We were offered the opportunity to run a motel by LAX: my mother could be the cook; my sisters, the maids; my brothers, the touts that trolled the airport for tourists. My father, always given a place of honor, could be the manager.
Opportunities presented themselves daily in those heady, early days; my father also could have been a boxboy at a supermarket and one of the perks of that vocation was that we could have had all the produce we wanted before it was left to rot in the dumpster. There was room for advancement; he could eventually become a stocker and perhaps later, if his English improved, a cashier. Imagine that. I know my parents imagined it, discussed it seriously and considered it as a viable option.
But even before I arrived into the United States, my life was a rosary that forked into two very terribly different strands from which hang whole hanks of other lives. If my family had stayed in Vietnam, most probably my father would have been executed and this would have meant that my family would be reeducated. I have some big city cousins re-educated in the countryside where they still live now as dirt farmers.
I don’t doubt that had I stayed, few opportunities would have come my way in a country strapped for resources. I might very well have been a shoe shine boy. This is what my mom tells me, at least: that in the life she jettisoned, along with the pile of shimmering silk dresses, she left behind a future of busy little hands too familiar with the paraphernalia of shoe care. Every time I see a Vietnamese shoe shine boy, even one that makes an appearance in movies, I see a fork of my life, running across rocky terrain. I see permanently stained fingers and a lifetime of sore knees.
If the South had won the war, I would have lived the life my parents intended for me. I hardly think about this life at all. In this life, I would have been a rich boy. I probably would have grown up no-account like so many rich boys of a certain class in Vietnam. I would have ridden around on a sporty little motorcycle. My evenings would have been spent shirtless, slapping the backs of no-account buddies in karaoke lounges, our table piled high with pitchers of beer and slivers of ice cut from slabs to cool them. I would have had little self-consciousness, no sense that there was another life beyond the one I zipped around in. My friends, culled from the best families of South Vietnam, would have been equally clueless of the refugee world they narrowly escaped.
Like all rich boys from impoverished third world nations, I would have dreamt about some day coming to the United States and I would wonder if that could ever prove to be a possibility or if this was simply the foolishness that youthful, vainglorious dreams are made of.
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