diaCRITICS is happy to reprint Kyanh Tonnu’s piece “My Living, Yet Lost, Father.” In elegant, reflective prose, Tonnu chronicles her journey from Saigon to California by way of the figure of her father. A meditation on war, loss, and family, “My Living, Yet Lost, Father” traces how Tonnu comes to lose her father along the way. This article was originally published at Zócalo Public Square.
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My Living, Yet Lost, Father
The Final Weeks of South Vietnam Changed Everything Between Us
In the spring of 1975, when I was eight years old, my family, which included my parents and younger sister, moved from Vietnam, our native home, to Singapore. My father was a war correspondent covering Southeast Asia for Reuters, and he believed Saigon was no longer safe. He was right. In the last days of April, as Saigon fell to communist rule, he would lose his job, his country, and his father. And I would lose the father I’d known.
Singapore was just a two-hour plane ride from Saigon, but it might as well have been a different planet. The clean streets, the night markets that magically transformed into litter-free parking lots the next morning, the regimented primary school that checked my fingernails for dirt after recess—all this stood in contrast to the familiar stench of fish markets, the exhaust fumes of errant mopeds, and the haphazard, noisy traffic of Saigon.
We settled on the 11th floor of a high-rise apartment, spacious and open, with a balcony that ran the length of the living room and overlooked the botanic gardens. On most afternoons, if it wasn’t too hot or if it didn’t rain, my mother would stroll us through the manicured gardens, where, standing over a Japanese-style bridge, my three-year-old sister Nu and I would feed the enormous koi that clamored for bits of dried bread.
When it was too hot to be outdoors, my mother would take us in and out of Indian sari shops, my sister and me hiding between the cool folds of brightly beaded silk, the incense overwhelming our senses. Or we would visit Chinese jewelry shops, where my mother would examine jade and sapphires while I waited patiently, book in hand, and my sister slept in her stroller. We would be rewarded with ice cream cones at Cold Storage, the local supermarket.
Although I remember that I went to school at the English and Mandarin school on Cairnhill Road; that I played with Pia, an Australian girl who lived two floors up; that my father went to his job and my mother took care of my sister during the day; that we spent four months in Singapore—I have few other memories of the routine that must have governed our lives. They have all been overshadowed by those last days of April.
Almost from the moment we arrived in Singapore, our home was under a siege of grief and foreboding. A week after our move, my parents learned that Buon Me Thuot, a city in the central highlands of Vietnam and home to my grandfather, had fallen to the advancing North. Then we lost contact, and there was no way to get any information out of central Vietnam. My sister and I were not aware of this news, but we knew that something ominous was revealing itself to the grownups.
My mother’s daily insistence on leaving the house, even under the heavy afternoon sun, was a poor attempt to distract us from the dark mood at home. That week, the phone rang incessantly, but conversations were mostly inaudible. My mother would stare off into the distance afterward while my father brooded in silence. One afternoon, while my father was on the phone and my sister and I were crouched on the floor building an intricate dollhouse with wooden blocks, a book launched from my father’s desk came sliding across the floor and knocked it down. Through clenched teeth, he told us to be quiet. Stunned, we stopped our play and sat still on the cool tiled floors. At dinner, I made the mistake of propping up a book in front of my food. He barked at me and slapped my book shut with a thud. The rest of our meal passed in silence.
Barely contained rage might be natural for anyone watching his world fall apart, but I had never seen my father like this. For years, I’d been an unfailing companion at his side. As a three-year-old, I’d begun accompanying my father on his daily news-gathering rounds in Vientiane, Laos, where we lived from the late 1960s to the early 1970s. Mornings began at an outdoor cafe, where my father would have his coffee while I drank coconut juice. He’d hold court at a small table, and, soon enough, acquaintances would drop by for a word, a quick hello, and a pat on the head for me. I would entertain my father by imitating the people we’d just met, like the British journalist who spoke defiantly ugly French.
In late morning, I’d be let loose in the Hotel Constellation, a hub for foreign journalists. The hotel was owned by Maurice Cavalerie, a half-Chinese, half-Frenchman whose wife, Rose, took an interest in my asthma. She would ask about my breathing, touch my forehead affectionately, and recommend eucalyptus oil for my chest. I had free rein over the dark red interiors of the bar, climbing up and down barstools, spinning, patiently earning my red maraschino cherry, while my father waited, talked, and collected social capital for the days when real information had to be exchanged.
By noon, we would find ourselves, usually with my mother, having lunch at the “Noodle Lady,” a tiny stall where a large, stately woman hovered over a vat of steaming soup atop a charcoal stove. Then we went home for a siesta at the house on stilts, where we lived, and everything quieted down, save for the occasional barking of Pitou, the German Shepherd my father rescued and loved. I always refused to sleep, climbing instead atop my father’s back, playing with him, until he would fall asleep before me.
In 1972, we moved to Vietnam. My father, who had left the country at 17 to avoid the draft, was the prodigal son looking for redemption. After 21 years spent abroad, in London, Paris, and then Vientiane, my father travelled to Buon Me Thuot to see my grandfather. He took me with him (transport included a deafening ride in a U.S. military helicopter) and bore gifts, a leather bag and a camera. Like Odysseus returning to Ithaca, my father brought old relatives to tears as they saw the man whom they remembered as a boy. My grandfather, wiry and frail, with a long white beard that reached his waist, stood waiting outside his house, and, at the sight of his son, he, too, wept and embraced him. We spent a week at my grandfather’s orchard, fishing, playing in the river, and driving through the orange groves. It was magical. When we left, my father promised his father that he would return soon. But there was to be no return.
As the last days of April 1975 played out, my father grew distant. He spent more and more time at the Reuters office, trying to find passage for his siblings on ships and planes and making phone calls to embassies, friends, and acquaintances. As preoccupied as he was that week, though, he still took me with him everywhere. I was left to wander the large, open newsroom, where I played on typewriters and collected scraps of paper. I was taken with the tap-tapping noise of the telex machines, all lined up on a shelf spitting out thin strips of news. When we left the office, my father held my hand tightly as I skipped down the long corridor, happy to be by his side.
After each visit to the newsroom, my father took me to the bookstore, where he bought me abridged versions of boys’ adventure stories that had captivated him as a child: Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Treasure Island, Kidnapped, Around the World in 80 Days, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Call of the Wild. I was usually allowed to pick just one book, but that week, my father forsook routine and I wound up lugging home full bags. I was thrilled.
These book sprees were followed by lunch at the Goodwood Park Hotel, where we sat under dark green umbrellas by the pool. I ordered shrimp cocktail, my favorite, and my father watched me eat while he drank a beer and smoked Pall Malls. Occasionally, he would reach over to brush away the strands of hair that stuck to my forehead in the humidity and heat and, through pursed lips, smile at me. He said little, and I said even less.
Then the hard news came. After weeks of unconfirmed reports, an eyewitness: my grandfather was dead. The whispered story, which I only heard much later, was that he had been hit by shrapnel when he opened the front door of his home at the sound of forceful knocking. A week later, the North Vietnamese army pushed its way south. Tanks rolled into the grounds of the Presidential Palace, then Tan San Nhut airport. After nearly 20 years of fighting, South Vietnam had ceased to exist.
In the days following the end of the war, I stopped going to school, and the grief in our home gave way to frenzied activity. My parents were calling, waiting for news of family members. Many of them left amidst the now infamous scene at Tan San Nhut airport and the U.S. embassy: hordes of people with the whole of their lives in plastic bags, pushing and shoving their way onto airplanes and whirring Chinooks. It was a time of human accounting. Who left? Who stayed behind? Who made it? Who died?
For us, departure was imminent as well. The Singapore government, anticipating the large numbers of refugees who would seek asylum, abruptly stopped recognizing South Vietnamese passports. We were without a nationality. Reuters offered my father a position in its Hong Kong bureau, but he didn’t take it. Instead, he left Reuters, and, in June of that year, we left for Paris, moving into a beautiful and cold apartment in a lonely part of the 16th arrondissement.
Our time in France turned out to be a brief interlude, and just a few years later we would move once again, this time to California, where many members of our extended family ended up after the mass exodus from Vietnam. During these years, my father, who had abandoned journalism after we moved to Paris, retreated into a solitary world of books and letters—and what I later understood was depression. He spent the next decades trying to regain his footing, fighting his demons while raising a growing family.
As I adjusted to life in the States—to cars that seemed endless in size and length, to ice cream shops with 31 flavors, to schoolrooms in which classmates discussed, disagreed, questioned, and even joked with the teacher—I also adjusted to life with a father who now avoided people rather than seeking them out, who took up employment as a courier, a car mechanic, a bartender, a gardener, or anything else that would keep dark thoughts, or any thoughts, at bay. With time, I began to find my voice in school and learned to question, to be critical, and to challenge. I wanted my father to be remade and redefined the same way. But he was somewhere else, in a world of Chinese calligraphy, guitar playing, and Vietnamese poetry. It was a world in which I was no longer included. So in the years that followed, I would grapple with feelings of betrayal—his and mine—as I recast my father in a harsher light, under the glare of a bright new world.
Kyanh Tonnu is a school teacher in Los Angeles.
All photos are courtesy of Kyanh Tonnu.
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