It took me nearly six months to plan our trip to Vietnam. Airfare, lodging, transportation, tours, visas, itinerary–it all took a while to come together. Add to that all the complications of traveling with a large group that included 4 children, all 10 and under. So yeah, it wasn’t a straightforward vacation. But more than the logistics and decisions to be made, there was a real sense of anxiety in the back of my mind, a wariness about the emotions that might take over once we land in Hanoi, once I hear the native accents, once I speak to my father.
In all my previous trips, there had always been a deep inner turmoil that I fought hard to contain. I am Kathy, she who is confident and in control. But not really. Not always in ordinary circumstances, and rarely on those trips when I confronted the ghosts of my family’s past and the consequences of agonizing decisions made long ago.
I have proof. There is actual documentation–photos–of me in deep distress as I meet my father for the first time (in my memory) after a 17 year separation. There are tears streaming down my face as he awkwardly embraces me in front of a crowd of colleagues and hotel staff, all of whom seemed more familiar to me than my own father. Cameras clicking, a few people clapping. The hush of quiet observers. I can still recall the acute sense of being a spectacle, of embodying everyone’s vision of a joyous family reunion. But if that is what people saw, it wasn’t what I felt. Instead, I felt a confusing mix of joy and sadness, tinged with a growing certainty that it was all wrong–the meeting was a mistake, and I had ripped off a bandage too early. Oh, what had I done?! That initial meeting was followed by more anxiety as father and daughter toured Hanoi, attempting to get to know each other; only I was quickly realizing that we would never really know each other. My anxiety built, mixing with guilt, anger, regret, resentment, and uncertainty. Gah! Overwhelmed, I remember crying myself to sleep in my room at the Metropole. I was thankful that I had a job to perform during that trip, responsibilities that gave me a reprieve from these festering feelings. But I could never entirely shake them.
On another trip and in another photo, there is great discomfort on my face as my father again embraces me at the airport in Saigon. His face is full of joy and pride. Mine is withdrawn and cautious, eyes looking down and body stiff. On the tail end of a work assignment I had come to stay with him in Saigon for 3 weeks. I don’t know why I made this decision; perhaps I did so out of some misguided sense of duty or filial piety. Whatever the reason, as soon as I landed and realized that I was on my own, dread and panic set in. During the 20 minute drive from the airport I devised a plan of retreat. When we reached the family home, I promptly called my mother, telling her that if I decided to leave early I would contact her once I got to Singapore. That was hardly a vote of confidence for this trip. But in the end I didn’t flee; I stayed. I dug in and reminded myself that I wanted no regrets.
You see, I grew up surrounded by regret–it was everywhere in my family. No one was really happy with their lot in life nor how they had gotten there. My mother had so many regrets that she sometimes lost sight of her own children. I was convinced that I did not want that life. So I stayed.
But it wasn’t easy. The awkward silences were punctuated by well meaning but clichéd pronouncements. I was told to be good to my mom, to take care of my brother, to study hard, to put family first. Rinse, repeat. I knew in my mind that he was trying to “be my dad” the only way he knew how, “teaching” me about my duties and responsibilities as a good Vietnamese daughter. But these statements only drew attention to the elephant in the room. The BIG elephant that I was trying so hard not to acknowledge for fear that it might crush my resolve to stay, crush any hope of a relationship with my father. And one night, it did. After another round of pronouncements, I lost it. The elephant went on a rampage. Duty? Responsibility? Family? Really? My father was the pot but I was not going to be his kettle. I said everything that needed to be said and I felt all the worse for it. It gave me no relief, no satisfaction to wound him. I cringed as he absorbed the impact of my words, head bowed and shoulders slack. He didn’t fight back and it hurt even more. I don’t know if I cried more for myself or for him.
I cannot say that the incident helped or hurt a relationship that barely existed. Instead, what took root was a feeling of resignation and hopelessness; that somehow I had become a vessel to carry his regrets and my mother’s resentment. But I stayed, pushing the elephant to the far corners of the room. And when I left, I hoped rather than believed that I could leave those feelings behind.
Prompted by the painful memories of these previous trips, I approached this trip with a good deal of trepidation, knowing that this time I was going to have to deal with these emotions in front of my children. As much as I feared the feelings, I feared more what Soup-er Boy and Soup-er Girl would think and feel–for themselves, each other, and maybe even on my behalf. I did not want to pass on the elephant to them.
And then, nothing happened. Nothing. We landed, we traveled, we toured. The kids had a grand time. Mr. No Nom and our friends enjoyed themselves, and so did I. But I kept waiting, anticipating. I felt some pangs of anxiety when I called my father to confirm our arrival in Saigon, but the conversation was brief, cordial, done. Nothing to it. I couldn’t quite grasp what was happening. Where was the elephant? Was it hiding somewhere in the recess of my mind? Will it suddenly manifest? When?
It never did.
Not even when we had dinner at my father’s house, when the children met their grandfather for the first time, surrounded by awkward but good intentions. Not when he joined us on our excursion to the Mekong. Not even when we said goodbye at the airport. The embrace was still stiff but there was no longer any resentment, anger, or regret. I left Vietnam bewildered by what never came to pass.
What just happened? I’m still not quite sure but I suspect that time and empathy have worked their magic. I’m older now and I hope wiser, too. I accept now that we live life in the gray area between right and wrong. And that though we try to do our best, often many things are beyond our control. I’m learning to let go a little. I just didn’t notice when the elephant snuck out.
PS. No elephants were harmed in the telling of this story.