Hi everyone, this coming Sunday is Father’s Day, so I thought I would write about my dad and what I’ve learned from him. The last few weeks, he has been staying with me. He had been living in Vietnam, and some health concerns sent him back to the US. Because of the pandemic, I hadn’t seen him in four years. Living with him the past three months, which I realized I hadn’t done in 20 years, has been fun, though I’ve had to make some adjustments. When he got back, the first thing he asked me was about a giant wooden beam he told me six years ago to guard. I had given it to someone else, I don’t even remember who. “You shouldn’t have done that. You’ll need that wooden beam someday.” I guess it doesn’t matter what cultures fathers are from, they will want to hoard pieces of wood and reprimand you for not doing so.
My father, Loi Le, was born in Vietnam 76 years ago, in 1947. My father is one of the smartest, strongest, most hardworking, and most hilarious people I know. He is also an amazing storyteller. He enlisted to fight against the North, for which he was put into reeducation camp for a couple of years when South Vietnam fell. The next two decades would be an equally harrowing time that saw our family eking out a survival under Vietnam’s new government, leaving our home, spending six months in a refugee camp in the Philippines, landing in Philly, moving to Seattle, owning a convenience store in Memphis, and moving back to Seattle, along the way facing numerous setbacks and tragedies. The entire story would be too long, so I’ll save it for a book, or maybe a one-man show that involves Vietnamese water puppets, I haven’t decided. Until then, though, here are a few lessons I’ve learned from him:
When you have privilege, use it to help people: In the sixth grade, my father was the biggest and strongest kid in class. One day, he saw a smaller kid being bullied and he stepped in to defend him. He didn’t do it to get on Karma’s good side or whatever. However, sometimes Karma did step in. Years later, after the War, the government made life hell for people who fought against the North. People were assigned to hard labor in reeducation camps. The guy who doled out assignments recognized my father as the kid who protected him from bullies over a decade prior and helped him avoid being sent to much more grueling work.
Always keep your words: When he was in reeducation camp, he and my mother had already fallen in love. They decided to get married. So he went to the head of the camp and asked for permission to leave for a few days. The guy was shocked and indignant: “Who has heard of anyone asking to leave reeducation camp to get married?! How do I know you won’t just try to escape?” My father reassured the man that he wouldn’t escape. He was granted permission. He left the camp, had a simple wedding ceremony with my mother, and came back, one day earlier than he promised.
Find joy and humor whenever you can: My father told me stories of life in these camps, where people were so hungry they were lucky if they could find a rat to eat (the rat was not so lucky). The work was often horrific, sometimes involving detonating unexploded mines. Two people would hold the ends of a long log, and they would slowly and carefully lower the middle of the log to the ground to trigger a mine. The resulting explosion often created shrapnel that flew everywhere. “One guy had his ear sliced off. He taped it back up and continued working. It must have tickled a bit the rest of the day.” I think to endure what my fathers and his fellow prisoners endured, they had to develop a sense of humor. Joy and humor are vital tools that allow us to hold on to our humanity during the longest nights.