Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Gold, Love, and Power Struggles: The Caper PART 3

August 8, 2017. Gold, Love, and Power Struggles: An Inside Story of "The Caper." copyright © Kim Roberts

For over forty years I've accustomed myself to American way of being open, rational, and straightforward. But, in Vietnamese culture, it's not flattering for one to be forthright. So to be tasteful, we often imply. The Vietnamese implication is not about beating around the bush. It is intended to make the subject listener feel and act in certain way. Impacting the psyche of the listener is the point. Not only the Vietnamese don't directly say what we mean, we often don't even make our intention known. It's a cultural trait. And that is not only in speaking manner, it's also in our way of thinking, behaving, strategizing, and living our lives. If I could draw the way the Vietnamese rationalize, it would look like a maze, not according to any law of logic, or any rule of commonsense.  

That pattern of thinking has led us to our way of social interactions and formation of various segments in the community. Back to my hometown Sadec, since 1975, the socialist local authorities have had a tremendous power over the lives of the locals. Yet the authorities also know that there is another force they have to reckon with: The native belief in the power of the Village Deity and of the elders. As we Vietnamese would say, Phép vua thua lệ làng,” or "facing the village's customs, the king's rules must leave in a lurch." Then there is a powerful religious group, the pro-government Buddhist Association, which comprises about one-half of Buddhist Temples that have gained supports and recognition from the local authorities. Explicitly, these groups don't fight each other for territorial controls. Implicitly, they try exert power over each other and the locals. The village people get used to dealing with these implicit power struggles. Even when it's unbearable, we Vietnamese know how to "cố đấm ăn xôi," or "take the punches to earn the sweet rice reward." 

With respect to my story, "The Caper," after I came to America in 1975, I never mentioned to others of my mother and the deep, binding love I had for her as well as her influence upon my life. Quietly and faithfully, I sent her support money on a regular basis. After her death in 2000, I let my Buddhist nun sister Nhu Chieu sell the house and land that Mother had willed to me. My sister bought .999 pure gold bars with the proceeds. Then I continued to send her money. For each $100 I sent and unused she purchased a .999 pure gold ring until she collected hundreds of gold rings. I am a fool for love, I knew they never needed that much money but I wanted to pamper them.

In 2006, my Buddhist nun sister Nhu Chieu died of a sudden heart attack and left two bags of gold. A dozen of powerful figures in the community, including Buddhist nuns, relatives, and law enforcement witnessed the gold and did an inventory of it. They called to my home in America and needed my decision on how to distribute the gold. They spoke as if they recognized I was the rightful heir to the gold but implicitly, I should not or could not claim the gold for myself. I knew immediately, each one at the scene of my sister's death implied that the gold should go to them. Off the top of my head, I suggested a gold custodian, my cousin Thanh My, living in downtown Sadec near the police headquarters, although I had no contact with her for over forty years. I knew for sure the people and groups present at the temple where sister died would keep an eye on the gold until, as they suggested, I returned to Sadec to officially gift it to them. No one, no group, not even my cousin, would dare to touch the gold. 

In Sadec we say, "Đi với bụt mặc áo cà sa, đi với ma mặc áo giấy." Literally, it means "going with a monk, wear a saffron robe, going with a ghost, wear a paper outfit." Or as we say in America, "Pay a man back in the same coin." No one knew that I selected my cousin because she was a mother of three who would unlikely skip town with the gold while I was exploring my options.

I knew without any doubt that the moment I claimed my right to the gold or hired an attorney to fight for it through the legal system, the gold would mysteriously disappear within seconds. However, if I returned and distributed the gold as I promised the people there, I could endanger my life as I would not please everyone. Worse, I would subject myself to unwanted pressure and forces. I could jeopardize my safety as the local authorities could arrest me without a cause. Once, my brother in law, a Vietnamese American, was arrested and thrown in jail because he took a video of a government building near Sadec even from street. My third option was walking away. And I knew that was their intention for me to do. The fact that the gold was intact in my cousin's safe for weeks until I returned indicated that the risk of any attempt to take or tamper with it was extremely high.

Walking away was never my intention. So "The Caper" operation took place. That wasn't for the value of the gold as I later gave the gold money away to charities. I had to do that for my self-respect. No one should underestimate the intensity of my love and the fire in my determination when it comes to the matters of the heart. The gold was a loving gift I gave my mother and sister and no one else.

With that, I dedicate this piece to my late mother and my late Buddhist nun sister Nhu Chieu. Their spirits were with me throughout my adventure. The force of my love for them made The Caper a successful experience.

END. www.facebook.com/sadecinmyheart   copyright © Kim Roberts

(For the full story, please click the following link)

The Caper PART 3--Retrieving Two Bags of Gold from...: copyright © Kim Roberts

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Independence Day 2017, Part II: American Capitalism and Freedom Win At Last

copyright © Kim Roberts

Freedom and the Meaning of Life are often being taken for granted by people in a capitalist society where materialism is predominant. They are two different concepts. Yet different degrees of freedom may lead to different levels of meaning in one's life. Without freedom, one is not afforded with opportunities to make life's meaningful choices. However, for some people, the call for meaning of life is so imperative that under any circumstance, with or without freedom, it is impossible to give up the search for life's meaning.
"Creative works always give me gratification, comfort, and a sense of substance," said my father sometime in 1960 when he pointed to me the most beautiful topiary rose bush he planted and shaped.

"Why?" I asked.

"When you cannot control life's insurmountable circumstances, or do not have sufficient material things for your personal comfort, or when you are not free to decide future directions that fit your needs, you still have the meaning of life. You can still find it through your creative works," said Father. Then he added, "When you don't have much, meaning maybe the only thing. With freedom, you have choices. Without freedom, creativity gives you options to escape from reality. I am happy that you can paint and draw. That's your gift and your means for an escape if you ever need it. Don't ever lose it."

After Father's death in 1965, I remembered his words and understood that material things, however valuable, come and go but meaning, like freedom, is a concept that doesn't leave one's heart and mind. Once it is chosen to be the guiding light in one's life, nothing else can overshadow that principle.

Ten years later, in September 1975, I was in America, land of the free. Excited and hopeful, I euphorically thought I was in heaven. I remembered my sister Nhu Anh whose hope for me was to find my ultimate freedom, or on her scale from zero to ten degrees, the number tenth freedom. With that in mind, despite the prospect of facing a new life alone with much difficulty, I turned down a relationship proposal by a young, handsome blue-eyed radio announcer in Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas, named Benjamin. Ben gave me a necklace with a silver star pendant centered by a small diamond--a gesture of his feelings and seriousness. I was touched but I had to choose the experience of designing, planning, and building my new life on my own. That was my first act of being a free person in a country that offers its people safety, security, and a sense of permanency.

However, like gaining freedom from external forces that has a price tag, holding on to that freedom also has hidden costs for which no one can be prepared. I soon faced a reality of no job, no education, no money, inadequate language skill, and no future directions. Worse, America was so divided after the Vietnam War that I had no idea where I would fit in. It seems America needed healing even more than I did. Many Americans welcomed me with open arms but others looked at me as a reminder of a shame, a mistake by the U.S. government for engaging in an unpopular war that took many American lives and tore America apart. And the sign of the KKK with robes and hoods on streets of Castro Valley reminded me the history of prejudice in America. I was confused, lost.
Vietnam suffered the same dilemma. Winning the war and gaining independence did not mean the country could see the end of struggles. There was a cost to maintain the newfound peace and freedom. Since 1975, Vietnam suffered failed economic policies, a high military budget because of the war with Cambodia, and according to on-line information, Vietnam had a poverty level up to 75%. Globally, Vietnam was considered among the poorest countries.

With respect to life in Vietnam after the war, a friend I met in 1978, Nhung, told me, "When I escaped from Vietnam by boat, several other boats were sunk or being pirated. Your sister's former classmate, Thi, and her family of five were missing at sea. I was one of the lucky ones. Before my escape, I lived a few years under the communist control so I know how starving we were in Vietnam, no food, no clothes, shoddy housing conditions, and inadequate healthcare. In America, if you work, you do make money, however little. At home, in a socialist society, you practically work for free." Consequently, Nhung found her purpose in America as a moneymaking machine--not for herself but for her family of 12 in Vietnam. She sent 80% of her earnings home.

At the beginning of my life in America, I remembered what my father said about my painting skill. Immediately, when I arrived in Kentucky in 1975, I began to paint to ease the sufferings, loneliness, and sadness. After moving to California, I continued to paint but soon realized that escaping into a world of arts wasn't enough. I needed more.

"The deeper meaning of life comes from your heart and soul when you want something so bad that you would take the most difficult measures to get it," said Father. And I never forgot what my Buddhist sister Nhu Anh said about America and freedom from war. "In America, you can make long term choices that you can look back and be proud of yourself later. Do crazy things if you want to but do that for you. Don't compromise. Don't be afraid," she said.

With that in mind, in 1976, I refused to compromise my integrity by turning down financial assistance from two wealthy individuals I knew in SF and humbly earned a living doing paintings with a group of Southeast Asian artists. That did not work out well. A Christian couple I just met, Dan and Elaine Jew, invited me to stay with their family in Castro Valley until I found jobs or study. I adored Dan and Elaine and their children. Their loving kindness was unprecedented. Then during my first semester at CSUH in January 1977, I applied for work-study. The lady I met at the Accounting department wore thick glasses, a brown scarf, and heavy diamonds on her finger. She told me I only got $2.68/hour, or 80% of the minimum wage unless I applied for work outside campus.

As I was searching for my identification inside my wallet, the color of a bluish check struck my eyes. I could feel a shockwave radiating from my brain throughout my body. It was a blank check signed by Elaine. I remembered she said she was concerned that I would need money in an emergency situation so she gave me a blank check. Elaine hardly knew me when she signed the check. In return, I had no intention of using it so I had forgotten about it. But the sudden jolt, created by a reminder that a stranger had trusted me that much and I was strong enough not to abuse her trust, shook me to the core. I realized then it didn't matter whether I made $2.68 per hour or $5 an hour, I felt so good about America and Americans that I could accept anything as long as it was a pure, honest, and trust-worthy endeavor. America was not all about materialism. Americans had heart. Elaine had restored my faith in human kindness and gave me the meaning of life I needed.

Nowadays, Both Dan and Elaine are over 80 years old. We met for lunch not long ago. When I recalled the impact of her blank check, we had a chuckle.

In June 1978, along with my best friend Som, I graduated with a BA degree. The Library Congress did an evaluation of my two Baccalaureate degrees and a law degree from Saigon but could not give me equivalent certificates. I was fine with that as I enjoyed learning everything anew. The American Officer, who was instrumental in helping me move to the Bay Area, was at my graduation. He said to me, " When I met you in Vietnam, I didn't know you're an iconoclast. And, of all the academic majors that can help you find good paying jobs, you chose a tough and impractical degree, Political Science. Why?"

"Because I can. Because I wanted to," said I. Deep down inside, I thought of the indomitable spirits of my sister and father and wanted to keep that alive by doing what I felt were the right things, not the least challenging tasks. 
Gradually, the economic conditions in Vietnam improved by the overseas remittance, which arrived in Vietnam in the billions. As time went by, the World Bank's statistics indicated the poverty level began to drop as Vietnam initiated a socialist-oriented market economy in 1986.  In September 1989, under heavy diplomatic and economic pressure from the international community, Vietnam withdrew over 100,000 Vietnamese troops that had occupied Cambodia (Kampuchea) since 1979. The U. S. established normal relationship with Vietnam on July 11, 1995. The Vietnamese government then implemented a series of economic and foreign policy reforms and the country became flourished.

In 2000, my beloved mother passed away and willed her house and land to me. I let my last sister in Vietnam, another Buddhist nun, exceptionally beautiful but very shy, sell them and trade the money for gold bars. Then she moved into a Buddhist Temple. I continued to support her by sending money and communicating with her regularly. In February 2006, I planned on going to Vietnam to spend time with her. I always wanted to start a small library for children in my village because that was my childhood dream. Unfortunately, my sister Nhu Chieu, suffered a heart attack and passed away three weeks before my visit. The authorities in the city of Sadec somehow found and confiscated two bags of gold from her possession. I was asked to return to Sadec to give legitimacy to the distribution of the gold to different temples and local authorities.

I cried for days for my loss of my sister Nhu Chieu and for my pain and anger due to the insensitivity, blatantly disrespect, and intention of the local authorities to strip me of my inheritance.  They took more than gold, they took a piece of my heart. The following month, April 2006, I masterminded a most daring operation to return to Sadec and snatch two bags of gold that were securely kept there. That was the origin of my blog series under the name "The Caper: Retrieving Two Bags of Gold from Sadec and Zen and the Art of Gold Robbery)," published on 4/8/16, 4/23/16, 5/12/16, and 5/20/16.

Through the years, Vietnam is still a socialist society but the Vietnamese have arrived in the U.S. to gain experience in education, training, and IT. They also seem to enjoy material things and services that a capitalist country offers. In my experience, at least one Vietnamese came for IVF (in vitro fertilization) technology. Others came for advance treatments of illness. Some simply to purchase fashion clothing new products or to send home such expensive food as Kobe beef, lobsters, or abalone. Needless to say, materialism and capitalism have superseded socialism.

I am proud to be an American. This country has allowed me to be who I am and do what I need to do. And that is: it's not enough to fight for freedom, it's also important to fight for principles and for love. I have found the meaning of life.

END of Part II of 2 parts.

www.facebook.com/sadecinmyheart   copyright © Kim Roberts

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Independence Day 2017, Part I: American Capitalism and Freedom Win At Last

copyright © Kim Roberts

July 4, 2017 is American Independence Day. For this special day I will say something about my favorite subject: freedom. My Buddhist nun sister Nhu Anh--who always behaved in a very un-Buddhist nun like but in a good way--labeled each condition of freedom that a nation or a person is afforded as a "degree" of freedom, a point between zero and ten, with zero as no freedom and ten as the ultimate freedom. Oddly enough, I find it a logical measurement of freedom, both as "freedom from" and "freedom to," as over the centuries, Vietnam has proven to be both an aggressor and a victim of aggression.

Being born in 1932, Nhu Anh was brought up during the French colonial time in Vietnam, including the period of Japanese occupation of Vietnam during the WWII. She then lived through the Vietnam War until it ended in 1975. Since Nhu Anh stayed in Saigon after April 30, 1975, she also witnessed the ten-year Cambodian-Vietnamese War (1979-1989), including intermittent conflicts with China. Finally she witnessed a brief one year peaceful period before she died at the age of 58, after Vietnam withdrew its last troops from Cambodia (Kampuchea) in September 1989.  

Nhu Anh often said, with such a wisdom for someone without a higher education, that for every unholy war, there are diplomacies and propagandas inciting such slogans as "die for your country, your freedom, your independence, etc." to provoke a holy enthusiasm from those who would die for their ruling class, or leaders, or government, or rulers who never go to war or never fight war themselves.  They only make war and let others sacrifice for their enrichment. Maybe she was pessimistic but considering the fact that all her life she never saw peace, who would blame her for her gloomy view. 

In April 1975, I talked to Nhu Anh for the last time before other family members and I escaped from Vietnam. She said, "Despite everything, the American government gave us a higher degree of freedom even when they told us how and when the war in our country should go. On my degrees of freedom scale, we had about 5. Now, dark days are coming because the North Vietnam will make us suffer and freedom will be zero. As usual, we've never had real freedom, only degrees of freedom, you must find and experience the ultimate freedom for yourself."

Well, Nhu Anh wasn't being sarcastic. She was right. Vietnam was never free from war. The Cambodian-Vietnamese conflict went back several centuries. My hometown Sadec once belonged to the Khmer Empire (Cambodia) before Vietnam colonized Cambodia in 19th century. The name Sadec means "Iron Market" in Khmer. So in 1975, within 24 hours after Saigon fell and North Vietnam performed their victory parade, Kampuchea (Cambodia) invaded the island of Phu Quoc, claiming it as Cambodian former territory. Phu Quoc is the island to which I brought my family of 6 in a daring escape from Rach Gia Province as we were protected and assisted by a businessman I met in Rach Gia.  The event was predicted in my horoscope, a desperate measure on and after which I relied and blindly followed. During the confusion due to the Cambodian invasion, the new Vietnamese force failed to take control of Phu Quoc and my family and I safely left Phu Quoc for Thailand, going through another escape from the Khmer Rouge's barricade.

"Right after the war, the North Vietnam took over the South. Our young men and women were sent to fight the war in Cambodia. Among them was my son, Tri. We were left bare of resources. Even our staple, rice, was moldy and turned black and blue before eaten. My husband was sent to Labor Camp and he caught TB in the camp. I struggled to feed my family by selling everything, anything that was sellable. I even peeled off our tin roof and sold the tin piece by piece to save money for my son to escape from Vietnam through the jungle of Cambodia. He asked me to consider him dead because if he didn't die escaping from Vietnam, he would die fighting another war in Cambodia. Fortunately, he made it out alive and was rescued by Italy. Since 1978, he has been living and working as a refugee in Italy. He even married the boss' daughter, an Italian woman," said Linh Tran, my housekeeper who worked for me in 1999.

Vietnam after reunification in April 1975 was met with chaos and failed economic policies.  On top of it, even without the presence of American troops and weapons in Vietnam, the country still maintained the fifth largest armed forces on the globe with over one million regular soldiers under arms. And it spent around one-third of its budget on the military. Before its demise, the Soviet Union provided Vietnam with an annual budget of over one billion in military aid. After being attacked by Cambodia in 1975 and all diplomatic efforts to resolve the conflict failed, in 1978, in a retaliatory strike, Vietnam invaded Cambodia. It occupied that country for ten years despite China's objection and occasional attacks along Vietnamese northern border with China. At first, the world, including the United Nations, did not forcefully interfere with the Cambodian-Vietnamese war perhaps because too much was going on. In 1979, Cambodia itself just came out of a genocide and mass murder committed by the Khmer Rouge headed by Pol Pot, killing between one million to two millions of its own people.

My housekeeper Linh further told me the crazy way she used to earn a living after the war ended in 1975, "Pork became a real precious commodity. So I made money by going to the countryside, bought pork, wrapped it around my thighs, wore trousers with large trouser legs so the police at Inspection Point did not know I carried pork in me. Then I sold it in Ho Chi Minh City and made a profit. I even made enough money to bribe the Labor Camp's guard to let me in to give my husband medication when he was sick..."

(To Be Continued)

END of Part I. In Part II, how Vietnam stopped the war with Cambodia, reestablished relationship with the U.S., and the Vietnamese became hooked on American materialistic lifestyle and freedom. American capitalism and freedom win at last.

www.facebook.com/sadeinmyheart     copyright © Kim Roberts