Deep Listening

“I’m sorry. We Americans have never taken responsibility for what we did.”
–Lady Borton

Lady Borton worked for the American Friends Service Committee in South Vietnam from 1969-1971. A decade later, she assisted Vietnamese boat people and refugees. In the late 1980s and 1990s, she visited Vietnam several times, as she was intent on seeing what it was like to live with the peasants, especially the women. Her memoir, After Sorrow: An American among the Vietnamese, is a chronicle of her encounters with ordinary Vietnamese who gradually opened up to her and revealed their stories of resisting the French and the Americans. She visited people and friends in the Mekong Delta in the south, the Red River Delta in the north, and Ha Noi.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings occurred to me several times as I read. One of the Five Wonderful Mindfulness trainings calls for Deep Listening. It is Lady Borton’s deep listening to the Vietnamese that constitutes a gift to U.S. citizens whose socially conditioned ethnocentrism on the subject of the Vietnam War often ranges from the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and extends to American military personnel supposedly still  Missing in Action. Ms. Borton brings the experience of the Vietnamese to our attention.

Here is some of what she heard …

“Now I’ve turned fifty-five and retired. I have a new grandson to raise! Do you see, Little One? Being able to raise our grandchildren—that’s what ‘peace’ means.”

“Nguyen Hue taught us we could fight for a thousand generations.”

“Oh my, when Uncle Ho died in 1969, the bombing in the South was ferocious. As if the Americans thought bombs could break our will!”

“How can a house made of thatch like this withstand American bombs?

“We did everything! We climbed mountains, we hid under rivers. We captured prisoners. We carried ammunition. We trained ourselves to use weapons. We guided the soldiers when they wanted to attack the American base at Binh Duc. We were the guides, we were the spies. Don’t you see? Ours was a citizens’ war. We were the woman fighters.”

“We squatted like this in the bunker. The Americans were so far up in the sky, what did they know about our customs? They pushed buttons and dropped bombs. Then they flew away to fancy hotels in Thailand.”

“It was Agent Orange that drove us into the strategic hamlet. After Agent Orange, we had no fish, and we had nothing to drink.”

“[General Westmoreland] thought his American soldiers were better than the French. He thought the Americans would win their Dien Bien Phu at Khe Sanh. But that’s not what Khe Sanh was about! We didn’t want that hill!”

“How could we have weapons? We were poor! Our weapon was our wits.”

“I have plenty of food now, and I live with the peaceful sounds of birds and cicadas. Still, the sadness never leaves. Can you understand, Little One? Our sorrow comes and goes like the river. Even at low tide, there is always a trickle.”

“Always start your day with tiger balm, do you understand, Child? Go ahead, go on now, begin your day.”

“Don’t you understand, Little One?” Second Harvest said, gesturing toward the creek and the house with its ladder of light lying on the fresh water urns under the thatch eaves. “This is all we wanted.”

“Uncle Ho told us we must study tirelessly, from books, from each other. He said that as soon as we conquered one accomplishment, we must press on to the next if we were to maintain our independence.”

“You will transplant [rice] with us for days, but we’ll do this for weeks. And then for years.”

“If I get a chicken—a plump chicken—and give it to you, will you raise it on your farm in America?”

A man, Senior Uncle: “This is the only picture of me young. Give it to your father. Tell him to come live with me in Ban Long. I am his younger brother. I will take care of him in his old age.”

“We should have apologized to the French and the Americans after their defeats. After we break our heads against each other, we must recognize we are family.”

“When you return home, give my regards to your father. And give my best wishes to the American people.”

“Don’t forget us.”


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