As a child, between the ages of six to ten, I had a handful of experiences where Anglo-Australians would come down to my eye height level and say to me, “You lost your country.” with faces and voices strained with an empathy that I did not understand.
In hindsight, one: I don’t even remember the context for those comments.
And two: that’s such an inappropriate thing to say to a child that somehow, I still remember those moments, after all these years.
In early 2022, at the age of 45, I read a blog that featured a snippet from PBS documentary about the Fall of Saigon. For the first time ever, I felt it in my body, what it means to lose one’s country.
The video featured a South Vietnamese man who, during the rapid southbound sweep of Communist forces that lead to the fall of Saigon, made it onto one of the South Vietnamese naval vessels that was stationed off the coast of Vietnam.
These gargantuan naval boats were burgeoning, overloaded with as many Vietnamese refuge-seekers as possible. They knew that the end was coming.
A few days later, on April 30, 1975, South Vietnamese President Dương Văn Minh declared surrender. When this was announced over the radio on this particular naval vessel, well over 10,000 Vietnamese fell silent.
It was over.
The war was over.
Shortly after, this vessel, en route to Guam, headed towards Philippine waters, to re-stock and re-fuel. In accordance with International Maritime Law, because South Vietnam no longer existed as a sovereign nation, the South Vietnamese flag needed to be lowered.
The silence broke into solemnity as the entire ship sung together the South Vietnamese national anthem.
Can you imagine seeing the flag of your country being lowered, because your country no longer exists? And singing your national anthem as an act of collective grief?
You lost a war; We lost our country.
And now, my heart strains with empathy for my parents.
Forty-three years later, I finally get it.
I then realized that I don’t know the national anthem of my homeland, this country that no longer exists.
So I searched for it on YouTube.
I found the military version, with blaring brass and drums, a rally to unite with patriotic love for land and people. Then I found a choral version, with elegantly dressed Vietnamese singers, with an equally elegant orchestra.
And as the camera panned the audience, I saw the faces of the older generation. A distant pain just beneath the surface of faraway stares while mouthing the words to a long-lost country.
I knew that pain.
I’ve seen it my entire life, on my parents’ faces.
Through my tears for the loss of a homeland that I never had, I resolved to one day learn the national anthem to a country that no longer exists.
And to sing it to my parents.
About a week after my discovery of the South Vietnamese National anthem, Dad video messaged me. I took a big breath. "Hey Dad, do you know the Vietnamese National anthem?"
He smiled real big at me. The wondrous smile of "Wow, my girl is actually Vietnamese after all."
He started singing....
Này Công Dân ơi! Đứng lên đáp lời sông núi.
Đồng lòng cùng đi hy sinh tiếc gì thân sống.
And then he looked away, and sighed.
"It's been over 60 years since I last sung it. Con ơi, my child, help your father with the words."
I happened to have the lyrics handy, because I was trying to learn my nation’s anthem. I read out the first few words of each line....and Dad would sing the rest of the line.
Tears were knocking at my door. My first ever duet with my Dad.
Dad began to spontaneously share joy-filled memories from his childhood. It was the late 1950s, in the far south of Vietnam, after the partition of North and South Vietnam, and before the arrival of US troops.
I then played a YouTube recording of the Vietnamese National Anthem, to sing it together with Dad.
The music made it real.
On his face, I saw glimmers of a lost homeland and the pain of a once care-free boy whose heart I've spent my entire life wanting to break into.
If this is the only duet I ever get to sing with you, Dad, it is more than enough.
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