Two Friends from Different Generations
It was the beginning of summer and Paris was sunny and blazing hot, just like Saigon. People flowed out onto the streets from everywhere looking for shade and seeking shelter. Thu amusingly looked at the Paris citizens she originally considered civil arriving in poor attire, untidy and even naked, one after the other, sitting and lying down everywhere in the public parks. It was so sultry that ambling down into the subway (metro in England) was not at all different than entering a volcano. It took all of Thu''s courage to board a bus and visit misses Jane who lived all the way across the city. What a pity that she lived alone as many elderly people here, missing the special atmosphere of love from a Vietnamese family of three generations.
Thu impatiently gave the bell six long rings before misses Jane appeared, unkempt, sweaty, and with disastrous hair. She suddenly ardently kissed Thu, then dragged her sliding into the apartment. Her apartment on the sixth floor so confined that it was almost invisible had a tiny bit of fresh air, but it was still hot and unbearable. Jane suggested, “The two of us should go to the lake! I am usually prepared to feed bread crumbs to the various birds there.” The man made lake in the public park near Jane''s home was usually very tranquil, but because this district in the suburbs was crowded today no empty seats at all could be found. Thu together with Jane finished tossing bread crumbs to the flock of birds, then crawled under a bush and sat a bit cramped to take shelter from the sun.
“Well now, your arrival here is certainly very fortunate! I wanted to eat Vietnamese noodle soup very much, but you were too busy to go to district thirteen with me!” Jane said.
“Then let''s go today! I just came here from Germany to visit you, so I am certainly free,” Thu said enthusiastically. “Let’s wait until the evening around six or seven O''clock when the weather will be a bit cooler.”
“How is it in Vietnam?” Jane asked showing concern. “Are your parents well? Has it gone well for the boy, Soc Nau?”
“Yes, but I still write email every day,” Thu smiled with her mouth open just a crack. “In Vietnam they don''t think that this here is terribly hot. The past Sunday my entire family went together to Long Hai to bathe in the ocean. Soc Nau collected many snail shells to give to his maternal grandmother, Jane. The small boy brags about how his French studies have improved. In a short while he will write a letter to you.”
“Good! I miss Vietnam very much”, Jane enthusiastically said. “I hope that next year I will be able to run off and return with you.”
The elderly lady seemed to be weary, laying and rolling about on the grass fully dressed with some large tree branches rubbing against her neck. She shut her eyes, smiling with an air of reverence. Thu mischievously plucked a wild flower and crammed it into her friend''s mouth, forgetting her age ''as though now looking at a new romance, Jane oh!'' Thu also lay down next to her, listening to the grass as it tickled under her back and the strength of the summer heat caressed her face. Jane suddenly raised her voice singing the song, ''Life is Rosy - La Vie En Rose'' from the time of Edith Piaff. Thu animatedly sang following her, both joining in humming because they didn''t know the words by heart. Each person, one old and one young, lay singing song after song, the music belonging to a long past era when Jane was still a young lady and Thu was not yet born. Thu perceived the fruit of life as a new pink umbrella, but away from here some voice still groaned and moaned about how hot it was. And many days she only saw herself suffering for being born as a Vietnamese.
“I have become very old these days, haven''t I Thu?” Jane suddenly asked, sounding sorrowful. “I see myself as weary, exhausted, not liking to be at all active any longer.”
“You groan and moan as though you are old and will certainly die soon,” Thu candidly said. “You are almost a century older than me, but also always agile. Next to you I have a big inferiority complex!”
Jane burst out laughing, satisfied with Thu''s answer. She got up, stretched and took a deep comfortable breath.
Thu still remembered the first time she met Jane in Vietnam. Thu had climbed onto a bright red mini-bike, her hair tied tight with a cloth bow. At that time Thu was tired of life because her application for a scholarship to study abroad had been denied. She let herself go down Dong Khoi street and suddenly saw a sweet lady appearing characteristically merry just getting on a mini-bike and singing excitedly. Her uproarious appearance caused Thu to see her as cute, so she approached and suggested, “wanna race?” (colloquial for ''do you want to race''). Then the two of them together raced, peddling to the end of the street where they were blocked by the Bach Dong river harbor. They became acquainted with each other in this way and suddenly realized that advanced age was not a fence blocking people from becoming friends. Jane said she was traveling alone. While passing by here to rent a place to stay, she rented a bicycle to go around and amuse herself. Thu invited Jane to return with her to live together with her family of three generations, then leisurely at will practice French. Thu''s mother liked visitors every evening and would cook delicious treats for Jane. Her nephew, the boy Soc Nau, would like to listen to you teach him to sing, though he wouldn’t understand even a tiny bit. The next month Jane returned to her country, insisting that whenever Thu comes to Paris she must get in touch with her.
“After your trip for work have you decided to stay longer for some days of pleasure?” Jane asked, standing up and dusting off her pants. “Can we both go together?” Then she said, “I must return to the Southern Province to visit my son! Then I am free for several days and have decided to go to Tiec Khac for some fun. Now I must check my visa. My God, the capital Prague is very beautiful!” Jane said moved. “It''s too bad that I must really return to the south to visit my son. I do not yet know when I''ll return to Paris, but you must take a whole lot of advantage of my going. This world is very large!”
Thu nodded her head in agreement. At that time she very strenuously made a request to attend a three month refresher course in Paris only to see Paris one more time. At the beginning of each day it was the same routine with her company, to conduct oneself in a distinguished manner. She was discouraged and wanted to return to Vietnam, but Jane prevented her. “Continue to make the most of this chance to be able to discover, be able to learn several valuable experiences!” Jane said.
During that trip Thu took advantage of the ''Harvest'' to take several trips by bus to every neighboring country and would return to Vietnam with an inferiority complex that she was born as a citizen of a small, weak country. Everywhere she went she was stopped by the boarder guards who closely inspected her passport, then checked her visa carefully with a laser light to determine whether it was fake. Japanese citizens also had black hair and yellow skin, but the westerners often opened their doors to greet them. They went to every up-scale shopping center, cleaned out several stores, and indifferently carried several bags by their large handles that provoked a clear look of envy on the white indigenous folks. Thu saw herself as very small. She had made a mistake by going sightseeing alone. She entered an inn and only consumed bread, unclear about her various all-powerful trips to all the large European cities.
Returning to Paris after several tiring and exciting trips, Thu heartedly and admiringly met Jane saying, “I am proud to return to you! A small skinny, weak and sickly child, but coming to the end of the trail through all those countries like this is truly a large accomplishment!” Jane didn''t say much. When the time came she picked Thu up at the airport and looked at her very pale and frightened figure. Jane carried her several heavy suitcases by the handles, but when they went down into the subway Thu violently vomited because she couldn''t bear the rise of odor from the people and because of the lack of air. Arriving home, Jane again struggled, winded due to carrying the suitcases up to the apartment on the sixth floor without an elevator. Though not capable, Thu also tried in scholarly honor dragging her feet, then fell onto Jane''s bed unconscious.
The next day Jane took Thu to visit the Eiffel Tower and the Sacre Coeur Palace without using the electric subway trains, but letting Thu go by bus. However, Thu still could not avoid being car sick and continued to vomit many times. At those times Jane continued to tease, “You go to visit with several nylon sacks.”
After returning to Vietnam from that refresher course Thu did not think that a day would come when she would return to Europe, but then she became employed by a group from Germany and often had to go to work for a few days at their home company. Each time Thu also took the advantage to drop into Paris to visit her elder friend. Compared to the time they peddled bikes on Dong Khoi road Jane had become aged, she had lost much hair, and her skin had become wrinkled. Nevertheless, every time Thu arrived at Charles De Gaulles airport she would also see the middle aged figure, with a smiling face and thin silver hair of Jane standing to welcome her. She was very aged, without the strength to carry Thu''s several suitcases by their handles. Her step was still strong like a tiger, though her back had a tendency to be hunched over. Every time Thu looked at her she also had the appearance of being healthier than her young friend from Vietnam. Whenever Jane again met Thu she would enthusiastically cook, make apple tarts and brew tea. Then the two of them would sit like children discussing all kinds of stories.
“You remember, the first time you came here for a refresher course you said that Europeans domineered the Vietnamese People, belittling your passive people, saying that they lacked creativity, and it was unfortunate that they didn''t have the ability to react first. However, you now continue to go to the West the same as though you were going to the market,” Jane said in a flash. “I know, but the white people must then also look at everybody in a fair manner. The economic foundation here is already stagnant, so the time has come to invest in every developing country, that''s it. If we don''t respect the local people we will certainly fail!”
“It''s nothing more. In Vietnam now many companies are international,” Jane said acting experienced. “The economic base of Vietnam will increase to the category of the first world!”
“Because it''s so bad it''s impossible to get worse, so it must increase, that''s all,” Thu said pursing her lips. “Yet all western countries have developed until they collide in this world and so they must become stagnate. But they go to all the third world countries to invest and finally to also take the profits back to their mother countries.”
“But how? You are not at all passive,” Jane said sipping a mouthful of jasmine tea Thu just brought from Vietnam for her. “Both together have benefited. Your country has also become more energized, with an economic base to develop more, with youth like yourself presently able to learn several industry skills.”
“The economic base must actually develop by several business principals determined within the country, certainly not because of all the investments from foreign countries. When all of the Vietnamese Companies succeed, then at that time we will deserve to be proud,” Thu said, trying not to laugh in front of the strict and serious older lady. “Many foreign companies very wisely come to Vietnam, making the most of the source of cheap human labor, up-rooting many small Vietnamese Companies from the market, thanks to their financial strength. That''s it my dear lady! In brief, my people still bear the suffering very much!”
“So why don''t you work for a Vietnamese Company, but instead work for a German Company?” Jane asked.
“Because...... I........ I have lain down in this area!” Thu said.
In conclusion, whenever the two of them had their various debates Thu also entered a difficult world to understand. However, Jane also surpassed Thu by many years and had a naturally sufficient rounded knowledge. Jane said that when she was young she worked for a textile mill, not yet having entered college and not participating in any social organizations. “But I read news papers, listened to the radio and liked to travel,” Jane said.
Thu loved the concept of ''really going'' to all of Jane''s countries and asked, “If you didn''t know English how did you find your way in India, China or Malaysia?”
Jane smiled broadly and proudly winked, “I was only shaky once when I drank a kind of pressed sugar cane in India.”
After every trip Jane brought many books and various souvenirs back to her small match box apartment in Paris. She said, “The people made my life advance non-stop in front of me.”
For a long time now Thu did not have a chance to go to work in Germany so that she could drop in to visit her older cheerful friend. She had transferred her position, going to work for an American Company. Her salary had increased, but the pressure had also become so horrible that many times Thu wanted to take flight. She also didn''t have time to exchange long foolish email stories with Jane. However, every time the foreign boss flirted with Thu it compelled her to again remember Jane. That time when she had a refresher course in France about being distinguished, she was encouraged by Jane''s philosophy, “life is a non-stop struggle! A struggle to justify who we are! A struggle to acknowledge the world! And still a struggle to shine brightly on a footing with all the great nations!” Thu burst out laughing before the elder lady''s image of ''big knife and large hammer'' which made Jane get back her dampened spirit when Thu answered, “Because you are French you can shout that slogan very easily.” Anyhow, Thu repeated that slogan. Now and then Thu opened the record to look and the problems had poured cold water onto the enthusiastic encouragement of her elder friend.
At this time Saigon was very hot, which made Thu remember the Paris summers when she laid together with Jane singing on the bank of the lake. Thu was startled when she realized that she hadn''t received any news at all for a long time from the elderly lady who very diligently wrote email. Thu called by phone many times, but the answering machine only left a message that she wasn''t home. Thu anxiously depended on someone else she knew in Paris to go to her home to see how the elderly lady was. “Hello! Can you help me? Do you remember this elderly lady?”
Finally Jane called back, her voice overflowing with joy, “you were afraid I had already died, right? My God! Summer this year is even hotter than when you came to Paris to visit me from Germany. Many older men and women are completely fried on both sides! It''s terrible!”
“Where did you disappear to?” Thu happily asked with a choked voice. “Why didn''t you travel to another country?”
“I returned to the south to visit my son''s family,” Jane''s voice answered softly. “I am old already, too weak to go a lot, and find it inconvenient to live alone!”
“And what else! Why do you climb up six flights of stairs, then go to the market, cook and wash clothes by yourself! Return to the mild south and stay always with your son!” Thu said.
“I cannot do that!” Jane painfully laughed. “It is not the same as in Vietnam. It would certainly be awful if I went into a nursing home (home for the elderly)!”
“Hey!” Thu said panicky. “Let’s always talk for the fun of it. You must certainly make your children accept their responsibility!”
“Their group won''t stand for that at all!” Jane sadly said. “Life here is primarily that way!”
“You must certainly struggle!” Thu said uncomfortable with the appearance of resignation of her elderly friend. “Life is all one non-stop struggle! It’s a struggle for the children to realize the value of a mother like you. You had neglected your youth in order to take care of your children when you had been deserted by your husband. How many years have past since you also supported your children with money from your retirement pension when they were unemployed? You must certainly struggle to make them respect and support you at the end of your life!”
“Stop! You talk that way because you are Vietnamese!” Jane''s voice trembled. “I also certainly know fear! Those times when I only feared dying from the winter cold, and the times I further feared dying from the summer heat. Often when I was sick late at night or slipped and fell in the house while bathing I thought I was finished. Dying is not at all nice. It''s deplorable .........” Thu heard Jane cry emotionally, then she emitted the sound of “tut....tut” with no feeling.
Thu returned to Paris at the end of the year when the blowing winter wind made people dart into the smoke filled subway exits. The cold, grey and gloomy city made everybody bundle up into several layers of large outer garments. This time Jane, who always was active, didn''t go to the airport to pick Thu up because she didn''t let Jane know of her arrival, but when Jane opened the door to welcome her young friend from Vietnam she said very angrily, “Why didn''t you let me go out to pick you up! You belittle me as too old, weak and not capable, Huh?” Then she hugged Thu''s face and cried crocodile tears. Jane''s reaction made Thu think, but she understood that the elderly lady had some private issues that sometimes seemed strange. However, she deserved respect. Thu sat down and stroked Jane''s thin silver hair, her voice saying, “don''t be angry! I wanted to surprise you, that''s all! I have followed a long road of one hundred twenty thousand kilometers, sat in airplanes many tens of hours and paid for all the trips myself....... Do you know why? Only to be able to see you, for you to cook some French dishes to eat, for us to go together to the thirteenth district to eat Vietnamese noodle soup, for you to get a comedy movie of Louis De Funes for me to watch.” Jane continued to cry even more, with her head leaning onto Thu''s heart, and Thu suddenly realized that Jane very softly said, “I love you very much, my dear Thu!” The elderly lady sobbed, not trying to hide her emotions, “My children never come to visit me! In the summer they travel to other countries. In the winter they go skiing... Boo-hoo.” Thu just remembered a few years ago when the first time she came to France for a refresher course, she sat leaning onto Jane''s heart, also in this small apartment feeling self-pity and with tears flowing confided, “because I am Vietnamese I suffer very much. Wherever I go other people show contempt for me.” At that time Jane did not stroke my hair as I did now for Jane, but in a dignified manner she shouted the slogan, “Life is a continuous conflict!”
Those nights they both slept in the same bed, a bed with a mattress in the room, but every time Thu crossed over to Jane’s side she resigned herself to going into the living room and sleeping on the sofa. At that time Jane grew much thinner. Her muscles became flabby and her eyes became covered with a misty veil. Both persons lay together spaciously. Thu massaged Jane’s legs, feeling for various tired muscles. Jane said that she worried a lot about climbing the stairs. This apartment was built many years ago, before she worked in the textile mill. Then nobody thought about people also having exhausted legs and weary knees.
“How is your work these days?” Jane changed the subject. “Do the Americans pay a higher salary, but you have ventured to give up the money to come to Paris and visit me in this manner?”
“It’s also only temporary,” Thu painfully said. “Whenever one sells their labor they also suffer a loss in buying power.”
“Do all the foreign companies that enter Vietnam still contrive to colonize, be fascist or more empirical?” Jane asked.
“Surely they do not colonize. They are also not at all fascist if we don’t let them have that opportunity,” Thu said, bursting out laughing at the elderly lady’s air of concern, which was both sincere and foolish. “We have now learned how to accomplish their various high work demands. We certainly become tired, but that is the only way to prevent them from behaving badly towards us.”
“Your Vietnamese people will then also be respected by the West, that’s it. Your country will also develop equally with all the other countries. But don’t let yourselves become old ladies in fifty years with children that reject you and you have a country where you only enter nursing homes and live together among other old forgetful people,” Jane said.
“No more. Go to sleep,” Thu said, not wanting to listen to this subject. “I am tired!”
Though she tried to avoid it, throughout the several days that Thu lived with Jane, there were occasions when Jane reminded her good friend that the dark future time will come when she will not have sufficient strength to take care of herself, so she must enter a nursing home.
Once when they went to the store during the Christmas season, Thu noticed Jane fussily selecting presents to give to all of her children without omitting one person, then zealously going to the post office to mail them. Thu feverishly asked, “Why do you still love them? Your children have behaved very badly towards you!”
Jane smiled a very magnanimous smile that amazed Thu. “Don’t blame them! Living in this present society, educated by a culture that respects freedom for all citizens, everyone also behaves with their elderly parents like this. Because I have traveled much through all the Asian Countries, I have experienced life with families of husbands, wives, children and grand children hanging on to each other as you in Vietnam sorrowfully do!” Jane held Thu’s young sincere hand and said, “But Thu, when you have a child, then you will understand. Though from a rich or poor country, though white or black, though from different cultures, all parents in this world love their children and never want compensation.”
Thu discouraged let go of Jane’s hand and said, “You have truly become old, and whenever you philosophize it’s also in a passive manner. I am more pleased with your slogan, ‘life is always an untiring struggle’.”
Jane saw Thu off to Vietnam when at that time next year she said she would come again for a few days. Thu didn’t want Jane to go to the airport in the cold that penetrated to the bones, but Jane was determined to go. Continuously holding Thu’s hand and really not wanting her to leave Jane said, “Certainly when you have a chance to return to Paris I will no longer be living in the old apartment. I will not at all be able to meet you or cook for you. Then you will come to the nursing home to visit me, OK?” Thu grimaced and entered the isolating room looking at Jane with tears ebbing and standing stock still, not bearing to take one step away. “Go home! Go!” Thu waved her hand to drive her away. “There is a letter for you under your pillow! Go and read it. Then answer soon, OK!”
In the airplane Thu smiled, wiping the tears away and picturing the scene of her old friend opening her letter and reading it. She will sit unable to move, looking truly very small on the bed. Then she will slowly move her eyes past all the letters which say,
“My dear Jane. You have taught me that I must often struggle. And then I will succeed to some extent on the road of my career. Together with you, I love the song ‘Life is Colored Pink’ and I like all the uproarious comedy movies of Louis De Funes with their often happy endings. Therefore, I don’t like the prospect of coming to Paris after you have entered a nursing home. You would very much like the air of my three generation family, right? Do you want to practice together the skill of rearing a family with my brilliant mother, cooking at noon for the young ones, and then watching over the boy, Soc Nau, as he learns how to become dignified? My family has already discussed this, and has decided to invite you to come and live together with us at our home in Vietnam.”
Perhaps Jane will not leave France. Perhaps she won’t go far from the children she gave life to. Also, perhaps she will carefully consider that it would not be very convenient to have to pass the various days at the end of her life far from her native country. But although she may choose differently --- Thu closed her eyes satisfied again to think privately when she fastened her seat belt --- In three hours I will have the confidence of various family values that no society at present can have the power to break.
Author: Duong Thuy
Translator: Elbert Bloom