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  • I did not recognize him. His face. Gaunt. His legs were covered with scabs. He was like a ghost. I was scared. And so I hid behind my mother. Clutching the bottom of her skirt.

    “Don’t be scared. That’s your father.”

    My father had been imprisoned in a Communist labor camp near the border of Cambodia. I had not seen him since I was three.

    Three years later, he returned. Standing in front of my grandfather’s house. A miracle. He had somehow escaped. No one will believe the story of how he eluded the prison guards. How he was able to traverse the long distance from the Cambodian border to Saigon.

    Later, people will say that we bribed the prison guards for my father’s release (if only we had the money, the Government had confiscated our house, they had frozen our bank accounts. The heirloom jewelry my mother inherited were the only things that kept us from hunger. They bought rice. Occasionally, as a special treat, a boiled egg for me).

    My father does not like to talk about his experience in the labor camp. The leeches in the swamp. Eating crickets and frogs to stave off hunger. The mosquito-biting nights when he would sit listening to a nineteen year old cadre lecture him on Marx and the sins of his class. There were beatings. There were coerced confessions.

    Once when I asked him what it was like there, he said: "oh you know, the usual things."

    At least he was alive, he told me, in other camps, they sentenced prisoners to death by making them clear landmines.

    My father does not like to talk about these things. He prefers to forget the past. I learned most his story from my mother. And even then, he tells her very little.

    This is what I do know: He was eldest son of a wealthy merchant-landlord family in the Mekong delta. All his life, he was groomed for the privileges of his class. He was groomed to inherit the family fortune, including a sizable estate of land, a sugar refining factory, a French villa. He was groomed to rely on chauffeurs, maids, nannies, gardeners. He was groomed to be accorded deference because he was the eldest son in a Confucian society, the scion of a wealthy landlord at the top of a feudal economic pyramid.

    I am sure he was not prepared for sitting on the dirt floor of a hut in the middle of jungle late at night with other prisoners listening to a cadre whose voice was high and hollow like a bamboo flute.

    I am sure he was not prepared to relocate to a foreign country where he would wash windows of commercial buildings in an industrial park in suburban Maryland, where his fellow workers would mock him for his ching-chong accent.

    I am sure he was not prepared to have a gay son who would tell him that he did not intend to marry nor have children and had no care for whether the Willow Clan continues or perishes.

    It doesn’t matter anyway. We have already lost everything including our ancestral temple. I will be the last of the Willow clan. After me, there will be no one to offer fruits and incense to the ancestors. After me, the book will finally close. This book of wounds.
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