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  • 1.

    My great-uncle was a Communist general.

    He gained fame for a battle, in which he led his men, armed with a few rusty pistols, bamboo spears, they overtook a French Fort, gaining an arsenal of weapons.

    He survived thirty years of jungle warfare, hiding from the rain of bombs, the scourge of malaria, dysentery. Leeches.

    Thirty years fighting the French. The Japanese. The Americans.


    One time. The local mandarin, under French orders, kidnapped his mother (my great-grandmother), hoping to lure him from his hideout in the mountains.

    My great-grandmother told her captors: You touch a strand of my hair. He will kill not only you, but three generations of your family.

    They believed her.

    In a scene stolen from some Hollywood film, my great-uncle, with his men, led an assault against the French prison, liberating all the captives including his mother.


    My grandmother loved him with ferocity. As a child, he carried her on his back to school, so that her sandals would not be muddied.

    When meals were served, he pretended not to be hungry so my grandmother and the other younger siblings (there were ten of them, he was the eldest) could eat more rice.

    The family were tenant farmers. The landlord took most of the rice harvest. Every year, they became more indebted.

    One time, the landlord even threatened to seize their family altar—the only valuable possession they owned.

    Against this background of poverty, he joined the Communist party. He wanted his children to live in a better world.

    Not a world in which a Frenchman could smack a Vietnamese schoolteacher with impunity, a world in which Vietnamese peasants were enslaved to work on rubber plantations, a barefoot world, where children had no food, no shoes, while French colons dined in beaux-arts palaces in Saigon and Hanoi.


    At the end of the war with the Americans, they named a school, a street, after my great-uncle.

    They erected a bronze statute.

    There were parades. Medals. But his glory was brief.

    He was assassinated in a political power struggle within rival factions of the Communist party.

    They strangled him in bed.


    My grandmother told me he was also poet.

    He wrote beautiful verses about the poverty of his childhood. The sorrow of war.

    The death of his sister. His two sons. Under torture.

    The death of his father by a French landmine.

    All that suffering to maintain an empire of dirt.


    Nowadays, Vietnam and the United States are trading partners.

    Intel has a factory near Ho Chi Minh City.

    Shell is collaborating with the Vietnamese government to drill oil wells
    in the South China Seas.

    The Gap. Starbucks. Both have plans to open stores.

    I think of my great-uncle.

    So much suffering. For this?
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