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  • That day, when my mother walked out into the balcony of her house in Saigon, with a teacup in her hand, she did not expect to see an army truck loaded with dead bodies, half-burnt corpses of men in green army uniform. Although she tried to censor her thoughts, the vision kept coming back to her, how the dead soldiers, with their mangled, charred bodies, resembled the roasted meat, the barbecue pork that one saw hanging in the window of butcher shops in Cholon, the Chinese section of the city.

    That day, an invisible boundary had been breached. Like the changing of the season, from dry to monsoon, there is a moment, when the rain is no longer just on the horizon, a rumor of dark clouds and thunder, instead, the rain was now on your face, perhaps only a trickle at first, but unmistakable.

    Before. War was what happened to other people, the poor peasants in the countryside, who were streaming into the city, homeless, many of them slept on the sidewalks, on straw mats, with bundled children against their bosom.

    Like an American housewife from a wealthy suburb who heard the news about bullets in the Bronx, or a stabbing in Harlem, my mother was insulated from the violence wreaked on the bodies of others, the inferno that was raging in the countryside had so far left her (and all those of her class) unscathed. In the backseat of her Peugot, air-conditioned, with tinted windows, with a chauffeur to navigate the meelee of traffic, war was still an abstraction, something that could be easily ignored, by turning off the radio, flipping to the fashion section of the newspaper.

    Before. There were the balmy evenings in which my grandfather and my mother would stroll along the boulevards, always ending at their favorite French restaurant, where every meal inevitably finished with a creme brulee, with my grandfather, smoking his cigar, his hair, slick with pomade, the muffled footsteps of the waiters, the linen napkins, the pearlescent light from the candles, all this, my mother would still remember, later, living in exile, among strangers who babbled a tongue-twisting language, the memory of her dinners with my grandfather would come to her as a lucent symbol of everything that had vanished, just as the memory of the army truck loaded with dead soldiers became a symbol of the beginning of the end.
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