When there is no place to call home, home is where the heart is

Titi Mary Tran/Nguoi Viet English

Undaunted, a book by Van B. Choat, won Nautilus award 2016-2017 (silver medal) and Irwin award from Book publicists of Southern California. (Photo: Titi Mary Tran)

Home is love, is emotion.

WESTMINSTER, California (NV) – Van B. Choat shared her memories of growing up an orphan in Vietnam in her 2016 book, “Undaunted: A Memoir.” It is the story of a child’s challenging journey to womanhood in the background of war, massacre, battlegrounds, death, physical and mental abuses, and above all, human love and strength.

Her book has given the Vietnamese American women of Generation X – those who are old enough to remember the way and young enough to have grown up as Americans – an avenue to speak out. Their voices are the voices not of elites but of the common people.

With her words still resonating a year after her book’s publication, Nguoi Viet sat down recently for an interview with Van B. Choat.

NV: Why did you write this memoir?

Choat: My children are half-American and half-Vietnamese, and they don’t know too much about Vietnamese culture and where I came from. Initially, the reason for this book was for them to know where I came from, how my life was in Vietnam, and [to know] my parents, their great grandparents. Then later on, all of my friends were saying, “Why are you so selfish? Why do you want to keep this book for yourself and your children? Why don’t you publish it?” So that’s when I decided to publish the book. Now my purpose – I would like to share my book with the world, to help those with difficulty in life. Maybe my book would help them with inspiration to move forward.

Van B. Choat and her husband at their marriage ceremony (1979) and at his military camp. (Photo courtesy: Van B. Choat)

NV: How did you feel after you finished writing the book? Was there a sense of relief?

Choat: Oh yes, absolutely. There is a sense of accomplishment, something greater than I could imagine. Something I wanted to do in my thirties and have never had a chance to do it. I felt a big relief.

NV: How do you remember all the details from the age of 4?

Choat: You know, when I was 4 years old, my first memory was getting on the bus, moving from Rach Gia to Sai Gon, and for some reason, I still remember that moment. It’s like I took a snapshot in my mind, decided that was what I would want to remember and that’s how I remembered throughout the years. It’s like a movie going through my mind. And the movie keeps replaying years after years, including even the specific sentences and words people said.

NV: At 4 years old, you did not have the ability to write a journal, but the scenes you described in your book – the bombing, the battles, even dead bodies, images of soldiers fighting, of a woman cradling a dead baby running back and forth between the two groups of soldiers: the north and the south. How do you feel about these memories that keep replaying in your mind?

Choat: I think it’s just something you remember and you won’t forget, you know? That scene is still playing in my head. The bombing that night, and how we got out of the bunker in the next morning, how we got our mother out, how I was standing on top of a dead body, and how my brother taught me to jump off a dead body by counting, just like a game from 1 to 10, and running around the base to look for father and couldn’t find father. Most of the folks from that battalion were killed. You could see dead bodies scattered all over on the ground at the army post. It is so vivid I don’t know how I remember them, but I remember them.

Van ( long hair in the middle) as a child with her siblings, Grandma and relatives in Vietnam. Aunt Que (back row from right) is the aunt who hung Van and her sister in her book. (Photo courtesy: Van B. Choat)

The only picture Van has left of her father (back row, first from right. Van is right in front of him). (Photo courtesy: Van B. Choat)NV: So how do you deal with these memories? How did you make sense of it at that young age?

Choat: You know when I was burying my mother, I didn’t know what was going on. I thought it was a game or people burying a bundle. They wrapped my mother’s body in a straw mat, and dug a hold by the river to bury her. It didn’t register to me what death was; even my brother said to me, “Oh you don’t know anything.” But he was crying.

NV: You saw death, you smelled death, you touched death. So to you, what is the universal truth about death?

Choat: It’s part of life. You’re born, then when you get older, you die and turn into dust. It’s just like the revolving cycle of life. Am I afraid of death? No. Fear of death? No. And I say that because, if you remember in the book it talked about how I stood on a dead body and my brother talked me into jumping off the dead body, at that moment when I turned around and realized I did it. I was most afraid when I realized I was standing on top of a dead body.

But when I jumped off, there was no more fear. It was just like fear itself had gone. I was not afraid anymore. Once you make up your mind that you can do something, you can do it. That moment was what made me a really strong person. From that point on, it’s just part of life. If something bad happened to you and you decided you’re not going to let it bother you, you should move on, then you move on.

NV: What is your identity?

Choat: From Rach Gia to Sai Gon was the happiest moment of my childhood. The sadness did not register in me until I realized my mother was gone forever, around 6 or 7 years old. School kids made fun of me by saying that I was an orphan and that I was stupid and would end up nowhere. That’s when I decided to study well in school and become somebody, just to prove to them I am not dumb and stupid. Even at that young age, I was determined I was going to be somebody. It didn’t bother me to be an orphan. I just miss my parents. I wished my parents would still be alive and take care of me. I just accepted the fact that I was an orphan and I had to deal with it.

Van and her children next to her late husband’s tombstone. Picture was taken in October 1987, 10 months after her husband, Ronnie Choat, was buried. (Photo courtesy: Van B. Choat)

NV: Who are you now?

Choat: I’m just a person, just like anyone else. I don’t see myself as an orphan girl any more, but still in my heart there is some sadness when I see people have parents and have a place to go home and visit parents. And have family gatherings. I never had that. I never had a place to go home.

NV: So where is home?

Choat: Home is where the heart is. Home is where all the loved ones are with you.

Van B. Choat at Nguoi Viet Daily News. (Photo: Titi Mary Tran)

For more information about Van B. Choat, visit her website at vanchoat.com. (Titi Mary Tran)

Báo Người Việt hoan nghênh quý vị độc giả đóng góp và trao đổi ý kiến. Chúng tôi xin quý vị theo một số quy tắc sau đây:

Tôn trọng sự thật.
Tôn trọng các quan điểm bất đồng.
Dùng ngôn ngữ lễ độ, tương kính.
Không cổ võ độc tài phản dân chủ.
Không cổ động bạo lực và óc kỳ thị.
Không vi phạm đời tư, không mạ lỵ cá nhân cũng như tập thể.

Tòa soạn sẽ từ chối đăng tải các ý kiến không theo những quy tắc trên.

Xin quý vị dùng chữ Việt có đánh dấu đầy đủ. Những thư viết không dấu có thể bị từ chối vì dễ gây hiểu lầm cho người đọc. Tòa soạn có thể hiệu đính lời văn nhưng không thay đổi ý kiến của độc giả, và sẽ không đăng các bức thư chỉ lập lại ý kiến đã nhiều người viết. Việc đăng tải các bức thư không có nghĩa báo Người Việt đồng ý với tác giả.

  • Vien NGUYEN

    It seems that there is always someone often dreaming of You, Hanoi .. ..
    *******************************************

    See my beloved Hometown, Hanoi…
    In exile in Paris
    I have been making thousands of moves towards to You, Hanoi
    I’m a bit lonely my heart and me nostalgy
    I’m dreaming to come back
    Near your Sword Lake and Pen Tower

    See my beloved Hometown, Hanoi…
    Only that moment I left You in the Autumn 1954
    The most sorrowful Season of Separation
    In the Vietnamese Modern History
    I ask You, my dear Hanoi
    What’s new since I have been leaving
    I have only passed through many storms
    In the Civil War and the Cold War
    And still survived in the wild Globalization

    Me
    In exile in Paris
    I’m making the last and final move towards to You, Hanoi tonight
    I’m a bit lonely my heart and me nostalgy
    I’m dreaming to come back
    Near your Sword Lake and Pen Tower
    I find you my old Love in the middle of your Old Town
    With you life has million colors
    And tastes like Happiness and Tenderness

    Hanoi, my dear Hometown as You know
    There is always someone always
    often dreaming of You, Hanoi .. ..
    In Love and Nostalgy there always has to be me as a loser
    I am never lucky enough to win always
    And I don’t know why
    That our Vietnamese People, we could have aching so much
    For 72 years since that Autumn 1945

    My beloved Hanoian as you know
    There is always someone often dreaming of
    An old LoveStory in that faraway Hanoi .. ..
    In love there always has to be a loser
    In some way and somewhere
    I was unlucky enough to win often…
    And that why in that Autumn Revolution
    I lost you, a Hanoian young woman
    And I lost even my dear old Hometown, Hanoi Herself

    See my beloved Hanoian…
    See…
    I’m making the final and last move
    Towards to You tonight
    I can not fake anymore my heart
    And my exile life as a bohemian…
    Tonight, perhaps the last night
    I do need both of you :
    Both my beloved Hanoian and my dear Hanoi Hometown

    See my beloved Hometown, Hanoi…
    In exile in Paris
    I have been making thousandd of moves
    Since I left You, Hanoi in the Autumn 54
    I’m a bit lonely my heart and me nostalgy
    I’m dreaming to come back
    Near your Sword Lake and Pen Tower

    See my beloved Hometown, Hanoi…
    Only that moment I left You in the Autumn 1954
    The most sorrowful Season of Separation
    In the Vietnamese Modern History
    I ask You, my dear Hanoi
    What’s new since I have been leaving
    I have only passed through many storms
    In the Civil War and the Cold War
    And still survived in the wild Globalization

    See my beloved Hanoian…
    See…
    I never would have thought
    That a day would come
    In the most sorrowful Season of Separation
    In the Vietnamese Contemporary History
    Where far from you I would be so helpless

    I know
    There is always someone often dreaming of You, Hanoi .. ..
    And in love there always has to be a loser in some way somewhere
    I was unlucky enough to win often…
    And that why in that August Revolution 1945
    I lost both you, a Hanoian young woman
    And I lost even my dear old Hometown, Hanoi Herself

    My beloved Capital Hanoi, my dear Hometown as You know
    There is always someone often dreaming of You, Hanoi .. ..
    And in the sincere Patriotism there always has to be a great loser
    And I myself was lucky enough to win often
    And that why I lost both my beloved Hanoian
    And my dear Hanoi Hometown
    In the Autumn 1954
    The most sorrowful Season of Separation
    In the Vietnamese Modern History
    In the Civil War and the Cold War

    See my dear Hanoi …
    I’m making the final and last move towards to You tonight
    I’m a bit lonely my heart and me nostalgy
    I’m dreaming to come back
    Near your Sword Lake and Pen Tower

    Me now and here in Paris
    In the great Nostaldy I see the white fog
    That is hanging over and around the Sword Lake
    As million things of Love

    I know
    There is always someone often dreaming of You, Hanoi .. ..
    And in Love and Nostalgy there always has to be me as a loser
    I am never lucky enough to win always
    And I don’t know why
    That our Vietnamese People, we could have aching so much
    For 72 years since that Autumn 1945

    MILLIONS OF PEOPLE – TRIỆU LƯƠNG DÂN

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