Learning to live in my head

The cathedral, Ho Chi Minh City

Childhood memories are just that. What we see and feel as children can be influenced by so many factors. So what I write about Vietnam should not reflect any feelings I currently retain.

French colonials had only left Viet Nam five years before my parents and I arrived there. It is totally reasonable that there would still have been resentment against Europeans. After all we must have all looked alike and whether we were French, British, Belgian, or German, all those countries had been colonizers.

I wouldn’t have liked us very much either. We had not felt resented in Cambodia, but they were a different people, with a different history.

My travel buddy Tim has been to Vietnam numerous times and likes it very much. I would imagine it is a great place to vacation.

The few pictures I have from long ago are blah and somehow that is how I felt.

We arrived in Saigon just in time to enjoy Tet, – Chinese New Year. Or not. It went on forever! I had never before and have never since, thankfully, heard such a racket. Sleep was impossible. After several nights of this my father got quite wound up. He suddenly went to a window and at the top of his voice bellowed out the words to “My Fair Lady” which we had on an LP. He couldn’t sing, but no-one could hear, except Mum and I and we were past thinking anything was funny.

But like everything, it passed.

My brother arrived for his first visit to Asia, having spent more than two years at boarding school or bouncing around between relatives who welcomed him during school holidays.

I can’t help but remember that prior to Peter’s visit, my parents had themselves gone on holiday to Japan and Formosa (now Taiwan). I did not go with them, having been sent back to Cambodia with my friend Sabrina and her family.

Communication was of great importance to my parents and yet they themselves were sometimes so bad at it. I tend to blame dad for a lot of things, but I suspect what happened in this case was mostly his fault.

I don’t know if the date and time of Peter’s arrival had been incorrectly recorded, or perhaps it was changed. Mum and Dad arrived home from their vacation to find a telegram announcing Peter’s imminent ETA, and they barely had time to jump in the car and rush back to the airport, arriving just as his ‘plane was landing. As you would say nowadays, “not cool”.

Next day Dad loaded his family into “Flamer” and set off to Phnom Penh, where I confess I was not especially pleased to see them. One of Sabrina’s family cats was on the point of delivering kittens. I was enormously disappointed by having to leave, and even more upset when I learned that the babies were born mere hours after my departure.

I began to see the importance of timing in all matters!

Dad having used up his “local leave” in Japan, he didn’t have much time left to spend catching up with his son, but we did manage a brief trip to Cap St Jacques/Vung Tau on the coast. To me the sea seemed rough and the beach not very appealing, and we mostly floated on inner tubes in the hotel swimming pool.

Peter’s school holiday flew by and his departure involved a small drama that drove my mum to the point of tears. I only recall seeing her cry one other time. On both occasions it shocked me deeply. Mother in tears was tantamount to the World ending.

As we set off for the airport, Mum was quite composed. But as he went to check in, Peter realized that he had left his school blazer behind, on the bed. Furious, my father stalked off to drive back to Saigon. returning in time to see the ‘plane disappearing in the distance. Mum was upset that Peter would arrive in England with no jacket to keep him warm and that he would be in trouble for arriving at school without it. There was no Fedex or UPS back then to forward the blazer overnight.

Without doubt Peter found some way to cope, but he was in trouble for another reason. Hugging the blazer for comfort on the way home from the airport, Mum noticed a bulge in one of the pockets and investigating, she found a pack of cigarettes. It was treated as a scandal which even now I find hard to understand, considering both of my parents were chain-smokers. In a boy’s school, what did they expect would happen?

I had my own drama to deal with. The entrance to our apartment was adjacent to the next door neighbor whose children I met one day when their pure white rabbit came bouncing into our living room. (Our doors were always open) I was delighted, of course, but bunny had to go back and that was how I met Michel who was my age and his younger brother, Frederic.

Michel and I used to hang about in the apartment complex, rushing around playing heroic games, often with Frederic in tow. One afternoon we stayed in his apartment and decided to read our comic books. We lay side by side on our tummies, on one of the beds. Michel’s father came home and became suddenly fascinated to see what we were reading. He lay on top on me, grinding his hips into my backside.

I knew instantly that this was wrong. I didn’t like the man and I most certainly did not want him touching me like that. I was revolted. I can’t remember Michel reacting. Perhaps his father always behaved that way, so I don’t know whether or not Michel thought it was inappropriate. I also don’t remember how I got out. I think Michel’s mum may have been around.

I scurried immediately home. Mum and Dad were both there as I recounted what had happened. Mum said that my friend’s father was a “nasty man” and I should stay away from their apartment, which I hardly needed to be told. I think I expected that my father would have words with the man, but living side-by-side it would have been awkward and my parents would have been terribly embarrassed. Dad, instead, said nothing and just looked irritated.

A similar situation in this day and age would hardly be so lightly dismissed. That it was, reinforced a belief that was gradually forming in my young mind that men were not to be trusted, that they had “urges”. Apparently, I thought, the incident with our neighbor was my fault for lying on the bed, or maybe my parents didn’t believe me.

Fortunately my father’s tour in Saigon was soon up, but his next posting was to a remote part of Thailand where there were no schools. “Les Oiseaux” had a sister school in the highlands of Viet Nam, at a place called Dalat. It was the obvious place for me to continue my fabulous education.

In a way, I was glad to be going to boarding school as I had been feeling guilty about Peter being “left behind”. I thought if I went to the school in Dalat it would even the odds, so to speak. I had read books about kids in boarding school. It could be fun.

Dad had to be at his new post by the end of December. My uniform was acquired, identity labels sewn in and my suitcase packed. On December 22nd Mum and I boarded an overnight train bound for Dalat and the next day I was delivered into the care of the Sisters of Notre Dame du Lang Bian.

I didn’t care about missing Christmas which, in any case, was not the same in the tropics. I thought by being” brave” I would be doing my part for my parents, just as Peter had.

into the highlands

3 thoughts on “Learning to live in my head

  1. What a story! I was and am complete hooked! The sexual abuse by your friend’s father was common enough in those days. I know it helped to form a lot of the early ideas many of us young women felt about men.
    I want to read more your writing is wonderful and just moves the reader along.

  2. I agree with Susan. I am hooked, too. Each day, I can hardly wait for the next chapter.

    Many of us girls of a certain age experienced similar instances. I remember the way I learned (and quickly DENIED!) the “birds and the bees” story! Not through my own experience, but told to me by a friend whose older sister learned it from her UNCLE. Even thinking about sex made me sick for a time during my childhood. What a terrible way for a child to get her first taste of sex education.

  3. By the time my Mum got up the courage to tell me “the facts of life”, I had pretty much worked it all out. She was always very embarrassed about it all.

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