While we waited for the return of the other students who had gone home for Christmas, I got to learn the lay of the land. My school, Notre Dame du Lang Bian, “Les Oiseaux”, stood on a very large property on top of a hill, and some of the classrooms were in a separate building which was reached by a long walkway through the pines that populated the mountains.
Dalat was set up in the early 1900’s as a rest station and sanatorium for French colonials who needed relief from the oppressive heat of the lowlands. A number of schools were opened and it was believed that the temperate climate of Dalat would be a more suitable place for children to study, so the Couvent des Oiseaux was opened as a boarding school in 1936.
It got quite chilly at times. I can remember sometimes shivering in two thicknesses of woolen sweaters, and it was always cold at night, but mostly the climate was mild. One time we were allowed out of class to see snow falling from the sky because it was so rare.
At the end of the long walkway was a huge playground where we did gymnastics and sometimes played rounders. I liked batting and was a good runner. We were allowed to go down the hill into the trees and the pines smelled wonderfully fresh. There is an artificial lake near the town but we didn’t go there. When we were allowed to leave the school complex it was to go on a trek up into the mountains to a Montagnard village.
The Montagnard, “Ethnic Vietnamese” were much more closely related to the Khmer people of Cambodia. As the name suggests, they lived in the highlands, a totally different culture to the Vietnamese of Chinese origin, who dismissively referred to them as “Moi”, -“Savages”.
There was a heavy missionary influence in Dalat and many of the Montagnard had been baptized. I am not sure that they were exactly converted. We went to the village to attend a service that took place in a small wooden chapel. It was certainly different. I seem to remember that the villagers chanted rather than sang, in a language we didn’t understand. They seemed to live a very basic existence, but they were friendly, as much as is possible for people who are unable to communicate.
The Montagnard were very dark-skinned, like the Khmer. The women were mostly bare-breasted and wore earrings so heavy that in many cases the lobes were torn and hung to their shoulders. Small children carried even smaller children on their hips, batting constantly at flies. I could not find a single picture on the Internet that displayed a correct image of the people I saw, but I can still see them in my mind.
During the war that was coming, the Montagnard were recruited to fight with the Americans and in the end they were left behind to deal with the aftermath.
The unspeakable Viet Nam War.
One of the girls who was in the school with me was a Montagnard. She was shunned by the Vietnamese students. Her name was Hum. I don’t know how she had become acculturated, but her family were in Saigon. Unrest was already widespread at that time and travelling by road was not safe. During a short school break Hum had to go home by shared taxi and she was terrified. It was a great relief when she came back safely. Many people were beheaded on that road. I remember Hum’s face, but I don’t know what became of her.
Maybe because she was akin to the Cambodian people I knew, I liked Hum. I was also friendly with a Cambodian girl who was in my class. Her name was Seng. We didn’t know it then, but Seng had a brain tumor.
The Vietnamese had a great dislike of the Cambodians, having been at war with them for hundreds of years, so I suppose my friendship with Seng and with Hum was not favourably regarded.
In the beginning, before I formed these friendships, things had gone fairly well. I was anxious to be accepted and smiled so much that one of the nuns dubbed me “Sourire”,, -“Smile”. But it was not to last.
One morning Seng and I had a disagreement about some silly thing long forgotten. I dismissed it from my mind. That night as we prepared for bed, one of the Vietnamese came up to me angrily and demanded to know why I had said the Vietnamese were stupid. It all sounds so childish, and it was, but from that moment my life became hell. I can only assume that Seng told them something I had not said.
In England, they call it “being sent to Coventry”. No one would speak to me. Not a word. Except for the girl who marched up to me and told me that her father was military and she could get me sent to prison. I didn’t think there was much chance of that, but it didn’t make me feel any better.
I went back to the dormitory next afternoon and found that my tiger and a photograph of my mother had been confiscated. I managed to find out that I was not supposed to have anything on my bed or night stand, but no one had told me. In fact I hadn’t been told a number of things. For example, one of the hardest hurdles for me to overcome, as silly as it sounds, was the access to toilet paper. No one thought to tell me that you had to ask the dormitory sister for your own personal supply. I had searched all over and couldn’t figure it out till finally I must have overheard someone else asking for her supply.
One of the sisters must have felt sorry for me as the tiger and photograph were returned and I carefully concealed them from then on.
In the scheme of things, adjusting to school food was a minor problem. I was not a fussy eater but I was used to my mother’s cooking. Vietnamese boarding school food was a challenge . We had lots of rice and assorted things, I wasn’t sure what. I will never forget my first encounter with soy. I thought it was revolting, until we got boiled roots of some kind that was so bitter and stringy I literally couldn’t swallow it. But you were made to stay until you finished your meal. If you were lucky, you had a seat by the window and when the sister’s head was turned you could feed the chickens and the dogs that assembled underneath at mealtimes. I was not so fortunate and somehow had to consume the vile substance. Another time I got my hopes up when I saw that we were to get something that had been fried in batter, only to discover to my horror, that it was brains. I did not get on with the food.
However, not been talked to has a much more devastating affect on a child. The feeling of being ignored and ostracized and made to feel unclean is something that etched itself into the fibre of my being. Many times, through my life, something has triggered that memory and provoked deep anxiety. I’ve always known, intellectually, that the childhood experience was the cause, but when something embeds itself that deeply, I guess it’s there to stay.
This state of affairs lasted weeks, until the end of the school year when I went to my parents in Thailand. I was traumatized, and I tried to tell my mother about what had happened, but she couldn’t seem to listen. I guess she thought it was a silly child thing and in any case she had no choice but to send me back for the next semester.
One afternoon I got a letter from Cambodia. I thought it might be from Seng, but it was from her elder sister to tell me that Seng had died of the brain tumor. I had never known anyone that died before and was very shocked. I read the rest of the letter but I couldn’t make out if I was being reprimanded for the fight I had with Seng, or if her sister was telling me that I shouldn’t feel bad because Seng had been influenced by the thing in her head. I never did find out and I carried the guilt for a long time.
I didn’t tell my mother about the letter because I thought somehow it was my fault Seng had died.
The more I tried to talk about being “in Coventry”, the more I felt ignored, until finally one day, without thinking, I blurted out “sometimes I wish I had never been born!” My mother was furious. What a dreadful thing to say to your mother.
I was contrite, and I felt guilty, but my holiday was nearly done, so I started to prepare myself for returning to that place where I was so detested.
Stand by for the next chapter in this joyful tale! Oh dear, oh dear. Yes, I am in tears, but it’s mostly for the Montagnard people and what happened to them. At any rate, it’s all a very long time ago and I have finally come to terms with the bumps in my personal road. As I have said before, I am one of the lucky ones.