Saturday, 8 October 2011

Roots, Bricks, Relatives

Saturday October 8th, 2011; 11:09
Location: Dong Nai, Vietnam
Why: Where did I come from? Who am I? And what's the greatest gift?

I am hanging out inside my spacious dorm room in Bandung, Indonesia on a sunny Saturday. I have been in this country 4 days now after escaping to Bandung from Jakarta's smelly, ugly and congested belly.

But of course, that is another post. I am starting to see a bad pattern of not posting events as they happen. So today, I need to capture my epic journey to my birthplace and finding my Roots, Bricks (literally), and Relatives.

Dong Nai province, east of Ho Chi Minh province. Trang Bom district and Bau Ham municipality to be exact. This is my birthplace and also home to my relatives for at least 4 generations. We ethnic Chinese had migrated from southern China many moons ago, finding refuge in Hanoi before moving south towards Hue, Danang, Saigon and finally carving a life out in Bau Ham.

Through a taxi friend of my cousin A Fat, I was picked up from Saigon's busy Pham Ngu Lao District and carried away some 65km east into the next province of Dong Nai. Approximately 1.5hrs later, I arrive at my other cousin San Bau's palatial estate on the main road of Bau Ham community. It was nice to see him, wife and kids whom I had met in Bangkok early in my travels.

Kind words exchange, packs dropped, I hopped on the back of San Bau's motorbike and he whisked me away to see my mum's mum, Granny. She lives with Man Kau Phu (translates to: Youngest Uncle on Mum's side) which is just down the street and around the corner.

My Granny is a sweet and shy lil old lady and my mom is a splitting image of her. This means, I am a super young image of my Gran:

I had not made a big announcement of my arrival, accept only to cousin San Bau. However, before I knew it, all my aunts and uncles on mom's side piled into Gran's house where we spent the next few hours talking and laughing. One thing that made everyone giddy was just how young I looked because as they crunched some numbers, it just didn't add up. Well, I am a splitting image of Mum who is nearing 60 but doesn't look a day over 40 (thanks Mum!!) The consensus was I look 23. I quite like 23 and have fond memories of traipsing around Europe at that age.

Aside from my mom and Dai Kau (Oldest Uncle on Mum's side) who live in Canada, there are 3 daughters and 4 sons. The aunt on the far right is Sixth Uncle's (in white tank) wife:

Next up was a 5km jaunt by motobike to see my Grandmother, the one that came to Canada with us and helped raise me. She is my Dad's mom. Grandma moved back to Viet Nam around 5 years ago to live out her golden days. I cried when I saw her. The big toothy grin on her face, it is hard to describe my emotions as I took a good look at this lady who helped shape a part of my identity.

At 84, Grandma is still a lively and talkative lady. Her eyesight may be going but this woman can spot a Vietnamese Dong a mile away. And she's still sharp as a blade. Gotta love her ballin' gold teeth too:

It was really nice to hear my Grandma recount our escape to Canada, from her escorting Mom, Dad, Tai and Cam while carrying my two year old self down to the river bank. She fondly remembers of the split decision my dad had made of pulling her onto the boat just before it sailed away to Malaysia where we lived as refugees for 10 months before getting accepted into Canada. This was in the late 70s shortly after the end of the Vietnam War when Saigon fell to the Communists. Man, you can't make this shit up and I just ate it all up as I listened intently on everyone's personal account of that uncertain time in history. A little bit of epicness right there.

The one thing about visiting relatives is the amount of food I had eaten and actually put on a couple of pounds during my 12 days there. Three big square meals a day followed by trips to the market for snacks made for an expanding waistline. It's a good thing I'm wearing clothes with spandex (thank you lululemon)

Someone caught wind that one of my favourite Vietnamese dishes was Banh Xeo so A See Sum (Fourth Uncle's wife on Dad's side) made the dish. It was eaten in fine Vietnamese style - on the floor of the house:

Besides meeting aunts and uncles for the first time, it was amazing to meet cousins as well. With the exception of San Bau, all my cousins are younger than me with many being around 25 and married with kids. All my relatives are farmers and have huge coffee, pepper and banana plantations. Very few have an education past middle school but all can read and write Vietnamese. Their foray into adulthood and responsibility is started at a very young age, hence, marriage, kids and their own plantation before 25.

Some lively and jovial cousins during a feast and rounds of Heinekin. Một, hai, ba, cổ vũ! (One, two, three, cheers!) These kids can drink:

A favourite pasttime - Sixth Uncle and younger cousin love karaoke. And they're quite good at it too:

Even though Bau Ham is a rather small community, the plantations are huge! During harvest season, my relatives hire helping hands from labourers in the Mekong Delta to pick the fruits of their labour.

As I write this post, it is coffee harvest time. This pic was taken around mid September. The red beans indicate the coming harvest:

Cousin San Bau's plantation is enormous. Checking on his crop:

One of the loveliest things about my visit was staying at cousin San Bau's ballin' house, an airy sanctuary worthy of envy by locals and Viet Kieus alike.

Here are just a few pics from his home without getting too up close and personal (this is for public viewing after all).

This is the karaoke room. Note the super high ceiling which is found throughout the house:

My room which I LOVED:

The front of the house, complete with potted garden foliage, lots of seating and iron gates. The top floor is the styling karaoke room which opens onto the veranda for all to hear:

One of my favourite things to do at the house was digest my food whilst snoozing on this heavenly hammock. There's two in the house. TWO!

And of course buzzing around on the back of a motorbike was part of daily life. This pic is for you Cecco!

On a more serious note, one of the main reasons I came back to Bau Ham was to see the actual place of my birth. It was literally in my parents house, a humble roof that still stands today with new owners. Cousin San Bau and I walked there from his place and the owners showed me around the simple living digs.

The bedroom where my brothers and I were born has now been divided by bricks into two separate rooms. Boy was it small. And I couldn't see much because it was covered by a blanket.
This is where I came into the world. Another little bit of personal epicness that left a lump in my throat and tear in my eye:

Along with my birthplace, so was the resting place of my late Grandfather, my mom's dad. His grave is at the back of Youngest Uncle from Mom's side's farm house. I paid my respects. This too was another proportion of epicness on a personal level.

One of the greatest and most humbling observations I made on this journey was despite the living conditions - from ballin' estates to simple tin shacks, western flush to squat toilets, everyone is healthy, happy, and always there for one another, no matter what. There is a great sense of  family, respect and contentment; something I rarely see in my own life. I am humbled and reminded that family is the single greatest gift I have and should never take it for granted.

That being said, I am reminded of the last time I saw my dad. He had driven me out to the airport. When we pulled into the departures area, he turned off the engine. I turned to him and started to cry as I hugged him goodbye and quickly scrambled out of the van with my two packs. I heard him pull away from the curb as I entered the airport and my heart just fell. I sat down and balled my eyes out for 10 minutes before pulling myself together. 

Visiting my relatives and discovering some of my roots, I am deeply humbled. And I can't wait to return.