This personal narrative tells of four generations in the life of a Vietnamese family. It is almost like a history lesson on Vietnam except that it is engrossing and fascinating.
Mai tells of how her ancestors rose from poverty to social prominence. Her great grandfather (a scholar) married five times and had many affairs (because polygamy was legal then) but was a loving and stern father.
Her grandfather was a mandarin, focused on his family and was strict. He loved literature and instilled in his sons a faith in education and an attachment to the values of loyalty and filial peity. Her grandmother was a savvy businesswoman and a mistress of her own destiny. She had stature and moral character, was loyal to her husband, was obsessively thrifty, disapproved of frivolity, followed religious traditions and was utterly devoted to her family. She was strict but kind, was open-minded and had a progrressive attitude.
Mai’s parents were typical of their generation. They had their feet in both the old Vietnam that was disappearing and a new Vietnam that was only just taking shape. Both acquired a French education and a Western veneer, but at home they fell back into the rhythm and values of traditional family life.
The War brought shortages but they managed to survive with a lot of effort and careful planning. They lived frugally as they had a limited budget and lacked social status. Mai (the 14th child among 17 siblings, 7 of whom died in infancy or childhood) realised that the only way to escape this was to go overseas to study. She left for America (on a scholarship, majoring in political science) in 1960, when she was 19.
Mai loved her new life because it spoke of individual freedom and zest for life. She ran into discrimination and was snubbed for her ethnicity (eg by a bus driver and a shoe salesman). She met David Elliott, a tall, elegant, gentlemanly mannered, intellectual, artistic and helpful man, in 1961 and they married in 1964. Her father was more distressed by the shame that marriage to an American would bring to the family than any perceived lack of filial piety.
The War tore the family apart. Members of the family tried to flee Vietnam many times but failed as there were many obstavles to emigration. They were later evacuated and flew to California for processing and resettlement (to France, Canada and even Australia, besides America). Despite being thrust into a new environment, most of them adapted well. Vietnam had become to them a hostile land, in which they had little interest.
Mai returned to Vietnam in 1993 and saw that Saigon had changed (where there were homes were now empty lots; traffic was heavy and the big city life seemed normal, unmarred by signs of war), but Hanoi changed little in 40 years. It was still as crowded and dilapidated though some of the public buildings were being repaired and repainted.
Finally Mai finds peace and closure and renewed family bonds unbroken by time and war. The relatives have put the past behind them and moved on, stirred by hope and not fear of bullets and bombs.