I remember reading Love in the Time of Cholera when I was pregnant with Max. My favorite line in the novel, written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, is “He allowed himself to be swayed by his conviction that human beings are not born once and for all on the day their mothers give birth to them, but that life obliges them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”
I didn’t sleep last night. It has actually been days since I have peacefully slumbered. As some of you already know, Max (15) and Henry (13) left last week for a month-long expedition in Vietnam. Today they are heading into the jungle region of Phong Na to explore some of the largest caves in the world. They will be off the grid for three days of backcountry exploration.
Part of the foundation of the Explorations Academy annual International Expedition is we do not talk to our kids when they are away. Updates come in but there is no direct communication unless there is an emergency. The idea is they will further define their unique voice, continue to develop their resilience, and see who they are in the world standing on their own two feet in a place that is completely unfamiliar. Was it the right time? Absolutely, but it did not make letting them go any easier.
During our time living in Southeast Asia in 2016, we planned to go to Vietnam after spending a few months in Bangkok, Thailand. I thought it would be a great time to honor our family history in Vietnam. From 1963-1968 my father was either serving in Vietnam, or training for new roles to serve in Vietnam. For his first tour, he was a Green Beret in the Special Forces. He returned to work for the United States Agency for International Development in charge of the Refugee Relocation Program. My mother was teaching in Mākaha, Hawaii in 1966 and my dad was there doing an immersive Vietnamese language training for his new role with the State Department. They fell in love. My dad returned to Vietnam, and my mother, after losing contact with him, decided to fly to what was then Saigon during her Thanksgiving break, to find her future husband.
He married my mom the week the Tet Offensive started in 1968 and both of my parents returned to My Tho. Vietnam in February of 1968. My mother, then pregnant with my older sister, left Vietnam and waited for my dad in Bangkok. They left Vietnam for the last time in the Spring of 1968 in time to give birth to my sister in my mother’s home town of Chicago, Illinois. During my childhood, and much of my adulthood the war was not discussed but it was present.
We didn’t end up going to Vietnam in 2016 because an opportunity opened up for us in Portugal that we couldn’t pass up. My parents expressed some relief with our decision. They have always supported our travels but the last time they left Vietnam, the USA still had eight years before they would pull out of the conflict. It was not the right time and this past month it became clear to me why we didn’t go in 2016.
My parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary last year. The Vietnam War is the reason they met. I heard snippets of their story over the years but we never “talked” about the war openly until the boys decided to apply for their school expedition. I never quite understood why we didn’t make it to Vietnam when we were so close in 2016, but I knew someday it would make sense. As we sat around my parents’ table this past month, with maps spread in front of us, everything fell into place. If I had taken my kids to Vietnam, the war would have dominated the story because it was all I knew of Vietnam, and all many Americans know of Vietnam.
Now, because we waited for the story to reveal itself in time, the boys not only have the benefit of our family history with Vietnam, but they have the curriculum provided by the school that shares a much greater history of Vietnam than just the American influence, studying both Chinese and French colonialism and periods of self-rule. The best part is Max and Henry will be writing their own chapter, using their own voice as they taste, touch, smell and feel a Vietnam that is rapidly changing in this fast-paced world while trying to hold on to history and identity in a country frequently ruled by outsiders.
Just weeks before their flight across oceans, my parents told stories about how the curfew in Saigon was actually later than the curfew in Chicago in 1968 due to the Martin Luther King riots. They talked about civilian casualties and the impact of seeing a truck full of 10-year-old girls blow up. They remembered the explosion of flavor when they would buy salted pineapple from street vendors on sticky hot days when all you could taste was the air. My dad explained to Henry, who will be turning 14 on this trip, that when he was in Vietnam he learned that you turn one the day you are born. Henry knowingly smiled as it dawned on him that with this new information, he would be turning 15 according to Vietnamese tradition.
My parents asked questions of the boys – things they wonder if they have changed or stayed the same. Questions like:
- Have the political feelings changed toward Americans? We want to know how you will be received and if you feel a genuine connection.
- What is the energy like in what we knew as Saigon, but is now Ho Chi Minh City? Is it still steeped in tradition and bustling and bursting with color?
- How have they balanced the tradition with modern city infrastructure? Are there still Mountain Yard Tribes? They had no electricity when I lived with them. I often wonder how things have changed for them.
- Do they still sell salted pineapple? You must taste it for us if you see it!
I remember thinking as they were talking that this is the perfect time for the boys to go. They are young but they are ready. Look at what their decision has already created! They are building bridges and their journey goes so far beyond this month. It reaches all the way back to my parents coming together, to my sisters birth, my birth, my brothers birth. It reaches all the way to the present and my parents 50th anniversary, their courage to share their story, their love for their children and grandchildren. It will reach all the way into the future as this experience shifts our boys’ perceptions of who they are in the world and their personal power.
We always talk about our kids following in our footsteps. I realize while writing this post, my sleepless nights are because I am following in theirs, imagining with each update I receive, where this new path will lead. I know they will be new beings, in many ways, when they return and hopefully their life will “oblige them over and over again to give birth to themselves.”
*Photos courtesy of Explorations Academy (follow their journey on Instagram) and my father, Ron Connor. Thank you for your service to your family and your country.