A Mekong Memory
This wasn't the first time I had Googled her name but I had never thought of using her email nickname before. The full email address yielded absolutely nothing. Just try to feed Google a string and get no results back! But then using just the nickname, a fresh set of results. Down, down, nothing, nothing, down more, nothing, and then my heart stopped. There it was, a hit on a Vietnamese singles dating site and the first few lines of her bio that appeared with the hit confirmed that this was she without a doubt. The basic facts of her life all written in excellent English with just a smattering of cute missteps, "I divorced with a 4 years old son...".
My mind reeled as I positioned the cursor over the link to open the web page. Was she single and dating again? I could feel and almost hear the blood beating in my temples as I waited for the web page to materialise. A photograph and a full page of information about herself were suddenly occupying my screen as my eyes raced over it all in a futile attempt to absorb all that was there in less than a second, desperate to fill the yawning void almost a year in the making, to instantly answer a thousand questions, assuage the pack of doubts that had incessantly eaten away at me all that time. A year of sleeplessness and being constantly aware of the nauseating emptiness in the pit of my stomach had given me nothing more than the patience of a 5 year old. Deep breath, deep breath.
It soon became apparent this was an old web page because I knew her son was not 4 years old as she stated in her profile but would now be about 6. As I read her description of herself I was flooded with warmth and longing. 'Romantic, loyal' jumped out at me as did 'Honesty is very important to me.' This one struck me as particularly poignant given that her dishonesty was the root cause in my mind of our relationship's failure. 'Looking for a serious relationship leading to marriage and family.'
The photograph pulled me in with its blurriness, the missing details that I could fully supply from my own mental images and memories. She was wearing some sort of jumpsuit, bright red, and cradling a small dog in her arms. I had never seen her wearing anything other than the dark blue polyester pants that she either wore every day or had numerous pairs of. I read over her physical stats, all long forgotten by me. 'Wow, so short' I tried to comfort myself with. She had posted her full birth date, born on exactly the same day as me only 22 years later. I never wanted to explore the significance of that mostly because I've been afraid to learn what it might have meant. I've had enough regrets that I didn't need to add more to the burden.
Also on the profile page was her last login time. It had been over a year and a half before, 2 months before I returned to Vietnam and about the time I had originally promised to return before I delayed it. I couldn't blame her for exploring other options after I delayed my promised return date. The idea that she would actually wait 6 months for me to return to Vietnam to be with her after having spent a grand total of 2 weekends together before my leaving seemed a bit far-fetched to put it mildly, but nevertheless that apparently had been her intention and the 2 weekends had had enough of an impact on me that I had bought into it, too.
In late May 2010, 5 months before her last login time at the website I had just discovered her profile on, I received an email message from a different Vietnamese singles website I had found only a couple of months prior and had posted my profile on. It was a good website, free, with a profile base over 90% Vietnamese, a local's single's website. While most profiles were written entirely in Vietnamese, there were enough in English to keep me interested and I considered this a good natural filter. Any Vietnamese woman genuinely interested in a foreign man would have at least some English in her profile.
I had met a few women from the website and been contacted a few times. Initially I had been fairly indiscriminate, meaning I hadn't really known what I was looking for. A cute Vietnamese woman who could be my girlfriend was about as specific as I had dared think. At that time I had been in Saigon for about 7 months and had 1 month to go before I had to leave to go back to California in order to work the summer in the beautiful eastern Sierra Nevada mountains as a volunteer for the US Forest Service. I had done it the previous summer also, and while living in a tent without electricity is a Spartan existence, the setting and the work and sense of fulfillment made it all worth it. I had already made all my flight reservations and my Saigon apartment lease would be complete along with the expiration of my visa. I had also decided that I had had enough of Vietnam and was not planning on returning. I was thinking of somewhere else in Southeast Asia, Thailand being one obvious possibility.
The realities of living in Vietnam, at least in Saigon, had finally gotten to me, especially all the obvious annoyances such as the noise and pollution and the human density and general crowdedness of life. I had drifted into a sort of no man's land, not really a tourist anymore, having seen and done most of the tourist attractions, but not fully embracing living in Saigon either. I was still living near the Pham Ngu Lao backpacker area and was still afraid to get a motorbike and start moving around on my own.
Anyway, I read the message from a woman whose profile name was 'Vietnamese'. 'Oooh, so creative', I thought. There was nothing special about it. She said she had viewed and liked my profile and that she was 27 and divorced with a 4 year old son and lived in a city in the Mekong Delta region over 100 kilometers from Saigon. She said that she had had problems uploading her pics to the website and would be happy to email them to me. She told me her name was Thao and invited me to visit her city any time I liked. I always like to at least be polite if someone takes the time to write a message to me so I thanked her for the message and gave her my regular email address, thinking I would have a look at her pics and write that one off and go on with my life. I had no interest in a divorcee with a kid who lived outside of Saigon and besides, I was leaving in less than a month.
Her email arrived the next day along with 3 pics of herself, 2 of them of her in a church wearing a white dress and one of her standing at the side of the road in front of a Sprinter type van (her father's van I would later learn). Her face was pretty, extremely pretty actually, with striking features not typically Vietnamese and suddenly a weekend trip to the Mekong Delta to a city off the usual tourist track seemed very appealing.
I replied that I would come down the next weekend and she replied that was fine and gave me information about which bus I should take to get there. I also informed her that I was leaving Vietnam in less than a month and she seemed to not care about that at all.
The next Friday evening I was standing outside the Long Xuyen Mailinh bus station in the Mekong Delta region after about a 5-hour ride from Saigon and sent Thao an SMS that I had arrived and joked that she only need look for the foreign man. Soon she pulled up on a motorbike and we instantly saw each other. I'll be honest, my first thought was 'no, she's not my type'. Yes, her face was pretty as in her pics but she was short, barely 5 feet tall (I'm 6'1"), and didn't have the willowy slinky-cat type of physique that I really love about so many Vietnamese women. I couldn't help noticing, however, that she was real. She wasn't wearing any make-up that I could tell and she didn't smile a lot and was visibly a bit nervous about meeting me. What really struck me was her manner. She exuded a calm resolute sense of purpose and I knew she was also assessing me. Her demeanor had summarily dismissed and walked over my initial reluctance about her and I was intrigued.
After the usual somewhat awkward introduction I hopped on the back of her motorbike and she took me to one of the local hotels and I booked the expensive suite ($35 US) because that was all that was available. This was much more than I had planned to spend and took a sizable bite out of the money I had brought along to last the entire weekend. After I took the room Thao said she had to leave and would be back the next morning to pick me up and take me by motorbike on a trip to the town of Chau Doc near the Cambodian border.
I felt a bit strange as I unpacked my bags in the large but neither particularly clean nor nicely furnished 2-room top floor suite overlooking the city's main street. I wasn't at all comfortable and had seen no other foreigners since leaving Saigon and was beginning to feel a bit isolated and lonely. I had heard so many stories and seen so much myself of Vietnamese women who were only interested in foreigners for their money that as I lay in my room later I began to think that she had intentionally brought me to that hotel knowing that it was expensive by Vietnamese standards just to get a feel for how much money I had. I seriously contemplated packing up and going back to Saigon the next morning but finally calmed myself with the thought that I would just tell Thao I had only brought about $100 US with me and her reaction to that would give me a good glimpse of her intentions with me.
After my solo breakfast at the hotel restaurant the next morning Thao arrived as promised and I decided to just forget about the money issue and enjoy the rest of the weekend and the new places we would visit. My angst had eased considerably overnight. And we were going to be traveling in true Vietnamese style, by motorbike! I had only taken short trips on motorbikes before but today's would be several hours long.
As we began the trip and reached the highway outside of town, she driving and me on the back, she asked me if I had been at all scared about visiting a strange town. I told her, honestly, that I had not. 'But what if we all decided to rob you?', she asked. I just sort of chuckled and thought to myself 'That's why I only brought about $100 with me. And $35 of that is already gone! Maybe it's you who should be more scared than I'. I queried her a bit about why she had wanted me to stay in that particular hotel the night before and came to understand her only concern was that I feel as comfortable as possible and that hotel was the newest one in town. I quickly ascertained she neither knew nor cared about how much I had spent for the room. She said that I was the first foreigner she had ever met and spoken English with which left me a little incredulous.
I'll never forget that motorbike trip. We all have memories that get forever imprinted in our minds and that's one of mine. I think certain circumstances need to come together to create permanent memories, the kind that imprint not just on our minds but also in our emotions. I was in a strange place surrounded by people who didn't speak my language and who understood nothing about me and vice versa and I had surrendered all control to this woman whom I didn't know much about. In spanning the emotional spectrum from anger and discontent to becoming relaxed and trusting in such a short time, all my usual defences and responses had become suspended and I was laid bare and was open and impressionable perhaps even a bit childlike. The rest of the world disappeared and all that existed to me was Thao and I on her motorbike with the Vietnamese Mekong countryside rolling by us like pages in a picture book we were reading together, me peering inquisitively over her shoulder while she narrated and directed.
At one point a rough Vietnamese man pulled up next to us and began jabbering at her. She calmly responded with a few words and his face dropped and he sped away.
'What was that about?', I had to ask.
'He told me I should be careful with a foreign man because you could do anything you wanted to me. What do you think I said to him to make him go away?', she replied.
'I have no idea', I responded.
'I told him you were my husband'.
She suddenly seemed brave and a little reckless to me and I felt like I was a lost kid and she was taking care of me. As I sat behind her I studied her profile and arms and hands and was overwhelmed with the desire to know everything I possibly could about her. I began leaning forward and stealing secret thrills by breathing in the exhilarating aroma of the nape of her neck and silky hair. I felt like I had known her all my life and that everything before had only happened so that we could meet. I wouldn't have cared if time had stopped then and there. I think sometimes when we fall in love with someone, we don't know it at the time and it's only in hindsight that we can pinpoint the moment. Somewhere along that highway on the way to Chau Doc while I was on the back of that motorbike, it struck me with full force and I was so stunned by the strange circumstances and anaesthetised by so many failures and painful experiences that I wasn't even aware it was happening.
After a nice weekend that included meeting her grandmother in Chau Doc, I headed back to Saigon feeling a bit strange, not sure of what I wanted to do. I wasn't really sure how she felt about the visit since we both remained rather reserved with each other. I only had 2 weeks left on my apartment lease and was committed to go back to the US immediately after. I received an email from Thao during the next week thanking me for visiting and inviting me to visit again. I waited a few days and thought it over before telling her I would come back to the Mekong the following weekend which would be my last in Vietnam for the time being. I had begun to think that maybe there was more to this than just a friendly cultural exchange between 2 people from different worlds. As the weekend of my second visit approached, Thao informed me that she had made a reservation at a resort on the outskirts of Can Tho, the largest city in the Mekong and about a 1-hour motorbike ride from her city.
The resort was the Vietnamese version of a resort, meaning there were a lot of people milling about inside an enclosed area with a few muddy ponds and animals in cages and restaurants and bars. We spent the afternoon relaxing and walking around while getting the customary stares from the other clientele who were all Vietnamese. I remember stopping at a restaurant and sharing a fish that was served whole and held upright between wooden dowels on a small stand in its natural swimming posture.
The accommodations were detached bungalows and Thao had reserved one for us with 2 beds (of course!). I didn't have any assumptions about that night and didn't plan on putting any pressure on her but suffice it to say one of the beds was empty the next morning. It had been really nice, a little like magic, and I was very happy that things seemed to be progressing so easily and naturally between us. The fact that she was a divorced mother, as evidenced by the C-section scar on her lower stomach, didn't bother me at all anymore, but to the contrary, added to my growing love and respect for her. It was apparent that she longed for a new life and I wanted to be the one to help her have it. In return she could also give me something I had longed for perhaps without my ever even knowing it until now.
The next day we spent walking around Can Tho City and enjoying the riverside. Thao took a picture of me standing by the Mekong River and I'm still impressed at how content and peaceful I looked. We found a new hotel in Can Tho that night and there was a brief exchange between Thao and the clerk during which Thao became visibly agitated before he allowed us to check in together. Thao told me the clerk had invoked the Vietnamese law that a Vietnamese woman cannot share a room with a foreigner unless they can show they're married. Thao was fast on her feet and convinced him that we were in fact married and that she had forgotten to bring the papers and that was good enough for him. I guess he felt he should at least go through the motions of enforcing the law maybe just to cover his ass. This is still my only encounter with this law and it's rarely even mentioned these days in the big cities and tourist areas.
After another wonderful night and morning together, Thao left the next morning for work as it was a Monday. I found the Can Tho bus station and headed back to Saigon on my own, glowing a bit and realising that my plan not to come back to Vietnam would need some serious reconsideration. That morning during our passion in the hotel she had whispered something very softly and tentatively to me but I heard it and was having a hard time taking it seriously but it affected me along with everything else I was experiencing. She had turned all her affections and emotional power on me and I was withering in the onslaught but quite willingly and happily so. What I heard her say were those simple common words that change peoples' lives. 'I love you'.
After returning to Saigon I had only 2 days left before leaving for the US. I had some pangs of regret about that and even briefly considered cancelling the flight and forgetting about the summer of volunteer work for the US Forest Service I had committed to. But I also thought that it would be a good test of how real this relationship I had fallen into was if I were to leave and return. I promised Thao I would return in 4 months. We exchanged many text messages and she repeatedly reminded to be careful (of what?!) and seemed overly concerned about my well-being but the truth is that I liked it. She told me that she would move to Saigon in 6 months, that it would be required for her job, and we could be together there. I believed this and took it to heart, knowing that it would of course depend on how our relationship and her job situation developed.
Over the next few months I only had access to the internet a few times a week when I quite literally came down from the hills and my tent, but we nevertheless exchanged many emails on a regular basis. I began to realise that Thao was a bit insecure and her protectiveness probably stemmed from that. I couldn't blame her for feeling unsure about us as I had left her with nothing more than my promise that I would return and we still knew almost nothing about each other.
I had enquired about her ex-husband and she hadn't been willing to tell me very much other than he hadn't liked her working and had subjected her to some drunken domestic abuse, unfortunately not an uncommon occurrence in Vietnam. I knew that if Thao were living in the USA or even Saigon I probably would never have had a chance with her and in the very least would have been competing with many other suitors. I'm sure plenty of Vietnamese men still would have loved to marry her regardless of her divorce and son but I think she had written off the idea of another Vietnamese husband. She had followed the Vietnamese tradition of moving into her ex-husband's house with his parents after their marriage where her mistreatment had occurred and his family had no doubt supported him and blamed any problems on her. This is part of the traditional Vietnamese daughter-in-law's station in life. I can't imagine how terrible that must have been and thought that her desire for a new life with a foreign man was probably largely based on that experience and I completely sympathised with her.
As the summer wore on, I stayed in touch with Thao by email and had to inform her that I would not return in 4 months as I had said, but in 6. I was planning on really cutting my ties, at least the financial obligations, to the USA and California this time and that meant disposing of a lot of possessions including my beloved Subaru and I would need some time to do that. Her reaction to this news was of calm acceptance but I'm sure that for her it cast doubt on my intentions and my trustworthiness. What I didn't tell her was that I was going to spend 1 month in Thailand before returning to Vietnam in order to decide if Thailand was a place I could live if the situation in Vietnam didn't work out. It was reasonable for me to keep my options open at that time as I had not yet met her family and her son and had no idea what they were like or would think of me and I had no idea what she was doing while waiting around for me to show up again. As I now know she was also keeping her options open. The brief time we'd spent together coupled with the time and distance apart had caused me to become a little detached and aloof and Thao was hyper-sensitive to the content and tone of my email messages. I can easily go extended periods without being in contact with someone and feel OK about it. But she needed more from me and I wasn't giving it to her and deep down I knew that. I could and should have done a lot more to keep her assured.
I finished my volunteer work and managed to sell or give or throw away enough of my belongings that I could leave the US and not worry about having any lingering bills or financial obligations to worry about. I was truly cutting the cord and it felt incredibly liberating! At the tender age of 49 I was preparing to leave for a foreign country with the hope of marrying a woman I had fallen for.
It was November when I had finally said my goodbyes to all my friends in the Bay Area. I had watched as my Subaru disappeared down the road with its happy new owner behind the wheel. The night of my flight to Hong Kong my roommate was out and couldn't give me a ride to the BART station where I would catch a train to San Francisco International Airport. I didn't want to bother anyone else so I just hoisted my backpack and shoulder bag and headed out the door on foot acting and feeling like someone 25 years my junior. It was an apt metaphor for my life at that point and a good way to begin my journey to the other side of the world for whatever awaited me there.
My month in Thailand was enough for me to know that I could live there if it came to that. I especially enjoyed my 10 days in Chiang Mai though I've since learned there's a significant air pollution problem there and I lucked out by missing it during my stay. But if not Chiang Mai then Bangkok or numerous other possibilities were available. I had read about Thailand visas and knew that soon enough I would be eligible for their 1-year retirement visa.
The Vietnamese embassy in Bangkok would only issue a 1-month visa to me. I was really upset by this and when I informed Thao I didn't get the sympathy or support I was hoping for but she instead seemed suspicious of me. Perhaps she thought this was my way of not making a commitment but it wasn't that at all. I felt that the fact that I was returning to Vietnam should have been enough for her to believe that I was committed and I told her truthfully that she was the only reason I was doing that. It again reminded me just how tenuous this whole idea was at that point, but my thinking was that I could easily manage a stay of at least 6 months and I would possibly be married or at least engaged by then and have access to a longer term visa simply for that reason.
When I walked out into the steamy Saigon evening at Tan Son Nhat airport my eyes swept the crowd looking for my Thao. It was already getting dark and there were a lot of people milling about so I couldn't immediately spot her. Then I saw a woman in a blue shirt suddenly jump to her side and run around the crowd to make her way to the point we arriving passengers were being funneled through. I didn't really know how to react. It had been 6 months since we had seen each other and even though we had stayed in touch by email a void of unfamiliarity had developed between us. At least I felt there was. I should have hugged her but I didn't. I truly didn't know if that was considered acceptable in Vietnam nor if she wanted me to do that, but we were both very happy to see each other again and I think she was relieved that I had come back to Vietnam even though a couple of months later than initially promised.
We spent 2 memorable romantic days and nights in Saigon before taking the bus down to the Mekong Delta to visit her family. I met her parents, both very nice and friendly people, and her sister and her family and I also finally met Thao's son. Well, I didn't really meet him as Thao seemed completely uninterested in him and in me meeting him. He was more or less pointed out to me as her son and I spent the next week at their house observing how little time and attention Thao paid to him and how in reality her parents had become her son's parents. Thao seemed to have little or no maternal warmth towards him and it was apparent he had long ago learned this and in turn paid her almost no mind, instead directing all his boyish energy, love, and enthusiasm towards her parents who seemed to be fine with that. It was a truly strange situation. Thao and I never talked about it as I thought it best to just leave that alone for the time being. I'm guessing that her son was a reminder of her former married life and ex-husband and that was why she seemed to reject him.
Maybe I should have taken Thao's coldness towards her own son as another warning sign to add to the lack of support she had shown me regarding my 1-month visa. During my week at her house she also gave me another glimpse of her character when she let me know that she 'hated' certain people, for example Vietnamese from the north (Hanoi) and Chinese people. I assumed she used that word simply because her English vocabulary was too limited for her to articulate it in a better way. Looking back I think maybe she meant exactly what she said and she was revealing her 100% or 0% all or nothing view of life.
My week at Thao's house included Christmas Day and since her family is Catholic there was plenty of food and drink to celebrate. It was really quite nice as the spirit of Christmas that seems to have been drowned out by avarice and commercialism in the US was in abundance. It was all about family and togetherness.
During the day Thao would go to her job at the local university and leave me in the care of her father who spoke enough English that we could get along well enough. Her father was only 2 or 3 years older than myself, but in Southeast Asia the age difference is not considered such a big deal. It never even came up. They were not what many would picture as the typical Vietnamese family living in the Mekong. Sometimes when I've talked about my experience people form the impression they were rice farmers scratching out a living and happy to have the prospect of a (rich) foreigner join the family. While they seemed very open about the idea of Thao marrying a foreigner, I think money had nothing to do with it. I guess there's always the possibility they were playing it for the long term and waiting until later to start making their requests for financial assistance, but I don't believe that. Thao's father owned and drove a Ford van as a business taking people to Saigon and elsewhere and he seemed to not care how busy he was. Both her parents seemed to care about their grandson and not too much else and seemed genuinely happy that I was visiting and never placed any demands on me whatsoever. Their house was nice, not extravagant, but well-built and well-furnished and comfortable. As I discovered on Christmas Eve they even had their own karaoke machine!
Thao would usually come home at lunchtime and we often found our way to her bedroom for a quick interlude (skyrockets in flight!) before she threw her work clothes back on and returned to the university. I can still remember how sweet and beautiful she looked when she pulled into the house astride her electric bicycle or motorbike. It was hard to imagine her out on the streets like a porcelain doll amidst all the traffic, grime, and noise. In many ways I was living a dream there with absolutely no demands placed on me and I've often thought what would have happened if I had just decided to never leave. I had no commitments and had everything I needed and Thao and her family gave me no indication they were expecting me to leave at any time and all seemed very happy to have me there. There was only 1 glaring inescapable problem with my situation and that's that I was bored out of my mind and felt completely cut off from the world. I didn't want to leave the house on my own because in smaller towns in Vietnam foreigners really stand out and I feel uncomfortable knowing so many eyes are staring at me watching every move I make. I was sort of a prisoner in their house even though as prisons go this one was as soft and easy as they get. And with some very nice additional benefits!
Amidst the dreamlike life I had lived over the past week there had been a bit of a bombshell dropped on me by Thao when she informed me that she couldn't move to Saigon for about 4 years due to her job. This just floored me as a big part of the life I had planned included the 2 of us living together in Saigon. From my perspective I had traveled from the US back to Vietnam giving up a good life I had there to be with her and she had previously told me she would move to Saigon in 6 months and that had actually already been 8 months before and the least she could do was to move a 5-hour bus ride from her house to be with me and keep her word. To this day I don't know why she changed her mind about that and she never even acknowledged that she did nor would ever discuss the issue and I brought it up numerous times. But she did say it and it was a huge blow to our relationship as far as I was concerned. Perhaps she was feeling apprehensive about us or was taking a dig at me for delaying my return to Vietnam by 2 months. Or perhaps her moving to Saigon had simply been a lie to keep me committed to the relationship or perhaps she was just giving my commitment a test. Or perhaps there were other reasons. Maybe she considered it to be a legitimate part of the game women are allowed to play. In any case it will always remain a big question mark in my mind, faded and crumbling, but ever present, ponderous, immoveable.
It was obvious that if she did leave and take her son away from her parents it would emotionally devastate all of them. Since I thought there was no way she would leave her son behind I came to the conclusion that she had never intended to leave her parents' house and wouldn't for the foreseeable future. I came to believe she had tried to set a trap and lure me into living with her and her family. It changed the way I felt, at least at that point, but wasn't enough for me to completely check out of the relationship. I knew I loved her and I had no intention of walking away from that.
But I also knew that at that time at least, I could not live in her town. As wonderful as it was being Thao's love slave and being treated like a king by her family, I needed to feel my own independence and to connect with people I could relate to better because of shared language and culture. After 1 week living this unreal life I informed them that I would leave for Saigon the next day.
The morning of the day I was leaving for Saigon Thao left me in the bed as she got ready to go to work and we said goodbye to each other. I watched her walk out the bedroom door believing I would be seeing her again soon in Saigon.
My main feeling when I arrived in Saigon was actually of relief to feel like a normal person again. I was getting SMS's and emails from Thao telling me how much she missed me and hoped I was doing ok. At one point she asked me what I would do if she had become pregnant. I told her that if that happened I would take care of her and our child and I meant it. I didn't have any fear about the idea as I had always had before in my life.
I was able to get the usual 3-month renewable visa in Saigon and this was a big event for me. I told Thao the good news about that and she seemed happy, too. It meant that we could at least stop worrying about 1 problem. But something had changed in Thao and she began sending me messages expressing her unhappiness about us and that she felt I wasn't being faithful or truthful with her. I tried to reassure her that everything was fine and that she please try to stay happy about us and told her she could come visit me at any time and that I was actively looking for a decent place to live so I could move out of the mini-hotel I was staying in. She also began asking me if I had been looking for a job. I actually had approached a few schools about teaching English and had met with no success. She sent me a web link for a house for rent in Saigon. Maybe this was her way of telling me that if I showed her more commitment she would live in Saigon with me, but she said nothing about that, only indicating she thought it might be the sort of place I would like to live in. I was feeling a bit of pressure from all this and I know I wasn't responding the way she would have liked and the way I should have to show that I was committed to our relationship. I wasn't accustomed to dealing with those types of circumstances and mostly needed to find stability to feel like myself again.
At the same time I was really struggling with the knowledge that she wasn't leaving her parents' house and trying to figure out what I really wanted to do with myself besides hanging out at coffee shops. In the US I had made enough money before and during the dot-com boom that I didn't need to work to support myself especially in a place like Vietnam where the costs of living run 1/2 to 1/3 what they are in the Bay Area. I had shown up in Vietnam without really thinking through what I would do when I got there other than spend time with Thao. I guess to be honest about it, I really wasn't in a position to be in a serious relationship at that time and Thao was feeling this from me. Every time I started to think about how to work things out and make it better I was stone-walled by the fact that she wasn't leaving her town to live in Saigon with me. As she never offered any explanation or other possibilities, I couldn't get past it.
As January wore on, we continued to exchange messages and I found a room to rent in a decent house and invited her to visit me there and she indicated she'd like to come up during the Tet Vietnamese New Year week which was the first week of February. I said that would be great and began looking forward to that. I was left with the feeling she would contact me again to confirm.
A few days later, I remember it was a Sunday afternoon, I was sitting in a Highlands Coffee wondering why I hadn't heard back from Thao when I got an SMS from her. She asked me why she hadn't heard from me and why I seemed so distant. I informed her everything was fine and that I had been waiting to hear from her regarding her Tet visit. I had also done some other thinking and was still grappling with the idea of her not living in Saigon and decided to just go ahead and tell her that I couldn't live in her town and was concerned that our relationship would be very difficult to maintain. She replied back that she accepted that we lived in different places. 'Sure', I thought, 'YOU accept it, but it was your idea.' I sat and thought about it for a few minutes attempting to resolve how I really felt. Finally I cracked and began typing out an SMS reply to the effect that she was right and I wanted to try to make it work even if she lived there and I was living in Saigon. I forgave her for changing her mind about living in Saigon and suddenly knew that I wanted our relationship to last. As I was typing, another SMS arrived from Thao. I should have finished my SMS before reading it, but I didn't. Sometimes life hinges on random decisions or sometimes we let it.
She had also cracked but in the other direction. She called me a liar and said she hoped I didn't put any other women through what I had put her through. I was flabbergasted. I honestly don't believe I've ever been caught so off-guard by anything in my life. I replied that there was nothing to worry about and she should calm down but the switch had been flipped and there was no backing down on her part. The onslaught continued while I kept trying to offer her chances to back down. She even went so far as to say she hoped she hadn't contracted AIDS from me! This really offended me mostly because she could possibly think that I would have knowingly put her health in jeopardy like that. I replied that if that was all she cared about she had nothing to worry about while still hoping she would finally calm down and come to her senses. Her reply was simply that if she hadn't contracted any diseases from me she was thankful. That was it. Over. I was incensed and confused and didn't reply. I never sent the SMS that had been interrupted.
At that point I certainly felt a sense of loss and personal failure but also was resolved that it was probably for the best. If she couldn't even move to Saigon then she was suffering from a lack of commitment herself as far as I was concerned and I didn't have what was needed to overcome that under the circumstances. This is the point where I could have saved the relationship had I had the courage and ability to face the challenge. Sometimes it's not enough to just show up with good intentions and be forgiving, it takes more of a concerted and demonstrated effort to be trusted and believed. I had completely failed in that regard but I accepted it then as I still do and the story, or more accurately the non-story, should have ended there. Just another love lost to the vagaries and hurdles life threw in its way.
The same love and loyalty I had felt from her before had had its polarity reversed and the soothing effect it had had when flowing in one direction had an equally painful and vicious effect flowing in the other. I had been rudely shoved from Thao's 100% side to her 0% side and it was not something I had expected could ever happen.
About a week later I received an email from Thao. I opened it still hoping for some sign of conciliation but she only said that she thought she would not ever bother me again and was only emailing me because she was worried she had AIDS because she had a fever. I couldn't believe that was truly all she had to say to me. Again, I told her to stop worrying about any diseases because she didn't get any from me.
I started to realise that Thao wasn't who I had thought she was and it helped me to start getting over losing her. But I was definitely numb and stunned that it had happened so abruptly and rudely after the 8 months of affection we had shown each other and after I had left the US to come back to Vietnam to have a life with her.
Over the next few months I would get an email from Thao about once a month just asking me if I was still in Vietnam and not much else. She was being dishonest with me again as she had promised not to bother me anymore. She made a point of telling me she was doing 'very well' herself. I didn't want to ask about that but I wondered why she was continuing to email me when she had said she would leave me alone. I was still open to a reconciliation but she gave no indication that she was or that she had any regrets or misgivings about the horrible things she had said to me.
Then after receiving an email in late March almost 3 months had gone by without me hearing from Thao. I assumed that was simply the end of it and I was OK with that even though I still missed her.
During this time I had decided I wasn't leaving Vietnam because of Thao and started looking around more seriously for work for something to do. In June a friend from the TESOL course I had taken the previous year phoned me to let me know she knew of a Korean man who wanted a private tutor and she was unable to work with his schedule. So I decided to do it. It really changed the way I felt about everything because for the first time in many years someone was actually paying me money for something I was doing! I had been living well enough off my savings and investments, but there is something organic and validating about being paid for working as opposed to living by some other means. For the first time in years I felt a connection to society and felt the rush of structure and meaning in my life and it felt really good. I had also purchased a motorbike and was enjoying the freedom of cruising Saigon's streets at my leisure on my terms. It was like a resurrection for me, a return to a normal life I had long before abandoned believing I didn't need or want it anymore. And I was having no trouble meeting girls but no one came close to affecting me the way Thao had.
Then after almost 3 months, I received another friendly casual email from Thao in late June. As usual she asked how I was doing and whether I was still in Vietnam. She expressed surprise that I was still there because she thought I would have left because of my visa expiring. I told her I might actually be working soon and she responded that she was happy for me.
Like a deer that has almost crossed a highway only to freeze up in the headlights of an approaching truck before making the fatal decision to turn and run back, I was seized with the idea that maybe she was still interested in our relationship and that it was up to me to pursue it. It actually surprised me a little that I still had those types of feelings about her, but I was also having feelings about myself and life that I had not had in such a long time and the idea of finally making it really work with Thao suddenly seemed like the one goal that everything else in my life was there for. It had been my only goal when I returned to Vietnam and maybe, just maybe, I was being given another chance to make it happen now that I was in a good position with my life. The idea of it sent me reeling and spinning through my days intoxicated with dreamy visions of the 2 of us along with her son and another of our own living happily together in a house as a family. I had never had these types of feelings and it was overwhelming and I was even thinking that, yes, this was how it was meant to be, that Thao and I would be together now and fate and life had simply intervened before so that I could be better prepared for it and be better able to make our life a happy one. I decided that if she still couldn't leave the Mekong that was fine, I would visit her on weekends and whenever else I could and would possibly eventually just decide to live there with her. I asked her if she ever came to Saigon because I wanted to meet her and talk to her and she replied that, yes, she did sometimes come to Saigon and this only heightened and accelerated my hopes. I asked her to let me know the next time she would be there.
2 weeks and no reply. I thought that maybe she was apprehensive about seeing me again and thought I only wanted to see her out of convenience so I decided I needed to show her I was serious. I sent her another email offering to come down to Can Tho so that we could meet and talk. Another week and no reply. Another email from me telling her that I had always thought of her as special and that I should have thought more about the challenges she's faced in life and hoping we could still work it out. I let go of all pretences and defences and laid myself down on her altar, arms outstretched and heart pounding and fully exposed. Sometimes we have to take risks in life I told myself.
The next day, finally a reply. The ice began forming in my blood as I read the first line, 'You know that I wanted a serious relationship and I think when you came back here you did too...'. She went on to say she wanted someone who takes her as she is and who only wants to be with her, implying that I didn't. She closed with 'I am happy and satisfied with my life now and I hope you are too.'
Words cannot describe what I experienced when I read that. Over a year later I still tremble inside when I think about it. It was as if I someone had plunged electrical wires into my viscera that emanated a high voltage current that started in my abdomen and suffused down into my legs and up into my chest, arms, and head sizzling my blood, bones, and flesh into hot grey ash.
I immediately pounded out a desperate reply telling her that I understood and that she deserved to be happy and how sad I was to know it was truly over with us. 2 more weeks went by with no reply. During that time I discovered that my emotions were equipped with circuit breakers that prevented me from falling into a complete breakdown. I began to truly believe that she was only bluffing to maybe get back at me or test me and that any day another email would arrive to that effect. After all, she didn't actually say she was in a new relationship just that that was what she wanted and that she was now happy and satisfied. It was pathetic but it may have saved my life. My psyche knew it had to protect me from what I couldn't acknowledge which was that I had lost Thao and to save me from the collapsing rubble of my own foolishly and hastily constructed hopes and dreams.
After 2 weeks I finally realised that I had to fight back or suffer forever. I wrote another email detailing everything I felt had gone wrong with our relationship and also questioning why she continued to email me when she said she wouldn't. She never replied.
I could spew out hundreds of tedious meaningless pages detailing the endless agonies I suffered in the aftermath of that email. I didn't sleep normally again for about 7 months. Almost every night I would wake up between 3 and 4 AM with what I began calling 'The Horrors' with a gnawing void in my gut and my pulse pounding in my head and I usually could only sleep 1 or 2 more hours after that. There were days when it felt as if my own blood had turned to battery acid and was corroding me from the inside. I was physically and emotionally exhausted all the time and came close to grabbing a kitchen knife and heading for the shower stall more than once. I understand now what people mean when talking about something traumatic and they say that it seems like it happened yesterday even though it may have been years before. For months on end it seemed that time had stopped. I counted days hoping that if a certain number had passed since receiving her email that I would somehow feel better as if time were a prescriptive medicine, each day a pill I was taking, and its healing effects would kick in at some point simply by virtue of its passing. But of course it doesn't work that way. The pain stops when some psychological threshold is crossed and there's no point in enduring any more. Why mine stopped when it did and why it endured for as long as it did I don't know.
I know what I went through was about a lot more than Thao and a lot more than being in Vietnam, that in truth it went way back and deep into my psychology and emotional (or lack of) development and that it was related to that important question of 'why are you here?'. What brings Westerners to Southeast Asia, especially we single aging men and what are we really truly expecting we might find? It's a difficult question to answer unless you're one of the lucky ones just expecting to have fun.
So much has been written and discussed on this topic, but when it hits you personally in your own way, you realise that only you can really deal with it and that it was only your responsibility to understand yourself and your emotional strengths and weaknesses. Like a foreigner in a strange land who wasn't vaccinated against a local malady, you can be brought to your knees in ways you never imagined. Additionally you're not going to have your usual support system in place in a foreign country and this can make dealing with any sort of trauma just that much more difficult. You're a visiting team playing on their turf and under a different set of rules.
So what happened to Thao? Through a series of twisted and random events almost a year after my last email to her I was able to find out she had left her job and left Vietnam. I knew she must have gotten married. After I was over the initial shock of her leaving Vietnam for someone else when she wouldn't even come to Saigon for me, I emailed her and with a carefully crafted tactic was able to get her to confirm that she was in fact married and living in Australia with her husband.
I'll never know the truth, but I imagine that after her experience with me she became even more focused on her goal and realised she had to change her priorities. I believe she met her husband via the internet and he must have come here to visit her and offered her what she wanted which was the promise of imminent marriage and family and I believe it all happened in less than a year.
I still expressed my regrets about us in the few emails we exchanged and I detected a certain defensiveness on her part and she seemed intent on convincing herself that she had made the right decision. That's understandable as it was irreversible and there was no point in dwelling on it. Interestingly, she didn't say she loved her husband, though she certainly does, but instead stressed the fact of how much he loved and needed her and I now know she really needed that for her own feeling of security. I believe I was able to finally pry open a small chink in her emotional armour only because her words changed from spinning serrated buzz saw blades to mere ice picks and knives. She didn't respond to my question about being pregnant and I didn't ask if she had taken her son with her.
Weeks later I was discussing the episode with a female Vietnamese Australian friend who opened my eyes to that fact that her family was probably glad to see her go and she likely readily left her son behind. So many assumptions I had made about Thao turned out to be completely wrong. I never understood exactly how determined and focused she was. The fact that I came to live in Vietnam and tried to adapt to life here counted for little or nothing. I now think the only reason she continued to email me after ending our relationship was a simple matter of convenience for her to know if she had to worry about running into me in Saigon when she and her husband-to-be were hanging out there. Or perhaps she was simply curious about me or she had other not so admirable intentions. I'll never really know. Such is life. Her agenda was strong and unyielding, her calm resolute sense of purpose, and I had been the one who didn't get it and get on board in time and instead was left broken in its wake.
I sometimes gaze out my window at the Saigon cityscape from my apartment in one of the new high rises in the Binh Thanh district and wonder how her life is. I can see the airplanes coming and going from Tan Son Nhat airport to the northwest. It's quite possible I was watching her airplane as it rose off the ground and pointed itself far off and away and carried her out of Vietnam and it appeared as nothing to me other than a flash of metal or a blink of lights against the sky. Just another completion of a routine, the turn of a cog in a machine, another of the countless daily ebbs and flows of life.
A part of me is glad that she's pursuing a new life with a foreigner because regardless of the pain she caused me and my feeling that she wasn't altogether fair to me, I admire her singular sense of purpose and adventurous spirit and determination to escape from the clutches of traditional Vietnamese married life. It's what keeps the human race moving forward. Good on ya, Em Thảo.
Nicely told tale.
Some women in South-East Asia who pursue a Western man can be quite determined in reaching their goals. I guess building a long-term relationship after spending so long apart when you barely knew each other was always going to be a challenge. But then t appears that she did to wait for you although something changed at some point. It's never easy and you often don't know everything that is going on....
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