East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres
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There's a moment from many years ago that remains indelible on my mind. I don’t remember much on our way to Waterloo, except that the countryside was streaked and blurred, light green over darker green, all under a persistent gray sky.
Father drove. My older sister sat next to him and navigated, a map on her lap. I was 17 and pining to be back home with my first love, as I sat behind with Mother, who complained of a mild headache and wondered out loud why we needed to find this distant battlefield, and why we couldn’t go freshen up at our hotel after having just arrived in Belgium.
“It would be dark by the time we got to Waterloo had we gone to the hotel!” Father snapped. I didn’t have to turn to know Mother was rolling her eyes. If she had a choice she would not have been stuck in the backseat as we searched for some pasture where Napoleon was defeated long ago.
I thought I saw a sign in French. I said so to Father. Except it took me five minutes to do this. He cursed, calling me names in French. I responded in French, rather rudely, which surprised him, since I rarely spoke the language after we came to America.
I felt terrible afterward, and the air in the car was tense. I remember thinking, were we still in the war and I his subordinate. Father, once a three-star general in the South Vietnamese army, no doubt would have me confined to the brig for whatever it was that I said.
On Vacation and Quarreling--American Style
But it was a half-dozen years since the Vietnam War ended, and we’d already turned into an American family on a European vacation, complete with a sulky teenager stuck in the backseat and his responsible but equally sullen sister stuck in front, while their quarreling parents kept at it.
We finally stopped and asked for directions. Father drove frantically after that. We arrived at Waterloo at last—and it was still bright out when he, my sister and I rushed up the windswept knoll that overlooked the battlefield. Mother declined the climb and went to the shop to buy souvenirs.
As we climbed, Father could barely hide his excitement. When we finally stood on top, almost out of breath, he began to narrate the story of the old battle. He pointed wildly: where Napoleon's army stood, which direction the Prussian soldiers came from, and how the Duke of Wellington arrived with his Anglo-Allied forces to turn the tide, defeating Father's favorite military tactician and ultimately exiling him to St. Helena, where he died a few years later.
“It rained before the battle,” he was saying. “It delayed Napoleon, you see. He wanted the ground to dry out a little before the attack.” Wellington's army was positioned on Mt. St. Jean but they withstood repeated attacks. By nightfall they counterattacked and drove the French from the field. Then the Prussians broke through Napoleon's right flank as his army was pulling back. There were heavy losses on all sides.
I already knew the story. I also knew that Father was, in part, trying to make up for cursing at me by telling the old story. It occurred to me later that never once had Father told any of his children a fairy tale, and that most likely he remembered none. But this story of a long-ago battle he had told many times, turning our dining room table into the battlefield, our spoons and chopsticks into battalions, bowls into hills. The Duke of Wellington was drunk. Napoleon was not. But there was nothing he could do, was there, against fate?