For a Vietnamese American, Prayers on the Brink of War

One recent early morning in San Jose, Calif., I watched as my mother climbed a little chair and lit incense in front of the ancestral altar. For the last few decades she has always prayed at night. When I asked her what had changed, she said, "I pray both morning and night now. Why don't you guess the reason?"

It took a few seconds but the answer came. "The war," I said.

My mother nodded and regarded the photos of the dead staring out from the altar and sighed. When we were still living in Saigon during the Vietnam War, my family and I prayed day and night. We prayed for our father, who fought in the South Vietnamese army, to come home safely from the battlefields, and for the bombs to stop falling, and for peace to come. As the youngest in the family, it was my duty to climb on top of the little mahogany table and light incense.

That, of course, was a long time ago. We fled Vietnam as refugees at the end of the war and became Americans. Yet nearly 30 years later and an ocean away, as I watched my mother pray for peace, I felt I had somehow come full circle -- another war loomed near and incense smoke rose from our family's altar.

Later, my mother said, "This would be the fourth." Fourth what, I asked? "Fourth war," she said.

When she was young and living in Hanoi, the French fought against the Viet Minh, and both sides killed many of my mother's relatives and friends. She fled to South Vietnam in 1954, and a civil war started. More relatives and friends died.

In America, two of her nephews joined the army and both ended up in the Gulf War in 1991. And now a few children of her close friends are based in the Middle East. "We can't escape it, even here in America," she said. "Every generation there's war."

America may seem a relatively safe haven, even when it wages pre-emptive wars overseas. But those who survived war and calamity elsewhere and live here now will tell you they know how quickly things can go from bad to worse.

In a Chinese-owned supermarket near my mother's home recently, I saw an old Vietnamese woman buy three bags of rice, 50 pounds each. "Why so many?" I asked. The old lady laughed nervously. "Just in case something happens. You have to stock up. You never know." Others, she told me, are buying gold. They no longer trust U.S. dollars.

Hoarding rice and buying gold -- it's what Vietnamese did when the fighting was especially bad during the Vietnam war. But this is America. We can't possibly run out of food, can we?

You never know.

I was young when the Vietnam war ended. Back then I couldn't make sense out of what had happened to me or my family. One day I was reading my favorite book in my mother's rose garden, my dogs sleeping lazily at my feet, and the next day I am running for my life with a small backpack in which I only managed to save my stamp collection. Everything else was burnt -- photographs, mementos, books, toys, letters, clothes.

Perhaps it is this sort of experience that causes many Vietnamese to talk about an escape route. At dinner last night, a few friends of mine talked about going back to Vietnam to escape the war if "something bad happens to the United States." It is paranoia, of course, but if you lived through a war, you prepare for the worst when another war looms.

You never know.

I can't remember when the last time I lit an incense stick to the spirits of my ancestors and asked for protection and guidance. My American life has so far been one straightforward trajectory, with the future assumed to be bright. But for the first time in my American life, I can't help but feel that that the old America I knew as a child is coming back. It is an America that sang to me nightly in the form of B-52 bombs, one where thatch-roof villages are set on fire and everyone lives holding their breath.

That is why, when my mother went out to tend her rose garden after her morning prayer, I did what I hadn't done in a long, long time. I climbed onto the chair and lit incense for the spirit of my ancestors, and I prayed.

Andrew Lam ( is the editor of Pacific News Service, a recent Knight Fellow at Stanford University and writes short stories.

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