by Emily Rich
2015 Essay Contest Winner, Theme: “War and Peace”
Colonel Troung was getting up from the desk again, excusing himself with a polite bow, pulling at the creases of his threadbare trousers as he stood.
“Why don’t you smoke at the desk like everyone else?” I asked. I was worried about falling behind on our cases. “It won’t bother me if you do.”
The colonel’s eyes scanned the long folding table “desk”: took in the neat pile of manila folders, the inkpad for taking fingerprints, the stacks of loose forms anchored by a stapler, a hole punch, a small piece of cinderblock.
He gave an apologetic smile. “No ashtray,” he said. “Too messy,” and stepped outside into the dusty heat.
The year was 1989 and the official ends to the conflicts in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos were years in the past. But the borders still teemed with camps of refugees who didn’t want to return home. Most lacked proof of official ties to the ousted regimes and would be denied asylum by Western countries only willing to take in the politically persecuted.
My job, as a caseworker for the quasi-governmental Joint Voluntary Agency, was to interview the displaced and mold their individual hardship stories into narratives that would impress the American Immigration officers stationed in the camps. Colonel Troung was my interpreter.
The colonel’s arrival had signaled a change in the nature of our work at JVA. That year, in a gesture aimed at normalizing relations with the US, the Vietnamese government released thousands of former South Vietnamese bureaucrats and army officers who’d been sent to re-education camps after the Fall of Saigon.
Many of the newly freed fled the country immediately, some by boat, others across land through Cambodia, paying “snakehead” refugee smugglers to get them into Thailand, into the camps where I worked. Colonel Truong was in the latter category.
He had been a rising star in the South Vietnamese Army, had been sent to Fort Benning to train with Americans, had been awarded the Silver Star of Bravery by American forces during the war. He was what we caseworkers called a “water walker,” someone who would be awarded US refugee status, no problem at all.
Because of his excellent English, he was offered a six-month stint as an interpreter for our organization. So now, the military wunderkind-turned political prisoner-turned refugee, was sitting on a folding chair next to a twenty-four-year old caseworker in a bamboo hut on the outskirts of Aranyaprathet, Thailand.
At first, I viewed Colonel Truong with suspicion. I’d been a history major in college and had studied about the war, how it was a mistake, how the South Vietnamese government was corrupt and undeserving of American attempts to prop it up. The idealistic just-out-of-college me had come to Thailand to help the victims of the war, not the perpetuators.
In return, Colonel Truong was nothing but gracious and respectful.
He admired the seriousness I applied to my job, he said. He advised his fellow education camp parolees to wait until they could get me as a caseworker. He was patient, with kind eyes and a gentle manner. With his oversized head and thinning combed-over hair, he reminded me of an elderly Asian Linus from the Peanuts cartoon. More like an egghead physics professor than an American-trained warrior.
He was also a nervous wreck. He would spring up suddenly from our little folding table desk and pace the dirt floor or gaze out the cutout windows of our bamboo wall. His hands shook and his legs were constantly moving even when he was deep in conversation with a refugee applicant.
Sometimes, between interviews, he would tell me about his decade in captivity, about the forced marches, the compulsory labor, the disease and starvation that did in fellow prisoners on a daily basis.
“I was once so hungry I ate another man’s vomit,” he told me, and then laughed awkwardly, embarrassed.
“I’m so sorry,” was my inadequate response.
He seemed to want something from me during these conversations, some sort of recognition of the unique horror of his situation, but I was unable to see him as anything more than one more story in the endless tales of hardship and brutality that were recounted before me on a daily basis. Before my stint in this camp, I’d spent three months stationed outside Khoa-I-Dang camp, interviewing Cambodian survivors of the murderous Khmer Rouge. Imprisonment, forced labor, starvation, it was all part of the cruelty unleashed by the senselessness of war.
One time between cases Colonel Truong unfolded a black and white photo of himself in dress uniform wearing the Silver Star. It was an eight by ten photo, an official portrait, creased heavily at the folds. He told me he’d taped the portrait to his calf before he fled Vietnam. Other than the clothes on his back and gold to pay the snakeheads, it was the one possession he had brought with on his escape to Thailand. It was his ticket to the US, and he knew it.
In the picture, he is crisp and pressed, grinning with pride. In some ways I could see the familiar Colonel Truong: the wide forehead, the dark eyes, the sharp nose that reminded me of an Indian arrowhead. But in other ways he looked different. His face in the picture is young, angular. His eyes are brilliant, energetic and alert. His smile is cocky and self-assured. Could such a man be capable of anything in a time of conflict? I wondered. Bravery, heroism, cruelty, atrocity? What would have happened had the war turned out differently and he could be jailer, not prisoner in its aftermath? The idea of it made me shudder.
Because he worked for us, Colonel Truong didn’t have to live in the refugee camp anymore, but he was not allowed to leave the cheap hotel compound where the JVA workers stayed. There were five other interpreters in situations similar to his, and the group of them kept to themselves after hours.
There wasn’t much to do in Aranyaprathet in any case. On Sundays, our only day off, the other caseworkers and I liked to wander about the local open-air market. Once, while meandering through the tables of piled sarongs, tin cookware, plastic strainers, and serving utensils, I passed something that caught my eye—a kitschy, ceramic hula girl attached to a turquoise lagoon ashtray. It was the kind of thing I thought was “campy;” something I might have displayed ironically in my off-campus apartment back home. I bought it for Colonel Truong.
I plunked it down on our folding-table desk Monday morning.
“Now you have an ashtray!” I exclaimed, happy with myself.
I guess I thought he would react with amusement, but he said nothing about the ashtray’s silliness, only thanked me with a bow of his head and a slight smile. As if I’d given an order for him to accept it.
From then on he smoked at our workstation and did not take breaks outside.
Colonel Troung smoked throat-scorching Krong Thip brand Thai cigarettes, one after another. American cigarettes were banned in the country at the time.
“Can I try one?” I asked once. I wasn’t a regular smoker, just curious.
I took a drag and wheezed it out immediately. It was like inhaling field hay infused with Pine Sol.
“These are terrible!” I coughed. “What type of cigarettes did you smoke back home? Were the Vietnamese brands as bad as these?”
He sort of chuckled, and his eyes took on a far-off, remembering look.
“During the war I smoked Pall Malls,” he said. “American brands are always the best.”
Day after day we interviewed refugee applicants. Usually they were single men, but sometimes whole families would array themselves on the wooden bench in front of us. Western aid groups provided them with decent clothes and they would sit straight and proper as if in a church pew, children scrubbed and combed, parents clutching Ziploc baggies of what few documents they had. The hopefulness in their eyes never failed to break my heart.
One time a young father who couldn’t keep his story straight was trying our patience.
“The town he says he was born in is in the North,” I said. “But he claims his father was in the Army for the South?” I was trying to pin him down on specifics. When did the family move? What was his father’s rank? Where was his father now?
The man stalled. In the silence, an oscillating fan whirred and ruffled the stacks of forms on my desk.
The man’s wife said nothing but held her eyes on me with a beseeching look. Their three young children focused silently on their hands folded in their laps, as they’d no doubt been instructed to do.
Colonel Truong broke from interpreting my questions and began lecturing the young man in Vietnamese. His tone was stern but soft, in a caring, fatherly sort of way. The man bowed his head and frowned.
The interview was over. We fingerprinted everyone and placed their file on the stack to go to Immigration. Colonel Truong pinched the top of his nose with his thumb and forefinger. He was crying.
“They will never make it to America with that story,” he said.
He was normally so stoic and this show of emotion unnerved me. Did he mourn for the tragedy of this one family? For the young father who reminded him of his own lost youth? Or for the whole sorry state of his countrymen, crammed on a foreign border, raising up children in the hopeless dusty squalor of refugee camps with only the slightest prayer of escape? Colonel Truong had been granted his freedom and a shot at a new life but until that moment I hadn’t understood how irretrievable was his loss. These were his people and this was the tragedy he was destined to carry with him even as he made a new life for himself in the States. A generation lost to war.
I was a rule follower in those days; not someone who would, for example, go to the black market areas of Bangkok and pick up a carton of smuggled American cigarettes. But I knew plenty of co-workers who would. Every smoker on the JVA staff had a supply of Marlboros or Camels or some other American brand. On a Friday when Tan, our Thai driver, was going into the city for supplies, I gave him money to pick up two cartons of black market Pall Malls.
On Monday, I pulled them from the plastic bag beneath my chair and handed them to Colonel Truong.
“I thought you might like these better than the Krong Thips,” I said, feeling suddenly self-conscious.
His hands trembled as he held them out to receive the gift. His mouth slackened, his eyes moistened. He seemed in awe.
“My old brand,” he said. “You remembered.”
He held the cartons before his face, marveling at the crimson packaging, the regal lettering. Pall Mall. I watched nostalgia overtake him as he travelled back in time, as he became again the young promising officer working for the Americans, anticipating a bright future carrying him, carrying his country up and up and up.
Emily Rich is the non-fiction editor of Little Patuxent Review. She writes mainly memoir and essay. Her work has been published in a number of small presses including Little Patuxent Review, Welter, River Poet's Journal, Delmarva Review and the Pinch. Her essays have been listed as notables in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015.