Newport Beach – About That Dinner Party
You know, about that dinner party you invited Phil and me to, I’ve always wondered why you invited us. Was it a status thing to have connections with American military people?” I said.
Nothing so prosaic, I assure you. My father was desperate to marry me off. He paraded me in front of every young ARVN officer he and my brother could find. I didn’t want any of them.
Yes, I recall, I said dryly. You didn’t really care for Phil either as I remember.
It’s true. I wanted you. That’s why I invited you.
“Ahh. The truth comes out. How many years later?” Hoping that sounded like friendly banter. But no.
“Seventeen, I told you. I heard from Major Tom and Col Suel about the signal school and I though maybe I had a chance with you. Also, working for Major Tom I could see that things were not going well for our people. Major Toms and the colonel shared some intelligence. They knew that the south couldn’t hold without permanent American support. So did my father.”
“Well, the flash in your eyes was unmistakable. I’ve always wanted to believe it wasn’t just premeditated. That you wanted more than a meal ticket or an airplane flight.”
“You have an interesting way of taking what could be a great complement and turning it into an insult.
“It’s true. I did not want to set up housekeeping with a junior officer in a country that was about to be overrun by the communists. But I did not need you to get out of the country. I wanted you . There’s a difference. You needed me though. You just didn’t know it.
“Father had diplomatic portfolio because of his work with the Americans and his ships. We could travel at will without exit visas; at least at that time but who knew when that might end. We might have another coup and things could change.
“I was afraid of what they would do to our people. All of us were. We weren’t peasants who could plead ignorance. I’m half French in case you don’t remember. We were lucky to survive the fall of the French after Dien Binh Fu. I remember that time well. I was about eight. It wasn’t pretty and we knew what would happen to wealthy families if the communists got hold us us.”
“So I was an attractive way out of Viet Nam then?”
“You’re not listening to what I’m telling you. In 1953, father saw the fall of the French coming and had time to do something about it. That was when we moved to Saigon. So, in 1970, again, there was still time to do something so we wouldn’t be overrun. I really didn’t want to go through Dien Binh Fu again, especially with small children. So I refused to marry any of the officers.
“In our culture 24 is too old for a woman to be single and when I met you it was like opening a bottle of good Champagne. You were just what I needed. I thought it could work. You were smart, handsome and had a gift with language. Father could have helped you a lot. When I figured out you were there only temporary my heart sank. Major Toms said you might stay to teach another class if the signal school agreed. But then there was that business with the money and the colonel sent you to Dong Ha doing god knows what.”
Miss Yen’s Dinner Party 1969
In Miss Yen’s circles there was apparently some status to be gained from relationships with Americans but at considerable risk from the communists. At the end of the rainy season, when we’d been there a couple of months, her family had a Sunday dinner party in celebration of an obscure Catholic holiday I didn’t know. Phil, being raised Catholic told me what it was but I immediately forgot. In any case Miss Yen invited us for the occasion. Apparently, she had asked her boss Major Toms if it was alright because along about Thursday he mentioned to us that we might want to spiff up our Class A uniforms. These weren’t seen on the streets of Saigon except for ceremonial duties. Most men did not have them in country but we had arrived wearing them complete with Signal School Instructor badges which set us apart at Ft. Monmouth and even more so in Saigon. Mama san pressed our dress uniforms and shined our shoes.
At about 11 o’clock Sunday morning, Miss Yen’s family sent a car for us, an immaculately kept, white, 1957 Pontiac Bonneville. Top-of-the-line for ’57, these had now moved from the used car lots to the junk yards in the States. I’d had one in high school that underwent the hot-rod treatment. This car fully retained the restrained elegance of the day it was built; not flashy, like a Caddy or staid like a Buick, the Bonneville would have appealed to a young man with money and a penchant for performance. The Bonneville sported an emblem on each front fender of crossed, checkered-flags above an elongated V and the words Fuel Injection, symbolizing the high-performance engine GM introduced for the ’57 model year. Only a few hundred FI Pontiacs were built, all of them Bonnevilles.
This event was clearly a big deal and I was a little nervous. Miss Yen, with her mother, greeted us as the car pulled through the villa gate. She was turned out in truly fine style. She and her mother had been to Paris and it showed. Pearls, that one wouldn’t dare wear on a Saigon street, were properly set off against her skin above a scoop-necked, silver grey dress with matching shoes. She had pulled off her gloves and was holding them on one hand, showing off an emerald-cut amethyst in a silver setting. She was stunning. Elegant and gracious, she was aware of her effect on young men. I felt like an ugly duckling in my ill-fitting army greens. I’ve never really looked good in green. Not my color. I tried hard to regain my composure as she escorted Phil and me into the house. The driver closed the gate behind us. Phil feigned a cool composure and a sophistication he had not acquired at home in Cape Gerardo, Missouri.
The house was in the French Provincial style, buff colored with a red, tile roof. Miss Yen described such roofs in English as “cooked mud” one day when searching for the English word for “tile.” The interior floor was a reddish quarry tile with matching grout and opened onto a patio framed with louvered, mahogany doors. Dark wicker and cane-bottom chairs and tables with carved legs and polished tops were set about and contrasted with the white, plastered walls. There was a notable absence of stuffed, upholstered furniture. The room was full of people, spilling out onto the patio, some holding champagne flutes.
Miss Yen introduced us to her parents. They greeted us in French. Though they spoke Vietnamese and English they preferred French. I stumbled along making pleasantries about my home and family, with Miss Yen coaching me when I got stuck. Her parents were as gracious as Miss Yen, anxious to make us comfortable. They appeared to be in their late-forties, mixed French and Veitnamese and a bit taller than most Vietnamese. This mixed lineage was the source of many good business contacts but also some discrimination among the ethnic Vietnamese and limited Miss Yen’s marriage prospects.
Her father wore a dark, sharkskin suit with a skinny tie. Her mother, more conservatively dressed than Miss Yen, looked more the part of an elegant, French lady, just back from church; early mass was said well before the day got hot. Mr. Yen offered mixed drinks, expertly prepared by the man who’d closed the gate behind the car a few minutes earlier. We accepted eagerly. This was not the watered fare of the bars on Tudo street or the rough shots of the NCO club but classic cocktails I’d seen only in movies. One, starring Jack Lemon in Under the Yum Yum Tree, comes to mind.
Phil and I began to see that we were honored guests as various relatives and family friends greeted us and asked about our impressions of their country. This was a delicate question and any answer was colored by my reason for being there at all. War. My uncle, who had been stationed in Saigon before the war escalated and the tentacles of concertina wire crept into the city, said Saigon was beautiful and elegant, patterned on Paris. Sgt. Surgeon’s hotel room certainly fit that description. In my time, only six years later, it was hard to see beyond the barbed, concertina wire, concrete barricades, military vehicles and hoards of refugees from the countryside buzzing about on motor scooters. But I looked to my uncle’s description and made the best answer I could, being politic and not obviously dishonest. In truth, the French Colonial city still showed through the tatters of war and the upper-class people I met were engaging and friendly but still the patina of war was hard to ignore.
In time, dinner was served by the staff. The food, was Vietnamese with some French influence and served in small dishes and eaten with chopsticks. One dish that particularly sticks in memory was small squids, stuffed with seasoned crab meat to be dipped in a fermented fish sauce. Not to be forgotten. No Vietnamese restaurant I’ve been to in the US or Europe has offered such a dish. I’ve looked.
Miss Yen’s brother, whom I sat across from at table, was an ARVN officer. As nearly as I could tell he held an administrative post in government. He was most interested in how we were teaching technical subjects to Vietnamese soldiers who spoke little or no English. We had begun by using english-speaking students to translate for the non-English speakers. This, I told him, was not wholly satisfactory shown by a bifurcated bell curve in test results. Not long after the Sunday party we were offered a translator by the ARVN. That worked out better with much improved test results.
Mr. Yen was involved in shipping and trade, he said. I wasn’t anxious to dig too deeply into that for fear of seeming impolite or perhaps fear of what I might find. In any case he clearly was a wealthy man. As the afternoon wore on, I hoped we made a good impression and wondered that there were no other American military men there. There were several young ARVN officers. I surmised that they might be potential suitors Mr. Yen hoped would catch his daughter’s eye but she seemed particularly interested in me, which made me a bit nervous.
Based on the questions we got from the officers, Phil and I were something of an anomaly; from a military perspective neither fish not fowl. We were enlisted men yet we were treated by the American Army as though we were mid-level officers, free to move about the city or countryside at will, living in a hotel, not a barracks, responsible for building a training program essentially unaided, and reporting to a powerful, full colonel. That day I began to understand the cachet of the instructor badges we wore on our uniforms. We were the elite of the Signal Corps, which was the technical elite the army had come to rely on.
In late afternoon, the ARVN officers moved to leave and Miss Yen called the driver to bring the car. He took us back to the hotel in the waning day and shimmering heat. Although it was offered on Cadillacs from the factory but not on Pontiacs, Mr Yen had air conditioning installed. Few details escaped him it seemed.
Lunch on the Varanda
On Monday, while Phil held the classroom floor, I visited the office. Miss Yen smiled warmly but went on with her typing, whack whack whack in steady rhythm on the ubiquitous Royal Office Manual punctuated by the occasional bell and carriage return.
Major Toms was on the phone in his private office with the door open. When he finished, he came out of his office and greeted me.
“Specialist Allen, did you enjoy your outing yesterday?”
“Yes, sir. Very much so.”
“Miss Yen, I need you to prepare a telex tape to send to Washington tonight. Here’s my chicken scratch,” he said handing her a yellow legal pad covered with hand-written text.
Later, she moved to the encoder next to the telex machine and began encoding paper tapes with the code of the day to be fed into the machine for transmission to Washington. The department had recently gotten an electronic version of the, mechanical machine that had been so tedious. Twisting the knobs of the encoder and pulling the handle, then punching the tapes for the telex machine had been a major part of her job and the new machine was much faster. This had the unintended consequence of creating many more messages. So from her point of view, she said, the advantage of the electronic machine was just about cancelled by additional radio traffic.
What our repair depot could possibly say to Washington that needed encoding was a mystery to me. The telex was actually a radio teletype connected to a transmitter and receiver whose antenna was on top of the building. It was yet another signal corps responsibility. Good communications depended on atmospheric conditions and sunspot activity. Messages were mostly sent out at night on an automatic delay and repeated as necessary depending on atmospheric conditions.
At lunchtime Miss Yen and I sat on the steps of the wide veranda. Phil stayed with the class and joined in their rice and fish cooked over an alcohol burner.
Miss Yen asked if I’d enjoyed the party.
“Oh, it was amazing. The food, I’ve never had anything like it. Not at all like Chinese from back home. Way better. Do you often eat like that?”
“No, no. Only on special occasions. I’m happy you liked it. It was nice to have you and Phil there, to see your reaction to Vietnamese culture. Only a little French influence. That’s my father. He’s very international.”
“He seemed pleased to have you hob nob with American soldiers.”
“Oh that’s a phrase people use that means to be friendly.”
“Yes, my father thinks it’s OK.“
“I’m surprised. I would think that in a traditional society fathers would jealously guard their daughters and even pick marriage partners.”
“You think we’re still that way? How can you think that. We are not peasants living in the 19th century. And not only that we’ve been exposed to French society for generations.”
“Well, I didn’t mean to be insulting.”
“You Americans! You know so little of the world outside your country. And yet you think we are your inferiors.”
“It’s a big country. My state, your equivalent of a provence……..”
“I know what a state is.”
“Is 600 kilometers wide; mostly trees and wheat fields. Oh, and big mountains.”
“But what did you learn in school about the world, about history. Something?”
“Nothing about Viet Nam. Except that ‘Junior Scholastic’ magazine ’ in high school warned that it would become a problem. Which clearly it has.”
“Only for the Americans. For us, the communists and the Americans are the problems. And before that the French. American meddling overthrew Diem and what did that get us? Years of chaos and now Thieu. And the communists move ever southward. Without you Americans we would be overrun immediately. So you’re the problem and the solution all at once .”
“How do you know that?”
“I do read what I type. And I read the local and foreign press, which apparently is more than you do.”
“I read ‘The Stars and Stripes’ several times a week.”
Hoping to change the subject I asked, “So, you are French/Vietnamese? How did your family intermarry with the French. That seems odd.”
“The Stars and Stripes’! That’s not news or world affairs. That’s just propaganda.”
Well, sometimes I buy the “International Herald Tribune.” Does that count?
“Only if you read it. I think I need to get back to my desk. Major Toms will be needing me.”
What started as a pleasant conversation had exposed my ignorance of international affairs and an apparent disdain for Asians and had insulted her. I was disappointed to say the least.
A few days later, I returned from our weekly lunchtime trip to Dodge City, the MACV headquarters at Tan Son Nuit, with a book from the post library. Phil had suggested I read ‘The Ugly American’ and I had checked it out. I set it and some other parcels from our shopping trip on the corner of Miss Yen’s desk. Major Toms had Not yet returned from his lunch meeting with Col. Suel. She eyed the title without actually looking directly at it. After a moment, when Sgt. Pigeon had gone into his office she said, “That will be some education for you.”
My face must have turned red and I was still smarting from our lunch conversation of a few days before.
“I did not mean to be so difficult for you. It’s just that there is so much American attitude and sometimes I react before thinking.”
Nodding toward the book she said, “It is not what you think.”
A few days after that we resumed a more relaxed lunch conversation on the veranda but not out of earshot of the office.
“You asked before about how I am half French; how that came to be. Intermarriage It’s not so unusual if you know something about our history. Take my family name, Nguyen. Nguyen was the last emperor of Vietnam before the French came. So I’m not an ignorant, peasant secretary, I’m descended from a Royal family that dates back a thousand years.“
“It’s clear you’re not a peasant, it’s just that in my country secretaries aren’t often well educated and you clearly are.”
“I’m not an ordinary secretary. I work for Major Toms.”
The significance of that wasn’t entirely clear but I asked instead, “You were about to explain how you came to be half French?”
“You say that as though I was once all Vietnamese and now I am not — but let me explain some history. There was warfare for two generations after the French came in 1858. They wanted Da Nang for the harbor and in the process French soldiers forcibly took Vietnamese women, just like in all wars. My second great grandmother was one of them. She was of the house of Nguyen who controlled da Nang and most of the lands around it besides controlling coastal shipping. They were powerful warriors who were angry at the abduction of gran mere. They killed the French soldier and many more and brought my grand mere home. But by this time she had a son, who was my great-grandfather, and he was given the name Ngu. By the time he came of age, the French controlled Da Nang and some of the surrounding countryside. But the Nguyens continued on fighting as guerrilla warriors.
“Seems to be a long tradition. You’re still fighting,” I said.
“We don’t give up easily. We fought the Chinese for a thousand years. And it does not end there. The French thought if they married off one of their daughters to my great-grandpere it would make peace with the Nguyen family and stop the warfare. Being a bastard and half French, he was probably un-marriageable, in polite Vietnamese society anyway. But he was in the line of succession on his mother’s side. So he got a French wife and inherited the coastal shipping company. The family thought they were giving him the bottom of the pot.
“The French had discovered the coastal communities wouldn’t trade with them so they could not control coastal shipping. So it wasn’t profitable for them. So my great grandfather made a deal with the French, he officially became Catholic and they let him sail from da Nang as Nguyens always had.
“The French daughter was my great-grandmother on my father’s side. When my grandfather came of age he took a Vietnamese wife. Her family was a bit reluctant because he was mostly French but the family had grown the shipping company over the generations and were quite wealthy. So they went along with it. So you see, that’s why I’m too big for a Vietnamese woman.”
“But just as beautiful, maybe more so.”
She blushed and smiled.
“What of your family, Thomas? Do you Americans know family history? Where you came from?“
“Not so much except for some educated people. We all come from somewhere else and many people don’t know where. But I do.”
“But you’re not educated.”
“No, but why not is a very long story and all of my family is. They are disappointed in me. They have been of the educated class for centuries.”
“So how did they come to America?”
“By ship. Like everyone else.”
“No, What I mean is where did they come from.”
“I’m part French too. On my father’s side. We go way back. The French part of the family fled the mainland of what is now Brittany and appear in the records of Isle of Jersey just after 1200AD.
“The Channel Islands, were claimed by Henry II then and various English kings since. We know they could read even then so they may have come with refugees from Occitania in southern France where Cathar Priests taught the lay people to read. They probably fled the Catholic Inquisition to Jersey with nothing but their education. We know they set up a school that became an early university. Family history says they were Huguenots but they long predated the protestant reformation so I doubt that. The first records of the family show up in the triennial inquisitions in 1227 and they have held municipal offices ever since.
“So, I do know something. Do you know anything of your French ancestors, Miss Yen?”
“Only that they were military men sent on a colonial conquest. How did your family get to America? You left out that part.”
Perhaps she was on a conquest of her own, I speculated.
“Well, eventually the English aristocracy established their public school system and gradually stopped sending their kids to school in Jersey. The Ballaine branch of the family had once been whalers and probably kept their lines in the water over the centuries.”
“Lines in the water? I don’t understand. And what are whalers?
“Oh, I just think they were fishers of whales because the family name derives from the baleen bone of the whale and the expression ‘lines in the water’ I mean they probably kept an interest in fishing over the centuries.”
“How do you know all this?”
“I read a lot and my grandmother studied genealogy as a hobby.
“Anyway they had ships and money and went fishing on the Grand Banks of Canada in the 1600s. We have a petition by a John Ballaine for a grant of land to expand his business on Cape Bretton Island dated 1687. So they had landed in Canada in the days when it was New France.
“I’m not sure of the circumstances when they came to America but it was in the 1820s or earlier. They were instrumental in establishing Wesleyan University.”
“That’s one branch, others came much earlier to the Plymouth colony in the 17th century but found the Puritans much too restrictive so they went to Pennsylvania with William Penn. Still others were Scots Irish and Germans who came in the early 19th century.
“I can see how your family must be disappointed that you left school. You must tell me about that some time. And also how you came to be an instructor in the signal school with no education. I find that very strange.”
Miss Yen wasn’t the last person to ask that question. In later years people have been surprised to learn that I had that technical knowledge.