Sunday, August 21, 2005


My elementary school principal ordered me to smile. My mother was afraid I was turning into a communist. I cheered for a French soccer player named Michel Platini and cried for the life of a woman named Luu.

The year was 1985. Ho Chi Minh City was still a sleepy city 10 years into the communist regime. City officials were getting ready for a 10-year anniversary of renaming of the city from Saigon. Various activities were being planned to show off the might of the country.

I was among many elementary school kids selected to be a part of the festivities. We had to dance and line up in several elaborate formations in a huge stadium during the opening ceremony. We practiced for several months. I was one of the shortest kids, so I was picked to be the lead-off person in all the dances and formations. Our rehearsal was filmed and critiqued. Apparently, I was so focus on not messing up I had a serious look the entire time. My elementary school principal ordered me to smile.

Under the communist regime, every kid was groomed to become a party member. Communist propaganda was well integrated into the school curriculum. The school uniform included a red scarf, a symbol of the communist party. We sang songs praising Ho Chi Minh and communism between classes. My mother, having grown up in the American-backed South Vietnam, never accepted communism. My mother was afraid I was turning into a communist, so she reminded me daily not to believe everything I was taught in school. She told tales of horrible things the communist government had done to our family, including killing her uncle during the Tet Offense of 1968 and taking away our home and farmland when the “liberated” the south in 1975.

Playing soccer was allowed by the government. The whole city was soccer crazy. My brother and I followed international soccer tournaments. We read newspapers, and occasionally caught a few games on our neighbor’s television set. French mid-fielder Michel Platini was our soccer idol. We also followed the Vietnamese national championships. We attended games at the Thong Nhat Stadium by either tagging along with our older relatives or sneaking in.

My brother and I played soccer barefoot with other neighborhood kids. By 1985, my brother was getting really good. He was selected to play for the school team. I realized I couldn’t compete with him, so I started branching out. I took art classes, and mandolin lessons.

I developed an interest for cai luong, a form of southern Vietnamese performance art. No one in my family cared for it. I first knew about it through my neighbors. I caught a few performances on TV. I was mesmerized. I loved the music and the drama.

Many stars of cai luong in the mid-80s joined forces for a revival of a musical called “Doi Co Luu”. The troupe traveled to a few countries to perform for Vietnamese expatriates. “Doi Co Luu,” or “Life of Miss Luu” told a sad tale of a Vietnamese peasant who suffered helplessly during the early 1900s. Her husband was wrongly imprisoned while she had to marry her evil landlord in order to save her unborn child. Fast-forward to 19 years later, the husband escaped prison to seek justice and hell broke loose.

Twenty years later, I'm not a communist. I still love “Doi Co Luu” and still to an audio performance of this musical via iTunes. I still play soccer and smile freely.

What were you doing in 1985?


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