1974, April 30th. Saigon falls to the Communists of the north. Everything changes in the blink of an eye.
I gazed at the ao dai before me. It was beautiful: made from the finest silk, there were intricate flowery patterns adorning its front. My mother told me that only true ladies wore the ao dai; it was a dress that bred modesty, caution, and manners. The ao dai was Saigon; the ao dai was family, the ao dai was everything I had been brought up to believe in.
A million men had died to take Saigon. Yet the few men that remained ruled Vietnam. It was no woman’s country.
“Hello, I’d like to see Minh.”
The weight of numerous sleepless nights bore my mother into a courteous bow.
“Dr Lai’s come for you, Minh!”
Wearily my mother took Dr Lai, who nodded appreciatively at her into the living room. From the second floor I tried to spy a good look at Dr Lai, but all I saw was a head of grey hair bobbing behind mother. He was not much taller than father. It had been two months since the Vietcong took father away. Since then Dr Lai was the first man we had in the house.
I’d actually never met Dr Lai: the only thing I knew about him was that he was “very, very rich”. My mother’s breathy, eager voice penetrated the thin walls. I leaned into the wall, fervently catching snippets of their conversation.
“…She cooks very well…very, very, obedient…hard-working…here’s a photograph…”
I sighed. Mother was advertising me like an object, an item of livestock. I was being marketed as the “ideal woman”: I cooked, I cleaned and I wore beautiful ao dais. Pathetic. I hated the idea of being a doll, just an empty shell that only lived for my husband. Nevertheless that was my duty. Without it, I was nothing.
Unseen and without sound my mother materialized at the door of my room.
“You’re to marry him next Sunday.” She said as a matter of fact.
That, I did not expect. A part of me had anticipated that Dr Lai would not visit without good reason; but nothing had prepared me for this. A wave of nausea passed over me. I turned up from my bed to look into the careworn eyes of my mother standing there at the door. She seemed so tired, vulnerable, a ghost of the woman who laughed in my father’s arms.
“Now see here Minh, you need to understand the importance of this marriage. Dr Lai is very, very-”
“I know, he’s very, very rich.” I replied in the same tone, but my voice was breaking. A thousand years of cultural oppression kept my lips from splurging my heart out. The words simmered in my throat as I struggled to maintain a lady-like façade.
“I…” I stammered; the words were stuck.
“Minh, listen to me very carefully. You father is gone. We are a nothing but a house of women. The little money your father had left before he was taken will soon be gone. This is your chance to break free; to live the life your father and I had always wanted you to live.”
“Can I have some more time to consider this?” I pleaded. “It seems so rushed.”
“My child, what is there to consider? This is your future, and the future of your sisters. My may never see an opportunity like this again. Know that I just want what is best for you.”
“What about school Ma?” I begged. Tears of frustration formed in my eyes.
“You can read, and you can write. You have more than enough to keep your husband happy.”
My heart sank. I was to be given away like a red packet to Dr Lai. As the eldest, I was to be sacrificed so that my sisters, and my mother could survive. A thousand indignant voices tore at my conscience, begging for my freedom; pleading for a way out. Yet how could I say no? Would I condemn my own flesh and blood to poverty? How mere is the cost of freedom of one insignificant woman?
“Minh, are you listening?”
“Yes mother.” I answered without looking.
The ao dai seemed to stare at me; it ripped and tore at my conscience. If I left, I’d leave my family alone, without any means of support. But if I stayed, I’d slowly, but steadily become the very doll my mother wanted me to be; “the ideal woman”. The thought of it repulsed me to my very soul: I didn’t want to be just another woman. All my life, I’d dreamed of being something more, something that nobody expected of me.
The boat was to leave that day. If I boarded it, there was no way of knowing what would happen. I could die, I could live, I could disappear off the face of the Earth. But it didn’t matter. I knew then that I had to go. If I died, at least I died free. I took a deep breath, and folded up the ao dai. It had a future with somebody else.
note: This story was so well received it got the green light for band 6 in year 11. Yeah, thats right! Year 11 we had a band 6 story done and ready to go. The stuff dreams are made of.