What Might Not Have Been
It was 1975, she was an interpreter at the American Embassy in Saigon. She would translate for American soldiers as they administered lie detector tests to suspect double-agents. She was the oldest of seven, long black hair, lovely. She did not want for suitors. But she was the oldest of seven, a family had to be taken care of, and the world was being torn apart. There is no war in recent memory like the Vietnam War, nothing like the savagery of jungle warfare, napalm, Agent Orange, the clash of technology and thatched huts. When the threat of surrender loomed, the United States government began evacuating personnel. Torture and death were guaranteed but she refused to go without her family. They railed at her, described what would happen to her, terrible things, but she stood her ground. She had no life outside her family. The Americans finally gave way. Her family, nine in total, escaped to the United States on April 20, 1975, missing the fall of Saigon by ten scant days.
As a child, he raised pigs in his family's backyard and sold balloons on the streets of Saigon, in the days before poverty and war had forced five million people into a city built for 500,000. He was the oldest of ten. As an adult, he found a job with the American embassy. He met her, brought her books in a courtship, but war came and there was no time. He had to leave as well, but wasted precious time trying to convince his family to escape. He finally scheduled his own evacuation for May 1, 1975. It was too late. Saigon fell on April 30, and as the world collapsed around him, he raced to the harbor and negotiated passage on a fishing boat heading towards Singapore. The fishing boat arrived and waited in the quiet harbor with hundreds of others, all filled with desperate refugees, waiting for the Singaporeans to make a decision. Night after night they waited, restless. And in the night, one night, he leapt into the water and swam to shore. Shore was a dark empty beach, really a minefield but he didn’t know it then. He made his way into the city, and was promptly thrown into jail. Eventually, the Americans found him and he was deposited in a refugee camp in the United States.
They met again, fell in love, had children, four daughters. I look out the window, stop typing on my laptop in the library of the London School of Economics, and wonder. All the things that had to have happened for me to be here, now. In another world, I would be barefoot in a rice paddy, married with six kids, probably six inches shorter from malnutrition. In many other worlds, I would not have been born at all. This life is a gift. I wonder whether I’ve done enough, whether I’ll have time for all that is left. Each day is colored by what I might not have had, been. This is a gift as well, but also a burden. Someone once said no one is free who has ten thousand ancestors. For me, I have only two that matter and they are all that matter. I look out the window and wonder what they will think in their last hours, whether it would have been worth it, will they be glad. I turn back, and keep working.