WINNER OF THE NORTH STREET BOOK PRIZE COMPETITION
Red Blood, Yellow Skin is the story of a young girl's survival in war-torn Vietnam during the First Indochina War between France and Vietnam, the civil war between North and South Vietnam, and the later American involvement in the Vietnam War. Linda Baer was born Nguyen Thi Loan, in the village of Tao Xa, Thai Binh Province, in North Vietnam in 1947. When she was four years old, the Viet Minh attacked her village and killed her father, leaving Loan and her mother to fend for themselves. Seeking escape from impoverishment, her mother married a rich and dominating widower who was cruel to his free-spirited and mischievous stepdaughter. Loan found solace in the company of animals and insects and escaped into the branches of trees.
In 1954, her family chose to relocate to South Vietnam, rather than live under the yoke of communist North Vietnam. When Loan was thirteen, she ran away to Saigon to flee the cruelty of her stepfather and worked at menial jobs to help her family. At seventeen, she was introduced to bars, nightclubs, and Saigon Tea. At eighteen, she dated and lived with a young American airman.Two months after their baby was born, the airman returned to America, and Loan never heard from him again. She raised their son by herself. However, time healed her heart, and she eventually found true love in a young air force officer, whom she married and accompanied to America in 1971.
Red Blood, Yellow Skin is a story of romance, culture, traditions, and family. It describes the pain, struggle, despair, and violence as Loan lived it. The story is hers, but it is also an account of Vietnam of those who were uprooted, displaced, brutalized, and left homeless. It is about this struggle to survive and her extraordinary triumph over adversity that Baer writes.
Linda Baer was born Nguyen Thi Loan, in a small village in North Vietnam. Her family relocated to South Vietnam in 1954. She spent most of her youth in Saigon, where she met her husband. She followed him to America in 1971 and became an American citizen in 1973. She currently resides in Charleston, South Carolina, where she is a successful businesswoman.
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Red Blood, Yellow Skin
A Young Girl's Survival in War-Torn Vietnam
By Linda L.T. Baer
River Grove BooksCopyright © 2015 Linda L.T. Baer
All rights reserved.
MOUNTAIN OF BROKEN GLASS
HOLDING A BROKEN clay pot full of wiggling leeches, I sat on the branch of a fig tree, overhanging the fishpond. I dangled my feet in the water, moving them back and forth, waiting for more leeches to attach themselves to me. Counting each as I pulled them off my feet, "six, seven, eight," I heard, "Loan Oi!" Mother was calling me.
It was 1951, the year of the cat, and I was almost four years old. We lived in the small, rural village of Tao Xa near Thai Binh, some sixty miles southeast of Hanoi City in North Vietnam. There were no more than a few hundred homes in the area, all made from clay, bamboo sticks, and rice straw, and all without running water or electricity. Rice fields and swamps surrounded the village. Small dirt roads and walking paths bound our village together.
In the center stood a magnificent red brick and grey stucco Catholic church, with a steeple that seemed to climb straight to heaven. It was beautiful!
Surrounding the church was a red-tiled courtyard. Two small buildings stood nearby—one for storing church equipment, the other the priest's quarters. Several rundown and deserted brick buildings were scattered throughout the village, left there by the French occupation several years earlier.
Our house sat at the edge of the village, near several small fishponds, hidden from view by beautiful fruit trees and wildflowers. It had a small dirt courtyard in front, with a tea and vegetable garden in back.
The house had two rooms. The larger served as a living room and was where my father slept. It was furnished with a small bed, a table, and two benches, all made of bamboo. My mother and I shared a bed in a smaller adjoining room at the right side of the house. A large bamboo bin, in which we stored rice, stood in the corner. It took up almost half of our room. We had no closets or cabinets. Instead, we used a long rope stretched between two walls, on which we hung most of our clothes. The rest were hung on a few bamboo sticks protruding from the wall that were inserted when the house was built. Our bed was larger than Father's and was set over a huge, deep hole. We used the hole as a shelter from bombs and severe weather, such as typhoons and storms that often struck our village.
A small clay hut, separate from the main house, was our kitchen. Inside the hut was a pile of rice stalks, stacked high in a corner, used for cooking fuel. Our food and leftovers were stored on a homemade bamboo rack in another corner. In the middle of the room were two clay cooking stoves, and behind them, a tall pile of ashes, left over from cooking. We used the ashes as fertilizer for our garden and for outhouse purposes. We also hung our cooking pots on the protruding bamboo sticks. Mother made all of her cooking stoves, pots, lanterns, and water barrels from clay. They broke easily, so Mother had to continually remake them. I used the broken ones for toys. All of the villagers used a similar method for cooking their food in the same kind of kitchen.
I had no brothers or sisters, and I had no friends. The only clothes I had were two pairs of pajamas. They consisted of loose, brown cotton tops that hung down to my thigh, with large sleeves, over long, black, baggy pants. One pair was old and torn, and I wore it almost every day. When the old pair was soiled, my mother washed it in the pond, to get rid of dirt and mud. While my clothes dried, I often went naked. The other newer pair of pajamas was reserved for church or special occasions. My clothes were similar to those worn by my mother.
My parents worked either in the rice fields or for others, and we had just enough to keep us alive from day to day. Although I was quite young, my parents had to leave me home alone. They went to work before sunrise and came home after sunset every day. In the mornings, they ate breakfast and took food with them for lunch. They always left some behind for me. When I woke, I ate and then played by myself. My toys were birds, frogs, insects, worms, and leeches. I caught leeches by sticking my feet in the pond and letting them attach themselves to me. It didn't take long to fill up an empty, broken clay pot with them. When I grew bored, I turned the leeches inside out with a bamboo stick, threw them back into the water, and watched them sink to the bottom.
Catching chicken choker worms was also among my favorite pastimes. I pushed young bamboo leaves into the wormholes and waited for the leaf to move. When it did, I knew there was a worm on the other end. I pulled the leaf up, and the worm hung on to it. I played with them for a while and then fed them to my pet birds.
When I was tired, I fell asleep wherever I felt comfortable, most often under a tree or along the pond where I had been playing. I seldom saw my parents during weekdays. When I woke up, they were already gone, and when they returned, I was asleep. If they didn't see me inside or in bed, they looked for me outside, and when they found me, they carried me back inside.
I loved Sundays. That was the one day I could be with my parents all day long. We woke early, washed in the pond, put on our best clothes, and walked to church.
My parents used our walk to church to teach me valuable lessons. I remember them well. One particular day, for example, Mother said, "When you grow up you should not lie, cheat, or steal, because God will not love you if you do."
"Besides," Father added, "for everything you steal, you must pay back tenfold." Each walk brought new lessons and words of wisdom. In church Mother taught me how to pray, and together we prayed for peace, for love, and for enough food to survive.
After church, we went home, cooked, ate, and did chores around the house. Sometimes, we visited my aunt and uncle and cousins. Father worked in the garden on Sunday afternoons. Mother and I went to the pond to catch something to eat. Rolling her black pants above her knees, she waded into the water. Using a bamboo basket, she scooped under the grass overhanging the edge of the pond for fish, shrimp, little crabs, water bugs, and anything else that was edible. She placed whatever she caught into a covered basket, which she tied to her waist.
I followed Mother along on the bank, playing with the leeches that she threw to me. She knew I liked to play with them. I was happy being with her, and I laughed at everything she did. Knowing that, she would go to extra lengths to amuse me, such as putting mud above her upper lip to make it look like she had a mustache.
Once she caught enough to eat, she carried the covered basket to the dirt yard in front of our house, where she separated the catch. I liked to play with the critters, but now and then, the crabs or bugs pinched me, and I let out a scream. Mother and I both laughed. She discarded the leeches and anything else that we couldn't eat. Then, she took what was left to the small bamboo bridge built above the pond and washed everything. She took her day's catch into the kitchen, dumped everything into a clay cooking pot, and added a lot of salt. She cooked this over one fire and had a pot of white rice going on the other. Within a few minutes, the fish, shrimp, crabs, and water bugs turned chalky white because of all the salt. We ate them with rice. In our house, we never had a meal without rice. And the critters were not the only thing that turned white. After our meal, our lips also turned white and felt numb from all the salt. I liked everything, but the water bugs were my favorite treat.
One time, I complained to Mother and asked her why she put so much salt in our food. She gave me a stern look and said, "We are lucky to have what we have. Our food is scarce and precious. Remember, we don't live to eat; we eat to be alive. Be thankful that you have a few creatures to add some spice to your rice; it's better than eating salt and rice alone." I never mentioned the matter again.
The roof of our house, made from rice straw, often leaked, and more so during the monsoon season when rain poured like waterfalls from heaven. Sometimes a whole portion of the roof caved in from the weight of the water-soaked straw. Then we had to move everything to a drier part of the house, until my father found time to repair it.
My parents spent six months of the year in the rice fields, performing the backbreaking labor of planting and caring for each stalk of rice. When it was ready, they cut the rice stalk and brought it home. They separated the grain from the straw by beating the stalk against logs or by rolling a heavy stone wheel over them.
The grain dried in the sun and was stored in a rice bin. The straw was saved for cooking fuel, roofing material, and food for the water buffalo. My parents rented a water buffalo during the planting season, paying for it with their labor.
They spent the other six months at home, growing fresh vegetables in our garden or working for others. Mother collected tea leaves from the garden and walked many miles to sell them in the market. With what little money she made, she bought the materials she used to make our clothes. During this time, she also cut our hair. She cut my father's hair like Saint Francis, with circles above the ears, and cut mine above the shoulder, with bangs straight across my forehead. I always ran to the pond to look at my reflection in the water after each haircut. We didn't have a mirror or even know that mirrors existed.
In the dry season, my parents and our neighbors gathered to empty their ponds and catch the fish. Using special buckets designed for this process, two people stood on a small bank between two ponds and gripped opposite ends of a strong rope. At the center of the rope was a bucket. Like graceful ballerinas, synchronized to perfection, they dropped the bucket into one pond, filled it with water, and flung it over the narrow bank into the next pond. They repeated this hundreds, if not thousands of times, until there was no water left in the pond. Then they walked down into the slippery mud and collected every living creature in it, except for the leeches that were thrown into a separate container and destroyed. They repeated this process with each pond, until they were done. Then each empty pond was refilled. The days of strenuous labor were rewarded with bountiful food. The villagers separated the shrimp and fish by size. They threw snails, water bugs, and the many other edible delicacies into one big bucket. Some large fish were thrown back into the pond for breeding. The rest were divided among the people—those who owned the pond and those who worked so hard to harvest it.
During this period, my parents shared their fish with relatives and the elders who lived nearby. They gave the largest fish to the town's Catholic priest. He was a man of God and was treated with deep love and respect.
Sometimes a few fish were kept alive for a while in a large, clay barrel. I loved to watch them swim around in it. When I thought no one was watching, I tried to catch the fish. I'd reach in, my face and hair touching the water. The fish were hard to hold on to, and somehow, Mother always saw me and told me to quit playing with them. Disappointed, I'd walk away, drying my face with my shirttail.
Most of the smaller fish were salted. Mother kept part of them in a clay barrel and let them ferment. The fermented fish were made into a fish sauce that we used for cooking and spicing our rice. The rest were dried out under the sun, and we ate them later, during the rice-growing season. Even though I enjoyed eating the big fish, the water bugs and snails were still my favorites.
My parents were good people. They lived at peace among their friends and neighbors and were devout, practicing Catholics. The village was small, and people cared for each other. They gave special attention to the elders, who could no longer work or had no one to take care of them. I loved my peaceful little village.
That peace was shattered when the Viet Minh decided to take over our village, causing my life to forever change.
Led by Ho Chi Minh, the Viet Minh was a band of stubborn guerrillas, fighting to unify Vietnam and prevent the French from reoccupying the country. After the Second World War, the French, supported by Britain and America, controlled southern Vietnam and many large coastal cities in the North. The Viet Minh had few successes against the French, until aid came to them from Communist China in 1949. In the early 1950s, the Viet Minh intensified their efforts to control the countryside of North Vietnam, and the peaceful village of Tao Xa became one of their targets.
Soon the townspeople learned of the Viet Minh plans to attack, and they prepared for the fight. My father and many other young men from our village decided to organize a defense. We did not want the French or the Viet Minh to control us. There were few guns and little ammunition in our village, and not many of the townspeople knew how to use them.
The anticipated day arrived, and the Viet Minh attacked our ill-prepared village with full force. Our men and boys fought long and hard, until they grew weaker and had to retreat. Mother and I remained at home, hiding and praying. The noise of gunfire and the sounds of bullets flying overhead terrified us all through the night.
Some of the men, including my father, ran to the Catholic church, where they filled empty bottles with water, climbed the church's steeple, and threw the bottles to the courtyard below. The noise of breaking bottles sounded like gunshots, which they hoped would fool the Viet Minh into believing they still had ammunition. The ruse did not work for long and proved to be the last futile attempt of our villagers to protect their homes. The enemy realized our village was helpless, so they entered and found their way to the church.
My eleven-year-old cousin, Tuan, was with the men in the church, and he hid behind the bell-tower wall. He watched in helpless horror as the Viet Minh entered the church and shot everyone in sight. Tuan saw them shoot my father in the neck and then push him through an open window, high in the bell tower, to the glass-covered courtyard below.
My father suffered a slow and agonizing death. He lay on top of a mound of broken glass, crying out in pain. A Viet Minh soldier noticed him lying there, unable to defend himself, and proceeded to finish the job. Using a machete, he chopped my father's face into four pieces, making a symbolic sign of the cross. Father twisted and turned for a few moments, and then he fell silent.
The massacre ended, along with our peaceful existence. A handful of invaders stayed behind to control and govern the village. The rest disappeared before dawn, leaving behind a trail of dead and broken bodies in their wake.
When it was safe, Tuan left his hiding place and raced down from the steeple to my father's body. Once he realized his uncle was dead, he ran like lightning to our house and banged on the door. Mother had been awake all night, worrying about Father. When she heard the banging on our door, she jumped to answer it. I heard Tuan sputter through his tears, "He's dead! He's dead!"
In a trembling voice, Mother asked, "What did you say?"
"Uncle Thap is dead!" Tuan said. "They killed him!"
A strange and mournful wail filled the air. Mother screamed and cried, as she grabbed my arm and raced toward the church. I could see Tuan running ahead of us in the early morning haze.
"What is happening?" I asked, crying and confused by Mother's behavior.
"Your father is dead!" Mother wailed. "Your father is dead!"
I didn't understand what was going on. Dead? What did she mean that my father was dead? I knew she was upset and frantic, but I didn't know why, and it scared me. We approached the church courtyard, and I saw my father lying on top of a mountain of broken glass with his face cut to pieces. Blood was everywhere.
Tuan reached him before we did and laid his head on my father's chest. "Uncle, please don't die and leave me like this!" he pleaded through his tears. "I love you, Uncle! Oh, Uncle, please don't leave me!"
As soon as Mother saw my father, she left me behind and ran through the broken glass in her bare feet. She cradled my father's bloodied and mutilated head to her chest, and cried, "Oh my God! What happened to you? Why are you like this? What did you do to deserve this? Oh, God! Oh, my loving God!"
I watched as my mother and cousin bent over my father, their tears soaking his bloodstained shirt. In their anguish, they had forgotten about me standing in the distance, watching them. It seemed like a long time before Mother was able to collect herself enough to stand. She wiped her tears and asked Tuan to help carry my father to the smooth grass nearby. I ran over and looked at his face. At first, I didn't recognize him. I stretched my arm and touched his face with my finger. His skin was cold, and when I touched his hand, his fingers were stiff. I could not understand what had happened to my father or why his face was that way. I cried because Mother and Tuan were crying.
Excerpted from Red Blood, Yellow Skin by Linda L.T. Baer. Copyright © 2015 Linda L.T. Baer. Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 MOUNTAIN OF BROKEN GLASS,
Chapter 2 WATER BUGS,
Chapter 3 BITTER GUAVA,
Chapter 4 TARNISHED SILK,
Chapter 5 DRAGON FEATHERS,
Chapter 6 CHAIN OF TEARS,
Chapter 7 TIGER'S PAW,
Chapter 8 BLACK INK,
Chapter 9 HOT SAND,
Chapter 10 BAMBOO BRIDGE,
Chapter 11 LONELY CHOPSTICK,
Chapter 12 CONCRETE PILLOW,
Chapter 13 TENDER SHOOTS,
Chapter 14 BROKEN CHAINS,
Chapter 15 SAIGON TEA,
Chapter 16 METAMORPHOSIS,
Chapter 17 CICADA SHELL,
Chapter 18 INJUSTICE,
Chapter 19 CONFINED FREEDOM,
Chapter 20 ACKNOWLEDGMENTS,
Chapter 21 GARDEN OF LOVE,
ABOUT THE AUTHOR,