Returning to Live in Vietnam for 3 Months

Learning the Language and getting to know Birth Family 

23/01/2004 – Cultural Immersion

Greetings from noisy, humid, bustling and beautiful downtown Ho Chi Minh City!

First up, my sincere apologies for sending a bulk e-mail…but this is the first chance I’ve had to send one because the entire city is pretty much shut down for Tet New Year celebrations, so I just wanted to get in quickly and say hi, arrived safely etc.

It’s been an amazing return to Vietnam!  I came out of the airport and saw straight away a huge sign, “Welcome Catherine Turner, Cam Tu!” My older brother broke away from the crowds and ran up to hug me. My mother, clutching a bouquet of red roses was right behind him. It felt so amazing to hold her again. My younger brother and stepfather were there too. The translator, Thu – who is great – soon told me that they’d been there since 2.30, an hour and a half before the plane was even due to arrive because Mum had been so excited about my arrival.  Immediately, my mother was openly affectionate and loving towards me. It has been 10 months since we saw each other. We went straight to my mother’s house, which she had decorated beautifully with flowers and Tet decorations. It felt so natural being back there, everyone seemed so relaxed and at peace.  We had a huge dinner and my mother just wouldn’t stop fussing over me! My mother’s sister came around too, as well as some other relatives. 

The language barrier is really the biggest hurdle and it will be so great to jump it. I start lessons on Feb 2, and I can’t wait to converse directly with everyone. Trung, my brother, said there’s so much he wants to say to me, he wants to express his feelings, but he can’t!

The next day, I went out to Mum’s place in the morning. It was only her home at first, everyone else had gone to be with other relatives for Tet. She spent the entire time cooking, preparing meals, making food for me and the family. She continually says, I am so happy to cook for my daughter.

For the first time, my grandmother sat down and really talked. She said that she and my mother knew about the two planes which left Vietnam full of babies, they read it in the newspaper. They thought I had been killed in the plane crash, the plane destined for the US. So for 30 years, they thought I was dead. She said when she heard I was alive and that I had found them, she was paralysed with joy, she couldn’t move.  She couldn’t believe it. She says I have been born twice. She says she has a heart disease, finds it difficult to breathe sometimes, but that she was destined to live longer so she could see me again.  Hearing words like that from my own 88-year-old grandmother is truly heart stirring.

Many, many people – Mum’s relatives and friends – have said what an incredibly strong woman she is. They also say how much I look like her and how much I am like her. But I am constantly reminded that she sees me as her daughter, her young child. Understandable, given that the last time she saw me I was three months old and that was 30 years ago. She treats me like one in so many ways – tells me what to eat, brushes my hair for photos. My instinctive reaction is to bristle because I’m an adult and won’t be told what to do but then I remember what’s going on. The bond between a Vietnamese daughter and mother is so strong.  She wants granddaughters badly, after having two sons and three grandsons.

We went to the flower markets in District 1 last night for the Tet celebrations and it was astounding.  Thousands of people in the streets, on motorbikes, colourful flowers everywhere, lanterns, fireworks, balloons, fountains, dancing, performances. Wonderful to be here during such an uplifting time of the year here.  It is just starting to sink in that this will be my home, my life, for the next three months.

I hope everyone back in my other home is well and happy.

Love Cath / Cam Tu


02/02/04 – Two Weeks in Saigon

Hi again from an Aussie girl trying to pass as a local in Saigon!

The Tet holiday season is over now, so everyone is now back at work. My mother works ridiculous hours as a teacher – at school at 7am, home for lunch about 1pm, then tutors students individually until 10pm. She is the breadwinner for the whole family so she feels she must work more to pay the bills. She often looks tired but it becomes clearer every day just how strong she is. So I’m seeing her and the family just on weekends.

My Vietnamese mum is just beautiful…the other night she came over to see me with her husband, and it was just me at home. She’s quite worried about me being alone here, and doesn’t really understand that I’m fine with it – in fact, I enjoy being on my own.  Anyway, it was hilarious because I couldn’t speak Vietnamese and she couldn’t speak English! My step father can understand some English but can hardly speak it. So we just sat around on the couch, with this funny silence…then my stepdad would look around, then pick up a biro on the table and exclaim, “Pen!” And we’d just all crack up laughing for about 5 minutes, then it would go quiet again! This little charade went on for about 30 minutes! Priceless!

I’m finding learning Vietnamese a lot easier than I expected. I’ve had a few classes with a tutor and had my first lesson at the school for foreigners today.  There just comes a point where you just “get it”, and I’m glad my time came earlier rather than later! Just knowing a few sentences and being able to understand the odd word here and there in Vietnamese conversation makes such a difference. I’m really enjoying the challenge and it’s so wonderful to see the look on my relatives’ face when I say something to them they can actually understand – surprise quickly followed by pleasure and pride.

Still getting used to the very direct Vietnamese way of speaking. Within hours of my arrival, the two most common comments from my relatives and their very curious neighbours were “You’re black” and “You’re fat.” Now, the colour comment I could understand – in their eyes I look like a peasant because only poor people work all day in the sun in the rice fields and hence, their skin gets darker. I’ve managed to explain that it doesn’t have the same class meaning in Australia. But the weight thing – well, no woman likes to be told they’re fat but (allegedly) the Vietnamese are giving a compliment, because it is a sign of wealth and happiness. I worked so hard to lose weight before I came here because I KNEW it was something Vietnamese openly commented on – and STILL I’m fat. You just can’t please all cultures!

My friend Marnie celebrated her 29th birthday here on Saturday, and had a fabulous Aussie BBQ. Her husband Geoff bought a few hundred dollars worth of Aussie meat, there was plenty of beer so it felt just like home! All that was missing were the blowflies. All their expat and Vietnamese friends came around, and it was really great to meet them all. It’s a really nice community here.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t eat all the glorious food laid out at the BBQ because I’ve been pretty sick. I got a touch of the flu (don’t worry, not bird flu!) and have since then had the illness which strikes down most foreigners when they have too much Asian food – yep, I’ve been had by the good ol’ vomiting and diarrohea. I’ve had it for 4 days now and got pretty dehydrated and tired for a while there, but am on the up again. Marnie tells me that once I’ve had it, I’ll be strong as an ox and probably won’t get it again.  It was annoying mostly because I didn’t get the chance to spend the weekend with the family. My mother was such a sweetheart though, came round and dropped off some water and dry biscuits for me. It’s so cool having two families!

I now have my own moped and it’s amazing how much independence and power I have now! I can go where I want when I want without having to rely on anyone! I have had some interesting road incidents (eg momentarily forgetting they drive on the right hand side of the road, riding along a one way street…the wrong way) but so far I haven’t lost any skin! It’s really good fun actually and I’m getting better!

So, that’s about it from this side of the world for now…hope all is well down under…miss you all.

Cath / Cam Tu xxx


10/02/04 – Learning the Lingo

Xin chao, cuc ban! Khoe khong? In a language most of you are more likely to understand, that means “Hello, my friends! How are you?”  I’ve gotta say, life in Ho Chi Minh City is agreeing with me very well! It’s only been three weeks since I arrived (feels like a year in some ways!) but I feel so comfortable here. I’m getting used to the sounds, sights and smells of this place which I found so bizarre and overwhelming the last two times I was here.

A lot of it has to do with my progress with the Vietnamese language. I am absolutely thriving on the challenge of learning it and thankfully, it seems to be coming along pretty well. My teacher always says, “You are true Vietnamese, your pronunciation is so good!” Theories on whether actually having Vietnamese blood in you makes learning the language easier abound here, and vary depending on who you talk to. Whatever the reason, I’m really enjoying the process. And it’s just so rewarding talking in the mother tongue with my family, they get so excited when they can actually understand what I’m saying! I have an hour lesson a day and then go and see my mother every second day for lunch (sometimes my stepdad and younger brother too) as well as on the weekend, and we practice what I’ve learned in my lesson. I really hope that after three months here I will have a decent grasp of the language – enough to either write to the family or telephone them. That was one of the biggest reasons for coming here in the first place.

Overall, the relationship between my Vietnamese family and I, especially my mother, is much more natural now.  During my first few days here, she told me that she was worried before I arrived here because she still felt some guilt about giving me up but says now that she sees how much I love her and the family, her doubts and guilt have been washed away. I think that is a huge step for her. Now that those doubts have been put to rest, her personality is coming out even more. We both realise there are huge cultural differences between Australia and Vietnam but both of us are really trying to learn as much as we can about the other’s way of life. She is starting to understand that as a “foreigner”, I have different attitudes and priorities, which are often bewildering to her. And bit by bit, I am starting to get a real insight into her culture, her values and the way she lives her life in this country. It is developing into a beautiful relationship, built on love and respect.

Last weekend was more Aussie than Vietnamese though…there was a huge Australia Day celebration at a massive water park here in HCMC. Marnie was part of the organising committee and I helped out a tiny bit with a great fashion show. There was an abundance of Forster’s beer (not the best ale as you all know, but the biggest sponsor of the day!), wine, spirits, snags, steaks and salad, though I was unable to partake too much as I’m just at the end of my bad belly affliction. Competed in a huge obstacle race in the pools designed by Ironman Australia, which really had me gasping for breath – we came last by a mere, oh, 10 minutes or so…not helped along by the fact that 2 out of our 3 competitors were quite fragile Vietnamese girls who couldn’t really swim! Still it was all for charity and lots of fun! There was also some great Aussie music – Mark Seymour from the Hunters and Collectors played live, as well as a couple of other bands doing Aussie covers. All in all, a really great day…about 1200 expats having a bloody good time! It was so great to hear some good ol’ Aussie slang in the crowd, and I did enjoy surprising quite a few people who assumed I was a quiet, little Vietnamese girl who must have had some Australian friends!

I’m going to a number of schools this week to try and score a gig teaching English. I’ve been told by various sources that it shouldn’t be a problem at all, basically because I have a degree. It will help financially, but more than that, I’m really looking forward to what I’m sure will be a rewarding experience, working with and teaching Vietnamese kids.  The chicken flu isn’t really so much of an issue here in HCMC (hopefully will stay that way). Most of the deaths have been in Hanoi in the north, the others in central Vietnam. It’s not really talked about down here, the only obvious sign is that you can’t buy any chicken or eggs! I’m suffering from quite severe cravings now! Longing for a chicken burger, omlette, boiled eggs, and even chocolate mousse! But alas, there is none to be had. I’m horrified to report that KFC has 8 restaurants here but ha ha, it’s been forced to temporarily rename itself Kentucky Fried Fish and serve up fish burgers instead!

Well, that’s about it from this side of the world…my love to you all!

Cath / Cam Tu xxx

PS Sorry for the mass doing my best to write individually!

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