In her autobiography Métisse blanche (Editions Barrault, 1989), White Métisse (University of Hawai’i Press, 2018), Kim Lefèvre writes of her childhood and adolescence as the child of an unknown French father and a Vietnamese mother in Indochina and later Viet Nam. Being a métisse child during the turbulent period of rising nationalism, resistance to colonial power and war in Indochina, she becomes the unknowing lightning rod for the enmity directed at the French and those who collaborated with them. Born out of wedlock, let alone a mixed-race child, she serves as a constant reminder of her mother’s moral downfall and her consorting with the enemy. Lefèvre’s text emphasizes the rejection she felt during her childhood as well as education becoming her path to assuming a complex identity between cultures, languages and races.
The excerpt reproduced here recounts Kim’s passage from girlhood to adolescence, a transition marked by the physical changes of her body and the lessons her mother teaches her about how to act as a woman in her culture, referred in the text as the construction of her femininity. At the same time, her mother warns her daughter of the pitfalls that lay ahead for a woman, citing her own example as a cautionary tale. The various aspects of sexuality are revealed to the young girl in a final section of the chapter especially when she is living and working for a young couple who, by their very presence and open affection for each other, teach Kim about the pleasures of love. On the other hand, the men who visit the couple’s shop in the evenings where Kim is working alone confirm in their stares and unwanted touching her mother’s warnings. These personal transformations manifest against the background of the war against the French and the precariousness and uncertainty of the lives of refugees who lose everything in being forced to abandon their hometown destroyed before their eyes.
– Jack A. Yeager
“Now That You Are a Woman”
An excerpt from White Métisse by Kim Lefèvre
Translated by Jack A. Yeager
Published by University of Hawai’i Press
I made it to eleven. One day when I was returning from the market, streaks of blood began to run down my legs. I shut myself up in the shed in the courtyard, the place where brooms and useless things were stored. I undressed in haste, noticing the bloody space between by legs with horror. “It’s probably an internal wound,” I thought. Had I inadvertently swallowed a piece of glass which might have torn my insides? I didn’t know what to do to stop all that blood from flowing. I thought I was going to die if the hemorrhage didn’t stop, and that idea seemed terribly unjust to me. Our lives were so happy now that my stepfather was almost never there during the day. Our house resounded with our laughter, and often neighbors would come by to share in our gaiety. We only resumed our hypocritical act in the evening when my stepfather returned home. My mother wouldn’t talk to me anymore, my sister would play silently in the corner, and me, I would be absorbed in some complicated embroidery.
Happy with this joyless atmosphere, he would toss out a question to my mother: “Is the meal ready, mother of Dzung?”[i]
Dzung is my sister’s given name. Back then, married couples would usually address each other through the given name of their first child.
My mother would answer, “Dzung’s father will be served when he wishes.”
That was all they said. But we knew that it was only an awkward moment to get through, and we played our roles conscientiously, just waiting for him to leave the house the next morning.
I thought of all those things while looking at my bloody thighs. I didn’t want to die.
“Stop whining,” scolded my mother. “You’re having your period; you have become a woman!”
And she handed me some rags. I was feeling dirty. I walked clumsily, hindered by the wad of cloth between my thighs. I had the feeling that I had regressed to my childhood. I began to cry again. On the contrary, my mother seemed delighted. She ran out to buy me a few yards of white cotton material. Seeing her, you would have thought she was preparing my trousseau. We spent the whole day making my sanitary napkins. While sewing, she explained to me that I was no longer a child and that I was not to run around in the streets and play like a little kid any longer. From now on I had to change my behavior, speaking with a soft voice, making slower gestures, and lowering my eyes with modesty, especially in front of men; in a word, constructing my femininity. She told me that a woman’s life is full of pitfalls which was why her foremost quality must be suspicion.
“Believe me, my daughter, I know what I’m talking about. Don’t make the same mistakes as your mother.”
I was listening to her, dumbfounded. She advised me to avoid all familiarity with men, including those who were as old as my father.
“A woman has only one treasure, her virginity.”
As proof she told me the awful stories of those girls repudiated by their husbands, because they were no longer virgins. The only thing left for them was prostitution or a life of misery, for men always know when a girl has lost her virginity.
“But how?” I asked.
Her revelations crushed me; I didn’t want to become a woman. I wasn’t any different than I had been the day before. I didn’t understand why this blood could upset my life so much.
“And if they are wrong? If the woman is still a virgin?” I asked.
“They are never wrong!” And then after a short silence, she added, “In any case, no one will believe a woman who proclaims her innocence.”
I was appalled. The fear of losing my virginity was making me ill. I was having nightmares where a tall, old man, armed with a sword, was chasing and kicking me, shouting, “She has lost her virginity!” The crowd gathered around me would cover me with spit. I would try to defend myself, but no sound at all would come out of my mouth.
After the day of my first period, my mother treated me with more deference. She insisted that my sister show me a politeness that I found exaggerated. She seized upon every opportunity to announce my new condition to the gossips of the neighborhood who would stare at me in a way that was very embarrassing. They would say “my older sister” when talking about me as if I had suddenly become an adult. They seemed to find a new interest in life and made plans to make me a new pink blouse, the color traditionally reserved for young girls. They took on these new expenses without batting an eye.
“It’s time to think about your future,” my mother said to me. “You are far from being ugly, and if you know how to play your part well, you can hope to make a good marriage and, with a bit of luck, get us all out of this mediocrity.”
* * *
But the war opposing the French and the Viet Minh that year, 1946, put an end to her illusions. The aerial bombing intensified; there were up to five or six air raids per day. At the sound of the sirens, we would leave whatever we were doing and everyone would run where they thought they might find shelter. At our place, my stepfather had dug a trench close to the house. We were so tightly packed in there that I had to put my sister on my lap. We lacked air because of the piece of sheet metal that covered the entire length of the trench. It was as hot as an oven inside. My mother would pray that the air raid not last too long. We would wonder if it would be better to perish from the bombs or to die of suffocation in the trench. Sometimes, not being able to take it anymore, my mother would push back the sheet metal a few inches, leaving our heads uncovered. Explosions were making the ground shake.
At the end of the bombings, we would emerge from the hole, in a daze. Outside, volunteers were carrying the wounded on improvised stretchers. We could hear their cries and groans.
Then fear set in. We would only go out if absolutely necessary, to get supplies. The streets were deserted, and the shutters were kept closed on all the houses. Dead silence reigned in the town, a silence interrupted every now and again by the voice coming from the loudspeakers, exhorting the population to remain calm.
“Don’t panic, compatriots! At the first sound of the sirens, the enemy planes are still far away, and you will have time to get to your shelters.”
Despite these reassuring words, we were sick with fear. As the alerts came, people ran in every direction, losing precious time, like that woman zigzagging and shouting, with her infant in her arms, as if she were stricken with madness.
Little by little, meetings were organized in the neighborhoods to inform the population of the gravity of what was going on.
“The French seem determined to take Tuy Hoa, and we think they will land on the coast. The intense bombings are meant to intimidate us. We must act with calm and discipline, compatriots! For the moment, we don’t have the forces to endure a siege. That’s why, if they land here, we will burn the town before retreating. In the meantime, we will evacuate the old people and the wounded.”
These words had a double effect: on the one hand, people were reassured to see that the revolutionary army was taking charge of their fate; on the other, they were perfectly aware of the precariousness of their situation. The merchants and those who had a little extra money made bets on the arrival of the French. People sought to get rid of their paper money in order to buy gold, a sure thing. In spite of the more and more frequent bombings, now even at night, people went out to stand in line at the jewelers’. My mother, doing what everyone else was doing, left us alone at home, in an indescribable anguish.
It was past noon, and we were waiting for her when the air raid siren broke the silence. I led my sister to the trench. The planes made such a deafening racket that it sounded like they were right over our heads. Suddenly, the explosion of a bomb nearby blew away the piece of sheet metal that covered our trench. I had the impression that the whole town was going to be destroyed. I flattened myself against the ground with my sister underneath me, closing my eyes and plugging my ears. I didn’t even have any strength left to cry. I stayed in that position a long while after things calmed down. It was my mother who took us out of there. In the house, the chickens were pecking peacefully at our plates. I broke down in tears at the sight of the lost meal.
“Calm down,” my mother consoled me. “We are going to prepare another.”
But I didn’t succeed in stopping my sobs, nor in repressing the spasms that were shaking me.
Since that experience I have hated war. Sirens that wail at noon awaken bad memories within me. I know what people say, that war pushes people beyond themselves. Taking aim at an enemy probably gives you the feeling that you are the master of your destiny. Chasing the invader, with a firearm in hand—what could be nobler? But above all, those are men’s concerns. I only knew war from the civilian perspective, in the company of invalid men, old men, women, and children. We only had one feeling: fear. Blind and impotent fear. War means life interrupted. It means losing in an instant what it took a whole life to build. It means leaving your home, your town.
It means setting out on the road, slow and endless convoys of carts on which you pile up the little you can save. It means walking toward the unknown; it means fatigue, thirst, and hunger. And fear, always fear. The fear of losing those you love; the fear of airplanes, of tanks; the fear of stray bullets. In that confrontation, we are always the hunted, never the hunters. And when, after a long and exhausting march, you arrive somewhere, you have to settle down in places no one wants. You become refugees. With only some vague instinct to endure.
* * *
The fall of Tuy Hoa seemed imminent. Many times we were jolted awake in the middle of the night by shouts that the French had landed. People emerged from their homes, sleepy, frantic, and questioning each other only to find out that it was a false alarm. But every family had its belongings ready to go. The cadres were encouraging people to leave in order to avoid a last-minute crush. We witnessed the first departures with sadness. The rich loaded up their possessions onto big trucks while the poor used carts or bicycles. The ones who stayed behind watched the others leave with tears in their eyes. They bid each other farewell, some for the last time.
At our house everything was ready, at least as far as my mother was concerned. She had done an inventory of her possessions: about ten pieces of gold leaf, two pairs of earrings, two solid gold bracelets, a few rings. She had sewn everything into a silk belt that she wore around her waist, under her trousers.
“In time of need, I can always sell them. Above all, don’t tell anybody about this. Even your father doesn’t know what I have.”
Her secret confidence didn’t surprise me; all women had possessions they hid from their husbands.
As for my stepfather, he was procrastinating. He didn’t want to leave. He was waiting for the French to arrive, without daring, however, to admit it to us. After all, he wasn’t Vietnamese. He thought that his being Chinese would shield him from the suspicion of the French police. He hoped to put himself under the protection of his new masters. But events overtook him.
One morning soldiers were crisscrossing the town, entreating the population to leave. This time we were up against the wall. We piled everything we could into carts. Everyone was in the street, trying to use ropes to steady the heaps of furniture, cooking pots, mats, and suitcases while the army was placing explosives in each house. No one could go back home. People were watching the soldiers in amazement. How could this be? The house built by their grandfathers, where their fathers had lived, wiped out forever. It was intolerable. Someone rushed up to the soldier setting the explosives, begging him to stop his work of destruction.
“Would you prefer to leave your house to the enemy?”
The man hung his head.
The convoy set out as if full of regret. My stepfather decided that we would go to Quan Cau, a village not too far from Tuy Hoa where he had married off one of his daughters. She was the kindest of the three, the one who showed the least hostility toward my mother. For us kids, still unaware of the seriousness of the situation, this departure seemed like a festival. The bombings were over. We were running around the carts like wild little puppies. We were hoping for adventures, new landscapes, another life. Unlike us, the adults were leaving their town, heartbroken. Old women gathered a handful of earth that they wrapped in a handkerchief so that it could be thrown later into their graves. Their biggest regret was having to die far from the place where they were born.
When we got to the edge of town, groups separated from each other, going in the direction that seemed the most favorable to their destinies. Once again, the wrenching farewells. In the dying light of the day, we shared one last meal, a silent meal during which each person made it a duty to show the others a model of dignity. Suddenly, we heard violent explosions, as it the earth itself had just burst open like a ripe fruit, spitting out its seeds. Everyone lay face down on the ground. Someone shouted, “Look!”
We got up. Before us, the town was catching fire.
Then, losing their composure, people howled in despair. Women swayed forward and backward with their arms raised, with heaven as witness to their misfortune. Lamentations and sobs arose from all around. Then there was an incredible ceremony. Facing Tuy Hoa in flames, punctuated every now and again by the sounds of explosions, the women, sitting in groups scattered in the night, were hitting their heads on the ground and mourning the death of the town. In half incantatory, half sung tones, broken by sobs, they recalled its past, the heroism of its great men, the beauty of its streets, the sweetness of the evening sitting on the thresholds of its doorsteps, in the peace of days gone by. They lamented for some time, inconsolable. In front of us, the fire rumbled, terrible. Flames were moving in our direction, licking at houses closer and closer. The wind was blowing its hot breath at us; it was getting hotter from one moment to the next. Indifferent to the progress of the fire, the women’s poignant threnody continued. No one moved; no one could look away from the sea of fire whose flames were devouring the fruits of the work of many generations. Finally, a few people, breaking away from the spell, shouted that we had to leave before it was too late.
Like a ghostly convoy, the carts moved out, each in its chosen direction. Soon, ours, too, plunged into the darkness. That was my first feeling of reaching a point of no return. The profound grief of this wake for Tuy Hoa, delivered to its destruction by fire, will never be erased from my memory. Later, when I discovered The Trojan Women by Euripides, reading it troubled me. I could hear Queen Hecuba’s lamentations, and it seemed that I was hearing those of the Vietnamese women weeping over their city reduced to ashes.
Rise, stricken head, from the dust;
lift up the throat. This is Troy, but Troy
and we, Troy’s kings, are perished.
Stoop to the changing fortune,
Steer for the crossing and the death-god,
hold not life’s prow on the course against
wave beat and accident.[ii]
Sadly, we made our way forward, under the light of the pale crescent moon. A long and monotonous march. My young sister had been put on the cart that my stepfather and a neighbor were pulling. Two men pushed it from behind. The women and children advanced while holding on to the sides of the vehicle in order to keep up the pace. I collapsed regularly from sleep and fatigue. Each time I fell, my mother would pull me up and drag me like a sack of bran flour without ever slowing down. In the end, she succeeded in attaching my hand to a side rail, getting me back into the general rhythm. I followed the convoy with my eyes closed, my hand holding on firmly to the rail, putting one foot in front of the other.
A change in the terrain woke me up. We were almost imperceptibly sinking into sand. I could hear the labored breathing of the men and their grunting. The cart was sinking and we were far from any place where people lived, an area well-known for its tigers. So, we lit a large fire as a deterrent. We waited for dawn, packed tightly together while the men stood guard. In the morning, the long march resumed.
At the end of the afternoon, we emerged onto the marketplace of Quan Cau. The square was deserted. Not a living soul, not even a stray dog. We had scarcely put down our bags when my stepfather took off to visit his daughter’s in-laws. While waiting, we sat down in the covered part of the market, attempting to divide the twenty-foot-long space into five equal parts by hanging up sleeping mats. Each family settled into one of the tiny, improvised bedrooms. As if to emphasize our misfortune, it began to rain, a tropical rain with heavy drops. The mats, which were only attached at the top, waved in the wind like banners. The rain drenched us with its powerful downpour, creating little streams on the ground. We danced, we jumped, we ran after each other, and we laughed with joy. Only upon returning to our shelter did I begin to feel cold and hungry. We had a half-ball of cooked rice left, but my mother didn’t dare touch it in the absence of my stepfather. It had been a long time since he had left to scout around. The village was tiny, so he must have already gotten to his daughter’s house. Right then, they must have been in the process of exchanging the usual courtesies, for it would not have been proper for him to announce from the start that his family and close friends were waiting at the marketplace like beggars. Soon he would have tea while recounting the misfortunes that had befallen our city… That was how we imagined the different stages of his visit. We could hear the snoring of the neighboring families. My mother finally made up her mind to cut us a few slices of rice which we devoured greedily. I fell asleep immediately after.
My stepfather returned the next day, accompanied by a few village notables. He had been kept for the night by his family of in-laws. The villagers then proceeded to the lodging of the refugees. Some of the landowners offered the outbuildings of their large residences while others, less well-to-do, offered a room in their houses. We naturally went to move into the home of my stepfather’s daughter; their house was large enough to put all of us up.
We walked through a large gate topped by a kind of balcony. In raising my eyes, I was, at that very instant, enchanted by the handsomeness of a young man leaning over a book with a writing brush in his hand. Our eyes met. I was ashamed of the slovenly way I looked. We crossed an immaculate courtyard before arriving at the main room. “Our sister’s” stepmother received us courteously, but not without coldness, it seemed to me. Tea was offered to us. Through the window I looked for the man with the brush. I only saw a vague shadow, but it seemed to have a great presence. I felt like I wanted to cry without really knowing why. “My mother was right. I’m no longer the same,” I thought.
At that moment, a man came in. He bowed in front of my parents, calling them “my father” and “my mother.” I thus found out that he was the husband of “our sister.” He seemed kind but completely ordinary, with nothing in common with my hero on the balcony. We hadn’t yet seen our sister. Even my stepfather was unable to see her despite the night he had spent in their house. Such was the custom: our sister did not have the right to show herself to her parents before her mother-in-law had ordered her to do so. And customary practice forbade my stepfather from asking for her. Besides, from the time he had agreed to marry her off, she no longer belonged to him. Parents know that they work toward their own downfall in raising a daughter destined by fate for her future mother-in-law.
They moved us into the east wing of the building with our sister and her husband occupying the west wing, while the mother-in-law and her young son—my young man on the balcony—lived in the central building.
On the morning of the fourth day, while I was going to draw water to wash up, chance put me in the presence of our sister. She was thin and pale, her look dull. She followed me to where we lived. Crying, she confessed to my parents that she was unhappy. Despite being a widow, her mother-in-law ran the household with a masculine authority. She treated her like a domestic servant, forcing her to work from the crack of dawn and not letting her stop until late into the night. She never saw her husband during the day, and in the evening she didn’t dare complain to him about her mistreatment at the hands of her mother-in-law. She knew that her husband was an obedient son, and besides, she would not have wanted him to brave his mother in her defense. She suffered in silence, for such was her role in life. But life had become intolerable from the day when her mother-in-law’s hostility was nurtured by new grievance: for more than a year since her marriage, she had been taking her time giving her a grandson. She had consulted with the most renowned healers, in vain. She continually wondered about the mistakes she had committed in a previous life. In an attempt to redeem herself, she strictly observed Buddhist fasting, not only the first and fifteenth day of the month according to precepts, but every single day. She would only eat vegetables now, and she was at the end of her strength.
Believing she was playacting, the mother-in-law had even considered taking a second wife for her son, one that we call by the name “vợ bé,” or “little wife.” It was common practice. However, if the “little wife” enjoyed the favors of her husband, the first wife was often supported by the mother-in-law and custom allowed her to exercise the same tyranny over the newcomer as had been used on her. What was unusual in the case of our sister was that she had no children, which meant that she would have to confront both the mother-in-law and her husband’s new wife. She begged her parents to come to her aid. But what could they do? She was no longer a part of our family. It was as if her father had sold her. She sobbed, then left.
My parents remained silent after her departure. With terror, I thought that I, too, was a woman. Was I going to have to suffer the same fate? Not that, no, never. If need be, I would disguise myself as a man, like the heroines of my books. They were women whom pride or an exceptional destiny had taken off the beaten path. They were as learned as mandarins, were perfectly familiar with the martial arts, and scorned men who wanted to consider them like exquisite flowers.
From that moment on, I took control of the wild beating of my heart upon seeing the young man with the brush. I avoided looking at him with my young girl’s eyes. I wanted to seek out his masculine friendship, taking pleasure in imagining the two of us bent over the same books, like simple friends. But paradoxically, he looked at me as if I were a little girl, or more precisely, didn’t look at me at all. His lack of interest confirmed the very paltry idea I had of myself. I had nothing of the beauty that poets sang of: I didn’t have eyes like deep pools, a jasmine complexion, the grace of a weeping willow, the light step of the morning dew settling onto the grass! At that very instant I found myself too métisse even to hope to please a Vietnamese man, just like in the past in Hanoi when I found myself too Vietnamese in the Frenchified world of Ba Tu’s daughters. And I had the same feeling each time: I didn’t love myself because others didn’t love me.
My parents, for their part, had to face up to a delicate situation. They could not live any longer with a family where their daughter was tormented without losing face. They had to find another home. A pharmacist agreed to put us up. He had a big house whose street-side façade served as a shop. In back, a series of outbuildings were lined up, their doors opening onto a vast, shared courtyard.
In spite of these promising negotiations, we stayed yet another month with our sister’s in-laws, out of propriety. A precipitous departure would have raised curiosity and caused gossip in the neighborhood.
On moving day my stepfather announced suddenly that my mother was about to give birth. I was flabbergasted. I hadn’t even noticed her condition. She had such a slender figure that no one would have suspected that she was pregnant, let alone that she was close to delivering. Our sister received the news as a personal affront. It’s true that the situation had something funny about it. People would criticize the indecency of a stepmother letting herself get pregnant at her age—thirty-five, an old lady for that time—with the same fierceness as the daughter-in-law’s sterility. Our sister could not forgive my mother for this humiliation. She broke off with us. We lived in the same village like strangers, without ever saying a word to each other.
As for me, I never ceased to be surprised by my mother. I looked upon her as if I were seeing her for the first time. It suddenly seemed to me that I didn’t know anything about her. I was completely ignorant about her life before, about her thoughts, about her emotions. So, she was already carrying a child during the exhausting march that had brought us to this place. She didn’t complain about her fatigue or about her privations. Why hadn’t her husband given her any special treatment? I thought back to that night when we had been waiting for my stepfather in the covered market. We were alone; she could have shared her secret with me. I held her silence against her. I only had her, and here she distanced me from her innermost secrets.
* * *
Our new accommodations were radically different from the previous ones. We lived, so to speak, with an open door onto the communal courtyard. Ten refugee families shared the single kitchen and the central well with each other. We had to organize ourselves to take turns getting water and especially scheduling meals, which was a constant source of conflict, for everyone was hungry at the same time. During the whole day, we were subjected to the noise of quarrels, arguments, and reproaches. We only had peace for a fleeting instant, in the evening, just after dinner, when everyone was using toothpicks, sitting quietly in front of their doors. At night, the cries of nursing children and the snoring of the adults kept us from sleeping.
That was also the time when I had two malaria attacks every day, one at about ten in the morning and the other at about five in the afternoon. My complexion looked waxy; I was very thin. We didn’t have any quinine, and so I wasn’t taking any medicine. My attacks became part of the routine. I awaited them out of habit, resigned to the inevitable: an insidious coldness set in along my spine, then took over my entire body. I was frozen to the bone and would roll up in a ball, my teeth chattering furiously. I would turn one way, then the other, changing position, not knowing how to roll myself up a little bit more. Then, without warning, my mother would pour a large basin of cold water over me. I would gasp for breath; the surprise would cut the attack short. It was an unquestionable remedy, and everyone used it.
The coldness was followed by a fever. A blazing fire took hold in my guts. I was nothing but burning flesh. My breath was fiery hot. I would be delirious, babbling incoherently, my eyes rolled back. That would last an hour, sometimes an hour and a half. And then it was over. I could live happily until the next attack.
When she reached term, my mother prepared her things and went alone to the midwife’s house. This was a matter exclusively for women, something in which men and children were not to be involved.
My stepfather awaited the birth in a state of extreme feverishness. He was hoping for a boy; they told him it was a girl. He was beside himself. He had more girls than he knew what to do with: three from his first marriage, and now two more. Five useless mouths to feed! And how would he do that in these difficult times? The web of the life of a refugee was temporary. No one could say how long the war would last. There was no work; everyone gradually ate away at the meager savings they had brought along. In my family, we had already sold off the few pieces of furniture we had. I tried to make myself useful, but my stepfather was always in a temper. He didn’t need me to sweep the house, cook, do the laundry. The only thing I could do for him was to stop eating. But that I could not do.
My mother returned. Far from rejoicing at the return of his wife, he became morose. He would spend hours puffing on one cigarette after another, taciturn and scowling. His silence was only broken by long sighs to make us aware of how tired he was of our presence. I would run over to the newborn at the slightest sign of crying and take her outside.
My mother let herself be overtaken little by little by her husband’s despondency. She was stricken with languor; she was wasting away. Quite naturally, I served as a mother to my sister who had just been born. At eleven, I got up early and worked as much as an adult. My first task was preparing the rice gruel for the infant and the morning tea for my parents. Then, with my sister attached to my back by a wide swath of cloth, I would leave to do my marketing. I scarcely had time to dawdle, for my stepfather had the habit of eating lunch right at noon. So, I had to get organized quickly: decide on the menu depending on the money they had given me, bargain hard for each food item in order to get the lowest price possible, cook, and wash the dishes and not forget the porridge for my sister four times a day, her diapers, etc. Don’t think for a moment that I was mistreated. Eldest daughters in every family had to do the same tasks I did. My singularity was a result of my métissage. People considered me with more pity, as if the French part I carried inside myself—that is, the part from the colonizers, from the masters—made it improper to put me on the same level as little Vietnamese girls. It was all about setting me apart in order to better reject me. As for me, I accomplished these tasks with pride, considering them as the sign of my social integration.
I worked from morning till night, getting a break only at the time of my malaria attacks. I lost a lot of weight. But I didn’t feel bullied or unhappy. Wasn’t my situation normal? My only hardship was washing my sister’s diapers. The pond I had to use was a half-hour walk from the house. I would carry a large basket filled with diapers on my head, and the strong smell made me sick to my stomach. I would do the laundry crying, so upset that I would almost faint.
Once out of her torpor, my mother began to worry about my poor health. She bought for herself and me a bottle of Dubonnet, a French liqueur considered to be a powerful tonic that was given generally to women in childbirth and to convalescents. Every day, we would generously pour ourselves two glasses, one in the morning before eating, the other at bedtime. The intoxication made my eyes shiny and my cheeks rosy. My mother found that I looked well, and her belief in this remedy only grew. Unfortunately, Dubonnet was almost impossible to find in time of war, and above all, very expensive. So, we had to give up this treatment.
I have to say that, in an undernourished society, putting on weight was a collective obsession, the dream of the poor and the poorly fed. A woman was not beautiful unless she was a little plump. What was a skinny métisse worth?
During that time my stepfather would brood over the profound disappointment caused him by the birth of my sister. Of course, he took out his rancor on his family. Understanding that he was unhappy, my mother suffered his bullying as her rightful punishment. But he didn’t need her resignation; what he needed was for her to give him a son. The only thing she could do was hang her head. What to do in the face of this cruel destiny except remain silent and wait for the heavens to take pity on you?
It was at that time that an unexpected distraction interrupted the course of my stepfather’s somber thoughts: mah-jongg. It’s a Chinese game played by few Vietnamese. The pharmacist, a man of Chinese origin, had always played it. Once when he needed a partner, he asked my stepfather to sit in. That was the beginning of our ruin. Settled in for a trial game, my stepfather didn’t leave his seat for fifteen straight days. Meals were served by the lady of the house right on the gaming table, expensive meals for which she made the players pay dearly. They would eat while continuing the game. Each one would get up for rare and brief absences, when nature called. Two times a night, precious dishes of food were brought to them as fortification. Here as elsewhere, the privations of war only affected the poorest.
My stepfather had to sell our porcelain dishes as well as two ancient vases in order to pay his expenses. As if that weren’t enough, he was hardly lucky or talented, and so, powerless, we saw our embroidered woven silk wall hangings, then the batiste tablecloths with eyelets, and finally the copper pots fly out of the house. My stepfather continued to lose until we had nothing left to sell. My mother tightened up the silk belt around her waist even more fiercely, the belt with the gold leaves sleeping inside. She congratulated herself for keeping it all hidden from her husband. For her, that was the striking proof that a woman could only count on herself.
Then came the moment when my stepfather was no longer able to keep his place at the table. He was asked to yield his spot to another player. He felt humiliated but accepted and bowed out. However, he still had debts to take care of and didn’t have a cent left. He was desperate, for it involved his honor. One characteristic of the Chinese diaspora was the complete respect for one’s word. Dealings that put in play considerable sums were made without official documents, with only one’s word as guarantee.
My stepfather was living like a zombie, obsessed by his debt. At night we could hear him pacing back and forth, sighing; during the day he remained prostrate like a man who had taken leave of his senses. My mother would explode at him in terrible scenes, crying and bemoaning the misery he had plunged the family into. But he would remain silent as if her cries didn’t affect him.
Beside herself with anger, she shrieked, “You are so egotistical that you would sell your own children to settle your gambling debts!”
Usually, my mother was very calm and only rarely had I heard her raise her voice to her husband. Her audacity scared us. But you can only imagine my surprise when, instead of beating her as any self-respecting man would have done, he considered her with a strangely interested air. In reality, without wanting to, she had just saved his face. I was going on twelve. I wasn’t stupid; I knew how to cook and to keep house. He accomplished her prophecy; he sold me.
My mother tied up my bundle of clothes and took me to my new masters, a young couple whose house was located a few steps away. I wasn’t upset. On the contrary, I saw in this turn of events the beginning of a new adventure that would brighten up the monotony of my existence. As for my mother, she knew that with her hidden gold she could always buy me back when the time came. As a consequence, our goodbyes were lighthearted.
My mistress was about seventeen and her husband scarcely seemed older. Her father had decided to marry her to a man she didn’t love. The story in and of itself was banal, even more so in that everything went back to normal with the passage of time. Daughters married off by force suffered enormously until the birth of the first child consoled them. Motherhood completely absorbed them, and they ended up accepting their fate. Once old, they applied the same rule to their children, thereby perpetuating tradition.
However, there were exceptions: young girls who didn’t want to be ungrateful toward their parents nor betray their love would throw themselves in a lake or hang themselves, thus ending their days. These beautiful feminine figures made my mistress dream. She wanted to marry the one she loved or die. But circumstances had saved her from the dilemma. With the great fire that devoured the town of Tuy Hoa, people had other things to do than to be caught up in the romantic life of a young girl. She had taken advantage of the crush of people and run off with her beloved.
They had chosen this village where no one knew them. Everyone suspected that they were just living together. In other times they would have been subjected to widespread reprobation, but in this troubled period of war, everyone could close their eyes on this sort of bending of the social rules. Besides, they seemed rich, led an honorable life, and needed no one. Everyone left them in peace.
My work consisted of keeping the house clean and taking charge of the meals, exactly as I had done at my parents’. It was, however, less tiring because we were fewer. My mistress treated me with kindness, considering me a little like a younger sister. She would often keep me company in the kitchen while I prepared the meals, and it was in the course of these chats that I learned her story.
They owned a grocery store that she ran during the day, less as a going concern than as a pastime. In the evenings, when I had finished my work, they entrusted me to take care of the store before joining each other in bed, separated from the place where I was by a thin partition of woven bamboo. I would overhear their whispering, their panting, then the soft moaning of my mistress. I felt the birth inside me of a kind of delightful agitation and at the same time a wave of warmth moved through my lower abdomen. I wanted to take her place, on the other side of the partition. I liked their love-making very much, their ardent whispering which I couldn’t make out, the strange sound I had detected in their moaning which seemed to indicate a pain they wanted to feel with all their heart.
From then on I observed them with increased interest. They paid thoughtful attention to each other, constantly concerned for the other. Sometimes they would look at each other for a long time, for no apparent reason, and it seemed to me that I would see something distressing in their eyes as if the mud at the bottom of a pond had been stirred up. I was passionately attentive to their slightest gestures. I had the feeling that they fulfilled each other’s needs completely. If one was thirsty, the other would metamorphose into a spring to quench it. They were not one person; no, they were two people, but their union created a fullness.
I lived in the happiness of my masters like a plant in the sun. When I visited my mother, she noticed, satisfied, that I had grown taller and put on weight, and so had taken on the appearance of a veritable young woman. But that observation in itself made her anxious. She tried at length to find out if my master had not been too kind toward me or if he had shown an interest in me that was too sustained. I swore to her that his behavior was irreproachable.
“And besides,” I cried out, “he is very much in love with his wife!”
My mother was scandalized by the use of an expression as improper as “in love.” She advised me to watch my language before adding, “Now that you have become a pretty girl, don’t be gullible. Beware the lust of men.”
As for the “lust of men,” I already had a bit of experience. It was not unusual when I was alone in the shop at night for men to come in furtively on the pretext of buying a box of matches or some other trinket in order to pinch my nascent breasts. Each time I remained stunned for a long time by the pain. I hated them with all my might. To see them in the streets with their heads held high, who would believe that they had just cornered me in the shadows of the shop? I hated the greedy looks they cast on me, their sly smiles. Even more, I hated their hypocrisy, their respectable air, the lofty moral speeches they made in public. But I would brood over my hate in silence. I knew that, even if caught red-handed, if they could turn things around in accusing me, it would be they whom people believed.
It became more and more difficult for me to take care of the shop in the evening. Seeing my reticence, my mistress wanted to know the reason. But I lied, saying I was afraid of ghosts. After all I wasn’t yet twelve. She consented to keep me company some evenings and allowed my mother to help me the others. So, imagine my delight at seeing vexation set fire to the eyes of the men who would discover that I wasn’t alone.
I really liked these nocturnal conversations alone with my mother. Since I began working as a servant in another household, her attitude toward me had changed a little: we chatted more willingly together. She dreaded that the customers in the evening were almost all men. Had they sometimes bothered me? I answered no.
“My daughter,” she said, “you should fear those men much more than your ghosts!”
For there was only one kind of men for my mother, while there were two in my view: those who were in the image of my master and those who resembled those repulsive gentlemen who chased me into the back of the shop. But it was impossible for me to explain this to her without having to reveal, at the same time, the bad experiences I had hidden from her.
I lived happily until the day when an unexpected tragedy occurred that shattered my masters’ happiness. The young woman was bitten by a dog and contracted rabies. There was no serum, no vaccine. She died after several days of suffering. Her lover sent me back to my parents and left for who knows where. Their tragedy deeply affected me; I no longer believed in a happiness that was lasting. I discovered the other face of love, the one of precariousness and suffering.
[i] There are two ways to pronounce the consonant “d” in Vietnamese. The crossed “đ” is pronounced as it is in English. The uncrossed D in words such as Dung, the name of Kim’s sister, or in Diêm, the President of South Viet Nam from 1955 to 1963, is pronounced as a “z” in the North, sometimes rendered in English as “dz,” for example Dzung. I have opted for this spelling of the name of Kim’s sister.
[ii] Euripides, The Trojan Women, in Euripides III, translated by Richmond Lattimore (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1958), p. 131.
Born in Vietnam in the 1930s, Kim Lefèvre is a memoirist, novelist, and translator who has lived in France in 1960. She is best known for Métisse blanche (1989), her memoir of growing up biracial in Indochina during the colonial period and after, and its sequel, Retour à la Saison des Pluies [Return to the Rainy Season] (1990), recounting her first return to Viet Nam since her departure thirty years before. Kim Lefèvre is also known for her translations from Vietnamese in French of the works of Nguyen Huy Thiep and Duong Thu Huong. She currently resides in Marseille.
Jack A. Yeager is professor of French studies and women’s and gender studies at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. His research and publications focus primarily on the Vietnamese novel in French from Southeast Asia and on narrative texts by writers abroad with connections to Viet Nam. Yeager holds a Ph.D. in French with a minor in. Southeast Asian studies from the. University of Wisconsin-Madison and has live in Paris and Hanoi.