My Aduon, my grandma, always knew where to find wild yams, mushrooms, edible greens, fish and prawns, having spent many decades of her life foraging in the wilderness. From dusk to dawn, she worked the land like a buzzing honeybee, pausing only to take a sip of water and break to eat once a day. I followed her closely. She knew how to survive off the land, and as long as we were with Aduon, we wouldn’t go hungry.
My siblings and I lived in a rainforest with my Aduon when I was a child, after my mother died and father left. The valley, H’Ma Pum M’nah, was filled with natural wonders. The monkeys and tropical birds called out from trees tangled in vines. The soil was rich, ripe fruits and nuts fell from the trees. Being in the jungle filled me with serenity. Our farmland was surrounded by thick deep jungle, far removed from the mainstream and modern society. I had never been outside of the valley except to travel between the village and the farmland, which was a day-and-a-half walk. Nearly every other weekend, the adults left the valley to head back to the village. My Aduon stayed behind to tend the crops and care for the young ones. There were three of us, my two sisters and me.
One day, we were left alone at the farmland with Aduon, when a stranger emerged from the other side on a motorbike. The stranger entered our land without an invitation. He was a young man, slim-built and of average height. This man quickly realized that we were alone and was unintimidated by three small children and an old grandma. He seized the opportunity to pick all of his favorite fruits and vegetables from our farmland. Aduon spotted him from our hut as he climbed the papaya tree. He picked the best and golden color ones. She cursed him, “Pe jih yoh, edai kra ah!” Pick it all, you monkey! We stood side-by-side holding her hands, pointing at the stranger as he completely ignored us. The man selected the most voluptuous squash, cucumbers, corn, melons, and eggplants. He harvested three solid bags full, one dangling from each side of the bike with the other behind the seat. He tied the bags tightly with thick black rubber bands to prevent them from falling off. The man’s face bore no shame or guilt, like we didn’t exist. Unfortunately, what we had witnessed that day with our grandmother wasn’t the first, nor would it be the last time a Vietnamese stole from us.
Three days later, my aunt and uncle, older siblings, and cousins returned from the village. They brought back salt crystals, dried fish, peppermint candy, and brown sugar cane panela as a treat, which we called Banh eh Aseh (literal translation, horse shit candy). Everybody learned about the theft that happened while they were away.
One time, back in her old village, Buon Dha Prong, my Aduon caught a Vietnamese man stealing ripe papayas. She saw him suspended midair in the tree top and acted quickly. She grabbed the longest bamboo tree branch nearby and repeatedly poked him. My older sisters would often retell the story. They laughed themselves to tears and even peed in their pants as they took turns reciting Aduon’s threats. She yelled to the thief in broken Vietnamese, “Xuống lah, không xuống kao k’droh bang eh!” Come down, don’t come down, I’ll poke your butthole! He was so confused, he didn’t know what to do. That day, our Aduon made a grown man cry. He begged her to let him go and promised to never return.
The next time around, the intruders wanted more than our precious crops. They threatened our family’s lives so that they could claim ownership of the land. On two consecutive occasions, our hut was burned to the ground. Each of those times, my family scavenged for materials to rebuild our tiny home. On the third time, the invaders sent us a clear message: leave or die. We relocated to a village near the army base where my aunt and uncle lived. Our family searched for more farmland. At the time, I was nine years old. It was 1995. More people from the north moved to the valley and cut down the diverse forest to plant monoculture crops, like coffee. We watched the thick jungle disappear.
From a young age, I was curious about our family’s stories. When I was ten, I stumbled upon photos in an old trunk in my aunt’s room that contained photographs from the War. I didn’t recognize anyone in the picture, but I asked my oldest brother about a young man in the photo. He told me the story of our uncle.
During the War, our two young cousins would bring rice, dried fish, and venison to our uncle and the men in the forest, the secret and unseen Montagnard guerilla army, the FULRO fighters. After many hours of walking through the jungle, they reached the FULRO fighters—but they weren’t alone. Someone had leaked their location to the enemy. Việt Cộng soldiers were already there with guns and grenades, a whole platoon of men in leafy green uniforms. They hid behind bushes as my teenage uncle and his men were ambushed. The Việt Cộng began to fire, and the FULRO fighters were outnumbered. The Montagnard fighters attempted to flee, but my uncle didn’t. He fired back at the enemies with a hand pistol, his only weapon, until he ran out of bullets. Then, a Việt Cộng soldier pulled a trigger and shot right through his skull. My cousins had stayed silent as they witnessed the bloody terror. They saw my uncle drop to the ground. Knees trembling they whispered, “Eran, eran!” Run, run! Shocked and horrified, they quickly ran back to the village to alert our family.
The very next morning, the Việt Cộng soldiers tied uncle’s hands and legs with ropes to a log and carried his body, parading him around the village for everyone to see. His uniform, dark green and black with a hint of white, was torn to pieces. They mutilated his body and announced through a megaphone to every villager, “Hãy xem, chúng tôi đã bắt được một con lợn rừng.” “Come see, we’ve caught a wild boar.” One of my older sisters described the scene, “I was about ten years old when I watched his head dangle from the log.” The enemy yelled, “Im Lặng, không ai được khóc!” Silent, no one is allowed to cry! The consequences of being a member of the FULRO fighters was not only death but mutilation. They forbade a proper burial. Instead, the Việt Cộng forced bystanders to dig a hole. They dumped his body onto shattered pieces of broken glass. My Aduon, mother and father, brothers and sisters were forced to witness and not shed a tear.
I never would have known about all of the hardship that my Aduon suffered. She lived in the jungle for as long as she could, never adapting to village life. I eventually escaped Vietnam and immigrated to the United States as a teenager. I received word that my Aduon had passed while I was still in the refugee camp. To me, she was a tree of wisdom. She was a perfectionist with imperfect hands, bulging veins and multicolored skin. Thick calluses that were like porcelain left her fingertips blurred without prints. Her fingernails were dark because of the dyes she used in her weaving and hardened like obsidian. Her right pinky curved and bent at a 45-degree angle. My oldest sister told me, “Grandma chopped her little pinkie by accident.” She sustained this permanent scar.
Every morning, she woke up at 4 a.m., like the early bird, to start a fire to boil hot water for coffee and tea. She gathered the woods and cleared up the ashes from the previous fire. She hated when what she first assumed was charcoal buried under the dust, was really a cat turd, and I could hear her curse in the early morning light.
When a strong gust of wind blew the fire out of the vicinity of the fire pit, my Aduon’s instinct was to grab the hot embers with her bare hand. I hated the infamous rice porridge that she often made because it was an indication that we were becoming poorer. With the wooden spoon, she scooped the boiling porridge from the pot and placed it in the palm of her hand. She didn’t bother to allow it time to cool off before tasting it, as if she was Iron Man.
She was a backstrap weaver, carrying on an ancient ancestral practice. She weaved, spun, and dyed cotton that she grew herself to make our clothes. Aduon wore a strap around her waist, an over-under-over-under pattern, consisting of sticks, rope and cotton yarn that she made by hand. The weave was interlaced with warp thread filling. She foraged for wild tree barks in order to use them to produce natural dyes. Before we headed out into the woods, I used to watch her hands as they methodically tied up the edges of her blue and green color scarf over her head so that it would stay put.
Elegantly, her fingers touched every single thread on the loom. Her needlework was precise. Even in her 80’s she could still see through the eye of a needle, as thumb and index finger meticulously strung the tiniest thread. I watched her roll the yarns into various sizes. When the ball of yarns slipped away from her hands, she’d say, “Damn your Grandpa!”, or “Ayang Ae ih!” And I would run to retrieve it. One day I asked, “Grandma, how can you see such a small hole?” She didn’t really give me the answer. She replied, “Once you’re as old as I am, you can do it with your eyes closed.”
My Aduon’s capable, strong hands made threads and wove them into a beautiful fabric of life. At night, she gently ran her fingers through our hair until we fell asleep.