The following essay was adapted from my book, "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" in the section called Viet Kieu (Vietnamese living overseas). A version of it was also adapted for a commentary on NPR's All Things Considered. Also embedded between the text are four segments from the PBS documentary called "My Journey Home" about my trip to Vietnam, which aired nationwide a few years ago.
There are memories, and there are memories. I once took pride in my belief that I remembered my Vietnamese childhood clearly. But some years I discovered that what the mind holds dear, the body also keeps.
Eight years a PBS film crew in a TV series called "My Journey Home" followed me back to Vietnam, and in Dalat, a small city on a high plateau full of pine trees and waterfalls and pristine lakes, they coaxed me into revisiting my childhood home. The quaint pinkish villa on top of a hill was by then abandoned, its garden overrun with elephant grass and wildflowers.
We broke in through kitchen and, once inside, I proceeded to explain my past to the camera. Here's the living room where I spent my childhood listening to my parents telling ghost stories, and there's the dining room where my brother and I played ping-pong on the dining table. Beyond is the sunroom where my father spent his early evenings listening to the BBC while sipping his whiskey and soda.
I went on like this for sometime, until we reached my bedroom upstairs.
"Every morning I would wake up and open the windows' shutters just like this, to let the light in," I told the camera as I proceeded to do so.
When my palm touched the wooden shutter, however, I suddenly stopped talking. I was no longer an American adult narrating his past. The sensation of the wood's rough, flaked-off paint against my skin felt exactly the same after three decades. Heavy and dampened by the weather, the shutter resisted my initial exertion, but as before, it gave easily if you knew where to push. And I did.
The shutter made a little creaking noise as it swung open to let in the morning air -- and with it, a flood of unexpected memories.
I am a Vietnamese child again, preparing for school. I hear my mother's lilting voice calling from downstairs to hurry up. And I smell again that particular smell of burnt pinewood from the kitchen wafting in the cool air. Outside in my mother's garden, dawn lights up leaves and roses, and the world pulses with birdsongs. Above all, I feel again that sense of insularity and being sheltered and loved. It's a sentiment, I am sad to report, that has eluded me since my family and I fled our homeland in haste for a challenging life in America at the end of the war.
Living in California, I had heard much about holistic healing and talk of long-forgotten emotions being stored in various parts of the body; but I had never truly believed this until that moment. Yet, it's hard for me now to deny that there's yet another set of memories hidden in the mind, and the way to it is not through language or even the act of imagination, but through the senses.
I had fled that lovely home on the hill of Dalat without saying my goodbye.
[Listen to my npr's commentary on All Things Considered]
In America I used to speak and write about the house with its garden, and my childhood, as a kind of fairy tale, despite the war. Sometimes I would dream of going into the house and taking shelter in it once more; at other times I would dream that nothing had changed, that the life I had left continued on without me and was waiting impatiently for my return. In nightmares I saw it as it was -- empty and gutted, and I was a child abandoned within its walls. I would wake up in tears. After so many years in America, I continued in my own way to mourn my loss.
Until, of course, I reentered the house again, and emerged with an unexpected gift -- a fragment of my childhood left in an airy room upstairs. Now back in America I feel strangely blessed. I don't dream of the house in Dalat any longer. For that matter, I rarely dream of Vietnam.
Having touched the place where I used to live once more, I can finally say what I had wanted to say after so many years: Goodbye.
New America Media's editor, Andrew Lam, is the author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres," and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora." His next book, "Birds of Paradise Lost," is due out in Spring, 2013. Listen to his recent interview on radio