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The Gardner

by Kevin Wells (ACS)

One day, our Head of Household (there is no better term, being as she was the cook, chief of procurement, head of all things, only person trusted and competent in French, English, Vietnamese, and all around Alpha person of the household staff) procured a gardener.

Nam was ancient and well remembered the Japanese occupation, the French, and all the conflicts thereto pertaining. He was also tough as the star shaped scar on his leg attested. I never discovered if it was from a French or Japanese rifle. He was diligent, hard working, and nobody’s fool. He was capable of cutting what grass and foliage we had to perfection with nothing more than what we would identify as hedge shears.

When grass could grow (other than the dry season) he was out on the front lawn mowing with his shears. It was a beautiful job. He started at the wall by the street and worked his way back to the house. The net effect was that although the grass at the wall had grown, the grass at the house was considerably shorter and it looked very nice. The, of course when he was done, it was time to start again. He used the spare time to trim the bushes, mulch and remove dead leaves and in general, keep the pace looking much better than it really was.

When our households goods arrived in Saigon, among the items was an early rotary mower. The mower, with sufficient loud swearing, would actually start and mow grass. After a week of repair and adjustment at the local small engine repair shop, it was ready for Nam.

With the attendant loud swearing, my father started the mower and as a demonstration, mowed the front yard. Foolish Americans. Nam easily calculated that the mower was not good news. He might finish the yard early in the month and be left with nothing else to do. He was after all, interested in employment, not efficiency.

He resisted the whole idea by doing an even more spectacular mowing job his way. There was also the problem that Nam wore the peasant flip-flops and he ended up with green feet dangerously close to the rotating blades. Secondly, I am not sure he really understood a thing about starting the engine.

We feared for his heath because being elderly, we thought that all manner of illness could overtake him at any moment and finish him off. The whole family got attached to him, and it was not uncommon for me and my siblings to smuggle drinks, and snacks to him. For some reason, he became fond of Underwood Deviled Ham on crackers. This was fortunate because smuggling these two items past the Head of Household was easy. At the mid-day break, I just opened my window put the loot on the ledge and at some point, it was gone. We did the transfer this way because our Head of Household, Chee Ba, would not approve, having as she did, a very finely tuned sense of class distinction.

One afternoon, while on a mission to deliver a note to one of my mother’s friends in the neighborhood, I go accosted by some local teenaged boys. I was in trouble because I was cornered with no hope of escape unless I could defeat the largest of them with my feeble martial arts skills (OK, a white belt). It was not much of a plan. From nowhere came the Gardner who scattered the crowd and ushered me out to the main street where I would be safe.

When we left in 1962, my last sight of him was happily pushing the mower and the gas can out the front gate. He may have sold it, he may have gone into business with it. Either way, he was memorable because I think he saw us as we really were; clueless about a wide variety of things.

There is an interesting line in the latest version of the Quiet American. the lines are not in the book, but the 2002 movie version with Michael Caine. The narrator says (and I am going from memory) “You can learn a lot about [Viet Nam] in a few weeks, but the rest just has to be experienced…”

19 comments to The Gardner

  • Kenneth R. Yeager

    Kevin, you are a true gem of a story teller. Wonderful !!!! Stories like this are the things real memories are made of. That mower was going to break his rice bowl and he knew it right away. We had a gardener in Morocco who only wanted to work on Fridays, which for a Muslim is the day for going to the mosque. BUT he knew that every Friday our housekeeper/cook would make cous-cous for lunch and whatever we ate, the housekeep and gardener ate as well (exception, of course, was anything with pork). Another quick story was that in Niamey, many people noticed that their housekeeper gained weight during their absence on homeleave….why? Seems many of them got money for food for the dog, but the dogs seemed to lose weight while the housekeepers gained….Ah well, such is life.

  • Suellen Oliver Campbell

    Another delightful tale from the memories of Kevin. You are a jewel of a storyteller. Thank you for sharing one of the many joys of living in Viet Nam….household help, that were indespensible to running American homes.
    Suellen

  • H. Clark

    Kevin,

    How sweet the memories when told by a grown up looking back. I applaud all the details “thereto pertaining.”

    “Chee Ba,” correctly spelled “Chi Ba,” is also my ranking in my family! LOL 🙂

    Have you heard people say “when you hear an Asian kid talking to a grown up, you’d know exactly who he/she is speaking to in his/her family?”

    Chi = Older Sister (a very highly-tuned class) copycat me! 🙂

    Mot = 1
    Hai = 2
    Ba = 3

    Fearing the first (Mot) child, in this case, a daughter, might be taken away (killed) by the bad God, parents skips the 1st ranking altogether. This happens to ALL family. As a result, Mot (1) does not exist.

    Hai (2) is then the first daughter = Chi Hai (Sister Hai).
    Ba (3) is the second daughter = Chi Ba (Sister Ba)
    and so on…

    I am the second daughter in the family, so my “younger” sisters call me “Chi Ba.” My older sister (the first child) just call me by name, Huong. She does not call me “Chi,” simply because it means “older sister.”

    Cheers 🙂

    Huong

  • Frank

    I only understand Ba…muoiba. Third of the third! My two sisters and brother were the first born, triplets, thus I was the second born and I am BAMUOIBA! Is that right? Now of course my brother did not call me with endearing terms, but I will see him near the end of July, and I plan on having the best visit that we have had in over 50 years. Oh yes, we have struggled in the past.
    Cousin Huong, where do your sisters live? Frank

    • H. Clark

      Cousin Frank,

      Ah ha ha…The prodigal son has emerged!

      Frank, I don’t recall ever met any twins in Vietnam, let alone triplets. You sent me head scratching, so I googled: “Why triplets are not common in Asia?” Believe it or not, this was what I came up with: http://www.baby2see.com/multiples/multiples.html. It confirmed my recollection thereof. …“People of Asian or Hispanic descent are less likely to have twins.”

      Surprisingly, it also reads:

      What are your chance of having more than one baby at a time?
      -Basically, it is about 3% or 1 in 33. LOL 🙂

      To answer your questions:

      Unfortunately, you can only be ba muoi ba, if you were thirty-three years old! LOL 🙂

      Am sure your brother loves you, but your sisters love you more. You just have to be a big guy to your “anh hai,” an endearing term for “older brother 2.” (Remember there is no number 1 in ALL families). You will be the winner and have the best time ever with him.

      All my sisters, and mom, are in San Jose, CA. I’ll tell them about your trip to Europe. We all love to go to Europe when I get to retire.

      Huong

  • Frank

    Actually I meant to say I was the second of the third, therefor I am the third of the second! Wuuu! That is too confusing! Is it true that Vietnamese are one years old when
    they are born?

    • Frank – You ask is it true that Vietnamese are one year old when they are born? The answer is NO. Throughout Eastern Asia and Vietnam at the time of physical birth a child is *IN their 1st year*. Hence they are said to be *one*. At the beginning of their 2nd year they are *IN their 2nd year*, etc. Whereas, in Western culture at the time of physical birth we start counting at *1 minute* ( day 1, day 2, week 1, week 2, month 1, month 2,etc.) … at the end of 1 year from the moment of birth we say they are 1 year old. At the end of 2 years we say they are 2 years old, etc.

      Under the old traditional culture customs Vietnamese are 1 year older on TET (Lunar New Year) Females are 1 year older every 4 full moons, and males are 1 year older every 4 new moons — from 100 days after their physical birth. In the old traditional Vietnamese culture the parents do not conceive the child (as Westerns believe), the child is created by the God’s (Mrs Mu – 12 fairy’s) and given to the parents as a GIFT — with the physical birth taking place 9 months 10 days thereafter.

      In old traditional Vietnamese culture the physical date of birth was only used for official government documents, identification documents, driver’s license, etc. However, with modern Vietnamese this has been influenced by exposure to Western culture. In today’s world Vietnamese have two *ages* — their *traditional age* and their *modern age*.

      The above is the Reader’s Digest version. Perhaps someday I’ll put a Post on the site explaining in detail how Vietnamese age is counted, and it’s origins. By the way it has nothing to do with Buddhism as many people purport.

      Bob

      • H. Clark

        Thank you, Bob.

        Better you than me explaining. LOL 🙂

        May I call you “anh hai,” an endearing term for “older brother 1”?

        Huong

        • Kevin L. Wells

          Chi Ba,

          You certainly may!

          KLW

        • Huong — Yeah, okay … leave it to Anh Hai to explain this to the Western mind … ha ha ha … 🙂

          Sure you can call me “anh hai”. I’m honored. But, if I’m going to be anh hai … than I want a Japanese wife, a French cook, and an American Cadillac car … LOL – 🙂

          Bob

  • frank

    Good! My wife told me long ago that I was Anh Hai! After reading the above, I again asked her if I was the boss and she said yes!

    • H. Clark

      Frank,

      For you are a good jolly fellow, we’ll pretend that you are Anh Hai and won’t tell anybody that you are actually Anh Ba, and certainly not ba muoi ba!

      ha ha 🙂

  • frank

    Hic! I’ll drink to that.

  • frank

    O.K., I forgot what Anh Ba was!

  • frank

    Cousin Huong, I am just curious, if there was to be another Saigon Kids Reunion, would you come. How many of you others out there would come? Where do you want it? East, West, South or North?

    • H. Clark

      Saigon Kids Reunion would be great for me to meet everybody, maybe next year? My husband and I have some vacation planned in August and I am going to Hawaii maybe later this year to visit a very dear Vietnamese high school friend, a grandma. Would Honolulu, Hawaii be a good destination? If not, may I suggest West?

      My husband is not a traveler anymore, and I’ve never traveled by myself. If I could come with one of my sisters or a girlfriend from work, that would be great.

      Of course, I would like to consider going with the majority’s vote.

      Great idea, Cousin Frank!

      Huong

    • Kevin L. Wells

      Frank,

      I am still working and my schedule is not entirely my own, but if the venue some place like Atlanta or Charlotte, I may be able to make this work.

      KLW

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