My grandmother's story was often told by neighbors to keep children from straying too far from home. But according to the legend, she did not run away from home, but lost her parents during one of the protests against the French colonial power. In her search for them, she ran and ran until she reached the north. After her foster parents found her, she ran a fever for weeks. Try as she might, she could remember nothing but the crowd that separated her from her mother's hand. Only her dialect told me she was from central Vietnam. For a long time I wondered how I could know who I was if I didn't know where she came from.
My grandmother had never learned to read or write. Even before I went to school, I said to her, "One day I will tell you all about the letters, and then we can write to each other when I go to university." She just smiled tiredly. Later I understood that writing letters was second on her list of priorities after surviving. She was always mentally preoccupied with the struggle to survive, even though she no longer had to.
Although we were very close, my grandmother was a great mystery to me, one could say a great fascination, also because she rarely spoke about herself. When we were alone, I would ask her questions like what she liked to do best, what color she liked best, when her birthday was, what her favorite food was. Once she named a dish I didn't know, but I promised her: "When I grow up, I'm going to buy you a lot of it. So much that you won't need any other food for a year.”
But it never happened.
By the time she grew up, she had won the hearts of all the men in Hà Nam. She finally married my grandfather because he wrote poems for her and read books to her. Throughout my childhood, I never saw her idle. Her hands were always moving, she was always on her feet, but she radiated a calmness that everyone liked to have around.
Not much was known about my grandmother, but one thing was common knowledge: She had an exceptionally beautiful voice. When she sang, time stopped. Everyone held their breath for fear of missing a sound that the wind carried from her mouth to the world. Malicious tongues claimed that my grandmother could hypnotize men with her voice. Her foster sister had once told her that as a child she often sang, hoping that her parents would hear her and come looking for her. But she remained undiscovered until the end.
My grandmother had passed on many good qualities to her children, one of which was a good heart. Long after she had passed away, my mother would repeat her words: "No matter how hard our lives are, the people who knock on our door and reach out to us have it even harder.” I spent half of my childhood eating with strangers who knocked on our door. I often thought that one of them might be the missing part of my family.