Running away from home to sell newspapers then popcorn for becoming…


Written and translated into American-English by Vuong Dang

Note: The Vũng Tàu Market in this memoirs was the old Vũng Tàu Market, located very near Bãi Trước; it does not last until now.

Near the soil and far from the sky, I’m already 75-76 years of age, wishing God to grant me to reunite with my ancestor as soon as better; but, now, still breathing I’m as a silkworm to provide some kind of work so that today I sincerely write my memoirs based on my memory in order to leave something behind for my children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and young people some experiences regarding studiousness, patience, charitable heart, self-respect, etc…  I do not have the idea to dig the past, sad story because I already forgave my Dad when I had heard that he died in 1987 and also overlooked my stepmother as of 1996 when I saw her, called Aunt and announced myself as her son (not “nephew” as when I was a teenager).

    The story began in the end of May, 1958, when my stepmother who was just older than me 12 years, so that I called her Aunt but announced myself nephew (instead of son) because I thought that she could not bear me; that would have been the reason for me “to be caressed” by my father with rod, smoking pipe or hand and foot, once or twice with a stool being thrown from the distance to my skinny chest due to malnutrition; there was one time, after beating me up, he bound my hands back around the wood column of the house, he only allowed me to wear a short, and I had to stand there until the morning to be a good target for the mosquitoes of the Rice Field Section.

    At that time my stepmother was just borning my second stepbrother (same father, different mother) less than a month so I had the duty that every late afternoon after coming home from school (Petrus Ký High School) I had to cook dinner, then put everything on the tray and carried it to the bed covered with mosquito-net, and woke, invited my stepmother to get up to have dinner.

    At that dusk, I did wake my stepmother to get up to have dinner and she generally answered that she heard and would have been up.  Therefore, after my stomach was full, I walked to Grandpa Ba’s neighborhood far from my home about 200m to chat with friends at the same age or generation; then I stopped by at the house of Miss Nguyệt, who was a tailor, to continue my chat.  My school was closed for the summer, I did not have to go there three months later; so I stayed until about 9:30 p.m. then went back home.

    I did not expect that I was loudly yelled by my stepmother generally that:  “I bear a baby less than a month and you did not wake me up to have dinner while the food was still hot, I had to eat cold food.  Tonight I will report to your father to beat you up for your fault…” I tried to explain that I did wake her up and heard her response that she would have got up to have dinner so I went to play; but she did not listen, did not believe, just decided to report the incident to my father so that I would be beaten up for her satisfaction.

    I lay down on the divan bed with worry and tremble when I thought of my father’s fierce beating on my skinny body tonight or tomorrow morning.  At last, about 11 p.m. I got up after my decision to run away from home while my stepmother slept like a log…

    Half an hour later, I left the house: my left hand carried the big briefcase which I often used to go to school and my right hand, a tinny, old suitcase made of fabric; a wide-brimmed hat was on my head and I wore a Bata sneakers.  I walked from the house—in Xóm Ruộng (the Rice Field Section) belonged to Xóm Đình (the Temple Section) on Vạn Kiếp Street—which was far from the Gia Định School of Art about 1km.

    It was past midnight; I walked to the Bình Lợi Bridge with the plan to wait for Dad Named Teo (my mother’s old boyfriend 10 years ago) who was a driver driving a van as a small bus carrying about 8-9 people between Sài Gòn and Vũng Tàu.  I sat and I slept on and off in a hut at the end of the Bridge hill and in the morning luckily I caught Dad Named Teo’s van. I begged him to give me a lift to the Bà Rịa Market with the plan to meet and ask Grandma Mười Thập (a paternal relative, but very close to my Mom who was living with her new husband in France) to stay with her.

    I was welcome by Grandma Mười Thập who understood the situation of her unfortunate “grandson”.  But, only one week I decided to leave her because she was only a helper in a coffee shop, having no house or own room so that we could live together for while in need.

    She gave me 50 Vietnamese dongs and in the next morning, again I hitch-hiked a delivery truck to Vũng Tàu with the hope that I could find the house of Mr. & Mrs. Chín who was our neighbors living across our home in Thị Nghè; they were very close to my Mom and they loved me; they retired, bought a house and moved to Vũng Tàu and my Mom did bring me to visit them at their house in Vũng Tàu.  Their house was just far from the Vũng Tàu Market about 1km in the direction of the Military Youth Academy.

    I carried the briefcase and the tiny suitcase all day long in looking for Mr. & Mrs. Chín’s house, but I could not find it because I did not remember the name of the street and the number of the house.  I ate plain bread and drank water from the public fountain all day. In the evening I went to Bãi Trước (the Front Beach); I waited until midnight and when there were very few people around, the owner left the bar, then I found a place to sleep on a torn, folded chair.

    In the next morning, I had to wake up very early because I was afraid that the bar owner pushed me away or called the police to arrest me.  I wandered along the cement walkway for tourist along the beach. Approximately 8 a.m., fortunately, I made the acquaintance of a Chinese little boy (which I do not remember his name now) who perhaps younger than me 1-2 years, very joyful and friendly; his parents sold bread plus meat or other food on a pushcart.  I told him about my situation. He ran back to his home, then brought two small loaves of bread, a can of sardine and salt mixed with pepper. What was a delicious meal when my stomach was crying!

    After that, he led me to his home then brought me to the neighbor’s house to introduce because he knew that the couple (which now I still can’t remember their names) had no children and were looking for an adopted child.  I was a little hesitant because they were Catholic followers while I worshipped ancestors and I was a believer in Buddhist. But, I chose a temporary stay there in this no-option situation. That day was Wednesday. The husband was a bricklayer; he was often in charge of a small project then called more people to work for him; at that time he worked in Bà Rịa with the plan to come back home on Saturday evening.  And the wife said that on next Monday the husband would have led me to Bà Rịa and begun to train me to become a bricklayer.

    In the next morning, the wife brought me to meet the Priest in charge of the Main Church, located near the Vũng Tàu Market and Bãi Trước, in order to ask his advice and it seemed the Priest saw no problem in my case of running away from home.  In the afternoon, I asked permission from the wife (who would have been my adopted mother in the future) to go around the market, bus station, hotels, etc… In the evening I came back to the house to have dinner and I slept on the divan (covered with mosquito-net or not, now I can’t remember!).  In the next morning, I asked the permission again to go around with my small-size Chinese friend until noon then I came back to have lunch. In that afternoon (Friday), I thought and thought over many times and decided that I would have not been the adopted son of a Catholic family and I would have not had to quit school to work as a bricklayer.

    Approximately 4 p.m., I had a shower and wore clean clothes, then I went to ask to be a helper in selling newspapers and books at the small bookstore named Quốc Hiệp, located at the front of the Vũng Tàu Market, on the left, opposite of the Mayor Office … I had a new name as Thủy.  At that moment, Sister Cúc (who called the owner “Uncle”) and Sister Mai (who was the owner’s daughter) were glad that I came to ask for work; and after 5 p.m. the owner also the Mayor and the owner of the hotel named … (?) accepted me to be the bookstore helper.

    The hotel was small (but it was the only one located at the end of the right small, short street in front of the Vũng Tàu Market, far from Bãi Trước only 200m); it was also the home for the whole family and it was far only 150m from the bookstore; therefore, it was very convenient for everyone in the family. I had a decent place to sleep; sometimes the hotel did not have many customers, I also slept in one of its rooms.

    Apart from being a helper when there were crowded customers, I was the first person who had the new idea to walk around, all over the Market in selling newspapers to everyone (before that individual sellers had to leave their places/stalls/kiosks for buying newspapers in bookstores), also I sold newspapers along Bãi Trước (before that tourists had come to the Market to buy newspapers so they had something to read!).  In addition, I accepted to deliver newspapers to private houses, villas, and stores within 2km-diameter of the Market. And it was important that sons and daughters of the owner (in which were Brother Hoàng older than me about 7-8 years and Sister Liên younger than me 1-2 years) liked me very much when they came from Chợ Lớn many times to visit their father (who lived with the second, young wife from the North Vietnam who always had careful makeup and had born a male baby for him).

    Owing to have a lot of newspaper customers, only two months and a half I could save about one thousand Vietnamese dongs after buying enough clothes, shoes, and socks.  However, with my studiousness in academic education, near the end of August I decided to leave Vũng Tàu to come back to Sài Gòn for attending my 5C (Fifth Grade C) class at the Petrus Ký High School; therefore, I asked the owner, Brother Hoàng and Sister Mai recommend me to the owner’s main wife to temporarily stay in her home, located in an alley of Minh Mạng Street (now is Ngô Thời Tự Street), far from the Ngã Sáu Chợ Lớn about 50m.

    The owner main wife who was very skinny with an austere face, but very kind, lived in a Yin-and-Yang-roof tile house with four daughters:  Sister Lan, Liên, Thành, and Tài . Her two oldest sons were Brother Minh (Mr. Trần Quang Minh, philosophy teacher, former Academy Dean at the Nguyễn Đình Chiểu High School in Mỹ Tho) and Brother Hoàng who lived in a better house made of brick and wood, in the same alley but near the entrance.

    The owner main wife’s house was cramped; therefore, in the evening I slept on a large piece of thick fabric spread on the Chinese brick floor, without mosquito-net and blanket; my head was on the tiny suitcase; far from me about 2m, Liên and two younger sisters hugged each other on a mat with mosquito-net, blanket, and pillows.

    Each morning, approximately 5 a.m., I woke up, walked to the street and caught the bus to its stop at the corner of Cống Quỳnh & Bùi Thị Xuân Streets to buy popcorn mixed with butter made by a machine at a wholesale price in a store, located on Bùi Thị Xuân Street about 4-5 houses from the intersection.  My selling popcorn route began from the beginning of Nguyễn Tri Phương at Ngã Sáu Chợ Lớn; main targets were public elementary schools or private schools; I turned right when I got to Lý Thái Tổ Street; then I turned right again when I got to Minh Mạng Street; sometimes, my popcorn bags were not sold well, I had to walk more to Vĩnh Viễn and Nguyễn Duy Dương Streets.  Often I came back home around 10:45 a.m.; I washed my face and prepared my books, notebooks, and briefcase; I went to have lunch and caught the bus to Cộng Hòa Circle; then I walked to the Petrus Ký High School and my class after that.

    Four months passed, but around Christmas time I caught cold severely, it would have been because I slept on the floor without mosquito-net and blanket for the first two months, I stayed up late to study, and I got up early to go for my popcorn business.  But, God blessed me (the story was long and it is not necessary to write down here!) and I recovered soon because of a. When I was just 6-7 years of age, I knew each week how to feed an old beggar fully and completely; and b. When I was 11 years of age (I was being in the Nhứt B Class of Teacher Cường at the Lê Văn Duyệt Elementary School in Phan Đình Phùng Street—new name is Nguyễn Đình Chiểu—located between Đinh Tiên Hoàng & Mạc Đỉnh Chi Streets), poor, my home was the body of an ambulance covered with some water coconut-tree leaves for being cooler, but when it had rained I had the inspiration to compose my first poem, the so-called “the toad poem” as follows:

    Having a warm blanket and a soft pillow, I lie down…

    My situation is complete, but I am still worried because

    There are still many hungry people who have no home

    I don’t know right now are they hungry or full?

(I’m very grateful to Teacher Nguyễn Kim Giàu who taught me the Vietnamese language for 4 years in the private elementary school named Hoàng Văn, located in Thị Nghè, Gia Định Province).

    And when I was just 20 years of age, I and some students (all of them were older than me) from various faculties of Viện Đại Học Sài Gòn established Đoàn Thanh Niên Công Tác Xã Hội (Social Activities Youth Group, abbr. SAYG); its main office was located at 220 Trần Hưng Đạo Avenue, Sài Gòn, which Mr. Nguyễn Ngọ, a sculptor, and his wife had very kind hearts to let us use their living room freely as the main office for our activities.

VĐ was standing & carrying a hoe on the left.

VĐ was standing on the right with his tongue out in joking at the front of a Protestant orphanage in Quang Trung, Hốc Môn, Gia Định Province, 1966.

VĐ was standing and holding the flag at the Activities Camp in Pleiku, 1965.

Dr. Nguyễn Tấn Hồng, National Youth Minister, was standing at the front gate of VĐ’s father for picture taking in Xây Dựng II Camp (1966, including more than 20 youth organizations) in which VĐ was the Camp Leader, while Mr. Nguyễn Thôn Độ, Deputy Chief of Gia Định Province, was the Assistant Leader.

I did not work for the Americans and I was not an American soldier or officer, but God blessed me; consequently, in the middle of April 1975, there were two persons who gave me two credentials so that I and my family would have been evacuated out of Vietnam and I chose one out of two.  My wife did not want to go and kept our children; I decided to go alone.

At the beginning of May 1975, I officially set my feet on the American soil.  Even though I was already an assistant to professor at the Mekong University (Sài Gòn & Gia Định), I have had to study and practice the American-English pronunciation until the first week of January 1976 I was enrolled in the Clerical Training class in Rochester City, New York State; then I was hired as a file clerk at the famous CNA Insurance Company in Reading, Pennsylvania State; I enrolled in the Business English training course at the CNA and received its diploma after 3 months.  One year later, I moved to New York City in the hope that I would have advanced in the musical or cultural career as my fortes. But, alas! After almost three months without a job, I was hungry, I sold my watch but I was still hungry so I planned to carry my guitar to play and sing in the public parks or streets in NYC. No food for two days: Even though singer Ngọc Hiếu—who helped me to find an apartment so that I could move to NYC—lived in the same building, but because of self-respect I would have been hungry rather than have the nerve to knock the door of this kind singer.  There was someone showed me to come to the local priest for my food. Being too hungry, I have had to do it and in the late afternoon, the Priest ordered a person who brought to me a big box full of canned food which I could eat for the whole week.     In the next day, I had good news that my application was accepted to the Stenoscript training course (for 15 weeks) and I began it on the next Monday and my stipend was 75 USD for each week.

Two weeks before my graduation I was hired by the health insurance company Blue Cross Blue Shield of Greater New York as a data-entry clerk.  After two months of probation, I was officially its employee with relatively agreeable salary and benefits.

But, again with studiousness in academic education and advancement, in September 1980 I quit my good job to enroll in the one-year certificate in Travel Service.  At the end of May 1981, I graduated but I could not find a job in travel service which would have paid equally or better than before; therefore, I continued to enroll in another college, Computer Science major, in September 1981.  One year later, I transferred to English major and I graduated with B.A. degree in English, GPA 3.29.

Furthermore, characteristically I have loved the Spanish guitar and have liked the Spanish language; therefore, between 1978 and 1981, I studied to read, speak and write the language at home (by hiring Spanish-speaker students) and in college; as a result, I could easily make contact to Latin or Spanish people who lived so crowded in NYC and other near states, such as New Jersey.  And, I had dreamt and planned that when I had the opportunity to come back to Vietnam I would have prepared textbooks for this language; but when I had come back to Vietnam for the first time in 1996, I faced the fact that nobody had studied or spoken the Spanish language, except very few State Department employees; therefore, I prepared English textbooks and How To Do books in the intention of contributing to education because the sole publisher paid me very little and I had paid with my pocket money to buy my own books so that I could give them to my relatives and close friends.  Since 2014, all of my published books in Vietnam have secretly printed and sold officially in the Internet by five to seven bookstores, without contact with me, the author, and they have never paid my book copyrights to me one Vietnamese dong; but I have not sued them because if I do that, my books will not be printed and sold anymore; that is it, I accept to sacrifice the benefit for the people and life.

By my time, situation, and studiousness in academic education, I received an M.A. degree in International Relations.  I prepared to register in the doctoral program, but I had to cancel because my wife and children came to the U.S. through the ODP (Orderly Departure Program) on January 9, 1990.  Moreover, I would have had to study more in order to receive 15 credits of the M.A. degree in Education, plus many other credits so that I could be issued the license to teach Business Education subjects.

My dear readers! Like most of the people, I have a personal and family life; but it seems that my mind always thinks of doing something for the other people.  A part from some very little charitable works from the U.S. to Vietnam, I have accepted the cost to collect, write, and publish books or CDs also for the people, not really for my wife, children, nephews and nieces, brothers and sisters, etc., in my family.  Consequently, I have often felt the quiet or behind-my-back opposition of my family members complaining that I care “to everyone” more than the family.

Now, near the end of March, 2019, I have no own home (living in a rented house!), no car (only a mini bicycle and an electric one), my checking account in the bank sometimes has 2,500 USD maximum, my early retirement income is very low (only 729 USD per month).  But I feel and realize that GOD HAS GRANTED ME A HAPPY LIFE SINCE I WAS 19 YEARS OF AGE UNTIL NOW.  That means I HAVE LIVED A FULL LIFE IN MANY ASPECTS EVEN THOUGH I WAS NEVER CONSIDERED BY SOMEONE THAT I AM RICH; I have done  very little charitable works; I have contributed to the English learning and studying of the Vietnamese people all over the world (type pen name vương đằng—with complete Vietnamese accents—at then you will see the fact); I have contributed very, very little to the culture and knowledge of the Vietnamese people (type pen name vương đằng—with complete Vietnamese accents—at then you will see the fact), notwithstanding my books and CDs already published or will be published.

The studiousness in academic education has helped me to stay alive up to now (if in 1958, I loved the money that I have made a lot and I did not leave Vũng Tàu to come back to Sài Gòn in order to continue my school, definitely 4-6 years later I would have forced to the military service with the rank as a private, then I would have faced more bad luck so that I was buried in the Biên Hòa Cemetery or under the soil.).  And this studiousness helped me to have the opportunity for advancing and reaching my happiness up to today.

In conclusion, I ran away from home to sell newspapers, then popcorn to become… a person who has not lived only for his personal and family and has no shame in terms of self-respect.

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