Through the eyes of a 唐人埠 native
Today is 中秋節 or what Hong Kongers call Jung Chau Jit, the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar. Traditionally a harvest celebration, Chinese families still view this holiday as a symbol of reunion, a time to count one’s blessings and be thankful for family and good friends. In this regard, the Mid-Autumn Fest holds greater significance for Chinese families than even Christmas or the lunar new year. Coming from a large, gregarious family, this day, for me, often meant multiple dinners out, sharing moon cakes with grandparents and cousins, and, as I grew older, calling my parents and brother so that we could all “pray” to the moon at the same time. This year, the celebration was a bit different and ever so meaningful.
On August 16, 2015, Mr. John Nordeen mistakenly phoned my home looking for his old wartime friend, Mr. Kay Lee. Within four days and after 20,000 shares of this article telling their story, we, the Internet, reunited them. Their families spent this past week together catching up in sunny California. After a week of shared laughter and reminiscing for the first time in 48 years, they concluded the reunion with a delicious celebration dinner at Tai Yuan, a Chinese seafood restaurant in Daly City.
Taking a seat between these two gentlemen at dinner, I felt immediately at ease. They were friendly, welcoming and obviously genuine. As the night progressed, it became increasingly apparent that this friendship was special. Perhaps it was the result of their shared experiences or perhaps some other reason exists, but after 48 years of no communication, these two men were able to pick up where they left off, quick to crack jokes at one another’s expense, all the while telling stories in a manner that revealed their mutual respect. They told stories of Mr. Lee routinely losing his wartime paycheck which was paid out in military script (read: Monopoly money) within hours of receiving it. Apparently, this medic was not a skilled poker player. When Mr. Lee’s mother sent Chinese beef jerky in CARE packages from San Francisco Chinatown, he would show his food to Mr. Nordeen but was never able to bring himself to share. Some of the stories were more somber. There was the time Mr. Lee ran from soldier to soldier after a battle, bandaging them and commanding them to stop crying by stating matter-of-factly, “You’re not going to die.” Injured men who for weeks had seen nothing but the unceasing fire of mortars found comfort in his unequivocal words. They told of how each soldier was given only one toothbrush and forced to choose between proper dental hygiene and cleaning their rifles before a shootout. The latter usually took priority, since a good set of teeth would do little for a dead soldier. And then they recalled how abandoned they felt when they caught word of the anti-war movement back home. Our government had already demonstrated how little it cared for their safety as they were expected to continue to fight with malfunctioning weapons. But friends and family back home, it seemed, were also forgetting they were there. Their world, on the hills and in Đắk Tô, became just them. “We were no longer fighting for a mission,” one said. “What mission?” the other chimed in, “We were barely adults. We fought for our brothers. We fought hard so that our brothers could get out.” Both nodded in agreement.
Got out, they definitely did. And it wasn’t by way of a goodbye party for each soldier who earned his departure date. They each left quietly, without any bids of farewell. A superior would contact them privately on the day of to let them know they were being flown out. They would spend a few days in Saigon, often alone in a drunken stupor, wondering what in the world they had endured. And then they would slip back into society, where few of us would truly thank them for their service and few would understand what they’ve seen.
Having been a public defender for many years, I was exposed to a distinct population of veterans of Vietnam: those who returned, struggled and continue to struggle. The stories of Mr. Lee and Mr. Nordeen were quite different. Both were able to find beautiful and loving spouses almost immediately upon their return. Mr. Nordeen, who was rebellious during his teenage years, came home to complete college and then business school. Mr. Lee also earned his college degree and served as a Building Inspector for the City of San Francisco. Both men, deeply admired and adored by their children, lived, and continue to live, full lives. But as we dined on lobster and abalone and fish maw soup (all very traditional Hong Kong seafood entrees) at this中秋節 reunion celebration, and as their children and I listened intently and laughed at each story told, there was also a shared understanding that there were certain stories and tales to which only two of the people at that table could fully relate. And that is why this reunion was so important.
We ate on the week of Mid-Autumn Fest, and I couldn’t help but think of the timeliness of the reunion — a dinner during Mid-Autumn Fest to celebrate the unity of two friends — brothers — who had been separated for decades. Two songs are often played during the celebration of this holiday. One is The Moon Represents My Heart (月亮代表我的心) by Teresa Teng. The other is Forever (但願人長久) made popular by Faye Wong. I once painstakingly wrote out the Chinese lyrics of the latter in a birthday card to my first boyfriend only to be approached by his very amused grandfather who found my Chinese scribblings. That’s not a love song, he informed me, but a classical Chinese poem about two brothers, one of which was away at war. In fact, the first stanza of the poem, which was left out of the song, reads:
Mid-autumn of the year
Having been drinking happily overnight
So I write this poem
Remembering my brother, Zi You
And the rest of the poem:
For I desire to return with the winds
How frequent does the moon appear bright?
Raising my cup I asked the heavens.
Not knowing the grand palaces in the heavens.
Which year is it tonight?
But I fear this jade palace in which I dwell.
For it is lonely at the top
So I begin my dance with my clear shadow
Can anything on earth compare to that!
Twirling around the vermilion pavilion
Beneath the silk gate
shining through my sleeplessness
not having regrets
But why must the moon be full when we are parted?
For man encounters sorrow and joy, meeting and parting.
Like the moon appears in clouds and clear, full or in crescent
For life has never been perfect
I wish that that our bond will last forever
But we still share the same moon even when miles apart.
And so I think this poem fits the occasion at hand. Separated by a few thousand miles now, I’m glad these two brothers have had a chance to meet again. And despite the fact that they reside in different states, this brief meeting confirms that true friendship survives the test of distance and time.
“For man encounters sorrow and joy, meeting and parting, like the moon appears in clouds and clear, full or in crescent…we still share the moon even when miles apart.”
Happy Mid-Autumn Fest!