Shall I Confess to Being a Capitalist or a Prostitute?

In front of a crowd full of sleepy faces, my mother was directed to speak about herself, not as a form of self-introduction, but in a confession of her past sins against the Communist party and the new government. Standing alone onstage with a microphone in her hand, my mother rushed through the major events of her life, trying to convey enough sincerity to keep herself out of trouble. She acknowledged her guilt and ignorance during the Republican era, and praised the enlightened attitudes she had since learned. Her Communist vocabulary had improved a great deal through her encounters with Mr. Tran, and she incorporated his words into her speech, maintaining her eye contact with everyone except Lam. He sat among a group of men, acting as inconspicuous as possible.

When my mother had finished, the community leader stepped up to the podium. Unlike Mr. Tran, who had earned his position through spying, the new leader was a high-ranking officer in the Vietcong’s military. He was in his early fifties, with thin silver hair and a catchy smile. He had spent the past ten years of his life in the Truong Son Mountains, trekking the Ho Chi Minh trail. Rumors had it that he was now waiting to be reunited with his wife and children.

Taking the microphone in his hand, he said, “Thank you, Miss Khuon. What a story! Does anyone care to give any feedback? It is time for some constructive criticism, so without further ado, let’s start. May I remind you that each time anyone among you makes a statement, he or she will earn a point toward community work.”

A man stood up. My mother recognized him as one of her regular customers at her bank during her pre-Revolutionary days. A chill shot through her, since his appearance conjured up in her mind the hundreds of angry customers who had confronted her only a short time ago. As for the man, earning up to thirty points would exempt him from a day of volunteer work in the jungle; however, he also understood my mother’s capacity to hurt him, through her knowledge of his past business affairs.

He cleared his throat and said, “It was a sincere story, told from the heart. But are you leaving out any details? I want to know more about your personal life. Do you have any children? And how many? Have you been married?”

The Communist leader looked at my mother, waiting for her reply. “Well, to tell the truth,” my mother began, mechanically touching her stomach through her blouse, “I have never been married. I have two sons, and a new child on the way.”

“Tell us about your sons,” a voice said. It belonged to a woman who lived in a farm a few blocks away from my house. She was the wife of the town butcher.

“What do you want to know about my sons?” my mother said. “They are still very young.”

The butcher’s wife stood, looking up and down at my mother. Then she blurted out, “I’ve been watching you since you moved into this neighborhood. I don’t need you to tell me how old your children are. What I want to know is the nature of their ethnicity. Are they half-breeds or not? Because if they are, it is an issue to us.”

“Yes, they are.” My mother swallowed.

“Then how did you get these children—through a catalogue?”

“I got them the same way you got your children, through intercourse, of course.” My mother’s answer stirred up a round of laughter in the crowd.

The community leader warned my mother, “Behave yourself, lady. This isn’t a nightclub.”

The butcher’s wife turned bright red but was not giving up. “Under the Imperialist government,” she said fervently, “there are two possible ways for a person to have had mixed-blood children: through prostitution or through adoption. You have admitted earlier that fucking was how you got them, so you must be a hooker.” She ended triumphantly, looking around the audience for affirmation.

My mother swallowed again. She knew at that moment she had to make up her mind about her past status before these strangers. They wanted to label her so that later, they could justify any action taken against her. What was the lesser of the two evils she could admit to being a lowly prostitute or an arrogant capitalist? To the new regime, capitalism was considered the higher crime. Fifteen seconds dragged by before she could speak. Finally, with the crowd’s full attention, my mother nodded in agreement. “Yes, I was,” she said. “A prostitute is exactly what I was. And I am utterly ashamed of it.”

SOURCE: The Unwanted: A Memoir of Childhood, by Kien Nguyen (Back Bay, 2002), pp. 109-111

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