Borton: Still In Hiding: A Personal Essay
Borton's AFTER SORROW (Viking, 1995; Kodansha paperback,
1996) is the story of the Vietnamese against whom Americans fought.
These oral histories from the sufferers of war speak to the plight
of war refugees everywhere. She lived from 1969 to 71 working
with the American Friends Service Committee in Quang Ngai, a province
which experienced some fo the heaviest fighting and civilian and
military casualties of the war. AFTER SORROW is
the only account in English, or Vietnamese, of renovation and
rehabilitation among ordinary Vietnamese written from inside Viet
Nam. Lady's first book, SENSING THE ENEMY (Doubleday,
1984), is the only account in English or Vietnamese written from
inside the Boat People exodus. She currently works with the American
Friends Service Committee from their Philadelphia office and lives
in Hanoi. Lady Borton's essays on Viet Nam appeared in THE
NEW YORK TIMES "HERS" columns in the
80's. She has spent much of her life over the past two decades
living in Viet Nam and doing what she can to help among the people
in their physical and social rehabilitation from the war. Lady
Borton's work has done much to demonstrate to the Vietnamese people
that there are feeling, thinking Americans who care about their
venerable culture, their language and their well being. Conversely,
she has taught Americans much about the courage and beauty of
the Vietnamese culture and its suffering and indomitable people.
This is just a tiny sampling of her sensitive writing on the subject.
was a lowly job. Working in wartime Quang Ngai, I held the lofty
title of Assistant Director for the American Friends Service Committee's
Viet Nam program, but in truth, I was merely a glorified errand-runner.
While my western medical colleagues fit war-wounded Vietnamese
with artificial limbs, I made runs to the American base to pick
up mail, fetched supplies, and transported patients, stopping
along dusty village paths to chat, listen, and watch. In this
way, I saw crucial details that American military leaders, GIs,
and journalists failed to grasp. I became aware of hidden roles
Vietnamese women played in the war.
to say, as a woman and a foreigner, I never felt afraid in a land
at war. Unarmed, I knew I posed no threat. But I also knew to
be watchful. One day in 1970, not long after I'd taken the first
American journalist to the site of the My Lai Massacre, I went
to fetch a patient, Nguyen Van Kim, who lived near the My Lai
Road. Ten years old, he had stepped on a mine while tending water
buffalo and lost the lower part of one leg.
drove the truck as far I could and, parking it, started walking
down a dirt track suitable only for ox carts. As an American woman
walking alone, I was like the circus come to town. Two boys spotted
me. "Ba My! Ba My!--American woman! American woman!"
they taunted, racing after me. Other children followed, shouting
turned, hunkered down on the dirt, and engaged the kids in chitchat.
As we talked, a woman my age approached and stopped beside us;
the boys became silent, watchful. The woman was barefoot, her
hair pulled back into the traditional nape knot. On her shoulder,
she carried a bamboo yoke with two baskets of rau muong, leafy
vegetables grown in irrigation sluices.
old are you?" she asked, her tone neutral. Her baskets hung
level with my eyes. They seemed to bend her yoke more than the
load of vegetables warranted. I wondered what she'd hidden under
the rau muong. Rice? Medicine? Ammunition?
twenty-eight, Older Sister," I answered in Vietnamese. I
rose and bowed. I knew we'd begun a risky game of "Twenty
always figured I was protected from Viet Cong arrest by two qualities:
First, I considered no Vietnamese my enemy, and second, I spoke
Vietnamese. However, I also figured that if I were questioned
by the Viet Cong, I'd have a limited number of answers to plead
my case. Here, I'd already used one reply, with no points gained.
many children do you have?" the woman asked.
I answered. "I'm not married. How could I have children?!"
woman giggled. One point gained, I thought, but two answers used.
army base do you work at?" Her tone changed now, from noncomittal
to ominous. She set down her baskets, freeing her hands.
last chance, I thought. "I have no connection with the military,"
I said. "I work for a peace organization. We help war-wounded
on all sides." I described Quaker Service work in Quang Ngai,
our assistance to North Viet Nam, and to areas of South Viet Nam
controlled by the Viet Cong, or Provisional Revolutionary Government,
as it was officially known.
woman straightened. "We are grateful to you Americans,"
she announced, "for saving us from the cruelly vicious, wicked,
imperialist Viet Cong."
relaxed: I'd won my reprieve. I assumed then, as I always did
whenever I heard such overblown gratitude that the speaker sympathized
with the VC. This wasn't a taxing deduction, for 95% of the Vietnamese
in Quang Ngai province supported the revolutionaries. Our conversation
soon eased into talk about our families, the nutritional value
of rau muong, and the US peace movement. For a few moments, where
we each had intended to travel that afternoon, what we'd intended
to do, did not matter. We were simply two women talking, despite
that afternoon, I swung by the American army compound to pick
up the mail, entering the base as the Vietnamese cleaning women
left it. I'd often chatted with these women and knew that many
of them lived near the My Lai Road. The maids flirted unabashedly
as the MP's checked their empty baskets for contraband. What fools
those MPs are, I thought. Doesn't it occur to the them that the
contraband these women carry is information hidden inside their
heads? Don't the MPs realize that their flirtatious cleaning maids
probably pace off warehouse measurements while they sweep, memorize
shipments they unload, and note details of any unusual activity?
the years since, I've checked out my guesses, and learned that
I was right. Women formed the core of the NorthVietnamese/Viet
Cong spy, liaison, and distribution networks. Basket by yoked
basket, women slipped supplies into locations dangerously close
to American bases. Mental picture by mental picture, overheard
conversation by overheard conversation, they absorbed information
about the enemy and carried it away.
woman I met on the My Lai road, the women who cleaned the American
military base, and thousands of other women served the cause of
revolution as valiantly as their male counterparts. Yet even today,
more than twenty years after the war's end, their contribution
remains largely unrecognized.
Still Hiding: A Personal Essay: Copyright © 1999 by Lady Borton. All Rights reserved.