“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” —Unknown
When we first landed on Bidong island, I was terrified. I wasn’t familiar with my surroundings, and if my mom was out of sight when I woke up I would cry and cry. I had a terrible fear of being abandoned in the chaotic refugee camp that was my new home.
Ominously, the name of the island, Bidong (bee-dong), phonetically sounds like a word that means “get spanked” in Vietnamese. When we escaped, my dad stayed behind and my mom’s younger brother came with us. He was often left to look after my brother and me when she was getting supplies or lining up for food. When I woke from a nap and didn’t see my mom anywhere in sight, I would immediately start sobbing, fearing that she was gone forever. A crying kid can be annoying, so her brother took to hitting me to get me to stop. For good measure, he also hit my brother who was four years older and couldn’t do anything to help me or himself.
Practically speaking, how is a child going to stop crying if you’re hitting her? I tried my best to comply to his commands by choking back my sobs. That was possibly the worst part of being on the island. Dead bodies would wash ashore every once in a while, and there wasn’t enough to eat, but being terrified and abused on a regular basis was a special kind of torture. It shifted something inside of me. That’s when I first learned to hate someone, and it’s the fire behind my disdain for cowards and bullies. As a child, it’s hard to protect yourself. As an adult, you can be darn sure that I surround myself with only the best people, as a means to make sure I’m safe.
With my mom’s brother before the voyage
I didn’t tell my mom what was happening while this was occurring because I thought I was being bad and assumed he had the authority to discipline me. In Vietnamese households, you’re raised with the belief that adults are always right, and I was too young to know differently. One day, a neighbor told my mom that whenever she was away, I would cry a lot and something wasn’t right. That was my mom’s first clue. When she bathed me and saw fresh welts on my body, she put one and one together and confronted her brother.
My mom is possibly the nicest, most non-confrontational person I know. Confronting her brother was incredibly hard for her, but she didn’t have a choice. She loved us too much to allow anyone to hurt us. Confronted, he admitted to hitting me. To which she replied, “Don’t ever lay a hand on my children again.” To this day, he’s the only sibling she isn’t close to. She’s never forgiven him.
Fortunately, her brother immigrated to Paris while we immigrated to Los Angeles. I didn’t have to see him again until I was a teenager, during his first visit to the U.S. When we learned he was coming, my brother and I openly talked about our revenge fantasies. Meanwhile, my mom’s extended family prepared a welcome party for him.
My brother and I begrudgingly come along. At the gathering, mom feels the pressure to pretend the three of us don’t all hate him, and asks me to greet him. Though I certainly don’t want to, the dutiful daughter in me, who finds it hard to say no to my mom says, “Fine, I’ll do it.” Instead of the more fitting, “Huh? You crazy.”
I tentatively walk over to him and welcome him in Vietnamese. He pulls me close and whispers in my ear, “Can you still feel it?” I’m stunned speechless. I think to myself, somebody get me a gun. I pull away from him and walk off without making a scene. Asian children are taught early and often never to make a scene in public. Somehow it stuck.
Fast-forward twelve years. I’m fulfilling my dream of living and working in Europe. I’m based in Heidelberg and preparing for my company’s annual conference in Paris. Ah, Paris, the home of croissants, the Eiffel Tower, and the monster from my childhood. At this point in my life I start to feel that continuing to hate this man is sucking up energy that could be better used elsewhere, so I decide to reach out and forgive him. I ask my mom for his phone number and call to tell him I’d like to meet for dinner while I’m in town.
A week later, he and his wife pick me up from my hotel and take me back to their tiny apartment in the outskirts of Paris. We enjoy a delicious homemade Vietnamese meal that his sweet wife has especially prepared for me after she learns of the dishes I miss from home — catfish in a clay pot, caramelized pork, and sour soup. I meet his raucous four year-old son. He is roughly the same age I was when we were on the island together. His son is not able to sit still at the dinner table, and he yells at him to stop misbehaving or else he’s going to hit him. I flash back to the same voice issuing the same threat to me. My heart skips a beat. I make my excuses and leave soon after the meal is over.
Back in my hotel room, I feel a wave of compassion for him and his family. The economic and social system in France makes it very difficult for immigrants to work hard and move up the ladder like we can in America. His family is poor and they live in the neighborhood where rioting took place several years ago. My revenge is being successful and well-adjusted. It doesn’t feel all that good. I hope for him and his family to have a chance at a better life. It’s then that I realize I’ve truly forgiven him.
Follow the Sun is a gorgeous, uplifting song that reminds me that while darkness exists, there’s also light and hope.