South Wind Changing

By Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh

Graywolf Press

Copyright © 1994 Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh
All right reserved.

ISBN: 1-55597-305-1

Chapter One

It seems so long since I was a child. But yes, I have a memory of a time, of a place, of a day when I was twelve, when I lived with my big family in the village called An Tan, beside the Mekong River, on the outskirts of Vinh Binh, South Vietnam.

An Tan was a small village governed by an elderly group elected from a population of less than a thousand. There was a river surrounding our village and the government used the river as a borderline to separate all the regions on the map. It was a generous place for the people who lived here - most of them were farmers, and the land was flat and fertile. The area was surrounded by rice fields; everywhere was water and more water, the blood of our lives. A village shrine was the center for our activities: meetings, elections, operas, ceremonies, and the settling of conflicts among villagers took place here. The villagers grew rive every year for the main harvest and when they had free time they spent it in their gardens growing bananas, coconuts, mangoes, and vegetables for their own use. My father had 20 acres of orange orchards and ten acres of rice, bought when he borrowed money (with interest) from his aunt; he built it up by himself, and prospered. My mother kept up the house as a housewife. We went to the Catholic school in the village and during the harvest my older brothers helped my father to work on the rice paddies after school, since they were stronger than I was. Our main harvest was in the spring and this was the busiest time each year. Farmers woke up early, when the rooster crowed the third time, prepared for the harvest day, and began working on the farm before the sun rose. People were everywhere - near the river, in the yard, in the garden and on the rice fields, happily chatting with one another wherever the conversation would lead.

On this spring day the buffalo had already dragged the rice stalks to the harvest floor, and the workers had stood them up in a circle on the court. My brother, Lan, a broad-backed and strong boy, brought the basket out and put some hay into it to get it ready for when my uncle needed it. My uncle led two buffaloes to the yard from the creek, and tied them together with a rope, then began to drive them in a circle on the rice stalks. As we walked them around, the buffaloes ground their hooves over the stalks, loosening the grain on the ground. Once in a while he yelled, "Basket, basket!" and Lan would jump off the nearby bench to get a basket with hay in it, so that he could catch the buffalo's dung. When the buffalo finished, my uncle whipped him to walk again. Lan took the basket and dumped it in the garden and put some new hay in it.

I was babysitting my sister, Luoi. We flew a kite on the dike, watching the farmers working on the farm, and waiting for our mother to come back home from the market. Luoi had fat cheeks, soft skin, and black eyes, and whoever saw her could not resist holding her or giving her a kiss. I loved taking care of my sister.

The south wind or Gio Nom blew from the South and the rice stalks rubbed against each other like a human voice whispering. Water babbled in the creek and the river as the rice plants bowed like dancers. The sun's warmth beamed down, making the water glisten in different spots. Fresh air brushed our skin - springtime was here, time for a new crop, time for us to get together for a feast, time for people to help one another winnow the rice, time for the buffaloes to get out from their hutches and get busy, time for happy songs. A time when I could see people and children everywhere and a time when people had little to worry about.

As the sun rose higher, the grain absorbed our sweat. Near the dike where we stood, flying the kite, a water buffalo family was walking along eating some grass. I saw a boy sitting on the back of a big water buffalo. My sister and I came to him, asking to ride on one of the buffaloes. I sat in back of my sister and held the thread from the kite which flew in the air. Occasionally, a flock of Chim Sac birds landed on the rice stalk where they could get some ripened rice from the golden rice field, touched even now with patches of green. We yelled at them, and the chirping birds flew up in the air, landing at another spot. Luoi smiled, showing her small teeth, and we took turns holding on to the kite. Sometimes we tied the thread onto the buffalo's horns, letting the kite flap its wings by itself in the gentle south wind. We got down from the buffalo and chased grasshoppers.

The ocean-blue sky allowed no shade, as heat waves shimmered over the dry rice and grass. The tired buffaloes slish-sloshed through the mud, while the workers trudged behind them, or lingered at the dike, drinking water from a jug. My aunt stepped out from the garden into the rive field and clanged a gong, calling the workers to lunch. The smell of rice cooking rose as the smoke of village stoves brushed the coconut and areca trees, spreading into the rice paddies. From the distance, I saw a shadow move in our direction, a woman with a basket on her head. I knew it was our mother returning from the market. We rushed to her.

"Mama, mama!" we yelled.

She stepped up to us and rubbed our heads, smiling, her face red and perspiring.

"Where are your hats? I told you to wear them when you play in the sun," she scolded. "Your head is warm now. You're going to get sick, you know."

We held her hand. "Do you have some cookies, mama?"

She began to walk, while we jumped up and down, skipping backwards in front of her. She held the basket in one hand and reached inside to get a loaf of bread for us.

"Share it with your sister. Don't forget to wear your hats when you are playing in this heat," Mother said. "Mama will give you more if you remember that. Let's go home." She took off her hat, putting it on my sister.

I grabbed the bread and ran with my sister to the reed bushes where we had tied the kite. The workers in the field, on their way in for lunch, greeted my mother and asked her bout the early market. I pulled the kite down and rolled up the thread. We had tied a little flute to the kite, and it made a chirping noise as it dove like a hawk. Lifting the kite, we ran after our mother and tried to avoid stepping the mud scattered along the grass on our way home. We would enjoy our evening together, we would sleep well that night.

This was how my life was, and how, after the war mowed through it, it would never be again.


Excerpted from South Wind Changing by Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh Copyright © 1994 by Jade Ngoc Quang Huynh . Excerpted by permission.
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