About five years ago, my father applied for and received his Vietnamese citizenship once again (we had sacrificed it when we left the country illegally in a boat many years ago). As a dual citizen of both Vietnam and the US., he is now privy to the benefits offered by both.
One reason for his repatriation was his desire to purchase some land in his old country. This he did, teaming up with my cousin in law to pool together enough funding for the purchase. They bought a small plot in Phu Quoc, an island to the west of the mainland, with the intention of turning it into a farm for pineapple or other fruits.
On a hot summer day five years ago, not too long after they had bought the land, my cousin’s husband and my father took me to tour the place. After a long motorbike ride on uneven, rough red ground, we bushwhacked through thick, thorny underbrush to get to a spot that didn’t seem at all habitable or hospitable. Wandering cattle with clinking tiny bells and chicken roam an occasional rare patch of clearing, but the land itself was mostly wild, overgrown, difficult to move through.
This past summer, I came back with my father to see a place much changed. The underbrush has been cleared, leaving some spare trees providing pleasant shade; clean, symmetrical rows of spiky, piney leafs, waist high, now appear, each clump cradling a pineapple in a different stage of ripeness. I couldn’t recognize any familiar signs of the landscape we struggled through just years ago.
My father didn’t transform this land, of course, he is quite old now and is just the landowner who comes to visit every year. A farmer who lives there year round with his two gentle guard dogs tend the orchard, and takes the harvested pineapple to sell in the markets of Phu Quoc when they’re ripe. He comes across as shy, but friendly and modest in conversation.
My father conversed with him in Vietnamese, and I note the ease of banter my father possesses with other Vietnamese – he makes a series staccato direct questions that he always enjoys when he talks to fellow Vietnamese people he likes and feels at ease with, which would be most people: how old are you? do you like living here all by yourself? What do you eat? etc… all peppered with his own reaction or incredulity when an answer seems so unbelievable.
When we asked him if he has a family, he mentioned a wife and now grown children. How often do you see them, my father asked, and he answered: “my wife doesn’t like to come to the island, and I don’t like the city.” So they see each other only once every year or two, on rare occasions. My dad must have remarked on this being an ideal marriage here, or he might have joked about such a lonely life, I can’t recall.
In regards to his diet, the farmer had this to say:
If I have meat then I’ll eat meat. If not I’ll have rice and fish sauce. You eat what you can get.
When my father asked him why he doesn’t raise chicken for variety in food, he says:
Oh there are chicken here. They just wander through whenever they want: free chicken, or forest chicken (ga rung). I can’t catch them during the day. But at night they come back and rest by the shed. They’re too fast to catch during daytime, he says, and we laugh at the idea of roaming chickens on the land.
In his shed the farmer had a small wooden cot, a small television set, a fan, an old dvd player. In the late afternoon, once work is done and the air is clear and cool, his dogs nap by his legs and keep him company.
Before we left, he cut for us a couple of newly ripened pineapples to bring back home. We snacked on them after dinner that night, flavoring them lightly with salt and chili powder, as we Vietnamese often do with fruits. They were delicious.