THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 7 NUMBER 2
A Past not Forgotten:
OCEAN AND EXILE
Into dream I travel
journey of the self...
When I was twenty six years old, very incidentally I discovered the source of my fascination with the ocean. All my life I have held many fantasies about the ocean. When I doze off because of physical exhaustion, I frequently dream of swimming very fast and effortlessly across crystal clear and tranquil water. Even in the state of dream, I can still feel the utmost happiness of floating and conquering waves, when I shoot myself like an arrow parting the cool, indivisible water in half.
As an adult, I am so much drawn to the ocean, yet still frightened by it. Even amidst the passion of my most favorite water sport, at times I am still chilled by the fear that I will completely be vulnerable in the insecurity and unforeseeable danger of the darkness and coldness of the sea...that something will grab me from behind, detaching me from the comfort of home...that the ocean will engulf me, into a vacuum of weightless immensity, where I become nothing, nothing at all, yet still very much aware of the pain and despair as my physical mass is diluted into nothingness...My physical self has been completed broken, compressed, defeated, and engulfed, but my psychic self is still floating, struggling, fighting for peace, to return to a place called home...
It was the year of my judicial clerkship under Honorable Hugh Gibson of the Southern District of Texas (now deceased) that I somehow began to rationalize my love for, and fear of, the ocean. The court sits in Galveston, a small port town on the coast of Texas overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. Galveston is neither a cosmopolitan place nor a classy resort. It is, in the words of Judge Gibson, a sleepy old Texas port town. The beach of Texas is no paradise, despite a few fancy hotels to whet the appetite of showy Houstonians who consider Galveston their beach get-away or short-term vacation. The waves can be very high, aggressive and threatening, but somehow they just do not carry the powerful beauty of Hawaiian crests. The sand is frequently dirty and brown, full of tar blobs and dirty oil residues spilled or discharged from ships and oil tanks. One can smell and feel the oil in all that muddy and sandy brown water...
But Galveston holds so much memory for me that once I was away from it, looking back, at times I felt the remembrance was too painful to endure. It was through the coast of Galveston that my mind first associated the image of the sea with velvet. Now, every time I think of the night and the sea, I think of the mystery and richness of deep black velvet. One cannot touch the depth of black velvet, just as the mystery of the sea and darkness can never be completely unveiled. I recall every Friday night I would pack up to leave Galveston for Houston in my old beatup Toyota...I hurriedly drove by the sea, on Galveston's Seawall Boulevard, to reach the freeway en route to Houston. (Years ago, after the historical disastrous hurricane that almost swept away the island of Galveston in the 1920s, the U.S. Corps of Engineers built the Seawall Boulevard to save Galveston from future hurricanes. The boulevard bordered the ocean like a fortress.) But even in my rush and despite the routine nature of the drive, I could not help but notice the sound and the sight of the ocean beneath Seawall Boulevard, representing immense myth, power, and, at the same time, loneliness. I remember glancing at the ocean beneath and afar. I could no longer see the sparkling dark blue water, since the horizon and the ocean had merged into immense darkness...into a huge cloth of black velvet covering that part of the earth. Such a deep black that chilled my imagination.
But along the beach, the waves continued to hit the sandy land and protruding rocks, splashing alongside the coastline, creating white strips of bubbling water shining in contrast with the black darkness of the ocean. These white strips danced under the silver moonlight and the yellow brightness of street lamps, reminding me of lace embroideries at the outer edges of a huge velvet cloth, as though the cloth was graciously moving in harmony with some mysterious tune from outside this mundane universe. The blackness of the velvet was so deep that I could no longer see the movement of the cloth. The only movements depicted were the dancing waves, those lacy white strips bordering the edges of the black velvet cloth. The coast of Galveston at night was the velvet dress of a gigantic princess, hemmed with lace embroideries, dancing somewhere in the universe. The awe-filled beauty of the darkness of the velvet ocean and it animated white lace strips of dancing waves, together with nature’s threatening sound, was so overwhelming that while I was so much in love with the ocean, I also wanted to run away from it.
That same year, I met through the court a woman from Spain, Isabelle. She was the court's official Spanish interpreter for the federal criminal drug offense cases, where federal agents caught shipments of controlled substances smuggled into the country from South America through the port of Galveston. We did not know each other very well, although in the few conversations that we might have had, we immediately developed a rapport that promised friendship. She might have invited me to a party once, but I never took the opportunity to know Isabelle better. I would have forgotten her name had it not been for what Isabelle told me about the ocean. And that I remember forever. It was Isabelle who provided the explanation for my fascination with the ocean. And I intuitively believed it.
I did not remember how the conversation began, but Isabelle told me, casually, that if a person was born and raised near the ocean, automatically and subconsciously for the rest of that person's life, he or she would seek to return to the ocean. Isabelle concluded that she always wanted to live her life near the ocean because she had been born near the coast of Spain. I was born and raised, until age two, in a port town right on the coast of central Vietnam. The ocean was my first friend. The ocean was home. There lies my source of fascination, inspiration, and aspiration with the ocean. I have embraced it in my childhood and carried it with me, endearing it in my psyche, and longing for it as though it contained my garden of Eden. That lost paradise. The ocean has become part of my cultural subconsciousness and followed me through life.
Then there is still the fear. If there is any intellectual quest that fascinates me the most, it must have been the psychology of fear. I have never understood it .But perhaps there is one common aspect of all human fears, and that is, we fear pain or destruction. We all fear being detached and separated from our territory, or what we consider to be our possession of territory. Known territory becomes the extension of ourselves. We all fear the unknown, the unexplainable, and the most obvious unknown facing mankind is death. My fear of drowning in the ocean is my fear of pain, destruction, and extinction. Simply put, the fear of death. Or more precisely, the fear of facing the unknown after death. If one can be assured that being drowned is pleasant, and that after death, one will be rejoiced and happy forever in a permanently pleasurable state, then perhaps one no longer fears being drowned, or death. And my fear of the ocean will be vanished.
Since my days of living in Galveston, I have accepted that my attraction for the ocean stems primarily from my longing for home and attachment to my place of birth. I have also accepted that I fear the sea because it denotes pain, death, extinction, and the unknown. There lies the irreconcilable paradox. And if these paradoxical premises have long colored my psyche, then would it be at all possible that, for someone like me, the concept of "home," "roots," or "place of birth," notwithstanding its familiarity, comfort, and warmth, will always be intimately linked to the notions of pain, destruction, and ultimately death or extinction? In my view of the Vietnamese immigrant experience, I submit that the answer is a definite Yes. Perhaps it is only in the Vietnamese and other similar immigrant experiences that the concept of home can be associated so closely with pain, extinction, and death.
All that pain, extinction, and death was incidentally confirmed when a old friend of mine from the old country, Vietnam, came to Galveston to see me after two decades of absence. The last time I saw her was in Vietnam, when we were 15 years old, before the fall of Saigon. To welcome her, I planned for her to have a picnic with me on Galveston beach, with champagne glasses, pate, French bread, brie, and fresh seedless grapes. I even bought and presented to her a gift, a two-piece swimming suit, as I proudly announced to her our picnic plan. That way, we could sunbathe together as two fashionable young women wearing bikinis. Instead of sharing my enthusiasm, my childhood friend looked at me with awe and amazement, and said nothing in return. She simply wanted to take off. She wanted to leave me and Galveston immediately.
It was only then that I realized how dumb, and hence insensitive, I had become toward a past that should not have been forgotten. My friend was one of those boat people escaping Vietnam in the 80s. In years of correspondence with me before her actual visit to Galveston, she never once talked about the exodus at sea.
I saw her take off with this unbearable feeling of loss, that awful feeling experienced when one’s home sweet home and terror had become one.
And that was how I have since viewed the ocean and the fate of exile.
UYEN NICOLE DUONG
The Writers Post
founded 1999, based in the US.
Editorial note: Works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine (ISSN: 1540-1723).
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