Monday, February 11, 2008

The Mansions We Did Not Have

The first day on my new job I met a fellow Viet in the lounge, who insistently asked me to come to his office for a chat. It turned out he was itching to show me some photographs of his house, which was also his pride and bliss.

It was an imposing colonial house, more like a mansion, surrounded by five acres of woodland. A pair of wrought iron gates, flanked by two marble lions, opened into a spacious front yard with a marble fountain in the middle. The man had ordered the fountain and lions all the way from a village famous for its marble craftsmanship in Vietnam, then laboriously put the pieces into place by himself. The effect was grand, I told him so and saw the man's face brighten with pleasure. "Yours must be a big family," I added and was astonished to learn that he had only one son who was already away in college. "Then why do you need such a big house?" I asked and received only an enigmatic smile for an answer.

Later on I believed I got the answer when he told me where he had grown up in the old country. It was a humble working-class neighborhood on the outskirts of a big city, and in my mind I could see this man as a poor boy walk past those haughty villas where the privileged resided. I imagined him wishing that he had belonged to that world behind black iron gates and whitewashed walls covered in bright coral vine flowers instead of the slum he had been born into. The big house of today was not just a big house to live in, but a dream attained.

Occasionally I meet people who seem to carry an exaggerated dignity the self-conscious way a young person wears his or her formal outfit for the first time. I guess in their past they never got much in the line of respect and now try to make it up. Though it may seem strange or even weird sometimes, it is also natural to indulge in what we once yearned for and did not have. I know a man of nearly fifty who collects toy cars. Watching him fondly caress the little toy cars that kids today take for granted, I could see his deprived boyhood somewhere in the rural Mekong delta several decades ago. I am glad he has his toys now, but I am also sad he has his toys now.

For me, I do not need any mansion, but I have my collection of the Tintin and Spirou comics. They came all the way from France and are now sitting in my bookshelf, fulfilling an old wish and reminding me of an innocent time where even dreams were simple.

No comments:

Post a Comment