Meeting a Jarai Tribesman and His Wife in New York City

Nguyễn Đức Tùng

Artwork by Olaya Barr

In front of a coffee shop not too far from the 9/11 Memorial, in the direction of Strand Bookstore where I bought a poetry collection by Gerard Stern, I met Siu Kpa, a sixty-year-old Jarai man, and Dep, his wife. Jarai, Jrai, Gia-rai, Jrarai, and Chareye are all variations on the name of his ethnic group, within which he would be warmly received as Anak Jarai. Son of Jarai. Both man and wife spoke Vietnamese, but his was better. Actually, she belonged to the Ba Na, or Bahnar, which includes both highlands and lowlands people. Both had lost their memory, but in opposite ways.

He lost his memory the way old people tend to lose theirs, which means he lost his short-term memory, while his long-term memory remained intact. In contrast, she could not remember important milestones in her own life story, but retained recently obtained knowledge and the ability to learn the concrete concepts necessary for daily survival. At times, though, she would lose her bearings and certain words from the Ba Na lexicon. At times he would forget his own name and important things like his address, the names of his loved ones, or his plans for the next hour. Yet he could recall his past in vivid, exact detail, especially if it had to do with his plơi, the village of his youth. He remembered the white loincloths with vertical stripes and the indigo headdresses with side drops of the Jarai men. He remembered the festive costumes of the Ba Na women, with abstract crimson patterns framed by white borders and flowing tassels.

They both remembered the sad, steep, deeply purple mountains, impassive sentinels that appear sadder and more forlorn as one’s gaze sweeps upwards.

They were not sitting inside the coffee shop but in front of it, on the ground. In New York, as you know, there is enough space on the sidewalk for squatters. The man and his wife were stripped of land, home, hearth. Like other ethnic groups from Vietnam’s central highlands, they were forced into exile. Before this calamity, their union seemed fortuitous and elegant in its mutual adaptability. Jarai society is matrilineal and insular, yet he had met a Ba Na woman, a rare enough occurrence. Ba Na people, while fiercely loyal, are free to marry outside their ethnic group and in the process adopt other groups’ customs and habits.

The two were inseparable. They had a child, eight months old, who died in her arms during their flight from the mountains. Boy or girl? A boy, he said. A girl, she retorted. I asked for the child’s name. Langanh, which she pronounced like Nh’anh—so it must have been a girl. But are you sure that’s her name?

After their child was born, they moved out of her parents’ home to live on their own, in a charming cottage by a mountain spring. Hardworking and resourceful, they had chickens, three pigs, and even a horse. What color? A black horse. Black as ink. But maybe not. Black is an unusual color for horses in those parts of the country. A dog, too, yellow, with white spots, perhaps, that limped. In the aftermath of the war, the couple’s home, along with the dwellings of other ethnic minorities, was seized or razed by Vietnamese settlers from the so-called New Economic Zone—unruly mobs forced to emigrate to the central highlands from impoverished provinces to further the government’s economic development policy. The highlanders’ traditional customs, communal ways of life, beliefs, and principles of self-government were destroyed. Their ceremonial altars, communal houses, and gravesites were defaced. They marched in protest, in groups of tens, hundreds, and thousands. They were disbanded, harassed, and tortured by government officials.

And hunted. From Kon Tum down to Gia-Lai onto Đắk Lắk. Hunted like beasts on the Cheo Reo Pass, the very birthplace of the Jarai. They ran into the forest. Were shot at. The muzzle of a gun ten, seven, sometimes only five meters away from Siu Kpa, spitting fire, as he hid behind the trunk of a kơ nia or wild almond tree, freshly felled, bleeding yellow sap. Yellow sap on his body bright as amber. Shrapnel pierced his right knee, causing him to walk with a limp, even now. Another piece of shrapnel lodged in his chest, close to his heart, grazing his pericardium like some kind of cosmic tease, before settling in his left lung’s superior lobe. All his doctors left it alone, apparently not having the means or the inclination to remove it.

The couple reached Cambodia in 2001, stayed in a refugee camp, waited for three years, had their initial asylum interview, waited three more years, and went through more clearance procedures, before reaching New York in their seventh year of homelessness. She knew how to make fiber from cotton fruit, weave, knit, and embroider. He knew how to make cures out of roots, familiar as he was with all the medicinal aspects of plants. He recounted stories of collecting snails, harvesting young banana leaves, cutting down bamboo, finding the indigo plant and using it as dye. Whenever she missed their child, she would lie sideways, her legs pulled up, her head in his lap, her arms hugging a cloth bag as if it were a live infant. He would sing to her the Xinh Nhã song of the Ede people—their neighboring brethren in Đắk Lắk. He remembered the song by heart. Crying softly, she would keep her eyes tightly shut, refusing to let the light enter.

Imagine a person born and bred in the central highlands of Vietnam, in his plơi, each morning ascending the mountain with an axe in his woven bamboo basket to cut down trees, each afternoon descending toward his plot of land to make holes in the ground for seedlings, each evening drinking around the fire, living in the mythic world of the Cham oral tradition, at home in the wildness of Southeast Asian jungles, one day finding himself lost amidst the flashing blue, red, and yellow lights of Manhattan, exposed yet invisible in the urban jungle. He could not go home. Did not want to go home. But never got used to his new environment. A person has to own something in order to live, but Siu Kpa did not own anything. For a long time, he had not owned anything, ever since the Vietnamese—whom the ethnic minorities call the Kinh or plains people—invaded his village and took away his home. They took away the village’s ownership of the land. His wife lost her one and only treasure, the baby in her arms.

Now he worked odd jobs in the city’s alleys and streets. As refugees, they were given shelter by the government, but Siu Kpa and Dep rarely lived there. They worked and subsisted by chance, not quite homeless but not quite settled. At sixty, they still looked hale and hearty. Dep is a Jarai name that he gave her while they were in the refugee camp. They both had forgotten her real name, a pretty name in the Ba Na language, a name without surname. One time, confused, desperate, mad, he threw himself underneath a moving truck but was saved. From then on, she never let him out of her sight. They spoke to each other in Ba Na, a language so close to extinction that no one could understand them.

No one cared to understand. After the endless rounds of interviews by humanitarian aid organizations in the refugee camp near the Cambodia-Thailand border, no one wanted to ask them any more questions once they arrived in the new world. What about the memories of her own village, the lovely trapezoid shape of the Ba Na’s communal Rong house raised on stilts, of daily life on the plateau, festival days, of pitched gongs and ceremonial drums, the t’rưng bamboo xylophone? What about his memories of the kơ nia almond tree with broad, boat-shaped leaves and clusters of white flowers shivering in the soft spring rain, and the long, deep shadows cast by ancient mountains and forests like cold, cernuous breaths upon their souls? Enshrouded, untended, all memories became obsolete. Time, too, becomes obsolete.

Anything that’s obsolete will die.

At first his memory would slowly fade, becoming soft and fuzzy, before dissolving into complete darkness. Like a loss of vision. His cognitive faculties dimmed, occasionally sparked, like dying embers, sputtering, when someone sat down and asked him questions about his past. Questions helped unveil the flimsy screen of his memory, a fraction of the vast Jarai horizon, its heroic and tragic history, full of havoc and destruction wreaked by the Vietnamese against their mountain brethren.

She still remembered her horse and her dog, perhaps because they were fast animals. They ran faster than humans and therefore escaped death. Occasionally she saw her yellow dog in a trash heap on lower Fifth. She made her hands into a horn and cried out for him, but he would startle and run off, tail out straight behind him. One time an acquaintance alerted her to a horse grazing in a field across the Hudson River, under a blinding red sun. In an instant, the horse disappeared, then reappeared. Animals kept leaving, then returning, undecided, hesitant, unsure if they were happy in their new country.

The light of a dying day, refracted from a skyscraper, soothed the couple’s flickering doubts and transformed them into undulating shadows of a colossal, centuries-old banyan tree. Beneath that giant, swaying shade, in a vast courtyard, a white crane ambled that might have, at one time, landed on top of the now-destroyed Twin Towers. The crane meandered among the rocks by a small fountain, cautious, alert. From eight meters away, it stopped to listen to our conversation.

The air turned cold and damp. The clouds descended, casting their shadows on the water. There was a rustling of wings. The crane raised its neck, lifted its body, and drifted past the lighted windows of the skyscraper, then spread its wings, slowed as if to gather its strength and consider its position, then flapped its wings and flew straight up, away from the shadows of the skyscrapers, away from the pull of memory, away from the shadows of the silent, foreboding, untamed, and illusory mountains, before being engulfed by the vastness of the sky. We heard the crane, its low, guttural, raucous cry harmonizing with the high-pitched sounds of cymbals, gongs, t’rưng and k’lông pút xylophones, and the deep sighs of beings who understood the ways of life, who had begun to forget, or become confused, but had not quite lost their bearings. From this mélange of sounds, the laments of nature and a threatened civilization gradually subsided.

As his wife drifted off to sleep, I asked Siu Kpa about his kơ nia tree. He pointed toward a small bush next to a fence. It had delicate lavender flowers that resembled Japanese Ejitsu roses. I shook my head. He became flustered but refused to waver. It suddenly dawned on me that memory was not the only thing he had lost.

I asked him to estimate the distance between us and the flowering bush. At first, he could not do it, then guessed it was about five steps. After walking five steps, he extended his arm in an attempt to touch the bush, met air, lost his balance, pitched forward, and had to walk five more steps. Still missed his mark. The loss of the ability to measure spatial distance was a rare symptom among those already afflicted with selective memory loss. Five more steps and he finally reached the bush, hugging it tight, and, like someone returning home from years of travel, without hanging up his coat, ran headlong to embrace the cool smooth black surface of his house beam.

translated from the Vietnamese by Thuy Dinh