AN AMERICAN PRISONER IN VIETNAM

Chapter 22

James begins to enjoy the daily talks with Chi Mai. Just being able to hear his native tongue is already a pleasure. Personally, James doesn’t like to argue because he thinks an argument often leads to a quarrel. People can even hate each other because of having different opinions. He likes to read and listen to people. He enjoys meditating. James stays away from bustling activities. He believes that ideas don’t come from noisy arguments, but from someone going through isolation and suffering. It’s really unusual that James has argued with Chi Mai about theories, ideologies, and the fate of human beings. As he has been through the ninth cycle of Hell, James feels an ardent love for all human beings.

As he thinks over his talks with Chi Mai, James believes he no longer has to be on guard or doubt her as he used to. Life would be less enjoyable if one always has to be on guard and doubt everyone around him. James thinks that it wouldn’t be necessary to doubt her, because if she decided to continue punishing him, he would be defenseless. James doesn’t want to become a hero by opposing his captors. His patient acceptance of punishments has stirred up the common sense lying deep inside Chi Mai. She has canceled the last punishment. Chi Mai has stopped at the right time. She doesn’t have the heart to dehumanize a human being before making the final decision to have him die or live like a vegetable. Chi Mai has learned to love humankind again. She is a human being, not an ideology. She has asked herself this question: “How can a person continue to be devoted to an ideology that doesn’t care about human beings.”

An ideology doesn’t know what suffering is; yet it knows how to make human beings suffer in a thousand different ways.

James feels relaxed after getting out of the ninth cycle and being able to continue the narrow path he has chosen. James hasn’t found the mystery of life yet; for he still believes he hasn’t reached the peak of suffering. But James has noticed Chi Mai’s sentiments in her eyes and in her gentle smile during the recent talks with him. He has found that Chi Mai is a woman with all the characteristics of a woman like Susan McCareen.

James has enough food to eat every day. The guards allow him to clip his nails regularly. He is allowed to shave every week and to have a haircut once a month. He is given local cigarettes to smoke instead of Winston. “Our country is still poor. We cannot afford to entertain our special American guest,” Chi Mai once said. James doesn’t wish for anything more. His great country has sent aid all over the world for whatever purposes he doesn’t know. Neither are most of his people. But he himself has received aid from Chi Mai, a Vietnamese woman, during the time he needs it most. Suddenly James remembers another poem that the same Russian poet wrote in his gulag. He copies these lines onto a piece of paper:

I have spent two thousand one hundred and ninety sleepless nights
in prison with a body covered with scars and an exhausted mind.
You will understand the meaning of the term “exhausted”
when you are a prisoner in a concentration camp.
The day of your release is on the far-off horizon.
Freedom for you only exists in a remote dream.
For me, I don’t care about physical suffering,
For it’s the same as normal happiness.
But there’s one thing I fear most
That is one day
I have to hate those who arrested me
and those who are making me suffer.
For some reason, I still see the human side within them.
Something has separated them from me.
I don’t know whether it’s human beings or ideologies that have kept us apart.
Human beings are born lonely and will remain lonely all their lives.
Why can’t we approach one another and get closer?
From the depths of the abyss of humiliation and suffering,
I’ve learned to appreciate my fellow human beings.
Without them, the skies and the earth cease to exist.
How can I continue to survive?
How can I have anything to write about in my poems?
As a poet, I only exalt love, not massacre.
One may kill me, but I will never harbor or write about hatred.

James Fisher has finished writing down the poem entitled “What I fear most.” He reads it again. How much he admires the humanitarian spirit of the poet! Being through Hell has helped him remember the wonderful ideas of another man who must have faced similar suffering like him.

James folds the paper and puts it in his pocket. When the guard takes him to Chi Mai’s office, she offers him tea and a local cigarette.

– “I’ve written down another poem.”

James hands the poem to her.

– “You shouldn’t have written things like this, James.”

He says,

– “I thought you said that I could write anything I liked.”

As Chi Mai reads the poem, her eyes blink and she sighs. Then she tears it into small pieces. Chi Mai looks at James. Her voice is filled with feelings.

– “James, you are a very sensitive person.”

He is bewildered. His heart beats faster. He speaks as if he were in a dream.

– “Thank you, Ms. Chi Mai. It’s a comfort to hear that. The sun shines for both you and me. So does the rainfall. It gives both of us its blessing.”

– “You have experienced utmost suffering and sadness.”

– “But I have been comforted, now.”

– “You are the American who has suffered most. Do you think one has to pay such a dear price for being truthful?”

– “I believe so.”

– “A person will pay a dear price for being deceitful, too.”

– “Yes.”

– “From now on, please don’t write down any more poems. Don’t mention any doctrine or ideology. I prefer to read what you write about your childhood. The Rio Grande, through your description, is lovely. As a young girl, I couldn’t go swimming in the Red River, so I don’t have any memories about it.”

She pours him a cup a tea.

– “Tell me about your America.”

James picks up the cup, takes a sip, and says slowly,

– “Each people has a soul. The real soul of the American people cannot be found in the White House, the Pentagon, Wall Street, Washington DC, or in the thing that both you and I detest, capitalism. It is everywhere, in each river, in every forest. It lies deep in the graves of the suffering, hard-working pioneers and those who died for the cause of liberating the slaves and restoring human rights. It is imbued in Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. It is reflected in Lincoln’s courageous decision. It is revealed in the spirit of absolute democracy of the American people. I can’t tell you all about America. I can only summarize it like this: America is a collection of the most beautiful memories of everyone who has lived in that land. This is a people who love Good and hate Evil, who love the Truth and hate Falsehood. There are more good people in America than bad ones. In order to know more about America and to get rid of any prejudices you may have, I think you should visit my country.”

She holds her cup of tea and gently blows into it to make it less hot.

– “I hope to visit your country some day.”

Chi Mai takes a sip of tea.

– “James.”

– “I’m listening, Ms. Chi Mai.”

She sets the cup on her desk.

– “I lived in Europe for ten years. I studied in the Soviet Union and worked in Siberia where I met with a lot of political prisoners. They all looked at me with resentment in their eyes. They all had an attitude of resistance even though their hands were in handcuffs and their feet were shackled. You are different, James. I’ve tested you by not having the guards handcuff and shackle you when I interrogate you in this office. You have always behaved like a gentleman, even while being tortured. I could see in your eyes that you felt sorry for me and were ready to forgive me. Once you were almost unconscious, and you wrote a wonderful paragraph filled with humanitarian ideas which impressed me greatly. Today, I look at you as a human being and no longer as an American soldier, or a capitalist, an enemy of communism. Do you trust me now?”

James nods.

– “Yes, I do.”

She continues,

– “I’ve been to Prague, Berlin, Moscow, London, and Paris. I will visit America.”

He says,

– “I feel myself fortunate to have met you.”

She looks up at the ceiling.

– “You bet, James.”

And she looks at him.

– “Do you think that some day, you will visit my country?”

He replies,

– “No.”

She looks surprised.

– “Why?”

He blows a large smoke ring from his cigarette.

– “I’ve seen Vietnam in you, a wonderful Vietnam.”

Chi Mai is deeply moved. With trembling voice, she says,

– “Thank you, James.”

The silence is profound. James can hear the cigarette burning. Chi Mai can “hear” the vapor from the steaming tea. Suddenly, they look at each other. Their hesitant eyes brighten. In her eyes, he can see his lovely Susan McCareen as she held him passionately when they kissed. In his eyes, she can see Boris Ilitch Kanazev, the truthful artist, and the reflection of enchanting moments they were together.

– “James.”

– “Yes?”

– “Have you read Rudyard Kipling?”

– “Yes.”

– “What do you think about his saying: “East is East, and West and West. The two can never meet’?”

– “Rudyard Kipling hasn’t been to Vietnam. He hasn’t been in prison. Neither has he experienced suffering. Moreover, he hasn’t met you. That was why he made that erroneous remark. It has been a hundred years since he made that statement. I think it’s outdated already.”

– “What’s your opinion?”

– “I think East and West can easily get along as human beings.”

– “Are you going to write a new definition about East and West?”

– “No, I’m going to proclaim my belief.”

– “What’s that?”

– “When we consider others as human beings, there will be no more hatred, war, prison and punishment.”

– “That’s not enough.”

– “What do you want to add?”

– “By treating others as human beings, we dare to break open what is preventing us from getting closer to our fellow human beings. As human beings, we shall not be subdued.”

James is motionless. His heart is overwhelmed with joy. He vaguely recalls one quote from the Beatitudes: “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” James feels a light has pierced through the mystery of life.

– “James, you can go back to the good old days. Don’t suspect anything. And don’t ask any questions.”

As he put his cigarette out, she pushes the button. The guard opens the door and enters.

– “Go back to your room and rest. And look for a wonderful definition of the bond between human beings.”

James smiles, says goodbye to her, and follows the guard to his room.

—> 23

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