A Cold War Divorce

Part of 2 of in
By Mark Pham
Illustrations by Hephy’s Den
Oct 28, 2019 | 6 min read
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My parents’ marriage ended along the same timeline as the fall of the Berlin Wall: cracking apart in 1989, formally dismantling around 1990, and all but gone by 1991. While East and West Berliners were celebrating their reunification, my mother and my father mourned their divorce.

I did not understand the gravity of their split until the night of the Catholic annulment. We drove to our church on the edge of Little Saigon, Southern California’s Vietnamese American enclave. Inside a modest, book-filled office, my parents and some Vietnamese Catholic friends conferred with our church’s curly-haired priest. It was a light, cordial meeting — likely for my sake — conducted in English. The annulment declared that the marriage, as defined by the Vatican, was invalid from its inception and should have never existed, although the secular courts would later confirm that the two were legally ending an existing marriage.

On the way out, in the parking lot, Dad took my hand and walked toward his friends’ car. Confused, I asked why we were going to a different car without Mom. He gave me the option to go with Mom instead. I agreed, not realizing that as Mom and I drove off and away, she was leaving behind her church, friends, and husband.

• • •

Long before they met, my mother and my father had each left behind years of conflict in Vietnam and desperately got on ill-equipped vessels toward a vague locale and future as “boat people”. They separately landed in a refugee camp in Bataan, Philippines. Neither perceived themselves as participants of a global political conflict, but they knew their economic, ethnic, professional, and academic identities had fallen out of favor. Mom was a Buddhist-raised, French-schooled bourgeois from the southern mountains. Dad was a Catholic farmer from the northern fields.

Their vastly different backgrounds mattered less when they arrived at the camp, where they were forced to live in the same disorganized, dangerous, and dehumanizing conditions. The camp was both shelter and prison with minimal infrastructure and rule-of-law. Each refugee at Bataan coped differently with their loss of home, the trauma of their travels, and the dismalness of their current circumstances. Before they even met, my parents shared a similar despondency. At their age, they should have been in college, not trapped in a jungle sleeping in hammocks made of used rice sacks and broken fishing nets. Beyond their need to survive, each remained in search of spiritual clarity.

They met after being invited to join a small Catholic faith-sharing group organized by a white Jesuit priest. My parents were easy recruits for the group: Mom had recently converted to Christianity before leaving Vietnam, and Dad had been a lifelong Bible nerd. Through these gatherings, my parents grew closer as friends, having in common their thick prescription glasses and contemplative outlook on faith. Within the group’s emphasis on guided, meditative prayer, they found the peace and safety that they had longed for.

The war they escaped was posited on great ideals, implemented with great violence and cruelty. Since Dad had never grown up with financial or political stability, he looked to his family and faith as the two pillars that would keep him alive and that he had to steadfastly protect. Conversely, Mom adopted Christianity to seek an inner peace and offset the ideological posturing that she saw as a child during wartime.

• • •

My parents eventually received sponsorship to come to the United States, left the camp, reunited in California, became U.S. citizens, and established a measure of financial stability, a feat unto itself. My parents and their friends continued to grow the Catholic meditation group into a thriving Vietnamese American fellowship. They organized seasonal camps throughout the country where dozens of college-aged refugees sought spiritual guidance to navigate their newfound physical safety.

After the divorce, Dad remained with the fellowship. Although Mom was not formally banned, she felt increasingly unwelcome at gatherings. Her resentment rose after friends alienated her — the same friends who had gushed forgiveness, kinship, and neighborly love during Bible study. In front of my brother and me, she spoke of her former husband and Catholic friends as two-faced traitors. Mom would claim she was better off without them, but she could not hide the sadness of losing her role as a beloved big sister to a community of hundreds of youthful, spiritually-hungry refugees.

With primary child custody, Mom moved my brother and me out of the family house, where up to 15 relatives stayed at once, to a single parent house. I was happy to have much less competition for the TV remote. One night while watching a celebrity gossip show that quoted a Roseanne Barr press release, I asked Mom what the word “hypocrisy” meant in the statement.

“It means you’re a liar.”

Looking back at Mom’s blunt explanation, I wonder what she was getting at. Did my English-as-a-second-language mother think that was what it meant? Was she oversimplifying the definition, thinking I was too young to understand the nuance? Was this some sort of unconscious indoctrination?

• • •

In some ways, my mother’s palpable dislike for hypocrisy was a part of her assimilation to postmodern America. What the country had once accepted as the courteous divide of public and private conduct was now considered disingenuous duality. Although the etymology of “saving face” holds roots in Asia, it was already very much a part of the American mainstream. Many generations of Americans, immigrant or otherwise, angrily asked why this “hypocrisy” disempowered so many while enriching few. Civility was now code for obedience, and obedience was now a tool of oppression.

The civil rights movement instructed disenfranchised communities to choose pride over shame of their personal identities. Self-love was devised as a subversive concept to counter the effects of cultural suppression. By the 90s, however, this concept became de-clawed and de-politicized. Civic movements morphed into self-help audiences with mantras of personal growth. Instead of building coalitions with disparate groupings or enjoying recreational time in public spaces, more Americans were seeing those around them as baggage and cynically cutting them out of their lives in order to draw boundaries.

By valuing her sense of integrity over her relationships, my mother stood by her convictions as a means of self-preservation. She didn’t mind rocking the boat if it meant alienation. Over three decades, she incrementally drew away from Little Saigon, the site of her first home in the U.S., and from Catholicism, her first denomination. She would continuously leave church communities after finding them to be intolerably hypocritical and unfocused on social justice, whether it be a gossip-drenched Vietnamese Baptist congregation or a rhetoric-heavy ministry in rural Louisiana.

My father would never have tolerated this instability for himself, as he found comfort in conformity and routine. After the divorce, he spent years renting rooms from his friends and siblings until he could afford to buy his own house in the middle of Little Saigon with enough space to host fellowship meetings. Any given night, he could be found leading a meditative prayer in his living room filled with friends. He even married a fellow leader. Taking this leadership role meant he couldn’t just push peers away when their actions did not match their rhetoric. He had to tolerate a certain level of ideological incongruence, whether that be in immoral missteps among church members or unethical systems in the Little Saigon economy.

My mother was not so patient, and she burned bridges with her head high. Her stubbornness made her seem resilient and powerful. It also made her unable to admit to missing all of those “hypocrites” from church. She felt assured that she was in the right by rejecting the dynamics of “saving face” that was rife in congregations and Little Saigon. Philosophically, she probably and usually was right, but she made the high road seem so lonely.

Because Mom raised me, I have a similar hesitation to join community groups and congregations. While they may be inviting, I hesitate at the prospect that their future rhetoric or behavior will betray me (or that mine will disappoint them). Mom taught me not to fear my own indignation in the face of injustice, yet I am also now envious of the network, camaraderie, and reputation that Dad has built from his more compromising approach. Has my pursuit of a perfect fit within a community prevented me from being a part of something that would be, at the very least, partially fulfilling and rewarding?

• • •

Now that I am around the same age as my parents were during the divorce, I can’t imagine losing so many parts of my life at once. Having spoken to each of them individually at length about their experience as refugees, as immigrants, as Christians, and as Vietnamese Americans, it hurts me that they are not a part of each other’s lives now.

I can almost imagine them at the same church where they annulled their marriage, sitting outside on the steps, perhaps six feet apart. They could talk as old friends, complain about Little Saigon, celebrate on how they both maintained their foundation of Christian faith, and reflect on how, despite the pain of your partner becoming your enemy, they are better people having separated.

Thirty years after the fall of Berlin Wall, perhaps my parents could tear down their own wall.

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Mark Pham

Mark Pham works in international relations and global business development. He grew up in Orange County, California. His interests include learning about behavioral economics, foreign languages, and attending local community festivals.

Hephy’s Den

Pearl from Hephy's Den is a Licensed Creator and Artist from Miami, Florida. She is an ArtCenter College of Design alum and is currently active in both the United States and South Korea. You can find her on Instagram: @hephysden, or her personal website, hephysden.com.

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