Looking Back

In a few hours from now I am likely to be attending my Orange County high school’s 50th reunion.   It was a small school, and there aren’t too many of us left alive or interested in attending, so I anticipate a rather meager turnout.   But for now I am taking advantage of the local cuisine, sitting at the Thien An Vietnamese restaurant in Garden Grove, California.

Fifty years ago, when I lived here, this town was fairly ramshackle, populated mostly with large strawberry fields that were gradually taken over by housing tracts. It was in one of those that my parents bought a small house, I believe for $28,000., which according to Zillow this morning is worth almost a million dollars.   Of course that’s in current money, so I’m not sure what the equivalent dollars would be, but I’m not that interested to look it up.   I probably shouldn’t have even mentioned it.

In those days, as the Vietnam war (or, as they call it in Vietnam, the French-American war) was winding down, the only Asians you would ever see in these parts were the descendants of Japanese immigrants who had been interned during World War 2.   As partial compensation they were offered some land, which they had turned into rather nicely producing agricultural fields.   After the Vietnam war, however, so many immigrants from South Vietnam chose this spot to set up home that the area became what is now known as “Little Saigon,” and having spent a few years going back and forth to Vietnam consulting with an autism service company, I miss the food and ambience.  

Enough generations have passed in Vietnam now that the subject of the war just doesn’t seem to interest anyone other than tourists and tour guides.   There is a distinct sense of not wanting to look back, and I don’t know if that is related to how generations cope with trauma or if this has something to do with the influence of Buddhism.  Only 12% of the population identifies as Buddhist though, while Christianity in the form of Catholicism is a close second.  The vast majority of the country follows some folk religion or none at all.  

In Buddhism, I understand there is a value in honoring one’s ancestors, and I wonder if the emphasis is more on honoring than remembering.   In any case, for me, this looking backwards has always been a struggle.  Perhaps my mother said it best when I asked her why she never talked about her past.  “It’s too painful,” she said in an uncharacteristically succinct way.   

***       

Of course, looking back is what a high school reunion is all about.    But it’s a dangerous endeavor, because it comes with the reminder that there is very little about the world that can be verified and that truth and reality rests squarely in the solipsistic eye of the beholder, and that people most likely didn’t ever see you the way you saw yourself, and that even when the two perceptions do match it seems like a random event.

It was a bit fun, and grim of course, which is to be expected of these gambits. My favorite moment came when a thin, tall woman whose nametag was flipped over and whose face did not ring the dimmest of bells, told me of her memory of me that had lasted through the darkness of these last five decades.    I don’t know that I can capture the humor of it here, but it went something like this:   We were sitting in a class, and a substitute teacher was going through roll, but stumbled when he tried to pronounce my name.   Kindly, he asked me how I would like my name to be pronounced, and reportedly I said, “well, I would like it to be pronounced Miller.”   She and the class cracked up, she told me.  I suppose even then I was a snarky, attention-seeking kid, maybe a tad less diffident and depressed than I remember.

So the joke was kind of a “you had to be there” moment, or maybe it requires the two tequila and pineapple juices I drank beforehand, but I really laughed and was impressed that I could tell a joke in high school that could last in someone else’s mind for 50 years, while I can’t remember any joke, no matter who tells it, for more than about five minutes. 

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