“One, two, three,” a boy facing a wall with his eyes closed keeps counting. His friends scatter looking for a place to hide in the neighborhood where they grew up together and knew everyone so well. There are occasional giggles and whisperings as this group of kids tries to keep themselves well hidden from the counting boy, who seems oblivious to all the fun his friends are enjoying. His voice seems to pick up with a faster pace as he says, “…seventeen, eighteen, nineteen.” A few slackers speed up with their search for the best hiding places, but change their minds at the last minute and decide to go home to hide instead. That is probably the best hiding place of all. Even the most seasoned detective cannot find them there.
After several minutes of counting that seem to go on forever and commotion from kids looking for the best hiding places, the whole neighborhood is reduced to silence. The boy who counted a moment ago stops abruptly at thirty and calls out at the top of his lungs, “Ready or not, here I come!” When he closed his eyes a moment ago, he could sense all the familiar sounds and smells of the neighborhood. He could tell where all the yelling and screaming was coming from. A couple of his neighbors often talk with their household members at the top of their lungs, as if they were deaf. Street vendors also frequent the neighborhood and call out their selling slogans, letting everyone know what is best about their products. His whole neighborhood is always full of sounds that intertwine with one another to create a magical concert for its residents and visitors. The intoxicating smells of the tropical flowers and fruits make the whole neighborhood feel like the Garden of Eden, where everyone can feel safe and have anything they want.
The counting boy slowly opens his eyes to an eerie silence of a neighborhood that he once thought he knew it quite well. All his friends had gone into hiding, and he now must look for them. He wonders where he can begin his search. Maybe he can find a couple of kids behind the gate of the neighborhood coffee shop. Or perhaps some of them are hiding in the courtyard of the huge palace at the end of the main street leading to the neighborhood. As he walks down the street searching for his friends, he calls out their names and makes all kinds of weird noises, such as shaking the front gates of each house and dragging a stick along the fence to rattle up the fainthearted. He had to get them to come out of their hiding holes! He learned this tactic from watching some Western movies in which the cowboys would herd their cattle by whistling and hollering.
His tactic works as he finds his first victim giggling behind a big coconut tree. After several minutes, he finds and gathers half of his group of friends who play the game with him. He also learns from those he’s found that some of the hiders went home. It would certainly be difficult for him to find those friends! He calls them the “MIA or Missing in Action” buds, who often do not complete the game because their parents call them home or they must go take care of something else. After chatting with one another for a little while, the group decides to call it a day. What everyone does not realize is that a couple of kids are still hiding in a secret place within their beloved neighborhood. And yet everyone goes home that day full of contentment, as if they had just completed an amazing project. They are totally oblivious to the couple of their buddies left behind in some hiding hole.
That is the neighborhood where a young boy named Viet grew up. It is a place where everyone knows each other well and the kids play on the streets without a care in the world. Viet used to play soccer, badminton, volleyball, hopscotch, rope jumping, marbles, and other fun games with his neighborhood friends. They all go to Catholic Church and Buddhist Temple together without any concern or question. One of the common activities they enjoy doing together annually is going to Midnight Christmas Mass together and hanging out late afterward. Unlike Christmas in many Western countries, Christmas in Viet Nam is not a national holiday, and all children went to school the next day. In fact, students had to attend school all day the day before and the day of Christmas. The only holidays that students were excused from school were the couple of days for Lunar New Year. They also had to go to school six days a week and were allowed only Sunday off. Although Viet and his friends must work hard in school, they seem to enjoy the normal life of a kid.
What they do not know is that a horrible war is going on not too far from their seemingly safe neighborhood. That war has been raging for a couple of decades, but most children in Saigon City have not been told much about it. Among the thousands of lives that have been lost, many of them are children. Hundreds of children have been recruited to fight for the northern Communists, while many have been displaced or lost their families and homes.
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