And get through life giggling
By Lindsay Sterling
When you get Vietnamese spring roll lessons from Suu Le Martin, you learn they’re basically ground pork, really thin rice noodles, carrot, salt, sugar, pepper, onion, and egg, wrapped up in special paper and deep fried. But by the time you’re chomping into the crispy, hot, handheld treat, you understand she also did something else: she took sheer human love, wrapped it in courage and glued it all together with a scramble of prayers.
In 1966 Suu Le was a 16-year-old bar waitress in Saigon. She was beautiful, the perfection of her skin belying the brutality of her young life and the war around her. When she was ten, her parents beat her because the earnings from her night job in the rice field were too paltry. She earned 50 cents per month. Then her teacher at school beat her for not finishing her homework. Her family of eight lived in a one-room house with no kitchen, so she and her sister covered the floor in papers and cooked there. They made duck soup, fried rice, spring rolls and wontons crouched in the position of toddlers. They didn’t have a sink so they used bowls of water. Suu quit school to get a second job. Once when the bombs and bullets got so bad, she was running in the chaos, and her mother yanked her by her waist-long black hair into a nearby church. The family hid there for three weeks. For light, they had a single candle. For food, they had one hard, hard baguette to share. There was no water, so from time to time, Suu ran for it carrying the long shoulder stick and two buckets hanging from strings. When her father died of cancer when she was 14, she prayed, “My mom, six girls and a boy, how we gonna survive?”
One of her customers at the restaurant was in the United States Air Force. He was really handsome. His order, “Coca Cola, please,” took her by surprise. The other guys ordered the hard stuff or French beer. For a while the two flirted wordlessly. She spoke no English, and he, no Vietnamese. Then one day, “He bought me a Tree Musky.” That’s a Three Musketeers. “I eat that candy and boy I love the guy.” She giggles and laughs. It was a schoolgirl crush, without the school. She was 16. He was 22. When he didn’t come back, her friends cajoled her: American G.I.? That’s bullshit, forget about him!
She must have waved in their faces, three months later, the letter that came. It was from HIM! With a neighbor’s help, she read it and wrote back. They wrote for three years. He sent $60 a month for her to take English lessons. She got them, and a high school diploma. After his tours in San Francisco, Japan and Guam, Andrew interrupted the war for a moment when he knocked on the door of the one-room house in Saigon and entered it with a with a diamond ring. Would she pack her bags and come with him to America? She was terrified. He was terrified. They went to the embassy. “I pray,” she recalls, “Help me go to another world. Help me change my life. I pray me and my husband be together forever. I pray to Buddha, Elephant, Jesus. I pray to everybody then maybe one will hear.” Suu and Andrew are still married, and live among us. She sponsored the rest of her family to live here. She has worked cleaning Navy destroyers at Bath Iron Works for 29 years. When teaching spring roll lessons today, she and her sister use the countertop, but, a relative whispers, when they’re really cooking they use the floor.