There was a farewell party the last night I spent in Nat To village. As the night drew on, guests and hosts alike consumed more and more alcohol. After they finished all rice wine, they switched to cassava rice (ruou can), jar after jar. The men became a bit too pushy and touchy. When they started playing loud music, popped open a new jar, cheered as if they were in a football match and swang with the music, I decided that I had had enough of it, and ran off with the girls.
I spent that night on the bed of my most favourite girl in the group. She is 12, skinny, long hair, probably is more fluent in Vietnamese than all other adolescents I worked with, and definitely a kind, considerate and very thoughtful girl. She actually seems much more mature than her age. Throughout the night, she had silently hid her tears and occasionally held on to my neck as though she didn’t want to let go of me.
As I couldn’t sleep, my mind wandered to a thought of bringing my books to these children. I could easily visualize how these young adolescents who lack exposure to the outside world yet very curious and eager for new things, would enjoy reading and expanding their minds thanks to my books. But as soon as the thought stirred up, I hesitated. Books are the last thing I want to give away. I donate money and clothing from times to times, but when it comes to books, they are just such a big part of who I am and how my past was constructed that I shuddered at the thought of giving them away.
The next morning, I asked the girl if she thought her friends like reading, and whether they had time for that kind of activity. Kids are busy with all kinds of family duties and domestic work there. They have school for 6 days, everyday from 7am to 5pm, and they take care of younger siblings or nieces/nephews, animals, cooking and cleaning for the girls and catching fish and finding bamboo for the boys. I could tell that her eyes lit up at the thought of having some books to read at home. They have a small “library” at school, which is open during lunch break for a few days a week when the “librarian” feels like doing her job, otherwise it is locked up, and there are only a few books and old newspapers anyway. No one has newspapers at home, TV is rare. They don’t even have wired electricity yet. Most use small hydroelectric generators placed in a small stream, so the power is usually not high enough for operating a TV in the evening, when lighting a bulb is much more of a priority.
She said “yes” to my question. Then I asked her if I sent some books, would she be able to take care of them, lend out to other kids, and manage the whole thing. She said yes. I asked if her parents would mind if too many children come to their house and stay there all day long. I started thinking parents and teachers might complain that their children spend too much time reading and neglect other duties. The authorities might even involve, who are you and why are you giving these children the books, what type of books are there, blah blah blah. I was anxious that my colleagues would think I set out a bad example if I give such a special treatment to one village and not the other, which might create jealousy. They might be upset because I acted too good, which makes them not so good in the eyes of the villagers. I was worried about many things.
But she was too excited for me to disappoint her, once I had brought the possibility up. So I told her when I got home I would send her some books, and though they are for everyone, she will be responsible for maintaining them. I knew that moment she was happy, and other kids who heard the news were happy too.
However, when it was time to pack up the books, I almost regretted my decision. These are the books I bought with money I saved up little by little, and have cherished them for over the last 10 years. They are the witness of my growing up, I spent time reading them, thinking about them, and in turn was shaped by them. I put one book in and the other book out. It was like giving away my childhood and my teenager years. I still remember which books were bought on what occasions, where I bought them, or who gave them to me. I flipped through the pages, seeing humidity and dust leaving a faint press on the pages, and recalled how white and fresh they were when I first got them. Each book has a memory behind it. It wasn’t just about buying a stack of paper, it was a meeting between us, me and my book, or a conversation. I am just a citizen in their world.
Then I thought of the children, of how much potential they have yet how little opportunities are given to them. Perhaps the books will stir something in their minds, like they did in mine. Perhaps they will be aware of the world outside their village, extend the boundaries of what they can dream, and grow more confident in what they are capable of. The books, left on my bookshelves, are a part of me, but going to them, they can be a part of many more childhood and teenage years. They have served me, it’s time for them to go out and serve other young souls and minds.
Finally, I worked up the courage to close a luggage full of books, my most beloved friends and teachers. On my way to the bus terminal where I sent the luggage, I felt the weight on the motorbike, but also the hollowness in my heart. It was like giving away my very blood, and a lot of blood. No matter how much I kept consoling myself that these books are just paper in my home, because I am not very likely to read them again, but in the village they will once again be alive and have the power to open up imagination, which maybe they much prefer than getting old and dusted on my shelf, I still felt cracked. It was like saying goodbye to, not a friend, but myself.
“I am giving what I love to those people I love”. The thought came to my mind. Emptiness swallowed me as the luggage disappear underneath the bus. A raindrop kissed on my lip. I drove home alone, hoping that the books will be to the children what they have been to me.