Excerpt from Don’t Just Sit There, Do Something! Grief’s Wake Up Call. Conversations with Gabriel Constans.
As a child she knew only war. She was threatened with execution and raped by the Viet Cong; imprisoned and tortured by the South Vietnamese; starved near death; forced into the black market to survive; and lived with the grief of losing brothers, father, cousins, neighbors, friends and relatives to the violence that ripped her country apart for decades.
Le Ly was the first voice in the West to speak about Vietnam from the eyes of the Vietnamese. Her book, When Heaven and Earth Changed Places gave the people of Vietnam a human face. The adapted movie by Oliver Stone increased awareness of what the war had done to individuals and families in Vietnam and was the beginning of an outpouring of humanitarian work for reconciliation and rebuilding between the two countries.
In 1989 Le Ly began The East Meets West Foundation which started programs for displaced children; primary health care for over 150,000 patients; Mother’s Love Clinic, with over 1,000 babies delivered; construction of eight schools in remote districts; built over thirty-eight homes and income-generating projects for families; thirty renovated or new built wells; scholarships for educating children and orphans and; a loan program that’s provided for over one hundred and eighty five needy families.
LE LY: The East West Foundation started in 1987, with one hundred dollars, after I saw the poor people in Vietnam. I could not turn my back and walk away from what I saw. If I did not see it at all it would be different, but after you have been there you see and you feel touched. You can’t lie to yourself and say, “I am not going to do anything.” “Doing something” is not just talking but rolling up your sleeves and working.
When I came back from Vietnam in 1986 I lost my sense of having everything. I just had it with the living style. I owned a restaurant, I had a couple of houses rented out, three children . . . but I got really burned out, so I started to let go. I sold the restaurant and houses and moved into a small home.
I’m not working for anyone, just doing the thing I really wanted to do, to write and tell the story. While I’m doing that everything is coming back to me. The more I’m writing the story the more I’m saying to myself, “How could I not help? I was there, I was one of them!” I am lucky enough to get out and then I went back and they are still there, with things worse then it had been. That is when I really committed myself to do what I can. At that time I didn’t know if the book was going to work but if it did well I committed to myself to have all that money go back to where it is coming from. Without the war in Vietnam, without my life crises, I can’t tell the story, right?
So I make that my commitment and I not only sell the house and sell the restaurant and put the time into working on the book, but I work seven days a week and twenty-four hours on the foundation, then eventually my income from my bank to the foundation account so it can do its work. I know who I am. I know what I stand for and I know the principle of what I’m doing.
I recently returned to Vietnam and stayed for almost four months. I saw all the old villages that were leveled by Americans, including my own. I saw the foundation of the house, temple and my school and around it the bamboo and banana trees. The foundation is what they lost. The tree is still growing. The bamboo and the banana tree has sprouted again. The soul of the ancestors is all that remains of foundation and the bomb crater next to the graveyard. I walked through that ghost town with my cousin and he pointed out to me, “Do you remember? Remember who lived here? Remember Uncle so and so lived there? Remember Auntie’s house? Remember the big tree here we use to play on?” You know I’m looking around I feel ghosts. I feel chill in my bones. I’ve been back to Vietnam thirty-six times but never saw these places until then.
I dealt with the refugees from those villages. I helped them with what I can, but after a time I said, “Leave it there.” I went back and saw that they are refugees because they moved lower land people to higher desert land. This land happened to be in my village. They can’t grow anything there. It is sand beach. They cannot survive there. The last thirty years they cannot call it home. They can’t move back because there is land mines and even if there weren’t they having nothing to build with. They fought so hard against the French to save the house, the temple and the ancestor worship places.
That is when I feel my pain. For many years I feel the pain. When I wrote the book I feel the pain of what the war had done to these people. When I work with them and help them, I feel the pain of the poor, the needy, the suffering they have gone through. Now it is a different pain, a different loss. We have fire here in U.S. every now and then. People describe their pain, people feel their losses, and people act or describe the hurt. Vietnamese lost not only one or two houses to fire, we lost the whole village! The places we lived for thousands of years!
Heaven and Earth was the first voice that ever came from the Vietnamese side. Americans wrote about what they did, felt or believed in, but not about Vietnamese. I wanted to describe from Vietnamese experience, how we get from here to there – to be prostitute, refugee, Viet Cong or whatever. I was a young kid, what did I know. So that is the book as a first voice, then the movie and then it was a big impact. It did not do as well as we hoped it would, probably because it was about Vietnam, was from the “other side” and a woman’s story.
I keep going with much help. I’m never alone. I cannot live without spirits. That means knowing that whatever I do, whatever breath I take, whatever words I say . . . they know about it. The spirits have no boundaries. They are like wind. I communicate with my ancestors very clearly. It’s as real as when I talk to you. I have no problem with that. Wherever I live, or work I have to have them with me. Whether you believe it or not is up to you.
They do not control things. I cannot ask you to protect me if I walk out the door and I know somebody is going to kill me. I can’t ask you to protect me because you don’t have any army with you, you don’t have any power. But if I make a call to police they can help me. It is the same with the spirits. I cannot ask my brother or my father to help me when they are just like us, but I can ask my great, great ancestor who was a king, who was an emperor, to protect me. There are good and evil just like there is here, so it depends on how good I do on this plane. If I do all the good work, the high scale side will protect me. You can call it angels or whatever. My thought has to be clear. It has to be peaceful and it has to be clean for them to guide me.
Everybody has choices. The choice they make will help with their energy if they make the right choice. Right now I’m writing about the villages that I visit and all the ghost stories I have been told by the people I’ve been talking to. I feel moved. I feel hurt. I feel pain. At the same time, I feel good because I speak for them. I speak for those who are voiceless. That is helping me and that is when I knew that they are with me. I have to “keep the channel open” and that is what it’s all about, to really keep the flow going through. If I was a hateful person with much anger and condemned the whole world, there also is an entity like that. There are two forces, Yin and Yang. If you have negative flow you have negative flow. It’s like the banking system. If you have positive flow, everything goes smoothly.
People with black, yellow, red, brown, or white skin all have our ancestors. Our ancestors come in all forms. You can call it God, you can call it angel, you can call it whatever. They are there. But we have to take a look at our life here to understand there.
In his death my father taught me how to live. He knew that if he kept living it would draw me back to the village. And with the note they found in his hand we discovered he was going to be killed anyway. One way or another he would die. But the question was where . . . how long? He died so I could be free and wouldn’t go back to the village, so I could go on with my life. But if I am not intuitive enough I may not find the way on the path he provided. I have to walk it carefully.
Every one of us makes that choice. It depends on what we make out of it. Living with the ancestors I have no problems. Living with the real world I have the problems. I know the rules. I know what law I need to obey, spiritual law. That is all I need to know. From Uncle Sam to Uncle Ho, there are many obligations. It is hard. But nothing is impossible.
Many people write about their life, their hatred and their anger. All that does is make some people feel like them so they can put on the uniform, the gun and fight. They start it all over again. That is what I would call negative energy. Every time you think of doing something, energy goes out like a chain link fence, it hooks together. That energy multiplies, bigger and bigger. The other world also has a negative energy that hooks into your negative energy and makes a person down here do things which are harmful. It’s like when you turn on a radio in your house or car and you are looking for these waves. When you tap in with that station they have their own frequency. That is what comes to you the listener, whatever you choose. I would rather tune in to the positive. I like the light that is in me and that energy out there is the same light.