As some of you might know, I’ve been doing a play called Year of the Rabbit at Ensemble Studio Theatre LA for the past couple months. The experience has been more rewarding professionally and personally than I could’ve possibly imagined. After I share the following story, you’ll probably agree that no one could have imagined it.
One Saturday last month, a man approached me after a performance with kind words to say about the show. His name was Rob, and he said the play made him recall his time in Vietnam in the army during the war.
“Oh, my grandfather worked with the army as a translator,” I said.
“What was his name?” Rob asked.
I told him. His eyes went wide. “No. You…you’re joking. You’re his granddaughter?”
My breath caught and I started shaking. “What are you saying?”
“I knew your grandfather.”
I repeated my ong ngoai‘s name a couple times to make sure Rob heard me correctly, and that we were talking about the same man. Rob said he had worked with him from 1968 to ’69. They’d started a school together to teach English. Rob shared stories with specific details about my grandfather and called him “an honorable man.”
I was openly crying at this point, but still found the situation almost impossible to believe. Ong Ngoai passed away fifteen years ago so it wasn’t as if I could ask him. Then Rob said he would return with photos.
I called my mother when I got home that night even though it was near 1 a.m. her time. She was amazed but said she’d wait for photographic evidence because she didn’t want to be disappointed.
Two weeks later, Rob, who lives on the East Coast and was only visiting L.A., came back to the theater. As he approached, I braced myself for the possibility that he’d show me photos of a stranger, that somehow this was all a case of mistaken identity.
But he proceeded to share images of my handsome ong ngoai, which Rob had taken 43 years ago with his Nikon. Not only had I never seen my grandfather that young, I don’t have any pre-1975 photos of him at all. My family had to leave almost everything behind when we left Vietnam. Rob had ordered a set of 5×7 prints and one 8×10 for us. Again, my tear ducts unleashed.
Rob said, “There’s more.”
“How can there be more? This is already too much.”
He handed me a bag with a carefully wrapped present inside. I untied the ribbon slowly, trying to breathe. Inside was a small statue of a goddess, looking almost as good as new.
“Your grandfather gave that to me when I left Vietnam. He picked it out himself. I think you and your family should have it now.”
“I…but…can’t…he gave it to you so it belongs to you,” I managed to say.
“No, I think he’d want you to have it.”
I don’t have words to describe how I felt in that moment. Even when my mind had reassembled itself after being completely blown, I didn’t know how to thank Rob properly. He said our encounter provided him with closure since he’d long wondered what had happened to my grandfather.
I went home and emailed the photos to my mother. She declared herself in a state of disbelief. How to make sense of the fact that never-before-seen pictures of her father were delivered by a stranger?
And then she saw the image of the statue. She sent me back a photo of a similar statue she’s had in her house for fifteen years. She had brought it home from my grandfather’s place when he died, but didn’t know how old it was or where it came from. My sister took to Google and discovered the two are apparently companion pieces. We assume Ong Ngoai had bought the pair around the same time, and now they can be reunited.
I’m not sure I’ve fully processed all this yet. So many things had to fall into place before Rob and I could cross paths that September evening. A gift went from my grandfather’s hands to Rob’s, from Vietnam to America, then traveled from the East Coast to the West to make its way back to my family more than forty years later. What are the chances of that? What were the odds of a girl from Saigon ending up in a play in Los Angeles that led to her meeting a friend of her grandfather’s from back home and so long ago?
One of the themes in Year of the Rabbit is how people are connected to each other through time and space, but they often don’t recognize those connections. Characters have seemingly random encounters with each other, not knowing the other person is not really a stranger but someone who could have a profound effect on their lives. (Did I mention I play a character who coincidentally—or maybe not—has my grandmother’s name?)
Rob said he almost didn’t say anything to me that first night; I was chatting with friends who had come see the show. We could’ve been like some of the people in the play, but luckily this isn’t a case of life imitating art.
It’s a story of life being more spectacular than fiction.
Me and Rob
Ong Ngoai, photo by Rob circa 1969