(Originally “Mối Tình Màu Hoa Đào”)
A Story written by Trương Hữu Hiền
(English rendition by Minh Le)
Mayumi held her gaze on the airport runway, where a clear sky greeted the departing planes. The morning sun caused her eyes to squint as she looked upward. Throughout the early morning until now, she sat silently on the porch, driven by just one purpose: to count each flight and guess which plane carried her beloved, the man who had bid her farewell only hours ago, as recently as last night. The warmth of his entwined fingers lingered in her hair while her lips continued to bear the remnants of their passionate moments. This morning, Minh will be among the passengers embarking on a flight spanning over a thousand kilometers from Okinawa to Tokyo. Minh, the man who, throughout the last two years, has bestowed upon her unparalleled exhilaration, continued to melt her heart with his love! However, he is on the verge of departing from this location, ending over two years of intimate dating.
Mayumi’s heart turned cold at such thoughts. From afar, it appeared as if the sound of crashing waves could be heard. On the other side of the hill overlooking the sea, a few seagulls flapped their wings and flew away, gradually leaving only small gray streaks disappearing at the end of the horizon.
Minh came to her as a convergence of fate amidst the countless unexplained coincidences that unfold daily in this world. How could it be anything but fate for this man to suddenly appear out of nowhere in a place as far away as this Okinawa Island? A young man about the same age as Mayumi had just come from a country south of Japan that she had only heard of a few times, a place associated with constant war.
In Mayumi’s understanding, Vietnam is just a land of bombs and deaths through daily media reports. It was not until later, when she met Minh, that she learned more about his country. A majestic country that has an S-curved shape, with its back leaning against the mountains facing the Pacific Ocean.
Mayumi got a deeper understanding of the Vietnam nation’s plight as Minh provided her with a more comprehensive explanation of the term “boat people.” This term refers to Vietnamese refugees who fled their homeland on precarious wooden boats, risking their lives to escape the oppressive Vietnamese Communist regime that Minh perceives as dictatorial, totalitarian, and lacking in humanity.
Minh had shared with her his experience of being adrift at sea and encountering treacherous waves. The story took a turn when, amidst a furious ocean storm, a small refugee boat on the verge of sinking was miraculously rescued by a prominent American vessel. In the realm between life and death, a Supreme Being elected to grant Minh’s group the privilege of life. That Supreme Being also guided them to find respite in the serene coastal city of Motobu, where Minh had run into her by chance, the beginning of a love affair between two people with different languages and customs.
Minh’s journey was just one of the lucky boat people’s stories. There were also many unfortunate trips; boats departed but never reached the shore. Many people were buried at the bottom of the ocean. The story of a very young man about his journey to becoming one of the many “boat people” kept haunting her. Mayumi was now aware that her life in Okinawa was a haven of tranquility and harmony, unlike anywhere else on Earth. She recognized that in various parts of the world, people continue to endure persecution, stripped of their freedom and dignity by ruthless forces.
Mayumi remembered vividly a Monday morning more than two years ago. As the new week commenced, she adhered to her long-standing habit of arriving earlier than usual to reorganize her office. It served as means to dispel the fatigue from a two-day weekend spent solely on eating and sleeping. To her surprise, the office buzzed with a crowd of workers at this early hour. What’s even stranger is that four foreigners stood patiently awaiting the arrival of the bus that would transport them to the construction site.
The team leader Yuta quickly said that these Vietnamese people in the refugee camp were recruited for a new project, which needed more helpers. Seeing these figures huddled in the early morning cold, Mayumi rushed to the kitchen to make a pot of tea and offered it to these Vietnamese men. They shyly said “thank you” in an odd accent, “Arigato,” which sounded like birds singing.
These are some simple words they just learned to communicate when going out to work. When seated together, they conversed in hushed tones using their native language, which Mayumi assumed to be Vietnamese. Mayumi saw that their gestures had an air of shyness and timidity. A feeling of sympathy rose in her heart. Understanding their emotions, she empathized deeply, recognizing that there is no greater sorrow than being forcibly separated from one’s homeland. She yearned to convey her friendliness through words, yet found herself unable to remember the English language she had learned from high school. When it was time to go to work, Mayumi tagged along with these Vietnamese men to the parking lot. She hoped that through her eyes, they would understand the sympathy she wanted to express.
After the first week, the four Vietnamese men looked less timid. Noticing Mayumi’s amiable nature, they frequently initiated conversations and seized the opportunity to practice the Japanese sentences they had recently learned. They exhibited a remarkable ability to understand and absorb information swiftly, allowing them to express themselves clearly in common communication phrases within a few days. As she conversed with them from time to time, Mayumi found herself unable to suppress her laughter. It wasn’t because of their funny pronunciation; she also laughed when she understood the subtle jokes or the seemingly many “gallant” behaviors that she only saw in Western movies. They differed from the local young men she had known from her school or workplace.
In this group of four Vietnamese men, it seemed three were married, and the only one, named Minh, was single. Minh talked to her the most. Mayumi found it more joyful when she had them here with her, and work wasn’t as boring as before. Every morning she came a little early to have the opportunity to meet up with them.
One day as Mayumi was leaving, her boss approached her and asked for a favor. Because her house was quite close to the Motobu refugee camp, her boss requested that she pick these Vietnamese up in the morning and transport them back to the camp in the afternoon. Without hesitation, Mayumi readily agreed. So, from that day on, every morning, Mayumi, instead of turning right to her office, turned left and drove towards Toyohara village. As soon as she reached the intersection with traffic lights, she turned left again and climbed the deserted slope on both sides of the road covered with weeds; at the sight of the taxi station, look to the right and will see the entrance to a Japanese Red Cross refugee camp. After traversing this road for over two years, she had become familiar with it and could navigate it even with her eyes closed. Mayumi could also imagine the vast campus’s gentle slope up the hill. As soon as she entered the camp gate, she immediately saw the parking lot next to the fence and the cement steps leading up to a few rows of slightly old yellow apartment buildings. Inside the campground, she often saw a few people talking and laughing.
Mayumi vividly remembers the first day she came to pick up Minh’s group. The four men were so surprised to see her that morning. They greeted her cheerfully though all seemed a bit shy. Through conversations with Minh, she discovered that Vietnamese people held the perception that women were inherently considered the weaker gender by default in their culture. Thus, the sight of a lady driving a car all by herself, with a group of men in the back seats, presented a peculiar and unconventional scene. It took a while for them to get used to it, and the awkward atmosphere gradually lessened.
Every morning, oblivious to the unspoken protocol, the three married men encouraged Minh, the single gentleman, to sit in the front seat next to Mayumi. And one thing that surprised her very much was that Minh always prepared a cup of coffee for Mayumi to bring to the car. Mayumi felt bad and advised Minh not to go through such trouble any longer. He laughed and explained that doing so would make him feel more comfortable; it was just to show appreciation to the woman who chauffeured them every day. The behaviors of Minh and his three friends touched her greatly. Undeniably, she felt excited every morning meeting Minh and his friends. Something close and affectionate welled up in her heart. She missed them dearly during the weekends, without those conversations, and without Minh’s gaze. She remembered the way to Toyohara Hill and recalled how the bright morning sun shone beautifully on green grass and the branches of trees lining the road.
Mayumi was unaware of the exact moment when meetings between Minh and her evolved into emotional connections, surpassing the boundaries of mere acquaintance. After bringing the group back to camp, Minh invited Mayumi to dinner. He said he had just got paid and wanted to repay her kindness. After dinner, the two did not want to hurry back, so they stopped at a beachside cafe to sit and talk. Surrounded by the poetic sea and a sky adorned with romantic stars, accompanied by those warm words and affectionate gazes, Mayumi fell in love. The darkness concealed their kisses and fueled a passionate affair between them, despite the uncertainty of its destination. Mayumi wholeheartedly immersed herself in this love, surrendering to its enchantment.
They filled their time together with beautiful memories. The rendezvous during mornings and afternoons are easily etched into their memories, not to mention leisure strolls on the streets during weekends. In the evenings, they ventured to distant islands to witness the rhythmic waves and bask in the beauty of the starlit sky at night.
Mayumi remembers the details of those encounters as remembering every line on his angular face and deep talking eyes. So now, all her feelings are rushing back simultaneously to tease her fragile heart. She hates them as they hurt her, hates her weakness. However, in this solitary moment, Mayumi finds herself wrestling with the sorrow that lingers within her, contemplating how to cease the downward spiral of her soul.
She made frequent trips between home and the Toyohara camp for over two years. The task of counting the multitude of memories she had accumulated felt overwhelming. Mayumi particularly recalled some time at the end of the month when she accompanied Minh to Koza and Naha. Together, they purchased essential items to send back to his family in Vietnam. Observing him meticulously examining the shirts, pants, and stereo systems stirred deep emotions within her. His affection toward his family and the people left behind surprised her at first. Mayumi wondered, and then Minh explained that family love holds great significance in Vietnamese customs. The gifts sent back home are not only helping his loved ones through hardship but also making him feel like he is still close to them. The clothes, sewing needles and thread… as intermediaries between this side and the other side, touching them made him feel less homesick. When she went shopping with Minh, looking at his cheerful face, and then thinking about the meaning of each gift box sent to Vietnam, her heart was suddenly filled with joy.
The two cherry blossom seasons beside Minh were still her life’s two most beautiful springs. How could Mayumi ever forget the moments when Minh held her hand, strolling beneath the delicate white and pink blossoms of the festive season? In the sound of Sanshin instruments and folk dances, groups gather to sing under the shaded cherry trees. Like being in the middle of a fairyland, the scene makes her soul flutter with joy and happiness.
Despite this, Mayumi occasionally glimpsed a sense of incompleteness in his eyes every now and then. Minh told her that the Okinawa cherry blossom season was very close to Tet, the Lunar New Year in Vietnam, which coincides with some time in February of the solar calendar. Looking at the cherry blossom branches here reminded him of the plum blossoms during the Tet holiday in his hometown. When he was a child, Minh kept waiting for the New Year to come to receive lucky money in red envelopes and to eat all the homemade fruit candies to his heart’s content. All those cherished memories from childhood now feel remote, distant, and far away. When will he be able to reunite with his family?
Japanese people often see cherry blossom petals as a symbol of the impermanence of all things. They are there and then quickly disappear. The delicate flowers, freshly bloomed, suddenly cascade down under the rain or by only a passing breeze inadvertently.
Mayumi secretly thought that the love between Minh and her was just a tiny coincidence in the impermanence of heaven and Earth, suddenly coming and going; reminiscent of distant planes ascending into the sky, the sound faded, and only silence remained. The moments spent driving along the slopes of Toyohara Hill and the mornings filled with anticipation for the man smiling delivering a warm cup of coffee will become nothing more than nostalgic memories.
Sadness took over Mayumi! She wanted to sit alone here forever, patiently waiting for a flight, though she knew it was long gone. Unable to stop the tears, she let them roll down her cheeks. Mayumi whispered a part of her favorite music in Utsukushii Mukashi (美しい昔) – Beautiful Old Days, a song that Minh told her was adapted from an old Vietnamese song named Diem Xua. Utsukushii Mukashi – The beauty of the past.
Her love now resides only in the realm of the past.
Now at the ends of the earth, looking for love
invited by the rain, you disappear
day after day, the rain keeps falling
on the roof of the temple
even on the endless road
without waiting for the blue sky
flowers, withered one by one, fall on the road
The writer fabricated half the details in the recently recounted love story between a young Vietnamese refugee and a Japanese girl. However, fiction often draws inspiration from true stories. The male character in “Cherry Blossom Love” was a close friend who once shared a room in a refugee camp with the writer. The ending of the above short tale was intentionally left out to dramatize the love story and to bring curiosity to the reader. The truth is, this friend was reunited with his lover, a woman with cherry blossom-colored eyes shortly after. They have a handsome son and a lovely daughter together.
A love story with such a happy ending!