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Manoa 14.1 (2002) 1-13

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Andrew Lam

Mister Cao's oolong tea from Guangdong was wasted that woeful Thanksgiving morning; special tea though it was, it was sipped wearily. As usual, we sat at our corner table at the Golden Phoenix, Mister Cao's restaurant, chatting quietly, when Mister Huy ran in as if chased by a ghost. "Undone, absolutely undone!" he yelled, waving the San Jose Mercury News expressively above his bald head. "Mister Bac has committed self-immolation."

"Self-immolation?" I mumbled, and the words vibrated in my throat and swirled between my ears, reigniting that terrifying flame of long ago. The flame blossomed quickly, a flower on fire, a restless, transparent bird of paradise in whose pistil a Buddhist monk sat serenely. "Self-immolation!" I repeated. The meaning sank in finally, the flame soared and wavered, and the monk fell backward. His charred body went into a spasm or two and then was perfectly still. "Oh God!" I said. "No!"

Mister Cao in the meanwhile had stood up and snatched the newspaper from Mister Huy's hand as if the two of them were engaged in some desultory septuagenarian game of relay. "Are you joking?!" he yelled. Heads turned. His three waiters in their red jackets and black bow ties paused in their tracks, their trays balancing precariously on industrious fingers. The restaurant, too, fell into a hushed murmur, all eyes trained on us. "How can this be?" he asked. "I just had lunch with him here last Monday!"

Mister Huy shook his head and sighed. "Read, read," he said. He was almost out of breath; tiny beads of perspiration glistened on his age-spotted forehead. "Mister Bac went all the way to Washington,D.C., to do it."

What immediately struck me were not the words themselves but the two photographs that accompanied the article. The larger was a blurry image of a figure on fire, a human torch swirling in a fiery circle on a landing of the Capitol building, his face lifted skyward, arms raised above his head as if waiting for a benediction from the heavens. The smaller was the photo of Nguyen Hoai Bac's driver's license, the image I readily recognized: Old Silver Eagle, publisher of theViet Nam Forever, smiling with mischievous eyes at the camera. As I studied the two disparate photos—life versus death—I heard Mister Cao say rather impatiently, "Out loud, Thang, read it out loud! Please, you're the professor." [End Page 1]

Thus, on that decrepit morning, with the oolong's bittersweet aftertaste on my palate and a crowd gathering around me, I heard myself recite in English what turned out to be my oldest and dearest friend's obituary.

Late Wednesday afternoon a man doused himself in gasoline, marched up the steps of the Capitol building and, upon reaching the first landing, lit a match. John Lerner, a tourist from North Dakota, managed to capture a photo (see far right) of the self-immolator, who was later identified by the police as Bac Hoai Nguyen, 65, a Vietnamese American and an editor and publisher of a Vietnamese-language magazine in San Jose, California.
According to his youngest daughter, Theresa Nguyen, 21, a senior at Georgetown University, Mister Nguyen did not give any indication as to what he was about to do. "He said he came to visit me since I couldn't go home for Thanksgiving," she reported through tears. "Then this morning he borrowed my Georgetown U sweatshirt and my car keys. He said he wanted to go for a walk around the monuments, but he never came home."

The article went on to say that Mister Bac had left a suicide note, which the paper translated and printed as a sidebar. So at the urging of my friends, I skipped the rest of the reporting and read our friend's last words and testimony:

Letter to the people of the free world,
Communism has ruined my country. My homeland is in shambles. I am tormented by thoughts of my people living in despair under the cruel communist regime...


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