Written on my original blog entry on Wednesday, 25 November 2009
One early Sunday morning, my dad and I were preparing a family breakfast. It consisted of lightly toasted Vietnamese baguette loaves and eggs sunny-side up with soy sauce = typical franco-vietnamese fare. I remember my friend Alice and I supped on many runny eggs while studying abroad in France and how it seemed to upset the stomachs of every student except mine. Thank goodness for my superior gastronomical genetics.
My dad seemed abnormally pensive this morning, inspecting his ‘banh mi’ (Vietnamese baguette) many times over before deeming it worthy for consumption. I had never seen him perform such a ritual before. When I asked him about it, he regaled me with another childhood tale…
Wartime and rationing were stale flavors by 1978. It was like chewing gum that made your jaw ache, but you dare not spit in a riotous neighborhood beneath the heel of a flighty government. Maintaining appearances was vital for survival. This is why our family, on Saturday morning at 4 AM, would send someone to the bread line with a stamp card to collect the moldy, sub-standard government-issued bread. And as the youngest son, that someone was always, inevitably me.
The officers wouldn’t open the truck beds until 9 AM, nor would they spare a glance at anything but their cigarettes before that time. So why would I bother lining up at 4AM? Appearances. The further up front you were in line, the earlier you entered, the more desperate you seemed for government subsistence. This is how to get the world to turn a blind eye to you, to hide your wealth from the hounds.
I maintained this charade for several weeks before I noticed my next door neighbor struggling to find extra food. Our house was still relatively wealthy from the profits of supplying medication to an army that couldn’t import from elsewhere. We had to hide ourselves in every outward aspect, but indoors, we led a considerably comfortable lifestyle.
My neighbor’s son was about my age, with relatively the same height and build. You can see where this is going, but I want to make a point that I wasn’t preying on his desperation, because I was taking a pretty big risk in trusting him myself. We struck a deal: his son would take my place at 4AM to sunrise, when I would wake up and switch spots with him, allowing him to return to the line at a second location. This gave me more time to sleep, and afterward, I would hand him my bread as payment.
Two happy parties in desperate times. I hope you think more of your bread the next time you eat it.