17 March 2008

Courting Phuong Lan

In 1946, my grandmother began working for Central Annam's Commissary Office. She was an officer of the Bureau des Finances in Hue. From 1947, a young Civil Services contractor named Yves Candeau arrived in Hue. He worked upstairs, in her building, at the Dommages de Guerre (War damage benefit).

My grandmother's team leader and colleagues were soon regularly teasing her about Yves' unsolicited visits. Though he could have easily dispatched his secretary downstairs to check on the progress of mandates, he did not miss a single opportunity to come down himself. Skinny, pale, which huge spectacles, his visits wouldn't go unnoticed by my grandmother’s workmates.

- “Big Sister, Big Sister,“ they would say, “here comes Lunettes!”

Lunettes. That was my grandfather’s nickname, due to his thick, black frames. And so it would go. “Ms Phuong Lan, I have come to enquire about mandate so and so...” he would begin politely.

Visibly embarrassed and outraged by his frequent visits, she would curtly reply that when mandate-so-and-so was complete she would be sure to advise his secretary. His visits infuriated her in so far as she saw them as intrusive. She was also wary of the general amusement that his presence created in her work area. After all, she was a respectable young woman!

But I must pause and explain this social prudishness for it is very much what it was. Closely watched by her father, and conscious of local customs, my grandmother knew never to invite male attention. The fact that Yves was French did nothing to help the situation, as we shall see later.

She recalls a day when she and her father were walking in town. She had noticed a young man, unfamiliar, yet courteous, who had smiled at her to say hello in a most respectful fashion. “Hello, Big Sister”, he had said. Without thinking, she had smiled back and said hello. Her father seemed to pay no attention to this casual flirting and they continued walking until finally they reached the family home. No sooner had they entered the house that the Mandarin administered a majestic slap on his daughter’s cheek. Then with a dignified voice, and not without emphasis, he said,

“Never, never again will you address young men in this manner.”

For this was how Vietnamese women, at least in her time, were expected to behave. Even travelling alone from town to town was frowned upon. Moral expectations were that if my grandmother wanted to travel from Hue to Hanoi, she would have to be accompanied by a cousin or an aunt. Courting was unheard of. Or at least, courting only existed in clandestine ways...

Even to attend a movie at the cinema, my grandmother would always by accompanied by a group of school friends. All of these were female of course. But during these outings, it was not unusual to spy a group of young boys following a group of girls relatively closely even though the two groups were not officially together. Sometimes the boys would converse with each other, while making flirtatious allusions to the girls with the sole intention of attracting their attention. All indirect means were employed. Direct attention was socially improper and only subtle references could pass as innocent.

One night, after the movies, my grandmother told me that the group of boys who had been following them to the cinema were waiting with affected nonchalance outside the exit. All her friends, including herself, were still in abundant tears following the sentimental, “La Dame Aux Camelias.” Upon seeing them in tears, one of the young men turned to his friends to say, “Tomorrow, there will be a flood in Hue!” This was subtle enough, but the courting message was clear: the boys had noticed them. Clear enough for my grandmother to remember this charming statement right to this day.

But where was I? Yes, and so the Mandarin watched closely over his daughter’s honour as it safeguarded his family’s honour. Before she met Yves, Phuong Lan had never had a boyfriend, nor had she ever been with a man. These things were not allowed. Not only that, but I think that her fury following that rare, painful slap on her cheek increased my grandmother’s resolve to avoid Yves. I also think that perhaps the rancour that she felt at having to carry the burden of her family’s honour on her shoulders and the reminder of her angry father fuelled her determination in avoiding further shame. And so Yves would have to face not only the barriers resulting from cultural differences, the impasse caused by prejudices and the unflinching Mandarin, but also Phuong Lan’s fierce ardour in avoiding her father’s displeasure.

On numerous occasions, Yves asked for her company and she refused. For example, he would offer to have lunch with her. Or perhaps, since it was raining heavily outside, would she be interested in a lift home, as his car was conveniently parked outside. At all times, she flatly refused, reminding him that her father would probably die of shame if she accepted. After so many rejections, any young man would take flight or try a more responsive target. But not Yves. I would like to interject here, on his behalf and explain that it was my grandfather who recommended that I read James Michener’s Hawaii. The melting pot of cultures that struggle to find understanding in this most wonderful novel would have hit a chord in his soul because he had definitely been there. I think even before reading Hawaii, my grandfather had a profound respect for the Vietnamese culture. If he persisted in his attention towards my grandmother it was not out of spite for her father. He was in love after all. Who can explain those things? I will not try. And so Yves continued to make regular visits to her office. The situation was becoming intolerable and Phuong Lan was far from amused. She was soon fuming.

But one day, having fumbled his way through some persuasive argument, Yves managed to begin walking a reluctant Phuong Lan to her home. On this day, she had recently purchased a ginger plant, quite a cumbersome buy, which she intended to carry with her home. Yves was walking by her side, determined as we know to become better acquainted with this headstrong, upright woman. On her part, Phuong Lan had had quite enough of this absurd young man. She had no intention of letting him accompany her the whole way. But what to do?

It was then that she had an ingenious idea. Her cold demeanour not having had much success in discouraging his advances, she figured that she had to embarrass him to such a point that he would never show his face again. Her idea, she hoped, would help highlight how ridiculous his one-sided courting had become and help him see what a fool he was making of himself in public while she behaved most respectably. And so, she took one smug glance at the Frenchman and with a half-mocking, half-unnerved tone, she shoved the enormous ginger plant in his hands and snapped:

- “You want to walk with me? Fine!!! Carry this.”

There! She had done it. Brazen, she was. At this she suppressed a vicious chuckle waiting for his refusal. She really didn’t care about the damn ginger. Let him drop it and give up the chase. She fully expected him to take one look at the odious plant, feel trapped by the unexpected chore, blush violently and remain on the spot while she sauntered home.

But hang on, we are talking about a Frenchman in love. Aren’t we? And this was no regular Frenchman, it was my grandfather. So what happened next was no surprise to me. After recovering from the shock, Yves lifted the giant ginger plant comfortably in his arm and proceeded to continue along the way, close on Phuong Lan’s heels, for all to see. And walk together, they did.

Thinking back about the huge discomfort she felt then, my grandmother said “I did not know where to put myself!!! This was not funny at all.” He had taken on her challenge.

I am thinking about that moment and how she was feeling. Even while Yves must have appeared endearingly funny with the ginger plant, it would seem like defeat to laugh now. Besides, it was better to remain just a little angry only to protect one’s pride. Still, she had to admit that Yves no longer appeared foolish. In wanting to embarrass him, she had embarrassed herself.

My grandmother may have felt a little sheepish at her outburst and definitely uncomfortable that her order had been so reverently executed by the young Frenchman. Whether she liked it or not, he had succeeded in ingratiating himself to her. This incident opened the door for their courtship.

When I say courtship, this is far removed from what we expect today. The couple’s encounters were very formalised and at this stage there was no talk of romantic feelings or physical contact between them. To aid in the development of this union, which as I have explained would have never been able to blossom unofficially, Yves soon sought the help of his boss to claim my grandmother’s hand in marriage. His name was Mr Royannez and by some chanceful twist, he happened to be one of the Mandarin’s trusted acquaintances...

An arrangement was soon organised whereby Mr Royannez would avoid a likely clash between Tien-Thuoc and the young French suitor. It was decided that he would himself visit my grandmother’s family to vouch for Yves and ask for Phuong Lan’s hand in marriage.

The fateful day arrived and Phuong Lan remembers that her father received a call from Mr Royannez outlining his intentions and announcing his own upcoming visit.
My grandmother recalls that when the chauffeur arrived outside and the visitor was announced, the Mandarin would not budge to greet him. Twice he was reminded of Mr Royannez’s arrival but he persisted in ignoring the visitor.

I wonder what Yves’ boss would have thought at the time while he remained outside, in utter discomfort, waiting to be ushered in. Did he feel like a complete fool knowing full well the reason why he was being ceremoniously ignored? Did he think for a moment that there was no hope? Would he have given up if the Mandarin had continued to ignore him further? Would I have been born? In fact, for about an hour, the Mandarin continued to ignore the visitor downstairs. And still, Mr Royannez did not leave. He was, I suppose, sympathetic to Yves’ romantic plight and perhaps animated by this romantic cliche that love conquers all.

And what was the Mandarin thinking? It is possible that my great grandfather had no intention of letting him in, let alone of discussing his daughter’s future with him. But I don’t think it was the reason for his stoic refusal to respond to the visitor. My personal belief is that on this day, he knew that his only daughter had chosen a suitor and that her happiness rested in his decision. With her happiness in mind, he knew that whatever happened and regardless of his social convictions, he had not the strength, nor the courage to deny her. Had he already made a firm negative decision it would have been simple for him to go immediately downstairs and let Mr Royannez know. But because he knew what his decision would be, and because it cost him dearly, he tried as much as possible to delay the encounter.

This delay then, was a form of grief, of letting go, of coming to terms with things that would be and what he was about to do. Perhaps also, it was a way of testing Mr Royannez, to gauge his determination and by proxy, to confirm Yves’ serious intent.

After an hour, when the Mandarin had ascertained that this situation was real and Mr Royannez was not leaving, he had no other recourse but to surrender. Also, at this moment, his second wife, a good woman, finally spoke to him with reproach. As she had been following these developments with a degree of anxiety, Phuong Lan remembers her step mother’s firm words to Tien-Thuoc:

- “Look! He has come to ask your daughter’s hand in marriage. He has now been waiting far too long. At least you could pay him the courtesy of showing him in!“

And so, the Mandarin who may have already admitted defeat but was too proud to reveal this, welcomed his wife’s admonition with relief and obeyed it.

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