by Dinh Quang Tinh
|Illustration by Do Dung
The story that I am going to tell you is completely true.
Our Dinh lineage in the village of Dong An was established under the reign of King Due Tong, the ninth ruler of the Tran Dynasty (1225-1400). The sovereign dispatched a minor official named Trinh Cuong to this region to set up four hamlets: Lieu Tay, Lieu Thuong, Lieu Ha and Lieu Dong. Then in his turn, this official entrusted his four sons with new clans to manage those lands: Trinh, Nguyen, Hoang and Cao. One of them, Hoang Cong Man, was appointed chief of Lieu Ha, which is now the village of Dong An.
Under the reign of King Minh Mang, the second ruler of the Nguyen Dynasty (1802-1945), land reclamation was strongly pushed ahead. The sovereign ordered these local authorities to mobilise people to set up more hamlets by broadening their lands further into the open sea both in the north and south of the country. The residents of these new places were exempted from paying taxes so that they might settle down there more comfortably and establish permanent businesses. Towards that aim, the primitive ancestor of the Dinh clan, Dinh Phuc Thanh, left his birthplace in Dong Nhue District, Thai Binh Province, for Lieu Ha to start a new career. He brought with him his wife Hoang Thi Hue and their two sons. As relative latecomers in comparison with the existing landlords Trinh, Nguyen, Hoang, Cao and Pham, the Dinh stock suffered a great disadvantage: land eligible for their reclamation was still submerged under brackish water full of wild grasses. So their living conditions were extremely arduous. In addition to digging canals for irrigation and refreshing the salt-water, the men of the Dinh clan had to fish offshore while their wives were compelled to do menial jobs just to eke out a meager existence. In fact, they were extremely poor. In those days, it was quite common for a father to share a loin-cloth with his son. As for the little kids of the Dinh community, their nappies were bound so tight that their penises turned curved, not straight as usual. As a result, year after year and generation after generation, that deformation became an inherited characteristic that the Dinh lineage continues to inherit at present. Luckily for the family, after a few generations in dire poverty, their living conditions remarkably improved. Consequently, the schooling of their children progressed beyond the expectation of the other clans in the area. Gradually, their relatives made up over half of the population of Dong An Village.
The Ba Vanh River, as it is commonly called, even though its real name is the Truoc, originates in the Cat region. It flows across Lieu Ha, then meanders around the areas of Lieu Thuong, Van Phu, Thuy Nhai, Hac Chau, Ngoc Cuc and Tra Lu before merging with the Ninh Co River, where you can still see traces of the Phan Ba Vanh rebels' 1827 retreat to Tra Lu to wait for reinforcements. Nowadays, the Ba Vanh River makes our riverside inhabitants prosperous and gives them a harmonious life. In the evening, before returning home from the fields, farmers traditionally bathed there. When they first settled in the area, they were so poor that men had only one set of clothing besides their everyday loin-cloths. That was a common feature of the menfolk of Lieu Ha. Even in my childhood, strong-built naked farmers, trousers on shoulders and hands over their things, shamelessly went to the river to have a bath. Not until the agrarian reform was that eccentric habit finally eliminated.
Although they all knew that agriculture ranked first, the people of Dinh ancestry also paid a lot of attention to schooling.
Between our forefather Dinh Phuc Thanh, who established his own business at Lieu Ha, and my own father, there were nine generations. My parents have three sons and one daughter. I am the second boy in the family. Before the horrible famine in the Year of the Cock took place, my grandfather was sued for an alleged homicide, but due to lack of proof he successfully pleaded not guilty. Nevertheless, his family went bankrupt owing to the drawn-out legal process. Instead of giving me and my eldest brother interesting names as people usually did, my father named us after the two chiefs of the district and sub-district of Xuan Truong as revenge. In the wake of the August revolution, these two feudal officials were arrested. Sadly for us, he forgot to change our names back, so we were stuck with them.
Afterwards, war came after war, and our family fell into hard times. Worse still, my father died young and my mother stayed widowed. The four of us were torn apart: one was adopted by a wealthy family, another joined the army, and another one went off to a far-away boarding-school, while the youngest stayed at home. When our eldest brother got married, Mum decided to move in with his family as was the long-standing custom, leaving behind our house and fields. His wife was three years younger than our youngest brother. Later, his wife gave birth to two children: one baby boy and one baby girl. The boy was given the fine name Dinh Khanh Hoang. He became the first paternal grandson in our extended family. When Hoang finished his secondary education, his parents let him go to China to study further so that later he might earn a living that they could depend on. Curiously, before completing his study in the foreign land, he brought home a Guangxi girl and forced his parents to hold a pompous wedding. By the end of the winter in the Year of the Buffalo, the young Chinese lady gave birth to the first paternal grand-daughter, whose nickname was Calf.
By now, both my eldest brother and his wife had retired, and their living conditions were fairly comfortable now that the children had grown up.
Their real assets lay in two premises: one in the heart of a large compound in Yen Giang for living and enjoying bonsai, and one facing the street behind the Rung market, which had three storeys. My sister-in-law used the bottom floor as a shop, and the upper floors served as a dwelling for the couple. Thanks to her clever dealings, her business was getting on fairly well.
To the contrary, Hoang's family was unlucky. After nearly two years of conjugal life, his Chinese spouse of the Zhuang minority people suddenly left with her infant daughter to return to her far-away native town, first by taxi to Ha Noi then by plane to Guangxi Province. After more than one year of separation, Hoang intended to go to China to take his daughter home, but he was afraid that the infant would be kept as a hostage, so he let things remain as they stood. Besides, the situation freed Hoang to do as he pleased, except for the fact that every month he had to send money to his wife and kid abroad in order to perform his duty as a good husband and father. Thanks to his proficiency in Chinese, he did a good business in Mong Cai, a Vietnamese frontier city on the border between the two countries. Time and again, he also returned to Viet Nam to visit his paternal grandmother and parents, although in reality, these visits were more for business reasons – to ask for more loans – than out of any sense of filial piety.
Mum was now nearly one hundred years old and her health was getting worse and worse with every week. She hoped that before breathing her last, she would have a chance to hug her paternal grandson – Hoang's son. She also hoped her eldest daughter-in-law would provide her with another grandson, which made the latter all the more worried with every passing day. Strangely enough, this daughter-in-law had changed her behaviour noticeably. She went to pagodas more frequently and engaged in charitable activities more often. As for the home affairs on both marital sides, she always performed them fully and carefully.
One afternoon, a dusty car came to an abrupt stop in front of the daughter-in-law's shop. She was quite startled: getting off the vehicle was her beloved son! He helped a young woman who looked firm but timid and clutched a baby boy in her arms to step down. Standing in front of his mother, Hoang declared calmly, "Dear Mum, I'm bringing you the first paternal grandson." He expressed his statement with a strong emphasis on the word son. Then he removed a small hat from the chubby, lily-white 3-month-old infant who had been sleeping soundly due to the long trip. All of a sudden, the shop owner felt warm again. Without saying a word, she held the little baby, embracing him tightly to her breast, then rushed upstairs to lull him to sleep.
At that moment, my eldest brother was still fast asleep in his mother's house. At the noise echoing from the street, he let loose the mosquito-net for our mother to sleep well, then hurried downstairs to see what was happening. He darted to his wife, who was embracing the little boy in her arms, and took hold of him. "He's our real grandson," he said in a loud voice. That very evening, the middle-aged couple took the infant to their paternal grandmother's place to introduce to her the new member of the Dinh clan.
The weather had turned uncomfortable. My mother looked quite weak. She lay on an air mattress placed on the settee all day long. She was unable to turn over on the large soft pad. But strangely, when she heard her eldest son's call, she perked up immediately. "Mum, Hoang's brought you the first paternal grandson of the clan. Here you are!" he said, showing her the little boy. At once, she sat up as if she had never been ill. Her wet cheeks turned rosy with the unexpected joy. She wept and wept out of happiness, then she smiled happily. Stretching her trembling hands out, she tried to touch his tool while the little child was giggling merrily. Finally, she remarked, "Our gold piece is here. This property will surely go to you, my dear grandson." After that the satisfied smile remained on her face.
She passed away at the age of ninety-five during a cold night. After a ceremonial funeral held with full rites, we put her ashes into a small but well-adorned ceramic pot, then placed it in the Dong Phuc Pagoda with a 700-year-old banyan tree.
In order to give this first paternal grandson both honour and position, my eldest brother would have to carry out extensive procedures before the local authorities. First of all, he wanted a meaningful name for the baby. As a result, the nomination of Dinh Sy Khai was provided for him from Mr Le Dong Son, a well-known scholar in the commune of Yen Hung. Sy relates to learning, whereas Khai means victory. However, another problem cropped up here. Previously, Hoang had married a young Chinese lady in a solemn ceremony in public, but now this alleged second wife had come to my brother's family out of wedlock. How could the baby be recognised as the clan's real grandson?
One day, at a brotherly get-together of all Dinh elders, someone made a suggestion. "An ADN specimen taken from the kid should be sent to a well-known Singaporean hospital to be tested," he said. "We could verify this delicate matter through the medical authorities there, as their opinion can certainly be trusted. It might cost us a lot of money, though."
"I don't think we need to do so," I objected. "We'll decide the matter some other way."
When my eldest brother stared attentively at Hoang and his little son, he was continually bewildered, for both of them looked much alike. As for me, I ventured to urge him to show the little kid to the participants while I told them the full history of the clan, from the hard days of the first Dinh family who came to settle down in Lieu Ha to the weird story about the "curved penis," which was discovered only in the male offspring of the Dinh descendants in the village of Dong An. At first, most of them thought that my narrative was merely a humorous anecdote, but then as I presented good reasoning, they all agreed to accept my story as truth.
Surprised at the attendants' decision, my eldest brother fetched the baby at once. Back at the meeting, he took off the napkins that surrounded his buttocks, laying bare his rosy curved thing. "Here you are! Look at it carefully, my dear mates," he said in a proud voice. "It's one hundred per cent clear that the baby belongs to the Dinh clan."
After that he put down the name Dinh Sy Khai on the child's genealogical tree.
Translated by Van Minh