In late July of 1969, we Americans landed men on the moon. It was an astonishing accomplishment, and left many of us not sure it could be true. But for MaMa San, the Vietnamese woman who shined shoes and swept floors, it was simply beyond belief. While we stared at the TV news program in amazement, MaMa San could not stop laughing at our nutty explanations"You number 10 dinky-dau” (I think dinky-dau means something like crazy and number 10 is the lowest possible rating of whatever subject is being discussed; in this case it was men landing on the moon). She was not buying that story!
MaMa San, as all adult Vietnamese women other than prostitutes, were known, played a vital role in the daily affairs of base camp. In addition to caring for shoes and floors, they did general property maintenance, filled sandbags, and took away dirty clothes, returning them after they had been washed. She was also the go-between for prostitutes, known as Boom Boom Girls, providing them for five dollars - for a roll in the rice straw - plus tips. Vietnamese men usually handled most of the shit burning in base camp, but after large attacks on Tay Ninh base camp, very few showed up for work and Vietnamese women had to be recruited. I was processing out of Vietnam just when my vast combat shit burning experience was most needed. I did not offer to help!
MaMa San dressed in the traditional black slacks, white top and conical hat. She was small, of course, and the hat rarely left her head. Her day stated at the main gate, along with the other locals. The MPs inspected each Vietnamese worker coming into the camp to assure the soldiers’ safety. They would show their IDs and, if they were young and female, likely get an extra bit of pat down by a young MP copping a cheap feel. The routine was repeated at night when they left, to make sure the property of the soldiers did not wander.
MaMa San was a quick learner. She often thumbed through magazines – Playboy, Time, Life – to help her grasp what life in “The World” must be like. The pictures were a huge help in explaining what life was like in America. We also talked with her about our lives, and she learned close to 100 English words, and even a few French words.
She talked with most anyone, and almost always used a simple rating system to help make her point. “Number one GI,’ she’d say. Or, “VC number ten.” Though she used all the numbers from one to ten, there were really only two meanings: number one meant good, and all other numbers meant bad. To be called a “Number two GI” was as damning as being called a “Dirty number ten!” It was just more polite, and MaMa San was always polite.
I did my best to convince MaMa San that the Moonshot was real. “MaMa San, three GIs on moon and come back, Number 1.” It was too much for a simple peasant from Vietnam to grasp. The very thought of such a fantasy just sent her into a fit of laughter one more time.
MaMa San, like all Vietnamese, had an intense desire to escape Vietnam. They understood that America - “The World” or “Big PX” - held material wealth and comfort they would never touch within their ancient landscape. While she would never grasp the reality of the Moonshot, she would forever be seeking a way to escape her earthbound reality of struggle and poverty. Being poor in America was not like being poor in Vietnam and most GI’s had as difficult a time grasping just how poor rural Vietnamese farmers were, as MaMa San did the moon landing.