Short story by Văn Giá “Rain in Binh Duong”

Επιμέλεια: Εύα Πετροπούλου Λιανού

His biography: Dr Văn Giá is a creative writing teacher, writer, and critic. He is one of the foremost short story writers of Việt Nam and has published three short story collections. “Rain in Bình Dương” is the title of one of his books and speaks frankly about reconciliation issues among Vietnamese people. He is the author of many literary criticism books as well as creative writing books. He is also an editor of many anthologies including Wild Mustard: New Voices from Vietnam (Curbstone Books, 2017).

Translators’ note: From 1954 to 1975, Vietnam was divided into north and south. Together with the Vietnam War, the division caused tremendous conflict and tension between the people of both sides.


A short story by Văn Giá

My tooth and gums are now okay. My dentist says a scar has grown onto the gum. “Leave it alone for around a year and come back for a check-up,” he tells me. I tiptoe, open my mouth wide, tilt my face, and look into the mirror. It’s true that a scar is there. This tooth. A windy and raining evening in Binh Duong…

It was so unlucky, that trip. My tooth suddenly betrayed me. My gum swelled so much. I couldn’t stand the pain. I would lose my cool standing at the classroom’s podium looking like this. I thrashed around all night, drained of energy. After a quick and barely chewed dinner, I asked my student, “Please, could you find some place for me to get my tooth fixed? Otherwise I’ll be in big trouble.”
“I will look for one now. Stay calm, Teacher. Don’t worry.”
But…the rain was pouring so.

I glided into the car. A brand new one. Its interior still had that new smell. Super shiny. I praised him, saying the public could benefit a great deal from such a posh head of sub-district People’s Committee . Having said it, I startled myself and I was afraid that he thought I was mocking him.
I hurried to say, “I mean when the head of a sub-district People’s Committee does well, his people also benefit. If local government officials are poor and rough-looking, they get no respect from the common people. If you were poor and held a leader’s position, greed would be born. If you are already rich, you don’t have to be greedy. Therefore the people would benefit….”
After I finished speaking, I realized that my own reasoning sounded like that of some kind of pimp. I was startled again, but my student said nothing. I told myself to keep my mouth shut.
But then I asked whether it was still far away. “Quite close-by,” the student answered. He said no more. Outside, Heaven continued to dump down its water. The rain was getting heavier and heavier. Few people were travelling on the road. It was around 7 or 8pm. The student drove so fast. I was fearful. It would be dangerous if someone dashed out from a lane.
“There’s no need to hurry,” I told him.
He said nothing. I sat at the back, craning my body to look through the car’s front glass. The wipers worked furiously. The car dashed past a push-cart which was moving through the rain; perhaps a cart of a wandering seller. A white sheet of water, curving like a rainbow, blanketed the person pushing the cart. I knitted my brows. “Please slow down. You made that person soaking wet.”
The student said nothing. I glanced at the front mirror to look at his face: cold as a metal sheet.
The car slowly turned into a small lane and came to a stop. The student told me to sit inside the car so he could go in and check if the practice was open. He didn’t use personal pronouns, but spoke without using the proper form of address . Perhaps here, people spoke this way. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t important.
After a while the student came back. “It’s closed. Let’s go somewhere else.”
We travelled again. After a while the car slowed, this time near a large street. It was a brightly-lit dental practice with gleaming glass doors. I saw a dentist in a white blouse bending over his patient. The car door opened. The student got down first. I followed him. The student pushed against the door and stepped inside. I took off my shoes.
The dentist lifted his face and pulled down his mask. “Could you please leave your shoes outside?” he asked the student.
The student acted as though he didn’t hear. “Check my teacher’s teeth. He just arrived from the north.” The dentist said nothing. The student walked with his shoes – smeared with wet dirt and soaked with rain water – all over the room. I felt bad. I wanted to tell him but kept my mouth shut. I was embarrassed in front of the dentist and his assistant.
The dentist turned to me. “Could you please wait? Would it be okay?”
“No problem,” I said.
“Hurry up,” said the student.
The dentist said nothing. He didn’t look pleased.
“It’s okay to wait,” I told my student. “Please sit down.”
“You stay here,” he said. “I’ll come back a while later to pick you up.” He went outside and drove away.
I sighed, glancing around the practice. All of the equipment and machines were gleaming new. Everything was orderly in a cold white color. Through a glass door which one could peer inside, I didn’t know if the dentist had consciously or unconsciously arranged for it, but a large bookshelf, packed with thick books, was showing off their spines. All of them seemed to be in French or English, and with my meager foreign language skills, I could make out that some books were about medicine, psychology, some novels….
After a while, the dentist asked whether I worked as a teacher. I answered yes politely.
“The man who was with us just now, Mr. Phú, what’s he studying?” the dentist asked.
“He’s doing a university course while being on the job,” I said.
“What’s the specialization of his studies?”
“Specialization? … How to benefit from others and talk over others.”
“Really? How strange!”
“Yes, in our country, many things are strange, Doctor.”
“Where is your hometown in the north?” The dentist asked.
“In the extended area of Hanoi.”
The dentist smiled.
“Your voice tells me you are from the north, too,” I said.
“That’s right. I followed my parents to the south in 1954. Afterwards I studied medicine in England.”
“So this means … you didn’t cross the ocean in 1975 to join the other side?”
“No, I stayed and pursued my career, as you can see.”
“Your gum is inflamed, perhaps from an infection of your marrow,” the dentist concluded. “If you are still here for a while, I could take an X-ray and treat you for a week or two. If you don’t have time, I could draw out the pus with a needle, prescribe some medicines to provide you with temporary relief. Then you could complete the proper treatment in the north when you are back there.”
“I’ll go with the second suggestion, Doctor. It’s a pity I’m only here for a week.”
“Okay, come back every other day for me to check.  Look, the car has returned for you….”
The rain was still pouring. It was the beginning of the rainy season, but rare to have such a heavy shower. My student said so. I “reported” to him about the treatment, and asked that if it was convenient for him, could he bring me back to the dentist.
“Tomorrow I’ll bring you to my friend; no need to come back here anymore,” he said.
“But this dentist seems to be highly skilled,” I told him. “He took great care in the treatment.”
“He belongs to the old regime; he looks down on so many others. If people like him put their heads up, we’ll squeeze them to death.”
I vaguely wondered about the situation. I said nothing. The student found the chance to pour out his words.
“Some people from the old regime stayed back. They don’t behave like the common people. They live their own lives; they don’t take part in community activities. Their children all go overseas after high school, none of them caring to return. It’s highly probable that they are involved with anti-government groups. We are very suspicious of them.”
I chose my words carefully. “But peace arrived in our country more than 30 years ago. Haven’t they integrated into society yet?”
The student raised his voice. “They are so stubborn, Teacher, but they won’t win against us. If they cause trouble, we’ll teach them a lesson right away.”
“Have they ever caused any trouble?” I asked.
“Many times, of course. But this dentist, he hasn’t yet dared. Once, he welcomed back his son, who was studying in the United States or somewhere. There was such a grand party; big cars and small cars came all the way from Saigon. They invited no one from here. While they were having such a good time, I ordered the electricity be cut off immediately. It was mid-noon, they were so hot, gasping for air, but they dared not speak up.” My student laughed raucously.

For my appointment, two days later I hired a motorbike taxi to take me to the dentist. After my class, I quietly sneaked out to the school’s gate. I avoided the student. While riding on the motorbike, my student phoned. “I am planning to pick you up for your dental treatment.”
“I have a good friend who visited, I took the chance and I’m going with him.”
“Oh, I wanted to bring you to another place. Where are you going?”
“To the dentist who treated me the other day. He gave me an appointment, so I’d feel bad not to come. I’m also following his prescription, and I should finish the treatment with him.”
“Up to you.” He disconnected the call.
Ha. My student seemed to be upset. It didn’t matter. He took care of me the way a student would care for his teacher; he didn’t really care about me. It was best if I took care of myself and didn’t trouble anyone. And my students were not so care-free. During my teaching assignment here, they divided into groups of three or five, taking turns to invite me to parties, to “kara”, and then “oke”. They even tempted me to join them in “relaxation.” At the end of the teaching assignment, they asked about exams and grades, saying Teacher, please do us favors. I had incurred debts and had to pay them back. Grades at schools these days, especially for on-the-job courses, involved cunning circles of debts and repayments like that.

While I sat to wait for the dentist to put on his blouse, I said, “I am really sorry about the last time.” He smiled.
“Government officials these days are incredible,” I said. “They give themselves the right to do anything they want.”
The dentist didn’t seem to want to talk. I tried to encourage him, asking whether his income was sufficient for his living.
“For day to day it’s okay,” he said. “I have skills and would miss them if I didn’t work.”
“Yes, I understand. In my teaching area, it’s the same. Many retired teachers still teach, even though they live well and their children are successful. If people ask, they say they miss teaching, in spite of its low income.”
I thought to myself that I had lived and breathed one job for many years; it was like living for a long time in the same area. Gradually and unknowingly I developed such strong roots, although living inside of it wasn’t always pleasant…
Suddenly the dentist asked whether I knew much about the student who had brought me to his practice. I shook my head.
“He’s a government official, the head of this sub-district People’s Committee,” he said. “His office is next to my house. Please forgive me, Teacher; the other day I had to struggle to control myself so as not to argue with him. Living here, I have had to swallow a lot of insults.” 
Suddenly memory led me back to the other rainy right.
“How much does it cost?”
“Five hundred sixty seven thousand.”
“Please let me pay,” I had said hurriedly.
A budging wallet already in his palm, the student waved his hand, “Don’t worry, Teacher.”
“No,” I said. “Let me take care of it. I can take care of it, so I don’t dare to trouble you.” I pulled out my wallet.
The student had already presented a couple of big notes. I could do nothing but sigh. Honestly I didn’t want it to happen like that; I had just arrived here, hadn’t taught a single class, but had already taken advantage of a student. My name was tainted.
“Receipt?” The student tossed his chin towards the dentist.
“Sir, my receipt book has just run out. If you need it, tomorrow I will prepare it and bring it to you.”
“Forget about it. But how do you conduct business without issuing receipts? Remember to do business the proper way, don’t cheat. If you do, we won’t let you rest.”
“I never dare. You can see since the beginning I have always been doing business properly, keeping the ethics of my profession. Have you heard anyone complain about me?”
“They don’t complain about this but they complain about that. You need to remember who you are.”
When he finished talking, the student turned the door knob, about to leave. “Please, let me return the change to you,” the dentist said.
“Don’t worry.”
“Please, I don’t dare bother you. Please accept the change. I don’t dare take it.”
“I said no need to return the change.” The student stepped quickly out of the door.
The dentist’s look followed him. He seemed to want to say something but didn’t have time.

After checking my teeth, the dentist asked, “Could I please give you the change from the other day, so you could pass it on to the head of the sub-district People’s Committee?”
I hesitated and wondered whether it would be okay.
“Please, just give him this envelop and tell him it’s from me. There’s no need to say anything else. As you know, I don’t want to take anyone’s change, especially his change.”
“Okay, if you say so, I will.”
In fact the change wasn’t much. I quickly thought that personally I should return the whole amount to the student. He could have paid it himself, or later on, he could claim it against the class’s fund. It had happened before that when a teacher left, students gathered to read a notice written in chalk on the class board, calculating in details the amounts spent each day on entertaining the teacher. From the costs of meals, costs of drinking beer, costs of sightseeing, costs of singing “karaoke”, costs of buying fruits…, everything. Each item and its time and date were clearly recorded. The one in charge wanted to show everything prominently on the board, to prove to the whole class that he was transparent, that he didn’t take one single cent from the class’s fund. Oh goodness, what if after I left, there would be a notice as big as a straw mat on the board, with the amount spent on fixing the teacher’s teeth….
The dentist told me, “I remember what you said about the profession ‘how to benefit from others and talk over others.’ Teacher, you also like to joke.”
“Yes,” I said. “But I told you the truth. In our country there are very interesting professions. Have you heard about the profession of climbing, cutting and gluing, the profession of arranging banners, flowers, speakers and radios, the profession of taking care of pots, cups and water boilers, the profession of carrying and offering …”
“Ha, you make me laugh so much. What do those occupations involve?
“I’ll let you guess. You could let me know when we meet the day after tomorrow.”

On my way home, I thought to myself that the dentist must bury his nose all day in the pile of books, then busy himself with taking care of his patients, how he could know that these days there were tens of thousands of professions. Somebody had said that there were professions which set the teeth on edge, the profession of pointing with five fingers for example, the profession of digging a pile of feathers to find a tiny fault, the profession of mocking and hurting others, the profession of throwing rocks and hiding one’s hand, the profession of holding blood in the mouth and spitting it at people, the profession of hired killing, the profession of lifting the chair and licking its ass, the profession of selling one’s ass to feed one’s mouth, the profession of selling one’s mouth to feed one’s ass….

During the last few days, I taught continuously every day, and longed for it to end. At last, the time was nearly over. Since my tooth was better, I was lazy, transportation wasn’t convenient, and it often rained in the late afternoon, I only saw the dentist twice all together. I wondered if he could guess about the professions I had told him about previously.
When I was about to leave for the airport, the sky was heavy with the color of lead. It was so different here in the rainy season of the south. A group of students came to see me off. The head of the sub-district People’s Committee asked if I remembered the dentist the other day.
“I remember him of course,” I said. “If it’s convenient for you, please tell him my tooth and gum are fine now, I want to thank him and—”
“Heavens, why do you need to thank such dregs of society? Yesterday I ordered the confiscation of his dental permit.”
“How come…?”
“He broke the law by examining his patients and selling medicine at the same time. I arranged for someone to pretend to be a patient. We caught him red-handed when he asked his wife to go fetch the medicine to sell to the patient. I arrested him immediately. He couldn’t even open his mouth to argue.”
Cự Lộc, 24.3.2011

Translated by Nguyen Phan Que Mai and Bruce Weigl