Đoàn Thanh Liêm
Here is another text I have just received from my Vietnamese friend, dissident Đoàn Thanh Liêm.
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My Two Passions in Life
I used to tell my friends: “I have only two simple passions in life, that’s books and friends.” Now, let me elaborate on that.
1 – My grandpa was a teacher of Chinese characters in the early 20th century. He passed away when I was only 6 years old, and I never had the chance to learn Chinese from him. Instead, I studied French, Latin and English as foreign languages. As a young boy from a peasant family in the rural area of North Vietnam, I was much encouraged by elders to pursue studies consistently and for as long as possible. They used to remind me of this saying: “Biển học mênh mông” (The learning is like a limitless ocean). Unfortunately, due to the war erupting at the end of 1946, my schooling was interrupted as I moved around at least three different localities in the Red River Delta. I only started attending regular classes in the 1950’s and finally completed high school in Hanoi during June 1954.
That year, the Geneva Agreements partitioned the country into 2 parts: the North was given to the Communists and the South to the Nationalists. I joined the Nationalists in the South as a refugee in order to escape the Communists, and as a result was able to continue higher education at the Saigon Law School and graduate in 1958 at the age of 24. After law school, I became a legal analyst for the parliament of South Vietnam, and in 1960-61 was given a scholarship for further legal training in Washington DC.
I had a solid educational background and spent much time researching political, legal and social problems by reading numerous technical books, magazines, and documents related to social sciences and humanities. That is the only way to keep up with the unrelenting progress of the modern time. And it also gave me much enjoyment and satisfaction accumulating this marvelous knowledge that is extremely useful to my professional as well as cultural life.
The Nationalist regime in the South collapsed in 1975, and I could not practice law anymore, nor did I have a decent job. I had to find odd jobs by tutoring young students, and devoted most of my leisure time to reading. I was completely absorbed with reading day and night, continuously, for years. That eventually helped immensely in the consolidation of my intellectual capital.
Since resettling in the US in 1996, I have had wonderful opportunities to update my understanding of the world situation and also to upgrade the quality of my socio-cultural activities – namely in working side by side with the global movement for human rights and peacebuilding. The Internet in particular is an immense instrument for information, research and communication with people everywhere in the world, as it is a tool that has become amazingly within easy reach for everyone.
For a man of action like myself, this accumulation of knowledge has played quite a salutary balancing role in my daily life. It helped enormously in enlarging the horizons and the global vision that makes me feel at home anywhere and anytime, even in the complicated situations of this ever-expanding and challenging world.
2 – Friends are blessings. We certainly cannot choose the family or the country we are born in. It’s the destiny for any human being and no one can interfere to change that fate. But all of us do have the freedom to choose our friends. In my case, I am fortunate to have been acquainted with a lot of friends— first as classmates in primary school, secondary school and college, then as colleagues in diverse professional agencies, as well as team-workers in voluntary social and humanitarian work. Friendship provides us with complementary elements in intellectual, professional, as well as sentimental life. It particularly consolidates the fraternal solidarity among us who share many things in common, be it the successes of our joint action or the bad luck we have to bear together.
In this regard, our ancestors definitively gave us very good and useful advice through various simple, short sayings such as, “Quý người hơn quý của” (Human beings should be more treasured than material wealth), “Thêm bạn, bớt thù” (Make more friends, but less enemies), etc. The following is an illustration of the enduring friendships I’ve been blessed with.
a. As a political prisoner in Vietnam, I spent 6 years in jail from 1990 to 1996. Just recalling the sweet souvenirs of the past with close friends became a great consolation for me during the most painful days in an isolated cell. It’s exactly as people say: “Friends in need are friends indeed” — in those crucial days in prison, I could not physically meet with any friends, but the mere memories of them gave me strength to keep the flame alive in that deplorable situation.
b. A friend in America then launched a successful campaign to free me from prison, allowing me to serve only half of the 12-year sentence and resettle with family in America. That was 20 years ago. It was Dick Hughes, with whom I worked closely on the Shoeshine Boys Project to benefit homeless people in wartime Vietnam. We have become intimate friends for life. We are “as much family as family” – as an American reporter described our friendship.
c. As a human rights activist, I have very close connection with friends in numerous organizations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and especially the Vietnam Human Rights Network. It’s a comradeship among us who share the same point of view and take collective action in the global movement for human rights. As a writer, I have received much favorable support and encouragement from numerous readers among the Vietnamese diaspora as well as from readers at home in Vietnam.
* * To summarize : Books have helped miraculously to enrich my mind in a cumulative process as I constantly seek to improve over the long years of adulthood. And friends have always been there to help fulfill my total commitment to higher ideals and noble causes for the service of all mankind. Books and friends have been essential factors in making my life more fruitful and meaningful
Costa Mesa, California, December 2015
Đoàn Thanh Liêm