How We Came to Be a Multicultural Family – Indochina, the 1940s

The year was 1947. My maternal grandparents were in their early twenties, newly married and on their way to Indochina. They had met in the French Resistance at the end of World War II. He had been a maquisard, a clandestine fighter based in the mountains. She had been a go-between, relaying messages and transporting leaflets. It is always hard for me to grasp this happened in their life when they were just pushing 20…

After WWII my grandfather was offered to enroll at Saint-Cyr, a prestigious military school. He gave it a try but he soon found a military career would not be a good fit for him. Instead he accepted a job offer from an import export company. He was first posted in Saigon, where my mother was born. Later they moved to Hanoi, then Haiphong. Colonial life had its perks: a very comfortable lifestyle, servants, and cocktail parties… But it was only one facet of their experience.

During the five years they spent in Vietnam (aka Indochina) the local political situation grew tenser. The Vietnamese fight for independence from colonialist France was gathering momentum. Some areas of the countries were increasingly unsafe. I remember a conversation with my grandfather many years later when he explained to me that he had gradually taken the full measure of the fight happening in Vietnam and understood that it was, in many ways, the same as the one he had joined just a few years earlier in France. I don’t know how long this process took in his mind. I imagine it was not so plain to see then for a young Frenchman with a traditional middle class background.

However, this recognition, along with the growing unrest, lead them to return to France and try for something completely different: farming. A bold undertaking for a young couple with no agricultural background. The following years were probably the hardest in their life but they eventually overcame difficulties. Later my grandfather started a farming cooperative and he became a national leader for a progressive farmers’ union.

Apart from a stuffed gecko hung in the stairway that really scared me as a child, what was most noticeable to me in what my grandparents brought back from Indochina was Vietnamese words they would keep using for the rest of their life. When they left my mother was fluent in Vietnamese thanks to her local nanny. There is this anecdote in our family that she, then a five-years-old white blond little girl, spotted a Vietnamese passenger on the Paris subway and went to talk to him in his native language. Sadly, she has absolutely no recollection of her early years in Indochina, let alone of ever speaking Vietnamese.

In hindsight I think my grandparents also brought back an eye-opening exposure to a very different place and the ability to see through exoticism and to relate to people and situations on the other side of the world. I am convinced that their subsequent social and political engagement has its roots in their Vietnamese years at least as much as in their involvement in the French Resistance.

This third installment of my series How We Came To Be A Multicultural Family is the last one before I move to the next generation. I find it notable, though not surprising of course, that the first three installments have colonialism as a common thread. None of the stories I have told so far would have happened in a world without colonialism: my paternal grandfather living in Madagascar; Appa’s grandfather demonstrating against the British rule in India; my maternal grandparents living in Vietnam. The stories I will tell next are post-colonial stories but I find it significant that our multicultural family, like many others, has a colonial background.

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