Love Bridges Cultural Divide


By Robert Gillespie

Over the Moat: Love Among the Ruins of Imperial Vietnam
James Sullivan '87
A moat built to keep out invaders defends a citadel in Hue, Vietnam. James Sullivan, a journalist from Quincy, Mass., on contract in 1992 to write an article about his bicycle journey through the country, aspires to the hand of Thuy, a descendant of mandarins. To cycle to Thuy's home, Sullivan must cross over the moat,an emblem of the gulf between two races, languages, cultures, social classes and courtship customs.

Over the Moat sounds like the treatment for a movie love-story, but Sullivan's true-life love for Thuy is the tie that binds together threads of travelogue, descriptions of the country and observations of daily life in post-war Vietnam. It's a tale of love bridging differences that war has made even more formidable.

Trying to secure a marriage license, Sullivan is sent by a Vietnamese clerk through "shifty hoops of paperwork" that would drive a less determined lover away, but he meets "the same kind of terror" from a clerk in the U.S. Embassy in Thailand. Nobody wants the two races and countries coming together.

Small episodes of comedy rise out of this sometimes bleak but always elegant memoir. Sullivan writes of his introduction to the delicacy, cooked over a wood stove aboard a river sampan, of water buffalo penis. Thuy's father's name, Mr. Bang, translates as Mr. Blackboard; Sullivan's name in Vietnamese, Ca Rem, means Mr. Popsicle. Explosive episodes left dangling like cliffhangers conclude later in moments of insight and understanding.

When Sullivan first touches Thuy, "my arm brushed her shoulder, and then as if by accident stuck there. . . . That otherwise indifferent swatch of arm suddenly turned on . . . dispatching bolts of pure feeling." That he remains "stuck" and defuses familial and bureaucratic hostility to the union proves to be a testament to humanity. In the end it's the lovers who cross over the moat together.