SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA -- One of
the lessons a young Vietnamese girl learns quickly is to
never, ever change your sweater when you're walking through
a rice paddy. It can lead to beating, rape, and having
your delicate feet covered in syrup while water snakes are forcibly
put down your shirt by laughing GI officers. Phung Thi
Ba Le Hayslip-Butler (or Bah Lee, as her friends and family call
her) learned that lesson when she was only 15 years old.
Born in a small farming village
in Vietnam, Bah learned at an early age that her
people had been abused and oppressed for centuries.
"Mother tell me all about French. I
remember father cry because French tank roll over
vegetable patch. Next year we go
hungry when crop die. No rice. No rice for
Bah Lee doesn't have to worry
about rice anymore. Tucked snug and safe at the end of
a cul-de-sac in sunny San Diego, Bah owns and operates a
successful restaurant, catering company, and key chain manufacturing
enterprise. "I go business school, learn how
manage money, how hire qualify people, how put air
condition! I so excite by opportunity
afford me in America."
It wasn't always this
perfect. Bah Lee had to endure many years of hardship,
and many instances of rape before achieving what she
describes as "capitalist nirvana."
She was first exposed to
Western culture at the tender age of 14, when the American soldiers
arrived in her village. "I balancing on
buffalo in rice paddy when big helicopter come from
nowhere and blowed my straw hat away. American
soldier so mean -- they park in rice paddy, sleep with
our women, talk loud, and wear sunglass and boot the
As if the tactless dismissal of
local customs wasn't enough, the American soldiers soon
graduated to full-fledged sexual harassment. Then Bah
fell out of favor with the Viet Cong, a turn of events that
Bah describes as the last straw. "They rape me in
ditch and call me name! It then that my
relationship with village end."
With nobody to turn to, Bah Lee
and her mother moved to Saigon, selling cigarettes and serving
tea to rich bourgeois business owners. "I get job
in John Burn house, change litter box for cat,
Marcus, and serve tea to wife. John Burn wife
was sick, too much aggravation, too much fancy clothes and fancy lipstick, no
patience. She was Catholic." Vulnerable and
loving, it was only a matter of time before Bah was abused
by John Burns. "He
throw himself on my bed and not take no for answer. I
only sleep with him because I suffer and hurt greatly. John Burn tell me him love me, him
take me Los Angeles to be in movie! Him say he want
be Aaron Spelling producer, make TV show with white woman have no bra, but always jump.
Then him hit me with stick and make me get his check from
temp agency!" It was only then that Bah Lee learned she was pregnant with John Burns' child. "I try jump down stair, make baby go away. But John Burn seed too strong and baby come anyway" Soon, John Burn's
wife learned of the affair. Pussy-whipped by the
shrewish and orgasmically challenged female head of household, John Burns sent
Bah Lee away and promised to send money. "The
money never come," says Bah Lee, crying, "I was
shocked by the insolence of men!"
Her distrust of men almost
prevented her from meeting the man she would eventually
marry. "I see man, and I tell my friend, I say,
'Me and men don't mix!' I try drive away on moped
, but man him find me and buy my child toy. Him tell
me him need good Oriental woman, and that we help each
other heal scars of war."
That man was abusive,
shell-shocked Vietnam vet US Officer Steve Butler, and the
following year he brought Bah Lee home with him to San
Diego. Bah Lee's eyes fill up with tears.
"I get so excite when I see big supermarket, all the
bag of rice! So many bag! Uncle Ben trusted
Now, after many years, Bah Lee
looks back on her life and has no regrets. "I
don't care that I divorce Steve and make him kill
himself. I own restaurant now, have children, have
affair with many, many men." Bah Lee gets
quiet. "None of them touch my heart like
Steve," she laments, frowning at the ground.
Suddenly her energetic little head pops up and a big smile
beams across he face, "then again none of them point
gun in my face either!"