Everyone carried something. For some, they carry a burden so great to bear, a weight upon their shoulders and eyes that many will not see. This is the story of a woman I had met one January afternoon in a rice field outside of Hoi An, in the Quang Nam province.
In the years to follow, someone will look back at all of this and think – this is what life was all about. When the feeling of dirt and mud coated one’s fingers, where the wind and sun covered the face so beautifully that no amount of make-up ever can. A life so far removed from the metal and concrete high-rises and grim dark suits, which knew no meaning of living, but only serving and acquiescing.
Time stood still to these people. Their crops will eventually whither and die and be planted anew, fishing nets will eventually wear out and be replaced. World leaders will topple and nations rise and fall in an endless cycle of progress. But time really stood still here. The world will pass them by without even a glance from one another.
On this lazy afternoon, my feet cooled in the refreshing embrace of the mud and water of a rice field outside of Hoi An. I sat on an irrigation ditch and watched and admired. The life that went on around me, as it has since 1975, or 1954 or 1820, has never changed as the world changed around them. I watched old women harvest rice, men fishing, children playing. It was where I also met a very special woman.
Her parents and relatives had died in a tunnel collapse as they hid from American bombs outside of Hoi An in 1968, or 67’ she could not remember exactly anymore. Only her and her sister survived. She was born in 1937 and had lived here all her life – through the occupations of Japanese, French and American forces. Her slightly hunched back told the tale of decades of hardship in the rice fields. But no matter the grizzled lines and weary frame – one will always see the bright eyes and smile looking back at you.
I photographed her. Watching her work the fields as she has done so from early mornings till afternoon for decades. I keep on taking pictures. Click. A shot of her stopping to smile at me. Click. A brief moment of her talking to her sister. Click. As she moved to another spot n the field. Click. There was that joyful smile again. Always that smile. This was an afternoon I will never forget.
That night, in my clean hotel room, when the mud and dirt had all washed away and so detached from her life; I decided to look through the photographs again, and kept looking back at it. I decided to print the photos of her and her sister and give it to them. To say thank you, for allowing me a glimpse of what was.
So we rode through the rain, trampled on muddy dykes through rice fields and holding onto 2 photographs I had printed for her and her sister, shielding it from the rain. We asked locals far and near for her residence, eventually ending down a narrow road miles from where I had met her; and there she was, smiling at me as she came home from the markets.
Her name is Nguyen Thi Kien. She had bothered to talk to me that day.