HANOI: At first glance, it’s easy to dismiss Le Thi as just another raddled old woman. At 97, she has lost almost all her teeth and a severe hunchback impedes her movement. She spends most of her time lying in bed on her side, slowly chewing betel nuts.
But the almost-centenarian perks up the moment she is asked about her passion for writing, painting and, above all, learning.
She swiftly rocks herself upright, a glint in her eyes and a grin that stretches from ear to ear, to talk about life in French-colonised Vietnam over half a century ago; Skyping with her grandson who lives in Moscow; and writing a book at the age of 87.
“If there are 10 things I don’t know, I want to learn however much I can,” she said. “I used to be an illiterate child, you know.”
It is this burning curiosity and passion for knowledge that may have made Le Thi the most internet-savvy grandma in Vietnam.
She gets her daily news from Google and Yahoo. She actively updates her Facebook page, and keeps in touch with family and friends this way and via Skype.
Le Thi first learned to use the computer in 2007 because she had been writing a book about her own life but found it hard to continue with pen and paper. “My hands were shaky, and I couldn’t see things clearly,” she said.
Her struggle prompted her grandchildren to get her a laptop and teach her to type. Three years later in 2010, she launched her 600-page autobiography, “Upstream”.
Her digital foray has earned her many young fans who have given her nicknames like “Lady Teen” and “Forever Young”.
“Though I am almost 100 years old, my soul is 20,” said Le Thi with a toothless grin.
A REBEL AGAINST ‘DESTINY’
When Le Thi was born in 1920, the world was a very different place. Back then in Vietnam, men were considered far superior to women. Le Thi’s own brother wouldn’t even allow her to stand near him.
“He would say: ‘You’re a woman, go away.’ He didn’t allow me to sit on chairs either,” Le Thi, the eighth child in the family, recalled. “To him, women were dirty. I deeply resented that just because I was born a girl, anyone could despise me.”
Being a girl also meant that Le Thi wasn’t allowed to study, even though her father was a teacher. Nevertheless, she fell in love with words and pictures. She said:
When I saw my father and brothers reading books, I couldn’t stand being illiterate. I didn’t accept my destiny. Anything a man can do, I’ll do it no matter what.
And so, Le Thi found ways to teach herself to write and paint – in secret.
“My father had many books. I would use a blanket to cover and read at night,” she recalled. “I burnt tree branches to draw on the floor. I would write and draw everything.”
Her rebel spirit carried through to her sense of injustice about political system, and she joined the national independence coalition the Viet Minh, fighting against the Japanese occupiers in World War Two, and later the Americans in the Vietnam War.
That was where she met and married her husband, a teacher – their marriage lasting just 17 months before he died in the bombing. They had just one son together.
Despite this, these days, she says: “I don’t have hatred for any individual or nation. I hate the war itself. My single goal was to make Vietnam a better place for the people so they could lead their own life.”
THE WHIRL OF MODERN LIFE
It has been a long road of many years during which she has worked at countless jobs – from cattle-farming to construction to embroidery – but Le Thi has never given up on her passion for scholarship.
She now lives in a bright and airy room where she can read, write, surf the Internet and paint to her heart’s content.
She speaks with pride about the fact that her only son and three grandchildren all hold or are pursuing postgraduate degrees.
She has completed “over 2,000 paintings” (which she prefers to keep rather than sell) and has written about 50 books and diaries. But Le Thi isn’t quite finished yet. Her next big project is a book sequel, “The Whirl of Life”.
“I am writing about my thoughts on modern life,” she revealed.
The world is a whirlpool of materialism. People think money can bring them happiness.
But to me, happiness is freedom, happiness is knowledge, and happiness is science.
“I feel bad for those who are wasting their time,” she added.
And time is something that’s constantly on her mind. Le Thi admits that her age is finally catching up with her, and writing isn’t as easy as it used to be. She used to be able to stay up all night to write, but now she gets tired after a couple of hours.
Still, the great-grandmother isn’t giving up – even if it takes her another ten years to write the book.
“I want to transfer my knowledge to my grandchildren,” she said.
And the woman who asserts that “the greatest enemy of a person’s life is stupidity” isn’t done with learning either.
“There are millions of things I’d like to know. It will take me another century to learn more, but I am willing to do so.”
By Ray Yeh -Source: CNA/ry