When Heaven and Earth Changed Places

by: Le Ly Hayslip

Symbols

Main ideas Symbols

The Elephant and the Ant

Le Ly often compares the brute strength and sheer force of the American military to an elephant, and the stealthier, more secretive Viet Cong to ants. While the elephant may stamp about on the ground, destroying everything, the ants will hide underground and wait to attack. The ants, although small, are able to defeat the elephant. Despite its technological advancements and brute strength, the United States was unable to defeat the North Vietnamese forces and the Viet Cong. One reason for this is because the Viet Cong were using guerrilla tactics. They built intricate underground hideouts and used a network of villagers and children to supply them. The symbols of the elephant and ant represent the United States’s misunderstanding of the type of war In which they were involved, similar to an elephant using the wrong tactics. This symbol also represents the sense of unity of the Vietnamese. Alone, they feel small and defenseless, but together—as promised by the Viet Cong—they feel strong. This mentality of community strength is important in unifying a nation under a Communist ideology.

Rice

Rice is an essential crop for the Vietnamese people. Rice connects the people to the land and to the past, but during the war, the rice paddies became war zones. They no longer produced life-giving rice but instead death and destruction, symbolic of the Vietnamese people and their way of life. Le Ly explains the difficult nature of rice through a legend in which God intended rice to grow easily everywhere and grass to need a lot of care and planning. However, the messenger who brought rice and grass to Earth mistakenly switched the two, making rice a labor-intensive crop and grass a ubiquitous plant. As punishment, the messenger is turned into a beetle and made to crawl through grass for eternity. Le Ly’s whole family helps in the planting, growing, harvesting and preparation of rice. From a young age, Le Ly helps her mother in their rice paddies and it was in these paddies that many important events in her life take place. In the rice paddies, her mother and father both teach her important life lessons and stories of their ancestors.

Woman Warrior

As a young girl, Le Ly idolizes the legendary female warrior in the stories her father told her. She professes that she too would like to be a warrior, fighting for her country. This desire leads to her involvement with the Viet Cong and, after her exile from the village, her anger and unrest at being unable to fight. The image of the strong female warrior stays with Le Ly through her experiences in Saigon and Danang; in fact, memories of this image encourage her to become involved with the war. However, from the moment that he tells his young daughter the fable of the woman warrior, Trong laughs at Le Ly’s insistence that she can be a woman warrior. Trong tells her that her purpose in this life is not to fight: it is to have a family and raise children to carry on the family traditions.

Trong later reiterates this idea when Le Ly again feels anxious to fight. Trong reminds her that Vietnam does not need more people who are ready to fight; rather, it needs people who are willing to live, to find peace and continue the traditions of land and family. Le Ly eventually comes to understand her father’s words. However, she does not give up the image of the woman warrior, but rather, becomes a woman warrior in her own way: instead of fighting with guns and bombs, she fights war with ideas of peace, hate with forgiveness, death of too many civilians and soldiers with the lives of her children. Le Ly reinvents the image of the woman warrior and transforms herself into one.