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Tales of Global Adventure: My Father's Hands

March 28, 2017

A fishing tale without rod or reel

By Loan Ma ’11 / Vietnam

Thunderbird Stories Project - A Reprint from Tales of Global Adventure: My Father's HandsMy father is not a large man, but he has strong, quick hands weathered by decades of farm work. Many times I have watched him wade barefoot into the rice paddies near my childhood home outside Ho Chi Minh City, crouch with his fingers spread open below the water’s surface, and wait for an unsuspecting fish to swim too close. At the critical moment, he lunges his arms forward into the murky water with a sudden jerk. Then he straightens from his crouch, and dinner wiggles frantically in his bare hands. The athletic feat no longer amazes me. I have seen my father do this many times, but John Cook has not.

I met John in Ho Chi Minh City at the inaugural Southeast Asia Investing Conference, which my company helped organize with Thunderbird School of Global Management in 2010. John, a 1979 Thunderbird graduate, owns a placement agent company based near Zurich, Switzerland. He came to speak at the event and scheduled time afterward to explore Vietnam as a tourist. When I learned about his desire to see my country, I invited him to my childhood home to meet my family. John liked the scenery and company so well that he returned two months later with his wife and daughter for a Christmas getaway. This is when my father invited John to join him on a fishing trip.

My father, Ma Van Kham, is 76 and somewhat slowed by age. So I am not sure what John thought when his fishing companion emerged from the house with only one pole, announcing that he would use his bare hands instead.

The local technique is something my father mastered in his second career. In the years before I was born, both my parents worked as schoolteachers. They had university degrees and relied on their sharp minds more than their hands. But after the war, things did not go well for them and they were unable to continue as teachers. So they started a new life as farmers in the rural community of Nhon Trach in Dong Nai Province. This is where I was born.

While my brother and I focused on our studies, our parents worked with their hands to support us. Each morning my father would travel more than one hour by bicycle, boat and foot to reach the family farm, where he grew rice and fruit without power machinery. During harvest season, he would load produce into sacks that he carried home on his back. My mother then would use the family bicycle to haul the produce to market. Water for cooking and cleaning came from a well, and we lived with few modern conveniences.

Despite the hardships, we thrived on the family compound. So I knew what the outcome would be when John and my father headed toward the rice paddies to catch dinner. Several of us followed to the water’s edge to watch the demonstration. We cheered when my father pulled the first fish from the water and dropped it in his bucket, and John gawked in amazement.

John had less luck with his fishing pole, but my father loaned him a catch to hold up for the photographs. That night we feasted, and nobody went hungry.

Loan Ma was scheduled to graduate from Thunderbird School of Global Management in December 2011. In summer 2011, she traveled to Switzerland to complete an internship with John Cook’s company, Rock Lake Associates. Ma’s private equity consulting company, which she launched in 2010 with two Thunderbird classmates, is Auxesia Holdings.