THE WRITERS POST
VOLUME 6 NUMBER 2
UYEN NICOLE DUONG
THE THREE CHILDREN
OF A VIETNAMESE
Saigon, The Republic of Vietnam
April 25, 1975
-Excusez moi, Monsieur...
-I am dictating. Leave the tray on the table.
-Je ne voudrais pas vous deranger, mais... Je vous en prie. Monsieur... Mr. Christopher Sutherland?
-Oh, you are...not Room Service. Qui etes vous, Mademoiselle? Vous parlez Anglais? Oui?
-Yes I speak English. I was just too nervous. I stood hours in the sun before I entered the hotel. For a moment I couldn’t read the room number, two hundred and ten, engraved on the door. I stared at it for a long time outside your room.
-How did you get in here? So Vincent didn’t follow instructions. I told him no visitor.
-The hotel manager? Please do not blame him. It’s chaos out there in the lobby.
-Are you sent by the American Embassy?
-No. I came here on my own will.
-Then, would you mind leaving? I’m busy, and I am in my bathrobe. Let me guess. You want a magical way out of Vietnam. Sorry, I don’t work magic. You got the wrong guy.
-I don’t think so. You are Christopher Sutherland. I’ve seen your pictures. Here is one. Taken at a Christmas party. For the past five years, my father has talked about you occasionally, at dinner table.
-Who are you?
-I am Hope’s oldest daughter.
-Oh, I am sorry, Miss...
-Simone. You can call me Simone.
-Oh, yes, Simone. Your father is very proud of you. Everybody at the Cercle Sportiff Saigonnais talked about you, the most beautiful girl of Lycee Marie Curie
--Now we’ve met.
--Under different circumstances I would have been much more hospitable. Or even charming. But under the circumstances.. Allow me to put on a shirt.
-There is no need. May I sit down, Monsieur?
-Actually no, I am afraid you will have to leave soon.. .OK, OK, sit down, but only for just a minute. Darn it, I have a weakness for the feminine sort of thing. If you are looking for your father, he was here earlier, but he left already.
-I know where he is. My father is at home sleeping in exhaustion. For days he had been running around town looking for a way out. From the Defense Attache’s Office to various embassies. He went home defeated. Finally my mother said, sleep, my dear, take a nap. She got him a hot towel. Made him a lemon soda. I watched them. I saw despair and panic written on their face. So I said, mother, stay with him, let me try, leave everything to me. After all I am the oldest daughter and speak fluent English.
-Your English is perfect.
-So I put on my best ao dai, made specially for ceremonial occasions, and decided to come here. You see, this dignified ao dai, high collar, black satin with an embroidered golden dragon...
-It is lovely, but why this visit?
-Because there is nowhere else to go, no other route to take.
--Miss, I can sympathize, but...
--My father is your friend.
--Yes, he is.
-For years he has consistently supplied you with news, tips, and interpretations. You call him by his pen name Hope. It’s kind of a code name to denote how helpful he has been to you. Until last week, he was still supplying you with news about the Convoy of Tears, who in the National Assembly has connections to the North, the lobbying the Catholics are doing with Vatican, and all this talk about the possibility of a Third Force, neither communist nor pro-American, who can save Saigon from a bloodshed...
--All such news tips were greatly appreciated Your father is a fine man, and I am grateful for his help through the years.
--But you will leave him when the time comes.
--I told him to go home and wait.
--He is waiting, Mr. Sutherland. We are all waiting.
--Perhaps you should go home and wait with him.
--I am bringing you something.
--Oh please, there is nothing I want.
--I offer you my family heirlooms. You must have heard of my family.
--Not in great detail. But I know Hope’s wife came from the former capital city of Hue. That royal or mandarin background or whatever. Look, Miss, now is not the time to talk about history.
-It is exactly the time to talk history, Mr. Sutherland. I’ve brought you history. I came all prepared. Look, here are two ivory plaques, made out of elephant tusks thousands of years old, one belong to nhat pham trieu dinh, hong lo tu khanh, a mandarin of the first rank of the royal court, and the other one belonging to an admiral of the royal fleet. Here is a luscious green jade phoenix, once held by a royal concubine of the Nguyen Dynasty.
-They are beautiful, Miss.
--Mr. Sutherland, these belong to my extended family. Once a French collector offered my family tons of money for these items, and the answer was no. To give them away means to entrust our lives. Now, these items are yours.
--I am deeply moved but I dare not accept, Mademoiselle. Wait, wait, don’t frown. Let’s see. Perhaps there is another way for you and your family to get out of Vietnam. Come here, by the window, I’ll show you. You see, out there at Saigon harbor, sea merchants are selling spaces on their boats. At ten gold taels or so per head.
--You know we don’t have that kind of money. My father is a writer. He teaches at a starving wage. A local stringer who works for you on the basis of friendship, not an employment contract.
--Perhaps you can sell the ivory plaques, the green jade.
--They mean life and death for us, but no one would pay ten gold taels for them at this time.
--Neither do I. I have no use for them. But don’t give me that sad look.
-How can the city seem so peaceful? I can see La Rue Catinat with all those fashionable kiosks. The big circle in front of the Opera House, animated, full of traffic -- those mopeds, and cyclos, and those yellow and navy blue Renauld taxis. Everything seems so normal. You see that ancient clock over the Ben Thanh Market? It has been there since the French time, before I was born. My grandmother said troops came. Troops left. People revolted. Jailed. Escaped. Returned. Died. And the clock has been watching.
--Are you all right, Miss? You are turning pale. You seem lost in a trance.
-The clock has remained intact, as though people can do much havoc to themselves, to the city, but they can’t do anything to time. Or perhaps the clock is laughing at history, at all our anxiety and panic and all the things one must do in a time like this. You’re part of what’s happening here. You know what the American Congress is going to do. What city will fall next. When the Viet Cong troops are moving in.
-I don’t know as much as you think. But I know this, and I will tell you right now. In any moment, with a signal from Washington, Voice of America will play White Christmas, and all U.S. personnel are to report immediately to the Embassy. And I’m supposed to be here 24 hours a day, around the clock, waiting for the tune of White Christmas over the radio, to cover the end of the war. My nerves are raw. If you would, Mademoiselle, please...
-So I am right. You know the end is near. That means you can make things happen.
- ...leave. Just leave, please. Don’t force me to be rude. Take your heirlooms and go home to your father, and if I have good news, I will come to the house.
-Mr. Sutherland, in the hotel lobby, there are women...
--Bar girls, I guess, looking desperate, waiting for their American boyfriends or husbands. Their ticket to the last flight out.
--Miss, you are shaking and your eyes are all red. Are you all right? Would you like a sandwich? I’ve ordered Room Service. Aren’t they working around here any more? Maybe a hot towel would help.
--Out there in the lobby, no one wears an ao dai with a gold dragon and silk trousers over escapin shoes. They are all in bell bottoms and mini-skirts and platform shoes, with their fake eyelashes, foam enhancers inside their bras, and all that heavy makeup and broken English. I don’t belong. Yet I have walked through there. Just like the girls, I am ready to beg and kneel. And the hotel manager, Vincent, he had such a hard time keeping the girls under control. He tried so hard to keep up that French elegance. He was nice to me, yet his eyes had that same question, why was I looking for a room number like the girls? Finally, he screamed at the girls, putains, putains, and I had lowered my head in shame.
--I am sorry, Miss, you should not have come here...Oh, my goodness, the tape recorder, still running.... Oh no, what are you doing?
--Help me, Mr. Sutherland. Help us.
--Hey, lady, stop. What are you doing?
--I won’t watch my father sent to a communist jail. I have teenage siblings who need a future elsewhere. My mother is a fragile woman who loves to plant flowers and cries in times of crisis.
--Oh, Mademoiselle, please stop. You are not being yourself.
-Those people from the North who will be coming out of the Cu Chi tunnel, Mr. Sutherland, they don’t like us. French-educated professor. Informer for the Americans. Bourgeois. Annamese aristocrat. We stand for what the people from the North have been trying to destroy.
--Miss, I am asking you to leave. Or, I think I will leave.
--They say I am beautiful, Mr. Sutherland.
--You are, but this is ridiculous.
--My family heirlooms are not enough.
--That’s not the point, Mademoiselle. You are indeed lovely.
--I am eighteen years old. Everyone says I am mature beyond my years. I feel a hundred years old at times. It came from being the oldest girl in a family like us. They all thought the Lycee girls were wild Vietnamese congai’s who spoke French and acted like French movie stars, but not me. I always dream of loving someone and he is beautiful. But he is not here and you are here and...
--All you need to do is to put us on the plane.
--It isn’t that simple.
--Tell your boss in America I am your wife. Tell them anything, anything. Take us to America and I’ll be your maid. I’ll sweep your floor. I’ll do anything.
--Oh what have I done? You are gorgeous.
--Mr. Sutherland, it is simple. I have figured it all out. I’ll stay here with you. You can do whatever you want with me. And together we will be waiting for the VOA to play... what is it?
--All right, White Christmas. And only then will we leave together. We’ll pick up my family on the way. And you will see to it that all of us board the plane.
--Miss, I should throw you the bed sheet.
--Either I stay here with you, or I will go into another room. Any room. I’ll find myself another American man and leech myself to him. A GI, perhaps.
--Oh no, please you can’t do that.
--I am not looking at you, Mr. Sutherland. I am looking down at the floor. It’s gray marble.
-I should be turning away. I should leave this God-damned hotel room.
--I can hear the air-conditioning. I am so cold. The grey marble. I’ll remember it. Cold as it is.
--Oh, please don’t cry!
-Everything may collapse, but perhaps this gray marble floor will sustain. It will remember me, this day...What is today?
--April 25th, 1975.
--This day in April, and the gray marble floor. When this is all over, perhaps I won’t remember.
--You make it so difficult for me, Mademoiselle. You are exquisite. Just exquisite.
--I am feeling this gray marble floor with my bare feet, and then I am lying down.
--Mr. Sutherland, have they played White Christmas yet?
The day is long in March and the hot and humid climate of Texas reinforces my self-indulgent illusion that sunshine will last forever. At six o’clock in the evening, the bright day has not died out, and the traffic of Westheimer street is gradually turning into a slow-moving bee-like stream.
The patrons of La Griglia parade in, all beaming with their bright eyes, the women lifting the corner of their mini-skirts, the men glancing at their gold watches underneath their grey coat sleeves. I am sitting at the bar, facing the front door, hiding my roving eyes behind the dark sunglasses so I can be free to become the people watcher of Houston. I rest my eyes on the mannequin face of some Texas beauty, who reminds me of an unkempt peacock, with her turquoise frilly dress and beehive of purplish red hair. I cast my eyes to the beer belly of some Texas oilman, well covered under his navy blue coat jacket glamorized with a row of bright gold buttons that match his bright gold cufflinks. The Houston yuppies move leisurely to the front door from their shiny BMW convertibles and luxury Lexus’s, the alloy tire rims, leather seats, and customized license plates making the statement of success for their owners.
The primitive colors of LaGriglia’s southwestern artwork take me to Mexico’s green grass, brown earth, red sun, and the deep yellow grains of its corn tortillas. Gorgeous twenty-year-old waiters and waitresses sing the exotic menu with twenty different kinds of salads while holding in their rosy hands baskets of hot bread wrapped in crisp white cloth, gliding them toward the tilting cups of glistening butter. Delicious oiled garlic and melted cheese fill the air, mixed with the slight intoxicating ferment of red and white wine, the tanginess of fresh tomato and tamarind sauces, and the rich floury smell of home-made pasta and corn tortilla.
I sniff into my lungs the smell of food and drinks yet my pallet remains immune to the seduction of the culinary art. People turn robots through the lens of my sunglasses until the familiar gait of an Asian male appears at the door in his khaki pants and denim shirt. I raise a finger and he sees me immediately, the familiar broad grin pulls his full lips upward and puts wrinkles on the bridge of his elegant nose, harmonizing with the unconscious raising of his dark brows. I recognize the trademark boyish grin of my brother. That part of him has not changed and perhaps will never change. In my mind the boyish grin becomes the link between the man and his childhood. Now perhaps he has gained a little weight around his waistline. Perhaps his thick shining black hair has thinned out a little. Perhaps his grin is only boyish in my mind. Pi is a man now and he acts like a man. I slip down from the bar stool and he places one arm around me, a head taller than the top of my teased hair. His embrace is that of a grownup, more of an influence from his Americanism than the French elementary school Aurore of his Vietnamese childhood.
There is nothing traditional Vietnamese about Pi’s embrace. In the old days, Vietnamese boys did not embrace their big sisters. Then, big sisters were treated like mothers, revered and bowed to, from whom sacrifice was given and directions taken for the sake of the family. Now in stylish La Griglia, Pi can be mistaken for my boyfriend showing up for our early evening date. And he is embracing me.
“Hello, Mimi,” he calls me by my American name, “looking good, sis,” he says. He is speaking English without an accent and we are meeting in LaGriglia, where we act like Texas yuppies, instead of some Pho noodle shop in the Vietnamese neighborhood of midtown Houston, where we suck in those long, flat, tasty noodles while our bamboo chopsticks dip and stir in the meaty broth sprinkled with chopped green chives and coriander.
Simone will be arriving late, Pi tells me as we sit down at a table for four. Immediately he starts giving me a full account of the rat race of Friday afternoon --he has had to fight the four o’clock traffic to take my mother to his new home across town in an affluent suburb of Houston, the Woodlands. Regardless of when Simone arrives, he will have to leave before eight. Only I, the unmarried and unattached, can stay past eight and sit idly at LaGriglia to catch the attention of these young men wearing white shirts and designer ties, arriving in the restaurant after they have valeted their BMW convertibles.
Once upon a time, we were three children inseparable in our daily routines, sharing a bowl of rice and splitting a piece of fruity American chewing gum into three parts. Simone used to put Pi up front and I tagged on the back of her bike, and together we toured the streets of District Eight, Saigon, laughing at the dirt particles that flew against our young faces, in the heat emanating from the dusty tires of those military trucks -- the camions that graced Saigon’s busy streets and spoke of a country at war financed by foreign aids. But in those days I had no awareness of danger, whether the source of which were the camions that could crush our bike, or the threat of war.
Now we live in America, are afraid of high cholesterol and the health risks of overeating, and we see each other twice a year, once at Christmas and the second time only for special meetings like this.
There will not be too many meetings like this, I hope. I tell Pi and he shrugs his shoulders. Someone calls, Peter, and Pi turns around to shake hands with a blond young man in a starched white shirt.
“Meet my sister MiMi,” Pi says to the starched shirt, and I take off my sunglasses at last. “So this is the Harvard trained lawyer, the White House Fellow, your superwoman sister you always brag about,” the starched shirt says in his distinctive Texas drawl. They work together for Hewlett Packard, Pi says.
“Peter?” I repeat, and my brother explains that he has officially changed his name from Pierre to Peter.
While the starched shirt is busy digging his fork into the grilled chicken breast topping his Cesear salad, I ask Pi why he prefers being called Peter. “Convenience,” he says, “as I am tired of being called Peer instead of Pierre. If I had ended up in France I would have been Pierre. But I am in Texas now. Pierre is too French and it makes me unpopular among my colleagues at Hewlett Packard.
Peter Giang-Son. My brother’s new name brings back my bittersweet memory of the day we, as a family, were processed for naturalization. It was an important event. Even Simone had flown down to Houston from New York City for the special occasion, so we could all be naturalized together as a family.
Things were supposed to go smoothly on that historic day, until my father, in his stubborn way, decided to create a problem for all of us. My father’s full name, the correct Vietnamese way, was Tran Giang-Son. The family name Tran came first. His given name, Giang-Son, came last. Giang-Son meant river and mountain, a metaphor derived from the literary phrase Giang-son gam voc. Rivers and mountains, beautiful like silk and satin. The literary phrase was used metaphorically to describe a beautiful country. So my father’s full name was Tran the Beautiful Country. If my father were to follow the American way, the family name would come last, and he would be Giang-Son Tran, instead of Tran Giang-Son.
No big deal, but that day at the Immigration and Naturalization Service, my father acted up.
Ten minutes before our interview, my father announced solemnly and adamantly that he would not reverse his name to conform it to the American way. The reversal destroyed the melody, he said. It destroyed everything about him, he added, and I could not understand why, but he kept repeating the word “destroy” in Vietnamese and his eyes were red. He sat in a corner, reciting a Vietnamese poem over and over again, while his three children stared at one another, worried and confused, knowing he had, again, slipped into his madness.
It started with the day when my father stopped his car along Interstate 45, on the way from Houston to Galveston beach, in order to rescue a turtle who was crawling aimlessly across the freeway -- the beginning of what we considered our father’s non-violent and harmless episodes of temporary insanity. Those days, my father had given up all hopes of finding a teaching job. He had given up writing or researching. Instead, with cash from Simone and a loan from his friends, he had bought an old shrimp boat and rented it out to the Vietnamese shrimpers in the Gulf of Mexico. Every week, he drove to Galveston to check on the boat and to collect his weekly rent.
That night, my father declared to us at dinner that he had adopted the poor little turtle as his fourth child to replace his first born Simone, who had married his American friend and boss at the news service in Saigon, the AP journalist Christopher Sutherland. Mr. Sutherland was twice Simone’s age and the marriage was entered into hurriedly a few days before the fall of Saigon to secure our departure for America. For years Mr. Sutherland had never once contacted my father, and my parents never once talked about Simone’s marriage.
Oblivious to our wide-opened eyes and gaped, rice-filled mouths, my father even declared he had given the turtle a name. He called it Ali Baba, after a character from The Arabian Nights -- Ali Baba and the forty bandits.
We were all shocked that night by my father’s solemn declaration about the turtle. I, in particular, was not sure whether he was just joking, or whether he was truly bitter about Simone’s marriage. Bitter to the point he was going to replace her with a turtle.
That summer, I had graduated from college, was living at home with my parents and Pi, prepared to enter Harvard Law School in the fall on a combination of scholarship and Simone’s help in cash. My father had refused to talk to me about Harvard, never once congratulating me. He handled my Harvard admission with the same silence he had treated Simone’s marriage. It was as though he was ashamed, instead of being proud of my Harvard admission, unable to bear the thought that I had come to Simone for financial help, rather than asking him for a share of his modest income deriving from the old shrimp boat.
But the shrimp boat, too, was partly the result of Simone’s cash -- something my father never wanted to admit.
I was puzzled, of course. Nonetheless, we the children exhibited little reaction or objection to my father’s idiosyncrasy about the turtle. After the fall of Saigon, in our own quiet way, we had denied ourselves the luxury of outward reaction to shock. Further, even among the professor of the old University of Saigon, my father had always had the reputation as a frustrated, impoverished, dissident intellectual. So, we quietly watched while our father put Alibaba into a portable plastic sink and took it to the bedroom.
From then on, my father spent hours each day taking care of his turtle. My mother, the classic subservient wife, went along and even helped him feed the little animal with bread crumbs, occasionally expressing her concern that the turtle might be toxic.
We would have taken my father’s turtle for granted, until one night, when my mother slipped out of their bedroom and told us in tears. “Your father has gone insane. He has been speaking to the turtle every night. Tonight, he calls the animal Simone,” she said.
Pi and I quietly tiptoed through the hallway and placed our ears onto the door to my father’s bedroom. We even pushed the door open a little, seeing my father kneeling on the floor, next to the plastic sink where he kept his Ali Baba. He was indeed talking to the turtle, calling it Simone, his precious, beautiful first-born child. Pi could not understand the monologue, but I did. My father was reciting Vietnamese classical poetry, passionately and intensely, as though Ali Baba could understand every word. It had been years since I heard my father reciting those verses. It used to be a habit of his, in the old country.
In fact, I still have vivid memory of those nights in Hue, when Simone and I were not yet ten years old, bored and upset because our absent-minded, clumsy father had decided to take over our grandmother’s roles in our young lives by putting us to bed. Awkwardly, the young father first exhausted passages from Alphonse Daudet’s Le Chevre de Monsieur Seguin, the little goat of Mr. Seguin, running around somewhere in the countryside of France. He then progressed onto a reading of Vietnamese poetry. I never forgot my father’s favorite Vietnamese poem, which he read to us that night and many times thereafter:
Toi dung ben nay song,
ben kia vung dich dong,
lang toi do xam den mau tiet dong
I stood on this side of the river
on the other side, the enemy’s zone,
in between lies my village,
the haze of its horizon bearing the color of frozen blood
That night in Hue, Simone had pouted, asking my father to please go away. She wanted our grandmother to sing the melodious folk tunes of Nam Binh. She wanted neither the little goat of Mr. Seguin the Frenchman, nor the frozen-blood haze of my father’s North Vietnamese village. My father, losing his patience, had spanked her, and she had cried.
It was the first and only time he had laid hands on her.
The year was 1979, in Houston, Texas, when my father recited again the same Vietnamese poem, this time to his turtle Alibaba swimming in a portable plastic sink.
“What is he saying, sis, what does it mean?” Pi roundened his innocent eyes into a question. Pi had had no literature classes in the old country. He was too young when we left. Naturally I did not expect my youngest brother to possess the linguistic ability to understand the words my father was reciting to his Ali Baba. Perhaps my father had realized this. Perhaps that was one more reason why he had adopted Ali Baba into his family, the poor abandoned, misplaced turtle from a Texas highway.
“Doi nguoc ho ten cha me dat, tap lam con tre noi ngu ngo.” At the Immigration and Naturalization Office in downtown Houston, my father went on to sing another poem written by a friend of his -- a Vietnamese writer living in exile. The writer could no longer write or publish. He could not speak English, and he had reversed his name. So subtly he complained about all these things in a poem, printed in some crummy-looking newsletter distributed at Vietnamese grocery markets, all located in the less than desirable part of town.
My father was murmuring his friend’s poem to himself, the same way he had spoken to his turtle at home. I understood the meaning of those words. I should not complain, the poet admitted. I am among the fortunate ones who should celebrate freedom. Just a little inconvenience here and there, the poet went on. For example, I reverse the name my parents have given me, and I become a child again, talking with my hands, babbling in a language I cannot speak.
Stunned, I watched my father close his eyes as though he were meditating, travelling alone into his private world, saying his favorite exile verses over and over again like a chant, as though we no longer existed around him. In that moment, my father became the lonely immigrant who slipped away from reality, shutting out his wife and children, such that only Ali Baba the turtle could become the lonely man’s trusted friend.
Before the immigration authority that day, my father officially remained Tran Giang-Son, the new middle-aged citizen of the United States of America. No longer Dr. Tran Giang-Son the schoolteacher, but the small-time entrepreneur Tran Giang-Son who owned a shrimp boat that broke down all the time because it was so old, used by no other shrimpers in the Gulf but the newcomer, penniless Vietnamese who couldn’t speak a word of English.
There was a problem, still. Without the name reversal, my father would be called Mr. Son, while Pi and I would be Pierre Tran and Mimi Tran. (The married Simone wanted to keep her Vietnamese last name as her middle name, so she would be Simone Tran Sutherland.) People in America would be asking why our father and his children did not have the same last name.
We the children kept discussing back and forth. Meanwhile, the immigration interviewer occasionally stuck her head out, calling the name of the next interviewee. We argued and argued so urgently and earnestly and the room was filled with our staccato Vietnamese clipping, tonal sounds, and the rest of the people who were also waiting for their interviews -- Mexicans, Indians, Peruvians, Pakistanis, Iranians, whatever places they were from -- were all staring at us. We must have looked like noisy clowns to them.
Amid all of this heated discussion, my mother had retreated to a corner, looking at a Cosmopolitan magazine, although her English was not good enough to understand Cosmopolitan. When I looked at her to seek her opinion, she smiled feebly and said whatever name the immigrant officer would like to call her, that would be just fine with her. And then she told me out of the blue, ”The sky is blue and I love America. It is my country.”
For a moment, I was lost. Then, I caught on. She had practiced the sentence at home so that she could say it perfectly to the immigrant officer. My father had worked with her diligently the night before our scheduled interview to lessen her Vietnamese accent and to make sure she would not say the sentence the way she would be speaking French. The sentence had to be spoken in perfect American English, my father had stressed.
At the Immigration and Naturalization Office, my mother was practicing still, apparently in her head. I understood the emergency situation. My father had slipped into the mood of poetry recitation and my mother had taken refuge in the practice of her English. I had to become the take-charge daughter, a literary designer of a last name to solve the dilemma of the day.
I turned to Simone and Pi and announced I would be making the final decision about our last name. We would be taking my father’s given name, Giang-Son, as our last name. That way, in the American way, we would all have the same last name, and as a family, we would be the Giang-Son’s. I turned to Dr. Tran the Beautiful Country for his approval, but he was still closing his eyes.
I reasoned to my siblings that after all, Giang-Son did sound prettier than Tran. Giang-Son also sounded more Vietnamese, as the Chinese had Tran as a last name as well, so we would be maintaining our Vietnamese cultural identity better by being called Giang-Son, rather than being called Tran. Further, if the Americans misspelled Tran, we would all become Train, and that was no good. At least with Giang-Son, we would not run into that risk. My logic must have sounded fine, and everybody, including my mother, seemed happy with my literary design of a name. The three children would become Mimi Giang-Son, Pierre Giang-Son, and Simone Giang-Son. Not bad.
That was how we were prepared and ready to throw away our old names, Tran Thanh Mi Uyen, Tran Thanh Phi-Long, and Tran Thanh Mi-Chau, those beautiful lyrical Vietnamese names with special meanings that nobody here understood, names that consisted of foreign words too complicated and long-winding to be remembered. Finally the matter of name was solved satisfactorily, and we all sat down, contented and peaceful, waiting to be called for the interviews.
Unfortunately, the problems of the day did not end there. Pi had come in first for the interview. When he got out, he had officially become Pierre Giang-Son. My mother came in second. When she exited the room, she told us what happened.
There emerged the next complication.
During the interview, stressed out by my father’s sudden episode of temporary insanity, my mother had broken out crying. The kind-hearted immigration officer, a woman in her twenties, had gently asked my mother why. My mother’s broken, self-conscious English was inadequate for her to explain the complex turmoil of the soul, so all my mother could offer was a timid, short-handed explanation of the last name business. She managed to explain that in the old country of Vietnam, a married woman could retain her maiden name. My mother had had the same name all her life, vestige of her heritage. Yet that day she was all ready and prepared that day to change her full name from the long-winding Cong Tang Ton Nu Mi Suong to Suong Giang-Son, to conform herself to the American way and to be properly identified as Mr. Tran Giang-Son’s wife.
Apparently, the immigration officer thought the name change had made my mother cry. So, she zealously pursued a mission to help my mother maintain her long-winding Vietnamese name. She told my mother that in America, no citizen could be forced to change or reverse their name against her wish, and women, in particular, could make their own decisions, especially on such a personal matter like a last name. My mother was indeed threatened by the interviewer’s long and forceful explanation of what America was about on the issue of names, but in the end, my mother got the message. The bottom line was, my mother did not have to be called Mrs. Son instead of Mrs. Suong, simply to please her husband or to become American. She could be whatever she wanted to be.
The officer (not knowing she had unintentionally added to our family’s identity crisis) also pointed out to my mother, conveniently and casually, the terrible disadvantage of adopting my father’s last name Giang-Son. In English, “son” meant a male child. In the worst case, someone in America might even call my mother MaMa San, instead of Mrs. Giang-Son. Mama San, that stereotypical and derogatory way of referring to an old Asian woman! My mother would not like that. Facing the uncomplimentary possibility, in a split of a second and without further ado, my timid mother triumphantly said yes to the officer’s question whether she wanted to keep her old name.
So, thanks to the feminist officer, when my mother emerged from the interview room, the new citizen of America the beautiful, timid and disoriented still, had remained proudly as Mrs. Cong Tang Ton Nu Mi Suong -- a testament of my mother’s freedom of choice in her new country. The new citizen of America who emerged from behind the door of the interview room that day was Mrs. Cong Suong, wife of Mr. Tran Giang-Son, and mother of Pierre Giang-Son. By then, the whole system of consistency I had devised for the last name business had collapsed, because our father was Mr. Son, Pi was Mr. Son, and my mother was Mrs. Suong. Where would that leave the two daughters? After all this work and discussion, we still ended up with different last names.
Back to square one. And the discussion started all over. All eyes in the room were on us again and we became the quarrelling bunch that unavoidably received all the perceivably hostile attention and curiosity of our fellow aliens, all sitting around that day in the waiting room, perhaps equally anxious and nervous as we were, waiting to embark upon their new American identity.
It was then that Pi exploded. He said he had become Pierre Giang-Son and that was the end of it. All of this embarrassing discussion was the result of my father’s nonsensical approach to the legalization of his own name on the piece of paper called the naturalization court order. After all, Pi did not care if he was called Mr. Son or Mr. Daughter.
Amid that heated and loud argument, the immigration supervisor stepped out, his six-foot-five body seemed gigantic next to us. “What is the problem here?” The giant cleared his throat, and we all quickly became silent. I caught my mother’s worried eyes. I could tell she was panicking as though the copy of Cosmopolitan was withering in her hand, and her fragile frame would wither with it.
Once again, I became split-second creative and fixed the problem. The men in our family would be Giang-Son, and the women would be Giang-Suong, taking on my mother’s beautiful first name, Suong, which could sound like Swan, or Sean. In Vietnamese, Suong meant Dew. Giang-Suong meant River and Dew. So, the men would be River and Mountain, the beautiful country, and the women would be River and Dew -- misty dew over a river, still the poetic image of a beautiful country. I was being my romantic and creative self, proud that I had managed to hold on to this thing called our heritage. Giang-Son for boys, and Giang-Suong for girls. The rule made perfect sense.
I pushed Simone inside the room and the six-foot-five supervisor followed her and the door was shut. When she walked out she told us she had become Simone Giang-Suong Sutherland, and she liked it. The immigrant supervisor had asked her why the spelling of her Vietnamese last name was different from that of the men in the family, and she had simply smiled. “It is a complicated family, and a complicated place where we came from,” she told him, urging him to move on with the paperwork and simply honor her wish.
I was the last one to walk through the door for my interview with the feminist immigration officer. I found out she was a graduate of Smith College, where all the feminist students in America congregated (she proudly claimed). She congratulated me on my new name and identity, Mimi Giang Suong. “Sounds like Mimi Sean Young, how beautiful. Welcome to America,” she said.
We were then sent home to await the court date, where we would be sworn in as new citizens, pledging our allegiance to America before a federal judge.
On the way back home, we had no more discussion on the matter of name. My mother was happy that the immigrant officer had warmly praised my mother for making up her own mind and speaking beautiful English. “The sky is blue and I love America,” my mother had delivered the sentence perfectly.
My father seemed most pleased, and I understood why. Things had gone well. On the historic day, no disaster had occurred and he had got his way. He did not have to reverse his name like that poor poet. After all, Vietnamese or American, he was still Dr. Tran Giang-Son, the identity of the schoolteacher, and not Giang-Son Tran, the shrimp boat owner he had become. Perhaps in his mind, his children would still bear the beautiful Vietnamese names he had carefully chosen and constructed the day we were born. At home, we would always be Si, Pi, and Mi, the three children of the schoolteacher.
But it was important to us, how we were called when we sat in a classroom, were interviewed for a job, or went out on a date. I felt terrible. I should have persuaded my father to reverse his name. That way, we could all remain the Tran family. Instead I had let my wild mind run and my literary creativity had led to the splitting of the family in the domain of name. On the day we officially took our American identity, we had taken on different last names. Giang-Son. Giang-Suong. One of these days people would be asking us why the spelling of our last names was different, among brother and sisters, father and daughters, husband and wife. It would be a far too complicated, boring, and ridiculous story to tell. And nobody would understand anyway. Perhaps we would just lie and blame it all on the towering tall immigrant supervisor in charge of processing our paperwork, or the overzealous feminist officer who encouraged my mother’s freedom of choice. Perhaps we would just claim the giant man had misspelled our name so no more questions would be asked. Or, we might as well have become John Doe and Mary Smith. The sadness in me grew as I looked back at the federal building office where our papers would be processed.
What I saw behind me was impersonal. All I could see was the facade of a building.
Just a building.
“OK, Peter, but to me, you are Phi-Long,” I call him by his first name given at birth, the masculine name meaning a traversing horse that turns into a flying dragon because of his unbeatable, magical speed.
“OK, I got it, sis,” he blinks. “My sister, the writer, the romantic. You don’t want me to forget my roots. Okay okay okay. I am Phi-Long.”
He says, too, that I am too romantic to hold a Harvard law degree, too romantic for the dreadful routines of corporate law, too romantic to play the stake of Wall Street and get rich. Silently I acknowledge the truth he has laid out. In those places he just mentioned, I have disguised my romantic self for a while, floating above water just enough so I would not be discarded and stepped on by the unromantic.
I add to his statement the fact that I am too romantic to get married and love an ordinary man. I want someone who calls me his First Lady and one day I will be dying still waiting for him. Our statements summarize all the failures and dissatisfaction of my life. I have hung on to my romanticism as though it were the only treasure left after an earthquake. And because I am romantic, I prefer calling him Phi-Long now and then. My brother tolerates my choice.
Someone is calling my name. “Mimi, over here.” I see Simone approaching in the New Yorker’s signature little black dress that accented her slenderness. I have not seen her since last Christmas and in the light of the early evening, despite the high fashion model look, her face appears drawn and her eyes slightly red. Her sleek, straight black hair has been layered and highlighted into a light brown, wavy shag. The furrows on both sides of her mouth are the only obvious sign of her forty-something era. The fine baby hair on the side of her cheeks contrast against her translucently smooth skin. The tiny blood veins under the small, porcelain skin gives it the reddish pink shade of a young Chinese apple. My sister is the sweet child-woman, ageless in her way.
Finally we are together, the three children of Ong Giao, the Vietnamese schoolteacher who refused to reverse his name.
The restaurant is getting crowded and I order foie gras mousse as an appetizer, in commemoration, I say, of Simone’s and Pi’s French elementary school, that period of time, so long ago, when Pi still wore his navy blue shorts and carried a bidon of water on a shoulder strap. Ecole, ecole, ecole, je deteste l’ecole, I hate school, he used to say.
I have no time to indulge myself in the nostalgia of childhood since Pi makes a hand gesture and anxiously gets right into a discussion of family affairs.
“We can all spare childhood remembrance for now,” he says. In his toastmaster public speaking style, he expertly summarizes the living arrangement for our mother. I can see him making a presentation at work for Hewlett Packard. He deserves every promotion Hewlett Packard has given him. He acts like an American male and there is little Vietnameseness, if any, left in him -- that sullen, shy, non-communicative and scrupulous look from eyes that are lowered and glancing sideway, and the perpetual smile that beams up a flat face -- the signature of the Vietnamese spirit. Praise a Vietnamese, he smiles. Beat him up, he smiles. Shoot him finally, he dies smiling, a Vietnamese writer has written.
But Pi is not smiling scrupulously like a Vietnamese. Instead, he is professionally eloquent like a serious presenter, a straight shooter a la American style. He readily justifies why my mother is better off living with him as the Grandma-nanny for his baby girl. My mother cannot adapt to my single life or Simone’s Manhattan existence. The problem, however, is Pi’s dark-haired Iris American wife, who may find the concept of a live-in Vietnamese mother in law a culture shock. One does not expect the host country to understand our Vietnamese way. So, my mother’s living conditions under Pi’s household can only be a tryout, to be revisited in the future.
And then Pi mentions the Hy Vong Viet. The Vietnamese Hope.
Simone brushes her hair backward and pulls a scarf out of her tote bag. She wraps it around her head to cover up the dark brown shag. I know it is her nervous gesture. Like our late grandmother, Simone has adopted the habit of doing things to her hair to hide her emotions. Sometimes, with the use of a scarf; other times, with a hair clip. Since her husband died, she has reestablished her ties with the family, travelling to Texas once a year to see our parents. I have learned my big sister’s nervous habit by observing her at these yearly Christmas get-togethers’s.
The mentioning of the Vietnamese Hope must have hit her raw nerves. In Vietnam, my father wrote newspaper articles under the pen-name “Hope,” and the teenager Simone was known at the Saigonese national press club as Hope’s beautiful daughter.
For more than two decades of his life in America, my father never mentioned his former pen-name, until he founded the magazine. He called it the Hy Vong Viet, Vietnamese Hope.
“Dad has been asking me for five hundred dollars a month to support the Hy-Vong Viet,” Pi takes a gulp of his iced water. “Five hundred dollars a month, you hear me? It’s totally ridiculous. And guess what,” Pi chews on his ice, and soon the glass is empty. “Dad does not want to ask the girls because he thinks the Hy-Vong Viet should be the responsibility of the boy in the family. C’est Moi, that’s me,” he points to the middle button of his denim shirt.
I detect resentment in his voice.
The waiter is serving our foie gras and a French baguette. I see past Pi’s anxious face to envision the profile of my father’s face at sixty-five years of age, with his facial muscles sagging and drooping, and those age spots that fill his cheekbones. He has lost the elegance of the facial bone now distinctive in Pi’s handsome Asian face. On my aging father, somehow the elegant bone structure must have been buried deep under sagging skin and loose muscles. Only when the elegance was gone, and the retirement paper properly signed, did my father establish the Hy-Vong Viet, his one-man publishing house and one-man magazine dedicated to the “revitalization of Vietnamese literature” and “advocacy of liberal democracy in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.”
He has distributed two issues of the Hy-Vong Viet to Vietnamese grocery stores, unwelcomed by shoppers who preferred reading the community gossip. The magazine has consumed a good junk of my father’s modest retirement income from the school district. He had taught there for years, taking care of under-privileged black, Hispanic and Asian bi-lingual children from the urban ghettos of Houston, after his shrimp boat had gone up in flame in the conflict between the Vietnamese Gulf Coast shrimpers and the hooded men of the Klu Klux Clan, which attracted national press in the eighties.
Finally, his retirement came as a joyful escape from the routines of his life. My father could not wait to take off to California where his old buddies, the left-over literati of the defunct South Vietnam, would jump in and help Hy-Vong Viet survive. These retired old men have all rid themselves of their jobs and are now into the survival of the Vietnamese Hope full time.
Somewhere else, in LaGriglia for example, that spirit is dying, and my brother has no sympathy for it, and I have no energy to argue, explain, or plead for my father’s case.
It is ridiculous, Pi continues, that for two decades we have become the supporters of unemployed relatives in Vietnam. We the new Vietnamese Americans, with one foot in the old Vietnamese culture and one foot elsewhere, have been made into the unwilling rescuers of a failing communist economy transitioning into the market model of the West. We have had to expend the kind of expenses we cannot deduct on our income tax returns, and now we are being asked to support the revival of this Vietnamese Hope, whatever that means to Dad.
Pi’s liberal wife, a former local administrator of the Houston chapter of the ACLU, has indicated she would not mind putting the money into a mutual fund for my father, instead of supporting this ethnic press of his. It is either a tranquilizer or an old-age hobby for these old men, Pi says. Like playing bingo, he adds.
“I would take care of the five hundred dollars,” Simone says, and Pi’s face turns red. “It isn’t so much the money, it’s the principle of thing, the ridiculous nature of the task,” Pi says. They are both talking at the same time, and I settle the matter by suggesting that we split the five hundred dollars three ways. Almost two hundred dollars per child to keep the old man happy. He may die tomorrow, I say, and there will not be a Hy-Vong Viet for us to argue about. The Vietnamese Hope, whatever that is, will go with him.
At that point, Pi and Simone stop talking, the discussion is closed, and we each carry on our own thoughts. We all choke on our foie gras and French bread, and Simone complains that Houston restaurants do not have good French baguettes like Manhattan. So she decides to order a salad with the house specialty dressing: some sort of combination of garlic and mustard in cream.
When the salad arrives, unconsciously we split the dish three ways, the Vietnamese way. In the old-way tradition, we Vietnamese share our food. And ourselves.
“There is something else,” Pi says, his angular face turns sombre. “Hewlett Packard may send me to Vietnam for three years, top
pay of course, neat career move.” His tense dark brows spell irritation and worries, contradicting his positive words.
“Then what is the problem? You should be excited,” I close my eyes and see Pi again as a child in his torn open shirt and cotton shorts. “You will be seeing Saigon again. You’ll go back to those places where we used to be. The house, the alleys in District Eight, the French school Aurore. Maybe you will return to Hue. Remember those longan trees and jack fruits. You’ll eat those succulent tropical fruits to your heart’s desire. You’ll suck the sweet juice out of the peels and seeds, ” I am dreaming of childhood.
“Except for that terrible Vietnamese Hope, the Hy-Vong Viet of our beloved father,” Pi says gravely. “It is an anti-government publication, isn’t it? It’s like the Cubans’ Bay of Pigs, isn’t it? It may get me into trouble. Don’t we all know the communist government has the best undercover system?” Pi is in fact worried, the deep vertical lines between his dark brows reflecting both displeasure and paranoia. Pi’s frown reminds me of my father’s face more than two decades ago, the night we boarded the cargo plane at Tan Son Nhat airport, en route to America before the Russian tanks rolled into our capital city, and then the Republic of South Vietnam went defunct after that.
The brows came together the same way. Call it genetic.
“You read too many Tom Clancy’s novels,” Simone says. “If it were me, I would be worried about something else.”
“What?” Both Pi and I utter the word simultaneously.
--The toilet. I would be worrying about the Vietnamese toilet. I wouldn’t go unless Hewlett Packard provides me with the best of housing with an American commode that flushes properly.
We are all staring down at what’s left of the foie gras. Childhood comes back, not in the fragrant delight of tropical fruits, but instead, with its haunting memory of an impoverished country.
“I am sure corporate America can accommodate Pi’s needs for a modern commode,” I try to join Simone’s joke in my usual anti-corporate way. Pi is not smiling.
We should be laughing, and childhood memory can become funny. But somehow there is no joy among us. Without admitting it, we must all be thinking of the Tet Offensive. The Year of the Monkey. Nineteen sixty-eight. The three of us were old enough then to remember the experience. After all, we are the three children of Ong Giao, the schoolteacher, possessing genetically the terrific memory, intellect and sensitivity of the Vietnamese literati.
We were in the middle of New Year Celebration, and I was still on school break when the radio told us the Viet Cong were moving into the heart of Saigon. They had staged the offensive line in the outskirts of the Capital City, and rockets would soon be flying over our head.
We were to report to the nearest army post, two blocks from our house, for a distribution of sandbags, the radio said. My father made about fifty trips on his motocyclette to transport the sand. I watched my father, the schoolteacher, dig a square hole in the family room of our townhouse in District Eight, Saigon. Sandbags piled up and walled off the four corners of the square hole. With a small shovel, Simone, Pi and I helped him stuff and secure each bag. We were too little and weak to lift the bags and my father moved them, one by one, on his skinny back all by himself. He did not want my mother to lift anything for fear the weight would damage her “female organs.” We helped push the bag onto his back while he was standing in the square hole, and then he would bend low and lean sideway for the bag to fall onto the lower ground in the proper place. His glasses kept falling off the bridge of his nose and he picked them up and dusted the sand off them.
Day after day we worked on building our harbor against VC rockets.
At night we crammed into the square hole and listened nervously to the sound of rockets. It roared at first and went siu, siu, siu, cutting through the air, ending with a big, seemingly so far away. Sleeping together in the square hole, we could not move without waking each other. Simone complained that we were like sardines in a can, a French metaphor. To me, the discomfort of becoming sardines boxed by sand bags was more devastating than any threat of rockets.
During the day, we divided rice rations and helped our mother roast sesame seeds. My mother planned each meal such that we would have rice and sesame seeds every day. Before the New Year, she had filled up the rice container, which should last for a few months. My parents were tense, but the three children enjoyed the break from school.
But my enjoyment did not last. The radio said the Viet Cong had taken over Hue. Our Grandmother was still in Hue, where the fighting and rocketing were the most severe. Each night, I cried in my sleep, dreaming that my grandmother had been shot and died alone in Hue, and I was not there to bury her.
But death had no real meaning to me until one night, when I heard a terrifying big noise, followed by sounds of glass breakage. Pi woke up and started crying.
“Hush, hush, hush,” my father made an urgent sound to silence the kids. I was too startled to cry. My mother began praying to our ancestors.
I heard another noise. For a moment, I thought my eardrums had been pierced and I had gone deaf.
There was no more noise after that. Eventually, I fell asleep in the monotonous sound of my mother’s prayer to Buddha. “Nam Mo A Di Da Phat...” Her prayer became my peace.
In the morning, I crawled out of the square hole. Pi was still sleeping. My parents and Simone were gone. Where could they be?
I walked to the family room and found chaos. All windows in our house had been broken. Pieces of glass were everywhere. I hopped on one foot and tiptoed around the broken glass to the front yard.
All of the adults had gathered in front of our house looking onto the alley. I found my mother and Simone standing among them, sobbing. Instinctively I knew something terrible had happened.
The house in front of our house was gone. Debris took its place. People were pulling bodies out underneath bricks, burnt wooden slabs, and sandbags. I could see glimpses of bloody arms and legs. Someone put bedsheets over them. And then the bodies were carried away.
The sandbags had not saved my neighbors.
I heard Simone weeping out loud. My mother was saying her Buddhist prayer in small phrases. Nam Mo A Di Da Phat. The monotonous sound blended with Simone’s sobs. My mother placed a hand over my eyes as I was straining my neck to look at the piles of debris that filled the alley. She told me to go inside and keep Pi from rushing out. He did not need to see this, she said. Pi and I were to stay in the square hole with the sandbags.
I went inside and stared at the broken glass in the living room. I needed no more definition of death. It smelled like sandbags and blood, in the dampness of a square hole.
Life continued with our carefully planned rice rations and roasted sesame seeds. My mother handed us the last of the minced dried pork and the three children shared their last meal with meat, knowing that the following day, there would be nothing but plain rice and sesame. I longed for a piece of meat, or fruit. There was no wet market and we stayed locked in the house. My father’s ears were glued to the portable radio. The South Vietnamese army and their American allies had not lost control of the central radio station, and that was a good sign, my father declared.
The deaths of our neighbors proved that the sandbags were insufficient protection. So my father, the schoolteacher, devised another idea.
Over the bathroom in the house was a water tank storing water supply for household use. The bathroom was small and old, with no Western-styled commode.
Believing the water tank would buffer us against rockets, my father made us sleep in the tiny bathroom at night, when the rockets started roaring. The bathroom floor was only large enough to hold two people, while there were five of us: parents and three children. So my father devised another scheme. Every night, one parent and one child would sleep in the bathroom. If the rocket hit and one part of the family was killed, at least one parent would hopefully stay alive to raise at least one surviving child. Each night, one of the three children took the greater chance to live by sleeping in the bathroom under the water tank.
We, the children, hated the bathroom and preferred the square hole bordered with sandbags. Sleeping in the bathroom meant having our head against the platform on which the old commode sat. It meant listening to water dropping onto the commode throughout the night. The old-styled commode was built like a chair over a black hole. One pulled a string above one’s head to flush. Water dripped down periodically in tiny drops, making dreadful noises all night. I dreamt of water dripping onto my hair, my face, one drop at a time, cold and ill-smelling, testing every nerve ending. Our feet were under the showerhead and our toes almost touched the black hole where water drained.
My father had promised us he would renovate the old bathroom right after the Lunar New Year. No one expected we would be sleeping in that dreary bathroom.
But we did, taking turns every night.
It was Pi’s turn to sleep with our father in the bathroom one night when I was awakened by his shrieking scream. In between intelligible sounds, the three-year-old sobbed, babbling that he had been awakened in the middle of the night and had seen a black snake crawling out of the black hole where water drained.
It was a tiny black hole the size of my ankle, providing barely enough room for the snake’s pointed head to poke out, its pair of red eyes staring at Pi’s toes. Terrified, Pi claimed that he had stood up and urinated right onto the snake’s head. The stream of urine hit the snake’s eyes and the reptilian creature withdrew into the black hole and disappeared.
Pi continued yelling his heart out throughout the night and, finally, my father had to carry him into the sandbagged square. There, Pi kicked and wiggled and screamed his protests until his voice turned hoarse and his head dropped onto my mother’s chest. Only when he collapsed did he stop screaming.
Pi and I changed places that night, and I had to join my father to take Pi’s place in the bathroom.
I sat up on the floor of the bathroom, quivering at the sound of my brother’s shrieking screams. My father had firmly made me stay.
“Be a brave little girl. There is no snake. Repeat after me,” he said.
“There is no snake,” I said timidly, my eyes wedged with tears. “I don’t want to sleep here, please.”
“Do you want to die, like our neighbors?” my father asked.
“No,” I gave another timid sound.
“Good, who is going to get that scholarship to Europe or America if you die under a rocket?” My father continued.
He told me again and again there was no snake. At best, there might be an eel living in the sewage. Eels were harmless. People ate eels like fish.
I could not sleep all night. It was better to die under rockets, with bloody arms and legs buried under debris, never to get that scholarship, than facing the terror of having that slimy black snake crawl upon my toes and up my thighs onto my belly button. The disgust and fear made me nauseous.
I waited until my father fell asleep and broke away from his arms. I crawled out of the undesirable, humid bathroom, onto the family room. I squeezed myself under the old upright piano my parents had purchased second-hand from a German priest. As a sturdy piece of furniture, the piano should shield me against rockets. I smelled the pleasant smell of polished wood and slept peacefully although the sound of rockets continued as I dozed off.
In the early morning hours, I crawled back into our wretched bathroom. There I lay, next to my father, my legs curled up in my desperate effort to keep my sensitive toes away from the black hole where the black snake supposedly resided.
Later on, I whispered the secret about my nightly escape to Pi and we both did the trick each time it was our turn to sleep in the bathroom. Neither of us knew for sure whether our parents discovered we had slipped away at night to sleep under the piano. One day passed and a new day came. Rockets kept flying at night and I kept on living. At one point, I became convinced in my heart that I had become non-perishable, even though rockets had hit the neighborhoods of Saigon and had battered our neighbors, after it had destroyed the Violet City in the heart of Hue, where our grandmother was. Hue had been taken over by the Viet Cong, the bad guys on the other side of the war. I had a notion that I had to live so that one day I would be returning to Hue to rebuild everything, because it was my ancient hometown.
The notion became a conviction.
I was right. Eventually, the South Vietnamese army and the American marines regained the ancient city of Hue. Shortly thereafter, the news came that our grandmother was well and safe in her ancestral house.
Together with the good news for our family was the television report that thousands of Hue inhabitants had been buried alive by Viet Cong guerrillas before their withdrawal back into the jungle.
I held on to my conviction that one day I would return to Hue.
I never did.
Outside the sunrays of the afternoon have wilted, and in the soft Latin jazz and dim light of LaGriglia, my brother’s face resembles a marble slate. I can no longer see the few tiny wrinkles of age that distinguished the boy of childhood from the man of the present day. His silence shows me perhaps he is still having unpleasant flashbacks about the black slimy snake of the Tet Offensive in 1968. Simone is silent, too, although she lowers her eyes, and her shag of brown hair covers up her apple cheek.
Our eyes meet briefly to share the message without words, acknowledging that all three children of Ong Giao must have carried Pi’s little nightmare into America. The nightmare of childhood manifests itself in our daily lives in varied ways. We have all become sushi fans yet we never touch eel -- the disgust about a slimy black snake must have run so deep it takes away all appetite. Simone is perpetually irritated by the sound of water dripping onto a cold surface. For me, the nightmare resurfaced full blown when I went apartment hunting for the first time in America. I did not like any bathroom where the tub sat right next to the commode. I could not enjoy a bath if the commode was within sight. Every time I submerged myself under water and caught sight of the commode, I would perk up in panic, thinking of those hours, days, and months in Saigon, when I was forced to lie in the tiny bathroom underneath a water tank, fearing rockets night by night.
We try to laugh lightheartedly, agreeing that if Pi goes to Vietnam, he should pack a portable toilet with him, together with an affidavit, “Dear Comrade, I know nothing about the Vietnamese Hope. That magazine is the sole product and responsibility of my father. He is too old to lead a coup, a revolution, or to overthrow the current government. After all, the Vietnamese Hope for liberal democracy in our homeland is just that. A hope.”
Our meal is almost over when finally Simone goes to the gist of our meeting. She speaks in her soft, clear, musical, and sometimes breathy voice, one of her best feminine features that causes her friends to compare her to the soft-spoken American icon, Jacqueline Bouvier Onassis Kennedy. I, on the other hand, have never been a fan of Simone’s small, husky voice. When she sings, her lyrical soprano voice becomes more powerful to my liking. I have always preferred female warriors and soaring birds to little whispering women or helpless butterflies.
Hurriedly Simone gives a report on the task assigned to her. She rushes through with such deliberate haste it is hard to follow her speech -- an unusual departure from her demure, calming, and controlled demeanor.
She has bought the land and chosen the spots at the recommendation of the Buddhist temple in southwest Houston and the Association of Vietnamese Senior Citizens, where old Vietnamese men and women gather and begin their monthly meetings with the salute to the South Vietnamese flag, which the rest of the world has forgotten. In the old, one-room community center in mid-town Houston, hidden modestly among run-down buildings and unkempt Vietnamese shops, every week the Vietnamese senior citizens stand up to sing the patriotic words of the defunct South Vietnamese national anthem, with the same ardency they had exhibited in their long-gone youth. “Nay cong dan oi, dung len dap loi song nui. My fellow countrymen, answer the call of the Vietnamese Hope echoing across rivers and mountains...” Their youth may be gone, but not those words about Giang-Son Gam Voc, those rivers and mountains of the homeland, beautiful like satin and silk -- the metaphor that signifies my father’s given name and has become our last name.
The land Simone described is a cemetery lot predominantly purchased by Vietnamese families, situated somewhere near the heart of Texas, rather than amongst the rivers and mountains of Vietnam. My mother has urged us to make preparation for her death. She makes clear she does not want to be lonely in her “journey to the other side of the world,” ben kia the gioi. It means she wants to be surrounded by Vietnamese-speaking neighbors -- friendly Vietnamese ghosts to whom she can talk in Vietnamese about the old country and customs, rather than baseball games or mutual funds. She also wants to be next to my father so she can continue cooking for him.
Simone rushes through the mathematical calculations. We get a discount on the land, so our share comes to fifteen hundred dollars for each parent, a total of three thousand dollars per child. In addition, Simone says racily, we should each contribute to a fund for their nursing home in the future.
At the mentioning of “nursing home,” a big lump raises in my throat as the garlic and mustard dressing goes to my head.
“I won’t let my parents spend their old age, lonely and isolated, in a nursing home,” I finally say and my two siblings remain silent. For a long time.
“You are too Vietnamese,” Simone breaks the silence with her soft, musical voice.
“She is just outright too romantic,” Pi repeats his theory. “You can be die-hard cultural now, protecting the old way, but just imagine the day when they are too old to take care of themselves, their hygiene, their myriads of old-age illnesses, and we are all tied up at a job, and our spouse and children...” Pi is looking at me, speaking as a realist, and I have to interrupt him, unable to hide the note of anger in my voice.
“Not too long ago, old folks in Vietnam lived and died among their grandchildren. They died close to their kitchen, with their kitchen god, in their altar house, behind bamboo curtains, anywhere but a nursing home around nurses who don’t speak the language,” I paint the romantic picture in my head. “The old folks in Vietnam, too, had their hygiene, and myriads of illnesses. What happened then? There wasn’t any nursing home there and then. “
“Go on, compose your poem,” my brother raises his voice with a touch irony. “I don’t know what happened then. There, life wasn’t the same. We are in America now. Can you quit your job to stay home and take care of senile parents, perhaps bed-ridden and out of touch with reality? Will you change their diaper and feed them spoons of rice congee? You are no nurse, and you have a job to go to...”
“But, Pi, I have already given up my job,” I blurt out.
“What?” Pi asks. “You must be kidding...”
I shake my head, denying the reality of the uncertain future I have created for myself. I have quit my lawyer job in hopes of writing full time. I must look pained, since Pi stops immediately, pulling his full lips into a nervous smile, his fingers tapping slightly on the table. He is stabbing the lettuce with his other hand. I know my brother too well to misinterpret his nervous gestures, because I once knew the boy before he turned into the man. Pi thinks I have given up the argument. He is feeling guilty for cornering me.
In a world that moves forward, only guilt can become the link that forever ties us to the past.
And so in fashionable LaGriglia we discuss the deaths of our parents before they occur, and commit ourselves to the choice of the cemetery lot. Pi has no time for desert, since he will be rushing across town to his suburban house where his beautiful children speak only English and where his beautiful Iris American wife is getting adjusted to the arrival of her Vietnamese mother-in-law.
Pi has left to get his car. Simone and I will see him off in front of La Grigglia.
He is driving by, stopping momentarily at the entrance of the restaurant to say good-bye.
“Mom wants to remind both of you that she has made a month’s supply of frozen crab meat egg rolls for each one of you.”
The exhaustion of the evening has caught up with me and I want desperately to go home to my mother’s egg roll supply. My mind travels to that cemetery in Southwest Houston, where some day she will lie among friendly Vietnamese speaking neighbors, and in that other world of theirs, perhaps the old men and women of Vietnam who lived and died in Houston will all be chatting about their unmarried children still left on earth, those Vietnamese Americans who have no homemade egg rolls to eat because their mother is gone.
There is no wind in a Texas night in March, yet I am chilled.
“Take care, sis,” Pi yells to us from the driver’s seat of his car.
I watch Pi drive away, realizing that these days my brother is driving a fashionable sports utility.
I am left alone with my big sister in front of La Grigglia.
“Let’s go inside for a while,” she says.
I nod and follow her back to our table. When she passes by me to sit down in the corner seat, I can detect her faint perfume. I might have imagined it, but I recognize the spicy fragrance of cinnamon. Back in the 60s, our grandmother kept a cinnamon log in our ancestral house in the ancient city of Hue. On the altar, there were a jade phoenix and two ivory plaques, vestige of our ancestors. Cinnamon fragrance permeated my grandmother’s sombre altar room. Those artifacts smelled like cinnamon.
My big sister leans over and blows out the candle light in the middle of our table. Her face becomes dark. There is no need for us to talk. As I search for Simone’s eyes, perhaps I may have seen a tear. I find in the darkness of her eyes underneath her moving lashes the shared knowledge of a time long gone called childhood, and that passage way from Vietnam to America. We are still sitting in a dark space, the two daughters of a Vietnamese schoolteacher. Almost thirty years have passed since that day in April, nineteen seventy five, the year she turned 18. My big sister is still beautiful, even in the dark.
Outside, the night has just fallen.
UYEN NICOLE DUONG
Editorial note: All works published in this issue are simultaneously published in the printed Wordbridge magazine double issue 3 &4 Winter 2003 & Spring 2004. (ISSN: 1540-1723).
Copyright © Uyen Nicloe Duong 1999-2004. Nothing in this issue may be downloaded, distributed, or reproduced without the permission of the author/ translator/ artist/ The Writers Post/ and Wordbridge magazine. Creating links to place The Writers Post or any of its pages within other framesets or in other documents is copyright violation, and is not permitted.