In November of 1988—eight years after he had failed his escape attempt by boat, was captured, was imprisoned, ran away, was recaptured while smoking a cigarette, was imprisoned again, dug hundreds of thousands of spoons of dirt, did not dig quickly enough, had his ankles chained to the prison cell, finally escaped with the help of a Northern soldier and had arrest warrants posted on him, and five years after he had settled in Da Lat in his mother’s house, had begun to consider himself safe from his past, had met my mother, married her and had three children—my father was talking with his uncle, who typed American papers and documents for clients.
They were sitting cross-legged on straw mats in the shade, out of the dust, with a typewriter, cups of tea and a pack of cigarettes in front of them on a low desk, and my father was smoking, hacking a little, spitting into the dirt.
His uncle might have teased him, asking (in Vietnamese, of course), “You still have your army documents stashed somewhere? Are there any left?”
“Yes, of course!” My father might have exclaimed, or he might have said a softer, “Yes, I still have something,” because it was a public torment to be known as a soldier who had fought with the Americans. Thirteen years earlier in 1975, three years after the last American combat troops had left Vietnam, my father had been on the losing side of the Vietnam War, had fought the bloody battles of those last desperate months and had lived to see the Communist youths, ragged, gaping and gaunt, walk into Saigon beside their gleaming tanks on another dusty, hot day.
“What about the trại học tập cải tạo? Are they going to hold it over you?” his uncle the typist might have asked.
My father spit again into the street. “I served my sentence. They released me voluntarily.” In May of 1975, after hiding out for a few weeks with a couple of girlfriends in Saigon—soon to be renamed Thành phố Hồ Chí Minh, or Ho Chi Minh City—he had resignedly reported to the reeducation camps, where he was never successfully educated to hate Americans and their capitalist ideas, though he stayed there for three years.
“Well,” his uncle continued, giving my father a copy of a document, “here’s good news indeed!” He had recently copied the document which explained that former officers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) who had also been political prisoners were welcome to petition for their and their families’ immigrations to the United States of America. My father’s uncle did not know the name of the American president who was responsible for this decision, but he knew the president had a party called the Republican Party.
The last question was the most important. “And are they going to let you go?”
“I’ll find a way,” my father said, the only thing he could say.
“Well, get along with you! Here’s your ticket out of this mess, you rascal,” his uncle would have concluded.
My father would have been ecstatic and filled out this document. Finally, here was a legitimate, legal, and safe way to get to America. My father decided— right then or at some point during the three years before we finally reached the New Orleans airport on July 21, 1991—that the best way to show his gratitude to this president (God bless whoever-he-was, his family and his ancestors) would be to join the Republican Party when he arrived in America. During my childhood in America, whenever I exclaimed at the fact that we were in America—Americans!—my father told us to love this Republican president and to honor him for giving us a chance to be Americans, and we have always done so, even after my father got to know American politics, changed his mind and declared us Democrats.
Throughout my childhood in America, my parents fed me story crumbs over dinner and on family outings, in brief moments etched colorless but not soundless in my mind. These words smoked and finally caught flame when I was 16 and caught a glimpse of my birth country—on fire—in a documentary in a high school history class. As I viewed vast jungles from a helicopter’s vantage, I felt strange pride in the splendor and beauty of my country, its nature, the green covering gently sloping hills.
My own, I thought.
Then bombs fell against a soundtrack of anti-war protest songs, and all the green caught fire and turned red and orange. Startled and horrified, I watched the land disappear in the glow of bombs. I saw strange people: prostitutes in Saigon; villagers crowded together, weeping as hamlets burst into flames; stoic prisoners identified as “the enemy.” The Americans stood at the forefront, sweating and dressed in the greenery of the jungle, throwing flames. For the duration of the film—as American faces, American politics, American sorrow, American hurt, American howls, American evacuation filled the screen, as I followed the heroes of this drama in mind if not in heart—I wondered where soldiers like my father were, where starving teenagers like my mother were. Frightened, I imagined they had gone up in flames. I would wonder about and be haunted by their absence for years afterward.
During March and April of 1989, the time my mother spent at home in Da Lat waiting for my father’s return from Saigon, waiting for knocks on the door, her clearest memory is of feeding us, my brother and me, as we sat in front of her. She spooned out fruit. She gave my brother a spoonful. He swallowed his spoonful. She turned to me with a spoonful. Already, my brother was waiting, his mouth open wide. I swallowed my spoonful. My mother turned to my brother. Already, I was waiting, my mouth open wide. When there was no fruit left inside its skin, she looked at us, and we looked at her, our mouths open wide. My mother called us her baby birds. We were always hungry, but we did not cry or whine or scream. We sat quietly, our heads tilted back, our eyes patient, our mouths open wide, waiting. When my mother visited her mother’s house and was given a piece of fruit or a piece of bread, she saved the morsels for us. One day, at her mother’s house, her sister told her, “You cannot have the fruit unless you eat it right now.” My mother explained she had baby birds waiting at home for her, and any food she swallowed meant less food for them. She told her sister about the mouths open wide, waiting to be filled. She told her sister about how quickly the mouths opened again and again. Her sister gave her the fruit.
If there was no food, we sat in the kitchen, and my mother put a pot of water on to boil, and we would watch the steam rise, and that had to be enough. Or perhaps my mother was painting and doing handcrafts for a bit of money. Or washing our cloth diapers. Or drawing water from the rain-water reservoir and boiling it for our weekly baths. Or just sitting, waiting, letting her fear run free, gathering her three children close to her, her head pounding from weariness. She could have been doing any of dozens of daily chores or doing nothing at all. It did not matter. The knocking would begin at any time of the day or night.
For days, weeks, months, and altogether for two years after I witnessed the burning forest, I searched public and university libraries and found shelves upon shelves of books on the Vietnam War. I read as many as I could, searching, seeking. After two years, I stopped reading the history books and never returned to them again. Before I stopped reading the history books, my senior-year history teacher asked me to ask my father to come to class and talk about his Vietnam War experiences. I never let my father know of this request. I read history books and wondered—What has he done to deserve this honor? Why should he tell his story when the history books have already told his story so well?What could he say, with his thick accent, with his weak English? Instead, months after my teacher’s unanswered request, I volunteered myself. “I’ve spent two years analyzing the Vietnam War,” I reasoned with my teacher, and he agreed, letting me give three lectures.
I ranted. My hands shook. I sweated. One of my classmates asked me for the meaning behind gook, the racial slur against the Vietnamese. “It means ‘shit,’” I said. “Shit. Shit. Shit. That’s me.” They laughed. I could not hide my discomfort, but I forced myself to speak, to teach my classmates. Look, I told them, all the facts are in the history books. Let me show you why, I said, after the last American troops left Vietnam in March of 1973, the Communists inevitably won. The history books have named the ARVN soldiers—of which my father was one—“deserters,” “cowards,” “criminals,” “corrupted” and “useless.” Search, and you will find that no other names live. Search, and you will find that the history books have photographed and immortalized the story of the courageous Communist youths, ragged, gaping and gaunt, who walked into an undefended, meek Saigon, their gleaming tanks rolling undeterred along the deserted, unprotected streets in April of 1975.
During my third lecture—after I found, behind my learned words, an inexpressible emptiness—I tried to tell my classmates of the necessity and honor of the Vietnam War. “How can we regret this war?” I asked. “We cannot wish a whole war away.” My pleas were personal. I made unclear, emotional arguments. The history books spoke against me, so I turned away from them, and in the end, alone and inarticulate, I could not win. I could not prevent my teacher and my classmates from regretting the Vietnam War and telling each other it would have been better if it had never happened.
In 1989, the reason my father was hiding out in Saigon and the reason my mother was waiting for knocks on the door in Da Lat was because a public security agent named Bính was playing a game with them. In Communist Vietnam, these agents were called Công An, short for Công An Nhân Dân, or the People’s Public Security Force. My father was considered a criminal by the Công An. He was—as his uncle might have called him—a rascal in a mess. It had started years ago, right after he got out of the trại học tập cải tạo, the “reeducation camps,” in 1978. He looked around and realized that at least in the camps, he had lived among veterans who fought on the same side, whereas outside, he could not trust his neighbors or even former school friends. Vietnam was not home anymore. He decided it was time to go to America.
In the second half of the 1970s and throughout the 1980s, it seemed that if you were an able-bodied South Vietnamese man—a veteran sneered at, a man scorned—you had to make at least one attempt to escape from Vietnam. Shortly after his fourth child was born, my Uncle Minh, my father’s younger brother, made it as far as Thailand, where he was stuck in a camp and was not reunited with his family until six years later. My father and his friend saved some money and made a deal with two people to get a boat for the trip overseas. Around the same time, my mother’s two younger brothers also got a boat, cheated two people out of their share of the boat and made it as far as a small island off the coast of Vietnam. Their boat was captured by the Communists, but they themselves eluded capture and hid on the island for six months with nothing except the clothes on their backs and a French copy of “Papillon,” the novel by felon and fugitive Henri Charriere, which they read for inspiration and laughter until they caught another boat and went far out to sea, where one of them was picked up by a Canadian ship and so became Canadian and the other was picked up by a Norwegian ship and so became Norwegian. Meanwhile, my father and his friend waited on the shore for the boat ride he and his friend had been promised; they waited and waited until they realized they had been cheated, and then my father made his way back home to Da Lat, and along the way, he was caught for the first time by the People’s Public Security Force.
In 2004, around the same time I moved two hours away from my family for college in Columbia, Mo., my parents moved into their first owned home, a pale yellow doublewide trailer set in a valley park in Fenton, Mo. The roof and walls and flooring were thin wooden panels. Until I turned 21, I spent cold-cramping winter vacations at home, pursuing my parents down the corridors of their memories, asking them for story crumbs, saving all the morsels they shared in unguarded, relaxed moments.
The history books had taught me how to feel absence, how to grope among the ashes for pieces of history forgotten, denied, rewritten, overwritten. My three lectures on the Vietnam War continued to haunt me and fill me with bitter shame. I began to learn how to travel backward through time—if not to rewrite history, then to save stories from the flames. I searched, I pursued, I harassed—I knocked on their memories’ locked doors, bribed them with love and patience, never telling them about the burning forest that haunted me, because its shape was still inexpressible. I showed them my story drafts and my writing notebooks. I sat at our cold glass dinner table, slurping my father’s spicy noodle soups, letting the warmth soak in and spread outward to my fingertips, and asked him for another story, just one more story. I asked him for the war years and the reeducation camps. I sat with my mother on my parents’ bed, the blankets piled high around us and the space heaters next to us, fighting the cold stiffening my fingers. I asked her for the starving years.
The tangled stories of overseas escape attempts and failures and uncertainties after the Vietnam War must have kept the people who were stuck back home lively and entertained, must have fed them with hope if not crumbs.
The luckiest ones, the luckiest families, like mine in July of 1991, left Vietnam by airplane, sanctioned by the United Nations, approved by the United States of America. Program name: Orderly Departure Program. Operation name: Humanitarian Operation. Orderly and humanitarian because the goal was to stop us Vietnamese from throwing ourselves onto boats and leaving the country in droves in the wake of the Communist takeover in April of 1975. An “orderly” operation required that we wait our turns patiently and not take to the seas so desperately, so alarmingly ill-prepared. Our neighboring countries were tired of cleaning up after us; of having to bear witness to our dying in droves as our boats capsized, as our boats were set afire by Thai pirates, as our women were raped and our men murdered, as our women and children were kidnapped and sold as prostitutes and slave laborers; they were tired of digging graves to bury us all along their golden shores, where our bodies washed up, nameless and forgotten. And at home in Vietnam, families waited and waited for letters from overseas; waited to hear that the lottery had been won, that the boats, leaking and overcrowded, had somehow landed in safe harbors; and waited and prayed to Buddha and God and Mother Mary, and yet some of them never—to this day—found out the fates of their loved ones.
But before we left in an orderly and humanitarian fashion, a lot of things happened.
One night, in the winter vacation of my 21st year, after two years of college—during which my mother asked me (in Vietnamese), “Why don’t you study science?” and “Is there any money in writing?” and during which I told her (in English), “Hmm, I just don’t think about science,” and, “No, there’s not much money in writing”—I sat with my mother in my parents’ bedroom one night, the blankets piled high around us, and I discovered that the cold had finally frozen my lips shut and I could no longer ask for stories of Vietnam. I stopped bringing home story drafts and writing notebooks. Instead, for the next three winter vacations, I brought home science textbooks—physics and chemistry, biology and biochemistry, physiology and nutrition—and when my father and I sat at our cold glass dinner table and when my mother and I sat on my parents’ bed in their chilly bedroom, I told them stories of the human body, the world and the universe. We talked of the day when my science degree would bring money. I told them my dream of finding enough money to build a roof, walls and floors thick enough to keep out the cold, to create enough warmth, constant and soothing, for stories. At night, back in Columbia, Mo., during brief pauses from studying and during long midnight walks taken to escape heavy headaches and a desk piled high with exam study guides, I dreamed of another desk where story drafts and writing notebooks could freely pile. I dreamed of asking my parents to let me inherit their stories and of them giving me all the stories I wanted. I dreamed of fullness.
During the summer of 2009, months before I turned 24—and two semesters after I failed two science classes for no other reason than I was too tired, too dizzy and too sleepy to study, and one semester after one, then two, then three, then four of my fingers stiffened and refused to straighten and the line between aching and hurting began to blur—I fell into a habit of escaping into sleep, sleeping up to 16 hours a night, searching for a better existence in painless dreaming, and I found comfort in recording my most haunting dreams in my journal. In one of my dreams, my father is with me, and he asks, “Do you want to see where I hide my things? It is the safest place in the world.” We drive into violent white rushing water, and my father opens his car door. Somehow, we are not soaked by the water. I cannot feel the water. He reaches into the water, and suddenly I can see into another car.There is another car under the flood waters, locked into place. My father looks at me and says, “This is the safest place I could find.” I look at his treasures, and I see old, ragged, tattered books written in Vietnamese, carefully placed on a makeshift shelf hammered on the dashboard. “How sad,” I think. These are all he has, and they will be swept away. This place is not as safe as he thinks.
The document my father sent to seek our family’s emigration from Vietnam brought his name to the attention of the Công An, and when they checked his files, they discovered that in 1981, an arrest warrant had been issued for one Nguyễn Duy Tân (my father), a three-time failed escapee-to-America, a three-time successful escapee-from-Communist-prisons. Guilty of forging government documents, guilty of faking official government seals, guilty of fighting on the Americans’ side in the first place, this Nguyễn Duy Tân was wanted by the Công An for all crimes mentioned thus far and especially for his last escape, in which he somehow escaped from a locked cell even though his ankles were chained 2 feet high against the wall and his thumbs were tied tightly together. So, months after my father was in Saigon, sending documents to the Vietnamese government, to the American government, to the American embassy in Thailand, and letters to overseas relatives living in Norway, Canada and America about exciting developments—and Would you please include some money?—a Công An named Bính knocked on our family door in Da Lat every day in March and April of 1989, and when my mother answered the door, this Bính would go through his daily routine of demanding to see her husband, the criminal Nguyễn Duy Tân; would feign surprise when my mother told him she did not know where her husband was; and would wait, sometimes patiently and sometimes not, for my mother to bribe him.
When I was 24, in the year of the water buffalo—my year—and weeks before I withdrew from Immunology with the kind professor’s willingness to put a W instead of an F on my record, I learned that it is essential for the immune system, the body’s defense system, to recognize what is Self and what is Non-Self. When the defense system fails to distinguish between Self and Non-Self, it wages guerrilla warfare on everything it used to protect so faithfully and efficiently. While I was in the midst of withdrawing from Immunology because the subject was too difficult for me to understand and because I was distracted during class and exams by my fingers turning stone white and going numb one by one, I did not yet know that my defense system had already been going haywire for six months, attacking my hands, my knees, my lungs and my gastrointestinal system, which is to say, the system that nourishes the body, the Self.
One month before the end of the semester, I admitted to myself that I was no longer strong enough to enter the Clinical Laboratory Program, which required that I be able to control the fine motor skills of my hands and to lift 50 pounds. I dropped out of the program, which I had been pursuing for two years and which promised a starting salary of $40,000. Three weeks before the end of the semester, my right hand refused to hold a pen for two weeks, as though it had suddenly forgotten how. When I finished the semester, my hands slowly regaining their strength, I was grateful not to have any F’s. After I finished the semester, I finally learned from my doctor about autoimmunity; self-guerilla warfare; self-betrayal; the self suffocating the self not necessarily because it wants to but because the self has become indistinguishable from the enemy, the line between Self and Non-Self having been suddenly and irrevocably erased.
Having a relative who made it overseas during the 1970s and 1980s meant the whole family back in Vietnam had won a lottery. Once, my mother asked me to imagine those years from 1975 to 1978, the years before my mother’s brothers made it overseas in 1981, to imagine a bird, flying free, who is suddenly caught. In March 1975, when the Communist tanks rolled into Da Lat, my mother was 16. She explained it this way: Imagine that in school, in all the subjects you used to love, you encountered the same world you loved, but now it is a new world, a new world that you see every day when you walk down the street, a world that you hate because it is wrong. Imagine, in math, having to solve this problem: There are 40 American soldiers and 80 ARVN soldiers hiding in the rice fields. How many American soldiers and ARVN soldiers are left when 15 of our Communist soldiers kill 20 American soldiers and 40 ARVN soldiers? How many are left to kill? Show your work. In history, another assignment, another scenario: Write a five-page essay on how the war against the Imperialist Americans was won.Write of the freedoms we have achieved from the evil influences of American Imperialism. Compare and contrast. With a heavy curtain falling over her future, she left school at 16 and never went back, and stayed home, and watched her father lose his job, watched her older sister commit suicide, attempted suicide herself and failed, watched everyone in her family starve, and began her habit of boiling a pot of water when there was nothing to eat.
Hope arrived after her two brothers finally made it overseas and began sending money and food and medicine and essential necessities back to her family. My mother began to see golden threads flowing from her overseas brothers to her, and she began to dream of them finding a way to save her. When she married my father in 1983, she imagined that my father had a golden thread, too, and would find a way to save her.
But before my father could save her and us, too, she had to deal with Công An Bính and save my father.
During the winter vacation of my 24th year—when I could no longer carry a 25-pound bag of rice the 10 steps from our food closet to the kitchen; when I could no longer chop onions, cabbage and carrots because my hand could no longer grip the knife; when I had to ask others to open my pill bottles; when carrying two plastic bags of groceries home one afternoon translated into pain for the whole night; when my muscles atrophied, leaving me stranded—I sat at my computer and typed. My fingers ranged freely across the alphabet, not needing to grip, not needing to hold onto anything. Seeking. When the cold invaded, wrapping tight manacles around my wrists and finger joints, and turning my hands into frozen claws, I stood in my kitchen and boiled pots of water, letting the steam cloud the windows and wrap around my hands. When, in phone calls to my parents, I tired of complaining about the things I could no longer do—ride a bike, wield a paintbrush, use chopsticks for the entire length of a meal—I began again to ask for their stories.
During March and April of 1989, the knocks came regular as clockwork. My father tried to be away from home during these months, but sometimes, caught at home when the knocks came, he would have to hide. My father remembers my brother, then 4 years old, lifting his head at the sound of the knocks and walking slowly to stand at the door, not opening it, but pressing his fist against the door and hollering through it perhaps the first sentence he learned to speak, his voice trembling, the way it still trembles when he is frightened: “My father is not home. My father is not home.”
The Communists, many of whom were no better off than we were, knew that golden threads stretched from our relatives overseas to us, and they had come, if not to love American capitalism, then to desire American culture. They knew all about authentic American jeans and Madonna’s “Material Girl,” hamburgers and hippies, cowboys and skyscrapers. Công An Bính, whom my mother nicknamed “Tiger,” was haunted by the memory of a pair of authentic American jeans and waited patiently for my mother to bribe him. He wanted my mother to send letters to her relatives overseas. He dreamed of a golden thread from those overseas Vietnamese, those Việt Kiều to my mother, and from my mother to him. My father, when it was his turn to do the bribing some time in 1989, had bribed Công An Bính with a pair of authentic American jeans, and this had been a mistake. Now, my mother refused to bribe Công An Bính because she was afraid to make the same mistake.
Once, I asked my father how else he bribed Công An Bính, and I do not know, because as suddenly as the story comes together, here it falls apart again, darkness on the scene, as my father clams up and will say no more, and I know that this story, this fragile thing, should be a secret, unwritten, but here it exists, impossible for me not to tell, not to probe for the hurt. I do not know the whole story, but I know my father made a mistake with a pair of authentic American jeans, and that was why there were daily knocks on the door.
The story I wanted to rescue from the flames during the winter vacation of my 24th year was the murmured story of my father’s arrest warrants. My science textbooks, too heavy for me to carry around, remained on their shelves, and I began to carry around featherweight loose-leaf papers, and I waited for ways to ask my father to liberate this story.
One day, while my father was cooking a pot of noodle soup, which steamed the windows and loosened the aches in my hands, I sat at our dinner table with my computer screen open to an empty Word document, and I asked him hesitantly, slowly, “Do you remember, Daddy, do you remember those years when they wanted to arrest and you had to run away to Saigon? Do you remember, and can you tell me?”
My father’s face closed down, shut up, shut down, and he said, all in Vietnamese, the language of his distress, “No, not this story. No. OK? Don’t mess with this story. A lot of things happened. If they find out this story, they’ll never allow me to visit Vietnam. They’ll never give me peace.”
I looked at my father, frustrated, and I could feel my face burn. He returned to cooking the noodle soup, slowly telling me the stories he was reading in the histories of the Vietnam War and how I should try to tell those stories instead.
I closed the Word document, got up from the dinner table and cut off my father. “I’m going for a walk. It’s too hot in here.”
For an hour, I walked in circles, my hands aching in my jacket pockets. I wondered how I was going to teach myself to give up these stories again. When my father denied me, he said a certain Vietnamese expression, khổ bố, which haunted me during my walk and for weeks afterward. Khổ bố, when translated into English, means “poor me, poor father.” A short, direct translation is “suffering daddy.” Which also means “have pity.”
When the daily knocks bore holes into his mind during 1989, my father fled to Saigon and stayed with his uncle. No. He did not exactly flee; first, he had to ask permission to flee. In Communist Vietnam, there were invisible gates in each village and town and city. Behind each gate, Communist Công An held the stamps of approval for each person to move from one gate to another gate. In fact, that was how the Communist Công An caught my father the day after his failed overseas escape attempt. He thought he would never again need stamps of approval and did not get the stamp when he left behind the last village on his journey toward the shore where he finally stood waiting, waiting, waiting. When, after all, he did not escape, Communist Công An were waiting for him in each village, each town, each city. Now, fleeing from Công An Bính, my father dutifully played the game of going to the police station in Da Lat and asking for permission to travel to the Công An station in Saigon, and Công An Bính, aware of where my father was going and where my father was at all times, nevertheless dutifully went and knocked on my family’s front door and asked my mother to see one Nguyễn Duy Tân.
My father stayed in Saigon with his uncle for long stretches of time, until he could no longer bear to be away from us, and then he returned home to Da Lat, holding us close again, singing us to sleep again, eating with us again. He stayed until the knocks on the door drove him away again. Back and forth, back and forth, he was our father, our refugee, our fugitive. There was no way out for him. All he could do was wait and wonder if he should try to escape, leave his family behind as his brother had, think and wait, send letters overseas and wait, torment himself and wait.
I lay on my side with three electrodes attached to my bare upper chest. After telling me about autoimmunity, my doctor had sent me to get an echocardiogram. The technician moving the echo transducer over my left breast was going to map my heart. The room was dark except for the computer screen.We watched for my heart. There. We looked at the gates between the four chambers. We watched the perfect rhythm of the gates: relaxing, sealing, relaxing, sealing. We looked into the entrances of the gates, and they looked like mouths opening and closing, gasping. They looked hungry. Colors flowed through the chambers: blue and red, cold and hot, dirty and clean. The technician zoomed in on each gate and measured its length and width and the pattern of its openings and closings, which made orange waves on a black background. We listened to the waves, and I was startled by the swishing sound they made, a swishing sound I knew well. I often heard this sound at night and I could never describe it precisely to my doctors. Here it was. I had been listening to my heart. We listened for the story of why my heart was not strong enough to force my blood to the tips of my fingers; of why I woke at night to find my hands numb, curled into lifeless claws; and of why, after I revived them again and again to waves of pain, I felt them die again even before I drifted back to sleep.
When my mother finally told a friend about Công An Bính, her friend told her, “Go and talk with Hằng Nga. She will find a way to help you.”
Hằng Nga, whose name means “Moon Lady,” the Goddess who grants wishes. Hằng Nga, who was the daughter of the Chief of Public Security of Da Lat. Hằng Nga, to whom my mother had shown kindness back in 1975, when she was 16 years old.
Before my mother left school, she shared her classes with Communist teenagers who had emerged from their caves and their tunnel hideouts and moved south with their families, who would eventually dominate Da Lat society. My mother remembers the laughter among her relatives and friends, the laughter and derisive jokes before the Communists forced all the Southern families to burn their Western books and their Western possessions, before the Western nations placed an embargo on CommunistVietnam and the whole country starved. The laughter in her classroom was aimed at Hằng Nga, who was illiterate, who dressed like a country bumpkin, whom everyone snubbed.
My mother, one of the best students in her high school, did not sneer and laugh (or, if she did, she did so only in private) but talked to Hằng Nga, gave her kind words and valuable advice, such as “No, televisions are not animals that run down the street.” Or: “That dust mask you are wearing on your face, it’s not a dust mask. It’s a sanitary napkin, which you put in your underwear when you have your bleeding time of the month.” Or: “They are laughing because that garment with cups which your father uses to strain his coffee is not a coffee strainer. It is a bra, something that Western women put on under their clothes to hold their breasts.”
My mother had nothing to bargain with. She had no money, no possessions of great value, and neither had she charm nor sophistication. (I know, because I am like my mother in this way.) My mother’s strengths are frankness, honesty and kindness—traits that won her loyal customers when she became a nail technician in America. What my mother hoped could save her from losing her husband and us from losing our father was that Hằng Nga would remember how my mother had shown her kindness back in 1975.
Armed with these memories of kindness, my mother went to Hằng Nga, who now had a comfortable house and who had proven by divorcing her first husband to marry another man, with whom she happened to fall in love, that she did not care what anyone thought. Hằng Nga was now one of the most fashionable ladies in Da Lat.
Hằng Nga, who also loved to put on lavish parties, told my mother, “OK, I will help you, but I want to have a little fun. I want to throw a party for my friends, buy food and drinks. I will need money. Just a little money. Just for a little party.”
“How much do you want?” “One ounce of 24-karat gold.”
“I will get it.”
My mother sent letters to her brothers overseas.
When blood vessels die, they disintegrate. Unlike bone tissue or stomach lining, they do not regenerate. Once disconnected, they are like cut threads that cannot be rejoined. Stranded, they dissolve into the surrounding tissue. They leave traces, however, and other blood vessels, which have somehow survived months of inflammation and numbness, sense the damage, the death, the loss of these vessels, and they can lengthen into the emptiness. Malleable and flexible, the blood vessels can stretch and extend, curl and enfold. In their search, they form loops. In the regions most damaged by my immune system, which decided to attack my hands in the search for an enemy that was not there, there are vessel loops looping around loops, loops wrapped around ever more loops, loops that, unfortunately, can also strangle other blood vessels in their relentless search for a reconnection.
All my life, my parents have often told me how miraculous my childhood hands were— malleable, astonishingly flexible, almost boneless in their manipulability. After my hands stiffened and became inflamed and I could no longer straighten any of my fingers or make closed fists, my father told me to tell my doctors about those childhood hands.
“Tell them,” my father said. “When you were a baby, we could hold your fingertips and bend your fingers backward until they touched your wrists.”
I never told my doctors this story. It was an irrelevant story. Instead, I began to tell another story that held more truth for me.
As a child and a teenager, I collected magnets. I was fascinated by the sides of the magnets, which did not want to meet each other. No matter how long I held them together, urging them with my mind to stay glued, they always slid uncomfortably apart when my fingers relaxed. There was something there that I could not see.
Now, when I can no longer make closed fists with my hands, and I look for words to describe the sensation of trying to make my fingers meet in the center of my palms, I say my fingers are like those sides of magnets. My fingers can approach my palms but not join them because I am holding something invisible in my hands.
In Vietnamese, the personal pronoun, the “I,” exists, but it is used only as an insult, as anger, as a joke among drunken close friends, as an address to strangers and as an address to the enemy. When addressing family and friends with respect, with love, the relationship between speaker and addressee determines what one calls oneself. When addressing me, for example, my father uses bố (“daddy”) and my mother uses mẹ (“mommy”); when addressing my parents, I use con (“child”). The Vietnamese “I,” the Northern tôi and the Southern tui are used when the other self, the self being addressed, is exiled from itself and its community. Excluded. Lost. Alone. Extinguishable. When stripped of essential familial bonds, the self cannot and does not exist. When we address one another, when we tell stories, when we live, when we exist, we do not exist except in relation to each other. When we speak to each other, there is no separation between Self and Non-Self. They are one and the same. I, Minh, and my suffering self, and my suffering daddy and my suffering mommy—we are all ourselves and myself, myself and ourselves.
The suffering self suffers in relation to someone else. The suffering self does not suffer alone.
Eventually, my mother’s brother, the one who became Canadian, sent the ounce of gold. He was the dependable one who sent medicine when we were sick and money when I was born in 1985 and my mother had nothing. He sent gifts from the other side of the world, always sending just enough to keep the golden thread—however thin and unraveling— connected, so that my mother herself did not unravel.
But not only from kindness. He sent the gold most probably because of guilt.
My father eventually told me that even before he married my mother, he had known her two brothers were the two men whom he had given money to share a boat and who had not returned for him.
Later, when I wrote the story of how my mother found a way to save my father from his arrest warrants, he told me to rewrite it. “It was not the uncle in Edmonton who sent the gold,” he said. “It was your maternal grandmother who sent the money. You need to fix this mistake in your story.”
I nodded, but then I remembered my mother’s words and how whenever she told me the story, it was always the uncle in Edmonton, and I remembered that my maternal grandmother did not leave Vietnam for Canada until years after we went to America in 1991, and I wondered how much of a mistake it really was.
Somewhere in my strands of DNA, history written in me from the beginning, is the story of why my body has decided to betray me. I cannot read this story. Even if I could, I do not know if I would. I am afraid to know how and when the story ends.
In my hands, inflamed, continuously dying and yet rebuilding, life and death exist side by side. I, my parents’ second child, have inherited their nightmares, which exist in the loops covering my muscles and blood vessels, binding me like threads, strangling me like chains. My hands, stripped to their barest functions, yearn to escape my body—my prison, my enemy. My body’s defense system, which should rescue me, attacks me. If this is all the strength I have left, if my strength is running out, then I must follow the well- trodden path back to the stories I first sought out at 16. I must discover how the stories end, so that the ending of myself is not an ending but rather a reconnection.
Hằng Nga arrived at our family house with the arrest warrants, and—everyone in my family will speculate afterward—there must have been a moment when she stood in the doorway, knowing she was welcome to walk through, knowing that my mother had gotten the ounce of 24-karat gold as she had requested and that this gold was all hers, and perhaps—if just for a brief moment—she felt the pull of that golden thread. Maybe she saw the rich possibilities of leaving one arrest warrant intact, so that she could ask my mother to pull on that golden thread again, maybe even twice more. After all, she had gotten something in less than a month while Công An Bính had gotten nothing in return for two months of faithful knocking. Afterward, everyone in my family will wonder what finally made Hằng Nga step through the doorway, rip the arrest warrants into thin strips and hand them to my mother. Everyone will finally speculate that Hằng Nga must have been moved by the sight of my mother sitting quietly with her three children, all of us wearing clothes unraveling at the seams, sitting in that kitchen with the empty cupboards, with perhaps just a pot of boiling water on the stove, sitting with the coals burning and ready, waiting for Hằng Nga, our Moon Lady, who could save our father if only we did everything just right.The Moon Lady, looking at our mother, must have seen the way life had marked her, how changed she was from that girl of 16 to a weary 27-year-old mother. Perhaps kindness and compassion are strong threads, too.
My doctor and I began to form battle plans. I learned to distinguish between the everyday aching pain and the dizzying pounding pain that put my heart in my hand. My doctor explained that we were still waiting for the monster to come out of hiding and show its face. The waiting could be short or continue for years, so we began to prepare for the seasons of my life: the harsh aches during summer, the numbness during winter and the possibility of ease in between when the mildness of spring and fall might leave enough time for resting and healing before the next confrontation. After my echocardiogram, my doctor prescribed medication, and my hands stopped going numb. More often than not, I slept through the night peacefully again, and if I awakened during the night, my hands were still there, warm and aching with life, curled into gentle claws for sleep.
My mother held out her hand, received the pieces of paper from the Moon Lady, gave the Moon Lady the gold that could have fed her family for a year and said, “Let’s burn these pieces of paper.” All of us—my mother, my brother, my infant sister and I, and our Moon Lady— watched over the burning, and my father was finally free, the records of his crimes burned to ashes in his family hearth.
My mother was washing our dishes, and I sat at the dinner table close by, watching her. My siblings and I were pleading with her to leave the dishes and rest before the car trip back to Fenton. My parents had come to Columbia for the weekend, to celebrate the Year of the Buffalo 2009 giving way to the Year of the Tiger 2010. We were also celebrating our good health and my new future as an apprentice writer. My father was already waiting in the van, they were leaving soon, but I had one last question for my mother. I hesitated. I could no longer speak—which is to say, sing— Vietnamese. I was shy about my flat American accent.
I finally said, “Mommy, tell me about kho.”
My mother turned to me and asked, “What’s that?”
I attempted to sing it, “Kho? Kho! Kho. Kho. Kho.”
She still looked confused, so I stood and approached her.
When I was standing next to her, I put my hand on the center of my chest, and I sang: “Khổ bố. Khồ mẹ. Khồ con. Khồ mình.”
My mother’s face lit up. She turned off the running faucet and wiped her hands on a rag, and we sat down at the dinner table to talk about khổ.
Before the burning of the arrest warrants, there were many other burnings: my father’s family Bible burned as well as his letters and papers blown up by the bombs falling on his troops; his military records burned, and his medals were melted by his mother as the Communist tanks rolled into Da Lat in March of 1975; his life burned and melted in the same hearth where my mother would one day watch over the burning of his arrest warrants. My father’s history often went up in flames, his story rewritten, erased by those who loved him the most, who claimed him as son, as husband, as father, as they strove to protect him, to help him survive all the rewritings of history, to help him run away so he could live for one more day, so he could eventually find his way home to us.
But there was never a true home to return to. Men like my father have been forced to begin over and over. Women like my mother, keeping the family hearth warm and ready, witness the erasing and help rewrite history. After all, they were taught during childhoods cut short how the winners of wars write. My mother will say it was like being a bird, and suddenly, the bird is caught and starves in all ways, and forgets freedom, and instead, learns the language of its imprisonment.
When my father refuses to tell stories to me, his child, he uses the phrase Khổ bố “suffering daddy.” When my mother tells stories to me, her child, she could use Khồ mẹ, “suffering mommy,” if she wished, but she has never done so. When telling stories to my parents, if I still spoke Vietnamese, which I do not, I would use Khổ con, “suffering child.” Yet, the most literal translation is not the most accurate. The truest, clearest possible translation of all of these expressions—of “suffering daddy” and “suffering mommy” and “suffering child”—is khổ mình, “suffering self.”
Suffering, my mother told me, exists in two Vietnamese forms, khổ and khờ. She spelled them out for me. The first form, Khổ, is spelled with the syllables ca hát ổ. Two of those syllables—ca and hát—also mean “sing.” Spell out this form of khổ and you are saying, “Sing, sing, oh, sing, sing, oh, sing, sing, oh.” You can sing while you suffer. The second form of suffering, khờ, has a different syllabic ending, ờ, and the ending makes all the difference because this form of suffering also means “stupid” and “dumb.”
I asked my mother, “Stupid? Dumb? Dumb as in ‘silent’?” I put my hand over my mouth. “As in ‘I’m gonna suffer and not talk about it’?”
My mother shook her head distractedly. My father was calling to her from the car. She got up from the dinner table, put on her coat and organized her bags.
I persisted, following her around and asking her to agree with me. “In English, dumb also means ‘silent,’ ‘mute.’ People can suffer and be silent, right? Just as people can suffer and sing about it, right? You can sing or refuse to sing. Am I right?”
My mother nodded, still distracted. She picked out the lightest bag for me to carry, and we headed out to the van.
I persisted. “Mommy, this is important. I need to get this right for the story. I wanna name the story something cool, like Khổ, Khổ Mình—‘Suffering, Suffering Self’—right?”
Finally, my mother turned to me and said, “Yes! I almost forgot to tell you,” and right before she got in the van, she told me the placement of suffering before or after the self determines the shape of the suffering. The suffering placed before the self, khổ mình, is the singing suffering, and the suffering placed after the self, mình khờ, is the dumb suffering. After she told me the last piece, I let my mother get into the van and shut the door. I waved goodbye as my parents’ van merged onto the street, and I knew I was grinning like a fool.
My brother and I grew up learning to render our father invisible, away, gone, even when he was standing right next to us. “My father is not home. My father is not home,” my brother shouted through the door whenever he heard knocks, because all knocks were monsters, and my father sat in the background, smoking a cigarette, watching his son, his hand trembling when he lifted the cigarette, wondering whether he needed to make another trip to Saigon. Almost two decades later in America, I, inheritor of my father’s nightmares, acquiesced when the history books named soldiers and prisoners like my father “deserter,” “coward,” “criminal,” “corrupted” and “useless.” I denied my father his chance to sing, and I tried to take his story for myself, and when I stood in front of an American classroom, I myself called him “deserter,” “coward,” “criminal,” “corrupted” and “useless.”
My father became so used to being invisible, so accepting of it, that even after living in America for two decades, living in the Midwest, ensconced in the heartland, and even with the knowledge that all the arrest warrants were burned more than two decades ago—even after all that, he will not talk. When I needed to know the story of the arrest warrants, it was my mother who told me the few details I know—of baby birds, boiled pots of water, Công An Bính, the gates, Hằng Nga and the hearth coals kept burning, ready. Because my mother told me what I needed to know, I traveled back in time and brought her golden threads, tied to the loops in my hands. I have no golden threads to give to my father because I do not know how to help him unseal his lips and extinguish his fears. He will never be safe, he will never forget those prisons, he will never forget the gunshots in the night as his friends tried to escape and the bodies the next morning, and he will never forget the hundreds of thousands of spoonfuls of dirt dug for the tunnels to freedom, the feel of the chains and bars of wood that locked his ankles against the wall and the strings on his thumbs tied side by side and numb.
After my mother told me about khổ, I was tired and went to sleep with the afternoon light streaming through my bedroom window. Before I drifted off to sleep, I felt my heart slip into my hand, and when I woke up to darkness, I was still holding it. I went downstairs and sat at my desk, bothered by khổ. For the last few weeks, ever since my father had refused to tell his story, had said khổ bố, I had felt bitter toward him. I spoke abruptly to him whenever he called to ask about my hands, my writing, my life. Sitting at my desk, I called him. For many weeks after our conversation, my mind ran over and over our shared words, and then, as I struggled to write the clear truth of our shared language, I was left with this skeleton: —“Hey, Daddy, it’s me. Thanks for visiting this weekend. Thanks for all the food.” [I spend the first few minutes haltingly approaching—] —[My father begins to talk about the history books I have been checking out for him from the university library for the last six years.] —[I roll my eyes and take a deep breath.] “Yes, yes, I know. Hey, Daddy, I need to ask you something. … There are stories about Vietnam that I need to know. I keep on asking for them, you know. Stories about your life.”—[My father begins to talk about the political history of the Vietnam War.] —[I cut him off.] “That’s the history books talking. You need to stop reading those damn history books. Fuck them. … I want to spend my life writing, but I can’t write without you. There are stories that … every time I ask you …you keep talking about other things. … I don’t know why, but these stories are very important to me. I wish you would tell me.”
—[I brush my fingers through my hair.] “You know. About the reeducation camps and the time you tried to escape from Vietnam, and then Mommy’s brothers took your money and left without you, and then after that, when the Communists caught you and put you in prison and you escaped over and over, and those arrest warrants for all those years. … I know you told me not to write about these things, but I can’t help it. When I try to write, I feel as if I’m lying because I don’t know what happened. I have to keep guessing. My story is a lie. I hate that.”
—[I do not remember his words.]
—“No. No, I can’t wait anymore. I don’t know what life is going to look like. I can’t wait forever for you to tell me.You know what’s happening. My hands are dying. I can’t care that I hurt you anymore. What if— Do you understand?”
—[I do not remember his words.]
—“I’m tired of waiting for these stories. Will you tell me these stories? Will you tell me what I need to know? Will you tell me the stories I’m afraid to ask mom? About how my baby sister died in Vietnam?”
—[Pause.] “You will? You’ll tell me about the reeducation camps and your escapes and the prisons? You’ll tell me about the arrest warrants? About my sister? You’ll tell me everything when I ask you?”
—“Yes, I will tell you.”
—“Daddy. Thank you.”
The arrest warrants, the last pieces of my father’s past, were burned, and my mother finally telegraphed my father and told him, “Come home,” and we never had to worry about knocks on the door that would force him to leave again. My father was safe.
He could finally come home to hold his youngest daughter, 2 years old and sick with tuberculosis, in his arms. Riding in the bus from Saigon to Da Lat, my father, I imagine, was carrying a bag of pigs’ feet, rare delicacies, which he always tried to find using bribery, using his wits, no matter how broke he was, so that when he came home, he could stand in our kitchen, cooking, slowly and tenderly, rice gruel with pigs’ feet, and telling my mother and us about his adventures and about a certain document he had recently sent overseas.
While all of this was happening, while pieces of my father’s past were being burned in our family hearth and while my father made his long journey home, the petition my father had sent overseas was making its way through the system slowly and carefully. One day in 1989, in an office somewhere a world away, the stamp of approval came through. And when Approved was stamped on my father’s application, a gate finally opened to true sanctuary. It was the first time he was offered shelter, recognized as a soldier and a political prisoner, and could finally look to a future where he would be able to keep documents rather than burn them. He would be able to accept rather than reject who he was, and he would be able to say, “Yes, I was a soldier on the losing side of a war and a political prisoner afterward and, yes, a criminal, too,” and still they said, “You are welcome here,” and they offered him sanctuary from the country of his nightmares, offered him a country where he could make a home and find a path toward a history he could keep, even if he could tell his stories only haltingly and always with the refrain, Suffering Daddy.