Growing up, I wanted to so hard relate to the Weasleys because their family were so similar to mine, a family disowned from the rest of their kin/d and struggling through poverty. Especially Percy: he was a guy under multiple pressures armed with a desperation to get out of the shitty situation he was born in, with his survival tactic being a keen sense of navigating macroinstitutions like the university or the Ministry. Riffing off his desire to get out, I couldn’t hate him as much as my other friends did. Nobody grows up wanting to stay poor.
Though something felt off. As similar as our families could have been, I felt a distance from the Weasleys because of their cohesion, warmth, and investment in a romantic, resolute vision of family even (especially) in the constant threat of dissolution and alienation. Weasley children would go through school, leave, work, and come back. Fights, separations, and disowning would build up, but climax, and finally resolve — harmoniously or not, but always legible in narration. But this promise of resolution kept me from ever being able to be a Weasley, as much as I wanted to. What I have, will not be resolved.
The holidays bring out how fucked up things feel, especially this year since I was blessed to spend some important days with my closest friends and their families. When I’m here at home during this time, our holidays are hollow, a mimicry which never feels quite right. It’s the five of us, sometimes four, sometimes six, for an hour. People talk, but nobody’s saying anything. People smile and nod, but nobody’s listening. Get through it, it’s just an hour, and everyone leaves to do what they wanna do. This year it will be four, and I’m not sure who wants to be here, but we keep doing it. It’s been this way for as long as I could remember and now that I live 500 miles away and come back only once or twice a year, the stakes are higher for myself and the role these visits play.
I remember it was from one of my mentors in undergraduate that I first heard about family as something that had to be actively built and maintained. She asked how I could be more intentional about what being “there” meant if I wanted to resolve the feelings of dissolution I had begun to detect about family that time. Being there could be organizing. Being there could be listening. Being there could be existing. Being there could be surviving. I can’t be certain what kind of family she was talking about, but I want to think that she was talking to the kind of family I/we had which resisted conventional legibility.
My discomfort eroded away awhile ago and has become something else. Ambivalence? I don’t know, I’m still trying to process what it is but I don’t want to be bitter. I don’t want to talk, I don’t want to resolve, but I just want to be able to relate — to other folks with resolute families, to those without, to those who desire resolution, and to my own which seems to fail whatever narrative I so much want it to be. Whatever it is, I am compelled to keep coming back, as these annual migrations are less about my feelings and more about a particular performance that keeps our audience of four coming back year after year to a cold theater long empty and dilapidated.
My dad asked me to translate and type up his living will. He would write and speak and I would sit over his shoulder and help him translate it. Two sentences: who he is, and what he had to give. It was only this house. He needed to get this done fast. Or else we would end up even more poor, he said. He wanted us to have a place to stay in case he had to leave again. If he left, he didn’t want all of us to have to leave too. Again. Too much movement. He’s tired. Wants to make sure none of us have to move either. Otherwise, someone else is taking the house.
He’s going to Malaysia today for a week. His work is sending him there to train others to do his job. He was in Indonesia a few weeks ago doing the same thing. He wanted me to help him write a will to send to the notary before his flight tonight. In case he gets unlucky, it shouldn’t mean all of us get unlucky. Too much luck in his life, he said. He’s always preparing in case luck isn’t enough.
He wanted to go to Vietnam while he was in Malaysia. But not enough time to see his family. Time is tight.
will give the house to children are trung t—- and t—- my name is d—- will is house to trung t—- and t—- i am owner of house in 3—- y—— c— will my daughters and son will the house my children will be owner if i die
The first time I encountered the Pacific, my dad believed that its immense gravity would keep me fixed on the shore. I watched, he would note, the water reach past my toes and deposit grains of sand and seaweed before it retreated, swallowed again by the very water which brought it there in the first place. Reach and retreat, the ocean would wash, and wash up again. I wanted to ask my sister — but there was so much sand, how did we have enough to stand on if the water kept swallowing it back in the first place?
The water licked my toes, depositing sand and swallowing it up again. When my dad turned around, he couldn’t find me where I was sitting. My sister said, the water must have washed me away bit by bit just like the sand.
My dad was a good swimmer. I hadn’t been gone long and when he asked what happened, I told him I ran into the waves to follow the sand and seaweed. I wondered where the sand was going.
I don’t remember this, but he tells this story in order to express how he predicted the kind of son he would have to raise. Though it lay beyond the boundary of my recollection, I’ve nonetheless accepted it into the genealogy of myself that I’ve constructed.
I used this story to explain much of my teenage years, where I would take on impossible tasks and locate the impulse in this childhood story. I also used it to narrate becoming the rebel that I always needed to be.
I haven’t thought about this story in a couple of years, since the last time I lived in East Side San Jose, another shore of disturbed sands and seaweed. I finished reading le thi diem thuy’s gangster we are all looking for (a beautiful book that everyone should read by the way) and the epigraph triggered the memory:
In Vietnamese, the word for water and the word for a nation, a country, and a homeland are one and the same: nu’ó’c.
- le thi diem thuy, gangster we are all looking for
Although my dad laughs about the story when he tells me, I imagine now what he must have felt about losing me to the ocean, having been a boat person himself — having seen the ocean reach and retreat on all sides of the Pacific, depositing and swallowing the sand and seaweed of human bodies who had attempted to flee as nation, country, homeland ebbed and flowed. Even now, the sand upon which we stand continues to be washed and washed away by nu’ó’c.
I locate this story to imagine what my dad thinks when he sees me today, especially as I pursue something like Asian American Studies. I’m still watching the ocean ebb and flow, pushed and pulled by nation, country, homeland, wondering what of the sand. Is he afraid? Will I leap again like I did as a child?
I don’t know how to swim. I never had to swim like he did. And when my dad paid for me to take swimming lessons when I was thirteen, it was out of fear that I would fail my high school PE classes. There wasn’t any ocean around. What life choices would I have then?
But still today, out of its immense gravity I stand fixed on the shore, watching the Pacific, wondering how I stand and where the sand comes from and where it is going.
I forget how in San Jose, you can see miles into the sky. Unlike in LA. In grade school, I looked into the hills of Silicon Valley and debated with my friends whether they were real or painted and what was beyond them. I believe it was these hills which cultivated the imagination I so heavily rely upon now in my writing: creative and academic work.
Though since I’ve been back, I’ve found it difficult to work despite the relative quiet I have here.
Over dinner, I asked my nephew how things have been and in between the threads of new workout plans and attempts at resume building in his everyday life are the six shootings that happened in our neighborhood in the last three months. I am arrested by two things: how violence is his quotidien but moreso, how I’ve forgotten that this was mine as well — I am shocked by my shock. I ask him whether one of them was the murder-suicide I heard about in the beginning of the year, and he says to himself, “Oh, I guess that’s eight then.” And continues to ask me whether the pasta he was having was a simple or complex carb.
My father asked for a minute of my spare time and I tore myself away from my work to go through some legal documents he needed help interpreting from English. “Does she want the property?” He asks. Going through the papers my mother served him over a year ago, all I can interpret is irreconciliable differences and I see her signature — the same one that signed my permission slips and sick notes in grade school — and the attorneys she must have gone to during her work day and how they had Vietnamese and Japanese names and how they interpreted the entire process for her and how she had to deliberate in secret for months and planned her strategy in the times that they didn’t see each other. Maybe that’s what was irreconciliable — how they didn’t see each other in the end anyway. I also imagine my father’s desperation to keep the house, constituted of many reasons: the one I see most is his investment in maintaining the normative kinship represented by the house. Leaving here would mean moving into something smaller, signifying his body as unmarried man as it now stated on the legal document.
"So, does she want the property?" But the five to six years I spent cultivating my imagination and arriving at reasons predicated on race, gender, immigration, and sexuality doesn’t translate a word for these documents. Not a single fucking word.
"Sorry dad, I don’t know. You should see a lawyer, I can’t see anything about the property. I don’t understand it." But he responds, oh, are the documents in Vietnamese? and takes the papers from me to inspect it again.
"No, they’re not. I just don’t understand it." But they’re in English! How could I not?
But it’s not English.
I tell him all that I know about the documents, that she doesn’t indicate whether she wants the property or not and he lets me go unsatisfied and I wonder what he thinks about my four years of a BA at UCLA and two years of an MA at the same institution if I can’t even read English.
I return to my room where I am midway through Foucault’s Discipline and Punish for my graduate seminar in Asian American Literature and Culture and reading about the violence of visibility never felt so incongruent. I put my highlighter aside in this bare bedroom in the corner room of my father’s house, where I grew up for 18 years, spent looking into the miles of sky and debating what lay in the hills and beyond them.
By forgetting its familiarity, I notice their differences. Ear-splitting booms sear for miles into the San Jose sky. Nobody stops moving because it’s either firecrackers or a gunwound but I still need to catch my bus to work. My dad shuffles papers and it’s either the Vietnamese newspaper or the divorce papers or something different all together, but he’s always shuffling through them. These sounds melt Foucault in front of me and reassemble into something else altogether: the hills and the miles of sky and the debates as to whether they were real or painted and what was beyond them.
I came to San Jose for an hour yesterday for my nephew’s birthday and left with more ghosts following me out than I came in with. I’ve picked up this habit of sneaking away to my parent’s empty room right when I arrive at the house, and searching it for signs of life. In particular, searching for signs of when my mother was last there — I would look for lipstick stained napkins, shells of dried watermelon seeds, or whether her jewelry counter would be messy or cleaned.
That day, it was tidy.
A few hours after I left, I got a call from my dad. He was alarmed and had begged me:
"I want you to call your mom. She cried because you came home and didn’t visit her. If you love me, you will call her and explain why you didn’t visit."
I was surprised. This was the first time he used emotional manipulation. In the years since I’ve left, it was common for him to ask me, “why haven’t you called your mother?” My response would be, “if she needs something, she can call me, I have never not answered”. This was true. However, never would he position himself directly into the emotional domain of my mother to make me do something in the way he did in his request.
There was a haunting desperation in his voice that lingered in my bones. I imagined all of the possible things that could have happened for him to reach that point: was the fleeting harmony of their relationship they found during the summer broken by my non-appearance? When she found out I had come by and not seen her, did she crumple to the floor? Did she threaten to kill herself again? Do her sobs shake him at night to where he cannot sleep?
I spent a long time adamant about not calling, his request leaving me more angry than resolute. How am I all of a sudden the sole bearer of her emotional well-being? In the four years I have come and gone, there were more times than not where I came home and she wasn’t there. Why now does she decide to need my presence? At the core of it, I didn’t want the bear the responsibility of the success of their relationship and of, moreso, her emotional sanity. When did I become the parent?
But I called her the next day during the daytime. She would be at work. She greeted me as usual and went through the litany of questions to which I as usual responded mechanically. When we spoke, it was never to talk, but rather was so that she could hear my voice and I would fulfill my filial obligation. I anticipated for what would be different in this conversation knowing that something deeply traumatic had to have occurred for my dad to beg me with greater desperation than usual to call.
At the end of the procession of what-did-you-eat’s and are-you-in-school-yet’s, where a goodbye and a reminder to call back in at least two days would usually be said, the phone call suspended in silence as I felt her fighting to articulate her feelings to me. After what felt like three minutes, she spoke in a pitiful mew, quietly stating (rather than asked, as that would leave room for an answer to be reasoned):
Why didn’t you come see me?
You were at work. You are always at work.
You could have come by the nail salon, am I not worth ten minutes of your time?
I was only going to be home for an hour.
Your sister hasn’t visited in almost a year now.
Her voice weakens and breaks. I sigh and catch myself rolling my eyes.
You know I love you so much and I would do anything for you.
You two are all that I have left.
As her sobs fill the vast space between us, I feel her heart breaking over the phone line. I let her cry for another minute as I oscillate between pity and resentment before she requests that I call again in two days and we hang up.
I think about the kind of violence and trauma her refugee heart has seen. Her heart must be deeply broken from the loss that has experienced so that all which is left in her are her tears.
But these sobs have leached me dry over the last 22 years and I find myself becoming closer to stone in order to survive in this environment.
We moved into this house about 18 years ago: two stories, high ceilings, and four rooms that would be filled with our refugee hopes and dreams of lush gardens, good schools, and children that would know the sounds of Vietnamese both inside and out of the home. To say where we are now was solely a result of hard work and a much more optimistic economy would not be a whole truth: not only was it ten years of labor, but our extended family pieceworking different investments and promises into this household. This home was meant to hold not just one family but an entire community of Vietnamese American hopes and dreams, stabilizing on the backs of my parents’ successful escape from the war and resettlement here in the States.
So my earliest (and fondest) memories were those of welcoming parties for another set of aunties and uncles as they emigrated here by plane after a decade of anxious correspondence. I can only imagine the letters they sent to one another, my mother in her daily prayers repeating the address she escaped from as she waited in limbo at refugee camps located in Indonesia, Malaysia, or the Philippines. Then, ten years later, a letter that would change lives and here they were, all eight of them, and they stayed until they were able to settle.
Today, it is the dim spectres of these dreams which haunt me. Now, there is an emptiness in this house that the walls cannot contain, as if the very stucco that lines its exteriors would whisper our secrets and poison the entire neighborhood. A lot has happened in the past few years as I left for school, as the traumas of war never seemed to escape us but rather shifted form to take another sinister face.
My dad is the only person who drives this heaving house with any sense of hope. He is the only one who maintains or cares for it, fighting off leaky roofs and taking the full load of cooking. He is the only one holding on to its now long-deflated meanings. While try as I might, I’ve come to accept its end, and my efforts are more out of pity.
To see the change so dramatically in the few years I was gone made me think two things: one, was I the glue that held us together? How could I have let things go so wrong in my absence and how did I fail? Or two, did I learn to adapt so well to the constant turbulent change our family went through that eventually I was a clueless frog bathing in a slowly rolling boil before I leapt out of the pot in spite of my own death?
In dealing with this, I’ve had to come up creative solutions to reframe and reconceptualize my family. To attempt to understand our dynamic, I have to completely remove myself and see them as a constellation of people with their traumas and accomplishments. Then, return and see the differences.
It’s been a transformative summer grappling with this question as I teeter on the cusp of being an adult in my family.
I wonder what was going through my kindergarten teacher’s mind when I first told her my name — a thick, dense sound coming from a small five-year-old Vietnamese child, a sound pushing out at the front of the mouth that stops in quietly summoning of the abrupt strength of the back of the mouth.
I wonder whether she asked me to repeat it, whether she thought I was mumbling in native tongue, whether she wondered if she would have another ELD student in her class, whether she felt none of this.
"Chum"; it’s hard to describe. "Cham"; it sounds different. "Jum"; there’s a lot of ways to say it. "Chrung"; I don’t wanna explain it again.
My name was my first insecurity. How it was meant to be spoken by my parents and their ancestors was shamed, taught wrong, domesticated, and re-programmed by necessity. My parents sounded it one way at home, but everybody else around me sounded it a different way. I lived a constant internal struggle day to day as one world would clash with the other.
The way it was transcribed onto paper (“Trung”) was a product of colonial tools onto a colonized people, therefore the sounds approximated the speech of one or a handful of men who needed only to travel uni-directionally. Would it ever be expected that the colonized would one day confront its colonizer (and its later master) and expose it in all its lies, broken promises, and vulnerabilities on its own (stolen) territory?
So when I came here with all my heritage and all my history, my name presented the first confrontation of the traumas of imperialism (the beginnings of which I would feel the rest of my life): “how do we pronounce it? and what is the correct way?” My name would be (re)presented to me in its “proper” interpretation given what was wrought by school and the outside world and not lived until it was reconfigured into a gargoyle of a name that not even my parents recognized. In my name’s mutilation to become more like the dominant, I inflicted violence upon my internal self.
I lived with this (mis)interpretation of my name for a long time. There were times when the weight of this jostling exposure would be too great, that I would feel its strength in the form of small resistances. For example, I fought most urges to “change” my name to something more “American” even when many of my friends were beginning to do so. But it wasn’t until recently where I truly began to feel angry about this.
For 21 years, I lived a colonial interpretation of the letters that poorly attempted to locate the tongue of my grandmothers and their mothers. This realization then became an attempt to recenter the intentions of my family in reconfiguring the tools that were presented to me.
What was translated as a “Tr” was better approximated by something thicker than a “Ch” as in “church” and almost a “J” as in “javelin”.
What was translated as a “ung” was better approximated by something between an “um” as in “decorum” with the end of “ng” as in “ring”.
So in total, my name as my parents intended for it to be spoken and heard has been described and transliterated by many as “Chum”, “Cham”, “Jum”, or “Jomb”, when really, there are no words that may approximate how it was meant to be said. To know it, you must live it.
I used to be embarrassed and ashamed of speaking my name as it was intended by my parents into the public sphere. But when within I found it lay the palimpsest of failed imperial projects, I found the exact opposite of shame toward my name — rather, strength from its counter history and intimate center.
Now, I stand confidently enough to liberate myself from my branded (mis)interpretations and rather, allow the sounds of my ancestors to guide my practice. While these newer revisions — Chum/Cham/Jum/Jomb are not perfect and never will be, they are the best way I could allow my parents to guide me into the world again and root myself in the strength of where I came from and who I am.
Conversation with Dad today over dinner:
Dad (in Vietnamese): Do you understand what I’m saying?
Me (in English): Yes
Dad: Do you speak any Vietnamese?
Dad: So you can understand me but you can’t respond back to me.
Dad: It must be because there are no Vietnamese people who go to your school
I’m interested in his conclusions. I’m wondering what this says about him, and me, and him and I both.
I also offered to start paying my phone bill today.
Something I wrote for the most recent issue of Non Song. Intersections between being Vietnamese-American, second generation, and gay. Enjoy!
Picture Son: How to Love Yourself and Your Gay Vietnamese Children
By Trung Nguyen
I kept watch at the mailbox every day for the first two weeks of May during my Senior year of high school, memorizing the exact window of time the mail carrier approached our home. He would come between three to four in the afternoon, right when I got out of school. I would rush home at a frenetic pace, keeping an anxious eye out for his white truck and blue uniform, a feverish prayer on the tip of my tongue that I wouldn’t miss him. On the days I managed to bolt home before he arrived, I would wait from my living room with a view of our front yard, straining to identify the envelopes and packages that he would unload from his satchel.
I was on the look out for any oversized envelope, larger than most letters with the dimensions of a manila folder but slender enough to fold to the curved half-circle of our mailbox. Each time that the envelope didn’t arrive, I could breathe for a second, being relieved for the day. But it wasn’t for long – I mentally prepped myself for the next day of waiting and anxiety. It had to come soon. And I had to get it before anybody in the family did.
I wasn’t out to my family. Inside the package would be our prom pictures: my then boyfriend and I, two boys, hands clasped and suits matching. My parents wouldn’t be ready to see this picture, especially because one of them was their only son.
My patience paid off. A day later, the photos arrived and I let myself melt after secretly peering into the envelope. When I looked at our photos, all of the anxiety and fear was worth it. I kept them hidden in my room most of the time, only bringing it out whenever I was feeling particularly lonely or needed something to cheer me up.
One day, I got a call from my mom while I was out. “I cleaned your room today. I just wanted to let you know.” Searching for a reason why she would call me for something so simple, I thanked her and let her know I’d be home for dinner.
The realization only came later. My heart stopped. I forgot to put away our prom pictures. I rushed back home.
I was my parents’ many firsts. I was their first born (and only) son, the first to be surrounded by an entire family who had spent the last twenty years resettling from Vietnam, the first to graduate high school with a 4.0, and the first to go to a UC school – these were some of the highlights of many other firsts.
While more these firsts than I could count were met with anticipation and celebratory welcoming than with unease and tension, my parents never expected that I would also be their first gay child.
I grew up in East Side San Jose, an immense Vietnamese-American enclave and Southeast Asian refugee haven. It was nearly impossible to be alone as a child: our entire extended family lived within three blocks of one another, my schools offered Vietnamese bilingual education, and my friends didn’t question why I brought out fish sauce instead of soy sauce to the dinner table. I had a strong sense of my history and my heritage. Yet despite being affirmed in my Vietnamese identity, I couldn’t shake off a chronic sense of immense loneliness and crippling fear I had growing up. It was a fear I couldn’t escape, one that I was reminded about day to day: the fear of being who I was and loving who I wanted to love. It was paralyzing.
This same fear propelled me home the night my mom called me. Would my key work or would the locks be changed? If I had five minutes to stuff my belongings into a bag, what would I take? How much of a physical or emotional beating could I take before I made a run back out the door?
I was terrified — mostly, of losing my family. I lingered on the sidewalk of my house, carefully observing the lights in every room, as if staring at the flickering yellow glow would magically show me what everyone was doing. I talked to my then boyfriend and made back-up plan after back-up plan in case I would get kicked out. After assuring me a warm place to sleep and food to eat, I worked up the courage to enter the house.
My keys worked. I stepped inside. It was quiet. My mom was watching TV with my dad. I snuck my way past them, still fearful. As I entered my room, I couldn’t have prepared myself for what I saw.
At the front of my desk was my prom picture, neatly framed in new black wood.
We don’t speak of it much but small actions have liberated me over the years. They no longer bother me about girlfriends. They invite my “friend” over for family celebrations. They leave out two plates for breakfast when my boyfriend stays for the night. In the process of letting go of fear and allowing myself to love without fear of losing my family, I have become an active member of both the Vietnamese and LGBT community, working with youth and advocating for a stronger future. I would have never done any of this had I continued to live in fear.
Like many Vietnamese families, there wasn’t much my family could offer by way of support, but what they did have was their love. But this was all I could have asked for and this is what I ask of all my readers: continue loving your sons, daughters, little brothers and sisters even if they love somebody of the same sex. You have the power to transform and empower a life and I urge you to use it for the better.