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.
There are photos of my family at church which are older than I am. Looking through the albums, the church book-ends one era to another for my family: my parents in front of the church that sponsored them here, my middle sister’s baptism ceremony, my oldest sister’s confirmation ceremony, my own baptism, marriages of my uncles and aunties. There are even a couple of photos of me dozing off in the pews when I was four that my dad thought would be particularly funny.
Looking at the pattern of images taken of my older sisters and relatives, I watched them grow up as they were documented during their first baptism, eucharist, confirmation, marriage, funerals and the cycle begins again but with their own children.
There are lapses as time passes, however. One nephew wouldn’t have a baptism, another aunt wouldn’t have a marriage. Eventually, examining my own memories in front of me, I realize I don’t have a confirmation memorialized.
It was no coincidence though; I left the faith a long time ago when I realized I was gay. The contradiction in my parent’s faith and my sexuality was only the cherry of the reason; the bulk of it built up from years of understanding my own sense of existed. I always hated being given instructions.
There were fights. There were long nights and dreadful car rides. Yet I was stubborn and fiercely committed to what I believed was right. I remember my dad telling me he left monastery training as a teenager to be with the woman he loved — my mom — and I’m essentially doing the same. Eventually, they gave up. I haven’t been inside of a church since early high school.
Though looking through the album again, I see there are less photos of these life events in general (aside from my own) even though I know there are more little nieces and nephews who go through them. Hell, there are less family photos altogether. These eras are lost.
Perhaps they no longer felt it was significant to document every precious moment and the novelty of comfortable luxury of the United States in comparison to their war-torn Vietnam had worn off. New realities were terrifying though exhilarating at first but soon became tomorrow’s drudgery. However, even if it was partially that, I also realized my parents haven’t gone to church in the last four years. When I used to come home for Christmas, they would tell me, “Meet you at Midnight Mass, we are going to go first to get seats and you can catch up” and I would intentionally disappoint their expectations. But now, not even that happens.
I didn’t notice for the longest time. As I’ve gotten older, however, I begun to wonder why they stopped going. I stopped going because I lost my faith and I know why. But I wonder what they lost to make them stop. For once, I felt uneasy about the situation.
Knowing that something they did for over 50+ years, across war, violence, devastation, oceans, continents, jungles, trauma, resettlement, life, and death was suddenly stopped worries me. It must have been something quite catastrophic and lately, I’ve noticed my family crumble apart particle by particle from the inside out. The rooms are cold. The walls echo. Things are dead here. We’re hollow.
I’m starting to see this, and I’m starting to mourn it.
I can’t lie. Looking at the photos, I felt a familiar warmth emanating from them that was long extinguished and its comforting glow reignited what I hadn’t noticed was even missing in the first place. I remember seeing my first Nativity scene and the excitement that came with it, I remember watching my first Lion Dance show and my eagerness whenever January came to an end, I remember sitting in envy as my older sisters got to take part in the Eucharist alongside my parents and awaiting the day I no longer served to save their seats.
How will I hold on to these feelings when they’re gone? When they’re gone, will they be comforted? Or will they thrash through everything in a journey of fear until the very end?
The second scenario terrifies me. The only thing terrifying than experiencing their loss is experiencing their loss without having the warmth that we had in those photos.
Was it my leaving the church that my parents stopped going as well? Or what was it which made them stop?
Sometimes, I begin to think I should believe again, if only for the comforting fact to know that my family will be taken care of with just as much love as they took care of me. Then, perhaps, I could not fear loss as much as I do now.