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.
Journey to the ancestral “homeland” constitutes a rite of passage for many of my second-generation Asian American peers. I’ve noticed that many, though not all, of my peers have expressed or enacted upon this urge in almost bureaucratic fashion: often spoken aloud by Asian Americanists as we share the hopes, dreams, and goals during both the privately intimate and publicly visible times of our organizing, community building, or degree-obtaining. Especially given my place in an institution in a university which allows the opportunity for such privileged mobility, the chance to travel is facilitated as irresistibly tantalizing and always opportune.
Within the various circles of children of immigrants, refugees, and laborers within which I find myself surrounded, the desire to return to or visit the birthplace of their parents and grandparents is encoded as a desire to find and produce meaning, relevance, and ontological congruence in an increasingly jarring transnational experience that is “Asian American”. To suture the intergenerational time and space interstices between immigrant parent and America-born child then is to make sense of the interstice from which assemblages of gendered, racial, and sexualized violences emerge — the interstice of existing as “Asian American” in an imperial, neocolonial, militant America. And for some, to have this experience is to unlock a treasure chest of knowledges unknown and untranslatable to those who do not make this pilgrimage: a knowledge which can somehow disrupt these logics of violence. A journey to this homeland is a journey for an intimacy that was seemingly robbed.
However, it is within these desires and urges that powerfully form the arc of development for many of my wonderful peers which I find personal incongruence. For me, the urge to travel to this “home”land flickers weakly at best, stifled by the fact that it would be little more than tourism with all the baggages of my Western and American-born privileges. In quest of homeland, I would find myself in a position which contradicts the journey in the first place: I would be surrounded by strangers in a time and space where we meet but never touch. Can I feel home in a home that isn’t and never was mine? What connection am I expected to have with these strangers I may have, in another life time, loved or hated or fucked or killed? What connection do I have with these strangers who I still love, hate, fuck, and kill by virtue of my position?
Strangers that I care deeply for, yes, but strangers still.
Though over 80% of my blood relatives still live in Vietnam, I find it hauntingly bizarre that I could walk through a market in Binh Dinh on any given day and perhaps pass by so many uncles, aunts, cousins, and half-siblings, never knowing that our mothers were birthed from the same womb, wondering about the conversations that never were, never could be, and never will be. And what haunts me still is the fact that my mother and father who remain as the tenuous bridge across the Pacific are growing older and dying quicker in the United States.
As this link between myself and Vietnam continues to evaporate, all I have remaining of the “homeland” are these incongruent intimacies and I wonder whether this is how it will forever remain.
It’s cute seeing my 60 year old dad get back into the swing of dating/flirting. It’s also fun that the way he flirts in Vietnamese translates to something comfortingly quotidian in English.
“No you didn’t bother me. I was just in bed about to sleep when the phone rang and I thought oh I don’t mind talking to you for a bit.”
“I’m bored. What are you up to?”
“Oh I’m not doing anything. Just sitting in bed, talking to you.”
“I don’t go out dancing too much but it’s nice to go out once in a while. We can go sometime if you’d like.”
“My kids are so smart and I’m very proud of them. I bet you have wonderful kids too. What are they like?”
I’ve been back for a few days and I’ve noticed he’s become quite a bit of a Chatty Cathy at night. If this keeps up, I may have to start sleeping in the living room.
Today you let your heart break in front of me. And it was the words you didn’t speak that said more than the words you did.
“She left me.” But my translation is inaccurate. Bỏ. The word you used in Vietnamese for “left” was more than leaving. It was the same word used for trash to be discarded, for objects rendered filth. “Leaving” wasn’t just a physical moment, it was abandonment, it was loss, it was worthless, a conscious choice to neglect.
You finished your sentence away from me, and hoped to begin a new one but couldn’t start. Here was the exact moment that your eyes clouded behind your glasses, that your lips closed, and your punctuated silence told me your deep sadness was untranslatable by words. Here, I saw the same face of trauma registered in my oldest sister’s face last year as she told me the story of the abuse she faced from her first husband two decades ago. And I realized when in heartwrenching sadness, we all look the same.
There was nothing you could say that could describe what you were feeling as you said that out loud, that I could only access your archive and depth of loss and doubt in reading your gestures and your silence. I wanted so badly to tell you how much you matter, how much you deserve and are capable of love, but we could hardly speak of the weather in the same language — how can we speak of feeling? So I let our silence talk for us in the space that our voices could not.
“But that’s okay because that’s the American life, right?” You recuperated as words came quick to scaffold you, realizing that you did not want to break in front of your son.
Yet here though I know he was explicitly referring to their divorce, I wondered what layers of meaning he was gesturing to when referring to the ‘American life’. Was he expecting and apologizing for the deep sadness he felt? Was recurring loneliness and loss constitutive of his ‘American life’? Worthlessness and total abandonment? What affective terrains does ‘America’ yield for him?
It was in this moment that I realized the tables had turned, and I had to play the role of caretaker for my father. He needed me.
I nodded. There wasn’t much I could say. I could only be there. Not speak. But listen, and watch. And read.
“Dad,” I started. “Wanna have a beer with me?”
I came back to San Jose tonight, after seven hours of preparing myself of the different possibilities of what might I might come back to.
A month ago, my nephew informed me that my mother finally left, after a painful year of drawing out the process of her and my father’s divorce. I wondered: will her pictures be gone? Will my father have moved his things into the space that was once her closet? Will he be sleeping in the bed anymore? What things did she take with her? Will the house feel emptier? Warmer?
It was a habit of mine to check their bedroom as the first thing I did whenever I found myself back at the home in San Jose — to check for signs of when either of them were last there. Usually, cracked watermelon seeds across the carpet or dried lipstick on Kleenexs on the counter tops meant my mother had been there in the last 24 hours at least.
The room was clean. What then struck me was that the room was acutely rearranged: the futon on the floor that one would sleep on whenever the other was in the bed was replaced by my father’s familiar cluttered desk; his filing cabinets stood where her exercise machine was; his clothes hung on the rack. Yet the process was painful still — boxes of her clothes still lay awaiting pick up in a corner of the room.
However, what struck me most about the room wasn’t how clean or empty or neat things looked in comparison to when they shared the space, but rather how he kept and re-centered all their pictures. On the wall that was once bare was now the large life sized portrait of my mother in front of our garden in happier times (a photo they had taken down when their marriage was in trouble), and underneath that was their wedding photo taken in Vietnam that he had restored. Flanking these photos were other photos of times the family was together, the most recent one taken no fewer than at least ten years ago.
In her loss, it felt like her presence in his life was stronger than ever.
Last night, my dad talked to me about how much it meant for my extended family that I finished my undergraduate education. For my 40+ extended family who have relocated to the States, I am positioned as an indicator of whether our family, our community could truly thrive in diaspora. We survived, we can manage an existence, but can we really make something out of nothing?
I am at a crossroads of multiple generations and waves of movement. I have only three other cousins who are in the same life era as me, with the rest of my cousins well into their adulthood or just beginning elementary school. This means that I am oldest of the children to have begun my educational journey in the states, and yet I am of the youngest to have experienced it at all. I benefited from the mistakes that my older cousins have made and the troubles they’ve experienced: every time one was incarcerated, we learned to avoid his/her decisions.
As he went through each family members’ names, he would point out to me how much difficulty they had making it through school, if they had made it out at all. It got to the point where he pointed out that of the ~30 of us who experienced the American educational system, I was one of the minimal few who had successfully completed his/her undergraduate education.
Now, I would be the only one in our multi-generational family on the path toward a post-bac degree. Looking at the fact that all family before us were in Vietnam, I would also be the only one in our ancestral lineage who achieved such education. This was more significant to my family than I had ever realized: they looked to me as hope that yes, our family, our community could “make it”, could be “successful”, could make something having been given nothing.
With a loving tone, he instills faith in me to pursue a Ph.D because I am already so, so close. I am their only shot at this, he feels, because everybody else had so much difficulty with school and nobody will ever come as close as I am now. My entire family, my grandparents and their parents are all watching, and hoping, and praying. I am grateful for their love and support.
Yet rather than this fueling my sense of purpose and drive, it twists me inside to hear how much they find significance in what I do.
But how do I tell him that my Master’s is not a guarantee of any mobility?
How do I tell him that my education will not translate to any sort of concrete stability?
How do I tell him that my knowledge, in this economy, does not hold as much value as he believes?
How do I tell him that there are significantly more candidates out there than there are jobs for people like me?
How do I tell him that I’m not sure?
That I don’t know?
That I’m doing this out of love and urgency?
But that I’m fucking terrified of screwing this up?
Heaving, I hold up the world of Vietnamese American hopes and dreams upon my buckling shoulders and I fear that one day, I will crumble beneath its immense weight.
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.
Uploading some old photos and I couldn’t resist.
Here’s me, being a model minority by the piano. And there’s my sister servin some Pinay realness up in here.
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.