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.
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.
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.
My 22nd birthday is in four days.
Yesterday, my mom came into the office space that doubles as my bed room at around 10PM and asked what we were going to do that weekend, whether we should have a bbq or go out to dinner.
This was out of character. Questions came to mind: who? What? When? And most significantly, why? It was the first time since I was probably eight I remember that she expected that we did something together to celebrate my birthday, or any holiday. Days that “required” family presence would be facilitated quickly. Christmases were day time lunches, Thanksgivings were styrofoam plates gathered from leftovers of other parties eaten at one’s own necessity, and Birthdays were an envelope with $20 stuffed inside of it.
What was she doing asking that we be together? I wasn’t angry, I wasn’t hurt, I was genuinely unsure what caused this change in character and the motivation behind it.
I notified her that I already had plans this weekend (which I had — I wasn’t expecting this request and I wasn’t going to change my plans). There wasn’t a fight or an effort to change my mind. A resigned “oh” followed my response and she returned back to the upstairs room where she spends most her nights in between shifts.
This afternoon, I notified my dad that after this week, I would be spending the remainder of my time in Oakland. Largely, the notification was so that I wouldn’t get a confused phone call three days after I moved out asking where I was.
I came home from the bar around 11:30 tonight. After settling in, my mom came into my room and addressed me with a long, unkempt box in hand. Inside it was a Colibri Abyss pen.
“This is for you. Don’t lose it, it was very expensive.” And she left.
I don’t really use pens. I never made any mention of liking pens and never in my life had I shown an inclination toward them. I don’t find any significance in having nice pens and I feel it is more of a burden because I often lose pens and I don’t really want to lose this one because I’d feel terrible. I’m not sure what she means by this. Also, where did she get it? She doesn’t go to places that sell pens and she certainly didn’t think of me when she obtained this pen.
My gut reaction was unappreciative — I’d rather that she not get me anything at all as was customary to do on birthdays than feel obligated to give me something. But on the other hand, I can see it as a physical manifestation of the heartwrenching distance between us. Yet as far as we are, we look at one another on separate shores, oceans apart, and wonder what life would be like on the other.
How little she understands me. And how little I understand her.
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.