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.
Today, my mother texted me a picture of her from 4th of July. She’s standing in front of Phuoc Loc Tho, a Vietnamese mall in Westminster, wearing a strapless top in an American flag print and sandblasted jeans. Her dyed auburn hair complements her ultra feminine sunglasses which glows auburn in the summer Orange County sun as well. Though what strikes me most in this picture is her smile, one resurrected from her late 30’s when she took style cues from Suzanne Sommers and Whitney Houston, one resurrected from poses in front of the Golden Gate Bridge, Santa Cruz Boardwalk, the merry-go-round at Eastridge Mall, one resurrected from those early years where she had felt comfortable enough after resettlement to explore this American life.
This is a smile I saw only in photos taken before I was born. Excited. Eager. Young.
She still lives in San Jose, a five hour drive and one hour plane ride away from Los Angeles. On account of her motion sickness and severe migraines, I can only count two times in my life where she travelled such a long distance that wasn’t Vietnam: once, for a wedding when I was four, and once, for my college graduation last June. Travel was reserved for significant occasions.
This photo was from only two weeks ago. I responded back with, “Hi mom, did you have fun in Los Angeles?” With it, she responded, “Yes, nhung buon vi khong gap con Hu Hu.” Translation: Yes, but sad because I couldn’t meet up with you ;_;. Playful. Sweet. Cordial. But it highlighted the fact that seeing me certainly wasn’t the primary agenda of her excursion in SoCal. I surprised myself when I read it: my heart quietly sighed to be on the other side of this exchange as I’m usually the one fleeting in my visits back to the Bay. And I almost regretted not seeing her.
It’s been a couple of months since I’ve last been home. I’ve been away for most of the divorce, so I can only get a sense of how the family is adjusting through brief conversations and text messages like these. The last set of photos was from my sister’s 30th birthday: an affair at the house not unlike any other birthday we’ve celebrated where there’s an almond mocha cake from Van’s Bakery and the six of us spend fifteen minutes chatting before going back to doing what we were doing before. This year, I celebrated with through text message. I was sad to miss those fifteen minutes in person.
Aside from wondering what compelled her to travel five hundred miles, I’ve been thinking about who took the picture of my mother in front of Phuoc Loc Tho and what their relationship is like. Who resurrected the smile. What vibrated in her energy in that moment. Who colored her aura with excitement, wonder, and eagerness.
I’ve always wanted that person to be my dad or one of us, but whoever she’s with, I’m glad she’s happy.
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.