Mine; And What Isn't

It’s edging on five o’clock. We are already an hour late to fulfilling the promise of what time we would leave when dad and I finally saunter out the front door and clamber into my dusty Volkswagen Golf, dad’s famous slightly-burnt apple-pear crisp in hand. Dad, his short-sleeve dress shirt slightly-wrinkled and decorated with a few subtle stains, hastily pushes the passenger seat back as far as it will go and extends his legs, which are still too long for the cramped, college-student-budget of a car. His effort to wear a nice shirt is combated by his everyday jeans and sandals. He looks out of place in every car that isn’t his old, red Ford pickup truck. “She knew we’d be late. She accounted for this,” I excuse.


A chuckle of agreement.


I type in the directions, shuffle my “dad rock” playlist consisting of the Beatles, the Yardbirds, Jimi Hendrix--our favorite overlapping artists--and put the car into drive. A white-haired Shepherd-Husky watches longingly out the big front window as we pull away from our three-shades-of-green house, disappointed. I mentally prepare myself for the hour-long drive we have ahead of us. Our destination: Some suburb of San Jose. I silently reminisce to the days when I was too young to drive and we would make our trips down to San Jose together all three of us, me in the backseat with my headphones in, eyes scanning the ever-enchanting scenery of the outer walls of the 880. These were the days before my grandma got sick and mom was pulled in from the sidelines. Or rather, selflessly and lovingly volunteered to take on the role of MVP.


Our conversation occurs in bursts, a messily woven collection of undisputed political commentary and stories we’ve already told and already heard, intertwined seamlessly with gaps of silence like the holes in a knit sweater--more often than not.


Despite the quiet, there is substance. Now that I’m in college, our relationship has found depth. No longer does he feel he has to protect me from the tales of his youth--of being careless and smoking weed and making bad decisions. Of course there is more to my dad, like the several universities he’s attended and that one time he biked across multiple countries in Asia, but I’ve heard these in their PG versions. I crave to know who my dad was before he was “dad.” We exchange stories, carefully at first, testing the water as we tiptoe our way into honesty and (almost) complete openness. The advice-giving machine that encompasses my dad shapeshifts from disapprovement to understanding laughter. He is comforted to know that I will never be as reckless as he was--I can tell from the way he no longer pauses to pick his words carefully. He speaks freely now, without tension.


Getting off the freeway we make our way through a number of quiet, identical streets that I could never navigate if it weren’t for the help of Google Maps. I scan the series of houses that pass by the passenger-side window as one house seamlessly blurs into the next, searching for some indication of familiarity that is my uncle’s house-in-progress.


Parked and unloaded, we approach the house. Finding the entrance to Uncle Ba’s house is always a scavenger hunt. Used-to-be-architect turned civil engineer due to a lacking economy, my uncle has been in the process of remodeling his property ever since he bought it years ago, and with every visit the working entrance has travelled to some new side of the house. Dad and I duck under scaffolding to reach a door that I think will someday be the front entrance. Making our contribution to the pile growing just beyond the door, we step inside, dirty-socked and shoeless; vulnerable and exposed.


A roar emits, bouncing from wall to wall as the echo creeps up the tall ceiling.




[I should explain--My name is Sông-An, Vietnamese for “Peaceful River.” However, my entire family, both my dad’s from the South as well as my mom’s from Vietnam, call me by my middle name: Zoe. I’m still not entirely sure how this began, but nevertheless I have always been called Zoe by family. The funny part is that there is no “z” in the Vietnamese language, so my Vietnamese family calls me “Joey,” the closest they can get to achieving the soft buzz of our alphabet’s beloved caboose. Even though they could easily call me by my Vietnamese name. Oh well. Sometimes life is just like that.]


I make my rounds of the room, greeting aunts and uncles and coercing cousins who believe they are too old for hugs to tear their eyes away from their iPads and video games to give me a half-hearted hug topped with an eye roll and, if I’m lucky, the younger ones give me a kiss on the cheek. Along the way I am intercepted by many faces I don’t know, many names I don’t recognize, and many things said to me that I don’t understand, but I put on a smile and pretend to know them, that I am excited to see them, too.


Finally, I approach Ông and Bà, my grandpa and grandma. Bà sits in a wheelchair, her stare blank, eyes wandering aimlessly around the room at the vaguely familiar surroundings. Ông hovers next to her, smiling lovingly and with admiration at the small children playing on and around him. Mom leans over to Bà and tells her that I am here. Bà looks at me, a grin stretching across her already-stretched face--the result of an expensive attempt at maintaining her youth.


I smile at her and put my hand on her shoulder, doing my best to emanate a sense of comfort through my eyes and physical touch. She looks small, the wheelchair swallowing her in the pile of blankets that engulf her. She mumbles something to me--I don’t understand. Even if I did speak Vietnamese I doubt I would’ve been able to decipher her words as they are immediately whisked away by a breeze I cannot feel the second they abandon her dry, cracked lips. I give her a hug and a kiss on the forehead. Chuc mung nam moi. I tell her Happy New Year, doing my best to summon whatever remnants of a Vietnamese accent might have been left over in my speech muscle memory from fifteen-plus years ago. Accents are not quite like bikes, however. 


I watch as mom tells Bà about me and my life since I last saw her. I pretend that I can almost understand her as her Vietnamese accent rides up and down like a ship in water, rolling off her tongue like waves. Bà looks up at me, her eyes big and round and filled with wonder. She is like a child.


They say ignorance is bliss. I wonder if she is aware of her deteriorating abilities--whether she remembers what it was like to be young and able, or if her memory has disappeared enough to where she really is like a child and the present is all she knows.


I wonder if Bà can understand what my mom is saying. If she does, she doesn’t say anything. Mom was never that close with Bà, but ever since the heart attack they have grown closer, even though Bà doesn’t really speak that much. Maybe that’s why. Sometimes the lack of words speaks louder than words themselves. And sometimes they don’t.


How heart-wrenching it must be to see the woman you have looked up to all your life no longer be that woman but an imposter in her body.


I hug Ông next. A couple broken sentences of English and I find myself in a corner next to dad, surveying the lively and crowded room as distanced as if we were a cliff overlooking a foreign ocean.


Mom flies around the room, full of life and energy, her laughter hovering in the air for just a few seconds behind her, filling the space like the smell of freshly baked bread. Her handmade, flowy pants offer the illusion that she is gliding as she moves. For a moment I see her as she existed in old photos: Straight-long-haired, áo dài-ed (an áo dài is the traditional Vietnamese dress), and young. The image quickly fades. I don’t know that other woman. My mother is a tom-boy, spunky and short-haired, peppered grey and black and with a shaved temple.


Just up until last year we only came down to San Jose (where most of her family now lives) for major holidays and a couple birthdays. But when Bà had her heart attack and was diagnosed with Dementia, mom began driving down three--sometimes four--times a week.


[An average day for my mother: Most mornings she wakes up at seven, biking to work in quiet serenity while the sun’s rays are making their first strikes at clearing through the fog, allowing the sharpness of the brittle, cold morning air to wake up her tired-bearing eyes. Managing the front-of-house of my parent’s breakfast and lunch restaurant she traces circles round and round the two-floored floor plan, the to-do list neverending. Most of her days end at five or six in the evening, but on the days she drives down to San Jose she finds a way to leave by two or three in the afternoon. The hour-long drive is succeeded by an evening of taking care of her parents which doesn’t differ much from what it was like to take care of me growing up: running errands, taking walks for fresh air, going to doctors appointments. On these days, she often doesn’t begin the hour-long trek back home until nine or ten at night. Saturdays are supposed to be her day off--this rarely happens. Every sick call or two-weeks notice she finds her way back in the realm of the restaurant. Somehow every day she maintains her high spirits and infectious laughter, no matter how tired she is. She is a warrior.]


Watching her interact with her family, I long to join her. I hint a smile at dad. His pale skin stands out among the crowded room despite his being raised under the sun’s more vicious reign in the suburbs of Dallas, Texas. I at least have the benefit of being able to visually camouflage. But, ultimately, we are both outsiders here.


My interactions are minimal as I answer the same few questions over and over again. School is good. My major is linguistics. Architecture just wasn’t for me, that’s why I changed. Los Angeles is big. I smile a lot, trying to make up for the lack of connection that I see in the nods with which they respond. Uncle Ba tells me to be a civil engineer. Civil engineers make a lot of money. I smile and nod.


It is impossible to ignore the feeling of being alien as I stand among my own family. Vietnamese was the first language I spoke as a child, but when I began at an English-speaking pre-school, the stubborn child that I was refused to speak Vietnamese anymore. Every day since has pushed me a little further away from identifying as Vietnamese. I remember once in high school I happened to be working during lunch in the same classroom as a Vietnamese Student Club. I introduced myself to one of the kids and mentioned that I, also, was Vietnamese. His eyes lit up and a string of sharp-angled sounds flew at me as he said something to me in Vietnamese. Oh, I don’t speak. He looked at me a moment longer, his eyes hovering as they held mine, told me it was nice to meet me, and turned back to the other Vietnamese students. Shame pounded me in torrents.


They probably spoke.


A few years ago, mom and I went to Vietnam. We travelled up the country for three weeks, visiting distant family members and towns mom once called home. I was a tourist, watching from the sidelines as her past was brought back to life, as she fell seamlessly into step with what was, to me, foreign. We met with long lost relatives, cousins of cousins, friends of friends, strangers. Mom thrived with each and every one of them. It didn’t matter if they hadn’t seen each other in years, or if they had never even met before. They exchanged words and stories, all the while I watched and listened with the same connectivity that I felt for the television back home, only if the characters on TV could also point at you and talk about you in a language you didn’t understand. Occasionally mom would lean over and whisper to me something that was said, and I would smile and nod, actively searching my nonexistent Vietnamese vocabulary for words I might recognize.


Language is one of the most defining components of how we identify ourselves. It is also very overlooked. Most people have the concept that language is transversable--that something said in one language can be translated word for word into another and have the same meaning. But that’s not how language works. Languages are intimately tied to the cultures and people who use them. Even the same one language that is used by different groups of people will have differences in pronunciation, tone, use. The way we talk, think, and identify ourselves is in part a result of the languages we speak and the people from whom we learn how to speak.


 Most importantly, it is our tool for interaction.


I rarely see my dad’s side of the family. Once a year to every couple years do we make contact with one of the many that are scattered across the states. But they grew up in the same way I did: in the same schools, the same parties, the same neighborhoods, the same customs. My mom grew up running away from a war.


At least fifteen villages, towns, and cities my mom has called “home,” many of which weren’t even her family’s own, but one-room huts shared with at least one or two other families. When she was nine, she and one of her five siblings were separated from the rest of their family and lived with a group of nuns, solely eating rotten fish over rice everyday for a year. When I was nine, I refused to eat my carrots if they touched my peas. When she was fourteen, her father and a few other refugees escaped Vietnam--their second try--on a fisherman’s boat. Amidst the nothingness that is the ocean and finally free of the war that had taken control of their home, they were attacked and ransacked by pirates, their engine stalled by their own rice and left to die afloat the black, unforgiving waters of the South China Sea. My grandfather had to navigate his way to Thailand solely using the stars. Mom didn’t see him for ten years, until he had raised enough money to bring the rest of his family to join him in America. You could never tell what she’s been through from her smile as she greets you at the restaurant and shows you to your table.


It’s incredible how much she has adapted to this life in America--my life. I never adapted to hers.


I didn’t really try.


She brings me and dad each a plate overflowing with an assortment of Vietnamese delicacies, pointing to each as she explains what they are.


Her eyes sparkle with comfort and ease. She may have found a way to fit into her life at the restaurant and this western world, but here, among family and friends from a culture that is her own, she is alive. She doesn’t have to think about what words she needs to use to say what she wants to say--she just says it. I wish I could play a bigger role in this part of her life, that I could call her culture my own, as well. I wonder if my kids will speak Vietnamese.


I decide that they will. I will, too, someday.