I remember nothing about the place I was born because I was young when we left but for the rest of her life mom would dream about it, the heat that made the air vibrate above the dirt roads, the humidity that settled in her village before the monsoon rains flooded the fields.
Mom was a child of the tropics. She used to tell me how she’d spent countless hours under the generous sun and how, like a plant, she’d absorbed it and thrived. When the stars took over the sky, she never shrank from the darkness or the cold that followed because she held reservoirs of the sun’s warmth inside her. Late at night when she snuck out to meet her friends, they’d chase each other’s shadows and all would swear they could see her glowing like an ember. On cool evenings, her little sisters clung to her when they slept because they said she radiated heat, and they took turns resting their heads on her warmest spot, somewhere around her heart.
After the war, she said, the new government rounded up a hundred thousand people and sent them to reeducation camps hidden deep inside the jungles. The few who returned were no longer themselves. Their family members and neighbors said they were like ceramic bowls that had been smashed and reset but still fractured and missing pieces. My parents did not want to be disappeared or broken so they risked saying goodbye to no one.
Grandmother spent that last day cooking rice, stewing vegetables, and marinating fish, not knowing we had already shared our final meal together the previous night. She wrote to us later about the vision she’d had in her afternoon sleep of lilies bleeding into the ocean. She threw herself awake at the image and hurried outside to see dark clouds looming on the horizon. She ran to the shore where the fishermen lived and did not hesitate before stepping into the river to search for us, calling out our names, and cursing my father for taking us away from her. What little hope she had evaporated and fear took its place: What if we died at sea? There would be no stone to mark our graves. Or even if we survived, what good could come of it? Wasn’t death preferable to spending the rest of our lives toiling among strangers in a foreign land, without family, without the protection of our ancestors? Back on the shore, grandmother sank to her knees on the ground and scattered a handful of earth into the water and wailed over the loss of her children.
From our raft, mom swore she heard a voice in the wind. She looked over her shoulder to see the Vietnamese sun set for the last time and cupped her hand over her heart to keep it from going out with the light. Her reflection disappeared into the water and slipped from her sight. Without grandmother’s blessing, a curse would surely follow us from this life to the next. The further we traveled down the river, the colder it became. On the third day of being stranded in the ocean, she had to imagine working in the fields again to keep herself from shivering. After two years in the refugee camps, the three of us were welcomed to Boston by a bitter wind. The fire she had carried since childhood was nearly extinguished, and so when my father left, she didn’t cry because she knew worse things could happen. Then one morning she woke up and couldn’t remember how the warm ground had once felt beneath her bare feet.
The winters in Boston were difficult for mom. The slightest chills worried her and she took great pains to avoid getting hit by the wind. She complained endlessly of phantom illnesses and when I asked why she didn’t see an American doctor about her symptoms, she’d say: There’s nothing Western doctors can do about it. Something in the air here makes life unsuitable for people like us.
Since she’d never dressed a baby for New England weather, to protect me from the elements, she’d slather my face in Vaseline and bundle me up in multiple sweaters and spare towels. It’s like I have a fat little Bố Đại for a son, she said to her roommates, and they all laughed at my greasy, red cheeks. But things were difficult. Leaving the apartment required hours of preparation since she had to convince herself we could survive the dangers of winter lurking outside: cars sliding on ice, avalanches rolling off rooftops, icicles falling from triple-deckers. Worst of all, the freezing temperatures made her feet swell until they were purple like the underside of a tía tô leaf. She wore layers of socks in bed but the pain kept her awake so I’d hug her feet until we both fell asleep. Because she limped when it was cold, she had to leave a few hours early to get to work on time.
I remember in the beginning mom always wore a heavy coat with two thick scarves wherever she went, even if it was indoors. And while the kids at school looked forward to the possibility of snow, she was vocally disdainful of it. The first time she saw snow it was outside Fields Corner station late at night. She was coming home from work with groceries she’d bought all the way in Chinatown since there weren’t any Vietnamese stores in Dorchester back then. The cold bit at her ears and the street noises were muffled, caught in the thick, frozen air. Something soft brushed against her cheek and after she shook her head, she looked up to see snowflakes falling from the sky. It reminded her of the mosquitoes and moths that swirled around the netting above her sleeping mat back home. She blinked to clear them from her eyes, heard the humming of the streetlights, and imagined she was somewhere else.
Masses on Sundays at St. Peter on Bowdoin Street: how mom rushed out after communion, sometimes in such a hurry she’d forget to bring me with her. A neighbor would walk me back and I’d find her in the apartment kneeling in front of the mattress like it was an altar. The week’s mail, unopened, was spread out in front of her like fortune-telling cards. She picked up each envelope carefully, turned it over several times, and prayed over it, hoping it would transfigure. The letter she wanted from my father, the one that would say he still thought of her and of me, never came. But she could not forget him – he was the boy who’d held her hand and promised to marry her if he survived the war. But when he returned to the village after the country was lost, she watched him walking along the dirt road and almost didn’t recognize him. He was skinnier than a house gecko.
I remember one morning after a snowstorm, the whiteness of the city was so harsh it hurt my eyes to look. I waited alone, like always, at the bus stop on Dorchester Ave. I’d asked mom once why she didn’t wait with me at the bus stop like the other parents and she said: We are not American people. Do not forget this because they won’t. The bus never arrived and when teenagers started throwing snowballs and chunks of ice from across the street, I left and marched behind a plow truck to catch mom at the station. She was waiting on the inbound platform to Alewife – the only Vietnamese face in the crowd – but my relief was short-lived. As I began to explain myself, she hit me across the face. I was stunned. My face stung and my eyes burned. When she raised her hand again, instinctively, I covered my ears. Her face turned red. When people began staring, she said in Vietnamese, with all the calm of a woman who’d survived crossing the sea on a sampan: Get to school or I will beat you.
So I climbed across the unshoveled sidewalks until my sneakers felt like cold wet rags wrapped around my feet. A police car pulled up alongside after I’d been walking for nearly an hour. The officer tried to get my attention, but I didn’t dare look up because I heard mom’s voice again: Don’t be the fool who forgets the police are the same everywhere. Snow day, no school, the officer said before driving off. A crowd of kids gathered on the corner, laughing, and making strange noises with their mouths. Something hard struck my head and I fell forward and then felt snow shoved down the back of my shirt. I clenched my fists and swung everywhere at once. When I came to I was on the ground and they were gone. I wound a slow way back to the apartment and waited for mom, my ears so cold I couldn’t touch them for fear they might snap off. Instead I went to the nearby Chinese restaurant for warmth, and they gave me hot tea and allowed me to wait there. It was a family business; the mother took down the orders, the father cooked in the back kitchen, and the children folded to-go boxes out on the counter. That night, mom made me kneel in the corner while she ate her dinner. Your father – he was so strong people said he could wrestle a water buffalo. Why can’t you be more like him?
When spring finally arrived, mom would put out the new clothes she’d bought on sale at Bradlees, waiting all these months until Tết to wear them. She had me stay home from school for a day, despite a warning from my teachers that it would not be excused. They don’t understand, she said. It’s our most important holiday. Back home there’s no school for almost two weeks and celebrations can sometimes last for over a month. The two of us took the Red Line to Chinatown where we followed crowds to a temple and burned incense for our ancestors. Your grandmother used to take me to pay our respects and pray for good fortune during the New Year just like this, she said. I watched Chinese families celebrating on Harrison Ave. and listened as mom described how Vietnamese lion dancers could perform more exciting stunts, her hands fluttering and tumbling to approximate their feats. I imagined what Tết was like back home and wondered if I could’ve made it into a lion dancing troupe. When we got back to the apartment that night, we did not bring up the fact that no one had said Chúc Mừng Năm Mới to either of us.
During those years, mom worked a factory job that paid her almost nothing and đụ má the manager grabbed her whenever he pleased. She was allowed a single fifteen-minute break and she spent every second of it collapsed in a chair. If she could manage it, she’d bring herself to eat the cold rice with pork floss she’d packed, or on days when she had time to cook, a hard-boiled egg mixed with fish sauce. After working double shifts, she often fell asleep on the subway and missed her stop. But she was never scared, not of anything, even with our neighborhood on the news every night. Her bag was snatched one time on the bus and though the only thing of value in it was a cassette mixtape of Vietnamese songs that reminded her of my father, she took off after the thief anyway. She didn’t shout for help because no one would’ve understood what Giúp tôi! meant, no matter how loudly she yelled it, and besides – she needed her breath to run down the son of a bitch. Her farmer’s strength returned and she sprinted until she caught up with him and shoved him onto the road. With the shears she kept in her coat pocket drawn, she followed him into traffic. Luckily, some policemen waiting inside a Dunkin Donuts heard the backed-up cars honking outside and arrived in time to save the thief. I got a few kicks in before they pulled me off him, she told her roommates.
Mom began repeating a phrase in English she’d picked up somewhere: I’m so tired. Her weekdays consisted of going to work and cooking rice alone in the apartment, since I’d often be in bed already. On Saturdays, we went to the laundromat before taking our bottles and cans to the redemption center. If she didn’t feel like getting on the subway to Chinatown for groceries, we’d walk to Capitol Market on Morrissey Blvd. to buy instant noodles. The highlight of Sundays for me was walking to church because if mom had a quarter, we’d get a bag of chips.
I learned to clean and cook to help out, did my best in school so she would have less to worry about, though she could never take time off to attend the end-of-the-year awards ceremonies. Once, in sixth grade, I came home and found her sitting on the floor with the shades closed and the lights turned off. She was reciting something and wouldn’t stop. When I asked her what was wrong, she couldn’t seem to hear me, so I sat on the floor next to her with my homework and waited for the spell to pass.
The sunlight flickering through the blinds. Mom had recognized the handwriting on the Par Avion envelope and pressed it against her chest like it was a long-lost child. She took the letter to the kitchen, lit a match to start the stove, and filled the kettle with water from the sink. When it began to whistle, she ran the envelope back and forth like she was sewing with a needle across the fountain of steam. The glue dissolved, the envelope opened. She was quiet. A letter on graph paper and a black and white photo:
Daughter, Thank you for sending money. I received the picture you sent and barely recognized you. Your son has the face of his father – a blessing not without a curse. The fortune-teller took one look and said he will be more troublesome, though I can’t see how that is possible. You must know by now he’s remarried. With the entire village talking badly about our family, your younger sisters have not had a single proposal. It’s a good thing you spared us more embarrassment by remaining in the United States. Remember that all we have is God. Do not forget to pray for your son when the sun sets and rises. Despite your failures, you must not allow him to become a wild American. Uncle Six’s boy joined the priesthood. I’ve enclosed a photo of yours in this envelope because we’ve no place for it here. Pray for me, Mother
At first, the letter seemed to have no affect on her. She folded it up and extracted the photo from the envelope and suddenly her eyes softened. Come see how beautiful your father was, she said. I didn’t dare touch the photo, so she held it while I looked up at him. Father was standing on the front steps of a church in a light suit with wide-legged pants, worn high up on his waist, and his hair was styled like he was a Hong Kong movie star. Mom stood beside him, glowing in a red silk áo dài with gold necklaces cascading between her shoulders. I had to borrow those from our neighbors, she said. Mom looked young and pretty and her eyes were mischievous and full of light, but what I remember most was her smile – I’d never seen her so happy.
When she began crying, I thought about the rainfall in Viet Nam, how she said it was so heavy a person could hide in it. Once during a big storm, she snuck into the garden of the old man who lived across the road. He grew the sweetest fruit but refused to share them with the village children, preferring instead to let them rot. But on that day, under the cover of what had to be the heaviest rainfall of the season, she climbed up the biggest tree and snuck off with lychees to bring home for her little sisters.
After the letter, she stopped going to work and spent her days in bed. Before I could even put down my book bag, she’d send me out for Chinese food and her latest TVB dramas on VHS. When her roommates refused to loan her any more money and threatened to get a new roommate, she found a job at a restaurant but was fired the first night after she dumped a vat of boiling beef stock onto the kitchen floor, scalding the chef who’d muttered something nasty to her. She was rehired at her old factory, but to punish her for leaving in the first place, the manager put her on late shifts so the only time we ever saw each other was by the train station, when she was heading out for work and I was on my way back to the apartment. Her roommates would take turns babysitting even though I was too old for it. They mostly just gave me money to pick up cigarettes and snacks. I didn’t mind because they never asked for the change so I spent it on lunch at school and comic books at the Irish convenience store around the block.
Then she stopped coming home every day. Too worried to fall asleep, I listened for her quick footsteps coming down the sidewalk but could never make out anything among the sounds of cars honking and people shouting. Maybe she’d been kidnapped by men in a van, or maybe she’d been detained by police and didn’t have a translator. Finally in the early hours after I’d accepted she was murdered and I was a true orphan, she’d stumble into the apartment, hurl her keys on the floor, and smash on the light switch. I’d pretend to be asleep as she hovered over me. When she called out my name I’d turn my back to her and face the wall.
After that she was always on her way to a boyfriend’s or just getting back from visiting one. I could tell when she’d wear her hair down. She grew it out long, like it had been in the wedding picture, and when she walked in the street men called out to her, told her to come over. It was the first thing your father noticed about me, she said. There were many boyfriends who noticed it now: The waiter who brought leftovers from the restaurant and lectured us about not acting grateful enough. The gangster who had a different car every time he came around and took us shopping, one time all the way out in Braintree. And even though I saw him once with his wife and small children at Phở Hoà, I still wanted to be like him.
In high school, the rehearsed conversations between me and mom went like this:
Are you skipping school? No. Do you want any money? No. You need to eat more. Okay. Don’t let me catch you messing around with any girls. Okay.
That last morning she came home with her hood up, her face obscured by shadows and long bangs. She collapsed into bed without a word. I fried two eggs and brought it to her with xì dầu and two glasses of water for the hangover she’d have when she woke up. This had happened before, so I didn’t think more of it, but when I returned from my afterschool job in the evening, I overheard her roommates say that one of mom’s boyfriends had beaten her up so badly she almost couldn’t make it to work. They said they understood it because no man could ever accept a woman who already had a child – a reminder of how she had once belonged to another man. Men can’t be blamed for begrudging women their past infidelities. After all, a woman has no choice but to accept whatever she’s given, they said.
I grabbed a trash bag and packed whatever clothes I could find. In the background I heard her roommates calling mom at the factory, saying, Your son has lost his mind. She rushed home and as soon as she saw the bag in my hand, she tried to scream but her mouth was too bruised. Instead, she marched into the kitchen and threw bowls at the wall and smashed cups on the counter. When her arms gave out she said, Son, listen to your mom. This wasn’t the life I imagined for myself. This wasn’t the life I wanted for you. You are my son, your father’s son, but you don’t know how lonely it is without a husband, without a family. I need you to understand.
When I finally made it to the door, she grabbed my hands and it felt like she was burning my wrists with fire. Mẹ mày! Go then, she yelled. Leaving is the only thing men know how to do, but know this: I pray that every girl breaks your heart so you can never do to anyone what he did to me. You are nothing, just like the rest of them. Mày chỉ là con chó.
You ignore your mother’s malediction but it follows you out into the street where the sun is sinking in the distance behind the city and when you catch sight of your reflection fading in the subway window, you hear her voice ringing in your ears.