Alien: Hoangmai Pham’s Memoir, continued

Another sneak preview! Earlier, diaCRITICS posted the first chapterlet from Hoangmai Pham’s work-in-progress memoir Keeper of Stories. Here, we’re happy to be able to give you another snippet. As the title of the chapterlet suggests, Pham’s experiences were that of an alien, the only Asian at her elementary school. Despite this, Pham reflects back on her childhood and her adjusting to school life in the United States in this chapterlet.

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The following is from a memoir by Hoangmai Pham, who escaped from Saigon to the U.S. with her family in 1975, at age 7. Keeper of Stories is a work-in-progress that interweaves her family’s history in Vietnam and America and her own psychological journey surviving and understanding that history. Only recently has Mai learned that her strategy for coping with her traumas was what is referred to as a dissociative disorder, in which she compartmentalized pieces of her personality to keep them safe. The memoir traces how she unearthed her family’s history, and explains how that helped her integrate her different parts. “Hear, Say” and “Alien” are early “chapterlets” about her first encounters with American culture as the only Asian child in her elementary school. On her blog, you can find preceding and subsequent chapters. She posts drafts of chapterlets for readers to comment on, including here, on diaCRITICS, “Running Saigon” and “Day, Night, Week, Month.


My parents found jobs almost immediately and were relieved. My father entered the Philadelphia School District, where he would stay until retirement some thirty years later. My mother got a secretarial position at an insurance company. They both had to commute downtown.

We moved from the Ross’ house to our own, two blocks south down Lincoln Drive, to Glen Echo Road. At first the little row houses and their tall, concrete stoops, one for each adjacent pair of houses, seemed to stick out in a land of colonials, but later it was more obvious that it was the colonials that were unusual. Even in the hippy-dippy neighborhood of West Mt. Airy, disparities were still apparent. Park land was the economic compass. The houses and properties expanded as you neared any entrance to Wissahickon Creek, the shoe-lace of green that wound for miles from Chestnut Hill in the north down to where the creek spills into the Skuykill River. Our new house was a good mile from the nearest park entrance. When we arrived, we were among only two or three non-black families on the block. That was by design, though not my parents’. When houses went up for sale, neighbors pressured the homeowners to sell to minority families.

Faye doesn’t watch me after school anymore. I walk home by myself and sit on the front stoop and wave if the other girls wave. Kelly is in my class and vouches for me. Her hair is cut close to her head, with just one layer of tight curls covering her visible, brown scalp. The girls sit above me on the steps and coo at my long, straight hair, limp and lifeless. They pick up a strip and divide it in three. I like the pull on my scalp, the harder the better. When the cornrow is done, they let it go and squeal as it falls apart. Three or four attempts later the thrill is finally gone.

The neighborhood is safe. Otherwise my parents would not have me walk to school by myself. Everything is a similar shade of a color I can’t name. The stone facades on colonials and row houses, the mottled bark of oak trees are all the color of the cement sidewalks. The trees here do not stay green year round. When they lose their leaves, the entire landscape is desiccated, washed in the funny cement color. There are no street people and almost no stores. The only sounds when I walk are birds and the automobile hum.

When the houses get larger, they are set back from the street behind hedges just taller than my head. I walk tree blocks north before I begin to see movement around houses, people climbing into cars, too busy to talk or wave. Near the railroad tracks there is more activity. Commuters walk briskly, their eyes down. Once cross the bridge, there are more children, walking from other directions, climbing out of buses and cars.

My class is curious about me. Some fingers point. I have different skin from everyone. But I have no accent and soon they almost forget that I am new, that I don’t know everything. I track how the dark kids play with other dark kids and the light kids play with other light kids. Sometimes I try to play with one group, sometimes the other. Sometimes I sit on the stone border on the east side of the schoolyard to take it all in. I watch one light boy hit a fuzzy yellow ball with his hand against the external wall of the library, let it bounce once, and leap aside so the next boy could hit it. I find a ball and practice at home for a week before stepping forward and asking to play. I try not to ask too many questions. They ask me none at all.

One day we practice writing and I write in cursive with the p in Vietnamese style, its bottom curving out and open like a long-legged n. The teacher doesn’t know what to do. She was not asking me to write in cursive. She tells me to close the loop on the p. Another day she goes around the class and as everyone tells a story about their summer. My legs grow tight as she begins calling names at my table. When she calls my name, something snaps and I bolt up from my seat. She and I are both surprised. I run under her desk and stay there.

We are helping to plant flowers on the slope of the new playground. But it is already cold in October and they do not look like flowers. Instead, the teachers give us each three of what look like small onions. Someone had already troweled out several rows of holes; the hillside looks pocked from a horde of groundhogs. ”Put one bulb in each hole with the roots down.” I squat and stare. One end is pointy, one end is scruffy. I finger the entire surface for clues. Everyone else has deposited their bulbs and is already pushing soil back into their holes. I decide to spread my bets; I plant one onion with the point down, one with the point up, and one on its side. I tip in the soil over each and pat it firmly before anyone can see.

In December, a snowstorm is supposed to start in mid-morning. Everyone is excited except me. She’s never seen snow before! When the early flakes begin to fall, Ms. Fink takes a break and lets the others steer me to the south facing window. I sit in a chair looking out, and they stand behind, watching me. After a while, they take me outside and repeat the observation as I hold out one hand and watch a few flakes land and melt. It is white and cold and wet, just as promised. I try to muster some surprise and enthusiasm because they are watching. We go back in to class.

Every Wednesday, eight or ten kids leave the class. They are the smartest ones because they sit in the Purple reading group and I am only in Yellow. They spend the day somewhere else with a different teacher then come back on Thursday. The class is less interesting when they are gone and they look bouncier when they come back. Halfway through the year, my teacher hands me a hall pass and tells me to walk to a small room near the principal’s office. A man wearing glasses is in there and closes the door on the two of us. He tells me we are going to play some games and answer some questions. He puts little red and white blocks in front of me and then flips over a large card with a red and white pattern on it. Can you make that for me? When I am done with all the pattern cards, he shows me pictures and asks me what is happening in each scene. He tells me series of numbers and letters and has me repeat them back to him. Then he asks simple questions. The last one is, Who is Benjamin Franklin? I smile a big smile. He invented electricity! The man smiles in turn and tells me I am done and can go back to class. I wait for news of how I did on the man’s tests, but no one tells me. When the rest of the year passes, I know that I wasn’t smart enough to go with the Wednesday group. I think about this all summer. I ask my brothers what they think went wrong, and they laugh and tell me that Benjamin Franklin discovered electricity. But at the beginning of third grade, and without any more testing or explanation, I am sent out with the Wednesday group.

Some days I catch up to Heather Egan after school and we cross the railroad bridge then climb the asphalt walk on the west side. The southern end of the path is obscured by a jumble of vines, some with thin light green leaves, some thick and aggressive. She tells me that the flowering vine is honeysuckle. “This is how you do it.” She picks off one white flower, holds the narrow foot and pinches off the very tip. A slim stamen sticks out there at the new orifice. She raises it high and tilts her head back to open her mouth. She tugs on it gently until a single drop of sweet dew forms at the end of its length and drips into her mouth. The nectar is delicious but I feel a cringe of indecency; it is like taking the dress off of a fairy.

Heather walks on the balls of her feet, never completely on the ground. She lives with an older brother and sister and her mother. Their house is messy, as if someone had taken the wrapper off a crayon and smeared it on its side all over the boundaries my mother would have imposed. A river rock tumbler hums in one corner, shoes scatter on the living room floor, and the kitchen counter is covered with half made sandwiches, whole grain breads, and paper scraps with poetry and shopping lists scrawled on them. Heather is a serious ballet dancer and can run long distances faster than any other girl in my grade. She tosses a football through the tire swing with her brother. They politely include me but I learn to not follow her home more than once every other week.

Matthew Macgregor is friendly but he walks in a different direction. So do the Highland twins and Eric Olson. Most days I walk home by myself. The baby is still in daycare and my older brothers are not home from school yet. When the weather is good, I walk around to the side yard, down the five steps to the alley, down the alley to Lincoln Drive, and back again to the front of the house.

I look for interesting things on the round. If the ground is soft, I go then into our small front yard. Its front slopes down toward the street, and is hidden by a privet hedge. I find a flat rock and some strong sticks that I can use to dig a hole. It is more important that the hole is wide than deep. I bring out a bowl of water. With the dirt piled on the hole’s edge, I make dumplings. I wet the earth to make sludge, and scoop some of tis into the middle of a large maple leaf. I wrap it up the way my mother folds rice paper to make spring rolls, and then skewer each package with a small twig to secure it. I put the dumplings into the hole, along with crumpled leaves, and then pour in the rest of the water to finish my witches’ brew. I stir and stir. When my legs are tired from squatting, I go inside and watch Electric Company and Sesame Street, and then a show about people stranded on an island, before my brothers come home. I like it that on TV all the emotions are exaggerated.

Every few months, I grow more adventurous and walk farther and farther from the house. I watch Matthew walk all the way down Allens Lane after school and follow him. The houses are so large there that there are only two or three on each block. I see where Matthew’s house is.

Across the Avenue I see some grownups in running shoes disappear into trees. It is an entrance into Wissahickon Creek. The path is narrow and slopes down steeply. I lean my weight back on my heels and slide down. I see where the water runs and bounces. I sit on a large rock that juts out into the tickly water and drop in leaves and twigs to watch them float downstream. I am small enough that no one bothers me.

“Did you leave any marks on the path, Mai?” Blue asked.

“What do you mean? No. I left things just the way I found them.”

“You wouldn’t have left marks on the concrete sidewalks, but I was hoping you at least left footprints in the dirt, or scratched it with a stick. But you walked all those places and left no trace and no witnesses. Hours and hours you walked….”

I rummaged deep to feel something – anything – that I could report to him. “What happens to a life that is unobserved?” I asked instead.

“Typically one of two things…..” he said in the slow way he uses to titrate my responses when he doses out information, “Either a person retreats into grandiose beliefs about the value of that life, or she comes to believe that the life is not worth observing.”

Hoangmai Pham is a writer, who escaped from Saigon to the U.S. with her family in 1975, at age 7. Keeper of Stories is a work-in-progress that interweaves her family’s history in Vietnam and America and her own psychological journey surviving and understanding that history. On her blog, you can find preceding and subsequent chapters. She posts drafts of chapterlets for readers to comment on.

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