I first read Angie Chau’s short story collection, QUIET AS THEY COME, the year it came out, 2010, and I remember how resonant it felt to me immediately, capturing the atmosphere of California summers and semi-suburban/urban wanderings, brought into nuanced and sensual focus, through acute and generous renderings of character and detail. Rereading the story “Hunger” now, in 2018, in a time when tensions and awareness of what it is like to be refugees, to be growing up (or to have grown up) as ‘other’ in a white-dominated America, are heightened, I feel even more sympathy and empathy for the children in this story. I see their resilience and vulnerability, their humored watchfulness over one another, and the way that they are absorbed by and yet re-appropriate the “dream” aspects of the popular culture they traipse about in: wearing loosely their golden-age cinema star names or the Erik Estrada halter top that keeps needing readjustment, receiving small graces via baseball and pizza, and playing at anti-Communist politics (in the way that only Vietnamese refugee children would effortlessly learn to do) while crawling around inside an abandoned aircraft repurposed as suburban playground decoration. It is through the author’s observations and the characters’ interactions with the seemingly mundane details of their surroundings, that this story speaks in a resolutely humane way about refugee lives in the postwar period.
This reprint of “Hunger” launches also a new website redesign for diaCRITICS and re-launch of OUT OF THE MARGINS, our blog’s original literary and art series.
If you enjoy this story, I highly recommend reading the whole collection, QUIET AS THEY COME, available here.
Story reprinted by permission of Ig Publishing and the author.
I live in a three-bedroom house with my mom and dad and little sister Michelle. We have the corner bedroom because my mom can’t sleep. Down the hall, the biggest bedroom goes to my uncle and aunt because they have three sons. The smallest room goes to my aunt Kim because it’s only her and Sophia and Marcel who don’t have a dad.
The house is big and old. There are lots of hidden closets and corners and secrets inside. Like how we’re not allowed to bring up Uncle Duc because he’s in jail in Vietnam. Or how we have to step over my dad when we go to the bathroom at night, but come morning we have to pretend he was never sleeping in the hallway. Or how we’re not supposed to hear Uncle Lam’s fists on Aunt Trang’s body. So when it’s the Fourth of July, and all our parents leave so they can work over-time, and they close all the curtains because they say it’ll keep the house cooler, I wonder if it’s to keep us a secret too.
It is dark inside the house because everything is wood and the windows are covered. It is loud because the boys are banging on the pots. It is hot because it’s the holiday that has to be warm enough for families to sit and watch fireworks in the night. I sit with a radio in the shadows of the living room floor. My name is Elle. It’s not my real name. That’s kind of a secret too.
No one at school knows it’s my fake name. My parents changed it so I would fit better. Sometimes I wonder if they’ll change my last name too. And if they do, what will become of the old me? The Vietnamese name with the two letters that match like your favorite pair of socks.
Everyone else got famous people names like Sophia Loren and Marcel, short for Marcello Mastroianni. The three boys are named after the Rat Pack, Uncle Lam’s favorite group. When I ask my mom why I didn’t get a cool famous name, she looks around to make sure nobody else is around and whispers, “I would never do that to you. It’s like announcing you still have salt behind your ears.”
My mom talks in riddles and poems. It’s her way of saying she doesn’t want everyone to know that we only arrived in America five months ago. It means she wouldn’t want the world to know that we had to escape here by boat. The way she talks and puts words together is different from the other adults. Maybe it’s because she studied theater when she was young. She can make you feel like you are the sun or just as quickly a speck of dirt. When she talks everyone snaps to attention. But maybe they just can’t help but look at her she is that beautiful. Everyone says she would have been a famous actress in Vietnam if we hadn’t left. I can imagine her name in lights.
If my parents want to change my last name, I will say, please, if I’m good can I choose it this time? And then I will say, doesn’t Estrada sound nice? And then they’ll think it’s because I’m in love with Erik Estrada. But really it’s because I’d have two Es for Elle Estrada the way I used to have two Ts for Thao Tran.
Erik Estrada is my favorite actor. I wear a shirt with him flat across my heart. I wear it every day until my mom peels it off and says, “Dirty girl, you should have been born a boy.”
The shirt has strings that tie behind my neck. It’s yellow, my favorite color because it looks like sunshine. The iron-on says Chips and he’s sitting on a motorcycle. He cradles his helmet in his arm like a baby. His shades are off so you can see his soft brown eyes. He has big white teeth and wavy black hair. He’s a policeman. Nobody would mess with me if we were together.
The man on the radio says, “San Francisco put away your frying pans. It’s so hot today you can cook an egg on the pavement!”
Sophia says, “I want eggs. I’m hungry.”
I say, “I wish we were still at the refugee camp.”
Frank, Dean, and Sammie in descending order watch from the sofa like monkeys in a banyan tree. Frank, the oldest, rolls his eyes and says, “That’s lame. You’d be dead if you were still there.” He is 10 and only two years older than me but he acts like he’s already grown.
I say, “At least we went swimming there.”
In Malaysia, my dad would take all the kids to a swimming hole made entirely of black shells. He taught us how to swim. He taught us how to dig for clams. He taught us times tables. My dad’s a good teacher because he used to be one. One day, he taught us how to make paper kites out of yesterday’s newspaper and spoiled white rice for glue. The adults cheered when they saw the kite tails flapping in the wind. They said it looked like freedom.
The little kids jump up and down on the hardwood floors and raise their hands in the air. “I want to go swimming,” they say. “Me too, yay, me three!”
The boys pull the sofa-bed away from the wall and throw the cushions to the floor. Between the mattress folds and tangled sheets there are coins disguised as dust balls. The girls look in the kitchen. We find a lonely nickel behind the refrigerator. It’s no surprise. There’s never anything in our kitchen except the piled up government cartons of powdered milk and canned meats that our parents don’t know how to eat.
Frank is the oldest boy of the oldest man in the house so he gets to be the boss. He makes all of us sit in a straight line on the floor. We have to report what we put into the community pot. But when we get to Marcel, he just shrugs his shoulders.
Franks says, “You little cheap skate, you’re going into the phone booth.”
Marcel shoves his shiny red lock box under his t-shirt. His belly jingles filled with the coins.
Frank says, “Hand over your money or you’re going in.” He eyes the chipped paint of the closet door. Frank is like his father. He’s tall and handsome. He can be kind or cruel.
The hallway closet is called the phone booth because it has the magical power of transformation. Like when Superman goes inside and changes from a nerdy journalist into a superhero. Our parents keep their shared interview clothes in there. They go in looking fresh off the boat and come out looking like shiny Americans of the future. They don’t mind the smell of mothballs mixed with each other’s faded imposter cologne. They think it will bring them closer to the American Dream. On an interview day, they put on these costumes bought on layaway from Sears and fly off with Mercedes dreams gleaming in their eyes like stars.
The phone booth is also where we go when we get punished. We have to kneel in the dark until our parents let us out. Uncle Lam makes the boys kneel on rice grains. Sometimes they’re in there until their knees bleed. My dad says it’s not right. My mom says it’s none of our business. I say the stink in there is bad enough.
Marcel says, “But I’m saving for when my dad comes.”
Frank says, “You’re a liar. You don’t have a dad. You’re a bastard.”
Sophia screams, “We do too have a dad!”
Sammie copies his older brother and chants, “You don’t have a da-ad. You don’t have a daad. You’re a bass–turd.”
Sophia starts crying. Marcel who is protective of his little sister grabs a fierce fistful of Sammie’s hair and yanks it.
Dean says, “Let go of my little brother,” and punches Marcel in the back.
Sophia kicks Dean in the shin. Frank pushes her off.
It’s the Rat Pack against the Italian movie stars and I don’t know where to look or what to do so I count the money. “Stop it! Stop it! Look, we have enough.”
Frank says, “Yeah, right. You’re just a girl. You don’t know how to do math.”
“Then you stay home smarty pants.” I stand up with my hand on my hip. I swivel and arch my back the way they do it in the Sergio Valente commercial. My sister Michelle and I have been practicing in front of the mirror. We flip our hair, swing our heads, and say, “We love you Sergio!” I stick my butt out and turn to them and say, “I don’t know about you guys but I’m taking the clean towel.” Michelle who always copies me does the same and follows down the long dark hallway.
Outside, it’s so hot it feels like our eyelashes will get charred. The Avenues are empty. We live in the Sunset District where rows and rows of attached houses line the streets like soldiers, shoulder to shoulder, in waiting. Every now and then a car passes with floats and hula hoops and colored umbrellas poking out the windows like a carnival. I picture them going to the beach, playing tag, catching the sea breeze. They’re having a picnic. They’re eating fried chicken, and potato salad, and if they’re really lucky maybe their mom even made lettuce wraps with shrimp.
We are a family of dark-haired pigeons. We flit in the heat of the city streets, pecking at nothing but crumbs and cement. Frank is wearing his new black shades from Woolsworth’s and tries to keep a cool distance. He swaggers ahead, with his feathered hair and a comb sticking out of his back pocket. Behind him Dean and Marcel are buddies again. They kick at crumpled soda cans glinting in the gutter. Michelle chases after them. The little ones, Sophia and Sammie, waddle like ducks with orange floaties strapped to their arms. I anchor the flock.
They’re chirping, “Are we there yet?”
They’re twittering, “How much longer?”
They squawk, “It’s so hot. It’s so hot. It’s so hot.”
I say, “Don’t be such babies.” The sweat streams down my chest. I pull out my collar and blow down. Frank stops to watch.
He says, “Look, what a perv, she’s trying to check herself out.” The little kids laugh because they don’t know any better. Dean and Marcel are old enough to blush and turn away.
On Quintara Ave., there’s an old white man watering his plants. He’s wearing plaid shorts and a blue fishing hat and he’s the only person we’ve seen outside all day. Frank says, “Check out Humpty-Dumpty,” because the man is round as a ball. When we get closer, we see that his plants and bushes are shaped like animals. We gasp because it’s as if we’ve walked into a zoo. “How cool,” I say because it’s beautiful. The boys say, “That’s bad, blood,” because they want to sound tough.
At the man’s knees, the bush is in the shape of a big turtle. It has a leafless twig for a tail. The green hose sprays water on the turtle’s shell. There is also a bear, a dog, and a bunny! Little Sophia reaches for the pointy ears. It’s dotted with pretty purple flowers. I say, “Don’t even try.”
I don’t think he wants us kids to bother him until he turns, raises the sprayer to the sky, and showers us. We giggle beneath the umbrella of sprinkles. Above us, a rainbow stretches across the curtain of mist. We stand still, side by side, single file like we’ve been taught at school. “More, me more,” each one says because nobody wants to get passed up. He directs the water from left to right, back and forth. It rains down on us in big refreshing drops, splattering our faces. I open my mouth and soon the younger ones do the same. We chirp with our begging beaks lifted to the skies. And while we laugh with our throats bared and our eyes squinting against the sun, he lowers the nozzle and aims directly at our bodies. He presses the handle all the way. The water sprays an angry blast.
“Stop it,” I say, “it hurts.” After this, he aims only at me. The blast stings like being slapped again and again. The water pushes me off the curb.
“Sneaky rats, my brother marched at Bataan,” he says. I drink water and choke for air. My hair gags me. “C’mon ya dirty Japs, I’m goin’ wash you up.” The man is cursing so hard he’s spitting.
I turn my back and curl into a snail with my knees on the ground. The blast pounds my spine. It unravels the ribbon of my shirt. I wrap my arms around my chest to cover up. My cousins stand frozen until I yell, “Help!”
Frank grabs a chalk rock from the man’s rock garden and pegs him in the stomach. The man folds over and we all run. I am running and my shirt has fallen but I don’t care. From half a block away I throw a rock aiming at his head. It grazes his blue fishing hat and clangs off his garage door. He’s tugging the eagle wings of his belt buckle. It’s cinched so high, the eagle soars toward his chest. His other hand is waving above his head, beckoning, daring us to return.
Frank says, “If you’d hit him you would have really been busted.”
I pull my shirt up and say, “I don’t care.”
While Frank ties the bow in back for me he says, “Girl, you’d be sent back to Nam.”
I say, “If I’m lucky.” There’s another chalk rock in my hand. I clutch it so tight it digs dent marks in my fist. I throw it on the ground and watch it break into little pieces.
I want to cry. But I can’t. I know that if I cry, the kids will cry too and I can’t let that man beat us. Make us look stupid, so that everyone would see us, dripping and wet, a bunch of snotty-nosed kids, sorry and parentless, on the Fourth of July.
We walk for two blocks and then little Sophia says, “Hooray, the plane!”
Marcel and Dean point up at the blue sky. Using their Tattoo from Fantasy Island nasally voice they say, “Look boss, the plane, the plane,” cracking each other up.
We speed up because seeing the plane means that we’re almost at the swimming pool. From a distance, the playground looks like a giant piece of aluminum foil. The silver plane is in the middle of a sawdust box surrounded by slides and swing sets. Everything is so shiny it’s blinding. I think we’ll burn if we walk closer. The little kids don’t care. They run ahead.
I scream after them, “Don’t go down the slide. It’ll burn the back of your legs.” Then I turn to Frank and ask, “What’s a Jap anyway?”
He says, “It means Japanese, duh! Why?”
“That’s what the man called us, remember? Japs. Dirty Japs. We’re not even Japanese.”
Frank says, “I know, but we all look the same to them.”
I don’t say anything. I have to think about what it means.
Frank puts his arm around me. He says, “Don’t worry about it. Humpty Dumpty was just a jerk.” He’s walking beside me so close I can hear his stomach growl. I think he’s being a softie because he’s hungry until his hand reaches behind my neck and tries to pull at my bow. “Don’t you remember? Chinese, Japanese, dirty knees, look at these!” Frank lifts his shirt and flashes his nipples and sticks his tongue out. “Just like yours!” he says.
Frank disappears into the belly of the plane. On its side in faded black letters it says U.S.S. Coral Sea. It could have been a real plane, used in a real war, like the war we came from. I bet the plane hides lots of secrets too.
I don’t see the kids but I can hear their muffled voices echoing inside as if they’ve been swallowed. I yell down the cockpit and bang on the doors. I want them out. I want to see my sister’s snaggle tooth, and Marcel’s goggle eyes, and Sophia’s pout, and Sammie’s broom hair, and Dean’s furry mole, and Frank with the chin always jutting out like a dare.
“Let’s go swimming. C’mon are you ready or not?” I stomp on the wings with both feet jumping up and down. They don’t answer. They’re shhing each other quiet beneath me. I think of my uncle who my mom said betrayed the family by staying in underground tunnels with the Viet Cong all those years. I yell, “Last one out’s a Commie. See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya.” I hear the scuttle of footsteps on tin. They sound like a herd of stallions galloping into the light. This works each time. In our family there is nothing worse than being considered a Viet Cong.
At the Charlie Sava Swimming Pool, we wait in line behind a busload of kids. They all have matching blue t-shirts that says San Francisco Chinese Baptist Church on them. The boys wear gold crosses and are eating bologna sandwiches. They drink grape sodas and have purple moustaches above their lips. The girls wear gold crosses and Hello Kitty barrettes and tell the boys they’re not supposed to eat before they swim. They say, “I heard you’ll sink if you eat too much.” I feel so weak, I think I’ll sink because I’ve eaten too little.
My mom says that unless we turn into Chinese Baptists, the church sponsors will kick us out of our house with our dark halls, loose door knobs, wobbly chandeliers, and bathroom lines. My mom says she doesn’t want to be Baptist and neither do my uncles and aunts, but we have to pretend that we do for as long as we can so we can stay there. I just hope if it happens, I don’t have to wear a gold cross. Jewelry gives me a rash.
The line moves as slow as a granny. My little sister is biting the inside of her cheek. Marcel is staring out at the traffic, glassy-eyed. Frank isn’t even looking at the Chinese girls anymore. The smell of chlorine and wet towels is making me sick. My stomach feels like there is somebody kicking it from the inside out. I hold it like a watermelon and try to pat it down. When the lady inside the ticket booth says, “You’re up, honey,” I don’t know what to do.
I reach to pay. We can’t turn around now. But then five-year- old Sammie whispers something into Frank’s ear and starts crying. Sophia sees this and begins to bawl. Frank puts his hand up like a crosswalk guard. He comes to me and says, “The crybabies say they’re too hungry to swim.” Even though Frank wants to act hard, his stomach rumbles loud as a fog horn, louder than the crying kids. He says, “I guess we should spend the money on food?”
At the bus stop, Dean says, “What a waste!”
Michelle my copycat sister says, “What a shame!”
They don’t want to take the bus because if we walk we can save the money for food. It’d be fine except the little ones are holding their bellies and saying they can’t walk any further.
Marcel says, “This sucks! Maybe we should split up.”
I tell him, “Fine, walk. But you won’t get any extra pizza.”
Frank backs me up and says, “Yeah, it’s still a community pot.”
We ride the bus with our eyes looking down. We look at the aisle’s ridges and the gum stuck in the ruts. We don’t notice the blue skies, or the green leaves, or the smiling flowers everywhere. We only see the oil spills that rise like genies from the streets and think one wish, give me just one.
Inside Big Yo’s, it’s dark and the lights are off. The pizza parlor feels like outer space because of the blinking video games and flashing beer signs and the ring from the TV with the volume on high. There’s a man under the TV and he gets up from his stool. The fan on the counter blows his hair into cotton candy clouds. He says, “What you kids want?” But we don’t say anything. “Why aren’t ya barbecuing or something with the rest of the masses out there?” He signals toward the open door and squints against the glare of sun streaming in. We all look down at the black and white checkered floors. He says, “Whatever,” and goes back to his seat.
He’s watching Giants baseball. When he’s not in front of the fan his hair settles into waves like the ones in Malaysia. Not too big and not too small but fun enough. He has nice eyes and big white teeth. He asks me, “See something ya like?”
I blush. I can see my face in the mirrored beer sign all red. I can see my goose bumps because I get cold when I’m hungry. I can see my hair flattened against my head, and my soggy shirt with the little triangles poking through, a shy hello, right under where it says Chips on my chest.
“Well, just holler,” he says. “It’s the bottom of the ninth and we’re down by two. But we already have two men on base and only one out.” He punches his left palm with his right fist and says, “C’mon now, nice and easy, nice and easy.” When he does this, he looks just like Erik Estrada.
The kids are hovering around Ms. Pac-Man. They are fighting over who gets to hold on to the joy stick. Frank is sitting with his head on the table. He’s not being bossy anymore. He’s just holding his stomach with both of his hands. I collect everyone’s money. I count the quarters first, then the dimes, then the lonely nickel from behind the fridge, and finally the pennies. I recount it to double check but still we only have enough for exactly one slice of pepperoni. If we had thirty more cents we could have had two cheese slices. If we hadn’t taken the bus here, we could have gotten one cheese and one pepperoni.
I smash my hair back into place. I borrow Frank’s comb. I fluff up my shirt to air it out and tie it in a knot above my belly button. I pinch my cheeks to make them have rosy apples like I’ve seen mom do. Finally, I take a deep breath before I approach.
I hear the man yell, “Shit! God, damn-it!” before I’ve reached the counter. Then he says, “Are ya gonna stand there all day or are ya gonna order?”
The coins are all sweaty inside my fist. I can smell the tinny stink of it. I nod.
“All right, then what’ll it be?”
I point to the pepperoni behind the glass.
I hold up a finger.
“One? How ‘bout your friends there?”
I shake my head no from side to side.
He says, “Not much of a talker huh?”
I’m holding my breath and then I say quick as I can, “Two please, if we can owe you.”
He’s looking at the TV. I bite my bottom lip and wait. It is only a commercial but he watches closely because there are two pretty women at the beach in red, white, and blue bikinis. Together they smile and say, “This Bud’s for you.” The game comes back on. He puts a pepperoni slice on a paper plate. “There ya go, one-fifty,” he says. He sits back down with his eyes still glued to the screen.
I put the exact change on the counter beside the register. I wonder if the man didn’t hear me or if he was too embarrassed to say no. My shirt looks stupid and I yank it back down.
Sammie runs up and says, “Where’s my slice?”
Sophia says, “That’s mine.”
“Shut-up,” I say.
I leave so the man won’t be even more embarrassed for us. I pick the booth as far away from him as possible. We gather in the darkest corner of the room. It’s as if we’ve fallen in a well.
“But where’s mine?” says Sophia. Her bottom lip sticks out in a pout.
I give her the first bite so she won’t cry. We pass the slice around. Each one takes a bite and then watches as the next person takes their bite. We watch each other like tigers, or rats, or Viet Cong spies. We say to each other, “Don’t eat it all,” or “We’re skipping you next time,” or “Oink! Oink!”
The seven of us are bent over the one slice. Our elbows are on the table. There are five pieces of pepperoni so we divide them in half to make ten. There are three halves left and those go to the youngest. Our parents always tell us older siblings take care of younger siblings so Frank and I, and Dean and Marcel have to hold out. I see the spit bubble on the corners of Frank’s mouth. We are pigs at the trough, another secret to hide.
When we are done we stare at the white paper plate with the wet grease spots. Marcel picks up the paper plate and licks at the yellow-orange trickles of oil. He then puts the plate smack to his face and tries to suck out every last bit of it. We all understand that want. Not one of us makes fun of him for it, for cherishing that extra bit. We watch silently. It’s the first time we’ve been quiet all day.
We are perfectly still, so still that we are surprised when the man finds us and stands over our table. He has a big grin on his face but he says, “Hey kids, you know you’re not supposed to be here if you’re not eating or playing games.” In the dimness, his teeth look bright white. It reminds me of Little Red Riding Hood and the wolf before he eats the little girl. Then the man shrugs his shoulders and says, “Sorry guys, store policy.”
We pick up our towels and the orange arm floats and the sunglasses that Frank almost forgets. We’re scooting out when the man says, “Hey stop, what do you think you’re doing?”
I say, “You told us to leave, so we’re going!” After I say it I suck my lips into my mouth and look around at the others hoping he didn’t notice it was me. He tells me, “I never told you to leave. I said you’re not supposed to be here.”
I’m sure the man’s just messing with us now. Frank’s eyes are wet. They shine big and then he juts his chin out at me. I swallow the lump in my throat and say, “Well, we don’t like it here anyway.”
The man says, “Hold on to your horses!”
Frank’s eyes widen and he says, “Come on, we better go.”
But the tears have gushed out and once I start I can’t stop. And I hear myself saying something about Buddha and America and how we don’t want to be Chinese Baptists, and how we’re going to do good in school and get good grades so we can “Go back to Vietnam.”
The man shakes his head in disappointment. He says, “You want to go back to where? What-cha-ma-call-it? Now what kind of thing is that to say on the Fourth of July? What da ya mean you don’t like it here? When you’re living in the home of the Giants, huh? Would you get food like this anywhere else?” His smile reaches his ears. From behind his back, he sweeps out a big disk glistening with grease and cheese and pepperoni. He says, “How about you guys help me celebrate our whooping Padre butt today, huh?”
All the kids cheer and slide back in the booth. The man pulls up a chair and he sits in it backwards at the head of the table. Everyone is happy to claim their own slice but I’m too ashamed to eat. I put my head on the table and bury my face in my arms until the man taps my shoulder and puts a slice on my napkin. He says close to my ear, “Some day some lucky guy will tell you how cute you are when you get mad.” He winks at me. “Come on now, eat up ya little firecracker.”
We sit in a darkened booth on the Fourth of July. We eat pizza and listen to baseball. The man tells us how close the game was. He describes the last play. The way Chili Davis hit a double, and Max Venable stole second, and Jeff Ransom slid into home. He says how the stadium roared and everyone jumped out of their seats and the coach was so happy he cried. He says, “That can happen to you. Sometimes you’re so happy that you cry.” He says it straight at me. He loves baseball so much he makes it sound like a big amusement park and calls it the Big Show with things like cracker jacks, and circus catches, goose eggs, and curtain calls. And even though we don’t get to see fireworks that night because our parents are too tired to take us out, in my sleep, I see balls like comets blazing across the night sky, and stars like lollipops shooting pop flies.
Reprinted from QUIET AS THEY COME by Angie Chau. Reprinted by permission of Ig Publishing and the author. Find the book here.
Angie Chau was born in Vietnam. She has also lived in Malaysia, Italy, Spain, Hawaii, and currently resides in the Bay Area. Her work has appeared in BOMB Magazine, Ajar Journal, Indiana Review, Santa Clara Review, Night Train Magazine, and the Heyday Books anthology, New California Writing. She has been awarded a Hedgebrook Residency, an Anderson Center Residency, a Macondo Foundation Fellowship, and the UC Davis Maurice Prize in Fiction.
The Dallas Morning News described Chau’s debut collection, Quiet As They Come, stating, “Angie Chau’s fine collection of stories does for immigrants from South Vietnam what Jhumpa Lahiri did for East Indians or Junot Diaz did for people from the Dominican Republic. She tells their truth.”