I spend my mornings (usually) trying to write. Lately, and as usual, I am poring over details involving my family history, as I have been doing – it seems – for the 15 or more years that I have spent pursuing (or nursing?) these ghosts – attempting to articulate, to draw, them – that pretty much have defined my identity as an “artist”: exodus, migration, displacement, mothers and silences, motherland and denials, the same tired old themes that some of us Vietnamese appear to be obsessed with; and, yes of course, (do I even need to mention it?) also I have been trying to write about The War.
Or, more precisely, for me at least, perhaps it is The War after The War — The Aftermath ((which is like ever wider but fainter concentric rings rippling out across a surface of water moments after the rock that initiated the splash has sank)) — that I am more preoccupied with.
Anyway, I am working and then there is a knock on the door. So I go to open it and there is the postman, with a box, sent from my sister in San Diego, to my home here in Portland, Oregon. The postman is Asian, cheerful and friendly, and he asks me, “Are you Vietnamese? I see Vietnamese name here,” pointing to my name addressed on the box. I say yes, and he says, “So am I! Nice to meet you!” And then we are smiling at each other in this happy moment of recognition, this automatic camaraderie, all due to knowing we have this critical characteristic in common.
We are of Vietnam but now we are here – we know it without saying it – for the same reasons. Those same tired old themes. War, displacement, necessary wanderings. And occasionally we will spot each other, noting through the traffic of our present daily lives, our similar, disguised differences.
Since I often spend a lot of time alone, in my own house (usually with only my 11-year old son to keep me company), caught in the writer’s obsessive habit of solipsism, the small interactions I do have with outsiders in the course of a day can sometimes resonate with more weight than they probably would for people whose lives are perhaps more normal (read:social) and less reclusive. So I went back upstairs to my work, musing over this little exchange, how this moment of contact initiated over “I see a Vietnamese name here” had made me feel, briefly, positively, in some way connected to something larger. It had made me feel almost good about myself. And I thought maybe I would write about it, but then the day went on. Errands, my son’s activities, etc. I decided it was not an important enough moment to write about after all.
But then it is the next day, and my son’s baseball coach calls with news about the baseball schedule. This is Coach Joe, whose son, sometimes when he goes up to bat, other mothers on the sidelines will turn to me and say, “There’s your son, he’s so cute,” or something to that effect. This is because this boy and my son in fact look a bit alike. They are both half-breeds: this is apparent. Brown-haired, olive-skinned, with slightly Asian eyes. Both of them, need I say, are adorable.
My son, though, because of his long hair, also sometimes garners the assessment: “He looks just like a little Indian boy.” (By this, they usually mean Native American.)
Now, on the phone, Coach Joe stops to ask me how correctly to pronounce my name. When I tell him, he then asks if I am Filipino or where I am from. I say that I am Vietnamese. And then in surprise he says that his wife is Vietnamese – his son is half-Vietnamese. And we laugh over this and say, “Oh, how funny,” and he says he will have to tell his wife to come over and talk to me at the next game. And this, too, like the exchange at the door with the postman, is a small bit of recognition that resonates with me. And because it has happened twice now, in two days, I have decided after all that I will write about it.
They are such small moments of recognition, but for some reason they do matter.
I grew up in a rural, mostly-white, quite conservative part of northern California; I grew up with a Danish-American father and a Vietnamese (though rebellious, non-traditional) mother. I do understand that it was with our best interests in mind that our parents raised us to be dismissive, even callous, toward the past, and toward our past cultures. Proudly, they would push the notion that we were more like “mutts,” and that being a “mutt” was something quintessentially American. (Our favorite family dog was a mutt, which my father swore contributed to his intelligence, not like those in-bred pure-breeds… as he saw it.)
My mother, for her part, told us little about Vietnam; and I never learned the language. I learned instead how to argue, to deny, to be cold and detached, to intellectualize – for many years I wrote stories from the viewpoints of enigmatic characters (a hitman, a kidnapped girl, so many people I simply was not), until at last something happened. I broke; I became – god forbid – sensitive and concerned, even curious, about the events, both personal and political, that had brought people like me here.
So I guess I don’t know, can’t really say, if the war is ended for someone like me. It is over, certainly, but there are no official dates to mark the end of aftermaths. There is no anniversary for the end of The Aftermath.
Thus we are still sifting through the ashes, through the smoke of it, some of us at least.
We are looking for artifacts or lost treasures or reminders, or just for something, perhaps because we like to search and to recover and look at old things, that we might be able to repair or re-use, in some aesthetically interesting fashion, or just because it helps us to feel a little better about ourselves, connected again, or useful. Perhaps. Or perhaps, yes, we just need to get over it.
– dao strom
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