When I was two and a half, and your aunt, dì Ba, had just turned one, we lived in graduate student housing at the University of Wisconsin while Ông worked on his PhD. Bà was taking classes for a master’s degree and she left us across the street with an Indian woman who babysat a bunch of kids in her dark apartment. When I say babysitting, I mean she let us crawl around on her rug in the living room with the shades drawn and the TV running soaps in the background while she chatted non-stop on the phone from a chair in the adjacent kitchen.
At four I learned how to ice skate on the frozen lakes of Wisconsin with my cousin’s hand-me-down boy’s skates – black ones with double blades. They were so ugly. I tried pretending they were gleaming white skates, but when I looked down all I saw was black. I took you, my son, ice-skating when you were five on the temporary rink erected in the park every winter, surrounded by gleaming glass city skyscrapers. I splurged on lessons even though no one ever paid for me to learn. Your legs slid out from under you constantly and every time you fell, you cried. You asked me to go home more than once. I persuaded you to take my hand and go one full loop around the rink. Slowly and awkwardly, we completed a circuit. I convinced you to try once more and finally you had enough and we left. You wouldn’t try again for another two years.
Your aunt, dì Ba, and I remember every toy we owned as kids. Children of immigrants, war refugees who left their homeland with a suitcase filled with diapers and a wedding album, toys were not high on Ông or Bà’s priorities. Our Christmas presents came from whatever Ông could find at the local church’s toy drive, neatly wrapped by good Christians. We always wished for Barbies but ended up with fake erector sets because no one else wanted them either.
You might be confused to hear me speaking in English. At home we speak, not altogether successfully, Vietnamese. It’s my mother tongue, the language we used with Ông and Bà as children and now as adults. It is not, however, the language in which I most comfortable. English is my natural tongue, I dream in English. Our conversations are limited to my third-grade level comprehension so I can tell you to eat your dinner and drink your milk or to change your clothes, but we cannot discuss the difference between inductive and deductive reasoning. We don’t talk about where you go after death because I don’t know the word for heaven or how to explain reincarnation. But I continue to speak to you in Vietnamese, a language neither of us will ever master. So often I long to be your witty and funny mom, settling instead for your mom who tells you to go to bed or pick up your toys.
When I am six, Bà asks me every night if I brushed my teeth and I say yes, even when I hadn’t. Even when I went into the bathroom, closed the door, watched the water run, not brushing my teeth, I would still say yes, I brushed my teeth. She catches me, of course. I couldn’t figure out how, but she always knew when I lied. I don’t know why I kept doing it, but I did. This morning I left you and your sister at the kitchen table to finish your milk while I went back to the bathroom to finish getting ready. When I came out, empty milk glasses sat on the counter. I looked in the sink and it was clear where the milk had gone. I asked you, did you finish your milk? Yes, you replied. I asked again, are you sure? Yes, you nodded. I said, don’t lie to me. You said, really, I drank my milk. It was your first lie. I took away your toys and the right to watch TV.
When I was eight, I fell out of the hand-me-down car that Ông’s eldest brother had passed on to them, on our way home from the hospital. After that Ông and Bà bought their first car – a tan, four door Volkswagon Rabbit with a rear windshield wiper we never saw on any other Rabbit. Dì Ba and I liked to think we were so special because of that rear windshield wiper. Ông built a folding wooden bench that fit in the space between the seats. The legs raised the bench to the height of the rear seat, making a traveling bed that we piled high with blankets and pillows. During the day it folded down so we could sit up but at night we lay side by side in the back of the car. I loved lying there, looking up out the window to an unfamiliar sky or cityscape. Ông kept the bench he built for us, but all it does now is gather dust on the side of the garage because you’re confined to weight appropriate car seats where you fall asleep, heads bobbing side to side. Sometimes, when we’ve been driving for a long while, I lean back and unbuckle you so you can curl up and sleep, hoping that when you wake up, gazing up through the windows, the sight of a strange horizon will fill you with wonder as it did me.
Ông and Bà liked to decide, on a whim, to go to the beach, two hours away. We’d spend the entire day turning deep dark brown in the sun. We were always the last to leave, the beach almost empty before we packed up our cooler with all the food Ba brought from home, our towels and the umbrella. When you were two months old, we took you to the beach so we could pretend having a baby wouldn’t change how hip and cool we were. We covered you in a long sleeve shirt and floppy hat and left you under the umbrella the entire time. You still came home with a slight rosiness to your newborn skin. After that we were more careful.
You just spent the winter holidays on the slopes graduating from the bunny slope to the blue runs. We’ve been going for several years now, ever since you turned four when they put you on skis and let you slide down the hill. The first time I went to a mountain for skiing, I was in my late twenties. Immigrants don’t go skiing for winter holidays, or to summer camps or play tennis at the club. It’s a foreign childhood to me, the one you’re having. But then again, I didn’t really think I would be having the adulthood I’m having either.
Your dad went to Germany on a business trip, leaving us alone for a couple months. I had to be both mother and father. That afternoon you wanted to go to the park to practice with your new baseball glove and ball. I didn’t want you to know how alien I felt holding that baseball, how it was the first time I threw a baseball and the first time I caught one too. I copied your dad and said, ok here comes a grounder, now a high one. I mimicked his coaching, run to the ball, close your glove around it, use your other hand, run! get it! I pretended I had been doing this for years, that throwing a ball and catching it was a skill all immigrant moms had. We spent 20 minutes there until my bare hand turned red from catching the ball. You let me stand by myself while you ran off with a basketball to practice dribbling.
In second grade, I sat in a circle on the rug and was read my first chapter book, Ramona the Brave. The cafeteria was full of sunlight and the school library had low open bookshelves. I remember being called to the principal’s office, Miss Pretty, where your aunt, Dì Ba, and I were surprised to find Ông waiting. Together they told us we would be skipping a grade. Ông didn’t like how we had gotten complacent about homework. That was the year I found solace in reading. I read so much that it was also the year I got my first pair of glasses to correct an ever deteriorating vision. I was so lonely in third grade, I read at my desk when I was supposed to be listening to the teacher. Once she caught me in the middle of an enthralling chapter of Encyclopedia Brown and forced me to get up from my desk, walk up to her in the front of the entire class and hand her the book. Second grade was the last time I would feel socially confident until college.
In middle school I wore a deep pink striped Polo shirt with a red and white polka dot skirt that Bà made for me. At my locker that afternoon, the girls standing nearby let it be known, very loudly, that pink stripes and polka dots on red are not meant to be worn together. My cheeks flared with heat and tears slide down my cheeks as I escaped to the bathroom. I didn’t tell you but when you casually agreed to wear your sister’s pink backpack, I was secretly, really proud but also nervous that the pressure of gender expectation would be too much. When we saw your uncle for brunch, he jokingly, and probably sarcastically, complimented you on your pink backpack. You didn’t even notice. Later you told me that a boy in the bookstore asked you if you were a boy-girl because you were carrying a pink backpack. You told me this with a laugh, wondering how someone could be so dense as to think that just because you were a boy wearing a pink backpack that it would make you some girl-boy hybrid. You told me it was what was on the inside anyway that mattered. I really wish I had known you in middle school.
I can draw a floor plan of all the places I have ever lived. The apartment in Eagle Heights where you could see, from the front door, straight through the bookcase that separated the living room from the dim kitchen. Your great Aunt’s split-level house in Madison where we lived before we moved to Richmond and where I lost my first tooth. The condo we lived in near the mall before Ông and Bà bought their first home on Brendonridge Lane, with the blue carpet and yellow flower wallpaper. The new house they bought when we relocated to New Jersey, in-between two freshly built cul-de-sacs. The only place I can’t picture is the one in Bethlehem, though I remember the long steep driveway where I knocked the mailbox over a couple times. You have only lived in two places your whole life – our first apartment on Mulberry Street and now the one further downtown. By eight I had crossed a continent, an ocean and multiple state lines. Maybe that’s why I like traveling, but not moving.
You go to a chess summer camp located in the back of a jazz bar, three steps below ground. It smells of cigarettes seeped into the wooden banquettes. At night there is a stage with a cover charge and a 2-drink minimum. During the day, when I drop you off, a bunch of ragtag tables with unrolled chess mats fill the back room. If we ever move to the suburbs you will tell your future girlfriends that you were born in the city but you don’t remember much except your mom used to take you to a bar in the Village to play chess.
There are many reasons I resist moving to the suburbs but one is so that I will never have to be a soccer mom, schlepping my kids from one activity to another in a minivan littered with crumbs and athletic gear. Instead we take subway trains to the practice fields, transferring to catch the express. I look at the mom sitting across from me on the train and I imagine she is thinking the same thing I am, damn, I wish I had a mini-van so I didn’t have to lug all this gear around on my shoulder.
At breakfast you had a crisis for a seven-year old, which involved not wanting to drink your milk. I sent you to the living room when you couldn’t calm down. As I was trying to ignore you, harden my heart to your pleas, Ông quietly spoke to me. He thought you should be spared the drinking of the milk. He said your body was probably full from pancakes and that it was rebelling against more. He said next time maybe I should be less strict about the milk. I nodded, because my adult self likes to have the advice of my dad, and calmly agreed, okay, next time I won’t force the issue. Inside my mind was exploding at this new person, my dad, your Ông. Did he not remember all those protracted battles over eating vegetables in the yellow kitchen of our house in Virginia? Your aunt, di Ba, and I spent so many nights alone at the table, teary eyed, trying to muster up the courage to eat that last green bean. Sometimes Ba snuck back to the kitchen to cut up a mango for us to make finishing the rice bowl more possible. I forget that Ông is not the dad of my seven-year old life who filled me with immediate obedience through a mere glance. He is the dad of my life at forty, advocating leniency, whispered gently in my ear.
This morning you came into the living room early, around 6 am, and saw me in my running gear, untangling my headphones. It didn’t faze you at all. You said hi mom and went to sleep with dad for a little longer. I started running last fall when you were seven. When you are a teenager, one of the things you will think you know about me is that I run. But it won’t be true. You will never guess that if I was up at 6 am, it meant I was coming home from a night out, not getting ready to go out for a run.
In middle school I was convinced a perm would let me fit in with the other girls with their beautiful, wavy shoulder length hair. Bà bought a do-it-yourself kit and spent an afternoon giving me the perm I thought I wanted. It turns out my hair was too short. Maybe Bà tried to warn me, probably she did. Instead of producing lovely locks, gracefully grazing my shoulders, I ended up with a short black halo. That summer, skin darkened by days at the beach, I looked like a nerdy, coke bottle glasses wearing, eight year old, African American boy. Not exactly the look I was going for. It took years to grow out that perm.
As we were walking out of the apartment with Ông and Bà, one evening for dinner, Bà turned to your sister, and said, “You know that girls have long beautiful hair and boys have short hair. You’re a girl, why did you cut your hair so short?” I was behind them. I didn’t refute Bà‘s statement though it was a surprising thing for her to say. She herself has been fighting her own cultural expectations to grow her hair. In Vietnam, it’s considered proper, when you’re a grandmother, to wear your hair in a bun. I never knew my Bà, who would be your great- grandmother, without a bun until the year before she died when they had to cut her hair to make it easier to care for her. Sometimes I think she died not from the loss of losing my Ông a year earlier, but from the weightlessness she experienced when they cut her hair. From time to time, Bà tries halfheartedly for a couple months before cutting it short again. She looks cute with short hair. We all do, your grandmother Bà, me and your sister too. I didn’t tell Bà she shouldn’t be telling your sister that. Because it’s a perfectly reasonable thing for you to know, that some people will think that girls should have long hair. And some people will support your hairstyle choices no matter what you prefer, even if it turns out to be a short black halo.
We kicked off our shoes in the grassy park the other evening. I came straight from work, so it was a relief to take off the heels. You slipped them on, clomping around in the grass. You asked me if boys wear high heels. I said, um, sometimes they do. That’s the same answer I give you when you ask me if boys wear makeup or paint their nails or wear dresses. Um, sometimes. I was telling your dad later that I wonder what it is like to have a definitive answer to that question. When we were growing up, Ông and Bà had definitive answers. Boys play sports. Girls learn how to cook. Boys can drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes, but girls may not. It’s hard for you to imagine, as you are being raised in a liberal city in a time where definitions, like gender and marriage, are being remade.
I’ve never been happy to be defined by traditional parameters, but I understand why they exist. If I could say, no boys don’t wear heels, then you could move on with life, accepting this as a true fact. Instead I have given you an ambiguous answer that is sometimes true and sometimes not and you’ll have to figure it out for yourself when what applies where. That is why, occasionally, I think about a world that does have definitive answers. Ông and Bà raised us in a country that did not always share their cultural expectations. Living between two opposing definitions was as hard on them as it was for us the kids. I’ve made my peace with it. When we go home to Ông and Bà’s, I go to the kitchen and help Bà make dinner while your dad grabs a beer and joins Ông on the couch to watch a soccer match. It doesn’t bother me because sometimes girls cook dinner and boys drink beer. And sometimes we go home to Ông and Bà’s and I walk in the kitchen to see Ông there, stirring a pot of noodles, right next to Bà.
Yen Ha is an architect and maker of spaces, stories, drawings and dinners. Born in Saigon, she currently lives in New York City where she co-founded Front Studio, an architecture firm, in 2001. Fluent in French and Vietnamese, she completed her undergraduate work with honors at Carnegie Mellon University, followed by post-graduate work at L’École d’Architecture in Paris, France. Yen’s work has been exhibited at the Storefront for Art and Architecture, the IFA Gallery in Berlin and the Building Centre in London. Her first piece of short fiction, A Shared Life, was a winner in the Urban Omnibus Common Shares writing competition. Subsequent stories have been published in Crack the Spine, the Chicago Quarterly Review, Minola Review and the New Rivers Press American Fiction anthology. Her drawings are carried by Goods for the Study in the Greenwich Village. hh1f.com