In this except of this is for mẹ, Tam Nguyen dissects the reality of love languages when translated into Vietnamese American lives, and experienced between mothers and daughters. Nguyen reflects on a phone call with her mother, exploring how this simple interaction can carry pregnant silences, anchored by words left unsaid, and a love that is textured, ferocious and complex.
Inspired by Ocean’s Vuong’s letter to his mother in the New York Times, this is for mẹ lives online as a borderless mailbox for Asian identified people to share stories rooted in mothers, motherhood, motherlands, mother-tongues and family.
A Phone Call with Mom
A phone call with mom:
what family might just sound
silence in between
our words, pink noise, collect–
I’ve breaths, tons to say,
But no words nor time, I wonder if you can hear, in the texture of our phone calls, my resentment. Or her disappointment, that I’m not there or that I’m queer or that is is both at once. It is not the subject matter but it must be there. Our sentiments constituting the sensorium between us, and
also joins in on the whole–
some family fun.
The phone call is likely a ménage à trois, between two people and the cellular network, even without someone listening, something is always there. A mother, her daughter, and this non-human voice––static, screeches and ringing, radio waves.
that I called. Or, it is me,
unsure if I’m heard.
…What is a hello anyway. The word doesn’t sound all that greeting. ‘H’ sounds like a slice, a sonic cut in space-time which starts, the phone call and the conversation, beginning at the guts and shattering outwards. A phone call’s hello is often more question than greeting, asking who it is or what is the occasion or if someone is there. The Vietnamese (or at least my family) are not known for being soft speakers, and my mom is particularly known for sounding dử—ferocious. This is all to say, there is something about her voice that makes me feel like calling is a mistake.
There are usually a couple of hello’s back and forth until we can verify that we are both there.
For just a short amount of time.
It feels like, crossing paths with a stranger,
you wait for them to go but they do the same, you start going but then they also start, you stop to wait for them to go but they do the same, ad infinitum, until your mind catches up to your body and both of you take
a step back, perhaps
a sort of pulse and then some–
one just moves on. That
is to say, it’s a little awkward, this game of marco polo with your mom, like-stranger.
She ends the game: mẹ đây nè––“yes, I’m here.” But in Vietnamese, there is hardly such thing as the pronoun ‘I’. All pronouns besides the most rude are dependent on who is speaking and who is listening. And so, I’m here directly translates to “Mom is here,” meaning
someone to protect me. Or
witness to my sins.
I take back that word––
silence––we don’t speak and yet
there is still noise. Her
voice is muffled by soft static, or, she sounds grainy, or, her voice dissolves for me into something a little more alien and unfamiliar. When her voice dips out, the static remains ever so slightly, something we forget to listen to because it is always there. For me, this noise is the stuff of distance, or what home feels like. A reminder of the miles in between me and the sounds infiltrating my head. A reminder her child left home and so did she. And so everything seems so less severe but much more life-threatening––
Whenever I was sick as a child, mother would offer to take the sickness for me. I wish she would have offered to take my sorrows instead. And perhaps she has, for her child has been sick with sadness I wonder… is she sad?
do you ever think
before a phone call––“what if
this is the last time.”
We start talking: about trivial stuff, meaningless stuff really. Our conversations are void of any sort of meaning while immensely ripe with everything else: feeling, wishes, love, memories, dreams, anger.
I tell my mom I love her as if she’s already gone.
What is the texture of love?
1. The conversation is subdued, slow until she remembers all the hardships I’ve brought on her. Then she seems to become more lively, if only to scold me.
2. I say very little, but want a lot. For her to leave me alone and for her to take me into her arms so I may cry without abandon. Realize I don’t remember if we ever had done the latter. I say less and less until the next lull in my mom’s lecture. Then, I prompt the next topic, rinse and repeat.
3. Noise seems to pile up sometimes until it doesn’t, which then it resets.
5. The radio waves must be playing pranks on us, or me. It seems that it gets harder to hear at the most inopportune times. When I want to hear her the most. Her voice dissolves slightly into white noise, becomes more sound than words. I can only assume what I’m hearing is half human half cosmic.
6. I am mad at my mother in so far as she is a placeholder for myself.
7. Under closer examination, there comes the realization I can’t hear better by listening more intently. Try as I might, the highest volume setting would not be any more clear. All I’m hearing is noise on the phone, it is not her but distance taking shape over radio waves and finally taking on the form of mother… (But isn’t it her?)
8. I love this version of her––the sounds emanating from my phone––it somehow warms the parts of my mother’s voice I always found intimidating. I do not want to imply that it muffles, as I do not think it is a dampening of senses––the phone call sounds, in fact, so crisp. Sometimes, she raises her voice and the static pops. Crackles. Even then, it feels like home (the sound of frying food in oil over high heat, I remember Saturday mornings waking up to cooking, I’m being fed). The crackle tells me all I need to know before her words need to say anything.
The texture of love is probably that slightest static
As much as it is a signifier of distance between two people, it is also an utterly shared dance. The microphone picks up the smallest movements, the slightest affectations––the most minute intensity which incites a shuffle in space, mutating radio waves. What I hear from my mom––and what I can only assume she hears from me––are not just words, but also breathing, contractions, sways, flickers, pulses. This is to say, the texture of love is not merely rife with sound as in heard, but sound as in unheard but truly felt vibrations. Diluted by the other person diluting the other person. A chimera of subtle gestures, I could never understand growing up my mother’s love but it all makes sense here in this phone call:
“Bye mommy… mother
…Mom.” She says, “okay, bye con,”
like crossing paths with
a stranger, you both
wait for the other. And then,
Tâm Nguyễn was born in Vũng Tàu, Việt Nam to one mother and one father. She is a recent graduate of Sarah Lawrence College where she studied literature and art. Queer hope and the art of war are major threads that line her academic work. Recent research/projects include an archive piecing together the presence of death in new media, as well as an imaginative rendering of utopian possibilities post-climate change. Currently, Tam is letting life unfold and do its magic before returning to school for Media Studies. She is a Pisces. You may reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.