Amateur Poetry: Who You’d Be Today

Who You’d Be Today

You’d be eight years old today.

And as with any girl who wakes to

Find herself one year older,

You’d hop downstairs and

Grab me and Dad for

Two sweet kisses,

And your milk.

You’d be a ballet dancer today.

And excitement would take over

Whenever I let you wear

Your pink tutu, white tights, and shiny tiara.

Your teacher might fear your

Spontaneity and free spirit,

But I’d always love you for that.

You’d be a fighter today.

Getting you to bed would mean

Hours of me bribing, and you crying,

But I wouldn’t mind

As long as in the end

You’d sleep peacefully in your bed

With covers wrapped around you tight and

Sweet, sweet eyes contentedly closed.

I can imagine your smile—starry.

I always hope that

It’d be like your father’s, since his

Was always so bright and genuine.

But the light has dimmed overtime,

With the thought of you.

I sit here in my kitchen, on a Saturday morning,

Moving around charred toast,

Sipping on cold coffee,

Thinking of you,

While my friends,

Mothers with daughters of their own,

Go to ballet class.

Their daughters are so nice,

So innocent,

So free,

So loved.

My heart throbs and twists and pulls

And I can’t help but think

About who you’d be today

If you hadn’t died inside me.

Fiction: Perfect and Pretty

You hear the tumultuous roars of petty journalists and news reporters as they thrust their cameras and microphones in your face. You tease them, give them a smile or pose here or there (the voices get louder), but you never stop to talk to them.

You hear whispers of conversation about your latest date with Michael Manson, the hockey player who has blond hair and sweet eyes. You laugh at the irony — oh, how you despise him. Michael tracked you down and was actually trying to get you in bed, that much you knew. You hate men like him.

You much preferred Mark Skylar, the quiet scholar you once knew in your small town in the Midwest. He liked to write you haikus about the sun and lillies because you loved both things. He made you a bracelet out of dandelions. But then you turned pretty in sophomore year of high school, and people didn’t like it when you wanted to get out. You never talked to Mark again.

“Let me out,” you think as you glance at a mirror. You’re in the make-up room now, back stage, getting ready for a high-end and popular fashion show. Your agent said you just had to do this show, and your popularity would increase by tenfold if you only went. You see that your eyes are vibrant green, thanks to color contact lenses. Purposely messy black hair, green smoky eye makeup and an emotionless face glance back at you.

“Hey, girl,” someone says behind you. You turn and blink away the blinding fluorescent lights in the room. You see Tami–just Tami, since she just changed her name–and put on a smile.

“Hi,” you say back. Tami starts talking about the latest model scandals. Tabloids caught Ashley Tine heading out for some night time fun and she flashed her breasts at the paparazzi. Stephanie Boarman lost her agent because she gained ten pounds over the summer.

Tami’s high-pitched laugh hurts your ears. When she turns away to get something from her bag, your eyes trace the protruding bones of her spine and you suppress a shudder.

“–hate that pout that Leslie does. It’s, like, what–did you just eat something sour?”

“Five more minutes, ladies!” The stage manager announces. Some of the model groan and yell at their makeup artists to hurry up. Designers weave through the aisles of designer clothes, checking each of the models’ outfits with keen eyes.

“Lovely, just lovely,” one of the flamboyant designers whispers to you. You feel warm suddenly and you caress the silk of your verdant gown. Someone adjusts the straps of your 5-inch black stiletto heels from Louis Vuitton. They cost more than what you were paid annually at your high school part-time job. You already feel the sting of incoming blisters on your heels.

“Okay, so just walk out and you know, work it. Make a pose like this—” The designer does something odd that you wouldn’t be able to copy — “and sexify it.”

The music coming from behind the curtains changes and you know that you’re up. The other model walks back inside and your shoulders brush as you pass by her.

You reach the middle and FLASH.

Cameras on the left, right and center blind you. The audience gasps as they take in your gown, your hair—perfection, you think they were thinking.

You have to admit, as you strut down the runway:  you love the eyes, feasting on your body, because you know you worked hard for it.

You earned everything.

At the final lineup, you glance out at the crowd you suddenly remember when you stood at the end of your first your piano recital, and your parents were on their feet, yelling their hearts out for you. Today, they are not there to see you shine.

You feel your smile slip, but you slightly shake your head, and you’re gorgeous again.

The show ends like usual. Fashion magazine representatives approach you about deals, but your agent blocks them—something you are thankful for. Your agent knows you better than most people, and knows you always get tired after the shows. He has a bodyguard lead you to the pickup limousine, but on the way, more paparazzi bombards you.

“Is it true that you slept with Michael yesterday? Sources say you went into a hotel with him.”

You were never near a hotel.

“People think you are gaining a bit of weight. What can you say about that?”

You like to eat, so what?

“Are you addicted to laxatives?”

Please stop, you think.

The bodyguard roars at the hyenas to move away and he puts a hand on your back, guiding you into the car. The door slams shut and the noise disappears.

In the car, you let out a shaking breath. Your driver, who you recognize, hears you and asks if you’re okay. You smile–that same smile on that Ralph Lauren ad you did a couple of months ago (“Perfect and Pretty”) and nod.

He pushes the button to let the divider rise up, and then you are alone. You start crying, tears falling down your pretty face.

Nonfiction Award: Spiritual Essay

Good news:

I recently submitted this piece to my school’s English department awards and received the Nonfiction Award. I am absolutely ecstatic about this accomplishment, and my parents are also proud of me too 🙂

Thank you to my mother for her courage and to my aunt for being there. After receiving the news, I called my mother and emailed her a copy. I’m a bit scared and nervous of her reaction. I just hope she likes it. Thanks to other people who probably don’t know that I’m thanking them: Amber Nowak for copy editing the piece, Benjamin Chapman, a friend from Figment, for reading through the essay and giving me really nice comments, and lastly, my whole Memoir Writing class for ‘workshopping’ this essay. The class was taught by the amazing and knowledgeable Sonya Huber.

My story

For this assignment, the class had to write a spiritual essay, meaning we had to discuss something that moves us in ways that we never tried to verbalize before. Of course, this was a hard task for me, since I had never spoken to anyone about this particular topic. One, because they might convince me to think otherwise. Two, because the idea might seem weird to someone who doesn’t know me. However, I felt like the resulting product was definitely worth the trouble and procrastination. I am immensely proud of the finished product.

As with many of my pieces I couldn’t think of a good enough title, so right now, this story is nameless!

Please Enjoy!

Untitled

I stared at my dead aunt’s photo that hung in the living room, noting, as my insides twisted, that I looked quite similar to her.

In summer of 2011, I had returned to my mom’s childhood home in Vietnam after ten years. When we arrived, my mom told me to explore the house and take pictures.

I came across the living room that had its doors and windows wide open. Any person or dog could have roamed into the room. Just outside, the motorcycles roared as they drove through the narrow street next to our house. In the early morning, the rays of the sun that couldn’t be blocked by the coconut and banana trees trickled into the room. The homely smell of star anise and cinnamon, from the phở sold on the streets, wafted on a summer breeze.

In the middle of the room was a small shrine. Two giant candles sat on top of a tall mahogany table. A vase of flowers and a plate of fresh pineapple and mangosteen flanked a large framed slate engraved with Chinese characters. In front of it was a ceramic bowl filled with rice and a forest of burnt joss sticks. A floor fan lazily twisted left and right. The walls that enclosed the shrine displayed my mother’s past through grainy photos which captured her father and mother and siblings – all of whom passed too early in life. I knew my aunt’s photo would be there.

I immediately found her because her face was the most youthful one out of all the pictures – and the one that was eerily like mine.

My vision shrunk for a moment when I saw my aunt for the first time, and the room disappeared. Even though I’ve heard about her so often as a child, I never saw her face. I wasn’t born yet when she was alive, so I can only learn about her from stories told in the family. When my relatives speak of her, they get hazy eyes and the ghosts of sad smiles appear on their faces.

She was 18 when she died.

I liked her eyes. Even though she stared back at me in faded black and white color I saw life in her eyes. I wished that she smiled in her photo, because I always thought she’d have a pretty smile. My mother often tells me that my aunt was very bright. She liked to sew her own clothes. She volunteered at summer schools for kids who didn’t have any money because she loved children.

She was the youngest of the family, and in moments when I felt so fed up with being the youngest of my siblings, I talked to her in my mind. I used to ask her how she dealt with so many people treating you like you weren’t old enough to understand anything. Even though she was never physically there for me she still managed to comfort me.

In the past, I’ve thought about the idea of reincarnation, how the spirit of a dead person can come back in another form. I don’t have a particular religious belief, but I’ve always liked the idea of living again in a different form. Perhaps my aunt was reincarnated into me. Maybe her spirit waited for so long at the threshold between pre-existence and birth, that when my time came, she sensed me somehow, and maybe she decided to go along for the ride. That might explain why, out of my siblings, I’m the closest to my mother. I like that thought a lot. Then, I realize, what a conceited thought to have! To think that I might be worthy enough for my aunt to pick me? I can never replace my mother’s sister. I don’t want to.

I can’t pinpoint how I see myself in her. Is it our eyes? Our mouths? Our cheeks? When my eyes first took in her face, I felt like the breath was sucked out of me, and sorrow crept up behind me. My aunt never reached my age.

But my sorrow can never amount to my mother’s, for my aunt’s death left an intangible mark on her. My grandfather passed away in 1980. Forty-eight days later, my grandmother died of a broken heart. Nine months later, my mom lost my aunt.  Within a year, God, or fate, or whoever is in charge, snatched away the three most important people from her life.

As my eyes focused on my aunt’s photo, my mind flashed back to that Sunday when my mother told me something that she never told my brother and my sister before, something I’ve only started to think about now.

She blames herself for her sister’s death.

I always loved Sundays. When we were little, my parents would sleep in. To wake them up, my sister and I would crawl under the covers and burrow ourselves against their bodies. My brother, though he now denies us any physical contact, used to come in and sprawl his body horizontally across the bed, and I, being the annoying little sister, would try to kick him off. I used to bury my nose in my dad’s pillow, breathing in the scent of his sweat, Head & Shoulder, and Gillete aftershave. He would wake up, snorting, then he’d complain like a spoiled child that we took up all the room on the bed. My mom would wake up groggy, but laughing. She’d plant a nose kiss on my cheek; she never gives me lip kisses, she’d only press her nose against my cheek and sniff it, as if testing the scent. When she was ‘hungry,’ she’d playfully bite my chin and say I was delicious and in her arms, I’d try to squirm away from her morning breath.

One morning in my freshman year of college, my mother and I sat at the breakfast table. Because of school, it had been a while since we spent a Sunday together. We’d just finished eating my mother’s overdone eggs and burnt sausages, and I was watching the fallen leaves outside the window as they seemed to dance along our deck. The branches of the trees swayed, naked, in an unheard symphony. A movement pulled me from my reverie and I turned, my eyes meeting my mom’s. She looked dazed, probably looked very much like I did a few minutes ago. I poked her in the arm. My mom smiled slightly then glanced down at my hand.

Sometimes she did that. Anyone who knew her well could tell that she had something to say. If she doesn’t voluntarily speak, something must be wrong. I asked her if she was okay.

“I was thinking about my sister,” she told me quietly in Vietnamese.

I didn’t think it was strange. Her past is always, in some ways, in her mind. The past made her into the person she is today. She tells us all the time about how she escaped Vietnam with her sister and nieces and nephew. How hard she worked to provide food and shelter for us. How much she sacrificed.

As a teenager, like all stupid teenagers, I took my parents for granted.  Every time I did something wrong, like get a bad grade on my biology test or stayed out too late one night without calling them, my mom reminded me of her story. I used to wave her off, calling it her ‘sob story,’ and then I’d slam the door in her face. I still don’t know what she thought when I did this. I don’t want to know. I already hate myself enough for the way I acted as a naïve, selfish, and privileged 13-year-old. That Sunday, I was an adult.

“Is her birthday coming up?” I asked her. I never keep track of these dates, but my mom always offered prayers to honor her family in some ways.

“It’s her death anniversary.”

Her lips trembled, and she turned her head, trying to hide the oncoming tears, and I couldn’t help but watch her. It’s always hard to see a strong person break down like that. At the same time, the breaking down of these walls can provide the most fascinating display. Broken beauty. That’s what I think when I see my mother in moments like these.

“I remember being in the hospital, sitting next to her bed,” she said, her eyes looking beyond me. “She was always sick. Her white cells kept killing her red ones.”

I suspect that my aunt might have had anemia, but I’m not completely sure.  It was hard – still is – to keep track of medical records in Vietnam, because the hospitals were poorly run and understaffed.

My mom began to tear her napkin apart, bit by bit. “She asked me to take her home. She didn’t want to die in a hospital.” It was just her and her sister in the hospital that night. Her sisters were home, taking care of the house and trying to hold together the remnants of their happy times amidst the war and the pressures of the communist government.

“But I told her –” my mom laughed, and I knew what she was thinking of couldn’t be funny “– I told she wasn’t going to die. Then she said that she wanted to die, because it took too much of her to live.”

Mom glanced at me.

“I should have taken her home. She wanted to be home, so why didn’t I just bring her back? She could have died in peace, knowing she was back where she belonged.”

People sometimes say that their “hearts go out” for others who are less fortunate. I’ve only learned to understand that phrase after applying it to my mother. My mother loved her sister. She was her favorite, and while her older sisters protected her, my mother took care of my aunt.

It’s hard to imagine such a time. I have An, my sister, who’s one year older, and though she’s at another college, she’s still just a text message away. But what would happen if—

No.

I can’t even think of that now. She – and I – are too young to die.

Then I think about my aunt, whose time came too soon. It makes me want to hold An tighter the next time we have to leave each other again.

Four weeks after the first time I laid eyes on my aunt’s face, I went with my parents to the site where my aunt was buried.

It’s a shame to think that her youngest sister couldn’t be buried alongside her parents. Her grave had to be in some backyard of a stranger, because back then, the area was actually a rice field, a special place to be buried. But times had changed, and the rice fields gave way to houses and train tracks. It’s a shame to see that my aunt’s grave is the dumping site for dogs, cows, and hens. My mom didn’t say anything when she spotted the feces in the grass. She tightened her grip on the bundle of joss sticks in her hands.

She ignored the curious stares of people looking out from the houses as she stood in front of the tomb. They probably weren’t used to people visiting it.

I should have memorized the name on that grave, but I didn’t. I didn’t even know my aunt’s name until now: Pham Thi Mai Thương. It sounds like the singing wind. It makes me sad to know that I can never truly know anything beyond her beautiful name.

Fiction: Voice

I wrote a quick short story a couple of days ago. I followed a challenge that Figment had posted. Each week, the creative writing site hosts a young adult author who assigns prompts and fun games for online users. This week’s guest was Geoff Herbach. His presence on YouTube is well-known, and he is also the author of young adult novel “Stupid Fast” and the upcoming novel “Nothing Special.”

Herbach recently wrote about how to incorporate personal voice into short stories. I just love the way he explained voice through a video. It’s so much better than reading long blog posts. I can see why young adults would love him. His basic message for writers is that voice should reflect the writer’s personality, not the writer’s idol’s personality.

He also gave us a challenge so that we could develop our voices. The outline that Geoff Herbach had posted are as followed:

1. YOU HAVE A CHARACTER WHO DRIVES.
2. A BIRD HITS THE WINDSHIELD.
3. THE WINDSHIELD CRACKS.
4. YOUR CHARACTER PULLS OVER.
5. THE BIRD IS HOLDING A TINY SCROLL IN ITS LITTLE, DEAD BIRD CLAW.
6. YOUR CHARACTER READS THE SCROLL.
7. IT IS A MESSAGE ADDRESSED TO YOUR CHARACTER!

You’ll see the story below.  I took the plot of a WIP story and used it in this setting.

I had a lot of fun with this. I didn’t even notice that I was writing more than a thousand words!

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I could have taken one of my kitchen knives and stuck it right between Paul’s shoulder blades. I could have emptied our joint bank account and ran his precious Mercedes into a random light pole. I could have driven this crappy Nissan 1997 to the Hamptons and picked up a beach blond guy half my age on the side.

But I’m not in a Lifetime movie. I’m just another woman who has a cheating husband.

I’m nothing special. Obviously. Or else Paul wouldn’t have decided to break my trust.

When Paul came home and planted a perfunctory kiss on me tonight, I instantly knew I needed to leave. Leave before I…I don’t know lost control. ‘Cause right now, I’m past my boiling point.

“Goddamnit!” I shout in my car, assured that no one can hear me in my little bubble of woe.

I need a drink.

Give me liberty, or give my Red Death. Some vodka, peach liqueur…oh yes. Perfect. I need them to drown out the image of Paul and his thing fooling around last afternoon when I came home early for work.

As I reach the end of a scenic Brooklyn block, my eyes stray to the shadowed form of a prostitute showing off her midriff and wearing a red leather skirt as she leans against a blue brick building. She has one leg propped up against the wall and a cig dangling between her cherry lips.

She looks just like my daughter Riley who, by the way, just uploaded an interesting Facebook picture from her 21st birthday. One day I happened to ‘stumble across’ said photo. I told her to take it down.

She unfriended me.

A part of my mind tells me to jet out of the car and wrap a blanket around that girl – who is someone’s girl out there – and give her a cup of steaming milk and chocolate chip cookies. Then another part of my mind imagines the police car that’s parked around here, waiting for any commotion to barge onto the scene. I see myself being slammed against the wall, having the cuffs roughly slapped onto my wrists. As all of this goes down, I’m screaming, “I’m a mother! I’m a mother!”

I shake my head. I place two hands on the wheel. And I stomp on the gas pedal.

No red light. No red light, I repeat to myself. If I stop again, I know I won’t be able to stem the tears building behind my eyes.

I’ll just end up crying in my car, and the teenagers who stop next to me at the red light will cackle at the sight of me.

But, who cares! I am a woman! I am a feminist! I am –

“Mother of – ”

Out of God-freakin’ nowhere, some bird collides with my windshield.

I wrench my steering wheel to the right, trying to avoid the inevitable. My heart stops. I hear the tires screeching and the angry honks of some guy behind me who’s probably late for dinner and doesn’t want to be on his wife’s shit list.

My right tire hits the nearest curb, and I manage to get the rest of the car under control.

I sigh angrily and throw a good punch at the stirring wheel. Now I’ll have to call Animal Control or something to get this shit off my window. I can’t do it myself; that’s disgusting.

“Hey, you all right, lady?” An African-American guy peeks through the window on my side. Behind him, I see a small group of nosy senior citizens gathering across the street.

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m good. Can’t say the same for this bird though.”

“You want me to call someone? The ambulance?”

I wave a hand at him. “No. Just…just call the animal guys. No ambulance, though.”

“You sure?”

I do the right thing and censor all profanity that’s flittering through my mind. “Yes. Please.” The man nods at me and assures me that I’ll be okay.

I slowly release myself from the seat belt constraints and gingerly move my legs. Good, they work.

Blowing a few blond strands from my face, I lean closer and check the damage. I spy a small crack that’ll probably take $400 to fix. Great. At least I didn’t crack my neck. Once my blood stops boiling, my shoulders begin to relax and my conscience stops its swearing.

Poor bird, some part of me thinks. It still looks peaceful in death.

Wait.

I press my nose against the window and squint my eyes. Is that…? Really?

I kick my door open and scramble to get near the bird. The guy from before is on his cell, and the crowd is slowly beginning to disperse. No one important died so this accident is nothing to look at, I guess.

Back to the bird. I see that under one of his limp claws, he’s holding some kind of scroll.

“Ew, ew,” I mutter, as I gently pry the bird’s claw open. The bird relents and the scroll rolls into my left palm. It’s small and slightly damp with avian blood, but I ignore my germophobic thoughts and curiosity takes over.

I roll out the paper. I feel like I’m Nicholas Cage.

I read: MOVE ON.

Those words are written in some kind of charcoal that’s rubbing off on my hands. I flip the piece of paper to see if there’s anything on its back, but nothing. No signature. No explanation.

I glance up, checking to see if there’s some creep peeping from his window or rooftop. My eyes catch nothing but laundry dangling from homemade lines and one wrinkly man who’s slumbering away on a cemented porch.

“Shit,” I mumble, dropping the slip onto the oil-drenched road. I glance back at the innocent bird who couldn’t have known what was coming.

Okay, I’m officially creeped out. Who cares about Animal Control? I roll up a newspaper that was lying on the sidewalk. With a few prods, the bird tumbles over and lands on top a sewage gutter. The rain will wash it away.

“Hey, miss, they’re coming soon,” the cell guy says to me.

“Oh well,” I answer, sliding back into my car.

As I drive away, I glance at my rearview mirror, as if searching for the paper. I can still see the words in my mind.

“Move on,” I whisper. If only it was that easy.

I’m still going to that damn bar.

Surviving

This is my second essay from my Memoir Writing class. We were assigned to write a political memoir, so naturally I decided to write about my parents during and after the Vietnam War. Hope you like it.

1975. Fall of Saigon. Agent Orange. Viet Cong. My Lai Massacre.

These facts bombard my mind when I think of the Vietnam War. Sometimes I can’t conceive that parts of my family’s history and my very being lie beneath these stone cold, memorized truths that teachers used to throw at me in classes. Today, I’ve already forgotten most of the names of politicians and military schemes within this war. Truth be told, they’re just names that can be circled on multiple-choice tests.

I didn’t need teachers to tell me what happened because I considered my parents as sufficient proof that the war did happen – that years ago, constant terror, fear of the communists, and soul-splitting loss had my parents’ lives in their tight-clenched fists.

I look at my parents, and see how life is wonderful for them. All of their children are either undergraduates or graduates of a university. My parents can do what they please. My mom just started taking private swimming lessons. My dad is working on making his potbelly disappear by going on walks in the early morning.

I admit: The story about my family and parents is not simple. It’s an onion that always needs to be peeled. One layer contains the political history that my parents had lived through: the Vietnamese War. Underneath that layer might be one that captures the struggles that occurred after they relocated to America, a foreign country. Directly below, or perhaps a few more layers down, my own life and my siblings’ lives subsist in such an area, and it covers the hopes and dreams my parents came to grasp for not just their own reasons but for the children who are the carriers of their torch, their legacy. In the end, there might be a story outside of my parents’ stories, but it’d take years or my whole life to write such a thing. So, I’ll start with what I know.

I’ve realized that my dad never talks about his past unless he is asked about it. Which means, he only talked to me about his past when I approached him during spring break. That’s how my dad and I are similar. We would rather be moved than move on our own. My mom’s story had always been the story of the family, but I didn’t want to make it seem like my father’s story wasn’t just as important as my mother’s.

As a newborn in 1947, my father was born oblivious into a bloody, beaten world that had just crawled out from the battlefields of World War II, and he was caught in another war that would go on to cause more inconceivable damage to the world’s political relations. Lê Phung grew up in a poor village enclosed by old, rotting Catholic churches that stood as remnants of the French occupation in the late 19th century. Even in the summer of 2011, when I visited my father’s home, the decrepit nature of the village could not be relieved. The main road to my dad’s home remained unpaved. The tunnels still only allowed people as its passersby, and cars were forced to turn around.

When my dad was young, he lived with his mother in a two-room cemented house. In this place, he felt perfectly content. My dad said he liked that he had his mother, because he only needed her.

As the Communists gained momentum, South Vietnam and the United States needed more men to enlist in armies. In my dad’s school, if a student couldn’t earn enough credits for school, he was forced into the army. My dad said that he enlisted because that was normal thing to do at that time. My father wanted to enlist, because his friends did the same. To this day, he always reunites with his buddies when some anniversary of the naval academy comes up or when his friend invites him over for a chat.

And so, my dad left South Vietnam. At this time, he never knew that he’d leave his country at the age of 22, to join forces with the Vietnamese and American Navy. He couldn’t know that when he was able to receive sponsorship for entrance in the United States, he wouldn’t be able to contact or hear his mother’s voice for many years.

Now, I suppose after this, I can say that my dad happened to meet my mom over in the United States, got married, and fell in love. But I can’t. That’s just too simple.

In 1956, Dwight D. Eisenhower defeated Adlai Stevenson II to become the 34th President of the United States. My mother, Pham Đông, came into the world around that time, born to Pham Duyên and Mai Thi Cat, a couple who ran a small, but marketable rice company in Nha Trang, Vietnam. At this time, Nha Trang had the cộng-sản, Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese communists, at the fringes of its boundaries.

“It was during the time of the Vietnamese Lunar New Year,” she said, as she sat in front of the computer in the middle of a Youtube video about some obscure Vietnamese singer, “when I really noticed the world was ending. But I forgot what – oh wait—”

“Ba! Ba!” she said, using the Vietnamese word for my father who was actually sitting ten feet away from her, only he’s a bit hard of hearing. “What year was the –” and she went off talking in Vietnamese that I couldn’t understand.

“Ah,” my dad said back, his eyes thoughtful. He stood up, his hands slipping into his pockets. “It was 1968.”

“Really? But I thought –” My mom looked like she wanted to protest the date but stopped. Dates get fuzzy as one ages in years. “No, that’s right.”

On January 30 of 1968, the Viet Cong launched what is called Tết Offensive. Tết is the Vietnamese term for the New Lunar Year celebration. The communists and the South Vietnamese government had signed an agreement to put the Lunar New Year as a time of ‘cease fire.’

However, the Tết truce ended; my parents said the communists had broken their side of the agreement. During this time, my uncle, Xon, returned from his position as part of a special force tasks in the Vietnamese army. When the Americans needed help landing on Vietnamese soil, they needed to make sure that the land was safe for their feet. The Viet Cong used to place boobytraps into the ground and if the Americans were dropped off in such areas, they’d lose more than just their feet.

My uncle’s job was to detect these bombs, in aid of the Americans. As the Vietnamese celebrated Tết, a time of color and loud, the air suddenly filled with cracks of what people thought were firecrackers.

But they weren’t firecrackers.

Xon knew this from his experience. Within minutes, he rushed his family, including my mom who was 12, into a tunnel located underneath the house’s kitchen. They stayed there for hours. When I went to Vietnam in 2011, I stood in that same kitchen many times. We held family breakfast and dinners in such a tranquil space. I had no way of knowing that one of the safest places during 1968 existed underneath that kitchen. The numbers were never officially calculated, but in the aftermath of this offensive, the government estimated over 14, 000 dead victims due to the mass mortar attacks and ground assaults. Even underneath the tunnel, as she huddled with her family, my mom remembers bracing herself against the brisance of the mortar projectiles and hearing the rumbling of the aftershock, which sounded like the roar of a lion.

A few months later, Xon died.

In 1975, Saigon fell. Along with its government, its name also went away. The United States withdrew their forces. The war ended.

Hồ Chí Minh City, named after the leader of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, stands today as one of the most populous cities in the country. This is the time that many people remember. Thousands of Vietnamese demanded for relief, frightened by the prospects of the communist state that would rise from their beloved Saigon. The name Hồ Chí Minh roughly translates to “Bringer of Light.” But this light was not the benevolent light that one looks forward to in a summer’s day. The fall brought the scorch of the Communist forces that would leave many of the Vietnamese screaming.

The United States amassed the largest helicopter rescue mission in history. My mom tells me that when the Operation Frequent Wind started, the sky was never silent and never still. Operation Frequent Wind saw helicopters arrive in Saigon, to rescue the Americans who were still stationed there and the Vietnamese whose family had been part of the South Vietnamese government. Desperate families pushed through to take that one step onto the helicopter in hopes of escaping an uncertain future.

My mother and her family ran against time. Her half-brother, Con, used to be a high ranked official in the Hậu Nghĩa province, but when the Communists took over, they sent him to a reeducation camp. The term reeducation was only a euphemism; instead, former South Vietnamese government members were forced into labor, a means seen as repression tactics.

Con did all sorts of manual labor, from cutting crops in the fields to the dangerously scouring the mines. My uncle, already pompous and cranky, before his time in camp, became more sullen and quiet after emerging from this, my mom said. His experience changed him. With him imprisoned, my family became more exposed. They, along with much of their neighborhood, stood as opposition to the government.

With the impending danger prowling in the rice fields and jungles of Vietnam and the dead bodies of North and South Vietnamese scattered across the grounds of the country like leaves during the fall season, my mother began to plan her escapes.

“Two nights a week, the government would shut down all of the electricity,” my mom told me. “So in our homes, let’s see, we didn’t have light. The streets were also dark.”

“Wait, so how did you escape, Mẹ?” I asked her. “If it was so dark out –”

“That’s right. It was really dark. But that’s why it was the perfect time for us to escape,” she said in a conspiratorial tone as she leaned forward.

Escapees had two means of escapes that had the greatest chances of succeeding: go by foot into Thailand or go by boat to another country. Two of my closest cousins took the former route, because when they went in 1988, they had less money.

My mom, however, became a boat person.

If I told a stranger that I need to leave Connecticut and wanted him to give me a ride, I doubt that the stranger would say yes. But this was what escapees had to do. To escape, they had to know or meet someone with a boat. Instead of paying them with đồng, paper money, they paid them in gold. Gold had more valuable than paper, whose value constantly changed.

“We had to trust our guts,” my mom said. “And sometimes, we were wrong.”

She tried to escape seven times. One time, her “helper” carried her into the South China Sea by boat, but then took her money, jumped ship, and left her there. Other times, she paid her helpers beforehand, but they never showed up. At least one time, officials caught her in the act. When this happened, my mom had two choices: go to jail or bribe the officials and get away. Her choice was a no-brainer.

Her father, mother, and sister passed away in a rapid span of time, which furthered her determination to leave in order to live. Live when others couldn’t.

Freedom. Freedom. The sweet taste of mango on a summer’s day. That jump down a waterfall. The open air of an abandoned flower field. My mom wanted all of this so badly.

My mom found that chance of escape, that chance founded by luck, and she escaped with her 11-year-old nephew. Her sister, the sister’s husband, and their 13-month-old child also went along.

For seven days, my mom shared a wooden fisherman’s boat with 39 people. They had no food. Sickness did not discriminate by age or gender. Other boats had capsized, and no one was saved – even the children. When I was little, my mom told me stories about cannibals. She heard from other Vietnamese refugees that on one boat, a man was so hungry that he couldn’t contain himself. He snatched the nearest person, a girl about the age of 5, and took a bite of her arm. Then her leg. Then the other leg. No one stopped him. As a child, I thought this couldn’t be true.

In reality, there might be truth in these stories. Other horrible and inconceivable crimes against humans occurred during this time. Thai pirates scooped the Vietnamese women from the boats, in guise of offering help, but then they ended up brutally raping and pilfering them. Women suffered – but for what? They had only their skin and bones.

My mom didn’t want to meet her end in a boat, a boat that likely led to freedom. She had to move on. If anything, my mom had learned how to press forward in times of struggles. Some of the Vietnamese had to choose: either suffer at the hands of others or suffer in their own journey when they still controlled their lives.

In escaping, my mom came closer to touching freedom.

Before my mom left Vietnam, she went to see an old woman that used to buy rice from her parents. That woman had lost her son years before, and she couldn’t find him. She missed him dearly because he was her only relative that she cared about. My mom told her about her plan to escape, and said that if she made it, if she survived to step foot on American soil, she’d look for that missing son.

That woman was my grandmother.

My mother kept her promise. She didn’t know anything about my father, and she wasn’t that close to my grandmother at first. Yet she did keep that promise for an old, forlorn woman. After spending a few years in Palawan, Philippines, as a refugee and also as a volunteer French translator, she entered the United States. There, she met up with a brother in Washington who had left before Saigon fell. Soon after, she moved to Connecticut with her sister who escaped with her.

The Vietnamese have the uncanny ability to keep in touch, even after years of separation. I know that my mom keeps a booklet that has all the names of refugees in the Philippines, friends in Vietnam and family all over the United States.

A friend of my father’s also kept such a phonebook. He lived in San Diego and saw that ad in the newspaper, so he told my father.

After a series of love letters that my dad refuses to admit to writing, in 1988, my father and my mother met and wed.

“So she won me over,” my father finished. The 63-year-old at the end of his tale gave me a nearly toothless smile. “And that was the end of my freedom.”

When I told my mother the first part (the second part just ruined the whole sentimental value), my mom didn’t burst into tears or anything like that. She just turned to my dad, who stood next to me. “You idiot,” she muttered in Vietnamese, a smile on her face. My dad started to laugh. I didn’t understand them, but I didn’t ask.

In college, I’m becoming more aware that I exist, and therefore my successes exist, because of my parents. One time, just like I am now as a young journalist uncertain of my paths in life, they were scared and uncertain about the future. But, I am the child of fighters.

Pham Thi Đông. Lê Phung.

I am Lê Đông Loan. My brother and sister also share the same middle name and last name.

In this way, I like to think that my parents gave their names to their children so that we too are marked as fighters, capable of taking on any task which we might have to encounter. Like my mother, my father, and other brave relatives, I know how to move forward. And I will, with the reminder of the past in mind.

Yearning

Photo credit: Loan Le

You will miss the days of wondering when you’d finally succumb to a permanent food coma. You’ll yearn for the feel of the steam from a nice, big bowl of phở. The taste of the boiled chicken broth that spills pieces of  and ga, instantly cooking them, will tantalize you. You will always feel the crunch of fresh bean sprouts, paired with soft noodles and lettuce and hoisin sauce; the symphony of textures only brings you closer to that nirvana your Buddhist parents always talk about. And you will believe it, even though you’re Agnostic. And you’ll always savor the moments where you sat back and held your stomach (Look, I’m pregnant) because you ate too much and wanted throw up. Funny—because you know that you would eat another bowl of phở within 20 minutes.

You will miss the sugary, cold slurps of sugar cane juice that was freshly squeezed in front of your eyes, and the coolness of coconut water from a young coconut that had just fallen off the tree in your backyard. You will miss, unbelievably, the bitter taste of Tiger beers, which you had the liberty to try since Vietnam holds no drinking age limit (but no more mango daiquiris).

You will miss the beach of Nha Trang, how the shoreline stretches miles and miles and how the ocean is so blue and clear that even as you swim deeper, you can still see your legs. You will miss the bamboo umbrellas which shielded you from the unforgiving sun. And yes, you will even miss the pesky but convincing women who roamed the sands (Hello, Madame, you like to buy?), carrying bamboo baskets filled with bracelets and trinkets that—let’s face it—you’ll never need in your life.

You will miss the boat rides which took you from one island to the next. You’ll remember the sunsets that led your dreams for most of the vacation. You’ll want to go back to that time when you stopped your boat in the middle of nothing but gorgeous scenery and purple and pink, and jumped right into the bay.

You will miss the mixture of fear and excitement that coursed through you when you rode on the back of your non-English speaking, but still endearing, cousin-in-law’s motorcycle in the heart of Nha Trang (Slow down! Too fast! Sorry, no English, and he smirked). You’ll remember the sweet, suffocating, and homely smell of gas, bún bò Huế, and fresh bread, each individual scent bombarding you at every corner you turn. You’ll dream of the nights where everyone went out to have fun by the beach, where the lights of the night market stretched a mile down an already crowded street. The sights of eyesore and blinding glares of neon lights flashing “Fun Hear” (Oh look there’s fun—what?) and “Sailing Club” are now embedded in you.

Nha Trang, Vietnam, 2011. Photo credit: Loan Le

You will remember the day you finally left home. Goodbyes weren’t given; you just told everyone you would meet them ‘later.’ Yet, ‘later’ could mean a year, two years—maybe even ten years. You took your final pictures, passing it off in playful gestures, but you secretly wanted to take photos with the people who you know will not live too long. Aunt Eight didn’t smile at the camera; instead, as you posed next to her, she whispered in Vietnamese, croaking at the age of 65, “What is that?” (Just smile, you said through your fixed smile).

And then, as you drove away in your taxi, you resisted the urge to climb over the piles of baggage to glance at the family house one last time. So, you sat in the front seat and closed your eyes, and before you could even comprehend it, you were at Nha Trang airport, ears full of English and Vietnamese.

And now?

Now, you’re ‘home’ in the suburbs (doesn’t feel like ‘home’ just yet), sitting on your bed, thinking that Vietnam shouldn’t have become a memory so soon.