words & images nancy nguyen
My grandmother died around my birthday. She was sealed in a box and shipped back to Vietnam. It gave a whole new meaning to meeting your maker. My father, the dutiful son, had ventured back to Vietnam for her funeral. He asked me what I wanted from Vietnam. "A souvenir," he said. I figured he meant a birthday present, because mine was coming up. I shrugged and said I didn't need anything. I had doubts about what Vietnam could offer me. My dad left the room, asking aloud how his life had become ruled by women—one in Vietnam waiting to be sent off to the afterlife, and another woman, his daughter, who refused to celebrate her life after birth.
By the time his flight returned to America, I desperately wanted a souvenir, though not the type one could purchase from Vietnamese fortune tellers. By then, I had decided the best souvenir would be a story—my dad's story.
I sat in the passenger seat of the van. The sun was setting, which gave the clouds a blue-and-pink glow. It was probably an effect of the Southern California smog. I wondered if my father had seen anything like this in Vietnam. Upon returning to the US, my father agreed to the two-hour drive it would take to get me to my American college campus, like he always did. I had an old notebook and a pen in hand, but he didn't ask why. He tuned the radio. We usually let the radio fill the silence on our car rides.
I wanted to explore mortality after my grandmother's death. I decided to write a letter to my father. He was always saying that he had a story worth recording. He was particularly proud of his escape from Vietnam. He had been old enough to remember every detail, yet still young enough not to have felt their crushing gravity. To him, his escape was a great exodus; to others, it was a running away. I decided to call it "A Letter You Will Never Read."
"Hey, Dad," I said. He turned down the radio. "You know how I'm taking a writing class?"
"Hmm?" Dad said. He was concentrating on driving the car. Mom was always telling me that Vietnamese men had trouble multitasking.
"Never mind," I said, as if it didn't matter. We sat there in silence.
"Dad," I said.
"Hmm?" he repeated.
"Can you tell me a little bit of your story? Don't give me too much. Just tell me a short piece—enough for the car ride."
"Sure!" he said excitedly.
"I was born in Phan Rang," he started.
"Dad," I groaned, looking up from my notebook. "Not your whole life story."
"Eh, but you need to know where I came from."
"Alright." I took a deep breath. "Can you spell it?"
Everyone called my father Thu. He went to a seminary school for much of his life in the southern city of Nha Trang. His mother had always thought that he was going to be a priest. She thought he was going to be an invaluable follower of God, creating more peace, more Catholics, and more order. But in April 1975, news of the American disengagement from Vietnam spread. People poured southward like sand down an hourglass—inefficiently, but with a weight great enough to crush.
"My brother said something very cool," Dad said as he drove down Highway 91. "People started to run like ducks." I could almost picture him running, duck-like, as a sixteen-year-old boy.
After a long journey, my dad and his family members made it to the An-Phuong camp. They spent a few days there, the camp fortuitously being located near an ocean. My dad whiled away his days near the water, chasing colorful crabs and trying to catch the seahorses in the little pools of water left behind from the waves. He oftentimes thought about Moses and the parting of the Red Sea. He was sure there was a scientific explanation behind it—that it was all possible because of a Higher Force.
When the sun would set, my father would run back to An-Phuong camp. The camp was a slab of concrete supported by columns, like the modern-day ruins of Rome. It was supposed to have been an orphanage set up by a Jesuit priest, but ever since the Vietnamese disengagement, a visitor would only find the faces of young children and the sad faces of adults.
"My mother…" Dad started, cutting into another lane on the highway. The weight of my grandmother's recent passing pressed on him as he failed to finish his sentence. I wondered if he would still be able to tell me his story, after my grandmother's funeral. "She was a tough woman." He nodded as if agreeing with himself. "The toughest woman I have ever known."
My grandmother was always the first to question where my dad had been. When she asked him, she would look like an owl in one of his biology textbooks in seminary school, sporting half-closed, suspecting eyes, and a small, puckered mouth. Still, he'd answer the same as always. "Out, just looking at the crabs." She'd reply by tutt-ing at my dad and handing him a can of military beans.
My dad's usual spot was right next to his older brother, Tang, and Tang's wife, My Thi.
"My eldest brother Tang," Dad said, "came back from being a soldier—came back to us as a civilian. He had his lieutenant haircut and everything. Now, he doesn't have any hair at all!" He chuckled.
On the last day at the camp, my grandfather arrived at the tarp, eyes wide with excitement. My dad couldn't recall a time he had seen his father sleep. At their house in Phan Rang, my grandfather used to stay up, circling the house with rosary beads over and over. Instead of rousing the family for church, his father had another reason to be excited. He had found a way to Saigon, the only place that seemed safe from the Communists.
Like every other night, my dad and his family prayed before they went to bed. That night, however, my dad knew he wasn't going to sleep on concrete, and his heart rattled in his chest from the thought. Still, he prayed like he did every night. He prayed for safety, peace, and an uneventful entry into Saigon—and, he added, a parting of a sea. After crossing himself, he opened his eyes to see his mother's eyes. Even her neck twisted like an owl's to look at him.
His family waited until every person in the camp had fallen asleep. When the camp had turned into a symphony of long breaths and snores, my grandfather tapped his family members on their shoulders. They left all their nonessential items behind and ran. As they did, my dad felt like he was wearing a blindfold instead of his glasses. The hand holding his own jerked him in erratic directions. His father told him they were going to take a truck.
"When my father said 'truck,' I thought he meant a military truck with weapons and prisoners," Dad said. "Instead it was a vegetable truck. I slept next to a head of cabbage for the entire ride."
A chaotic din awoke my dad from his half sleep in the dark night. The truck wasn't moving. There were hundreds of feet pounding the ground into a consistent quake. Eventually, he was running alongside other people. His whole family slipped through, like water from a sponge. They found my dad's older sisters, Thuy and Toan, and discovered an abandoned restaurant to stay in for the night.
The next day, my grandfather used the money from selling their car, a Peugeot 503, to rent a fishing boat. They hastily filed onto the boat. Chaos seemed distant at that point, and the clouds in the sky rested on the water, moving toward an unknown destination.
"My sister Thuy had seasickness at the time," Dad said with pent-up frustration. "She said she'd rather die than go through the seasickness." He shook his head and merged onto the 405.
When his family returned to the abandoned restaurant, my dad felt a distinct omen about something. Maybe it was land-sickness.
"I couldn't sleep that night," Dad said. "I lay in bed. My eyes were closed, but my mind was wide open. When I heard someone walking outside, I got up and walked out. My mother was there." He paused.
"Then what happened?" I asked.
My grandmother had turned to him. Her half-eyes were squinting more than usual. "You're happy, aren't you?" she asked.
"Hmm?" he said.
"Look at you," she spat. "You never worried about anything. You're always out chasing crabs. Are you happy you got out of seminary school? You were supposed to be a priest. If you had prayed enough, you could've stopped the fall." She paused, but it wasn't a pregnant pause waiting for a response.
"This," she said emphatically, "is entirely your fault."
"Why'd you let her tell you that?" I asked, putting aside my notebook. "How could she put the entire weight of the Vietnam War on your shoulders?"
"You don't understand," Dad said. "This was in Vietnam. I could not outright yell at my own mother. Besides, she might have been right." He pointed to the roof of the car. "After all, she's probably consulting Him about it now."
“Okay." I laughed, too. "What'd you do after that?"
My dad walked into a room and found his brother and his wife there. They sat at the edge of their bed, holding each other and whispering. When they noticed my dad, they both perked up. My Thi offered a space between her and Tang where she told him to sit. Tang put an arm around his brother's shoulders. Tang said both he and his wife were going on the boat if the rest were staying. They had talked to their mother, and she agreed it was the best decision.
"Can I come with you?" my dad asked.
"It's dangerous," Tang said.
"I don't care," my dad said. "I want to go. It can't be worse than here."
"Let him come," My Thi said. "Maybe we don't have to split up that much after all."
My dad got on the boat.
The sound of pattering feet approached the boat. My dad imagined a horde of ducks running toward the sea. This time, however, there was the angry yelling of commanders. The boat moved away. There was another fishing boat beside theirs. There was also a loud sound. Body parts flew into the air where the other boat used to be. A red mist sprayed my dad's glasses pink. As the boat sped up, rockets exploded from both sides of the boat. There was a ringing in my dad's ears. He slapped his ears a few times, but it was no use. He bowed his head in prayer. He prayed the penance. He knew he was going to see his Maker, if he couldn't hear his Maker. Someone grabbed my dad. My dad looked over to see Tang. My dad could feel Tang's weeping through his entire being. The more Tang cried on my dad's shoulder, the heavier he felt.
"That's it," Dad said, stopping suddenly in the climax of the story.
I looked up. "That can't be it."
"You said it, didn't you? 'Just enough for the car ride.'" He gave me a mischievous grin. The car slowed to a stop as it got closer to my apartment building. We were silent for a bit. I began to put away my notebook and pen.
"Hey," he said. "Happy Birthday."
I walked into my apartment, my head throbbing from motion sickness. It was a bit like my father's land-sickness after his sister's seasickness. I decided not to write his story just yet. First, I was going to write a letter to my father.