All of Us Are in Pieces
The sound of helicopters’ blades cutting the wind precedes thunderous explosions and earthquakes, along with the confusion as to whether or not she is still alive in the dark. Under the tunnel. The sweating ten-year-old girl tries not to wonder.
The first snowfall on a December day in Boston was soundless. Quieter than rain. Light as air yet still pulled by gravity, becoming a fluffy white blanket over grassland and fuzzy white beanies on the little treetops.
Old Quarters’ tunnels had multiple openings, allowing people to see the sky from the inside. These openings prevented the tunnels from collapsing from explosions’ pressure. They were the scars of Hanoi; everyone inside was its blood cells, staring up at the open wounds, hoping the bombs could not get through.
* * *
I remember every college summer when I would sleep next to her in our family bedroom. I offered to scratch her back instead of waiting for her to ask; she said I was best at it. I started to hug her at night before she fell asleep. I started to rub the sides of her arms when she talked in her nightmares to her parents, or to me.
* * *
The sound of Boston’s subway became my white noise after I left home to study in the States. Many nights in my high school years, the Green Line rocked me to sleep.
April 1965. My mother was born in the spring, amid the chaos of the Vietnam War. She was born in Hanoi, the capital city of Vietnam, where it never snows.
July 1997. I was born in the hot summer of Vietnam, amid the revolution of global communication. I was born in the hot tropical city of Hanoi.
My language is filled with alarming news. I came out to my mother over the phone. She constantly corrected me every time I said I was “dating her.”
My mother’s language is filled with expectations. When I get an A-minus: Why aren’t you getting straight A’s? When I get straight A’s: Well, that’s expected. When I declared my journalism and English majors: Why aren’t you doing something more useful for your future?
My writing was filled with sibling rivalry. My mother used to follow my growth through my ink. I once wrote that I thought she preferred my brother every time she scolded me. Because he was a boy. She stopped scolding me after she read it.
Her first name is Bach Tuyet, which means Snow White. Her father had named her so because to him, Snow White was the most beautiful fairytale princess.
My first name is Nhung, which means Velvet. My father had named me so because he wanted me to turn out vibrant, warm, and beautiful. My mother said I turned out colder than my name, even colder than hers.
* * *
I remember my mother complaining about how distant I was to her as I was growing up. She didn’t like that I never wanted to hug when we were sleeping in our family bedroom. I didn’t understand it until I had to spend my school year half the world away from her.
* * *
My mother’s language is filled with money. Be careful where you keep your wallet, she always warns me about the people she does not know. Could you negotiate the price down? I couldn’t at Target. Only buy if you absolutely need to. It is where her English skills lie, as the co-owner of a clothing store in a tourist attraction spot. That fit-ty thousand. This won hundred. We take doller too.
* * *
I don’t remember when our disconnection started. Perhaps once I started to write in English. Or once I had fallen in love with the foreign Boston snow.
* * *
My mother spent her childhood in a small house in the Old Quarters, which is now a tourist attraction. The house and property are now worth millions.
I spent my childhood chasing after all things foreign. The fake cotton snow at the mall. The bright-colored hair of the European girls on TV. The English language.
My mother’s language is filled with judgment. See that girl with short hair? She’s gay; don’t be like her. I’m sorry, mom. Don’t marry a black man. Mom, that’s racist. Don’t marry a Muslim man. Mom, that’s discriminating. Marry a rich man. Mom, I won’t marry a man at all.
My language is filled with alarming news. I came out to my mother over the phone. She constantly corrected me every time I said I was “dating her.” She said I confused our friendship with something larger. She blamed the lack of a male role model in my life. Then she blamed the fact that I was friends with mainly girls. Then she threatened to keep me in Vietnam, away from the “toxic American influence.”
The streets of the Old Quarters used to rise up as tall as three-story buildings, hollowed inside to swallow the citizens of Hanoi in their protective wombs, away from the falling American bombs.
* * *
My heart dropped when I heard her talking to our neighbor: My daughter’s the distant one. Her words stung my chest every time I saw her missed calls because of the time difference, or because I was distracted with my American friends.
* * *
The first time it snowed in Boston I stared up at the sky. The cold was cutting my dry hands, but I only wondered how I could find the beginning of the falling snow. I turned away from the crowd to stick my tongue out, hoping to taste nature’s freezer.
* * *
My mother’s language is filled with tolerance. My friend from New York City came to visit Hanoi one summer with his boyfriend. She did not judge them. Just don’t let anyone else know; people here are narrow-minded. She saw me in a picture with my friend groups, most of them were black. You guys look so cute, you going out? I asked her if she would stop loving me only because I could not love a man. Nhung, I will always love you, even if our family won’t.