I awake to the shrill of chickens, nature’s alarm clock. My two sisters, with whom I’m sharing a bedroom and two bare mattresses, retreat under their blankets like hermit crabs to their shells. Avoiding the hazy dawn that spills out of the window and into the room. We’re not yet accustomed to rising early and jetlag weighs our bodies down still.
The screeching fades to a distanced croak, as chickens stir the neighborhood house by house. Many households here own livestock. My aunt is likely seeing to hers now.
Ever the first to rise, she tends to chores before spending the rest of daylight at the coffee farm. She’ll feed the chickens and pigs, and leaf through the banana and dragon fruit trees for ripeness. She’ll sweep and do laundry if needed. A clothesline hangs in the balcony a couple yards outside of this room and I can hear the fabric of our clothes flutter in the wind.
I nearly mistake the gentle patter of my aunt’s feet for rainfall, a sound all too familiar by now. Rain and wind have swept through the city nearly every day since our arrival in June. In this corner of the world, the wettest months occur during the summer, the only time of year a trip like this is possible. Left with little opportunity to sightsee, we spend much of our time in the house. Listening to rain pound against the metal roof, a quick and steady cascade of watery bullets, and the wind howl angrily, threatening to pull trees from their roots and send them flying.
My mother hasn’t complained once, as she has little interest in being a tourist in her hometown. She’s here on a mission far grander than ours, to reunite with loved ones after a seven-year hiatus since she’s been in Vietnam. Soon, the gap between each of her visits will lengthen until she draws her last breath in her home country, without even knowing it’ll be her last. The thought that she’s lived in North Carolina longer than anywhere else feels unreal until I remember she was sixteen when she immigrated. Just sixteen. I turned eighteen last November.
In the room’s lone window, I count each drop of condensation resting on the glass. Note the gentle stillness in the fog. It’s as though the sky’s overslept and forgotten to let the sunshine in. Monsoon season takes every bit of tropical summer blue out of the sky and replaces it with a cloudy gray so light it might be confused for white. But I didn’t pack for monsoons. I packed for climbing luscious green mountains and stretching my body by the Pacific Ocean. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that my family doesn’t hike and that the closest beach is over one hundred miles away.
Rising from my mattress now, I press into its stiffness, hardly leaving a dent. How I miss the soft, doughy bed that awaits me back home. Also awaiting me (in no particular order): pepperoni pizza, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and a hot, steaming shower. Not even a week into the trip, I’d begun missing American minutia, like traffic rules and Target. My heart seems to yearn for something different every day. Today, I wish I could run into the kitchen to find a box of Smucker’s Uncrustables sitting in the freezer.
Not even a week into the trip, I’d begun missing American minutia, like traffic rules and Target.
I join my mother, uncle, aunt, and great aunt at the dining table. My sisters follow suit. We dive into a breakfast spread prepared by my aunt of Jasmine rice, fried eggs, and instant coffee. My three cousins, all boys, clamber toward the kitchen to eat, but mostly to watch YouTube videos and play combat games on their shared laptop. My family keeps the kitchen door wide open as an invitation for the air and any neighbors that want to stop by to say hello. And they do, they always do. They’ll pop their heads in with a smile on their faces. They’ll exchange produce and gossip with my family. The neighbors will catch sight of my mother and then me. It takes a moment, but soon they register that I’m the same girl who visited this town in 2000; the same girl with bowl-cut-bangs and a rotund honeydew melon belly who’s evolved into a leggy teenager with botched ombre hair. Sometimes they offer a story, a memory they have of me. I wish I could offer a memory in return.
In sixteen years, the distance between me and this country has only widened. I’ve no memory of my last trip here, when I was two-years-old and hardly able to stomach the new environment. I was sick nearly the entire trip, my parents recall each time it’s brought up in conversation. “And you cried a lot,” they’ll say. A stack of Kodaks memorializing this trip lay buried somewhere in my childhood home. Also buried are home videos my dad shot with a camcorder. How strange to develop memory through still images and shaky, grainy footage. Memory of me playing in the dirt with my cousins, me waddling in the park, me throwing a tantrum during a party.
Though I’ve aged, I feel just as uncertain of myself in this environment as I felt when I was a toddler. What’s changed is that I’m hyper-aware of my body, especially of the amount of space it takes up where it doesn’t belong. Everyone comments on my height. It’s a given. I tower at 5’7”, a sight to behold in this town. The leathery elder women are practically two-thirds my height. They stretch their ankles just to hold my face in their hands, to pinch my round cheeks and marvel at how much I’ve grown behind their backs.
This is my sisters’ first time in Vietnam. Everyone here has only seen them in photographs and is eager to meet them, anak Hloan. Hloan’s children. But my sisters cling to our mother whenever someone new approaches. They’ll shake the stranger’s hand, nod, and smile an awkward smile, which translates to I can’t understand you. Somehow they didn’t pick up our native languages as easily as my older sister and I. Perhaps it’s a product of being the youngest siblings in a set of four.
I’m conversationally fluent in Jarai, but my accent is a dead giveaway of my foreignness, my unbelongingness. Though I’m thankful I can lean on my mom for technical support, I’m annoyed when she apologizes on our behalf, as though we alone are to blame for our lack of fluency. I simmer smugly in the fact that I know three languages and my cousins only know two. My dad knows five, almost six, so he’s got me beat. I might be able to catch up if I minor in Spanish.
The pace here moves slower than it does at home.
The pace here moves slower than it does at home. My family is never in a rush for anything, not work, nor school, nor church. Our relatives and friends all live within walking distance. I have countless relatives. The only sister who can recall them each by name and association is my older sister, who’s travelled to Vietnam twice and has a naturally impeccable memory. She drew our family tree once and I puzzled over the lines that connected us to our first cousins once removed, second cousins, and onward. Long-time friends are considered family, too, making our family tree lines all the more jumbled and blurred. I default to calling everyone younger than me cousin and everyone older than me aunt/uncle or grandparent.
Each time I meet someone new, I preface my greeting with an apology.
Pap mnai, hlei anan ih?
I’m sorry, but what is your name?
I find myself apologizing frequently in Vietnam. Apologizing for the way my Jarai trips over my English, apologizing for mispronouncing words and requesting translation. Back home, I pride myself in knowing two languages outside of English, but here I’m ashamed of how my Americanness stands tall, how it’s the first trait people notice about me, how I can’t hide it.
Also standing tall: the language barrier between my family and the questions I crave answers to. Questions about the war, displacement, and what are they teaching in school these days? But my vocabulary is limited. I can ask where the bathroom is and what time church will end. And say that I’m eighteen-years-old, no, I don’t have a boyfriend, and yes, I’m hungry.
The easiest relationships to form are with children, some of whom I’m related to, most of whom I’m not. They frequent the house, sometimes accompanying their parents but usually not, to play games on our iPhones and eat our custard cream cakes. The most excitable of the bunch is Luan, my second cousin once removed and a spritely three-year-old. He calls me neh (aunt). His parents have enrolled him in English classes. He can say game, chicken, and “What’s your name?” This, I realize, is far more than I can say in Vietnamese.
My mom has told me my tongue isn’t made for Vietnamese, since I struggle to pronounce my aunt’s name, Ngan. (The ng can be tricky for non-native speakers.) This is a fair point, considering we’re not Vietnamese.
My grandmother ingrained in me the importance of asserting that my family is from Vietnam, not the United States, and that I am Montagnard, not Vietnamese. If someone at school asks, she would say, tell them exactly what I’ve told you. Since the term “Montagnard” was never defined for me, I had to seek the definition myself. Upon Googling it, I stumbled upon words like “ethnic minority” and “Indigenous.” This kicked me further down the rabbit hole, leaving me with more questions than answers.
I notice that when the children here roughhouse, an adult will chastise them to be still with a threat, a warning.
Ih ciang kâo eo Yuăn?
Do you want me to call the Vietnamese?
Yuan translates to Vietnamese, but can also refer to the police, the military, or the government. In our first week in Pleiku, I craned my neck from behind a wall to eavesdrop on the police speaking with my mother at the dining table. I couldn’t understand a word of their conversation, but I imagined he was asking her to state our business in the city and how long we’d be staying. Months later after doing my own research, I found that foreigners are required to undergo interrogation if they stay in the Central Highlands, where there lives a high concentration of Indigenous people. This is the price they’ve paid for protesting for land rights in the early 2000’s.
Another thing I wish I could ask my family about. But how do you say government, protest, and land rights in Jarai? And how do you ask important questions while avoiding retraumatization?
I don’t know which land is Jarai land. I wonder if all of Pleiku belonged to us at some point.
My aunt asks if we’re hungry seemingly every hour of every day. She is especially concerned for my sisters, whose palates are as American as apple pie. I’ll eat anything once. Our appetites for newness expand together when my aunt introduces us to fruit we’ve never tried before: dragon fruit, mangosteen, passionfruit. We enjoy more mango, young coconut, jackfruit, and durian than ever before because of its accessibility. Some of these fruits are impossible to find back home, while others are too costly. We eat dishes we don’t know the name for and scarf through bánh mì sandwiches from a street food vendor nearby. When I tell my aunt I’m craving baked goods, she obliges me by driving me to two bakeries in town. I come home with croissants and doughnuts.
Motorbikes are my favorite mode of transportation, I decide. The weather here is perfect for it, as long as it’s not pouring rain. I make every excuse to ride on the back of my aunt’s motorbike.
Can I pick up bánh mì with you?
Can we get chè thái?
Can we drive to Luan’s house?
On motorbike, I drink in the sight of Pleiku, the banana tree-lined dirt roads that harden into asphalt as we drive further into the city. The shops that display South Korean-inspired clothes. The many cafes and bakeries I might never try. The huge supermarket that boasts a Jollibee.
I envision myself driving a motorbike, but don’t dare attempt to. Motorcyclists can be reckless, the way they pick up speed to weave through traffic. Traffic rules seem to be arbitrary and there are no lanes to guide people. While my aunt isn’t speedy, she’s fast enough for my hair to form a mind of its own and for my skin to cool in the wind after baking in the sun.
The two months we spend in Vietnam are the longest I’ve been away from home. We FaceTime our family in Greensboro every chance we get and I make sure to see my American cousins, Sophia and Noah. They are two and one-years-old, respectively, and I live in constant fear that they’ll forget me. This fear magnifies when I realize my Vietnam cousins might forget me too. It feels inevitable. Their mushy brains can only house so much memory. I’ll be that relative their parents force them to speak with on the phone, that relative who comes home and says, “Remember me? I changed your diapers!” only to be met with glazed eyes and a pinched smile.
College awaits at the end of this trip and, consequently, so too does the rest of my life.
College awaits at the end of this trip and, consequently, so too does the rest of my life. The thought haunts me everyday, distracts me from the newness I’m constantly experiencing. While I’m excited for the world ahead, I also feel unready and unqualified. I crave nothing more than to press pause and live in this summer for an eternity. I’ll grin and bear the gloomy weather, as long as I can come home to my aunt’s cooking and my cousins yelling at their laptop screen. Then I’ll grab a stool and sit outside by my great aunt, whose voice sounds exactly like my grandmother’s, only softer, gentler. I call both women Yă, grandmother. I call most elder Jarai women Yă, as is culturally common. What a blessing to have an abundance of grandmothers.
The sun sets on our last day in Pleiku and we travel to the airport the following morning. Our whole family joins us. As we approach the terminal, I realize I don’t know how to say “I’ll miss you” or “I love you.” I tell my family back home I love them in English and vice versa. I can say “I like you,” but it certainly doesn’t carry the same weight as love.
How can I show my gratitude to the family who took me in for two months, to my aunt who ensured we were well-fed and to my cousins who sacrificed their bedroom for us?
We all exchange hugs. I give my small cousins, who might eventually forget my face, a particularly tight squeeze. As we move towards the ticket counter, Luan dashes to us, but he doesn’t make it far before his mother snatches him up. He tries to wiggle out of her arms, resembling a fish pulled out of water. The sight makes my heart ache and sing at once.
Once we are seated in the plane, I imagine my family resuming their lives where they left off. I’ll dream of fresh mango and mì quảng while my aunt busies herself with chores. We’ll FaceTime every major holiday. I’ll meet Luan’s baby sister through a screen. I’ll stumble through a sentence in Jarai and blame it on the Wi-Fi interference. I’ll ask how the weather is. Rainy, they’ll tell me
H’Abigail Mlo is a Montagnard American writer from Greensboro, North Carolina, and is currently based in Philadelphia. She co-founded Voices of the Highlands (Instagram: @voicesofthehighlands) and authored Yă’s Backyard Jungle, a children’s book, with Room to Read. She has a B.A. in Education from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is an FAO Schwarz Fellow at an environmental non-profit. You can find her on Twitter at @habigailx and in the real world at a thrift store or coffee shop.