The Boat People (Chapter 5)

After the intruder crept across our roof, Father became obsessed with protecting the house. Before we left for our trip, he nailed shut every window and door from the inside. His zealous hammering almost accidentally locked us inside. I wondered why we were still leaving if he was so certain that our escape was going to fail. When we finally boarded the bus to leave for Saigon, Father was distracted and annoyed the entire trip. His jaws were locked in a permanent grimace, which only made all of us worry even more than we already were.

We arrived at the meeting place the next day before dawn and stood on the sidewalk for what felt like three months. It exhausted me. The arches in my feet ached from having to hold up the weight of my body for such an unnatural amount of time. My head and shoulders were weary from trying to hide the humiliation of having to stand at the street corner, but I was told over and over again to be patient. If there was a slight chance that what we were waiting for was coming, it would change our lives forever. It was worth all that we had to bear.

However, I was soft; and the waiting was more than I could handle. I felt pain everywhere; it consumed my body until I could no longer think of anything else. I was convinced that the people walking by could see right through the indignity that I was hiding. The aftertaste of shame lingered as my family and I privately nurtured our own share of it inside our otherwise empty stomachs. Our private humiliation spawned a solid offspring that sat inside each of us—a heavy burden that prevented us from meeting the gawking eyes of passing strangers.

The only good thing about the insistent rain pounding on top of my head was that it kept the sun from peeking through to make us even more uncomfortable. When the sun heated up the city, the stench of baked garbage, pee, and rotten food permeated through the air to overwhelm my senses, forcing me to breathe through my mouth just to keep from vomiting. I preferred the rain.

As we stood there, one day melted into another. Every morning we arrived before dawn to huddle together on the foul smelling corner with no street names. Then every evening, long after night had covered our heads, we gathered our things and went to my aunt’s house for sleep.

After a few days of waiting, my sisters and mother were more relaxed due to fatigue and hunger. They didn’t look at him anymore, but I did. As I watched Father, careful not to make eye contact for it was a sign of disrespect that would not go unnoticed at a time when respect was sorely needed, I could see him also struggling to hold up his head. The impending sense of hopelessness was all around us.

I guessed what he must have been thinking; we were all thinking it, though we didn’t dare say it aloud. Was it desperation, was it pride, or was it just pure stubbornness that caused Father to insist that we continue to stay and wait? I would never know his reasons; but his will was ours, as it always was, and so we stayed. All five of us, out of place, wasting away under the street lamp like discarded furniture. We were the leftover members of a society that no longer existed under the new way of life. It seemed to my parents that things changed overnight, and they did not know how to cope. We were unrecognizable even to ourselves.

Standing there with nothing to do but think, I was encountering emotions that I wasn’t accustomed to feeling: indignant, ignorant, poor, duped, lost, insignificant. I couldn’t comprehend them fully, which brought about a sense of frustration that made me want to yank my hair out, just to have a reason to scream. The sweaty purple, nylon, cut-off shorts, which Father always so adamantly insisted that I wear whenever we went somewhere important, made me itch in places that I shouldn’t scratch in public. The shorts always embarrassed me. They made me look like a boy. No one else wore cut-off shorts. They were dated and unflattering. Plus the material trapped in all the heat and sweat, which made it impossible for my skin to breathe, making me reek of foul body odor. A girl should never have to wear something that made her look bad and smell even worse, but there was no way I could have told Father that.

The sun reflecting off the ground made me thirsty and dizzy. I was so uncomfortable inside my own skin that I began to imagine myself exploding into a million little pieces of red firecracker paper. Then ripping off my limbs, throwing them into the gutter, and rolling my body back and forth on the sidewalk until all the itching went away. My eyes began to swell for reasons I couldn’t articulate, but the shame of it stopped me before Father could catch my tears.

“Weak is a man ruled by his emotions,” was what Father told me the last time I cried while being punished. I didn’t cry in front of him anymore.

Each evening, the sun went back down; the streetlights flickered slowly, from red to orange to yellow. We all let out a small sign of relief. It was easier to lie to ourselves in the darkness. The streetlights illuminated the creases on Father’s face, where I could see signs of breaking in his grimace. There was a weakness there that I was not accustomed to seeing, and I secretly wished that I could bear the burden for him. He was proud; I knew it well. Though I, too, was proud, my pride had not had time to age like his, a dry Chardonnay in cherry oak barrels, fermenting and aging deliberately until it reached its brut nature. It would be less bruising for me to take the fall, but I was helpless. I was only a child and only a girl. Girls weren’t good for much, according to Father. What could I possibly do? I wished desperately that I were born the boy that he had wanted. If I were a boy, I would be able to stand in his place, to look him in the eyes, to command respect, and to help him protect his family.

It would be years before I could fully comprehend Father’s ability to take the bruising. How much carnage his ego had endured: growing up in a powerful, demanding, loveless family; attending school in a foreign country by himself; fighting in a losing war; participating in hand-to-hand combat; and being imprisoned in a concentration camp. All of which led him here, on a corner where he must put his entire life in the hands of strangers who were failing to keep their word. What kind of man would Father become as a result of it all? The only thing I knew at the moment was that I was touched and blinded by the small traces of vulnerability that I saw in him. It made me love him. It made me wish that I knew how to be heroic.

­­­­­­­­­There were discussions, expressions of doubts, during the first two days that we were there.

“Maybe we are at the wrong location,” Mother suggested.

She had a way of making her suggestions sound like accusations. “You did this to me,” was what she was actually saying. “All my friends are going to laugh at me when I have to go back home yet one more time because you failed us,” was what she was thinking. Mother was accustomed to certain things.  The war had taken from her more than it did any of us; it took from her the only kind of life she knew how to live.

Mother grew up as the eldest in a wealthy household. She wore the most fashionable clothes from Paris. She lived in a mansion, went to a French school, and spent summers away at exotic beach houses. Then when she had babies, there were nannies to care for them. With everything she had disappearing in one heartbeat, she was not equipped to live a life without entitlement and luxuries. As a result, Mother had become a victim of public opinion, worrying too much about what others might have said and thought about her fall. She was unable to comprehend that everyone else also had to pick him or herself off the ground. Nevertheless, she lived and breathed to keep up the facade. She was the last generation of the high society wife, always made-up, always perfect, always proper, but no longer with anywhere to go. The war took everything from her, and her young family provided her with no solace. Sometimes I felt sorry for her. Through my young eyes, she exuded weakness, a lack of self-sufficiency that I vowed would never happen to me. Mother was lost.

Father had grown accustomed to her silent speeches made with a subtle disapproving tone of voice and well-trained facial expressions. It had become a tango between them, passionate, yet controlled like the dance. There were only two responses that her speech could extract from Father: an all out, sudden eruption of anger, which would have forced Mother to retreat; or just cold silence, which would have encouraged her to move forward.

Like a snake, Father waited, ignoring the mouse just long enough to let the prey think that it was safe. Then he seized and devoured everything. However, Mother had chosen her battleground well that time. With so many strangers’ eyes upon him, Father was constrained by his need to keep his composure in check, which forced him to remain silent. Encouraged by Mother’s audacity and Father’s absence of anger, my sisters decided to add their own sentiments about the predicament that we were facing.

“It’s too late,” April whined with her high-pitch voice. “Everybody’s already left without us. We should just go home.”

“You never asked us if we wanted to come,” June added. “There’s no reason for us to stay here. We should go home. We already missed so much of school.”

They finally had a chance to speak up, and they took the opportunity. There were very few opportunities to express our true feelings without having to suffer harsh consequences. My sisters were teenagers with boyfriends at home to kiss, friends with whom to gossip, and social events to sneak off to. Standing there was making them miss out on all that living.

I could almost feel the steam rising from Father’s head, as he stood perfectly still, with eyes looking straight ahead. I could always recognize the signs of stress and emotions going awry. His face tightened without moving, yet he continued his eerie silence. His gaze was fixed on a woman across the street who was breastfeeding her infant.

“For her sake, I hope that child doesn’t grow up to be as ungrateful as mine. Insolent, all of you!” He ground out his words as if they were tough, raw meat and he was a lion on a feeding frenzy.

Silence followed. That was all he needed to say for us to understand that it was time for everyone to shut up.

My sisters, mother, and I let out the collective breath that we had all been holding since Father started talking, relieved and grateful that he had chosen to be brief and merciful. We had each been made painfully aware of his anger. Once released, it sought and destroyed everyone in its path, not just the one who had set it free. Even I—his youngest, his favorite child, the only one he still loved—had been ill-fated enough to get caught up in the whirlwinds, forced to conceal secret battle scars of my own under all the layers of sadness. Despite what he preached about having control over one’s emotions, anger was one of many emotions to which Father was a slave. We learned to pick our battles and rejoiced at even the smallest of victories. He had made practical soldiers out of us all. We lost sight of the war a long time ago; only the small victories were what kept us going.

That small victory had taken place five days earlier. There were no more conversations between us as we continued to wait. We had spent so many days on the corner that I was starting to recognize the locals and their routines. Father was no longer patient; silence was the only thing he was willing to accept. We were each forced to withdraw into our own heads, counting the seconds to when we could get out of the rain and sit down again. Father did not raise girls who sat on the curb like common street people and prostitutes, so we stood. We stood; and we focused on keeping our backs straight, our heads up, and our noses down at the people walking by staring at us like monkeys in a cage.

The rain had not let up in three days. My black, rubber boots were overflowing with water; my feet were two overripe durian fruits, wrinkled and smelly inside. Despite it all, I still liked my boots. Father purchased them for me at the “black market” to wear especially on that trip. Even though it looked as if we weren’t going anywhere, as a consolation prize for waiting and being an obedient daughter, he had allowed me to take them out of my tightly packed bag three days ago to put them on my blistered feet.

“In America, the children wear these outside their socks and shoes to protect their feet from getting wet,” Father said, laughing at me as I tried to walk with my sandals inside the boots that were too big for me.

Father learned about America while getting his medical training in Texas. He spoke English and French fluently. I found out very early in life that it was always the intelligent, well-educated men in my life, men like Father and his father, who were capable of absolute cruelty. However, before I realized that strength and cruelty were two different things entirely, I dreamed of being strong and educated like Father.

It distressed me greatly that I was already off to a bad start. I hated kindergarten. I hated sitting down to learn about simple things all day long that should only take an hour to understand. I had also been to English school off and on; except it was a futile attempt because I was lazy and couldn’t concentrate. April told me that I was going to be stupid when I grew up because I never wanted to study or read. I thought that she had already grown up to be pretty stupid, since she kept reading to me just because I told her to do so. I didn’t say anything. Sometimes getting the last word was not necessary for me to feel the power that I possessed. I liked things the way they were, with my taking advantage of her. I didn’t feel the need to let her in on it. Father had taught me that sometimes more power could be derived from silence than words.

The only thing that any of us knew about America was from what Father had told us and what he showed us in his old books and magazines. Father was determined to get to America whichever way he could. The people we were waiting for were supposed to pick us up and take us to a small fishing village where we were to board a fishing boat down the delta and out to the ocean. The rainy season had caused severe flooding, which was why Father bought me the rubber boots, to keep my feet dry and leech-free. Once we arrived in America, he promised to buy me shoes and socks that I could wear inside my boots instead of the sandals that slipped and slid, making me walk like a drunken person.

The people we had been waiting for had not arrived, and there had been no word from them. The only thing that we could do was to be patient and remain hopeful. The alternative was just too painful to consider.

“We have to get away from here, away from all the intrusion. I can’t live another day with their watching me. No one can make anything out of himself here. This government strips proud men of their honor,” Father said.

I let my father’s words mold and shape me.

 

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First published in Little Sister Left Behind

Copyright © 2007 by ​Samantha Lê
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, without the prior written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, please use the contact form.

The Bridge (Chapter 2)

I was the third and last girl in a family that already had too many girls. After years of trying for a son, as a last resort, my parents took a trip to a mystical cave to pray for conception. When their prayer was finally granted, it arrived only half answered. What did they need with yet another girl? Everyone was waiting for a boy. What they ended up with instead was a tomboy, which was almost the same, yet still quite inadequate.

Father was armed with his own plan: If nature wasn’t going to give him a boy, then he was just going to make one out of what he received. Father constantly made efforts to turn me into someone I wasn’t, insisting on the clothes that I wore, choosing the toys with which I played, and selecting the lessons I learned. However, despite his training, in the end, I was still only a more boyish version of a mixed-up girl.

Mother, however, was heartbroken. It was a cruel, cosmic joke that became the top story at many social gatherings. Everyone whom she told the story to understood her disappointment, and Mother spoke about it often.

I became his favorite. Father, with his many conflicting messages, proclaimed me a princess and vainly gave me the name of a famous one who lived in our country’s legends. However, I was not to be a regular princess. There was no ballroom dancing, prince charming, or extravagant dresses with a flowing train for me. According to Father, my namesake sacrificed her happiness and freedom in order to marry a king from a foreign sovereign in order to keep peace between the two warring neighbors. Even though her heart already belonged to a general in her father’s army, the princess heeded the call to duty for her country and for her father. Then, in a cruel twist of fate, her new husband died shortly after their nuptials, leaving her unprotected in the new kingdom. Per tradition, the queen was to be buried alive with her king, along with all his other possessions. Fortunately, the general arrived in time to save her and took her home to her father. Then the general invaded the foreign sovereign, now weak without a king, and made it part of Vietnam. The princess was considered a good daughter whose example Father expected for me to follow. Was I also expected to willingly die for him? Did Father only think of me as a possession to be traded and sacrificed to acquire other properties?  There were many questions that were never asked.

Did the princess and her general live happily ever after together? I didn’t know. Her story ended when she was saved, and the foreign sovereign was conquered.

I never thought to ask about happiness. That idea had never even occurred to me until much later when I began to read Western fairy tales. It was enough for me that she was not buried alive. Being able to live happily ever after was a luxury not afforded to this Vietnamese princess.

This was how the story was told to me over and over again, always as a lesson of duty and responsibility, and most importantly as a reminder to always obey my father. I often wondered why Father would name me after someone with such a tormented fate. Did he mean for it to be a lesson that would last me a lifetime?

Mother disagreed with Father’s choice for my name, so everyone ended up calling me by my nickname, Summer. I made them wait till summer, even though I was expected in spring; and that was Mother’s simple reasoning for it. Except my nickname didn’t mean the same to me as it did to everyone else. Every time someone called me Summer, my mind immediately went to stories of the “Red Summer,” when the country burned and bled an entire season red. It was during this summer that Father fought in one of the last major battles of his military career. Father spoke little about what he had done in the war, but the silence between his words spoke more about his pain and fears than any word could express.

My family’s experience of the war didn’t include me, which was why I developed a morbid curiosity for it. I wanted to be a part of my family’s history, but there were so much time and so many events that stood between them and me. I was born just at the tail of the war, so I only know of the aftermath. Loss—loss of loved ones, of pride, of limbs, of possessions, and of country—was what I associated with it. I hung on to every drop of information that splattered my way. Father’s stories came alive for me on dark nights, as I tried to imagine, with a child’s eyes, the anguish he suffered. Inside of me, war was still romantic. It was a place where heroes were made, and history was born.

The town where I lived was only famous for two things that I could remember: rice paper wraps and a special pork noodle soup. The heavy fighting never reached this far south, but still the effects of it were written on the bodies of the people and on the face of the landscape.

Built around the interstate, a paved, narrow, two-lane road without a center divider, which was constructed by the French during their occupation of Indo-China, the town was unpretentious, agonizingly simple, and pitch black at night.

All businesses and life were formed around the interstate that coiled around us like a giant python. The farther people were from it, the poorer they tended to be. Money was still a rare and unreliable commodity, only reaching the homes along the road. Most of the people who lived in the farther regions had to brave slippery, muddy roads alongside steep riverbanks for many miles just to reach the central area where they could sell what they had grown and purchase what they needed.

The courtyard at the front of our house was only separated from the interstate by a small canal. The canal was dug for use in irrigation when the house was built, but its purpose had long been abandoned. Poorly constructed houses had replaced most of the vegetation in the front, so the canal only served as a way for the floodwater to overflow into our yard during the rainy seasons. It also became mainly used as a place for people who couldn’t afford to have water delivered to their houses to wash and bathe and a place for mosquitoes to congregate. During the years when the rain was especially plenty, the water would rise and creep into our house, bringing with it leeches, water snakes, tiny schools of fish, and sewage.

Based on our location from the interstate and the type of house we lived in when compared to the others around us, there was a façade of money and wealth. However, as with all facades, the truth that lay behind it was always murky with complexities. As rich and powerful as my family once was before the war, all that money and power belonged to my grandparents; and everything was destroyed or confiscated by the new government. To the victor went the spoils. Such was the fact of life and war, despite the politics.

My parents had very little. The house we lived in was a rental. When Father was away at concentration camp, Mother, my sisters June and April, and I ate small over-salted fish with bones that stuck in my throat, choking the air out of my young lungs. Smaller was cheaper, and the saltier it was the less of it we could eat; so Mother bought the cheapest ones and was always generous with the salt and fish sauce. While our stomachs were empty, our limbs were also poorly covered. We wore clothes with just as many patches on them as the peasant children; but unaccustomed to poverty, the hole in our clothes revealed much whiter and softer skin that was more easily damaged by the elements.

When Father finally returned from concentration camp, we were relieved, despite the fact that he brought back with him a whole new level of rage. All the positions in the hospital where he worked before being taken away were already given to the communist doctors who came in from the North. He was left with nothing and had to begin again. He started his own practice in a nearby town where he worked in the morning. In the afternoon, he alternated his time between two clinics in neighboring rural parishes where there weren’t any doctors. His jobs took him away from us for most of the day, but they provided the family with some financial relief. However, most of Father’s patients were poor. Many couldn’t afford to pay him with money, which was the one thing we desperately needed. We were still very far from being wealthy, but the meals at dinner were still much better than previous ones we ate. It made it easier to go on pretending that things weren’t so bad. The lies helped the hunger subside.

Father was one of the lucky ones. His reeducation period at the concentration camp lasted only two years, a much shorter time than other men with his same military background and family connections. The anonymity of the small town did a lot to save Father from what both my grandfathers went through in other camps, since they both held public offices and were both well known.

When Mother became pregnant with me, approximately two years before the end of the war, Father moved our entire family to Sadec. Shortly after, he left the military and joined us. He began working at the hospital in town, where he established a name for himself. When Saigon fell and the helicopters took off from the rooftops with our relatives in them, my grandparents on both sides decided to stay. As the eldest son, Father also stayed; so we all stayed. On that last day, Father rode home to us from Saigon on his motorcycle, after saying goodbye to his siblings. As he rode, he littered the interstate with torn-up pieces of our family photos. Everything that tied us to the life we had before was discarded into the wind. When he arrived in town, he immediately sold the motorcycle and purchased a less expensive scooter in order to appear more humble.

Father went away after my first birthday and didn’t return until I was three. We visited him often, but his presence from the other side of the fence was not strong enough to reach me. We remained strangers until he returned from the concentration camp.

listtel-sister_left_behind_web

First published in Little Sister Left Behind

Copyright © 2007 by ​Samantha Lê
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form, without the prior written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, please use the contact form.