She used a certain vocabulary to tell her stories.
I did not understand their precise meaning, but became familiar with their sounds. Whispers of the past professed through stories of struggle and sacrifice.
The words were fragmented totems—heavy with a metaphysics of meaning and untranslatable into the American English of my suburban childhood realities. I held the totems in my hands, ran my fingers along their textures, and carefully placed them in my treasure chest.
The words represented my mother’s life. Each word embodied tales of worlds past, dreams lost, the impossible overcome.
I blink and the scene transforms. My father stands stiff and upright, hands in the air still clutching a cloth. No longer alone, he is surrounded by a darkness I do not comprehend.
23:03 Ba / Take 1
My brother pauses the scene and replays it again and again. My well-trained brain quiets my pounding heart with a categorical logic of explanation: three masked figures, armed robbery, Thursday night.
23:03 Ba / Take 2
My mind floats faraway, falling into a fantastical rendition of sounds, colors, abstractions of the surveillance scene. From an aerial distance I hear my father humming sweetly while cleaning the machines. A sudden crescendo and abrupt silence. Hurried steps, a gasp, muffled commands to hand over the money.
October 10, 2008
Yesterday, my history professor ordered me to stay after class and then apologized to me.
“We are sorry for everything that we did. Vietnam was such a beautiful place with beautiful people.”
I shifted awkwardly, unsure if this was the beginning or the end of the conversation. I adjusted my backpack bringing it up to my tense shoulders. Not sure of what else to do with my hands, I touched the split ends of my hair. I folded the corner of my final exam booklet back and forth, creasing the edge between my sweaty fingers until it ripped off.
I nodded slowly and mouthed goodbye to the last student filing out of the classroom. “You know, Vietnam was my home. I knew immediately on the first day my boots touched that red earth. I was just a little over 20, but I knew that Vietnam would change me forever.”
So this is the sound of my voice
if I, your mother, were to speak to you, my child.
Nhưng tại sao tiếng mẹ nghe lạ quá vậy?
You translated me.
Rendered me visible, comprehensible, communicable
outside of that time and place where no words were exchanged,
only faraway glances, tensed shoulders, and clenched fists.
Gestures imbued with meaning: disappointment, guilt, exasperation.
I never questioned if I was ‘fluent’ in English or Vietnamese. Until that stale suburban afternoon during my third grade parent-teacher conference, when my mom screeched “My children talk English good! She not ESL. She do good job in school.”
I remember it very clearly as a screech because all the little hairs along the back of my neck stood on end. I replayed in my head not what my mother said, but how she said it. I wanted her to stop speaking, because it resembled the scratching of distorted static—the slow undoing of velcro shoes (something I yearned for) during Catholic confession (something I feared). She sounded foreign, bizarre, comedic even. That day I learned that the English language could be something called ‘broken.’ And for the first time I was embarrassed of my mom.
Liberation was a sound
repeated, whispered echoes
to cleanse and empty
the evils of the past,
the errors of the past
the past, the past, the past.
Ngày xưa, ngày xưa, ngày xưa.