Note: Thank you to Julia over at Project Yellow Dress for the motivation to write this piece!
In the picture, it’s winter, sometime in the mid-eighties. I’m wearing a white blouse with a holiday-ish green velvet dress over it. The dress has a small embroidered snowman patch on the front. I think maybe we are in the living room at my grandparents’ house, probably for a Christmas party with all the aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents on my dad’s side. The dining room table would be weighed down with dishes and dishes of traditional Vietnamese food, each one prepared by a different aunt and carefully transported over to share, potluck-style. In one corner of the dining room there are also plenty of two liter bottles of pop like RC or Schweppes ginger ale for the kids, and a few bags of Doritos, too.
I texted my sister to see if she wanted to visit my parents on Saturday. She replied that she had a baby shower to go to, but would I mind taking N for the day? So, nephew in tow, I made the 30 minute drive out to the suburbs. As usual, my mom ushered us into my childhood home, urging us to go wash our hands so we could eat lunch. Not long ago, I had mentioned to her that we hadn’t had her pork chops in a long time, the kind she served with cơm trộn – white rice mixed with drippings from the pan the pork chops cooked in. Of course, lunch that day was this exact dish, plus dessert consisting of homemade flan for me and a Häagen-Dazs bar for my nephew. After we were done eating, I wandered over to the calendar in the dining room, a Shutterfly-produced calendar I gave them for Christmas. In my mom’s neat italic handwriting, various doctor appointments and birthdays were marked. Although it was unmarked, I knew that the end of the month, April 30, is also the date that Saigon fell to the Việt Cộng. How long has it been? I asked my mom. Forty-two years, she replied promptly. As the date approached, she had also been thinking of the anniversary of Black April.
In the picture, my parents and brother are seated on the couch. I like how my mom is looking straight into the camera, a slight smile on her lips. Her expression is a bit like Mona Lisa’s. Ba is seated next to her, laughing at me as he helps me balance on my wobbly legs. My brother is leaning back on the couch, slightly behind my dad. Like my mom, he is looking into the camera as well, flashing the Vulcan sign for live long and prosper. As for me, I’m a bit cross-eyed as I look off into the distance, somewhere behind and to the right of the photographer.
Lately, it takes me a few moments to remember how old I am. I have to do the math in my head and remind myself of the date before I am sure (When’s my birthday again? Oh yeah.) I still see myself, sometimes, as the baby of the family. I think about how this picture, taken at a Christmas party at my grandparents’ house, is only possible because my parents left Vietnam in 1975, 42 years ago. I think about Star Trek, not the series with Spock, but The Next Generation, which I remember watching with my siblings as a kid. I have a vivid memory of the episode where the crew “devolves,” and having to watch through my fingers as Deanna Troi flails about in her steamy bathroom, having turned into some amphibious pre-Betazoid creature (meanwhile, one of my siblings probably turned to me and said absent-mindedly, “Are you scared? You shouldn’t be watching this…” And then left me to it).
Whether it was episodes of TNG, being able to introduce Heathers to my high school friends (about ten years after it was first released, and fifteen years before it would get a revival via Buzzfeed memes and an Off-Broadway musical), getting a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves as a Christmas present from my sister, or getting long-distance phone support for algebra, my siblings taught me how to navigate everything from pop culture to reproductive health and college applications.
How do I begin to count the things my parents have given me? There’s my language, first of all. I’m proud of the fact that I can converse with them in Vietnamese, even if I need to practice more and have trouble communicating with pretty much anyone outside the family. There’s my love of Tiger Balm and homemade ginger tea as a cure for an upset stomach. There’s our home that they helped us buy and fix up, from peeling off layers upon layers of wallpaper to tearing up carpet to laying down new flooring. These are all concrete things, that I can see, hear, touch, taste. But what about the things in between, the things that are off-camera? I feel an urgency to start cataloging it all, to bring a fresh notebook and digital recorder to every family lunch out in the suburbs.
When I look at the family photo with my parents and my brother, I feel an anxiety fueled by the times we are living in, which is only amped up by my parents’ frequent, morbid joking that we should visit them more often, because who knows how much longer they have to live? To cope, I laugh it off. I change the subject. I ask them if they’ve had lunch yet, and what they want to do for Mother’s Day. I ask them to tell me stories about growing up in Vietnam, and how they met. My mom tells me about the treats she used to get as a kid: They were just hard candy! We didn’t have chocolate, or caramel. But I loved them so much. I was overjoyed to get this candy and a little toy to play with. I record as much of this as I can with my voice memo app, before my iPhone tells me I don’t have enough storage space. I make a mental note to archive pictures of my cat elsewhere, so I can make room on my phone for my parents’ stories.
I found that picture of my parents, my brother, and me in one of the many faux leather bound photo albums in a closet at my parents’ house in the suburbs. It’s been scanned and uploaded to the cloud now. When I look at it, I pretend that my brother is actually trying to send us a message through time: Live long, and prosper.