In Vietnam I was too busy to care what I wore. In one photograph on the banks of a waterway, I am three and sit with my brother Chuong on a bench, my feet in the air. I am nearly falling off with laughter. In New Year’s pictures from each year of my toddler-hood I am posed in my Tet outfit, custom sewn to match those of one set of girl cousins or another – red polyester with blue polka-dotted patch pockets and sleeves one year, yellow pantsuit another year with large white daisy appliques. But I am turning my head this way or that, looking at something besides the camera, smiling or laughing.
I run everywhere, oblivious to the care my mother had taken to stock my wardrobe with the most expensive dresses and shoes. As soon as school lets out, I leap out of uniform and into loose and cottony house clothes, the cheap ones that we slept in. They are light on my limbs as I run. I run to my best friend Chau’s, house, down to the intersection and after a left turn. Without anything to alert her, Chau’s mother is waiting there in their foyer, cheerfully calling out my name and greeting me with a chair to sit in while she readies a basin and washes my feet, dusty and hot from the journey. I run across the road to the neighbor’s gate. They are richer and their house is set back much farther from the road. I climb the fence to reach the fruits growing in their yard and don’t get caught or yelled at every time. I run out our gate and in the opposite direction, away from the intersection, and the world grows gradually more exotic. The houses change to store fronts – convenience stores and lunch places where customers squat on small plastic chairs, palm readers, a pharmacy and an herbal shop, stores with unfamiliar meats hanging in the door frame – and the walkable street narrows and becomes dense with beggars – a blind man, a cripple, a leper with only one eye visible, and a man sitting with a long pipe and glazed eyes, old people with black teeth from the betel they chew and spit out. I smell steaming meat broth and incense and the faint stench of garbage, all marbled together. I run until I can’t hear the Vietnamese of my parents anymore, but only the syrupy, guttural drawl of Southern accents. The street people call to me, reaching out gingerly with gnarled fingers. There I would stop and wait for the moment when fascination just begins to turn to palpitations. And then I run home. My brothers are there waiting for me. Had they been watching? It would be a couple hours before my father came home, and more before my mother did.
My brothers make me run. They devise treasure hunts, with precise clues and instructions written on small scraps of paper that they fold and tuck into odd corners – solve an arithmetic problem, then take that many steps left, then right, look up, down, jump – and then they stand back and laugh as I scooted this way and that, in the house, out the house, down the alley, up the street, until I solve the mystery and end at the hiding place of a small packet of treats – dried shrimp or cuttlefish, three candies, sweet and salty dried plums, a homemade toy. Sometimes I hear the thwump-thwump-thwump beat of a helicopter’s propellers overhead as I play. As long as I stain only my house clothes, my mother does not care.
One afternoon at six years old, I run later than usual. I follow a dog or another interesting animal down the alley that framed one side of our house. The walls of other houses cast shadows, and make hollow echoes of even my light footsteps. This is where the bread cart must come each morning, hawking hot baguettes. The light changes pink-orange and I know my brothers are sitting down to dinner. But the alley keeps stretching away and bending enticingly. Just ten more feet and then I’ll turn around. Then around the next bend is a man, blocking the center of the alley. He is my father’s height and is wearing green and brown, with a round helmet almost obscuring his eyes, a thick belt with packets of something attached, and he is holding a gun, a long one, diagonally across his chest. The soldier leads me back to my house where my mother has me lay face down on her bed and whips me with chopsticks for disobeying curfew, until my father comes running at my screams and swoops me up in his arms.
Some afternoons and weekends someone drives me on motorbike to a cousin’s house. Some days they are cousins on my father’s side – older like my brothers, with my Ong Noi’s fine, sculpted features. They call me Mai Den, Black Mai, because of my careless, unladylike tan, and watch me climb all over the furniture. I boss them around. I eat snacks and watch my aunt chop meat in the kitchen to catch a spare morsel now and then, and then someone drives me home. Some days they are cousins on my mother’s side. They are three sisters, just older than me. Their bedroom looks out onto a dark courtyard crisscrossed with lines of hanging laundry. They share a large bed. We lie in it as they teach me songs and we play pretend games.
Once or twice a month, we get in the old red sedan and drive to Ba Ngoai’s house. She is my mother’s mother. We head to the edge of the city. Past the crowded row houses, we hurtle down a long dirt road. There is a cemetery on one side of the road, and I hold my breath and duck my head down beneath the rim of the car’s windows until we pass it. At a corner where the road turns, we pull up to Ba Ngoai’s gate. My mother nudges me as I linger outside the car, looking at women squatting on the other side of the road. They are sitting next to large cauldrons of steaming soup, in which I can see knuckles of gelatinous meat. Those are human fingers! my great-aunt whispered to me with a straight face, That’s what happens to children who run away from home and get lost! I quickly scoot inside the gate. My grandmother’s house is yellow and elegant. The black iron gate opens inward onto a patio and side garden, where banana plants and short palms sway high above my head. We take family photos at Tet on the patio. Through the patio door is her living room, where there is a sofa we are not supposed to sit on, and polished arm chairs of carved, tropical wood. Small bowls on a table with inlaid mother-of-pearl offer roasted pumpkin seeds, crystallized papaya and coconut. Ba Ngoai is sedate and immaculately dressed in her ao giai, a strand of pearls at her throat. She is not beautiful, but looks like Buddha, her face unfurrowed and her standing body the shape of an almond with its hair in a bun at the top, generous tummy and small feet. My cousins and I swarm all over her house until after dinner, and then we drive home.
In the summertime we sometimes drive farther, to a crowded beach. We change into bathing suits and sit in a row on the towels while my mother smears Vaseline over our limbs and backs and faces as sun screen. We spend the day running in and out of the salt water foam and picnicking, then drive home. A day or two later, we sit in a line, railroad style, and take turns peeling sunburnt skin off each other’s backs. We have a contest to see who can get the largest piece.
At night I climb to the second floor where a single large room holds two beds and a black and white television. There is usually news on the television for half the day; the other half of the day there is static. One bed is for my two older brothers, the other is for me, the baby, and the housekeeper to share. Each bed has a rectangular canopy from which mosquito netting hangs on all four sides, curtaining everything inside behind white gauze. I have plenty of room in the bed to roll around, and two pillows – one rectangle for my head, and one hot dog pillow almost the length of my body, to wrap my arms and legs around. The baby sucks on the corner of his pillows.
My older brothers are busy in their bed for longer than we are. Sometimes, after the housekeeper is asleep, one of them sneaks over to my bed and beckons with a crook of his finger. I duck under the mosquito netting and tip toe with him back to their bed. The floor is enormously wide and the room is black. I lie between them, propped up on pillows. In front of my knees, they have somehow hung a bed sheet as a projection screen. They switch on a flashlight behind it and the show begins. They take turns making hand shadows – a herd of galloping horses, birds of prey swooping up and down, rabbits and barking dogs, two boxers sparring – and narrating the improbable story lines. The shadows growl, and the screen stretches to the periphery of my vision. I am breathless. When the show is over, I beg for more and get a short encore. Then their hands tire. I tip toe back to my bed and fall in.
In the morning if I rise before it is time for breakfast, I open the doors from our bedroom to the balcony, and go outside to watch the neighborhood wake up. I am careful to rub all the crud from my eyes. My great aunt also told me that those were flies’ eggs, and that if I didn’t clean them out I would have maggots growing on my face.
The only place I don’t run is at school. At first grade, I am in a private school, one of the most exclusive girls’ schools in the city, I later learn. The headmistress is very tall and has a small bun at the nape of her neck. We call her Madame. I wear a short sleeved dress uniform, and sit in a row of small desks, halfway back in the room. Everyone gets into trouble eventually and the teacher metes out swift discipline. Sometimes it is a ruler on my hand, sometimes I have to kneel on the floor next to my desk. I am a good student, not the best, not the worst, a comfortable place to be. I learn how to write in cursive the Vietnamese way, with a “p” that doesn’t close at the bottom but instead looks like a long-legged “n.”
“What did your parents tell you about the war?” Blue asked.
I looked at him blankly.
“You saw a soldier in the alley. You broke curfew,” he nudged.
“But then he took me home and everything was fine,” I said. I didn’t understand what he wanted.
“What did you think the helicopters were doing overhead? Did you hear reports about the fighting on television?” he pressed.
I shook my head. I was sure I had not. They did not teach about current events or history in first grade, and neither did my parents.