The first thing I knew about my father was that he was a teacher. He was a teacher in Saigon, a teacher within less than a year of arriving in Philadelphia, a teacher until he retired eleven years ago, before his last grandchild was born. In a photograph from the early 1980’s, he stands in front of the blackboard in a powder blue suit with wide lapels, black hair slicked back from his bald spot, eyes and face wide open, gesturing with his left hand to the intensely orange persimmon held up in his right hand. It was a class of English as a second language (ESL), because that is what he spent most of his time teaching, and because it’s the type of class where you are most likely to need to demonstrate with a fruit so strange to native English speakers and so familiar to his Asian students.
In America, teacher minds children while the parents work. In Philadelphia’s majority-black public school system, Teacher was expected to get herds of thirty or more through the day, lurching in as orderly a manner as possible from one forty-five minute period to the next. Teacher was not expected to be particularly cheerful or to perform outside the confines of his or her daytime duties, but was expected to join the union and live by its rules and hierarchy. In this way, Teacher could hope to earn a generous salary and pension, as well as other small perks, some official and some less so, such as bends around rules so that one’s daughter could attend a magnet school outside of her neighborhood.
In Vietnam, parents carefully hand children over to Thay giao or Co giao. Each Thay has a nuanced reputation – for the rigor of his or her exercises, demeanor, area of expertise, philosophy of life. This one might be a traditionalist. That one may have written his own text book. Thay could never survive on salary alone, so parents pay extra to make sure that their children get just the Thay that they need. They teach their children to shower respectful adoration on Thay, to bow upon coming and going, to send long, regular letters after graduation. On Teacher’s Day each spring, the country stops for a convulsive rite — children carry impossibly large bouquets of flowers to their favorite Thay’s houses, until the foyers of those homes are buried under a floral carpet and muggy with the scent of lilies and mums; grown men and women drive on motorbikes for tens or scores of miles to other cities if necessary to visit a former Thay; they plan large parties at dusk in beer gardens to fete Thay. Some Thay will receive much more attention than others. Each year, a hundred or more people die from traffic accidents on their way to visit Thay.
In the ghetto high school where he taught ESL to a rapidly growing community of immigrant Asian children from Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia, my father was priest, social worker, and family attorney. In 1975 and again after the first waves of boat people arrived in the 1980’s, I spent weekends helping him organize used pots and pans and other household items into paper shopping bags, and used clothes into sacks, then tagging along awkwardly in the station wagon as he drove down to South and West Philly and dropped the bundles at individual row houses for newly arrived families. He helped the parents with legal paperwork, and tracked the students having the roughest transitions, usually teenage boys. At night, he did extra tutoring. And when we visited the Vietnamese congregation every third Sunday or so, the priest would greet him at the door with both hands and walk us to a pew of honor near the front.
In third grade, when I refused to accept on faith that any number divided into zero equals zero, he sat down after dinner to show me the proof, the tip of his pencil waving hypnotically above the paper with little flourishes after each number. He would not be rushed through the logic. He explained the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to me in a grand sweep from World War II to the 1969 war. He found American mythology deeply resonant, and told me that he had cried when John Kennedy was killed. But when I asked him about the war in Vietnam, his answers were vague and brief, sometimes devolving into sudden silence.
Around Americans, my father did not seem professorial. He had lost some hearing from all the bombing during the war, and so spoke a little too loudly with an occasional, unpredictable burst of laughter. I compensated by speaking very softly around guests. He commented rather than make small talk, eager to find a laugh line or to too quickly change the topic to things he was more comfortable with.
My parents and most of their friends had a deep mistrust and fear of black people, although anyone not Vietnamese was considered an Other. My father had a long running dispute with our black neighbors, caused in part by the wayward eating habits of our pet guinea pigs, though I could not understand why something so small as the condition of a lawn made my father so defensive and angry. But when I turned nine, he decided that it would be good for me to sing in a choir. He prodded me to sit in with the choir at the Vietnamese congregation, but he gave up when it became clear I couldn’t read the lyrics fast enough to keep up, and I had nothing to say to the other kids when the singing stopped. So instead he walked me east a few blocks on Mt. Airy Avenue one afternoon to a small Baptist church, and there he deposited me with six little black girls and the choir director. Everyone was rounder than me, with fuller lips and bigger voices, and hips with a life of their own. I lasted the whole season there. And until I landed in Boston for college, I believed that the entire world was majority black.
My father is a staunch Republican. He is violently anti-Communist and would have voted eight times for Reagan if allowed. His American friends assumed this was because of his family history. But he loved Jeffersonian democracy and the promise of opportunity for self betterment, not the welfare state. Until he retired, he never held fewer than three jobs at a time. And he was scornful of the union that represented him. When I was in junior high school, the Philadelphia teachers’ union went on strike three years in a row, twice causing delays of weeks to the start of the school year. My father was furious. Not only was he idled against his will and better judgment (he did not think that most of his colleagues deserved the salary and benefits that they got), but neither were his two younger children getting an education. On that he was wrong. One evening deep into a strike he came home from a union meeting with a face full of fury, tumult, and fear. What happened, Bo? I asked. He had stood up during the meeting to urge them to end the strike, lecturing that their demands were unreasonable and enough was enough. Do you know what it’s like to stand up and be booed by a thousand people? he asked me. No, I thought, I don’t, but it seems worth doing.
He had a different reaction when it was my turn to stand up. When I was newspaper editor in high school and wanted to devote a special issue to the stories of refugee boat children, I showed him the mock-up of the layout for the issue. He was not pleased as I hoped he would be. Be careful, he said ominously, Politics is dangerous. Your Ong Ngoai was a politician, and he was killed. His brother was a scientist, and he lived. He was equally uninterested during medical school, when I organized a teach-in with police officers, social workers, and pediatricians for us to learn how to detect and report child abuse. He asked me nothing about it, but a few weeks later, I saw that he had taken some of the meeting brochures to use as scrap paper.
My father was full of other internal wars of which I could gather only indirect evidence. He rarely lost his temper or raised his voice at us. Instead, distress for him usually translated into the abrupt loss of his smile, tense pacing around the discolored beige carpet in the dining room, and long, far off stares that pierced through time and space to shadows he was intent on keeping buried, like something locked in the cupboard. One day I sat in his bedroom, leafing through old photo albums, when I came upon a faded color photograph of what I thought was him in olive green combat fatigues, crouched and smiling with a helmet on and a rifle perched vertically beside his knee. When I asked him about it, he said in an unusually sharp tone that the picture was not of him. I went back the next day to look at the photograph again, but could not find it, and haven’t since.
His waking life was punctuated by startling impulses. In the middle of his carpet pacing, he would occasionally declare, Ping-y! loudly enough to make me jump, and then resume his far away stare, having vented some excess load of frustration or shame or fright. He planned all of our family vacations, often choosing what seemed random destinations hundreds of miles away like Luray Caverns or Niagara Falls, with little forewarning. The rest of us were never as excited to be in the car together for that long, or to pose with forced smiles for the endless pictures he wanted to snap in front of pretty scenery. At home, his acting out resulted in our sometimes waking up to find that an entire nine-foot wide lilac bush in the garden had been chopped to the roots, or an impulsive purchase of a large copper fish sculpture hung on the dining room wall. These sudden movements drove my mother to fits, but we children learned to suppress our startled expressions and duck until the storm passed.
His Catholicism deepened over time, especially in retirement and long after he had given up bringing his children to services. He fretted over David’s imperfections but never questioned that that was my life mate. On my wedding day, he wandered around his bedroom where I was putting on make-up and waiting for my mother to pin on a traditional bridal headdress of coiled pink brocade, and nervously fiddled with the bedding. At least I had you baptized, he said half out loud, so I know you won’t go to hell. He meant, for marrying a Jew.
He did not interfere when my mother ordered me, but not my brothers, to help with grocery shopping, vacuuming or dusting the house, laundry, or preparing tea for guests. And I could feel him agreeing with her increasingly shrill anxiety that I could not keep up with my girl cousins’ sense of fashion, and was devolving into a sad, unpolished and introverted shadow. But he indulged my whim for an expensive Vietnamese zither, sent me off to sleep away science camp, bought me a used Encyclopedia set, stopped my mother if she complained that I spent too much time reading, and when I opened the acceptance letter from Harvard, he decided in that moment to pay whatever was necessary (and several times more than he had to pay for my brothers’ college educations) to get me four years in Cambridge.
To be Thay is a responsibility that demands constant discipline. The lessons drip off you with each flick of the wrist or turn of the head, and the children watch and listen for them all day long.