When you are ready, when biology trumps logic and personal comfort and professional considerations, babies will beckon. David started seeing and hearing them everywhere in Manhattan, peeking out from strollers, waddling in the park. We had dinner with a new-mother friend and he stood from the table to pick up the mewing, squirming thing. He bundled it on his chest, face in, and bounced it tightly there to mimic the movements of a mamma ape foraging in the underbrush. The mewing stopped and the breathing slowed, and my friend told him he could have a job anytime he wanted one. He practiced on my nephews too, tying their shoe laces, answering their questions, telling jokes with a straight face.
We didn’t, couldn’t indulge his primal urge. I had only finished internship with two more years of training to go and uncertain job prospects. My body was tensed to spring, focused on something else entirely; it would have been hostile to the distraction of reproduction. It was time to grow up and there was only one thing to do. I want to go to Vietnam, I told David. After residency, we’ll take a year. Okay? We both knew it was mere courtesy that I asked him at all.
In one last dream, the Carpenter stood in the middle of an empty parking lot waiting to coach me. I sat astride a motorcycle, not a xe om or Vespa but a real hog, the threatening purr vibrating up my spine. I tossed my helmet to the ground and flicked the kickstand back. The bike came at him slowly without a wobble, and then veered away in a careful figure eight, each turn perfectly symmetric as I expertly placed an inside foot down to pivot. The laps rounded more and more smoothly, and then I heard his urging over the engine. That’s good, Mai!… Now, when you’re ready, just stop and get off……….. So I did. I cut the engine and left the keys. I walked away, toward the street and beyond, not bothering to check if he was following me.
David and I began our clumsy plans. With characteristic efficiency, he applied for and won a Fulbright fellowship to fund his freewheeling year. My path was less direct. In the pre-Internet search mode of the last century, I found a book indexing non-profits working in Vietnam, and photocopied the pages of health groups. Two weeks of expensive cold calls and serial expressions of non-interest later, I told an international health professor at Columbia that maybe I should just go there and teach English for a year. What a waste of time, she said. The third week of calls led me to the country director for the Population Council, a U.S. based reproductive health organization. She was an anthropologist with evident charm and quirky thought processes. Let’s find some money and have you come work with us.
I stared at blank notebooks, blank whiteboards, blank scraps of paper. Where to start, where to start. I had to work backwards from the goal of a grant, to a project proposal, to a research question, to what was interesting enough about Vietnam, and me, to compel someone to give me a few thousand dollars. I went to the medical school library and pulled every article available on “health” and “Vietnam.” It was a manageable stack. I could pick anything from HIV spread, prevention, or treatment, to the practice of “menstrual regulation” by couretaging a woman’s uterus. Smoke and mirrors, I thought, returning repeatedly to a different article – not on medicine, but sociology. The system of free, public health care was slowly breaking down, accelerated by the withdrawal of Soviet aid after Perestroika and Vietnam’s own doi moi policy of economic liberalization in response. They were letting their doctors see private patients and public patients, in acknowledgement of the crumbling public infrastructure and the political pressures of stagnant economic growth. The ground was shifting under all the diseases and drugs and surgeries. Something that tectonic must be compelling. Next: how to do research. I signed up for an epidemiology class and learned little. A year had passed. I begged a department chair for a personal tutorial on study design. Can you teach it really, really fast? I drew conceptual diagrams and improvised the rest. Fake it till you make it, I chanted under my breath. The Rockefeller Foundation funded our study on the ‘Diagnostic and prescribing behaviors of gynecologists for public vs. private sector patients with reproductive tract infection symptoms,’ if I also promised to teach (!) research methods to physician collaborators there. So with a sharp intake of breath, I turned to the harder planning work.
That’s a terrible idea! My parents were frantic. They could arrest you. What if they don’t let you leave the country? I’m a U.S. citizen. I’m not going to do anything illegal. They enlisted my brother and uncle to dissuade me. David won a Fulbright. We’ll have money, I told them hurriedly and changed the topic. My mother’s worry surged through telephone lines to all her sisters.
One year before take-off, we planned a scouting trip. The checklist was long – secure a collaborator for David and one for me, win over my boss’s local staff, assess the risk, if any, for my relatives, meet my relatives. Meet my relatives. My father was the only son of the first wife of the village chief. He was now the village chief. I would go in his place and assume his responsibilities until he could arrive. This was the one thing my parents could look forward to; the one thing that might keep me from going.
On a post-call morning in spring, the enormity of it all was crushing. I sat legs akimbo on the bedroom floor in our Manhattan apartment and dialed a medical school professor. We hadn’t talked in over a year, but he was a hippie child of the ‘60’s; he would understand the pull of Vietnam. I can go and no matter what happens it will have been the right thing to do? I asked him. Yes, absolutely. I can go and completely fail on my project and it will be okay? You should go and finish the project as you’ve promised…. And it will be okay.
Ba Ngoai was not worried. She was pleased I was going. She had already flown back to Hanoi two years earlier, when a group of her former elementary school students, middle aged by then, greeted her at the airport. I will give you everyone’s addresses and phone numbers, she promised. So one weekend, we took a bus out to New Jersey and puttered at my uncle’s house where Ba Ngoai was staying. My aunt and uncle set out lunch while testing David’s fledgling Vietnamese and squealing with delight at his earnest attempts at the tones.
Ba ngoai gave us a tutorial on the faces of and interconnections between ngoai relatives in Hanoi. What will David do while you’re there? He is supposed to study something on the environment, but he needs to find a Vietnamese sponsor first. Her small fingers carefully walked through the pile of business cards in her wallet. Could Chu (uncle) Dzung help? This was the son of her beloved younger brother. She handed me his business card, which read Deputy Minister for Science, Technology, and the Environment and Director for External Relations. His father, she said, had been the Minister until he died. We passed the bit of card stock between us, dumbfounded. Yes, Ba, I think Chu Dzung could be very helpful. But she had already moved on to wondering what fruit would be good to cut up for dessert.
We didn’t pack luggage so much as weapons – demure clothes, anti-malarial pills, fanny packs, lots of American cash, letters of introduction, a dictionary, several forms of identification, telephone numbers and addresses, a diagram of relatives and their connections across the canopy of my family tree, small gifts, a camera. We planned to land in Hanoi to make contact with my boss and Chu Dzung, and then make our way south.
After the roar of take-off at JFK, when the jet peaked at the end of its eastward climb over early summer life on the beaches of Fire Island, David reclined in his seat and opened a book. I sat straight, eyes straying from the window down to my watch and back again, fighting nausea to focus on counting. Eight minutes. The cloud carpet unfurled in fanned patterns all around and the unfiltered light was piercing. Time reared up and swayed. Ten….twelve minutes. Here. It was here…. He died here. In the few seconds it took for David to notice and touch my back, the engines had catapulted us miles beyond, through a wormhole to the other side of the world and decades ago.