This was the beginning of my “reclamation,” of family history, of memories, of ghosts and traumas.
Cathay Pacific made a dusty landing at Noi Bai International. Smileless brown men in uniform stood on the tarmac with familiar facial structures – delicate and wide cheekbones, high foreheads and heavy eye folds, the kind of tan colored skin that has no shine. The hatch opened and we stumbled in a silent line down aluminum steps. The midday July heat and vaporized petroleum slammed into my throat and nose. Saliva flooded into my mouth and would not stop, glands gone awry. I slammed my lips together and swallowed over and over again to prevent the vomiting.
A customs officer barked clipped instructions, but could find nothing offensive in our backpacks and suitcases. He did not pause over my paperwork, even though it was different from David’s, stamped and stapled at the Vietnamese consulate in Singapore, where a friend back in Manhattan had had to fax a copy of my visa that David had forgotten to bring to JFK. It’s okay, I whispered to him on the plane in uncharacteristic calm, What happens happens.
Twenty miles later, the taxi left the sole paved airport highway, and began winding down a wren of slim dirt paths by Ho Tay (WestLake). Tin and concrete shacks gradually gave way to sandstone and stucco two-story houses. Small men and women had crouched in front of shacks along the airport road, next to wooden store signs and small towers of canned food, cigarettes, hand wrapped foodstuffs, their feet bare or in thong sandals. But in this neighborhood, the shacks that skirted the mansions sold fruit juice, milk, and boxed goods. Some abutted paved yards strung with small lanterns and coarse speaker systems swaying gently over plastic tables and chairs. The taxi stopped where the path narrowed to the width of a rickshaw, and we followed the driver on foot past more small men hauling cinder blocks and rusted metal equipment in wheelbarrows. Jasmine and bougainvillea began to waft past, tropical fronds peeked from behind wrought fences and gates. At the very end of the path was the tiled walkway to my boss’s house. Over the neighbor’s peaked clay roof, I could see the upper reaches of a Sheraton hotel, built with not much more equipment than what the small men were hauling. It was dusk, and several days before our eyes adjusted enough to recognize the restaurant, convenience store, and construction crew for what they were. The next morning from this suburban base, we made a series of complicated telephone calls to arrange meetings with my relatives.
The second house belonged to Chu Dzung, Ba Ngoai’s nephew, son of her beloved younger brother and the deputy minister who had helped arrange David’s paperwork. We sat on the floor of his dining room in early afternoon, my ears split between the English he used with David and the crisp northern Vietnamese he used with me. Despite it being summer, the room was dim and cool, the low furniture and textiles all in shades of brown. Over small bowls of rice and tea, he explained his father’s position as a scientist, his own inheritance of it, and the _yzantine relationships between local, district, and national authorities that he maneuvered to find David a sponsor.
Back on the street, we watched the hushed rush of traffic, bicycles and xe om scooters moving in a slow river around the cobblestoned, medieval streets and wide French boulevards, the two-wheeled vehicles careening at an angle around the lichen and mold-tinted walls of buildings on the corners. Everyone was thin except the occasional Westerner disembarking from a taxi. There was no music or chatter, just whistle shrieks from stern policemen.
We took a longer cab ride east to treeless exurbs that sprawled in tight uniformity with arc after arc of two-story row houses in pastel colors, half still under construction. My father’s nephew-in-law, Anh Quang, proudly pointed out the one he and his wife had bought with “cooperative” money pooled from a large group of relatives and friends. As each member repaid their withdrawal, the next family would have their turn at the reciprocal financing. The house was simple and elegant, the thick cement walls, high ceilings, and front courtyard designed to defend against the summer sun. Anh Quang ended the tour with a satisfied smile and hopped back onto his xe om, leading the way back toward town. When we arrived at the house he was still living in, his wife, my cousin Chi Hao, greeted us in a cramped courtyard, and we had dinner at a low table while small poodles yelped inside their cages in the corner of the room. Chi Hao raised dogs to sell for meat.
At the end of the week, we reversed the taxi ride to the airport, and landed in Saigon International just before dusk. My cousin, Anh Su, was waiting in the throng outside with his brother-in-law. He was my oldest brother’s age and found me easily in the crowd. I would recognize you anywhere, he said. I traced the contours of his delicate cheek bones and mouth, the same as my brother’s and father’s. His eyes were so still that my breathing paused when they locked on me. The cousins escorted our taxi to the hotel to drop off luggage. Backpack shed, I climbed behind Su on his xe om, and we wove through the thigh-shaking drone of rush hour traffic. A little over a mile later, he leaned left and turned off the main road to cleave down the center of a street lined with narrow, one-story bodegas and houses. I heard children calling and a layer of clattering dinnerware, xe om engines turning on and off, the shuffle-slap-shuffle-slap of feet sauntering in flip flops.
Turn left up there, I said, and he did as I ordered. No nho (she remembers), he said confidently. I watched the rhythm of roof tops passing by us on the other side of the street, tall, short, short, alley, tall, short, alley……Stop. He touched his left foot to the ground and eased the motor to off. Cai nao (which one)? He asked. That one, I answered firmly, pointing across the street to a house not smaller or bigger than any other, with a square tiled foyer fronted by an iron gate painted blue. There was a small balcony on the second floor, just high enough to see into the yard of the house across the street.
Who lives there now? I asked. No one we know, he said. He waited but I did not dismount. I could see everything I needed to from behind him, that I could have stridden across the foyer in six steps, that the walls were scuffed to a dull gray with patches of plaster missing, that clothes fluttered from a cord slung on a diagonal over the balcony, and a grandmother and two children stared out suspiciously at us. This was the fourth house, the one of my childhood. Di chua (ready to go)? Anh Su asked, and the xe om made a wide turn to head back to the highway.