Sometimes my mom laughs so hard, she nearly falls over.
Once, when I was a teenager, I was in the bathroom, putting makeup on. It was near Halloween. The door was partially closed, but it suddenly started to open, slowly, and I found myself face to face with someone dressed all in black, wearing the Scream mask. I shrieked, and the figure started to shake with laughter.
Fifteen years later, it’s Halloween again and I’m in my own house, hiding from trick-or-treaters and watching my favorite Halloween episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in the dark. Someone knocks at the door, insistently. Kyle goes to see who it is. Dressed all in black, wearing a witch’s hat with yards of tulle over it like a goth bride, someone shouts BOO! then immediately slumps over with laughter. I learn later that this was her second stop of the night - a few minutes earlier, she had stopped at my sister’s house a few blocks over, pulling the same prank, much to my sister’s alarm and my toddler nephew’s delight. My brother-in-law swears he knew it was my mom the whole time.
Recently, I visited my parents one Sunday for lunch. No Kyle? Dad asks. I was hoping he would help me lift some heavy things! After lunch, the three of us go out to the deck, and dad hands each of us a rope. The other end of the rope is rigged to a milk crate on the ground, some eight or ten feet below. In the milk crate is a tall jasmine plant. Nonplussed, I slowly start lifting up my rope at my dad’s instruction. In slow motion, the plant begins to wobble, wobble some more… and then it tilts over completely and is horizontal on the ground. My yelp of dismay sounds exactly how mom sounds when she accidentally drops something in the kitchen, or if she sees a mouse or a snake. Oh nooo! THE POOR PLANT! I wail. It’s okay, I’ll go fix it, Dad says. Mom, meanwhile, is laughing her ass off, clutching the rail of the deck for support.
Earlier this spring, my mom said she had a story to tell me. She had been reading the short pieces I had been sharing on PYD and my own blog, and she asked if I could share hers, too. She told it to me over the phone, first, and then typed it in Vietnamese and mailed it to me (we live about 20 miles apart). I brought it home soon after, and she read it aloud, pausing to explain what certain phrases meant.
This is sort of like my life’s story.
A little girl was born in a village, and grew up in a city. She was born in the middle of World War II. Food was scarce during the war, and often, bà ngoại had to stretch what food they had by giving the little ones rice mixed with potato. The parish priest took curtains and flags from the church and divided the fabric among people who could use the material to turn into clothing.¹
The little girl attended school in the village. On rainy days, the dirt road became very slippery, and when she fell, all her books and notebooks would get covered in mud.
As she grew older, she was luckier than her friends in the village, because she got to attend high school in the city. Every day, she would bike 5 kilometers to school. One rainy day, her bike got a flat tire, and she had to walk it several blocks before she found someone to help her patch it.
The girl grew up, and one happy day, she got married and started a family. The little family had a Honda Dame. She loved the Honda but didn’t want or even dream of learning to drive a car. Her husband often used the Honda to support bà nội and make deliveries for her pharmacy.²
There came a day when the woman’s family had to flee. Her husband and her brother-in-law were both officers in the military, and the family arrived in a new country as refugees.³ In the new country, with the help of volunteers from a Lutheran church, the family started over.
For the first two years, in the summertime, the woman went to work by bicycle. In the winter, she took the bus. Eventually, she found a better job, but it was further away, so she could no longer commute by bike. She had to take driving lessons, and received a driver’s license soon after.
The first time she took the car out, it was to pick up her son at bà nội’s house. As she backed out of the driveway, a car passing by honked twice and raised a hand in greeting. When the woman got home, she told her husband what happened, feeling proud that someone noticed her driving so well, and flattered this stranger even gave her a friendly wave. Alas, upon hearing the story, the woman’s husband informed her that the the stranger was in fact not giving her a friendly honk and wave, but was actually gesturing an insult.
This was a funny - and unforgettable - lesson.
Mom cackles gleefully when she gets to the end of her story. I wish I recorded her reading the story aloud to me. That was a few months ago, and today, I finally sat down to read it on my own, arduously typing her letter into Google translator. In college, I took Vietnamese as my second language requirement. After figuring out how to add the Vietnamese keyboard to my MacBook Air, remembering how to type in Vietnamese came back to me fairly quickly. Between sounding out the words and translating some of them with the computer, I hope I’ve captured the spirit of my mom’s story.
I texted her one sentence toward the end, asking if my translation was right. She wrote back: Thật đúng đó. I copy-pasted it into google, to be sure: That's right.
I googled “Honda Dame” and sent her the first picture that came up.
Is this like the Honda Dame you and Ba had?
Yes, mẹ can carry K, T, T, and Q in 1975.
¹ When she read this part to me, I had to stop myself from saying, LIKE MARIA IN THE SOUND OF MUSIC! My parents love The Sound of Music - they call it “the nun movie.”
² Dad interrupted her here, saying that this wasn’t quite accurate. She shushed him, and said she was taking poetic license for the sake of the story.
³ Mom makes clear that the exact translation here is refugee, not immigrant.
Originally posted on UyenThi's blog, and re-posted with permission.