My mom appears by the bedroom doorway in her cotton pajamas. Her toothless mouth is wide with excitement. When she’s at home, her dentures are put away, and even though she’s only in her early fifties, she made the decision over ten years ago to have all of her teeth pulled out. “They were all rotting away anyway,” she tells me, “who needs them?” On bad days, she complains, “I can't eat anything crunchy. You’re so lucky you have your teeth.”
She’s holding an empty soda can in one hand, and a knife in the other. Her black hair, usually falling just above her shoulders, is pulled back into a bun at the nape of her neck. Outside, the sun is about to meet the horizon’s lip in a blazing Los Angeles sunset. My dad is at his overnight shift at work and in a few moments, the full moon will come out in time for the Mid-Autumn Festival. Though the festival’s roots lie in harvest celebration, my family clings onto it as another tangible piece of our Vietnamese culture. It’s an intimate and quiet tradition, one that often leads to stories from my parents’ childhood in Saigon. Because I was four when my parents brought me with them to America and my brother was born in Los Angeles, we have little understanding and imagery of Vietnam aside from our parents’ tales of their past.
My mom has gathered a few cans, which are still sticky from the sodas they once contained. “This one is the best,” she says as she holds up an Arizona iced tea can. It’s taller than the rest, with a checkered pattern of green and beige. My little brother Kenny and I follow her to our coffee table, where the mirrored surface reflects our faces. Kenny is ten to my sixteen and we are waiting for the moon to rise.
“When the moon is up we’ll have the best lanterns on the street,” she says, even though we all know that no one else will be parading around with hand-made lanterns. We live in an Armenian neighborhood in Los Angeles where Vietnamese families are few and far between. Though Armenia and Vietnam are separated by an entire continent, we are connected by the same otherness that we carry with us in America, our bodies existing together in diaspora.
My mom cuts vertical lines into her tall can, and when she has made it all the way around its circumference, she squeezes the two ends together, creating a small lantern as the strips of aluminum jut out in a synchronized dance. She slides a small candle through one of the slits and places it at the can’s center.
“In Vietnam,” she begins, “your grandfather would buy us fancy lanterns with blinking lights. They even played music!” She tells us about her Mid-Autumn Festival celebrations in Vietnam, evenings spent running through the streets with her sisters and brothers. She also recounts the night she shared a lantern with one of her brothers when her own was stolen by a neighborhood bully. Her usually boisterous voice dampens when she shares this, and I imagine a little girl running empty-handed toward her home. She is the only person in her family who lives in America. “I miss them so much,” she says to Kenny and me. In the time that she has been away from Vietnam, she has had to watch from afar as deaths, marriages, and births mark the changes in her siblings’ lives. “At least I know we are under the same moon.”
The quiet passes quickly, as it usually does with my mom, whose sadness dissipates with such swiftness that I am jarred by her chuckle. “Look, mine’s a little crooked!” she says, pointing out a large gap between two aluminum strips. My brother giggles but my eyes linger on her face, waiting to see if her smile will drop. It doesn’t though. Instead, she finishes her lantern with glee by attaching a piece of string to its top then tying it to a chopstick. She sets it down to flutter off into the kitchen, leaving myself and my brother to handle our own knives and cans. I puncture a Pepsi can with my knife. It screeches back and forth as the blade moves from top to bottom. Kenny is nervous with his knife, so he sets it down to wait for my mom to return.
With all of my cuts made, I mirror my mom by pushing the top and bottom together to create a lantern. She returns with a cup of tea for each person. The jasmine scent travels quickly to my nostrils and warmth spreads through my lungs when I inhale its steam. After only a sip my mouth is full of flowers.
My mom sets a square, tin box down before us. When she opens the lid, the mooncakes are revealed. There are four of them, thick and cradled by a plastic structure that keeps them safe. The crust is glazed and delicate, with ridges and valleys asking to be felt before they are eaten. My mom takes one, sets it on a plate, and cuts it into halves. The outside crust splits open to reveal a green lotus paste. At its center is the salted yolk of a duck egg, round and golden like a moon against clear sky. The cakes come from Kien Giang, a bakery in nearby Echo Park and one of our usual stops when we go grocery shopping on Sundays.
By the time we each have our own lantern, the bright sky has darkened into a blue streaked with thin clouds. We put on our jackets even though it doesn’t get very cold in Los Angeles and head outside. Outside, my mom lights the candle inside each lantern, setting our cans alight with soft yellow flickers.
We hold our tiny moons as we stare up at the real one in the sky, its roundness hanging above us and touching us with its glow. My mom’s head is tilted and her mouth is ajar as she points upward, her expression similar to the one on my brother’s face. For a moment she could be a child again, wrapped up in amazement as she gently swings her lantern back and forth.