What is place? Is it a mark on a map or a series of numbers and symbols that correspond to somewhere else? Is it located upon the topography of our bodies or in the geography of our minds, tucked into the folds of our imaginations like a diamond wedding ring sewn into the hem of a little girl’s pajamas? For me, to be a refugee and to be a person of the Vietnamese diaspora, the weight of these questions measures in silences and heartbeats not just in miles and distances.
Recently, a confluence of events led me to return to Vietnam for the first time. I made the trip with my mother. It was our first time back to Vietnam since we left 30 years ago. The trip was not planned and, similar to when we left, a shock to us all.
The reasons and details about how and why we left have been retold to me throughout the years, something wrapped in myth and truth. I was two years old when we left, so I have only patched memories of itchy water and moonlight beaches, faded faces and scattered shapes, but no real hold on anything hard or deep. My family arrived in the United States in the early 80’s as part of the second wave of boat people from Vietnam—refugees who fled by boat and ship after the Vietnam War during 1978 and 1979 and continuing until the early 1990’s. It was illegal to leave the country, so when my family made the decision to leave, it was in secret. We travelled for about 200 miles from Saigon to Tra Vinh Province by road in the crunchy darkness of night. We stayed for two days in a safe house while waiting for a fishing junk to take us into international water. Once we safely reached international waters, we lived in Bi Dong refugee camp in Malaysia for a year before finally relocating to California. Planning for the exodus took months, a couple of false starts, and the imprisonment of my mother for several months in a re-education/ labor camp, all of which she paid for in delicate calligraphy-inscribed gold bars and years of restless nights and silent days.
I returned to Vietnam, not in a splintered wooden boat but in an airplane. And instead of sitting in my mother’s lap as the water splashed against her thin ankles, I was sitting next to her as she slept stiffly beside me. The flight from San Francisco to Vietnam was thirteen hours, and I thought about the differences in time between here and there. I thought about the distances, both real and imagined, that she and I had travelled together, and the places we could never go: places that exist only in the shade of her memories and the edge of my imagination. I felt an enormous sense of tenderness and space between us. As the plane climbed, I watched my mother with her slender bird-like neck and small head leaning against the window of the plane, behind her the faded blue of some unknown sky reflecting on her cheeks. She looked almost peaceful and still. The only sign of movement was under her eyelids. “There was some awful commotion beneath the surface” as N. Scott Momaday writes. Something restless has always shifted just below her skin, something deep and hollow. I turned away from her. I reached out and wrapped my hand around her tiny wrist. I closed my eyes and listened to the hum of the engine as her pulse throbbed beneath my thumb.
For my mother, Vietnam was more than a location or an idea. It was a symbol, both the signifier and the signified, of all that she had loved and all that she had lost: my father, their life together, her home, and her past. The decision to return to Vietnam after all this time was not merely a matter of reconciliation but rather recognition of those things that could be only whispered in the quiet of sleep and the safety of distance. My aunt was sick and my mother was compelled to make the journey back to Vietnam to visit her but in doing so she was forced to confront in the harsh daylight what she left behind in the cover of night. She left behind on the muddy shores of the Mekong all the things that hurt, things that she had lost, things that she could not carry except in the marrow of her bones and in the cracks of her heart. To return after all this time was to emerge from the waters not renewed or transformed but just tired and thirsty. The scars had changed shapes but the cuts still deep.
The price of memory is paid in the act of remembering.
Throughout the years, I have known that my mother’s reticence was her way of negotiating this price. But what I had not understood was how much of that negotiation was mitigated by the many miles that separated one shore from another or the many years of self-imposed exile that she endured in order to convince herself that grief was a thing that could be measured and sustained.
When I told friends that I was going to Vietnam with my mother, I got a lot of, “returning to the motherland with your mother” comments. It sounded as if I was going back to a place where my roots could be reached deep into the soil or some sacred place that was mine to fall before and worship. It was true I was born in Saigon but I had few memories other than some scattered glimpses. I could not recall the feel of bare feet running across the tiled floor of an old house, or the sound cool rain made upon the warm rooftop or the taste of sticky coconut rice on children’s fingertips. These memories were not mine but I carried them. It was like walking around with a pocket full of coins for so long that the faces etched on them became familiar and worn and you could barely remember a time when you did not know these faces or felt the weight of them in your palm.
Is loss inherently tied to possession?
Gaston Bachelard writes in the Poetics of Space, “we are never really historians, but always near poets, and our emotion is perhaps nothing but an expression of a poetry that was lost.” Indeed, I was neither a historian nor was I a statistician conjuring numbers. I was not a scientist theorizing facts; I was only a sailor drifting towards a place, a place that is built on loose gravel and surrounded by a sea of mud. My feelings about going to Vietnam were different than my mother’s but not separate. I wanted to see all that I had come from: my family, my home, the place I was born. My mother could not bear to see what she had left behind: her family, her home, the place she was born. Our destinies were not tied because of biology or geography or even fate but by all the things we felt but could not say. We were suspended in the gaps between the words like the plane in the clouds, heavy and weightless, at once everything and nothing.
S. Tieu is a writer who lives in Oakland, CA who loves dim sum, durian, and Dorito but not necessarily in that order. When not contemplating the mysteries of the belly button, she likes to construct stars, build surfaces, and break down walls. She loves all living things but does not trust creatures with opposable thumbs.