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.