On weekends, Mẹ and I drive twenty-five minutes to the Vietnamese grocery store on the other side of town. The lot is chaotic, with no discernible lines to bring order to the few random cars parked on cracked black asphalt. Inside, the store is cramped and cluttered. In a corner, framed black and white photos of someone’s deceased parents anchor a mostly red altar. Beneath the pictures rests a gilded Buddha statue, flanked by a bowl of tangerines and fresh yellow mums. Incense wafts through the air, bridging the human world to our ancestors’ spiritual heaven.
Mẹ uses metal tongs to fish homemade tofu out of a big bucket and into a tiny bag. I get lost in a small selection of brightly colored Chinese candies wrapped in pink plastic. Mẹ’s broken crimson shopping basket holds dried bean thread noodles, packets of roasted rice powder, and bundles of rau răm and rau muống. The store owner grows the precious herbs on the patio, harvests them into ordinary sandwich bags, and from a beat-up produce case acquired second-hand, sells each bundle for a dollar. A Vietnamese opera plays from a small TV behind the cash register, the undulating voice of a woman singing layered over the quick plucking of a zither. I hear Mẹ hum along.
The other side of town is where Cô Thanh’s house is. In her damp basement is a makeshift salon where Mẹ gets her hair permed, whenever we can afford it. Cô Thanh, her own permed hair teased into an illusion of volume, does her best to make the space inviting. In the corner sits a black JVC stereo next to a musty smelling brown sofa. I recognize the sad, velvety voice of Khánh Ly, Mẹ’s favorite singer. Gọi em cho nắng, chết trên sông dài, she sings against the rolling notes of a heartbroken guitar. My brother and I take turns on our Gameboy, perm solution stinging our eyes. We tune out the chatter of Mẹ and Cô Thanh gossiping about a friend we don’t know.
“Trời đất ơi, tại sao không chịu học cách sống chung với nhau?” Mẹ howls, her small frame nestled into a used salon chair. A giant crack in the black vinyl seat is held together with fraying duct tape. Her laugh sounds unfamiliar, younger, more relaxed. At Cô Thanh’s house, Mẹ feels like a stranger.
My parent’s friends live on that other side of town, near the grocery store. Occasionally, they invite us and a few other families over to nhậu. Accommodating these large gatherings means folding tables and chairs crammed onto patios, living rooms, and basements. If there is something to celebrate, we indulge in bò nhúng dấm—one of Mẹ’s favorites. We push the temporary dining tables’ limits on those nights, placing onto them as many dishes as possible. Raw beef cured in lime juice, so thin it falls apart on your chopsticks. Fresh shrimp and squid, next to warm rice noodles and small piles of fragrant tiá tô. Stacks of bánh tráng paired along with saucers of warm water needed to soften them. Small ceramic bowls dot the tablescape, holding pungent mắm nem. At the center of each table, balanced atop a single electric burner, sits a communal pot of steaming broth, spiked with rice vinegar and beer, its scent weaving its way into our clothes and hair.
As the evening stretches on, a karaoke machine appears, and the men take turns singing sorrowful ballads. In between cigarettes and Heineken cans, they mourn lost lovers in a dialect I can’t understand. Mẹ sits quietly among the other women, nervous about Daddy’s sobriety and the drive back home, back to the side of town where we live.
On our side of town, the houses do not butt up against each other. Everyone has a yard. My brother and I ride our bikes on the street without needing to look for cars. You are fortunate, Daddy says. It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of money to buy a house in a development like this. They don’t expect us to live in this neighborhood, to work as hard as we do. On our side of town, no one looks like us, and we don’t host parties.
Heatherfield. When my parents say the name of the suburban housing development we live in, their heavily accented English makes it sound luxurious, and foreign. Our home sits at the end of what first seems like a cul-de-sac before you journey far enough to notice the large opening ahead of the bend in the road. Our house is the color of a submarine, a utilitarian grey-blue with bright white shutters. Colonial-style with two floors, a half-finished basement, and a garage where my dad kills chickens, draining their sticky blood into a pail.
The summer before I begin kindergarten, Mẹ and I are upstairs, sitting on the beige carpeted floor in front of my parents’ bedroom window. Their wallpaper coordinates with the bedspreads and window treatments, everything in her favorite color—something she calls “dusty rose.” A breeze rustles the leaves of the young maple tree that shades our front yard. The wind joins the sun, shining through the window, bathing us in bright, warm light. Very rarely, we hear a neighbor’s car drive by.
Mẹ is in đồ bộ, a worn, matching loungewear set made of printed cotton. Her hair catches the sun, a beautiful deep, dark brown. I lay in front of her, my head cradled in the warmth of her lap. Her bony hands gently tug on my ear as she uses a small gold scoop to scrape flakey, dry wax out of it. The sensation is intensely calming. I close my eyes.
Americans think we are stupid because of the color of our skin. They are wrong. Vietnamese people are smart. You will have to study hard in school, and show them how smart you are. They will always assume you are slow, she murmurs, sounding lost in the details of my inner ear. In school, you’ll learn to read and write in English. I wish I could know it, too. Come home and teach it to me after you’ve learned it well.
Dạ mẹ, I mumble. I breathe in deeply, trying to soak Mẹ’s spirit into my own.
Nearly thirty years later and an ocean away, I still live twenty-five minutes from the nearest Asian grocery store on the other side of town. California highways scare me. I ask my husband to drive us from our home to the El Cerrito store. We leave before lunch. As he weaves through traffic, I distract myself with my phone, adding items onto our shared shopping list. I pretend not to notice us nearly colliding several times.
As we approach the store’s entrance, the smell of freshly baked Hong-Kong-style egg tarts wafts over us, nearly winning a fight for our attention. “Oh, I want to look for bánh canh. And bột nêm,” I murmur. My husband, tall even for a white guy, towers over a Chinese family—the dad carefully disinfecting a rusty shopping cart. As he grabs a red basket, I charge ahead, quickly losing him between stacks of discounted rice cookers. I pass a large selection of packaged tofu, remembering Mẹ’s delicate hands fisting metal tongs from a plastic bucket, pulling out fresh đậu phụ, placing it into a plastic bag.
I find myself alone in the produce section with an elderly Chinese grandmother, her wrinkled hands selecting fat, tawny shallots. I run my fingers over fresh longan berries, squeezing one to test its bounciness. I comb through packages of bouncy wood ear mushrooms, dark against white foam trays. Spiky durians, the size of watermelons, spill into a small pile of kabocha squash. Between misted green leaf lettuce and long Chinese scallions, I spot bundles of rau răm and rau muống bundled into ordinary sandwich bags. I amble along, each step bringing me home, each ingredient a reminder of Mẹ.
Illustration by Cassandra Orion
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[…] Son Trà Nguyen, “The Other Side of Town“ […]