Asking my Vietnamese Father About the War
BY CELESTE NGUYEN
Asking you about the war is like this: you look, you laugh, and you say that you are hard of hearing in your left ear. You tell me to ask again but we’ve already pulled up to the drive-through because your paycheck came before the electricity bill.
So I look, and laugh, and say “Just fries.”
Asking you about the war is like this: you fix the strap of my backpack and tell me not to ask silly questions as a single autumn leaf falls into your hair.
And as we walk to the bus, like always, I ask you again. You purse your lips, but you answer this time.
“It was war. I was one of the lucky ones.”
But that is not enough. So I ask you again.
“I was too young when I left.”
And then you pat my shoulder and there are old purple bruises on your knuckles, discoloration on your wrinkled skin. The purple matches mine. And before I can say anything you say, “Come on, you’re running out of time. We’ll be late.”
Asking you about the war is like this: you avoid my eyes by pocketing another Wendy’s napkin, and I avoid leaving by refilling my apple-green soda can.
“It’s being alone,” you say. On your wrist, a golden wristwatch from your father glimmers. “War. It’s like being alone.”
Later you tell me what you really mean: you really mean, it’s being in a country with the wrong tongue, and it’s a boat & all you can taste is sweat, and I miss my father, and she should’ve died. We should’ve died.
You really mean: It’s being poor & alone & a 300 English SAT & my mother’s loneliness & her hand. You really mean: Post war is war. You really mean: I am a product of war.
You really mean: You are peace. I made sure of it.
You really mean: I love you.
Asking you about the war is like this: you laugh and say the doctor says your left eye is perfect, when in reality, it is glass.
“Stupid doctors.” You shake your head. “What did you say again?”
Asking you about the war is this: with your hands over the computer’s verdant circuit board and the sky is already dark purple like a bruised knuckle on autumn’s eve. Somewhere, the clock strikes midnight and the exhaustion of work tugs at you but you ask for the pliers anyways. Already, I feel myself falling asleep, so I ask the question to keep myself awake. I ask the question because it takes two to fix a circuit board.
“Troi oi.” You don’t look up. “Don’t ask silly questions like that right now. Just pay attention.”
I don’t know how to tell you it is not silly. I don’t know how to tell you, to know is to love.
And then you look at me, and you whisper, “You can go to bed if you want to.” I say yes, and nod off. I wish I hadn’t.
Getting answers about the war is like this: it’s the first time you buy a bowl of Pho for fifteen dollars but you switch to a Northern accent to bargain it down to thirteen. It’s when you laugh and tell me you are not your mother & turn on the AC & say we will eat takeout for a week straight after graduation.
It’s that time at the banh mi shop and I say I’m not hungry so you buy one for yourself & you say “This is good” & when I watch, you extend it out for me. It’s that time when you grin and say “Don’t worry ‘bout me, I go eat at home, there’s more food at home, don’t worry” and we both know there are only leftovers.
I take it anyways.
War is when you rub your ear because an American soldier held a gun to your older brother’s head, and he dropped like a sack with you in his arms. You were two.
War is when you fix the fan with a wire you found on the street, and say “See that? Your dad is smart.”
War is when you waterproof the deck for the fifth time.
War is when you say Family is all you have, because you truly you have nothing else.
War is when you never say I love you but have fun and the dishes are done before I get home. It’s when I’ve missed the sixth dinner in a row, and you smile tightly and say “Don’t worry ‘bout me” when you mean I miss you.
Getting answers about the war is like when you say nothing on the bus ride to my new apartment. It’s your hands are in your pockets when you say I love you only it comes out as a lecture about bills, and you plea for me to stay only it comes out as Remember to call.
Apologizing to your Vietnamese father is like this: it’s him in your apartment with his bruised hands over a verdant computer circuit board.
“It’s not broken,” your father says, and you shrug when the computer flares to life, sunshine yellow spilling over the dark apartment.
And instead of saying oh, sorry, you say, “I have some leftover banh mi” knowing that it is fresh.
And instead of saying I forgive you, he says, “Only because it is leftovers.”
Asking your Vietnamese father about the war is this: he looks, he grimaces, and he asks why you would bring up something so gruesome at the dinner table.
It is easier than telling you I love you, you want to answer, but you are his daughter.
So instead of answering, you look, you laugh, and tell him to ask you again because it is easier than asking him to stay for dinner. And instead of saying I have to go, he stays a little longer to tell you about peace.