(“Living” by Evelyna Liang Yee Woo (1980?) (color, ink on paper). In response to the needs of Vietnamese boat people residing in detention camps, Ms. Liang, a Hongkong artist, organized the “Art in the Camp” project in the early 1980s, supported by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and also the International Rescue Funds from New York.)
Introduction: Andrew Lam is an editor of New America Media in San Francisco (CA) and the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora. His English adaptation of Nguyen Mong Giac’s short story, “Letter in Care of Distant Clouds” (“Thơ Gởi Cho Đám Mây Xa”) appeared in the anthology Once Upon a Dream: The Vietnamese-American Experience (Andrews & McMeel: 1995). Asked about his experience regarding this short story, Andrew Lam reflected, “I was asked to pick and translate some of the works written in Vietnamese by 1st generation Vietnamese Americans and Mr. Giac’s was among a few that I read in anthologies of short stories (tuyen tap hai ngoai? )…. This is as far as my memory of that time goes …. I suppose [this is an]adaptation instead of translation because something does not translate well and therefore needs to be recreated – some metaphors don’t translate at all for instance – or some expressions and old sayings lose complete meanings when translated.” Nevertheless, his “adaptation” is an evocative and mostly faithful rendering of Nguyen Mong Giac’s subtle yet incisive style in the original.
That night, Grandma and grandson wrote a letter back to Vietnam. Grandma said to grandson: “Ha, remember to write clearly. Your hand writing’s so hard to read.”
Ha was surprised: “Grandma, when did you look at my homework? You know how to read already?”
“Of course not. Your Mama said so. I am too old to learn.”
The boy was curious: “Why didn’t you go to school before, Grandma?”
“Back then only boys got to go to school, girls stayed home and learned how to cook and sew.
I was a good baker. No girl in the whole village could sew or cook as well as I did.”
The old lady fell into a trance-like reverie of her youth. The boy asked: “Are you sleepy, Grandma?”
“No. I was just remembering … but never mind. You keep on writing.”
But the grandson refused to let her off the hook without a full explanation. He pressed on:
“What were you remembering, Grandma?”
Grandma smiled, her voice trembled slightly: “I was real naïve. Your Grandpa came with the go-between to my house to propose and I didn’t even know it. I was busy playing hopscotch, and I bunched up my front shirt to hold in these tamarind seeds that I’d collected, showing my belly button. Your great grandmother called me into the house to serve tea to the guests. When I brought tea to the guests, my hand was still holding up this bounty of tamarind seeds. Who would have guessed your Grandpa noticed the nice white skin.”
Ha laughed. He couldn’t imagine Grandma playing hopscotch and showing her belly button to his Grandpa. He laughed so hard he had tears in his eyes. Grandma stopped him:
“What’s so funny? You’re all the same when young. Come on, keep writing.”
Ha readjusted the oil lamp’s wicker a little higher. “What should I write, Grandma?”
Grandma cleared her throat and said: “Remind your mother to remember to light incense in your grandfather’s altar each night.”
Ha was worried: “But how do I write it, Grandma?”
Grandma was curt: “Just write. Tell your mother to light the incense.”
“But before I write that … I can’t just say light incense, it wouldn’t look like a letter like that.”
Grandma nodded: “You’re right. Why don’t you write a few lines to make it look like a letter.
You’re in sixth grade, so you already know how to write letters.”
Ha didn’t want to admit that once his epistolary essay was a source of comic relief to his classmates. It was so embarrassing. He quietly began the letter with these sentences:
Letter from Grandma–and me-to Mama. Me and Grandma’ arrived to Kuku Island on 5.12.82. Mama the ocean was full of big and mean waves. I threw up. Grandma also threw up. You are probably worried about Grandma a lot. That day I also worried a lot. Grandma was just saying, when you get there remember to study hard and listen to Uncle Lien, I’m leaving, when we heard gunshots. And I almost pissed in my pants. Grandma was worried that I might get shot so she held on to me and shielded me. Those guys on the boat kept rushing us. It took a long time before we could climb aboard. When we got out to sea, Grandma remembered she had to go home, and asked those people to let her off . . . .
Grandma saw grandson writing without asking her opinion, she started to worry. She tapped his shoulder: “What are you writing so much?”
Ha proudly answered: “I started by telling how we got on the boat so our family would know. So that Mama would stop worrying, Grandma.”
“You can tell the story?”
“Of course, Grandma. Let me read it to you.”
Ha began reading. The more he read, the more he realized he had overused the word a lot. He really liked the phrase pissed in my pants but his mother hated it. But he already wrote it, what can he do? Grandma nodded, complimenting him that he wrote well and to the point. Of course, you can’t just start by telling someone to light incense stick. His Mama is probably worried, she thought, wondering if I am alive or dead after they found out about the escape and arrested all those people. 1 should tell my daughter where I am, so she wouldn’t worry. The young ones these days are so smart.
Ha asked: “Should I mention about the incense now, Grandma?”
The old lady, who completely trusted her grandson now, answered quickly: “Yes. You go ahead and write so that your mother wouldn’t forget. I just worry that your mother would be too tired coming home from work. She might just forget.”
Ha felt more confident. He wrote: “Grandma and me we miss home a lot. . . .” Ha caught himself.
Again a lot. He erased the two words, thought a bit more, then added terribly.
Grandma saw Ha hesitating, thought he forgot, so she reminded him: “You go ahead and write. Tell mother that even if she were tired, she should remember. . .”
“I remember Grandma. I am wondering how to write it so Mama can remember it for a long time.” The boy held the pen for a while, his face appeared serious. Grandma remained quiet, respecting his deep reflection. A bit later, Ha continued:
It’s real funny. Grandma just told me how when she was young she was so busy having fun that she let Grandpa see her belly button. Did she tell you that story, Mama? Grandma worries that you will fall asleep after cooking dinner and forget to light the incense in Grandpa’s altar. Remember to light the incense, ok, Mama! . . .
After adding the exclamation point, Ha stopped. He asked happily: “Do you want me to read what I just wrote, Grandma?”
Grandma shook her head: “No need. Write fast before the lamp runs out of oil. You tell Mama that each time she lights the incense sticks she should tell your Grandpa that I am already here, he shouldn’t worry. And tell him that if he is a powerful spirit, he should follow Grandma so Grandma can light incense for him, too. He’s so far away.”
“Can he really come over, Grandma? He should try a safer route, instead of the way we came, it’s too dangerous.”
Grandma was again lost in the idea that she could once again talk to the ghost of her husband and did not hear Ha’s comment. He continued to write:
Grandma prays often that if Grandpa is really a powerful spirit he could come over to stay with Grandma. Poor Grandma! She went to the pagoda to pray to Buddha and then told me to go to church to pray to God. I’ve tasted the Host. But they didn’t put enough sugar in it. And it’s so small.
He barely finished writing when Grandma said: “You write and tell your Mama to give the chickens water. And it’s quite windy where the pigpen is. She should buy some old tin sheets down on Bach Dang Avenue to block the wind. It’s easy for pigs to get cold and die, and your mother already spent too much money to buy bran and cassavas to feed them.”
Ha thought Grandma was being excessive. Mama already gave to his younger sister Ri the task of giving water to the chickens. As to the pigs Mama had spent so much money feeding them, of course she would take care of them properly. Besides, who knows, by the tie this letter reached Vietnam, his mother might have already sold all the pigs for some cash. But he knew he couldn’t argue with Grandma, so he wrote:
In the two ration bags they distributed to me and Grandma for five days, there are only two small sugar bags. There is coffee but Grandma wouldn’t allow me to drink it. She exchanged it for fish to make soup. We got four cans of food. I love curry chicken more than pig pâté, even though the pâté can is even bigger than the one you bought once. We’ve been eating pâté for a month now. I can’t stand it anymore.
Ha glanced at Grandma, afraid that she might find out he is writing about himself. Grandma did appear suspicious. She asked: “Did you mention to your Mama to buy tin sheets yet? It’s cheaper at Bach Dang than at Chuong Duong. Last year I went with your Uncle Lien, before he went to America, and found out it was almost a hundred dong more.”
Ha quickly answered to hide his impatience: “I wrote everything you told me already.” Then he became bolder: “Let me read it to you.”
Grandma shook her head, as he predicted. For her part, she did recognize how inconsiderate she was. How can she be thinking of pigs and chickens and the dead, and not her own daughter? And the old lady knew her daughter too well: she must be losing sleep over her precious son. She quickly told Ha: “Why don’t you talk about your situation? Tell your mother that you are doing well, that you gained a little weight. Yesterday at the hospital you gained a kilo and a half, right?”
Ha was delighted. Enough about pigs and chickens. After a few moments of deep reflection he wrote:
As for me I am doing well. I go fishing every day. Here there are plenty of fish, Mama. Plenty to make soup with, and plenty to play with too. Yesterday I caught three colorful fish: purple green gold red. They have long fins that expand into fans. I also picked up woods for Grandma to cook and in a few days I will begin English lesson. I gained (Ha bit his lips) three and a half kilograms. Mama, you can’t call me Skinny Ha anymore.
Grandma tilted her head and squinted her eyes for a good look at her precious grandson. His serious face reminded her of Ha’s mother, when she was cute and behaving like a pampered child with her own mother. Grandma felt a bit uneasy, a little sad. Time goes by so fast, how a child’s smile changed into an adult’s tears of sorrow.
She was thinking of this and that until she remembered some unfinished business at home and quickly told grandson: “Ha, are you done? You have to write this right away. If we forget people will talk. You write and tell Mama the day we left, I still owe Mrs. Tu Set two dong of sugar, and one dong of pepper. I also borrowed from Aunty Bay a knife for cutting betel nuts and forgot to return it. I thought I see you to the boat then I’d return home . . . .”
“How come Mama and Papa didn’t see me off, Grandma?”
The old lady looked around, and lowered her voice: “Your father just got out of re-education camp and they haven’t given him back his papers. He couldn’t go anywhere. Your mother works for the state so she can buy cheaper rice for the entire family. If they’d seen you to the boat, they might have been unlucky. . . .”
Ha missed his family so much. “Then why did they want me to leave? Grandma, I really miss Mama and Papa and Ri a lot.”
Grandma rubbed his hair, trying to console him: “You are a boy, you must be courageous and reasonable. You have bad family history in the eyes of the government. What future can you have? You go live with Uncle Lien and study hard. You might become someone important. Besides, Heaven and Buddha have made me come along to take care of you in the end. What else do you want? Just write.”
Ha thought the business of owing a few dong is not so important, while his debt to his elders is endless. He wrote quickly:
Grandma wants you to return Mrs. Tu Set three dong, Miss Nam her knife. Ri: Chau, Mr. Nhat Truong’s son, borrowed my 101th Smurf and Tintin in the Land of Black Gold comic books. Has he returned them? You go over and ask for them back and make sure no pages are missing. My comic books and magazines, you go ahead and read but don’t mix them up and don’t let your friends borrow them. You should take care of those plastic cars. Put them back in the box or they would break. You can use my leather bookbag but try not to get it all scratched up . My best friends, Huy, Ha, and that comedian Bao Quoc, do they ask about me? Do they talk about me at school? Are you done with finals? My English teacher must miss me very much, much, much . . . .
Ha stopped writing, satisfied with the three muches at the last line. Grandma seemed surprised, wondering what made him laugh. She asked: “Aren’t you finished yet? I only owe money to two people.”
Ha turned red and lied: “I mentioned it more than once so Mama would remember.”
Grandma didn’t know what to think, but she remembered the knife and the betel nuts: “I realy miss chewing betel nuts. Do you think they have them in America?”
Ha answered immediately: “Of course, Grandma. Aunty Thang said they have everything in America. Stinky tofu, fish sauce, garlic, hot pepper, betel nuts. Whatever you need they have. In places where the Vietnamese people live you just go around the corner and buy them. If you live far away you have to drive. Some people drive for a hundred kilometers just for a bowl of noodles sometimes.”
Grandma seemed worried: “How bothersome. I get sick smelling gasoline. Every time I ride in a car I throw up. Once we get to Galang, how do we go to America from there?”
Ha answered based on his fantasies: “By airplane, Grandma. Zoom and you’re there.”
Grandma was full of concern: “Has any airplane ever crashed?
Ha thought about it, and about parachuting, and answered happily: “Of course, very often.”
With innocent enthusiasm, he added: “I heard that if you get in a crash and don’t have a parachute, you’d die. Your body is smashed into pieces, each less than a hundred grams. That’s what they say in the books.”
Grandma whispered: “How awful! When we get over there, you better write a letter to America to tell Uncle Lien to bring a car to pick us up.”
Trying to not obsess over the image of a crashing airplane, Grandma continued: “Do you still have room? Half a page only? You tell Mama that when we get to Galang you will take a color photo and send it back. I will tell Uncle Lien of your Mama’s situation so he can help. The medicine and the fabric your Mama made you memorize I remember too. Uncle Lien will send them home often.”
Ha’s face dropped. His family’s honor had been bruised. He thought of his papa who’d rather endure poverty than ask for help. Once, when Uncle Lien sent some gifts home to Grandma, she shared half of the presents with Mama. Mama was so happy, she brought black fabric and those bottles of Tylenol to show Papa. But Papa wasn’t happy. His parents ended up in the backyard talking for a long time. When they returned, Papa’s face was sullen, and Mama’s eyes were red.
Since then, each time Grandma brought Uncle Lien’s gifs to Mama, Mama had to wait for Grandma at the gate and they would enter the house through the back door. The day that Ha left, Mama waited for Papa to leave the house before she brought out a sheet of paper and wrote down the names of fabrics and Western medicines that had values in Saigon. She told Ha to memorize them al so he could recite them to Uncle Lien. He loved Mama very much-he always wanted to hug her whenever she was despairing over money. But deep down, Ha liked Papa’s way of thinking better. He vaguely recognized in Papa’s way of endurance something brave that deserves respect. That was why Ha wrote at the end of the letter:
Right now Grandma and me we don’t know when we will go to Galang. When we get there I will take a color photo and send it home to you immediately. I will smile real big so you and Ri can see how well and happy I am. Mama, Grandma says you shouldn’t worry. The ship that takes us to Galang is very big, not like that tiny boat we took from Bac Lieu. As for you Ri, I hope you will study well. Oh, I forget, if you come over here, there are plenty of plastic bags for you to recycle. They throw plastic bags all over the place, each one is clear and thick and I think of you having to collect those ugly and thin and stinking ones for the government recycle program. When I get to America I will buy metal toys and send them to you. When I come back to see you, we’ll go to the zoo to feed rotten guavas and sugarcane to the monkeys and elephants. Ri, do you remember when that monkey almost got my hair, and that elephant sprayed water on you and you got all wet?
Signed: Ha and Grandma.
It was late into the night when the two were done with the letter. Ha proudly signed the letter as if he were a president signing an important bill in front of his people. He wanted his Grandma to make an X mark next to his signature but she refused, saying it was not necessary. Ha missed his Papa, loved his Papa, admired his Papa. But before he left, Mama said if he writes, never to mention Papa. The police may well read the letter, they would know that Ha had escaped. They will take his Papa back to the re-education camp again.