For all of the five years I was in elementary school, our house was the tallest on the street. Standing at four floors that were newly built in 2004, when the economy in Ho Chi Minh City was only just picking up, our cream-colored house was the object of our neighbors’ envy. I like to think that we had started a chain reaction: since then, one after another, houses on the street were torn down and built up to twice, thrice their old size. The street named Bàn Cờ, which directly translates to chessboard, used to have houses of the same width and height. It presented a pleasing symmetric view, but is now undeserving of its name.
My mother’s memories of the house during its first five years of existence were a mixture of pride and exasperation. My parents had been saving for almost twenty years to rebuild it, and my mother oversaw the design and construction herself. They had every right to be proud of the house to which my childhood was attached. But during those years, as the tallest house of the neighborhood, the structure attracted a lot of unwanted attention. Market-goers parked their cars on our paved cement lawn, since there was no other flat surface on our crowded street, which was next to one of the largest open-air markets in the city. Vendors sold their goods at our door, taking advantage of the extra attention. Neighbors deposited their trash there too, as the garbage truck’s stop was nearby. Potential thieves were constantly lurking (I once witnessed a stranger walk straight into my house but when he saw my mom coming down the stairs, he made off as if someone had just called him on his phone—the blatant audacity), so the police also came by often enough. Neighborhood planning committee members and local government officials visited quite a few times, presenting gifts in one hand and asking for money in the other. I had witnessed all of this as a child, even basked in the attention a little bit, and was completely oblivious to my parents’ worries and struggles until much later, when our house was no longer the center of attention and my mother recalled these memories from time to time, half fondly and half angrily.
I have remembered those years differently. To me, the title of the tallest building meant only one thing: I was able to watch the fireworks on Lunar New Year’s Eve. Despite its height ranking, our house was still not tall enough for us to see past our right neighbor’s pyramidal tint rooftop. At the risk of cutting our feet on the metal shingles, we could climb from our balcony onto the top of the neighbor’s house—the doctor family’s. I remember my father constantly urging us to tread lightly, not only to watch our feet but also not to alarm them of our trespass. When I was six, my father watched quietly as I entered a shop and put a little dog-shaped eraser into my pocket when no one was watching. He never raised his voice, but with a slight head shake and the sad eyes whose disappointment weighed on me more than any scolding, he made me put the dog back. My father had always been my moral compass—a man of discipline, principles and hard work—but on those New Year Eves, he was just a father of two daughters. He snickered and whispered beside me and my sister, both thrilled and scared from our small act against the law.
On those nights, the air would feel alive, the streets would be deserted—the only nights of the year when there were no vendors, no street cleaners, no motorcycles, no cars—as everyone rushed indoors to spend time with their family and honor their ancestors. It was so quiet I could hear a dog bark many blocks away, deep inside the market, a faint but sudden sound that did little to disrupt the determined excitement of that sacred night. My neighbors—all those who lived on the same street, ate noodles from the same stall, bought rice from the same shop—made up a community in which I grew up, but whose existence I never really feel except on Tết New Year’s Eve. Only on those nights could I watch them gather with their own families on their top floors—as close as they could get to the heavens—to light incense and pray for a good year. At exactly midnight, everyone would close their eyes, clap their hands together dutifully, and stand under the open sky to ask for the things they wanted most. The entire street would seem to inhale at the same time, hold their breathes as they prayed, afraid of scaring the spirits of good luck away, and collectively exhale a sigh of relief. Everyone would then look around, onto the other rooftops and at their neighbors, seeing—actually seeing—them for the first time in a year, and would feel an impulse to smile. The streets would seem smaller, the houses closer to one another, as if one only needed to whisper Happy New Year to a neighbor across the road. It was hard not to love your neighbors on a night like that, when hope hung so heavily in the air.
But Tết New Year’s Eve was also special for another reason: the fireworks. My mother, often exhausted after a day full of cleaning, shopping, and cooking for the family feast on January 1st, was never awake at midnight when the fireworks started. So it was just my father, my sister, and I who would climb the little wall between our house and our neighbor’s, always in that order, with my father telling us over and over again to be “extremely careful”. His repetitiveness and meticulousness, which every day felt strict and overbearing, those nights felt only magnanimous and kind. I would be careful, I told myself, stepping gingerly on spots where his larger footprints marked the dust, but if I were to cut my feet, my father would care for me and would it be so bad?
My father would let me stand in the middle, and once the first explosion sounded, the silence of the night would be broken, along with its holiness, and I could feel chaotic celebration slowly pervade the air. My father would point out to us where the sky lit up red and green, asking us over and over again whether we were able to see it. The fireworks never appeared anywhere else in the sky—it was always in the same spot between the two roofs across the street a little to our right—but we would always ask one another whether we had seen that sparkle of gold or flower of red and how it disappeared, shimmering down to the earth. We would always answer by saying oh yes, isn’t it beautiful and take turns asking the same question all over again. We would stand never quite touching, but close enough to hear one another’s breath in between the fireworks blasts. I had never felt so close to my father as I felt on those nights. We were watching the same lights, inhaling the same air, and waiting for the same New Year to come, wishing the same things for our family and heading towards the same future. Even after all these years, I can never remember those rhetorical questions and compliments, repeated by our three mouths countless times, thrown back and forth just for the sake of hearing one another’s voices, as anything less than the most beautiful gesture of love.
Years past and the inevitable happened. Our rich neighbor built a house not only taller than ours, but also wider. They bought their other neighbor’s house, the tiny one inhabited by only an elderly couple. It was a one-floor, dilapidated wooden structure that did not belong on this modernizing street, a prehistoric eyesore that housed more mice than humans. After the wife passed away, the husband sold the house to the doctor’s family, hoping to spend his last years in a cheaper area on the outskirts of the city. In its place, the doctor’s family built a seven-story house, complete with an elevator and a car garage—a luxury few could afford so close to the city center. We could no longer climb to their roof, which was now three stories above ours. Besides, by then my sister had left to study abroad in the US, and I had grown into a teenager, so sharing fifteen silent minutes watching fireworks on someone else’s roof with my father was beginning to sound unappealing to me. Thus came the end of our family’s New Year’s Eve fireworks viewings.
When I turned fourteen, I decided to follow my sister’s footsteps. I got a scholarship to study in Connecticut, where my family had no relatives and no connections. My mother urged me not to go, and to this day neither I nor she truly knows if it was purely out of selfishness that she wanted to keep me, or for my own good. My father, on the other hand, believed it was a good opportunity. As a man who had successfully hidden all of his emotions from his daughters, he did not directly tell me whether he thought I should go. I wonder if it was because he was always teaching classes or having meetings, or because I never really listened when he spoke—maybe both—but in my memories of the last days I spent at home, words of love and comfort never fell from his lips. He was a serious man, the president of a university, feared and obeyed by many, and even though at home he never once used his commanding voice on his wife and daughters, something about his public authority still seeped through the walls into our family life. He was gallant and never treated my mother less than she deserved, but words he spoke, often few but always powerful, became the law of our home. No one, not even my mother, could go against his will once he had decided what he wanted to do.
And so it was that in 2003, when my mother’s brother sponsored our family to move to the US, my father put down his foot and said he would not go. My mother tried everything—crying, being angry, complaining, pleading, guilt-tripping, asking him whether he wanted a better future for his children—but nothing moved him. He never gave her a reason, never explained why he didn’t think our family should move—he only shook his head and left the room whenever she tried to breach the subject. Even mentioning it to him today, more than 15 years later, would only elicit a grudging smile and a slight headshake from him, before he turns away.
One Saturday night when my father was with his friends till late, leaving my mother at home all alone, she called me. It was a wintry Saturday morning in New Jersey where I attended university. When I picked up the phone, she asked the opening questions that always started our conversations: about the weather, about the food at school, about classes and homework. And I volleyed back a series of equivalent questions, about what she was doing, what she had been cooking at home, what they had both been up to. I was trying to complete a coding assignment and was only half listening to her, remembering vaguely that the conversation was about a dish she made earlier that day, when she suddenly asked me, without any transition: “Do you want to live in the US?” I hesitated before muttering an uncertain yes, which launched my mother into her memories of the past.
“If it weren’t for your father, we would be living comfortably in the US by now.”
“Well, it’s ok Mom, Chau and I turned out ok.”
“But I still want to know why,” she said abruptly.
She told me that it was probably because his mother still lived with us, or because his professorship had already taken root in Vietnam. Although he had stopped her from going in 2003, she asked her other brother to file for another sponsorship application three years later, and my father had acquiesced, believing that the ten years’ waiting time for the application to be approved would be enough for him to make something out of his career. Try as she might, she couldn’t completely hide an edge in her voice, still accusing him of losing a future for our family, even better than the already perfect present of our lives in Vietnam—we had a house, my father a steady income, my sister and I a Western education and a bright future, and my mother her pride living vicariously through our success. Although she kept saying “a future for you and Chau in America”, but I think, hidden among those words, was a future for her too. My mother wasn’t able to complete her college education due to political turmoil that ensued the Vietnam War (or to us, the American War). I knew she had always wanted to go back to finish her degree, but that was impossible as long as she remained in Vietnam. She had hoped to come to the US while her hair was still black to begin her career over again, for a chance—no matter how slim—of becoming someone.
Of course, my mother understood that my father would never quell her ambitions. He supported her career as much as he would have supported me in similar endeavors. But sometimes, I have to remind myself that he grew up in a very different era. He was born the only son among eight children to his parents, who unabashedly treated him as their prized child. His father taught him to develop photographs, a skill upon which the whole family survived, and to even sing Japanese songs he had learned from the radio during the Japanese occupation of Vietnam. My father’s sisters never got to try their hands in the red-light room, nor curl their lips to pronounce those pseudo-Japanese words. When I asked my father why grandfather had treated him so differently, giving him the most sacred symbol of love that men in his family seemed capable of giving—education—while not doing the same for his sisters, he would shrug and say, “My sisters just had different interests at the time.” I like to believe that this generational gender bias in him manifests only as a sense of duty as the head of the family. But even if it was just this, it was still enough to make him subconsciously put his career above my mother’s, believing that as the bread-earner, his job was the most important.
The first month I ever spent away from home was September of 2013, when I started 10th grade in Connecticut. A few weeks after school began, my father had a conference in Montreal, Canada. He decided that was closer to me than he had been in a month, so he went on a whim and paid a large fee to reschedule his flight to stop by Bradley Airport. He waited for a ten-hour layover in Moscow, just to see me for two days—two days. I remember the moment I first saw him after months apart, standing under the cherry blossom tree by our school gym in his suit and tie. The tarmac path from my dorm to the gym lay in a straight line, with no trees or curves behind which I could hide my awkward slouch, my discomfort—my anger—from him, from his loving gaze and beaming smile. “Why the hell is he wearing a suit and tie?” was the only thing I could think of as I walked towards him, aiming my eyes at the ground. I looked up when it was an acceptable distance to make eye contact, but once I saw his dress shoes and suitcase, which made me embarrassed—embarrassed for him—I immediately blurted out, without any other introductions, “You know Dad, most people here just wear a polo and some khakis when they visit their kids.”
If I could turn back time and correct one mistake I have made to my father—and believe me I have made many—it would be that day, under that cherry blossom tree. If I could go back I would hug him, feel his familiar warmth making up for the lonely sleepless nights I had to spend in bed listening to my roommate call her parents at three in the morning. I would thank him for paying the extra 500 dollars and sleeping on a bench in Moscow airport just to see me, just to sit in my dorm while I did homework for five hours, just to have a single dinner with me.
But in truth, there was little I could do to make up for snapping at him as he asked me about my classes, for shrugging his hand off as he patted my shoulders, for staring at the ground instead of answering him about whether I missed home. I was almost afraid to look at him, afraid to see the sadness in his eyes because he knew exactly how lonely his daughter was and how little she could open up to him. My mother told me, years later, how sad he was when he came home after visiting me. “You pushed him away,” she said, looking at me with the same sad reproach that my father must have worn that day, “he thought he has lost you.” So I knew an apology would never be enough. My father doesn’t believe in something as ephemerally sentimental as spoken words—he was a man of science and of facts. For him, love was felt and never spoken. To this day, I have never told my father that I loved him. So instead, I wrote it down, hoping that if he couldn’t—wouldn’t—hear that I love him, then at least someone else would. But I believe he knows. I am his daughter after all—deep down I know he knew exactly what I was thinking under that cherry blossom tree, and also knew that he would never lose me.
I still remember him sitting there on my dorm room bed, falling asleep on his phone while I went about my day, not bothering to look at him or talk to him, ask him about his flight or his past few months without me. My father is a man of his profession: he is defined by his work, and he loves what he does. As an engineering professor at one of the leading technical universities in Vietnam, he is respected and obeyed. My uncle was a man just like that before he immigrated to America. He was a manager at a big rice export company, and made enough money to support his family of four by himself. But when he came to the US in 2009, with no American degree and little English skills, he settled for a butcher’s job at a Vietnamese supermarket. He had worked the odd hours—the earliest and latest shifts—seven days a week for ten years to pay the bills and send his sons to college.
I know my father could never accept such a change. Seeing him sit on that twin mattress dozing off in his suit, I couldn’t help but imagine how little a new life in America would bring for him. Migration could be a fresh start to those willing to work their way up from the bottom, but for a man whose life foundations had already been laid and built upon for decades, he would demand America to let him continue to do what he does, to go on with life as he knows it. And America, with its cutthroat competition, would deny him that, slamming the door in his face again and again, until it reduced him to a husk of a man, walking day in and day out around house with not so much as an acquaintance to fill his waking hours. My father dozing off sitting is often a funny a sight to me and my sister, but to imagine the rest of his life just like that—it would break him.
Recently, thirteen years after my uncle had filed the second sponsorship application, the US Consulate allowed us to move forward. It came time to decide who would go and who would stay. It was never questioned that my mother and I would go, because we both would never miss a second chance this precious for a new life, if not for my mother than at least for her vicariously through me. But my father was still hesitant, even after a decade of pondering. Only then did I understand that, at sixty, it is much harder to let go of memories you have lived, than it is at thirty to let go of visions of a future you may yet live. The house, the street, the city—they are as much a part of him as his profession.
Now, at sixty, leaving Vietnam must look very different to him from when he was forty. His career is no longer at its peak and is already coming to its end. In a few years, after retiring, he would look for a source of comfort and familiarity, reliving the past in the arms of his loved ones, breathing the air that reminds him of childhood. But if he came to the US, he would be thrown into a new environment in which he would become dependent on his children, whom he has taken care of for decades. How could he imagine a day when I would carry him instead of him carrying me? A future of walking in and out of the house, compared to a past of lectures and meetings—how much his world would shrink. We all expected him to stay. “Maybe he would come once he retires in ten years, if the paperwork works out,” my sister said once.
So when he asked me, one summer night as he was driving me on the back of his motorcycle, whether I wanted to stay in the US, I stammered before muttering a quiet yes. I was taken by surprise: the answer had always been yes, and he had always known it. He only nodded to my response and stared ahead, continuing his ponderings without allowing me any glimpse into why he suddenly asked me such a question.
A few weeks later, after I had already returned to the US to continue my studies, he called me to ask what I would think if he came with my mother and me. My father doesn’t like repeating himself. He must have loved me very much. I stammered again, realizing that I understood him so little—he kept catching me by surprise. I said, “It would of course be great, but is that really what you want to do? I’m okay either way Dad, whatever you think is good.” Sometimes I forget that as a parent, he longs to be reunited with us more than we long to be with him. Maybe he only called to hear me say I missed him, seeking some sort of confirmation that I still, after five years away from home, want to live with him. But I, doing my duty as a daughter, didn’t feel it was my place to give him a definitive answer, which could be interpreted as a command or request. It must be his own choice, and although I know he would never blame me, I didn’t want him to regret any part of his life. The silence on the other end stretched out, filled by the sound of cars passing by my window. I couldn’t hear his breathing, so quiet it was, until he said, “I think I’ll come.”
It was an August night. Completing an internship, I couldn’t go home that summer, so my parents decided to fly over to visit me and my sister. We had just finished dinner with my aunt’s family and were walking along the road back to our cars when we heard a muffled blast, and saw our own shadows light up in a shade of green for a second. My sister looked at her watch, and said, chuckling, “It’s 9:30. Disneyland has fireworks every night around this time. We should stay and watch for a bit.” So, that was how we found ourselves squeezed against a fence, staring intently at a spot between two palm trees down the road, my mother and sister in one clump a little ahead, my father and I in the back. The sky lit up red and green, just like it did years ago on that roof. It had been ten years since we last saw fireworks as a family. I couldn’t help but be surprised that my father and I were once again watching the same lights, inhaling the same air, and heading towards the same future. I had not returned to him as I had thought I would when I began my studies, but he had come to me, carrying on his back all his past, willing and allowing me to become his future. We were again standing not quite touching but just close enough for me to hear his breathing, which was slower now. I ventured a side glance at my father, standing with his hands behind his back, calmly watching the sky with a slight smile. So much had changed about him—his hair had gotten whiter, his shoulders a little more stooped—but that smile—it was the same smile on all those New Year’s Eves a decade ago. We had not said anything since the fireworks began, so I thought I would do the honor. I pointed between the palm trees, leaned sideways towards him, and asked:
“Did you see that explosion of red and gold just now?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw his smile broaden as he said:
“Yes, of course. Isn’t it beautiful?”