PULAU BIDONG, MALAYSIA, 1979
Hoa struggled to ignore him, her eyes concentrating on the damp towel hanging in front of her, her movements quick and methodical. It was impossible: Bac Nhut was not asleep, he was watching her. Hoa had caught the old man’s eyes fluttering as she adjusted her canvas partition, his mouth too delicately closed, his head conveniently propped in her direction. Their families and neighbors were away at the mess hall for lunch, leaving the old pervert free to leer without witnesses.
She was not afraid of her neighbor, only repulsed. Hoa felt confident she could defend herself from his thin, weak limbs if he dared touch her. Sometimes she wished he would—her desire to strike him, to expose his depravity, overwhelmed her usually complacent nature. For weeks, Bac Nhut pretended to nap in his shanty when Hoa returned from bathing, even though she altered her shower time every day. Revolting. Back in Vietnam, she’d tell her husband. No, she realized. In Vietnam, this wouldn’t happen. They had walls back home.
In the camp, since no one was better than anyone else, they had to get along. This, even her husband had to agree. If she complained about the old man’s lewd behavior, word might get back to the Malay guards and she would be branded a snitch. Punishment, gossip, suspicion. Refugees from every zone would snub her, and Hoa couldn’t endure embarrassing her family like that.
She refused to look at him, though his gaze crept along her still damp arms and legs. Usually, Hoa hung up the laundry like the others to serve as makeshift walls and further protection, but today their few clothing items were clean. So she concentrated on changing her garments behind a crate of Coca-Cola bottles, dressing efficiently, calmly. He would not have the pleasure of knowing the discomfort he caused her. He should be ashamed of himself. She was not some young, thin tramp asking to be ogled. Deplorable man. At his age. Their grandchildren sat next to each other at camp school.
A long shadow grew over the sand and Hung emerged atop Zone A. Hoa smiled in relief, but ducked her head as her husband moved toward the shelter, his scowl deepening. She put on her blouse, pulling up her waist-length hair and began combing. When she peered to the side, she saw that Bac Nhut had shifted his body to face the back of his tent.
Their shelter was a four-meter-long thatched roof supported by water-rotted wooden stakes, too small of a space for Hung to properly stalk around. Not even a chair to sit on, only bamboo mats and army blankets on the soft dirt for beds. The new arrivals in Zone C had it worse—plastic blue tarp shelters barely supported by skinny tree branches. The Malaysians treated the refugees worse than their dogs. While others eventually adjusted to their new surroundings, Hung refused to do so. He stood, resting one arm on a sapling post, glaring at everything.
Hung was eight years older than Hoa, but no one looking at them would ever know. Almost sixty, Hung hardly had a white hair, while Hoa discovered more in her bun each day. His face remained soft and moist, while Hoa’s complexion had dried out years before.
“How was the meeting?” Hoa asked.
“They may not have an answer until next month,” Hung said. “Five of us, no problem. But with ten, they need to talk to the French delegation again.”
Her comb caught in a large wet tangle at the nape of her neck. She patiently picked through it, ignoring the soreness in her scalp. “We have been here well over a year,” she said.
“Do you think I’ve forgotten?”
Hoa took a deep breath. “I’m only saying, maybe it will be easier if we leave in groups. Perhaps the officials are right. Who wants to sponsor ten people together? Too much responsibility.”
“If we traveled this far together, it shouldn’t be so difficult to complete it. Please, Hoa, you know nothing about this.”
Despite his age, Hung stood as tall and rigid as when she first saw him at their engagement ceremony. His puffed-up chest and thin-lidded eyes supported the impression that Hung looked down on everything around him. Hoa suspected that this was one of the reasons their immigration applications kept getting delayed. Always mindful of dressing neatly in his wrinkled slacks and sun-bleached dress shirt—rather than the tank tops and shorts the other men on the island wore—Hung felt quite proud of his reputation as a snob. He did think he was better.
Hoa remembered when Bac Le, who departed with his family last week for America, had suggested to Hung that he slip some money to the delegation officials. Hung’s solemn lecture on the dangers of bribery embarrassed both families. The Les departed without saying good-bye.
“What do the boys think?” Hoa asked. Their sons Phung and Sanh also had attended the interview.
“So passive,” Hung said. “Why did you raise such weak sons? Yen would have argued alongside me.”
Hung never hid his preference for their middle son, whom he boasted inherited his strength and persistence. He regularly derided his other sons as Hoa’s creations—too feminine and indecisive. They hadn’t seen Yen in five years. He left Vietnam to go to law school in France and claimed refugee status when the war ended. Last month, the Truongs had an offer to immigrate to Australia, but Hung declined. He wished to seek asylum in only one country.
“Sanh was so rude to the French delegate,” Hung continued. “Hardly speaking at all, claiming he’s forgotten his French. The liar.”
“Maybe he wasn’t feeling well.”
“I don’t care. He knows how important this is. And the only time he spoke was to ask how their resettlement process compared to the States’. Can you believe that?”
Hoa put down her comb. “Why was he asking about the States?”
“Who knows what goes on in a liar’s head? He keeps crying that he wants to leave and the French are taking too long. But if we have to wait, we have to wait. God will look out for us.”
The other refugees were returning from the mess hall. The Malays probably served smelly chicken again. The Vietnamese would rather eat their rations. Soon the shelter would swim with the popping sizzles of cooking oils, the sharp aroma of contraband fish, and the relentless snap snap of the women chewing betel nuts. Hoa briefly shut her eyes in disappointment. She only wanted a few minutes alone. She had not been truly alone, and calm, since they left Vietnam.
That was months ago. Her prayer room—a closet, the only space that was solely hers in their house in Saigon—had probably already been cleared out by her sister-in-law, wiped clean of Hoa and the rest of the escaping Truongs. She could hardly recall this sanctuary, her thoughts cluttered by more recent, tangible memories: huddling under a plastic tarp and thin, mud-crusted blankets during the monsoon season in Zone C; paltry rations that consisted mainly of canned sardines and a scoop of rice; waking up to rat bites on her legs; dirty latrines; the taunts and insults of the Malay guards.
Still, some of their neighbors accepted this as their new home, so desperate to resettle in any place that wasn’t Vietnam. They opened hair salons and noodle shops within the township, and joined church choirs. Even when paperwork cleared for immigration, some felt reluctant to leave. Their son Phung said it was because their people could acclimate to anything. They’d lived with war and displacement for centuries. Their history allowed them to make anywhere home.
“This isn’t a home,” Hoa reminded her husband. “Please, we have to leave. I don’t care what country we go to first.”
Hung lifted his hand and Hoa instinctively turned her head. He didn’t finish. There were others around. The last time he struck her within eyesight of the camp gossips, he’d endured dirty looks and pointed whisperings for weeks. Hoa exhaled, calmly facing him.
“What kind of mother are you?” he spat. “So selfish about your own concerns. Do you not want to be with your son? What would God think of your behavior?”
She didn’t move as he stomped out of their shelter. She’d learned not to run after him. After so many years together, she realized it was better when he left.
* * *
During the afternoons, the Vietnamese liked to go bathing and to wash laundry at Pantai Beach or at the waterfall. Hoa knew her family preferred the beach, which reminded her sons of their old home in Nha Trang. A warm breeze tossed whispers of sand along Hoa’s feet. Women crouched near the shore, wringing shirts and underwear clean. Naked children stomped in the water, shrieking as the prickly waves engulfed their feet, joyously throwing chunks of dirty plastic and misshapen aluminum cans at each other.
Only immediate family could live together in the camp. Phung’s family was in Zone E, Sanh’s family in Zone B, and Yen’s wife and son in Zone D. People could request zone transfers, but they were rarely granted. Refugees preferred to stand in line for their immigration requests. Hoa didn’t like her family spread all over Bidong Island; it only spanned two kilometers in diameter, but at times could feel much larger. A day could pass and she wouldn’t see one of her sons or grandchildren. Her daily trips to the beach or to their shanties made sure this didn’t happen.
Hoa’s feet began sinking as her steps slowed for her thoughts. Hung was mistaken. Hoa did miss Yen. Though she never flaunted it outright like Hung, Hoa also preferred her middle son. This did not mean she didn’t love her other boys. She’d long ago given up her own comforts for her sons and then their wives and then their children. But Yen was special. She knew this even during her pregnancy, when the fortune-teller rubbed her belly and prophesized the child’s greatness.
“He is your reward,” the woman had said while Hoa poured their tea. “For all your suffering and pains, he will make them all worth it to you.”
Hoa bowed her head in response. She’d only agreed to see the fortune-teller out of respect for her in-laws. But as the years passed, and more calamities fell upon their country and their family, she realized how immune her middle son was to the bad luck. Yen, whose outstanding test scores and charisma earned him a full scholarship to a French university, was now waiting for them in Paris. He was a successful lawyer, and preparing a new home for them. It was something Hoa reminded herself of, every day, something to focus on that was positive and hopeful.
Three familiar children separated from the playgroup to wade through the waves toward her. Hoa held her conical hat with both hands so the breeze wouldn’t take it.
“Grandmother, look,” Cam said, her dripping hands holding up a blue-tinted ghost crab. “Can we eat it?”
Hoa pretended to inspect the small crustacean thoroughly, as Cam’s younger cousins, Xuan and Lum, peered behind her. Their dark, wet hair lay pasted on their deeply bronzed skin, their small breaths panting from running to her. “I don’t think it’s large enough, child. Throw it back in the water and give it a few more weeks to grow.”
Cam stared wistfully at her prize for a slow moment before bending over and releasing the creature back into the sea. “What if I can’t find it again? What if it floats all the way to Vietnam?”
That was how they kept children from playing too far into the ocean. The strong current could carry you away from your family, back to Vietnam, where the Communists would shoot you. Remembering their stretched-out weeks on leaky boats, staring out at the sea and sky that loomed larger each passing day, the children obeyed, never straying far.
“You’ll find it,” Hoa promised. “Now where are your parents? Who is watching you?”
“Auntie Trinh is watching us.”
“Well, where is she?”
Xuan shyly raised his arm and pointed farther along the shore, identifying his mother.
Lounging against a rock, alone, her dirty feet drawing lazy circles in the sand, Yen’s wife, Trinh, stared listlessly at the low waves. She wore a loose green blouse and shorts that exposed much of her legs. Her plastic white-rimmed sunglasses, which she posed in with unabashed pride, were a foolish purchase in Hoa’s opinion, money better spent buying precious meat for her noodle-thin little boy. Several feet away from Trinh, a group of fishermen happily chatted while hunched over a pile of fish, gutting the fresh catch and tossing the entrails back into the ocean.
The grandchildren returned to playing in the waves with the other children, while Hoa walked toward Trinh. Of all her daughters-in-law, Hoa felt furthest from Trinh. Though she’d attempted many times over the years to welcome Yen’s young wife into the family, the girl proved sullen and impossible to please. Only Sanh’s wife, Tuyet, seemed to get along with her.
“Where are your sisters?” Hoa asked, standing over Trinh.
The girl barely looked up. “Ngoan and Tuyet went into town for supplies.”
“Have the children had lunch?”
“We just came from the mess hall.”
“Did they eat enough? They served chicken. Cam hates the chicken.”
Trinh removed her sunglasses and reluctantly faced her mother-in-law. “They’re fine. They’ve eaten enough.” She reached inside her blouse and pulled out a creased gray-blue envelope. “This is from Yen.”
Hoa snatched the letter from her hands. “When did you get this? Why didn’t you tell us right away?”
“I’m telling you now. I didn’t think it was urgent.”
“How would you know?” Hoa asked. The girl could barely read.
“If it was,” Trinh said, turning to face the ocean again, “he would have addressed it to your husband.”
Hoa opened the envelope and squatted in the sand. She looked up at her daughter-in-law. Spoiled child. Most wives in the camp would have sacrificed a week’s rations for a letter from their husband. And such a kind letter, Hoa realized, her eyes lingering upon the declarations of devotion and confessions of his sleepless nights worrying over his family.
Her son’s idealistic attachment to Trinh had always baffled Hoa, and it had no doubt blossomed during their years apart. She wondered what would happen when they finally reunited. Yen wrote mostly of his work, his neighborhood in Paris, his Catholic parish, questions about the rest of the family. The last page was a letter to Xuan asking his son to take care of his mother and promising to bring them home soon.
“Anything important?” Trinh asked, more absorbed in picking off the crusty mud from her heels.
“He wants to make sure you’re doing well.”
“Well,” Trinh repeated, her eyes returning to the children on the beach. “That’s nice.”
The fishermen nearby had completed their gutting and stood, whispering to one another, gaping at Trinh. Hoa cleared her throat and glared at them pointedly until they turned away.
“Why don’t you cover yourself up?” Hoa asked. “It’s indecent the way they look at you.”
“It wouldn’t matter,” Trinh said, briefly looking back at the fishermen. Her sunglasses hid her expression. “It’s too late.”
So impudent, ignorant. They’d warned Yen about the pitfalls of marrying a country girl. Hoa realized again why they needed to leave the camp soon. She didn’t know how much longer she could continue looking after this one.
The children were shrieking, but not in their usual playful manner. Hoa glanced toward the commotion. On the other side of the beach, a crowd began to form, pointing to a matchbox in the sea. Wordlessly, Trinh and Hoa shuffled their feet through the sand, their eyes never leaving the object.
As the matchbox swayed closer to the shore, everyone’s suspicions were confirmed: a fishing junk. The yellowing boat was overcrowded with salt-crusted refugees—some draping their arms and legs over the splintered sides. They looked haggard, starved, relieved, afraid. The Malay soldiers on duty yelled at the boat, perched on the boulders overlooking the bay, pointing their rifles. Hoa had lived on Pulau Bidong long enough to understand their few words.
Go away. No room here. Go somewhere else. We won’t take you. We will shoot.
But the Vietnamese already standing on the beach worked fast. Two men had already run back to the community center to find a United Nations worker. Others yelled instructions to the refugees on how to sink the boat.
“Hammer out the floor!”
“Rip off the sail! Throw it in the water!”
“Throw everything in the water!”
“Come closer! Keep coming, they won’t shoot, they’re bluffing!”
For several long, frustrating moments, the passengers on the fishing boat could only stare. Hoa wondered if they looked that dumb and stunned when their boat first arrived.
The junk swayed toward the boulders near the dock. The soldiers still pointed their guns, spitting their vicious threats. When the boat bumped against the rocks, one of the soldiers attempted to push it back with the butt of his gun. But the refugees were already pulling out of the sinking boat, weeping, trudging through the dirty water for shore. They wore rags, unrecognizable as clothing. Some of the children were naked. Once they touched dry land, their legs gave out, and they collapsed on the beach.
The soldiers scrambled after the new refugees, surrounding them, attempting to isolate the group in one area. A young woman tried to reach out to Hoa, begging for food, but a soldier shoved her back into the crowd. Several children cowered in the sand, screaming at the sight of guns pointed at them. Ignoring the soldiers’ orders, some people pushed bananas and star fruits into the hands of the new refugees. Hoa dug into her pockets and found some candy she’d been saving for her grandchildren. She easily slipped into the chaos, and pressed them into the hands of the young woman, who cried out gratefully, stuffing the still-wrapped confections into her mouth.
A soldier grabbed Hoa by the back of her shirt and threw her into the sand.
“Hey!” Trinh yelled, helping a dazed Hoa to her feet. “Don’t push an old woman!”
“Barbarians!” someone yelled. “They’re pushing the old ladies!”
More screaming, more shoving back and forth. The same soldier stumbled in front of them, his back toward Hoa. She kicked him solidly in the shin, then quickly hid behind a taller Vietnamese man, her gaze fixed in the opposite direction.
Several UN workers arrived on the beach, pushing past the onlookers, and tried to restore order.
“You are all safe,” a UN worker named Betty yelled in broken Vietnamese to the terrified new refugees. “No one is going to shoot you. But you need to be quarantined and examined by doctors. Please stay calm.”
This had to be repeated several times by other Vietnamese so that the refugees finally listened to their instructions. They warily clung to one another’s elbows, blinking suspiciously at the Caucasians. Betty and the other UN workers assembled the new refugees into a group to head toward the health clinic.
“Welcome to Bidong!” several people shouted as the new refugees filed past them.
“Don’t be afraid of the doctors. They are very kind.”
“But be careful of the Malay guards. Protect your valuables.”
“Don’t eat their chicken! It will make you sick. Wait until you get into camp to eat.”
“You made it! The worst is over!”
After the new refugees left, the crowd thinned. The tide was growing stronger, sending most of the bathers back to their shelters. Some of the children, including Cam and Xuan, loitered behind to poke around the boat wreck. Xuan attempted to climb into the wreck, eager to reenact the earlier excitement. Cam scrambled up the rocks, pretending to be a Malay soldier, while Xuan balanced on the sea-soaked planks, pleading for sanctuary.
“Get out of here, you stinking Vietnamese,” Cam growled. “Go back to Vietnam.”
“I have nowhere else to go,” Xuan squealed. “Please save me.”
Hoa warned them not to cut their feet on the splintered wood. They leaned against the rocks, as Trinh cuddled a sleepy Lum in her arms. The children’s giggling and playacting faded with the crashing waves. The first boat to arrive at the camp in two weeks, it reminded Hoa that beyond the horizon, more boats floated aimlessly in the South China Sea, their passengers desperately hoping to shore up at a refugee camp. Not all of them made it. You had to be lucky.
“They won’t stop coming,” Hoa said, staring out at the water, which now reflected the orange in the sky. She wondered what kind of place Vietnam would become with so many of its people escaping.
“Someone should warn them,” Trinh said.
“About what?” Hoa asked.
“That it’s no better here.”
“We’re not going to be here for much longer,” Hoa said, surprising herself at how much she sounded like Hung.
“How are we so sure it will be better somewhere else?” Trinh asked. “Every new place, we assume it’s going to be better. We left Vietnam for something better. I don’t see any difference yet.”
* * *
Yen and Trinh had wanted to marry before his departure to France, but Hung and Hoa spoke against it. In order for Hung to help pay for his education in Paris, Yen had to follow his father’s conditions. No marriage, not even an engagement. If they still wanted to marry after Yen finished school and returned to Vietnam, Hung and Hoa would provide their blessing and support. This was Hung’s strategy. He hoped in those intervening years Yen would meet someone, even a French woman, who would change his mind about this daughter of a drunk.
A few weeks after Yen’s departure, the servant boy opened their front door and led a visibly pregnant Trinh into the sitting room. She held an envelope in Yen’s unmistakable scrawl protectively over her rotund belly. Trinh was having their grandchild. Yen and Trinh had eloped a few nights before he left. Yen requested, in that beautiful, cursive penmanship Hoa had been so proud of, that his family care for his new wife and child until he could return to Vietnam.
“He outsmarted us,” Hung admitted, setting the letter on his desk. They whispered in his study while Trinh remained in the sitting room, a small nylon knapsack by her feet, chatting with their youngest son Sanh.
“How can you take this so lightly?” Hoa demanded. “Your plan failed.”
“It is too late to dwell on that,” Hung said, folding up the letter and putting it in his desk drawer. He turned to put on his coat and hat. “There’s a child now. She can take Yen’s room.”
“Where are you going?” Hoa asked. “To another one of your poetry readings?” Hung turned and looked at her. She’d long ago given up caring about Hung’s lady companions. “Only a few weeks ago you said this girl could ruin Yen’s life. Now that she’s done it, you’ve decided to reward her?”
Hung waved a hand in annoyance. “I don’t give a damn about the drunk’s daughter. I am taking responsibility for my grandchild—your grandchild. Once the baby is born, she can leave, which is what she’ll probably do anyway. But the child will stay with his family.”
He was wrong. After Xuan’s birth, Trinh didn’t leave, but by that time, Hoa no longer wished her gone. She’d fallen in love with her first grandson, whose joyful chatter and boisterous laughter reminded Hoa that children were the best of them. Pure, harmless, benevolent. People only soured as they aged. Xuan, along with his older cousin Cam, kept their family smiling and hopeful, distracting them from the ugly climate festering outside their doors.
* * *
The first Thursday of the month, the camp put on a Vietnamese cultural show. After dinner, the UN volunteers erected a small stage behind the mess hall and brought out metal folding chairs from the cafeteria. On Saturday nights, they used the same space to play old film reels from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Although most of the younger people preferred to watch Malaysian soccer games on television in the community center, the cultural shows still attracted enough people that latecomers sat in the aisles and huddled around the stage.
Hoa and her daughters-in-law arrived to the show alone, the men summoned by the French delegation before dinner. Hung assumed they would return quickly. Two hours had passed since then.
That evening, the children were performing The Tale of Kieu. A young, beautiful girl from an educated family is cursed by destiny to a life of poverty and prostitution. Hoa had memorized verses of the epic poem in school. She wondered what would happen when they moved to France, whether the children would remember these verses she still could recite by heart.
Cam and Xuan played Kieu’s sister Van, and her haggard father, Old Vuong. The children shouted their lines through decorated paper bags covering their faces, while the Christian missionaries motioned for them to look out to the audience instead of the floor.
With Lum in her lap, Hoa leaned forward in her chair, straining to hear some of the shyer children mumble their verses. She had been annoyed upon arriving at the performance that the only empty seats were located in front of Bac Nhut. He stared at her, silent, blinking his slow dumb eyes, as they exchanged pleasantries with his thankfully better-mannered children. When she and her daughters-in-law took their seats, Hoa truly believed her skin itched from the old man’s eyes skimming her neck, her back, her toes. She wished she could change seats, but that would have attracted unwanted attention.
The crickets clicked in the grass. In the evenings, the high tide pushed in a warm breeze that barely relieved the humidity. Hoa gingerly pressed her limp hair bun, which sagged heavily with perspiration. The flimsy palm fronds Ngoan fanned in her direction offered little comfort.
On stage, another corrupt man had duped poor Kieu. The young girl playing Kieu raised her hands to the sky, asking again why such misfortune had fallen upon her.
“What is taking them so long?” Phung’s wife, Ngoan, asked, peering behind them, her square jaw clenched, making her plump face look even more serious than it usually did. “The show is almost over.”
“It may be a good sign,” Trinh said, fighting off a yawn. “Perhaps the French delegation said yes.”
“They couldn’t have agreed so quickly,” Sanh’s wife, Tuyet, said. Hoa’s youngest daughter-in-law was no doubt the most beautiful of the three women, with a clear complexion, a straight, attractive set of small teeth, and large, haunting eyes. Tuyet was pregnant again, but had begun to show only recently.
“Why not?” Ngoan asked. “It’s happened before. If we’re lucky, we could leave as early as next week.”
Tuyet shook her silky head of hair. “You’ve been saying that for months.”
“It might be true,” Ngoan sniffed. “Don’t you want to leave?”
“It does no good speaking like that, especially in front of the children. You’ll get them excited over nothing.”
“Well, you don’t want your child born here, do you?” Ngoan asked, staring pointedly at Tuyet’s small belly bump. “Or is France not good enough for your baby?”
“Stop creating problems,” Trinh spoke up.
“Girls,” Hoa finally warned, conscious of the irritated glances from their neighbors.
The women resumed watching the show, now approaching its sentimental climax: Kieu reuniting with her long-suffering, devoted lover Kim. The children embraced flamboyantly, giggling into each other’s shoulders. All the children scrambled back to the stage to sing the national anthem of the South Vietnamese government. Emotional members of the audience joined in, their deeper voices soon drowning out the children’s.
Ngoan shifted restlessly in her seat, the palm fronds lying flat against her thigh. As the first daughter-in-law, Ngoan was several years older than Trinh and Tuyet, and inevitably more traditional. A matchmaker had affianced Phung and Ngoan when they were still children. Though their marriage turned out successfully, Hoa’s younger sons refused the same kind of arrangements. Ngoan often complained of her younger sisters’ lack of manners and parenting skills, but Hoa suspected she secretly envied their youth, their friendship, their beauty.
“I’m not the problem,” Ngoan finally said during the applause. “Phung told me what your husband is trying to do.”
“Will you be quiet?” Trinh asked.
But Hoa could see the uncertain expression on Tuyet’s face. “What is Ngoan talking about?” she asked her youngest daughter-in-law.
“Phung saw Sanh talking to the U.S. immigration officer last week,” Ngoan said.
“So what?” Trinh said, waving her hand. “It doesn’t mean anything.”
Hoa’s eyes remained on Tuyet, who didn’t respond, instead only glaring at Ngoan.
“Don’t be stupid,” Ngoan sneered. “We know who is always talking about America. We know where she really wants to go.”
Tuyet stood, reaching her hands out for a sleeping Lum. The boy whimpered as he left Hoa’s arms. “I don’t need to sit here and listen to this,” she said.
“Tuyet,” Hoa said, touching the woman’s arm, but Tuyet quickly brushed it off.
“I don’t care if she’s the oldest sister. She can’t talk to me that way.”
“Am I lying?” Ngoan asked, her voice rising.
“I’ll leave with you,” Trinh said, standing and waving to Xuan, who still stood on the stage. He and Cam, still in costume, waved back at the family and ran toward them.
“We’re walking back with Aunt Tuyet,” Trinh said to her son.
“Right now?” Xuan asked, removing his paper mask, his face crumpling in a scowl. “But Cam and I were going to play tag with the other kids.”
“It’s getting late,” Trinh said.
“The lights won’t turn off for another hour,” Xuan cried, stamping his foot. “Please, I don’t want to go back there right now.”
“Let him stay, please, Aunt Trinh?” Cam asked. “He can spend the night with us, right, Mother?”
“We can take Xuan back later,” Ngoan said.
“No!” Trinh cried, then stared at the ground. “Thank you for offering, but Xuan should leave with me now.”
“I don’t understand why you isolate yourself like this,” Ngoan said. “Tuyet isn’t the only person who can help you. We’re your family, too.”
Trinh glared at her. “I know what you say about me.”
“Do you see this, Mother?” Ngoan asked. “They turn against me, and claim that I’m the bad person.”
“Be quiet, all of you,” Hoa muttered, recognizing her husband and sons’ shapes approaching. She watched her boys come closer, thankful she bore males, siblings who rarely argued with one another. The children ran to embrace their fathers, while Xuan wrapped his arms around his grandfather’s legs. Hoa smiled, trying to look happy.
“We missed the whole show?” Phung asked, carrying Cam in his arms.
“Of course you have,” Ngoan said. “You’ve been gone for hours.”
Disappointment was etched upon Phung’s sun-worn face. The eldest child, Phung had inherited his father’s height and sharp bone structure; upon appearance, he seemed formidable, even fierce. But once he spoke in that gentle, wavering voice, his true nature surfaced, as soft and pliable as Hoa. Hung saw his complicity as a weakness, an inability to stand up for himself, but nevertheless, he exploited it. Phung obeyed his father’s every request: agreeing to an arranged marriage, joining the army, reporting early to the reeducation camps before anyone realized what they really were.
After two years in the prison camp with his brother Sanh, Hoa hoped Phung would return home furious, disavowing his father’s terrible advice and finally emerge his own person. Sanh had, screaming at Hung about his two lost years and missing his first child’s birth. This insolence had finally earned his father’s reluctant respect. But not Phung. He returned even more lost than before, looking to anyone, even Hoa, to tell him what to do, how to make things better. Of all her sons, she mourned the most for Phung because like her, he could never be more than a ghost, absorbing other people’s thoughts and decisions as his own.
“What happened?” Trinh asked.
“Our application was accepted,” Hung said, smiling faintly, like he’d expected this news all along. “A Catholic charity in Paris has agreed to sponsor us. We leave in a month.”
The children cheered. Forgetting their bickering, the women embraced. Xuan clung to his mother’s waist. While Hung explained the details of their departure, Hoa tried to listen, thankful of course, but unable to tear her eyes from Sanh and Tuyet, his hand over her belly, their silent conversation, the word that she believed swirled under their tongues: America.
* * *
“I need you to be honest with me,” Hoa said.
“It’s nothing,” Sanh said. “We only talked a few times. We’re going to France.”
Hoa exhaled, leaning heavily into her son’s arm as they walked back to her shanty. “Are you sure?”
“Yes,” Sanh said, his natural, friendly face so reassuring. Her youngest son smiled the most in their family, his ability to put people at ease his greatest strength. “I only wanted to know about other options. Now that’s not necessary.”
Hoa believed her son and gladly put all the nonsense about America out of her thoughts. She had so much else to think about. The Truongs were scheduled to depart Pulau Bidong in four weeks. Since immigration decreed only one suitcase per person, Hoa traded away most of her belongings accumulated at camp—the kerosene stove, sleeping mats, cooking utensils—in exchange for more durable clothes and shoes.
The night before their departure, Hung still insisted on the entire family eating dinner together at the mess hall. This was a Truong rule that had never been broken, despite their two-year stay at Pulau Bidong. It wasn’t their mother-of-pearl rosewood table in their Nha Trang home or their smaller teak kitchen table in Saigon, but Hung still sat at the center, flanked by his sons and grandsons, while the females filled in the remaining seats. Horrified by the casual cafeteria-style of serving meals, Hung denounced the manners of the mess-hall workers as barbaric when compared to his devoted servants in Vietnam. Hoa had to collect her husband’s meal. Though the food cooled quickly, no one could eat until everyone was seated and Hung led the family through prayer.
While the other refugees at the surrounding tables hollered their conversations, swallowed their food, and rushed out the door to watch a soccer game on the community television or to gossip on the beach, the Truongs observed slow consumption and appropriate conversation. Hoa realized it had to look strange to others—further perpetuating camp rumors that the Truongs were too arrogant for their own good.
These suggestions and accusations never deterred Hung. Since they lived in different sections of the island, he argued that dinnertime presented the only few hours the whole family could stay together. With thousands of refugees on the island, hundreds arriving and leaving at any given time, dinner alleviated any insecurity they had about each other’s well-being. A full table meant everyone was still safe and well. Hoa knew Hung felt a supreme satisfaction in maintaining this family tradition, up until their last meal on the island.
“We first fly to Manila,” Hung informed them over the rattling of chopsticks and passing plates. “We spend three weeks there for medical evaluations and language and culture seminars before flying to Paris.” He smiled generously in Trinh’s direction. “Yen will meet us at the airport with our sponsors. Sanh, I’ll need your assistance tonight going over our papers.”
“I can help you,” Sanh said, “but there has been a change in our plans.”
“What change?” Hung said, looking concerned. “The delegate said everything had been settled.”
“My family is not going.”
Hoa slowly looked up, her eyes turning to her husband’s.
“What are you talking about?” Hung asked. “Of course you are. I have the papers right here.”
“Did something happen with immigration?” Phung asked. “Why didn’t you tell us?”
“My family will not go to France,” Sanh said, his gaze focused squarely on his dinner plate. “I’m sorry for the change in plans, but it won’t affect your departure, I promise.”
“When did you decide this?” Phung asked. “Why?”
While the men interrogated Sanh, Hoa glowered at Tuyet, who, like her husband, appeared incapable of maintaining eye contact with anyone at the table. Instead, Tuyet continued to feed Lum dinner.
“What are you going to do?” Hung asked. “Stay here? You want to raise your child a Muslim?”
“We’re not staying here,” Sanh said. “We’re going to America.”
“So it’s true,” Hoa said to Tuyet. “This is what you wanted all along.”
“Quiet,” Hung said. “Tell me, Sanh.”
“I don’t wish to raise our children in France,” Sanh said. “I think we will be better off in America.”
“Better,” Hung spat. “Without your family?”
“I don’t expect you to agree with my decision,” Sanh said. “But it is final. Once we’re in America, we’re going to help Tuyet’s family to come over.”
“So this is the Vos’ decision.”
Tuyet slammed her chopsticks onto the table as Lum cried out in protest. “Do not talk about my family, especially after the way you have treated them.”
“How I treated them? I don’t even know them, child.”
“You mean they don’t matter?” Tuyet asked. “Not as much as your own family? You could have bought more seats on the boat if you’d wanted to, I know it.”
“Tuyet,” Sanh said, trying to place a hand on his wife’s arm, but she pushed it off.
“We have fulfilled our duties to you,” Tuyet said. “Now it is time to help my family.”
Hoa stared at her daughter-in-law in shock. No one had ever spoken out against Hung in this manner, especially in public. But Hung simply smirked at Sanh’s impudent wife, regarding her as seriously as a mosquito around his ankle.
“Congratulations, Hoa. I foolishly believed your youngest son actually grew some sense after his prison time, but he is still as brainless as his mother.”
“Don’t insult Mother,” Sanh said with a sigh. “This has nothing to do with her.”
“Of course,” Hung said. “It has nothing to do with the Truongs. You’ve made that perfectly clear.”
“Please,” Sanh said. “I don’t want to part on bad terms.”
“Families don’t part,” Hung said. “You’re the one doing this. And I hope you understand the consequences of your wife’s decision. You are going to America with a wife and two children, with no help from the rest of your family. You must live with this choice.”
Hung offered his youngest son another long, proud stare, one last opportunity to change his mind, to plead forgiveness for a reckless decision, to pledge to never go against the family again. When Sanh did not reply, Hung looked down at his shrimp and vegetable stew. The family resumed eating in near silence, except for a few murmurs from Xuan and Cam, and a small laugh from Lum. Sanh avoided eye contact with his mother, working hard to swallow each bite of food he pushed through his lips.
Sanh stood once he and Tuyet had finished their dinners. “Excuse us, Father,” he said. “We have a lot of work to do before leaving tomorrow. I can help you later tonight with the papers.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Hung said. “You have so much to do. We’ll be fine without you.”
Hoa silently watched as Sanh and Tuyet lifted their trays, walked to the counter, and dropped off their dirty plates. Sanh carried Lum on his back and Tuyet looped her arm through her husband’s. They passed through the cafeteria doors.
* * *
Hung didn’t say anything when Hoa made up an excuse to leave their shanty that evening. He knew where she was going, but only casually nodded as he and Phung sorted through the papers by flashlight.
“Come back before the lights turn off,” Hung reminded her.
Finally free of her husband’s scrutiny, Hoa allowed her composed face to collapse, to give in to the grief that had clumped up in her stomach since dinner. Even when she closed her eyes and shook her head, she could not eradicate the image of victorious Tuyet from her mind. Hoa had never wanted to strike another person so violently in her life. She’d been deceived, they all had. Hoa realized she could trace the subterfuge back to when Tuyet first entered their lives.
After Yen and Trinh’s surprise elopement, Hoa naïvely thought she’d seen the last impulsive marriage in her family. Their youngest son Sanh had been so shy around girls. Though he’d refused his parents’ suggestion of an arranged marriage when he was a teenager, the older he grew, still single, not even a girlfriend, the less strenuously he objected to their mentioning the topic.
That is, until one afternoon, when Hoa returned from her morning trip to the market. Sanh stood in the kitchen, wearing his light gray suit and a polished pair of loafers. While her older sons retained Hung’s tall, lean figure, Sanh’s stocky body and chubby cheeks clearly came from Hoa. Yet he always took pride in his appearance, his hair neatly combed, a handkerchief in his pocket to blot the sweat from his face.
“Why aren’t you at work?” she asked, dropping her baskets onto the kitchen table.
“I’m taking lunch at home,” he said.
Hoa stared at him suspiciously as he helped her unpack the fruits and vegetables from her baskets. “Your father went through a lot of trouble arranging that job for you.”
“I need to talk to you,” Sanh said.
Hoa felt her breath drain out. She pulled out a chair and slowly sank. “Is something wrong with Yen?” They hadn’t received a letter from him in weeks.
Sanh shook his head. He sat next to her, placing a clump of bananas on the table.
She pressed her hand into his. “Phung? Has he been injured?”
“No, Mother,” he said, impatiently pulling his hand back. “It’s me.”
“What is it?”
“I met a girl. I want to marry her.”
Hoa sat back in her chair, relieved. “Is that all? Then why do you look so grave?”
“We want to get married next week.”
“Please don’t tell me she’s pregnant.”
“She isn’t pregnant, but we need to get married soon. I want her to come live with us.”
“This is hardly a good time for a wedding, Sanh. You need a proper engagement, at least six months. We need to meet her family.”
“Mother, I need your support, especially when I tell Father about this. We can’t wait months, we can’t even wait weeks.”
“I don’t understand.” First Yen, now Sanh. What had she done to deserve this?
“She’s a good girl, Mother. You’re going to love her. She’s from a respected family. Her father was a doctor in the army. But her mother isn’t fair to her. I don’t want her living there any longer. Tuyet needs to live with us.”
“Tuyet,” Hoa repeated.
She did seem like a good girl. The day after the wedding, Tuyet immediately made herself useful, demonstrating she was not beneath any household chore. She sat to tea every afternoon with Hoa, learned to cook the proper family dishes, prepared the tobacco for Hung and his visiting friends. She cared for her nephew and niece, and befriended Trinh, who was relieved to have a new sister-in-law. Even Hung had to admit that perhaps Sanh’s bold decision had turned out to be correct.
“My new family is so kind to me,” Tuyet would say, with a different, personalized smile for every family member who looked at her. “I thank the Lord that he brought me to you.”
But now, Tuyet’s face displayed no such smile when Hoa arrived at their shanty in Zone B. She did not offer tea or a seat. Instead, she avoided Hoa’s eyes as she slipped past her mother-in-law, carrying Lum away.
* * *
“We weren’t lying,” Sanh said. “We had every intention of coming to France with you. But Tuyet’s mother is sick and she needs to leave Vietnam. And we have a better chance of getting her out if we’re in America.”
“You could have told us,” Hoa said, “before all the plans were made. Then we could have tried to stay together.”
“You know Father would never go to America.”
“Families aren’t supposed to live in different countries.”
“Well, we weren’t supposed to leave Tuyet’s family behind. If they were with us now, we wouldn’t have to separate.”
If this, if that. So many conditions conspiring to take her son away from her. How could she remind Sanh now that their loyalty was to the Truongs, and not to his wife’s family? He would think she was being selfish. But Hoa had honored this tradition, placing Hung’s parents above her own when she married. Why wouldn’t Tuyet?
Because of Tuyet’s pregnancy, their shelter was a slight improvement over the other shanties. They had a wooden roof, four walls, and a real mattress on the floor. Sanh motioned for Hoa to sit on the mattress. Despite the solid walls, they could still hear a group of older men outside, loudly chuckling over a game of cards.
“You know you could come with us,” Sanh said.
“You can,” Sanh said. “It’s a new beginning for all of us. You have the choice, Mother.”
Hoa lowered her head, curling her hand into the thick folds of the mattress. She never considered it before, such an impossible, rash option, but the mere thought of it warmed her completely, dulling her anxieties. Perhaps America was not as bad as Hung declared. He’d always been one to react in the extreme. Look how severely he turned on Sanh, practically disowning him at the dinner table. In America, she would be the head of the family, the matriarch. How could she leave Sanh and Tuyet alone to raise the children? They were too young and naïve to live in a new country by themselves. She could offer advice, take care of the children. They needed her to do these things.
Perhaps this was the best decision. Hung could take care of the rest of the family in France. Hoa could have America.
“What am I saying?” Sanh shook his head. “Father would murder us both. He’s already on the verge of killing me. Never mind, it was a stupid idea.”
He moved off the bed, peering over their half-packed bags. Hoa stared at his back, unable to say anything.
Footsteps outside. Tuyet appeared at the front door carrying a sleeping Lum in her arms. This time she looked at Hoa, unable to help a small smile, her triumph so apparent. Sanh belonged only to her now.
Hoa stood. “I should leave now. It’s getting late.”
“You don’t need to go,” Tuyet said, walking in and carefully placing Lum onto the bed, where he curled into a snail.
“I have a lot to do,” Hoa said.
“Please.” Tuyet’s face relaxed into her deceptively demure frown. “I wanted to talk to you about Trinh.”
Hoa waved her hand. “Whatever Trinh needs, we’ll take care of.”
“It’s not that easy.”
“She is reuniting with her husband,” Hoa said. “You don’t need to worry about her anymore.” She turned to Sanh, her hand reaching inside her blouse pocket. “Your father has most of our assets,” Hoa said, slipping a small silk pouch into his fingers. “But I have several gold leaves of my own and these pearl earrings.”
“Mother,” he said, closing his eyes.
She pressed the gold into his palm, folding his fingers over it. “You have a baby coming. I want you to care for your family as best you can.”
“We’ll visit you,” Sanh said. “This is not good-bye. When we’re all settled. I promise.”
Hoa looked over at her youngest grandson, still deep in sleep. She walked over to him, leaning into his lightly perspiring neck, inhaling his child sour-sweet smell.
“Be good for your mother and father,” Hoa whispered into his hair, softly kissing him. Lum shifted to his other side, his cheek blooming red, sighing. “Remember you are a Truong. You are Vietnamese. Nothing will change this.”
* * *
The camp lights switched off as Hoa walked back to Zone A. She slowed her pace, though that meant her rubber sandals sunk deeper into the muddy trail. The moon was only a sliver, and she worried about tripping over some brushwood or a stray piece of trash. Damp, wrinkled laundry rustled softly from strung-up wires and tree branches along the shanty rows. Refugees lingered outside their shanties, mostly men, the embers of their cigarettes briefly illuminating their bored faces.
This time tomorrow, they’d be gone. They could try to forget all of the months enduring the purgatory conditions of the island: the cramped quarters; the barely edible food; the crude behavior of their fellow refugees.
They could try to rebuild a home. Hoa could prepare proper meals again. She wondered if she could remember her recipes, the ones their cook taught her after they moved to Saigon. Could she find the proper spices and vegetables in France? Where would they live? Would Yen’s home be comfortable for all of them? Wherever it was, Hoa could find her private space again. It didn’t have to be too large, she could even make do with another closet, just something that was entirely hers.
These thoughts, these assurances, had made the last few weeks bearable, even exciting. Now, imagining the future, she could only see the empty space that Sanh and his family would leave behind. She wondered if this was God’s punishment for leaving behind Sanh’s in-laws. That was her husband’s mistake. Hung should have tried harder to persuade the boat captain to sell him more seats. Then the Vo family would have come with them, and Hoa wouldn’t be losing her grandchildren.
At the bottom of the hill, Hoa looked up at their shanty. Hung and Phung were still going over the paperwork, methodically examining every detail to ensure no technicality interfered with their transfer to Manila. When she entered the shelter, her oldest son would murmur to her in greeting and then the men would resume their work, ignoring her for the rest of the night. Hoa observed the hill, not moving. She didn’t feel tired. She should only go in when she felt ready to fall asleep.
“Excuse me,” Bac Nhut said, suddenly standing next to her, a bobbing flashlight in hand.
Hoa forced the scream back into her throat. “Hello,” she said. “Good evening, sir.”
“Are you walking up?” he asked. He wore a thin blue cotton shirt and wrinkled brown pants.
She turned her head to the inky sky, looking at nothing, anything. “No, sir. Thank you for the offer, it is very kind of you.”
He didn’t leave. Instead, he crossed his arms, wiry black hair matted on dark, cracked skin. His portable light bounced along the hillside. Where were his children? Why was he creeping around the island alone so late at night?
“Your youngest son is going to America,” Bac Nhut said.
“Yes, he is,” Hoa said, smoothly hiding her surprise.
“He is on the same flight as my family. We are leaving tomorrow, too.”
Hoa smiled politely. “I’m glad my son and his family will have friends in America. You can look after each other.”
Bac Nhut wasn’t as tall as Hung. He had more pockmarks on his face. Hoa’s mother once said they indicated prosperity.
He stared at her. “Your husband is wrong about the United States. The Vietnamese will be better there.”
“I hope so.”
“Why would you want to go somewhere so cold? Your daughter’s hats will not be enough. Don’t you want to be somewhere more like home?”
“I want to be with my family.”
“So where they go, you go? Why don’t they follow you where you want to go?”
“Would you have followed your wife?” Hoa asked.
“We would have discussed it. I listened to her. I respected my wife.”
His face was inches away from her. She inhaled and looked away. “You’ve been drinking.”
His face spread open into a ridiculous smile. “Even after drinking, dear Ba Truong, I would never humiliate my wife. I wouldn’t hit her in front of strangers.”
Hoa shook her head and began walking away. “Stay away from the guards,” she warned. “You don’t want to be locked away your final night.”
“Best of fortune, Ba Truong,” Bac Nhut said, staggering into an exaggerated bow. “I hope your husband’s choice makes you happy.”
* * *
They would take a boat to the Malaysian mainland, a bus to the Kuala Lumpur airport, and then an airplane to the Philippines. And then another airplane to Paris.
Despite all their preparation, they still scrambled to make the boat off the island. Trinh and Xuan hadn’t finished packing when they came by. Ngoan couldn’t find Cam’s jewelry box, which she’d hidden in their shelter months ago. Still, Hung blamed Hoa several times for lagging behind.
“I can’t do this all myself,” Hung said. “Why did you have to bring so much junk?”
The boat captain loudly grumbled as their family finally boarded, the last to arrive. All the interior seats were occupied, so they had to sit out on the deck. Hoa searched the faces of all the passengers on board, half-hoping to be surprised. But they weren’t there. The America group would take a separate boat to the mainland.
At the harbor, a group of UN volunteers saw their boat off, while most of the remaining refugees, including Sanh’s family, stayed away. Cam happily waved to anyone she could (Good-bye! Good-bye! I’ll never see you again!), while Xuan wept in his mother’s arms.
“Foolish boy,” Hung said, an amused smile on his face. “Doesn’t he know he’s finally going home?”
The last time they had seen Bidong Island from a boat was when they arrived. Back then, all they paid attention to was the land, the creamy expanse of the beach, the other Vietnamese waving to them. Now, Hoa’s eyes traveled upward: the palm trees arching over the knotted green hills; the gray and brown roofs of the buildings; the vivid, clean sky.
Hoa felt fine on the boat. It was the bus that made her sick. The curving Malay roads, the potholes and dips, the freezing blasts from the air conditioner, the bursts of static booming from the bus radio. Hoa curled herself into the vinyl seat, resting her head on the cool window. She vomited in her paper bag several times, and then had to use Hung’s bag.
During the six-hour layover at the airport, Hoa spread herself out on the carpeted floor to rest, though the lounge chairs—gray, soft, and new-looking—seemed luxurious. But she was afraid if she sat upright any longer, she’d grow sick again. There was nothing else in her stomach to throw up.
Ngoan regularly returned to Hoa’s side with a fresh damp paper towel to press against her forehead. Phung urged her to drink water and rehydrate. The children offered to sing some songs for her, but she asked them to go play elsewhere and not make too much noise.
After a long nap, Hoa awoke to Hung sitting on the floor next to her. She slowly sat up, her hair brushing over her cheeks. Her bun had undone itself while she slept.
“Are we leaving soon?” she asked.
Hung nodded, offering her more water.
“Sanh was here,” he said.
Her head swung in both directions. “Where?”
“He’s gone now,” he said. “He was only here for a minute. They were passing through to their gate. He didn’t want to wake you since you were so sick.”
“You should have woken me,” Hoa muttered. The tension crept back inside her body. It wasn’t something to get upset over. He simply walked by, no time to stop and chat. She’d already said her good-byes to Sanh and Lum. Still, everyone but she had the opportunity for another hug, another kiss.
Hoa slumped to the floor, wanting to sleep, wanting to wake in Paris, when all of this would be over; no more waiting, thinking, regretting.
“He won’t survive there,” Hung said. “He will realize his mistake.”
Hoa concentrated on slow, steady breaths, in, out, as Hung’s words drifted over her head, lulling her back to sleep.
Copyright © 2012 by Aimee Phan