1978, CARLISLE, PENNSYLVANIA
“Ba, what’s my name?”
The Bee Gees’s “Stayin’ Alive,” with Barry Gibb’s siren falsetto, cut a suave silhouette from the radio’s single speaker, the accidental theme song for the Tr?n family. My father sat at the table, my mother bustled over the stove, and I was saddled upon my rocking horse, corralled in the corner of our eat-in kitchen.
Four years old, I was pondering a playground encounter with a freckly blond boy who had asked me my name, and I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to answer the most basic playground question: What’s your name? It wasn’t rocket science, but I answered it like the alien I was: “I’m not sure.”
It wasn’t that I didn’t know my name. I didn’t know which name to tell the boy. My family, as with all Vietnamese households, wielded a series of pronouns, nicknames, and endearments for me in addition to my given name, Phúc. I answered to all these monikers as my parents, aunts, uncles, and grandparents summoned me, upbraided me, teased me.
Con. Cung. Cháu. Em bé. Honey. Sweetie. Kiddo. Baby.
My father shuffled some papers and was scribbling items into a ledger when I asked him. He replied without looking up. “Your name is Phúc. What kind of question is that?”
“No, I mean: What is my name in English?” I was hanging upside down from the rocking horse.
My father admonished me in Vietnamese, the lingua franca chéz nous. “Don’t hang from the horse—you’ll knock it over again and get hurt. We can’t afford that.” He meant the last part. Hunched at the kitchen table. Hacking through a jungle of paperwork. Scratching out a list of how much each paycheck was, how much they needed for bills, and what they could afford to send to my grandparents—his parents—still in Sài Gòn. A secondhand scarlet dictionary lay on the table next to him, thudding open as he consulted it for vocabulary that he didn’t understand in the rustling white of bills and checks. Amount Due. Gross Pay. Net Pay. (Helpful hint for future English learners: you can’t just look up the definitions of net and pay and put them together.) As he signed checks, he carefully wrote his name the American way. In Vi?t Nam, names were written and given as Last, Middle, First, but in America, we had to relearn our names backward (First, Middle, Last) to fit in. Do things backward to fit in—a fitting metaphor.
This is the earliest memory I have. Dangling from the horse’s legs, bouncing upside down from the springed coils that held them, I was trapped indoors and trick-riding my plastic pony. My two-year-old brother, Lou, was still more accoutrement than accomplice, leaving me a lone ranger for playtime. With a napping baby, I had to find something quiet to do. Hanging upside down on the horse was my best effort at quiet.
My mother was preparing dinner, mincing onions, broccoli, and beef for a quick and cheap stir-fry, and she echoed my father’s admonition. “Stop hanging from the horse, you monkey!” Con kh?. Monkey. The sharp edges of her injunctions were always smoothed over with a sweet endearment.
Our apartment’s kitchen, my ersatz O.K. Corral, was a twelve-by-nine rectangular combo eat-in kitchen—the apogee of postwar efficiency and the nadir of seventies style—a kitchen into which my parents had shoved a secondhand white-and-gold-flecked Formica kitchen table and four matching chrome seats with squeaky patched vinyl upholstery. The kitchen’s oak laminate cabinets overflowed with three nearly complete sets of donated dishes, utensils, pots, and pans—an incongruous scrum of kitchenware. The rocking horse reared in the corner; past the sink, stove, and refrigerator rumbled the washer and dryer in the back. We ate, cooked, did the dishes, and washed (and dried) our clothes all within twelve feet. How was that for all-American economy? It was barely a four-yard running play, but what a score for our first down in America. A washer and dryer in the tightest end of the apartment. A winning combination.
That 660-square-foot apartment at 214 Walnut Bottom Road was our first home in Carlisle. The apartment complex, Colonial Square Apartments, was owned by one of our sponsors, Bill Hooke, a real estate developer, who had set aside a unit for our nucleus of four. Short-looped emerald-green carpeting padded the entire apartment. Stiff, durable, and easy to clean, the verdant wall-to-wall carpet rolled through every room, a tightly landscaped golf course, a putting green for a family with no sense of the long game. We didn’t know that we’d be in this apartment for the next decade.
The unit was outfitted with used furniture that our American host families had assembled for us, the Tr?ns from the land-of-no-furniture. The Hookes and the Burkholders—American families in the luxury and safety of small-town America—were moved to help nameless refugees from the other side of the world. We received an array of household items, scattershot all over Maslow’s hierarchy of needs: pots and pans, clothing, a dictionary, shoes, toiletries, toys, a small black-and-white TV, and the aforementioned plastic rocking horse. Having traversed the globe for four months from Sài Gòn to Guam to Wake Island to Fort Indiantown Gap and finally to Carlisle, Chánh and Chi Tr?n were grateful for any semblance of stability. They set up a home and were allowed to feel hopeful there on Walnut Bottom Road.
Hanging upside down, I awaited my father’s answer to my question.
What’s my name in English? This was more than just a four-year-old’s questions about penises, vaginas, and where babies came from. This was a four-year-old’s question about where he came from and why something as simple as his name had more than one answer.
Here’s a vulgar family secret: I’ve said my name wrong my entire life because of this very moment.
In Vietnamese, my name is phonetically pronounced fuhp. It sounds like a baseball clapping into the lithe, oiled leather of a catcher’s glove. Fuhp. Also, because Vietnamese is tonal (like its northern neighbor, Chinese), there’s a rising tone to it, so your voice upswings like a Valley girl if you say it correctly. FUHp? The letter c at the end of my name isn’t even pronounced like a c (thanks to archaic orthography and sound changes in the language)—it’s a p sound.
My question precipitated a flowchart of choices for my father. In that moment, he had to make the decision that many immigrants are burdened with when their mother tongue is not compatible with their adoptive homeland’s phonetics. This is the original game of broken telephone.
What are our choices? What do you do when Vietnamese doesn’t sound like English? How do you pronounce Phúc? Well, I’m glad you asked, Mr. Tr?n.
Behind Door #1: Approximate the sounds (but stay true to the pronunciation)! Fuhp.
Behind Door #2: Make slight adjustments that don’t sound like the original but seem to make sense with the spelling! Fook.
Behind Door #3: Pick a new name and bury that old name as a vestige of a country lost and forgotten! Americanize it completely! Peter or Paul? John or George?
My dad thought for a few minutes about my query and went with door number two: slight adjustments for English that don’t sound like the original name but make sense with the spelling.
He answered my question. Finally.
“Fook. I guess your name is Fook … in English.” He went back to the mathematics of survival.
And Fook was born. You know the poem about a path that diverges in a wood and you take the one less traveled? That’s the one we took. Less traveled but easier to pronounce, as if easier-to-pronounce would make my path any smoother.
The vowel sound was different. No rising tone. Align the c at the end of my name with English orthography to make a hard, velar stop instead of the bilabial p sound. Vietnamese pegs squeezing into Colonial squares.
I mouthed the name. Fook? It didn’t feel like Fuhp … No one said fook within the confines of our apartment. My parents and grandparents would never say it this way. Fook didn’t exist except for out there, on the other side of our green hollow-core door. Fook was out there. In the real world. In America. In the real America. I had to get used to him. I had to respond to that name. I had to introduce myself as him. “Fook? Okay … Fook.” It wasn’t a question anymore. It was a statement. An assertion. A declaration.
With that small and benign act of linguistic legerdemain, we rechristened Phúc with his alter ego Fook.
Fuck it. Phuc it.
“Dad, what’s a Wookiee?” I was lying in my father’s lap on the floor of the living room, cradling The Star Wars Storybook, C-3PO and R2-D2 in their glossy glory on the cover.
“Let me see.… Ah, that’s Luke Skywalker.” My father read it aloud, enunciating each syllable slowly.
“And who’s that?”
“That’s Han Solo.”
“That’s Chewbacca. It says he’s a … Wookiee.”
“What’s a Wookiee?” Neither of us knew. Wookiee? We went to the dictionary, as we always did, to look up words from the American storybooks that my parents read us.
Wood … Woof … Wool … Woolen … No Wookiee. We looked again in the Star Wars book to make sure we were spelling it correctly.
W. O. O. K. I. E. E.
I asked my father to look yet again. Still nothing.
“I don’t know, Phúc. It’s not in the dictionary. I don’t know what it is.”
“Really? Are you sure you’re looking it up right?” I was incredulous. “Are you sure it’s not in there? Aren’t all words in the dictionary?” The dictionary had all the other words that we had looked up, and it never occurred to either of us that Wookiee was a made-up word, because who would make up a word? Wasn’t the point of writing to use real words?
In my pique over Wookiee, I had more to complain about. “Also, you know the story 101 Dalmatians? That dog’s name is not Col-o-nel, Dad.” We had a secondhand Little Golden Book of the Disney movie that my parents read to us often (as much for them to practice their English as it was to entertain their children).
My pivot from Star Wars to Disney surprised my father. He pronounced colonel as call-a-knell. “What do you mean? That’s how it’s spelled. Col-o-nel. That’s pronounced col-o-nel.”
“No, it’s not! At show-and-tell last week, I brought 101 Dalmatians into school, and I told them that my favorite character was Col-o-nel, and Derek Elkins laughed at me—everyone laughed at me! Derek told me it was pronounced ker-nel. It’s ker-nel, Ba. Not col-o-nel.” I was annoyed at his not being able to find Wookiee, but recounting the humiliation of mispronouncing colonel rushed back to my throat. I reddened, and my confidence in my father faltered. No Wookiee? I assumed that he couldn’t find the word and not that the word didn’t exist. Wookiee obviously did exist because it was in the Star Wars book. But colonel? The dictionary was still in front of us. “Just look it up! Look colonel up!”
He did. COLONEL. At least he found it (which galvanized my doubt that he was looking up Wookiee correctly). The mysterious diacritical marks did not help, but he pieced it together, pointing to the phonetic guide: / 'k?r-n?l /. “Well, I don’t know what the upside down ? is, but there is an r there. Geez, that’s strange. I guess it is pronounced ker-nel. Huh. English is hard.” He shrugged.
Vindication. Increased doubt. “SEE? See? It is ker-nel!” I didn’t have anything else to say. I needed to trust in my dad’s ability to navigate the world at large, and I was already doubting him. He seemed adrift and lost, and I didn’t know where to put my doubt. Five-year-olds were supposed to believe what their parents said. Maybe some kids’ parents still had the golden nimbus of infallibility, but not my parents and not for me. Not Chánh and Chi.
I placed my disappointment squarely upon my parents without their knowledge. I needed to figure out English, to figure out Carlisle, to figure out my place in it. And I needed my parents to know the answers, because that’s what kids need their parents to do: to know the world and to explain it to their kids. Without their expertise, the world felt uncertain and chaotic. How did you say certain words? Even if my parents said that this was how a word was pronounced, how could I be sure?
My early childhood memories are overgrown with thickets of faith and doubt. And in knowing the supposed truth, I furrowed a deep groove in myself for my doubt to root.
When I first read Camus’s The Plague as a teenager, I read it with the sensational (and juvenile) lens of an apocalyptic survival story. Pestilence! Death! Rats! Camus’s prose (in translation, at least) was yeoman-like, plodding steadily like the inexorable march of its disease. But I read it again, and its themes coalesced with our struggles, struggles that I had seen in my parents and in myself: the sinewy strain between faith and knowledge. In The Plague, Camus refers to the tension as a menace. As Dr. Rieux realizes that the plague is upon Oran, he no longer can enjoy the simple, ignorant pleasures of life. He knows the truth—the menace of knowing—and his knowledge conflicts with his faith, his desire to believe, his need to hope.
My faith in my parents’ competence was withering as I watched them flounder. Misreading a storybook or laboriously translating the newspaper. Navigating the obliquely named sections of the grocery store. Looking for a toilet when it was euphemistically labeled Restroom. They wandered in the ineluctable labyrinth of America.
If they couldn’t figure out small stuff like how to read a kids’ picture book, how would they navigate the big picture? I already doubted that they could. And if I couldn’t believe in my parents, in whom (or what) could I believe? In vain I groped about for an answer, and my doubt in them germinated, nourished by their shortcomings. My doubt contaminated everything we did—and everything I wanted to believe in.
Faith. Knowledge. Doubt. They weaved in and out of our lives with a baroque intricacy, a background fugue to our stumblings on the stage.
APRIL 1975, SÀI GÒN
I remember none of this, but I know all of it. I know all of it because it is the family story.
I was not yet two when my maternal grandparents, Ông Bà Ngo?i, made the decision that we were all leaving Vi?t Nam. My grandparents both worked for the US embassy, and our family had been monitoring the thundering advance of the Vi?t C?ng army as closely as they were fretting the quiet unraveling of the Republic of Vi?t Nam. The call to evacuate came at the end of April, and my mother’s parents made the arrangements for ten people: themselves, my mother and father, her sisters and brothers. I was their only grandchild (as my mother was the eldest). My father chose to accompany my mother and me, leaving behind his parents and his two youngest siblings who, without the proper paperwork, were unable to board the American transports. We waited for the bus that would take us to the airfield amid a swelling throng of frantic South Vietnamese. Bus after bus filled as desperate families pushed on, bulging them beyond capacity. We moved up the line, finally at the front, and were ready to board. Our bus pulled up; the doors opened. Half of my family members were already on board when—according to everyone’s account—I began to shriek so loudly and inconsolably that our family agreed to deboard the bus.
My grandmother comforted us as we stood in line again. “Let’s wait—it’s okay. We’ll take the next one.” As we watched that bus pull away, it was struck by mortar fire and exploded, killing everyone on board. We lay on the ground, cowering. Some bystanders scrambled to the wreckage to help, but it was war, and a losing war at that. With the burning carcass of our bus still in view, we boarded the next bus, not knowing if it, too, would explode and kill us all. But it did not explode.
As we passed a checkpoint, the South Vietnamese military police separated the evacuees into two groups: able-bodied men into one area and women and children into the other. They were conscripting men of fighting age for fodder in their last stand against the North Vietnamese army in Sài Gòn, and all the young men from our cohort were detained. Heartbreak and terror. My father, along with my uncles, was held behind. He watched as my mother and I boarded a helicopter. One of my shoes came off with the push and pull of evacuation. We lifted off, leaving behind my shoe and my father. To where? How could we possibly find one another? The only plan was to escape from Sài Gòn, and in the din and chaos of the evacuation, our family was broken apart.
My mother and I landed on an aircraft carrier, took another helicopter, and landed at another base.
That was the beginning and the end. South Vi?t Nam collapsed. The army was in retreat. Government officials were fleeing. Even in that ending for us, in the great collapse of Sài Gòn, it was not the end that so many others suffered. It was not crashed planes, abandoned babies, or mass executions. In that end was our beginning. In that death lay the seeds of a new life. We weren’t bodies in a shallow grave. We weren’t the nude children in the war photos with our clothes burned off. We were fortunate even in the midst of such misfortune.
We landed in Guam, and from there, we were relocated to Wake Island. My mother was distraught. Had my father been killed? Did he manage to escape with my grandmother’s connections to the embassy? How would he know where to find us? Thousands of evacuees, wrenched from loved ones, scratched out desperate notes and posted them on walls all across the airfields of Guam and Wake Island. “If you see this note, please find us at…” “We’re alive and at the camp at…”
Luck of all luck: my father and uncles were reunited with us, weeks later on Wake Island. He had escaped Sài Gòn, and somehow, four thousands miles away and two weeks later, he arrived on the same island. In a refugee camp full of strangers, strangers uprooted by war, the splinters of our family were reassembled.
We needed to stay together, all twelve of us, and we said this as we filled out paperwork, talking to the camp staff, hoping to be sponsored. Only Ông Bà Ngo?i knew English from their work at the embassy, but the army officers spoke too fast and about things they didn’t know, using vocabulary they hadn’t learned. Refugee. Relocation. Asylum.
The Tr?ns were being sent to Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. Where was Pennsylvania? We didn’t know; beggars were not choosers. Off to another camp. Upon our arrival, Red Cross volunteers and camp officials greeted us with clipboards and signs in English, which we couldn’t read. Lutheran volunteers came from their parishes to help the military. My mother’s side of the family was Catholic (my father, Buddhist, had converted to Catholicism to marry my mother just before their wedding). The Lutherans found us sponsors, the Burkholders and the Hookes, while my family was still wondering what Lutherans were. Who were these sponsors? Were they Lutherans? Where did they live? Carlisle, Pennsylvania. So many names, all hard to pronounce. Our sponsors found us apartments and jobs for the adults, and by the fall, my mother peeled apples at an orchard and my dad drove a cement mixer. It wasn’t being a lawyer, as he had been in Vi?t Nam, but it was a job.
Copyright © 2020 by Phuc Tran