I think about dying—a lot. The only reason I haven’t killed myself is because no one would even know. Well, maybe Ms. Alexander would, but she doesn’t count. She has to know how many kids are eating a meal at the orphanage. And Nan, my good friend who cleans my frizzy black hair of twigs and leaves. And maybe Dr. Sherman. But that’s only because my one leg is twisted like a juniper tree and it gets his attention. And my feet are always up to no good, itching and oozing pus because of this heat. My skin was not made to be in a wet, sticky sauna, especially the Vietnamese kind.
Plus, my father would be dishonored if I killed myself. He lives far away but sends me letters. Soon he will take me to the best place on earth: the United States of America. Sometimes I close my eyes and see that beautiful flag, waving in the wind. It hangs off my father’s big front porch. That’s where he sits, drinking lemonade and writing me letters.
A shrill voice says, “Trẻ bụi đời!” I open my eyes. The dirt that is kicked in my face makes me close them again. Wind dirt has a funny way of sticking to all body parts, even the parts that are covered.
“Black dog!” another yells and thrashes me with the stick he’s holding. I cover up and ball myself into the ground, kind of like a coconut. But my outer shell is not hard. Then the one who is supposed to be a grown-up kicks me so hard in my behind that my butt hole takes a leap into my stomach. I feel like retching out my guts but that would show defeat. So I take the pain in silence.
“You dirty boy!” one screams.
“Your mother a whore!” screams the other.
I know these voices. They are Vietnamese. And they hate me. I cannot blame them; I am a child of the enemy.
I have two bloods flowing through my veins: my Vietnamese mother and my American father. And even though I’m half of each of them, I don’t know where I belong. Sometimes my blood does not feel equal; I think that maybe I’m more like my American father because I’m a boy.
My hair is curly and very full and my nose is wider and flatter than the other kids at the orphanage, even the kids with half-blood too. My eyes are not slanted at all; they are big and brown. And my skin is dark. And dark skin is not good; at least that’s what I’ve been told.
“Deep thinking again are you, Tin?” Ms. Alexander says. She’s always walking fast because she has somewhere important to go. I’ve been learning English for the past five years but I still like to use American hand gestures because it’s cool. I give her a thumbs-up.
She gives me a wave and a smile then heads toward the road that leads to the Tan Son Nhat Air Base. The American soldiers always come to our orphanage to give us Coca-Cola, carry us on their shoulders, and play baseball. Although I try, my leg makes it hard for me to run. But they cheer me on anyway so I run, and fall, and get up and run again.
“Did those boys beat you?” Nan asks as she hurries toward the old Banyan tree I’m under. Nan gets to leave the orphanage to work. She helps with farming the land that the orphanage owns. That’s how we get so many mangos, sweet potatoes, and coconuts.
“No,” I say fast.
She’s standing over me with her eyes pulled together, which is really hard to do when they are slanted.
Again with the eyes; now a hand hooked on her hip.
“Yes,” I whisper and bow my head.
Nan gathers herself next to me, sitting on a tree root that is flat from being worn down.
“I told you call out for help. I will help you.”
“I don’t want you to suffer too.”
Nan’s eyes, which always look so bright, soften. “We are made to suffer. War makes us all suffer.”
I guess if it wasn’t for the war, we wouldn’t be in so much pain. But then I wouldn’t exist because my father would have had no reason to come here. Then, I really would be dead.
“You’re philosophizing again,” Nan says.
We heard the word philosophizing from a black soldier who was talking about the fighting and the poverty and the food. The soldiers came to the orphanage to entertain us but two of them sat down on chairs, then more soldiers gathered around, and before you knew it they were entertaining each other. Nan and I just listened, thinking we were invisible, then suddenly that black soldier turned toward me and pointed.
“Ya’ll see. We leavin’ traces of ourselves everywhere, not just in that damn jungle.”
“Do you think I will be reunited with my father again?” I finally ask Nan after much silence.
“Of course you will. Doesn’t he send you letters? Didn’t he say he will send money so you can go to America?”
“Then it will happen, Tin.”
I was born in the Year of the Sheep, which is a sign of good things but not always luck. I was told my parents had a “great love.” They met when my mom worked at the U.S. air base washing clothes. They lived together and then I was born. I was told my father loved me very much. He held me in his arms when I was a baby, stroking my cheeks and kissing my forehead. Even though my father’s skin was dark, my mother’s family accepted him because he was “kind” and a “good worker.”
“Oh your father, he good man, he good eater,” my grandmother would say. “He work hard for you and your mom.”
But Tet changed everything.
I was very little when this happened so I don’t remember any of it but this is what my grandmother told me. This is also why my leg is so twisted.
Tet is the Vietnamese New Year celebration that happens at the end of January. All families make great preparations because there are special ceremonies to honor our ancestors. Many families travel far distances to be with each other and exchange gifts. And even though my grandparents were Catholic, they believed in karma, which comes from the Buddhist belief that when you do good things, it will come back to you in your next life, after reincarnation. My family was not wealthy but they had more than some and Tet was a time to be generous to those in the village that had bad luck. Large quantities of food were prepared and new clothes were made by our family for the poor.
My grandmother, mother, and aunt #3 would gather under the tamarind trees and paint the shells of one of my favorite foods: chicken in the egg. They would chew betel nuts then spit the thick dye onto a plate, where they dipped a brush to draw good luck symbols onto the eggs, hoping to store more good fortune in their inner spirit.
“Your grandfather make our village dragon. He smile wide when the men hang dragon in the middle of the village,” my grandmother said.
Late at night the dragon would be lit, along with firecrackers and rockets and red flares. It was believed that loud noise would keep away evil spirits.
The celebration was a huge success. Thousands of people were in the village square, drinking white spirit, which made some people crazy, and eating special foods like shark fin, chicken feet, and bird’s nest soup. The men from the village were lighting the fireworks, including the ones that the American troops had given them the day before. There was so much loud noise and bright flashes in the night sky that no one noticed at first.
But when a rocket hit a building and it crumbled, that’s when sheer terror broke out. The Communist Viet Cong attacked the village, even though there was a cease-fire. My grandmother, aunt #3, and my mother with me cradled in her arms, ran. There were streams of tracer bullets that shredded everything in its path, including children. Many buildings that were hit with mortars caught on fire and were sending black smoke and a heavy acid smell into the air.
“We hear screaming. And rat-tat-tat of guns. We go to home, but then walls collapsed. They fell on you; they fell on your mom,” my grandmother said with tears streaming down her face. “We hear American helicopters and jets. But too late. Too much fighting.”
And even though American soldiers were flown in with heavy machine guns and bazookas, it took an entire day to reclaim the village. By the time my grandmother and aunt #3 emerged from the rubble of their home, the village was in ruins. And my mom was dead.
Lisa Maggiore is the author of a children’s picture book, Ava the Monster Slayer: A Warrior Who Wears Glasses, a short story, Pinterest Saved My Marriage, and a novel, Home from Within. Lisa is currently working on other writing projects and practicing her storytelling skills during Live Lit performances. Lisa resides in Chicago, where she grew up, with her husband and four children. For the past 20 years, she was a social worker, which has helped in her writing about tragedy and love.