Inside Out and Back Again (10 page)

BOOK: Inside Out and Back Again
13.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Brother Khôi hands it out

in the same white cups

as tea.

Both dark brown,

so of course

I drink a gulp of the

most salty,

most bitter,

most fishy



My head whirls

and my breath stinks

for days.

I do not mind.

July 1

Amethyst Ring

Mother wants to sell

the amethyst ring

Father brought back

from America,

where he trained

in the navy

before I was born.

She wants to buy

needles and thread,

fabric and sandals

from the camp’s

black market.

I have never seen her

without this purple rock.

I can’t fall asleep

unless I twist the ring

and count circles.

Brother Quang says,


What’s the point of

new shirts and sandals

if you lose the last

tangible remnant of love?

I don’t understand

what he said

but I agree.

July 2


Some choose to go to France

because many Vietnamese

moved there

when North and South

divided years ago.

Uncle S
n says

come with his family

to Canada,

where his sister lives

and can help watch over us

until Father returns.

Mother knows his wife

would mind.

She tells him

Canada is too cold.

We stand in line

to fill out papers.

Every family must decide

by tonight,

when fireworks will explode

in honor of America’s birth.

Mother starts to write


home of a cousin

she has never met.

The man behind us whispers,

Choose America,

more opportunities there,

especially for a family

with boys ready to work.

Mother whispers back,

My sons

must first go to college.

If they’re smart

America will give them


Mother chooses.

July 4

Another Tent City

We are flown

to another tent city

in humid, hot Florida,

where alligators are shown

as entertainment.

The people in charge

bring in Saigon-famous singers

to raise refugee spirits,

but faces keep twisting with worries.

For a family to leave,

an American must come to camp

and sponsor a family.

We wait and wait,

but Mother says a possible widow,

three boys, and a pouty girl

make too huge a family

by American standards.

A family of three

in the tent to our left

gets sponsored to Georgia;

the couple to our right

goes to South Carolina.

Newcomers leave before us.

Mother can barely eat,

while Brother Quang

picks the skin at his elbows.

I don’t mind being here.

My hair is growing

as I’ve become dark and strong

from running and swimming.

Then by chance Mother learns

sponsors prefer those

whose applications say “Christians.”

Just like that

Mother amends our faith,

saying all beliefs

are pretty much the same.

July to early August


A man comes

who owns a store

that sells cars

and wants to train

one young man

to be a mechanic.

He keeps holding up


before picking Brother Quang,

whose studies in engineering

impress him.

Mother doesn’t care

what the man

came looking for.

By the time

she is done

staring, blinking,

wiping away tears,

all without speaking English,

our entire family

has a sponsor

to Alabama.

August 7

Our Cowboy

Our sponsor

looks just like

an American should.

Tall and pig-bellied,

black cowboy hat,

tan cowboy boots,

cigar smoking,

teeth shining,

red in face,

golden in hair.

I love him


and imagine him

to be good-hearted and loud

and the owner of a horse.

August 8



Unpack and Repack

We’re giddy

when we

get off the airplane.

Our cowboy,

who never takes off

his tall, tall hat,

delivers us

to his huge house,

where grass

spreads out so green

it looks painted.

Stay until you feel ready.

We smile

and unpack

the two outfits

we each own.

One look at

our cowboy’s wife,

arms, lips, eyes

contorted into knots,

and we repack.

August 15

English Above All

We sit and sleep in the lowest level

of our cowboy’s house,

where we never see

the wife.

I must stand on a chair

that stands on a tea table

to see

the sun and the moon

out a too-high window.

The wife insists

we keep out of

her neighbors’ eyes.

Mother shrugs.

More room here

than two mats on a ship.

I wish she wouldn’t try

to make something bad


She calls a family meeting.

Until you children

master English,

you must think, do, wish

for nothing else.

Not your father,

not our old home,

not your old friends,

not our future.

She tries to mean it

about Father,

but I know at times

words are just words.

August 16

First Rule

Brother Quang says

add an
to nouns

to mean more than one

even if there’s

already an

sitting there.



All day

I practice

squeezing hisses

through my teeth.

Whoever invented


must have loved


August 17

American Chicken

Most food

our cowboy brings

is wrapped in plastic

or pushed into cans,

while chicken and beef

are chopped and frozen.

We live on

rice, soy sauce,

canned corn.

Today our cowboy brings

a paper bucket of chicken,

skin crispy and golden,

smelling of perfection.

Brother Khôi recoils,

vowing to never eat

anything with wings.

Our cowboy bites on a leg,

grins to show teeth and gums.

I wonder if he’s so friendly

because his wife is so mean.

We bite.

The skin tastes as promised,

crunchy and salty,

hot and spicy.


Mother wipes

the corners of her mouth

before passing her piece

into her napkin.

Brother V

Our cowboy scrunches

his brows,

surely thinking,

why are his refugees

so picky?

Brother Quang forces

a swallow

before explaining

we are used to

fresh-killed chicken

that roamed the yard

snacking on

grains and worms.

Such meat grows

tight in texture,

smelling of meadows

and tasting sweet.

I bite down on a thigh;

might as well bite down on

bread soaked in water.


I force yum-yum sounds.

I hope to ride

the horse our cowboy

surely has.

August 20

Out the Too-High Window

Green mats of grass

in front of every house.

Vast windows

in front of sealed curtains.

Cement lanes where

no one walks.

Big cars

pass not often.

Not a noise.

Clean, quiet


August 21

Second Rule

Add an
to verbs

acted by one person

in the present tense,

even if there’s

already an


She choose-s

He refuse-s

I’m getting better

at hissing,

no longer spitting

on my forearms.

August 22

American Address

Our cowboy

in an even taller hat

finds us a house

on Princess Anne Road,

pays rent ahead

three months.

Mother could not believe

his generosity

until Brother Quang says

the American government

gives sponsors money.

Mother is even more amazed

by the generosity

of the American government

until Brother Quang says

it’s to ease the guilt

of losing the war.

Mother’s face crinkles

like paper on fire.

She tells Brother Quang

to clamp shut his mouth.

People living on

others’ goodwill

cannot afford

political opinions.

I inspect our house.

Two bedrooms,

one for my brothers,

one for Mother and me.

A washing machine,

because no one here

will scrub laundry

in exchange for

a bowl of rice.

The stove spews out

clean blue flames,

unlike the ashy coals

back home.

What I love best:

the lotus-pod shower,

where heavy drops

will massage my scalp

as if I were standing

in a monsoon.

What I don’t love:

pink sofas, green chairs,

plastic cover on a table,

stained mattresses,

old clothes,

unmatched dishes.

All from friends

of our cowboy.

Even at our poorest

we always had

beautiful furniture

and matching dishes.

Mother says be grateful.

I’m trying.

August 24

Letter Home

As soon as we have an address

Mother writes

all the way to the North

BOOK: Inside Out and Back Again
13.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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