Because I missed my father’s first four death anniversaries, this year I am returning home. I didn’t come back for the funeral five years ago either — actually, I didn’t hear that he had driven his motorbike into an oncoming lumber truck until a week after it happened because no one in the village had email, my mother didn’t know how to call the States, and, as I was the youngest and least-important of the three sons and on a different continent, it didn’t really matter whether I knew or not. One of my cousins eventually drove the 30 miles to Pleiku and phoned me from a travel agency. When I got the call it was 2am in Boston. I was in line for tacos, drunk — unsurprisingly, just like my father had been when he hit the truck — and trying to protract the walk back from the bar to my empty apartment. It was beginning to snow.
I can’t remember how my cousin broke the news — I wasn’t even sure which one of my many multitudes of cousins it was on the phone — but the call upset me. Not because of my father’s death, which we had all been expecting for years, but because in the background, almost drowning out my cousin’s voice, I heard chickens squawking and motorbikes honking and mothers yelling at their children, that particular Central Highlands drawl in their Vietnamese. I could almost feel the heat over the phone. I knew exactly how it would smell, were I the one standing there — like piss, like exhaust, like boiled pork fat and overripe durian being hacked apart with rusting cleavers. And the frightening thing was how easily I was pulled back to Vietnam over that line; despite the snow dusting my ankles and the South Asian man handing me my taco and the pitcher of Bud Light sloshing around inside me, it was America that felt less real, less tangible in comparison, instead of the other way around.
That’s the reason why I haven’t come back until now.
At midnight I stumble, jetlagged, out of the airport in Saigon and onto a bus and sleep straight through to the rest stop in Dak Nong, seven hours and several provinces later. Feeling well-rested and confident that the remaining seven hours will be just as easy, I make the mistake of eating breakfast at a grim-looking noodle stall, forgetting that a decade in America turns your belly soft, no matter how much fermented tofu you ate growing up. It takes approximately 45 minutes for the bowl of mi quang to turn lethal, around the same time that the bus leaves the paved highway and begins ascending the hills on a snaky strip of red dirt and gravel. The passengers bounce in their seats and slide left and right with every twist of the road, some of them throw up into small plastic bags, and I sweat and clench my stomach, my fists, my ass-cheeks, repeating in my head the mantra: “I will not shit on the side of the road, I will not shit on the side of the road...”
My mantra does not work. I make it to the Dak Lak border before I call out to the driver to pull over. I squat behind a clump of bamboo with a scenic view of the valley and void my bowels and imagine the ghost of my father laughing at me.
The first time he left, I was eight. I remember because that was also the year our village got electricity. They put up a telephone pole right in the middle of the old rice paddy that my friends and I used as a soccer field. For a while we tried playing around it, but it was so annoying that we gave up. We never managed to find a good replacement field and so eventually I quit soccer altogether. I suppose it was all for the best — as a result, my grades improved. I remember that I was angrier about losing the soccer field than I was about losing my father. Most of my early memories are of him handing me money and telling me to run out and buy him a litre of rice wine. When he turned up again four years later, it was the first thing he said to me, digging out his wallet, and it was almost heartwarming.
The bus passes miles and miles of pepper farms, in various stages of growth. They hammer rows of thick stakes into the ground for the vines to climb. In the mature fields, the pepper plants have grown so thick they obscure the entire stake and resemble shaggy green humps, or camouflaged soldiers. Four-and-a-half hours to go. A man in the seat across from mine has brought his dog on the bus with him, a sweet-faced but very filthy Pomeranian. As I watch in fascinated horror, the man picks fleas out of the dog’s coat and then pops them against the glass of his window, leaving tiny dark smears of blood. By the looks of it he has killed at least two dozen already. I watch him squash fleas until Buon Ma Thuot. Three hours left. I have papers I need to grade, but the bouncing of the bus won’t allow it. I swim in and out of sleep instead, waking whenever we hit a particularly large pothole and my head smacks the seat in front of me.
It was my high school English teacher who got me out of the village. Thay Long. He was Singapore-educated and I could never figure out how he got stuck in our village teaching Shakespeare and the subjunctive to future pepper farmers. I imagined that it was some sort of penance, self-exile in the Central Hinterlands to atone for some terrible act he had committed in the past. Thay Long kept me after class one day, close to graduation. He pulled his chair up next to mine and studied me.
“You have an unusual family name,” he said. “I don’t recognise it. Your family is originally from the north, correct?”
“Yes, and my paternal grandfather was born in China. I think he tried to modify his name for Vietnamese spelling when he came over, but it turned out, well, like you said, unusual.”
Thay Long’s eyes twinkled. “And this grandfather, did he emigrate legally? I mean, are there documents? Paperwork?”
I turned red. “I think he was smuggled across under hay bales. It’s not exactly on record.”
“Excellent. Perfect. Because…” He rose and opened a drawer of his desk. “I’ve taken the liberty of getting new papers made for you that say you’re a member of an obscure northern hill tribe on the verge of extinction.” He slaps three sheets of paper with my new ancestry on it down on the table before me. “There’s a new government programme — an education initiative for indigenous peoples and ethnic minorities. You’ll get to attend one of the best universities in Hanoi. For free.”
I shook my head. “It will never work. And it’s unethical.”
Thay Long shrugged. “Your last name is sufficiently weird and your — how should I put this — complexion sufficiently dark to pass as some sort of ethnic minority. And it’s not as if anyone will care enough to question you about it — the whole thing is really just for show, to try and improve the nation’s dismal human rights score.
“What would be unethical is if I were to let a student of your calibre spend the rest of your life inhaling pesticides on a coffee plantation. The final choice is, of course, yours. I’ve just found you the hole in the fishing net.”
Thay Long was the one who waited with me for the bus to Hanoi. The village isn’t big enough to merit its own stop, so we had to walk for 20 minutes to the main road. He carried my backpack for me. My father was gone again by that time, and he would stay gone for another two years. When the bus crawled into view on the hillside my teacher pressed my hand and whispered to me, “Don’t stop at Hanoi. Keep going. Keep going and don’t come back. Don’t ever let yourself be satisfied.”
The bus does not come to a complete stop, it only slows down enough for me to jump out on the side of the road. I see the spot where I stood with Thay Long all those years ago. I begin walking. The village creeps up on you by surprise — for 20 minutes it’s nothing but fields to either side, coffee and pepper and tea and rice fields, and then suddenly the grey little houses and cafés and shops appear like a strange new crop.
Our own little grey house is next to the market, where my mother sells fish. The sun is setting — she will be preparing to come home now, packing up her buckets, cleaning the scales from her knives and scrubbing the sardine guts out from underneath her fingernails. I pause outside the threshold to remove my shoes and look across the street at the café where my high school girlfriend used to work. I crane my neck to see if she’s still there. It is both sad and reassuring that she is. However her hair is different now — she has dyed it a colour that was probably intended to be a ruddy chestnut, but I when I look at it I see the exact shade of red-black of the popped fleas on the bus window this afternoon.
My old school is further down the road, but I do not go back to see if Thay Long is still there. Or perhaps it’s that I do not want him to see me. I enter my old home.
My two older brothers are tending to the ancestral altar, readying the offerings for my father’s spirit: flowers, candles, a boiled chicken, a platter of fruit, three small glasses of rice wine.
“That’s not nearly enough for dad,” I call to them. “I’d say he needs at least two bottles.”
My brothers do not smile when they see me, but this does not mean anything because they never smile to begin with. One is a coffee farmer, the other an onion farmer.
“You’re late,” says my middle brother.
“Seven years too late,” says the eldest. Perhaps I am just imagining things, but I think that I detect affection in their voices.
Together we silently dust my father’s portrait and move it front and centre. The three of us resemble him more than we resemble our mother; everyone knows this but no one says it aloud. My brother’s wives are back in the kitchen, cooking for tonight. When my mother gets home tonight we will light incense, and then we will eat. My brothers and male cousins and uncles and I will drink too much rice wine and I will probably throw up in the bougainvillea in the front yard. Even though it is my first time, I know all the movements, and all that is to come.
But before this unfolds, my brothers and I light the joss paper, the final offering. Stacks of it, some red and gold and printed with Chinese characters, and others printed in facsimile of American hundred dollar bills, all of it going up in smoke to the spirit world. Our father’s ghost will be wealthy indeed, providing that he can get a good exchange rate there. My eldest brother tosses the notes into the fire, and my middle brother prods the burning paper with a stick, ensuring that they turn completely to ash (and also preventing stray, flaming bills from accidently flying into the house and incinerating it as well. Though that would be quite an extravagant spirit offering). My only job is to watch.
When all of the paper has been fed to the flames, my two brothers go inside to check on dinner preparations or start drinking early, possibly both, and I dig out my wallet and a lighter. I don’t want my father getting in trouble with the afterlife’s bureau of investigation for trying to buy liquor with counterfeit money. The twenty-dollar bill does not light as easily as I had imagined, but it eventually catches, and poor President Jackson’s face turns black before the flame gobbles it up. I allow the bill to burn down to the corner held between my thumb and forefinger, and then I drop it onto the rest of the ashes. The wind scatters them while I wait by the bougainvillea for my mother to come home.
Violet Kupersmith, 25, American
My mother is from... Danang, so I came to Vietnam for the first time when I was 13 to visit family and I fell in love with the place. After college I taught English in the Mekong Delta for a year, and since then I've lived in Nha Trang and Dalat, writing stories and researching Vietnamese folklore.
Lately I've been into... early 20th-century Japanese writers — Natsume Soseki, Junichiro Tanizaki, Yasunari Kawabata. But I always go back to the short stories of Somerset Maugham and Roald Dahl.
Writing the upcoming novel... has felt like a very long and uncomfortable pregnancy. I just want to get this story-baby out of me. It is about the various incarnations of a ghost and takes place in the Central Highlands during WWII and in modern-day Hanoi. There are cobra-hunts and exorcisms.
I hope that after I die... my progeny will make me offerings of banh mi xiu mai and Batman comic books. Also, bourbon instead of rice wine, please.