Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks or so, I publish an essay from an emerging writer. This week, that essay is “Outdrink,” by Khải Đơn. Khải Khải Đơn (Phạm Lan Phương) is pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing at San Jose State University (California). She grew up in the kindness of the Mekong Delta and its people. She is writing a poetry and nonfiction project on her exploited and impoverished hometown in climate change. You can find her on Twitter @khaidon
My parents fell in love with each other in the humid air and scorching heat of the jungle in South Vietnam. They watched bulldozers razored old trees, red soil dripping like blood, hills cracking like deep wounds. The year I was born tasted like dense rice water extracted from the kitchen that my mother cooked our meager meals in.
My father constructed wooden frames for concrete slabs at a major hydroelectric power station site, a new governmental effort to push the communist economy and its reform forward. In the municipal library, I grew bigger in my mother’s belly as she categorized books and arranged colorful propaganda posters about our bright future. One day, the government declared the official Reform; roughly meaning “you are on your own now, we don’t care anymore.”
I was born crying in hunger, gaping at my mother’s dripping milk and anything she could find to feed me. One month after my first breath, my mom was fired from her job. Pregnant women presented no value for a government yearning for a relentless wealth it never tasted. My mom’s shirt smelled of poverty, worn out of color, holes spotting here and there. Some days she carried me from one store to another, hoping to buy some milk or meat, to no avail. The mass production system was not born yet, and we were left perplexed by the valueless money we earned from the hydropower station.
With all the books Mom read from the library, she learned to substitute my hunger with rice water, full of vitamins and nutrition. She generously poured more water in the rice pot, cooking until boiling, extracting the slimy liquid out before making rice. Then she spoon-fed me three times a day in addition to her usual breastfeeding.
“One day, your father was feeding you rice water, and he said out loud if we could make rice wine, we could sell it,” my mom once told me. Rice water was related to rice wine in his mind.
With the burning idea of making rice wine, my father would return home from the concrete station, exhausted, with cement and dirt on his hair and uniform, and immediately start assembling the evaporation system that he’d sketched on a wrinkled paper.
He recycled thrown-away metal pipes from the construction dumpster, long pieces of defective plywood, half-broken bricks left by dismantled buildings. He bought two giant pots from an old noodle house and collected sacks of woodchips and sawdust by bicycle. The pots stood in a corner of the kitchen like two giant towers. Above them, pipes ran along the kitchen roof through our fresh water concrete pool cooling system and reached the end as an alcohol extract. Two months into this process, he learned to mix the sawdust with over-cooked rice to make a sealing material and spent a day gluing connection parts to each other.
When I started crawling, dad watched me moving around on a mattress in the kitchen. He lured me in his direction with a toy tambourine, the fire and the rice burning quietly through the night behind his back. I would fall asleep and wake up in my bed the following day after he had already left for work.
Making rice wine was an enduring and painstaking task. Small fires consumed sawdust, creating heat to evaporate, accumulating strong alcohol, and releasing intriguing aromas. Dad kept the flame flickering and sprouting like seedlings out of the sawdust pile. He listened to the alcohol dripping into the metal jars while the morning sun gently crept into our kitchen side.
At night when mom tailored clothes to sell in the village market, dad tended me to sleep and tended the wine to its ripe fragrance. I sucked on rice water and inhaled the smell of alcohol yeast. Cracking woodchips whispered their lullabies, leading me to a dreamland permeated with the nutty scent of melaleuca wood. Dad taught me to call him “ba” [father] and sometimes amused me by pointing at a black tokay gecko living under our kitchen roof.
“One day, you spoke “tắc kè.” Yeah, that was your first word. Not dad, not mom, but gecko,” My father me repeatedly, recalling that story sometimes with a quirky pride.
We cooked sweet, sticky rice in one giant pot, waiting for it to cool down. When it was cool enough, I stuffed myself with a handful. Then we broke yeast balls into pieces and mixed them in bamboo baskets bigger than my body. I tried to crush big rice chunks and played with the soft texture of grains stuffed with water. The rice was left on trays and covered by thin veils of cotton fabric until it fermented and lured us back with a tangy alcohol whiff. We transferred the rice into giant clay jars and poured in more water, letting the yeasts have a feast until the fluffy rice dissolved more. Then it was a day of fire, when dad spent a whole afternoon into the next morning, feeding the fire slowly, watching the alcohol vapor quietly, warming the kitchen up, intimate like a conversation between the yeast, the heat, and the maker, until drips of wine formed at the end of the metal pipe.
My father tended to every bit of taste, alcohol percentage, and smoothness of the liquid, checking aromas and heat constantly during the evaporation process. The wine was then allowed to sit in bottles for several days before being taken out to mix with second and third batches to create the final product. The first batch was pure alcohol, too strong to drink, while the second batch was more scented, the third batch more redolent. Dad asked mom to taste the wine sometimes. She said it had an array of smoke or lingering shadow of burned eucalyptus bark; sometimes, she said it was acrid. We were a tiny wine factory with dad as a serious R&D Department.
When I was five years old, my dad poured a glass of his magic liquid and enthusiastically shared it with me.
“The best rice wine has to be strong but smooth and transparent like water,” he said.
I looked through the liquid to his rough hand, its cuts and scratches magnified, growing older from his laborious work to raise me up.
The mysterious liquid was painfully spicy on my tongue, sweet and burning down my throat. It tasted like rice, or rice water. I choked, eyes blurred by tears, chest searing, stomach rising anxiously. Dad gave me a cup of water to dilute it.
“Why did you give her that?” my mom yelled.
Dad laughed. “I teach her how to drink so that she is never tricked by other men.”
I didn’t understand what “being tricked” meant back then. I was their first child; we laughed a lot during those years, the happiest of my life.
Twenty years later, my father turned into a secret man. My family stopped making wine because nobody was into it anymore. People developed tastes for beers, whisky, vodkas, or imported wine advertised on TV. Our family again fell to the brink of hardship. This time my mom learned quickly and opened a convenience store in front of a high school. It helped us to navigate our daily life with a bit of confidence. But my dad didn’t laugh anymore. The thriving economy left him behind, and in his desperation to take care of us, it wound him up, leaving him with frustration and embarrassment. He was no longer the breadwinner. He wandered aimlessly into his own secret pursuit of something we couldn’t grasp. He stopped sharing, stopped caring, stopped communicating. He went to work eight hours every day, returning home to change clothes, disappearing into other things he called “business.” He stopped giving mom money to take care of my younger brother and me. My mother asked me not to talk about money.
“He works hard enough. We need to give him some slack, honey,” she said.
Then rumors swirled that my dad had a mistress near his company, that he bought a piece of land for that lady, that he spent most of his days working on her wooden house there. My mother’s close friends insisted that she play detective or interrogate my dad to find out who that new woman was. One night, my mom held me to her chest and assured me dad was a good person, that we should not be hard on him. I saw what was in her eyes. Like a defense mechanism, I turned off the caring switch in my brain for dad. I drowned myself in exams, university, and work. I avoided him to erase seething questions about his unknown deeds.
I left home and rented a tiny room in Saigon, which sometimes reminded me of our own wine-making kitchen, but it had no alcohol scent, no warmth from my father’s gecko speaking lesson. Quiet lingered between us like yeast on my fingertips, constantly urging me to talk to my father again and at the same time preventing me from acknowledging the cruel truth that I imagined through rumors. I became a freshman journalist at a prominent newspaper, earning my way to a career I loved with burning desire, which still hurts me to this day whenever I think of it.
One night, after a fire accident in town, we had to run the headlines late and finished at almost midnight. All intern reporters were invited to a late dinner near our office. High-ranking editors showed up. Some male reporters told me to drink and “obey” what the bosses asked because “it is a great chance to get a permanent contract if they like you.”
At one point, one of my female colleagues fell out of her seat because she was too drunk. An editor scooped her up, taking her on his wing. He told us to continue drinking, and he would take care of her. He dragged her towards the gate of the restaurant. A green taxi stopped by. She was almost unconscious; he pushed her into the cab.
Amidst the hoppy smell of beer, I began to understand what kind of dinner it was. It was a chance for editors to take advantage of female interns, which I only heard of months later. If I rejected someone, I would risk not getting a permanent contract. But I didn’t want to sleep with any of them. My heartbeat raced. My fingers got cold, gripping the beer pint too hard. I felt like I was sitting in the middle of a wolf feast. I walked into the bathroom and drank tap water until my stomach was full. I made up my mind. I decided that I would not be drunk.
I didn’t know how many beers my male colleagues offered me that night, but I accepted, smiled, and bottomed up. I wanted approval. I yearned for belonging. I wanted to win their favor. I dared not to displease anyone who might have a final say on my career.
Strangely enough, the more I drank, the more I missed my father’s rice wine. I missed the whooshing sound of the giant pot when it was boiling with an overwhelming alcohol smell, almost pungent, in our kitchen, the red and blue flame flaring up and down from the sawdust pile, filling the kitchen with a warm earthy scent. I swallowed a gulp from a beer someone pushed toward me. I remembered my father fixing the evaporation pipes. Sawdust mixed with yeast and rice, and water, sticky, sturdy, and dry like yeast balls. We filled the leaking holes; my hand smelled like wood and yeasts for days. Behind my blurring eyes, my childhood tricked its way back into my shut-down brain. There my parents sat and laughed as the first sip of wine burned its way to my belly.
At four in the morning, the dinner ended. Somebody kept suggesting they would take me home. I didn’t remember who, but I told them my boyfriend was waiting for me at the newspaper hall. I had no boyfriend back then, but I walked towards the office anyway. Halfway there, I slipped into a small alley and sat down in a dark corner. I heard my father’s voice, echoing: “I teach her how to drink so that she is never tricked by other men.” I fell asleep there until some breakfast vendors opened their shops.
I got a permanent contract at the newspaper. I outdrank people to protect myself. Each time we had one of those dinners, I stared at the drunk female interns who got dragged out of the restaurant by their managers. Like my father taught me, I didn’t taste alcohol anymore. Instead, it became a shield to create a safe zone where nobody could touch me.
But at the same time, I did nothing to help anyone. Just like I did nothing to start a conversation with my dad again, to confront or to soothe him, to argue or to agree with him, to repair my falling-apart family. I hid underneath my ability to drink like a hermit crab, to be there and to not get harmed, watching, not getting involved.
My palms smelled like yeast and sawdust.