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Emerging Writer Series
Every two weeks or so I am publishing an essay from an emerging writer. This week, we are publishing “Xúc động” by Gabrielle Behar Trinh. Gabrielle (she/her) is a Vietnamese and Sephardic Jewish writer (with roots in Egypt, Turkey, and Syria) who lives in California. Her writing has received support from the Hedgebrook Writer-in-Residence program and the Periplus Collective Fellowship. She writes nonfiction/memoir work that explores diasporic themes of living between cultures and the impacts of colonialism, displacement, and intergenerational trauma in the body. From 2019-2021, she was based in Vietnam, where she worked for a local nonprofit in urban policy and public health issues. Currently, she works for an international aid/relief organization and documents complex humanitarian and climate crises around the world.
It begins here: a parking lot in Newport Beach, a place we do not reside, but where my mother likes to shop, because she enjoys pretending that we live a life we do not actually live. When the white lady in the parking lot slams her fist on the passenger window of my mother’s car, my body shakes. She waves her fingers at me like I’m an idiot, motions for me to roll down my window. Her eyes barely glaze over at my mother.
“Does that woman speak English?” She screams loud enough for the entire parking lot to hear. She asks the question again, but the words are different this time: “Is that woman your mother?” That woman, she says, and I taste blood in my mouth.
Once, my father’s sister pulled my mother aside at one of our early blended family gatherings, a long-ago pastime. Our recently emigrated Vietnamese family and my father’s assimilated, Sephardic Jewish family from Egypt. My mother cooked a pot roast and platters of tamarind fish. Something for both sides. You have to choose your culture, she never said directly to me.
“I’m sorry,” my father’s sister started to say, though it became clear she wasn’t sorry at all. “It really would just be more pleasant if you tried to speak more in English with us.” Later, alone with my father, my aunt also confessed, “It just gives me such a headache, her language, the sound of it. How hearing Vietnamese all day doesn’t make your head spin, I’ll never understand.”
I wish I was old enough then to tell my aunt what I would tell her now: “There’s Aleve in the cabinet, bitch. Feel free to take ten!”
I grew up speaking this language that made my aunt’s head spin. Learning my mother’s language was a non-negotiable, and if I chose to not speak it, there would be no food on the table. My mother simply would not respond, becoming a stone until my mouth curved in the shape of her native tongue. This was how I learned.
My father never learned, still doesn’t know a single word.
Though my mother was a strict teacher, I learned “household” Vietnamese–a form I suspect many children of immigrants learn, able to form sentences like, “Can I have chicken tenders for dinner instead of your (delicious) crab noodle soup you spent all day laboring over?” But just because I knew how to talk about being hungry didn’t mean that I understood how to say I was hungry for something deeper than food, for communicating desires and wants and needs from a place inside of me that transcended household-related usefulness. There were so many things I never learned to say in my mother’s language because I couldn’t find a place where they might be necessary.
There’s a Vietnamese word I learned only recently, xúc động, which according to the internet translates to emotional, but that doesn’t quite encapsulate what it means to feel xúc động—which is to be deeply touched by something. Sometimes, xúc động to me feels like being deeply touched by everything, constantly. To be so moved by any display of life, of its throbbing. To experience how an emotion can fill you with its intensity, how that emotion and feeling becomes part of you, makes a home inside of your body.
It’s the summer of 2021, and I am broke and jobless. I’m a freelancer, I keep repeating to people who ask why my days seem to be so free, while nervously checking my bank accounts. I am crashing at my parent’s house because I have nowhere else to go after returning from my public health fellowship in Vietnam, where I managed to hide for two years underneath the guise of giving back to my “global community”. Really, I went there to do the thing that I had been avoiding for my entire life: trying to understand my mother’s story, her world before she came to the U.S, attempting to create a narrative that might make sense of all that happened to her there and all that would later occur between us.
There are still so many things that I don’t have the right words for, even in English.
As a child, I had the privilege of visiting my mother’s country several times. My cousins, my auntie, my mother, and I would nestle next to each other like a box of crayons on a floor mattress so thin you felt the ground through your skull. Our sweaty, hot bodies, close and intimate in one very particular way, and yet, still strangers. And then when we came back to the U.S., I was back in my bedroom, sleeping separately from my parents like how the other American kids did. My father often traveled for business trips, though, and that’s when my mother would ask me to crawl into her bed so that she wouldn’t be alone. I loved these moments between us. At some point, though, they stopped. She began disappearing, sometimes for several nights or a week, and leaving me with babysitters while my father was away. When I got older, I’d learn, she was battling an addiction that would become increasingly hard to keep hidden.
No longer a child now, I curl my giant body up next to my mother in my parents’ bed in their apartment. She is a tiny, petite thorny rose bush of a woman, and she takes up so little space. We are both wearing matching pajama sets she bought from Costco, her favorite store these days, now that she is forced to live within her means. They were only $8! She exclaimed about the pajama sets. This was not the kind of thing we ever did, matching pajamas, or matching anything. That seemed a thing reserved for families who loved each other, or even if they didn’t love each other, could at least stand to be in the same room together without someone threatening to kill themselves. But we have come such a long way, my mother and I.
The day I left for Vietnam, I thought she’d never speak to me again. Now, we lay here in her bed in California, and I tell her what I love most about her country, the identical cozy and soft gray cotton pajamas cool against our skin. I am careful not to lay too close to her, so we lay side by side, our bodies barely touching. My mother is someone who wants me near her but never too close. She has never been interested in holding me, at least not how I have always reached for her body, for her arms to cradle me. What I’ve learned is that my mother and I work best at loving each other from afar, from thousands of miles away.
Midday, the sun still out, my mother closes her eyes next to me, complains she is tired. She’s always tired these days, always so exhausted, can barely get out of bed—though none of this is really new. Still, I don’t know if it’s her depression or if she’s actually onto something when she says, “I’m getting older.”
She is not old, I keep reminding her, my 65-year-old mother, but I also know what she means when she says she is tired. She is not like those other older women portrayed in shows like Grace and Frankie, not like women who seem to have signed up for some soul-searching journey to live their best lives while aging. My mother has no excursions planned to anywhere that remotely resembles a paradise or even a vacation. There are no ceramics or painting classes, no aqua-aerobics at the Y, no arthritis-supported vibrators in her underwear drawer, no giant, beautiful home filled with memories of raising her child in, or even any home at all, for that matter, that she might call her own. My mother has so little that belongs to her now.
In the apartment where my parents live now, where they moved once I left for college, the paint on the walls is chipping and the carpets have coffee stains. The smell of their cigarette smoke lingers on all of their clothes. Every month, they pay what seems to be a never-ending increase in hiked-up California rent prices, and soon, they don’t know if they’ll even be able to afford that anymore. In this apartment, my mother and I lay on a twenty-year-old mattress and comforter set, off-white Egyptian cotton sheets, and a down comforter with almost no down left.
This comforter set has followed them across at least four different homes. During that period I was in high school where we seemed to be moving every single year, always at risk of not being able to pay the rent on a house we weren’t actually able to afford. It is one of the only things left from our first home, along with a few vases from their wedding, and my father’s business attire–his suits, leather shoes, and elegant ties he wore to fancy steak dinners in New York City and Chicago while courting buyers. His clothes from a former self are tucked away in a box that he still insists on keeping, though we all know he hasn’t touched any of it in decades. After all these years, after an entire marriage, the sheets, the ties—these are the reminders left of unfinished sentences, dreams that never stood a chance at surviving, a life they once had.
Sometimes I look at my mother and wonder what she sees when she looks back at what she’s lost, wonder if she hears a voice that says, You thought you could just come here and make a better life, but look at the mess you made. Look at what you’ve let burn.
My mother massages her wrist in bed, a quiet yelp of ai yah, sighs. Her back aches from an injury she has no health insurance to fix—from slipping and falling in the kitchen of a restaurant where she used to work, all those trays of phở she carried to customers who found her “adorable”. A restaurant where the owner’s policy was that employees didn’t keep tips, where once, he ripped up a $5 bill in front of her face when he suspected she tried to pull one over on him by pocketing a tip for herself.
“I was on my way to give it to him,” she said later. “Like I give a shit about $5. That’s not worth losing my job.” Apparently, $5 wasn’t worth anything to him either.
When I tell this story to people, they ask how it was legal. Of course, it wasn’t, but half the man’s staff was undocumented, which meant he owned them. And even though my mother was a citizen, she was so afraid of working for anyone who wasn’t Vietnamese, always too embarrassed by what she believed to be broken English. Broken, like it’s something we could just glue back together, something to fix. People asked me why my mother stayed—and I’m unsure if they are referring to the restaurant, or something else.
In 2016, my mother started waitressing for a new restaurant, a place where her customers loved her so much that most of the glowing Yelp reviews were less about the restaurant and more about my mother. She was always so excited to show me: Rebecca—her American name my father suggested at the same time she converted to Judaism for their marriage—was an absolute delight!
I felt so happy, hoping desperately that there wouldn’t be any more bad bosses. But this was also the year Trump was elected, and one day, a man refused to pay for his lemongrass noodles because he said the chicken was undercooked–it was not–and despite the fact she made sure he was cooked a fresh, new plate of food and gave him a discount, he still insisted on not paying. He wanted more, because men always want more and feel entitled to having whatever it is they want.
My mother is not all roses, though. I told you: she is also made of thorns.
So when the man tried to flee the restaurant afterward without paying, when he told her to go back to her own country, she told him to go fuck himself, chased him down to the parking lot of this white town’s suburban strip mall, screaming after him. Hey! You cannot just leave! You owe me money!
But even though my mother is made of thorns, she is, also, a tiny little thing, and so when he grabbed her arms, when he physically assaulted her—assault is the word I will discover this is called, later, when my therapist makes me claw the word out of my throat—it didn’t take much for him to leave some bruises on her arm, wounds so deep that, while the faint purple marks are gone, years later, she will be laying in bed, rubbing her wrists and her arms. She will lay next to her daughter–the daughter who failed, again and again and again, to protect her–and tell her how bad it hurts.
My mother is tired, she says, and I tell her I know.
But this woman born during a war, who lost her country, who lost so many babies—first, the sibling who died next to her as a child, and then, all the babies she tried so hard to birth, but couldn’t bear—has seen things I can’t possibly imagine. And I realize that actually, I don’t know the first thing about being tired.
When my mother tells me she is old, I think what she is talking about is not age, but vitality—an eagerness to keep living.
After some time, unmoving in the dark, listening to the sound of each other’s breath, I ask my mother if she and my father ever have sex anymore—though I know the answer, of course, because my father is always joking with anyone who will listen about how my mother won’t touch him, which I have asked him to stop doing.
Her face does not change, does not even wrinkle as she replies, “I stopped feeling anything at least 10 years ago.” She adds, “I mean, down there.” But I can’t help but wonder where else she doesn’t feel things. I decide this is as good a time as ever for a vocabulary lesson, and I ask her about xúc động.
“What does xúc động mean, Mẹ?” Mẹ, mother.
“Xúc động?” She repeats. “It’s a feeling. But a really deep one.”
“Is it like sadness?”
After the word sadness leaves my mouth, something happens in my chest, a pit-pattering, drop, warning. I am afraid she will mention her depression again. I bring my fingers to my eyelashes, nervously graze my thumb and index finger along the smooth, almost invisible hairs.
“Not necessarily sadness, but could be too. Can also be happiness. Xúc động is like, just a big, big emotion,” she replies, and makes a bubble with her arms, like she’s trying to carry the word in her hands. Her eyes open now, like she’s suddenly awake.
“Xúc động is how I felt when I first landed in America,” she says. “I didn’t know if I would ever see my home again. And xúc động is like how daddy cried when you were born, because we didn’t know if we would lose you, too.” (She feels it’s necessary to remind me now that she didn’t cry, though, of course.)
She turns her face towards me now, and I turn my stomach towards her, and our bodies finally face each other. “Oh, here, like this, let me tell you,” she says, a smile almost forming on the edge of her mouth. “Xúc động is how I felt when your daddy asked me to marry him.”
“What?” I laugh, in disbelief. “No way.” Because I have always thought she secretly hated him, my father, the man who never learned her language, who never stepped foot in her country despite the fact they’d been married for half their life now, the man who understood so little about where she came from. This man she screamed at for years.
You blame me and make me feel like a bad mother, but you dare to talk to me in front of your daughter like that? You’re so full of shit, she’d say, and he’d give it right back to her. A sporting match where I was always the referee.
When I think about my father, how the two of us became inseparably loyal to one another when I was a teenager, how we formed a team against my mother—because of her addiction, because of the illness I didn’t understand, because of how she disappeared on me, abandoned me so many times—I wonder now how it is possible to be so wrong about a person. Or if there’s even such a thing as being right.
How is it possible that my father—the all-giving, generous, guardian, the one who tried to keep us afloat, the real caretaker, I thought—could also be someone selfish, spiteful? Someone who, whether he meant to or not, made me switch allegiances. Made me turn against my own mother.
Fuck you, my mother always whispered, quietly, at the end of her fights with him, like after all I had seen—the shouting, the slammed car doors, the lifted fingers and raised fists, drained bank accounts, manila envelopes and ripped up papers after I begged them not to, my mother with the butcher’s knife pointed at him, at me—there still was something left worthy of a whisper, that this might mean there was something innocent that still remained between all of us, something worth protecting.
I wonder now, for every time my father called my mother a victim, perhaps it was possible, too, that my father was simply playing a role he cast himself in. The one who needed to be needed. The protector. Another form of victim.
“Yeah,” my mother replies. “I couldn’t believe that your daddy would want to marry me.” She adds, “Me, the girl who could barely speak English.” She laughs and laughs, like she’s still surprised, after all these years.
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