Remember. You are already Vietnamese.
Image from Flickr via MIT-Libraries
By Ocean Vuong
—after Mary Ruefle
I remember the table.
I remember the table made of words given to me from my mother’s mouth.
I remember the room burning. I remember the room was burning because my grandmother spoke of fire. I remember the fire as it was told to me, the one bedroom apartment in Hartford, seven of us sleeping on the hardwood floor, swaddled in blankets from the Salvation Army. I remember the man from the Salvation Army handing my father a stack of coupons for Kentucky Fried Chicken, which we called Old-Man Chicken (Colonel Sander’s face was plastered on every red bucket). As in: Do you want to celebrate your birthday at Old-Man Chicken this year? I remember tearing into the crispy meat and oil like it was manna from heaven.
I remember my mother saying to me: Remember, child—don’t get noticed. You’re already Vietnamese.
I remember my father, which is to say I am putting him back together. I am putting him together in a room because there must have been a room. There must have been a square in which a life would occur, briefly, with or without happiness. I remember happiness. It was the sound of coins in a brown paper bag: my father’s wages after a day of scaling fish at the Chinese market on Franklin Ave. I remember the coins spilling onto the floor, how we ran our fingers through the cold pieces, inhaling its metallic promise. How we thought we were rich. How the thought of being rich was a kind of happiness.
I remember the table. How it must have been made of wood.
I remember walking with mother to the grocery store, the fistful of father’s wages in her hands. I remember armfuls of Wonder Bread and jars of mayo, how mother thought mayo was butter, how in Saigon, butter and white bread were only eaten inside of mansions, guarded by butlers and steel gates. I remember happiness, everyone smiling, mayonnaise sandwiches raised to cracked lips. I remember thinking we lived in a sort of mansion.
I remember thinking this was the American Dream as snow crackled against the window and night came and we laid down to sleep, side-by-side, limbs tangled, sirens wailing through the street below, our bellies full of bread and “butter.” I remember happiness.
I remember the table, which is to say I am putting it together. Because someone opened their mouth and built a structure with words and now I am doing the same each time I look at my hands and think table, think beginnings. I remember running my fingers through the edges, studying the bolts and washers I’ve created in my mind. I remember crawling underneath, checking for chewed gum, the names of lovers, bits of dried blood. I remember this beast with four legs hammered out of a language not yet my own.
I remember my mother saying, before I left the house for school: Remember, you’re already Vietnamese.
I remember grandmother talking in her sleep, how she raised her hands and said no bang bang, no bang bang, YOO ET AYE numbuh won, YOO ET AYE numbuh won…I remember listening in the dark, her words turning the walls into a field, blurred and blue with rain. Then the gunshots. Gunshots across the street and grandmother waking up gasping for air, clawing at my legs. I remember happiness: sitting in grandmother’s lap by the window, waiting for morning. Feeling her heartbeat on my back. The snow growing bluer and bluer in the parking lot outside.
I remember being so young I thought they were dancing. I stood laughing and clapping my hands like two small lilies as father’s faux-Rolex broke across mother’s cheek. Mother on all-fours over the kitchen tiles. The sirens coming closer.
You’re already Vietnamese.
I remember my father, which is to say I am cuffing him with these little words. I am giving him to you with hands behind his back, his head ducking into the patrol car because like the table, this was how it was given to me: with words, from mouths that never articulated the sounds inside a book.
I remember getting a letter from father while he was in a Vietnamese prison, the envelope wrinkled, crisp, and torn at the edges. I remember holding up a piece of paper covered with lines and lines of white-out. I remember scraping at the chalky film that lay between me and my father’s life. Those words. Nuts and bolts to a table. A table in a room with no people. No window to tell if the century had passed or was still burning.
Do you understand? I was a gaping wound in the middle of America and my mother was inside me asking Where are we? Where are we, my dear?
I remember looking at the letter again and seeing a scatter of tiny black dots: the periods left untouched. A sort of silence. A non-language. I remember thinking everyone I ever loved was a single black dot on a bright field. A snow field. I remember drawing a line from one dot to another with a name on each one until I ended with a family tree that looked like a barbed wire fence. I remember tearing it to shreds.
I remember the table. How flames started to lick at its edges.
I remember my first year in an American school, the trip to the farm, how afterwards, Mr. Zappadia handed each student a ditto of a black and white cow. Color in what you saw today, he said. I remember seeing how sad the cows were, their large heads lulled behind electric fences. And because I was six, I remember believing color was a kind of happiness—so I took the brightest shades in the crayon box and filled my sad cow with purple, orange, red, auburn, magenta, sky-blue, fuchsia, glittered grey, lime green, etc…
I remember Mr. Zappadia shouting, his beard trembling above me as a hairy hand grabbed my rainbow cow and crushed it in its fingers. I said color in what you SAW. What you saw! I remember doing it over. I remember leaving my cow blank and staring out the window. How the sky was blue and merciless.
I remember the table. How I tried to give it back to my mother. How she looked deeply into my face before holding me in her arms and brushing my hair and saying there, there. It’s okay. It’s okay. But this is a lie.
It went more like this: I gave my mother the table, which is to say I handed her my rainbow cow, pulled out of the wastebasket when Mr. Zappadia wasn’t looking. How the colors moved and crinkled in her hands. How I tried to tell her but did not have the language she would understand. Do you understand? I was a gaping wound in the middle of America and my mother was inside me asking Where are we? Where are we, my dear?
I remember staring at her for a long time and because I was six, I thought I could simply transmit my thoughts into her head if I stared hard enough. I remember crying in rage. How mother had no idea. How she put her hand underneath my shirt and scratched my back anyways. I remember sleeping like that. My crushed cow expanding on the nightstand like a slow motion color bomb.
I remember my mother grabbing my shoulders. How it was pouring rain or it was snowing or the streets were flooded or the sky was the color of God pummeled into bruises. And she was kneeling on the sidewalk tying my powder blue shoes saying Remember. Remember. You’re already Vietnamese. You’re already. You’re all ready. Already gone.
I remember my first Thanksgiving. I was at Junior’s house. My grandmother made me a plate of fried eggrolls to bring over. I remember a house filled with over twenty people. People who slapped the table when they laughed. I remember food being piled on my plate: mashed potatoes, turkey, cornbread, chitlins, greens, sweet potato pie, and—eggrolls. Everyone praising grandmother’s eggrolls as they dipped them in gravy. How I, too, dipped them in gravy. How it was the best thing ever.
I remember Junior’s mother putting a black plastic circle on a wooden machine. How the circle spun and spun until music happened. How music was the sound of a woman wailing. How everyone closed their eyes and tilted their heads as if listening to a secret message. I remember thinking I heard this before, from my mother and grandmother. Yes. I heard this even inside the womb. It was the Vietnamese lullaby. How every lullaby started with wailing, as if pain could not exit the body in any other way. I remember swaying while listening to my grandmother’s voice crooning through the machine. How Junior’s father slapped me on the shoulder shouting What you know ’bout Etta James! I remember dancing and smiling. I remember happiness.
I remember the sidewalk, how mother and I pushed the rusty cart to the church on New Britain Ave. for rations of dented soup cans and slightly expired bagels. I remember the sidewalk. How it started to bleed: little drops of rouge appearing beneath the cart. How there was a trail of blood ahead of us. And behind us. How we kept going. Mother saying Don’t look down, baby. Don’t look down. The church so far away. The steeple a stitch in the sky. Don’t look down. Don’t look down.
I remember Red. Red. Red. Red. Mother’s hands wet over mine. Red. Red. Red. Red. Mother’s hand so hot. My mother’s hand my own.
I remember cupping a handful of ash and writing the word Live Live Live Live on their foreheads.
I remember mother saying Ocean, look up. Look up. See? Do you see the birds in the trees? I remember it was February. The trees were black and bare: barbed wire in an overcast sky. But she kept talking: Look! The birds. So many colors. Blue birds. Red birds. Magenta birds. Glittered birds. Her finger pointed to the twisted branches. Don’t you see the nest of yellow chicks, the purple mother feeding them worms? I remember seeing my mother’s face. How her eyes widened. I remember staring and staring at the end of her finger until, at last, an emerald blur flickered there. And there and there and there. And I saw them. The birds. All of them. How they kept blooming like fruit as my mother’s mouth opened and closed and the words wouldn’t stop coloring the trees. I remember forgetting the blood. I remember never looking down.
I remember the room. How it started to burn as my grandmother sang, surrounded by her family. Smoke rising and collecting in the corners. The table in the middle a bright blaze. The women with their eyes closed and the words relentless. The walls a moving screen of images flashing as each verse descended to the next: a sunlit intersection in a city no longer there. A city with no name. A white man standing beside a tank with his black-haired daughter in his arms. A family sleeping in a bomb crater. A family hiding underneath a table. Do you understand? All I was given was a table. A table in lieu of a house. A table in lieu of history.
There was a house in Saigon. One night, your father, drunk, came home and beat me for the first time at the kitchen table. You were not born yet.
But I remember the table anyway. I have to.
I remember the walls curling like a canvas as the fire blazed. The ceiling a rush of black smoke. I remember crawling to the table, how it was suddenly a pile of soot. I remember dipping my hands into it. My nails blackening with my country. My country dissolving on my tongue. I remember cupping a handful of ash and writing the word live live live live on the foreheads of the six people sitting in the room. How the words eventually hardened into ink on a blank page. How there is ash on this very page. How there’s enough for everyone.
I remember the table. It exists and does not exist. An inheritance assembled with bare mouths. And nouns. And ash. I remember the table as a shard embedded into the brain. How some will call it shrapnel.
And I will call it art.
Born in Saigon, Vietnam, Ocean Vuong is a recipient of a 2013 Pushcart Prize. Other honors include fellowships from Kundiman, Poets House, and the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts, as well as the 2012 Stanley Kunitz Prize for Younger Poets and an Academy of American Poets Prize. Poems appear in American Poetry Review, Crab Orchard Review, Quarterly West, Drunken Boat, Denver Quarterly, and The Normal School, amongst others. He lives in Queens, NY.