There are a few things I know — believe — to be true. My father’s name was Tran Long Nghi. Some of his documents transpose his first name with his last, or his first with his middle. My mother’s name is either Tran Thi Marie or Tran Thi Maria, depending on whether you trust her passport or her other documents. She herself uses both names. On my baptismal certificate, Juyeng is written in the space where my mother’s name was to be recorded. This is neither a Vietnamese nor a French name, nor is it a phonetic spelling of one. Some of my mother’s documents list her birthdate as March 1st,, some March 13 th. My mother’s real birthdate is unknown. The passport she used when she emigrated was issued by a country that no longer exists, South Vietnam. It lists no month or day, only a year. It is not the same year that is listed on her American passport.
I have six, at least, brothers and sisters. There may be half siblings. There were whisperings. My six brothers and sisters were born in four different countries. I was born in a fifth. At the times and places where my siblings were born, record-keeping was more casual than it probably is where you are reading this right now. There were no ID bracelets for newborns. One of my brothers may not be biologically related to us. He is different from the others. My mother says not to mention it. All seven of us siblings have two or three names that we go by. It is unclear how some of them originated. I do not have a Vietnamese given name. My birth certificate lists my given name as Barbara. Not a single blood relative calls me this.
Inside the family albums are many loose photographs. On the back of one is a child’s hesitant handwriting. In Vietnamese: This is the living room. The furniture here is found in no other photograph. It is distinctly Western. And hip for its time, the early to mid-Sixties. Such furniture could have been bartered for months’ worth of groceries. A man’s hat rests on a mid-century modern, compartmented coffee table, along with what appears to be a can of beer. A tripod stretches across a sofa. The sofa faces two armchairs. A third chair faces a narrow French door. It is of a style that could be found in Việt Nam. There are no people to indicate whether this is my father’s living room in the United States or my mother’s in Việt Nam. The modern armchairs look prohibitively expensive for a woman raising four children on her own. They are also too extravagant for a man new to the United States, sole guardian to two adolescent daughters. The furniture and the setting appear to be from opposite sides of the world. I don’t know where I am.
My father arrived in the United States in 1965. He was serving as an attaché to the Vietnamese Ambassador to the United Nations. This is one account. Another is that he was the private secretary to the Foreign Minister. Another is that he was an accountant.
Whatever the case, he arrived in New York City with his two eldest daughters. They were twelve and thirteen. They arrived in New York City in the midst of the Sexual Revolution. They were perfect dolls. They posed with their dolls, all four in similar dresses and hats. In the early photos, my sisters smile genuinely. They do so even when posed on the beach with women who are not their mother. Their expressions change along with their hair, falling longer, blunter. By the time their mother arrives in New York City, two years later, the eldest has a mod haircut, and the other has grown her hair down her back, the way she would have worn it in Việt Nam.
My memory is an album. The photos are not in chronological order. Some are out of focus. Some are bent. Some may have been placed in the wrong envelope at the photo- processing unit.
In a photo taken in his first apartment in New York City, my father poses. He stares directly into the lens. My father was a proud man. It is a beach chair he lies on in his living room.
The day he died the sky was as clear as a good gemstone.
His inhalations grew shorter and shallower. He was choking on his own breath. I measured the morphine with care. I appreciated that someone thought to dye it a tranquil blue. I administered. I watched. I waited. What comforted was the schedule, the notebook that proffered recordings of time and dosage, the dropper with its precise markings, the aqua blue liquid. These instruments were my familiars. I clung to them.
Horror in the form of awakening and remembering pierced any sleep.
Before and after he passed, I scavenged through the house, collected his photos, spread them out on my glass desk, first on the west end of Toronto, north of Bloor, now on the east, south of the Danforth. I have been writing and rewriting this story, re-membering and furnishing photos of empty rooms, connecting hairstyles and homes like dots, constructing a history.
There are few photos of my mother, even fewer of her smiling.She is rarely without one of her six children. Frequently, she is overrun. Not infrequently, she is doing something for one of them: slicing birthday cake, squeezing a shoulder to get. a child to stand. upright. Sitting is rare. In a few photos, she is trapped in polite conversation with friends of her husband’s. Quickly, she falls out of the frame, the focus remaining on the guests, the children, the house, the city at large. Her husband, the lens, points elsewhere.
In a Christmas photo, the youngest at the time wears stiff denim jeans that make it difficult to squat. He gets smacked for squatting. His father tells him to act civilized. They are poor, but they have chairs. He needs to use a fork. The three brothers wear the same style sweatshirt in different colors. It is cheaper this way, and in this way, they are marked, if they were not already, with their flat faces and roughly chopped hair. The boys smile with the rifles they received for Christmas. They pretend to take prisoners. They enjoy giving orders. They enjoy finding their targets, identifying where they will take their charges, considering how they might hurt or frighten them. When their sister arrives on the scene, the only sister who was left behind in Việt Nam with them, they lay down their guns. Pretend games do not frighten her. Plastic guns mean nothing. She commands them to get her a Chip-a-Roo from the cupboard. She directs them to chop the carrots their mother instructed her to prepare for dinner. She orders them to keep their mouths shut. She pinches, twists, strikes, and glares. She does so without hesitation, without having to consider how violence looks. She knows. Even in their best pretend games, the boys can never approach her unrehearsed acts.
He says he must take the job. He will be paid handsomely. They need the money. It’s an important mission.
He leaves. Leaves my mother, who barely speaks English, leaves her with seven children, who speak little English, who are always hungry. Leaves them after they boarded that monstrous machine to be with him again, let go their contact with the earth and water, turned away from family, friends, foes to come to this land. Leaves.
Photos arrive in the mail: him posed in front of new cars, beside palm trees, in hats with brims so large they cast shadows that obscure his face. These brims imply the kind of sunshine they once knew, the kind they’d prefer to be in now rather than in the shadows of the tall tower in which they now live. Their mother warns them. There are occupancy laws in their new home. Their very existence puts them in violation. She tells her children to hide.
There are no photos where Lady Liberty’s face and my sisters’ are visible within the same frame. My sisters are posed only at Lady Liberty’s back. They smile in her shadow. For my father’s own portrait, he stands below a sign with a single word that runs the entire width of the store: PEERLESS It is snowing. The photo is out of focus. Night is falling. He will soon be obliterated.
There is a series of photos of me as an infant, learning to sit up, propped in a line of dolls. Screaming. The time between this and when I am walking is undocumented, is replaced by photos of my father standing before a backdrop of cacti, squinting against the sun and dust. He is well. dressed but always alone. There are houses and vehicles but no people. It is as if he has alighted in a land that has been abandoned by man. Who takes the photo? Who eats dinner with him? Does he call home?
In the photos at the point in time when I can walk comfortably, I sport red cowboy boots. I wear them in the snow. I wear them with dresses. I wear them with my hair pulled back in pigtails. These are snapshots. By virtue of their nature, at times they distort the truth, slicing open a moment, snaring a facial expression on its way to something else. The framing is sometimes deliberate, sometimes accidental. Here, an untied shoe. There, the whole family, in size order. A stranger appears at the back of this shot. My brothers are pushed to the borders in this one. This much I know: This is the living room. But whose?
Only one green corner of a label remains, sticking teasingly to the cover of the slim address book. Whatever information the label once announced has long since peeled away. Above the green, the year is embossed in gold: 1975. Some of the entries inside are so faded they are difficult to read. A man accustomed to impermanence, my father preferred to write in pencil. Many of the contacts listed are Vietnamese. Most are located in New York, some in Virginia, a few in Việt Nam. Recorded on the inside flap — of both the front and the back cover — is my father’s Certificate of Naturalization number. Was it a reminder that he could no longer return to the country that he called home for forty-four years? Or, more practically, was the twice- recorded number a reflection of his concern, a gesture toward self- preservation? Did he fear being stopped and questioned in the only place he could now call home? In the middle of the address book is an entry that lists no name, either for an individual or a business, instead tantalizing with a one-word question: Jobs? And an address in Rego Park, Queens, New York. Near this listing is another, more complete. It includes not only a name, address, and phone number, but also a hint after the name, in parentheses: (private detective). A different entry promises Mexican snacks. Another offers almost nothing at all. No contact name, no location, not even a city, no phone number. Its only offering, a reminder. of its existence: Suicide Prevention Center.
My father was a self-taught speaker of multiple languages. My mother, like me, a speaker of a single tongue (though a different one), can answer none of my most pressing questions. She tells me my father never had a hair or pencil out of place, that he enjoyed taking photographs with no people in them and. was extraordinarily protective of his plants. On my desk sit two biographies of a man, not my father. I read them as if they might reveal something to me. And they do. Flagged with Post-its, they surrender secrets in a manner not so different from the way a person might: in measured layers, offering some facts but holding back crucial details, repeating certain phrasing, teasing with ambiguous wording. The Vietnamese subject of these biographies grew a moustache to disguise himself when he went into the field. He told his colleagues that the women of Huế preferred the hippie look. He called himself a doctor of sexology. He said he was bird watching. He was, in fact, an intelligence agent. His mistress was the American occupation.
In the year of the Tết Offensive, the year of my birth, my father left the family for a job in Texas. He was, he said, teaching American officers the Vietnamese language. He took no family members with him. In the photos he sent home during this period, no people other than himself appear. Even the background is scrubbed of human presence. It is a desert, literally and figuratively.
Another version of this story: My father is planting seeds, teaching his language, that the shared words might blossom into peace. In my mind, a different kind of blossom opens: Malcolm Browne’s photo, the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức ablaze. Like a flowering ocotillo in the desert, he drew all eyes before rejoining the earth.
On a plain white piece of paper, my father wrote the beginning of his autobiography, a letter, a suicide note(?) My name is Tran Long Nghi … The document whirls through his life in India, the Philippines, Việt Nam, and the United States all in a short paragraph, revealing little. It ends with the relinquishment of his duty at the United Nations: I was forced. With each new photo or document of his that I discover, the tide reverses. Writing this is my one buoy.