by d.t. Nguyen
My mother dragged out an old, brown vinyl suitcase from the storage room above her garage when we came home to Virginia last Thanksgiving. She was careful to avoid hurting her lower back as she maneuvered it, hovering low to the ground, using both hands, sliding it across the floor on a towel for facility. Once a physically formidable woman who woke up at dawn to prepare for a grueling day of work—a profitable food business during my parents’ leaner times—she was now starting to slow down. Earlier that year, she had agitated her right arm, misaligning it somehow, which rendered it impossible for her to lift it over her head. She tried to self-remedy it through yoga poses and swimming laps at the Bally’s Fitness Center pool. At 65, my mother was svelte by choice, having exchanged her flavorful Vietnamese cuisine for blander, healthier, steamed root vegetables and brown rice after her friends were increasingly bedeviled by diabetes, high cholesterol, and other, more exotic ailments. The day before we arrived, she had visited her hairstylist niece to allay our concerns about her lack of care. The combination of the utilitarian haircut and her old 1980s house clothes belied the stylish woman she had once been—before immigrating to America, before raising five daughters.
She fumbled impatiently with the large belt buckles of the flat, rectangular piece, a relic of the time before all suitcases had built-in wheels. “I saved these for you girls all these years,” she said. My sisters and I gathered around her curiously. I secretly hoped it was the scroll paintings she had also been saving for us. My mother flipped the flap wide open, and at least two dozens little girls’ dresses sprang out. They had been packed flatly, one on top of the other. There were petite creations with lace fringes, ribbon piping, French pleats, flower prints. Some of them, like the tangerine ao dai traditional dress, had been hand-crafted by our mother. Others, mostly made of cotton, silk, or polyester and always colorful, had been handed down from a cousin.
“Oh,” we gasped collectively. My eyebrows lifted and my lips set in a wide smile in a show of false elation. I looked around the room at my sisters who seemed bemused but also a little burdened by this surprise.
“Look, isn’t this a beautiful dress? Ti, do you remember?” my mother asked me, using my childhood nickname. She lifted the dress at the top of the heap for us to admire.
I saw that though the blue-and-white sailor dress needed a stitch to keep the anchor appliqué in place at the collarbone, there was not a moth hole or tear to be found. “Yes, my favorite. I wore it everywhere,” I replied. Even though I was the oldest daughter, it was still one of the few dresses I had worn that was not a hand-me-down.
I recognized another dress—the go-go red skirt and ruffled blouse that I wore on my first day of Catholic school. In 1970s Saigon, the top-tier French school, the Lycee Marie-Curie, was offered exclusively to the city’s elites—children of expats, doctors, highranking military officers, and merchants. The Catholic Church offered a more affordable option, which appealed to my educated but nonetheless working class parents. Even though my family was Buddhist, my parents felt we could set aside a few differences in methodologies. So they sent me into the wrath of nuns. I would come home with disturbing tales of a child getting whipped on her palm with a wooden ruler or a student getting sent to the “ghost cage.” As I looked at the go-go dress, I remembered a poor, misbehaving boy being dragged through the school yard to the top of a bell tower to face the “ghost”—or at least someone dressed in a white garment. The other children watched, mouths agape, as the “ghost” pounded his hand on the wire-caged window high above our heads.
Our husbands were also in the room, and Minh remarked for their sake, “These are iconic dresses. You can’t look at one and not think of Ti scratching her neck after waking from a nap or My at the pagoda beaming through her cavity-filled teeth.” My sisters and I had seen these dresses immortalized on the numerous Kodak slides that our father had captured of our childhood. We associated each dress with specific moments in our lives. My third birthday, when my mother made her signature flan. A Sunday outing to the turtle fountain in town. A Tet Lunar New Year, as we lined up by birth order before our grandmother, arms folded in a show of respect, to make our New Year’s wishes.
My mother held up a white Peter Pan collared top that was attached to a dark blue pleated skirt. Accent buttons the size of Mentos candies ran down the front. “Look how well they’ve preserved,” she said. She flicked the skirt once, twice, held the dress vertically and picked at a loose thread. She could see the different colored thread from the time she had to patch it with a similar yet inexact shade. She tilted her head and squinted in an effort to remember. I remembered this dress well. It was the dress I had worn to receive my paternal grandmother at the airport, after she returned from one of her trips to America.
My paternal grandmother had always regarded our family of five daughters and no sons with some element of disdain. Sons were the prize. In the culture of my mother’s Vietnam, a woman’s goal was to bear sons. It was a belief that traced back to an agrarian past: daughters were a burden on their families, a mouth to feed, useless for heavy work, while sons, capable and virile, carried on the family lineage and cared for their elderly parents. While so much of Vietnam advanced and developed, shedding its agrarian beginnings, our culture remained rooted in this belief. Thus, my grandmother still looked down on us girls, and my mother felt the weight of this conviction. As my mother continued to unpack her suitcase of dresses, I wondered what they reminded her of, whether they conjured joy or simply evoked a longing for at least one son among the lot.
In late 1960s Saigon, before the war consumed the country, when the Sony & Cher Show flickered on the American channel of our black-and-white television set, replete with above-the-knee skirts, only wealthy women travelled abroad. This included Ba Noi, my paternal grandmother. She had small, dark, widely set eyes that complemented her traditionally dyed black teeth, which she strengthened by chewing betel nut. Her lips were slightly askew in a near constant smirk, and she held her head tilted to the side, almost flirtatiously, hinting at a mischievous side. Whenever she departed for America, on one of her many trips to visit her children at universities, the entire family—uncles, aunts, cousins, everyone—took off from work, and we all dressed up to see her off at the airport, and when she returned, receive her again. In old photos of these airport reunions, Ba Noi stands in the center with the ease of a woman who has seen much in 69 years and is enjoying the rewards of her lifelong withholding. Though her bosom hung shapelessly to her stomach like heavy winter melons, she always dressed in a red embroidered ao dai buttoned to well below her waist, proper and matronly. Even on the airplane to other countries, she wore her national dress proudly.
Every morning she rolled her long hair tightly in a velvet cloth to one side below her ear, then wrapped and pinned it around her head, which resembled a modern-day headband. She wore her hair in this manner for most of her life until she was very old, when she simply shaved her head like a Buddhist monk. Ba Noi, after all, had a threatening aura. She was born at the turn of the century on the auspicious date of December 25th. By age twelve, when girls were just cultivating their own ideas and opinions, she was obliged to marry an ambitious teenager selected by her elders. She had seventeen pregnancies. Ten of her children survived. Ba Noi accepted her fate as a female of that time and place. The early push into the world to fend for herself prepared her for when her husband, in his early 40s, was assassinated by the Communists. She became the sole provider for her large family. Her eventual prosperity was based on her own visionary, calculated decisions. She chose to live on.
The hierarchy of a traditional Vietnamese family could be symbolized by clothing.
Darker and coarser materials connoted a low position, that of servants, daughters.
Lighter color working clothes suggested a higher rank. Above quotidian uniforms were western-inspired garments—shift dresses, Capri pants, shoulder-revealing tops, alluring and different. These garments were like younger sons who were nurtured but somehow remained alternates to the prize. At the top of the heap of clothing hierarchy was the ao dai made of luxurious, imported silk from Thailand, custom-made by an artisan, worn on special occasions, showcased and treasured like the eldest male offspring with whom elderly parents, by custom, always resided with in their golden years.
Of her ten children, three were girls. Ba Noi often seemed unkind to her three daughters. My Aunt Ngan bore the brunt of her mother’s hard-heartedness most, being the youngest daughter and the one who lived at home with her mother the longest. She recounted childhood stories of endless, grueling chores, collecting water on her shoulders while her brothers played, hauling groceries from the market, aiding the servants with meals in the kitchen, running obscure errands in distant villages. She ate last after her brothers had selected from the best of the offerings. She wore drab olive-colored cotton tunics with snap buttons running along the front of the blouse—a basic and functional uniform which never got in the way of her work and never conjured up sex appeal.
While Ba Noi could be callous with her daughters, treating them as though they held little value, she still empowered them with intellectual experiences. Despite her prosperity, she was ridiculously thrifty. She found multiple uses for most objects, saving tins, jars, and boxes. Her own food supply came from a vegetable garden, fruiting trees, and a fishpond, which she tended herself. She preferred life experiences over material objects—overseas trips to France and America. She was singular in this way, exercising a kind of wisdom that most countrywomen did not. Her vast resources went towards educating her children, and eventually, grandchildren. While her two older sisters married at the appropriate age of twelve, Aunt Ngan grew up at that pivotal moment in history when women in Vietnam, no longer married so early. Some were even educated.
In time, Ba Noi sent my aunt overseas to America to study at Colorado College, where she remained for the rest of her adult life. But until that day, she was her mother’s personal servant, never mind that Ba Noi did have actual servants back then.
Into this familial dysfunction, my mother married. If Ba Noi was ruthless to her own flesh-and-blood daughters, what chance did my mother stand? My parents lived in the suburbs of Saigon in a house my father built on my grandmother’s land—a wedding gift in lieu of tuition for a university in Australia. The two-story, functional concrete house had covered terraces in the front and back on the second floor, used as a contained play area for me. Windows were slatted shutters, not screened. My father designed everything including a pond, in which he grew water spinach, and a long drive that wound its way from the front gate to the house. Within a stone’s throw of the house sat a chicken shed containing one hundred or so chickens, whose eggs my parents sold to the open food market. My parents rented out the ground floor of the house for additional income and company for my young, skittish mother during my father’s absences as a war correspondent on the front lines. I spent my days on the terraces looking down onto the grounds. There was never much to see besides Ba Noi’s far-reaching land, on which she collected rent to support herself in old age.
It was conventional to food shop often because iceboxes were still uncommon. We were one of a lucky few to own a dorm-sized refrigerator, a television, a radio, and a floor fan. Every other day or so, with me in tow, my mother and I set out hand-in-hand, at my child’s pace, to the open dusty road. An atypical breeze swept strands of hair from my mother’s bangless side-part bob, which she curled in foam rollers at night and teased and sprayed in the morning for body and texture. She was twenty-four, petite and stylish. On these outings, she wore a cotton shift in muted floral print that she had sewn herself. It was a shame that none of these hand-sewn originals were among the dresses she’d saved in the old vinyl suitcase.
We strolled past the communal lotus pond in front of our property, walking away from my Ba Noi’s house, sometimes going as far as the bridge of shady bamboo before catching a passing auto rickshaw out of our neighborhood. Sometimes a neighbor on a motorcycle shared his ride; otherwise, we waited. Once on the bustling main street, there were vendors selling miniature eggplant, radishes for pickling, herbs and vegetables not already in our own garden. They sold seasonal tropical fruit—mangosteen, durian, guava—and flounder, crab, shrimp, and spices from their shoulder baskets or bicycle carts at the side of the road. We seldom needed to travel further to the bigger, boisterous open market. After the shopping was done, my mother summoned a cyclo to take us home with our groceries.
On the grounds of our property my mother wore dark clothing—aubergine blouses with black elastic-waist pants—to feed the chickens and collect their eggs, to lug water from the pond to the vegetable garden. She rolled up her pants and went barefoot into the muddy pond to fill her bucket. Though we had a European-style toilet, water had to be manually filled into the tank before it could flush. My mother also hauled water, culled from a neighbor’s well, upstairs to be treated before it was hygienic for cooking and bathing. Everyday tasks required arduous steps. Though she was the lady of the house, her dark, amorphous clothing, however sturdy and practical, also suggested her place of servitude as a daughter-in-law. In this place, my mother was haunted by Ba Noi’s shadow. “Ti,” my mother once asked me, “if I scream, would your grandmother hear?” My mother fell short in the old woman’s mind—eventually five times short—by failing to produce a male child.
Our family undertook her care, a modest commitment, but one where the burden fell on my mother. Ba Noi did not ask, nor did my father volunteer. Everyone simply assumed that it was so. Each evening, just before sunset when the sky was ochre, not yet orange, we came calling with Ba Noi’s supper, painstakingly and exquisitely prepared by my mother. No matter how she appeared during the workday, my mother always made herself presentable for our sunset walk to Ba Noi’s house. She splashed her face with scented jasmine rice water salvaged from cleaning the dinner rice, scrubbed her arms and body with a washcloth before changing into one of the vibrant colored dresses that she favored during that season. She fluffed up her hair with her hands before pulling it back with a headband crafted from a folded handkerchief. We dropped off the layered tiffin food carriers and collected the ones from the day before. We seldom stayed very long, being dismissed promptly and feeling more like the help than family. On one occasion, Ba Noi grabbed a handful of spoiling longans from her altar table and gave them to us as we departed. Whether she had meant to show appreciation or spite, it was impossible to say. I remember my mother being distraught after this visit.
One evening, as we delivered the meal, Ba Noi said to my mother, “I see you and that mother of yours. There will be none of that running from man to man in this family.” From her daybed, where she meditated and chanted her mantra twice a day, Ba Noi’s eyes followed my mother around the room as she tidied the small table by the window where my grandmother preferred to take her meals. I saw my mother’s lips recoil into her mouth, heard the slippery intake of air through her nostrils. Her eyes darted towards mine, avoiding Ba Noi’s completely. I did not see tears. “Yes, mother. Of course not,” was all she could manage to say as she hurried to transfer the food from the containers into bowls and dishes. She never wanted to endanger her husband’s relationship with his mother. The extended family must be considered, she told herself. She remained composed and polite until we were outside in the yard. Then she took my hand and lead me away quickly without a word. Exiting the front iron gates, my mother betrayed a faint sniffle. “What did Ba Noi mean by that?” I asked. She did not answer me.
My father, ever the agreeable youngest son, never stood up to his mother on behalf of his wife. Rather, he asserted his Buddhist wisdom: Let it go. My mother was left feeling as though he neither supported nor validated her. In time, she turned resentful of his passivity, particularly because my father’s brother had done more to protect his own wife. In an emotional plea, my uncle had declared, “Mother, I beg of you. If you should say or do anything that causes my wife to leave me—I will kill myself.” Not surprisingly, Ba Noi backed off, and a silent understanding existed henceforth between those two women. But, then again, my uncle’s wife had borne him three sons. My mother had no such value to offer.
Once, when my mother discovered that some thirty or forty of our chickens had been stolen, she took to her battery-operated megaphone and screamed aloud, for all our neighbors to hear. “I work hard to make ends meet, day in and day out,” she said, “and I’ll be damned if some low-life punk is going to steal from me. Tien xu cha may, tien xu bo may. Do you know what it’s like to beg and borrow from my in-laws? Have you any idea?
Have you ever had to do that month after month, every month?” She paused, and then, more softly said, “Every month, my husband and I show our pathetic little faces before my husband’s family to borrow two, three hundred dong to feed our children.” Her words scattered across the vast land—like the song of cicadas that came from among the billowing lemongrass in the afternoon heat. This soliloquy was really meant for her mother-in-law’s ears.
After her third daughter was born, when my father received a diplomatic post overseas, my mother finally escaped, for a time, Ba Noi’s shadow. In 1971, no one predicted the eventual loss of the Vietnam War. Believing that we would return once my father’s post concluded, my mother packed only a few possessions, photo albums, and her daughters’ dresses into an Army trunk that my father painted with the address of the Vietnamese Embassy in Taiwan on the lid. Despite the benefits that came with the new position, she understood that they were temporary. She planned on saving as much money as possible. However, missing from the trunk of hand-me-downs were sweaters for the chill of Taiwan. The wet and dry seasons of southern Vietnam had never necessitated such things as sweaters. My parents found themselves in the predicament of asking Ba Noi for one last loan before receiving their first Embassy pay.
The expat lifestyle, filled with unexpected subsidized perks, fulfilled my mother in ways she had not envisioned. We were given a spacious home in the centrally located expat community, a Peugeot sedan, live-in help, and tuition at Taipei American School.
For the first time, she was free to attend sumptuous dinner parties featuring unfamiliar cuisine and interesting people who found her story as fascinating as she considered theirs.
During those three years abroad, immune from the withering effects of her mother-in-law, my mother’s will and confidence grew stronger. Her mind became enriched. She embraced the foreign language, attended Taiwanese cooking lessons, and practiced mahjong, all while caring for us with ambitious attention. My mother wanted her daughters to surpass her in education. What was enough for her was inadequate for her girls. She drilled my two little sisters during the day, and when I came home from school, she tested me on the multiplication tables. In this manner, she raised us. Every year she had our astrology charts read. Every day she plotted our future.
Then, the inconceivable became inevitable. In the months leading up to the demise of democratic Vietnam, my parents were glued to the television set, anxious and frantic, watching the final days of Saigon. My mother’s eyes welled up as she watched in utter dismay the broadcast map of her beloved Vietnam shaded redder and redder, from the north to the south, until Saigon itself was swallowed up and surrendered to the Communists on April 30, 1975.
My mother imagined having to flee the Viet Cong. She imagined the dangers— the lying and sneaking around, starvation and thirst—and felt immensely grateful that her young family was already safely outside of the country. With the international community aligned and compassionate to the plight of Vietnamese people (most were gracious and welcoming to the refugees), my parents considered staying in Taiwan, assessed France, Canada, and Australia. Ultimately, they went where they had family: the United States.
They filed for immigration papers to join my father’s siblings—two brothers, a sister, their families—in Virginia, in a suburb of Washington, D.C. where they had settled years earlier.
“How shall we survive in America?” she said to my father. “There is no more Embassy. Everyone must start over.” But by then she was no longer a submissive young woman in dowdy earth tones taking tiffin trays to her mother-in-law. Ba Noi’s verve and fortitude, once so overbearing to her, was inspiration now. Nothing, not even this, seemed quite impossible. With creative thinking, my parents began to learn skills for the next anticipated chapter in their lives. Ceramic throwing, pork skin bi and steamed pork roll do productions, baking Vietnamese confections and savories—my mother wanted to contribute to our family’s success. In America, she insisted, we would be a double income home.
When my middle sister Minh graduated high school, my mother threw her a party. This was in 1989, fourteen years after we had immigrated. My mother invited everyone she knew, our relatives and friends, and prepared and cooked for two weeks. That morning, as she dressed, she contemplated the array of questions that her guests might ask her valedictorian daughter. Tell me, how does one get a 4.2 grade point average? Are you ready for Duke next year? On academic scholarship, I heard your mother say? She was almost giddy and, as she dressed for the big day, she whistled her favorite native pop song. It had been ages since she had worn anything special, but that day she put on her blue silk print dress with the oversized white collar and shoulder pads—even high heels, though she felt clumsy in them. She was the valedictorian’s mother, and she dressed in a manner magnanimous to receive both the outpouring of well-wishes and the envious murmurings of those who had never thought five daughters would amount to much.
There had been sporadic moments in the past when she herself had believed this negative talk. With each pregnancy she had prayed to her ancestors for a son—just one— so that the gossip would cease, so that she could walk tall into a family gathering. Even now, she vacillated between pride and a lesser feeling, as if she could not fully enjoy this success. She felt relieved, three down, two more to go. If the present was a preview of the future, it did look promising. Her daughters were on their way toward self-sufficiency.
Whether they went on to marry well, or not at all, or to be dutiful wives—at least proper education would allow them to survive independently of any man. Her daughter’s valedictorian graduation day was important because it was a clear sign that she had been on the right path with her past decisions and sacrifices. She had had to work harder to give five girls an advantage in life.
Ba Noi was also in attendance that day, slouched over in her wheelchair, wearing a decorous, brown brocade silk ao dai. My mother paused to marvel at her mother-in-law who, at age 75 when Vietnam fell, had the vision to abandon all of her riches and all that was comfortable to her at that time for the unknown. The old woman escaped a crumbling Vietnam with not much more than several gold bars sewn into the hems of her travel outfit. Earlier that week my mother had insisted, only half-convincingly, “You mustn’t fuss, Mother. Having you at our home to celebrate is enough. You needn’t go to the ceremony too.” But Ba Noi, then 89 years old, unable to understand a word of English, attended her one and only valedictorian’s address nonetheless.
Years later, on Easter Sunday 1993, my mother telephoned me in New York.
“Your grandmother passed in her sleep today.” It was a month before my twenty-seventh birthday and I was finishing up my second degree in interior design. My sister My prospered as a systems design architect, Minh was a Fulbright Scholar, Anh started at the University of Virginia, and our youngest sister Tina was ten. Usually my mother was rushed on the phone, but that day, she lingered. “Peaceful death, too. That’s how I’d like to go. In my sleep. At my children’s home, not some nursing home. Your grandmother was lucky in so many ways.” There was no trace of resentment in her voice.
“She saw so much in her 93 years,” I said.
“Did you know she left me $70.00? Last week, she gave away what she had left to everyone, and she recognized me.” My mother accepted this final gesture without the confusion she had nursed as a newlywed. Then when Ba Noi returned from one of her trips overseas, she bore gifts for the family, even for my mother. A bar of Camay soap. A Revlon lipstick. A bottle of Chanel No. 5 perfume. My mother treasured these gifts for their rarity in third-world Vietnam, using them only on special occasions and holding onto them. But she had not known how to receive them—equally rare kindnesses from the hand of an extremely critical and harsh mother-in-law.
Ba Noi’s funeral was attended by three generations of her offspring. Over seventy family members wore all-white cotton robes, their place in the family differentiated by headwear. Her sons donned white mourning headbands while her daughters and daughters-in-law covered their heads in cowl hoods underneath their white headbands.
Her numerous grandchildren, every plentiful one in attendance, also wore white mourning headbands but with our heads exposed. Her handfuls of great-grandchildren wore yellow headbands. In death, Ba Noi touched and eased my mother. She absorbed the drone of the Buddhist monks’ ceremonial chants, the notes humming thickly in the air like a swarm of bees. The vision of our white robes on top of the burial hill impressed my mother. In that moment, she felt a lightness and assurance she had not known before. As Buddhists, we believe that lamenting for the deceased keeps their soul wandering endlessly on earth rather than allowing it to move forward into the afterlife. Thus, my mother did not cry.
Years after the funeral, graduations and marriages, my parents delivered their last daughter to the College of William and Mary. My mother took advantage of the empty house to organize the storage room above the garage. She discovered the box of our old dresses in the corner, in between the milk crates of early reader books and our cherished Fisher-Price Little People house. She gave considerable thought to keeping these dresses brought over from Vietnam rather than donating them, looking upon them as a time capsule for her “American daughters.” It would be several years before her daughters would have children of their own. Still, these tiny dresses reminded her of a time in her life she now recalled with fondness, when her young family took long walks after dinner to reflect on the day’s events, when it hadn’t mattered that there wasn’t a son among them.
Eventually, our mother carefully hand-washed her treasures, hung them to air dry, pressed and even dry-cleaned the velvet skirt and French-pleated dress, before laying them flat in the old vinyl suitcase, purchased for our immigration to the States.
For decades, until that morning with us in Virginia, she kept this suitcase tucked away, too precious not to save. Another woman might have discarded all evidence of her failure to bear a son, but our mother did not. She preserved a suitcase full of reminders of her deficiency and valued her daughters despite odious comments and jests about her abundance of girls. As she learned to recognize her own tenacity and worth, she modeled for us, as her mother-in-law unconventionally did for her, ways for us to find our own strength amidst life’s challenges. Diligence. Self-reliance. Conviction.
“You girls do as you wish with them. Your father and I are simplifying,” our mother said finally, the floor of the room scattered with the delicate, safeguarded pieces of our childhood. She looked around at us, hoping for a sign of acceptance. My sisters and I were privy to our mother’s soul that day when she flipped open that suitcase, her greatest vulnerability exposed. She yearned for a connection with us. Longed for acknowledgement from us. Those simple little dresses symbolized so much: her five daughters, her life’s lessons, her legacy. Do my girls recognize my worth?
Ironically, the five of us daughters had gone on to have sons. Only my sister Anh had a girl—my mother’s sole granddaughter Hannah. My mother stole glances at Anh, knowing that the dresses were of no use to the rest of us. Unable to glean any affirmation, my mother solemnly began to gather the dresses from the floor to encapsulate them once more. I reached over and touched my mother’s hand, to soothe her dejection and to help her.
Then, Anh declared like a firecracker, “Hannah’s wearing—vintage!” She pronounced the fate of these dresses, and our mother was at once fulfilled.