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A friend and I headed out one morning in search of the art district. I’d never been to that area of town and had to google up a map. Anyone who regularly uses google maps eventually learns that trying to navigate those things can tricky. Sometimes it’s like trying to find true north using a needle-less compass. We ended up heading straight out of town.
Luckily, backtracking was just a matter of getting on the other side of the highway via a u-turn. So back we went to find the nearest gas station to ask for directions. Undaunted, we headed out again hoping the gas station attendant knew what he was talking about. As we continued down the road, I saw the word “Danang” on a store sign and mentioned it to my friend. We decided to check it out and, wow, it was a newly opened Vietnamese store.
For me, it was a big deal. Over two years ago, I wrote a post bemoaning my inability to connect with Vietnamese adoptee bloggers and the Vietnamese American community in general. I couldn’t seem to find an “in” door. Since then, I’ve made contact with other bloggers and even had the privilege of co-blogging with two of the most distinctive voices out there. However, my attempts to establish contact with the Vietnamese American community in my area remained halfhearted.
Still gun-shy from previous experiences, my efforts were minimal. I knew there was a fairly sizable community here, but still did not actively seek them out. My justifications were endless: I was busy. There were more urgent matters to attend to. The community isn’t really a community and is too scattered. It’s too hard, dammit.
The truth is I’d turned into a big chicken and didn’t need much of an excuse to lull me back into forgetfulness. Ah, will I ever learn? As with my adoption, the signs were everywhere and popping up when I least expected them. The Vietnamese store served as yet another reminder that there was something I should be doing and wasn’t.
Of course, to reduce my reasons to merely fear would oversimplify and misrepresent the psychology behind my reluctance. I think the common set of fears did come into play: fear of rejection, fear of judgment, fear of not being able to connect, etc. However, something that I rarely talk about is the resentment. Being summarily rejected by a recruiter for the Vietnamese student organization at the college I was attending left a bitter taste in my mouth. True, I was hurt and felt seriously discouraged, but just as importantly, I felt this blood-boiling rage.
It felt as if “my own” had thrown me to the wolves and then refused to let me back in because I’d been mauled beyond recognition. I didn’t walk away. They’d given me away. I’d survived to seek them out again but rather than welcoming me back among them, they slammed the door in my face. They wanted nothing to do with me, and why should I care? What had they ever done for me other than relinquishing me to an eternal state of otherness?
I was aware these feelings were unreasonable but felt them anyway. Because I knew they were irrational, I buried them. However, I would eventually have to face the truth. Denial of those feelings numbed my awareness of them but still allowed them to affect my behavior. It’s weird how the mind works. I feel weird just writing these thoughts down, but surely I can’t be the only one.
I know as well as anyone that it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to resent a whole community of strangers. They had nothing to do with what had happened to me – either individually or as a group. Furthermore, I’d met and befriended enough Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans to know better. Why did I harbor such a sense of betrayal?
My mind immediately goes back to my childhood. Insomnia and I have been joined at the hip since I can remember. A lot of those late night sessions with sleeplessness involved thoughts of my Vietnamese mother. As I’ve mentioned before, not all of my midnight daydreams were childish fantasies of tearful reunions. Many times my imaginary interactions with Má were rendered with classic feelings of abandonment common to adoptees.
Some part of me felt that she’d sloughed me off like so much unwanted hair to be swept away and forgotten. Of course, now I know that’s not necessarily the case. There were other options, but to a child with limited knowledge and understanding, the only ones were a) orphaned by death and b) orphaned by abandonment. To compensate, I waffled between the two scenarios. Did she die or just dump me to my fate?
Sadly, Má wasn’t around to answer my questions. She only existed in my head and could neither confirm or correct my assumptions. Those thoughts never dissipated. They were never resolved but lay dormant just below the surface of my consciousness. I guess the recruiter for the Vietnamese student organization was just the trigger. He’d unwittingly turned on the light behind my skewed optical lens allowing for a whole lot of projection.
My two mothers are arguing again right over me. I’ve awoken to their bickering. I lie here waiting for them to stop. My first mother is to my right and my second mother is to my left. They’re annoying me with the same old argument.
My first mother questions my second mother as to why I smell like potatoes and butter all the time. My second mother accuses my first mother of wanting me to smell like fish and sweat.
My first mother crosses her thin, brown arms and huffs about how ignorant I am of classic Vietnamese poetry and songs about my people’s origins, and is sad that I still do not know how to answer her in my dreams in Vietnamese. My second mother crosses her arms too and raises and lowers herself on the balls of her feet, signifying agitation. She accuses my first mother of giving birth to me in a crowded flat where two of her brothers were secret guerrillas who would have thrown me out with the bathwater if they saw my American eyes staring back at them. She says that if my first mother really wanted me to speak Vietnamese, she would have kept me and raised me instead of giving me to my blind grandmother and skipping town to do every Tom, Dick and Harry who arrived on base.
My first mother counters that my second mother doesn’t know the slightest thing about her situation, never bothered to ask and warned her to stop putting lies in my head. She yells, “What does an uptight, midwest farm girl know about life anyway?!” My second mother jabs her chubby finger at my first mother and says, “What does an uneducated, manipulative Vietnamese city girl know about life since you’re dead to your son anyway?!”
That’s the last straw. I’ve had enough. I sit up, get out of bed and quickly get dressed. I plug in my earphones, put on my sneakers and head out the door. I’m deaf to the pleas of my two mothers as they reach for me and beg me to stay with them. But, I belong to neither of them. They both have foisted shame upon me in order to mold me into a more sympathetic person. Yet, it’s turned me against them. I do the opposite of what is expected of me so as to counteract the imposition of a foreign will on my life’s territory. I’ve convinced myself that I am no one’s son, regardless of who gave birth to me or who fed me. I’ve always been a burden.
On that point, there is no argument.
posted by sume
*Má didn’t exist
before my fourteenth birthday.
Unable to accept that my blood
flowed in another direction,
my American mother never spoke of Việt Nam,
but the maternal compass
that had first mapped my veins
left markers that kept Sài Gòn
firmly imprinted in the corner of my eye.
Forgive me, Má, for letting over thirty years pass
before I lit incense for your ngày gió.
I have nothing of substance
to entice her back among the living,
only my words as I rewrite her
Ghost mother…imaginary mother…elusive mother
There were times when I’d picture Má as a spirit watching over me. A faceless apparition made of vapor and a child’s imagination, Má was a source of comfort and mystery. As I grew older, I remade her several times adding details; long dark hair and eyes like my own. Still, despite my vivid imagination, Má refused to reveal herself in her entirety. Perhaps I wasn’t nearly as creative as I’d thought.
Not knowing anything about my Vietnamese parents or the circumstance under which I’d been adopted left too much room for speculation. Confused and disturbed by so many unknowns, I sought to fill in the blanks. Just as I’d created and re-created Má, I wove intricate scenarios for my adoption.
Born January 1st, 1970, I was adopted and arrived in the US in July. My parents divorced in September of the same year. I don’t think I consciously associated the events at the time. All I knew was that I seemed to have a problem with losing parents and didn’t understand why. Because Má was such a mystery, I fluctuated between longing for her and being angry with her depending on whether I thought she’d died or abandoned me.
I’ve yet to explore why I put so much emphasis on Má and thought so little of Ba. Perhaps it was because my mom provided a constant reminder or maybe it was a manifestation of the traditional gender roles I’d learned. There is also the possibility that it was because as a daughter, I simply wanted to know my mother. Besides, fathers were inconstant beings that came and went every other weekends and holidays. Further still, some part of me feels that Má was just easier. Ba may not have been Ba at all, but Dad, 爸爸 or even 아빠 .
According to my dad, my foster mother lived in Cho Lon, and he’d had gotten the impression that I’d been born there. How he had gotten the impression that I had been born in Sài Gòn’s Chinese district is still not clear. Given Dad’s habit of revising of my adoption story, I can’t be sure of anything. He’s honed re-writing my history, including stories of Má into a fine art – mistress, wife, prostitute, dead, probably dead, possibly alive, unknown.
Ghost mother…voiceless mother…unreal mother
I wonder if she ever pictured me growing up in her mind. Did she see my face in other children, other daughters? If Má’s alive, does she consider me as a ghost child? The thought of someone stripping away my substance feels demeaning, dehumanizing. I am here. I am real. I’m alive.
But Má and I have no way of knowing that about the other, do we? Some part of me knows I must except the possibility she tried her best to put me out of her mind. War and poverty can make people stretch their principles to the breaking point. Like my veteran adoptive father, perhaps she too, just wanted to forget the past – and me along with it. I understand this. I accept this. Experience has taught me that possibilities can become a burden of truth.
In the end, it’s only for Má to say. Therein lies my dilemma as I “rewrite her into existence.” Dad and I are both guilty of creating and re-creating Má at our own convenience. For dad, she was a tool for manipulation. For me, she was both a refuge and a whipping post for my rage. But Má is just Má, and I don’t know who that is. What that means for me is that I must be willing to accept without passing judgment that all things are possible.
I can’t judge on a possibility or even a probability. Who am I to judge anyway?
Chapter four of Jeanne Marie Laskas’ book, “growing girls” is entitled “meeting the ghost-mother.” After assessing the seeming malnourished condition of her newly adopted daughter, Laskas questions the treatment Sasha received at her orphanage. She goes on to write that she tried “to sympathize, to understand the ghost-mother and all the ghost nannies,” but that “forgiveness was so far away now.”
Laskas later goes on to describe Sasha’s lack of responsiveness. She then expresses her feelings about there being “something wrong” with “our baby” going so far as to place blame on “those monsters.” Who are the “monsters” she refers to? The ghost-nannies? The ghost mother? China as a society?
Surprisingly, I can sympathize with Laskas – not with her sentiments but with her seeming need to ask, “How could you let this happen?” I posed similar questions when thinking about my own situation, “What have you done? How could you?” But exactly who was I asking and upon whom could I rightfully place the blame? I sought to forgive Má, but who said I was in a position to forgive anyone?
That’s the convenient thing about ghost people. Without substance, without an independent voice, they become whatever we need them to be. We can read stories of others in similar situations. We may even understand their circumstances on a personal level, but the results will more than likely be the same. Without all the things that make them equal in their humanity, they become little more than amorphous puppets.
We don’t even have to feel guilty about it because without substance, they aren’t real.
Ghost mother…my mother…Má
I can never rewrite or remake my mother as the person she was or might have become. The best I can do is place emphasis on the significance of her existence, hushing the voices of those who would presume to speak for her. The inner one is the hardest to quiet. It’s the voice of longing – the need to have my questions answered, to know Má, to understand her, to love and be loved by her.
*The wisps of smoke hang suspended
before an alter that’s still craving a face.
The empty picture frame holds nothing
but questions and laminated adoption documents
The need to fill a void can be overwhelming when dealing with so many significant unknowns. It has stretched my imagination to its limits, but I refuse to repeat the mistake Dad and I previously made. The emptiness isn’t for me or anyone to fill. It’s a space reserved only for Má no matter what that may mean.
*exerpts from The Feast of First Mourning.