I’d say I’m about 55% done now. Read as you will. Work in progress.
[Long Left Brothers]
I remember when I heard the sound I hoped would never come – a knock at the door, uncertain, but firm; the soft meeting of knuckle and weathered mahogany.
Subtle as it was, I can still recall it now, a pap-pap-pap just as vivid as the symphony of my childhood, a haunting echo I cannot shake any more than the bombs and gunshots of the Vietnam I left, or the stomach rumblings that were my nighttime lullabies.
It was the sound of reunion.
The sound of reunion is a strange one, unique to everyone who experiences it. Sometimes it takes shape in a cry of surprise, the kind you hear from two people run into each other unexpectedly. Other times, it is found in a wordless recognition, or even stunned silence entirely.
Whatever its form, one feeling almost always follows – the joy of finding again what was once lost. That knock at the door was mine.
But having nothing to find and nothing to rediscover, I had spent the last eight years trying desperately to avoid it. Reunion meant only one thing to me – the long dreaded and never desired meeting between the life I lived an ocean ago, and the one I had now.
That knock meant I could keep them apart no longer. My past had finally found its way to America, with a two inch thick piece of wood serving as the only remaining thing separating them.
A long second passed. Another pap-pap-pap.
Groaning loudly, I somehow managed to rise out of bed and stumble down the hallway of my apartment, all while my head pounded painfully – the aftermath of yet another long night of drinking alone. A quick look around showed my home in the same state it always was – empty, save for the bottles I had yet to recycle, and dishes I had yet to wash. Giant crack in the wall my landlord had not yet gotten around to fixing. Nothing new there. And forgotten in last night’s drunken stupor, the television was still on, now airing some talk show at low volume. Maury, from the looks of it.
Reaching the door, I stopped again, recognizing it was my last chance to turn back. I didn’t have to answer. Of course I didn’t. Unwanted visitors often go ignored – I had turned away enough well-wishing neighbors and door-to-door salesmen to know that.
Maybe I just wanted to know for sure what was on the other side. Maybe some part of me wanted to see a familiar face again, even though I had fought for so long not to see any.
I opened it, swinging the door open just far enough for me to see who was there, but not far enough for my visitor to feel welcome. He wasn’t. One peek at his sagging, tired shoulders was all it took to recognize him.
Time erodes many things. Blood ties are not among them.
Our resemblance was unmistakable when we were children, still unsullied by the clash of countryman and countryman, and there was no hiding our similarities, even now. Almost a decade since we had last seen each other, my brother and I still sported the same facial features, worn down by a lifetime of misery. The same tired eyes, weary of watching the world’s ugliness unfold in front of them. And though his calloused hands held no gifts, he had not come to the door of my apartment empty-handed – the still familiar burden of a family’s expectations weighed squarely upon him. A weight I had carried myself.
The sight of him what was exactly what I had feared in all that time – why I had dreaded the sound of reunion so deeply. Eight years now, I had lived in America, but the last five had been spent in near silence, without a word or phone call sent home.
My brother had finally come to break that silence, whether or not I wanted it.
“Hello.” Tuan did not speak to me in English, choosing instead the tongue of our homeland, even though home was thousands of miles away. A wavering hesitance lived in his hello, his greeting delivered so gently that each letter seemed pushed around at wind’s whim. “Hello, brother.”
His voice recalled escapes from angry neighbors and childhood mischief, days spent wandering through the lush countryside, and nights talking about the food we would one day have. Simpler times – when I was still surrounded those I loved, not yet trying to make it on my own in America. I shook my head again, trying to clear it of those distant memories.
Another life. Another me.
Tuan stood there, nervously thumbing the belt loops of his off-white khakis. Face to face with a sibling he had not seen in years, his eyes shifted uneasily. Constantly. First looking at me, then fixating intensely at some object over my shoulder, and back to my face again. Not that anyone could blame him.
Finally, I could stand the uncomfortable quiet no longer. “What are you doing here?”
“Brother, I came all this way to see you. To find you. Is that really all you have to say to me?” Meeting only my silence, Tuan spoke again. “You know why I’m here.”
Without even realizing it, I nodded my head, ever so slightly.
Caught between the awkwardness of our meeting and its actual arrival, that small nod was all he needed to continue. One by one, questions trickled out into the stuffy apartment hallway. Musty, cobwebbed syllables that had long yearned for release were finally set free, now heard by the only man who could answer them.
Words do not normally come coated in a thin layer of dust, do not normally sound aged by years of inactivity. These were.
“What happened?” He gulped a deep breath then, physically exhausted by the act of expressing what he had kept hidden for so long. “Why did you stop writing? Why did you stop calling? Why did I have to come find you?”
“What happened? Why did you leave us?”
Tuan’s voice became sharper and sharper with anguish as he continued, slowly strengthened by this newfound freedom. He gulped again, making it clear he was not done – that trickle had given way to a surge.
I could only stand there and let him finish, thankful that I lived on a floor with few neighbors.
“Was it the fights? Was it because we wanted to be here with you again? Was it because you no longer wanted the same thing as our family?”
“You were supposed to come here before us and build something – so the rest of our family could one day follow you out of Vietnam. So we could escape. Do you still remember that?”
“Did you know that once you stopped sending money, I had to work every day for 3 years at that motorcycle shop, just to be able to bring me and Ba over here first? Did you know we waited at the airport for you for two days, because we had no idea what to do without you? Where were you then, brother? Did you know the rest of them – Thi, Vinh, Quang – are still waiting in Vietnam to find out what happened to you, not knowing whether or not you died?”
“You fucking ungrateful shit…did you?
“Why did you stop calling? Why didn’t you say anything? Fucking asshole, did you know that Ma still reads that letter you sent her? Did you know she cries about you late at night, sitting at our dining room table because she doesn’t want us to hear?
…Did you?” his voice trailed off desperately, the way a man asks for an answer that may never come. Tuan blinked back eight years of abandonment. Both of his hands were now firmly balled around my shirt, trying in vain to squeeze truth from fabric. But even as his body shook with pent-up frustration, he did not lift them to strike me.
He should have.
“…I’m sorry.” My return was barely above a whisper. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s all you can say? You’re sorry?” His hands dropped from my chest, accompanied by a slow shake of his head and a sigh of pity.
It was hard to tell who was more disappointed in that moment – he, who traveled to my doorstep to receive nothing, or I, who could not give him the answers he sought.
What was I supposed to say? How was I supposed to tell him that I no longer cared to carry, no longer could carry the hopes and dreams of a family that had thrust them upon me? That I no longer wanted that Confucian curse of first-born-sonhood? That America had been nothing like we wanted it to be? That I had come to resent that our success or failure rested entirely upon my shoulders?
There were no words.
No words to convey that meaning in our native tongue – and nothing I could tell him that would explain it properly. Tuan could not – could never – understand those feelings, thoughts that ran counter to a lifetime of teachings. The family cannot be challenged in our culture, where independence and filial impiety are seen as one and the same, each inseparably linked to the other.
When I first touched American shores eight years ago, I came wide-eyed and full of hope, with little more than the goal of helping my family begin anew – a duty I meant to fulfill.
Remaining in Vietnam was not an option, after all. When the Viet Cong got news of the Final Surrender – ending almost three decades of constant warring – they swept through into our hometown, gun-barrels still warm, rounding up any suspected American sympathizers for “re-education”. It was hard to tell how they decided who fell into each group, but without even the slightest warning, they would return, snatching up another, and then another, seemingly at random: life-long friends, long-time neighbors, some of whom supported South Vietnamese democracy, many of whom did not.
The only thing that they shared was the same thing we all did: a prayer that the fighting would one day end.
Little changed in our lives, even with the war over. We were still poor, and we were still hungry. Our two bedroom house was still too small to hold all seven in our family, the stifling humidity remained in the air, and all of us – even Vinh, who was only eight then – still worked to sustain our simple, luxury-less existence.
It was not much. But it was ours.
The only difference, it seemed, was in what we waited for – the promised prosperity of Communist rule, instead of a stop to the violence and bloodshed.
We could’ve kept living the way we had, because it was all we had ever known. Yet, there was a growing sense of dissatisfaction between my siblings and I, who were only getting older. Thi and Quang were thinking of settling down soon, and none of us wanted our unborn children to ever know the suffering we did. When it became clear that that prosperity would never come, and that the end of the war did not mean the end of our hardship, we made the decision to send me – the oldest child – to the West found east of home, in search of something better.
Shortly after using my savings to rent a small room, I began that hunt for “something better”, starting at the kinds of places I used to work in Vietnam – laundromats, grocery stores, doing manual labor, any odds and ends that paid. It did not last. I managed to get hired for a month or two, but they would always let me go soon after, and always in the same way. Inevitably, they would sit me down somewhere – sometimes an office, other times a café or in a quiet corner of the building – and start talking through me, delivering a message with words I could not always make sense of.
The undertone, though, I could sense in any language – they were replacing me with someone more “American”, because they did not like where I came from. To them, it mattered little that I was South Vietnamese. My dark tan and black hair told them everything they needed to know about me, long before I ever could. Never mind that I had no influence over either.
Charlie was Charlie, and though they never said it out loud, the looks in the eyes of my coworkers and customers never let me forget it.
It was almost like being back in Vietnam again. The stares I got from Americans were no different than the ones delivered by Viet Cong soldiers – the reasons behind them differed, but both were constant reminders that I could never belong, looks that reduced me to nothing more than a physical feature or an area I grew up in. At least back home, the disdain was open and explicit. The Viet Cong were never shy about letting people know they were “American lackeys” or “democracy loving scum”.
In time, I was able to find a steadier job at a bus station, but even with a ticket window separating me from the outside world, I could never escape that stare, that look that made me so aware of my own difference. It showed in the brief moments I had with customers, whose eyes would widen slightly when seeing one of “them”, the people they had fought for decades to help, but never actually wanted to take in. Luckily, nobody was ever in line for long; I only had to feel the stare of alienation for seconds at a time, rather than constantly from the same people.
Still, all of that helped teach me a hard truth, the same one that many refugees learn when they come to the Land of The Free – even when America admitted those it helped displace, it felt little obligation to do anything beyond that.
Admittance was one thing. Acceptance was another one entirely.
Days at the bus station were mind-numbingly simple, consisting of little more than sitting behind that window and handing out tickets to pedestrians, all of whom were always rushing off to one place or another. Whether it was men in business suits or juvenile delinquents skipping class, it was all the same – my job was to take their money, tap a few buttons, wait impatiently for the tickets to print, hand them their pass and send them on their way.
For over 50 hours each week, I did this, earning meager pay all the while. Every dollar I earned was carefully apportioned; I kept only enough to get by. The rest made its way home.
In truth, the job I worked disappointed me deeply – I had not come all this way for low wages and monotony, but I had no choice but to put up with it. There was nowhere to go, and no better options to choose from. With most employers loathe to hire Vietnamese people at all, I wasn’t even sure I could find work anywhere else. So I stayed where I was, continuing my long hours at the bus station partly because it was all I had, and partly because it allowed me to avoid going home to an empty apartment.
Nobody was waiting for me there. I had no time for friends. Didn’t speak English well enough to make any. And family? Family existed only in the occasional letters I wrote and received, and in the rare moments when either of us could afford a long-distance phone call.
When I had just left home, talking to them was safe and reassuring, their conversations keeping me afloat in the confusion of my new country. It was nothing they said specifically, nothing we talked about. The topics were always around mundanities like the weather or what I was eating. Still, I found safety in hearing something familiar, especially when there was so little of it in America.
After two years working at the bus station, though, those phone calls had shifted in their tenor. Underneath the hollow pleasantries and idle talk, a very real impatience lurked, shown in the ever increasing requests for money and the incessant questions about how much longer it would be. I could sense the disappointment, despite our distance – they felt I should have been further along; and if not successful, then certainly not stuck at some dead-end job like the one I held.
They did not listen when I told them of how unfair America had been to me, offering no words of comfort for the son working to keep it all together, and no understanding for his struggle, either. It was simply inconceivable to them. America was full of opportunities. It was built on equality. Clearly, the problem was me.
More and more, conversation would turn into argument, with hurtful accusations hurled at me through the receiver. I was too lazy. I was not really trying to bring the family back together.
Whatever little understanding they had had before was now gone entirely.
Intense dread began to precede every one of our calls, now nothing like the comfort they used to be. Before each one, I found myself having to mentally prepare, steeling myself for another round of interrogation about what I was planning to do and when the family would be able to join me.
Letters were at least tolerable. I could skip reading those, or pretend that they had been lost in the mail. There was no avoiding a phone call – they required too much coordination by both of us to skip out on.
I grew to hate all of it – the sending letters, the mailing money, the searching for better, the never having anything for myself, the scrimping and saving to send for family that might never come, the snide disappointment in their voices, the incessant reminders that everyone was counting on me to succeed, the hearing over and over again how I was the eldest and our only hope. All of it. I grew to hate all of it.
How could my family fight three decades for togetherness, yet send one of their own off so easily once they got the chance? How could they sit there, an ocean away, and insist that I was not working hard enough, not understanding I was doing everything I could already? How could they blame me for not succeeding, when they had set me up to fail? Why was success depending on me alone?
But despite all that, I could not ignore how much I owed them, either. They had sacrificed to get me here, raised me, provided for me my whole life. When we had nothing, it was family that fed me, and when war was only a thunderclap away from our home, it was family that had helped calm my fears at night. Wasn’t succeeding the least I could do to pay them back?
Those feelings – and my inability to resolve them – began to well up into a pool of frustration. The family hopes that I carried and my fatigue from doing so battled with each other constantly, and only intensified over time; I felt that tension surging up, slamming desperately for release whenever I spoke to those back home. Even then, I never said a word, never told anyone – not even Tuan – of the bitterness stewing inside of me. They would have said that I had no right to feel the way I did, and accused me of being selfish and unmanly, two unacceptable traits for any son – let alone their first born. Instead of voicing my resentment, I swallowed it, just as my culture had taught me. Every “good” or “fine” only helped the hiding.
As I drifted further and further away from the last people who I had any ties to, I found the understanding I so deeply craved with a different crowd: Johnnie Walker and Jim Beam. They became the only people I could depend on, and I kept their company nightly, finding freedom from judgment at the bottom of every bottle. Mornings, when work began again, were marked by the pulsing headaches left in their absence.
That was my first three years in America – a neverending cycle of loneliness, liquor and laboring, all of which finally took their toll on me.
To this day, it still isn’t clear to me when things changed. Like most changes, there was no single moment that I could trace it to. It wasn’t because of any fight we had. It wasn’t any set of words we said that made me want to cut off our years of contact. The best way I can explain it is that I woke up one day and just knew.
Things had to be different.
There was no longer any part of me that believed in “better”. My resolve to find it had disappeared, worn away beneath the wave of drunken nights. Shame and anger had displaced the hope and optimism of my early years – shame I felt for not living up to the sacrifices they had made, and anger for the impossible task of having to do so.
I could live with all of it no longer.
Leaving home behind became the way out, the escape. The only problem was doing it.
There was no way I could ever tell them what I was planning, after all. Even feeling the way I felt, there was no way to begin expressing it, even in a tongue that we both spoke perfectly. Words could not cross the gap between us. So I wrote, instead, hoping that a letter would say the goodbye I could never hope to.
This will be my last letter – and all the money I can send – for a while. I am doing fine, but it looks like it will be a little longer before we can all be together again. If you do not hear from me, do not worry. I am safe.
Those 53 words were sent half a decade ago – November 9th, 1988. I hadn’t forgotten. They had lingered with me far longer than any hangover ever could. I was convinced I was doing the right thing, believing that by leaving family I would finally know freedom – the freedom of doing whatever I liked, whenever I wanted, with no responsibilities to anyone, and no one to disappoint but myself.
I was wrong.
If things were lonely and miserable before, they only became more so after that letter. Instead of hearing the occasional sounds of my mother’s constant disappointment or making awkward small talk with my brothers and sisters, there was never anything in my apartment anymore – only a silence that I filled with television and the clink of bottles.
It was only with my self-imposed distance that I realized how much I really needed home. Distance brought a perspective that closeness could not provide, and it was distance that showed me home had been so much more than I thought it was. Even amidst all my frustrations, home had been a constant – a distant, far off idea I could cling to. It stayed that way, even when I hated it.
With that letter, I no longer even had that. Now, there was only me. Me, alone. Me, lost in a country that I could never belong in.
Too many times in those next five years, I wanted to reach out to them again, but couldn’t. On more than one occasion, a drunken me had grabbed a phone and began dialing, only to hang up before I tapped in the last digit.
What would I even say, after being gone for so long? And would they even accept a son who had turned his back on them? The son who thought he wanted independence, only to find he could not deal with what that truly meant?
Those questions had no answers. So in silence I sat, working, drinking, and doing little else.
“I’m sorry,” I said again, knowing full well how woefully inadequate my apology was. But it was not a lie.
We stood there for an eternity after that, neither of us sure of how to continue, neither meeting the eyes of the other. My feet shuffled uncomfortably in the stillness. Finally, someone spoke again.
To my surprise, that someone was me.
“Look, Tuan, when I got here…” I paused uneasily, to try to sort out the years of thoughts now swirling madly in my head, swimming dangerously close to conscious expression. There were no words, but still, I tried. “Tuan, I – the family…”
Tuan cut me off before I got any further, rescuing me from actually needing to answer.
“Brother, I told you that you knew why I came today. I think you probably always knew that one of us would try to get answers for why you left, but I can see now that you can’t give them.” He sighed deeply, knowing it was hopeless to press for anymore. The questions he asked would never have answers to accompany.
“But I’m not just here to get your explanation. That’s not the only reason why we’ve looked so hard to find you.”
“Look…” Tuan paused then, taking a deep breath before uttering the words that would change everything. “Ba and I are here in America. Have been, for a few months now. We have a small place on the other side of town, and enough room for you to come live with us.”
“I know we fought more and more those last few years, rushing you to find the money for immigration. Ma’s health had a lot to do with that, but we never told you about it because we didn’t want you to worry even more. We just wanted to be here, all together again, and pushed you to make it happen, because you were the only one that could.”
“Maybe that played a part in your silence, and all this wouldn’t have happened if we had just told you what was going on at home. Maybe you had your own reasons for ignoring our family the last few years. I don’t know.” He shook his head.
“I guess what I’m trying to say is, why doesn’t matter anymore. All that is done and cannot be changed, but neither can this – the fact that you are my brother, and that you still share the same blood as me. Silence or not, you are still family – and that still means something to us, even if it means nothing to you.”
“You don’t have to explain what happened or why you did what you did. We aren’t asking you to. We just want you to come home.”
Vietnamese people have several different words for love. Yeu. Tinh cam. Thuong. Tuan had used none in speaking to me, but what he said – and the look he had – had managed to express the emotion of all of them.
Time erodes many things. The love Tuan had for me was not among them either.
He still loved me. He loved me with a brotherly, familial love that my absence could not erase, a love that had taken him across five years of silence and to the door of my run-down apartment.
“We just want you to come home,” he repeated. “Be a part of our family again.” Tuan chuckled softly to himself at the end of that sentence, surely recognizing the absurdity of the moment.
Another long second passed. My mouth opened a few times, each time on the verge of saying something that I immediately retracted.
“Tuan…I…um. I’m going to need some-“ I stammered, rubbing my hand up and down the back of my head nervously.
“Time. I understand. It’s a lot to take in. Your brother who you haven’t seen in eight years shows up in a new country, asking you to be a part of things again. Take the night and sleep on it. Ba and I will be back tomorrow morning. He’s at work right now.” He turned to leave, but before heading back down the hallway, he hesitated for a moment, internally debating on how best to part. A hug was too intimate for the years that had passed, a handshake too formal.
He settled on neither, only nodding a goodbye as I went back inside.
After the door closed behind me, I stumbled slowly back down the hall, collapsing onto my bed. For hours, I laid there, lost in the all-too-familiar fog of my own thoughts, moving only to touch lip to glass and fill myself with a burning that signified life.
Tuan forgave me. Ba, Ma, my other siblings, were forgiving me, willing to come all this way to absolve me of the most heinous crime in our culture – abandonment. And now he was offering a chance for reunion. To begin bridging the years that were lost to my disappearance.
There was no reason to doubt him. His eyes had been sincere when we spoke; his pain real. He truly meant to bring us all back together – now that he was living in America too, the expectations of succeeding would no longer be mine alone.
But I could not take his forgiveness, nor accept his offer.
It was not because I thought Tuan was lying – he would not have searched so hard to find me if he did not mean to reunite us. Rather, his words had triggered something inside me that made reunion impossible – an intense shame for the years we lost, years that could’ve been saved if I had just found the courage to tap in that last number. How foolish I had been to turn my back on them – to try to sever my ties with and abandon those who had done little more than place their hopes on me.
Those feelings were not new, of course. I had battled my guilt with alcohol almost nightly, but seeing Tuan made everything much more…real. His visit forced me to come face to face with someone my selfishness had affected deeply, and I could not bring myself to live again with them, knowing what I had done. I certainly could not handle the prospect of meeting my father again, feeling as I did. The man who raised me deserved better than what I was.