English still an unbendable language on my tongue, I answered, "Me: Loser's side!" The locker room immediately erupted into a chorus of laughter, and I felt Johnny's wet towel on my face--the white flag, I supposed, to surrender with. In geography class, Mrs. Collier brought out the new map of East Asia. Vietnam, that country coiling in the voluptuous shape of an S, was no longer mine. It was repainted now in a uniform color--red--the South flooded with blood. Mrs. Collier didn't know why, exactly, that strange Asian kid, so quiet, suddenly buried his face in his arms and wept.
It was my father's passion that I was feeling. A couple of months after our arrival, my father, the defeated general, made it to America. He and Aunty Tuyet's husband, a paratroop captain, had commandeered a ship and escaped from Vietnam. The defeated warriors shattered the silence with tales of battles. The women evacuated to other corners of the apartment, but we boys sat and listened, half in rapture, half in fright. Late at night, over Johnnie Walker whiskey, the living-room warriors recounted the time when they were young and brave and most alive.
The Captain: "I remember going up Cambodia, brother, in '71. We killed so many Viet Cong up there, we lost count. There was this Mien, and he would kill and kill, crazy for blood, and take out the VC livers and eat them raw. . . . I swear in front of my ancestral grave I know no one more loyal than that guy."
The General: "Viet Cong were everywhere, hidden in the jungle, in the tall bushes. From my helicopter, I ordered napalm. You could see the balls of fire brighten the tree line when they exploded. I remember an American adviser friend of mine, killed in a helicopter. \o7 Incroyable! \f7 Blown up by a SAM missile. My own helicopter was shot at by snipers. We landed before it exploded. But we killed at least 800 of them that day."
How can such language not stir a child's imagination? America is dull by comparison; it is too real, too impersonal outside the window--a parking lot, a supermarket, Coke machines, the fog drifting harsh and cold. But inside, napalm fire, helicopters exploding, paratroopers landing, bombs oozing out of a drunken warrior's fragmented sentences, transforming the dilapidated apartment into a battleground. Did I not hear the wailing voices of Viet Cong under fire? Did I not see a helicopter burst into flame? Smell the burnt flesh?
Outside our apartment there was a stairwell, dark and cool. The voices echoing from it now--giggling voices trying to be serious--belonged to my cousins and me, four child musketeers, swearing a sacred oath of vengeance after our fathers, drunk, had gone to bed. We talked of eradicating the Viet Cong from the face of the earth.
"With bazookas, with M16s, with kung fu power."
"With Bruce Lee's swiftness and endurance, we can massacre them all."
"We can bomb the levees north of Hanoi during the monsoon." I, the 12-year-old, the plotter, offered. "We can flood the nasty Viet Cong out to the South China Sea."
In this way the dynamic of the exiled Vietnamese family is formed.
So I still understand my brother in the coffee shop. But while he speaks of vengeance, I have learned a different lesson, the American lesson: the knack of re-inventing oneself. To survive in the New World, we must, likewise, challenge the old world's blood-for-blood ethos and search for a new story line.
I am no longer simply Vietnamese. I have changed. I have, like many I know, driven down that hyphen that stretches like a freeway from the mythological kingdom with its 1,000-year-old ginseng roots toward the cosmopolitan city, the wind in my hair and Springsteen on the radio. English is a bendable language now, English my own song.
I am, for that matter, no longer moved by the old man's martial words on that Guam beach. I believe instead in self-liberation, in American rebirth. But never mind. I am thinking now of those four boys and their fatal gestures and what distinguishes good guys from bad guys in the new Vietnamese-American fable.
I AM NOT A CATHOLIC. There is no three-tiered shrine in my family's living room for martyred saints. My mother is a Buddhist but she stopped praying for a time when we lost the war. My father, born a French citizen when Vietnam was a colony, was given a Christian name but never went to church. Unlike the Nguyen brothers, I am only half a Northerner, and I take my cardinal points from the South, from Saigon, my birthplace, where bourgeois sensibilities and Southern irreverence replaces Northern pieties. I have been to Paris and Nice, where my father's relatives live and where--for the first time since leaving Vietnam--I felt, shamelessly, somehow I had come home.