by Yen Ha
It bothers her when her daughter jokes about how she never says the words I love you, first because she doesn’t speak English with her daughter, but also because she’s told her daughter many times over that her own parents never said I love you, not once in the forty years of being a daughter in America, and it wasn’t until her twenties that she even realized it was a thing, it’s definitely a thing she learned after three boyfriends in a row break up with her because they didn’t believe she loved them enough, and maybe she didn’t, I love you or not, and though she tried to reassure her boyfriends that she did love them with homemade cream puffs and pour-over coffee, they still broke up with her, they left, one after the other, until she started writing Post-it note reminders that she hid in her purse, her planner, anywhere she might come across them once in a random while, reminding her to say the words out loud, preferably when a boyfriend was around to hear them; despite the practice the words don’t fall naturally from her mouth, no matter how many reminders she writes to herself; she doesn’t even know what the words sound like in Vietnamese, theoretically she knows the actual words, but she has never heard them spoken, not like thank you, which her mom doesn’t bother saying in Vietnamese, if her mom wants to thank her she says thank you, in English, like the Americans do in every other breath, thank you and I love you and sorry like they say bye or hi or pass the peas please, she had to learn that too, how to pass peas, at home they don’t pass anything, dishes wait in the center of the table for her dad to start, a different arrangement than when her college boyfriend invited her to his rural New Hampshire home, and handed her a plate that his dad’s large hands had filled up from the sideboard, a piece of furniture she’d never encountered before, with portions a tall, confident white boy would eat, not a small, dark-haired immigrant, she can’t remember if she was able to clear her plate, how embarrassing that must have been, no less embarrassing than not knowing how to pass platters, the plates piled up in front of where she sat until the boyfriend rescued her by leaning over with his long arms to move them on down the table; at home the food stays in one place and the chopsticks move, she doesn’t understand why everyone doesn’t do that, family style they call it, she thinks they should call it everyone gets what they want with a minimum expenditure of energy—efficient and egalitarian—isn’t that what America is about anyway, total individualism? she doesn’t want to be told what to eat or how much, what if she doesn’t like eggplant, which she doesn’t, it’s a bit slimy, though in polite company she eats whatever is in front of her, unless it’s an American-size plate loaded with broccoli, pork chops, and two heaping servings of potatoes gratin and then there is only so much she can eat before her bowels explode, which happens more often than you would think, making for inconvenient bathroom runs in the middle of walking home with her friends, they never say anything because she doesn’t let on how much the cramping pains her to walk, just like she doesn’t say anything when her genetic inheritance, never fully acclimatized to Western milk and alcohol, rejects mozzarella-laden pizza or when someone exclaims her English is so good after she’s told them she was born in Saigon, she was born there and left because the South was collapsing and no amount of American soldiers could prevent the Communists from winning, which is what they did, and why her dad two times in his lifetime has had to leave everything behind, once fleeing his home village, crossing from north to south and then later across oceans and continents, unsure of when he would see his home country again, twenty-one years if you were wondering, twenty-one years of learning to call co-workers by only their first name and the difference between a salad fork and a dinner fork, and that’s why her own daughter never hears her say the words I love you because she herself never did, or maybe it’s because she grew up in a Vietnamese microcosm bound by the walls of a two-story house in the suburbs of Virginia where sideboards and English didn’t exist, her parents were very strict about that, so strict that her Connecticut-raised brother-in-law mildly resents family gatherings, knowing her parents speak perfectly correct, if heavily accented, English, but choose instead, as if it were a choice made consciously, to speak their mother tongue in the comfort of their home, away from the gaze of others, a safe place where she never thought the lack of I love you was a deficit until her husband’s family looked at her in horror over dinner one night, she had been trying to make a joke of it, but it fell and fell to the bottom of the shoes they wore in the house, trekking dirt and germs and dog shit in from the street, does no one care about dog shit in the house? she never understands that, though she does understand the consternation of her in-laws’ faces bothers her, as if she were a monster to have been raised without the constant refrain and reassurance of I love you, but she only notices when she sees her brown skin reflected in their pale faces, it never bothered her growing up because she knows her parents love her even if they sometimes forgot her birthday or never came to visit her in college, because they couldn’t afford the flights with three more children to put through school, that they love her is crystal clear in the frown they make when she brings home less than an A or in the frozen homemade meals her mom sent her every month while she was in college, by overnight mail, which, though expensive, was still cheaper than a plane ticket and tasted of clicking chopsticks clustered around the dining table, consuming the foods she misses by being more than several states away in the one school to offer a full ride, which is also the only reason her parents agreed to let her go be surrounded by a trove of literary experiences written in a language they have no hope of fully understanding, a place that at first leaves her breathless, astonished to hear dead white men describe the inner longings of a seventeen-year-old girl who wasn’t even born on the same continent, their intuition for the human experience transcended the spaces she inhabits, but eventually she yearns for words that don’t need to be said, words that don’t lie strewn like pebbles on the shore, each unique but nearly indistinguishable from one another, piled up in a landscape of literary canon determined by figures she has no resemblance to; she wants to read about feelings conveyed in kimchi clay pots buried beneath the earth, left to ferment for months, she wants the wet mud of rice paddies to ooze up between her toes, she wants to hear about a wife who writes Post-it note reminders and prepares plates of freshly cut fruit every night after dinner so that when her American husband eats each piece of peeled and sliced apple, he swallows her love, and in exchange she hardly ever says I love you out loud, but that doesn’t help her daughter who lives in the English-speaking world, she doesn’t want her daughter’s friends to feel sorry for her daughter, feel like her daughter has an uncaring and uninvolved mother, when she knows they already think that since she sometimes forgets about birthday parties and sleepovers, even as they fight over the homemade cookies she sends to school with her daughter’s lunch, so sometimes she’ll say, as she leaves her daughter with her friends at a playdate, love you too, in English, all casual-like, as if she said it all the time.
Yen Ha is an architect, artist and writer. Born in Saigon, she now lives in New York City, where she co-founded Front Studio, an architecture firm. Her short stories were finalists for the New Rivers Press American Prize and in Glimmer Train’s New Writers contest, and appear in Waxwing, Hypertext, and the Chicago Quarterly Review. Yen has been awarded residencies by the Arctic Circle, Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity, and MASS MoCA.