A poignant coming-of-age story told in two alternating voices: a California teenager railing against the Vietnamese culture, juxtaposed with her father as an eleven-year-old boat person on a harrowing and traumatic refugee journey from Vietnam to the United States.
Start reading an excerpt of My Father, The Panda Killer by Jamie Jo Hoang now!
An Introduction from Author Jamie Jo Hoang
As a Vietnamese American teen growing up in the ’90s, Jane’s struggles are rooted in her mother’s abandonment, her father’s abuse, and a culture she blames for shaping her monstrous parents. Jane wants out, and college is her ticket, but to go, she’ll have to leave behind the one person she loves most: her seven-year-old brother, Paul.
After Jane’s mom left, Jane kept her head down, raised Paul, fulfilled her duties in the family liquor store, and focused on college. In chapter 9, when she is tasked with cooking a Vietnamese meal, Jane’s hatred for her parents and all things Vietnamese begins to shift. As she gathers ingredients inside a dingy grocery store, valuable lessons from her mother return, and staring into the glassy eye of a dead fish, Jane’s own vision begins to clear.
In alternating chapters throughout the book, we also flash back to Phúc’s epic escape from Vietnam as seen in Jane’s imagination. His story begins in a home Jane knows, her grandparents’ house in Đa Nẵng, Vietnam, only the backdrop is bursting with tension. A war is ending, and the Vũ family is on the losing side.
In chapter 10, an oral folklore unfolds. It’s about a hardworking farmer who, struggling with his crop, curses the gods and, in turn, is banished to the moon. The lesson: even in hardship, complaining will get you nowhere. This fable serves as a motif throughout the story, but it is also Jane’s entry point into the magical realism she’ll weave into Phúc’s story. The animals we encounter—a shark, a whale, and a panda—verge on the fantastical and serve as a reminder to the reader that Jane was not there.
As a second-generation Vietnamese American, Jane’s understanding of Vietnamese history is as shallow as her understanding of her dad—until now. Before this, she refused to acknowledge Phúc’s plight as a refugee because doing so would mean forgiving him, and Jane’s own pain couldn’t allow that. Except too many dots are starting to connect, too many stories are seeping into her ears, and worst of all, Jane’s surfacing anger is replicating her father’s.
To break the cycle of generational abuse, Jane needs to acknowledge and learn about her dad’s harrowing and traumatic experiences. She wants to do this for herself; she needs to do this for Paul. But how exactly does one go about replacing anger with empathy? Well, you’ll have to read to find out!
My Father, The Panda Killer
by Jamie Jo Hoang
Cậu Hòa and Mợ Bích are coming for dinner. They are not immediate family as far as I know. Close friends, maybe. Though, not that close since I’ve never even heard of them. Family visiting is not usually an issue, but I’ve been told I need to prepare food. Again, not a big deal—if you know how to cook. I haven’t cooked a proper meal since my mom left. And even when she forced me to help her, I barely paid attention. How was I supposed to know that she had been planning to leave?
In our neighborhood, there is only one Vietnamese grocery store, so here I am. It’s a grungy place called SJ Market. The cheap signage, made of white acrylic with red letters taped on top, is emblematic of everything one might find inside. Two decades behind its American counterparts, the store resembles a Vietnamese night market crammed into a Sam’s Club warehouse. Long fluorescent bulbs hanging precariously above without any covers make the whole place come together because, as it turns out, bad lighting is pretty universal to grocery stores. The shopping carts are a mishmash of colors with broken or missing child seat covers. Rust spots and bare metal with remnants of what used to be plastic coverings are what’s left of the handlebars. They are the type of cart I imagine you’d find at a grocery store version of Goodwill—if that were a real place. Boxes of canned goods, ramen packets, and various other products line the aisles, waiting to be shelved. An aroma of salty sea air mixed with rubber permeates the store, and the scent is most potent in the seafood area itself, which is displayed like a self-serve buffet of various fish on ice.
Memories of my mom come rushing at me. There’s the seafood counter where I would watch in disgust as my mom picked her fish using a plastic bag as a glove, placed it on a plastic tray, and passed the tray across a tall glass counter to be cleaned, descaled, and cut.
This part of the store is unsavory, rancid, and utterly Vietnamese. Not one person in the store speaks English, including the Mexican butchers behind the counters who respond to inquiries in Span-amese (Vietnamese with a Spanish accent). It shames me to know they speak my native tongue better than I do, so I avoid eye contact with them when I make my request in broken Vietnamese.
Back when I came with my mom, my job consisted mainly of being a human bag stand. I would pull a bag off its roll, lick my thumb, peel it open, and wait for her to drop in celery, lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro, jalapeños, bean sprouts, and whatever else she needed for the week. My mother moved swiftly through this section, and it was sometimes hard keeping up because the bags would stick together or rip under the weight of her produce selections. Leave it to her to try and fit fifteen tomatoes into one flimsy bag.
Here alone now, though, I see so many ingredients I don’t know how to cook with. Slowly, I grab scallions, onions, cilantro, and tomatoes. I don’t yet have a dish in mind. I just know these are things I’ve eaten. I pass through the vegetable section and try my luck in the frozen section. Bad idea. Nothing is labeled. I’m just supposed to know what it is based on looking at it, and everything looks the same in vacuum-sealed bags covered in freezer burn.
Ah, here I know what I’m doing. The sweet aisle is the aisle I know best. Fresh soybean milk, strawberry Pocky sticks—all things we could eat straight from the package. Almond cookies, mint Tết candies, chocolate Hello Panda bears, a tin of sweet flaky egg roll cookies, and White Rabbit milk candy for Paul. I start to grab a few packages but stop myself. What am I doing? I can’t serve them cookies. Soup. I decide on white rice with sour soup and a fried fish for the center of the table.
Back in the fish aisle, I’m ten again, and my mother is right in front of me.
“Wait,” she says. “Come here, you need to learn this.”
My mother pushes me toward the slimy fish that I typically avoid.
“Now?” I whine. I couldn’t help it back then, and my relationship with the fish hasn’t changed since she left. I want to shake myself of the memory, yet I cannot escape it.
She doesn’t say anything. Instead, she stops abruptly, turns to me, and waits. The look on her face tells me I will apologize immediately. I will not ask again to deviate from her plan, or I can all but guarantee I’m not getting those snacks. And if she’s in a foul mood, I might also be in for a stick lashing.
I watch myself shift my feet and say nothing, knowing that the next words that exit my mouth better have the sound of deference with a slight uptick of joy. And they do. But now, I can see that I was bold back then. I knew what she expected, and yet I resisted. I want to hug my younger self. I’m proud of her.
“Sorry.” I don’t make excuses. She doesn’t care. I hate that I knew this as a ten-year-old. I hate that her one look can make me feel so insignificant—so small.
I follow this memory to the raw fish buffet and unconsciously shift my breathing from my nose to my mouth to dampen the smell of oceanic salt from an early morning fisherman’s pier— the kind covered in seagull and pigeon shit.
“Do you know how to pick fresh fish?” she asks, daring me to reply disrespectfully and already knowing the answer.
Forcing a smile to disguise how annoyed I am, the corner of my mouth actually twitches when I say, “Pick the ones that are still moving?” I know it’s probably the wrong answer, but I don’t want to give her the satisfaction of simply not knowing anything. It’s my best guess based on my mother’s previous lesson on how to pick crabs.
“No. Look here.” She points to the eye. “You see how this one is glassy and wet? That means it’s fresh. When it’s frozen or old, the eye is dry and sunken in.”
I stare down at the fish and quickly avert my gaze now as I had then. I don’t like staring at it. Back then, it felt improper and invasive to stare at the dead—it still does. A cold breeze passes under my chin, and my head turns as it had when she grabbed my face, forcing me to watch.
“Look.” This new voice is unfamiliar and distant. I turn to find a mother peeling a banana for her toddler, but I’m so deep into my memory that when I return my gaze to the freezer, in the aluminum frame of the icebox, I see myself again. I’m concentrating hard on the white edge of the cooler to keep from crying. I wish my mom were here.
Pointing to a previously used plastic bag within arm’s reach, my mother continues her lesson. “We need one of these for the hot pot,” she says, handing me an empty tray.
The display is exactly as it had been all those years ago, down to the placement of fish. They are arranged so that their tails are at the top and heads at the bottom because the mouth is where you grab hold. I see slimy black ones with what seem to be mustaches, flat red fish, and the kind I’m now standing directly in front of, cá bớp. Beneath the $3.79/lb. price tag is the name, cobia. Since it’s more than a foot long, I attempt to pick up the fish by its belly with one hand, but it slips. I try two hands with the same result.
And then I hear her again. “Grab it by the mouth.”
Reluctantly, I reach for the mouth and stick my fingers in.
The slippery insides of the fish make me want to vomit, but I have a firmer grip than I did at ten years old, and I’m able to get it onto the tray in one motion.
Carefully, I add my tray to the line.
“Clean, descale, and cut?” the Mexican butcher asks me in Vietnamese.
“Clean, descale, no cut.” I understand Vietnamese better than I can speak it.
“Toss the head and tail?” he asks. I want to say yes because I know myself, and I won’t eat the head or the tail, but I know if my dad doesn’t see those parts in the soup, he’ll call me spoiled and ungrateful. Refugees do not waste food.
“No. Keep the head and tail.” I say the words as though they are familiar, but they’re not.
“You got it, pretty lady,” the man responds before grabbing the tray and getting to work behind the counter. That part, I do understand. I scrunch my nose in disgust, but no one notices. They used to say this to my mom all the time, pretty lady. It’s not quite as gross as when construction workers holler at you, but, still, don’t they know how young I am?
At the far end of the butcher’s counter is the frying station and I order a flash-fried fish to go. And then I remember something else.
“Why do you think that is the good fish to eat?” my mom asks me, her tone softer now.
“Because it’s fresh, not frozen.”
“None of these are frozen, so why that one?”
“Big eyes. The bigger the eyes, the more curious the soul. Fish are like people, and you become what you eat. You want to see the world, you eat fish with big eyes.”
“Is that why you like to eat the eyeballs?” I reply in disgust.
My younger self is hilarious.
Was I really ever that carefree?
“Exactly.” She smiles.
I look down at the dirty plastic bag in my hand, which I had just used to successfully pick up my fish.
“Leave it,” I hear, only now the command is formless and far away.
Reluctant, because I still think this is unsanitary and gross, I shake the bag loose and leave it at the edge of the freezer cubby. The butcher shouts my number. As I walk away, I notice another woman slide her hand into my used bag and deftly gather her own fish.
Back home, I unpack the groceries and restock the fridge. When I’m done, I peel open the flimsy paper lid of a Cup O’ Noodles foam cup and fill it with boiling water from our dispenser before replacing the cover and laying my chopsticks on top. For so long, I haven’t wanted to look at my mother with any sort of kindness or reverence. But remembering that trip, remembering her better, more motherly moments, feels somewhat cathartic now.
Sitting alone at the kitchen counter, I watch her imprint move throughout our home.
On the floor of the kitchen, my mother sits atop a thin layer of newspaper with the only round, wooden cutting board we have, and with the practiced boredom of an assembly-line laborer, she prepares the fish. I do the same.
“Why don’t you ask the butcher to cut it? I saw him do it for other people.” I’m squatting beside her, wanting to poke the fish’s eye but afraid she’ll chop my finger off with how quickly she’s slicing.
“They never cut it right.” She makes a clean slice just below the fish’s gills. “Can’t waste food,” she continues.
From the fridge, I unpack the fish I just bought, and, using the counter instead of the floor, I copy her movements.
“I mean, we’re not gonna eat the head,” I hear myself say.
“Why not? The head is the best part.”
“Because it’s gross.”
There it is, a cackle of untempered joy. Proof that I brought joy if also misery. I remember this part in repeated astonishment because it was rare to see her laugh. “Hurry up and eat so you can come help me.”
My mother guts the two-foot-long fish with the precision of a sous-chef at a fancy restaurant.
She isn’t like those white Betty Crocker moms who have twenty different knives that are each designed for cutting specific things, or a countertop full of mixers, blenders, deep fryers, slow cookers, grinders, coffee makers, nor any other easy-prep cooking tools. On some level, I always understood that her tendency toward suffering came from something more profound. Because she had suffered, there was honor in suffering. The more difficult a task, the higher the achievement, even if an easier way leads to the same result. Like every boat person, things happened to her that I could only guess because she, like my dad, never talked about the past unless she was yelling at us for being spoiled or ungrateful. Maybe she had a valid reason for leaving us. Maybe she wanted me to learn how to pick fish, but she was also telling me something else. Maybe she wanted to teach me something about humanity and choosing glassy-eyed, fresh people to surround myself with. Because that was what she had planned to do. Maybe, in a way, she was telling me to leave too.
Or maybe she was just a selfish bitch.
The meal I’ve prepared doesn’t look right, but it’s edible. I know this because I tasted it, and I’m not dead yet. Two large, steaming bowls of sticky white rice flank two bowls of canh chua, and in the center is the toasted and crunchy flash-fried fish that completely wrecked the kitchen with oil splatter. If my canh chua is inedible, at least they have the fried fish. I only made canh chua that one time with my mother, so it’s possible I’ve omitted a few ingredients. I cooked the tamarind in boiling water to create the broth, added pineapples, half of a tomato, bean sprouts, and a spoonful of fish sauce. When I hear Cậu Hòa and Mợ Bích arrive, I toss in the fish, lower the flame, and set the table.
My dad ushers them inside with a big smile. “Mời vào, mời vào!”
They pat each other on the back with an awkward sideways embrace that in no way resembles a hug.
Cậu Hòa, a severe-looking man who stands a good six inches shorter than his wife, kicks off his shoes and follows my dad through the living room with his wife lumbering behind. “This apartment is so big. Much bigger than the apartment you shared with eight people,” he says. He’s jovial and a breath of fresh air in our home, yet there’s something familiar about him too.
“Where are the kids?” my dad asks, but I’m already clearing the two extra bowls.
“They’re at Anh Dao’s house.” I guess their kids didn’t want to come hang at our ghetto apartment. Can’t say I blame them.
“Chào Cậu,” I say. I bow, and my long black hair falls beside my cheeks. “Chào Mợ.” Saying hello is just about the only time my Vietnamese sounds halfway normal.
“This is your eldest child?” he asks, addressing my dad as though I’m incapable of speaking.
“Jane is the first, and Paul is my second.” We’re introduced in order, me first because I’m the oldest and then Paul.
When Paul is called over, though, he bows his head but addresses them improperly, saying, “Chào Chú va Cô.” This is probably the most annoying part of the Vietnamese language. Everyone is addressed based on their relative age to our dad. And “age” isn’t measured in years lived; instead, it’s based on their relationship at the grandparent level. Basically, it’s complicated, and no seven-year-old should have to know it.
“Chào Cậu va Mợ,” our dad snaps, and Paul immediately repeats the greeting and bows extra low, which makes all three of the adults burst into laughter. I don’t get the joke.
“Okay, it okay,” Mợ Bích says. It’s the first thing she’s said since entering the house. Spotting the kitchen, she gently pulls my shoulder toward it. “Let me help you.” Oh god, she’s expecting me to show her around the kitchen.
“I . . .” My Vietnamese isn’t as strong as it once was, and I flounder. “I made the canh chua, fried fish, and rice already.” I’m hoping that if I tell her it’s all prepared, she won’t ask to enter the kitchen. I haven’t cleaned up yet and it looks like a war zone.
Mợ Bích briskly moves to the table, tastes my soup, carries the two bowls to the stovetop, and pours them back into the pot. She flicks the heat on high, digs around our smattering of spices, adds pepper and a squeeze of lemon, and deftly chops scallions with my dull knife. After adding them and stirring it for a minute, she feeds me a spoon to taste.
“Good?” She smiles.
“Good.” I beam. Not just good—like, really good.
She pours the now-steaming soup back into the two bowls, and we each carry one to the table.
My dad looks at them and asks jokingly if my food was inedible, but Mợ Bích is gracious.
She blames it on herself and her fickle taste buds needing the soup to be scalding hot. She doesn’t mention the added ingredients.
“Mợ Bích taught you mom how cook,” Uncle Hòa says. She did? I had assumed my mother learned to cook from her own mother. Not this woman I’d never even heard of until today.
I glance at her for confirmation, and she nods but says nothing more. If she thinks positively or negatively about my mother, it’s impossible to tell from her even expression.
Scooping rice into the bowls, I pass the first bowl to my dad, but he quickly pushes my hand toward Cậu Hòa, so I serve him first, then my dad, Mợ Bích, myself, and Paul. In that gesture of him pushing my hand, I am meant to understand the hierarchy of the table.
Looking downward, I notice Paul’s bouncing legs. “Go pee,” I say, and he quickly beelines it for the bathroom.
“What a good big sister,” Mợ Bích says, stroking my hair. “How old are you this year?”
“Do you plan to go to college?”
When I don’t answer, she plows ahead.
“It’s still early, maybe you haven’t heard back. My daughter, Cathy, is going to Cal State San José—engineering. Very good at math.”
I think it’s the tone of her voice. The assumption that I’m not smart enough to get into college that causes me to blurt, “I got into UCLA.”
“Oh! Good for you! I hear that school is very famous,” she says. She’s impressed and not in that catty way some Vietnamese people can be when they’ve underestimated you. Instantly, I regret saying anything—for multiple reasons.
“The orientation is in August. August seventeenth, is that okay?” I ask, turning to my dad.
“Okay.” Okay? I’ll find out if he really means it later. “Brother, you raised such a high-achieving daughter and all by yourself. Cheers,” Cậu Hòa says.
They clink beer bottles, but my dad only shrugs. “If this works, it could be a good thing for both our families.” I have no idea what he’s talking about. Is he selling the liquor store? I’m about to ask when he adds, “But we never know, right? Maybe she fails all of the classes.”
Annnnd I shut my mouth.
Paul returns from the bathroom, plops down again, and starts slurping his food.
I do my best to contain my excitement. I’m going to college. Me. Jane Vũ will be part of the incoming freshman class of 1999. And for the rest of the meal, I sit diligently watching for empty rice bowls and quickly standing to refill them if needed. I’m in a daze imagining things I shouldn’t, like how my dorm room might look and if I’ll like my roommates, when something in their conversation pulls me back to reality.
“Quốc, he used to steal a bunch of yogurts from his mom’s shop and we would sell them for five đồng. It was a good business. I bet he’s a banker now.” Mợ Bích continues to reminisce, but my dad doesn’t respond.
“Quốc is lost,” he says as he sips his beer, then stares at the label as though it were animated. And then he does something he’s never done before—he elaborates. “Bullets were flying and I knew I needed to move but I was shocked still. And I saw Quốc, his body was stiff but his face was full of fear. There was a hole in his stomach. That was the first time I saw someone alive become a ghost.”
“When his grandfather was taken, I thought it was just a random excuse . . . ,” Mợ Bích says with a look of horror on her face.
My dad doesn’t answer. He stares at the beer, its label now peeled and shredded on the table, and takes a long swig.
Then, as if realizing she’s said the wrong thing, Mợ Bích hastily adds, “Surely you don’t think it’s your fault? The Viết Cộng didn’t need to torture his grandfather. Don’t confuse their mistakes for ours.”
My dad’s only response is to tsk his tongue and shake his head, like he’s not sure what he believes.
As I listen to this story, two things occur to me. Quốc is Paul’s middle name. Did my dad name him after this kid who died during his first escape? And whoever this aunt is, she knew my dad before they came to America—a cousin maybe?
“Let’s leave the past in the past,” Cậu Hòa says. “Today we’re celebrating a successful business partnership.”
They cheer and start talking about the miles and miles of empty land driving from Denver to California. My aunts and uncles will do this a lot. The few I’ve met, anyway. They’ll talk about people I’ve never heard of and things that happened before I was born. I’ll get little snippets of information about old classmates, neighborhood pranks and games, or sometimes updates on where some people are now, like one lady from their village who I guess works in Washington, DC, doing naval intelligence. When they stop talking, I know it’s because they hit on something tragic. What I don’t know is if they’re stopping for my benefit or their own.
Because they clam up about it, I don’t bother asking. I mean, if I did ask, they’d probably just laugh at me. But hearing about this little boy makes me consider my dad, somewhere between Paul’s age and mine, having to watch a classmate die and then get on another boat to try escaping all over again. Seems surreal. Later, after they’ve gone and I’m cleaning up, I consider asking my dad about the stories, but I don’t know how. The best I can muster is to ask how they’re related to us.
“Cậu Hòa is your mom’s brother. Mợ Bích live in my neighborhood,” he says.
I knew it! I mean, I didn’t, but something about him felt so familiar. They have the same stout and rounded physique, chubby nose, and short arms. I think it was the way he chewed, with his mouth open and only on one side, like he was perpetually trying to push food out to prevent it from being stuck by his left cheek.
The answer only leads to more questions, like, did he and my mom meet through this aunt? If not, when did she teach my mom how to cook? I can’t ask, though; we haven’t talked about my mom since the day she left, and it’s too risky of a subject to bring up. Especially because my dad is in a particularly good mood. So I pivot instead and ask about college. “Should I complete the financial aid forms? For school?”
“Okay.” He nods, and that is a big freaking win. I finish wiping down the counters for the third time because now would not be a good moment to mess up, and only after my dad has gone to bed do I go to my room and open the FAFSA application.
“I’m going to sleep now,” Paul says.
In my haste, I hadn’t checked to see if he was still awake or not. I should’ve also checked to make sure he brushed his teeth, but we’re past that now. “Okay,” I say, watching as he turns away from the bright light of my computer screen. And then I remember that Paul still doesn’t know, and that telling him may be scarier than telling my dad.
One of Bà Nội’s favorite stories to tell Phúc was about the Man on the Moon. This ancient folklore had been passed down from generation to generation as a means of explaining the mysteries of the moon, but Bà Nội’s reason for telling Phúc the story then was a personal one. Using a crudely drawn map that she’d bought from a local cartographer, she unfolded the paper to show Phúc.
“Việt Nam ở đây.” Her finger pointed at a blob the shape of a worm with a diamond for a head. Vietnam is here.
She explained to him that Vietnam was a small country, a tiny speck on the planet, but that it was an unconquerable land filled with precious minerals and other earthly treasures. And the reason all these different countries wanted to occupy it was because of its resources. Bà Nội felt that even though we’d lost the war, Vietnam’s unification meant the country, as a whole, won.
At the time, Phúc didn’t understand that what she meant was the Vietnamese spirit never dies. Whether we win the war or lose it, we’re all still Vietnamese. The essence of the land runs in our veins, and the water we drink, which falls from the sky and collects minerals on its way down from the mountain, nourishes us because we are Vietnamese. She made sure to emphasize that the Americans had to add medicine to their canisters, little pills that chemically changed the water, because drinking from the streams made them sick.
“This water is the bloodline of Việt Nam,” she said, placing a glass of water before him. Phúc took a drink, and she nodded in approval. Because he drank it, Vietnam would always flow through his veins. If Phúc survived, he would embark on an unknown journey to places she could only imagine, and she wanted to make sure he knew where his roots were. Leave if you must, but don’t forget who you are.
“A long time ago, there lived a man, his wife, and their only son. North Việt Nam is home of the giant mountains, the tallest, most vibrantly green mountains on all of the earth . . . ,” Bà Nội began, pointing to the area inside the diamond.
The man, a rice farmer, owned all the lands in northern Vietnam. Miles and miles of these lush hills were covered in switchbacks upon which rice fields grew. The moist climate meant that, year after year, rice patties bloomed, and grains could be picked. For a long time, the locals believed that it rained so much because the Vietnamese people were blessed by God. This man, the rice man, represented God’s generosity. He was a hardworking man, up at sunrise and still working long after sunset. He planted, he sowed, he churned, and he picked each and every grain of rice he harvested.
The man farmed day and night, doing backbreaking physical labor, but it wasn’t enough. He could barely feed his small family. As the years dragged on, his body gave way to age. The harvesting became more and more difficult, and his resentment toward God mounted. At first, he grumbled about it at breakfast, then gradually at both breakfast and dinner. Eventually, he grumbled about it all day, to others and even sometimes just muttering to himself.
Until one day, during a uniquely dry season, a bright white light flashed across the dull sky, and within seconds, red flames engulfed the hills. Running after his beloved crop, he swatted at the fire, but to no avail. His entire harvest for the year was scorched. “Enough!” he yelled to the skies.
How could any god be so cruel to a man as hardworking as he? “What do you want from me? You need me to suffer more? I’ve suffered enough!” he yelled.
Louder this time. “You expect us to believe in you and yet you are nothing but a farce! Look at me, hurling insults, because you don’t exist. You hear me?! You fake, worthless deity!”
He watched the fire ravage his crop until at last he fell to his knees, wearied. And instantly, the flames disappeared. The bright red fire that just a moment ago had covered the land in flickering orange and yellow light was extinguished and replaced by gray ash. There were deep, dark holes where the crops burned most intensely and lighter shades of gray ash on the periphery. He looked around and saw that everything was gone. In fact, all color had disappeared from the world entirely. In a panic, he searched for his wife, his children, his home, but like everything else, they were gone. All he had left was a world shaded in monochrome. In complete disbelief, he wandered the desolate area, walking for miles and miles in search of life.
Then, finally, as day turned to night and he laid his head down to rest, he saw above him, high in the sky, a bright blue and green planet. He looked up at the earth and back at his feet, surrounded by gray. Earth, gray, earth, gray, and after a moment, he understood that his lack of piety and gross unappreciation for Earth’s abundance had gotten him thrown off the planet. The rice man now walked the moon.
When Phúc tried leaving Vietnam the second time, he was not the same timid kid. His hands were stronger, his feet sturdier, and his breath even. He was not a boy anymore; at thirteen, he was a man. Kicking off his sandals, Phúc let his feet sink into the mud. Just as he had done his whole life, he would navigate to the ocean alone—via instinct. While the others hunched over and moved cautiously together, he stood up straight and walked. And with every milestone—a shoe, a helmet, an airplane, an upside-down bucket—that he remembered passing the last time, his confidence grew. He was going to make it.
He found the boat without incident, and they quickly moved away from shore. Phúc might not have believed in his personal luck, but he figured the odds of sinking twice must not be that high. He was wrong. The odds were extremely high, if not practically assumed, and his confidence was short-lived when ten minutes later, the boat slowed to a stop, and the engine sputtered and died. Not good.
“Im lặng. Đừng nhúc nhích,” the captain hissed from above. Quiet he could do. Not moving an inch, though? Impossible.
For a while, nothing happened, then heavy boots dropped on board. One set, two sets, three sets, four? Once they began walking, it became harder to count. Soft hands dropped over children’s mouths, silent prayers began, hope turned to fear, and everyone froze, listening silently to the exchange:
“Chỉ một chiếc thuyền tôm thôi.” But it wasn’t just a shrimp boat.
“Giấy phép.” But there were no licenses for stowing away refugees.
“Bắt gì tốt khong?” But he wasn’t really asking about the catch.
“Không đặc biệt, quá nhiều cá mập trong nước.” And that was true: the catch wasn’t special, and there were a lot of sharks in the ocean.
A sinister and throaty laugh came from the main Việt Cộng patrolman—the leader of the group. Heavy footsteps moved to the galley entryway, where another soldier came down and looked Phúc directly in the eye, then called up to his boss, “Nets, baskets, and the general stench of shrimp.” His voice was nasally and high-pitched; he was a boy not yet through puberty. The thirty-two passengers below deck appeared to be invisible. Still, no one moved, and if they breathed, it was inaudible. Overcome with anger, Phúc dug his fingernails into his calves.
Over two years had passed since Long had come home. Men were sent to fix the courtyard; beautiful, antique, hand-carved pieces of furniture arrived unannounced to the house; and a toilet was installed. Long might not have been physically present, but his presence filled the atmosphere. And all this time, Ông Nội found it within himself to not be angry. He even joked about the scars from his beating making him more handsome.
“This here? This scar is my beauty mark. I tell you, in all of Việt Nam, no one has one like it,” Ông Nội would say to his friends. But it wasn’t a beauty mark, it was a scar that ran much deeper than the surface. Ông Nội walked with a hobble, trembled as he fed himself, and took sips of air rather than deep, pain-filled breaths. And no matter how much Ông Nội tried to downplay it, Phúc knew what happened. He saw it with his own eyes, and there was no reconciling this egregious mistreatment as anything but evil. And as Phúc cowered below deck on the shrimp boat, staring at the yellow star on this boy’s uniform, his anger grew. He wanted to lunge at him and choke him until his soul left the earth as retribution. He wanted to plunge his fingers in the kid’s eye sockets and drain the life out of him. He wanted to break him. To do to him what the war had done to his family.
No one else dared to make eye contact with the boy, only Phúc, who stared angrily, silently threatening him to shoot. Go ahead, try to kill me, Phúc thought. But the guard misread Phúc’s expression. He saw fear in Phúc’s eyes, not hatred, and he nodded at him in recognition. He bowed in a silent apology because in any other circumstance, they might have been friends. Maybe the soldier saw himself in Phúc, or maybe he was sad because he had seen the bodies of other refugees wash up on the shores, bloated and lifeless. Whatever the case, the two maintained locked eyes as an older patrolman came into view. The captain of the ship rushed over and slipped a thick gold bracelet into the man’s hand, shaking it vigorously. The older patrolman stuffed the bracelet into his upper breast pocket as though it were nothing more than a handkerchief decorating his uniform. This was just one of many “gifts” he would confiscate today. Unlike his younger counterpart, this general had no shame, guilt, or remorse for the impossible situation he and his comrades were leaving the refugees. Of course he didn’t, he was a Communist, just like Long. The image of Long in an identical uniform standing over their broken father wrapped itself around his brain like a scalding-hot cloth, and he dug his nails even deeper—so deep that he broke skin and caused a thin line of blood to trickle down his leg. Its warmth was surprisingly soothing.
Unlike the captain of the first boat Phúc boarded, this one had scheduled checks with the Communists in advance. They were bribed up front and again on the vessel so they would let the ship pass through their checkpoints. Of course, Phúc didn’t know this, and it would take another fifteen years before he learned who was responsible for the boat’s safe passage. That gold bracelet, which at the time felt significant, was nothing compared to the loot they were collecting from other ships. Some other boats were stripped so bare that heading farther out to sea was nothing more than a suicide mission. It wasn’t just jewels and gold they took, but fuel, water, and grain—the basic necessities.
Not all the Việt Cộng found it easy to execute people. Not all of them were murderers. Some of them were worse. Some were cowards. After they stripped the vessels of everything, they might wave them through, appearing benevolent but knowing the passengers would die at sea of starvation or dehydration, or at the hands of vicious Thai pirates. Or the boat might drift with the current back into Vietnamese waters, where their fate became someone else’s problem.
That first night, after the boat burned through its initial batch of fuel, Phúc climbed on deck, looked up at the sky, and thought about the man who lived on the moon.