It is November 2005 in a delivery room in New York’s Methodist Hospital. Thi is there with her husband, Travis. She is in labor with her first child and is in a great deal of pain. Although her mother, Hang, traveled all the way from California to be with her at the birth, Hang is now waiting in the hallway, as she cannot bear to see her daughter suffering. As the labor becomes more problematic, the doctors, whom Thi describes as cold and detached, want her to undergo a cesarean section. Although she would prefer to give birth naturally, Thi does concede to Pitocin and an epidural in order to induce the birth. Thi describes the birth of her son as a daze, as the labor is taken away from her. Finally, her son is born, “a little voice and a faraway face with old man eyes.”
As Travis and her mother are asked to leave, Thi and her son are taken to another room for the night, where Thi is left with the terrifying responsibility of caring for her baby alone. Feeling helpless, she struggles to breastfeed her baby. The next morning, a breastfeeding class at the hospital does not ease her worries. Thi is relieved when Travis and her mother return bringing food. Hang tells Thi about her own birth and how Thi’s father, Bo, did not attend but went to the movies instead. In the narration, Thi then explains how her mother finally left her father after they had been married for twenty-eight years. Thi wonders how her mother could have gone through labor six times. Hang tells her that after the birth, the pain becomes a distant memory. When Travis and her mother leave the hospital, Thi feels helpless and alone again.
It is now 2015, and Thi is living in Berkeley, California. As she reflects on the numerous responsibilities that being a mother has brought her, her thoughts rewind to 1999, a carefree time when she was living with Travis in San Diego. Thi and Travis were both artists and planned to move to New York. Thi expected her mother to be angry about her plans to live with a man before marriage, but surprisingly, Hang did not oppose it. When Thi’s elder sister Lan moved in with a boyfriend, Hang was unable to accept it. And in 1987, when her sister Bich left home to be with her boyfriend, Hang swallowed a full bottle of pills. Hang recovered, but the family never talked about Bich again. Although Hang thinks that Thi has forgotten about the incident, Thi admits that she is still very angry about it. In this chapter, Thi presents herself and her family in a series of illustrations—her father and mother; Bo and Hang; her sisters, Lan, Bich, Quyen, and Thao; and her younger brother, Tam. In the illustration of herself with her husband and son, Thi says she knows how to be a wife and mother but still wonders how she is supposed to be a mother and a child yet not act like a child.
Despite being older now than her parents were when they escaped Vietnam, Thi wonders if she will always feel as if she is a child when she is around them. She wishes that she were closer to her family. Although they are close geographically, Thi doesn’t feel close to them emotionally. She also feels guilty, as she believes that her aging parents wish that she and her siblings would look after them.
When she was in her twenties, Thi traveled to Vietnam with her siblings. Following this trip, she wanted to learn more about her family’s history and began to talk to her parents about the past. She thought,
“…if I bridged the gap between the past and the present, I could fill the void between my parents and myself. And that if I could see Vietnam as a real place, and not a symbol of something lost, I would see my parents as real people, and learn to love them better.”
Thi then gives an outline of her birth and those of her sisters and brother. Hang gave birth to her first child, Quyen, a daughter, in Saigon in 1965. But Quyen suffered ill health from her very first month and did not live long. Thi wonders if her parents felt let down by herself and her siblings. Lan was then born in 1966 in the Mekong Delta. Hang was twenty-two years old and a teacher at the time. Bich was born in Saigon in 1968, just weeks before the Tet Offensive. In 1974, still in Saigon, Hang gave birth to a stillborn daughter named Thao. Thi was also born in Saigon in 1975. Finally, Thi’s younger brother, Tam, was born in a Malaysian refugee camp in 1978.
The narrative returns to 2015 in Berkeley, California. Hang and Bo have been separated since Thi was nineteen years old, but they are still close friends and look out for one another. Despite their friendship, they still disagree about many things, including Hang’s claim that Bo went to the movies when Thi was being born. When Thi questions her father about it, Bo is angry and says that Hang always makes him out to be a bad person. However, he finally admits that he didn’t attend all the births, as he was afraid that Hang might die and leave him on his own. Thi thinks back to her childhood in San Diego and the concrete building they lived in. She remembers their apartment as being dark and claustrophobic, declaring that it was “a holding pen for the frustrations and the unexorcised demons that had nowhere to go in America’s Finest City.”
As Bo and Hang’s degrees were not acknowledged in the United States, Hang found Bo a job in a factory making circuit boards. When Bo refused to accept the job, Hang worked in the factory instead while Bo stayed home to look after the children. Lan and Bich were now in school, but Thi and her younger brother, Tam, were left home alone with their father. It was not a happy time, as Bo would chainsmoke all day, tell Thi and Tam scary stories, and often become angry. Tam would escape by hiding in a closet for hours at a time, while Thi would read books about the supernatural. As soon as Lan and Bich returned home from school, Thi and Tam would escape outside to play with them until their mother came home from work.
As an adult, Thi’s relationship with her father has improved, but she wants to know what made him the father he was. Bo’s first story begins in 1951, in Hai Phong, Vietnam. Bo’s grandfather and great-uncle were building new houses, and as they dug for clay, they created a large hole. The hole filled with rainwater became a lake, and people added fish and plants. But when a fabric dyer moved in, he disposed of his dyes in the lake, killing everything.
In the 1930s, in Loi Dong village, north of Hai Phong, Bo’s grandfather arrived in the village with his young son, Bo’s father. He became secretary to the village chief and married the chief’s daughter, a wealthy widow. When he was older, Bo’s father married Bo’s mother, whom Thi describes as being a “plain woman.”
Bo was born in 1940, during the Second World War, a time when people had to do what they could to survive. Bo’s grandmother was hiding jars of opium, and his grandfather planned, together with his son, to steal a jar and run away to Lang Son. But when war, corrupt officials, and Bo falling ill ruined their plans, they went to the city instead. There was a shortage of food there, and Bo remembers being hungry for days at a time.
In 1945, Bo’s father had an affair. He threw his wife out of the house, and she never returned. Bo’s father then left to join the Viet Minh, and Bo’s grandfather returned to Loi Dong with Bo to beg his wife’s forgiveness. Later that year, America dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, leaving a power vacuum in Indochina, and the Viet Minh took control of Ha Noi City. When the war ended, Hồ Chí Minh declared Vietnam independent, and the Chinese Nationalist Army arrived to disarm the Japanese. Although Bo believed his mother might have died, she actually married a Chinese soldier and had three more children.
North and South Vietnam could have created a peaceful democracy, but the French invaded again. When they arrived in Bo’s village, Bo was hidden in an underground shelter, where he was left for four days while his neighbors were massacred. Finally, the village chief, Bo’s great-grandfather, surrendered to the French, and he and his family, including Bo, escaped to Hai Phong. Bo was still only seven years old.
Thi returns to the narrative to reflect on her own childhood, writing of Bo, “the terror I felt was only the long shadow of his own.”
Thi sits at her workstation looking at a childhood photograph of her mother and admits she finds it hard to write about Hang, “maybe because my image of her is too tied up with my opinion of myself.”
Hang was born in Cambodia in 1943. Her father, a civil engineer, worked for the French government, who provided their home and servants. Her family was wealthy and had a comfortable life, but when Cambodians began killing Vietnamese people, they were forced to return to Vietnam, to the coastal city of Nha Trang.
Hang, the youngest of five children, was adored by her father and, due to her academic ability, attended an exclusive French school. But she and her siblings were scared of their mother, who hit them and the servants. After teaching herself to read Vietnamese, Hang began reading history books and learned how the French had colonized their country. She became a nationalist and refused to speak French outside of school. Hang didn’t want to get married; instead, she wanted to study and become a doctor. Thi comments that she knows what happened next: Hang married Bo. She wonders how two such different people could have even met.
After Bo moved to the Rue de Commerce in Hải Phòng, his life improved. His grandmother opened a grocery store, his grandfather sold Chinese medicine, and Bo was sent to an elite French school. But as he got older, he began to notice that while some people had everything, others had nothing. He read newspapers and was influenced by revolutionary ideas. His grandparents, who had always lived under French domination, were unhappy with his political views.
When his grandparents’ property was seized, Bo and his grandfather signed up to return to South Vietnam with the Americans. His grandmother chose not sign up after a fight with his grandfather put her in the hospital. Bo and his grandfather left Hai Phong in March 1955, just as the border closed. Seven hours later they arrived in Ha Long Bay.
An illustration shows Thi looking out at the Brooklyn Bridge in New York, next to her father looking out over Saigon in South Vietnam. Thi writes,
“I imagine that the awe and excitement I felt for New York when I moved there after college must be something like what my father felt when he arrived in Saigon in 1955.”
Bo and his grandfather were happy in Saigon, as they were free to walk down the streets and eat in restaurants. Bo’s grandmother relocated shortly after they arrived, moving into an apartment with two other women. But when her opium jars, the source of her income, were destroyed, she was forced to return to her husband. Bo, then fourteen years old, was happy they were a family again. His grandparents bought a small house, and Thi remembers that she lived there as a child and that, in 2001, she and her family—without her father—had returned.
Bo was offered a scholarship to one of the best schools in Saigon and then enrolled in a teacher’s college. It was there, in 1962, that he met Hang. Thi wishes she could illustrate this as a happy story, but her mother says that her school years, before she met Bo, were the happiest of her life. Due to political turmoil, college was not a happy time. Hang’s parents worried, and she wasn’t allowed to socialize with many people. Then, when she met Bo, he monopolized her time. Hang became pregnant, and at the end of their first year in college, Bo was seriously ill. Hang didn’t think he would live for long, so they married. Ultimately, they lost the baby, and Bo’s health improved.
In 1965, Hang and Bo moved to Ha Tien, a rural town in the Mekong Delta, to take up teaching positions. The Vietnam War was approaching. Thi was born three months before South Vietnam lost the war.
It was April 30, 1975: Liberation Day. But for many, like Thi’s parents, it was “the day we lost our country.” Bo was working for the Ministry of Education at the time, and Hang was a schoolteacher. Believing him to be a spy, the new regime took Bo’s job and offered him a position doing hard labor in the New Economic Zone instead. Hang and Bo struggled to make ends meet, and as each of their escape plans was thwarted, Bo became even more depressed. Bo’s grandmother, who remembered the land reforms, worried about her family.
Hang became pregnant again, and eight months later, the family was offered the chance to escape by boat. They took an early bus from Saigon to Can Tha and boarded the boat with other refugees. When the boat hit a river island, they were almost discovered by patrols, and the captain became so distressed that he was unable to continue. It was decided that Bo would take over as captain and lead the boat out into international waters and on to Malaysia. Bo and the other passengers were faced with many challenges, including sickness and pirates.
Finally, seeing land ahead and fishermen sailing toward them, they lit a communication lantern, but Bo was hit by an oar and fell into the sea. Managing to swim to shore, he was soon joined by the boat and his fellow passengers. In exchange for the boat and some gold, a man invited Bo and his family to stay in his village. Hang, who was about to give birth, went to a hospital, while Lan, Bich, and Thi stayed with their father. The next day the four of them set off for the Pulau Besar refugee camp, where Hang would meet them.
Hang was still in the hospital three days later. She had not had the baby and wanted to be with her family in the camp. Bo and the children were desperate to see her, too. Going against her doctor’s advice, Hang left the hospital. Thi writes that
“Once Hang returned, order and comfort returned. She got us a place in a bigger tent, supplies for cooking our own food, our names registered, and identification pictures taken for processing.”
Thi includes reprints of their identification photographs and says that she and her family were identified as “BOAT PEOPLE.” There were already 3,000 people living at the Pulau Besar camp, and delegates from other countries arrived each week to interview people for resettlement. Hang and Bo discussed the possibilities of moving to France or the United States: France because they both spoke the language, and the United States because Hang had two sisters who lived there.
Although for the children the camp seemed fun, it wasn’t an easy life, and when Hang gave birth to Tam, she and Bo decided they would move to the United States as soon as they could. Hang’s older sister, Dao, and her husband acted as their US sponsors, and the Red Cross helped them with their plane tickets. The family also had to undergo health checks, which everyone passed except for Bo, whose x-ray showed he had tuberculosis scars on his lung. Bo was forced to stay behind in Malaysia to undergo further medical checks.
At the airport, as she was the only refugee who spoke English, Hang was asked to assist the other refugees in filling out their paperwork and boarding their planes safely. There were almost a hundred refugees, but finally Hang rejoined her family, and they set off for the United States. The family arrived in Chicago on June 28, 1978. Hang’s elder sister, Dao, was waiting for them at O’Hare. When Bo was found to have no infection, he was medically cleared to join his family.
Dao lived in a two-bedroom house with her husband, five children, and a dog, in Hammond, Indiana. They had been living in the United States for three years, and Thi says that she and her siblings embarrassed their “Americanized” cousins with their “fresh-off-the-boat appearance.” Hang and Bo joined an education program, taking classes in math, history, computer programming, and business law. While Bich attended elementary school, Lan went to a local junior high, Thi went to daycare, and Tam was cared for at home by Dao. In November of that year, when Hang’s younger brother also moved in with his family, there were seventeen people living in the small house. When winter came, Thi was excited to see the snow, but Hang and Bo hated the cold weather and decided to move to California, where Hang’s other sister lived. Dao told Hang that California was dangerous and accused her of being ungrateful, but Hang said they needed to “make their own way.”
The family arrived in California, and Hang found an apartment for them. They received welfare until Hang got a job in a factory working for $3.35 per hour. Hang and Bo created a bubble of safety for their children and taught them "to be respectful, to take care of one another, and to do well in school.”.They also taught them which things were necessary for survival. Their most important possession was a brown folder marked “Important Documents,” where all their official papers were kept. The children also had their own folder, which contained all their important school documentation.
When Thi was nine years old, Hang and Bo both received US citizenship. Because their degrees were not acknowledged in the United States, Hang went to night school to retrain. As she was such a good student, she was asked to stay on and work at the college as a teaching assistant. She convinced Bo that he should take extra classes as well, and he signed up to study graphic design.
Thi loved it when her parents were at college, as Lan and Bich would babysit her and Tam. She enjoyed the spaghetti her sisters made them, their bedtime stories, and the “curious FREEDOM of being home without our parents.”
When Thi was fourteen years old, there was a loud disturbance outside their apartment. It was during Tet, and thinking somebody had come for them, the family hid in the bedroom. When there was a loud explosion, Thi realized that the building was on fire and that they needed to evacuate. Before running from the apartment, she grabbed the folder of important documents. In her narration, she reflects,
“This is the night I learned what my parents had been preparing me for my whole life.”
When the fire was extinguished later that night, the family was able to return to their apartment and go to bed.
The narrative returns to Berkeley, California, in 2005. Thi has given birth to her son and is lying in a hospital bed feeling anxious. She is worried that she is not prepared for being a parent and that there are so many simple things she hadn’t known, such as how often a baby needed to be fed.
When her son is diagnosed with jaundice, Thi is discharged, but he must stay in the hospital. Afraid that her son may die, Thi asks her mother about when her first child, Quyen, was in the hospital. Hang tells Thi about their final moments and how Quyen, who had slept for most of the time, woke and smiled at her before she died. Thi hugs her mother, knowing that they now share a new bond.
Thi and Travis rent a room across the street from the hospital and visit their son every ninety minutes. Thi recalls that that first week of her son’s life was the toughest week of her entire life. But Thi is determined to do everything she can to keep her son alive, and when he recovers and they are due to leave the hospital, she is finally able to breastfeed successfully. Contemplating her new role as a mother, Thi realizes that she is no longer a child herself and can now see her own mother as an individual. As she thinks about people’s finite time on earth, she wonders what happens after they die:
“Do we live on in what we leave to our children?”
On the next page, Thi illustrates her family tree and asks how much of her identity is her own and whether it was predetermined. She worries that, being her parents’ child, she will pass on a “gene for sorrow” to her son. But in the final panels, she looks at her son, now ten years old, and doesn’t see “war and loss.” Instead, she looks at him and sees his chance to be free.