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...
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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.