Part 1, Section 1

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Last Reviewed on February 12, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 908

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On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous is an epistolary novel. The story takes the form of a letter the narrator is writing to his mother. His initial goal is to expiate a number of memories he has of his childhood: the first of his mother's horror at seeing a buffalo head mounted on a wall, when the family had stopped at a rest stop. The narrator's mother had felt horrified by the image of a life curtailed and presented in this way; it represented a form of culture shock. The second memory the narrator relates is one of how his play-acting of war, crying "boom!" aloud as he had seen his American friends do, had frightened his mother when he was only five, before he could understand the reasons why. 

The narrator's mother first hit him when he was four. Later, he tried to teach her to read, but she was embarrassed by this switching of roles, with the child becoming the teacher and the mother the recipient of knowledge. His mother stopped the lessons and, later, hit him with a remote control, forcing him to lie about the bruise when he was asked about it at school. 

At forty-six, the narrator's mother became obsessed with coloring as a means of expressing herself. The narrator could not quite say to her that what she was doing was the same thing as writing, something she had said she did not need to learn to do. On Saturdays, late in the month, if there was money, the pair would dress up to go to the mall and buy fancy chocolates. Still, the narrator's mother would hit her son in the parking lot and once threw a gallon of milk at him, her life one of culture shock and confusion. She did not have much money, so her entertainment was reduced to buying discount items at Goodwill and asking whether thrifted dresses made her look "American."

Once, after his cousin Phuong was killed in a car wreck, the narrator thought he saw him on a train. The encounter distressed him, and his mother comforted him with “Happy Birthday,” the only English song she knew.

The narrator is a twenty-eight-year-old man, five-feet-four-inches tall, 112 pounds. At thirteen, he asked his mother to stop hitting him for the first time; she turned away as if nothing had happened. Later, his mother described herself as a monster rather than a mother. The narrator denied this, knowing his mother suffered from PTSD from her childhood in Vietnam. Truthfully, however, he feels she is a monster and that he, who was called "freak" and "fairy" and "fag" at school, is one, too. What he really feels is that being a monster is not such a bad thing after all, but simply means being different to other people. It can make life difficult, but it is not the monster's fault that they are a monster.

The narrator has an English degree, unusual for a boy who once lived in a one-bedroom apartment in Hartford with his mother and his grandmother, Grandma Lan, who called him Little Dog. Lan fed the family on jasmine rice, "peasant food." Sometimes she would imagine herself in a warzone again, petrified of "mortars," and would clutch her grandson to her until she fell asleep.

The narrator was born in Saigon and given a different name, one meaning "Patriotic Leader of the Nation." His father had been convinced that his son would become great. But Vietnam soon became unlivable, and the family fled to the United States.

The narrator was tasked with pulling the white hairs from Lan's head, for which he would be paid in stories. Lan described how her body kept her alive during the Vietnam War and asked him to "keep her young," describing her white hair as "snow" on her life.

On the school bus, the narrator was taunted and asked whether he spoke English, slammed against the window and forced to say his name: Little Dog. Little Dog's mother was ashamed that her son had allowed himself to be bullied, saying he needed to be "a real boy" because she did not have the English to help him. He was forced to drink milk in order to help him grow strong. Little Dog recognized that this was an act of love, like the time when, on a plane to California, his mother sheltered him with her body during a bout of turbulence.

Once, at the butcher's, the narrator's mother was unable to convey what she wanted (an ox tail) using mime. Humiliated, the family left the market without their meat, but they did pick up three mood rings.

After this, Little Dog became his mother's interpreter, ordering clothes for her and switching between her second-grade Vietnamese and his own American English. On one occasion, he was able to call her employers at the clock factory where she worked and ask to have her hours reduced because she was so tired that she was falling asleep in the bath. After the incident with the ox tail, Lan and Little Dog rubbed his mother's back, another performative act of love, and Little Dog was asked to interpret American culture for her in another way. She asked him to read her mood ring: "Am I happy?"

Lan and her daughter, Little Dog declared, were happy here in their apartment. Really, Little Dog could not tell what they were feeling at all.

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Part 1, Section 2