On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

by Ocean Vuong
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Part 1, Section 2

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Last Updated on February 12, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1051

Little Dog describes a scene in 1960s Vietnam, a "beautiful country depending on where you look." A woman is waiting at a checkpoint with her baby daughter, the fields on fire around her and two American soldiers approaching her with weapons. The men are young; a helicopter whirs overhead. They are asking the woman questions she does not understand. 

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At the same time, a group of men are gathered around a table, drinking vodka. A macaque monkey is led in; it has been force-fed vodka and morphine all morning. It is shackled under the table, its head put through a hole in the wood. The men cut its head open and begin to eat its brains while the monkey is alive, a ritual they believe will increase their fertility. The brain of the macaque, Little Dog points out, is the closest among all animals to the brain of a human being. 

The woman tries to tell the men her name: Lan. This means “Lily” and is a name she gave herself, as her mother had simply called her "Seven" because she was the seventh child. Lan had run away at seventeen from her arranged marriage, an act her mother had condemned her for. Now, she is so frightened that she urinates in front of the soldiers, trying to tell them in broken English: "No bang bang." Her daughter, Rose, has auburn hair and is mocked by her peers when she is a little older, called "ghost girl" by those who cover her in mud in an attempt to remove the whiteness from her skin. This whiteness indicates that she is the offspring of an American soldier, an invader. She is Little Dog's mother, and the year is 1968.

Another scene: Little Dog is nine and wakes in Virginia to the sound of his grandfather, Paul, crying over a Polaroid. Paul met Lan in a bar in 1967 when he was stationed with the US Navy in Vietnam. They married. Lan had worked as a prostitute before meeting him but had loved him because he was not a client and genuinely loved her. In Virginia, at the age of nine, Little Dog sang in Vietnamese for Paul, who understood the language. Lan, too, used to sing for no reason. Paul, like Lan, called the narrator "Little Dog."

Lan had never understood color as an American concept. Why, for example, was Tiger Woods "black"? Why was Rose perceived as white, to the extent that Little Dog was sometimes thought adopted? Tiger Woods's father, Earl Woods, was stationed in Thailand when he met Kultida Punsawad, whom he married. Tiger Woods, therefore, was also a product of the war in Vietnam. He was nicknamed by his father after Tiger Phong, a confidant of Earl's in Vietnam.

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Little Dog harvested basil with Paul, who promised to teach him to make pesto. Little Dog saw that the Polaroid in his pocket was of Paul and Lan. Paul had been diagnosed with cancer but was now in remission. Before this trip, Rose had told Little Dog that Paul was not her grandfather; Lan was already pregnant when they met. "Everything good is somewhere else, baby," Rose had said. At the kitchen table, Paul told Little Dog the same story again.

Rose attended her first church service at a Baptist church filled with Cuban and Dominican immigrants, who were welcoming to all. In the church, Rose cried out in Vietnamese for her real father, "ba," asking him to come and get her. But nobody else understood her words.

General Curtis LeMay, in 1964, had declared his intention to bomb the Vietnamese "back into the Stone Ages." But in 1997, Tiger Woods, a product of the war, won the Masters Tournament, and the following year, Vietnam opened a professional golf course on a rice paddy that had been bombed by the US Air Force. 

Paul suggested that maybe Little Dog shouldn't call him "Grandpa" any more, after he finished explaining the true story of Rose's parentage. But Little Dog told him that he wanted to keep calling him that: "I don't got any other grandpa."

Little Dog explains, still speaking to his mother, that some days he doesn't understand who or what he is or who his mother is. He does not know whether to think of her as Asian or American, as white or not-white, as an orphan or as his mother. He relates the story of how a Chinese man killed by an American in 1884 was denied justice because human beings were defined only as white, black, or Mexican. Because he did not fit into any of these boxes, the case was dismissed; he was not recognized as being human. In America, the problem of categorization is a significant one.

Walking together after their conversation, Paul and Little Dog encountered a woman who congratulated Paul on having acquired a "dog boy." She spoke to Little Dog as if he didn't speak English. Paul, awkward, resisted this, saying, "This is my grandson." He wielded the word like "an instrument," and Little Dog appreciated the solidity of it, like a tether holding him down in this country.

One night, Little Dog was piled into a car by his mother and Lan. Rose told her mother over and over that she was sure a man named Carl was going to kill her sister, Mai. It was three a.m., and the family drove at speed across town until they stopped in front of a house. Rose got out and began banging on the door of the house, demanding that Carl come out and relinquish her sister.

A white man with a gun opened the door. Lan told Rose to come back, retreat, and "get back in the helicopter," revealing her belief that they were all still in Vietnam. When Rose did return to the car, she explained haltingly that Mai was no longer there. She and her boyfriend had moved away from the house. At this juncture, Lan seemed to come to her senses, explaining gently to her daughter that Mai had not lived here for five years, but had moved to Florida to open a salon. On the doorstep, Little Dog saw a small boy pointing a pistol at them. He looked him in the eyes and "refuse[d] to die."

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