On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

by Ocean Vuong

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Part 3, Section 2

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Last Updated July 4, 2023.

Little Dog remembers that his mother used to tell him: "Don't draw attention to yourself. You're already Vietnamese."

He relates a memory: the August after he graduated college, the family visited Grandpa Paul, and Rose walked ahead of him through the garden. He remembers his father much less clearly: only fragments about his coins spilling onto the floor after a day at work scaling fish and how he would bring home Kentucky Fried Chicken. He remembers that his father would beat his mother, but when he was very young, going to the grocery store still felt like "the American Dream." When his father had only beaten his mother twice, he still believed that there was a possibility that he would stop and that they could be a happy family once again. He remembers his father writing to him from prison and how he tore the letter "to shreds." He is unable to forgive his father for what he has done to his family.

In Saigon, two days after Lan was buried, music drew Little Dog out of his room at two in the morning. The night was full of people: vendors and revelers. Women were dancing on a stage. When Little Dog drew closer, he realized the women were actually men in drag—and then he saw a body covered by a white sheet. He later learned that this was a common practice in Saigon: until the corpse could be taken away, drag performers would be hired to "delay sadness." The sight made Little Dog cry, to the extent that a passerby offered his condolences, thinking that he must be a member of the deceased person's family.

Little Dog remembers that his first Thanksgiving was at Junior's house. His mother played Etta James, and Little Dog began to feel "American." In his first year of school, he was asked to color in a cow and was chastised for coloring it in bright shades. He was told by his teacher that he should instead draw things as he had seen them, but this felt like a suppression of his own creativity and his natural capacity to try and perceive the best in the world around him.

He remembers walking with his mother, pushing a rusty cart to the church and soup kitchen when they lived on New Britain Avenue, and how his mother would hold his hand and try to distract him from the sight of the blood on the sidewalk where someone had been stabbed the night before. She would point at the birds, and Little Dog would look at them until he forgot about the ugliness. Remembering this, Little Dog realizes that he and his mother were not born from war at all, but from beauty. Lan, having renamed herself as a flower and protected her family, had made beauty out of something terrible.

Paul, Little Dog explains, played trumpet and wanted to be "a white Miles Davis" when he was young. He could have gone to Canada to dodge the draft but instead joined the army to escape his father's rage. As an old man, Paul has transferred his creative urges to the garden, which he keeps with enthusiasm, making pesto from his basil plants and pointing out the various different flowers to Little Dog and his mother.

Little Dog has recurrent memories of a room on fire, in which Lan was singing.

He thinks of Lan and her children hiding beneath a table—the table at which Rose was first beaten by her husband. The two tables are not really the same, but in Little Dog's mind, they have...

(This entire section contains 842 words.)

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merged and become a symbol.

Little Dog explains that he dreams sometimes of Trevor sleeping beside him, while the sound of an animal can be heard outside amid the tobacco. He walks out in search of the animal, thinking it may be a heifer, but nothing can be seen. The heifer seems to symbolize something hurt that Little Dog is seeking so that he can help it heal.

He remembers lying awake at night with Trevor, talking and thinking in the dark. He tells his mother that he hopes she is reincarnated, once again as a girl named Rose, but this time into a family who would teach her the privilege of reading and a life that would leave her untouched by war. He contemplates the fact that even if she could read, she is always too tired and that his own facility for language has been won through the efforts of his mother, who sacrificed her own literacy for him.

In the dream, Little Dog says, nobody is dead yet: Trevor and Lan are still living. He runs, and as he runs, he thinks of buffalos. Monarch butterflies emerge to join him. Little Dog remembers, as a young boy, asking his mother, "Why didn't they get you, then?" Rose explained that it was because she was "fast" and added: "Some monkeys are so fast, they're more like ghosts, you know? They just . . . disappear." 

At this, Rose began to laugh.


Part 3, Section 1