binicchi nukki !
Posted February 6, 2007on:
I dreamt last night that we moved to next to Jim and Helen, but in VietNam. Our house is what used to be my foster mom’s place in Tan Binh, Saigon. It was a mini gated community in a cul de sac. From the main street, you turn left into an alley, go for about 50m, and arrive at the main gate canopied by 3 giant bougainvillea vines. To your right would be the small gate of my foster mom’s garden. Inside these gates, there were 4 houses, all belonged to my relatives. The first house was bà Phó. She was my grand-aunt, the older sister of my maternal grandma. Hers was a small 5m x 6m sort of house, with a tiny kitchen and an attic. But she had a garden to the left of her house, about the size of the house itself, where she planted wax jambu, among other fruit trees. Next to bà Phó was bác Khôi’s house. She was bà Phó ‘s daughter (I think), but I never saw her living there. Mostly it was her two or three children, anh Định and chị Điệp were there, I think, and maybe anh Cảnh too, I’m not sure. That house is about the same size as bà Phó’s house, also with an attic, and a wide empty kitchen, grey cement flooring throughout – no tiles – the homely touch. Behind the kitchen was someone’s yard, with their wax jambu leaves pooking through the fiberglass divider. This was the most empty house out of all the houses, it felt temporal, like the wind moving through one window and out another, then gone.
Next was bác Đàm’s house, the smallest of 4 houses. She was also bà Phó’s daughter. bà Phó’s tiles were red and white, bác Đàm’s tiles had green designs. I remember she had a small single bed against the left wall, just your typical VNese bed – slats of wood, then on top of it, you put a straw mat. She had one of those woven chinese box pillows, hard as rock. I used to lay on her small bed some afternoon, wondering if I could ever get used to this hunk of harshness under my neck. Bác Đàm had a small kitchen in the back with an open ceiling to allow daylight into the room. She used to keep a turtle back there, under a woven bamboo basket. In front of bác Đàm’s house was the communal well, where all 4 houses did most of their washings and bathings. Next to the well was a tall guava tree. The last house was bác Ngọc’s (my foster mom). She was the widow of bà Phó’s son.
I think what happened was she bought a house next to this 3 household hamlet, punched an opening through the separating wall to connect her house to her siblings’, and put up a wall on the otherside, making her neighbor’s house the last house on the other cul de sac instead of hers. That explains why bác Ngọc’s house was so different from the other 3 houses. Whereas the first 3 houses were raised at least 3 feet above the ground, bác Ngọc’s front room was only slightly raised – less than 1 foot – from the ground. There was a front porch that along the width of the house, with 2 square pillars on each side. I used to eat my dinner out on that porch, sitting among bác Ngọc’s many grown children. Sometimes we ate in from a mâm – a round aluminum tray on which you place all the main dishes. You place that tray on the ground, everyone sits around it, holding their rice bowls, and eating from the dishes on the tray. From the porch, the double french doors led into the front room with two wide windows. On the left was a big brown hardwood divan. Usually 2,3 people slept on that divan each night. On the right was a big study table with lots of chairs. Most of bác Ngọc’s children who lived with me in that house were teachers – anh Tuấn, chị Thanh, chị Thuý, chị Diệu, chị Diễm. Only anh Việt got drafted into the Vietnamese army. I remember watching him putting on his combat boots, wearing his camouflaged army clothings, and then turned around to tell me “I’m off!” – and he was gone. I remember kneeling on the divan in the front room, looking through the window at the empty space in the porch that anh Việt just swiftly passed by. When I grew a bit older and went back to bác Ngọc for vacation, everyone told me anh Việt was gone – escaped by boat.
Beyond the front room was the bedroom with green tiles. There was a door way leading into the bedroom, but no doors. Just a bamboo blind hanging there. On either side of this opening were half-moon shaped windows, about 4 feet from the ground, again, without shutters. The bedroom had one big bed on the right side, and one small bed on the left side. There was also an old school sewing machine by the window, a book case next to the sewing machine, and a dresser opposite to the foot of the big bed. As an infant, I used to sleep in the small bed with bác Ngọc. When I got bigger, I sometimes slept in the big bed with chị Diệu and chị Thuý, or sometimes on the divan in the other room with chị Thanh, after chị Thuý got married. Beyond the bedroom was a huge dinning room. After anh Tuấn got married to chị Loan, half of this dinning room was partitioned off to create a separate living area for the new family. Most of the time this room was empty, only at meal times, we would unfold a large round aluminum table and unstack the stools to place them around the table, enough seats for everyone. To the right of the dinning room was the kitchen, where we had a traditional cement stove built into the counter. All the bicycles were parked in the kitchen. At the end of the kitchen, along the wall, was the bathstall and toilet (the swatting type). From the dinning room, if you open the door to go out, you would see a high red brick wall on the left.
Against the wall was a raised “flowerbed” area, where there used to be a tall tree of some type. The cat did most of its digging business in this dirtbed. Laundry ropes were strung along this wall, and the freshly washed clothes were hung there every morning. To the left was the bedroom’s window. At the end of this courtyard was the chicken shed, and then a low, small, wooden gate. Beyond this gate would be the opening into bác Đàm’s front door and the well. Behind the well was a long and narrow garden bác Ngọc built, running all the way until it met the front gate at a corner.
All my fairy tales materialized there, in those rooms and courtyards and gardens. The tree that grew next to the brick wall was where I imagined Cám would return as a black crow, chiding her mom for eating her flesh. That tree, too, was where the bird came to eat one brother’s golden starfruit, then promising to repay him in gold, as it flew beyond the red wall. The narrow courtyard was where the wicked stepmother mixed rice and grains together, forcing Tấm to separate them again. And the birds would come, beyond the small gate, from the garden of course, to help her out. The two beds in the bedroom would be where Tấm buried the bones of her pet fish…
The rhymes of my school textbook materialized there too, in the wonderland beyond the bougainvilleas ladden gate. The front porch of bác Ngọc’s house was the place where my mind’s eyes travel back to when I recite:
bên thềm gió mát
bé nặn đồ chơi
mèo nằm vẫy đuôi
tròn xoe đôi mắt…
or somewhere in that house, in the peaceful lull of the afternoon, I see the how a loved child sleeps:
bé ngủ ngon quá
đẫy cả giấc trưa
cái võng thương bé
thức hoài đu đưa…
From the narrow courtyard opening i
nto the flowered couryard beyond the porch, going out into the open area before the well, in the shaddows of the walls and trees, I can see the fluffy young chicks follow their motherhen in a walk:
bây giờ thong thả
mẹ đi lên đầu
đàn con bé xíu
líu ríu chạy sau
con mẹ đẹp sao
những hòn tơ nhỏ
chạy như lăn tròn
trên sân trên cỏ…
Of course, this place is no longer in existence, and it has been obliterated since, I don’t know, 5,6 years ago. The streets in VietNam could not continue to exist as they were in the face of economic growth, so families in that area were relocated by the government, the alleys torn down and flattened over, made into a wide street that cars can now run through. Bác Ngọc bought a new house somewhere else, my mom said it was a nice house too. Why am I sitting here, then, not in communication of these dream weavers of my childhood? I don’t know. I want to, and I’m afraid to. But I’ll get to it, I know I will.
You know how poor Frodo with his ring, it’s always pulling him to the eye of Sauron beyond the gate of Mordor? I’m like that with my mind’s eyes, I always feel a powerful pull in me towards the gate in an alley, some 50m from mainstreet. I think if I ever go to heaven, the gate of heaven would be that gate. In my dream, it felt like I had arrived where I wanted to be, me a child again in an adult’s body, talking to Jim about how we end up being neighbors, in this place of all places. I washed some wet things and hung them by the water meter by the gate. The day was cloudy, evening time probably, no winds.
picture: in the narrow garden at bác Ngọc’s. You can see how the garden gate opens out to the alley. to the right of this garden gate would be the main gate. If you look closely, you will see Hẽm, my childhood friend, standing outside looking in. I was playing with her when I got called in and made to pose for this picture.