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The Monsoon, Bun Bo Hue, Elephant Man & My Uncle Thu
Me & My uncle Yung shared a chicken heart
The earliest memory I have is of the monsoon rain falling hard and fast on to the pavement outside our house in Saigon. I was sitting on my aunt’s lap and she was bouncing me. It was June and it was my birthday and she had bought me a sponge cake with cream on top and a strawberry syrup drink. She sang to me into my ears-songs of prayer and read Vietnamese poems to me.
The rain kept falling as if it were nails dropped down from heaven. The noise was deafening as many people had metal roof tops. I was mesmerised by the sound, by the hundred and millions of drops that bubbled up on the ground and made many exploding balloons everywhere you looked. The grey grey days of the monsoon was a relief to everyone although it was still very humid, there was a welcoming breeze and I always sat on my little table in the Bun Bo Hue street cafe that was the living room of our home and watched my grandmother serve bowl after bowl. She would smile all the time at the customers. She tells me now, that she always saved her youngest son, my uncle and I a heart and a liver from the chicken, “I would cut it in half for you every day because you both loved it.”
I remember seeing her somewhere among the cloud of steam – that would surround her by her stall. Her hair was always up in a bun and she was a round and handsomely chubby woman who would at any given opportunity sniff me whenever I came near her. The Vietnamese’s kiss is a sniff. Instead of using their mouths to kiss, they kiss with their noses, a sniff kiss.
Then I would remember practicing my alphabets and I would see the elephant man who lived nearby. He always walked across from the street – never on the same side but always over the road. He had a very big deformed head and he used to walk from the left to the right of my view with a straw bag. He always wore a white shirt with short sleeves and a beige pair of shorts. I would see him very often and I think I must have just stared at him. I knew he was different but I didn’t know why.
My Uncle Thu- (the most handsome man I ever saw)
One day, the family received a parcel. My uncle, Thu, had escaped Vietnam with his brother Vinh. He had arrived in New York. My grandmother received a few dollars, my aunts received some fabric for clothes and he had sent me, his first niece some chocolate. It was the first time I ate chocolate and only was it such a special occasion, that it is engraved in my memory- the delights of the succulent unknown from a far away land. It melted in the heat of Saigon and ran all over my fingers. My teenage aunts were panicking over the melt. I was covered in brown and the house was enchanted by the news that our beloved Thu & Vinh were alive and well. A celebration. Times were hard just after the war. The Communists were watching every household.
I am in California now – somehow we all exiled eventually. After over thirty years, I sit with my uncle on my grandparent’s American couch at his parent’s 60th wedding anniversary and he tells me his story of how he escaped, in his early twenties; his weeks at sea facing storms, starvation and almost death. He ends up in Brooklyn with a toothbrush, the clothes on his back and someone gave him $20…