Written by Georgina Quach
Sunset – the sky’s all blurred with shades of dusk.
A conch blares somewhere, blends with faint post drum.
Back at far havens, fishermen rest their oars.
Bound for lone hamlets, herdboys tap on horns.
Wind sweeps through woods – birds’ wings wear out in flight.
Dew falls on roads – the traveler’s steps make haste.
One stays at home, the other roams the world
To whom confide what chills or warms my heart?
— ‘Thinking of Home at Dusk’, Thanh Quan
Almost half of the world’s birds migrate, in an evolutionary reflex intended to optimise their living conditions when winter knocks. Their migratory path is known as a flyway, which can often stretch for thousands of miles, extending across borders, treacherous mountain ranges and deserts. Each foreign territory brings new challenges. But no matter how far the distance, the birds always know where to go. They use the stars, the sun and earth’s magnetic fields – which birds can detect in their beak – to direct them back home.
Sometimes, I imagine those birds fleeing not winter but the napalm clouds of your childhood in a war-torn country. I imagine them flying from the blazed blasts unscathed, their golden wings jittering like fallen branches that kept falling sublimely through the sky, so that, looking up, you can no longer fathom the explosion they came from, only a family of birds gliding in cool air, their wings finally, after so many bombs, fireproof.
“Because of your sacrifices, my brother and I were able to follow our dreams; we had a chance at education, and with it, the promise of new worlds, the sight of further horizons.”
Through shades of dusk, you fled your hometown. On one starless night, this rickety fishing boat held promise – the idea of a tomorrow, somewhere, somehow. For the following six days, you would be suspended in this thought because, in the boat, there was only darkness. Day and night merged into one. Bold thunder eclipsed the sounds of shouting from the shore. The threat of pirates and starvation and looting still terrified you, but thank goodness, at least you could swim! No looking back. Just go.
I wonder if you ever thought then that, two decades later, you would once again be hopelessly battling seasickness; except this time, on holiday, aboard a magnificent cruise ship with pressed white bedlinen, heading to the tropics. A warmer climate.
It’s amazing how much can change in a generation. Because of your sacrifices, my brother and I were able to follow our dreams; we had a chance at education, and with it, the promise of new worlds, the sight of further horizons. Throughout my life, you devote all your energy to showing me how proud you are of me. And yet, with all the privileges I have as a young woman with an Oxford degree, nothing I accomplish can compare to what you’ve done. Your name translates as ‘castle’ – our home is a strong fortress, the only place of resistance for when all our walls are coming down.
“Your love for us is seen in the building of home; harsh crossings, fourteen-hour days, blisters all over your hands from working with plastics at the factory, night shifts with me in your belly; saving up every penny to first buy a kettle, and then to pay off your mortgage. Dad, I remember how you would remind me of what hard work can bring.”
It’s true that our emotions are sometimes lost between us, floundering in the gap that exists between your Vietnamese and my English. Sometimes we say all the wrong things and end up upsetting each other because of it. But I could listen to your stories for hours, stories of your past and your ideas of future; home is always where we choose to share them.
In our culture, Cháo (rice congee), symbolises care – not only because it requires three hours of careful stirring and heating, but also because it quite literally fills the body with warmth. It’s affectionately called ‘sick soup’, because it’s the steaming dish our mums and grandmothers give us when we’re poorly. It speaks a special form of love, the quiet kind that expresses itself not through words and embraces but through acts of sacrifice, through the model of parental lives given to duty.
To say ‘I love you’, in Vietnamese, we ask each other “con ăn cơm chưa?” [Have you eaten rice yet?] Your love for us is seen in the building of home; harsh crossings, fourteen-hour days, blisters all over your hands from working with plastics at the factory, night shifts with me in your belly; saving up every penny to first buy a kettle, and then to pay off your mortgage. Dad, I remember how you would remind me of what hard work can bring. I count myself lucky to have even a few glimpses of my family mythology, the stories of your origins. There are times when some memories are too traumatising to replay.
Years after arriving in Britain, we resettled in our current ‘family’ suburban address, like birds finding a bigger nest to roost in. We went on a walk around the neighbourhood today, and Mum, you were marvelling at the eclectic chorus of wildlife parading before you – as if for the very first time. It had been a while since you had left the house, for you had moulded yourself to the demands of lockdown.
“Have you ever seen a poppy that colour?” you ask me, pointing at an orange cluster peeking out from the grooves in the pavement. I hadn’t. We circle the apple trees at least twice, and I can feel your excitement at the thought of a sea of fruit blanketing the floor when September arrives. Turning away embarrassed, I watch you stare admiringly into our neighbours’ front gardens as we walk past. Your head bobs up as you kneel close to smell the rose bush. Their luscious displays remind me of that 1970s song we would always sing at the top of our lungs, ‘Rose Garden’, by Lynn Anderson:
I beg your pardon
I never promised you a rose garden
Along with the sunshine
There’s gotta be a little rain some time…
The singer declares to her lover that she could promise them “big diamond rings”, but that’s not what her lover should expect of her – after all, “you don’t find roses growing on stalks of clover.” She could give them the world on a “silver platter”, but “what would it matter?” In a world myriad as ours, the things I treasure most are the things right there in front of my eyes.
“In this notebook, you also catalogue all the new English words you’ve learned – your latest word is ‘bluebell’, which comes after ‘tender’. Sometimes you forget what things are called, the syllables slipping right from your tongue. One day, I asked you about the birds in our garden. You had left bread out on a crumpled cardboard box for the birds – birds you could not name but could nonetheless recognise. “Beautiful”, you smiled. “Beautiful.””
Because of both of you, I have learned to love the rain as much as the sun – to embrace the blemishes of life as we grow stronger in the face of them. I used to get laughed at by children at school because my lunch boxes were usually old butter tubs and chilli oil containers. But now I’m older, I realise that I was being taught to see promise in what seems worthless. I understand what recycling means.
These traditions taught me respect for nature and the values of justice and solidarity, traditions that have their own beauty. I’m thankful for silly reasons too; the way you always pronounce prawn without the ‘r’ and it forces me to stifle a giggle every time, our joke that buffet restaurants must wince whenever they see our family at the door.
Mum – you never follow recipes and I love this about you. You are endlessly creative with what’s in our fridge, or whatever Dad decides to bring home from the shop. Especially in these uncertain times, where food shopping has become almost a mission, this is a priceless skill. In your notebook, under the title “bánh bèo” – those round discs of flour that somehow taste so good – you scrawl a bunch of ingredients in Vietnamese. Look underneath this and you’ll see I’ve laid out all the instructions for how to operate Zoom. I know you struggle with this…
In this notebook, you also catalogue all the new English words you’ve learned – your latest word is ‘bluebell’, which comes after ‘tender’. Sometimes you forget what things are called, the syllables slipping right from your tongue. One day, I asked you about the birds in our garden. You had left bread out on a crumpled cardboard box for the birds – birds you could not name but could nonetheless recognise. “Beautiful”, you smiled. “Beautiful.”
As in many Asian cultures, we take off our shoes before entering the home. Just like entering a temple. The act is an act of respect: it’s saying “I’m going to take off my shoes to enter an important space and I’m going to present the best version of myself.” Home is where everything is done selflessly, because our gestures leave lasting imprints on our environment and those we live with.
“Like many Asian immigrants, our experience with racism has traditionally occurred through being painted as the perpetual foreigner, the yellow peril or brown terror, with unbreakable ties to a land of origin. But those who tell us to “go home” are no match for those of us who can write back in the very language used against us.”
Homes are not free from conflict, and they are not always idyllic. They need to be worked at, just like any other endeavour. A clean area to sleep, work and eat is a privilege. But for those of us who have lost our political origins and geographic ‘home’ – like those birds whose homing signals have failed them – a home that can never be lost is a way to always feel safe. I am thankful for home because this is the collective space for sharing our stories. This is our rose garden.
While this reflection on home is a universal human concern, it becomes particularly dire for those whose identities make them vulnerable to the threat of never belonging. Like many Asian immigrants, our experience with racism has traditionally occurred through being painted as the perpetual foreigner, the yellow peril or brown terror, with unbreakable ties to a land of origin.
But those who tell us to “go home” are no match for those of us who can write back in the very language used against us. The beauty of a home in storytelling is that it enables us to create a multiplicity of homes. Although my degree – in English Literature – may seem rather alien to you, those sentences I read for my course turned out to save me.
Reading takes us outside of ourselves; it requires our empathy for another person or another experience. What matters is that all my scribbling away, even if I didn’t know it then, brought me here, to this page, to thank you for everything – especially the continual striving for selflessness you have kindled in me.
This global pause has activated a desire to reconnect with home using my own words. The pandemic has shown me that, while we may physically be forced to leave our hometown or our family homes, part of what we nourish there will always remain with us. Language is a home open to all, albeit one that we must fight for. Against the racist demand that we go back home, we say that we are already at home, in our stories.