Ba left us without warning after Lunar New Year’s when I was six, before Em had even learned to walk. Before arriving at our cousin’s place, Má made me memorise some phrases about success and living a long life in Vietnamese. I was supposed to use them on her in-laws. We practised how to bow in front of the mirror in Ba’s room. When Ba tried to demonstrate a 90-degree bow, he cracked his back and cried, “Trời ơi.” Má burst out laughing.
It was a strange memory to hold onto, but it felt too real to be my imagination; at least, I wanted it to be real.
Em was too young to join in the celebrations that year and when she was old enough to ask questions about our family, Má would hit us. I wasn’t allowed to feed my sister any ‘lies’. Ba’s room became off-limits, and Em dubbed it the ‘West Wing’ after watching Beauty and the Beast. She didn’t have any memories of being in the room so she created a world around it. She was convinced that we had to unlock a secret path into the room. The West Wing hid a portal to Vietnam where we could find Ba and meet our cousins on both sides of the family.
We knew Ma’s family lived in Vietnam but we’d never been overseas. Má would hiss, “Forget them,” and lift her hand up at us if we ever mentioned her side of the family.
When Ba left, Má didn’t throw his stuff out. I had to tiptoe around at home even after high school. Was it because every day that I grew, I looked more and more like her ex? Ba’s double-lidded eyes, wide nose, thin lips, and slender artist hands... Em had the same eyes, too, we’d been told. But she wasn’t so oppressed. How was that justified?
Only Má had access to the West Wing but Em’s curiosity got the better of us. She shook me awake one night. Em stood beside the bed that the three of us shared. She passed me an exercise book with loose pages. It felt old with worn, rough edges and dented paper covering.
“Where did you —”
“Má had left the book behind on the table during the day.” Em got me to roll out of bed, and we fumbled around in the dark, making our way to the ensuite bathroom. “Anh, read it please.”
Má had messy handwriting and it didn’t help that our bathroom light was dim and flickering. My hands were shaking. I couldn’t read Vietnamese. I ushered Em into bed before Má could wake up and catch us, and placed the book back onto the table. Though I didn’t realise it then, it was Má’s diary.
“Má has thrown everything out — all your stuff,” Em’s voice quivered on the phone. She was fourteen now. “Ever since y-you left. I was too scared to say anything about it, and when I did...”
“Má said there’s no point in keeping your stuff around... because you said you won’t come back.”
So she threw out my childhood. She erased my existence as if I never meant anything to her.
She penetrated my every thought. Why was I still thinking of her? Why couldn’t I cut my mother off?
Her own blood relatives refused to acknowledge her because they couldn’t accept that she’d been abandoned by her husband. Má single-handedly raised two children in a country that didn’t even speak her language. And yet I had the nerve to abandon that woman as if she meant nothing to me at all?
Her diary was her coping mechanism. It had blocks of text in a presumed stream of consciousness. It wasn’t hard to read just because it was in another language but because the pages were wrinkled and the words were smudged as if tears dripped onto the pages.
It seemed a little ironic that Má was the one who always told me off for being a crier. “Stop,” she would order everytime I wiped my eyes with my sleeves. “Don’t cry because of other people.”
The West Wing really did hide a portal. A portal into a past that Má couldn’t let go of. Má was the real crier. The one left broken when Ba left, and the one who was afraid I resembled him too much.