Khoa in Chiapas

By Tram Nguyen

He’s seen her before, coming out of the church as he was walking inside. He’d only wanted a place to sit, where it was dark and cool and quiet.

He had looked down with shock to see the small figure on all fours on the ground.

She had leather pouches to protect her hands as she crawled, and, this was another shock, high heels attached to the ends of her stumps.

Now here she is climbing step by step onto the bus. He realizes suddenly that she will have to take the closest seat, next to him.

He curses himself for sitting in the first row, knowing as he does that this row attracts all the old ladies needing help with their sacks, women with babies and other annoyances.

Too late to get up and move, it would look too obvious. She’s already at his feet, and now she’s pointing to the seat and saying something, but her Spanish is all distorted. He sees that her mouth is disfigured as well, the teeth jutting every which way.

He’s afraid that she’s asking him to pick her up. Instead, he pats the seat next to him and nods as if to say, “please sit.”

Then he looks out the window.

Out of the corner of his eye, he sees that she’s hoisted herself onto the seat. She smells warm, salty and dusty. He looks out the window again and inches himself as far away from her as possible.

At the final stop in town, he sits back and waits as she clambers down. He wonders whether the bus man will help her, as he’d done with the little children who got on with their mothers, picking them up and swinging them easily over the steps.

She starts to head down face first, and someone below grabs her like a sack of potatoes and deposits her on the pavement.

Khoa is relieved, and gets off the bus. Before going back to his room, he stops at the corner comedor with its outdoor table and benches. He orders his usual three carne de res tacos and a cerveza.

When money is low, he resorts to heating a can of soup or a package of instant noodles on his hot plate, but business has picked up lately.

He has two television sets waiting to be repaired, and he just finished the radio for Señora Gomez across the courtyard.

His room is behind a small gate between two buildings. The gate opens onto a crumbling courtyard with a jacaranda tree and a padlocked outdoor toilet in the center.

In his room is a mosquito-netted wooden bed, a desk he’d fashioned from plywood and cement blocks, and a corner alcove with his hotplate, sink and a small patch of tile with a showerhead over it.

Pliers, screwdrivers and wires cover the desk. His pencil drawings are taped to the wall. The television sets, one with a wooden frame and the other with bent antennae, sit in a corner. He’ll have to start working on them in the morning.

The night here is cool, deeply dark and silent save for the occasional howling of stray dogs. Khoa washes his feet and gets into bed. Inside the mosquito net, he switches on the reading lamp set next to his pillow.

He takes out the letter he started last night. It contains only two lines:

Bac dang o Me. Dung co lo. Your uncle is in Mexico. Don’t worry.

He looks at it again, and then folds it up and seals it in the envelope. He flips through his notebook and finds the address for his nephew in San Jose, California.

The next morning, before starting work, Khoa walks to the post office to deliver the letter and then decides to stop in the small plaza nearby.

He looks to see if the easels have been set up under a shade tree, and sure enough Ruben is there unpacking his paintings from a small dolly.

“Hola Vietnamito!” Ruben has greeted him this way since the first time they met, when he discovered Khoa’s nationality and declared him the first Vietnamese he has ever known.

He’d been introduced to the other vendors in the plaza, and they’d all nodded admiringly at the Vietnamitos who’d beat the Yanquis en la guerra inútil.

“What does this mean?” Khoa had asked. His Spanish was still dictionary-based, though he could understand enough to get by.

Guerra inútil,” Ruben translated, “the nonsense war.”

“Ah,” Khoa said, “this I can agree with you about.” He didn’t say more, letting them clap his back and congratulate him on Vietnam’s victory.

* * * * *

It was true, he’d always thought the war was senseless and mad. Brother against brother, Americans against all of us. But Quang had never thought that way, and they argued about it as law students long ago in Saigon.

“So what should we do, lie down and let the Viet Cong take over the country?” Quang asked.

“I don’t want Communism anymore than you do, but we can’t kill each other like this. We’re one people after all. There has to be a way to negotiate a peace.”

They were in a downtown café, drinking Johnny Walker Black because Quang was paying. He always paid on their outings, since he was the son of a well-off publisher while Khoa was a scholarship student with an impoverished, widowed mother.

“You’re a dreamer,” Quang scoffed, tossing back his whiskey. “Ma thoi, minh la anh em. But never mind, we’re brothers anyway.”

Later on, in America, Quang still hadn’t given up. They’d lost the war but the consolation prize was worth it, after all, to become residents of the richest, most powerful country in the world.

It seemed amazing to Khoa, how someone so fired up to save the Republic of South Vietnam was then able to embrace living as an exile in the country that had let them down.

He himself, never much of a patriot, couldn’t get used to the idea that this was now his home and that Vietnam was gone.

Quang still called him every once in a while on Sundays. They addressed each other as moi et toi, like in their schooldays.

Khoa envied Quang the certainty with which he seemed to be leading his life.

“Well, there’s no going back. Those that think so are fooling themselves. Minh phai di cay, thoi. We just have to work, take care of our families, phai khong?”

Quang did most of the talking on these calls, while Khoa mainly listened. He liked hearing his friend expound, like in the old days, though now they were men nearing fifty.

He’d gone once to visit Quang and his family in Los Angeles. It shocked him then, to see their dingy one-bedroom apartment, though he himself was faring no better having only recently arrived in San Jose.

Quang always sounded so sure of himself, so strong on the phone, and Khoa had imagined him somehow unchanged from their student days. His wife, whom Khoa always thought so lovely and genteel, was working in a nail salon. “Sister, you’re as beautiful as ever,” he complimented her shyly.

And the children, three girls who hovered awkwardly in the doorway when he was introduced, he felt sorry for them being stuck in this hot apartment on a summer day.

“Let me invite your family to Disneyland,” he said impulsively to Quang. “I want to see it myself on my vacation, eh?”

The children brightened immediately, forgetting their embarrassment at the stranger and running off to put on their best clothes. Khoa marveled how little it took to make them so happy.

At Disneyland they stood in line for the rides, the spinning teacups, the trains and carousels that delighted the children. Khoa paid for all their tickets, and for their hamburgers and French fries as well.

Thoi di, thoi di,” he waved off Quang’s objections. As the children and their mother got into one of the hanging suspended cars in TomorrowLand, Khoa and Quang climbed into another. Two middle-aged Vietnamese men riding the “people-mover,” their white dress shirts and slacks hanging limply from their gaunt bodies.

He wondered, without Quang’s family nearby, whether they looked even more out of place at this American theme park.

That was the last time he saw Quang.

He’d returned to his nephew’s apartment in San Jose, ready to look for work. It had been two years since Duc was able to sponsor him from Vietnam. They were living in the one-bedroom off Tully Road, together with Duc’s new wife Chau.

During this time, Khoa was still taking English classes at the community college. His welfare checks were enough to contribute his modest share of the household’s expenses, with something left over to pay for his cigarettes and the occasional coffee at the Vietnamese café.

But Khoa wanted to move out. His room was the living room, which they’d turned into a bedroom with a fold-out couch. The dining room was the communal area where Chau left food for him when he came home late from the café. They never ate together anymore.

At first, Chau and Duc argued in their bedroom loud enough for him to hear.

Then, as tensions mounted in the tiny space, she took to muttering under her breath when he was around, “Why can’t this old man pay part of the rent? He’s not a refugee anymore.”

He’d gone to Duc one morning, after she left for her factory job, with his last two hundred dollars. He could tell his nephew wanted to take the money, but out of respect, wouldn’t let himself.

“You’re my uncle, and I can never repay you for helping me get out of Vietnam,” he’d said.

“Alright, but ask your wife about any jobs at the factory,” Khoa said. He decided to save the money for his own apartment instead. That would make them happier anyway, he reasoned.

Eventually, through Chau’s friends, he did find a job at another factory assembling circuit boards. And some time after that, he moved into his own studio apartment.

* * * * *

Ruben taps out a cigarette and offers one to Khoa. They sit together on the bench next to the easels of Ruben’s paintings — brightly plumed parrots, peasant women with brown skin and colorful skirts.

Khoa doesn’t care for this type of painting, but then he realizes that his own drawings of guitars, hammocks strung between coconut trees and a moon framed by bamboo leaves, are not much more than a kind of quintessentially Vietnamese romanticism that he used to sketch as a foolish young schoolboy.

“We’re old fools,” he says to his friend.

“Speak for yourself, Vietnamito,” Ruben answers. “I returned to my country eventually. I knew when it was time to stop wandering in the wilderness.”

Ruben had learned English while studying art in Germany as a foreign student. They spoke in English, which gave Khoa a break from his rudimentary Spanish, though he sometimes wished that his friend had learned French instead.

After the first month had passed, when Khoa returned to the plaza every afternoon to smoke his cigarettes, Ruben asked him, “Are you homesick, my friend?”

Khoa, surprised at the question, searched his body for the feeling and could come up with nothing.

“I’ve forgotten what it is to be homesick,” he answered.

“When I was in Germany, every night I went to sleep dreaming that I was home, and I woke up sobbing to realize that I was not,” Ruben continued.

Khoa laughed. “What would I miss? The traffic on the freeway to get to the factory, nothing to look at but the billboards and the McDonalds sign, working and working just to afford to live?”

“No, Vietnamito, I’m talking about your country. You are homesick for Vietnam, yes? Why else would you leave the land everyone else tries to get into, to come here with us?”

“That’s all in the past,” he said. “My country is gone. It’s a different country now. So what is there to be homesick for?”

“Okay, Vietnamito. The first Vietnamito in Chiapas! I take your word for it,” Ruben had laughed.

His own grandmother had been the first Chinese, escaped from a camp of laborers brought here to build the railroad, or so the story went.

Because of this bit of shared Asian blood, Ruben would flash the pale underside of his arm and joke, “See? Yellow, just like you.”

Before he leaves the plaza, he casually asks Ruben, “Have you seen a crippled woman around town? Has no hands and legs?”

Ruben looks up quizzically. “Yes, why do you ask?”

“Just curious. I saw her on the bus.”

“That’s Flor, pobrecita. She was born that way, though she’s not a beggar for it. She sells her fans in the market and manages to earn a living for herself.”

“Okay, I will see you here another day, amigo. We all have to earn a living, don’t we,” Khoa says as he walks away from the bench.

At noon, he stops in the middle of dismantling the first television and takes another break. Instead of going to the comedor, he walks to a tiny store around the corner and buys a package of instant noodles and some eggs. He puts a small pot of water on his hot plate, empties the packet of seasoning and cracks an egg into the boiling water.

All those years in San Jose, surrounded by Vietnamese food, and he hardly remembers eating anything. Now he longs for the chewiness of rice noodles whenever he bites into a dry tortilla, and for a broth flavored with fish sauce.

He never cooks rice anymore.

That night, he tears a page from his notebook, lays it flat on the desk, and begins to draw.

* * * * *

It didn’t rain much in San Jose, except during the winter when the rain blew in gusts of cold wind. But he could never smell the rain on the air, about to fall, or the wet earth letting its steam rise, every living thing heaving a great exhalation each afternoon as the monsoon downpour began.

He’d started his job at the circuit board factory in winter, driving his used car in the early morning before traffic got bad. Sometimes he arrived before the doors opened, and he would sit on a concrete embankment watching the sky lose its dusky softness and become bleakly bright.

There were no restaurants nearby — nothing was within walking distance in this place where mile after mile was taken up by office parks and warehouses — so most of the workers either brought their lunch or went outside to line up at the taco truck that faithfully waited for them every day in the parking lot.

Some of the Vietnamese would occasionally get tacos or a sandwich at the truck, though most of them brought rice from home. Khoa, never remembering to prepare food for himself, ended up in line almost every day with the Mexican and Central American women who worked as janitors at the factory.

“Chicken burrito,” he said to the mustached man in the window. The woman visible through the other window briefly looked up before looking down again at her hands preparing his food.

Khoa stepped to the side of the line to wait.

It took another five minutes of waiting before a foil-wrapped cylinder appeared on the counter. The woman’s eyes flickered toward him, indicating that it was his.

The next few days, Khoa began to notice those eyes, how she seldom said anything but would glance up at her husband or at the customer, acknowledge the person and the order, and concentrate her gaze on the small quick movements of her hands.

Then, placing the paper plate or foil wrapped package on the counter, and another flash of the bright dark eyes. He couldn’t decide if it was more of a summons or an offering.

He was at the lunch truck every day, and soon there was a flicker of recognition as well in the glance she gave him. After getting his burrito, instead of going back inside to the lunch room, he sat on the embankment nearby and watched as the Mexican woman worked with her husband.

Though he couldn’t be sure — was the mustached man her husband? She didn’t look too young to be his wife, but rather too different.

The man — pudgy-faced and common, taking orders and making change without a glimmer of interest. But even with her downcast gaze and no-less efficient and routine gestures, Khoa imagined a silent coil of sorrows and secrets, deep pools of feeling behind those heavy straight brows and long-lashed eyes.

She had inky black hair, coarser and thicker than that of Vietnamese women. It was always tied into a high ponytail, the ends of which waved into a soft curve.

At first, it was the eyes that he wanted to capture, the slanting, slightly prominent shape of them and the shine of the pupils. He began sitting down after dinner with a sketch pad and pencil, a cigarette and can of beer on the table.

He taped up several drafts of these, and with her eyes looking at him from the wall, he began to trace the outline of the face, the broad high shape of the nose and the long lines of the mouth.

He was drawing again for the first time since leaving Vietnam, since the war and the prison camp.

After the rough sketch of the head was done, Khoa realized he couldn’t remember enough just from what he managed to glimpse of her during the half hour at lunch. He would have to buy a small disposable camera, he decided.

If he could take a few photos and make prints, he would be able to work with more accuracy. He would be able to study what it was that gave the eyes their subtle and powerful expressiveness.

Khoa found that if he stood diagonally just behind the taco truck, as the lunch crowd gathered in line, he could aim his camera without being noticed.

When the prints came back, there she was, framed in the window. Bending her head in profile, turning to look at her husband, sometimes even gazing off into the distance, almost expectantly.

* * * * *

Khoa rides the bus to the Sunday market, wondering if Flor will be there. At first, he walks through the length of the market without seeing her. He goes inside the old Dominican church but she isn’t there.

He starts to look at the mounds of tomatoes and avocados, thinking he might as well do his grocery shopping. He picks out a few limes and a bunch of cilantro, Vietnamese flavors that he’d been happy to discover were also loved by Mexicans.

He is wending his way past the meat stall and grilling stand when he spots her in the middle of the path ahead.

She’s planted herself in the center of the narrow dirt thoroughfare, and people jostle their way around her carrying bags of groceries, live turkeys and chickens. On her back is strapped a long basket filled with woven fans. She’s got one in her lap, and is clutching a plastic cup of juice to her chest with her other arm.

Khoa slows down as he approaches her. He walks past and looks back. Her black hair is braided into two long plaits, with a bright red satin ribbon twined into each braid.

He wonders about those ribbons — who braids her hair, taking the time to weave in the satin ribbon that all the indigenous women wear? Where does she get her fans, strapped sturdily to her back before crawling her way to the market?

He had thought about buying a fan from her, but had lacked the nerve once he approached. He doesn’t need a fan, and a few coins are nothing more than empty pity anyway, he says to himself.

He had seen much worse among beggars in Saigon, especially in the years after the war. Maimings, bloody bandaged wounds, children with birth defects from Agent Orange.

And she wasn’t a beggar, this Flor. She did her hair and wore high heels even without feet, and somehow this touched him most of all.

Khoa goes straight back to his room, though it is still only midday. He thinks about getting busy with those televisions, but they are easy jobs and won’t take him long to repair.

He takes out a book and considers walking to the plaza to read. Instead, he stands in front of the small mirror above his sink. He can’t remember looking at himself except in cursory inspection each morning to see that his hair was brushed and his face clean after shaving.

His hair is thinning on top, though full and wiry on the sides. His big, square-shaped eyeglasses. The large knob in his skinny throat. He’s 57 now. Nguyen Minh Khoa.

Except that no had called him that for years, neither in America where he was “Bac Khoa” to his nephew and coworkers, nor here, where he is Chino or Vietnamito. He hasn’t been Nguyen Minh Khoa, it seems to him now, since those days as a young man in Saigon, studying to become a lawyer, perched on the edge of everything about to disintegrate yet so sure of his place in the drama.

Instead, more than twenty years had passed, during which it felt to him like he had drifted from one bewildering circumstance to the next. The four years in the prison camp. After that living with his mother in their old Saigon house, hoarding rations and subsisting on broken rice before she died.

Then his nephew leaving, the secret planning, the selling of his mother’s gold to buy a spot on a boat. Duc was only 19, all his energy and daring burning for a chance to try his luck at sea, sure that he would make it — rescued and taken to America, Australia, or Canada, anywhere.

Khoa could not imagine leaving like that, cramming onto a boat and casting himself on the mercy of fishermen or pirates out on the open sea. He thought it fitting that his nephew, his only immediate relative, be given the chance to carry the family name into a hopeful future.

For himself, he could live alone, eat little, smoke much, and hug the shadows of Saigon’s streets, now Ho Chi Minh City.

When Duc wrote to him, many years later, about the possibility of sponsorship and that the United States government was willing to help South Vietnamese veterans with a special visa program, and wouldn’t he want to join his remaining family so that they could help each other make a new life?

It hadn’t taken him much to say yes, to submit the paperwork and wait another two years for the exit and entry visas and money to arrive for a plane ticket. By then, Saigon had become a ghost to him and he along with it.

Families survived on care packages from their relatives abroad, hoarding and jealous and vicious toward each other; whispering and spying, afraid of being denounced to the cadre.

He managed to fade into the background of it all, passing by unnoticed more or less. He bothered no one, asked for nothing and needed little. He’d expected to be carried through life this way in Vietnam, numbed but also buoyed by the ocean of suffering around him. What else but to survive together?

He hadn’t counted on the pain that seeped through him once in America. He remembers something Ruben said the first time they talked about being homesick: “The worst loneliness is not knowing who you are.”

* * * * *

It didn’t occur to Khoa to expect anything, not even the barest acknowledgement, from the Mexican Maiden, as he’d begun to call her to himself. Co Gai Me.

So the day that she smiled suddenly, almost involuntarily, when she saw him appear at the front of the line, quickly looking down again, he was stunned. He abruptly turned away, forgetting to order, and wandered back to the embankment to sit.

By this time, he had dozens of drawings of her. In his notebook, the Maiden had taken on an entire life of her own. He had framed her face, exquisitely detailed from the lowered thick lashes to the mole on her cheek, with two slender hands holding a porcelain cup of tea to her lips.

Perched at the taco truck window, leaning on her elbows, he’d transported her view to that of the Song Huong River, wide and meandering with the sun shimmering on its surface and tropical fronds on its banks.

After the smile, he couldn’t bring himself to face her in line again. Just to utter the brusque order, “chicken burrito,” and have her serve his food seemed all wrong somehow.

She didn’t belong in the lunch truck of his factory day, but in the beautiful drawings where her eyes were free to fill with every emotion he could think of.

He longed to see her outside of the truck, beyond the narrow formica counter and sliding-glass window that enclosed her. How did the rest of her move — like the graceful, quick gestures of her upper body or swaying and sensual as she walked? Was she tall or short? Thick-waisted or willowy?

He found himself waiting until the end of the lunch hour, wondering why he had never noticed when the truck arrived and when it left the parking lot. As it turned out, as soon as the last trickle of customers disappeared, the Maiden and her husband began cleaning up to go.

The husband climbed into the driver’s seat, and the Maiden stepped outside to shut and secure the metal awning propped over the display case. She had on a colorful skirt and ruffled apron, cheap black sandals on her feet.

Khoa rushed toward his own car, parked in the employee spaces a few feet away. He hurriedly turned on the ignition and backed out quickly. The truck was already pulling onto the street, which way would it turn at the light? When he got to the light and could see it lumbering along Stevenson, his breath began to slow. His heart, however, kept pounding.

The truck was headed toward the freeway. He followed up the ramp and stayed in the right lane a few cars behind. It was exiting on Tully — his street! He was breathless again as he drove cautiously after the truck through several turns off Tully.

Finally it pulled to the curb on a short street taken up by beige stucco, two-story buildings. He watched as they climbed out of the truck and headed toward the apartment complex, disappearing down a path on the far side of it.

He pulled over and parked. So they were going home, and this was where she lived, a setting not unlike that of the drab boxy buildings of his neighborhood a few streets away.

He got out of the car and walked slowly toward where he had seen them disappear. Unconsciously, he fingered the Kodak tucked in the pocket of his windbreaker.

Which apartment was it? He walked along the side path that ran next to the first floor units, listening for sounds within. A few of the window blinds were open. He stepped up to one screen to peer inside, then another.

Then he heard a screen door slam, he leaned against the edge of the wall and peeked around the corner. There was a wide sliding glass window next to the door, shaded by some bushes. He ran to one side of that window and, shielded by the bush, looked inside.

There she is, walking quickly across the living room and through a door which she closes behind her. The husband is nowhere in sight. Khoa takes in the sofa upholstered in flowery fabric, a formica card table in front of it.

An altar with the Virgin, and a calendar from Dong’s Supermarket hanging next to it. He hears water running, and walks around the other side of the wall. There’s a small screened window high up, just two narrow oblongs with the sliding door open.

Khoa hurries back to the side alley where he’d seen a small dumpster, lifts the lid and looks inside for anything that will hold his weight. There’s nothing but smelly plastic bags overflowing with garbage. He wonders for a feverish second if the dumpster itself can be rolled over with a minimum of noise, but realizes that’s impossible.

He crosses back to the front screen door, checks quickly inside and around, and without even having to think, he’s opening the door, in two strides he’s in the living room, picks up the card table and is out the door again.

When he is up and balancing on the table, gripping the bumpy wall with both palms, his eyes try to adjust to the dimness inside the black net screen. It takes him a moment, then his breath stops. The sound of rushing water fills his ears, blocking out everything else.

He is looking down at the glistening top of her head, the hair flattened and streaming down her back. A pulse of desire, warm and immediate in spite of himself, flashes through him. His breath comes shallow in anticipation of what he will see.

She turns below him, letting the water reach her body. He sees a wet brown shape of curves, his pulse beating a steady drum. Then as his gaze begins to clear, he notices the breasts sagging, the large brown nipples mottled.

There are long striations on her curving belly and hips, the marks of childbearing. He sees other details, the blunt broad toes and roughened heels of her feet, her hardworking feet that stand all day in the taco truck.

Her eyes are closed, she runs her hands down each side of her head and over her face, holding them there as her shoulders hunch and her head bends down.

Mesmerized now and awed by the pureness of this intimacy, he reaches in his pocket for the camera and lifts it. He has to manually rewind the film before each shot, and his thumb automatically pushes back the ridged black dial.

All the way back, near the end of the roll. The sound of the dial turning, click, click, click, doesn’t even register with him. But she stops moving, looks around, then up.

Her eyes meet his, through the window screen she is staring directly at him. There is that split second of instant recognition — she knows who he is, the man from the lunch line.

And in between the moment of recognition and the moment her face contorts and then breaks apart into pure terror, he is falling, falling and the screams falling with him as he stumbles up from the ground and crashes through the alley.

* * * * *

Night after night, Khoa looks at her face and body. He doesn’t have to see the real woman anymore to remember the likeness. On his desk he grows familiar again with her features, and they are more beautiful to him with each rendering.

When his notepaper and pencil become too limiting, the sketches mastered, he goes to Ruben and asks to trade his smallest canvas and the use of some paints in return for a clock radio that someone has left behind.

With the utmost care on a tiny brush, Khoa mixes the colors bringing her to life. It is only the color and the light of her he sees now as he paints.

He is painting this portrait for himself, yet when it is done, he knows he will not keep it.

He will take it to the marketplace, and there he will ask Flor to give him a fan in return.

Tram Nguyen is the former Executive Editor of ColorLines Magazine, and a former reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Amerasia Journal, New California Media, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere. Her coverage of civil liberties earned her a New California Media Award in 2003; her book, “We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories From Immigrant Communities After 9/11” (Beacon), was published in September 2005.

Tram Nguyen

Tram Nguyen

Tram Nguyen is the former Executive Editor of ColorLines Magazine, and a former reporter for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Her writing has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, Amerasia Journal, New California Media, the Boston Globe, and elsewhere. Her coverage of civil liberties earned her a New California Media Award in 2003; her book, “We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories From Immigrant Communities After 9/11″ (Beacon), was published in September 2005.
Tram Nguyen

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