Can’t wait to get your hands on ROOM 46.1 Around the Table: Asian Voices? Neither can we!
Dive into an exclusive sneak peek of the issue with “Such Good Girls” by K. Quyen Pham.
We carried gold in our seams, in pouches, on chains, in our teeth. Gold from the old world, now for the new. Or else we carried nothing but memories of golden stalks and sunshine over yellow fields.
We had been good girls. Or just seemed that way. We didn’t know we would do these things. We had drifted so far from home on boats, on planes, with papers, with bribes, with favours, away from our parents’ worst fears and toward a dream, or a necessity, or any kind of life at all.
Those of us who flew were lucky. At sea we ran out of fuel. We ran out of food. We got sick. We were discovered by pirates. We watched rescue pass us by. We veered off course. We had good karma, knew someone who knew someone, found a good captain, spoke the right language, encountered the Dutch and not the French. We watched the others die. We died. Our daughters died. Our sons died. He just fell into the water. Our gold sank to the bottom of the sea. We could not look back.
We were sent to Guam, or Malaysia, or Thailand. Some of us were from Saigon, some from Hanoi. Some spoke with a Miển Tây accent that marked us as farmers. Those from Hue some of us pretended we couldn’t understand. Some fled during the fighting, some after, some from the camps, or from our debts. Some of us were Catholic and we heard their prayers. Some were Buddhist. Some were Buddhist and Catholic. Nam mô a di đà phật a di đà phật. Others still believed only in the ancestors. We avoided the others. He looks like the solider who—In the camps we bartered our watches, our clothing, our promises, for a handful of rice, a serving of pork, watery chao. Just some milk, for my baby. Our children wasted away. We wasted away. We remembered our music boxes, our silks, the lacquered chairs our fathers smoked on, the way our mothers sliced pomelo, jackfruit swelling on the vine, the fish in the canals behind our houses. We hid our food. We slept with our backs to a wall. We slept with guards. We stole from our friends. We watched as others left before us. When we left, we could not look back.
And then we resettled in Canada, or America, or France, or Czechia, or Germany, or Britain, or Japan, in the West or East or the Midwest where we already had a husband, brother, uncle, child, or cousin. Once we had been doctors, bar girls, tailors, farmhands, administrators, school teachers, heiresses, informants; now we cleaned toilets, scrubbed nail beds, took night classes, learned to cook our food for outsiders, packed meat, studied for citizenship exams, bought phone cards to call home, were interrupted on the line in the middle of a sibling’s plea for medicine, for plumbing, for school uniforms. For money. This year, release fish in the river for me. We stumbled home to our children, our spouses. The bed is empty more often than not. We thought about our mothers.
Our mothers who raised persimmon trees in heavy clay pots, who collected rainwater in jars and brewed tamarind wine every new year. Our mothers who were short and thin, or tall and brown. She was so beautiful. Who spoke French, or Chinese, or did not speak at all. Who wore silks or ascetic robes or Western dresses or cheongsams. Our mothers who had cooked every meal we’d ever eaten. Who sent us into the fields to hunt for lizards after we’d run out of rice, who taught us how to skin a fish, who bartered away the family gold, one earring at a time, to keep us alive. The mother who had sold one of our sisters to a relative because she could not feed us all. That sister came back, but she was not the same. The mother we would bring over one day so we can watch her slow decline. Or else she would die while we were far away, and we would wonder why we couldn’t save her. Nobody will agree on the cause: western medicine, liver failure, loneliness; it was just her time.
And when our children forget our language, when they stay home too long just because we ask them to, or leave though we beg them not to, we will not weep. Just come back so I can do your laundry. After our husbands leave us for other women, or we leave them for men we meet online, or nobody leaves at all, because or despite the fact that we gamble away the house, or make a killing on real estate, or move to a new three-bedroom in the suburbs far away from the Salvation Army and the oriental market and the casinos, when we sell our family’s land for a new car, or we return to a changed country to marry again, maybe then we finally stop and look back, just for a moment, while the television plays in the other room.
We will remember the girls we were, the lives we had imagined for ourselves, the promises we never kept. We scatter it all, the ashes of our golden youth.
Read this, and more, by ordering ROOM 46.1 Around the Table: Asian Voices.
“Such Good Girls” by K. Quyen Pham was first published in ROOM 46.1 Around the Table: Asian Voices. Copyright © 2023 by K. Quyen Pham.