A descriptive writing assignment is an exercise on observation, where you part describe what you see and part make an educated guess at what the teachers expect you to say. It was all I did in Literature class up until fifth grade. Whether it was because of the nature of the prompts or my natural tendencies I couldn’t tell, but the truth is: Almost all of what I wrote at the time was about my mother. I knew what the common daughter should feel about her mother. It was easy having words put into my mouth about how gentle and loving my mother was, how I shared with her all of my little secrets, how her hair was long and black and her eyes sparkled like the night sky. But I’m not getting into that now, because today, I’m writing about my father.
My father, to the ten-year-old me, was my father and nothing else. He was this being that came into existence just to be my father. He is, of course, in reality a construction engineer, a lover of Chinese historical novels, a Vietnamese food expert, a friend and colleague to men unknown to me whom he drinks and discusses politics with. But around me he was his beer belly, too big to wrap my arms around; his fuzzy arms and dark tanned skin, always warmer than mine; his broad back against which I leaned and relieved whatever was on my mind. He was mine alone, mine wholly, mine forever and after. The things we thought we knew, us ten-year-olds!
Every year my family go on a road trip to Dalat, or the city of flowers, as people call it in Vietnam. Dalat was where my father used to travel to with his friends in high school, each of them on a motorcycle (the cheap kind that carried itself quietly with a feminine shamefacedness) carrying a girl on their backseat (he did not know my mother then), with just enough money to probably fill the gas. I gleamed these stories from grandma, who hoarded them with every last bit of her strength, refusing to surrender even as other things, like what Qui n’avance pas, recule means or where she put her glasses, started to slip away. I never dwelled on the details though. The stories didn’t mean much to me–didn’t make sense, even. Dalat belonged to us–Dalat the city of flowers, of spirits in tree hollows, of foggy mornings and horse rides by Ho Xuan Huong lake. No stories can change that.
This photo was taken on one of our trips, in front of a statue of the Buddha that my mother the photographer chose to exclude. Instead, there is the dragon, my spirit animal according to my birth year, my father, and I, on the long flight of stairs leading towards the praying area. My father was wearing the hotel’s slippers, way too large pants, a sports jacket he’d owned nearly ten years. I was wearing what my mother dressed me in, snugly enveloped with my head against his chest. People said I was his copy, feature by feature–his downturned eyes, wide nose, large ears, tanned skin. You can really see it in the photo. It was that time when I resembled him the most. It was that time when we were together in a oneness that was later deprived us. It was that time when I bowed down beside my father, looking up at a distant god, and he clasped my hand together and told me to pray.
It was that time when Dalat was still full of flowers, when the weather was chilly, when the ghosts still hid in tree hollows, when my mother hadn’t left Vietnam on her own. This was before I grew almost as tall as my father, before I no longer fit in his arms, before I tried to argue with him on feminism and statistics and the human triflings that had nothing to do with how much I missed him, which was what I meant to say. It was that time when I didn’t feel sad seeing my father, didn’t notice his graying hair, thinning legs, shaky hands, didn’t feel like a big girl leaving daddy to enter the world.
This past summer, my father and I went back to Dalat. Without my mother, it was just me and him catching up on what we lost hold of. We walked through the street market past nine in the evening, my dad with his corn on the cob freshly grilled, me with my open neck sweatshirt because Dalat was no longer cold enough for layers. We returned to the places we knew, to the coffee shops and the ice cream place by the lake, to the cottage on a hill where they still had a fireplace with actual wood sticks. Dalat still felt like a dream, a gift from the past that sometimes made me wonder if any time had passed, if anything had come between us. My dad was looking at the fireplace, yet he seemed to look right through it. He seemed to look past the fire and the brick walls, past the vast lake and the mountains, into a distant realm foreign to me and everything I knew about my father, which was indeed very little. It was that moment that I knew my father had been a boy once, who biked his way around The Valley of Love (a real place in Dalat) with a girl that was not my mother, who had his teenage dreams and memories buried somewhere in this land, who had a life outside of mine. My father had never been wholly mine; it was time I realized I was no longer wholly his.
Puberty feels like awakening from a dream, trying to determine what time of day it is and where you are exactly. For me, the process started when I felt a disconnection from the outside world, a careless apathy of a sort, while internally a turmoil was stirring. I became more self-absorbed, frequently got lost in my own head, sometimes feeling like a new self was wriggling into shape inside my body. If I acted out the state of my psyche, I would have shed my skin every day, and then become ashamed of it, and then puzzled, and then mad. My body felt like loose flesh without an identity to dwell on. For a short time I was occupied trying to find who I was, but that was impossible; so most of the time afterwards I was knocking on doors just trying to find a place where I belonged. I had to look for a new home, because home ceased being home when I ceased being the little girl clinging to her daddy’s belly. Or perhaps home stayed home; I just don’t want to go home anymore. I want to go far away from home, to shed my skins and leave them at strange doorsteps. It is time I moved on from the wilted flowers of Dalat, the cold fireplace, the temple with the Buddha statue I never reached—it is time I moved on. My body has outgrown the place: the hill doesn’t seem so tall and the lake so vast anymore. My body has outgrown my mind: before I knew it, I was suddenly physically grown, and all I could do is telling my mind to catch up.
I wouldn’t say that I and my father grew apart, though. There’s no growth on my father’s part, first of all; on my part, my family will always have a place somewhere beneath my changing skin, and will always stay there at the heart of my identity. What I realize, though, is that my heart is expanding, bursting with passions I never felt before, longings so strong sometimes I wonder if they’re healthy. Every year I gained I learned to see things differently, every year wilder with wonder, and even though my literal sight is getting worse, there is a clarity of mind unknown to me before. The world in my eyes is expanding, my destination farther in the distance, and I must go to it.