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.