A short story

K
hanh got there early, as per his usual habit. Tien, the girl who made the banh mi, wasn’t awake yet, and he knew he’d have to wake her up. Saigon was in a rare silent moment of repose, the dimmest hour before dawn, too late for the night owls coming home from bars and clubs, too early for daily workers starting their morning shift.

He maneuvered his xe Honda into the old alleyway. It was a rusty jalopy, with gummy gears that clicked and thickly thunked as it made its way down narrow streets, sputtering grey spumes in staccato burps. But when it got a stretch of open road and in high gear, it virtually glided along the avenues. It had deep baskets attached to its front and back, cradling fresh baguettes that Khanh delivered to banh mi stalls, restaurants, and upmarket shops throughout all the districts.

He flicked his kickstand on and walked to the stall, spotting a Viet Kieu on a red plastic stool, leisurely waiting for the shopkeepers to open. The Viet Kieu had on shorts, sandals and a t-shirt. He was underdressed in that careless way returning Vietnamese usually are, when they come back and don’t worry about how the world they’re entering judges them, on either attire or attitude. They seem, thought Khanh, to be a group perpetually on holiday, at home in this world they and their family left behind years ago.

Khanh greeted him in loud, but halting, staccato English:

Hello, mister! How are you?

The Viet Kieu responded, but in halting Vietnamese, nearly empty of accents or tones, choosing the impersonal “toi”, or I, rather than the more acceptable “anh” for older brother, though he was clearly older than Khanh was.

“Da. Toi khoe, cam on.” He said.  Then he paused, uncertain. Language seemed to have escaped him.

“He wants to ask me where the banh mi sellers are,” Khanh thought, “and when they’ll start opening for business. But, I can tell, his Vietnamese isn’t good enough. Or, it is, just, but maybe he doesn’t feel secure in saying them out loud.”

Khanh smiled and told him the girl who makes the banh mi is not here.

“Girl?”, the Viet Kieu, surprised, responded. In Vietnamese.

“Yes.” Khanh told the Viet Kieu in English, “the little girl. Girl works here. She very lazy.”

Now his English couldn’t come to him, so Khanh shifted into Vietnamese. “She is supremely lazy, and wakes up late. She always oversleeps, and I have to yell at her the next day because like you, I have to wait for her. I can’t just leave my bread and drive off to the next stall.”

Khanh noticed the Viet Kieu smiling and was pleased to see that he understood. Khanh indicated that he’d call her as soon as he finished delivering the baguettes on his basket to the rest of the sellers on the street. So he took off. He made his quick rounds, and five minutes later, when he returned, the Viet Kieu was still sitting there watching the earliest rays of dappled light filtering through the trees in the alleyway.

“Em oi! Em oi!” Khanh called, and heard the rustling of the girl inside the subdivided flat. Scrubbed groggy eyes, pink flowered pajamas, appeared, and Khanh quickly chided her for her laziness. She couldn’t look more than 12, but she is actually older, 14, or 15 perhaps.

The girl said something haughty back, something the Viet Kieu couldn’t quite make out with his limited Vietnamese.

Still, he could understand the tone of both speakers, the casual back and forth he heard as a kid from people setting up shop, preparing a restaurant. Banter. The same casual chiding and teasing he heard when his dad took him to the Blockbuster where he worked as a cashier, a forty something family man amongst twenty somethings, making the time pass in a dead end job, starting his life over again. That banter, he thought, was here too.

Khanh asked the Viet Kieu if he wanted a soda to drink while waiting for the girl to bring in the ingredients for making banh mi. Yes. Khanh brought him a Sprite and joined him.

The Viet Kieu seemed pleased to have a chance to practice his Vietnamese. He told Khanh that he is up because of jet lag. He has just flown in from New York, and can’t sleep. It was his first time back to this country.

The Viet Kieu told Khanh that he lives in America, where all the other Viets live in homes large and wide, cavernous bathrooms filled with porcelain, expensive tile, smell of soaps and lavender scented products on shiny sinks.

Khanh responds and tells him that these spaces are all over HCMC now, in hotels, trendy restaurants, places that he drives by everyday on his route to deliver banh mi.

Khanh then told the Viet Kieu a shortened version of his life story. With interjections subtracted, the story went like this:

Khanh came from the south, in the countryside. His parents were in a small village near Ben Tre, all farmers and orchard keepers. He helped his parents carry produce to the markets in the mornings, carried supplies back in the evenings, but they didn’t make much. At 11, he dropped out of school, ran away and came to the city to seek a living. He lived alone in different places, housed with others like him, street kids all scrounging up a living. Begged for a while whenever he got hungry. At 13 he found a job as a delivery boy, and he has been delivering banh mi for six years now, driving at night and early morning on a rented motorbike with a wicker basket, cloths to cover and keep the baguettes fresh. If the bike breaks down, he pays to get it serviced, and that loses him a few months’ savings. He pays for the gas, the bike is his now, after a few years. He gets paid enough money to live on, and maybe a little to save for a night out to drink cafe with friends sometimes. But who has time. He’s too busy working.

The Viet Kieu, after hearing his story, responded with a question: “Little brother, do you ever regret dropping out of school?”

No, older brother. I was too lazy. School was no good for me. It was too boring.

Oh, don’t say that, I’m a teacher.

Oh really? No!

Yes. Stay in school, little brother!

Too late!

They laughed.

It wasn’t just school, older brother. It was the countryside. I couldn’t stay there anymore. I didn’t get along with my parents and it was just too boring in the country. I had to drop out and leave home. Life is tough here in the city for a kid, but I did ok.

While listening, the Viet kieu considered the narrative of his own childhood, and made comparisons.  He thought back to the shopping malls and parking lots of his youth, Ponderosas and TGIFridays, TCBYs, the country’s best yoghurt, the small apartment his family lived in, corn fields outside the city center, endless rows of parking lots and gas stations.

He didn’t run away, like Khanh. He thought, “my entire family ran away, from his childhood city. He had no choice. They left to pastoral American suburbia, and that became home.”

“Now, older brother, I’ve told you my story. Please tell me yours,” said Khanh in Vietnamese, smiling. “Where do you live in America. And what do you do? What brings you back, older brother? Why come back to this country at all?”

So the Viet Kieu told Khanh his story, in halting Vietnamese, talking around the words he never learned or couldn’t recall, filling in gaps with any details he could remember.

He was born right here, in the city, though his father’s folks were from the same place in the south, near the delta, Ben Tre, the same town as Khanh’s.

They too were orchard tenders. Coconuts, oranges, mangos. Mangroves and mud soil. Back then only way to visit the countryside was by two ferry rides and little motored boats. No roads took you there all the way. He and his cousins took a little canoe and paddled it around the man made canals that ran through the island, and during Tet they lit up firecrackers and stuffed them in cow paddies to blow them up at the adults in their ao dai, processioning. In rainy seasons when there wasn’t anything to do, they took crickets and trained them to fight one another. They placed bets to see who’d win and the meanest little cricket would scare the others and sometimes netted them a lot of money back then.

Khanh interjected that he did that too, in his early childhood.

Why did they leave? The country didn’t seem to have room for them. Politics. The reminders of war.

But he remembered how the city was different then, full of people laboring bicycles up slight hills and coasting down them. And compared to now, it was silent, so silent.

“This is the one time when I feel the city is like the city as it was then”, he said. “when I was younger.”

This quiet waiting. The morning in stasis. Trees barely rustling.

“Like you, little brother” he said to Khanh, “When I was nine, I uprooted and left. But I went with my family, not like you. Not alone. I had kin with me.”

“And what is America like, older brother?”

“It wasn’t what I thought it would be. Lonelier and colder, but it’s my home now.”

And so he told Khanh about America, wide land of his youth. He told Khanh of his travels across the country, the tall redwoods in California, high risers that overlook other high risers, cities of shine and polish, suburbs of wide lawns, fall leaves on the ground, New England, seeing snow for the first time, tumbling into it from a plate that made a makeshift sled taken from his university cafeteria.

He told Khanh about the disappointment of landing in a small midwestern town of America, and not seeing the high rises he expected from the pictures he had seen. Of the loneliness of American homes, how quiet they were. Of how people there retired to their televisions and screens after a work day. Of his parents busy at work, and tired when they came back. But the bathrooms, all so clean, so roomy! Tiles and polish. Shopping malls, parking lots, afternoons driving across the countryside.

He found himself exaggerating what he felt of America, hitting on the highlights and lowlights, cities and sprawl, excitement and boredom, loneliness and life. He thought he was reinforcing the visions from the movies he had when he was a kid, hearing about that faraway land.

Khanh silently listened, and took it in. After a pause, he said.

Some of what’s in America is here now, brother. Not the snow, or falling leaves, but the bathroom tiles and big lawns, tall buildings, even the wide roads. They are all here now. I drive by them in district two and seven, just outside the city, or here in district 1.

There are fancy restaurants in the fronts of hotels now, and I deliver baguettes to some of them too. I sometimes stop there, and take in a little cold air before I get back on my bike. And more and more Americans and westerners now too. District one is like a little America and Japan altogether.

You don’t have to leave for America, the Viet Kieu said. America comes to you. He joked. They laughed.

I’ve gone to the fanciest bathrooms in all the fanciest places in district 1, says Khanh. They laughed.

We’ve lived through some changes, haven’t we, little brother? Asked the Viet Kieu.

Yes, Khanh thought, but you can always go back and forth, if you want to. And I’ll keep driving.

Khanh said, “When I moved here as a kid, I had to learn how to drive the routes. I got in a lot of trouble. I lost salary from losing my routes. But everything is easy and fast to me now. Every year traffic gets more plugged up, more congested, but every year there seems to be more places to deliver and more demand. Even though I don’t get more payment for what I deliver, I get by with what I make. A little bit of money to come out for coffee with friends on some nights.”

“And how long do you work during the day time, little brother?”

“It’s never exactly the same each day. It all depends, older brother. The hours I work are so irregular. Usually I’m so tired during the day that I just sleep when it’s hottest, during midday. Then in the afternoon I’ll deliver again.”

As if in response, the morning sun peeked from behind the narrow houses and shopfronts nearby. As it rose, the Viet Kieu’s jet lag became more visible. His tiredness settled into the muscles of his frame. He slouched on his stool. He closed his eyes momentarily, nodding off, then, jolting himself alert, he sleepily focused them on Khanh’s face as he talked. But it took too much of his concentration to keep listening. He involuntarily stifled a yawn, apologizing quickly for it.

Khanh smiled, saying, “Big brother hasn’t slept much?”

No, little brother. It’s the long flight. It’s too uncomfortable to sleep, next to so many people in that small space.

Still, it’s a lot nicer than the first trip going there, though, right?

They laughed.

The Viet Kieu observed Khanh, noting his wiry thin frame, his lively face and intelligent eyes. He sensed that, like the city around them, this was a rare moment of repose for Khanh, sitting down here, sipping his 7Up, no limb of his yet in motion, just chatting and waiting.

The girl has finished with the two banh mis. When the Viet Kieu had paid for them, Khanh offered to pay for the lime soda. The Viet Kieu declined, protesting in English, “No no, I’ll get this. It’s ok, little brother”.

Khanh insisted, smiling, but firm: “I’ll pay for this one. For your life story, anh… And for telling me about America.”

After some back and forth, Khanh paid the girl. He received a warm, weary thank you. Motorbikes and cars began to rumble in the large avenues nearby and the sun was up now, heating the cool pavement. They shook hands, said farewell. Khanh kicked the side stand to his bike upwards, got on, waved, rumbled off to his route. The Viet Kieu returned to his hotel to sleep off the lingering weariness of his long plane ride.

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