November 20, 2020 | Narrative
collecting pieces of eternity
on forgetting, family, and living as a human
I have nearly forgotten the world.
Some days, I even go without peeling my curtains back—sitting, hunched over a silly brick of data and lithium. I nibble on internet jokes written by strangers I don’t care about. I forget to dream, and sometimes I forget to breathe. I get writer’s block. A lot. I also get dehydrated.
A lot of people on my shore of the internet have been joking that 2020 has been an eternity. But when I tell you that 2020 has been an eternity—that it is an eternity—I mean it in the most literal sense. Eternity is timeless. Each moment of our lives is happening at the same time: overlapping, defining, redefining each other. 2020 bears the weight of last year, and the year before, and all of the past, and all of the future. Somewhere in that vast ocean of parallel realities, we live. And in our living, we attempt to collect the parts of ourselves that wind up in different timelines, in different seas, on different boats.
The boat I have boarded, after months of searching, pulls me to the murky waters of Bến Tre, Việt Nam. It is January 24, 1979. Haggard silhouettes bend over each other, desperately shoving themselves onto small wooden boats. Bodies blend into other bodies. The air is sticky with perspiration and panic. Near the edge of the river, a couple hunches over a small, feverish girl.
“Keep her here,” a woman tells them. “I can take care of her. Đi đi, để nó ở đây với chị. It’s better that way. She’ll be safe.”
But the young mother only shakes her head and insists, “Không, chị. I know she is sick, but I can’t leave her. Em không biết số phận của nó, but if she does die, she will die in the arms of her mother.”
And so they left. They climbed into a small canoe and rowed towards a Panamanian-registered freighter, Skyluck—towards escape, and life, and a violent promise of peace. Over and over, the young couple counted the heads of their five children, whispering prayers to any god that would answer. They lived on bits of salt, half-cups of porridge, and recycled water. Another girl their daughter’s age died, her body tossed into the sea. But God answered their prayers, and the feverish girl survived.
In December of the same year, the family arrived in Orange County, California—and never fled again. The once-feverish girl found her medicine in candy canes, her joy in the Goodwill dumpster. “America is so rich!” she and her siblings exclaimed as they rummaged for free clothes.
But in America, my great aunt told me, you have to pay for a place to die. She recalled the sun-warmed soil of Việt Nam, tilled by families who reused it to bury their ancestors.
“Don’t cremate me,” she said. “Cremation is too hot.”
And if cremation was too hot, the person who least deserved its flames was my great aunt, who had farmed the earth and slept on it. In 1979, she was the woman who had proposed to take care of the feverish child—my mother—and the woman who stayed in Vietnam for another decade and a half. For so many years, my great aunt bore the burden of solitude. This year, she is the only sibling from her family still alive. Her sister—my grandmother—passed away in 2013, and her younger brother died just last year. Her three other siblings have been long gone.
She lives with my aunt Dì Hai 20 minutes from my house. She often drinks the jasmine tea I gifted her, and sometimes she eats fruit without her dentures. She wears long-sleeved velvets and age-old linens, and when she dresses up for celebrations at the local Chinese restaurant, gold-rimmed glasses perch atop her nose. I used to see my great aunt as a conglomeration of wrinkles and un-American charm, but quarantine has shattered that image—and good thing too, because it was unfair and one-dimensional. For the first time in our lives, we spent deliberate time together, sorting out the past in bits and pieces. Our conversations, broken but eager, have given us a glimpse of what it means to finally talk between generations.
Three years ago, I began an oral interviewing project with my great aunt, but I was quickly distracted by college and the idea of shaping a future for myself. In the midst of a global pandemic, though, those “shaped futures” have proven futile and unfulfilling. College shifted a continent away, and friends became virtual screen-buddies. What remained was my great aunt. What remained were her stories.
So this past summer, I resumed our oral interviewing project, reimagining her life from 1933 until present day. The fatality of coronavirus created an urgent mandate to memorialize her story, and the intimacy of quarantine life provided an extraordinary platform to do so. I would sit with my great aunt in the living room, asking questions and trying to navigate the barricades of language, culture, generation, and memory. My aunt would shred carrots at the counter and help translate.
After our sessions, I took the recordings home and played them aloud. As my mom and her sisters sewed face masks, and as I sat on a rocking chair with my laptop, my great aunt’s words suffused the room. The four of us waited for her bodiless voice to paint a portrait of the past, and then we translated her story together. We laughed and cried and often murmured, “Wow. I never would have known.”
Next month, 41 years will have passed since my maternal family’s landing in California. Thanks to the eternity that is 2020, I’ll celebrate this milestone at home (California)—probably by tagging a friend in a “Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens” post bemoaning finals.
If I do, I will be casually exercising my tremendous privileges: technology, access, education, even the ability (the audacity!) to complain about such privilege. Now that I am home, I also have access to parcels of my family’s past, things I learned to miss during my first two years of college—as well as things that I wish I could escape from. I find myself in limbo, constantly balancing the abstract of virtual school, the reality of family life, and the shadow of family history. Home’s habits are connected to a past that I cannot claim as my own, yet one that exists concurrently with my present.
I thought I wouldn’t learn much in quarantine, except maybe how to cut my bangs (disclaimer: I still need my mom’s help), but I’ve learned quite a lot about the people around me, their past, and how an alternate conglomeration of eternities resulted in our big Chinese-Vietnamese-American family, ca. 2020. We eat thịt kho with kimchi while watching the presidential debates. We cry and we get angry and we feel sorry. We miss my grandmother and my grandfather, and we don’t call my great aunt as much as we should. We say “I love you,” and we also realize that some things will take a long time to fix. Some things, like history, can never really be fixed.
But if there’s one lesson I’ve learned in these many months of intimate living, it’s that parents are human, and their children are human, and so are our older relatives who don’t speak English. We all have a past that haunts us, and we all have a past that helps us.
Somewhere along the way, our timelines overlap, and their frequencies align. Their rhythms converge, and then they give birth to a voice. We are not alone, the voice says, and we never will be. People are living, it whispers, flesh-and-bone people are living so close to us. They are vibrant, and they are vulnerable. Most of all, they are all experiencing similar things—in this very moment, in another reality, in the same eternity.
Human stories purl like waves across the living room, ethereal voices playing from the speaker of our souls. They collide with my body, thrusting me towards Bến Tre, Giồng Trôm, the Philippines, Orange County. They wait in patient anxiety, pulling at my fingers and picking at my present.
Don’t forget the world, they tell me. Don’t forget.
Kaitlan is writing her great aunt’s story into a book. For more updates, you can follow her on Instagram @by_kaitlan.