Ode to Being Vietnamese on Bad Days

by Ngoc Pham



On March 16, 2021, Robert Aaron Long killed 8 people and injured 1 in a mass shooting in Georgia, Atlanta. 6 victims were women of Asian descent. A Georgia police officer, Jay Baker, answered an interview in which he cited Long’s motive as him having had “a really bad day.”  In Vietnamese, most children’s first word is not mẹ or má but bà, the diacritic softer on their unbroken tongue. Not mother but mother of mother. Their mouths opening for the first time not in screams. Bà. So close to a breath exiting.At 5 my first word was an echo, mimicking the doorbell of my grandparents’ house. My grandfather alive, my grandmother with hair still dyed black, her tattooed eyebrows so faded her grandchildren coloured them in wax bright blue. She watered night-scented jasmine, white dwarf stars on our balcony. He lulled me to sleep with static searching for French radio broadcasts. They curled my hand around the cursive N’s bowed head to spell my name. Gem. O tròn như quả trứng gà. O round as a chicken’s egg. Gravitized by dấu nặng, heavy mark. Grain of sand in a clamshell’s mouth.At 18 I learnt to swallow my name. Gritty going down. When asked I choked on the swollen O, the cursive N coiled its head around my uvula. Dấu nặng rattling the roof of my mouth. No? They laughed, Your name is No? I laughed like a bell sounding an exit. Shelled my teeth around my name hardening into something shiny.At 21 a man blazed bullets through bodies with faces anagrams of mine. Imported virus he called them. Fevered war- heads. A bad day he said and I dreamt bad dreams about bullets unfurling in flesh. Exploding stars, shells clattering on concrete like rotten teeth. Lightyears searing shadows in my retinas.At 21 I learnt how to say hemorrhage, my tongue rolling one syllable into the next. He-More-Rage. I memorized it by picturing an angry man beating someone wearing my face until I bled in ways no-one could see or pronounce until blood bruised my black eyes blue. I watched videos, one blurred into the next, bodies on pavements, bodies on buses. Estimated their proximity to mine, searched for the same crook at the base of their necks, the same mole on their pixelated ankles. Learnt how to mute their cries, familiar syllables exiting their bodies like spent shells, each one lodging in my throat heavier than the last. One captioned Victim of hate crime fights back, sends attacker to hospital. The grandmother collapsing star, her black eyes blued, hands curled into fists. Go grandma. Show the fucker something to fear. The comments cheering like cockfighters around a caged match. Her cries rattling against the other side of my screen, ricocheting back into her throat.At 23 I called my grandmother, her voice blurred and wrung like clothes hung on a line. I wanted to unpool the bad cells from her breast, so many bad days bent under her four children, monsoon seasons, bombs. Foreign shells we couldn’t extract. Where she lives they won’t let her talk to the dead anymore, won’t let her burn ghost money. Each bad day another word exits her memory, another name slips between her teeth.I want to curl my hands around her hands, rub the years from her knuckles, curve her fingers around the bends of the cursive N, loop the O across. Show her bad days something to fear. We land on dấu nặng. Plant a gem at the bottom of our throats.



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