Images of Diaspora, or at Whom is Buddha Laughing?
by Alan Yeh
I am four.
I cry at the sound of my own father’s mother-tongue.
Too harsh, too nasal, too loud.
We are in the home office, surrounded
by bamboo bodhisattvas on bookcases.
I stand up from my creaking chair to leave.
“Ngồi xuống! Sit back down!”
Laughing Buddha laughs harder.
I fall to the ground in protest. Mouth sealed, I refuse to repeat:
Một, hai, ba. Một, hai, ba.
One, two, three. He gives up and offers me a durian candy to stop crying.
Sầu riêng. My favorite.
I am fourteen.
It is the first day of French class, page VII of the textbook has a map:
“Le Monde francophone.”
On page 10, a girl in a conical bamboo hat says:
« Bonjour ! Je m’appelle Thuy. Je suis vietnamienne ».
Bone-jor. Jay mapple Thuy. Jay swee vietnam-ee-en.
Monsieur French teacher laughs to himself.
I am fifteen.
I say to my rowdy Vietnamese cousin
Who keeps jumping on the hotel bed in Saigon.
Apart from names of foods, this is all I can remember.
“Ngồi xuống!” He laughs and continues to jump.
I am seventeen.
We are sitting around a table
In a café in Da Nang with
Cups of chrysanthemum tea and shallow dishes
Of sticky tapioca and dried shrimp: bánh bèo.
I am stuttering and struggling through broken French,
With Dad’s school friends from before the war.
Otherwise I stay silent. I hear my name, smile, and nod,
Watch passersby and
Let the trickling fountain in the corner
Tune out changing tones and accents and hearty laughter.
I am twenty.
I have never felt more estranged:
a Chinese person who doesn’t speak Chinese
In a Vietnamese-owned Chinese restaurant in Paris.
They hand me a menu:
Riz cantonais, House Special Fried Rice
Raviolis chinois, Potstickers
Poulet à la citronnelle, Lemongrass Chicken – a Vietnamese dish.
A waitress brings a boiling hot pot, red with Sichuan peppers
and a plate of stir-fried abalone in black bean sauce to a table of men
laughing, roaring, speaking Cantonese.
I can find neither on the greasy, laminated, three-panel menu.
I order fried rice and lemongrass chicken to-go.
The waiters speak Vietnamese with each other and I make small talk.
« Vous êtes quelle origine ? » they ask me.
I am Korean-Chinese-Vietnamese American.
« Mais vous ne parlez pas ces langues ? »
Nope, I only speak English…and French now, I suppose.
« C’est dommage. »
Yes, it is a shame.