Beth Nguyen’s essay “Apparent,” on her absent mother and piecing together a fractured past, appears in our Spring issue.
I have no pictures of myself as a baby. I was born in Saigon during a war, and was eight months old when my family became refugees; my memories begin in a worn-down house in a deeply conservative town in Michigan, where we were resettled.
Photographs were expensive then, so we had few of them. The Polaroid colors are muted and mottled, an expression of what it felt like to grow up in a Vietnamese refugee family surrounded by whiteness. It has taken my entire life to understand the beginnings of this awareness. It began with watching my father go to work at a feather factory and come home with down in his hair. My uncles, who shared the house with us, worked different shifts at different factories. They saved money to buy records. My grandmother Noi took care of me and my sister. She knitted us ponchos out of marled yarn, let us wear fuzzy pink slippers into the snow.
I didn’t know what it meant to be a refugee, but I knew we were different because on TV shows everyone else spoke another language. My sister and I learned English this way. I don’t remember wondering where my mother was or realizing she was still in Viet Nam. I didn’t even know what a mother was until I was told. My grandmother would give whole apples and pears to my sister and me, knowing that we would save them. We were always waiting for someone to come home.
All family pictures create a chronology. But I realize only now that the pictures we took and kept were a space just for us. White people determined so much about our lives—jobs, schools, language—but not in these photos. In these images we seem to be in our own world, alone together. It’s such a short time. By the last picture, it’s over. Read More