When my life-long mentor asked me to take her back to my middle- and high-school journey, I was curious to know if my Vietnamese-American friends had faced the same challenges I had. Then I read Phúc Trần’s memoir and found many similarities in our experiences.
We settled in Pennsylvania. He was in Carlisle and I was in Lancaster. We faced bullying in school. We fought kids who called us “gook” and other racist remarks on the school playgrounds. We both turned to music to fit in. He got into punk rock and I got into hip-hop. Of course, we fantasized about American girls. I went as far as kissing her and he went as far as eating her out.
Although we were both raised by immigrant parents, I didn’t face the beatings from my father like he did from his. My dad was not around, whereas his father played a big role in his life. Phúc writes:
My father had started using a metal rod that he brought home from the tire factory. He couldn’t hit me as hard with his hand anymore (the manual spankings had stopped hurting me), and even a wooden spoon did not inflict enough pain: hence, the metal rod, dark gray and about the length of a yardstick, pitted with bits of ruddy corrosion. The rod was a piece of machinery that had been thrown away, and my father, eyeing it in the scrap heap, immediately saw its domestic potential. The rod was more efficient because it hurt more. And as a result, it required less effort while achieving maximum results. American efficiency, meet Vietnamese ingenuity. With the metal rod, two or three cracks across our buttocks or the back of our thighs sufficed. Message received, loud and clear.
In that particular incident, however, I was beaten with the rod across the rear end and legs with a dozen or so blows. I remember crying into the floral velour pattern of our brown couch and hearing my father counting off the blows. (He counted upward from one, so I never knew when he would stop.) Một. Hai. Ba. Bốn. Năm. Sáu. Bảy. Tám. Chín. Mười. Ten. I lost count after mười.
The scene is disturbing to read, but is nothing out of the ordinary for a Vietnamese father to discipline his son. Another major difference between us was that Phúc was a voracious reader as a kid whereas I hated books back then. His reading has served him well. This memoir is articulate, engaging, funny, and real. I loved every page, and more for all the Vietnamese words are written with diacritics.