The first name I ever traveled with was Kha Thi Huyền Châu. In Vietnamese, “Huyền Châu” means “black pearl.” I sometimes wonder if the woman who gave me this name wanted to give me a sense of value after is was so obvious that I had none. In the orphanage they called me Josette, a name still lingering from a hundred years of French occupation, its long lilt feeling loose and frayed in my memory’s pocket. When I arrived to America I was placed in the arms of a second mother and given another name, also French, and names that resembled black pearls were left far behind with the drifting of lotus. Throughout my life, names have been given to me and taken away, attachments to identity abandoned with time, circumstance, or tradition. Like breadcrumbs they lead me back to the beginning, to a woman who continually scrawled out information in passports, the sweltering heat of a makeshift office making her tire, but the war urging her hand to move faster. Just another name in a passport. It means nothing. It means everything.
I haven’t written in awhile. Most of my well-intentioned musings are stored in opaque jars on a shelf called, “I’ll get to it someday.” Occasionally, I’ll get one down, turning the dusty jar with tired hands, opening the lid and examining the contents as if it were a spice I could still use for cooking. Some have expired. Even if I were to extract the contents, the meaning is long gone, trapped within the recesses of my memory—forever. It is complicated being a writer. My thoughts start to build into entire essays when all I want to do is put down the right sentence before the turn of phrase eludes me. I miss the words. Spun just right, I am a weaver of silk that can touch the senses with delicate thread and soft colors. You will remember me in the lasting impression of lightness and texture you cannot explain. It is a gift and one that I am grateful for, if only for a place to rest my tumbled thoughts, the pillow that cradles my head crisp and white underneath the boldness of black Arial font. I recently decided to open a jar, shaking lose the fragments of another time, working to piece them together in the present.
- Dirt road to and from the airport.
- Large numbers of policeman with AK47s.
- Not going to Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum.
- Bun Cha Nem.
- Hoa Sua and chocolate croissants.
- Drinking cafe sua non on the balcony of a hostel in Sapa before the fog rolled out of the valley.
- Hiking to Fansipan with an Excalibur-like moment that included a horse riding off into the fog.
- 306-no home.
- Cyclos that were actually necessary transportation.
- Being the wrong color.
- The squealing of a pig on a motorbike.
- The squeak of tennis shoes on a makeshift badminton court.
- Civilians lining up for military exercises at 5:30 AM in the field across from where I lived.
- The woman selling her food at 5:00 AM in a sing-song voice.
- The day a dog got stolen from the neighbor.
- The day a dog got run over by a motorbike.
- Learning nothing.
- Learning everything.
Photo: Sapa, 1996