St. Cloud, Minnesota

I don’t remember the landing. It’s been a very long flight. Nor do I remember walking through the airport. We have no luggage anyway, like none.

My first memory of America is sitting in the back seat of TuAnh’s uncle’s car — an Oldsmobile wagon with wood panel trim. I’m almost eleven and a half years old, and this is the second time I’m in an automobile, a car car, which is much smoother than a bus or a van, and you’re not squished between strangers. The Oldsmobile is taking us straight home, not having to make a million stops along the way like my last bus ride from Saigon to Mũi Né.

Home is in St. Cloud. I’m not yet aware of how far it is from Minneapolis. It’s dark outside, around midnight dark, but my eyes are fixed on the passing landscape. I’m tired but I want the ride to last; I feel like I belong to a rich family that can afford a car.

TuAnh is my oldest brother’s wife. She’s the prettiest lady. The uncle’s family will share their home with us, and us being six people. The uncle and aunt have six kids of their own for a total of 14. (This is the first time I pause to realize this number. When you live in Vietnam, and there’s still floor space in the house to sleep on, then another kid will be born. My mother comes over to America and thinks it’s an utter shame to use garage space for cars. My goodness, a family of eight can live comfortably in this spacious 2-car garage.)

The aunt has chicken phở already made. It’s the first time I have the chicken version. She says the mint is from her garden. You’re supposed to eat phở with basil, but nobody cares, there’s mint in St. Cloud!

I will sit and watch the news with the uncle. I have no idea what they are saying, but I just like seeing white people’s faces and listening to how fast they talk. The best part is there’s always something on TV, there’s no curfew. I have two favorite shows, The Price is Right and Happy Days. You don’t have to understand very much English to watch The Price because prices are numerical, and English numbers look the same as Vietnamese numbers, except Americans are weird to write $50 instead of 50$. They claim to read from left to right too. I like Happy Days because it’s a show with cute boys, Chachi and Fonzie. (My family calls me Fawnzie. My name morphed from Phương to Fawn to Fawnzie. More recently, my son Gabriel probably sensed that I was stressed in our conversation and said, “Mom, I need you to be Fawnzie right now.” And I knew what he meant.)

English class is the hardest. Each word has way too many letters. While sitting in the school office waiting for the uncle to enroll me, I learn the spelling of the word(s) you say when you want to thank someone: THANK YOU. I don’t get it. I don’t hear the YOU part at all when people say it; until then, I thought it was one word, you know, THENGKEW. I believe Vietnamese is a monosyllabic language. Vietnam is actually Việt Nam. Saigon is actually Sài Gòn. While Nguyen might be the longest Vietnamese word (I don’t know, is it?), it’s just one syllable, so it’s Nguyễn, not Noo-yen. I spend hours breaking up each word into parts, I can only remember the word BECAUSE by seeing it as BE-CAU-SE to write it down. I am a mute in all my classes. I only talk when I’m with my ESL teacher, Mrs. Schnettler. Then eventually — a long long time really — I wake up one morning and realize my thoughts are in English. Someone has flipped the switch in my brain. Except it’s one direction, I can’t flip it back.

I spend the first eleven years of my life seeing only brown eyes, so it’s pretty cool to see other colors, shades of green and blue. Weirder is when kids from the same parents have a mix of colors. Weirdest is when a blue-eyed person sees the same red color on an apple as a brown-eyed person. Speaking of eyes, or just eye, Graham Smith has only one good brown eye, and he’s the one who yells at me to go back to Vietnam. The uncle’s daughter translates his words for me. I want to punch him in the face, knocking his eyeball out of his head, but then he’d be blind.

My sister Kimzie is three years older, so we’re now 12 and 15. (Her name went from Nga to Kim to Kimzie, which is dumb, at least Phương and Fawn start with the same sound, she says she wants to go from three letters to three letters and no more.) We know two lines from a Peter McCann’s song, “Do You Wanna Make Love,” and we belt them out at all hours of the day. Just two lines over and over again: Do you want to make love… Or do you just want to fool around… Then one day, my brother’s friend asks him if we girls knew what the words “make love” meant. We shake our heads and continue singing.

The six of us have now moved out to our own house. It’s a big white house with a big yard, there’s a porch too. In the winter, the snow would pile up as high as the single detached garage in the backyard. I make Jell-O by just leaving it outside for 30 minutes. I remember the few days in the dead of winter when we run out of oil to heat the house. I learn to ride my bike around the block, in the summer that is. A friend was surprised to learn that I didn’t know how to ride a bike until I was 13. I told her it was kinda tough to learn to ride when I didn’t own a bike growing up. Obviously, I didn’t know how to swim either. What sad kid doesn’t know how to swim in the “land of 10,000 lakes.”

I get to visit St. Cloud this August; it’ll be my first time back since I left in 1979. I’ll be facilitating a full-day workshop, and St. Cloud will just be 70 miles away. I’m flushed with nostalgia and gratitude — going back to my first home in America.

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