Nicolai and I had another nice conversation this evening when I drove him back to his dorm. The sun was a giant orange ball sinking near the horizon of Pacific Coast Highway. We talked about girls. I talked about my mistakes, lots of them. I told him the same thing I said at the dinner table two weeks ago when my sister and her two kids visited, “Don’t marry someone you love. Marry someone who loves you.” My sister disagreed.
I settle in to make the one-hour drive back home — Pandora is set to Elton John Radio. I get a whole mix of great nostalgic songs from Journey, The Beatles, Stevie Nicks, CCR, and EJ himself.
A sense of gratefulness envelops me.
I see the waves still slapping against the sandy beaches under the now dark sky. The ocean does not sleep. The dark waters flood me with memories of our escape: our days floating out somewhere in the South China Sea, our boat bobs up and down without a captain because there is no fuel for it to move anyway, all 13 of us on board already know tomorrow was never promised to any of us. But I’m only 11 years old, and I really don’t want to die.
We all see it because it’s the only thing we’ve been looking for — our glimmer of hope. It is a single dot in the canvas of blue sky and blue water. The dot gets bigger. The men wave their dingy white shirts, hollering out for help but only hearing their own voices bounce off each other. My own mouth is dry, I try to yell for help too but no words come out, I’ve been without water for a long time. The bigger dot is now elongated. Then it begins to look very much like part of a ship’s mast. An eternity goes by when the dot has finally morphed into a ship. No one speaks of it being a possible pirate ship —
I’m grateful to the Thai crew of this ship — this large fishing vessel — to feed us and give us water. I still can taste the sweetness of the giant steamed squids from that night. How do you thank people who save your life?
If you put my three kids into three separate rooms and ask each this question, What does your mom want for you? They should all give you the same answer, To be kind and to be happy. It’s a mantra I’ve been repeating since they were little. Nicolai, on his own, ended his 8th grade valedictorian speech with a familiar quote from Mark Twain: Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.
I know “be kind and be happy” is vague — like lazy parenting — but life is vague. I want them to define their own happiness. But I don’t want kindness to be a choice for them, I just want them to be kind.
All 13 of us were rescued by the fishermen who reached out with immeasurable kindness. Then this great country welcomed our family with open arms. This is the only America I know — the America that made it all possible for me and my family to go to school, earn a college degree, work, raise a family. How do you thank a country for all this? There has never been a single moment when I hear or sing the American national anthem and not tear up.
I’m now about half way home. But I don’t want to rush the drive. It’s a perfect night, the highway is sparse, I turn up the volume — Stevie Nicks is singing “Landslide.”
I’m overwhelmed by all the kindness that comes in small packages too.
I’m in 6th grade. Carla, tall with brown short curly hair, sits next to me in class. There is a form that we all have to fill out. I write down my first and last name. Then I am stuck because I don’t understand what the form is asking me. I glance over at other kids’ papers and see that they’re already halfway through the form. Carla smiles at me because she always does. She notices that I’m not writing. I’m embarrassed that I don’t know enough English to fill out this form. She leans over and puts a check in the “female” box for me. She says quietly, You are a girl. Female. And she points to Tony across from us, He is a boy. Male. She smiles again. Carla doesn’t know that I still think of her today.
I’m pulling out of the school’s parking lot. It’s the start of winter break and also my three-month maternity leave. I’m really pregnant with my first baby. I see Brian, my 7th grade student, running fast toward my car, he’s out of breath. I turn off the engine and step out of the car. Brian pulls out a blue stuffed animal from under his jacket. He says between breaths, I’m glad you’re still here, Mrs. Nguyen. Here, I want your baby to have my stuffed animal that I got when I was a baby. I want to tell Brian that I can’t accept this precious blue floppy eared stuffed puppy from his childhood. But I can’t get myself to say anything. His kindness breaks my heart.