An was staying in the home of a distant relation for the summer as his family’s lease on their apartment had expired and his mother had yet to receive the papers she needed to move the family to Canada. An was proud of his mother for becoming a full-time assistant professor of applied linguistics at the university, and he was grateful for his distant relations for taking them in. He was even happy his stepfather, John Fujima, found an adjunct teaching position as a basic writing instructor at the same university, so the family could stay together.
The home of An’s new hosts was nestled in a quiet cul-de-sac.
“An, what are you doing? Eat with your right hand,” Mr. Dung said. Mr. Dung was the distant relation who owned the house. He was 62. An, a southpaw since birth, shifted his chopsticks into his right hand and fumbled through the sliced pork and spinach.
“Is that a cultural thing?” An said. He was born in Vietnam but brought to America for kindergarten.
“Do as he says,” said his mother, Ha.
“Can you do it?” John said.
“I’ll try,” An said. An looked up to John because he was an Asian born in America, a native speaker of English, though he wondered at how a man who looks Japanese could not speak Japanese or understand much about their culture.
“Eat like a gentleman,” Mr. Dung said. “Like John. He Japanese, so he eat right.”
“Except that he’s not Japanese,” An said.
“No, he Japanese,” Mr. Dung said.
“He’s an American,” An said.
“He Japanese,” Mr. Dung said.
“My father served in the US Army. No one’s more American than the son of a man who served our country.” John felt his patience being pulled at like an old, frayed rubber band. “Pour me another glass of wine, Mr. Dung,” John said. Mr. Dung, a light drinker at best, widened his eyes.
Mr. Dung leaned close to Ha and said, almost under his breath, “Does your husband have a drinking problem?”
John, whose auditory perception has always been advanced, said, “Don’t worry Mr. Dung. I ordinarily have far more drinks than problems and far fewer problems when I drink. Cheers.” He raised his glass and Mr. Dung mimicked him; when the glasses clinked John smiled as if the sound pleased him. “Now to the question of origin,” John said.
Mr. Dung looked confused, and Ha said, in Vietnamese, “He’s talking about nationality.”
“Nationality,” Mr. Dung said in his accented English.
“Do you propose that a man who is born in a country does not then belong to the country in which he was born?” John said.
Ha whispered some words in Vietnamese into Mr. Dung’s ear.
“You look Japanese,” Mr. Dung said.
“And so, the way you look is always in accord with the country you are born to, as it is in Vietnam? Yes, but is that always the case?”
“I don’t think he understands, dear,” Ha said.
“Is there an infallible relation between one’s appearance and the country of one’s birth?”
Mr. Dung looked confused and stirred the sliced pork in his rice bowl. “Why you don’t like being Japanese?”
“Au contraire,” John said. “I love the subtle flavor of sushi, the delicate brevity of haiku, the unparalleled courage of the samurai, the evocative quietism of Ozu, the whimsical fancy of Miyazaki.”
“I think my husband’s a little tired. Off to bed,” she said, putting her hand on John’s shoulder.
“I suppose I am tired,” he said. Then to Mr. Dung: “Don’t take a word I say seriously, no more than you would your grandson’s babble about Mickey and Pluto. I’ve enjoyed a few glasses which makes me more direct when discretion is my true nature as you’ll see in the morning. Goodnight, Mr. Dung.”
Ha sliced, diced, and washed alongside Mr. Dung’s wife, a trueborn housewife with the patience of a Siberian tiger. How can Mrs. Dung do it? John thought. Every day the same routine, grocery shopping, cooking, cleaning; then the rambunctious grandsons for whom the Dung house was a far more affordable daycare center. Ha too became entrapped in the web of culinary arts, and reading to the boys, ages two and four, like a nanny. John helped with dicing, cleaning, washing the dishes, reading Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin to the older boy, and genuinely enjoying the art of storytelling. He was pleased to think himself a good houseguest, someone who contributed to the ongoing events of the host family.
At the end of their third day in the Dung house, with no word from the embassy yet about Ha’s and John’s Canadian work permits, Ha’s face appeared drained of color. Who was this Ha, John thought, scowling at the little boys, her shoulders slumped, a look of quiet desperation in her eyes?
“I think we need to divorce.” Ha suddenly announced. She and John had their ups and downs like any couple, but nothing had occurred in their three years together to warrant separation.
“A divorce?” John said. “You have to cook and take care of kids, and so you want a divorce?” John was a full foot taller than Ha, and at 40, he was 5 years older; this discrepancy sometimes gave him license to analyze.
“This is a separate thing I’ve been thinking about for a while.”
“You haven’t had time to think. When did this thinking happen?”
“Mr. Dung made me see something about you,” Ha said.
“He opened your eyes, huh?” John said.
“He said you have bad habits like sleeping in and drinking wine and reading too much.”
“Let me demonstrate something for you.” John walked across the room, his right leg dragging behind his left, just as it had done a month before when he strained his hamstring. ‘Why do you think this injury hasn’t healed?” Ha stayed slumped against the wall, her face lacking affect. “Because I’ve been working so hard helping you in the kitchen and looking after Mr. Dung’s grandchildren, and this I suppose is my reward. Divorce?”
“You work, but I have to work so much more,” Ha said. “Mr. Dung demands fresh meals every day, no leftovers, and at least 3 new dishes per meal, Mrs. Dung told me.”
“So, you have divorced me, and taken Mr. Dung as your husband it seems.”
“Mr. Dung said you’re not good enough for me, you don’t have as much energy as other men and you don’t guide my son well.”
“Mr. Dung said this, Mr. Dung said that. Are you talking about Mr. Dung or Confucius?”
“I don’t know what to think. My mind’s all twisted up. Let’s talk about this again in a few days,” Ha said, rubbing her eyes.
In the morning, John walked downstairs in his pajamas for breakfast. An was reclined on the sofa playing video games. Mr. Dung hovered over the child. “Stop play video games, read books,” Mr. Dung said. An didn’t bother to respond or even look up. “Stop play, An, stop play.”
John filled a mug all the way to the top with dark roast coffee, took a few sips, then poured in a generous amount of cream. “So good,” he said. Then he brought the coffee into the living room where Mr. Dung was instructing An on the pleasures of reading books.
“Good morning, Mr. Dung,” John said. “It’s always so nice to meet a fellow reader. Ha always complained I only read dead white males, so I’ve moved on to the women and I sure don’t regret it. Women, whether it’s Emily Bronte or Elizabeth Bowen or Ursula Le Guin, give us a nuance, a picture of how people interact that the Phillip Roth’s and Hemingway’s of the world don’t necessarily give. Don’t you think so, Mr. Dung?”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Mr. Dung said. “Maybe you take An to bookstore later?”
In the afternoon John took An to Perspective Books. They walked through the aisles.
“You know An, in high school they used to call me the Fat Knight. I wasn’t fat, but we had to read this play Henry IV, which had this funny character Falstaff. Our English teacher Mr. Brightman called Falstaff the Fat Knight. Falstaff was really funny, and I was the class clown, so everyone started calling me The Fat Knight.”
“That’s actually a pretty cool nickname,” An said.
“Could have been worse,” John said. “So, if you insist on changing your name to Ansel in Canada, I’m not going to put up a fight. You work it out with your mom.”
“She and Mr. Dung think I’d be betraying my culture if I changed my name, but I feel more like an Ansel than an An.”
“The only thing I know is,” John said, “if you feel like an Ansel, you probably are one. That’s just between us, by the way.”
Poor Mrs. Dung, John thought, to have to serve hand and foot all her life and all the days to come until she’s too frail to cook and scrub. An dug in, chopsticks firmly in his left hand.
“Eat with right hand!” Mr. Dung said. Mr. Dung must have had enough of this child’s petulance, for he related the story about how, in India, people wiped their asses with their left hands and so ate with their right hands. Clearly, it was unhygienic if not downright filthy to eat with your left hand.
“You haven’t been anywhere near India; what do you have to do with them?” John said. “I have 6 Indians working under me, making engines.”
“If memory serves me, New Delhi is about 5,000 miles away from Hanoi and we’re even further than that from either here in Hoosier-ville,” John said.
“Eat with right hand,” Mr. Dung said.
“Did you know that Leonardo da Vinci and Keanu Reeves are left-handed, by any chance?” John said.
“I don’t care. I care An eats with right hand.”
“The poor child cannot manage rice with his off-hand any more than I can shoot jump shots with my left hand,” John said.
Ha inserted herself here: “An, eat with your right hand, do as Mr. Dung says.”
An made a gallant effort and with some patience brought a few grains of rice to his mouth.
“This pork is lovely,” John said, looking at Mrs. Dung.
“Thank you,” Mrs. Dung said. “It’s a traditional northern Vietnamese dish.”
“I killed the pig,” Mr. Dung said, laughing.
“I beg your pardon?” John said.
“I kill pig, cut it, Mrs. Dung cook it. I kill pig on your plate.” Suddenly Mr. Dung was full of mirth and smiling from ear to ear.
“You haven’t killed a pig in your life,” John said, giggling. This comment inspired Mr. Dung to rifle through his iPhone until he found a picture of him and his friends in Moscow in their college student days butchering, or at least skinning and taking apart a dead pig, sometime in the 1970s. “Do you want me to kill you?” Mr. Dung said. The statement was so outrageous that John attributed it to a syntactical error common to second-language learners of English. John scanned the table and saw that either Mr. Dung’s remark hadn’t registered, or the others simply didn’t hear what he said. Whatever the case was, John excused himself, blaming a rare but significant case of heartburn, and retreated up the stairs to his bedroom.
An hour later, Ha opened the door to the bedroom. “It was rude of you to walk away suddenly at dinner,” she said.
“Pardon?” John said. He expected Ha to be sympathetic.
“It was rude,” Ha repeated, glaring now.
“I thought it was a tad impolite to threaten someone’s life,” John said.
“You’re a guest in his house.”
“Need you remind me?”
“He doesn’t speak English well; you should forgive him.”
“I thought he pronounced the word ‘kill’ quite clearly, didn’t you?”
“Maybe he didn’t say ‘kill.’ Maybe he said another word,” Ha suggested.
“Like what?” John said. “Shrill, dill, fill?”
“Don’t mind what Mr. Dung says. You’d be oozing with sympathy for me if you knew how many cucumbers I chopped today. And that grandson weeps hysterically if he’s not held.”
“My heart goes out to you. I’m sorry.”
“I’m sorry too, for threatening divorce. You know I couldn’t do without you.” John and Ha made love for the first time in ten days. An played the role of housemaid and John was lord of the manor, paddle in hand and foul-mouthed the way Ha liked it.
John was woken by the sound of the grandsons yelling and running up and down the stairs. The oldest grandson, Map, poked his head into the bedroom and, upon being perceived by John, let out a scream of glee and bolted back down the stairs. When John came down, he saw Mr. Dung holding Map. Somehow, in the span of time it took for John to walk down a single flight of stairs, Map had lost his mind and was now crying and pelting Mr. Dung’s face with his fists. John expected Mr. Dung to come down hard on Map for punching him square in the face multiple times, but he didn’t; he coddled the boy. Map, while he had his Vietnamese mother’s and grandmother’s eyes, had light brown hair and a whitish skin tone that made him look altogether more Irish than Asian. Here and there, he took after his mother; holistically, his father’s imprint was more conspicuous.
After the boys were retrieved by their father, John, Mr. Dung, and An sat at the breakfast table. An shook the bottle of maple syrup rather violently because there was only a little bit left at the bottom.
“Don’t shake so much,” Mr. Dung said. “You have to be more careful in this country.”
“Why this country?” An said.
“You immigrant here, so you have to learn.”
“I’m not an immigrant,” An said, his mouth full of waffle.
“Are you an American?” Mr. Dung said, smiling, as if he’d just beaten An at a game of blackjack. In An’s heart and mind he was an American. It was only on paper that he wasn’t. He knew no other country as home, and he said “God bless America” without a trace of irony.
John took a sip of his coffee and said, “If An isn’t American, I don’t know who is.”
“He from Vietnam,” Mr. Dung said, throwing his hands in the air.
“It’s not a matter of where you’re from, but of who you are, isn’t it?” John said.
“You don’t get to be, just because you feel you are,” Mr. Dung said.
“I don’t see why not. How else do we know who we are, but that we feel we are what we are?” John said, waving his arm in the air.
When guests make a prolonged visit to relatives, they are obliged to attend events they would otherwise have declined. This was the case with Mr. Dung’s daughter’s gender reveal party. Ha felt it was her duty to help Hue prepare for the party. She shopped for pink and blue plastic cups, napkins, and balloons. She even helped bake the cake. Ha stayed out of the planning for the guessing game for guests because it seemed beyond her cultural understanding. Hue was a near-native speaker of English and came to the US at the age of 10. For Hue, it was second nature to marry her white midwestern American husband and to spend holidays with his relatives who drove out from rural towns on the outskirts, towns Hue had barely heard of but had now committed the various routes to these towns to memory. She and her husband Mike would make the occasional drive out to the outposts and Hue found these places quaint and oddly charming, rather than hegemonic and stifling. The women—Hue, Hue’s mother, Ha, and Mike’s sisters—collectively cooked, cleaned, and decorated the house.
On the day of the gender reveal party—about halfway through the event—Hue made an announcement to the small coterie of guests. She thanked Mike’s “marvelous” sisters for coming into town and helping with the prep work to make this effusion of blue and pink possible. The name “Ha” did not escape Hue’s lips, though Ha watched closely to see if acknowledgment would come. It didn’t, and it wasn’t about to; that was clear from the way Hue avoided even looking at Ha.
Mr. Dung kept himself to the edges of the event, refilling the empty rows of water bottles on the folding table, bringing in more ice, more soft drinks, half-mumbling words to himself that no one, even if they stood close and listened carefully, could distinguish as either English or Vietnamese or a mixture of both. Hue did not make an attempt to bring her father into the mix, to thank him in an off-handed way as she would sometimes do at family gatherings when only her Vietnamese side of the tribe was in attendance.
Occasionally Mr. Dung tried to crack a joke but his son-in-law, Mike, and his father, Weldon, a man who looked like he might have just stepped down from a tractor, didn’t engage him in conversation. Mike’s side of the family was, if rural, open-minded, and accepting, happily welcoming; but none of them went out of the way to pat Mr. Dung on the back and tease him, as they did to Mike’s friends. They were not ignoring Mr. Dung. They sat, smiled, and chatted about their hometowns. It was Mr. Dung who did not have the words to say, at least not in their language; he would have been the life of the party in his own language, he thought. Now he was lurking in the corners, opening, and closing things.
John made his way into conversation with Weldon by way of the Indianapolis Colts. Though a fan of the San Francisco 49ers, representing, as they did, his home region allegiance, John knew a few things about the Colts. He offered what he thought about their quarterback situation and Weldon and John got along by sheer dint of exchanging players’ names and pronouncements of who’s over-the-hill and still-has-it and should-be-traded and should-be given-one-last-chance, the way men of a certain stripe—a dying breed—can suddenly mythologize their perceptions through trivial talk of football teams.
When Mr. Dung saw his son-in-law talking with John, he nudged An over to the corner of the sofa where the conversation was taking place.
“Talk, talk as much as you can,” he said. “Talk like an American, with Americans.”
An came over and seated himself.
“I overheard only a little of what you guys were talking about,” An said. “I’m afraid I know as much about football as I know about molecular biology. Actually, I probably know more about molecular biology.”
“You’re 12,” John said. “You know nothing about any type of biology.”
“I bet he does,” Weldon said, beaming.
John saw Mr. Dung hugging the wall, and picking up paper towels from the floor. He turned to Weldon and said, “Mr. Dung has been very kind to take us in. He’s been worried about An fitting in, fitting into American society.”
“He’s always been a generous man,” Weldon said. “An seems to be doing just fine.”
The fledgling camaraderie, vulnerable and sustainable as strips of paper, was interrupted only by the game that would reveal the gender: there was a piñata and guests were slapping at it with a stick. An gave it a few blows but none of them scratched the surface. Then one of Mike’s sisters, the oldest one, Mary, took a crack and there was an explosion of blue confetti. There was something anticlimactic about the information embedded in these small blue bits since everyone knew it was a boy. Then John, who had been watching people take futile whacks at the piñata, felt Ha tugging at his sleeve. It was time to go.
The second time Ha proposed divorce, John had just about had it, if he hadn’t had it already. “That’s it, I’m taking you and An out of here tomorrow,” John said.
“Where would we go? We can’t afford it,” Ha said.
“We’ll go to a cheap motel; I’ll pay for it.” John knew Ha was furious at Hue for not acknowledging her hard work for the gender reveal party. She always felt like Hue looked down on her for being Vietnamese, born and raised. Hue was too but she came to America at ten and was born and raised again in a new way in a new country. Ha on the other hand did not make it to the States until graduate school beckoned, at the ripe age of twenty-nine.
John searched through Priceline and found an end-of-summer sale at the Super 8 in a college town 120 miles up north. They made up a story about why they had to leave; some bogus account about needing to access a university library for Ha’s new job. John would break the news to Mr. Dung in the morning.
They spent the morning packing their things and cleaning up around the house as if the achievement of chores would ease the abruptness of their departure. By the time they left, it was early evening.
Mrs. Dung was none too pleased as Ha’s sudden, inexplicable departure—puzzling to both Mrs. Dung and surely to Ha’s parents in Vietnam as well—might cast a bad light on Mrs. and Mr. Dung, though she could not calculate with any precision what sort of light would be cast. Mrs. Dung only had a vague foreboding of something vaguely irreputable smearing her standing with Ha’s family back in Hanoi. John could never have guessed at such intimations, and naively assumed that Mrs. Dung objected merely out of a desire to help this fledgling family out. That was how John’s mother would have reacted to the early departure of house guests, and he presumed a universal characteristic from the way his parents ran their home.
“We’re sorry for torturing you, Mr. Dung. We’ll be out of your hair now,” John said.
“No, not torture,” Mr. Dung said, putting his hand on John’s shoulder.
“Thanks for trying to help An,” John said, shaking Mr. Dung’s hand.
“Make sure he eats with his right hand,” Mr. Dung said.
“I’ll do the best I can,” John said. “We appreciate it.”
When they reached the motel, it was already getting dark out. The motel was situated directly next to a gas station which was set inexplicably next to another gas station, sat to the left of a steakhouse. An intoxicated, bearded man with disheveled blonde hair and no shirt sat on the grass, and two police officers questioned him—about what, John didn’t care to find out.
The room, though containing two full-size beds, was smaller than a bachelor’s studio. The ceiling looked like craters on the moon. Seeing the dive John had brought the family to, with its view of the interstate, big cargo trucks passing by, and da particular telephone pole made unique somehow for being the only one framed by their small window, he felt guilt-stricken. He was sure Ha would protest, perhaps insist on a return to the Dung residence.
Instead, Ha put her suitcase on the floor, unzipped it with relish, and plucked her pajamas off the top of the neatly folded pile. Then she threw her arms around John. “I love you, darling,” she said. “Let’s have babies together.” The flush of youth seemed to return to Ha’s cheeks, and she looked just as pretty as before they had become guests at the grand house of misfortune.
“Shall we grab a bite to eat?” he said.
“There’s a Denny’s across the street. I hear they have a stunning Grand Slam,” An said.
“I’m famished,” Ha said.
They crossed the 4-lane expressway in the dark, dodging one pickup truck after another. John put his arm around An’s slumped shoulder and pulled his slight form close. “I’ll do the best I can,” he said to himself. When they got to the other side, they saw the silhouette of rabbits walking across a lawn, briefly illuminated by streetlights, before vanishing over a small hill.
Kenneth Tanemura is a writer of Japanese descent. He lives and writes in Ontario.