One summer of the girl who lost her roots
Those days the weather was unpredictable. The sky became stifling hot all day at the start of every summer. Grenoble lies between several mountains, so the winters have been extremely cold and the summers scalding hot.
Ha threw a bathing towel over her shoulder and walked alone to the lake to swim. Her hair was tied into two pigtails, which made her sixteen year old face look like a ten year old western child. Ha had the stature of a naive child, but very few friends knew that she was a broken-hearted child. Ha’s father had just scolded her because she spoke pathetic Vietnamese, completely wrong and messed up, and she brazenly would not speak with her grandmother. Ha didn’t understand why her father was angry when she answered in Vietnamese: "I have just finished washing-machine my hands for her". Her father told her that she had lost her roots. Just a verb “wash” but she could not use it correctly.
The lake was crowded with people. Some were floundering in the fresh water. Some were arranging sardines on the beach to dry in the sun so as to brown their skins. Ha climbed up on the diving platform. She flexed her legs momentarily and let herself fall to freedom into the blue water. As soon as Ha heard the sound of "chum", she rather vaguely pushed on whatever was there. A young man emerged coughing and choking. Ha knew she was about to commit murder, so she kicked her legs and dived down into the water to be hidden, but it was too late, for the dying victim had enough time to noticed her remarkable black pigtails sticking out.
The next morning Ha threw a towel over her shoulder again and arrived at the lake to swim. All her friends had gone with their families down to the south to bathe in the ocean, or had traveled abroad. She remembered that Natalie had gone to Vietnam. She had promised that when she returned she would bring her friend many presents from her tropical homeland of Vietnam, before yet placing a foot on that belt of land.
Her group of western friends liked Ha a lot because she was lively, studied well and liked sports. This group especially liked her name. They thought it was funny. Her name meant “river”, but when they pronounced it in French they didn’t pronounce the letter ’H’. She remembered that Natalie said: "Every time I call you from a distance, people think somebody is beating me badly because stretched out it sounds like "A!A!A!". Ha herself had a reflex to turn around whenever someone yelled out "A!" because she thought she was being called. Ha happily went to school, but after arriving home she seldom spoke, vacant and bewildered. Her father didn’t know French except for a few social sentences. Her mother knew how to count and spend money, but when she watched television she could only guess at what was being said. At that time Ha remembered, every time when they needed to prepare a document her parents had to run to ask several educated overseas Vietnamese friends. Now it was Ha’s turn to help some Vietnamese not integrated within this society.
Although her parents were secretly proud of Ha’s French, they were always ashamed of her Vietnamese. The situation became stressful after her grandmother came from Vietnam six months ago. Her grandmother talked confidentially of matters with Ha, but Ha continued to be silent and unfeeling, which made her grandmother angry, broken hearted and flare up. Ha felt oppressed, so she searched for reasons to go out.
The fresh water made Ha more pleasant, only to be yelled at again by her father for her brassiness and lack of friendliness to her grandmother. Ha swam absorbed in circling the lake before stopping to rest. "You swim very well", a voice echoed behind Ha’s back startling her. He was a young Asian man speaking with a slight accent that belonged to someone who was not born here. Ha did not know why she didn’t like people with black eyes, yellow skin and flat noses as him. Natalie called that a complex within her subconscious, difficult to explain. Ha politely said, "Thank you", then kicked her legs to race away. But the next day, and the following day, and throughout the week, every day she went swimming she was followed by the Asian chap trying to become acquainted. She stopped for a time to greet him, then rapidly rolled over and was lost down under the lake. The young man didn’t swim well and he wandered about to let the water dry along with a group of children drying each other. He could not show off a strong physique for he wasn’t very muscular. Ha laughed silently: "He came here to bathe, certainly not to swim!".
Her grandmother craved Vietnamese fruits, so she solicited Ha to go to the supermarket up the street to buy some types. She advised: "If durian (a tropical Vietnamese fruit) isn’t too expensive, buy me one”. Ha made a wry face as though she already could smell the pungent odor. Every time her grandmother ate that Ha ran to the bathroom. Ha didn’t accept that that was a special odor that people thought was fragrant, and she wrinkled up her nose and felt sick. But camembert cheese that Ha liked made her entire family nauseated because of the odor like from… a decomposing dead body. Her father forbid her to ever bring home any kind of cheese at all except "La Vache qui rit" (a kind of popular cheese for children). Ha saw herself always blocked. At the fruit store, durian was priced cheaper as usual, but she just only bought other fruits such as “dragon fruit” and mango. She ignored what her grandmother wanted.
Ha bewilderedly looked at a young man with black hair who appeared somewhat familiar. She pushed her eyeglasses up with her hand to ponder.
You don’t remember me? - The young man asked - Every day at the lake we meet each other.
Ah! - Ha cried out surprised – Because when I met you those other days you weren’t wearing clothing, so today you look a lot different.
Other customers that were standing within a radius of ten meters turned around and looked curiously at the person who "those other days didn’t wear any clothing". Ha realized she just made a slip of the tongue. The young man’s face turned red with embarrassment and he did not say a word. Ha quickly took some Dragon Fruit, then rapidly concealing herself left the stand to pay. She wished she was at the lake to hide under the water. This time the young man seemed determined to meet her, so he stopped her in front of the supermarket door.
What is your native country?
Why do you ask?
I am also Asian. I hope we are from the same country. I arrived from Vietnam last fall to study here.
I am a French citizen, but my parents are Vietnamese!
Ha saw clearly the happy facial expression of the student. He almost jumped up since he wasn’t disappointed. Seeing him honestly gave her pity.
Let’s speak with each other in Vietnamese, Ok! - Just after making the suggestion he immediately carried it out - I crave to speak my mother tongue very much.
Ha still used French, for with her that was her mother tongue. She let the student know that she was born here, so she didn’t have the ability to converse with him in Vietnamese, but if he wanted she would introduce… her grandmother to him.
Ok! Is your home near here? - Still speaking Vietnamese to Ha the student cheerfully asked - My name is Hai. What is your name? Do you have a Vietnamese name?
Ha lead Hai to entrust him with her grandmother. The two individuals conversed in Vietnamese with each other, speaking without end. Ha’s mother, who worked as a cook’s aid at a restaurant, returned with several fried dishes that the boss had given her because they were unsuitable. Hai was invited to stay and eat. He ate until he was completely full, making Ha cook more rice for her father later when he returned from his work shift. Her grandmother was pleased to hear him talk about these eight months when he worried about his studies over head and ears while working on his master’s degree dissertation, so he didn’t have time to stay in touch with anyone. He craved Vietnamese dishes, missed Vietnamese and wanted to look for overseas Vietnamese to become acquainted with, but he didn’t have the chance. At ten o’clock, when Ha’s father returned from work, Hai still didn’t want to say goodbye. As he looked around Ha’s father immediately had sympathy for the advanced student. Her father had a suggestion that made Ha panic-stricken:
Immediately tomorrow he can come and teach Vietnamese to my little daughter here. He knows both French and Vietnamese, so teaching her will be easy. The dormitory is closed for the summer for repairs, so you can come to live here, free of rent, but busy at work!
The first lesson made Ha anxious. It wasn’t because she was sick and tired of the teacher, but she was afraid her father would make trouble if she didn’t learn well.
You must bear the difficulty of speaking Vietnamese - Hai started - I know you understand everything, but are hesitant because you are afraid you’ll speak incorrectly.
Ha uncomfortably fixed her eye glasses with her hand. And as customary these times she proffered to… urinate. Ha stood up and took a step.
Where are you going?
I want to go to the bathroom - Ha determinedly said in French.
Speak in Vietnamese. Let’s see, If not I won’t let you go.
Uncle! I want to go pea - she said in Vietnamese.
The teacher burst out laughing until his sides split, which bewildered Ha, but he refrained from rising. She ran rapidly. When she returned to the study room she still saw the teacher hugging his belly and crazily laughing.
Why are you laughing? Ha uncomfortably asked in French - Every time I speak Vietnamese - someone either laughs or gets angry.
Why did you call me "uncle"? Then to say "go pea", does not sound suitable for a young lady who wears near-sighted glasses, looks like a civilized and intelligent person.
Her grandmother in the next room heard the commotion and came to explain. The teacher was told, it turns out that Ha has been taught that when she meets a Vietnamese adult it was customary to call "uncle" or “aunt”, but with a group of young ones in her same class they use French to speak rapidly with each other. Also about "go pea", it is true that when she was little her father sometimes called her to "go pea" now! The teacher knew well how to teach, for he had been a tutor many times in Vietnam. He must change his method. He cannot be very impatient. Most important, he must be truly supportive of his family pupil who has "lost her roots" already. So he spoke French with Ha, suggesting that she should have confidence in herself in order that they thoroughly understand each other in every way.
I know that you truly want to be good in Vietnamese in order to make your entire family happy, but your father is hot tempered and only raises his voice whenever you speak incorrectly. Hai pitifully held her hand to comfort her. He said he was sympathetic of the circumstances of some children that are torn between two cultures such as Ha. I will help you to the best of my ability, and hope you will see me as a good friend.
For the next few days the situation was more favorable, and his student endured to open her mouth and speak a little. Listening to Ha lisp with an accent, her face trembling with fear of making a mistake the teacher both restrained laughing and making disapproving eyes as well. But when the two of them went out to go swimming at the lake, Ha became self-confident and spoke French without needing permission. Hai appeared disappointed. It turned out that his student was more afraid of her father than of the teacher. Ha laughed, teasing in her bad Vietnamese:
Hey uncle, don’t tell anything bad about moi1 to my father. If not, I will push toi2 down to the bottom of the lake where some water stones will rise up and kill toi!
I said “Don’t call me uncle”! I’m not old enough to be your uncle. Call me “darling brother!”. And certainly not “moi and toi” in our conversation. Forget your French. And, don’t say “water stones”, just say bubbles rose up.
The student didn’t want to listen, so she kicked her legs and dived into the fresh water leaving the teacher wandering about to dry with a bunch of noisy children. It looked utterly ridiculous to the overseas Vietnamese young lady. He groped his way grasping at the lake and moving to a place behind her. A force suddenly pulled making the two “pipe reeds" of the tutor raise up high in the air. Drenching water from his back to his belly the bad student at sports was pulled in by Ha.
You decided to assassinate me so you could stop studying Vietnamese, isn’t that right? - The victim was angry, coughing and choking. - The first time we met you pushed me from the diving platform down under it once already.
The next day Ha’s father drove Hai to the Lyon Airport. He promised that he would return in a few years for his Doctorate’s Degree dissertation. Then Ha would certainly speak Vietnamese very well and would not need a Vietnamese teacher any longer. Ha knew he was saying this to encourage her not to fail very badly. She remembered once the other day when her grandmother talked about some criminals who bribed the police, she uneasily asked: "Why do they have to buy a mouse3 from the police? Ha’s father held his temper now. He had listened to Hai saying it was difficult to study French, so it is really unfair to blame his daughter for loosing her roots when he himself cannot keep pace with society during his almost twenty years in France.
They were having a feast to see Hai back off to Vietnam. Ha’s mother broke a bowl, causing a noise in the kitchen. Ha entered the dining room and told the entire family: "a bowl danced from the table", which made the teacher red faced and embarrassed “She must say fell down”.
He pulled Ha apart and handed her a small present. It was a very loveable fat bear hugging a red heart.
This is my heart, a heart saved for you. You know, I love you as a brother loves her sister - Hai said very softly - Ha was uncomfortable the way the Vietnamese boy liked to camouflage his feelings under the guise of brother and sister - Remember, don’t pronounce wrong the word “heart” into…
I know already. Ha red faced remembered the time she told that her grandmother had something wrong with her vagina that made Hai gape at her amazed. After they both understood, she wrongly pronounced the word “heart” into “vagina”4. They burst out laughing until their bellies hurt, which made her grandmother angry for two days.
Tomorrow morning Ha was going back to school. Natalie phoned and said she would bring her a present from Vietnam, a hat made of leaves. That evening it became cold. Some fall wind and rain arrived and some yellow leaves would fall from their branches for the first time. Ha spoke with regret a Vietnamese literary sentence that startled the teacher "A summer worth remembering has passed by”
Written by: Duong Thuy
Translated by: Elbert Bloom