lê had never seen television before coming to America. “Never. I thought the people lived inside the set. I thought they couldn’t come out. But then the whole thing about commercials confused me, because there was a commercial for a game that was popular at that time, Hungry Hungry Hippos. There were hippos on four corners of a board. There were marbles in the middle, and you pushed the lever on each hippo and they swallowed the marbles. I must have seen a commercial for it and then stayed at someone’s house who had the game. So that was an early slippage, where I thought there was this thing inside the box that comes out.”
Learning English, lê said, “happened quickly, partly because I was so young and also because I felt that I had to pick it up for my dad. I devoured fairy tales and encyclopedias. I was fascinated by encyclopedias.”
“When you were first speaking English, did English words feel funny in your mouth?”
“Yes. I could not wrap my mind or my tongue around certain words. Like the word ‘squirrel.’ The teacher said, ‘Squirrel is pronounced the way it looks.’ I thought then that it must be ‘sky-rail.’ That’s a word I still think of; even when I say it now, I hear it the way I used to say it. And I see a squirrel running along a metal rail in the sky.
“I decided when I was eight that writing was what I wanted to do. I wanted to live there. It calmed me. It was like making a path through the wilderness. I loved reading, and I felt that the feeling that I got from reading was made by writing. I made that connection early. I wanted to make that place and make that feeling.”
In 1980, lê’s mother and younger sister arrived in America. “My mom had escaped Vietnam with two of my sisters, an older sister and a younger sister, and my older sister drowned at a refugee camp in Malaysia. My father sponsored my mom and younger sister, six years younger than I am, from the camp.” (The family’s oldest child, a son, drowned when he was six.)
The family moved into an East San Diego apartment. “So it was the four of us. At first,” said lê, “I didn’t trust my mother. I wasn’t sure she was my mother. I blamed her. Because I couldn’t see what was keeping her from coming to me. I didn’t understand that it was not as if she had a choice. I was very confused by that, so it took me a while to warm up to her. I didn’t trust she wouldn’t leave again. But she wasn’t the one who’d left. We’d left, and she at first couldn’t make it out with us. But in my mind it turned into ‘She left.’ She was wonderful about it, because she knew. She knew.
“When my mother first came, she did sewing. She got that work through other women in the apartment building. There was a lot of finding work through other people. Like my dad, the company that he worked for, Vietnamese guys also worked there. They looked out for each other in that way. Also, you had different levels of English proficiency. So if you all went together, you could fill your forms out together.
“One thing I wanted to get into the book was the sense of the parents working, because my parents worked so hard. A lot of writing doesn’t have working people in it. So I used all the jobs that they did. My dad worked as a welder, a gardener, housepainter, all of those things.
“When my dad was gardening, my mom often would go with him. They would do houses together. After that, she worked in Vietnamese restaurants. She was a cook. She was a wonderful cook, and it was wonderful, at home, to have Vietnamese food again like that. Ginger fried fish, rice noodle dishes. The last restaurant she worked in was a fancy place down in the Gaslamp that has now closed, but they served French-Vietnamese food, which was basically what my mom cooked at home, but fancied up.”
“It must have been difficult,” I said, “to leave the family in Spring Valley and to see your mother again for the first time.”
“It was and it wasn’t. I knew when I was with the other family that I was just visiting. There’s a way in which I think when I went back and lived with both of my parents, it was like, ‘Okay, there was the adventure, this is our family now.’ That’s what I mean when I say that in many ways a fairy tale was like reality for me. Because those transitions were so sudden and magical. That entire world was appearing and then vanishing, the scale of that felt very true to me.”
I said that to go from a house in Spring Valley with an American couple to an apartment where people didn’t speak English would seem a kind of magical transition.
“When I moved in with my parents, I was the only one who spoke English. Even though I had been seeing my dad most weekends, my Vietnamese was off, grammatically. The syntax was wrong. It was a child’s Vietnamese, and in many ways it still is. It’s not the language I’m most versatile in. It’s the language I’m most transparent in. So I had it all wrong. Because Vietnamese is a tonal language — the same syllable can convey wildly different meanings, depending on how it is spoken — there are so many ways you can slip. There’s a strong sense of wordplay. So, yes, there was a whole language thing that had happened in those two years which set me apart from my parents. I suddenly was living in an apartment building where there were Southeast Asian immigrant families. The kids all spoke English. Better than the parents. We were translating for our parents. We assumed a certain adult role because of that language capability. When I was living with the family in Spring Valley, we all spoke English. When I moved in with my parents, it was important that someone speak English, and I was the one. That was a lot of responsibility. I was aware always of what it would be to not have the language. So it made language powerful and urgent; it was like being thirsty and having water. I knew what it was to have that water and to not have that water. I was speaking the language for people who couldn’t get that water. Those people were my parents.