Introduction by Kawai Strong Washburn
We are often told that words are powerful, but that isn’t always correct. Let me explain. Say you need to use the bathroom, but you don’t speak the same language as anyone you can ask. A few (and therefore powerful) words might be all you need to pop the question; the real work, unfortunately, will be in understanding the answer. A torrent of unfamiliar words, abbreviations, and colloquialisms can quickly untether a listener and render the most basic act of existing in that moment as a sort of lonely violation. Even worse, a failure to then respond can unleash all sorts of dangerous reactions from the speaker: pity, infantilization, rage, a calculation of potential exploitation. Both the speaker and the listener know this, instinctually, which makes the situation that much worse.
Is it words that are powerful, then? I have been the one with few words, as has anyone who has tried to survive for any significant length of time in a foreign country, speaking a foreign tongue. And I can assure you that words, themselves, aren’t powerful: what’s powerful is language.
In Eric Nguyen’s Things We Lost to the Water, there are many moments like this, where a failure of language makes an entire nation feel uninhabitable. Hương, our protagonist, is alienated in many ways: groups chatter around her on the street and she can’t join them; signs advertising work are impossible to read; even asking for food is shamefully difficult. But if that were the heart of this story, as sad and infuriating as it is, it wouldn’t make for much of a novel.
Nguyen knows this, which is why the true story begins to patiently reveal itself: “Even if it was a different language, it was easy to laugh at, easily understood,” observes Nguyen, “Except Hương wasn’t laughing.” And it’s easy to see why she isn’t: One of the first people she meets is, to put it mildly, a slovenly drunk; the city is filled with concrete, freeways, aggressive drivers; what work is possible is of the most basic, physical sort; the Catholic priest that governs her orientation is almost narcissistic in his conversations with God.
Which begs the question, then: Does a nation reveal its character more readily through these sorts of moments than it does through the totality of its spoken words? I pose the question as if the answer can be found in these pages, but, thankfully, Nguyen doesn’t let us off easy. What he guides us through is much more nuanced and, in the end, more realistic in its meditations on countries and the languages with which they operate.
– Kawai Strong Washburn
Author of Sharks in the Time of Saviors
Navigating New Orleans in Vietnamese
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“Hương, 1978” from Things We Lost to the Water by Eric Nguyen
Hương and her sons had been in the country for only a month, but already they were having problems.
Their sponsor, a white Catholic priest, paired them with the Minhs. “Both thirty-two,” he said while driving. “You will like them.”
The priest—she never remembered his name—was old and serious and restrained. He walked with his hands behind his back as he took long, sweeping strides and had a habit of keeping his head slightly bent forward as if he were listening to something everyone else could not hear, giving him a look of arrogant superiority. He reminded her of the priests who came to her childhood village with hard European candies and boxes of Bibles in hopes of converting someone in their bad Vietnamese. She remembered one priest who couldn’t pronounce bạn and instead said bàn and they made fun of him behind his back, calling him Father Table. Still, Hương did not not like this New Orleans priest. She was lucky, she told herself. She was alive. She made it to America.
The priest took an exit onto another highway. He didn’t use his blinker.
They had been on and off highways all morning, dropping off other “refugees”—the word still felt strange in her mouth, in her mind—at temporary homes. Earlier that morning, the priest dropped off a couple from Vũng Tàu at a tall building. Then a single Saigonese girl at a short house painted pink. Another family of three was given to an American fisherman and his wife, and they greeted each other with hugs as if they had known each other all their lives; the wife gave their son a pink stuffed elephant. Hương and her boys were the last to be dropped off.
Bình slept in an infant seat as Tuấn kneeled by the window and watched as the world slipped by, pointing and calling out the names of everything he saw: xe hơi, xe đạp, cây, nhà. What Hương noticed the most was the concrete—the buildings, the roads, the sidewalks, the fountains, the statues. So much concrete, she thought. She imagined them rubbing against her, scraping her knees and hands, leaving bruises and scrapes and marks. She was thinking that way nowadays: what can hurt her, what can leave a scar.
The priest turned onto a road, and just like that, the hardness of the city disappeared, replaced by flat plots of parched grass and a traffic light. Beyond that, a billboard advertised a deep red sausage with rice grains inside.
As they waited, the priest glanced up into his rearview mirror and smiled. “Gần tới rới,” he said, Almost there, in an accent Hương found oddly charming, like the way the Australian English teachers at the refugee camp spoke, and that gave her something to latch on to, a type of comfort. The van continued down the long stretch of road for another five minutes before slowing down into a turn. In front of a house, a fat Vietnamese man waited.
“Mr. Minh!” the priest chuckled. Mr. Minh waved when he saw them.
“Welcome to America!” Mr. Minh shouted as the priest parked the car. He pulled the door open and bowed extravagantly, making a show of the gesture. His large hands came at her next and grabbed her wrists. He shook them furiously. “Chị will like it here very much!” he said. “It’s America! We’re all friends here!” His face glowed red. How unlike her husband he was. Công was thin and suave, bookish and reserved, and, above all, neat; this man was chubby and rude, drunk and loud—above all, loud. She could have pictured Mr. Minh spending his time at bars and his poor wife coming to get him at three in the morning. She thought, not without bitterness, that they never would have been friends in Vietnam. They were two different types of people; a friendship had little chance.
“We’re all friends here!” Mr. Minh repeated, confidently, caressing her sloppily, stupidly. It made Hương feel little, like a bug waiting to be squashed. She held on to her baby boy and motioned for her other son to stand closer. The wife—Hương noticed her now—stood aside as if this were the regular order of things.
“He used to be a police officer,” the wife said in her scratchy voice. “Now, he drinks!” She laughed and Hương didn’t know if she was supposed to laugh out of courtesy or just nod sadly in agreement. She decided on doing neither and stayed silent and stiff.
“Very well,” the wife said. Then, in English, she said something to the priest, shook his hand, and grabbed Hương’s suitcase. The priest drove away.
“This way,” she said.
Hương walked up the porch steps and crossed the threshold. Right away, she smelled the rotting wood, disarming at first but only because it came so suddenly. The lights were off, and in the darkness, the room felt vast and empty. As her eyes adjusted, she realized the room was small and arranged at its center were a floral fabric sofa, a white plastic chair, and a small television. A fan spun lazily above.
The wife told Hương it was called a “shotgun house.” Ngôi nhà súng, she clarified. “See?” she said. She placed the suitcase down and mimed the shape of a gun with one hand. With her other, she held her wrist. Closing one eye, she looked through an invisible scope and the appearance of intense concentration fell onto her face. For a few seconds, she stood silently, so focused on something in the distance that Hương looked toward where the wife stared, too. Then “Psssh!”—the imitated sound of gunfire. It was so unexpected but also so childish, Hương jumped back and felt stupid for doing so. Like a child tricked in a schoolyard, she immediately hated the Minhs, their poverty, their obnoxiousness, their immaturity.
“See?” the wife said. “A house for guns.” She made the motion of dusting off her hands. “But you don’t have to worry about that here. No war, not here, not ever.”
“Of course,” said Hương, composing herself.
“That’s all in the past now,” the wife said.
“Yes,” said Hương, “the past.”
“Just stay out of the doorways to be on the safe side.” She broke out into a cackle, though Hương didn’t find any of it funny. Nothing in America was funny. Mrs. Minh’s tricks weren’t funny, their situation as người Việt wasn’t funny, and Hương felt outraged that people like the Minhs should even think about laughing.
“Let me show you more,” said the wife. She led Hương through the doorways and into the kitchen and the couple’s bedroom in the back. “You’ll sleep up front. The phòng khách,” said Mrs. Minh.
The next morning, the priest arrived to take Hương downtown, dropping her off at the church. Before coming to America, Hương had never been inside a church. In Mỹ Tho there was none. In Saigon, only a handful. But here they were everywhere, and all the other Vietnamese seemed grateful for that. The first few weeks, as they slept in the pews, they seemed at peace. Hương, for her part, slept uneasily under the watch of the statue of Jesus on the cross. His sad, pleading eyes made her want to cross herself like all the other Catholics did. She knew Công would have laughed at her for it, so she didn’t.
“Here,” the priest said before letting her go. He tore out a sheet of yellow paper from a legal pad he carried everywhere. For the last week they had been finding her a job. “Because you need money to survive in New Orleans,” he said as if he thought life in other countries were any different. They had often gone out in groups, but today was her first day alone. Franklin’s Seafood, said one line, followed by an address. Poydras Street Dry Cleaners, said another.
“Franklin’s looking for cashiers,” he said, “and Poydras a clothes folder. Oh, and…” He wrote something else down and gave another sheet to Hương. “Be on the lookout for signs that say HIRING.” She held the loose sheet of paper and sounded out the word with her lips.
“Hi-Ring,” she whispered.
“Hi-er-ing,” he said.
“Hi-er-ing.” Hương mouthed the words and folded the paper away. The priest gave her directions and she was on her way, pushing the stroller she’d borrowed from the church for Bình with one hand and leading Tuấn with the other. By the time she was on Magazine Street, she looked up and wondered how a city could be so empty. Down one way, a driver had parked his school bus and was reading the newspaper and eating a doughnut. Down another, two women talked to each other in smart business skirts.
As she walked, Hương reached into her purse for a pocket-sized notebook, a gift from the church. Từ vựng căn bản, she had written at the top of the first page, followed by the phrases she had remembered from her English lessons:
How are you?
I am fine.
She practiced the words aloud, repeating them in whispers, analyzing the pronunciation, the tones. English was such a strange language. Whereas in Vietnamese, the words told you how they wanted to be pronounced, in English the words remained shrouded in mystery.
She scanned the priest’s list, then returned to the notebook. So many words, so many ideas, so many meanings. If only Công could see her now! She imagined that she spoke English the way he spoke French, like he was born there. She saw them sitting together on a porch looking out on a garden—maybe like one of the gardens she’d passed here in New Orleans, with immaculate flower beds and sprinklers and birdbaths—and she’s holding up the words, helping him pronounce them. What she would tell him then, when they were settled, successful, American, reminiscing of all that life threw at them, the improbability of their survival, and yet nonetheless…
Suddenly, Tuấn pulled her arm. “Look!” he said. “A cat!”
“Tuấn!” Hương grabbed him before he stepped into the street. A car passed by. A horn sounded.
“But it was a cat,” her son said, “and it wasn’t like any other cat. Didn’t you see it?”
“Stay with mẹ,” she said.
They walked two more blocks before finding the first address on the list. A cartoon fish with huge eyes stared back at her from a tin sign. Leaning her forehead against the glass, she peered inside and imagined herself holding a tray of drinks and chatting with customers.
A girl at the front counter waved at Hương to get her attention. When Hương didn’t come in, the girl came to the door and asked her something she couldn’t understand. Hương reached for the notebook in her purse then, but it was gone. A sense of panic came over her. After emptying everything into her hands, she realized she must have dropped it while Tuấn was running into the street. She found the note the priest gave her—there at the bottom of her purse, a piece of shining gold—and handed it over.
“Please,” Hương said in an almost whisper, unsure if it meant làm ơn. Surely, it meant làm ơn! She forced a smile and hoped it didn’t appear too eager. Then she stopped smiling altogether to avoid any possibility of looking desperate. She remembered the women in their business suits. How confident they were. How successful.
The girl looked at the word, then at Hương. She did this several times, confused. “No,” the girl said. “No,” she said again, this time more forceful, like the word was a pebble and she was flicking it toward what must have been a strange Vietnamese woman, a woman who did not belong here, a foreigner. “Do you want to eat?” the girl continued, slow and loud. “We serve food. Do you want to eat?”
“Eat?” Hương asked. She didn’t know what that meant. It sounded like a hiccup, one that you tried to suppress. Eat! Eat! Eat! What was the girl talking about?
The girl became impatient, angry even, pointing inside, where people were enjoying their grotesquely large meals.
“I am sorry,” Hương said, giving up, using the phrase she knew by heart: I am sorry. It was a good phrase to know. This was what the Australian English teachers taught her at the refugee camp. I am sorry for what happened.
Before the girl could say anything else, Hương turned around and walked away with a steady stride. She didn’t know what had just happened, but she felt, in the pit of her stomach, that she had done something wrong. The last thing she saw on the girl’s face was a grimace. She was being told, she was sure, that she had done something rude, against the country’s laws. They would arrest her. They would arrest a woman and her children for not knowing the rules. Would they even let her stay because she was arrested? What would happen to them all then? They crossed the street and took another corner. She walked faster.
“Mẹ, what’s wrong?” Tuấn asked. He looked back toward where they had come from.
“Don’t look back,” said Hương. She pushed the stroller and led Tuấn away. “Don’t you look.”
Suddenly, she noticed, all around her people were talking. There were couples talking, groups talking, children talking, a woman held a dog in her arms and she, too, was talking to that small animal. Yet the words they were saying didn’t make any sense. She repeated the words she knew in her head, a chaotic mantra of foreign sounds that contorted her mouth comically, strangely, like a puppet’s—Yes, no, thank you, please, yes, no, sorry, hello, goodbye, no, sorry. The important part was to keep moving. She knew that much. She saw a fenced-in and empty park across the street and without looking ran toward it, but before she reached the gate, a man with beads around his neck and oversized sunglasses bumped into her. She could smell the alcohol on him. All of a sudden, the whole city smelled of alcohol and everyone everywhere was drinking and smiling and laughing. What was wrong with these people? What was wrong with this place?
She turned back and was stepping into the street, pushing the stroller with both hands, when a car slammed its brakes and the driver pressed down on his horn. It stopped before hitting her or the stroller. She looked down at her shaking hands: she had let go. In the surprise of the car coming and its horn sounding, so suddenly and so loudly—she had let go. The first sign of danger and her first instinct was to let go and she’d nearly killed her son and the man pressed down on his horn again and she realized she was still in the middle of the street and she felt ashamed, the most shame she’d ever felt in her life. She held back tears, but Bình cried. She clasped the handlebar of the stroller more tightly.
“Stupid fucking lady!” the driver screamed.
“What did he say?” Tuấn asked.
“Let’s go home,” she replied. “He said we should go home.” They crossed the street and headed down another.
“But home is so far away,” said her son. “I’m tired.”
“What?” She had forgotten what she told him. She looked around for anything that might have been familiar.
“Home is far away,” her son repeated.
“I know,” she said, more to herself than to him. “I know.”
The Minhs were home when Hương returned. After dinner, Mrs. Minh left for a job cleaning at a university. Hương’s sons slept peacefully. She kept a watchful eye on Bình. Did he understand that he’d nearly died today? Did he know he had a horrible, reckless mother? She would have to tell Công, wouldn’t she, about all that had happened? She would confess it to him, everything she’d ever done—if only she were given the chance, an opportunity to talk to him, to learn what had happened, to get him to America and plan a way forward. For that she would confess it all.
At the camp, she had written him and mailed the letter to their home in Mỹ Tho. When she received no answer, she wrote to their old home in Saigon. She wrote as soon as she was able to. She must have sent a letter every day. Noticing how many letters she had been sending off, another woman at the camp reprimanded her.
“Are you so stupid?” the woman asked.
“What do you mean?”
“The Communists, when they see the letters, they’ll know you escaped and they’ll know who to punish: your husband!” Hương stopped writing then.
As the sun rose, Mrs. Minh arrived home, smelling of detergent and rubber gloves. Without a word, she joined Hương on the couch and watched TV, which Hương had turned on for its soft glow. From her seat, Mrs. Minh would glance at her temporary guest every few minutes as if to say something important but ended up talking only about the shows. In this show, a witch causes havoc by her misunderstandings but her husband loves her anyway. In this one, there’s a magical talking horse. Here, a group of Americans are shipwrecked.
They settled on the shipwreck show, or at least Mrs. Minh did. In black and white, it looked far away, a different place, a different time. Even if it was a different language, it was easy to laugh at, easily understood.
Except Hương wasn’t laughing. It didn’t even look like she was paying attention. The light on the screen bounced off her eyes.
This would happen multiple nights: Hương staring blankly at the screen in the dark while Mrs. Minh sat on the edge of the couch in contemplation. It made the air heavy, both of them knew, but neither one knew how to fix it.
Then one night Mrs. Minh asked, “What do you think of America?”
“Dạ thích,” Hương said. “It’s not Vietnam, but it’s not bad, either.” She coughed to clear her throat. All day she hadn’t been talking to anyone in Vietnamese except her sons. It felt so strange after so much silence, and the words came out muddy and sticky.
“The priest said you left on a boat,” the wife continued. “Is that true?”
“Vâng.” Hương wanted to tell the wife about the way the water moved, how you never got used to it, about the men on the boat and their constant fighting, about the uneasy sense of knowing only water, knowing that it connected the entire world—one shore to another—yet not knowing when you might see land. There were so many things to say, and finally she decided to ask a question, the most important question she could ask, the only one that mattered—“Do you know how to get a message back to Vietnam? I have a husband. He was left behind…”—but Hương stopped short of finishing when there was shuffling noise in the bedroom, the rustling of sheets, the bouncing of bedsprings.
She bit her lips and held her breath. Something was coming; she could feel it. Mrs. Minh’s eyes wandered to the back of the house. Then came a scream and the sound of glass hitting wall, one clash of impact followed by the rain-like sound of hundreds of shards falling. The baby woke with a cry and Hương got up to calm him. Tuấn stirred from his corner of the couch and asked what was going on.
“Nothing,” she told him. “Nothing to be afraid of.” She bounced the baby as footsteps made their way across the hardwood floor and the bathroom door closed and the shower turned on. The baby leaned his head on her chest and quieted.
“I’ll go check on him,” Mrs. Minh said, standing up. “Yes. I’ll go do that.”
The couple would fight into the morning. Something else would break. At one point, Hương thought she heard a smack on skin but she wasn’t sure.
By eight, Mr. Minh had left, slamming the door so hard Hương was sure the house would fall down. Mrs. Minh mumbled as she prepared breakfast, “Damn that man. Worthless…”
The next afternoon, Hương left the Minhs. With Bình in her arms and Tuấn following behind, she walked several blocks until she saw a motel. The word, she remembered, meant place to stay. She would stay at the motel for a week, find a way to get in touch with Công, and get him here to New Orleans. No one told her how to, but, she decided, no more waiting. It was time for action. She paid in cash. The room was twenty-five dollars. She put the thirty dollars she had left in her front pocket, holding her hand over it to make sure it was secure.
After she called him, the priest arrived the next morning. He sat in his van as Hương led the boys out. The radio played gospel hymns, but he turned it off as they made their journey downtown.
He had been searching for her all morning, he said when they were on the highway. The window was down and the wind was more hot than cool. The Minhs had told him she “just up and left,” without telling them where she was heading. She hadn’t even left a note about where she was going, how to reach her, or what her intentions were. She could have “dropped off the face of the earth”— she had no idea what that could possibly have meant.
“I nearly had a heart attack,” the priest said. Did she know New Orleans could be a dangerous place? he went on. People get murdered here. Robbed. Beaten. She was a recent immigrant, and people could have taken advantage of her. Why did she leave?
She didn’t answer him right away. It could have been a rhetorical question. But he didn’t have to live with them. He didn’t have to live with Mr. Minh’s night terrors or his drunkenness. Or the couple’s arguments. He didn’t have to live as if in a nightmare, where everywhere she turned something was strange, askew, incoherent. That was what her time in New Orleans had been like. He couldn’t have understood any of this. His life wasn’t complicated. He was a priest, for God’s sake! He didn’t know a thing about suffering.
At the church, they filed into his office. The priest turned on the air-conditioning and searched through the mess on his desk.
“They don’t like us,” she said finally. She didn’t know what she expected him to say or do. Anger bubbled inside her. “You don’t understand,” she managed to say before taking a seat.
The walls of the room were lined with certificates with fancy writing and gold seals; crosses, some plain wood, others decorated with gold; and there were photos, mostly of him—here with a group of nuns, there with a youth baseball team, another a group portrait with other priests. And among all this, a framed cream-colored piece of paper. An emblem sat in the middle and below it, a motto: In service to One, in service to All.
Finally the priest said, “I’ve been a priest for ten years.” He took off his glasses, rubbed them with a cloth, and put them back on. “And I don’t think I’ve ever taken on more than I have this year.” He went on to talk about God, bringing up Bible stories about tests and hardships. God was testing him, he told her.
For the first time since she’d met him, she realized she was less of a person and more of a test to this man. She was a puzzle to figure out, a jigsaw, a number among other numbers. He lived to serve not humanity but his ideas and career. In that way, she thought, Catholics were not too dissimilar from the Communists. She had been hoping this man was different. How foolish she was to put her life in his hands.
“Don’t you understand?” he asked, rhetorically. He smiled dumbly, as if he had reached an epiphany.
She breathed in and exhaled. She was exhausted. “Yes,” she said and left.
As she closed the door, a woman’s voice, somewhere, squealed, “Trời ơi!”
Hương looked up. She scanned the pews to see if anyone was there, and her eyes stopped at a closet door left ajar, a thin strip of light streaming out. She paused at the threshold. Inside, Thủy, a girl younger than Hương whom she knew from the church, was bent over a table.
“Chị Hương!” Thủy opened the door and cried out her name again. The girl jumped up and down and reached out for Hương’s hands. “Come! You have to hear this!” she said. Hương didn’t know how to react as Thủy moved aside and showed her the cassette player on the table. She pressed a button and it began to click. Soon, through the static, a man spoke.
“Thủy ơi!” said the grainy voice. “How I miss you so! It is raining here again, my love. Can you hear the water? The heavens cry.” The voice quieted to the sound of water pelting against mud.
The man was probably a young boy Thủy’s age. Hương wanted to laugh at their young, naïve love. Instead, she took a step closer, inspecting the cassette player—the spinning of the tape reel, the clicking of the movement, the smooth buttons with their colorful symbols on top. She focused on the spinning of the wheels. For a moment, there was no other sound except that clicking as it echoed in that small closet.
“Thủy?” the man’s voice came on again. Hương stepped back.
“There he is!” Thủy squealed and clapped her hands in excitement. She hugged Hương, and then, embarrassed, restrained herself.
“Thủy, when you return home, we should get married! I know that’s not what your parents want, but…”
Thủy turned down the volume and Hương left the girl to her tape message.
Walking down Camp Street, Hương thought about the ease of making a cassette. Unlike the letter, its content wasn’t obvious; instead, it was hidden, unless the tape was played. But people would play it only if it looked suspicious. If she were to label it “Uncle Hổ’s Teachings” or maybe just “Communism,” they would not even bother looking any further into the matter. Yet there was the cost of sending it. And would she mail it to their Mỹ Tho address or their Saigon one? Would Công still be there? Was Công safe? What if the Communists captured him? No, she had to wipe those uncertainties from her mind. She needed to think positively; it was the only way. She would have to ask the priest about the tape recorder. After apologizing for her behavior that morning, she would say politely, “Cha, cho con mượn cái này.” Coyly, she would add, “I will return it, I swear. Just one night.”
Công would be reached. They would be reunited. New Orleans looked brighter and happier then. She smiled. It was the first time in weeks. Perhaps even months.