In times like these, it seems that the world is holding her collective breath, eyes glued piously to every shouty politician or near-sighted researcher composed of pixels on the television.
January began with contagion, videos of quarantined Wuhan making their rounds to each person’s device. My mother would come home, arms stacked with banh chung, square cakes of glutinous rice filled with fatty pork and crumbly mung bean, gift-wrapped in fragrant sheaths of steamed banana leaves. For as long as I can remember, this was the thing to do around Tet, or Lunar New Year: gifting bricks of banh chung and rolls of banh tet and jars of dua mon an unspoken and universal formality among Vietnamese family and friends.
Each day, she would prepare for the holiday a bit more, cross her fingers a bit more, stir a bit more optimism into our noodle soup or braised pork belly or boiled cabbage: “Things will get better by Tet.” Evidently, her words carried as much weight as the savory perfumes wafting from her bubbling pots and pans.
The Vietnamese are superstitious.
We believe that sweeping on Tet sweeps away good luck, and washing your hair washes away prosperity. We believe that the first day of the year sets the precedent for the three hundred and sixty four left to come. Thus, this Lunar New Year, without its festivities or feasts or extended family, etched a firm line into the hardened mouth of my mother.
Now I am sitting in the first pew before my grandmother’s casket.
It is the beginning of February and one week since she passed away in her sleep two days after the Lunar New Year. I am seeing family members for the first time in years. I am seeing uncles cry whom I have never seen smile and cousins I should have seen last week on Tet. I am clutching a stack of printed poems, flipping through photographs my father has compiled of bits and pieces from my grandmother’s life, finding hot tears trailing down my cheeks.
In her twenty-five years in America, my grandmother never learned to mask her accent with the thick taste of foreign tongues. Or maybe she never wanted to. To her, English was cheeseburgers, was Coca-Cola, was freeways and fast cars and full frontal on TV — and she was a girl from Ha Noi. She spent her girlhood riding bicycles in white ao dai, engulfed in overgrown jasmine and fallen peach blossoms, bustling rickshaws and celadon-tiled pools. She fled her beloved Ha Noi during the Second World War at the age of thirteen, and I know this because I had accompanied my mother to the print shop, photocopying booklets from leaves of poetry kept humbly hidden by my grandmother for decades:
I step into the south, misty-eyed
My way north so distant now
Kim Cuc, my dear friend
Will you ever remember me?
I look down from the casket and stare at the second line on the page on which my thumb has fallen. In Vietnamese, the way we say ‘way’ or ‘path’ is the same as my middle name. Together, my name translates roughly to ‘best path,’ and I hope that is what the men made of pixels plan to take.