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Authors: Kim Thuy

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BOOK: Mãn
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spontaneous

VERY SOON, I COULD
no longer count the number of plates to wash. My husband hired a young Vietnamese man. He came equipped with a high-volume smile. Before he said a word, we could hear his good humour burst out in his stomach like popcorn. I couldn't help laughing hard, so hard, when he pulled on the yellow rubber gloves he'd taken from his pockets, shouting: “Ta-dah!” I didn't think I could be capable of producing such a reverberating, spontaneous sound. He quickly became my little brother, a ray of sunlight that never faded, even when life presented nearly insurmountable hardships. Whenever he had a spare moment, he would be studying. He repeated chemistry formulas, his head in a fog of steam from the dishwasher. He posted the periodic table of the elements on the tile wall. He wrote the definitions of words in the margins of pages in novels he was reading for his coursework. In spite of all his efforts, he repeatedly failed his philosophy and French exams. It was his last chance to pass when I met him. I spent many nights reading his homework and correcting his essays.

lỗi

mistakes

AS SOON AS I KNEW
how to write, Maman insisted on a dictation every evening, power failure or not. She read to me from Maupassant by the light of an oil lamp the size of a drinking glass. We took turns having the light from the flame. After each sentence, I had to perform a logical, grammatical and syntactical analysis. Before she went to bed, Maman put the book back in its metal box and buried it in its hiding place. It was the biggest secret, because foreign books were prohibited, especially novels and, more specifically, the triviality of fiction.

sét

lightning

THANKS TO THAT COACHING
, I was able to draft the ten questions that my sun-brother had been given by his philosophy teacher. He would have to answer just one, but he wouldn't know which before the exam. I wrote ten answers for him, which he learned by heart, because my explanations in Vietnamese didn't help him. So this was how he obtained his diploma and got a job while continuing to give me a hand on weekends. One night he told me that earlier that day in his factory, a girl who'd recently been hired had come and stood close to him. Without turning towards me, he dropped a big kettle into the sink to imitate the electric current that had shot through his body from the top of his head to his feet. He threw up his arms, hands clad in yellow gloves, and took root in the ground as if he'd been struck by lightning. I stood there flabbergasted before his trance state, thinking he was acting delirious and crazy. But he was just in love. I didn't know that condition to be able to identify it, to recognize it. Still, I was carried away in the wake of his euphoria, playing Cyrano de Bergerac to help him court that girl whom I barely knew.

thêu

embroidery

HER NAME WAS BẠCH
, she was Vietnamese, she'd arrived a short time before and was sad to leave her village at the southern tip of Vietnam. She lived with an aunt in a Montreal suburb, in a big, dust-free house where every room had its designated slippers and each cutting board a specific use. The aunt had sponsored Bạch and her family of six. She would have preferred to stay in Cà Mau with her friends, embroidering tablecloths for export. Her aunt, though, had persuaded her parents that they must relinquish their life that held no promise, sacrifice their own generation so the next one could be educated. And so Bạch found herself in a factory that made electronic scoreboards. She soldered circuits with ease because her fingers had already been trained to fill space with a needle, stitch by stitch.

My sun-brother started by bringing her whatever I had in the kitchen: slices of manioc cake, fried rice with crab, or chicken with ginger and shiitake mushrooms. He came running to me, shrieking with the intense, immortal happiness of youth, when he managed to escort her back to her aunt's for the first time. Eventually he succeeded in asking for her hand in marriage. I don't know if she agreed because he saved her the four hours of bus trips every day or because she had decided to let herself be loved. But the wedding went ahead.

mâm

trays

I VOLUNTEERED TO HELP
with the preparations for the engagement party because my sun-brother's father worked sixty-hour weeks at a factory that made brake pads and another ten hours delivering pizzas, while violent migraines and painkillers reduced his mother to the state of a drunken reed, constantly disturbed by drafts. Sometimes the mere breath of a murmur on her cheek was enough to rattle her and cause the map of her life's journey to appear on her forehead. It was unthinkable, then, to use her living room for wrapping the gifts in the traditional translucent red paper to take to the bride's house, since the sound made by every fold, every movement, would be enough to slash open her skin. To spare her the crackling, rustling and commotion, we chose the restaurant dining room as headquarters.

hạnh phúc

happiness

ON THE EVE OF THE
engagement party, the room was aglow with red—not the red of love but that of luck. Superstition dictated that each gift be wrapped in that colour, which represents good fortune, because all newlyweds need a lot of luck to find the balance that allows two individuals to build a single shared life, one that will support others in turn. We wish them not love but happiness in duplicate: the word is written twice, one linked to the other, mirrored, cloned. Since no one dares take a risk, each tray of gifts, without exception, is covered with bright red cloth, embroidered with the word
happiness
, not plural but doubled.

Luckily, newlyweds don't burden themselves with the worries of those who have lived the ordeal before them. They are just here for the party and they believe that happiness inevitably comes with marriage, or the opposite.

trầu cau

areca nuts

TO CONTRIBUTE TO THE NEXT PART
, to the natural cycle of life, my husband had mobilized clients who were friends to form the delegation that would carry the platters of gifts on the morning of the ceremony. The lacquered suckling pig had been entrusted to the strongest, while the others divided up the platter of boxes of tea, bottles of wine and biscuits. The cousins were responsible for the jewels, the small teapot filled with rice alcohol, and the platter of betel leaves and areca nuts. Today, very few Vietnamese still chew areca nuts, but all the same they symbolize the beginning of an encounter. Less than a hundred years ago, the Vietnamese received their guests with a mother-of-pearl wooden box containing a cylindrical mortar for crushing the nut before it was rolled up in a leaf lightly covered with lime. Regular users say the mixture provides the same stimulation as coffee, while those with weak hearts talk about dizzy spells or even intoxication. The effect is achieved by slow chewing, which colours the saliva red—the red of drunkenness, the red of love—because this red tells the story of an eternal union.

According to legend, twin brothers were in love with the same girl. The first married her. The second, choked with sorrow, left the village so his brother wouldn't notice. The broken-hearted brother walked until he was exhausted, until he was transformed into limestone. The other twin took the same road in search of his brother. He dropped dead of fatigue next
to the rock and metamorphosed into a betel palm. His wife followed his tracks and in the same place was turned into a climbing vine with heart-shaped leaves, wound around the trunk of the palm tree that shaded the rock. I have often wondered how that love triangle had been able to become the symbol of a happy marriage, because the end proved so sad. I think we misunderstood our ancestors. They placed the platter of betel at the head of the procession because they wanted to warn the newlyweds of the danger of impossible loves, not the opposite. Or did they want to warn us that love can kill?

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BOOK: Mãn
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