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Authors: Kim Thuy

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BOOK: Mãn
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bowing to the ancestors

THOUGH THE COUPLE BOWS LOW
, noses to the ground, the ancestors hanging on the wall above the altar will never give them the true reason. They will be content to watch the incense sticks burn and to observe the transmission of rituals from one generation to the next. They know that one day the mothers-in-law will no longer offer earrings to their new daughters-in-law. Already, hardly anyone remembers that at the engagement party the mothers insert into the brides' earlobes gold balls that represent buds. At the marriage, the mothers-in-law replace them with earrings in the shape of full-blown flowers that symbolize the blossoming of the bride, her defloration.

tiễn đưa

saying farewell

FROM MY IN-LAWS
, all I got was an envelope that must have been worth its weight in gold because the papers in it offered me another elsewhere and an unknown life with a stranger. Since I had neither father nor ancestors, they'd thought it best to avoid ceremony. I left for the airport with no convoys of cousins and friends, unlike the other passengers. There were hundreds outside the airport, children, old people, tears, promises, all tangled up in emotions. In those years, people went away with no hope of returning. They only promised not to forget. Unlike other Vietnamese mothers, who counted on the loyalty and gratitude of their children, Maman wanted me to forget, to forget her because I now had a chance to start again, to go away with no baggage, to reinvent myself. But that was impossible.

gia đình

family

WHEN VIETNAMESE PEOPLE MEET
, native village and family tree are the two subjects that open most conversations, because we firmly believe that we are what our ancestors have been, that our destinies respond to what we have done in the lives that came before us. The oldest knew my grandfather by name or in person, that man I had never met. The younger ones remembered Maman's brothers and sisters and knew that I didn't resemble them. They envied my slender legs, but they feared the scandalous story hinted at by my overly pronounced curves. Only those Québécois clients who had adopted a child in Vietnam dared to approach me with a neutral gaze, to offer me a blank page.

tình bạn

friendship

JULIE WAS THE FIRST
to stick her head into the opening through which I delivered the plates. Her smile stretched from one side of the aperture to the other. The enthusiasm of her greeting was like that of an archaeologist upon discovering a trace of the first kiss. Promptly, before even a word was uttered, we became friends and, with time, sisters. She adopted me as she'd adopted her daughter, without questioning our past. She took me to see movies in the afternoon, or we would watch classics at her place. She opened her refrigerator and had me taste its contents in no particular order, according to her mood of the day: from smoked meat to tourtière, ketchup to
sauce béchamel
, and including celery root, rhubarb, bison
, pouding chômeur
and pickled eggs. Sometimes Julie would come and cook with me. I would show her how to keep sticky rice in superimposed layers of banana leaves by squeezing them firmly but without smothering the rice. It's always a fragile balance, one that fingers can feel better than words can explain.

At the end of every January, we had to prepare several dozen of the treats because my husband wanted to offer them to his friends and his distant relatives for the Vietnamese New Year, as his mother used to do in her village. The scent of banana leaves cooked in boiling water for many hours reminded him of the days before Têt when the whole neighbourhood spent the night feeding the fire under
cauldrons full of rice rolls stuffed with mung bean paste, smooth and as discreetly yellow as the moon.

Julie came to our restaurant often. She invited her friends for lunch, organized monthly meetings of her book group, and reserved the entire restaurant to celebrate family birthdays and wedding anniversaries. Every time, she brought me out of the kitchen to be introduced to her guests, embracing me with her whole body. She was the big sister I'd never had, and I was her daughter's Vietnamese mother.

yến

swallow

ONE NIGHT, SHE PLACED
a key on my kitchen counter while I was using tweezers to remove the minute impurities in the fine filaments of a swallow's nest, making sure it was perfect without wasting a single drop of the soup. My husband had bought that precious find, which was traded for thousands of dollars a kilo, from a vendor of medicinal and Chinese herbs. He maintained that the swallows showed a patient and infinite love for their fledglings because they were the only birds that built their nests using only their saliva. And so to eat those nests would give us a better chance of becoming parents in turn. I didn't have time to explain to Julie how rare that potion was because she insisted on dragging me towards the exit and had me put the key in the lock next door. And so our adventure began.

xích lô

rickshaw

JULIE HAD BROUGHT ARCHITECTS
and decorators to turn the space into a culinary workshop. She had asked her husband, who often travelled to Asia on business, to look for a used bicycle-powered rickshaw in Vietnam, and he'd sent her one whose metal structure was partly rusted and whose saddle was bent out of shape by sweat. On the wall, she had mounted two long wooden panels engraved with two lines of Chinese characters that echoed each other, as was done at the entrance to old mandarin residences. She had ordered from Huế some conical hats adorned with poems inserted between the braided latania leaves and sixteen bamboo circles to be offered as gifts at the opening. At the back of the restaurant, she'd built a large bookcase. Cookbooks and photos were arranged on the shelves, standing at attention, obedient and upright as the children in the schoolyard who sang the national anthem every morning in front of the apartment where Maman and I had lived. Julie held my hand and walked me along the wall, preventing me from falling to my knees when I saw the last shelf, where she'd placed a row of novels of which I'd only ever read a page or two or sometimes a chapter, but never the whole book.

A great many books in French or English had been confiscated during the years of political chaos. We would never know the fate of those books, but some did survive, in pieces. We would never know what road whole pages had travelled, only to end up in the
hands of merchants who used them to wrap bread, a catfish or a bunch of water spinach. No one could ever tell me why I'd been so lucky as to turn up those treasures buried under piles of yellowing newspapers. Maman told me that the pages were forbidden fruits fallen from heaven.

From these precious harvests, I had remembered the word
lassitude
from
Bonjour tristesse
, by Françoise Sagan;
langueur
from Verlaine; and
pénitentiaire
from Kafka. Maman had also explained the meaning of fiction with this sentence by Albert Camus in
L'Étranger
, for it was unthinkable to us that a woman could show desire: “In the evening, Marie came looking for me and asked if I wanted to marry her.” And then there was Marius; without knowing the beginning or the end of his story in
Les Misérables
, to me he was a hero because one time our monthly ration of a hundred grams of pork had been draped in these words: “Life, hardship, isolation, poverty, are battlefields that have their heroes: obscure heroes sometimes greater than the illustrious ones.”

tự điển

dictionary

THERE WERE MANY WORDS
whose meaning Maman didn't know. Luckily, we had ready access to a living dictionary. He was older than Maman. The neighbours thought he was crazy because every day he stood under the rose apple tree, where he recited words in French and their definitions. His dictionary, which he had held close to him throughout his childhood, had been confiscated, but he went on turning the pages in his head. I just had to say a word to him through the fence that separated us and he would give me the definition. And one time, he had given me the rosiest of the rose apples from the bunch that hung just above his head when I gave him the verb
to sniff
.

BOOK: Mãn
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