The Paris Review



When my son Henry was a year old I took him to Boston to meet my mother. She didn’t show up. It turned out that she had gone to Foxwoods Casino instead, which sounds bad and maybe was, but it had been three years since I’d seen her or even spoken to her; we wouldn’t see each other for seven more. I couldn’t blame her for trying her luck elsewhere.

“Birth mother” doesn’t seem the right term for her and neither does “biological mother,” which implies an adoption story. “Real mother” forgets my stepmother, who has been in my life since I was three. I never know how to refer to the woman who gave birth to me, who was my first mother, who did not leave me but was left by me. Sometimes I say “Boston mother,” deflecting any sense of claim onto geography even though she ended up there not by choice, exactly, but by resettlement efforts years after the end of the war in Viet Nam.

This is a story I keep having to tell because I’m trying to understand it. Because there is no getting away from our origin stories.

What I tell people is that my family left Saigon the day before its fall, on April 29, 1975. What I don’t always say is that family meant my dad, uncles, grandmother, older sister, and me. We left because my father and uncles had been in the South Vietnamese military and the end of the war meant re-education camps or worse. We left because we had a chance. We had motorcycles that took us to a boat on the river that went out to the sea, to a U.S. Navy ship that took us to the Philippines, where airplanes took us to Guam and then Arkansas and then Michigan. Three refugee camps in all.

What I don’t usually say is that my mother stayed behind in Viet Nam. Or was left behind in Viet Nam. I don’t know the truth, or if there is such a thing. I can’t frame what happened as a decision or a choice. It was wartime, and half my family became refugees and half did not.

In 1975 I was a baby; what happened was not my conscious experience. My memories, instead, are of growing up in Michigan, with a strong grandmother and a strong stepmother. The summers were short and the winters went on and on. Icicles lengthened from the eaves and fell like daggers into the snow. My sister and I knew the vague story about our mother in Viet Nam, but ours was a family that preferred silence over questions, especially when there were no simple answers. We lived in a mostly white community that wasn’t happy about a sudden influx of Vietnamese refugees, and our mode of safety was silence. No one talked about the war. It was better to look forward, not back. It was better not to ask and not to know.

when my sister and I were in elementary school, our mother in Viet Nam became our mother in Boston. My father told us that she had written him a letter to say that she had come to America with her two older children. I remember how surprised I was—at her existence being mentioned, at her having other kids. At the

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