“Why’re you bringing the mền hoa?” má asked in Vietnamese.
It was August 17th— one week before I flew out of Minnesota and moved into college. I placed my brightest Hawaiian shirts in my suitcase and my school supplies in my backpack, singing while I packed. I inherited my love for music from má. She always sings as she does chores.
When my two bags were nearly full, I realized I had entirely forgotten the most important items: sleep essentials. After much tireless shoving, I successfully squeezed a bedsheet and pillow into my suitcases. My floral blanket was next. As I folded it, má walked into my room, pondering why I even considered bringing my mền hoa.
Responding in our mother tongue, I explained, “It’s my favorite, and I love the patterns.”
My mền hoa is simply exquisite. It bears clusters of magenta tulips and orchids, burgundy camellias, maroon peonies, and pastel-pink cherry blossoms. Green stems and leaves curve and twist in the most satisfying ways. These bundles of flowers are arranged in a diagonal fashion and thrown against a beige background. My mền hoa is regal.
Má insisted, “No, you shouldn’t bring it! It’s for girls, and everyone will think you are bê đê (gay). You should bring the blue blanket — it’s more manly. If you invite a girl over to your dorm room, she’ll see your mền hoa!”
Well I’ve got news for you, má. You don’t really need to worry about that last part — trust me. Little does má know, I’ll be spending four years at the “gay Ivy,” a colloquial reference to Yale’s queer-friendly atmosphere.
I smiled and thanked má for her concerns. She stood in my room for several minutes to make sure I didn’t forget to bring anything important. Má checked off the boxes on her mental packing list, putting my pen and paper to shame.
As she inspected my suitcases, the words “I am gay” danced on the tip of my tongue. I heard myself gasping for air, preparing to utter that life-changing three-word phrase aloud.
But I didn’t.
I decided not to spark a hellfire in my house. But at the same time, I didn’t just want to do as má told me. When she departed my room, I discreetly packed my mền hoa, discarding her recommendation.
My mền hoa has two faces. Behind the ornamental front side, maroon, pink, green and beige colors stripe the back of the blanket. I often faced this less-flashy side of my mền hoa outwards, hiding the flower-laden front underneath so má or bá wouldn’t pay attention to it.
I treasured the secret pleasure of viewing the front of my mền hoa as it covered me from head to toe each night. Minutes before I fell asleep, wrapped up like a mummy, I’d occasionally use my phone’s flashlight to cast away the darkness beneath the blanket, illuminating the beautiful flowers. The mền hoa isn’t simply a piece of cloth that I wrap myself in whenever I require warmth. Rather, it’s a teleportation device, sending me to a field of flowers every night. I couldn’t part with it.
This little act — bringing my mền hoa to college — may not be as enthralling as a coming-out story. But it was my own way of making a statement. As I folded the mền hoa, I thought: If there is a time to exhibit my most genuine self, it would be in college. I considered bringing the blue blanket, as má suggested, to look more “manly.” Although a part of me was sold on the idea of an accepting Yale, another part still had doubts. But I had reached a certain threshold — a point at which I was finished concealing my queerness, my flamboyance and my “feminine” interests in an attempt to fit a conventional masculine mold.
I’ve kept my gayness hidden from my parents since sixth grade, when I myself realized my unorthodox romantic attractions. It’s a six-year secret. I officially spoke the words “I am gay” into existence during my 2019 summer. I mouthed this phrase to some dear friends while on Princeton’s campus, attending a leadership program called LEDA. For the first time in my life, I proclaimed these words, accepting myself.
After being released from the shackles that came with suppressing my gayness — after experiencing liberation — I returned home to Minnesota and continued to hide this aspect of myself from má and bá. But it wasn’t too stressful because I easily came out to my sisters.
“LOL, who doesn’t know?” Cindy and Angela jokingly exclaimed.
They then asked me when I was going to tell má this secret, because my relationship with her is especially strong. Má knows a lot about me. She has witnessed my most vulnerable, ugly-crying moments to my happiest of joys. I’m comfortable telling má anything. Well, except for that one truth. The night before I left for college was an inappropriate time to reveal my gayness to her. I bore a moral responsibility to ensure my family didn’t break apart. It would’ve been selfish of me to have the privilege of leaving home, letting my sisters deal with the aftermath of my coming out. I felt like Mulan when she saved China from the Huns, masking her identity as the only woman in an all-men’s army. Most importantly, I didn’t want to fight má and have this quarrel serve as my last memory of her when I left for college.
After I successfully passed through airport security, má waved goodbye and pointed to her phone, prompting me to look at a text message she sent.
“Be happy, be yourself and don’t let anyone break your spirits,” má wrote.
She then sent some pictures of the pungent pork broth of her homemade phở, urging me not to miss the delicious meals she conjures up. Her cooking talent transcends that of any Michelin-Star chef. Má still wishes she had the opportunity to attend culinary school, but my grandfather strongly discouraged her from pursuing this dream. She longs for her children’s lives to unfold differently. Má learned from my grandfather’s poor parenting, applying what she experienced with him to her own approaches to motherhood. She hopes for me to sprout into a person I’m happy being.
But má is oblivious to the fact that this — my self-acceptance, my self-empowerment — is my way of blooming. She is unaware that I want to flourish gleefully like those tulips, camellias and cherry blossoms on my mền hoa. Má may not have envisioned this type of blossoming, but there will surely come a day when she’ll be forced to confront my truth. Má fled war-torn Vietnam and foresaw her future children becoming educated, caring about their community and getting married. This third hope, however, will not exactly be how she expected. When that moment of truth — my coming out — arrives, I dream má will still be invested in my well-being, urging me to “be happy.”
I have some reason for hope. In the past, má has defended me. Whenever bá lectured me about my colorful room, má entered and exclaimed, “Let him do what he likes — he’s just a kid. He’s gonna get tired of his room soon, anyways!”
Má advocated for me, but then she exhorted that I was undergoing a phase — that I’d someday grow tired of seeing the rainbow walls around my room, or eventually cease to adore my mền hoa. She insinuated that it would be peculiar for me to still like these “girly” things as an adult. To má, my interests are short-lived.
But má is incorrect. I’ll love my blindingly vibrant room and my mền hoa until I leave this world, showcasing my colorful bedroom to anyone and everyone, unapologetically carrying my mén hoa to places I’ve never been. And now that I’m on campus, the front of my mền hoa faces out.
Just as I’ve taken my love for flowers and colors to Yale, I’ve also brought my love for singing. Seated at my flight’s gate, with my mền hoa in my suitcase, I started humming a Vietnamese river lullaby that I used to sing as a middle schooler. In sixth grade, I noticed my mother watching Vietnamese television and heard the song. I was instantly bewitched. These lullabies are traditionally performed by women, but I didn’t care. The elegance of the Vietnamese women singing captivated me. Whenever I sing, I aspire to emulate the gracefulness of these women, as well as the deep, melancholic tone of their singing voices. Their yearning to return to the rivers and valleys of our motherland — the powerful sadness of their vocal timbre — moved my sixth-grade self and continues to move me today. I hope to imitate their majesty.
That sixth-grade afternoon, as my voice permeated the room, má entered, puzzled.
“You shouldn’t be singing a woman’s song!”
My smile shattered. The hobby I grew up seeing má enjoy was deemed unacceptable if I did the same. I didn’t listen though — I’ve continued singing for the past six years. I’m a hummingbird who proudly chirps my song and feels most at home when surrounded by a meadow of colorful camellias and peonies — when covered in my mền hoa. The sound of my singing voice bouncing off the walls enchants me.
But I can’t manifest these aspects of myself in front of má and bá. At least, not yet.
There’s indeed some weight on my shoulders holding me down, knowing I have yet to disclose my gayness to my parents. Will I be happier if and when I come out to them? Most likely. But until then, I’ll conceal myself around them and shine around everyone else. That’s how I’ve maneuvered through life since I acknowledged my gayness a year ago. In one year, my story went from residing in my mind to being shared with my peers at LEDA, my sisters, some dear high-school friends, and now you. I’m content with having my sun and moon wait their turns.
Did má understand the hidden message behind her son’s colorful room and his love for Vietnamese river songs? Did she realize his mền hoa wasn’t merely a covering, but a banner unveiling his rainbow? If not, when will she? For now, we’ll wait and see.
“Be yourself,” má emphasized at the airport. And so, I shall. I love you, má.
John Nguyen | email@example.com