Giovanna Truong

Nước: the Vietnamese word for country and water.


Nước mắt chảy xuống. Tears flow down, my mother tells me. By which she means: a child’s love for their parents doesn’t match the parents’ love for their child. The glassy drops travel from one generation to the next. Never the other direction. Gravity holds all things — concrete and abstract — in thrall. 


Upon hearing this proverb, I recalled Ma singing a Vietnamese folk poem in which an egret urges a passerby not to cook her offspring, but to boil her instead. The ultimate sacrifice in life, then, is not death — but parenthood.


Nước Mỹ: the United States, realm of my birth. Minnesota, the Land of Ten Thousand Lakes, is where Ma pushed three fat-headed babies out of her underwear line. My vagina is weak, she explained to my sisters and me our birth story, so I did a C-section. She often flaunts the scar, because with the scalpel’s incision came diamonds that can’t be appraised. 


When I emerged from my mother, gooey and unprepared for life on this planet, my father wasn’t present. Ba, whose face is mean, says Ma, succumbed to the lure of McDonald’s: he bought fries and chicken nuggets for my older sister. So the first people I met were Ma and the midwives, who wore kind faces, she said. Faces so powerful that they even influenced my sexual orientation: Johnny, that’s why you’re gay! she enlightened me. Although Ma didn’t elaborate, I knew she was intertwining my softness, in voice and in behavior, with homosexuality — a stereotypical yet painfully accurate association. 


Cindy, Angela and I didn’t finish nursing until we reached five years. Spoiled, Ma called us. I imagine now breasts reddening, bruised by three mini-vampires, swollen as dragon fruit. 


Nước Việt Nam: the place where my mother, father, and grandmother first met the world. Ma and Ba say they’d like to return to the homeland one day, but my grandmother reproaches them: No, never go back to Vietnam. Decades later, war trauma continues to ring. In addition to water, country is a window, on the other side of which lies a beautiful landscape of rice terraces and floating markets and motorcycle-filled streets of childhood — a window that, once closed, should not be opened.


In 1963, my grandmother watched in the crowds as monk Thich Quang Duc committed self-immolation to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. Flames twisted around him in the already roasting Vietnam air. As a seventh-grader, I would see that scene in my American history textbook, half a hundred years later.


Nước biển: seawater. Having fled Vietnam following Saigon’s fall, thousands of refugees died at sea due to drowning, piracy, or dehydration. The world, I have realized, meets you — and it doesn’t set up rendezvous points. 


Part of the fortunate group, my uncle and grandfather made it to surrounding countries like Malaysia, whose officials relocated refugees to new lands like France, Australia and the United States. The two made it here first. Why they chose Minnesota, where snow reigns — a climate they’d never encountered — Ma doesn’t know. 


Nevertheless, my family has bloomed in this crystallized whiteness.


Má thực khát nước. Có ai cho má nước được không? Mother’s very thirsty. Can anyone give Mother water? she asks, having woken up from her daily post-work nap. 


On the dining room wall hangs a photo in which a young Ma flaunts her golden áo dài, a Vietnamese dress of silk, and a matching headpiece. Wearing claw-like, metal fingerpicks, Ma plucks her zither, the light glossing her porcelain skin. 


But that was thirty years ago. She—her body—has changed. Ma’s name is Diemlan: diem for beauty, lan for orchid. And names are liars. An ephemeral orchid, she does not rise and wither yearly. Only wilts. When Ma asks me to bring her water, it seems as if she’s saying, The factory shatters me. After handing Ma the cup, I examine her, the exhausted limbs after toiling on the assembly line. An anatomy lesson: carpal tunnel has weakened my mother’s hands; a gel spacer occupies the web between her first two toes, to alleviate bunion pain; the soles of her feet are dry, cracked, as if someone has sprinkled sand on them. She has poor posture, her back always hunched — It hurts, stop! Ma groans when I try to give her a shoulder massage —; Her footsteps are slow, growing slower. The body is flesh and blood, yes, but it may as well be glass.


On grocery runs, I zoom through the sliding doors of Cub Foods, but she isn’t as swift. Hoping to view Ma behind me, I crane my neck backward — only to see her still in the parking lot, ambling, according to her, like a penguin. Impatience pervading me, I sigh and frown at her lack of speed. To walk quickly is a privilege. Lessons are learned so late. 


They didn’t teach us, the Old Masters, that a synonym for dream is gradual destruction


Cho ba nước lạnh. Child, give Father cold water, Ma orders. She’s just placed the bowl of spicy bún bò on the kitchen table. I grab a clear cup, dash to the freezer, scoop up some ice, then pour water for the perching emperor — my mother standing, washing dishes.


Không tốt nước bo-bah. I hate boba tea, Ma grimaces. She dislikes it when my sisters and I pay $18 at ChaTime for three cups of jasmine milk tea. It’s so expensive. Easy — I can make it at home! Ma complains, praising her own culinary gifts. 


Boba is actually how I came out to her. Black Friday, 2020: my little sister, Ma and I strolled around Mall of America to participate in capitalist conformity. Angela shopped for clothes at H&M, leaving me and Ma in line at ChaTime. The two of us stood for a moment, she on her phone, I on mine. Around us shoppers chattered, their bags drooping and crinkling. Unable to withstand this loud silence, I unleashed my secret. 


I have something to tell you, I began, … but you might get mad.


No, I promise! Tell me!


I’m gay, I whisper-shouted. 


Haaaaa?! she replied, tilting her head, the exclamation rising in pitch, like notes of a violin. 


Moments later, Angela returned empty-handed from H&M and found out what had transpired. Are you mad? she asked Ma. 


Nooo, not mad. Ma turned to look at me. You’re my son.


Má sẽ cho con nước khi má đến trường. Mother will give Child water once Mother arrives at Child’s school, Ma would tell me over phone when I was in ninth grade, as I waited in the school atrium for her to pick me up. Overhead, flags from many countries, to remind students of their culture, of an invisible home that inhabits the imagination — unable to be touched. 


After tossing my bookbag in the backseat and jumping to the front, I chugged the cup of iced water. Never did she fail to cure my dehydration. 


In Vietnamese, which I can barely read and write in, one refers to oneself relative to the person with whom one speaks. When my mother talks about herself to me or my sisters, there is no I. Only this maternal role. For eternity.


And hopefully, in our next lives, we will be reunited. Unchanged. Mother and son. Bearing the same identities — I her con, she my ma. 


Nước mắt chảy xuống. Tears flow down, Ma tells me. 


Why does she love so much? 


How many words must a son utter or scribble in order to show his mother that love, like a wide-winged egret, can fly up?       


Nước chanh: lemonade. Con phải uống nước chanh. Child has to drink lemonade, Ma says frequently. Having noticed my academic diligence, my mother sets onto the desk a mug of freshly conjured lemonade, with clinking ice and undissolved sugar on the cubes. As if I am the one who deserves a drink. As if seated busyness takes precedence over the standing kind. With a straw, I stir the concoction then sip. The coldness streams down my throat and into my tummy, shrouding me like a quilt. 


I now submerge myself in nostalgia, returning to those winter nights when, with the heater malfunctioning, Ma would cover me in two ripped blankets — one with floral patterns, another with Pikachu and his tail of lightning. As if to protect me from the universe she knew too well, from unkind people, from not-nice languages. 


Through millions of years of human existence, let tenderness never cease being our greatest power.


My mother seldom paints her love through words. Hence the lemonade. Hence the sacrifices. Rarely do I hear, Má thương con. Mother loves Child. Though, when she does express endearment, Ma says, Love you, con, uniting two nước. Like blossoms of watercolor bleeding into one another. 


But those four letters prove insignificant. She’s already imprinted her affection onto me with something more memorable, in an iteration of English — the language of my deliverance, and of my alienation — that’s not broken, but her own: You’re my son


To which I respond, in my head and on this once snow-fresh canvas, You’re my ma.