You’ve always been asked-told you are “Mỹ lai,” meaning American, meaning white. You’ve always been halved.
Even though we share the same body, you won’t remember me. Because we became unrecognizable to each other. For what felt like an endless period of time, despite the fact that, by the calendar, it was only a year – the first year that your firstborn won’t remember, at least not well enough to articulate.
The first words you said to her when your husband brought her fresh red cheek to yours: “Con ơi, Mẹ ne.” You’ll whisper the same to her when nightmares wake her, when the dog’s barks at the mailman startle her, and whenever she needs you in times in her life that you cannot yet see. Don’t get in your head about why your Southern Vietnamese mother passed down “Mẹ ” to you, and so to her, instead of your regional “má.” Just say it. Enjoy the pleasant surprise of how instinctual–imperative–it feels to speak to her in the same language that ushered you into the world.
The first smell of her is liquid and new. You read that animal babies smell their mothers for food and protection. Your bà ngoại’s eucalyptus oil, Marlboro smoke, and CVS perfume; your mother is Oil Olay lotion, ginger tea, and incense. Stop yourself right here because you’re starting to beat up your body for not being like one of those girls who smell like coconut shampoo or plumeria body spray all day. You are not the chicken stock and pencil shavings you smell in your sweat. Your body’s making your mind go through a lot. Smear some coconut lotion
under your nose and do this: send home the baby’s first worn onesie to familiarize your rescue dog with her scent. He is the one who crawled into your lap on his first day in your home, peed on your hand out of excitement, of claiming you. You are making shapes of memory: a triangulation of smells—her to him, him to you, and you to her. Remember that you are making, not destroying. Remembering is what is going to help you through this.
The first time you want to face someone while sleeping is with her. Feel her slow breath on your face. You’ll want to roll the shape of her nostrils around in your mouth, hold them between your teeth, feel the loving tension in your jaw. Let that fill the emptiness growing inside you, the hole that’s getting chipped away by all the words from parenting advice books and other parents who try to convince you that sleeping next to her is bad– ‘individual,’ ‘baby,’ ‘independent,’
This is the cold tongue of America. Your ancestors slept side-by-side from birth and that did not make them incapable losers. They were survivors with the memories of their mothers’ breath in their nose, the shape of her in their bodies. She’s going to want that, too. She will sleep best with your hot breath on her skin. You’ve been tilting your head away but she stirs and reaches until you are face to face and you can’t hold your breath any longer. You’ll breathe into each other’s faces. This will be hard because you can’t be invisible anymore. You can’t give into the pounding “I want to die” thoughts.
The first is always going to feel like the last. It’s okay to take too many pictures of everything she does. When she looks back at the scrapbooks you’ve curated, she’ll see it as love, not fear.
You’re afraid of losing her. You’ll regularly feel like she’s slipping away, but you’re the one. So, stay.
Remember how you used to spend hours drawing pictures of families, all with the same hair and eyes and last name? You topped these stacks of drawings with a title page with the name of their town: Strawberry Fields. Your white tv dream. Even within your family, people will focus only on her blue eyes or her light skin and tell you she looks just like her father. They’ll look back and
forth between you and say, “She’s so white.” When you dress her in ao dai for Têt and she loves it so much she wants to wear it to the park, on walks, to the beach, brace yourself for people who will only see a white girl playing dress up, who say, “Cute costume!”
Because you’ve been halved, you never expected your children would look like you. After all, you don’t look like either of your parents, not without study. You thought that your genetics would be swept away, like the “bụi đời ,” the “dust of life,” that they call your kind in the homeland. But it still hurts that people don’t connect her to you, like she’s been halved again, diluted. And here you are using this language in your head when you look at her through others’ eyes.
Remember that her father is your partner. He is the only person who can most fully see you, reminds you that of course she looks like you, but that you have always been made to feel invisible so even you cannot see yourself in her. Cling to him and the few others who see that her facial structure–the shape, her chin, lips, nose, and forehead–are yours and, in turn, your bà ngoại ’s.
You think all the nice things he says to you are a lie because all you can hear are your own thoughts: “They’d be better off without you. I want to die. I want to die. I want to die.” Because you think he is a liar, you will grow angry with him, and then feel more alone. You will hate when he asks you how your shower is. What are you supposed to say? That you showered in the dark to dull at least one of your senses because the water on your skin is so painful as it grates your bleeding nipples on breasts that will throb and buzz long after nursing is over and salts your aching, itching c-section scar? That your wrists and your teeth ache? That the way the water makes you aware of your body reminds you of the mother and child mummies found in Lemon Grove–their skin the exposed biology that you feel.
Your body is changing, but not in the ways that people tell you it will. There is no peeing when you laugh, no crying at rom-coms. In fact, you don’t laugh or cry at all anymore. And there is no lingering baby weight. In fact, you lose fifty pounds and everybody compliments, “You look great, mama!” What they don’t realize is that everything sweet tastes sour, everything fresh tastes like its rotten future thingness. You don’t eat because that’s your way of edging toward disappearing.
But she eats well. She craves fruit, vegetables, and more fruit, even the grinding seeds of kiwi and dragonfruit. It seems that the sadder you get, the healthier and stronger she grows, making it feel like this is how it is supposed to be.
The dog who side-eyed you suspiciously when the baby kicked him through your stomach now barks a lot, at everything. At first it seems sweet that he is protecting the baby, and you read an article about how they have evolved to mimic human faces. You realize that he is mimicking you—curl-lipped snarl to hide a trembling whimper inside.
When the baby smiles or laughs with other people cooing to her in English, try not to take it personally or as a threat. Her doing so will not negate that you are her one and only mother, the one whose palm on her back or fingertips tracing her barely-there brow immediately consoles her.
It’s not worth it to snap at all these people who seem to be encroaching your baby. They assume that because you are now a mother you are a good person, so when you tell them to shut up or bat their hand away from her, they are extra disillusioned with this whole motherhood thing. You’re gonna feel like you’re shattering everyone’s world, but remember that it takes a lot longer to build a lie.
When he pleads for you to get help, don’t take it as a criticism, or as some extended form of colonialism trying to “fix” you. He is hurting too. Remember when he said, “I miss my wife.” The therapist will start by giving you tests–the Edinburgh PostPartum Depression Scale and a few other fill-in-the-bubble metrics. You rank off the charts, a point under recommended hospitalization. “Such a model minority,” you joke, but she doesn’t laugh. “You know, high test scores,” because something about you lately just wants to keep digging in deeper. The only thing that saves you from hospitalization is the fact that you are still taking good care of your baby.
The therapist scans stacks of self-help book chapters on PPD and worksheets to track your mood. Most of them are obvious–eat, sleep, exercise–that you won’t do because you’re already bored with the simplicity of this therapy. She suggests bougie solutions too–maids, day care, hypnosis for trauma. You’re not going to pay anyone to help you. You’re already feeling equal parts proud and guilty that you’ve made it far enough from the projects where you grew up to a neighborhood where people walk dogs in sweaters, where you have a yard that she toddles around and you’ll follow her with sunscreen.
You will, though, start to take medicine. Everything in your head is going to call this a validation of your weakness, of giving into the colonizing doctors that your mother warned you against. But she’s actually the one who pushed you to get that prescription. It was in a presentation for your students, you share statistics about how Asian American women have some of the highest rates of depression and suicide, and that’s just the ones who report it. You realize that PPD is part of all those invisible numbers, that your mom is one of those, that you are becoming one like her.
The last time you were medicated you were a teenager, back when Paxil was new. Something you’d written in a journal suddenly had you shuttled between counselors and then on meds. One pill numbed you into a vegetative state, another into a manic flail, and the last that made you hallucinate. The new one evens you out–”I’m glad I got my wife back,” he tells you. The only side effect is that it makes you remember dreams from years ago, and your mind is compelled to recall them from beginning to end: Zombies blare music from their gaping chest cavities until you baseball bat them into floating ash; your beloved LaKeith Stanfield is gunned down in a
drive-by shooting and you escape the flying bullets in a Willy Wonka-esque candy glass elevator; you climb a concrete mountain to a Hindu temple where you drown in a puddle of rainwater and incense smoke. You know, dreams.
With the help of medication, you’ve had to remake yourself, figure out what motherhood is for yourself. You retrain your tongue. First, stop mumbling “I want to die. I want to die. I want to die. And I’m going to kill myself.” You sound like her.
Second, relearn your first language. Read to your infant daughter all of the Vietnamese and bilingual books that you ordered from Amazon. You will get frustrated. There will be tonal waves of phrases you’ve never used before. Do not forget the shame you feel for all the times you’ve corrected your mother’s pronunciation or laughed when she said, “I need ketchup. Let’s go to Chik-a-Flik.” You know now that it felt like love but sounded like hate.
There will be other words that you’ll realize are simply complete blanks for you, like “rainbow” and “giraffe” and “brave.” Study those words and repeat them to her proudly so she can name the world, and herself, in ways that you couldn’t. When you get lines in her books down, read them to her in happy tones of voice that you’ve only heard in English. Help her love Vietnamese by showing her it loves her.
After your family scatters after your grandmother’s death, cope with the loneliness that the only person you can speak your mother tongue to is a baby who is just now learning to respond with hums, points, and knowing looks. You’ll yearn for the sound to an embarrassing degree. Once
when you took your baby to the nature center where you heard a family complaining to each other about how hot it is (aren’t you from Viet-hot-and-humid-as-hell-Nam?), you pull your resistant baby–flower-eating, dirt-digging earth child that she is–away from the pinecone display and start talking look-at-me loudly to her about con chim (birds). “Oh wow, con chim bay lên trời !” and you look over your shoulder like a doofus clown to see if they heard you, as if they’d pat you on the back or invite you over for a dinner of cá kho tộ (because damn you miss the taste of your mom’s cooking) or maybe adopt you and give you a Vietnamese name that sounds like waves when you’re floating on your back, like Lien after your cousin who is such a good person and mother with gentle voice and you only wish you could be so inherently good. But they don’t. Of course they don’t. You should know by now that Vietnamese don’t praise, especially not in public.
Never refer to your daughter as “lớn ” (big). Tell her, in both languages, that she is strong and healthy and beautiful. Your mom always told you that Vietnamese culture does not praise children because it will make them turn out the opposite. “Say beauty and come out so ugly.” So you accepted it when your mother told you your nose was big and fat like her original one, and she pinched and clothespinned it in an effort to make it thinner and higher. When your daughter arrives with an near exact replica of your nose, your mom says, “She like Jade. No trouble breathing,” looking at your husband for a laugh. He doesn’t and never will. You thought you would struggle with resisting the return of the nose pinch, but the first time she reaches for the baby’s nose, you quickly and easily bat her hand away and tell her to never do that again.
You don’t tell her that being a mother is realizing you’ve been mothering yourself all along.
You will need to combat the feeling of impending, continued loss. Because all of the women who came before you are a part of you, you feel their losses from war and immigration and abuse. You feel your own repeated losses of doubled identities and the memories that slip away because you’re always shifting.
But listen more carefully. This new life is more than just echoes. Hear her when she calls you Mẹ . Hear her when she calls you Mama.
Write to yourself as a mother and a daughter. Write so that you don’t forget. Write so that, even if silence grows between you (and this is your greatest fear), she still cannot forget. It’s okay that you write in English and only occasionally in Vietnamese. Trust that your bilingualism will double your chances of articulating your love for her and accurately curating, in fact and in feeling, the happy memories that you build together each day. These journals and scrapbooks that you fill will be her history whenever she doubts who she is, who you are, or fears the outlines of things that already make her whimper in her sleep before you rest your hand on her chest and allow yourself to breathe against her cheek.
On your first Mother’s Day with her in the world, lug over the stacks of scrapbooks–these distinct shapes and sounds of your memories as mother and child–to be the unspoken echo of your first words to her. “Con ơi, Mẹ ne.” Not halved, but doubling.
Jade Hidle (she/her/hers) is the proud Vietnamese-Irish-Norwegian daughter of a refugee. Her travel memoir, The Return to Viet Nam, was published by Transcurrent Press in 2016, and her work has also been featured in Michigan Quarterly Review: Mixtape, Southern Humanities Review, Poetry Northwest, Flash Fiction Magazine, The West Trade Review, Bangalore Review, Columbia Journal, New Delta Review, and the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network’s diacritics.org. You can follow her work at www.jadehidle.com or on Instagram @jadethidle.