It’s so hot—could you please reduce the heat from the fire a little? I would do it myself, but I see you are good with the logs and the twigs.
I believe that a person’s soul is revealed in their hands. Do you agree? I think so when I see your hands touching the bark, rolling it so that the logs collapse just right, as though you know the grooves of each piece and how they should fit together. Look at your hands, pulling out that log now as it spits glowing coals, flipping it onto the sand. What a lovely way to spend a night in the Vietnamese countryside.
One day you might see the soul emerge when I play a piano. You have never seen a piano, but they have them in the cafés of Sài Gòn. Grand cafés with live music at night and always a woman singer, with long hair, singing slow songs. Last week I was in such a café, down a side street not far from Dinh Độc Lập, the Independence Palace. The street was full of alleyways, bars with loud music, and street food.
Listen to me rattling on. Why don’t you recline in this hammock opposite mine, and I shall call my old aunt to bring us some wine and squid to roast over the fire? Her husband, your boss, was sitting with me, but he is an inexperienced drinker and went to bed after two cups of wine. But you look like a sturdier man, with an excellent round stomach. Stay put and I will be right back with our food and drink.
Let us toast—what shall we toast to? Let us toast to this beautiful country! You must drink it all in one go. Look, it is not so hard. This is top-quality squid from Đà Nẵng. Shall we stick it onto some skewers? I suppose we can just leave them to cook on this log jutting out here. Or will they get covered in ash? Never mind, I will eat anything, I have a strong stomach. I have no qualms about eating the street food here. Many of my ngoại quốc, ‘overseas Vietnamese’, friends would feel queasy at the thought of those street dishes. I would happily eat the plates of fried flour cakes with the minced pork, squid sauce, carrots, and fried onion on top. I have an old female friend from high school, who wakes up early to cook the breakfast and lunch fare for commuters. She sells from six to nine in the morning, on the side of the street just before the turn-off to the highway. Little bags of rice and braised vegetables. Very convenient.
Now that we are comfortable and the squid is smoking nicely, what questions do you have for me? I know you must have questions, because it is not often that you meet a man like me in a small village like this. Are there any ngoại quốc in your family? I thought not. I am only here for a few days to pay my respects to my old aunt and uncle, which I am happy to do, of course. I have a very high regard for family. And I enjoy helping however I can. For example, yesterday I bought thirty sacks of rice to give to families in the village neighbourhood. What I mean to say is—let me pour some more wine for you—this little fishing town is not a common spot for visitors and I can open up the world for people like you.
Can you please reduce the heat of the fire a little more? Thank you. Let me tell you about my home in Paris, in the 13th arrondissement. I can show you where it is on my phone. If I my pinch my fingers like so, we can see deep into Paris, to the very streets and small parks. This is my apartment, on Rue Damesme, right there. There are five apartments to a floor here. It is not very big, but that does not make it less valuable. Property in Paris is more about location than space and we are in a very good location. We are right by the hospital and the Parc de Choisy. There is even a phở restaurant nearby, called Ba Miền. The French enjoy phở very much. In fact Ba Miền is often full of white people! It shows that my Paris is a very generous society and, like I told you, my French friends think that I may as well be one of them.
I also own a property in the suburbs in Vitry-sur-Seine. It is a real house, free-standing, and I rent it out because that’s a very smart way to make money. You have to be smart like this. The immigrant must not be lazy, as I sometimes see the local youths are here, loitering and begging on the streets. It is a symbol of the decline of our country. I’ve seen it coming a long time. It is insulting to see my people living idle lives, lying around in hammocks, expecting somebody else to feed them. And the rich youths too, who will never do anything of value because of their corrupt fathers and grandfathers, who work for the government. I spit on the Communist dogs. What? Do you think the Việt Cộng are hiding behind the banks of that irrigation stream, which is dry and full of dead fish? You should be so lucky.
Nobody works anymore. Only the Americans. They build those KFCs, with their fried chicken and white tiles, in our country, and the rich kids are there on the second floor, eating American chicken as though their mothers never had chicken at home. I want to know what they put in the American chickens that are turning everybody fat and lazy. But what choice do we have? The Chinese chickens are even worse. They are stuffed with bits of plastic. I read it in a newspaper once. What about the Vietnamese chickens, I ask you? Where are they? I suppose there are a million Vietnamese chickens running all over the country and nobody wants to eat them.
Are you sure you don’t want more wine? I see you are not used to the taste. Wine is something you have to learn, like numbers, like words. It has to be understood. But it isn’t the wine. I can see in your eyes what is the matter. You think I do not know, but I know. I am just like you, my brother. We are bitter. Not long ago, I was living in a small, dirty village like this one.
Although my family, as you know, is better than yours. So I made myself study and I was accepted into a sports-coaching course at the university in Sài Gòn. There I was, studying with other young people. But the war ended, the Communists won, and I had to leave my country, my family and friends, my home and my life—everything—and escape by sea. I didn’t know where I was going. Maybe I was hoping to go to America. But the French humanitarian boats picked us up and soon I was living in the housing projects in Clichy-sous-Bois. Tiny, cramped rooms and a communal bathroom I shared with other refugee men. I worked in a meat-smoking factory, on my feet all day, operating the mixer with my hands. But I am not complaining. No, I am proud of that work. Me, I always have a goal and I am always working. But it was not easy. On my first day, the supervisor took me through the factory. He showed me a big pile of sawdust and asked me to wait next to it, while he went away, returning with a shovel in one hand and lots of sacks in the other. He just pointed to the pile and said something in French that I did not understand. Of course, I guessed that he wanted me to shovel the sawdust and fill the sacks. After hours of labour, my whole body was wet with sweat, as if I had been working under a shower. My glasses had fogged with the steam.
I came home that first day, and thought about my life. I looked in the mirror and I saw such an ugly face, and dark yellow skin. I did not even recognise myself. I scratched my cheek and then saw black under my fingernails. I scratched everywhere and it was black—my body was sweating black, like dirt. I thought to myself, How can I touch a woman like this? I thought about my loneliness and tears flowed down my face. I had to lock myself in the toilet to hide from the other men. I promised myself that I would work and work to get out of my horrible situation. I saved money to buy crocodile logo shirts and a ticket to Vietnam, and I went back to find a Vietnamese woman.
I wish you could see what my wife was like back then. She was the youngest daughter in a family of four daughters, so shy and small. When I visited the house, she wore a white áo dài, like a schoolgirl. She barely said a word. I asked permission to take her to a café. She sat on the back of my scooter, and when I swerved or stopped abruptly, she grabbed onto my waist. She chirped like a bird, every time, it was so sweet. I thought, oh, now I have this pretty winged thing on my back, and I should marry her.
But my wife is so lazy, you know. She came to live with me in Paris and complained about the size of the apartment. Now she complains that I am old. She complains about everything. I made her wash my clothes, but she said that she would not touch my work clothes because my work is disgusting, the barley from the factory sticks to her fingers, and there is always grease on my pants. She thinks it is beneath her, that is the truth. She complains that she does not have her sisters around to talk to. She complains that she does not have new clothes and handbags. I tell her to go and work for money if she wants new clothes. Plenty of Vietnamese women work in hair and nail salons in Paris. So she says to me, How can you bear to bring the woman you love away from her home and make her clean the feet of white people? Such a lazy thing. She will not work and she sits at home watching Vietnamese TV shows. She does not even try to learn French. And she grows fat. The woman you love, she says. I confide in you, brother, that the thought of love had never crossed my mind.
While we are in Vietnam, she is staying in the Sofitel in Sài Gòn. That’s where she makes her sisters visit her. With my money, she buys them bottles of Chanel perfume and crocodile shirts. She buys as much as she can, and if I try to stop her, she says, You stole my life! She says it all the time. You stole my life! What a failure am I, to have stolen something of no value. What’s the matter? No, I am not drunk. I am sure you are not happy with your life either. I know you. Look at this godforsaken land. Men like us, we are always dreaming, always dreaming. There is always some place we are heading for, isn’t there, or there would be no sense in suffering for it. At the end of the war, Vietnam was such a sad and ruined country, like somebody’s plaything. I thought to myself, I will go to a country where the people are rich and powerful and I will learn their ways. On the refugee boat, I was lying beside a soldier whose leg was infected with gangrene, so I tried not to breathe and I made a promise to myself: I will succeed, oh, I promise, I promise I will. It was unbearable for him, and for us all, because his leg was rotting and the rot crept higher up his body every day. Somebody told him that it would soon reach his heart and kill him. We thought about throwing him off the boat, and sometimes he wanted us to, because the pain was so great. But of course it is hard for a man to decide to die, and it is hard to tell a man to die. So in the end, we threw him off the boat.
Will you believe that I did not feel anything? I was not his friend, I did not know his name—those things don’t matter on a boat like that. There is a lot of death, and no time to agonise. I arrived in France and life got harder every day. I told myself, this is not it, not yet. I wanted to gain riches from France so that I could return home to Vietnam, where I belonged. I wanted to change, to succeed, so that I could bring it all back home. In my mind, home was a beautiful country, kind women, and good food—food unmatched anywhere, not even by the French. This is where I am stupid, my brother. I dreamed up an ideal home. But what has become of this country, rotten with the Communist gangrene?
On nights like this, I ask myself where I am heading. Have I reached my destination? Is it this yard in a stinking fishing village in the south? Is it Sài Gòn, where my fat wife is emptying my bank account to buy perfume? Is it the apartment in Paris, so small that I hide drunk in the toilet every weekend? Or is it in America with the slaughtered chickens? That is the fate of the immigrant: always the dumb hope that we are going somewhere. Somewhere, somewhere, what a curse the word is, and yet it has infested my flesh. What do you want, my brother? Where do you dream to go? Is it somewhere with beaches, a big new house? Are there skyscrapers in the background and neon signs? How beautiful is the woman? Tell me, how soft is her hair and how does she hold you when you are worried?
But you must be sick of me. I have been such a terrible host, carrying on all this time about my tedious story. You must hate me. And how do I feel about you? I don’t know, brother. I still cannot tell if you will rob me or not, you have been so mysterious and quiet. And here I am, I have talked myself into a drunken stupor. I am weak and you must do what you will, that is how it is. Perhaps it is not so bad, is it? Perhaps it is better that you want something of mine and it will be no different afterwards, except that you will have the things instead of me. If I could just have one request, it is that, if you rob me, if you take my shirt and my phone and my money, please take my wife too. Be thorough. Take my passport. The French will not be able to tell us apart and it will be easy for you to live my life because I have just told you how. Now my head is heavy and aches for the net of the hammock. Nothing will be better than to sink into it. I will wake in the morning with no clothes on, my mouth crusted with squid and saliva and my skin red from this fire. Unless you incinerate me in it, and those sap trees nearby melt down to rivers of glue and cover the whole village in black smoke. What a pair we make, you and me, brother, two robbers in the night.
This is an extract from Joey Bui’s Lucky Ticket, available from 3 September from Text Publishing. Lucky Ticket is based on interviews conducted by Joey Bui with Vietnamese refugees around the world.
Joey Bui is a Vietnamese-Australian writer. She graduated from New York University Abu Dhabi, where she completed her first collection of short stories, Lucky Ticket. Joey has been published in journals and magazines in the US and Australia. She is currently studying at Harvard Law School.