“Chanh seriously, what even is that?” Mona glared at me, wrinkling her nose. I hated it. No matter how much I told my mom that I just wanted normality, she always yelled at me for forgetting my culture. I was stuck with it. My weird food that looked and smelled like rice and mushrooms, my ugly name that meant lemon. My mom literally named me after a citrus. Lemons are so precious in Vietnam, her voice resonated through my thoughts.
“Um, banh,” I replied timidly. I peeled back the banana leaves to reveal a slimy, translucent rice flour cake with a tint of orange. I quickly shoved the whole blob in my mouth, hoping my friends would ignore it. My eyes teared up as the blob slowly squeezed down my throat, and I glanced around the cafeteria. Julie Cohen was poised at the next table. Her simple turkey sandwich was so pleasing to me. Her blonde, waist length hair was expertly permed and teased, framing her face with a wild mane of ringlets. Her Guess jeans were a second skin on her legs, the ankle zipper slightly grazing her untainted, beige Mia flats. Her off-the-shoulder grey sweatshirt looked just like Jennifer Beal’s on Flashdance. I wondered if I could ever look so chic. I stared down at my home sewn brown corduroys tucked into the high tops of my grubby ivory converse shoes. My drug store permed hair fell flat onto the plaid ruffle shirt that mom had made. As the bullies in the back of the bus always chanted, I looked like I was F.O.B., Fresh off the Boat. The bell rang, breaking me from my trance. Kathy grabbed my shoulder.
“Don’t worry about Mona, she’s going through a rough patch, her parents are getting divorced,” Kathy whispered in my ear. I didn’t understand how she could be going through a rough patch. I had lost everything, I went from high class to dirt. The communists had taken my life away. For the rest of the day I thought of the beautiful life I had before the fall of Saigon in 1975. The soft sand and salty anchovy smell of our family’s monthly trip to Vung Tau Beach. The vibrant orange kumquat tree that smiled at me from the garden. My own room. My closet filled with a rainbow selection of dresses and shiny shoes. The chauffeur who drove my younger siblings and I to school every day.
My sister Hoa was named after a deep purple tropical hibiscus that filled the gardens of Vietnam, my brother Thien’s name literally meant “brilliance”, and I was named after the precious lemon. Clearly something was lost in translation, but I knew it’s not my parents’ fault. How could they have foreseen that in their lifetime, Vietnam would be split into communist North and democratic South in 1954; only to be reunified again in 1975 when the North marched into Saigon? How could they have known that they would leave Vietnam in the middle of the night, with nothing in their hands but the palms of their children? How could they have known that they were going to lose their country and end up in a foreign land? How could they have known that we would have to rely on the kindness of strangers in the United States; church groups that would sponsor countryless, homeless, penniless, refugees into their homes, with only the request that the children be baptized?
I got off the bus and raced to the mailbox. I sighed with disappointment, flyers, but no letters. College admission letters are mailed out at the end of March. Today is March 23, 1983. Any day now! It still felt so cold to me; despite having been in the US for eight years, I was not used to the weather in Silver Spring, Maryland. The cherry blossoms were in bloom, and I slowly puttered on their pale pink petals scattered on the sidewalk that led to our apartment. Kathy caught up to me and asked, “Hey Chanh, want to come over to watch General Hospital?” She knew I don’t have a TV. I shook my head and grumbled, “I can’t, my mom wants me to do chores.” Kathy rolled her bright blue eyes and turned towards her apartment, “OK, see ya.” Kathy was very tall, five feet ten. She was self-conscious about it and hunched when she walked. I did’t know why she felt so awkward. I thought she was beautiful, she looked just like Princess Diana, except she was Polish. Her parents had immigrated from Poland about five years ago. Kathy loved watching Luke and Laura on General Hospital; but her favorite actress on the show was Demi Moore. Kathy wanted to be an actress just like her.
I rushed into the door of the apartment as tears of frustration streamed down my face. Why couldn’t I fit in? Why did I have to babysit Hoa while my mom was still at work? It was fine, I had a half hour before the junior high school bus dropped Hoa off. I sat down at the puny imitation wood plastic desk that the church had given to me. I scratched the usual routine into my notebook. Chanh Nguyen, 3-23-83, AP Chemistry. The skinny legs on the desk wobbled with every punctuation mark. An idea came into my head and I erased Chanh and wrote Sharon. I smiled. My anger soared as I tore the page off and started over. I had no time for daydreaming. I had to start dinner, get through three chapters of Chemistry, write a report on “A Separate Peace,” and go to work at Seven Eleven.
Hoa came home and shrieked with joy when I announced that we were making spaghetti for dinner. I browned the ground beef that Mom had gotten to make “tre” with. “Tre” is ground beef mixed with lemongrass, fish sauce, and garlic, wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed; then served over piping hot jasmine rice. We realized that we didn’t have spaghetti sauce; in fact we didn’t have spaghetti noodles either! Hoa and I were determined to have an American meal. We decided to add pureed fresh tomatoes and ketchup to the beef. We added garlic, pepper, and way too much salt to the sauce; hoping to cover up the fact that we were missing oregano and basil. We boiled ramen noodles and added them to the wok. We sat down, eager to taste our creation. Hoa’s dark eyes glistened as she recounted her day at school. She was the opposite of me. Whereas I looked like my dad, she looked like my mom. Her face was round like a doll, while mine was oval. She was wearing a smaller version of an outfit I also had in my closet. My mom made our clothes from the same swaths of fabric because it was cheaper to use scraps from one garment to make another. I wish I had been younger like Hoa when I arrived in the US. Her accent was not as thick, and she blended in better. Moreover, she didn’t have as many bad memories, thus had a sweet disposition, reminiscent of the flower she was named after; whereas I was sour like the lemons of my name. With the first bite, we realized that ours was definitely not the same spaghetti that we feasted on at church dinners, but we relished the fact that we were eating spaghetti, at least until Mom got home and chastened us for wasting ingredients. The food, according to her, was completely inedible. She called us idiots for trying to be American. We shrugged at her, it was the most disrespectful we dared to be; and when she glared at us we quickly bowed and apologized.
I left for work at 8:30 PM. It was about a mile walk to the Seven Eleven and I was scared. In the dark, it seemed like shadows ducked behind trees, and leaves rustled like someone was brushing against branches, as if they were on their way to grab and kidnap me. I started running and my heart was pounding out of my chest by the time I got to the convenience store for my four hour shift. Three dollars an hour for four hours. That meant $12.00 towards my soon to be purchased Guess jeans that were $50.00.
I was still thinking about my new Guess jeans when a middle-aged man with greasy, brown hair walked up to buy a Slurpee. I actually smelled him first: cigarettes and sweat, with a faint whiff of beer. Then my eyes caught his baseball cap with US NAVY embossed on it. I looked down and suppressed a gasp when I realized he didn’t have a right arm. I took the dollar bill from his calloused left hand and noticed that he had neatly trimmed nails with dirt under them. I wondered who trimmed his nails.
“Chanh, is that a Vietnamese name?” he wondered, looking at my name tag.
“Yes,” I replied tersely. Vietnamese national guilt washed over me. I worried that he would become upset at me, cause a scene, and get me fired.
“I served in Vietnam, I was there in 1965, in Danang!” he said with a grin. He continued, “65-67, then again in 1975. Beautiful country, beautiful people!”
A smile made its way up my cheeks now that I realized that he was not angry at me, “Oh wow, thank you! I was born in 1965!”
“What does Chanh mean?”
I hesitated and looked up at him shyly.
“I mean don’t Vietnamese names usually mean something?” he asked.
I muttered, “It means lemon. Citrus is really precious in Vietnam.” I waited for him to laugh.
“Did you leave in 1975? I was on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vung Tau Beach during the Fall of Saigon. April 1975. I was evacuating refugees.”
I remembered Vung Tau Beach. We had spent carefree weekends there. Softly, I replied, “No.”
He tilted his head to the right and looked at me inquisitively.
“My family escaped in a charter boat in 1978.”
“Did everyone make it here?” he asked.
“No,” I gulped. “My dad and little brother were murdered by Thai pirates during our escape. Right in front of us. The pirates were demanding loot, and my dad said we have none. So they shot my brother and threw him overboard to see if we could come up with any treasures to give them. When we still had nothing, they shot my dad and threw him overboard.”
He paused and gently said, “I’m sorry for your loss. Do you know what impressed me most about the vietnamese people? They are survivors. I know you are going to do great things.”
Tears welled into my eyes and I was too choked up to speak.
“You hang in there,” he said, grabbing a keychain flashlight that was for sale on the counter.
I was still silent as I rang it up for $1.50. He paid and gave the keychain to me in his outstretched left hand. “This is for you kid. The Vietnamese people were really kind to me. My favorite saying is, if life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”
I smiled with gratitude for his kindness about my name; and thanked him as I put the flashlight and its receipt into my pocket. We had to empty our pockets for the manager when we left, and if we had a store item in our pocket, we better have its receipt also.
“Did you lose your arm in Vietnam?!” I blurted.
“Yes. April 29, 1975, last day on the ship. It got caught in a pulley, got infected and the doctors had to amputate it. I’m left handed anyway,” He winked at me and left. I marveled at the irony that this man, who lost so much in Vietnam, was still kind to me.
That night, I felt less scared as I ran home from work, with my flashlight lighting the sidewalk like a huge beacon on a ship. For the first time in a long time, I felt understood and a sense of belonging.
The next afternoon, I raced from the bus to the mailbox to find a thick white envelope with crimson lettering from Harvard College. I had been accepted! I yelled with glee and skipped home to the apartment. I ran up to the altar with my dad’s and brother’s pictures on it. This was the only piece of furniture that did not come from the Salvation Army. It was a huge heavy handsome hardwood cabinet, with intricate hand carvings of dragons, flowers and clouds on its sides. I lit an incense to let them know the good news. I didn’t care if my clothes would smell funny at school the next day. I rushed to my little table to fill out the acknowledgement and financial aid forms. I sighed. There it was, as always, the first line, first question of every form: last name, first name. I paused. This was my chance. I could start anew here. I could become Sharon Nguyen! I took a deep breath and filled out my name. N-G-U-Y-E-N, C-H-A-N-H. I smiled and whispered to myself, “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”