June 4th 2011 - Katie Quach
In Mexico City (Day-effay, the pet name everyone uses) I sometimes take the train to work. The walk to the Chupaltapec Metro Station is only three blocks from my ground floor apartment in la Condesa. At the end of my street is a juice stand. At six-thirty in the morning a small group of men gather here. They might be drinking juice or eating cubes of fruit from clear plastic take-away containers. Mostly, they watch and wait for something to happen so they can talk about it. They see me approaching from across the street and grow still. I sense what’s about to happen before it does.
"China! China!” they erupt (but it actually sounds like, “CHEEE-NAAA! CHEEE-NAAA!”) They scream this from across the street; their fists pumping in the air in joy, aggression, or both, I can’t be sure. I hear clapping, then whistling. I keep walking. How else am I supposed to react? My eyes focus on the ground, looking for constellations among the dark patches of gum stuck to the sidewalk.
Afterwards I reenact the scene for my friends. They laugh at my imitation of the juice stand men. I bug my eyes out. I make myself look like a crazed fútbol coach on the sidelines. It makes for a good, self-deprecating story. And wasn’t that the point of leaving home two years ago, in search of a good story? I abandoned my family during a crisis to collect stories from abroad. Now that I’m about to return home, I’m not sure sacrificing my family was worth the stories I’ve collected.
I work as a fourth-grade classroom teacher at an international school in D.F; my first real teaching job. My students are the light-skinned descendants of Spanish conquistadors. It’s rumored a boy in the class next door arrives to school by helicopter, landing on the helipad at the hospital down the street. My students call me “Miss,” pronounced, Meees. I don’t think they know my name. They brag about their second, third, fourth homes in Aspen, Miami, Dallas. They never shut up.
I get monthly stomach bugs and my Spanish is remarkably bad. I spend my weekends drinking and drugging away the sound of children’s voices saying, Meees over and over again in my head. I like to think I’m living in my own short, black and white art film. I want this movie to titillate, but the truth is, it’s boring and even slightly depressing.
Back home in California I left behind my two sisters, my brother and sister-in-law, to care for my sick mom. My mother is losing her memory. She didn’t recognize me during my last visit in November. All five adults live together in one home. My siblings take turns caring for my mother. I told them I could no longer bear the heartache of seeing her change. I told them I needed space. So I left.
I will feel the unspoken repercussions of my move to D.F. for several years. I might still feel it to this day.
Now, ten years later, I have a husband and four-year old daughter and we live in Saigon, Vietnam, the same city where my mother once lived before she got sick. I came here for another terrible teaching job, quit before my contract ended, and swore to god I would never do another classroom teaching job again. It took ten years to learn this lesson. I am forever learning new lessons.
I came to Vietnam for a job, but I think I really came here in search of my mother. I see her everywhere—in the soft, shy smile on women’s faces in the park, in the perfectly peeled slices of grapefruit at the fruit shop around the corner from my house, in a bowl of breakfast Hủ Tiếu. I can’t explain why I keep living abroad either, except that it feels like home, as an outsider looking in, just like my parents were as Vietnamese exiles in America. Perhaps it helps me understand my mother better too.
I like myself a lot more than I did ten years ago. I’ve forgiven myself for the many mistakes I made. I still believe in a good story. The only difference is, I’m spending my time writing them down, rather than chasing after them like I did before. I write about my family. My hope is that my sisters, my brother, and sister-in-law will one day read my completed story and maybe, then, they’ll forgive the person I was ten years ago too.
Katie Quach is a former teacher and writer currently living in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. She was born in Northfield, MN. She’s lived in Flatbush, Lopburi, Hanoi, Mexico City, Alameda, and San Francisco, but considers California her home. She is an alumna of the Tin House Writers Workshop and Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She is slowly, slowly working on her first book.
She encourages Past Ten readers to learn more about Blue Dragon, a Vietnamese non-profit supporting children and fighting child trafficking.