Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Miss Saigon

E. M. Tran

My mother was Miss Saigon of 1973, two years before the fall and capture of the city by the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viêt Công. There is a solid silver trophy, its height the length of my torso. The cup itself is the circumference of a basketball, and its S-shaped handles are molded into elegant leaf-covered vines. This trophy has been in our home for as long as I can remember. My mother has been Miss Saigon of 1973 for as long as I can remember.

 

The night before we evacuated for Hurricane Katrina, my father didn’t want to go. He said it was a waste of time to pack up and leave. My mother paced the house, her jade bangles and gem necklaces clinking as she packed up china and crystal. She filled the bathtub full of water but didn’t have a tub plug, so she covered the drain with a sauce bowl. I watched the water as it slowly but surely leaked into the drain. She continued to refill the tub. "In case we need water," she said, as if this would be the difference between life or death, this leaking tub of tap water.

 

"You’re really pretty, for an Asian girl," he said, with the characteristic lilt of a compliment. I said thank you, as I always did.

 

"How did you get the trophy to America?" I have asked my mother countless times. Sometimes she will say, "Someone brought it over," but she has never told me who, or when, or how. Sometimes she will say something like, "The trophy is from Vietnam," or "The trophy is because your mother is so beautiful," answering a question I didn’t ask, replacing the real answer I seek with something that I know already. She is an expert at avoiding the concrete in a way I will never be able to replicate. Sometimes she even tricks me into thinking she has given an answer, until later, when I try to recall it on my own.

The answer is always vague. The answer is never an answer. I suspect this is because she doesn’t remember, or she started not to care about veracity; to create the answer in whatever way possible, regardless of its truth or ambiguity, is her only option because it is and was imperative to her survival. If she believes there will be danger when there is none, she can produce that convincing vague peril in words until you are too exhausted to convince her otherwise. If she believes something is ugly, you will believe it too. If she believes something is right or wrong, she will create the reason.

 

When I was ten, I went to summer camp for two weeks. By the end of camp, my skin was a deep brown, like loam.

 

The story of my mother’s escape from Saigon is as amazing as it is unbelievable. She has seven brothers and sisters. She is the second to last child. During the war, my aunt dated an American businessman. My mother said he was very secretive, that they didn’t really know who he was. The fall of Saigon was imminent. The end inevitable and looming, everyone watched the resistance slowly crumble with the same complacent expectancy of watching a cookie break away in a cup of milk. The American told my aunt he knew it would happen too, that he knew everything. He had maps and machines and contacts overseas. He could get her on an airplane to the United States before the fall of the South’s forces. Airplanes out of Vietnam were impossible to get, and when they could be secured, the cost was completely unrealistic for the average Vietnamese. She said she wouldn’t leave without her family, all seven siblings and her parents, and he said he couldn’t afford it.

 

When I was young, my mother would pinch the bridge of my nose, massage my jawline and chin, pull up the corners of my eyes. She said if we did this every day, we could reform my face into a more attractive shape. We could improve the flatness of my nose, create a defined jawline, make a stronger chin, open up the corners of my eyes. "Beauty is pain," she said, and I was not beautiful enough.

 

We stayed at my Aunt M’s house in Baton Rouge during the hurricane. We left New Orleans at the last minute. We were part of the last exodus of people to leave before they closed the city limits. We sat in traffic for eight hours when Baton Rouge was only eighty miles away. My dad’s odor of stale cigarettes and sweat filled the Jeep, already full of hot August air circulated by two front-seat ac vents. My mother packed clothes, so much clothes, and brought her entire makeup kit, hot curlers, hair spray, shoes, jewelry. She packed snacks and gallons of water. I brought close to nothing, only a change of clothes for the weekend, assuming I would be back by Monday for school. I had a calculus test. I hoped school would be canceled. I forgot to pack underwear, even.

 

I started taking weekly piano lessons in 1998 when I was eight and continued every year until the hurricane hit in 2005. I would practice at our standup Steingraeber piano every day for thirty minutes. On top of the piano, the silver Miss Saigon trophy would gleam in the afternoon sun that filtered through the gauzy curtains dressing our living room window. To learn how to play a piece without looking at the keys and without looking at the sheet music, I would stare at the trophy.

 

The American got my mother’s family a spot on one of the many boats fleeing Vietnam. When they arrived at the boat, seven coast guards pointed guns in their faces. My mother’s family gave them a large bag full of money, negotiating entry onto the boat as they stared down the barrels of guns.

They were allowed to bring only a very small suitcase of personal belongings. I sometimes imagine my mother clutching her silver cup on that boat of survival, her only remaining possession. She has never confirmed this, but she has never definitively told me how that trophy made it to our living room in New Orleans. I don’t see how else it could’ve gotten there. This is the answer I have invented.

 

The electricity was out and it was hot, stiflingly hot, Aunt’s M’s tile floors sweating from the wetness of the air. There are breaches and there are fissures in my memory of this hurricane. But I remember a lot, more than most people. One of my friends says she remembers nothing, that there is a black hole where she knows something must have happened. I remember. I remember that, the day of the hurricane, Aunt M. had cosmetic surgery and spent that week bandaged and drugged up. I remember her then-husband, whom my sister Rosie and I referred to as "Shorts Nasty," wearing short-shorts, using the Bowflex in the living room even in the heat. I remember listening to the wind-up radio in the dark, the description of water flooding into the city, bursting through levee walls, submerged, twelve feet—the notion so preposterous that patent disbelief was evident even in the grainy, low voices of the npr radio hosts, the words tumbling out like flopping fish. I remember that our cell phones didn’t work and that there was no way to know if my friends had survived, and I mean that in its most literal sense. Above all, I remember how hot and wet, how suffocating the absurdity felt.

 

I have the oily, porous skin of my father. It is something my mother cannot fix with pinching and massaging. I have the ugly, tan skin of a laborer, not that of the aristocrat, not the skin of my mother’s family. She would often, and sometimes still does, gently tilt my head back by the chin to cast the flat plane of my face, still so flat despite her years of attempting to reshape it, into the light, examining its landscape. "Stay out of the sun," she’d say, "It bad for your pimples," the words clumsy in her mouth.

 

"Did your house flood?"

 

Once the boat left Vietnam, it went into the South China Sea. The boat began to carry water, leaking and overcrowded, and desperate people threw their suitcases off into the sea, tangible memories sinking to the murky bottom. They were stranded, nowhere to go. My mother became seasick and weak and there was nothing to eat or drink. Her mouth was so dry, she couldn’t swallow or speak. "I never thought of water the same way," my mother has said more than once. "I would pay any amount of money for just a sip of water." Chinese boats carrying cargo passed them without helping, attempting to stay out of a conflict that belonged to another country, directed by an implied loyalty to the victorious communist north. It wasn’t until they contacted a passing Chinese ship to report that someone was dying on their escape boat, that my mother was dying, that they were saved and brought to a port in the Philippines.

 

I had nothing, no belongings of importance with me in Baton Rouge. All of our things were trapped in our home in New Orleans, moldering in the heat, useless and meaningless and out of our hands. How could we quantify our worth if we didn’t have our things?

 

The only way to stay cool was to fill the bathtub with cold water and to submerge my body. The water became tepid within minutes, and I would drain and refill the tub over and over. I sat in the tub in silence, staring at the water until it was time to run a new bath. This is how I remember it. A few years after the storm, my sister and I reflected on how terrible it had been. She said she’d never seen her sixteen-year-old little sister drink so much boxed wine, sitting in the bathtub with the alcohol stolen from our aunt’s warm refrigerator. I have no recollection of this, not even a trace of familiarity strikes when she tells me.

 

"Where are you from?" the bartender asks me. I am newly twenty-one and the anxiety of ordering at the bar has not yet disappeared. My friends sit across the room and I am the only one at the long bar, a Yankee candle burning near my right hand, a sad attempt to mask the faint smell of vomit.

I say, I am from New Orleans, and I am Vietnamese.

He looks like a cartoon, almost. An unwashed mop of blonde hair and a red and white striped uniform shirt stretched across his belly, he is a big, fat, harmless child.

But he winks at me and he says, "I love pho. And I love Vietnamese girls," and there is something in the lean of his body, the way he lowers his voice to say it closer to my ear, and the menace in the curve of his mouth that reminds me he is not a harmless child. He doesn’t charge me for the drinks.

 

My mother made sure I knew their escape boat was rescued because of her, that she was the center of the story. "I saved everyone’s life," she said. "The boat only saved us because I was dying."

The ship that stopped had a small amount of food meant for the crew, but they kindly shared it. But, no one could eat the crackers even though they were all starving; there was no water. My mother meditated to forget her hunger. When they arrived in the Philippines, she looked in the mirror and thought her reflection was someone else because she’d lost so much weight. "I could not recognize me in the mirror," she said.

 

I pick at my face. I squeeze it. I claw at the imperfections. I leave scabs and scars behind. I slather on face cream, hoping the marks will disappear. I fill the crevices with skin-colored liquid, sponges and brushes dabbed like an artist painting over old work. I reshape my face, hoping it will change.

 

I email my mother after Christmas break to tell her I’ve arrived back in southeast Ohio, safe and cold, the wet, frigid air of Appalachia so different from the unpredictable cool heat of New Orleans winter. I am trying to write this essay and realize, amazingly, that I know nothing about Miss Saigon, only that the trophy has existed as long and longer than I have existed. I ask in the email, What was Miss Saigon like? What did you have to do in order to win? Tell me, just wondering, interested to know.

She emails me back and says, "Hi loved one, Thank you for let me know that you back to oh safe, it’s cold up there so remember to wear hat to protect your head." She tells me to protect my nose from freezing, she tells me never to walk alone. Love, Mom.

 

At a family get together, after I got back from camp, I can still remember the shrill sound of my aunts’ laughter as they squeezed my small arms and told my mother I looked "my den," like a black person. My mother smiled an open-mouthed smile, but I knew there was no laughter coming from her.

 

"I’m just wonderin’ where she’s from," the bagger at Kroger asks my boyfriend, Josh-Wade. The bagger is older, lined face and gray hair betraying his age, and he has a stoop in his shoulders, as if he has always hunched over other people’s groceries. I am standing closer to the bagger, and yet, he bypasses me, asking my white, freckled boyfriend as if it is obvious he would know me better than I could know myself. I see the anger flicker across Josh-Wade’s face. I feel weary, only.

Sometimes I say "I’m from New Orleans," and wait, toying with the askers, forcing them to rephrase their question, pushing them to face the ugliness in them that others me. But most times, I am weary, and I give them what their ugliness asks, that I am from New Orleans and that I am also Vietnamese. I insist on saying the two together, always, hoping that this insistence will convince others my identity is more complex than they assumed, more complex than the way I look.

"My wife is from Thailand," the bagger says. "She wouldn’t leave her little hometown in Thailand before I brought her to the US."

Oh, I say. This happens often—the assumption I will have something to say. This man’s wife is Thai and I am Vietnamese, and so, I must have something to say.

"We’re going back to Thailand soon to visit her parents. She almost wouldn’t leave Thailand, she was so scared," he said, a northern Mississippi drawl lingering on the edges.

He shook Josh-Wade’s hand the next time we were in Kroger, something strangely congratulatory in the innocent greeting. I wondered if he thought, despite what I had to say about my own origins, that I was a mail-order bride.

 

"I’m not Amy," I said, to my coworker, Holly. We were volunteers at a Girl Scout day camp, teenagers getting service hours.

"Woops. Whatever," Holly said. "You all look the same, anyway."

 

We went back into the city before they lifted the no-travel advisory. Somehow, my father drove us right back in despite the looping images of gunfire and endless black water, of looting and violence. I don’t remember the drive. I’m not sure how we got past the police barricades, how we got to our neighborhood even though the streets were covered in giant, fallen oak trees, like centuries-old maze walls made of bark.

 

My mother had lots of different jobs after moving to the United States. I think she felt her beauty did not hold the same kind of tangible worth that it had in Vietnam, and the only way to commodify herself was to prove she could work. She was never naturally gifted at any one of the jobs, but she tried anyway. She was a waitress, and she owned a small Vietnamese grocery store. She opened a beauty salon, and she was a paralegal. She played the stock market, and she became a landlord. She worked hard.

My father was chief of the Administrative Security, Press, and Information Ministry in the South Vietnamese military, the equivalent of being a Secret Service agent who interrogated captured Viêt Công. They flew him out the day before the fall of Saigon because he was that important. When he came to the United States, he turned his life into one of education. He learned English at the age of thirty-five. He got his bachelor’s at George Washington and his master’s at Tulane and became a biomedical engineer. He published the first weekly Vietnamese newspaper in New Orleans and used the name of his great-great-grandfather, a nineteenth-century Vietnamese poet and scholar, as a pen name.

I think my mother thought it wasn’t fair. It wasn’t fair that all anyone had ever asked of her was to be beautiful, and now, here she was in a place where her beauty didn’t really matter, where her beauty didn’t count because it didn’t look a certain way.

 

I told my Girl Scout leader what had happened with Holly while volunteering at the day camp. Holly eventually apologized, a begrudging, reluctant, and insincere apology coerced from her by a camp administrator. It still burned, though. I still felt upset, and I told my Girl Scout leader this.

"If she apologized, then you’re now to blame for not accepting the apology and moving on," she said. "You need to forgive."

I was only fifteen. My reflex was to feel defensive but to acknowledge perhaps this adult knew something I didn’t. Maybe she had wisdom.

But even now, it still burns. I still feel upset. Who is this white woman to tell me what my experience is? To tell me that I must forgive the people who collapse my identity into one unintelligible blob? It’s not easy to forgive, to move on, when every day I am reminded by different versions of Holly that I am a foreigner despite what I might shout to the contrary.

 

When Katrina rescue teams visited houses, they spray-painted giant X’s on the front of the structures to indicate to other rescue teams that it had been searched. In the top quadrant of the X was the time and date of search. On the left, which rescue team, and on the right, if there were any hazards present, like rats or standing water. The bottom had the number of dead or live victims found inside: LB for live bodies, O-O for no survivors/no corpses, Ø for no dead bodies, DB for dead bodies found, DOA for dead on arrival. These X’s emblazoned the front of almost every house in the city.

 

I remember the facials room being dark, its location secluded from the rest of the salon, offering my mother and me some privacy and quiet. I was five years old and my mother wanted to pierce my ears; she wanted me to wear delicate gold earrings and other charms. She made me sit on the reclining lounge, and I looked up at the overhanging magnifying lamp and facial steamer. The salon, ‘‘Liz Beauty Salon,’’ was named after me. And though it wasn’t in a very nice part of town, my mother had spared little cost in buying equipment and tools. She pulled the trigger on the ear-piercing gun and I felt it punch a hole through my lobe. But then, the gun wouldn’t unlock, and it stayed clamped down through my skin. I don’t remember much except the blood from my panicked thrashing.

 

When I Google search "Miss Saigon," the results are of a Broadway musical by a Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil. When I search "Miss Saigon pageant," the results are of a current-day pageant held in southern California and alternately named The Miss Vietnam of Southern California. When I search "Miss Saigon Pageant 1973," the top result is the Miss USA website, and the second result is Miss America.

 

There were fifty-three breaches in the levees, and 80 percent of the city was submerged. Some of the floodgates weren’t even closed at the time of the storm surge. Including the rest of the Gulf Coast, Katrina is, to date, the costliest natural disaster in the history of the United States, totaling around $81.2 billion. Our house had one shutter blown off and our trashcans rolled in the driveway.

"Did your house flood?" This is the first question anyone asks when they discover I lived through Hurricane Katrina. When the answer is no, there is a sense of disappointment, as if my experience wasn’t a real Katrina experience. I used to wish, in fits of morbid contemplation, that something worse had happened to our home. It’s di≈cult to describe to people the losses I faced when they weren’t in terms of the material. To describe the loss of a home, family picture albums, your grandma’s rocking chair, a daughter’s preschool painting, a pageant trophy, those objects we use as building blocks in defining who we are and what we’re worth— that’s sad. Those people deserve sympathy. My own losses, which were abstract and which I still struggle to define, sound like much less in comparison to the vast physical loss of many others. Is my suffering real if there is no loss to prove that it is real?

And then I feel guilty for feeling this way. I should be grateful. I shouldn’t complain. I have my things.

 

It wasn’t until much later that my mother told me someone else had won the Miss Saigon pageant, that she had actually been first runner-up.

"The woman in the contest cheat big," she said. "The woman who won had six children." I noticed she would only call her "the woman." I learned that the winner had family who influenced the judging, that the contestants were not supposed to have children or be married, and that these aspects about the winner’s life had been covered up so she could participate. Magazines and news sources speculated, but the winner was never officially stripped of her crown. The contest had been sponsored by Teijon Tetoron, a textile mill in Japan, and the prize included money, thousands in gifts, and a trip to Japan. My mother considers herself Miss Saigon, though, because of this injustice. She considers the winner a disqualified candidate, and she considers herself robbed, robbed of her rightful prizes, robbed of a title, robbed of her inherent, judgeable worth.

"Some called it Miss Teijin Tetoron, some called it Miss Saigon, but unfortunately they let the Vietnamese handle, that why it was failed," she said.

 

Katrina is always with me. I think about her often, almost every day. Perhaps less as the years go by, but still, I think of her in passing, a reminder of her in everything. The scent of bad trash can bring images of rotting food. Opening my underwear drawer, I will idly recall how little clothing I brought for the evacuation. I can conjure the sound of helicopter rotors chopping the air above my house, smell the decaying refrigerator contents, see the maggots, feel the sweat soaking through my shirt and sticking to the leather couch.

When people speak of guns, I think of my cousin wearing bullet belts across his chest and placing shotguns around the house. "Just in case," he said. I think of the words "Looters will be shot" spray-painted across wooden boards propped up against rocking chairs on my neighbor’s porch. When people speak of airports, I think of packing my suitcase to move to Los Angeles to live with my sister, deciding what things were important, what things would represent me in this new place. I think of the Baton Rouge airport, passengers climbing over each other like mad animals, screaming and pushing sweaty bodies to get to the kiosk where the gate agents helped no one, the computers broken. When people speak of home, I think of walking into a home more than a year after the storm, after I’d moved back to New Orleans, and seeing that it hadn’t yet been gutted, the ghost of old waterlines dotted with black mold, the warped, crumpling furniture of a family that used to live there. I think of the landscape of hundreds of similarly empty homes that sped past my car windows as I drove to school, spray-painted X’s on the doors flashing in my periphery.

For a storm that is often remembered in numbers, costs, and news reports, there is a generation of us who will never know the official statistics of her effects on our psyche, and yet we know she will never be gone from our lives, despite this country’s short memory for tragedy.

 

When I look in the mirror, I wonder, what does a survivor look like? Is it possible for a survivor to carry so much guilt on her back every day?

 

Sometimes I think my mother tells the story with herself at the center, as the winner of it all, that she forgets she’s not, even if it is only by technicality. The truth is, I’m not sure of the exact truth myself. And I’ve looked; I’ve searched for Teijon Tetoron (now a film company that is known for creating polyester and was at one point a textile mill, as my mother has said), I’ve looked for historical traces of a Miss Saigon Pageant in 1973, and the only place I can find any information about it is from my mother. The event itself is gone, evaporated, not a thing left to prove it was real, except that I’ve stared at the giant silver cup of evidence my entire life.

"It was good you left," my mother often says to me about the year following Hurricane Katrina. "Piggly Wiggly was the only grocery store open for many months. To buy even a loaf of bread, you had to get there before the store open and wait in a long, long line, a line out the building and around the block." I have heard this anecdote many times, but it usually ends there, at how long the line was.

"For just a loaf of bread" she says. "The city was terrible. It reminded me of Saigon during the war."

She doesn’t explicitly voice this, but I can sense she carries with her a constant fear that it— this horror, this displacement, this need for survival— will happen again. She asks me where I might end up living, so she can move there too when, not if, New Orleans floods again.

 

Despite those many days sitting at the piano, what I recalled when I thought of the trophy was its mere impression: the shape of it, its long shadow, the gleam of silver, its hollow cup. I realized I had never actually read its plaque. After my mother told me about the pageant, I looked at the trophy and saw what was engraved in front of me my whole life:

MISS SAIGON 1973
FIRST RUNNER-UP

My mother rarely talks honestly about the horrifying experience of the Vietnam War. Except once, we were at a restaurant, and something reminded her of a friend she used to have. She said this friend was trudging through the jungle, trying to get to the coast so he could escape the communists. He saw two small children on the side of the path who had been left, and they were weak. He took them both on his back and tried to walk the rest of the way to the edge of the sea, but eventually, he knew they were going to be his death if he didn’t leave them, like the person before him had. My mother began to cry in the restaurant, the tears so abrupt I think she surprised even herself. This moment of survival was also a reminder of her own survival, and also a reminder of her guilt.

 

It is solid silver, its height about the length of my torso. The cup could hold a basketball, and the S-shaped handles are molded into vines. I have memorized its curves, its physical presence. And it reminds me of my survival and my guilt, it reminds me of my worth.