- ESSAY -

NEW BUILD

by Grace Phuong Thao Tran

Go back to Asia, chink! Gook! so I did.

By the way, it does count as “going back” because I’d already been to Asia once, in 2010. The foundation had been laid. But otherwise, you know what I mean.

I’m not going back, I’m just going.

 

I. Earth Work

I woke up early on the first day of 4713, lunar year of the sheep, in a big empty yellow villa. The homeowners were in Thailand or Singapore for Tet holiday. A rooster rustled around downstairs. The chirp of the geckos was new to me. I was soothed by the round, light rhythm of it. For hours, I watched the geckos stalk insects and feast on ants and small flies.

It was winter in Hanoi, but I felt warm because I had left Chicago in a snowstorm. There was a crisp blue in-ground pool. I got naked and swam a few laps, while the chickens stood along the edge. When I made eye contact with a person on a balcony next door, I ran inside.

A year before I left for Hanoi, I fell in love with a person. At the time, I had already planned to leave Chicago. Kemi said, Maybe loving them could be your big adventure though. Kemi knew better than anyone that I’d never been in love before. Looking at it now from Hanoi, there was no other way it could go.

 

Old Vietnamese people in my life have told me that if I do not lose weight, I will never find love. This means I will never get married, which means I’ll die alone. At the same time, old Vietnamese people have told me that we must all accept death and we all die alone. Vietnamese ancestors dictated that Vietnamese women must possess four virtues: cong (hard-working), dung (beauty), ngon (proper in speech), and hanh (moral). I possess none of these virtues. Old Vietnamese people in my life have chipped away at me for so long, have made me hate my body so much that by the time I was grown, I barely thought about having a body.

One time, though, I felt my body. I was convinced that some or all of my organs were failing. Since I had excellent medical insurance, I decided to have a comprehensive full body checkup. The online form asked me to indicate specific areas so they could assign me a doctor, and I checked them all. When I went in for the appointment, my doctor was a middle-aged Vietnamese-American woman named Dr. Phan. Did they pair us up because we both have Vietnamese last names? Dr. Phan said. She told me that my uterus was beautiful and buoyant. I bet your parents want you to get married and have kids, she said. I told her, they tell me I’m fat and that fat people will never find love. I laughed, but Dr. Phan inspected a mustard stain on her white coat and then looked up to make deep, deliberate eye contact with me. Tell them your Vietnamese doctor told you that fat people find love all the time.

Before I left, people would ask, But do you know anyone in Hanoi? I didn’t. But that was not a concern for me. My concern was inserting my soft, round body into a country full of people who openly criticize bodies, body weight, body shape. When I was 16, I was meditating and suddenly, I was no longer in my body. I was above it, to the right. I could see my body on the bed, soft, round, and brown. A warm barbecue pork bun in the window of Chinatown’s Chiu Quon Bakery. I thought I looked delicious. There appeared to be an option to not return to the body. I chose to return, but I don’t think I ever really settled back in.

 

The day I left my home country, Edie and I planned to meet at the LA Zine Fest. I made a few rounds through the mass of bodies, slowly moving through the narrow aisles of publications, but I did not find him. As I headed back toward the entrance, I saw Annie, editor of the Gay Genius comics anthology, whose table was by the door. Just then, Edie walked in. This was a delightful moment of returns for me. Way back when, Edie, a couple of other Chicagoans, and I organized an alternative comics expo, a two-day event where I first met Annie. On the last day of the expo, Annie gave me a reading from their Collective Tarot Deck. They asked me if I felt trapped and then encouraged me to make time for myself to create. I’m finally taking your advice, I told Annie. I’m leaving tonight for Southeast Asia.

Time was what I wanted. I designed my itinerary accordingly. It was February 15, 2015, a few days before the new lunar year of 4713. I was born on February 16, in the rat year, on a day known as ram thang rieng – the first full moon of the new lunar year 4682. An old woman who sold rice wine at a street-side stall in Hanoi told me, Women born on the full moon are evil. Worse so if it’s the first one of the new lunar year. Finish your drink and leave. The idea was, I would not really experience my birthday and would enter my fourth decade somewhere over the Pacific Ocean, moving briefly through slices of time, over the small islands below.

That evening, before I left for LAX, my cousin Thuy gave me Voltaire on a slip of paper, La grande affaire, et la seule qu’on avoir, c’est de vivre heureux. I don’t speak French – I refused to learn as a child. Later, when I would’ve liked to have been fluent in something other than English and intermediate Vietnamese, I confronted my mother. Well, you thought it was stupid that the nouns had genders and I didn’t have the energy to argue with you, she said.

Does it say: the great affair, and the one that you go on alone, it is the joy of life? Fuck the French! But people still come to Hanoi for a glimpse of that old colonial architecture.

 

II. Concrete Foundation

All of the ancient buildings in Hanoi are built to face away from China, says Chu Hai, the man I hire from time to time to drive me from place to place on his xe om. As we putter around on his motorbike, he motions at the Imperial Citadel, built in 1010. Isn’t it beautiful tonight?  The city is covered in a hazy silver, low-lying level of pollution, which he calls suong mu, the word for fog.

The thing is, this isn’t fog. The air quality in Hanoi is unsafe, but if you want more information, you have to read about it on an incognito browser with a VPN because there’s no transparency (ha!) here. When the Internet doesn’t work several times a year, on national holidays usually, people say it’s sharks chomping the undersea cables. They are drawn to the electromagnetic waves. No one calls it censorship. No one calls it air pollution, but rather, suong mu.

Suong mu is one of my favorite Vietnamese words. Suong means dew, and mu means blind. But when I was a kid, I thought it was xuong, which is the word for bone. Xuong mu – opacity as dense as bones, I thought. Beautiful! I thought.

Chu Hai and I live in the same neighborhood, but he has lived here his entire life, born a few years before the American War ended. As we drive around, he points out buildings that were bombed by the Americans in this neighborhood. I moved from my first Hanoi apartment to a house in this neighborhood in December 2015, a week after my motorcycle accident. In the accident, a car hit me and I crashed into a pole. My mouth hit the motorbike’s metal handlebars, and three front teeth shattered. At least I didn’t break any bones, I said to my dentist Dr. Fred, who’s also from Chicago. Teeth are stronger than bones, so in a sense, you’d be better off breaking a bone, said Dr. Fred. Bones regenerate. Adult teeth don’t.

 

Hanoian neighbors want to know: where’s your family from? Everyone seems pleased to hear that my grandmother was born and raised in Hanoi’s Old Quarter. Some people have heard the popular love song based on a poem written about my grandmother during the war years with the French. This song is available at select karaoke bars here. It is also performed on the Viet Kieu variety show, Paris By Night, filmed in southern California. Most Vietnamese in the US are from the south, but most of my family is from the north, which Hanoian neighbors also like.

Sometimes, my grandmother appears in my dreams. Maybe she’s passing through Hanoi and since you happen to be there, she visits you, my mother said on LINE, an app I taught her how to use so we can stay in touch. She never visits me. My mother was witchy before I knew what that meant, with her self-hypnosis practices, beliefs in loyalties and alliances that span lifetimes, mixing of tinctures and salves, and access to past lives. When I was a kid, she made a paste out of turmeric that she spread over burns on my face. The burns vanished in a week’s time.

A few weeks ago, I dreamt I was to give a speech at anti-racist rally. As I approached the stage, someone ran past me, in a flash, and shot me twice in the stomach. I felt nothing, then a quick sharp pain, then the heaviness of lead in my belly before I crumpled to the ground. The warmth of my body scurried to the edges of my flesh, to my limbs, then outer digits.

A person sat down next to me and lifted my head to their lap. It was a woman with dark hair. She didn’t look like my grandmother as I knew her, but my grandmother before I knew her. Close your eyes now, she said, and wake up.

 

III. Damp Proofing

Spring time is the season of mold in Hanoi. Moisture seeps in through every orifice of buildings and settles on every surface. Sometimes you can see it dripping on the walls. Open the closet door to let air and light in. Landladies tell me that the mold will disappear in the heat of summer.

It was sunny and warm on April 30, 2015, known as Reunification Day. It was the 40th anniversary of Vietnam’s victory. The parade happened early in the morning, and the roads were open again. My sweetie in Chicago had called me sobbing because they tried to check into a hotel with the intention of taking pills to die. However, they were denied a room because all forms of their identification were expired. I was filled with yearning and love for them. We bought plane tickets for them to come visit me in November 2015. Then, I had an idea.

Wait, I said, and hung up. I called them back from the Skype app on my phone, and put the phone in the left breast pocket of my denim jacket, over my heart. Let me show you Hanoi, I said. Soon you’ll see it in real life, but let’s go now! We got on my motorcycle, I put earbuds in, and drove. Wow! The traffic! they said. So many people! They move like waves, they said. We went past the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, where balloons floated over the surface of green grass.

Wait, I said. I don’t know if my phone’s 3G will make it – the sharks have been eating the cables, it’s been very slow. We just need to make it to the land bridge, it’s my favorite part.

What’d you say? I can’t hear you –

 

Chi oi, chi dung day duoc khong?

The land bridge is a long, smoothly curved road that divides Truc Bach and West Lakes. One end begins at dyke road and the other is perpendicular to a park before you reach Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum. As you approach the park, there is a silver pole and a candy-striped pole.

On November 27, 2015, my 1982 Honda Super Cub chose the candy-striped pole.

Chi khong sao, chi khong sao, I told the young people kneeling next to me. Khong sao means okay, sure, we’re good, nothing’s wrong, but translated literally, khong means no and sao means star. This is an on-going joke in my family – khong sao dau – literally, no star where. Sometimes we say no star where when we mean no problem, everything’s fine. You’re not fine, said one of the young people. You’re bleeding heavily from your mouth.

They took me to the hospital by the Temple of Literature, where the medical professionals asked me to wait a minute while they finished playing a round of cards in their game. They asked me to fill out forms, but my hands were occupied, catching the blood falling from my mouth. Finally, someone lined my lower lip with cotton. Two medical professionals took me to get an X-ray and we got lost along the way because all of the lights had been turned off to conserve electricity. Someone used my phone to call the last person I’d talked to, Gabby.  

After the X-ray, they put me in a room with four old Vietnamese women who yelled at me because I didn’t take my shoes off before entering the room. It is very rude to not take off your shoes before entering, I know. But I was not in any condition to take off my shoes. I shouted through the cotton hanging from my mouth that I didn’t give a fuck about the shoes right now, but only blood and saliva came out.

Gabby and Chi Hang came to get me. Chi Hang paid my hospital bill, which amounted to 17 USD. She’s fine, just apply pressure to stop the bleeding, they said. In the morning, I woke up in a hotel and felt the jagged edges of my broken teeth with my tongue. My lower lip felt tight where a scab had begun to form over an open wound. Gabby had given me a soft tee shirt to wear over night because my sweater was soaked with blood. She took some photographs of me and showed me one from the ER last night. I was lying on the hospital cot with damp, red cotton dangling out of my mouth. Blood had crystallized in droplets on my sweater and looked like gemstones under the fluorescent lights of the hospital.

When they took me home, the landlady told me that my motorbike must have been cursed. My friend, the previous owner, had been in a small accident with the Cub before he sold it to me and moved to Japan. Things carry bad energies, said the landlady.

I laid down for some time, feeling the weight of my body on the mattress and pillow. When I got up, hours later, blood began to fall out of my mouth at a rate consistent to the rhythm of my heart. It was pumping and pounding. The blood had the texture of a well-made sauce, the darkest red I’d ever seen. Blood clots would form briefly, only to fall out and the blood began to flow again from the wounds. The Temple of Literature doctors had given me packets of cotton stuffing, with instructions to line my lower lip.

Cotton feels different from the kind in my home country. I thought of a story my former sweetie told me. Long ago, they worked at Ralph Lauren, and the store manager told them to change out of their “Harriet Tubmans,” referring to their shoes. They left the store, distraught, and sat somewhere quiet in New York City, on a pier or in a park. A child came up to them and handed them a branch of cotton plant. A month ago, in October, I made a decision that I never wanted to see them or speak to them again. I emailed them to not come to Hanoi. They had broken my heart over the course of six months. When the blood soaked through all of the cotton, I used toilet paper. The paper dissolved in my mouth and I had to spit it out in clumps along with blood. I wasn’t afraid of dying because I kept telling myself that if I applied enough pressure, the blood would stop at some point.

When the blood did not stop, I pounded on the landlady’s door until she woke up. It’s two in the morning, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know what to do, there’s just so much blood, it’s scaring me, she said. My friend is also a landlady and one of her tenants died on the stairs. Now she’s got a ghost in her house. She hears him on the stairs sometimes. I remembered that Van had been dealing with insomnia so I dialed her number and shoved the phone at my landlady. Oh good, your friend is Vietnamese, she’ll help you, said the landlady after she hung up.

Van picked me up in a taxi and took me to the hospital on Yen Ninh. A crowd of people were gathered outside the hospital, shouting and shoving one another; apparently, there had been a gang fight. One person had been thrown through a window. This person was laying on the cot next to me, the doctor sitting at their back, pulling out shards of glass, while they screamed. On the next cot over, a pregnant person who’d just been in a motorbike crash, was moaning. We can’t help you, said the doctor to me. You should have had stitches last night when the accident happened. Now you’re probably infected.

They gave me some cotton and directed us to the Viet Duc hospital that specializes in mouth injuries. When we entered the courtyard, there was a bulldozer sitting in a plot of unearthed dirt. What the fuck? Is this place even open? Van said. Many times, I’ve complained about Hanoi’s never-ending construction. Projects on top of projects, layers drilled and covered, structures built one on top of the other, abandoned sites partially constructed, bulldozers sitting on top of mounds of shattered concrete and dirt. This is a developing country, Van said. Of course it’s always under construction.

When we found the ER at Viet Duc, the lights were out and everyone was asleep. Wake up! We’ve got an emergency! Van said, clapping her hands. Wake up – hurry – she’s bleeding! When the nurses saw me, they recoiled and said ew. While they ran around and washed their hands, I watched ants crawling on the tray next to me. Then, I took off my shoes and got on the operating table.

There were three wounds inside the bottom part of my mouth, one of which had cut across an artery. No infection. The doctor seemed like an earnest young person, new to the profession of medicine. I’m convinced he did a good job with the stitches because Van is a beautiful angel and he wanted to impress her. Afterwards, he put on his shoes, which were Reebok Pumps. The cuts were very deep, I’m surprised they didn’t give you stitches last night, he said. I told him that they didn’t look inside last night. He gave me a prescription for an antibiotic and said there was a 24-hour pharmacy across the street. Van paid for my stitches, 35 USD total.

After we left, I told Van, who is a cinematographer, that she should’ve taken a video so I could watch the thread closing up the wounds. I imagined that it would be very satisfying to watch because of the texture and color. She agreed that it would have been a good video and that we should have thought of this earlier. I felt much better as we walked across the street. The pharmacy was closed, but their hours were listed as 00h to 24h. What the fuck, Van said. We walked along the dark street until we found a taxi.

When I got home, I gathered up all of the cotton moist and matted with blood, carefully inspecting each piece before putting it into a bag. As I walked to the trash collection point down the alley, the sun was just beginning to rise.

 

IV. Masonry

There was real work to do: removal, drilling, installation, reconstruction. Timing also mattered because healing depends entirely on the body.  

Coincidentally, on January 1, 2016, the hotel next door began construction, which meant drilling and hammering and smashing through concrete all day and sometimes all night. Construction workers wear rubber sandals and do not wear head protection, which concerns me. Someone told me that most construction workers come from the countryside to work, and they live and sleep at the construction site. This is why you’ll see clothes hanging inside gutted construction sites, and freshly washed dishes on top of piles of rubble. Van called the hotel several times to ask when they would complete the project. They said one week.

On January 4, 2016, Dr. Fred gave me some sort of drug through a drip in my vein, removed the broken front teeth, put a crown on a half-broken tooth, did a bone graft on my shattered jaw bone, and then installed metal rods into my upper jaw bone for implants. I brought earplugs to protect my ears from the whirring machinery and the crunchy sounds of collapsing teeth.

During this surgery, I was floating on a pleasant cloud and tried to tell Dr. Fred about the science-fiction novel I was working on. It’s about climate justice, I told him, and multinational corporations and rebels. No one falls in love because they’re busy with their rebellions. I love science fiction, said Dr. Fred. You can tell me all about it later. When I became fully conscious again, I asked to see a mirror. The dental assistant told me that the bridge hadn’t been installed yet. I insisted. In the mirror, there was a grotesque fleshy pile of macerated gums, blood, and loose ends of black thread that gave the dark shiny gumflesh the appearance of scaffolding.

On January 11, 2016, the construction continued. The hotel had lied, and the construction would continue well into the spring moldy season. David Bowie had just died. It was the coldest winter in Hanoi in something like 40 or 100 years. Outside the city, snow had fallen. I could see my breath in my bedroom. My remaining front tooth, which had been broken in half and recently covered with a crown, began to throb. It throbbed at a rate consistent with the drilling and pounding next door.

The pain spread across my face, throbbing throbbing. Over the course of the day, I took 16 or 24 painkillers, though nothing helped. I put on all of the sweaters I owned and got into bed. I decided then to enter the pain. I entered through the closest portal, which was the remaining front tooth and was met by a koi fish and a green tree frog at the mouth of a cave. They motioned for me to follow them. I followed them through the cave, which I understood to be my tooth. Where are we going? I asked. You’ll see, squeaked the green tree frog. When we exited, I looked back and saw that it was the Bean in Chicago, otherwise known as Cloud Gate. I always knew the Bean was a portal, I told the koi fish and the green tree frog. They tittered. When I came to, it was the morning of January 12. All of the lights in my room were still on. I emailed Dr. Fred about the pain. He wrote back that I needed an emergency root canal, ASAP.

On January 12, 2016 I went to Dr. Fred’s office. In the waiting room, there was a kid and a parent. When the parent went upstairs for a cleaning, the kid insisted on waiting in the waiting room. The kid scooted over next to me and asked if we could watch YouTube videos on my mobile phone. Peppa Pig, the kid said. We watched some Peppa Pig videos. It was the first I’d heard of this cartoon pig. The kid leaned their head on my arm as we watched. The warm weight of the child’s head comforted me.

What are you here for? the kid asked. My tooth is infected, I said. In fact, I’m in a lot of pain. Me, I’m from Germany, said the kid. My mom is from here. She’s Asian, and I’m Black. I see, I said. Once, I went to a queer Kwanzaa celebration with my former sweetie. The church was opposite that Champs Elysees-looking arch in New York City that is a famous landmark. We went with their niece and nephew. Everyone at the celebration thought we were a family. One couple tried to set up playdates. We said maybe. After the celebration, my former sweetie told me that they liked how it felt, being parents together. We talked about our Blasian children. Another time, they had an infected tooth. Rather than get a root canal, they decided to have it removed. We went to a dentist on Chicago Avenue and I held their hand. They asked the nurse to put on Sesame Street on the TV. Sesame Street makes me feel safe, they said. They squeezed my hand harder and harder as the dentist pulled.

The kid asked to see a video about dinosaurs. We watched one. I asked if we could watch my favorite video of a real octopus next. Sure, said the kid. It’s your turn to go up, said the receptionist. Wait, I said, we’re finishing a video. It’s the one of the octopus that camouflages itself on the seabed.

As Dr. Fred drilled into the infected tooth, there was a popping sound and I felt something thick and wet splatter on my lips and across my face. It smelled of belly button lint, rotting flesh, durian, sweet and pungent cunt. That was the infection, said Dr. Fred. Someone wiped it off my face.

 

V. Lintel

After the crash, I walked a lot. Walking in the Old Quarter can be relaxing and meditative, if you accept and enter the chaos. Walking one day in the new lunar year of 4714, year of the monkey, my one-year anniversary in Hanoi, I felt a burst of cool air. It was different from a spring gust. The air came from a grey stone arch that lead into a cobblestone courtyard. This was the Kim Ngan communal house, a silver ingot production site which traced back to the 15th century and had been preserved by a historic society.

A fine example of Old Quarter architecture, the long tubular house consisted of several rooms, each room buffered by a courtyard. The first room was the altar room, with a large, elaborately carved mantelpiece, bolstered by mahogany columns to highlight its grandeur. Fresh fruit and plum flowers were arranged on dishes and vases, covering every available level space.

Old houses in the Old Quarter are long and narrow, and sometimes, the wall plaque said, the front and back doors open onto entirely different streets. I like the varieties of escape. Trees grow out of stone-tiled courtyards, reaching above entry gates and sometimes rooftops, giving the impression of secret gardens. It was difficult to tell, in the way the building had been restored, which parts were new and which were ancient.

When I walk past the candy-striped pole where I crashed my bike, I wonder if my old teeth are still on the ground. I could sift through the dirt, gravel, and dust to find them, I imagine. They may have been buried under layers of construction debris. I don’t know much about the building codes in the Old Quarter. Some xe om drivers have told me that there are height restrictions. Because no one is allowed to build too far upwards in the Old Quarter, in the way other Southeast Asian city centers have, such as the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur or the Cemindo in Jakarta or even the Bitexco Financial Tower in Ho Chi Minh City, buildings grow in Hanoi in a different way.

The guide books will tell you that Hanoi has a certain colonial charm to it, the vestiges of French imperialism abutting thousand-year-old Chinese-influenced structures, spreading over wide boulevards and shoved into tiny alleys. The whir of motorbike traffic and street vendors supposedly lend an infusion of energy, a reminder of an ever-changing world and the rise of a new generation in a fast-paced global economy, giving the itinerant visitor a sense of at least three clashing centuries under the canopy of verdant aging trees.

For me, Hanoi’s charm isn’t necessarily derived from ancient awnings and European facades – though these elements do not detract either. The charm, I believe, lies in a showcase of decision making, the curious aesthetic combinations borne of the human mind: a collective resourcefulness of material, texture, typeface, and color. Atop crumbling foundations, Hanoians have built new layers, new ways to live, new ways to be in a very old place. It is one of the most innovative places I’ve ever been.

An Old Quarter tube house or villa may still exist in some collection of bricks, if you dig deep enough, but now it has been divided, lopped off, topped up with angular box-like stories. Everything feels utilitarian: that sliding plastic window opens onto a balcony small enough for one person to comfortably stand while they hang their laundry to dry. A small ledge has been installed to hold the silver and blue cylinder of water supply on the rooftop. Below a bedroom is a storefront, where the shop-keeps nap from the hours of 13:00 to 15:00, before waking up to ice the recently brewed batch of bitter green tea.

The architecture of Hanoi, to me, looks fleshy, human, organic. It does not look technical, square, mathematical, clean. It looks fluid, accommodating, scrambled, repaired, gelatinous. The roofs certainly look like Roofs – they come to a point, they are some sort of red or green tin, they provide shelter. The doors certainly look like Doors – they open in some fashion and allow people and things in and out.

Behind a door, a thousand doors, said Edie. He was the first friend to visit me in Hanoi. It was May, and the moldy season had just ended. We went for many walks in the Old Quarter and he seemed to appreciate the layers. We went to Ninh Binh, where limestone rises from the ground. We took a tour through the grottoes on a boat shared with several veterans from the American War.

Edie told them about desert tortoises, who store water in their bodies for a year or longer if left undisturbed. The law of this particular desert tells us to not pick up the tortoises because they will pee out their precious reserves. The veterans liked this fact and also thought it was great that Edie lived in the desert. We couldn’t do it! they said. But we know about tough living conditions. During wartime, they lived in the high caves of Ninh Binh and hid in the rivers with leaves on their hats. That way, from the air above, the Americans would think that leaves had fallen from the trees and were floating on the surface of the water.

 

VI. Roofing

Unlike Hanoi, Jakarta is a very tall city, crowded with skyscrapers, concrete, smog, and metal. Wafting above the tops of buildings is the occasional call to prayer, soft and haunting, spreading like smoke across the skyline, minaret to minaret.

During one afternoon call to prayer, I was soaking in the pool at Emilie’s house. The pool was in the middle of a garden, surrounded by shiny, gargantuan high-rises. The call to prayer floated around the garden, over my head, and flew on. Some things became very clear.

I survived a motorbike accident. My body knows how to heal itself. I am very happy alone, without a romantic interest, with my entire brain to myself. I have a body, it feels the ripples of the pool water and the hot breeze. I ask for help and know how to accept kindness and care. Cristina made me seven smooth soups in the first seven days of my recovery. I am very grateful for the privilege of travel. I have been to Bangkok, Naoshima Island, Macau, Phnom Penh, Ba Vi, Da Nang, Koh Larn, Tokyo, Krakatau Volcano, Yen Bai, the caves of Phong Nha. I have seen and talked and eaten and smelled. There are many different forms and kinds of love. When the call to prayer ended, the sounds of the city resumed.

Emilie tells me that there are five calls to prayer every day, and the afternoon prayer is called Asr. On afternoons in April 2016, Asr took place at 15:12 in Jakarta. The prayer schedule is based on the sun, which means the times typically change throughout the year. However, in Jakarta, which is located close to the equator, the position of the afternoon sun in the sky does not change much.

 

VII. Plastering and Pointing

The sharp dry winter air had dried our skin and the winter light in Chicago is harsh. They told me to get raw shea butter from the organic store on under the L tracks. After we bathed, we rubbed it into our bodies until we glistened. Back then, I didn’t used to hang out naked, but I did with them. We sat on the rug in the living room and decided to draw things, including our bodies. Small pieces of lint stuck to the moist skin on the backs of my thighs, in the creases of my junk, in my asshole. Their skin is one color, all over their body. That’s not the case with mine, where there are different parts of different colors. Your skin is so pale, but it’s not white, they told me.

Not anymore. Now my skin is brown, from the sun and traveling and hiking and swimming through Southeast Asia. I’ve been naked in many places. They wouldn’t be able to tell me apart in a crowd of people here because I’m not sure they saw me. Yesterday, Kemi told me that they’re getting married. What would I tell them now? It’s very humid here, coconut oil works better. It also has antibacterial properties. Also, though I don’t remember much about you now, I do recall that your sleeping form resembles a mountainside I saw in Chiang Mai.

 

VIII. Doors & Windows

After the queer Kwanzaa celebration, we got into a fight at the place they were housesitting in Brooklyn. I was trying to be open with my feelings so I told them how they had hurt my feelings earlier in the night. They were tired of me making them feel like garbage, they said. They had several chat windows open.

I left the bedroom and then the house. The doors locked behind me, and I didn’t have a key. I mapped my way to a subway station and took the train into Manhattan. I like crossing the bridge into Manhattan on a train. It was 3:00 in the morning. I thought about calling Collier. When I came above ground, it was pouring rain. I wandered around for a few hours and later sat at the only open place I could find, the Tick-Tock Diner near Penn Station that I went to once with Emilie about a decade ago. Two people on a date were sitting in the booth behind me, reading out the entire wine list in faux-French accents and laughing quietly. Another person was on something and yelling, and several staff members ushered them out the door.  

At 10:00 in the morning, I took the train back to Brooklyn and ran under scaffolding to scaffolding to avoid the rain. I rang the buzzer for an hour before they let me in. When I got upstairs, they began to scream at me. You can’t just wander around at night in New York City, you don’t know this neighborhood, something could have happened to you, what the fuck is wrong with you? When did you realize I was gone? I said. I could see their mobile phone in their hand. Just now, when I heard the door buzz and I saw the texts on my phone. I left ages ago, I said.

Later that day, we went to meet their grandmother. She was watching Family Feud. Are you a white woman? their grandmother asked me. No, I’m Asian, I said. Well it don’t matter what skin color you are, it just matters what’s in here, she said and jabbed her thumb against her chest. She told me about her childhood in the house her father built, and moving to New York City from the South. Then she gave us each 10 USD and told us to go across the street to get some Chinese food.

They told me that their grandmother likes to spy on people on the street out her window, so we had to go around the corner to smoke a cigarette. At the Chinese place, the Asian restaurant workers looked at me through the bulletproof glass the way Asian people in America look at one another, as they took the 10 USD from the till. It was Sunday afternoon and everyone had just been at church. I bet you’re the first Asian person who’s ordered food here, they said.

 

IX. Services

Before I left Hanoi for the US, I asked Van how Hanoians achieve that special Hanoi aloofness. You make it so your eyes appear to be staring off into the distance, even though the person is right in front of you, she said.

A few days after the shooting in Orlando, I was at Danny’s in Chicago, where every Tuesday for many years there is the queer dance party, Chances. There was a memorial of flowers and candles and hand-drawn notes. People held each other close.

Back when I was with my former sweetie, we would joke that we were at the same parties and spaces so many times and we never noticed one another until one day we did. They told me I was the only Asian person they’d ever dated. They asked me if I’d been with another Black person, and I said yes. We looked it up, and Aquarians and Geminis are perfect for one another. We stayed up late one night to watch the Grace Lee Boggs documentary on PBS. You be Grace Lee Boggs and I’ll be Jimmy Boggs, they said.

Outside Danny’s that night, I was talking to some friends. I found myself telling people that there was not much to tell about Hanoi. It was just something else, to live there. And then, just yonder on the sidewalk, there they were. They were tall, and gorgeous still, looming over the heads of other people. But they had changed their hair and looked like a stranger. I could see them looking at me, but I did not let them see me see them.

 

X. Final Inspection

When I flew into New York City for Sara and Lauren’s wedding in June 2016, the person at customs said, Where have you been all of this time?  Away, I said. Welcome home, they said.

 

XI. Enter

When I flew back to Hanoi in August 2016, the person at customs said Em biet noi tieng Viet khong? Em biet.  

 

 

Grace Phuong Thao Tran is a writer and organizer from Chicago, who currently resides in Hanoi. She is working on a piece of science fiction.

 

 

NAT. BRUT: THE RESPONSIBLE FUTURE OF ART AND LITERATURE
 

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