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Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter

Lan Cao & Harlan Margaret Van Cao | August 7, 2021

An excerpt from FAMILY IN SIX TONES by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao, published by Viking, and imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2020 by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao.

In my life, there is Saigon, my childhood city, and there is Harlan, my daughter. One is loss and the other is love, although sometimes loss and love are intertwined. Both are volcanic, invasive experiences, their own particular battle zones, full of love and warmth. All‑powerful, all‑encompassing, searing, awakening. Once experienced, they take over your life, altering the very cells in your body, both in the moment and in retrospect.

I am writing as a refugee who lost a country and as a mother whose love is vaster than even the vast parameters of loss. In Vietnamese, the word for country is a combination of earth and water, elemental and archetypal. Traditionally, the Vietnamese are tethered to their ancestral home, born of land and sea, the way newborns are tied umbilically to their mothers, sharing one swollen, tightly packed body, ferociously, bound almost despotically by flesh and blood.

For all of us refugees who enter America with our contingent lives, there is the all‑powerful, all‑venerable American Dream. Do we follow it? Are we trespassing when we enter it? Or do we float into the dreams we invent ourselves? Having witnessed so many refugee families struggling to make it, I wonder whether the American Dream is really for dreamers. Are you dreaming if you’re working twelve hours or more a day?

It might seem strange that being a refugee and being a mother feel so similar to me, but both involve a tortuous and lifelong drive in search of home and security—in one case for oneself; in the other, even more furiously, for one’s child. The journey of a refugee, away from war and loss toward peace and a new life, and the journey of a mother raising a child to be secure and happy are both steep paths filled with detours and stumbling blocks. For me, both hold mystery. It is like crossing a river on a monkey bridge. The bridge, indigenous to the Mekong Delta, is hand‑made, with slender bamboo logs and handrails. It is frail and slippery, and crossing it requires agility and courage; it is both physical and mental. I have not made my crossing alone but have had fellow travelers on this bridge—we could call them darker selves that emerge from the hidden, almost mystical shadows.

Carl Jung saw shadow selves as selves that are cradled in the darkness and lie outside the light of consciousness. But what I think of as my shadow selves are denser, perhaps more fragmented from the self than Jung’s original use of the term. They might seem like strangers at first, unknown, unknowable, and as a result frightening, a presence manifesting unruly states that had to be fought with or unshackled from. Over time, with a deeper reservoir of understanding, I have come to see them as guardian angels, as they are now more integrated with me than not.

After more than forty years in the United States, I still feel tentative here at times. And after almost seventeen years of being a parent, I continue to venture through motherhood as if it’s a new culture. No matter how many parenting books I have read or how much advice I have received, I still feel like an immigrant in the universe of motherhood. As I tentatively make my way through this landscape, I find that I vacillate more than I am certain, shifting my terms of engagement more than digging in. Like an immigrant newcomer, I am ambivalent. I question myself, especially when my precocious kid sarcastically unleashes comments like “Great parenting, Mom” after I make a decision she doesn’t like. She sounds so sure in her skepticism, and her certainty stands in stark contrast to my inner uncertainty.

Even something as basic as language—mother tongue, which for me is Vietnamese—posed a dilemma. I wasn’t sure whether I should speak it to Harlan when she was a newborn. Even something as beloved as a country or a language could be a burden. And I wondered whether it was better for her not to be hyphenated or fragmented in any way. My husband, Bill, didn’t speak Vietnamese. There would be no conversation. She would hear only my monologue. So I didn’t stick to a Vietnamese‑only regimen with her. I wanted to give her what I did not have and have not been able to achieve: wholeness. I wasn’t sure I wanted her to be disjointed and bifurcated like me. By the time I changed my mind and saw hyphenation as an unconventional form of wholeness, as having a set of twos instead of multiple divided halves, her little brain had become an English‑language brain. Now she would have to learn Vietnamese and any other language as a second language. That delayed decision remains a moment of regret.

Harlan was born in the United States, far from Vietnam, but I have bequeathed Vietnam to her whether I wanted to or not, sometimes as a gift, sometimes as a burden, but always as a marker or an imprint. I lost Vietnam when I was thirteen years old, in 1975. Forty years after the fall of Saigon, in 2015, my daughter herself turned thirteen, which for me meant the past had turned to the present, bringing itself to me in a singularly haunting act once again.

Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao are the authors of Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter.

Lan Cao is the author of Monkey Bridge and The Lotus and the Storm, and most recently of the scholarly work Culture in Law and Development: Nurturing Positive Change. She is a professor of law at the Chapman University Fowler School of Law, and an internationally recognized expert specializing in international business and trade, international law, and development. She has taught at Brooklyn Law School, Duke University School of Law, University of Michigan Law School, and William & Mary Law School.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao graduated from high school in June 2020 and is now attending UCLA. She was born in Williamsburg, Virginia and moved to Southern California when she was ten.

For more information, please visit https://lancaoauthor.com and follow the authors on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

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