by Hong-My Basrai
Mrs. Spring, old and Vietnamese, would be unemployed in the U.S. if not for the community newspaper Nguoi Viet—The Viets. She would be long dead of hunger after The Fall of Saigon in 1975, together with all her five children, if not for her strong personality, her constitution like that of a working buffalo, and her cooking skills.
Despite the long ad in The Viets looking for nannies and housekeepers and nanny/housekeeper/cook, being old and Vietnamese would still go against her. Erect of posture, with shining skin and jet black hair thick in a chignon, she still retained that look that once, long ago, was her life savior. But she was seventy four, still alert and agile, but not fast enough to run after little boys and girls and keep them pristine. Then, there were those 3,000 square foot homes in Orange County, with hallways going in different directions and marble floors that needed shining, and a dozen sinks all over the house that needed scrubbing, beds to be made with perfect hospital corners; not to mention grandma too, to push out to the sun, to spoon feed like a child, and wash and clean like another bedroom.
It was her saving grace that she cooked well, and cooked the Northern Vietnamese dishes the way northern people liked. It was fortunate for both my dad and Mrs. Spring that they were compatible, for she needed an income badly and my dad, at the end of his life, his brain wrecked by Alzheimer’s disease, needed someone to look after him 24 hours a day.
Mrs. Spring’s biggest worry was her U.S. Citizenship Test. When she wasn’t cleaning or cooking, she would sit down with her Phillips DVD player, her N400 Test Questionnaire that included the 100 civic questions and 100 questions about the U.S. history, a white Olympus mini recorder, pen and pencil, and a notebook to learn her lesson.
She played the history lessons on the DVD player, which displayed the map of the US and the neighboring states of CA. She pressed the mini recorder to her stone-deaf ear to listen to the recording of the 100 questionnaires which a man with a fine northern accent and an acceptable English pronunciation has taped for her at $50 a tape. She called him her teacher. Over and over that tape played the basics knowledge and phrases of the American life–How tall are you? I am one hundred fifty pounds. What state has the most population? California has the most population. What state is the largest state? It’s Alaska.”
“Oi giao oi,” she lamented, calling for God’s help. “Nothing stays in my head. I learn to answer one question and forget how to answer the previous one. What do I do but hope for the best?”
Knowing her difficulty, we took turn quizzing her. “How tall are you?” we would ask. Mrs. Spring repeated our question like a bad tape that was rewound, and said, dumbfounded, a robot with missing chips, “I am one piptee pao,” confounding our question about her height with the one about her weight and the one fifty pound answer she was supposed to give.
She pronounced “states” as “schasche.” We tried correcting her, but we might as well try teaching our dog to meow or contrive a leaky faucet to retain every drop of water. One day, exasperated, my husband, who had been playing the Good Samaritan to Mrs. Spring, cried out, “Oye yay yay, it’s like me learning Vietnamese.”
Her fervor to learn was not due to any feeling of patriotism for the country that fed her, housed her, and offered her all available opportunities to do better. Neither was it due to any sense of self-worth, pride or the love of learning, but solely for one and only one thing: the monetary gain associated with that citizenship, that degree, that diploma—these terms were equivalent in her mind–which enabled her to contribute to her family’s coffer. At her age, she would be qualified for social security benefits if she could get naturalized.
Alas, at the rate she was learning English, her hard tongue chopping the soft vowels like wood blocks, and her inability to assimilate, she would never, short of a miracle or freak of luck, be “natural” at the art of becoming even a marginal part of the American citizenry.
I overheard her talking to a grandson in Vietnam. “You study hard, alright? Then I’ll send money home. I’ll get you the chocolate you like. I miss you and love you,” her voice, the voice of a grandma, quivered, longing for her own flesh, the fruit of her womb’s fruit; and her home, the home of all places on earth.
She said, her optimism not so different from my dad’s, her strength breaking through, “If I passed the test, that would mean $800 a month, money I would earn for being old,” then with pride seeping in, “besides working and paying tax.”
Mrs. Spring, old and Vietnamese, an immigrant, was resilient and stubborn and vulnerable. She, like all immigrants–like my dad, my mom, my brothers and sisters, myself, perhaps you too–was trying to cling on while growing wings to fly on her own.
Editor’s Note on Mrs. Spring’s Story:
Mrs. Spring’s Story is not Hong-My Basrai’s first work to appear in Eastlit. Her previous published pieces are:
- Ma’s Mosquito Moment appeared in Eastlit August 2014.