A Difficult Love
It was the longest seventeen days of my life. My trip to Vietnam last summer was a disaster because I fought with bà nội, my paternal grandmother, every day. We lived together until I was eight years old. Unfortunately, when Mom married my stepdad in 2006, we had to move to America and leave her behind. Bà nội has lived by herself since then, and I’d stay with her whenever I came back to my home country. We never had issues until this year.
Although we fought about the small things every day, it didn’t escalate to a full-blown argument until my last day in Vietnam. I was sleeping in my childhood bedroom when I heard my name.
“Trinh, do you want to eat lunch with me today?”
“What?” I mumbled. I couldn’t see my grandmother since the room was black. I touched my phone and saw “4:08 a.m.” on the screen. We’d eaten lunch every day for the past two weeks, so I didn’t understand why she was asking me.
“Are you eating lunch with me today?” she repeated.
I wiped my eyes. “But why did you wake me up at 4:00 o’clock in the morning?”
“I want to know if you’re going to have lunch with me.”
Impatient and angry, I yelled, “Yes, I am! Can I go back to sleep now?”
She huffed and left the bedroom, slamming the door on her way out.
Whatever, I thought. I’m leaving tomorrow anyway.
I put my head on the pillow and tried to get into a comfortable position on the bed. By 9 o’clock in the morning, I found myself staring at the beige ceiling. I could hear her talking about me.
“ … and asked her if she was having lunch with me and she yelled back. She’s so rude,” bà nội said.
She’s probably FaceTiming her sister.
“And Trinh barely talks to me. She just reads in her room.”
I put my face in my hand and sighed. It was exhausting to live with her.
I got out of bed, turned off the air conditioning, and walked to the bathroom/kitchen. There was a basket of cherries in the sink, and I moved it to the dining table.
I looked at my reflection as I brushed my teeth. The bun on my head was lopsided. The dry lotion on my acne had flaked off. The circles underneath my eyes were darker than the day before.
After I finished, I wandered into the living room to see bà nội lying on the wooden sofa and reading the newspapers. She wore a red matching set, and her grey hair was short and curly.
Bà nội was silent when I entered the room.
I stood there, waiting for her to say something. But after five minutes, I walked out to the courtyard. The white bench was damp from the rain the day before. Pots of plants were scattered around the perimeter of the area and on the granite wall. I examined the greenery that my grandmother had tended for the past few months; it was clear that she had given all of her attention to something that didn’t disappoint her.
I put on my sandals and went to my neighbor’s house. Bà dú, a family friend, had been running a restaurant in her own home for two years. She was cooking bún riêu (noodle soup with meat, crab, tofu, and tomatoes), one of the most popular dishes in Vietnam.
“What’s wrong?” bà dú asked when she saw my face. She wore a green matching set, and her brown hair was short like my grandmother’s.
I shook my head and said, “Bà nội woke me up at 4 a.m. She wanted to know if I was eating lunch here, and I yelled at her because I was angry. And now she’s blaming me.” I’d confided my problems to bà dú for the past two weeks. Since she’d known bà nội and my family for many years, she understood why we clashed often.
Bà dú tilted her head. “Why did you think that?”
“She told her sister what happened. The one who lives in California.” But as I was talking to my neighbor, I saw a man with a red jacket parking his moped in front of bà nội’s house. He got off the vehicle, took a small plastic bag from the hook, and rang the doorbell.
Bà nội opened the door and greeted the man. He gave her the bag and accepted the money from her. Before I could come home to see what was going on, my grandmother sauntered to my neighbor’s house. When she saw me, she said, “Here. I purchased your favorite snack. I got the man to buy it for you.” She smiled, thrusting the plastic bag in my direction.
I knew that she was talking about bánh bò nướng, a delicious sponge cake. The soft, chewy inside was green and had the texture of a honeycomb. The outer layer was brown.
“Oh,” I hesitated, “I don’t want it right now. I’m very full.” That was a lie, and she knew it. I hadn’t eaten breakfast.
I shook my head to emphasize the point.
Her face fell. “Oh, okay.” She said, turning around to go back to her house.
I knew I was being unreasonable and cruel. I tried to blink back tears.
I avoided eye contact with bà dú. I stared at the ground, trying to erase the image of my grandmother walking away from me, devastated from my answer.
Tears escaped my eyes. Before I knew what I was doing, I walked away and wandered into a different neighborhood. When I saw a pink bench in front of the local elementary school, I sat on it and cried. I was upset with bà nội and myself. With her because she criticized me every day. With myself because I was being bitter and ungrateful.
I wanted to talk to her about our fights, but what was the point? It was difficult to discuss this situation with one another due to the language barrier. I was no longer fluent in Vietnamese, and I couldn’t translate what I wanted to say in my first language. I couldn’t tell her that I was not the granddaughter she wanted me to be. That I could never be an obedient Vietnamese woman who always respected people, especially those who didn’t deserve it. That I wasn’t Catholic anymore, and I’d been lying to her for the past four years. I couldn’t tell her the reasons why I’d left the church since there were too many. I’d crossed my fingers whenever I said I went to mass on Sundays.
I couldn’t tell her that I felt suffocated when I lived with her. That it was best for me to love her from a distance. It was the least destructive form of love I could give her at the moment.
After an hour of crying, I stood up and walked back to my neighborhood. When I was inside the courtyard, I saw bà nội sitting on the sofa and folding my laundry. She was hunched over, a permanent posture due to old age. My breath hitched, and I was scared to admit the truth.
She was aging too fast.
Remember to listen to her, Mom said before I left for my trip. I know she can be a lot, but just listen to her. You’ll never know what’s going to happen to her these next few years.
I took off my shoes and stepped inside the living room. “Bà nội ơi,” I called. She looked up at me, and I could see the wrinkles on her face. I scratched my neck and asked, “Can I have bún bò huế for lunch?” It was a spicy noodle soup with beef and pork, and I’d loved that dish since I was young.
She smiled. “Okay. Can you help me cook it?”
“Yes,” I nodded and offered my hand. She took it, stood up, and walked into the kitchen.
I watched her take the vegetables out of the fridge. She looked at me and said, “You should start boiling the noodles.”
For the next forty-five minutes, I prepared my favorite Vietnamese dish with my grandmother. She showed me how to chop the meat correctly, and I stirred all of the ingredients in the pot. After separating the food into two bowls, we sat at the dining table and I noticed how bà nội chewed the noodles slowly, like she was savoring every bite.
“You should eat, Trinh,” she said, indicating my bowl with her chopsticks.
I nodded and drank the broth. It had the perfect amount of spice. Then I put some noodles and meat on my spoon and ate them. I smiled to myself, grateful to be home.
© Trinh Lê
Trinh Lê is an English student at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. She was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the United States in 2006. This is her first published nonfiction piece.