Lynh’s scream woke her daughter who was sleeping in the next room. Angel rushed into her mother’s room and turned on the light beside Lynh’s bed. Her mother was in tears but her eyes were closed.
“Mom, wake up. You are having a nightmare. Please wake up Mom.”
Angel shook her mother gently until Lynh opened her eyes and began to realize where she was. Lynh was shaking. Angel held her mother in her arms and softly began to talk.
“Mom, are you okay? You must have had a bad dream again. You are at home with me. You’re safe.”
“Oh, Angel... Thank God, you’re here with me.” She was beginning to calm down now that she realized she was in her own bed. “I love you sweetheart. You are my guardian angel. I’m okay. Thank you. I’m sorry I woke you up.”
“Mom, what’s wrong? What’s frightening you?”
Angel was concerned. It had been a long time since her mother had one of her episodes. Angel had dealt with her mother’s nightmares since she was a child. Angel used to be terrified that something was very wrong with her mother. Her grandmother was the one who calmed Lynh down when they lived in Vietnam. But now that they were on their own, she was the one who had to aid her mother through her long nights of terror.
“Do you want to talk about it? These nightmares aren’t going away. Would it help to talk about what’s bothering you?”
“It’s nothing Angel. I’m just overtired tonight. It was so busy at the restaurant that I didn’t even have time for my coffee break. I’ll be all right, darling. Thank you for being here with me.”
Lynh didn’t like lying to Angel but she could never tell her the truth. How could she tell Angel that the most precious person in Lynh’s life was the product of the most degrading and shameful experience of her life?
“You can go back to sleep now.” Lynh gently embraced her daughter and gave her a kiss on her cheek.
“Okay, Mom. Sleep tight. You’re sure you will be all right?”
While Angel was helping her mother calm down, Bill observed Angel very closely through Lynh’s eyes. In Angel, Bill’s spirit saw his own mother. The shape of her chin, her mouth, the way she comforted her mother... Angel looked so much like his own mother, Beth. 'My God! She’s got to be my daughter…,' he thought, gasping to himself. He never thought he could be a father. The doctor told Bill and his wife Helen that they could never have a baby.
”My daughter…” Suddenly, in his confusion, Bill felt an overwhelming love toward the young girl. A love he had never experienced in the past. He remembered how much he loved his mother Beth. Angel was so much like Beth. Bill realized how badly he missed his mother after all these years.
“I’ll be alright.” Lynh said gently to Angel. As she kissed her daughter, Bill felt his spirit transfer to Angel.
With Bill’s spirit in her, Angel left her mother and returned to her own bedroom. There was still a couple of hours before sunrise but Angel could not go back to sleep right away. She turned her bedroom light on and sat on the bed for a little while. She began to wonder why sometimes her mother had such bad dreams.
Angel had asked her mother in the past; “Mom, I know you don’t want to tell me about your nightmares. But they scare me, too. I hate to hear you scream like that. I don’t like to see you in tears. I love you, you know. Please tell me what it’s all about. You’ll probably feel much better once you talk to me about it.”
“Angel, I know you love me and you hate to see me this way. But I can’t share my nightmare with you yet. You are still much too young and also I’m not ready to talk about it. I promise when you are an adult and when I have enough courage to talk about it, I will share it with you. But not now. I’m sorry sweetheart.”
So Angel had been patiently waiting for that time to come. Her mother’s defense for not sharing her thoughts with Angel echoed in her mind, 'When I am an adult… I wonder how long I will have to wait.'
Angel also wondered if her mother could ever answer an even more important question: why won’t she ever talk about my father?
When Angel was a little girl, she asked Lynh, “Mom, who is my dad? What is his name?”
“Your father was an American soldier. He was killed during the Vietnam War. His name? It was Joseph.”
Angel believed her mother, as children trustingly do. She had no reason to doubt her mom. Even if she had doubts, there was no one that could tell her differently. Lynh also told her not to ask about Angel’s father any more. Unfortunately, the fact that Angel was forbidden to speak of her father made her want to know more about him.
She quite often wondered about him. Did he look like Father Pierre with deep blue eyes? Was he tall or was he short? What color was his hair? The older she became, the more Angel’s curiosity about him grew. Of course, Angel could not possibly have known that her father’s spirit was right inside of her body that night and feeling her every emotion!
Angel knelt beside her bed and prayed for her mother. Whatever was bothering her mother, Angel wished it would go away soon. Angel knew it was her mother who kept her safe all these years. It was her mother who would die for her. Angel loved her mother deeply and felt it was time for her to help her mother.
When she finished praying for Lynh, she looked up and saw an old picture on the dresser. It was a picture of her family: her grandparents, mother, and herself just before they left Vietnam. They were standing in front of the shabby bamboo hut that was once Angel’s home.
“Bà ngoại và Ông nội (Grandmother and Grandfather), please protect my mom. Dad, help her cope with whatever she is going through. I love you dad, though I never met you.” She whispered softly.
Bill was shocked to hear her say that she loved her father. ‘How could she love her father? She doesn’t even know him,’ he thought to himself. Bill was profoundly moved by her kind words.
Angel stood up and held the photo close to her. She cherished it. It was the only picture her mother brought from Vietnam. She thought of the loving grandparents she and her mother left behind. Though they were becoming distant memories, she still remembered piggybacking on her grandmother while she sang Angel a lullaby. How hauntingly beautiful it sounded. Sometimes, both grandparents took her for a walk while holding both of Angel’s hands. Once in a while, they would swing her into the air and help her jump up as Angel squealed with joy. Her most unforgettable memory was being held in grandfather’s arms beside her grandmother and the three of them watched the sun set between the distant mountains. Those memories remained very warm and beautiful in Angel’s mind.
Then she remembered the children in the village. Angel was called “bụi đời (dust of life) by them. She was too little to understand what it meant. They often threw dirt or small stones at her. Though sometimes the parents of those nasty children were there, they ignored what was happening, their gaze turning away. Invariably, Angel was left alone sobbing. These memories tormented her for a long time. When she was young, she did not have any idea why these incidents were happening to her. She would go home and tell her mother whenever it happened, but all Lynh could do was to hold her daughter tight and try to comfort her. Angel never knew her mother was crying as well and would cry the rest of her life with her.
It took a long time before Angel understood why she was called “bụi đời (dust of life)” or “mỹ lai (mixed American and Vietnamese)”. She was an outsider and her life did not have any value to the other villagers. Her appearance, in addition, did not allow her to fit in with the others in the village. After all Angel was not pure Vietnamese. She had light brown hair, pale skin color, and light colored eyes, looking nothing like the other children. And being a fatherless child made it all the more difficult. Worse yet, she was the child of the abusers who invaded their country!
When Angel was much older, she came to understand why her mother had decided to leave her loving parents--to protect Angel from the continued abuse by others. Lynh’s love was strong enough to leave her home so that her daughter could have a better life elsewhere, and never again to be treated like an outsider in their own village.
She remembered a Catholic church in Saigon that her mother frequented, bringing Angel with her. It was a tall brown Gothic building with a cross atop the two towers that thrust into the sky, as if in defiance to the culture in which it stood and that surrounded it. There were heavy dark brown doors that marked the main entrance. This led to a large hallway where Lynh and Angel used to greet parishioners. There were more heavy doors before entering inside the sanctuary. Because Angel was small, Lynh used to take Angel up to the balcony, which overlooked the altar.
She and her mother prayed quite often in the church. Angel tried to imitate what her mother was saying without fully understanding what was said. Father Pierre often came to see them when they were praying and joined them. Father Pierre was always kind to them.
Angel missed Father Pierre. He had beautiful green eyes that she found so striking and unusual since they were so different from the people she knew in her village. To her, his eyes always seemed so warm and filled with love. Sometimes she would follow him around in the church while Father Pierre prepared for mass. While he was doing so, Angel copied his actions. Other times, Father Pierre caught Angel mimicking him and he stopped whatever he was doing, they would both pause, then both burst out in laughter. Their sounds echoed through the church. Angel loved that sound. She was always happy when Father Pierre was around. He was like what she thought a father would be like. The father she never had.
She remembered some children in the church who looked like her – half white and half Asian. Angel became friends with several of them. Some had blond hair and blue eyes though their skin was dark. Some had chestnut color hair and dark brown eyes with fair skin just like Angel. Those children belonged to single mothers who also came to the church. With them, Angel never had to worry about being abused. Angel could be herself and was able to just have fun. In their similarities, she found belonging.
When her mother decided to leave Vietnam, she told Angel about moving to a new country. Angel didn’t quite understand what her mother actually meant; being only 6 years old, she had no concept of foreign travel. She only knew that the priests and nuns came from somewhere else, somewhere far away. Angel remembered that her mother was excited about leaving Vietnam, but her grandparents were quite upset with their daughter’s decision. They were afraid of losing both their daughter and their only granddaughter. They loved Lynh and Angel so deeply and never wanted to be apart from them. But they realized, painfully, that it would be for the best that both Angel and Lynh live in another country and eventually, hesitantly, they agreed to let them go.
Angel and her mother left Vietnam and began a long trip to the United States by boat. It was a beautiful autumn day that masked the gloom Lynh felt in her heart. Among the passengers departing Vietnam, Angel saw many of her friends from the church and their mothers. Later, she found out from her mother that Father Pierre was the one who helped make the arrangements for them to go to the the new country. Angel understood why they had attended so many meetings at the church after the Sunday masses. She realized they had been preparing for a new life.
Angel didn’t know what to expect when she was told they would go by boat to a new land. She had not envisioned a cargo ship that had a few cabins that she and her mother would have to share with other families from the church. The quarters were so cramped that there was not even room to walk around. Being a child, Angel wanted to play with other children, but it was too dangerous to play on deck in the choppy seas, so they had to remain and play in the stuffy corridor. Because most of the passengers had never traveled before by ship and the seas were rough, many became seasick. As for the food provided on the ship, there wasn’t much and what there was became difficult to keep down. With the sickness and crowded quarters people began to fight for space and comfort. The journey of hope began to be a voyage of anger and frustration.
After many nights and through some severe storms, Angel and her mother finally arrived at the port of Los Angeles. Soon, with the church’s aid, Angel’s mother found a job as a waitress and she had a tiny furnished apartment for herself and Angel. Lynh worked hard and was supported by people from the church, who took care of Angel while Lynh worked at night.
Although the beginning of their life in the U.S.A. was very hard for both Angel and Lynh, it eventually became much more pleasant than the life they left in Vietnam. Lynh was one of the luckiest of the women who came on the boat as many could not find a job in Los Angeles for many months, primarily because they could not speak English. In Vietnam, most of them spoke French but that was not helpful when you were looking for a job in America.
Angel noticed that there were so many different nationalities in Los Angeles, unlike Angel’s hometown in homogeneous Vietnam. Where there were primarily only Vietnamese with a few foreigners. It was for this reason that Angel felt more comfortable being in Los Angeles, having a hereditary attachment to more than one ancestry. For the first time, she was not afraid of being herself.
After Angel finished grade three, Lynh and Angel moved to another city. One of Lynh’s friends, who left Saigon with her, invited them to join her in a medium size southern city where her family had found some success. Lynh agreed to move because even though she was doing well in Los Angeles, she never felt comfortable in such a large city. She longed for a smaller more relaxed city to raise her child.
Lynh diligently saved the small amounts of money she had left over at the end of each month while living in her tiny apartment in Los Angeles. Using the savings as a down payment, she bought a small house in the new city. It was an older house but renovated throughout so the inside was almost brand new. Angel had her own bedroom for the first time.
Lynh looked for work in the food service business relying on her past experience and success, It didn’t take long before she was hired on as a manager at one of the restaurants in town.
The neighbor who lived right next to Lynh’s home offered to take care of Angel while she was working at night as they too had two small children of their own. Immigrants from Korea, their oldest child was the same age as Angel. The mother was of Asian and American parentage. Lynh felt she could trust her as she was friendly and helpful and her children were very well behaved.
To relax from work, Lynh began to paint. As the years passed by, the simple house was decorated by many of her paintings. Because of her limited English language skills, words could never seem to express the way she truly felt as well as her paintings could. So whenever she had time, she painted. By the time Angel was 16, the walls in her home were decorated by many of her mother’s paintings. Most of them were scenes from Vietnam. Angel particularly liked a large red oil painting of her mother’s that hung in the living room. In it were simple charcoal figures of cows and Vietnamese ladies with baskets full of vegetables and fruit. The figures were placed randomly on a crimson background. Nothing else. The painting touched Angel. Whenever she stopped to look at the painting, it brought Angel right back to her village in Vietnam. It reminded her of the sunsets in her village. It made her feel that her grandparents were standing right next to her as they watched the sunsets. The painting often brought tears to her eyes, for she sorely missed her grandparents.
When Angel became 16, Lynh held a special birthday party for her at home. When the birthday candles were lit and Angel blew her candles out, she wished that her mother would tell Angel the secret Lynh had been keeping -- of the past that had been tormenting her mother. Angel thought that she could solve her mother’s trouble if they confronted it together – she just wanted her mother to be happy.
Angel was surrounded by many close friends including her boyfriend Dean Sung-ho. She was very outgoing and was very popular at her high school. All her abuse in Vietnam made her strong, compassionate and generous to others. As a consequence, she attracted people from many different ethnic backgrounds. White, black, Hispanic, Asians. Remarkably, they all treated each other as if they were members of one family.
Dean’s mother Jackie helped take care of Angel when she was younger while her mother worked the night shift at the restaurant. Angel and Dean went to school together. Angel, Dean and Dean’s sister Cathy played together every day when they were small. They became very good friends over the years. As his mother was also half American, Dean was tall, broad shouldered and quite a handsome young man. He also was very gentle, polite and had a great sense of humor. He made Angel laugh whenever they were together. This made Angel very happy and secure. With him, she could forget about all the unpleasant memories of her childhood in Vietnam. The past held no fear or anger over her when she was with Dean.
There was Latin music, Angel’s favorite foods, many gifts from her friends and a lot of laughter at her 16th birthday party.
After everyone left from the party to go home, Dean asked Angel to walk with him for a few minutes at the nearby park. Angel, still excited from seeing many of her friends at her party, chatted all the way through the park. A few minutes after they passed the entrance gate, Dean suddenly stopped and turned towards Angel and gently took her in his arms and kissed her. Angel froze and stood still for a few seconds. It was their first kiss. Her heart began to race. She then put her arms around Dean and embraced him gently. They stood together for a few minutes holding onto to each other. Then without a word, they walked back to their homes.
Angel always remembered that first kiss. Every time she thought about it, she could feel her cheeks flush. She would touch her lips with her slender fingers as she closed her eyes.
With pleasant thoughts of Dean and knowing that her mother seemed to be sleeping calmly, Angel finally fell asleep that night. She dreamed about Dean. She was truly happy. She would be seeing him at the church the next day.
Sunday morning, Lynh and Angel dressed up to go to church. Leaving the house, they locked the door after stepping into a bright cool morning. Dean was waiting for them at their front door. Through Angel’s eyes, Bill saw Dean. He was a tall, dark and handsome oriental young man. At the church, Angel and Dean sat side by side in the pew. Lynh watched them with a smile. Right after the mass, Dean asked Lynh if he could take Angel for lunch. Dean was always very polite and respectful all the time Lynh had known him. Lynh did not hesitate to let Angel go out with Dean. She could see Angel was very happy whenever she was with him.
Dean experienced tragedy at the age of 10. Because of his experience Dean had learned self- control and supported his father who was devastated from the accident. Lynh always respected Dean for his maturity and positive attitude. Soon, he became more like a son that she never had. Not many young men Lynh saw were like Dean. Unlike Dean, she still could not shake off her dark memories. Believing in God helped her cope each day, but the horrific memories haunted her at night.
After saying goodbye to Lynh, Dean took Angel for a burger at a fast food outlet in the mall near the Church. It was crowded but they managed to find and sit in a relatively quiet corner.
Bill looked at Dean very carefully as he sat across from Angel at the table. By observing Dean’s actions, Bill could tell that Dean was truly in love with Angel. Bill could feel that Angel was also in love with Dean as every time Dean got closer to Angel, her heart beat faster. Bill could not take this. Bill began to scream inside “Not this young man, he is not white, he can’t have my daughter! I will never allow it!”
Not knowing Bill’s anger, Angel sat and sipped her drink. Then said, “Dean, my mother had her nightmare again last night. It must have been a bad one. I had a hard time waking her up.”
“That’s too bad.” Dean replied with great sympathy as he also had similar experiences dealing with his father who lost half of his family members.
“She still doesn’t want to tell me what it’s all about. She keeps saying that she will tell me when I’m an adult. I don’t know when that is going to be. I’m really concerned.” Angel looked into Dean’s eyes.
“I understand. My dad is the same way. Sometimes, he doesn’t tell me things.” Dean answered as he reached for his drink.
“Something must have happened when she was young. Something terrible… What could it be?” Angel looked into Dean’s eyes again.
As Dean was listening to Angel, Dean could not help but think about his father. His father too, had nightmares occasionally. In his case, Dean knew exactly what those nightmares were about. Dean himself suffered from the same bad dreams. In their case, they were not bad dreams. They were reliving the incident they lived through a just few years ago. The night Dean lost his mother and his sister.
“Dean, are you listening to me?”
“Oh, I’m sorry. I was thinking about my dad. He has nightmares, too. He often weeps even during the day from it.”
“I understand…” Angel said, remembering what Dean and his father had gone through.
“You know what? Most of us have something in the past that haunts us and sometimes it is not easy to tell others what they are. So until your mother is ready to tell you, you just have to try to be patient.”
“You’re right… but I hope it won’t be too long. I can’t stand not knowing what it is that’s bothering her. I love her so much.” Both Angel and Dean kept silent for a few moments as they thought about the suffering of their parents.
When they were going to get up after their lunch, a couple of white teenagers bumped into Dean intentionally hitting his tray. Then they left the food court looking back at Dean and Angel triumphantly, laughing and pointing fingers at Dean and Angel. The contents of Dean's tray were all over the floor. They began to bend down and pick up the pop can and the paper plate. Thinking of his mother and sister coupled with this incident only brought anger. Dean was angry towards the white race as he believed that the death of his mother and sister was related to racism. He wanted to chase them and wanted to say something to the white teenagers. However, he realized that it was not the time to say anything. So he bit his lip. He knew it would cause a fight if he tried to confront the teenagers at that moment. With all his strength he clinch his fists with rage and looked away.
“I’m sick and tired of being treated as someone less than them.” Dean muttered.
“I’m less to them just because of my skin color, just because I am Asian.” He whispered to Angel. “I wonder what makes them think they could get away with what they did. It makes me so angry if they think they are superior just because they are white. I could have broken their necks if I really wanted to – good thing that I learned how to control my anger from my Karate classes.”
“I agree” said Angel. “They are lucky – though I know if they knew you have a black belt in Karate, they would have never approached you that way.” Angel spoke with a sympathetic, supportive tone in her voice.
“What they don’t realize is that it wasn’t my choice to be born partially Asian” Dean muttered again.
“It wasn’t my choice either, Dean.” As Angel picked up a fork and a knife from the floor, she spoke quietly trying to calm Dean down without much success.
“Don’t you sometimes wonder who decides our place of birth, color of skin, the shape of eyes, and even the language we speak? Wouldn’t it be great that if we could decide all that?” Dean asked.
After Angel placed the plastic utensils back onto Dean’s tray, she sat back down in her chair. Dean followed her and sat back down reluctantly.
“It would be great if we could…” Angel looked up Dean. She suddenly smiled at Dean and asked him,
“So if you could, what would you choose?”
Angel was determined to change Dean’s bad mood. Dean caught on to what Angel was trying to do and answered her question with a forced smile.
“Well, I would like to be born in America, tall, dark, handsome, speaking English…”
“That’s exactly who you are Dean… So what’s the problem?”
Angel was absolutely right. His grand-father was American. Dean inherited his height, longs legs, and high nose from him. He played sports all year around, he was tanned. Indeed, he was a quite attractive young man. The only way others could tell he was Asian was that he had dark hair and almond shape eyes.
“I know what you mean, though…” Angel continued.
“I quite often think about the same question: who decides the color of your skin or the place you are born? None of us get to choose our parents or our race or our place of birth, but for some reason people want to discriminate against those who look different as if they had a choice and decided to be different.”
“I never thought of it that way.” Dean looked right into Angel’s eyes with curiosity.
“I also think about the different religions, too. In any religion, God or religious leaders want all of us to love one another, yet a lot of wars and hatred are caused because of a difference in religious belief. I really don’t get it. When I was young, my mother took me to a Catholic church. So as I was getting older, I read the Old Testament, the Bible, and all sorts of religious books but I could never find out the answer to those questions.”
“When I think of discrimination and religion, I think of Martin Luther King. He is a hero. He was a Baptist minister who fought for freedom for black people. I really respect that, you know?” Dean commented.
Angel replied, “Sure, he was a true hero alright. In essence, he fought for all of us, not only for blacks. He was a nonviolent civil activist and just like Jesus, he eventually died for people. I can’t imagine what it is like to be assassinated because of what you believe. That people can hate you and your message of love and human decency.”
They both sat silent for a moment. Then Angel added,
“There is another division of the human race we haven’t discussed. It’s a gender, you know. Apparently in some countries, women are still treated worse than the animals. I think even in the western world, we are treated not as well as men in general; though I shouldn’t be discussing this with you. After all, you are a man.” Angel chuckled and continued,
“So in order to explain the tragedy created from the difference in religions, race, and gender, all I have to tell you is my family’s life story. My mother struggled to live in a new country not only as an Asian person but also as a woman after we left Vietnam. She received considerably lower pay than if she were a man. As a child, I was abused by Vietnamese children just because my skin color was a little lighter than theirs and also because I was a fatherless child. Being a Catholic didn’t help much either in that sense. I was called all sorts of names and I used to cry a lot because of it. So my mom and I experienced all kind of abuse and pain in our life – and I’m only sixteen.”
Hearing this, Dean began to feel somewhat embarrassed. Here she was, a young woman who suffered more than he could imagine in her life, and there he was upset over being bumped by some teenagers a while ago.
Angel suddenly looked down shyly as she said, ”You know what? I’m glad your dad decided to come to the US. If he didn’t, I would have never met you.”
“Even though my dad and I had to suffer a lot, ultimately I am happy to be here because of you. I love you Angel.” Dean gently touched Angel’s cheek and looked right into her eyes.” Angel’s eyes began sparkling with tears.
Dean then took Angel’s hands and said,
“As long as we are together, we can conquer anything, right?”
Angel’s beautiful face shone radiantly. Her voice lifted and with a tone of declaration, she said,
“Eventually, the whole world is going to be filled with people like you and I, Dean. All of them will have different shades of color. Then none of us will feel excluded.”
“You’re right. There will be more bananas and coconuts everywhere…” said Dean with a smile.
“What do you mean bananas and coconuts?” Angel asked.
“You and I are bananas. Because our skin is somewhat yellow but we don’t act like our parents who are Asians. We are pure Americans. We speak perfect English, we don’t follow traditions from our parents’ country. We act the same as the white kid next door. See the skin of the banana is yellow but inside it’s white. Make sense?”
“So coconuts are the ones with dark skin… How interesting. I never thought of us as bananas. Though I quite often thought you are bananas. Sometimes you act as if you are one…” Angel laughed out loud and Dean joined her laughing and said,
“That’s cruel, Angel. I thought you respected me for who I am. All these years I supported and protected you when you were in trouble.”
Angel stood up suddenly lifting her tray, then handed it to Dean,
“And I would like to extend special thanks to Dean Jin-ho Lee for all the hard work he exhibited in the last few years.” Both Angel and Dean laughed together again.
“Okay, okay. I got you. We should probably get going now, right?” Dean got up and took his tray from Angel and said,
“I accept your gratitude with honor. Thank you, Angel.” Then whispered quietly to Angel,
“Let’s leave this place before everyone begins to think we are crazy.”