The Vietnamese were born from a goddess from the heavens and a dragon from the waters. The dragon-father confessed to the goddess-mother, I am from the dragons, you are from the faeries. Fire and water cannot together live in harmony. Fifty of their sons followed their mother into the mountains and the other fifty descended into the father’s love of the sea.

My father left Vietnam during the war, leaving most of his family behind. When we returned 30 years later, we visited them, living or dead. The monastery wouldn’t let him have the only picture of his deceased sister. The monk shook her head gently. Who knows how many emigrants, how many prodigal children she’d denied that day—She lives in the temple now. She’s already home.

My mother also left Vietnam during the war, became a refugee with her four other siblings and their mother. They crossed the oceans in small groups or alone to escape detection. When they all arrived, they shared a two-bedroom apartment for years.

Half its name, Viet, honors the country’s origins: the word for hundreds more and the even older words for walk and leave.

After living within an hour of my parents in coastal California for twenty-two years, I moved to the East Coast, ten minutes from the Atlantic. Our oceans connect. We could touch the same body of water, and we’ve never felt so far apart.

In Vietnam, a man once left his wife for more money and younger women. When he became destitute and blind, he unknowingly begged at the house of his former wife and her new husband. Her kindness—gifts of cake with money hidden in the middle—restored his eyesight. He looked upon her and threw himself into the kitchen hearth in shame. In death, he became a deity sworn to protect the home and family.

In honor of my Vietnamese zodiac, my parents gave me the Vietnamese name Precious Dragon. Only my parents called me that, less frequently when I grew up, even less when I left them. I haven’t heard anyone say the word ‘dragon’ in any language since we stopped talking a year ago.

In Vietnam, a wife was killed by her jealous half-sister and stepmother. She returned to her husband as a nightingale and her half-sister fed her to the cat. She returned as a white cedar tree and was cut down. When returned again as a loom, she was burned. She finally returned to her beloved by emerging from a sweet smelling fruit.

I failed out of Vietnamese school because I never prepared for classes on Sunday. My cousin was expelled for pushing one of the teachers—my family blamed his temper on his love of chilies and spicy foods. They had enrolled us at the same time and cast us away at the same time—a piece of the family couldn’t be where the rest wasn’t.

Vietnam can be written, said, and felt as Viet Nam, a being cleaved in two, aching to be stitched back together.

My mother and her siblings have names in English, names in Vietnamese, and then names only my grandparents used at home: River, Ocean, Lake. Still, the trip across oceans scared the family when they immigrated. They prayed to the Jade Goddess, also named the Goddess of Mercy.

I was three the first time I tried to run away. I couldn’t leave the doorstep: it rained so hard the walkway of our apartment complex flooded. I waited outside the door, afraid to get wet, until my mother let me back in. Don’t tell your father.

In Vietnam, we paid twenty dollars so my cousin and I could parasail in the ocean. Our parachute folded and we were dragged by the boat. I sank into the dark and pushed my cousin towards air, hoped those lungs would find the light.

In Vietnam, a man once cared for a magical banyan tree with leaves that could heal the sick and resurrect the dead. He used the leaves and the intestines of a dog to revive his murdered wife. One day, the tree uprooted and started to fly away. The man hooked his axe into the tree’s roots and flew with it to the moon. Once a year, a single leaf falls to the earth, sometimes into the ocean. The dolphins search for the leaves to revive those who have drowned.

Eric Tran
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