So I’m Walter Cronkite, dig? And it’s February 27, 1968, and I’m saying, the U.S. is mired in a stalemate in Vietnam, and you are there.
But whoa, let’s back up twenty-nine days to the Lunar New Year. Now we know the Vietnamese call it Tet, but the Chinese own it: New Year, they call it. This year it’s significant for Paul because on this night his dad grabs his heart like it’s been antipersonnel-mined with a BLU-43, what you call dragontooth, like it was waiting there in one of those jungle paths, waiting for someone to put his toe on the de-toe-nator, and boom! There’s firecrackers busting all up and down Grant Avenue, so Paul can’t hear his dad cry out, but he’s walking behind through a narrow in the crowded festivities and the spitting lights glittering overhead only to stumble across his dad, crumpling into a laundry heap on the sidewalk.
“Ba! What is it?”
Ba has a vision as he passes: his big mistake and no atonement. “When your mother died,” he’s gasping, “for your sake, I should have married again.”
“What are you talking about? Help! We need help. An ambulance!”
“Just the two of us from that time on”—gasp—“Good son. Only child.”
“Move away! Give him air!”
“Now, my son…I’m sorry…in the world all alone…”
Maybe he says this, maybe not. Paul can’t hear him with all the explosions and the drumming. This Lunar New Year of the Monkey. There’s a float with everyone dressed like monkeys. They’re scurrying around with their wire tails bouncing. Every day for a hundred days, Paul tries to hear his father’s last words. Maybe he said “…in the world be strong…” Every Chinese New Year for the rest of his life, he tries to hear his father’s last words. And every year, he will hear something different.
This excerpt appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
Who’s Paul? Just one of those sensitive Chinatown kids in high school, senior at Lowell, now orphaned. Isn’t his story the story of every kid in the Year of the Monkey, 1968? Every one of us orphaned this year; just that Paul knows it first, a midnight orphan on the gung hay fat choy. Who are we to know that our black daddy Martin with a dream and our little white father Bobby will take bullets to their brains? By the end of the year, we are monkey orphans let loose, raising havoc; no daddies to pull the stops, temper the member; got those wired tails swinging from every rafter, we are free at last, brother, free at last.
On the Tet, boys back in Vietnam about to be orphaned too. Got their helmets fitting snug at the chin, faces smudged like football defenders, hugging those rifles for a sneak attack, all in camouflage like the VC can’t see them. Must be why more Vietnamese get killed than American boys: 58,000 to 3,895. Numbers for Vietnam are rounded off to the nearest thousand. Numbers for The Boys are exact. You do the math—it’s fifteen to one. We must have won. Saigon, Khe Sanh, and Hue—we get them all back. We get back the little places too, like Ben Tre and My Lai. At Ben Tre, an officer without a name says, “It became necessary to destroy it, in order to save it.” At My Lai, Charlie Company gets its orders: This is what you’ve been waiting for—search and destroy—and you’ve got it. LBJ, the CIA, Westmoreland, McNamara, the Wise Men, they all say, let us wash our hands, go quietly into that good-night. Bye-bye. See you on the judgment day. •
Used by permission from I Hotel (Coffee House Press, 2010). Copyright © 2010 by Karen Tei Yamashita.