In Vietnamese, Ong Noi means paternal grandfather. I’ve never met mine, yet I feel as though I have my entire life.
I was told that he passed away way before I was born. Way before my sister was even born in 77. As a child, his memory served as an ephemeral existence that I could only grasp through a tattered black and white photo on the dusty altar. I could see a semblance of him in my dad, his only son, if I looked hard enough.
When I was a kid, I would oftentimes cry whenever I dreamed something whether it be good or bad. It was the oddest thing, as if my four year old self feared anything my subconscious could conjure. I used to even chant “pink ranger, pink ranger, pink ranger” to myself before bed so I could dream of fighting crime in that awful pink Power Ranger suit. Though I’m sure that would have brought me to tears as well.
At night, I remember snuggling up in my 101 Dalmatians sleeping bag. Because my family had only been in America for only four to five years, we made do with a two bedroom home with ten people, sometimes more. I slept in that sleeping bag as a blanket and the fact that it zipped up made me feel safe and warm. Sometimes it’d be too hot and I could remember my mom unzipping the side to cool me down.
On one particular night, I dreamed of being in the bathroom and speaking to someone in the mirror. As usual, I began crying in my sleep. I was alone, my arms dangling barely able to reach the sink knobs even with the strain of tip-toeing. It was my ong noi’s face in the mirror. The same and only face I know from the photo on the altar. His voice, still and quiet, nudged me, “Tai sao con coc?” or “Why are you crying?” I don’t remember answering him. I don’t remember much more to be frank. I do remember waking, the padding of the 101 Dalmatian covers over me, and feeling safe with tears down my face still. And I’ve felt that most of my life.
I don’t know how to explain it, but I’ve always just felt very in tuned with him. Moments where I exhale a relief such as almost-accidents on the 405 or nights where I feel paranoid of the wind I just think of him.
Sure I’m human and I have fears and insecurities. I definitely don’t run yellows thinking “Whatever, grandpa’s got me” but I do feel a sense of someone guarding me. When I came back to visit Nha Trang this past month, my mom took my brother and me to his grave.
During this past trip back to Vietnam, I was eager yet nervous at the same time. I wasn’t expecting to “find myself” or rediscover my identity etc like the cliches of many Viet Kieus. It was difficult to strike a conversation using my disjointed Vietnamese with my uncles who could share few words with me. I still appreciated the silence at times just sitting with family, the way my deaf and mute aunt pinched my cheeks, eyes grinning as she squeezed me. While it was fulfilling to see my place of birth in Nha Trang, I didn’t experience a KABAMM transformation of this new self-awakening and awareness. None of that Eat, Pray, Love.
I think, however, that my grandpa spoke to me on my last day in Nha Trang. While having breakfast with Brian, I decided to pack my Vietnamese Iced Coffee with tons of ice since it mainly comprises of espresso. Brian began chuckling in a bemused yet charmed way. I had to ask, “What?” He pointed to the coffee.
I couldn’t believe it. I too then burst into laughter with accompanied hiccuping gasps. We both looked mad laughing at this glass of coffee amid the din of the breakfast buffet. It could’ve just been that I pounded that ice and let it sit a tad too long. Or that the precise combination of cubes just happened to hit the glass a way to create random shapes, leaving it to my madness to over-analyze them. Or that ong noi just wanted to say hi to his granddaughter, his chau noi.