They found his name on the boat. It was fished out of a book, stuck between damp pages that clung together, read in the lines of Chinese and English that ran about. It spoke of an American and it was a name that did not get questions or strange looks. It was in English and it was simple and it rolled easily out of strangers’ throats. It was to replace the one his parents had given him.
He told the name when the boat arrived in the crowded port and whispered it softly as they were shuffled from station to station, bus to bus. It felt foreign in his throat, like paper rice stuck to his back teeth, a fish bone that he could not dislodge. But his parents forced him to say it over and over, to roll it beneath his tongue and prove to the officials that they were good citizens looking for a new home. He said it so often that he forgot it was not his first name.
That was not the only thing he forgot. He forgot words and phrases, little accents here and there. He forgot days spent running barefoot over thatched roofs and dangling over buildings to peer at cockfights from above. He forgot about the intimacy, the closeness, the noise: the shouts and cries of each merchant, the bickering and bartering of buyers, people screaming from all directions just to simply talk. He forgot about the heat that clung to every inch of the body, heat so hot the entire family crowded around the whir of the electric fan. He forgot about the smell of incense, woks, and spices, his mother whispering sleepy lullabies, telling him that he was safe and everything was all right.
He pretended that the things he forgot did not matter. They were meant to be forgotten. In America, men in green uniforms did not take property and possessions. Tanks did not arrive in cities. Neighbors did not disappear. His parents did not whisper at staircases and doorsteps.
He pretended to like the cold that nipped at his shoulders, the new name that he wrote on papers, and the endless farms and loneliness that ran for miles and miles. He told himself that things were quieter. The meals he ate were the same; words came out the way he wanted them to; his parents knew what they were doing. He cradled these thoughts when he slept and turned them over and over, pretending that America was the land they had made it out to be, that all the things he knew and loved had not been ripped from him.
But when he slept, sometimes he would find himself dreaming of the days back in Cholon, his hometown, where buildings talked and the sun swallowed the sky, where he was called by his real name and felt complete, whole, with not a single part missing.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.