I grew up in the valleys of a town encompassed by hills and mountains, where the streets are lined with ficus trees and every bus route eventually leads you to the ocean if you stay on long enough. My school was two baseball fields away, and every half-day after the last bell, my friends and I would hike up the foot-hilled trails behind my house until the trees and shrubs thickened just enough to hide our view of the city, leaving nothing but skies and mountains.
It was spring when my cousin Mai came to visit from Vietnam. I had only heard about her a few weeks before. She was a year older than me, born a farm girl in an old southern city. She spent her days weaving baskets and sold them outside the Cong Temple at night. She was the only child, born into a family that wished for a son. Mai sounded like a character out of a foreign movie. How would the two of us find something in common? Ancient astrology says the two of us are not compatible. She is the fierce tiger and I am the cautious rabbit. However, the beauty of old Asian astrology is that it is both nuanced and complex, and if a balance can be reached between the two unlikely animals, even the predator and prey can form lifelong friendships.
My nerves were soothed as soon as she moved her things into my room. The stripes from the tiger softened and folded into warm smiles and the creases of beaded gowns. Mai looked like the women in silk paintings. She had satin black hair that flowed long past her arms. She wore colorful blouses with flowers that she embroidered herself. She was a little quiet at first, speaking enough English to understand but not quite enough to always reply. It took us several days to get acquainted, but once we did she and I would walk through town together after school, share stories, and go hiking. It was up there in the mountains when I realized just how different our worlds were.
Mai had two names for everything, from rocks to flowers. She knew which plants would go great in soup and which ones could cure your stomachaches. She told me about her own secret places at home, like the waterfall outside her village where they would go fishing. She told me about the scooters that swarm the local roads, how the smell of jackfruit and cloves never leave the air. And she told me about the Tet festival that happens once every year, when lanterns are strung from trees and firecrackers light up the streets, and little red envelopes filled with coins and dollar bills are passed around for good luck.
Hearing about her life in Vietnam was like stepping into fantasy world, and each day that followed I wanted to learn more.
Three weeks later Mai had to return home with her family, but the two of us promised to keep in touch. Though she said she had access to a computer, she preferred that we write letters so she can improve her English and handwriting. So that was what we did back and forth for the rest of the year, write long letters detailing our lives, followed with a hundred questions we had for the other, until one month I came home to find something in the mail for me I didn’t expect. It was a little red envelope, just like the ones she told me about. But this envelope did not hold any coins or dollars. Instead, it sheltered photos of colorful silk dresses, ripe golden fruits, dancing dragons, skies lit with fireworks, and a thousand bright, yellow-winged flowers. I taped the photos on my wall above my bed and remember her whenever I see them.
It’s been almost three years since Mai and I have seen each other in person. But just as ancient astrology foretells, a bond made between a tiger and a rabbit cannot easily be broken. The two of us never lost touch. In fact, our letters became longer and more frequent than ever. And at the beginning of each new year, as soon as I get home from school, the first thing I check is not my email or the text messages on my phone, but the mailbox, hoping to find another one of her red envelopes.