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Manoa 14.1 (2002) 85-90

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Catching Clams at Lake Isabella

Phung Nguyen

A couple of weeks after our family came to the United States and settled in this town, Chung came to visit. A week before, there was Father Tue, who brought us a load of frozen meat wrapped in yellowed paper. Mother put it all in the fridge, and it took more than a week for us to discover that the load of precious food had gone a full year past its expiration date. Mother reluctantly put it all in the trash bin, still unable to forget the baskets of rotten fish that stank up our entire neighborhood in Saigon, near the state shop where people were always fighting each other. "Buddha be a witness," she said. "I won't speak ill of him. He was kind enough to bring us the food." Naturally, I said nothing. In our family, it was always the women who worried about such things.

Chung arrived without any packages of frozen meat, but he had a complete toolbox in the back of his gray pickup truck. He went around our one-bedroom apartment, empty of things but crowded with people, checking each electrical outlet, all the faucets in the bathroom, the gas oven, and the brand-new refrigerator, which my sister, who'd come to America years before, had bought for us. We all followed Chung and watched everything he did. One of us always had a quick and ready answer to his questions. Chung's first visit was enough to make my mother quite fond of him. "What a terribly nice man!" My wife turned a smile toward my unmarried sister, then said to my mother, "The guy's married with two kids, Mother." My sister was irritated. "Such a dark-skinned man. Who'd want him?" Mother ended the discussion with a rather fine proverb: "Indeed, it's soot sneering at charcoal!"

Chung and I quickly became friends. In my third week as a refugee, I got a humble job at a local restaurant. I would continue to find such humble jobs in the years following. On his days off, Chung called to invite me over, usually in the evenings. At his house, we sat at the dining table in the kitchen to drink beer and talk about our affairs and other people's. His wife never joined us on such occasions. She didn't speak Vietnamese. She replied to her husband's questions in the soft drawl of people from a southern state. She was an American woman half a head taller than Chung and quiet. She had a round, freckled face that seemed sadly peaceful, or peacefully [End Page 85] sad, as if these two things necessarily went together. Later, I found out that Chung had worked hard for years supporting her while she studied for a nursing degree at the university west of our town. He continued to work hard after she graduated and found a job. A machinist, he seemed to be happy with his line of work. Even now, I still don't know how it was that the young American woman and the Vietnamese veteran came to be married. Chung never told me, and I never asked.

The town we lived in was set deep inside a flat valley that stretched for hundreds of miles. From the town, you could go in any direction and face vast fields and, far beyond, one mountain range after another. Once in a while, Chung would take me to the newly harvested fields. We would walk along the dirt banks, bending down to pick up stray garlic or onion bulbs and potatoes. We soon filled up plastic bags from Safeway orVon's and carefully tied them before putting them in the back of the gray pickup truck. We were always excited on our way back, so we didn't care about our faces and hands being dirty. On these occasions, Chung often recounted stories about finding yams and beans when he was young. He'd quickly clean the pieces of...


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