Why Do They Call You Charlie
“He called me Chinese,” my 9-year-old son said. “I was going to tell him I’m Vietnamese, but he did this weird thing with his face. Then he and his friends laughed at me and I forgot.”
“What did you say?” I asked, afraid of his response.
“How do you feel?”
“Sad,” he said. “Is that racism?”
When I was my son’s age, I asked my father, “What’s a gook?”
He told me to forget it and move on.
In Cleveland, my father worked at the JoAnn Fabric warehouse, and aside from working on the fabric line, he was the unspoken liaison between the Vietnamese workers and management because of his proficient English. The white men didn’t call him by his Vietnamese name, but instead dubbed him “Charlie.” As a child, I didn’t give it a second thought when he introduced himself to Americans as Charlie. To me, it was his American name. I had witnessed people hacking his Vietnamese name, so it made sense that he chose something easier to say. The name reminded me of Charlie Brown, the little boy in yellow from the comics that was teased by his classmates and quietly suffered.
It wasn’t until later in life when I saw movies like Hamburger Hill, Apocalypse Now, Platoon, and Full Metal Jacket did I understand the full context of the word and their many synonyms. Charlie stood for Victor Charlie, or V.C. in the NATO phonetic alphabet — a military reference to the Communist or the enemy.
“Why do you let them call you Charlie? You know what that means, right?” I was trying to advocate for him, but looking back, I was only patronizing him.
Again, he told me to forget it and move on.
My son hadn’t eaten his lunch, the leftovers from the night before. “I want Lunchables for lunch from now on,” he said.
“But you love grilled beef and noodles?”
“I don’t want to be different, Dad.”
“We can do Lunchables. What kind do you want?”
“I hate my skin,” he said, picking at it like it was old stuck gum. “I wish I looked like the other kids.”
“Why,” I said, deflated. I was looking at my past.
“They stare at me,” he said, “like I’m a weirdo. I don’t like it here. I want to go back to Vietnam.”
My father didn’t fight in the front lines of the Vietnam War, but worked as an aircraft mechanic, running checks on planes after their reconnaissance or bombings. He refueled and rearmed them. Sometimes a pilot couldn’t articulate the problem, so he and the pilot took the plane up and he’d have to listen for a clang or clink. “A few times they gave me the stick and let me fly. When you’re up in the air, it’s easy to forget there was a war.”
Today he’s retired to his garden. If he can, he’ll repair his cars. If he gets stuck on a problem, he’ll educate himself by watching YouTube instructional videos. In his garage, he still has relics from my childhood. He doesn’t throw anything away, but I imagine it’s a habit from the war — hoarding supplies. To this day, his tone is like that of a drill sergeant. Maybe it was from years and years of yelling over roaring jet engines. I don’t ask. My questions might seem silly. The things I want to know might seem unimportant to a man that had seen and survived a war.
“Sometimes I feel like I’m the ugliest person,” my son said. “I don’t look American. When I talk to kids, they run away. And when they look at me, they stare. They say I look different. They say I talk funny.”
After the war, my father fled like thousands of Vietnamese refugees to the United States. He worked at a fabric factory with the other young men, who too left their families and friends, trying to build a new life and/or raise enough money to bring their loved ones over. From the pictures and what I could remember, those skinny young men could best be described as a fraternity. Each man took turns in the kitchen cooking Vietnamese delicacies as the others washed down cases of Michelob beer and gambled.
Not every person had a car in those days, so many times they carpooled, piling themselves into Uncle King Kong’s van and exiting in droves like a clown car. They were taking cross country trips and taking in the American sights and culture.
“We were excited to hear about a Vietnamese movie playing in the theaters,” my father said. “We all bought tickets and took up an entire row.” Then they realized it was not the Vietnam movie they were expecting, one that would be a portal back to their villages and people, but rather it was about how the war had infected the American soldiers that had come home. The Vietnamese they saw up on that screen were devoid of humanity and utterly savage. “We didn’t leave, but we didn’t watch either. We stayed in our chairs.” Those young men felt the sniping eyes of the other movie goers moving between screen and back onto them. The film was called The Deer Hunter.
The teacher had sent home a note.
“Why did you hit the boy? With a hula hoop?”
“He was taller than me.”
“Why did you hit him?”
“He made fun of the way I looked and talked.”
“The teacher said you left a mark over his eye?”
“Wait, wasn’t today picture today?”
I pointed for him to go to his room. When the door closed, I smiled.
During the evacuation of Saigon, my father and his friend walked alongside the jeeps carrying Vietnamese officials and officers. The men were part of the first conveys to flee the city. There was no way for him to tell his family that he was leaving or help them . It’d be years until he spoke to his family. “We believed him dead and hung a portrait and memorialized him,” my grandmother said.
That night, the soldiers broke out the last of their supplies, tossed away ranks, and drank like long lost brothers. What must it have been like to know you were leaving your world behind?
The next day, it was business as usual. He and his friend had been promised a place on one of the officer’s planes, but when they tried to board, they were ordered off at gunpoint.
“Each plane was full,” he said, “but finally we got on board the last cargo plane. I looked out at the window, looking down at Vietnam, maybe for the last time. That’s when I heard it.” The plane in front of them had been shot. “We couldn’t board that plane because it was filled with children. Then another plane exploded. It was the plane I was supposed to be on.”
I show my son a photograph.
“Who is that?”
“He’s so skinny.”
My father is standing next to a tree and looking off into the distance. He’s a thin man with long hair wearing bell bottom jeans. I turn the photo over and show him the note he wrote to my mother: “Every day, I think of you. We’ll be together in a few months.”
“Grandpa was picked on when he first came to America,” I said, holding my son. “I was picked on too.”
“What did you do?”
“I tried to ignore them.”
“I try to, but it doesn’t always work.”
“I know,” I said. “But when people make me feel bad about being different, I sometimes think of Vietnam. I close my eyes and think about your grandparents that still live there. I imagine your cousins. I think of our condo on the tenth floor and the sound of roosters and karaoke music. I think of the man that lives down the hall that plays classical music on the piano. I think of the people, the foods, and the city lights. I think of us racing down the street on a motorbike and feeling the city winds on our face. Those things — they recharge me. They make me happy. They remind me of why I’m happy to be Vietnamese.”
I took him by the hand.
“Let’s try to forget the bad and move on together, okay?”