Chapter One: B?o CHAPTER ONE B?O
Hoisin sauce is not paint.
We need a sign that says that, because our customers don’t get it. Today’s latest work is a misshapen star on the wall. A five out of ten, if you ask me. The kid’s parent probably did a double take, snatched the bottle away, then paid the check and left before M? could notice. To be honest, it’s not like the sauce makes our wall look worse; it’s just hard to wipe off when it dries. But I try, I really do—sometimes. Maybe.
Various relatives from both sides of my family judge me from their water-stained portraits that hang around the restaurant.
I sit down and look ahead at the five booths I still need to wipe clean, but this heat’s unbearable and the main fan, the good fan, died last week. Break time. I brush off grains of rice that cling to my apron. Later, I’m sure I’ll find a few that somehow end up under my socks at the end of each shift. On the opposite side, my best friend, Vi?t, goes at the same pace as me. His ears are plugged up, probably to block out the Paris by Night–like soundtrack blasting from the back room, songs on repeat about the Vietnam War, love, war, poverty, war.
Vi?t is the most chaotic neutral person I know. On any other day he wastes time by raving about the latest criminal-investigation show he’s gotten hooked on. I consider that a trade-off; he’s the one who suffers through my fascination with strange words. Once I was wiping down a front window from the inside, unknowingly overriding his work and adding more streaks than there were to begin with. I’d been mentioning the word “defenestrate,” which made him calmly threaten me with that very word.
Ba stands behind the counter, punching in numbers at the cash register, then piercing receipts onto a spindle. I think he finds the routine satisfying.
The front door opens, the bell shattering the slowness in the restaurant, ushering in more sticky hot air. My mom’s voice whips two other lingering, taskless waiters to attention, and I snatch up the towel and wipe off bean sprouts, leafless stems of herbs, and straw wrappers shaped as tiny accordions. M? charges across the room. She drops her plastic shopping bags in the path toward the kitchen, a storm on her face. Everyone clears the way for her; they know M?’s mood. But Ba’s expression is as indifferent as his look in their wedding pictures from the 2000s: Stone. Cold.
My mom slaps down a crumpled piece of paper before him. “Anh, do you know what they’re doing across the street?”
Without looking up, speaking to his calculator, he asks, “Did you get more sriracha sauce?”
“On my way back, I saw these ugly posters all over the place.”
“There was a sale. Did you get them on sale?”
It’s always like this, their conversation misaligned, a not much to a how are you question.
“Lampposts, windows all over Bolsa Avenue!”
Glass shatters in the back kitchen. The line cooks start blaming each other, Spanish and Vietnamese mingling together. My guess: Bình did it. That guy sucks at his job more than me.
M? ignores the noise. “Two-for-one. Two-for-one bowl of ph?. Tro?i oi.” Only one family can get her riled up like this. She pauses. “They’re trying to steal all our customers. Why isn’t Anh worried?”
Ba snorts. “Their ph? is not good. They never have enough salt.” Now that I can’t verify. I’ve never stepped foot into the Mais’ restaurant. Because what happens? Apparently my mom will cut my legs off.
Maybe they had one of the waiters pose as a customer.…
M? nods, dialing back her worry. After a moment, she says, “Two-for-one ph?. Who wants to have ph? l?t?” She laughs at her own joke about their ph?’s blandness. Ba joins, too.
Lately their preoccupation with the Mais has ratcheted, probably because they keep hearing about the changes the other family’s been making, changes that seem to be in direct response to our adjustments. We’d recently added new wood grain blinds that block out the sun—just because it looks like they replaced their blinds, too.
My mom zeroes in on me. “Con dang làm gì dó?” She side-eyes my tables. “Why are the tables still dirty?”
“I’m not finished yet.”
“Why not? He’s done.” M? points to the opposite side.
I look across the room at Vi?t—
And blink. The tables are shining, and the mirrors are fingerprint-less and—yes—hoisin-less. Kid’s like an Asian Flash. “Oh, c’mon,” I mutter.
“Gi?i quá!” she says to the traitor.
“C?m on,” Vi?t answers without a trace of an accent even though he was born here.
My mom turns back to me. “Hurry up!” She jabs a finger at me. “And fix your hair! It’s so messy.” I can’t help it; my hair has a mind of its own.
The poster that M? showed my dad floats to the ground in her wake. Curious, I pick it up, passing by Vi?t. Making sure my mom’s a good distance away, I elbow him. “Suck-up.”
Vi?t lands a punch to my stomach. “Lazy.”
I pretend not to die; he’s always been stronger than me.
Vi?t goes into the back room. I look down at the flyer. I’m not sure how anything like this can be considered ugly. It’s awesome. There’s no other word for it. Just really cool—some kind of collage of old and modern Vietnam: a woman wearing a traditional silk white dress and rice hat winking at a camera. You can see the sun and beachline—reminding me of Nha Trang, my parents’ hometown—blazing behind her. An airplane flying above the woman spells out in the clouds OH MAI MAI PH?: TWO-FOR-ONE DEAL. With this kind of advertising from the Mai family, my parents should be worrying about our advertising. We don’t have a Linh on our team.
I glance out the window. As if this poster summons her, Linh appears from Larkin Street’s direction. She rushes into the restaurant, her flyaway hair alive, her large canvas bag, which she hauls everywhere, hitting her long legs. Over the entrance and below a pagoda-style eave hangs a South Vi?t flag just like ours—yellow with three red stripes—and it flutters in greeting to Linh. She’s always a colorful blur—going to class, dashing down La Quinta’s hallways when the bell lets out, running into the restaurant at 3:30 p.m.
I see her, but I know close to nothing about her. Maybe it’s a good thing she’s constantly moving, because if she ever stopped, we might have to talk to each other. And we haven’t done that since we were kids.
Hypothetically, a Buddhist temple is not a place for insults or threats or a potential bloodbath.
I’ve gone to temple sporadically throughout my life, but the day I met Linh is the most memorable, for many reasons, aside from running into the rest of the Mais and being thiiis close to seeing bloodshed before Ông Ph?t.
Before meeting Linh, I’d never seen another seven-year-old kid stab paper with a crayon. Repeatedly. We were in the kids’ room where the chùa’s volunteers babysat kids as the parents went to worship or at least get a moment of silence. Mine were catching up with friends upstairs. There were tables with finger paint, macaroni, glue, and paper, and another table with crayons and markers. I’m not sure why—maybe because it was less work—I went for the crayons.
The other kids sat so far away from Linh because they were afraid she might turn on them. But the look on her face was calm and concentrated—satisfied, even—and when she made sure all of the crayons were completely dull, she raised her white paper in triumph. I was closest to her, so she showed it to me.
The dots formed a complete picture: green grass, a yellow sun, and a red-and-blue swing set.
“Wow,” I said, like any six-to-eight-year-old Asian kid with a bowl cut would say.
“It’s the playground at my school,” she answered proudly.
“Can you draw Spider-Man?” Because back then, that was the only thing that mattered to me.
“Maybe. I can’t remember what he looks like. I need something to look at.”
“I have one! I can get it!” I’d brought along my Spider-Man backpack, but it was upstairs in a cubby with our shoes. We raced out of the room, escaping the volunteers, who didn’t really try to catch us. Up on the main floor, the temple membership was serving bowls of ph? chay and a white-haired lady waved us over for a bowl of vegetarian soup.
Linh took her bowl with everything that my family always taught me to use: hoisin sauce, thai basil, and bean sprouts. That told me she knew ph?; she came from ph?. It was confirmed when we both tried the ph? at the same time and said, “BLECH.” Salty as hell. We left our bowls, quick, then moved on to our destination.
Running, that’s what I remember. I was chasing a girl I barely knew, but I really wanted that Spider-Man drawing. Before we could get to my backpack, though, M?’s sharp voice rang out. The one that still summons centuries’ worth of furious Vietnamese mothers. I froze. Our families stood on opposite sides of the room, where Buddha was at the center, accepting gifts and praise from the visitors. Linh and I were caught in between. I waited for Buddha to come alive, chime in, like a referee, and bellow—while the ground vibrates forcibly—“Ready, set, FIGHTTT!”
But nothing like that happened.
Linh’s mom took one step forward, like she was marking her territory. Her eldest daughter and husband were just behind her.
“Ð?n dây,” my mom said to me. I thought she was angry at me for running in a temple. I couldn’t say no and when I was with her again, she gripped my hand tight. Ba hung back, and I remember being confused by the fury barely contained on his face, so different from his usual passivity.
After that, they all but dragged me and Linh away from each other.
“You still haven’t finished your tables.”
Ba’s voice from the front desk snaps me out of my memories. I’m still standing by the windows, but I notice the sky is a bit darker and the lampposts are starting to turn on. The din of inside chatter fills my ears.
“Why do you have that flyer?”
“Sorry,” I say. “I was thinking of how ugly it looked. M?’s right.” I walk to the nearest trash can, hand poised over it.
The story of me and Linh at the temple could have been kept as a carefree memory, lost and dusty like an old book in the basement. And I did actually forget about it; she was just one of many kids I’d run around with and never saw again—best friends for an hour or two, instead of forever.
Then Linh’s family opened their restaurant across from us five years ago, and I knew it was her. I knew she still drew, because she carried her portfolio with her everywhere, the size of it almost as big as her body.
I also knew that I couldn’t go anywhere near her without risking my mom’s wrath. Disdain was clear in my mom’s voice whenever she talked about that restaurant, as if it were a person.
I heard that restaurant underpays its staff.
That restaurant is connected to a gang; they just moved from San Jose, after all.
That restaurant blackmailed Bác Xuân, pushed him out of his business.
That last reason might be why the neighbors didn’t accept them so easily at first. Bác Xuân had basically helped the area flourish, connecting fellow business owners with the right people. Beloved, you can say. I don’t think my mom’s circle of friends made it any easier for that restaurant—social wolves who ran various businesses in the area: like Lien Hoa BBQ Deli, nail and hair salons, and even one travel agency. Back then advertising wasn’t really a thing, so the good word of one of these women? Certified. You either get a d? ?c or a cung du?c, the latter being as close to great as you can get in terms of Vietnamese praise. Their group is led by Nhi Trung, an older woman who constantly liked to brag that her name bears a similarity to one of the female military leaders to rebel against the Chinese domination centuries ago—as I discovered on Wikipedia. As if that was supposed to impress people these days. I think of her as the General, though the real-life Nhi Trung was the general’s daughter.
She had a special reason for hating the Mais; she’d always liked Bác Xuân’s spot and said it’d gotten the most traffic. I bet she was planning to go for it right when the first opportunity came up.
Luckily gossip changes and some attention spans are short. Now the Mais’ restaurant has become a fixture just like ours. But that doesn’t stop my mom’s competitive streak.
My parents—my mom, really—have now perfected the art of non-encounters, knowing their schedule right down to when they close and when they leave. In a way, their schedule has become ours. We’re background characters in each other’s stories.
As I look at the poster in my hands, though, I wonder if it’s possible for us to change up our scripts. What would happen if our families came face-to-face with each other like that time at the temple? What would me and Linh say to each other?
“T?i sao mày d?ng dó v?y?”
“Sorry!” I shout to my mom. Back to work.
I fold up Linh’s poster and pocket it, not knowing why.