Written by Brooke Quach.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.
Originally published as part of the Spring 2019 “Challenge” Issue.
The volleyball struck him in the head so hard that he only recognized the impact after his scrawny body fell on the floor. His ears rang, but he could still hear the big white boy with the red face yell “GOOK” with his hands formed around his mouth to replace lips he did not have. The white gym teacher did nothing to stop it.
America wanted to push and shame him for being a “gook.” My father’s inherent existence was offensive to America. America wanted my father to feel crippling shame for surviving the Cambodian genocide; for coming here without knowing English at the age of 15. America wanted to keep pushing him until he was forced to fold his head into his torso, his calves and forearms into his thighs and shoulders, his thighs and shoulders into his torso, his torso into his heart– until he was folded into oblivion. America wanted to marginalize him until my father didn’t exist as himself. America takes no account for the individual in the photograph after the immigrant is processed.
My father unfolded and erected himself out of necessity. His ear was hot from the hit and his anger was compacted into fiery tears that fell from his right eye. He seethed with fury and vengeance. Despite knowing three other languages and despite the many things that should have been said, nothing meaningful, besides the anger and indignation he expressed through his body language, could be communicated to his attacker. He would communicate it in another way. The embarrassment sparked a personal vendetta against Trevor.
My father tells me this story from his high school days over bánh xèo at Thien Anh Sandwiches. We refer to it as the “Downtown Restaurant” or “Downtown.” It’s not located in Downtown Houston, but it’s the only reason why we visit Midtown. My father finds comfort in eating out because eating out means financial security; it means we have agency in the money we spend. He tells me that when he was young, meat was so expensive that his family of five only had a rice-bowl of meat to share between all of them .
The Store, the convenience market my dad has been running 13 hours a day for the past 14 years, is located on Lathrop Street. If my dad is not there, my mother is. It’s nestled by a local laundromat, right down the street from two other competing convenience stores and a carniceria. Stray dogs roam the sidewalks in hundred degree heat, and homeless men dawdle on children’s bikes far too small for them. My dad’s top selling items are lottery tickets. With every sale, my dad hopes one of them wins. His customers want a way out of inner-city Houston; my dad just wants to sell the store and retire by the sea. Stepping into our store, the first thing you would likely notice is the bulletproof glass cage surrounding the cash register. It was installed to protect him from ever being held at gunpoint again. At work, he’s either cooking egg rolls or nachos, manning the register, stacking sodas, mopping the tile floor, or shelving candies. He is continuously on his feet. It is monotonous, hard work, but it is an expression of love that makes my life possible. His sacrifice is a necessity for our family’s comfort in this country.
It is winter break of my freshman year of college and we are eating Downtown. I ask my father who he voted for in the last election. He tells me he voted for Trump with a smile on his face. “It’s the lazy people that are ruining this country.” My face heats up with indignation. I tell my father about the $70 I was charged to remove a wire-type object from my ankle because UT healthcare does not take Obamacare. I tell him about the $45 doctor’s appointment because the nurse insisted I needed a flu test, and I don’t forget to mention the time I overexerted my body so much while studying that a minor cough developed into bronchitis, and I was forced to buy a $100 inhaler just to breathe. I tell my father that my commute to class is forty minutes from Riverside, because I must drive down I-35 and park in West Campus to walk another fifteen minutes to class. I tell him I stay on campus longer than he stays at work because doing schoolwork at home is impossible when your bed is three inches from your desk. Academic resources and Mac computers are not stationed where I live because I live on the margins of priority. I tell my father these things, not to complain, but because I am frustrated. He voted against himself. He voted against his customers, against us, against me. He does not understand the things I say to him, but he tells me I am not in college to have fun. I am here to build a better life for us. He did not go to college, but I must go because an education means money and money is comfort and comfort is happiness. We must work doubly hard in life because… he asks me whether Austin’s Vietnamese food is good or not because there is no legitimate reason.
The leaves fell as my father and his cousin stalked Trevor after school. That day, two audacious Cambodian immigrant boys, who did not eat meat at every meal, jumped a white American boy, who had more than enough meat to eat at every meal. They caught him by surprise in his own front yard and my father jumped on his back; his cousin jump-kicked him in the stomach. Trevor threw them off easily, punching and kicking to preserve his morphed sense of dignity. My father and his cousin left the scene bruised, bloodied, and suspended from school. Trevor’s mother called authorities, and only after my father was also punished, Trevor was suspended. My father is proud of the action he took and I am too, but there is no acknowledgement, and no true justice was served. Maybe Trevor voted for Trump in the last election as well.
My father views his life as normal and honest; that the working class man typically works through arthritis, back pain, and severely chapped skin, counting filthy dollar bills and dealing lottery tickets; that the devoted working dad’s life is a mere stepping stone for his own children’s prosperity. My dad lives in a reality where he did this to himself because he did not attend college like he should have. He works until his chapped hands split into cuts. He eats apple pie for breakfast and Whataburger for lunch so often that he’s now borderline diabetic, and the cuts on his shin from six months ago have yet to scar.
“Poor people are just lazy. Black people are always stealing from us. Those Mexicans skip school; they take jobs，妹妹. You do not want to be like them. Focus on school. You look so much skinnier. The food must be bad there.” I still do not know what to say.
We leave the restaurant and I am still the daughter of a refugee.
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