Summer 1975—the end of my fifth grade year and the start of my family’s ritual of nightly barbecues on the screened-in deck while fireflies flashed in the Virginia backyard woods. Their luminous patterns between the maples and dogwood signaled a community lost on my brothers and me, who cared only about our freedom in the months ahead.
On one such night in early June, my father got a phone call from a Cambodian man who had flown into Dulles Airport that day. My father, an international consultant, had worked with him before the fall of Phnom Penh. He had managed to escape with his family, and my father was one of the few Americans he knew. A few days later, the family arrived with their three children: two boys close in age to my younger brothers, and a daughter named Monida, who was 12 like me. My mother set up beds in the finished basement, and we started the awkward dance of communicating through gestures, laughter, or my father—the only one of our family who spoke French. Within a week, Monida and had I created a set of French-English dictionary pages on which we drew pictures and each wrote the correct label in our respective languages—“cat/chat,” “house/maison,” “friend/amie.”
The kids went to the local library with us, joined our swim team, and made some of their own friends in our southern town of Charlottesville. They never convinced us to put soy sauce on our scrambled eggs for breakfast just as we never won them over to the deliciousness of mixing up catsup and eggs into a light pink mess. When they moved to Montreal at the end of summer, Monida and I promised to write each other, but we never did.
Two years later, in eighth grade, my teacher pulled me aside and asked if I would be a designated friend to a new Vietnamese girl whose family were refugees. I don’t recall first meeting Lily (not her real name), but she sat with me at lunch and in some other classes. And soon she became the fourth in a quartet of friends all through high school. Even though we also lost touch, I still have a small two-sided mirror on my nightstand which Lily gave me when we both graduated.
Four years later my father had died of a heart attack, my mother sold our house to move to Southern Utah, and one of my brothers was killed in a car accident driving to Las Vegas. In my mind I carried that wooded cul-de-sac in Charlottesville where my family was whole through every redrock canyon I hiked, knowing I could never go back through a door that had shut so completely on that time.
Lily once told me that back in Vietnam, she was the chattiest girl in her class, often getting into trouble for talking too much with her friends. But when she came to the United States, she turned very quiet. Her name was given to her by one of the Americans who helped her family immigrate. She spoke her Vietnamese name to me once, laughed when I tried to repeat the unfamiliar tones, and did not say it again. When Monida and her family came to the United States, they had only the weekend clothes they had taken to Thailand, having been warned the country might collapse. They were the lucky ones—many of the Cambodians my father had worked with never left the country, and he never heard from them again.
America, your history is a two-sided mirror: through one you have offered refuge to those displaced, in the other you have displaced people from their own lands through slavery or broken treaties. We must be able to look at ourselves in both mirrors—to celebrate who we are and to reject what we have been. America, yours is a braided identity strengthened by strands from many countries. When we can look at both sides of this mirror, we see that our woven braid is a true united nations. I don’t know where Monida and Lily are now, but you opened your doors to their families, language, and culture over 40 years ago, and you—we—are stronger for it.
I am aware that Charlottesville has its own complex and disturbing history with regards to race, the events of August 12, 2017, notwithstanding. The University of Virginia is in the shadow of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, the renowned architect of the UVA. But Jefferson’s Monticello was also the home of enslaved people, including Sally Hemings. Monticello is just now letting that history be explored by acknowledging that Hemings was as much a part of Monticello as Jefferson; her story finally is told as a reminder that as much as our country was founded on democratic ideals, it was also founded on violence, exploitation, genocide, and human trafficking. When we refuse to recognize that these atrocities are intertwined with the attainment of governing ideals, we stumble blind and foolish, in denial of our own present ignorance and its consequences.
When I was in high school, I used to wander downtown on Saturdays through Daedalus Used Bookshop on Fourth and Market. I could spend hours browsing titles and flipping through one musty book after another in each room filled with shelves. The bookstore is on one of those small side streets that feeds into the Historic Downtown Mall. On that Saturday last August, it was on this pedestrian mall that a crowd of people counter-protested the hateful and violent rhetoric that took place the night before on the Lawn at UVA. And it was on this side street that a white supremacist drove his car through the crowd, killing a protester named Heather Heyer and wounding others.
We cannot desecrate Sally Hemings’s history that is only now coming to light by tolerating any notion that somehow “White culture” is under attack. A vista of white creates the equivalence of snow blindness—burning the retinas so that one can no longer look out but see only the flames of torches, speak only stunted slogans of polarizing rhetoric, hear only the chanting of hate.
At the end of August in 1975, before Monida left, she and I walked along Meadowbrook Heights past boxwood hedges and brick homes to Walker Middle School, where I would start the sixth grade in the fall. Somehow I felt the weight of knowing that this was the last summer of my childhood—a summer overshadowed by the understanding that a girl my age could lose her homeland so completely. At the end of August 2016, I did not have that same prescient sense of loss, though others more astute than I saw it coming.
It feels like the door has closed on a time we can’t reclaim, and I search for the homeland I once knew. Will I find that country in countless mirrors so bright that even on the darkest night, our myriad faces will light up the sky? On Monday evening following the violence in Charlottesville last year, thousands of people silently assembled around the Rotunda on campus, filling the Lawn and surrounding corridors. Their votive flames lit up the night.
Header photo by slack12, courtesy Flickr.