The Alligator
Katie Trang Quach

Runner-Up, Creative Nonfiction Prize

The four of us kids crowd into the green Chevy Impala that looks and moves like an alligator. At three years old, I am small enough to fit on Ma’s lap in the front. My sister Xuan gets a window seat in the back because she’s the eldest. My brother Trung gets the other window seat because he’s the boy. Phuong is the diplomatic middle child and sits between the two, where all the seatbelts have collected into a tangled heap that rattle and bump against her backside.

I rest my chin on Ma’s shoulder to get a better view of the three of them: Xuan, Trung, and Phuong, bundled close together in age, at ten, nine, and seven, with names that rhyme and sing like a Chop suey musical. When they are in high school, Phuong’s classmate will learn there is a fourth youngest sibling, dissonantly named “Katie.” She’ll recite all three of their Vietnamese names in shrill succession, then say the final American name in an anticlimactic barren monotone. Xuan! Trung! Phuong! Katie.

This will become the family joke we share with friends and acquaintances. Also a quick and efficient family history lesson too: three Vietnamese names for three kids born in Vietnam. Then an American name for the accidental last one, born eleven months after the family arrived to the U.S.

When I get too big to sit on Ma’s lap without fearing the cops will pull us over, my parents send me to the backseat with the rest of my siblings. I don’t mind squeezing in the middle—with half my body balanced on top of Phuong’s bony thigh while gripping  Ma’s head rest with curled fingertips—because I’m closer to their trio. They talk and I only understand snippets, about friends Sonia and Fat Abe, or a class they attend with three alphabet letters, E, S, and L. Phuong says she loves so and so teacher of E, S, and L. Xuan wrinkles her nose and says the teacher’s breath smells like coffee. Trung nods in silent agreement to Phuong, Xuan, or both. I can’t be sure.

In order to make more room in the backseat, Phuong and I stuff the seatbelt buckles into the crack between the synthetic leather cushions. Our parents don’t mind; they view seatbelts as yet another American frill, much like dishwashers or deodorant. Ba likes to remind us the family vehicle back in Vietnam was a Honda moped, with all three of my siblings sandwiched between him in the front and Ma in back, weaving through the crowded streets of Saigon.

“Goddamn!” He laughs whenever he tells this story and we can see the gold fillings in the deep recesses of his mouth. “Phuong was just a baby then, held by your mother. No seatbelt, no helmet, nothing. That’s what it’s like over there. Tin không? Can you believe that?”

We can believe that because Ba drives like he’s never driven a car before. He grips the steering wheel at ten and two o’clock, on the dot. His posture frozen upright. He refuses to relax because getting too comfortable will surely lead to collision. Instead of driving the speed limit, he takes that number and subtracts ten to fifteen miles. We skulk along the high way. Everyone hates us on the I-19. Truck drivers honk. Hunchbacked grannies flip us off. We beg him to please drive like a normal person but he ignores us.

Ba’s greatest fear is the police. Years later, I’ll learn how he lived through the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Communist takeover of South Vietnam. He witnessed what people in overnight positions of power were capable of: random late-night searches of neighbors’ homes, and the arrest and “re-education” of people he knew, like my great uncle who was sent to a labor camp and separated from his wife and two young children for thirteen years. Instead of threatening me with the “Boogeyman,” my parents warn, “Càhn Sát, the police, will get you if you’re naughty.” Each time I see a cop car, my insides turn to gelatin.

 

Seated on Ma’s lap, I watch Ba slow the Alligator for a distant stop sign. With another half block to go, he taps his foot on the gas pedal to get us closer to the stop sign, only to stop altogether seconds later.

Ba’s driving is an exaggerated show of respecting the law, but he is a road hazard. One a weekend morning when I’m big enough to be seated in back, we get pulled over. We’re on our way to the Asian grocery stores on Nicollet Avenue in Minneapolis. The sirens blare behind us just like they do on the TV shows.

Dụ mẹ. Motherfucker. Kill me now,” he says as he pulls the car to the side of the road. Then he swivels around to face us. “No one speaks English! Got it? The less we understand the better.” He directs this at the four of us because we always communicate to each other in English, only resorting to Vietnamese when the conversation involves our parents, relatives, or their friends. He knows we are well versed in switching languages on the fly, or in this case, holding our tongues.

“You kids buckle up or else Càhn Sát are going to throw you in jail,” Ma adds.

Xuan and Trung are frantic digging the seatbelts out from under the cushion, all while accusing Phuong and me of burying them too deep. Trung finds three and because I’m the youngest, I’m left to fend for myself—most likely alone in a barren prison cell.

The cop saunters over and peers into the window at the four of us, silent in the backseat. He’s Viking blonde and enormous. He could be the size of all of us kids combined. I fold my hands in my lap in prayer, in a last-minute declaration of my innocence. It also hides my nonexistent seatbelt buckle. Ba does his lost-in-translation routine that involves a lot of hearty smiles and deferential nods. The police officer lets us off the hook “this time,” but warns, “Driving too slow isn’t safe either, you know.” Ba laughs and his gold filling twinkles in the afternoon sun. He says “Thank you” again before accelerating until Càhn Sát is out of sight, then returns to creeping below the speed limit as cars whiz past us on the road.

 

***

 

Seeing my siblings in the backseat now, I realize I’m the only one in the family wearing something new. It’s starchy. A pale pink confection with fluffy marshmallow sleeves and an exaggerated pilgrim collar that curls up and scratches my chin.

I wore this dress once before, at a birthday party. There were balloons that shined like enormous lollipops, a frosted cake with flowers made of thick sugared petals, and huge bottles of Pepsi that I swallowed in greedy gulps with both hands. In my sugared ecstasy, I spilled and stained the front of the dress. Ma managed to get most of it out, but I can still see a faint brown outline floating on my chest.

My hair is done up too. In the living room earlier that morning, Ma beckoned me holding the artillery in her hands: a broad hairbrush, which, from a distance, resembled a spanking paddle, and two rubber hair tie nunchucks with red, plastic balls attached to both ends.

“Sit still,” she commanded, yanking huge fistfuls of my hair.

The brush had wire bristles that seared my scalp with each aggressive stroke. I closed my eyes to stifle the pain and felt my hair crackling tight at my temples. The plastic balls made quick snaps as she wound a tidy bundle on both sides of my head. Two sacrificial pigtails. “There. Cute,” she said. Neither of us smiled.

Ma made sure my sisters and brother were dressed in the best secondhand clothes she could find today, but still they look itchy and poor. Phuong’s wearing a turquoise polyester dress with a skinny lace collar and matching lace sleeves. Two white, decorative buttons dangle down the center. Both sides of her hair are pulled back in matching white barrettes, giving her the appearance of a cocker spaniel statuette.

At ten years old, Xuan has mastered a business casual appearance. No accessories decorate her shoulder-length wispy hair or hand cut bangs. She wears khaki-colored jeans and a red, white, and blue striped collared shirt. Ma probably convinced her to wear this because she believes in dressing in patriotic colors, likely in an effort to placate our foreign-ness in our small Minnesotan town.

At her U.S citizenship ceremony, Ma dazzled in a white knee-length dress with thin, navy, windowpane stripes. Her outfit accented with red heels, a skinny red belt, and matching red lipstick. She convinced the elderly judge who presided over the ceremony to take a photo with her, with Xuan wearing a blue dress and Phuong wearing a dark pink dress (the closest thing to red she owned) standing on each side. It was my mother’s proud American debut. Photo evidence, too, of how she passed the test on her first try, while my father had to re-take the test a second time, begrudgingly, a few years after her, before he finally passed.

Compared to the bright colors adorning us girls, Trung appears camouflaged. His large brown eyes and tanned summer skin blend seamlessly into the mahogany crisscrosses of his short sleeved, button-down shirt and tawny corduroy pants.

When we ask our parents why they aren’t dressed up today, they shudder and make their usual huffs when they don’t want to elaborate. “No. No. We don’t need that,” Ma says.

We kids develop a rash against the synthetic fibers we’re forced to wear, while our parents flaunt their comfortable weekend attire: loose, elastic band pants for Ma and saggy faded Levi’s on Dad. American jeans are too long for his legs, so he has them rolled up several times at the cuff, like denim donuts floating around his ankles.

The Alligator plods through the quiet residential streets until we reach down-town Northfield. Ba parks in front of Harmon’s Photography Studio and orders us out. Ma has me in her arms but I wiggle free. I want to stand on the street like the rest of them.

A bell rings when we open the door, signaling our arrival. The man behind the counter looks as old as Ba. He has the same bushy moustache that looks as itchy as my collar. He glances at our family of six without saying a word. This kind of sullen reaction is familiar to us by now. Ba and Ma both smile. Ma pushes Xuan to the front and tells her, “Hoi Ong di. Go ahead. Ask him.”

Xuan places her hands on the chest–high counter to show she means business. Or perhaps to steady herself. Her voice is poised, well-practiced. “We’d like to get some photos taken today, please.”

“Ask him how much,” Ba says.

“Tell him we want photos of you kids, none of us,” Ma chimes.

“Normally we do photos by appointment only,” Bushy Moustache says. He looks over Xuan’s head at Ma and Ba, as if to chastise them.

Oh. We didn’t know,” Xuan makes the same forlorn face I’ve seen her do many times. It’s a look of exaggerated hurt and confusion that would be distasteful on most, but elicits sympathy from strangers because she is a ten-year-old translator working full-time for our parents.

“What are you saying? Did he tell you how much?” Ba repeats in Vietnamese.

Bushy Moustache sighs. He points to a sheet of prices and photo packages, which Xuan and my parents bend over and scrutinize. Once they decide on the cheapest, two photo set, he leads our family to the back of the store, cordoned off by a dark and heavy curtain. A raised platform stands in the center of the room, with a lone and regal wicker chair on it. He switches on a bright light that’s attached to a skinny umbrella, rolls down a projector-like screen behind the platform, and repeatedly returns to his camera to see if the view has changed since the last time he checked.

In the meantime, Ma pats down my hair and smooths the layers of my skirt. She adjusts the gold necklace dangling through the petaled labyrinth of my collar, making sure the pendant is perfectly centered below my chin.

It’s the first I’ve seen of this necklace. Ma must have stowed it somewhere safe to preserve it from grubby kid fingers, then clasped it on me when I wasn’t paying attention. I’m reminded of my parents’ friends Cô Dao and Cô Cup, chirping Vietnamese women in our neighborhood who wear a cloying amount of perfume and thin gold bangles with glittery etchings that sparkle up and down their wrists. I’m flattered, feeling exquisitely grown up in my gold adornment. I look down to admire the necklace and see it dangling right above the brown Pepsi stain.

Bushy Moustache turns to Ma and says, “Yup, we’re a go.”

Everyone’s eyes are on me, watching as Ma lifts me up and plants me into the wicker chair that feels dangerously high. She returns to the rest of the family, who stand next to the camera, several feet from me. I feel like a zoo exhibit. Their voices topple over each other’s.

“Smile, ok?”

“Look at the Moustache man.”

“Look happy!”

“Don’t close your eyes! They’re small enough as it is,” Ba says.

“Sit still, Con My, my American child,” Ma coos.

Con My, American Child, is a nickname that’s meant to be funny. It’s what Ma calls me when I get too loud or whiny for her Vietnamese standards, look chubby, hairy, or exhibit unusual behavior that defies her cultural understanding and must be attributed to my American birth. Ma calls me Con My as a joke, but in this moment, I feel jolted.

I’ve been shunned to a solitary chair in the center of the room, opposite a united pack, observing me from a comfortable distance. Why is no one else joining me for a photo? Why am I alone?

“Smile!” they hoot. I scan their faces across the room—Ma, Ba, sisters, and brother—each one feverish with excitement. I hear clapping, whistles, clucks, clicks, snaps, and cheers. Phuong is doubled over in laughter. Dad’s hands are waving in the air as though he were the Master of Ceremonies of his own parade. I might be imagining it, but I think Xuan has a tambourine in her hand, shaking and jostling it to and fro to her own dance party. Even Trung is smiling. Amid the ruckus, Ma calls out Con My again to get my attention.

It’s my greatest fear realized: my family is complete without me. I arrived after Vietnam, the escape by boat, and the refugee camp in Thailand. All my life, I will feel the family I know is a watered down, partial truth. A cleaned-up version that doesn’t quite capture the full picture that is my family.

Up high on the wicker throne, it doesn’t occur to me that my family’s putting on a show for my benefit, in the hopes of getting a good photo. My only desire is to join their festivities. My hands clench both sides of the wicker chair and I cry. In response, their cheers get louder. The skinny umbrella beams hot light on my face. Tears stream down my cheeks and form small puddles in the crevices of my skirt. Despite their cries for me to smile, my lips quiver in dissent, refusing to turn upwards.

Finally, Bushy Moustache says, “Yup, that’ll do it. I tried the best I could, but geesh. She doesn’t like getting her picture taken, huh?”

“What’s the matter with her?” Ma says. The celebration suddenly ends. Everyone looks exhausted, exasperated.

“Cry baby,” Ba declares.

 

It should have been a happy photo. I should have been smiling—exploding with unbridled joy—for the camera. I didn’t have the worries or troubled memories of escaping Vietnam like my siblings. I was the American everyone could call their own—I have an American daughter. An American sister. It was supposed to be a photo my parents could show off to relatives and friends, a record of their new beginning in this new country. I should have been smiling to prove it.

Instead, it’s only afterwards, when Xuan, Trung, and Phuong come onto the stage to join me, that I am able to smile. Bushy Moustache brings extra chairs and arranges the three of them into a halo around me: Trung seated to my right, Xuan to my left, and Phuong standing behind me. My tears halt. In my relief, I feel lightheaded and giddy. This time, when Ma and Ba tell us to smile from across the room, my legs are bouncing up and down in anticipation. My hands are rolled up in delighted fists in my lap. I squint with laughter.

When we get the photos a week later, the disparity between the first and second shot becomes a family joke. In the first photo, tears well in my eyes, my hands are squeezing the chair tight, and my lips are clenched in a look of constipated despair. In the second photo—the one of all four kids— I look like I’m squealing on a rollercoaster ride, while everyone else has a composed and sensible smile. Together, I am still mismatched from the rest.

My mother will buy matching silver frames and keep the photos on her bedroom dresser for years, until they sell the house and pack everything up. In the mayhem of their cross-country move to California, temporary relocations and reconfigurations of where and how our parents would live as her dementia worsened, as her memory went from blurry to blank, I’d somehow inherit the first photo of me alone and crying.

Katie Quach is a teacher and writer currently living in Hoi An, Vietnam. She was born in Northfield, MN. She’s lived in Flatbush, Lopburi, Hanoi, Mexico City, Alameda, and San Francisco, but considers California her home. She is an alumna of the Tin House Writers Workshop and Vermont College of Fine Art’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Her story “The Alligator,” is her first publication. She is slowly, slowly working on her first book. More of her writing can be found at katiequach.com.