Conversations with my parents are not especially long.
Prior to leaving Brisbane, my father fell sick again. I ditched appointments and farewell lunches with friends to sit in hospital with him, listening to him regaling me with stories of his childhood.
Many years ago when Ba fell very sick the first time, and we had not been talking for ages because of what he perceived to be my wayward behaviour (I moved out of home before I was married – gasp!), I sat in hospital with him until the wee hours, when the nurses would regretfully kick me out. Some of his hospital time coincided with my exams, so I took my books into his hospital room and sat beside him, studying my exciting law texts while he slept. Once, he shook me awake – I had slumped over my text books, resting on his tea tray – and told me to go home. His first illness was the turning of our relationship. I liked being in the hospital with him because it was one of the few ways I could express that I was a dutiful daughter, even though my values were not his. We did not talk much, initially. Then I began to ask questions about his life in Viet Nam, questions I’d never really asked before. He would talk and talk at me, but only when we were in the hospital room together. I would go home and scribble frantic notes.
The most recent bout of hospital time, I sat listening to him tell me about how much he liked school when he was younger. He paused and said: When you are in England, you must telephone your Um & me every three weeks. Promise? I was bemused by the precision of the instruction, and said: Yes, okay. Every three weeks.
I have not quite kept the every three week rule: I am a bit absent-minded and time slips away from me.
My first conversation with my parents was very brief.
Me: Hello Um. It’s me Oanh. (Actually what I say is: it’s your child. I don’t always say my name, which seems silly given how many children my parents have, but they always know it’s me. I wonder what my siblings say to identify themselves?)
Um: Is that you, child? [aside] Old Man! Your daughter is on the phone!
Me: Yes. Are you well? (not knowing who I am speaking to, anymore.)
Ba: What time is it there?
Me: (I tell them the time). What about you? What time is it there?
Ba: (He tells me the time. I don’t tell them that I have worked it out). Are you cold? Is it cold there?
Me: Yes. It’s cold. Are you well?
Ba: Where are you calling from? A phone box?
Me: Yes. We are still staying in a hotel.
Ba: Well, this phone call must be costing you a lot of money. Are you well?
Me: Yes. Don’t worry about it. It is not costing very much at all. And you? Are you well?
Ba: Yes. I am well. Your Um is also well. Is there anything else? Are you okay? Your partner, is he okay?
Um: I am well. Are you cold?
Me: No. Not really. It is cold here.
Ba: Well, goodbye then. Call again.
The phone dies before I even say goodbye. I stand shocked in the phone box, staring at the receiver in my hand.
My next three conversations with my parents follow exactly this pattern. I find it somewhat funny. I never get the opportunity to tell my parents I miss them (in Vietnamese, the word for miss is the same as the word for remember) or that I love them. I am not even sure exactly what words I should use to tell my parents I love them in Vietnamese. I have never told them. This worries me, because I am so far away now. I feel I should tell them, but I don’t know how.
I had the following conversation with one of my nieces, who has previously appeared as Grump on this blog. She is starting to talk in complete sentences.
Me: Hi Grump! How are you.
Grump: Good. I ate pasta today, so I get to have some special (dessert).
Me: Hey, lucky you! Do you miss/remember me?
Grump: No. Oh. Mummy is telling me to say yes. Should I say yes?
Me: [laughing] No. You don’t have to miss/remember me. What did you do today?
Grump: Well, I was playing with my cousin until Mummy told me to come talk to you.
Me: Oh. Well, why don’t you go play with your cousin again?
Grump: Okay. Bye!
My family do not waste time on sentiment.
My mother is currently grilling me on how I obtain Vietnamese groceries. She lists what the family have been eating, and how she remembers me at every meal, particularly when she cooks my favourite dishes. We had crab the other day, she says. We all missed you. Then she says, This weekend, I am cooking banh xeo. You like to eat banh xeo so much. We will remember you.
I had the longest telephone conversation with my parents, ever, this morning: about ten minutes. The ritual is completed first: time, weather, health. I half expect my father to harangue my mother to hang up but I get in first and tell them that we have a telephone deal where it only costs me about six Australian cents per minute of chatter with them. I then plough on and tell them that I hope my sister is showing them my photos, which I have posted to a website. My mother says no. Then she remembers something: Your sister says you have been walking a lot. I have to agree to this. I do walk a lot. My mother tells me not to. I try to tell her that I am walking for fun, but then I just let her lecture me and I make listening noises. She then tells me about her weekend, how great Bunnings [a hardware / homewares store] is. I listen.
Then she says: Is that all? Do you want to say anything else? Here’s my chance! I think about which words to use, how to tell her I love her without sounding too formal, or ponderous. No? Okay, call again. Bye. And she has hung up, and I have missed my opportunity.
In another three weeks, I shall try again.