That was the last straw. I still remember the deed to this day: my roommate woke up from one of his alcohol-soaked naps, casually picked up the waste basket and puked into it a couple times. I was at my desk writing a paper when I observed this casual atrocity. It was both amusing and horrific at the same time. After a few minutes, though, it wasn’t amusing at all when the putrid, acrid smell began to waft around the room.
Seeing that this roommate of mine wasn’t going to do anything about it, I held my breath and promptly took the waste basket out of the room, down the hallway and into the laundry room. I dumped its liquidy contents into the big plastic garbage bin and rinsed out the waste basket in the basin next to the washing machine.
Later that night I took the elevator to the RA’s room and asked him to reassign me to a single room in Murphy Hall for next semester. This was an unusual move because most freshman who lived on campus shacked up in the college-appointed freshman dorms and were perfectly happy there, wearing their baggy pants, sports jerseys and backwards baseball caps, listening to the latest rap CD, and from Wednesday evening until Saturday morning drinking the cheapest beer and then passing out on someone else’s bed.
But, I told the RA that I was not like most freshman and that I would feel more comfortable in a space of my own where no one bothered me and I had no one else to blame but myself. He didn’t put up much of a fuss and signed my request to move out of the freshman dorm. Emancipation was being delivered at just the right time.
That’s when I first met Quyen. She was a junior and I was a freshman. As it turned out, she was also testing the waters of emancipation herself. She would regularly confide in me that her parents had a stranglehold on her social life and that their true wish was that she become an obedient housewife with a college education, so nobody could accuse them of raising a stupid housewife.
Murphy Hall had three upper floors and one basement floor, and each floor was co-ed, equally divided between men and women. Quyen and I hit it off as soon as we shook hands on that January morning when we were both moving in. Our rooms turned out to be almost directly across from one another. She offered to share a phone line with me in order to cut the bill in half.
We ran the phone cord from one room to the other, taping it diagonally across the white ceiling. She recorded the outgoing message on the answering machine to cover up the fact that she was sharing a phone line with a male student. In her room were boxes of thick biology books, lots of shoes, some makeup and a photo album. We sat down on her bed and she showed me photos of her family and of when she was a child.
She told me that she came to the U.S. from Vietnam with her family back in 1978 when she was eight or nine years old, after a couple failed attempts. They finally fled on a small fishing boat with many other people and were intercepted by Thai pirates who stole the passengers’ valuables and threw anything else not of value to them overboard, including Quyen’s identity papers. To this day, she does not know what her true age is.
After arriving in a refugee camp, her family was sponsored by a Catholic church in a town not far from where the college is located. Eventually, she and her family were able to settle down in a cheap two-story house next to the church. By sharing her story, Quyen was passing down to me a part of history that I barely knew. Her story, like thousands of others, follows themes both uniquely Vietnamese and uniquely American: struggle, flight, settlement and assimilation.
But, Quyen, like many others who came from Vietnam during that frightening period, has attempted to forge something that she could call her own in this new country; something that would eventually lead her away from the beaten path. Since the first time I got to know her, she always seemed to have a boyfriend, whether she wanted one or not.
Her boyfriends usually desired a closeness and intimacy that Quyen just could not offer. She did not want to be desired, or kept; she just didn’t want to be alone. Her social circle seemed to extend far and wide, and she always chided me for being so introverted and too serious.
She encouraged me to go out and have fun. Ironically, though, whenever I got together with Quyen and her friends it seemed like she wanted to be somewhere else, like she was constantly looking beyond the present in order to catch up with what the future could offer her.
Her major was biology, but as one semester followed another I noticed her interest in the subject was waning. More and more either her father or one of her brothers would call and sometimes I would pick up. As soon as they heard my voice, their tone became combative and they demanded that Quyen call either her mother or father back as soon as possible.
One afternoon, Quyen came into the room, threw down her book bag and started crying. She didn’t want anyone to witness her barriers crumbling, so she asked me to leave. If only I could have displayed more strength in the form of sympathy, I would have sat down on the floor with her and held her close, to be that bright beacon she was desperately seeking in the dark storm.
But, being the kind of person I was then, I dutifully left her to deal with her pain alone. Quyen later informed me that her parents had thrown down the gauntlet and told her that they would no longer pay for her room and board and she would have to move back home. For the first time, I caught a glimpse of what it meant to be Vietnamese-American.
Quyen was being pulled apart by two competing social forces. In America, she was being encouraged to be everything that she could be, that the sky was the limit. Her family, on the other hand, was holding her back and telling her, “Remember who you are.”
A week later, Quyen came by and asked me to do her a big favor: She wanted to store some of her things in my room for a while until she figured what she was going to do. I asked her exactly what her plans were. Quyen said she was staying in her boyfriend’s dorm room until things cooled off at her house.
Her boyfriend at the time was an RA in the main freshman dorm, a true scholar, and a true roughneck from the ï¿½hood. Her parents would be none too happy if they found out their daughter was dating a Black man. Soon, boxes of her stuff were neatly stuffed under my bed and some of her trinkets were stashed here and there around the room.
I had a copy of my room key made, so she could come in whenever she needed something from one of her boxes. One weekend, my dad came for a short-notice visit and he saw that I had extra boxes packed under my bed and inquired whose they were. I told him all about Quyen’s situation and that we weren’t sleeping together, and that it was just one friend doing a big favor for another. He warned me that if administration knew about this curious arrangement, they would have every right to kick me off campus. Then, I’d be back home myself taking orders from him and mom.
Quyen was in limbo, and she never did graduate from college. Instead, she started taking classes in accounting at the local community college while working at her mother’s hair salon part time. Then, she quit taking classes and jumped head first into the workforce, making just a little bit more than minimum wage. Then, I didn’t hear from her for a couple years.
Then, a year before I left my hometown for the West Coast, she called me up and told me in a whirlwind of excitement that she had moved with her family to North Carolina and she was engaged to a Vietnamese-American man with whom her parents had set her up and they would be getting married in San Jose, California.
Then, a couple of years after that announcement I got another call from Quyen and she told me that she had gotten a divorce and has since moved down to Southern California where she was eeking out a living and continuing her higher education at another community college part time. She met a new guy, who is half Caucasian, half Vietnamese, and was now living with him. Last December, I was able to visit her after not having seen her for five years, and as always she looked great.
She was still uncertain about the future, but she learned to hold the present closer to her heart and not to take it too much for granted. So, it was an unbelievable shock when Quyen called me a couple weeks ago to tell me that she has been diagnosed with breast cancer, and it was spreading.
Once again, stormy seas bear down upon her as she is heading to another unknown coast. I can only hope that she will make it back in time to call me. Call me.