Brothers and Ghosts by Khuê Phạm
Translated from the German by Imogen Taylor and edited by Daryl Lindsey.
Let me start this story with a confession: I can’t pronounce my own name.
For as far back as I can remember, I have felt uncomfortable introducing myself to people. If they were German, they couldn’t make sense of the melodic sounds. If they were Vietnamese, they had trouble with my harsh accent. Germans dodged the problem by not addressing me by name. Vietnamese people asked, ‘How do you spell that?’
Once someone said, ‘Are you sure about that?’
I was a child when I first attempted to deal with the problem. When we went to the department store, I would head for the toy section and look for my name on the personalized pencils. When we went to the DIY store, I set my hopes on the long, colourful key rings. If I found my name, I said to myself, it would be proof that there was nothing wrong with me. I sifted through hundreds of pencils and key rings. I found ‘Katrin’, ‘Kristina’ and once—my heart skipped a beat—‘Kira’.
But there was no ‘Kiều’.
‘Kiều’ existed only in my family’s world and in the title of a book that stood on my father’s shelves in the cellar: Truyện Kiều, The Tale of Kiều. A work that is as important to Vietnamese literature as The Sorrows of Young Werther to the German canon.
I couldn’t read it, of course.
Whenever my father decided to clean up the house, he pulled out the book and said, ‘Did you know that you’re named after a famous young woman? Every schoolchild in Vietnam has read this book. You’re known all over the country.’
I believed everything my father told me when I was little, so why should that be any different? I imagined walking through Vietnam and being approached by all kinds of people. I would constantly have to keep introducing myself—and each time I would have to say my name. How embarrassing.
When I was sixteen, I changed my name because I thought an easier one would improve my chances of getting accepted in Jeanette’s clique. When I was twenty, I had my passport modified, and, for the first time, I felt power over my destiny.
For ten years I have been a different person. Germans call me ‘Kimm’; Vietnamese people, ‘Keem’. It isn’t perfect, but it’s easy. Shedding my past never bothered me—really it didn’t.
Then I got that message.
The message popped up on Facebook and was written in English. Someone calling himself Sơn Sài Gòn had contacted me.
Is this you, Kiều? There’s something I need to tell you and your father!
There aren’t many people who know my real name; beyond my large, sprawling family there are few who hold that information. On my mother’s side there is a noisy Vietnamese branch with lots of children. Whenever any of them send photos, I am amazed at the number of new cousins whose names I can never remember, although—or perhaps because—they consist of only two letters each. The only person I can recall on my father’s side is a deaf aunt. As far as I know, his brothers and sisters fled Vietnam after the war and ended up in California. Maybe they were boat people, maybe they weren’t.
Then there’s a great-aunt in the UK, who got rich acting as lawyer to the cannabis mafia, and a cousin by marriage, a poet, who was flown out of Vietnam to Canada after the war by the PEN club. I also have a young cousin in Paris who performed in that tacky music show that my parents love to sing karaoke to: Paris by Night.
I only know these people from hearsay. To me, they are as unreal as the ghosts of the dead ancestors that I burn incense for on Vietnamese new year. Once a year they blow into my life, only to vanish again like smoke.
So who is Sơn?
His Facebook photo shows a man with bushy eyebrows and a straight nose that reminds me of my father’s. His eyes are unusually round, so that, in spite of his wrinkles, he looks like a little boy. According to his profile, he lives in Westminster, California and runs an import-export business called ‘Made in America.’ He must be my father’s younger brother, the one who was so bad at school but so good at cards.
I try to remember my father’s family, the way you try to remember entries in a history book. I met them once fifteen years ago, when one of our visits to Vietnam happened to coincide with one of theirs. I don’t know why we never visited them in California. When I asked my mother if there had been some kind of falling out, she paused for a moment and then shook her head.
‘Actually,’ she said, dragging the word out strangely, ‘everything’s fine. But Dad’s family are difficult. It’s best if we get on with our lives and let them get on with theirs. We send them money every now and then, there’s no need to visit them.’
Then everything was hush-hush again and I didn’t dare ask any more questions.
There’s something I need to tell you!
Why is he bothering me?
I shut my laptop, ready to plunge back into everyday life in Berlin—a life that is organized, German and free of international family issues. I haven’t spoken to my uncle for fifteen years; it can hardly matter if I don’t reply immediately—or, indeed, at all.
Two weeks later I return to the pale-blue house where my two siblings and I grew up. It’s Christmas and as usual this puts me in a strange mood. Going back home means returning to that childhood sense of being out of place. My parents learned to celebrate Christmas the way they learned German grammar, going through the motions in order to belong. The tree in the sitting room is decorated with a cuddly Santa, hand-painted wooden figures, glittery baubles and two strings of fairy lights in different colours. All that’s missing is the fake snow.
When darkness falls through the floor-length windows, my sister, my brother and I sit down at the dining table which, in honour of the occasion, my mother has laid with the heavy Rosenthal porcelain usually reserved for German guests. She has even splashed out on a white silk tablecloth from Berlin’s posh department store KaDeWe, though she rarely goes there and only buys items on sale. She has lived in Germany for decades, but never lost the Vietnamese habit of saving wherever she can. As a child she was very poor and even now, as an adult, she is unable to shake the sense of being hard up. Neither the BMWs nor the big house can change that.
‘A hundred euros! I was really quite torn.’ She runs a hand tenderly over the shimmering cloth. ‘I thought one of you could inherit it.’
This evening’s meal was the subject of many weeks’ discussion, but we eventually decided on lobster, just as we had in the three previous years. None of us likes seafood, but lobster is festive and doesn’t taste too fishy; once a year, we treat ourselves. There are five, gleaming on a platter, bright red and innocent. My father avails himself of a pair of garden pliers that he bought as a makeshift solution the time before last and found so handy that he has used them ever since.
The phone rings in the bedroom.
‘Don’t get up,’ my mother says, rising from her chair to serve the salad. Her eyes flash with an anger I know so well from my teenage fights with her—nothing infuriates her more than those who dare to disturb the sacredness of a family meal.
The ringing stops and then, after a brief pause, starts again.
‘Incredible,’ my mother says, stabbing at the salad with her fork. My father, showing his usual solidarity, cuts a pincer off his lobster.
Silence, then it rings again.
I jump up from my chair. It might be an emergency. Or it might be my old schoolfriend Thomas, who is oblivious to family rituals and public holidays. I dash to the phone, the way I used to as a teenager to prevent my mother from getting there first and telling him off.
‘Who is this?’ I sound rude. I want to sound rude.
An unfamiliar male voice replies, asking in Vietnamese who is speaking.
‘It’s Kim,’ I say. I haven’t spoken a word of Vietnamese since our last holiday in Vietnam five years ago, and I feel annoyed at having to practice it on this stranger.
Perhaps it’s one of my relatives; he clearly doesn’t know my German name. I try again.
‘It’s Kiều.’ I speak a little louder and drag out the vowel.
‘I still haven’t caught the name. Who?’
‘Kiều,’ I repeat. ‘Minh’s daughter.’
‘Oh, Kiều! Why didn’t you say so?’
We have only been talking for thirty seconds and already I’ve been dragged to the darkest chamber of my soul. I see myself on my last visit to Saigon, stammering to make myself understood. For years I had locked the memory away—now I know why.
Maybe I should just hang up.
‘This is your Uncle Sơn from California,’ the man at the other end of the line says. ‘I tried to get hold of you on Facebook, but you probably didn’t see my message.’
He pauses, as if he finds it hard to talk. Not knowing whether to apologize, I say nothing. There’s a static noise in the line. The connection is lousy.
‘It’s about your grandmother,’ he says eventually. ‘She’s dying. I need to speak to your dad.’
In another situation—another language—I would have said something at this point. Something along the lines of: ‘I wish I’d known her better. Now it’s too late.’
But since I am not even capable of conveying my own name, I only manage to mumble, ‘OK,’ and cover the mouthpiece with my hand to call for my father.
(In Little Saigon, California)
A Western user interface with Vietnamese features rolls past the window. The shops look typically American, but they have names like ‘Saigon City Marketplace’ or ‘Hanoi Corner’. The restaurants sell Vietnamese noodle soup, sticky rice and sandwiches—phở, xôi and bánh mì. The drug stores have Vietnamese names, as do the laundrettes, the bubbletea shops and the massage parlors whose services are so cheap that it seems criminal(1 hour — $15 only!).
I only see a few people walking down the streets, but all of them have black hair and Asian builds. These are bodies which often seem small in comparison to white ones but here, among their own kind, they are sturdy or athletic or slender—and sometimes even tall.
A Vietnamese family passes us in a Ford pick-up. The mother has loosely pinned-up dyed brown hair; the father wears black architect’s glasses, a white T-shirt and a jacket. I look at them with envy. Who would I be if I’d grown up here?
When I think back to my childhood, I see a girl with black hair who lives in a pale-blue house and grows up speaking the melodic language of her parents. Innocently, I repeated the words with which they rocked me to sleep, tender with happiness at their first-born child. When I was little, I didn’t know that my family’s world was different from the world around us—that I was growing up on a planet shared by only five people: my mother, my father, my sister, my brother and me.
It first dawned on me in preschool. There, I met Paul and Sarah who played with coloured building blocks while I looked on in silence. Their parents were tall, blond and sure of themselves; when they came to pick up Paul and Sarah, they joked with the childcare workers. My parents were small, black-haired and always late; by the time they showed up, I would be sitting outside the door, trying to recreate buildingblock castles.
As I grew older, I saw how different we were. As I grew smarter, I studied how others behaved. Every day, I added a few German words; every night, I lost a few of Vietnamese ones. I forgot the songs I had learned from my parents and joined in when my classmates sang ´Silent Night´.
I wanted spaghetti for dinner, not phở. When my parents held parties for their Vietnamese friends, I rolled my eyes at their karaoke singing. I was always expected to play the piano. My parents always bragged about my marks. I took some solace in the other Vietnamese kids who had to play the piano too. Together, we stood there cringing as our parents boasted about our exam results or somebody’s performance in a math contest.
I never saw this pressure to achieve among my German friends. They got money for scoring a B on a math test; they asked their parents for cigarettes at the age of fifteen; on weekends, they were allowed to stay out as long as they liked. On the rare occasion when they did get into an argument, they held family talks involving the words ‘sorry’ and ‘love’. I found it bewildering. Why would they speak so openly about their feelings? At the same time, I knew it was strange to be bewildered, and so I said nothing.
I wanted the differences between my family and their families to disappear, because our world was small and strange, while theirs was big and universal. ‘Make sure to dress decently, you know how suspicious the Germans are of foreigners,’ my mother always said with a mixture of fear and menace in her voice. I can hear her to this day.
We were ready to be anything—except who we were. There was no place for us in nineties Germany. Strangers would stop my father on the street to ask for cheap cigarettes. I unlearned my own name. My parents, caught up in their immigrant ambitions, let it happen. They wanted me to make it in Germany, whatever the price.
Kiều came from a small world, but Kim knew her way around the big one; she knew how to please the Germans, how to become one of them.
It is only here, in Little Saigon, that I begin to wonder if things could have been different.
Khuê Phạm is an award-winning Vietnamese-German writer. A graduate from the London School of Economics, she has contributed to the Guardian and NPR before becoming an editor at the renowned German weekly “Die ZEIT”. In 2012, she co-wrote Us New Germans, a non-fiction book about the second generation of immigrants in Germany. Brothers and Ghosts (Wo auch immer ihr seid) (2021), her first novel, is loosely based on the story of her Vietnamese family. It was recommended by the international jury of “New Books in German” in their fall 21 selection, and was chosen for a highly coveted book presentation at this year`s Berlinale film festival. khuepham.de/english
Imogen Taylor is a translator of French and German. She was born in London in 1978 and has lived in Berlin since 2001. Her translation of Sasha Marianna Salzmann’s Beside Myselfwas shortlisted for the 2021 Helen & Kurt Wolff Translator’s Prize and the Schlegel-Tieck Prize 2020. Most recently she has translated The Missing by Dirk Kurbjuweit and Our Happy Days by Julia Holbe.
This excerpt from Wo auch immer ihr seid by Khuê Phạm translated by Imogen Taylor, edited by Daryl Lindsey, is published with permission from btb Verlag. Copyright © 2021 btb Verlag, a division of Penguin Random House Verlagsgruppe GmbH, Munich.
Author photo by Alena Schmick