by Tran Thuy Mai
I met Lien, a fellow Vietnamese, at the crossroads near the end of Serangoon Street in Singapore. We looked at each other in great surprise. In this foreign land, such an encounter was like a lightning bolt from the blue sky. Indeed, you could even compare it to two ships colliding headlong in the open sea, or two planes crashing into each other in the immense sky. Our meeting was so unexpected.
In the restaurant of the Mustafa Supermarket, while eating an ice cream, I just stared at her face. Her unkempt hair looked rather weird but her chubby cheeks appeared almost unchanged.
When Auntie Hoa led her to the extremity of our small alley off the village border as a housemaid, I found her cheeks rather thin and pale, like two withered leaves. In our house, she was so timid that she just stood in a corner without saying a word.
“In other families, a girl in your situation would have to eat after the family, but here you’ll be equally treated,” Mum told her at dinner, then introduced her to all of us.
“Thank you very much, esteemed Landlady,” she mumbled. Picking up a bowl of hot rice with some food on it, she retreated to a corner. Amid the peals of laughter from my sisters, I took her hand and led her to a chair by the dining table.
“What did you eat at home? Your skin is so rough,” I asked in a tender voice.
“Only sweet potatoes, Master Vu. Sometimes with plain rice, that’s all,” she replied shyly but sincerely.
Later, when I left home and took a tertiary course at the School of Medicine of NUS, I realized that she had calluses. In Singapore, everything was expensive but attractive. I squandered my pocket money so lavishly that by the end of my first three-month term I had to tighten my belt.
During my summer vacation, I returned home. Mum was astonished to see the numerous calluses on my legs, which caused me to limp.
“It’s the aftermath of malnutrition,” said the GP of the health centre near my house when he checked my limbs.
“My dear nephew, I hear that in Singapore, medical services are very good. Why didn’t you have them cured there?” asked one of my mother’s friends when she saw my bandaged legs. I just laughed off the embarrassing question.
My clan was in no way wealthy. My parents had a two-storey house and a Jupiter motorbike. But my mother tried to make ends meet. The reason for our employment of Lien was that my maternal grandmother had fallen seriously ill. Living at our place, Lien’s health improved remarkably with every passing day: her pale complexion disappeared completely after about twenty days and several scores of days later, the calluses on her feet were completely gone. Her skin now looked fine and white and she noticeably put on weight.
“Whoever stays here with us is so blessed,” Mum said. “Lien can lead a life ten times better than her previous existence in her own clan.” Lien stayed with us for more than five years, until Granny passed away. Every year, three days after Tet, Lien’s father came to us to ask for his daughter’s wages in advance. Poor girl, after living with us for such a long time, when she returned home she had nothing but the white complexion of an urban teenager.
“Thanks to this nice complexion, Mrs Ba managed to send me to this country,” Lien said to me.
“Why did you come here? What do you do and where do you live?” I asked.
“I’m here to get married, Master Vu,” she replied with a mysterious smile.
I was greatly confused. In my mind, she was still very young.
“Whom are you going to marry?”
“God knows! I’ll wait and see when fortune smiles upon me,” she answered sincerely. “I’ve been staying in a hired flat with four other Vietnamese girls. Whenever somebody asks Mistress Chang to watch us, she will let us go to his place. The rest of the time, we’re free at home.”
“Your mistress doesn’t feel worried that you might escape one day?” I asked Lien. She just shook her head. I saw that those poor Vietnamese girls were young doves badly in need of a nest to rest in, and that they could hardly go away without a lot of money and passports in hand.
Lien visited me on a Sunday afternoon. When she called, I had to go downstairs to welcome her at the foot of the lift, for she did not have a magnetic card.
“Your place looks wonderful,” she remarked. In fact, my room was fairly large. In addition to a bookcase, there was a little bed and a desk facing the window. Walking to the window, she took a long breath of fresh air. “How beautiful! From this window I can see the world outside because it has no bars,” she remarked. Below, our campus looked like a tidy bazaar. Finding a photo of Annie on my desk, wearing a low-cut blouse and showing off her dyed blonde hair, Lien smiled, blinking.
“She’s only one of my close classmates, that’s all,” I said to her.
“Merely a dear friend who always looks at you with her lovely eyes?” she asked me in a suspicious voice. I just smiled and said nothing.
“If you take home a blonde, your mother will chase her away at once,” she warned me.
After living in my home for five years, Lien understood Mum’s character. Mum never made concessions to anyone. Every morning, Dad took her bike out of the shed and parked it at the veranda floor, ready for her to use.
“When Lien brought you a bowl of soup, you said, ‘Many thanks’. Poor me, I’ve never been treated so well,” Dad told her jokingly one morning.
“OK, starting tomorrow, I’ll manage the bike by myself,” Mum replied stubbornly.
After the death of my maternal grandmother, Dad abandoned Mum to live in another locality. However, her nature remained unchanged. While I was living abroad, she constantly sent me messages with serious warnings: “Try to do well in your studies, my beloved son. If you fall in love with a foreign girl, I’ll give you up immediately. A foreign wife won’t be welcomed in our clan!”
“You assume that foreign young ladies wish to marry Vietnamese youths very much!” I whispered to myself in a sarcastic voice.
“What do you think about her?” I asked Lien.
“She looks beautiful, dear Brother Vu,” she answered honestly.
“She’s both pretty and intelligent. She’s my film producer.”
“What! You’re still a student, not a film-maker, aren’t you?” she blurted out, surprised.
I had to explain everything to her. “We students here are always busy. Only at the end of each academic year do we have some free days. Well, there are nine classmates in my group in all: four Vietnamese, three Chinese, one Malaysian and one Singaporean. As for Annie, she asked us to make a film by ourselves so that we could enjoy it during Tet and keep it as a sweet souvenir. The setting is our NUS campus with its splendid scenery. I’ll be the hero, a real lady-killer, you see,” I went on lengthily.
“So you won’t go home. Will you get homesick?” Lien asked me.
“Not at all! I went home recently,” I told her.
“Being away from home during the most important days of the year, you must feel very sad,” she observed.
“Nope! This isn’t a Western country. In Singapore, we have Chinese Lunar New Year’s Day, similar to ours. Plus I have a lot of friends here,” I insisted.
Lien just kept mum, staring at me in bewilderment. All of a sudden, I remembered that when she lived with us, she had not returned home once for Tet.
She only sat alone on the veranda, dreaming of going home. In those days, both of us were still very young. Finding her depressed, one day I picked up a jar of strawberry jam and gave it to her. A few days after, when I woke up, I heard my mother’s voice: “Lien, why have you eaten strawberry jam? I’ve told you not to touch that kind of food, haven’t I?” Mum said in a stern voice. After that, I could hear Lien’s sobs. “Why are you crying? I’m trying to give you advice out of the goodness of my heart,” Mum told her. To the best of my knowledge, she cried because she felt more self-pity than homesickness. When my mother came upstairs, I told her, “Mum, on the Lunar New Year’s Day next year, you should let her go home.” “Why? During Tet, we have to entertain lots of relatives, visitors and guests. If she went home, who would do the washing up and housework? Anyhow, she must take on the responsibilities of a servant. How could she hope for better treatment? Sheer nonsense!”
After Tet, Lien returned to her native village for a holiday. Coming back to us, she brought with her a bottle of first-rate fish sauce for my mother. In the afternoon, Lien entered my study.
“Dear Lien, nothing for me?” I asked her inquisitively.
“Here you are!” She gave me a little rattan basket in which two nice little birds were chirruping merrily. I liked them very much.
“This kind of bird can sing beautifully. They can eat whatever we give them,” she told me.
“But how do I feed them?” I asked Lien.
“I usually give them the food from my mouth,” she replied. When she bent down to feed them, I could smell the mild fragrance of grapefruit shampoo from her hair.
I thought it must be homemade shampoo, but I found out I was wrong a few days later. My mother asked Lien to meet her and reprimanded her gravely. She paid her wages and then fired her.
“Regrettably, housemaids are usually obedient at first, then they begin to change their conduct very fast. Lien dared to use my Enchanteur shampoo. What’s the use of keeping her here any longer?” Mum said to me.
“A girl in her mid-teens likes sweet-smelling, pretty things. It’s normal. Lien is honest! How could she behave so foolishly?” I whispered to myself.
Anyhow, she was gone for good! As for those little birds, they died just a few days later.
One afternoon, after we finished the film, I took Annie to my flat. In each of our block of flats, there was a common dining room, nice and large. She usually came over to have lunch with me and Lan, my next-door neighbour. I had never invited her into my bedroom. We were very friendly, although I never flirted with her. We teased each other but never went beyond the limits of friendship.
“Afraid of love, aren’t you?” Lan asked me seriously one day.
“No way! I have to focus on work until I finish my studies,” I answered, blushing with shyness.
“When will that be? At the age of fifty, sixty or seventy?” he said. “Obviously, you don’t want to be called a lady-killer, that’s all.” He burst out laughing.
While the three of us were having rice, chicken and salad for dinner in the campus canteen, my mobile phone rang. It turned out that Lien had been waiting for me on the ground floor.
“What! You’ve spent lots of money on them, haven’t you?” I asked her, pointing at the small basket full of prepared food, tea and cakes that she carried.
“Well, I’ve already found a job. Precisely speaking, Mistress Chang recom-mended me as a housemaid for a small company,” she explained. I felt a bit confused about how to introduce her to my friends. I asked Lien to share a meal with us and she agreed. The four of us ate dinner together. Annie smiled at her, but Lien looked very timid. She stared, amazed, at Annie’s beauty in her low-cut blouse and sagging trousers. Meanwhile, Lien’s lovely face, chubby and sunburnt with dimpled cheeks, attracted Lan greatly.
All of a sudden, Lan told me, “Yesterday, it was reported that Michelle Chang was accused, by several Charity Foundations here, of placing three Vietnamese girls inside the glass showcases at the Fulushow Plaza, similar to the Arabian slave market of yore.”
“Was that you?” I asked Lien, frowning a little.
“No! I wanted to be displayed similarly, but Mistress Chang chose three young girls instead of me and my friends,” she answered sincerely. “All of us have stayed in this country quite a long time. We look forward to meeting some young people to marry so that we can live safe and sound here.” I felt greatly ashamed by her heartfelt confession. “Why do they want to be displayed like goods at supermarkets?” I snapped. Lan unintentionally interpreted my offended words for Annie to hear. She frowned; I reproached him in Vietnamese, “Why do you have to air our dirty linen in public?” Lien stared at me and Lan, then at Annie. “Poor Lien, she can’t speak English, yet she isn’t foolish at all,” I observed.
“Wu, why did you let your younger sister Lien come here to marry a man without knowing anything about him?” Annie asked me. She called me Wu although I had many times asked her to say Vu.
“Sorry, I can’t pronounce your name right. It’s too hard,” she replied.
“She used to be my clan’s housemaid, not my sister,” I clarified. I felt a little ashamed. I remembered that when she had given me two birds, I’d called her younger sister.
“I really don’t know what fine points our males possess to attract such a pretty young girl as Lien. As for me, I’ll never marry a Singaporean man,” Annie declared boldly.
“So, what kind of foreign guy do you want to marry?” I asked her.
“None! I only want to stay single!”
“That’s the reason why Singaporean men need foreign women, since young ladies like you just want to lead an unmarried life,” I remarked.
It took me a long while to find Lien’s place. It was a hired room for five Vietnamese young women in a cheap block of flats. Its corridors appeared fairly clean and tidy, but their bedroom looked rather messy with blue jeans and T-shirts hanging at random on clotheslines.
“Oh dear, Brother Vu, how clever of you to find my place!” Lien greeted me in high spirits.
“Well, I’m dead tired with that so-called cleverness of yours! I had to take several tubes to reach here,” I said to her in a weary voice. Her roommates surrounded me with lots of questions. Since my first day in Singapore I had had no occasion to enjoy any warbling conversations in Vietnamese. Lien brought me a small parcel.
“Here you are, Brother Vu,” she said with a broad smile.
“Thanks! What is this?”
“Just some candy I bought in a nearby supermarket, similar to our sesame-sprinkled gum.”
“But they taste sweeter than ours, I think.”
“On the contrary, ours are much better,” she argued with me.
Suddenly, I found her face getting sad.
“What’s the matter with you?” I asked her.
“Brother Vu, I’m about to get married. Will you come to congratulate me on what might be the greatest event in my lifetime?”
“Certainly, but when?”
“Soon, perhaps! My wedding party will be extremely simple. Mistress Chang told me that here everybody’s very busy. Their time’s quite precious to them,” she went on, eyes in tears.
“Just a few days ago, you were afraid that you wouldn’t be able to find an appropriate husband, but now when you’ve found such a man, you cry. Why?” I teased her.
“Because I’m very happy. You see, I’ve been here for half a year. If I stay single much longer, I’ll hardly be able to return home to Viet Nam,” Lien said, wiping away her tears with an icy smile.
“In case you can’t find a suitable man to marry, you daren’t go home. Is that right?”
“Things are not so simple, Brother Vu. Being away from home, I missed my dears very much. And what’s the use of staying single in a foreign country forever? In the end, I only want to get rich. If my dream can’t come true, I’m determined not to see you again.”
“Wait, what?” I was startled at the queer statement from such a nice and gentle girl.
“I know that you were ashamed of my presence in front of Annie,” she declared in a choked voice.
I felt utterly confused. Because of my minor rudeness that day, Lien felt compelled to choose a husband in such a hurry? “You don’t need to put it like that,” I said. Holding her hand, I congratulated her on her good luck. I did not know what to advise her in this foreign land where she knew nobody but me, a native youth of twenty-three.
I did not know where her wedding had taken place. Yet I came to know that its date was September 20, a holiday. As usual, on the first day of the week, I bought a tabloid newspaper and flipped through it. A large-sized photo of the municipal Marriage Intermediary Company drew my attention: Lien in her bridal gown standing beside her husband, a bald man with an obese belly. Over their heads, there was a sarcastic line in boldface type: “Too fat, too old; no money, no house for a pretty young Vietnamese bride.” Surely Lien could not read that caption in English.
Suddenly, my mobile phone rang loudly. Annie was calling to say that she had checked the documentary for the last time and that my performance was superb. She also wanted to know whether I wanted to get dinner that night. Without replying, I hung up so that she wouldn’t hear my heart-broken sobs.
Translated by Van Minh