Excerpt: A Roof & Some Refuge

Guest Post by Cara Van Le

Photo credit: Jeffer

The following are edited excerpts from A Roof & Some Refuge, a collection of stories and poems about my dad that I wrote in 2012.


My father thinks forgetting is an active verb.

Hunger is an acquired taste, he says. You Americans wouldn't know the flavor. I am a scavenger for details that are not fed to me:

   Slow drips of coffee in condensed milk, over and over again.
   The clink of Cognac against clear glass.
   Thin orange stripes on square Lotto tickets.
   The cherry sizzle of breath and fire and toxic clouds of 555s or Marlboro Golds.
   Soft sobs in the middle of the night.
   Static on the other line.
   The uneven cadence of footsteps dragging themselves in from work. The refrain before the door.
   The urgent ting of chopsticks scraping the bottom of small white bowls.
   The cold, smooth curve of Buddha's protruding belly.
   Embossed gold letters on little red envelopes.
   The intoxicating scent of jasmine blossoms, freshly picked.

I asked him what his favorite meal was when he was a child.

I didn't have the luxury of favorites, he snapped.

Once, he let me know that the village he came from was known for its cinnamon.

Rumor has it that cinnamon settles the pain you get at the pit of your stomach, like the one you get when you are starving.


When we were little, my dad bought a navy blue Toyota van that would last us until I turned 16. I test drove it only once or twice before it went kaput for good. One of my earliest childhood memories is running into the back of the van, the shiny blue door already slid open to let me in. I grasped a pencil tightly in my chubby hand and remained unsupervised long enough to carve a drawing into the velvety, light gray interior. I was given enough time to complete a drawing of a family, with a house in the background. Mom was furious, but Dad refused to make me feel bad, hugging me as if he were proud of my creation (I was, after all, the youngest child).

These days, Bố describes us children as Americans, without a hyphen to connect us.

One day, I ask him to draw a line anyway. He sits cross-legged in a stool, rips off a piece of paper towel, and makes a long mark with a black pen. He puts slashes through the long line, and starts to add dates:

1950: Birth
1957: Polio
1962: Left home
1973: Last visit home
1975: Left Viet Nam
1986: Reconnected with family

Every time I press him for more details -- what did your home look like? What did you talk about on your last visit? He just keeps adding more years to the timeline.

After enough of this line of questioning, he gives one memory of arriving in Sài Gòn after Huế, where he had been attending university, was captured. He had $100, one friend, and plans to live at the airport. And now, he begins to cry. Between sobs I understand that my father knew no one but this friend and relied on charity for food and clothing until he was able to find work at a newspaper. He pauses and when he closes his eyes I can see so much movement underneath his lids. Scanning the landscape of his memory. Reliving a past I wanted to know until I saw how much it hurt. I do not press him for any more details.

A few minutes later, he opens his eyes again. He continues his own way, carving more lines upon lines. I continue on the way I always have, filling them in. I hope he can for me now as he did back then.


I swear sometimes that religion is a way to filter obsessive-compulsive disorders into constructive rituals. It's a way to convince ourselves that there is a reward to repetition. Every day my parents fill 15 tiny teacups with hot water and split plates of five drinks among three altars. There is the altar for Phật and Quan Thế m; there is the one to venerate the dead; and there is the one of Ông Địa, the spirit of fortune. His altar is the smallest and closest to the ground.

Sometimes I am charged with collecting and washing the teacups at night, which I must do before lighting incense. I stack those white cups with floral designs, and make five lines of three. The symmetry is soothing to me.

Lately, I've noticed that in addition to the teacups, my parents have added two shot glasses filled with a thin caramel-colored liquid to Ông Địa's altar. The extra offerings are placed on either side of the small, bright pink statue, who is shirtless. A pencil-thin mustache outlines his wide grin. He grasps tightly-rolled two dollar bills in each of his miniature hands.

I assume the brown substance is alcohol. When Mom comes home, I ask her why we are getting the spirit of fortune drunk.

- It's not alcohol; it's coffee, she says.

- Why coffee? I ask, thinking that if I were a spirit, whiskey would make for an effective bribe.

- Ask your father.

I approach Dad with the same question—why are we offering coffee to Ông Địa?

My father grins almost as widely as the little pink statue and shouts, He can't be out finding us money if he's sleeping!

We are laughing and he continues to re-arrange the cups by the altar.

- Ask him what he does to Ông Địa's stomach, my mom shouts from the kitchen.

My mind is still trying to make sure I understand my mother's Vietnamese right when my Dad abruptly shouts,

- I have to tickle him so that he stays awake!

I step back as Dad lights the incense, and watch incredulously as he bends close to the ground, his hands reaching for the fortune spirit's Pepto Bismol-pink chest. He has to contort his body so his ass doesn't face any of the statues—this is disrespectful, but tickling Ông Địa to keep him alert is perfectly fine.

I listen as my father recites his prayers to Ông Địa, whispers of memorized Vietnamese politesse with shocks of English words: Mortgage, refinance, consolidate—repeated over and over again. And then the incense.

Cara is an LA-based introvert and an Angry Asian Intern™. Between interning, teaching, and trying to finish her grad program at UCLA, she spends her free time writing her ass off. For two years now, she's been working on the companion chapbook to 'A Roof & Some Refuge', called 'The Labor of Longing' (stories and poems about her mom). That will be out at some point in the future. She enjoys coffee immensely.

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