The House by Shannon Chen
My mother grew up in a house that was, at first, more of a hut than a house. In its
modest beginning the floor was hard concrete. The roof was made of leaves so that its
inhabitants were kept cool during the occasional downpours that showered over the usual heat
of southern Vietnam. Later the leaves were replaced with metal, which made the rain sound like
firecrackers rattling through the house.
My mom’s life began in the midst of the Vietnam War. When all but one of her siblings
had been born, her family was forced to leave the neighborhood to escape the oncoming attack.
They packed their essentials in bags that were really just square cloths gathered up and
knotted, fit four bags to the one bicycle that my grandmother owned, and left the rest of their
belongings to fall victim to the barrage.
They had had a friend, who let them stay for a while in a warehouse. They lived there for
only a few months, with shelves full of herbs and medicines to keep them company, while their
neighborhood was showered with bombs from American planes. The torrents of firecrackers
cascading over their metal roof were no longer just a fantasy.
My mom is much quicker to forgive than I am. “The U.S. soldiers were targeting the Viet
Cong,” she told me. “The VC would never just walk around in public so conspicuously. They
blended in by dressing like us and pretending to be us.”
They killed innocent people, I thought to myself.
And as if she knew what I was thinking, she would say, “They were only trying to protect
Her family lived in the warehouse temporarily, just long enough for things to settle down.
Then, they returned home before looters could beat them to it.
They were welcomed back by destruction. Every house on the block was more or less in
ruin. They hadn’t been able to take pets with them in their exodus—everything that was left
behind was gone. Their chickens were singed to ashes by the warfare. Neighbors who had not
left were injured or dead. My mother learned very young that there are no winners in war.
Her family rebuilt. They took what was left of the house and erected it again. My
grandmother and grandfather paid for construction. In time the old concrete turned to new tile,
and two more stories were added underneath the metal roof. The bottom floor was for living; the
next had furniture and bedrooms; and the top had a terrace, where they could hang their
laundry out to dry and sit on the deck in the sun. Today my mother loves to garden. Even then,
in her youth, she kept some plants for herself on the terrace; it was something to indulge in, to
take pride in.
When it rained the firecrackers reverberated through three stories of the house.
It’s hard to imagine being born into the war. Living and breathing war. They didn’t
escape the country during it. It was later, after the unification of the North and South, when the
communist regime had permeated every aspect of their lives that they decided to flee to
America. My mother spent twentyseven years of her life in that house, before she left again to
I am not thankful for the war; I am thankful for what came after. My mother’s family came
to this country for a reason. I am here for a reason. I was built on American soil, sculpted from the ashes of
Vietnam, a product of my history raised with the promise of new hope for the future.