by Fran Martens Friesen,
MCC Vietnam Country Representative, 1998-2002
by the roadside.
I lean over my motorbike.
Before I ask
she speaks, quick, firm,
wizened eyes peeping out
from under cone-shaped hat:
“tám nghìn,” a bargain.
Her dirt-caked hands pull off the
top of the pyramid and plunk
dusty fruit bulging with juice
into the scale.
Yesterday I stopped at Giant Foods,
wheeling my cart in Produce, I
saw them — shining under glaring lights,
small, tight as buds,
I take five.
At the check-stand, the cashier frowns,
plunks her keyboard, grabs the microphone,
blares “Price check!”
And the pyramid falls.
The wind lifts
the thin, bat-black paper
up from my neighbor’s altar
of oranges, rice bowls, red-gold
up from under the solemn eyes
in an ancestor’s photo
to flit above rooftops, drying clothes, yellow-star
briefly silhouetted against the gray sky,
then to drift down again,
past children’s busy soccer feet
past molded walls
to rest in the gutter
just outside my gate —
the burned edges of a prayer
at my feet.
On the Road
There is only one place to really be Vietnamese:
Astride a Honda Dream, riding the waves
of human bodies and gunning metal.
If I reached out my hand, I would touch
the handlebars of my neighbor — baseball cap
jammed on, set jaws, vacant commuter expression.
In front of me, a fashion Queen —
jaunty hat, gloves to elbows, narrow-tipped
high-heeled shoes resting on the pedals.
(Any one of these women could trump a beauty contest.)
Straight-backed women straddling the bike,
the back-bone of Việt Nam, everyone says,
and those who don’t, know.
I straighten my back, too, proud to be a Woman.
I am carried along in the flood,
borne away by the multitude, the many breaths
I can nearly feel on my arms, my face.
Our motorbikes are one; they don’t see me
as set apart. I am rudely cut off or allowed to pass,
one of them.
At home, I am running late.
I jump into my Honda Accord,
windows clamped shut, 89.3 droning.
On Highway 41, I merge in.
I am carried by the flood, yes.
I am one of them, yes.
But it is the license plates, bumper stickers,
of oversized SUV’s I see.
I am gender-neutral, slouched in my plush seat.
The other people?
Just blurs behind the wheel.