Potato Soup for A Good Child

In the society of Vietnam, the most important duty one must uphold is to repay parents’ immense kindness with respect and reverence. For thousands of year, Confucianism and Buddhism have taught us that being a good child is the root a person’s character, and there is no greater sin than to mistreat our own parents.

I saw this when my father brought my grandmother from the hospital to our house so she can spend the last months of her life here, among her children and grandchildren – faces she could no longer recognize. My father took each heavy step up the wooden stairs, holding his obese mother in his arm. His face was red and wet of sweat. He groaned, gasping for breath. He wasn’t in great health himself; his steps looked painful. We could have asked someone else to help but my father wanted to do it himself – to bring his mother to the room where she would depart her life. He entered the white room with two beds – one for her, one for the nurse. She was still in his embrace gazing up at him, curling up like a child. My father put my grandmother down with great care and knelt on the side of the bed, wiped the sweat on his forehead with his hand, still catching his breath. He looked at her with tenderness and whispered “You are home!” – the same sentence he used to cried out with joy when he was little every time she came home from the market, a warm loaf of bread in her basket. She smiled back at him an innocent smile.

There, exhausted beside my grandmother’s bed, my father’s face was the happiest I’d ever seen. And three months from that day, I saw him sitting on the cold tiled floor at midnight, flipping the pages of an old album, of which photos were black and white. “Dad…” I wanted to ask him to rest; he looked up to me and forced a smile – a Vietnamese man must not show emotion. But his eyes could not conceal the thickness of sadness and bewilderment: his mother had died early that afternoon.

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I had knew of filial piety before I knew numbers and letters. It was taught to every Vietnamese child before they learn to draw, or write, or read. It was sang in our lullabies, and told in our fairy tales. Though I grew up to a stubborn and rebellious teenager for reasons I still don’t understand. I felt a constant sense of isolation and discontent; nobody understood me, especially my “old folks”. I concluded that my parents wanted to keep me in cages while I needed freedom. I didn’t want walls and closed doors, with locks and hidden key. I was a bird and a wild horse. I needed the endless blue sky and green meadow. The more my parents wanted to keep me inside, the harder I tried to escape. They hid the keys, I secretly made copies. They took away the copies, I sneaked out from the window. They shut the window, I climbed over the wall. I read forbidden books, watched forbidden movies, opened forbidden drawers, did forbidden things. We would have arguments and I shut my room door. I was a professional domestic rebel that cried sometimes. Nevertheless, I was proud.

Time went by with that rhythm until one winter day three years ago. I was the newly elect president of the Hanoi local chapter of AIESEC. I had university lectures and tutorial classes in the morning; I had AIESEC work and meetings in the afternoon; I had part-time English teaching in the evening. I had chronic back pain and headache as well. I had no boyfriend though. We had just broken up and I was still bleeding. Work was anesthesia for pain.

It was ten o’clock at night when I reached home.  It was a long day. I turned off the engine, opened the pale yellow gate and took the motorbike inside. No light was on but I didn’t mind; I liked the mellow night. Nobody was on the first floor – even better! – I wanted to be alone. As I walked through the empty living room, dimmed with little light from upstairs, I heard the familiar voice of the bedtime news correspondent from the TV in my parents’ room. I switched on the light in the kitchen and saw a red tabletop food cover placed on a round silver tray. They are there; I have seen them a thousand times. I knew they would be there. I lifted the cover and found inside a bowl of pork ribs cooked in potato soup, bright yellow pieces of potatoes; a plate of sliced poached pork; a small bowl of green cabbage pickles; a pair of chopsticks placed neatly over an empty bowl. I was also empty, of food, of energy, of thought, of feeling. That was how I came home every night. Empty, like the ceramic bowl on the tray. Begging to be filled up. My grandmother and my dad loved potato soup. So did I. My grandmother cooked delicious potato soup too. Suddenly the sadness in my dad’s eyes – that night when he sat on the cold tiled floor – flashed back. My heart cracked.

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It was not true. I was wrong. One day the red food cover, the silver tray, and the smell of my mother’s potato soup would no longer be there. What had I done? I was out changing the world during the day and at night crawled home like a bleeding animal, licking its wound in its cave – the only place that it can find love and belonging. What had I done to my own body? My parents would do anything so others would not treat me – the manifestation of their love – the way I treated myself. Tears from the crack of my heart filled my eyes.

Put the soup in the microwave first,” my mother’s voice cut through my thought. She stood on the stairs behind and noticed my wet eyes as I turned around. She heated up the soup while complaining about my dad drinking too much, my brother receiving poor grade in literature, me always coming home late, the increased price of potatoes, her headache. I came toward her, hugged her from behind without thinking and said: “I’m most happy when eating the food you saved for me from dinner”. I breathed in her familiar smell of Vaseline milk cream. My mother froze for a long moment. Then she asked warily “Um…are you…sick? Do you need some medicine?”. I laughed in tears, and squeezed her tighter.