The light bulb donning its conical hat illuminated the white wall to which it was attached and the pavement halfway across the alley, enough to illuminate my cousin’s moped. I felt intimidated by the idea of riding a motorbike, but it was all there was. The rest of the universe remained in darkness. Growing up in urban USA where the streets, sky, and mysteries are lit, and cars encase us in a bubble of protection, the unknown darkness of Saigon’s alley’s whilst my body, exposed, rode through made me nervous.
My cousin came out of the house wearing a crisp shirt as white as the wall with a warm, an encouraging laugh, and an easy, yet grounded walk to the bike before waving me over with his caramel-colored hands. He had a broad forehead, wide eyes, high cheekbones (classic feature in our family), and a square jaw that framed his warm smile. He pointed out all the parts and invited me to sit down. I looked at him so my eyes could convey all my nervousness, and he laughed again before getting on the bike and encouraging me to hop on with him. He drove through the alley, chirped light honks to neighbors he knew, and helped me shake off my jitters that completely fell away as we came to a stop. “Your turn! Then you’ll really be a Saigon girl.” Motorbike truly was the best way to get across the intricate metropolis along with the millions advancing by way of critical mass. I started the engine and proceeded into the darkness, never looking back… because turning one’s head throws off the balance and I was scared AF! My anxious heartbeat sounded the bass line to an exhilerating ride wherein I caught the wind with a different, sweet smell of Saigon and the pace of life seemed faster, yet still more humane than the highways of California. I came back around the corner and stopped next to Tuan. He smiled and said, “Saigon girl!”
Tuan, my cousin, is the oldest of the cousins and I’m the youngest, by Vietnamese traditional measures (it’s not by age, it’s by our parents’ age/birth order). Between us is time, our 60+ other cousins, an ocean, and a vastly different set of life and cultural experiences. He grew up during the violence and famine of war and transition to communism. His mom, my aunt, died when he was eighteen, and the year after he was drafted to fight the Khmer Rouge.
I’m one of the few cousins born in the US who’s gone back to Vietnam, and Tuan is one of the few cousins in Vietnam who took time to show me around one-on-one. Thanks to him, I’ve ridden an elephant, fed alligators, and learned the critical skill of riding a motorbike, which served me well on my later journey throughout Southeast Asia. The last time I saw him, we ate in a large dinner hall with family based in Vietnam and the US. He got up on stage and sang, standing between white ionic columns and before red velvet curtains. I bought a red rose from a vendor walking amidst the dinner tables, and brought it up to Tuan. He gave me a smile like the one he did when I finished my motorbike circuit. Growing up worlds apart, we’re still family.
Today, Tuan is only able to take in 80% oxygen into his lungs–not enough to be cogent or functional. The Delta variant is winning. He was up to 95% a few days ago such that the hospital discussed returning him home and free up the much-needed bed, then his health regressed yesterday. We’re able to get news because a few of his friends work in the hospital he’s in (visitors, even close family, aren’t allowed). Though in different wards, one was able to send a photo to our family. Tuan, who I’ve known as a fit, strong, tall man has been reduced to a skeleton during the weeks he’s been hospitalized. He originally didn’t want to be admitted, even though he had the rare opportunity since he’s a veteran, because the common perception is that anyone who goes in doesn’t leave.
Vietnam was a stellar case of non-contagion, albeit under authoritarian mandates, until Delta came along. Delta developed people refusing to take COVID precautions–masking, distancing, quarantining. It was preventable. Now my cousin, along with so many in countries that can’t afford vaccines, oxygen tanks, and hospital infrastructure, are needlessly suffering. Tuan’s brother, Tuyen, told me that his neighbors on one side experienced 11 people in their family getting sick, four of them dying, and the neighbors on the other side suffered five deaths from Delta.
Even as people across the world, increasingly children, become infected by COVID and its variants, there are those who complain of the inconvenience of safety measures. Cases among children are dismissed because many recover, which overlooks the fact that the virus is learning about our last line of defense through our children’s (anti)bodies. Our society needs to look beyond ourselves and immediate families as to who we are protecting. We farmers who care for community and earth have made great sacrifices to our health on a daily basis by working in smoke, heat, and storm to feed society. Wearing a mask is hardly a sacrifice, and refusing to do so is a display of ingratitude for how we receive our basic sustenance, for our global family of human beings.
My uncle passed away a few weeks ago and three of my friends’ fathers passed away this month. I don’t want to lose another person.
I’m going to send financial support to my cousin’s daughter, his only child. If you’d like to contribute, please Venmo me @farmermai.