Mẹ Kể Chuyện Ma // Ghost Stories: Toward an Ethics of Re-membering

Shadow figure in Vietnam temple


Like many of the ghost stories I’ve grown up with, this one needs to start with a death.

 – Kat Chow, Seeing Ghosts: A Memoir

He was often called a refugee, a person without a country, lacking identification, an illegal alien who floated from place to place with no legal process to guide him. He was a ghost who could barely communicate with anyone, a stranger from elsewhere who in each new place enjoyed no guarantees of survival or belonging.

– Cho Haejin, I Met Loh Kiwan


Those telling ghost stories often manifest as ghosts themselves. Just like how ghosts remain undead and inhabit every space of my parents’ house while also living as hazy yet unfading memories in their present lives, my parents—former Vietnamese citizens and survivors of multiple wars who became Vietnamese war refugees overnight—are/were living as ghosts retelling ghost stories on an endless loop. While their ghost stories also regale in the horrific narratives about ghosts vengefully haunting humans and violently massacring them as a karmic act for an unpaid blood debt that accumulated from the ghost’s eternal resentment, most of my parents’ stories were grounded on their realistic and personal accounts, memories, and observations of the myriad intentional atrocities and casualties caused by the War. Ghost stories about the War are predicated on its grim consequences during and after the War, followed by its inescapable legacy marred by the carnages it caused.

In her multifaceted book, Body Counts, Yến Lê Espiritu provides a succinct but equally affecting delineation of ghost stories: they are “‘truths’ that are unspoken and unspeakable.” My parents’ ghost stories can be described as social, cultural, political, and historical commentaries that trace the piercing and quiet impacts of war and the postwar violent acts inflicted on them, all of which they have to personally endure and live with. Like the persistent ghosts that follow them, my parents live in the haunting aftermaths of the war regardless of where they move and relocate to; everything and every moment continue to follow them. And regardless of the number of repetitive reverberations that frame a singular story, my parents can retell an exact story about their lives as former Vietnamese citizens living during and surviving the Việt Nam War with precise consistency, verve, modulation, and details devoid of any reluctant additions or forgotten omissions. It’s no wonder that some of my parents’ ghost stories allude to a much larger refrain máu xương // “blood and bones,” considering the many lives lost during the war. And perhaps ghost stories are, ironically with a tinge of regret, in their blood. These stories become an allegorical to understanding the horrific devastations during the war, leaving nothing behind except for the remaining bare skeletons and bones that mount in the aftermath.

“No Máu Xương” performed by Elvis Phương.

I remember my father’s lone figure, sitting alone in the living room, feeling comforted by a space devoid of light as his body was basked in a temporary solitude that only darkness could offer him. Remembering this specific image of my father not only invokes a melancholic loneliness, but I now feel haunted by it. And perhaps I’m invading my father’s most intimate memories, forcefully projecting my own living memories onto his past and history. After his death, nine days after his 72nd birthday, I thought about how my father was forced into an unjust duality: he was a human who told ghost stories to the living and yet he lived as a maligned ghost who was invisible. He never consented to inhabiting in this living/dead duality, but he was also never offered other choices or humane conditions because most displaced refugees were never allowed choices; they were expected to live in silent resignation. I also have strong memories— most of which continuously replay themselves deep in my engram—of my father playing nhạc trước năm 1975, or pre-1975 Vietnamese music, CDs on his 5-Disc Micro System as they rotate in a circular rhythmic beat to evade any sounds of silence that might reignite any painful memories. And then there were those rare moments when my father’s gentle tenor voice became an accompaniment to the melodic overtones of multiple string instruments that saliently harmonized with the singer’s affective vocals. Stories about his life as a young citizen navigating the desolate, dilapidated war zones and his undocumented journeys as an unknown veteran status as a former South Vietnamese Navy (lính hải quân) Veteran who once served in the disbanded Republic Việt Nam Navy (RVNN), or the Hải quân Việt Nam Cộng hòa, became familial, cultural, and historical moments in our family. Historical residues and narratives of the Việt Nam War continue to loom over the American geopolitical landscape, a country marked by countless wars, but very few Americans and citizens of postwar Việt Nam remember my father’s service or existence after the Fall of Sài Gòn on April 30th of 1975. Instead, people who refuse to recognize displaced refugees as humans who survived atrocities, identified him as an impoverished refugee who chose to exile himself from his motherland and renouncing his citizenship rather than being imprisoned in a reeducation camp (trại cải tạo). Like several refugees, from Việt Nam and elsewhere, the war devastated my father; and like many others who remained as unknown ghosts pushed into these margins and into further obscurity, his life was singled out and defined by his refugee status. All of these stories were his memories of the war and the undaunting ghosts that relentlessly followed him everywhere, leaving multiple indelible marks and unfading bruises on his body.

“Xin Anh Giữ Trọn Tình Quê” performed by Duy Khánh.

Since my father passed away in 2017, my mother became the sole inheritor of my father’s memories and stories during the Việt Nam War and the in-between years following post 1975 that predated the 1980s, the decade when my siblings and I were born. And since his death, my mother has been retelling these exact ghost stories, which I often describe, with resonances from those years of listening and relistening to Vietnamese music, as a mixtape of familiarly repeated stories while others were revealed only recently, having been buried for decades. After two years of remaining in another state elsewhere due to the pandemic, further aggravated by the increasing number yet tragically underreported cases of anti-Asian hate crimes, my mother returned to Fayetteville, Arkansas in 2021, a place that has been her geographical but distant home. Over a shared steaming celebratory pot of Thai MAMA noodles, I cheekily made an obvious statement regarding the homographic forms of Má, specifically the Southern Vietnamese dialect for “mother,” and Ma, which is translated as ghost. Forcing my mouth to slightly expand to accommodate a subtle pressing of my vocal cords to speak our native tongue, though with a discernible accented fluency, I facetiously expressed how Vietnamese mothers are ghosts: “Má giống ma” // “Mother sounds like ghost,” followed by another idiom, “Má nghe giống ma” // “The pronunciation for mother sounds like ghost,” as if each expression, conjoined by homographs, was revelatory. An Tran’s short story, “Meditations on the Mother Tongue,” which is also the eponymous title of his collection of short stories, tenderly ruminates on the distinction between the words “má” and “ma”: “When the class arrived at the six variations of the word ma, Bao thought about how, in Vietnamese, the words for ‘mother’ and ‘ghost’ were distinguished only through pitch; the former was sang in high jubilation, while the latter was a despondent drone.” Aside from the phonetical subtle lilt that differentiates the pronunciation between the two words, Má and Ma, the diacritical marks further accentuate these life/death and human/nonhuman dichotomies, two of which are complex themes that continue to percolate in both war and postwar discourses. And yet, postwar memories center on both the living and the dead, frequently blurring them together as a singular entity only for their existences to be historically forgotten.

After ingesting a mouthful of MAMA’s broth-soaked, thin noodles, my mother wryly introduced the expression, “Má Ma” to me. Whether it was her subtle attempt to thread tragedy and irony together, I will never know without directly asking her for clarification, but the compounding of two disparate words and entities into the singular yet aptly created portmanteau of sorts, “MáMa / Má Ma,” that translates into “Mother Ghost.” My mother’s nostalgic idiomatic expression is seemingly rooted in her own individualized form of political absurdism as she personally reconciles with her own grief, both as a mother and as a former South Vietnamese. Silence enveloped us after my smile stretched with uncertainty as she laughed with a tone of piercing indifference. Choosing to stare at my half eaten bowl of MAMA noodles instead of observing my mother’s expressive face, I inquired about her own ghosts haunting her: “Má, is this why you like telling ghost stories?”

Perhaps the only existing portrait, a historical family artifact, of my father in his casual lính hải quân uniform. The photograph has survived water damage and several tears as my mother believed my father kept it in his bag or wallet before fleeing Việt Nam in 1975. Besides some of their friends, some of whom escaped Việt Nam with them, and family, no one else remembers my father serving and fighting in the Việt Nam War.

Never one to simply reciprocate with a laconic answer, my mother decided to respond with a simple but equally distressing statement, as if the melancholic resignation was always pervasive when retelling her ma stories: “Ghosts in Việt Nam only reappeared after the end of the war because the sonic blasts of guns and bombs frightened them. They reemerged at the end of the war to haunt again, at the dead of night.” Even if Má’s ghosts rematerialized after the war, she also shared a story about how a former neighbor, Kỳ, experienced an encounter with ghosts during the Việt Nam War. In 1973, several South Vietnamese civilian workers found the bodies of three unidentified Việt Cộng soldiers, all of whom were possibly shot to death by an Army of the Republic (ARVN) South Vietnamese soldier. The three corpses reanimated into ghosts, trailing Kỳ, who worked as a food deliverer and broke her legs when she didn’t offer them any food, unaware of their existence. My mother’s story about Kỳ was told in a sad fondness since her remaining surviving family in Việt Nam notified Má of Kỳ’s death during their weekly long distance phone calls. She, too, had become a distant memory along with the many ghosts that circulated in my mother’s memory.

Whether it’s during the war or after the war, the presence of ghosts, occupy a space in every diminutive crevice of my family’s home and in my parents’ memories, even if they’re fractured and transiently emerge when memories provoke them to reappear. Ghosts become memory dwellers for my mother who remembers all the ghosts from her life as a former, perhaps even forgotten, Vietnamese citizen. Má’s ma’s stories additionally serve as a strong allegorical reminder of how humans are haunted by their own past, creating their ghosts as their past and present collide as a way to maintain their own memories. In other words, it’s not that we truly fear ghosts, but we fear ourselves, the humans; the histories of ghosts, their constant haunting, and the overwhelming fear they produce are emblematic of how humans perpetrate violence. Similar to how humans wage political wars for colonization, cultural subjugation, and the numerous long battles of political ideological oppositions, ghosts serve as a metaphor of the many past and present atrocities and devastations committed by these very humans that ghosts recurrently haunt. Like ghosts, similar descriptors such as “spirits and specters,” as María del Pilar Blanco and Esther Peeren argue, are emblematic figures that remain significant in both “oral and written narratives throughout history and across cultures” because they exhibit and locate historically fragmented figments that conjure images of a chaotic and violent past (1). Contemporary cultural understanding of terms such as ghosts, apparitions, haunting/haunted, and spirits evoke a paradigmatic shift that transcend beyond the dichotomized ideations and liminalities between life/death and in/corporeality. Although ghosts project terrifying imaginings of enraged spectral spirits looking and lurking in the shadows, waiting to haunt the living as an act of ambiguous yet fixatedly gratuitous revenge, they are not bound by this definitive, canonical imagery. In the context of wars and the geopolitical climate, ghosts serve as historical memories, some of which emerge to further challenge the multiple incomplete, eliminated, and exclusionary narratives of a homogenized history.


Author’s Note: I also wish to acknowledge Hai Yen Thi Nguyen’s honor’s thesis, Kể Truyện Ma: Vietnamese Refugees Altering the Course of U.S. History. This dissertation drew inspiration from the title of Nguyen’s thesis. “Kể Truyện Ma” literally means “telling ghost stories.”

Photo of author Kathy Nguyen.Kathy Nguyen is a doctoral candidate in Multicultural Women’s and Gender Studies at Texas Woman’s University. Her parents became refugees after the fall of Sài Gòn in 1975 and permanently settled in Arkansas after temporarily being rehomed in Fort Chaffee. Her writing often explores the displaced and recovered memories associated with the loss(es) of home and the reconciliation of living in-between diasporic thresholds as citizenships disappear, often through literature and music. Much to her parents’ bemusement, she learned to read and write Vietnamese, though not very well, by watching Vietnamese karaoke DVDs.


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