after Stephanie Niu
Like salmon from a river, the packets leap from the trash bin to my mother’s palm.
Her fingers open, a daughter skipping stones.
My mother composes herself. She folds away her despair, then the plastic wrap.
She slips each mold-streaked sweet into its box.
The heat of Sài Gòn in January untangles itself from the jade paste.
The rot knotting in the pandan eats itself whole.
My family crosses the road, our backs towards the asphalt.
A fissure opens in the cyclone of traffic and we emerge unscathed.
We backtrack our tourism, forgetting with each step.
We relinquish my grandmother’s once-favorite sweets as they undecay.
With stomachs full, we sit down at plastic tables parked between motorbikes.
Our bowls of bún bò refill themselves. We are hungry again.
Our server lifts our untouched dinner into her hands.
I forget how each city tastes.
My mother cannot find her old home. The taxi driver points between two shops as my father films.
My mother cannot find her old home.
In the end, we return everything: our silk, our candy, our áo dài, our magnets from the tour guide,
my Phở King shirt, my sister’s knockoff Kanken from the street vendor selling European things.
A merchant slides cash over the counter, thick air whisked by a ceiling fan.
My mother gives up on her mision to bring bánh cốm home for Bà Ngoại.
We walk backwards onto a plane to JFK.
Our boarding passes are swallowed by machines.
The sun rises in the west.
The ice on our windshield thaws on the drive home.
Forty years estranged, Ông Ngoại picks us up from school the next week
and begs us to tell his daughter: don’t go.
Carol Dinh is a writer, creative technologist, zinester, and frequenter of the D.C. Metro’s red line. In May 2024, she will graduate from the University of Maryland with a degree in Immersive Media Design.