Noe Valley Voice October 2002

Last Page: Giving and Receiving

By Lyssa Friedman

The pain is unbearable. Puff, the doctor says. Blow. How can I concentrate on my breathing with that woman screaming at the end of the ward? It hurts, she yells. Take it out. Yes, it hurts, but have some dignity. Everyone is suffering. Vinh said he was careful. Don't worry, he said. The first time I delivered lunch to his art shop on Trang Tien, he counted out his dong notes without looking at me. Same thing the next day.

Then the following week or the week after that, he smiled. I looked right at his eyes, the way Americans do in the shops on Trang Tien. I felt like I was seeing the sunrise at Cat Ba again, like when I was a little girl. Where did I get the nerve to stare at him?

He said, You're a pretty little one, too pretty to carry bowls of pho. You belong in my store. He touched my hand when he paid me. Two 10,000d notes. He said something in English that sounded like kip chang. I tried to give him his change, but he pushed my hand away. I tip, he said. Like the Americans.

Vinh had a way with Americans, with their green bills, all the same size. He could speak plenty of English. He taught me some phrases behind Tran Quoc Pagoda, on the island in Hoan Kiem Lake, where we went at dusk. "How are you today?" "Have you seen the lake?" "Twenty dollars, please."

When your English is better, he said, you can sell with me. But I was happy sweeping up after closing and watching Vinh count receipts. After, we walked, close but not touching, to the Pagoda. It was only five minutes, but it seemed to take hours. The anticipation rose from my feet into my belly. I had to stiffen my arms at my sides, so badly did they want to fly around Vinh's neck and pull his mouth to mine.

I didn't like spreading our thin blanket so close to the temple. But Vinh said no one would stumble upon us. Don't worry, Little One, he said. Buddha will smile on you as you sing into the moonlight.

A few months later Vinh said as he nuzzled my thigh, You're getting fat. I can't call you Little One anymore. Soon after, I felt something move in my belly and I knew what had to be true. Why hadn't I noticed, though the moon waxed and waned, that my bleeding had stopped? One day after closing, Vinh handed me the rest of my pay. I'm sorry, Little One, he said.

The noodle shop didn't care as long as I completed my deliveries on time. I stayed away from Trang Tien. My feet swelled as I grew fatter and it became harder to walk with steaming soup dangling from my shoulders.

Then Anh, from the basket shop, asked what I was doing about the baby. My aunt runs a hotel on Hang Trong, she said. Rich Americans adopting Vietnamese babies. She scribbled Mrs. Thuy's name on a slip of paper.

I found the Claudia Hotel and pushed the door open. Mrs. Thuy hurried me into the back, past the Americans with their lucky babies. What are you doing here? she asked. This is a respectable hotel, not a brothel.

I started to cry. Thank God my parents had passed. It would kill them to see me. And Vinh. I longed for him every night, imagining his chest pressed against mine.

Anh sent me, I managed to say. Mrs. Thuy handed me a handkerchief. She wrote down the name of the hospital. When the pains start, sign yourself in under a made-up name, she said. After delivery, leave. They will bring the baby to an orphanage where someone will adopt it. It will be as if you never had it at all. She held the back door open. I didn't blame her for not wanting me to walk past her customers.

Puff, the doctor says. Blow. If I think of this as my baby I will long for it the way I yearn for Vinh. I have a fake name. Another woman is having this baby, not me. This is my pain, not my baby, and I will bear it. Then I will start again as if these months never were.

But first I will offer cakes and fruit at the Pagoda. No more hiding in its shadow after closing. I will pray that even as I bid this baby goodbye another woman says in English, Hello.

The plane descends into Noibai Airport.
The anticipation rises from my toes into my abdomen. Where do birth mothers feel anticipation? Their pelvises? Their breasts?

People ask questions. Why adoption? International adoption? Vietnam? How can we distill the conversations that took place over years into an easy answer? "Do you want to have children?" over dinner. "I don't know" at breakfast. "Now?" during summer vacation. "Maybe" the next winter. Why did we decide to adopt a baby from Vietnam, you ask? Because that was the scenario spread before us the moment we both said "yes."

They ask, Have you thought of names? Then I imagine how the pregnant woman feels when a stranger reaches across the sidewalk to massage her belly. For me, this is the most personal question.

We are an Ashkenazi and a Sephardic Jew, I explain, avoiding a direct answer, as if placing a protective hand over an expanded uterus and turning aside.

Ashkenazis name babies for the dead, Sephardis for the living, in hope that the namesake's qualities carry forward to the next generation. It is both an honor and a kind of immortality.

We name after he has drawn a breath, I continue, for that is when the neshamah, the soul, enters. We name him in a ceremony so that God and his community know who he is.

We have decided who to name him after, but we don't yet know his soul. Besides, he will have a name given by the orphanage caretakers, who have preserved his life so that he may be delivered to us.

We will lay his Vietnamese name alongside the names of our relatives, living and dead, add our sense of his neshamah and our American accents, and arrive at a name, as if we were writing the lines of a poem from the Magnetic Poetry kit that dances across our refrigerator.

Soon Mrs. Thuy's helper will meet us in Hanoi. Tomorrow, a cab will take us from the Claudia Hotel to the orphanage. We will enter a reception room and offer gifts, baseball caps, and perfume, inexpensive trinkets that label us rich Americans. Which I suppose we are, if we could pay the fees and cross the Pacific, suitcases packed with Huggies and Pedialyte. The orphanage director will place a bundle in my arms.

The next day we will travel to the provincial building. A government official will hold our baby, read a proclamation, sign some forms. With a flourish, the Giving and Receiving Ceremony will be complete. Congratulations, he will say. Lucky baby.

People criticize us. There are children in California who need homes, they say. Your child will have Asian features, a Hebrew name, and white parents who, until a year ago, knew little about Vietnam beyond a few phrases.

Vietnam vet. Tet offensive. Hanoi Jane. Will you honor multiculturalism? Or maintain colorblindness?

But like much of parenting, a decision is neither all right nor all wrong. We have made a choice which we will live within, the way the Buddhists teach. Until it is time to make the next one.

In a story, a woman sets sail at daybreak for her final journey. Her family watches on the beach as she pulls up anchor. They tear their clothes, throw themselves at the sand. Though they know it is time for her to go, they grieve for her. The woman smiles at them, wide as the rising sun. Then she turns her back and stands on the rocking deck, feet firm, and stares into the distance.

The family stays on shore, watching the boat recede, waving. It shrinks until it is no more than a speck under a sun now high in the sky. The family observes, crying, until the speck slips out of sight below the horizon. Goodbye, they say. Goodbye.

At that moment, a crowd gathers on another strip of sand. Look, they say, pointing to something barely visible where the ocean meets the sky. Come see. They sit on the beach as the image grows larger and takes shape. A boat. All day they wait until they can make out the form of the standing woman, gazing forward. They wave.

The sun is low and orange when the woman drops anchor. The people embrace each other. Look, they say. Look. She's come.

Lyssa Friedman is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in Adoptive Families Magazine, Skirt! Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, and the San Francisco Chronicle. Her commentary has been featured on KQED Radio, and her essays will appear in the upcoming Chocolate for Teens Sequel (2003). She lives in Mill Valley, where she eagerly awaits her baby's arrival.

THE LAST PAGE: The Noe Valley Voice invites you to submit fiction, literary nonfiction, or poetry for publication on the Last Page. Please mail manuscripts, which should be no more than 1,500 words, to the Noe Valley Voice, 1021 Sanchez Street, San Francisco, CA 94114. Or e-mail Don't forget to include your name, address, and phone number, and an SASE if you want your manuscript returned. We look forward to hearing from you. NVV 10/02