My dad’s always been a funny guy, always exaggerating things and cracking jokes. There was one time when my sisters and I were out to dinner with our parents and one of my sisters sneezed.
“Achee,” said Dad.
My sister looked at my dad puzzled and said, “Wait, what did you say?”
“I said ‘Achee,’” he replied in Vietnamese. We all looked at him confused, so he persisted, “Achee! You know! It’s what white people say when someone sneezes!”
And then we realized that he was confusing “Achoo” with “Bless you” and somehow came up with “Achee.”
We all started laughing, and my oldest sister said, "You’re supposed to say Bless you!"
"I TOLD YOU SO! I KNEW ACHEE SOUNDED WEIRD!" Mom bursts out. More laughter followed. They owned a business then, and while at work probably had arguments over English slang and vocabulary.
But I never realized how many sacrifices my dad made for us until about a week before I moved to college. Sometimes I still feel like I don’t realize how lucky I am.
I was out at our store in Minnesota, working with the old man. We were sitting behind the counter waiting for the next set of customers, putting off the endless work that comes with owning your own business.
Out of nowhere, he says, “You got it pretty nice you know. Guess what I was doing when I was your age.”
"I was fighting in a war," he said nonchalantly.
Dad never really ever talked about the war. Every once in a while we would get a "In the army we…" statement, but nothing of much note or substance.
“We were camped out in the field with our platoon and couldn’t decide which route to take. Our lieutenant wanted to go through a dangerous area, and three of us from the area said it was safer to go another way.”
I looked at him, stunned at how serious he was being, telling me a story about his time in the war, a past that was always so far away from me.
"He wasn’t from the area, but he still thought he knew better. The three of us were so angry at his stubbornness that we walked off to calm down. Fifteen minutes later, we were probably about 100 feet away when out of nowhere a huge explosion hit our platoon. We saw our whole squad killed in seconds. Only the three of us were left alive."
I was speechless.
“I wasn’t sure what to do… I was in shock… I started to pick up some of our friends’ body parts, putting them in my pockets so that maybe their families could have something to bury… For months our families thought we were dead. It was reported that the whole group had been wiped out.”
I can’t quite remember what happened next. He probably said, “I wonder what Mom’s going to cook for your last dinner at home.”
Today is Ba’s 60th birthday. I just got off the phone with Ma, and right now at this very moment he’s doing some engine maintenance on a used fishing boat they recently bought.
It makes me sad that my Vietnamese isn’t up to par, because I’ll never be able to fully put into words how much I appreciate every sacrifice they’ve made for me and my sisters. Hopefully, I’ll be able to show them.
By Eric La Nguyen