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To the Other Side

After moving to the U.S. from Vietnam, Hoa struggles to adapt

Hoa fidgeted nervously with her brown paper lunch bag containing her turkey-and-cheese sandwich, small rounded carrot sticks, and container of applesauce that came in the drab, wrinkled packaging of a school lunch. She glanced around, feeling some kind of dread inside eat away at her stomach, her hands trembling and clutching the bag ever tighter. She was in a new, unknown land, surrounded by new, unknown people who spoke a new, unknown language.

She surveyed the cafeteria, stuffed full with bodies and chaos and noise that made her feel absolutely overwhelmed. She kept her head low and eyes pinned to the floor, focusing on just moving one foot after the other, right after left, not quite sure where she was to go. She didn’t know anyone, and being the shy person she was, she shuffled over to an empty table at the back of the room and began to nibble at her food.

Hoa had come from Vietnam, a country in Asia that seemed to her to have almost nothing in common with the country called the U.S.A. where she’d moved only weeks before. She used to live with her mother, father, little sister, and older brother in a small village near the woods. Every morning, she and her siblings would pack a bag of good homemade food and walk down the dirt road lined with flowered trees that blew in the breeze, mixing in with the aroma of soil and grass. They’d arrive at a small schoolhouse and sit in class with children from their village and others around the area. Hoa had had a kind teacher with warm skin and a smile that ignited her eyes, who would read stories to the class all day when they did well on an assignment. She had also had friends, people with whom she could laugh and feel safe and comfortable. Of course she knew that her home country was far from perfect, but that place was her home.

When she’d had it, her life there had just been routine. It had seemed normal and not at all special. But now, she wanted more than anything to have it back. Tears welled in her eyes, which had grown hot and puffy. Now she lived with only her mother and little sister on a crowded street lined with small, squat houses that all looked identical to one another. She was shaken gruffly out of bed in the morning, shoveled down some breakfast, and then stuffed herself into a bus near-bursting with people—loud, talking people, who smelled of breath and sweat.

After a lurching, nauseating bus ride, she would be sucked out the door by a wave of kids and washed inside a big confusing maze of hallways, classrooms, textbooks, and strangers. Her teacher seemed dry and humorless, hadn’t yet made any effort to help her with English (not that she wanted anything to do with their clumsy, blundering language), and told the class that she had moved to America from China. Hoa couldn’t really understand the words that people said around her, and she couldn’t speak like them either, but she had gathered what he’d said well enough and knew very well that he was wrong. She’d come from Vietnam, not China. And, unlike in Vietnam, she had no friends.

She inhaled a shaky breath and then stuffed a baby carrot in her mouth to try and push back the wave of homesickness that arose within her. One of the only things she had left from her home in Vietnam was her name, Hoa, which translated into English as “blossom” or “flower,” and her mother said she may have to lose that too, change her name to a normal American one that people could pronounce easily.

Suddenly, the despair seemed like too much to take. Vision blurred, Hoa located a door that she knew led out to the playground. As she walked slowly over toward the entrance to the outside, pushing it open, she felt invisible, like maybe if she were to just disappear right then, no one would ever even know.

A cool breeze greeted her when she stepped onto the playground. It smelled of plants and soil, like a small pocket of home that she could never leave behind, but was at the same time tinted with the odor of gasoline, like a reminder that she was very, very far from that place she held so dear.

Hoa closed the door with a click, her steps transforming to a run. She ran past where the playground ended and was replaced with rolling hills and fields dotted with wildflowers. Past where a stream divided the school’s property from that of the people who lived next to them, and even a little farther still.

As the wind rushed through her hair and the landscape soared by her, Hoa felt as though she could just keep running and running until the end of time, hardly even noticing as everything flew by, leaving it all behind her. Finally, her breaths coming in wild gasps, her legs collapsed beneath her.

The sun’s glow bathed everything in a golden light. Trees across from the valley where she sat swayed in a gentle breeze that ruffled the daisies and wildflowers scattered about. The day seemed all around cheerful, as though everything felt the need to mock her in her misery. Bright light from above caused her to squint, as though the sun’s glare were reflected back through her own gray eyes, pooling with tears of homesickness, sadness, and anger. Anger at this horrid, loud, stinky, chaotic place. At her parents, for getting into that fight that had divided her life and family.

The tears flowed silently down her cheeks as fluffy white clouds blew over until her eyes slowly fell closed.

Hoa just sat there, reality slowly creeping up on her. For a minute, she had been caught in that wild fantasy of running in the wind and grass forever and ever, and it had felt as though there was nothing else to do, nothing else to go back for. The feeling was over all too quickly, as her limited stamina and sudden hunger hit her like a wall, sending her reeling out of the thrilling daydream and back into the real world. And though for that brief amount of time she had felt completely exhilarated, she suddenly felt guilty, thinking of her mom and sister who would be waiting for her at the end of the day.

Hoa glanced around the field where she’d stopped. She had run for some time, and suddenly had no sense of direction. All she could see were fields and gentle hills in every direction, except for in front of her, where the grasses transformed to trees and continued that way for a little while. She could hear cars zooming by on a highway, but this was no surprise, for there seemed to be highways everywhere in this place.

Hoa exhaled, trying to calm herself down after a day of stressing about everything. She lay down on the grass, her arms and legs sprawled out, and just worried about breathing. In, out. In, out.

Above her, all she could see was blue sky and a few strands of emerald grass that framed her head. Just that never-ending blue, so true and deep and real. Everything else in this place seemed so cheap and phony. There were bright colors everywhere, but their largely varying tones held nothing within them. Just a layer of peeling paint with styrofoam underneath. But here the sky extended forever, that same sky that she had with her back at her old home. The tears flowed silently down her cheeks as fluffy white clouds blew over until her eyes slowly fell closed.

*          *          *

Hoa had no way of knowing how long she had lain there asleep when her eyes opened again and the sky above her was the color of lavender, dappled with stars and thinning clouds. The moon was a thin sliver on the horizon behind her, and the sun sat framed by the faraway lights of a city, lavishing the western sky with its crimson glow.

The air was cool, but not quite cold enough to cause her to shiver. For a minute, Hoa had a hard time remembering where she was, inhaling the semi-fresh scent of trees and dirt, and also cars, that rode on the wind as the gears in her head rewound slowly backward, recounting the events of the previous day.

Recalling the fact that she was far from home—her house in America, that is—and her mother and sister must be worried, and that she had no way of getting to them, made her have to fight back tears, but Hoa had done enough crying for a day. For a lifetime.

She took one last deep breath and then got to her feet, which she realized were bare in the grass. She decided she must have lost her sandals while running without even realizing it. When the wind stirred the grasses and flowers with a soft whistle, something strange happened. Hoa suddenly felt her senses sharpen, and everything seemed to slow around her. She was keenly aware of every sound, every slight motion, every grain of soil beneath her feet as they moved along, seemingly of their own accord. She could recognize every slight hue of the violet sky, feel each breath of wind fill her lungs. The gale seemed to hum with a tune she’d never heard before, yet Hoa was sure that the soft harmony had pleased her ears before. The plants all around her swayed together in a fluid dance.

Hoa closed her eyes, but her vision didn’t feel restricted. She could almost sense everything surrounding her, and for the first time in a while she felt completely at ease. This was the same sky she had always known, the same sun, same moon. The soil, grass and flowers seemed to greet her like old friends, and Hoa just knew she would never be alone.

Her steps came to a stop and her eyes peeled open as the enchanting feeling left her. She was greeted by the sight of her school, and Hoa had never thought she’d be more grateful to see a building. Her impulse was to take off at a run toward it, but she stopped. She already missed that feeling, like she was connected to so much more than just herself while at the same time being so much more connected to herself than she had ever been before. The faraway trees outlined by the rapidly retreating sun looked mysterious, and suddenly enticing. She took a step in that direction, then stopped, glancing back toward the school.

Hoa wasn’t sure what she wanted. The whole day her conscience had been swaying back and forth like the ocean tides, unforgiving and unpredictable. But now she actually needed an answer, and it was a hard question she was faced with. What was it she really truly wanted?

Taking a deep breath and turning to face the rolling fields, Hoa wasn’t quite sure what had come over her in that moment right then as she straightened her spine, but she was getting quite used to the feeling. She now felt a certain familiarity to this place, this strange language, these strange lands. She felt different—like if her mother had asked her yesterday how her day was, she would have just given a brief reply and kept it all to herself, but now she was ready to share everything.

But before she turned and walked back toward the schoolhouse, she surveyed the fields for one last long moment, listening to that song on the wind, however faint it now was. She lowered her head in a bow, and whispered one soft word. She had not been taught the language of this place, yet the English word floated out of her mouth easily. “Thankyou.” And though she spoke quietly, Hoa knew that the wind would catch that word in its many coils and carry her gratitude across the landscape for all who listened to hear.

And then she turned back toward the school and walked down the gentle grassy slope. She did not know the way to their small house by heart, but she knew her feet could guide the way.

“I know what I want.” Though her voice was still quiet and shy, and her English, though suddenly fluent, was accented, the words carried a certain confidence with them as though for once they were sure of something. “I want to go home.”

And with that, Hoa strode into the playground, her bare feet leading her closer to her destination, as though being pulled by a string. The grasses swayed like they were waving goodbye, dancing to the rhythm of a song they all knew at their very core, carried by the wind. As the sun’s last light melted into shadow, she walked into the night, silhouetted by the light from a crescent moon, that very same crescent moon that had garnished the sky every night in Vietnam.

Hoa’s steps grew quicker as she continued, eager to get to where she was needed before she could rest. She didn’t yet know this labyrinth of streets, but she knew one thing for sure. She was almost home.

Lena Donofrio
Lena Donofrio, 12
Montpelier, VT

Grace Jones
Grace Jones, 13
Santa Cruz, CA