It’s a Luxury to Cry

by Mia Funk


She used to paint faces that stared out at you, but collectors found them too confrontational. When she turned away from this her subjects did too, to look away, searching for something. And collectors liked these paintings better. They didn’t know what the figures were looking for––that’s what they liked about them.

There’s a lot of lip service given to edgy or controversial artwork, but when it comes to what people will put in their home above their fireplace (what they actually choose to live with), all they want, most of them, is a pretty picture. If, on top of that, it makes them think, it’s a bonus, but not strictly necessary.

To keep up with her scheduled shows, M. needed to find an assistant. She was tired of painting the faceless figures all on her own and missed the companionship she had in the theatre when, because of tiny budgets, she’d been both actress and set designer. She’d loved the theatre, but in her late twenties she decided it was time to be serious and gave up acting. Realistically, there were no roles for Asians anywhere, except maybe in Asia and she didn’t know any Asian languages well enough to carry it through.

She’d considered hiring a French assistant, but she’d heard stories. In theory they were all socialists, but at heart they weren’t really collective, not the way Asians were raised to be. Not French artists anyway. They developed attitudes, at least in her experience. They’d talk about art needing to be free, but the moment they’d do any work for her they’d be pushing a contract in her face, talking about their rights, getting all sullen and mopey if something sold, even it was her idea and all they’d done was help her paint a few leaves on the ground.

She thought about starting a residency program, running a competition for young American students, putting the winner up in her studio in Paris and paying her a generous stipend, but she was hesitant after she heard horror stories from her Czech photographer friend. ‘Lazy pappy-pays-for-everything layabouts. I had one for five months “working” for me. All she wanted to do was smoke dope and take selfies. In the end, I had to pay her to leave.’ M. had seen enough of those when she lectured at university, they came for their year abroad to add the experience to their résumés, but mostly they just hung out.

No, what she needed was someone reliable, dependable. Not too young, not too old, someone around her own age. Experienced, but not so steeped in old-fashioned techniques she had fixed habits that would be hard to unlearn. Most of all, someone loyal; she didn’t want to have to repeat the vetting process every six months.

She posted photographs of her paintings on the website ArtNetVietnam saying she was looking for a sympathetic and experienced artist familiar with oil painting from ground pigments and working on a large scale to help fill in the details.

And after reviewing over sixty submissions she found one artist whose work was similar to her own. Phuong also liked painting water and had trained at the Ho Chi Minh University of Fine Arts where she’d studied both oil painting and tranh lụa, traditional Vietnamese silk painting. She also expressed herself clearly in English, although M. would have happily communicated with her in French––English was now the most common second language in Vietnam.

M. was picked up at the airport by Phuong’s younger half-brother, Ha. He’d arrived by motor scooter and had short spiky hair which narrowed at the tips like a calligraphy brush. M.’s half-Caucasian hair was thin, dark auburn, and she needed to wear a hat in all weather unless she wanted to get burnt.

Ha stared at her a moment before handing her a helmet and a cheap 1000 đồng pollution mask, such as all the kids wear. M. put it on and looked at him. Only their eyes were visible, anonymous but unthreatening, and when she jumped on the back, it was like taking ten years off her life.

He told her that they were preparing a lunch for her at their house in Củ Chi District, outside the city. She’d read about the underground tunnels there used as Viet Cong hiding spots during the war. It seemed strange that it was now a suburban zone for living.

As it wasn’t lunchtime yet, she asked Ha if they could make a stop at the famous Ben Thanh Market. They’d gone to all this trouble and she wanted to bring something.

‘It’s no trouble,’ he said, which in Asia probably meant at least six different dishes.

She insisted on buying dragon fruit, manganese and bread fruit, priding herself on her bartering skills. At another stall she bought flowers. She blinked, adjusting to the riot of color. Everything, even what they ate for breakfast, was a fever dream. She thought: If I lived here I’d probably end up changing my palette.

Then they travelled in a mob across the bridge, all these young people swarming like hornets.

When they arrived, Phuong was off somewhere in the garden picking papayas. M. presented the fruit to the mother. Mrs. Cao was tiny, with strong features and a vigilant, guarded manner. Like somebody who’d had their fair share of ups and downs. She had a distinctive glint in her eye that told M. she was tough. When she vased the flowers she asked how much M. had paid for them.

Mrs. Cao:  You’ve been robbed. – She laughed, a full smile with too many teeth for her small face. – Poor thing, just off the plane and robbed. Why didn’t you stop her? – She gave her son a playful pinch to the arm.

Ha: She wanted to buy them herself.

M.: I wanted to try and barter. I guess I’m not so good at it.

Mrs. Cao:  Oh well, you’ll get better. We all need to be robbed at least once.

Ha: It’s very important to keep smiling. You have to have a certain amount in your pocket and say ‘that’s all I have.’

Mrs. Cao:  Be quiet. Don’t touch that. – She slapped Ha’s wrist as he tried to steal a spring roll off the table, then she looked over her shoulder and called Phuong in a gentle voice.

Underneath everything, M. sensed the mother was shy and had more going on inside than she cared to let on. Just then, Phuong peeked around the corner before stepping into the room.

They all sat around the table. Mrs. Cao and Ha were talking quickly, while M. and Phuong sat still and listened. After some chatter, Ha turned to M.

Ha: You look like my sister.

M.: I do?

She just thought it was the way all Asians saw half-and-halfs, like they were somehow related. M. wasn’t even half Vietnamese. Years ago, she’d been told by her Chinese grandfather that she could pass for white, and she’d been hurt. Didn’t he recognise any of himself in her?

Of course to whites she looked mostly Asian.

Ha: You have the same big forehead.

The big forehead thing was something you saw a lot in half-Asians, as though the genes happily merge except at this one point at the forehead where they didn’t quite line up correctly. Phuong’s photo on Facebook wasn’t in focus, but M. had thought she’d recognised something of her father’s eyes. Although until Ha said it, she’d assumed it was just her imagination.

She tried to remember the photograph she’d seen of her father’s Vietnamese girlfriend that he used to keep behind his driver’s license. It was a black-and-white faded polaroid. Did she look anything like the middle-aged woman across from her now? The girl in the photo had a wide tanned face, not yet full of disappointment. There’d been a crease down the middle and points where the photo surface began to crack and flake away. M. had stolen it once from his wallet and he got very angry at her.

It only occurred to her years later that from the outside it might look like he’d chosen M.’s mother as some kind of replacement or fetish, but she knew her dad and had too much respect for her mother as an individual to believe that. Her mom was no subservient tea ceremony masseuse––she didn’t even know how to boil an egg. Most of the time when people say that it’s just an expression, but she was actually that clueless. M. had tried eating her eggs, they were like yellow erasers. Last time she visited her mother she was shocked. She’d been living in her Hells Kitchen apartment for six years and when M. opened the oven it still stank of the factory.

M. didn’t know much about her father’s military service except he’d been one of the lucky ones. Got a post as a radio operator because he ‘had quick reactions and was good at thinking on his feet’, although she wondered if that job ever bled over into unpleasantness. He could bore you silly telling tales, uprooting his whole family tree, but never liked to talk about the war. In general, he avoided unpleasant things. In that way, you could say he was a gentleman, although it was a term she’d never normally think of applying to him.

But it’s impossible, thought M., how could that happen? But it could. Dust had been blowing up from the Sahara Desert and falling on playgrounds in Scotland. And as a girl in Paris she had heard talk of the atomic cloud that blew west from Chernobyl passing over the Tuileries. Was it much more to imagine that she’d travelled halfway around the world looking for an assistant who ended up being her half-sister?

We’re much more connected than we think.

Phuong: Tomorrow afternoon, if you like, I could take you to the Chinese market?

M.: Yes, that would be nice.

Mrs. Cao:  She’s just being polite. I’m sure she’s seen many markets before.

Phuong, ignoring her mother :  After, we can go to the art museum.

Mrs. Cao:  She lives in Paris. She can visit the Louvre any day.

Phuong, closing her eyes very slowly : I’m sorry. I’m just...I just thought...

Ha: Why don’t we take her up the Mekong Delta. I’ll borrow Nguyen’s boat. 

Phuong: Yes, she’ll like that. We’ll stop at the floating market.

Mrs. Cao: She hasn’t time for taking pleasure boats. She’s here for business. I’m sure she doesn’t want to float down a filthy river to see peasants in leaf hats and sampans, past oldtimers ploughing the fields, driving the oxen.

And they continued discussing what M. would and wouldn’t like without once consulting her. As it happened, M. did have time, she had a whole week, but didn’t want to be the cause of any arguments.

They went on like that taking turns complaining amongst themselves in a way that M., with her family scattered to the four corners, hadn’t even realised till that moment how much she missed.

Phuong was three years older than M., but was acting deferential because M. was from America, living in Europe, or maybe just because she was offering her a job.

They were both childless, although M. considered this a triumph, Phuong thought of it more as a sacrifice. A tough decision. She was so afraid of being left alone with a child the way her mother had been, that she didn’t even want to risk having a relationship.

Mrs. Cao: She’s a fool. There was this American. Older–but I say older just means they are ready to settle down––he was koo koo about her. Wanted to take her home with him. Software guy. Wanted to build her a house in San Francisco, but she won’t go. She decides she’s in love instead with this fool studying music. Knows nothing, has done nothing, never will do. Just some dreamer. That was almost ten years ago, now who wants her?

Phuong:   Not all women today are defined by the men in their life.

Mrs. Cao:  That’s right. Some are defined by the men not in their life. – Now she was studying M. as if trying to picture. – I'm curious about something. What about you? You must have had plenty of good choices?

It was a good question. But M. felt her career came first.

M.:  Yes, but it never felt quite right somehow. At least not yet.

Mrs. Cao: So you never want to marry?

She wanted to say–No, not after I saw what happened during my parent’s divorce, but she didn’t want to talk about that, so she just said: Sometimes to be an artist, you have to make sacrifices.

M. didn’t tell her about Serge, the man she’d been happily unmarried to for the last five years. She didn’t want to confuse her.

The mother was taking a close look at M. for the first time. Maybe she had that blinkered vision that sees all Americans as alike, but she’d caught something particular, something familiar.

Mrs. Cao: Can I ask. Are you the child of a soldier, too?

M.: No...I mean, yes. My father was in Vietnam, but he wasn’t in the army when he met my mother.

Mrs. Cao: Your mother. Where’s she from?

M.:  She’s Chinese-American.

Mrs. Cao: Oh... – Something about the way she said it, M. got the sense that after all these years she had a lingering sadness. – Where are you from?

M. told her where.

The place meant nothing to Mrs. Cao. For her the only real American cities were New York, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. M. didn’t tell her that it’s just where her parents met, that her family moved around a lot for her mother’s job, finally settling in Paris. That after the divorce her father had gone back to live where he was born, Cedar Rapids, IA. This story was too long and unimportant to share with a stranger.

Mrs. Cao: Tell me, have you ever been to a place called Cedar Rapids?

It was such a strange thing coming out of the mouth of this tiny woman wearing an áo dài. How could she, who knows nothing about Boston, have heard about Cedar Rapids?

M.: No – which was true, she’d never been there – It’s in Iowa, isn’t it? – She added a few moments later, as though she might possibly be mixing it up with Cedar Rapids, Estonia, or Cedar Rapids, Thailand.

Mrs. Cao just looked happy that it did exist, as though relieved it had not been some lie.

Mrs. Cao: Well, obviously, Phuong’s dad...I didn’t know him that long...He said maybe one day he’d come back for me. He was a talker. Wrote beautiful letters, but the return address was always a P.O. Box, so I never knew how to find him. One P.O. Box and then another, and then they stopped coming altogether. – She looked at M. uncomfortably. – My memory is imperfect now.

They continued eating in silence for a while. The food was good, the seafood fresh and M. had a second helping of phở. Then the mother said something she couldn’t understand and the daughter responded and then translated.

Phuong:  She says we have the same hand gestures. The way we eat. She thinks it’s funny the way we hold our chopsticks because we’re both left-handed. And see how you bury your thumb in your palm and close it into a fist when you’re talking––I do that too!

Phuong was, in a way, so young. She’d been sheltered from her mother’s past experiences of love and built a bubble around herself so as not to be hurt. She was formal and reserved, but certainly not naive, just still innocent and that was nice. Some girls M. knew from the city were half-hags by the time they were twenty-five. Too much fun. Too many bad relationships had left them empty and unable to be happy.

Mrs. Cao: I tell her you wait too long and the only kind of man you’ll be able to find is a wo-man! The mother was either very pleased with this joke, or she had the kind of smile that allowed everyone a plain view of her dental work. M. could see right up to her gumline. Ha had the same smile, but Phuong just smiled at M. the close-mouthed smile of the self-conscious or those embarrassed about their teeth.

After lunch Phuong showed M. her work, which was much better than the photographs she’d sent. She worked out of this tiny room next to the garage port, but in the summer she could paint outdoors. The river ran outside the big converted shed where they lived, sometimes it leapt the bank, seeping across the grass verge and overflowed into their living quarters. Then, she said, they had to get wooden packing pallets and put their things out to dry. It seemed like a lot of hassle, but it was a fairly regular event and Phuong said she was used to it. The flash floods and the drying out. At least it was eventful and they had the sun.

Phuong: I can’t imagine living in flat dull place where nothing happens...I’m sorry about my mother. She doesn’t have an open mind.

She told M. that she’d have more room to paint when her brother moved out. Ha, young though he was, was already engaged to a fellow student at his technical university. She seemed a little sad that it had never happened for her.

Phuong took out a portfolio of her early studies, explaining how she’d learned by making copies. The Degas pastels of her first years, the Cézannes when she began in oils, and later, when she lost her shame for home, renditions of Nguyễn Phan Chánh. Only recently had she begun painting water-themed pictures. Until then, she had only copied male painters. She saw these water pictures as a return to a calmer, more feminine kind of painting.

M.: What do you like best?

Phuong: This...what I’m doing the most like me. But it’s still copying. It’s still not art.

M.: I wouldn’t say that.

Phuong: What you do is art. Make things up out of your head.

M.: You know. Some of the happiest times of my life were when I was a student. I didn’t have to think about being original, being commercial.

Phuong: Aren’t those two different things?

M.: You’d think so, but it’s not always the case. Believe me, it can be exhausting selling your art and the pressure of getting it right and keep coming up with new ideas just to make galleries happy. At least you’re free of that. You get to be a student forever.

She told Phuong that her paintings of water were very natural.

M:  It can take years for people to learn to paint with a light touch like that.

M. was already thinking of how she could help her flesh out some paintings. M. could paint the figures, the initial study and composition and have Phuong help with the underpainting.

Phuong: Thank you. I’m not good yet. I’m still learning.

She thought it was touching how uncertain of herself Phuong still was.

That night they invited her to stay in their home, but she had jet lag and thought she’d sleep better at her hotel.

She wanted to call Serge, but he was trying a case. Miracle they even understood each other. He used rule of law as a way of getting at the truth––and she broke the rules to find her own.

She tried to go to bed early, but the hotel was in the centre of Ho Chi Minh––it was like the middle of Times Square––and the fluorescent city lights beat through her thin drapes and the sound of scooters buzzing around like wasps kept her awake. She was too full from the afternoon’s meal to eat, but she was restless from being in a new place and went down to the lobby to try to find something to do. Some brochures of massage parlours were lain out at reception. One said it was run by a blind charity. Their rates were the cheapest, but that’s not why she chose it.

She caught a motortaxi outside her hotel and after three minutes speeding through the humid night she was dropped at the door of the blind massage centre.

She didn’t realise how tense she was. At home she almost never went to places for strangers to touch her, but when she travelled she found it was a good way to find out about a culture. Especially in Asia, where there are layers of formality which can be hard to understand and break through. In bathhouses and massage parlours, she found they abandoned the mask.

The massage took place in a wooden beamed building that reminded her of a temple. If she’d been Vietnamese she would have been able to detect subtle differences. She was given a key and directed to put her clothes in a cubbyhole and then to wait in a curtained area where the masseuse would join her.

She was the only non-Vietnamese there.

Word had circulated that she was from Paris and a minute later two of the young female attendants (who were not blind) shuffled past her cubicle, looking through the gap in the curtain. Inspecting her, giggling and bowing for a few seconds, then shuffling away down the corridor in their matching white áo dàis.

The masseuse, who must have been in his late fifties, was philosophical, ‘We’re all the same under the skin,’ he said, finding the sweet spot in the centre of M.’s back and giving it a thrust. She felt a crack travel the length of her spine, putting everything back into place. She needed a moment to recover.

‘Turn over!’ the Blind Masseuse said. ‘And close your eyes.’

But how could he tell they were open?

‘What are you looking at that’s so important?’ he asked.

She’d been looking at her hands, the hands which Mrs. Cao said made movements like her daughter’s.

M. wondered whether it was her place to tell Phuong. Maybe she was just imagining things. Her boyfriend said she had too much of an imagination. Others put it less gently. He said, ‘Sometimes I worry about you.’ ‘Okay, I’ve been known to exaggerate, but only to make people laugh, never to make them unhappy. If I know something will make another person unhappy, I keep quiet about it,’ which was the situation now.

She thought: Do I tell her that I think we may have the same father? I mean, she’s an artist too, we’re supposed to notice the things others don’t. I can’t believe that she hasn’t seen the resemblance: the mild curve of our eyebrows, not quite peaked with surprise, just curiosity, our mouth and cheeks, which Serge calls broad but loveable, saying they make me look I’m ‘storing nuts for the winter.’

He says I’m lucky because I’ve never really had to grow up. If growing up means becoming unhappy and jaded by too many bad experiences, then I don’t want it. And yet it is difficult sometimes being happy. People are naturally suspicious and wonder what’s up. I’ve been asked before: are you on some kind of drug? And when I told them no, they looked deep into my pupils and still didn’t believe me.

He worries about me because I make things into what I want them to be. I see a person with a deformity, a misshapen jaw for instance, and I say she’s beautiful. Maybe I’ve a weird way of looking at the world. He says if that’s what I think is beautiful, he wonders what that means about him. I tell him he’s the most handsome man I’ve ever seen, but this is true because others say so, too.

And so I hold my tongue about telling. I think it’s not my place to do so. I’m afraid...what if I tell her and I’m wrong? Or if I tell her and she wants to know more about our father. It’s not my place to say these things about his life, to get in-between them like that. But, if I left it to him, he might never make the effort. It’s not because he doesn’t care, it’s because he hides his feelings...well, maybe it’s because he doesn’t care. But he doesn’t care about so many things. Even about himself. He doesn’t look after himself.

He puts his love into the oddest things, things that can’t talk back, beautiful things that elude him. Birds, he has boxes and boxes of photographs of birds, but few photos of family. His prize possession is an eagle feather given to him by his Uncle Charlie. Strange, then, that he would not fly anymore. I know he has his reasons and don’t take it personally that in all the years I’ve lived in France he’s never visited me. Not the easiest thing, to catch a train from New York to Paris.

But I can’t tell her this. That’s his story to tell.

I wonder a little about her life, how much time she has spent wondering about her father, thinking about who he is and how much of him is in her? And me, who could be with my family anytime, I take it for granted and don’t seek it out. Flies on the windscreen. Not part of my life now.

The next afternoon there was a flash flood and the streets in the old French Quarter, where they’d gone to sightsee, were almost knee-high in water. They found higher ground and took shelter in the War Remnants Museum. M. was worried, but Phuong said: It won’t last long. It’ll wash away in an hour or so.

They were walking around the memorial, talking and half-taking it in, the photographs and display of ammunition and preserved specimens in jars. But they were talking so much that the exhibition itself was a blur.

Being in her company just felt right, like there was this invisible thread between them.

Phuong’s English was perfect, almost too correct. It was disconcerting hearing someone use complete sentences again. M. felt she had to wait for her to finish before she could cut in. She usually just cut in, over and across conversations like a Parisian driver, changing lanes, not caring what pedestrians were in her way.

She thought: Does anyone complete a thought or story anymore?

She’d read about an app that a teenage designer had sold for five million dollars: it compressed articles into five or ten word bips. The reductions were dense and often made no sense at all. The collapse of collateralised debt obligations explained in five words. The conspiracy behind Arafat’s death: seven words. How many words would it take to explain the reasons for the Vietnam War?

French fled. US fucked it up worse?

But Phuong didn’t clip her words and M. liked listening to her elegant sentences. She spoke as M.’s grandparents had, even though there was not a line on her face. And wasn’t that what she said she was looking for? Someone not too young and not too old? Patient and deferential and avid to learn. Like herself, a perpetual student. And so M. listened, giving her the same respect.

Suddenly, in the third room, stopping before a glass display cabinet of jars, M. reeled back. She couldn’t breathe. She burst out crying.

She had made appointments to meet with three other painters. A young guy, Duc, fresh out of art school who painted like he took too many drugs or was a paranoid schizophrenic. Pictures full of jagged, menacing buildings. But a good colourist and a master with the colour blue. And two other backup appointments.

But she had already made up her mind.

She couldn’t stop crying. The little hand, stillborn, tightened into a fist. Not even born yet and already it was prepared to fight.

Standing before the glass cabinet. The feet and heads of deformed fetuses in jars. A photograph of an American soldier smiling, showing off his necklace of human ears.

Phuong: Why are you crying? Don’t you know our history?

M. said she did, just looking at them in the case like that, it suddenly affected her. She felt dirty, no other word. She was thinking of what she’d said to Mrs. Cao. Sometimes to be an artist you had to make sacrifices. But they weren’t the only ones. Sometimes to be a soldier you had to make sacrifices. Her father had sacrificed the Vietnamese family he could have had for the American one he made with her mother. And later her mother sacrificed the love they had for the sake of her own sanity. M. had sacrificed a baby for the sake of her art career. Sometimes it seemed that’s all being human was: making sacrifices.

M. thought of the apology that never came and the reparations that only went to American soldiers affected by the war, not to Vietnamese families, not to the children still being born with terrible birth defects. Not to the dead and the lame from landmines. Vietnamese children don’t vote in American elections.

M. thought: Phuong lives with the reminder of it everyday when she looks in the mirror, whereas I have only reason to think of this now and then. I am spoiled, American, Eurotrash, hybrid kid. I have no right to cry. It’s a luxury to cry.

Only one with a right to cry is her. Is her mother. Are the hopeless children in the glass jars deprived of any chance of life. And yet, look at us, we could be sisters. I knew it the moment I met her.

M. had to say it, but she was afraid. She looked outside. Ha was waiting for them, standing next to his scooter, wearing his sunglasses. He was in his third year at the technical university, a smart kid. The economy was booming now, there was really no reason for him to leave, to hitch his future to a dying Europe, a depleted America.

Phuong: I told you it wouldn’t last.

The rain had stopped and the water had retreated and drained away and it was shining again.

M. thought: If I don’t say it now I will lose my nerve.

M.: Do... – she hesitated, then thought of the app that with its random intelligence was able to reduce the essence of an article or a life to just ten words – want to come work for me in Paris?