"Art of Living" by Alex Pham launches "Belonging and Exile"

Pham’s essay, “Art of Living,” launches the Cheuse Center’s Fall 2023 program: “Belonging and Exile.”

 

Art of Living  

By Alex Pham 

 

I remember packing my bags and feeling little. My room is bare, cardboard boxes piled high and blocking the windows. The bedroom I had lived in is just peeling paint now. The ancient corpse of a cockroach lies still, its stomach hollow, revealed plainly behind the imprint of a table. Sunlight peers through the mosquito screen in my window, revealing dust bunnies in its wake. I am dumbfounded at the state of it, my hands dragging elementary school drawings to the trash, my gum wrappers from behind my drawer table. A cleaner comes in, silent, and begins picking away at them, those belongings, until there is nothing left but a bed and boxes for another child or man or woman. I have lived in this room for half of my life, this country for all of it, but even so, I feel quiet. Later, at my college acceptance party, my father claps me on the back and tells me I am finally going home. 

I am so sick of writing, writing and thinking about home and where it is. Tired of pushing this overflowing bag shut and tossing all the new into its bulged openings and broken maw.

We something-Americans try to expand this bag by way of the existential, through the conceited lie we tell ourselves, that we come from nowhere, but obviously it is unhelpful, and at the very least remains what it is, a lie. I dig through my bag for the facts. I was born in 2004, in Bethesda, Maryland, to Vietnamese parents, so very Vietnamese enough to round my sisters and me up to return to Vietnam. I don’t know if they recognized Vietnam – if the country they saw was the same as it was when they left it, but they called it home, and soon I would too, worn into the grooves of the uneven concrete and sun. I was already four, so there was always some distance. I retained my American accent, went on to study at an international school, and in that sense I kept the parts of myself that made me feel isolated, silent, invasive. I read my immigrant books in the place those authors write about.

At the airport, just graduated, my father turned me around and said I was always welcome back and I nodded, because that is what I was supposed to do. In the plane, I flipped through my passport, my tangibles. I had an American passport, but I did not recognize the issuing office, the state, or my childhood in the suburbs. There wasn’t much to unpack when I entered my concrete dorm room for the first time, just clothes and paper, my stories, letters, fleeting moments of home. 

I’ve been in my home-country for 12 months now, unsettled as I ever was, tracing the steps and avenues of a mother and father who, having escaped war, had no language or money to wander by, had no choice but to act. I have those things. I know English. It’s my first language, but when I speak I barely make a sound.  

I show up to the Center’s inaugural lecture early, before the folding chairs have been set out and before the sun has set. My co-workers at the internship, members managing the event, bustle about quietly, prepping waters and snacks, speaking in hushed tones. I put my things down and busy myself too, trying to be helpful. It’s a workout, but it distracts me fine. The Sherwood Center is nicer than I had expected, its worn wooden flooring masked under a syruped lacquer. How many children had played here, fallen and bruised here? I too had been raised in this Virginian neighborhood in my infancy – did I make this dent? I wave the useless thought away, trying to distract myself by fiddling with my phone, recalling the featured guest lecturer. I had met her once, earlier in the winter, in the stuffiest DC restaurant I had ever seen. I had just gotten the internship, scrambling to stabilize in its whirl. 

My dress shirt is too small. I fiddle with its tightening neck, fumbling through my bag to find my notes. I call for a waiter with a flailing arm and look over my notes. Her name is Azar - Azar Nafisi, writer. She had written “Reading Lolita in Tehran,” but I had only read her other stuff. I peer out from behind my notebook watching the movement of the place. My intern head has left, taking a call, and her absence makes me sweat. My mop of hair suddenly feels distinct among the sea of herringbone flat caps and hair gel, and I take solace in ordering early, in filling my table’s silence with a $20 garlic bread. Before I can get settled I am hushed by a set of hearty laughs erupting close by, the jingle of the door. They had all come in together. I prepare a smile and ready a pounce. 

*

I close the door behind me, huffing. The greenroom in the Sherwood Center is calm, the spring green fluttering through the thin shades. It seems they had refitted an old community dance center, the walls lined with worn oak handlebars and tall finger-fudged mirrors. I have escaped here for a breather before the event begins, the room sparse except for a single folding table in the center, loosely fitted with a tablecloth someone brought from home. Walking over, I reach for an open bag of chips, but divert to the pile of unsalted nuts. Oh, crap, I rip a page from my notebook and I spit them out. Peanuts. I catch myself hacking like a cat in the glass, and I am reminded of home, my days in the visual arts, “Jesus Christ Superstar,” the Suzuki Method, my comfortable spaces in Vietnam. It gives me something, an energy. I’m just about confident enough to break out Macbeth’s refrain on a bell, when I hear the clack of Azar Nafisi’s shoes behind me. Her gait is familiar. 

*

The din of the restaurant is excruciating. I am elaborating on my opinion about disaffected youth when I notice that all eyes at the table are on me. I stammer, and my voice peters out under the weight of the restaurant's stuffy muzak. I pull at my collar. My intern head makes a transition, a joke, and they are brought back to a comfortable chatter, the conversation pulling away from me. Azar nods at me. Later, when she is leaving and the restaurant is quieter, I reach over to shake her hand and she says: 

You’re going to go do great things. 

She smiles, and I want to say something but I can’t. It is not thank you as much as a why? She gives her thanks and leaves, and I do not see her again until she is good and ready for the lecture.  

*

The lights dim, and we hush. Azar makes her way on stage, and her taut form distinctly takes shape, thinly stark against the podium. I watch from the second row, surrounded by older men and women who I imagine own and run things, and I am so intimidated that I wish to sink through my seat. A moment of silence before she speaks, and she begins with a joke. She begins with conversation, and I notice it immediately, her voice. It commands with sincerity. It was her as I read her in her books, “Read Dangerously” and “Things I’ve Been Silent About.”

Her voice. I sit up at its touch. She is an immigrant too, I know this, but hearing her say it is strange. I watch her hands as they thrust and point, her smile, small yet firm. I try to understand as she speaks. How can she feel so confident, so worthy? Despite displacement, our shame, her struggle through identity and repression. I had not lived through the violence and murder of her generation, my parents and grandparents’ generations, but in some way, through vicious logic and empathy I can understand. As she speaks, I realize that she is home. Halfway through, she says something I can never forget. 

What truly threatens us in this world is our atrophy of feeling, our sleeping consciousness. In this way curiosity is insubordination in its purest form, a torch raised to the numb darkness. 

Numbness, numb darkness. Isn’t that what it is? This feeling, this safety, this modern convenience which makes life bearable? A spotlight swings by, and I squint to see her. Before the final applause, a young man in a t-shirt comes up to a microphone to ask one last question. 

Um, what advice would you give to the new generation, the kids in the room like me, who will need to lead the world of the future? 

Be comfortable with discomfort, and don’t be afraid of it. Don’t fear who you are. 

And it’s over. The event prowls on, scattered faces about the floor. I immediately step into the book signing line when I realize that I am incredibly hungry. I look both ways and the line goes on for miles in both directions. I guess I could wait.  

They say that home is where the heart is, but I never seem to be able to find its pulse. Back then I classified myself as some sort of in-betweener, and to say I was nervous around Azar’s seemingly placeless confidence as a result, would be an understatement. But in her I’ve begun to see something, something impossibly bright and blinding and clear. I see a woman who maybe, through her pain, has learned to take a whole house and fit it in a carry-on bag. Or maybe not. Maybe she is unafraid of the dress poking out of the small zipper in the front. Maybe she isn’t afraid of being afraid. 

Outside, a vapid breeze attempts to ruffle leaves, but they remain firm, foreign in the darkness of the night. I take my signed book and sit outside on the curb, watching the blinding lights of the highway blaze by, crackling. My stomach growls. I stop lying to myself. Deep inside my heart, I notice something which I had not noticed before. Maybe the self I had been so desperately looking for had been waiting within me. 

***

 

Nineteen-year-old Alex Pham is a rising Sophomore at George Mason University majoring in English and minoring in Music. He served as a Cheuse Center intern and helped organize and curate the inaugural Cheuse Center Busboys and Poets Lecture, delivered by Azar Nafisi in April 2023, at the Sherwood Community Center in Fairfax, Virginia. 

Pham’s essay, “Art of Living,” launches the Cheuse Center’s Fall 2023 program: “Belonging and Exile.”