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A Mother, Daughter And The Shadow Of Vietnam

Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao (Photo courtesy of the authors)
Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao (Photo courtesy of the authors)

Host Tonya Mosley speaks with Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Caoauthors of the new joint memoir, “Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother and An American Daughter.”

Book Excerpt: ‘Family In Six Tones’

By Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao

In my life, there is Saigon, my childhood city, and there is Harlan, my daughter. One is loss and the other is love, although sometimes loss and love are intertwined. Both are volcanic, invasive experiences, their own particular battle zones, full of love and warmth. All‑powerful, all-encompassing, searing, awakening. Once experienced, they take over your life, altering the very cells in your body, both in the moment and in retrospect.

I am writing as a refugee who lost a country and as a mother whose love is vaster than even the vast parameters of loss. In Vietnamese, the word for country is a combination of earth and water, elemental and archetypal. Traditionally, the Vietnamese are tethered to their ancestral home, born of land and sea, the way newborns are tied umbilically to their mothers, sharing one swollen, tightly packed body, ferociously, bound almost despotically by flesh and blood.

For all of us refugees who enter America with our contingent lives, there is the all‑powerful, all‑venerable American Dream. Do we follow it? Are we trespassing when we enter it? Or do we float into the dreams we invent ourselves? Having witnessed so many refugee families struggling to make it, I wonder whether the American Dream is really for dreamers. Are you dreaming if you’re working twelve hours or more a day?

It might seem strange that being a refugee and being a mother feel so similar to me, but both involve a tortuous and lifelong drive in search of home and security—in one case for oneself; in the other, even more furiously, for one’s child. The journey of a refugee, away from war and loss toward peace and a new life, and the journey of a mother raising a child to be secure and happy are both steep paths filled with detours and stumbling blocks. For me, both hold mystery. It is like crossing a river on a monkey bridge. The bridge, indigenous to the Mekong Delta, is hand‑ made, with slender bamboo logs and handrails. It is frail and slippery, and crossing it requires agility and courage; it is both physical and mental. I have not made my crossing alone but have had fellow travelers on this bridge—we could call them darker selves that emerge from the hidden, almost mystical shadows.

Carl Jung saw shadow selves as selves that are cradled in the darkness and lie outside the light of consciousness. But what I think of as my shadow selves are denser, perhaps more fragmented from the self than Jung’s original use of the term. They might seem like strangers at first, unknown, unknowable, and as a result frightening, a presence manifesting unruly states that had to be fought with or unshackled from. Over time, with a deeper reservoir of understanding, I have come to see them as guardian angels, as they are now more integrated with me than not.


Excerpted from “Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother and An American Daughter” by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao. Copyright © 2020 by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao. Republished with permission of Penguin Random House.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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