THE WASHING ROOM

The Washing Room: A Story of Stories, is a creative nonfiction memoir about inter-generational trauma. My Ngoc weaves together a series of short stories loosely centered on her own narrative: growing up in a refugee community and then stepping into an Ivy League college, and all the painful moments resultant from that transition. She takes the reader through a range of experiences, from working as a nail technician to being a student at Harvard.

Sometimes deeply disgusting, sometimes wonderfully detached, and always tinged with poignancy, the vignettes add up to create an overarching story: the process of washing away the dirt and darkness that collects over the course of a life. It is a story of healing, and it has a happy ending.

*Update: all physical copies of the book have sold out. The kindle-version can be bought online using the button below. 

Excerpt from the introduction

       MS. WILSON PULLS OUT THE ugly brown mat and asks me what my name is.

       “My Ngoc,” I say.

       She squints her face. She does not understand.

       Of the three daughters, I am the only one without an English name. My oldest sister, who is twelve years older than me, is called “Nhung” at home and “Julie” at school. I call her “Chi Nhung” though since she’s older than me. Chi Ti, my middle sister, is seven years older than me and goes by the name of “Kelly” in American settings. At home my family calls me “Buoi,” which means grapefruit because when I was born I was as pale as the grapefruit flower. Since I wasn’t starting school right away when we came to America they held off on assigning me an English name, and by the time I went to preschool, I was still My Ngoc, only with with an Americanized pronunciation: “Me Knock.”

       Ms. Wilson starts writing with her Sharpie. She stops and asks me if my name has a hyphen. I don’t understand what she is saying either. It’s my first day in preschool and everyone here is speaking weird. My lips seal shut in fear. I nod my head. She responds by drawing a small line between the two syllables of my name: “My-Ngoc,” and tells me to use this mat whenever we have naptime.

       Today I don’t feel like sleeping. At first I make farting noises with Joseph until Ms. Wilson tells us to stop. He falls asleep soon afterwards, and I am left alone to think of other ways to amuse myself.

       On my left side I can see the teacher playing solitaire at her desk, which is laid against the back corner of our classroom.

       I feel lonely. I wonder if she feels lonely, too.

       I wonder if she knows I am awake. Probably not. Still, I try my hardest not to make any noise as I roll around from side to side in search of a comfortable position.  Eventually I curl up in a ball and face towards the right, away from the teacher.

       Joseph is already snoring. His little belly rises up and down, up and down, and behind him are twelve other children, whose bellies are also moving to the rhythm of sleep. Not knowing what else to do, I play with the wrinkles on my sleeping mat.

       An idea comes to me. On the count of three, I suck in as much air as I can and hold my breath until it feels like my lungs are going to burst. My head grows warm, and I can see a million tiny silver stars dancing on the ceiling. Just when the stars are about to fill my vision, I find myself letting it all out and taking in new gulps of air.

       I try again and again, sucking air in, holding it, watching the stars appear, and feeling my chest hurt. Perhaps if I try hard enough I can actually die. My vision is just about to explode with stars when lights come on. Naptime is over, and I have to hand in my mat. I tell myself that I will be able to do it next time, but before I know it, preschool is over, and I am still alive.

 

        My parents never wanted me to die. In fact, they did everything they could to keep me alive. But death had been tugging at me since before I was born. I almost slipped out of my mom when she was two weeks pregnant with me. She was working at her shop when she felt something wet come out between her legs. She ran away from her stand, where she was selling fabrics, and retreated to a corner to check her underwear. There were pink spots.

        Scared that she would lose me forever, she hurried to the village doctor and asked him what she could do to save me. From his tattered chair in his fly-infested office, he pulled out a dirty pill container from his desk, gave a handful of them to my mother and said, “Here, this should do it.”

        My mom did what she was told, but the pink spots persisted in coming. After two days with no improvements, she rushed to her friend for help.

        “What doctor did you go to?” her friend said.

        My mom replied, “The one in Long An, the local one.”

        “My God! No, silly, you need to go to a real doctor, like one in Saigon.” She handed my mother the name and address of someone she knew and told her to leave immediately.

        My mom was too scared to ride her bicycle there, for fear that I would slip out from all the motion, so she hitched a motorcycle ride up to the city.

       Once she arrived, my mom explained to the second doctor, who was a lady that time, what had happened and how the medicine was not helping at all. “Hand me what you’re taking,” the doctor said. My mom pulled the few pills she had left out of her purse and gave them to her.

       The doctor laughed and handed them back to my mom, “This is Vitamin E, dear. You’ve been taking Vitamin E!” She kept on laughing again as she grabbed some needles from her cabinet. Without much explanation she injected my mom at the top of her thighs with some clear fluid. Whatever it was, it worked—I came right back up, like a little yoyo.

       That first battle was over, but there were many more to come. Each time, my parents would be more and more unequipped to help me. By the time my depression became debilitating, my parents were already worlds away, for the word “depression” does not even exist in the Vietnamese language.

       My battle with death had its origins long before my breakdown, long before its first whispers shook the walls of my fetal home and tempted me to wither into darkness. The tectonic plates of my life had started shifting long before my parents even met each other, gathering up a silent tension that would someday explode on that late October night so many years later.

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All words, images, and sounds © 2020 My Ngoc To