Truyện is Story, Chuyện is Story
by Agnes Cẩm Ngọc Trần
I am writing a story.
“Story” has two different, but similar words. My parents and I, with our time-capsuled Vietnamese, cannot hear or pronounce the difference.
Chuyện refers to stories that are spoken. Paperless stories.
Truyện refers to stories that are written. Papered stories.
I am writing a truyện.
If you write the accent wrong, truyện becomes truyền. To pass down or inherit. If you write the accent wrong, chuyện becomes chuyên or chuyển. Chuyên is to move one’s body from one place to another. Chuyển is to move, to transfer, to shift.
These stories have been truyền-ed, passed down and inherited, and chuyên-ed and chuyển-ed, from body to body. And now I have inherited these stories, that have traveled down, from body to body.
They say a person that can’t keep a secret is nhiều chuyện. Nhiều is many, a lot. Chuyện is a spoken story, a paperless story. If stories were secrets, then my mother is nhiều chuyện. If my mother is nhiều chuyện, then I have nhiều chuyện -- many stories.
Growing up, my mom fed me many stories. Stories of the Monkey King and his magical staff, of Hoàng Phi Hồng and his umbrella, of hopping vampires and their paper charms. Before bed every night, my mother would retell, from memory, stories from a blue book of Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales. She would cook up her own version of Jack and the Beanstalk, of a boy and girl named Agnes and Phil who planted rice that reached the sky. My brother and I, hungry for words, would soon do the storytelling, the two of us taking turns to add on to the story every night.
Outside of eating stories, we also bought and sold stories. My mom sold used books out of our house. Together, my brother, mother, and I would walk down the street to the public library and peruse the used books sale in the library’s lobby. These books were sold for a quarter each on an honors system where buyers would pay by putting their money into an unattended box by the checkout desk. After an hour of thumbing through yellowed pages and crumpled covers, my mom would gather a pile of used stories as my brother and I sat and lived as blue-eyed and yellow-haired characters in The Boxcar Children. My brother and I would take turns every library trip in dropping off the money for the used books. That was the highlight of the trip. Sometimes we’d drop off only a dollar’s worth of coins, but other times, the coins would spill out of our hands as we trudged over dutifully to sacrifice our silver tributes to our paper gods.
Other times we made our pilgrimage to the local thrift stores, kneeling by the altar of books in the corner of the Goodwill warehouse. We didn’t like the thrift stores as much as the library. We didn’t like the feeling of dust in our lungs. We didn’t like the smell of the thrift store. “Smells like dust,” my mom would say, grimacing as she sifted through the books. Sometimes she would say it smelled like the dead. Outside of books, my mom never let us buy anything else from the thrift stores, no matter how cheap it was, no matter how poor we were. If libraries were the temple, then Goodwill was the dim shrine room on the outskirts of the temple’s ground, full of unvisited funeral urns and ashes compressed into glass cubes.
“It might belong to someone who just died,” she warned. “Bringing that home might invite them into our home too.”
My mother fed us the rules. Ghosts like to occupy empty places -- houses that haven’t been sold yet, rural Việt Nam, childhood rooms of college students that have left for the semester. You should never open the door to ghosts -- seances, ouija boards, voodoo. If someone visits you in your sleep and tells you to come and play with them, always refuse, even if you think it’s someone you recognize. If a ghost ever sits on you in your sleep, you have to chant the Buddhist prayer for as long as it takes for the pressure to disappear -- nam-mô-a-di-đà-phật. To satiate a hungry ghost, you should cúng -- put out offerings and burn incense and paper money.
Some stories we bought with silver, some stories brought the dead. Sometimes she would sell my brother and I stories about lingering relatives that followed on our aunts or uncles’ shoulders during their last 49 days. These stories weighed down on our shoulders like hanging ghosts.
When I returned to Sài Gòn after my first year at college, my aunt and cousin sat me down to feed me hanging ghost stories as big as two generations and mangoes as small as my palm. With the living room fan a gentle song in the back of our mind and the humidness of after-rain and the juice of the small mangoes sticky on our skin, my cousin began to peel a mango and feed us a story about a road he took every morning on his way to work.
I’m riding a moped in a small alleyway to avoid the morning traffic and taxi exhaust on the main roads. The street is lined by narrow homes that reach four stories to compensate for width. The home businesses are starting to open, the older women pushing out their vendors and carts in front of their homes. It’s 5am, but Sài Gòn has always been an early riser. Sài Gòn’s mornings are always a slow frenzy. At the surface, there’s always so much motion, but each individual movement is slow and calm.
The morning ride is always almost calm. But everytime I ride past a specific stretch of the street, my shoulder begins to ache a deep pain, as if the marrow in my bone is made of cement. The weight pulls my shoulders down and spreads to my neck, as if someone’s fingers are spanning around the base of my collarbone. My right arm goes numb and my ribs are crumpling under the weight on my shoulder. I can feel myself being weighed down, feel the tires of the moped deflate as I make my way down the street.
Every morning, I drive a hanging ghost down this road until I pass the crossroads, where the weight disappears.
Sometimes the weight gets so heavy that the dull ache reaches my temple under my helmet. One day, when I’ve had enough, I push some words past the numbing ache to the ghost on my shoulders, enunciating each word in my mind until the words become less of words and part of my will. “Leave me alone. I’ll put out food and light incense for you, but leave me alone.”
When I get home a few evenings later after a three day shift at the airport, I pick up a to-go box of glazed duck on the way home. In the white-tiled living room, I pull out the foldable table and open up the styrofoam box to reveal the glistening duck and black bean sauce. I set out a porcelain plate and chopsticks and put out a glass of water. From the shrine room on the top floor, I bring down the ceramic pot full of rice grains and shortened incense sticks and place it in front of the dish of glazed duck. I light a few sticks of incense, press them between my palm, and go through the motions before pushing the incense sticks into the rice grains. With a nod to no one in particular, I stand back to inspect my work as the trail of incense and smell of glazed duck begins to fill the room. The dull ache follows the trail of incense until it disappears into the air. After, my morning rides to work are calm.
My cousin stops to take his first bite of the mango, the last of the green peels falling criss-cross onto the rest of the peels in the shape of an asterisk.
As I’ve grown older, more asterisks appeared in my mother’s fairytales, the monkey kings and martial art heroes becoming glossed-over footnotes in the pages of voodoo shaman and water ghosts. The dragons became sitting ghosts that pressed on me in my sleep after my bedtime stories. The fairies became long-haired, legless women in the sugarcane fields that my grandfather and his soldiers marched through with their rifles.
My mother rifles through the stories like she rifles through our fridge, pulling out yesterday’s leftovers of fermented fish paste and Costco sausages to make space.
“Ngoc,” she begins nonchalantly. She’s at the counter, making sua chua, her newest business venture. She would make batches of these unbearably sour yogurts and take a tour around the local nail salons, selling each cup of yogurt for $1. “Does the kitchen look different to you?”
I look up, expecting to see a new bowl or plant decorating our counter. I squint. “No, it looks the same.”
“Does anything look weird to you?”
I squint again. “The light is kinda dim today.”
My mom breaks into a grin and returns to the dishes. “Dim, right? Like foggy?”
I nod. The air looks hazy and thick, like it’s full of incense smoke. The more I look, the dimmer the air gets and then I’m squinting through the haze at the lights. “Yeah, are the lights not working?”
My mom laughs, looking pleased. She tells me that she knew I had some inkling of a sense like her and my grandmother. Your brother and dad can’t tell the difference, she says. You can sometimes tell when they’re around when the room starts to get dim and hazy, she says. You almost don’t notice it at first, but when you do your head starts to feel all this pressure, she says. How do you know it’s not just the light not warming up, I demand, unconvinced but unnerved. She shrugs and smiles, and turns on an extra light, but the room is still dim.
I flew back to Brown a few weeks later, a week before classes started when campus had been empty for weeks. I was walking to my room on the second floor, halfway up the flight of stairs when I paused, feeling an itch in my gut. I went down a few steps and looked again at the first floor hallway. It was hazy, as if someone had smoked up the whole hall. But only two other people including me were in the whole four-storied building. The longer I stared, the harder it became to see the end of the hall. I squinted at the ceiling lights, suppressing a chill when I saw that they were glaring like normal. It was almost as if a fog surrounded the lights so thickly that the light couldn’t pass through. Shoving my shaking hand into the pocket of my coat, I pretended not to see anything and kept going. The second floor hallway looked normal and bright. I called my mom once I locked the door behind me.
She laughed when I told her what I saw. “It’s just a story.”
Another story on another dim day, years ago in the bay of Cam Ranh. My family and I are sitting on a dock surrounded by lapping black water spotlighted by the moon. We’re eating sour mangoes dipped in fish sauce, sugar, and chili as my aunts and parents are feeding each other stories, trying to outdo each other with the most sour story.
My cousin tries to feed us a story about his 3 year old daughter pointing beyond her mother and asking who the lady with the long hair was. My aunt scoffs at this and says that it’s well known that young children can see them.
My aunt tries to feed us a story set in their old house in Sài Gòn where she would feel hands pull at her ankle at night in an empty room. My cousin shakes his head and says that whenever he gets paralyzed and pressed on by ghosts in his sleep, all he has to do is chant the Buddhist prayers. One time when the ghost was particularly heavy and Buddhist prayer didn’t work, he told the ghost he would beat it up and the pressure disappeared.
My dad tries and almost feeds us a story of his youth in America, when he and his brothers tried a seance in their house in Gardena. He almost wins this contest when he tells of how he felt something merge into him and how they had to put a towel in his lap because the spirit wouldn’t stop making his body cry. His brother who was leading the seance demanded the spirit reveal itself and a continuous laugh replaced the tears. My father describes the laugh as pure evil. He felt a crowd of eyes peering in at him from outside the window. As he’s retelling the story to us on that beach, he gets the chills all over again. He almost wins, until my mom shakes her head and reminds us that my father’s bóng vía, his soul, aura, is notably weak and asks what he expected to happen when they opened the door for the dead with the seance.
My mom feeds us a story about 20 years ago.
I’m 30 years old. My husband and I just moved into a small home in Gardena, his second home in both America and Gardena, my first home in Gardena, but seventh or eighth in America. My husband’s brother and his nephew move in with us, but we get our own room. Before we decided to rent the house, we went to look at it. Despite it being summer, the house is cold to the bone, but I don’t think much about it because we’re close to the beach. After we moved in, my husband tells me that while he was changing the locks alone in the house, he heard the flooring crack with heavy footsteps.
The house gets worse with time. We have to wear thick sweaters and hoodies, even during the hot California summers, because the house is always cold. My husband and his brother travel for work and his nephew normally stays out, so it’s just me in the house at night. My bed is pushed against the wall and at night, I can hear movement in the living room, as if my husband, his brother, and his nephew are all at home. But I know they’re not, so when I hear the
footsteps down the hall or the shuffle of the furniture moving again, I lock my bedroom door and let my dog sleep on the bed with me. All the other male dogs have died by now, all around the same time for unexplained reasons. The smartest dog, a chihuahua named Booboo, wandered out into the street and got hit by a car when the door opened by itself. The second chihuahua, Mikey, bled to death one night from no wounds. The husky, Bud, went blind in both eyes.
The house gets worse with my pregnancy. At first I don’t think much about it -- it’s just morning sickness and normal symptoms of a pregnancy, I think. This must be what a terminal illness feels like, I think. I’m changing the pillows every week because they feel like bricks and my head is pounding a constant screaming pressure and my sleep is plagued by unfamiliar faces. I can never rest, even in my rest.
They come to me in my dreams. Sometimes in my dreams, I’m still laying in bed and they’ll be at the edge of my bed, beckoning at me. “Hằng,” they say. I feel a twinge of suspicion -- how do they know my name? “You have to come and play with us,” they say. The visitors are never the same. Sometimes I’m in other places in my dreams, but they always come and say, “You have to come and go to school with us,” or “You have to come and meet the others.” But always, “You have to come with us.”
“No!” I say, feeling the inkling of suspicion twist into fear in my gut as I remember my daughter inside me. “I’m pregnant! I can’t go with you!”
Disturbed by my dreams, I mention this to my sister. When her husband overhears this, he tells me that I must refuse their invitations and to cúng. I indulge the idea and put out offerings and incense. The headaches subside and the dreams stop, but they only stop for a week at most, and I find myself putting offerings out every week.
One night, I’m resting in bed and my husband is sitting across the bedroom on the computer playing video games. I turn my face towards him and open my eyes. I close them and pause, before shooting them open to stare at him again. Seconds ago, I saw a man in blue jeans holding a mug as he leaned over my husband’s chair and watched him.
Another night, when my husband and his brother are gone, I’m sitting at the computer desk in the bedroom. In the background, I can hear my husband’s nephew outside in the driveway arguing with his girlfriend. But then I can hear something else, something coming from above me on the shelf full of figurines. It’s a growling, low-pitched voice that makes my blood run as a cold as the temperature of the house.
“I’m here,” the voice snarls from above me. I’m out the door in one leap. Two decades later, thinking about this voice still gives me chills.
We move out soon after that, partially because my husband’s brother brings his wife from Vietnam and the house becomes too crowded, partially because the house is already crowded with ghosts and my sickness gets worse the longer we stay. I’m in my third trimester of pregnancy when we move, when I should be feeling my worse, but in the new house, my health is at its best.
By now we’re done with the sour mangoes and have moved on to peeling longan. Beneath the envelope of its shell, they’re ripe and sweet, but my mother’s story turns them sour and we are no longer hungry.
I can only imagine Vietnamese hungry ghosts. Maybe it’s because the language of my ghost stories are in Vietnamese that I cannot imagine an American ghost sitting on my shoulders, but sometimes America’s ghost weighs down so heavily on my shoulders that she might as well be a hungry ghost, making my shoulder bones ache a dull pain and turning the air around me into a choking haze until I put fruit and incense out for her. But fruit and incense only satiates her hunger for a week at most. If only I could put out a glazed duck to calm the paperless stories that sit on my shoulders. If only I could light a whole pot of incense sticks until the air turns hazy to clear the air around me that America’s ghost discolors. I would build a whole altar to calm her restless spirit if I could, but she hungers for more than a fruit and incense altar.
Our fruit and incense altar was guarded by a stack of used books. We bought so many used stories that soon we lived in a many storied house, even though our house was only one story. Our walls were made from book covers, the corners of the rooms bound together by the spines of the books until we lived in a paper house.
This paper house is the accumulation of many quarters and library pilgrimages, but the paperless stories cost more. They weigh more, on my mother’s shoulders until she passes the burden to my shoulders. And now I’m putting these paperless stories on paper, in hopes to burn them like paper money and make these paperless stories lighter than paper on my shoulders.
I am writing a story.
Chuyện is a spoken story.
Truyện is a written story.
I am writing a truyện.
Truyền is to pass down, to inherit.
I have truyền-ed many chuyện-s.
Chuyển is to shift.
I am chuyển-ing a chuyện into a truyện.
Chuyện is a paperless story.
Truyện is a papered story.
I am writing a truyện of chuyệns.