Nhật Lệ saw Minh already reading when she opened the door.
"Chào con," Minh said, putting the book down.
"How was your week?" asked Nhật Lệ instead of a greeting.
"As usual," Minh replied. "Time doesn't matter here."
She sat down on the straw mat in front of him and reached for his book. "Truyện Tây Du Ký" was written on the cover. She couldn't read Vietnamese very well, but she could decipher it.
"What is it about?" Minh reached for the teapot and poured the contents into a small cup. He handed it to Nhật Lệ.
"Read it yourself. I'm giving it to you. After all, you wanted to learn Vietnamese."
They had recently talked about how she wanted to finally be able to read Vietnamese properly. At that moment, she wasn't sure if she was just saying that to impress him or if she was really ready. Sometimes she said things she didn't mean and hoped the subject would never come up again. It wasn't that she didn't care, maybe she just didn't care enough. She often took on a lot, but rarely finished anything... When she was a child, her father had always said that Vietnamese was her mother tongue. But she didn't have a mother, and her supposed mother tongue was not her mother tongue.
"Thank you," she said, flipping through the book. Then she remembered something: "I can't come next Friday. I have a job interview after work."
"Oh really? Well, it's about time! After all you've told me about the current job."
"Yes, I'm very excited. The conditions sound good and the tasks also sound more challenging."
"What does the company do?"
"It's a tech start-up. It provides software that simplifies purchasing and ordering processes."
He didn't answer. She didn't know if he understood what she was saying. She didn't know if he'd ever used a computer. He certainly didn't have a cell phone. She added by way of explanation:
"I will also be able to work more independently there. And it's a new environment with new people. I need that."
"You don't have to explain yourself."
"I don't, why should I?"
"Maybe because you wanted to do something completely different?"
"It's pretty unrealistic that I'll ever do that, don't you think?"
He looked at her silently for a moment, then smiled without taking his eyes off her. Pointing his chin into space, he finally said:
"Do you think I'm the right person to talk to about what's realistic?"
She had never forgotten that she was dealing with a Buddhist monk, but sometimes she didn't know what he knew and what he didn't. After all, they lived in two different worlds, and she understood only a little of where he was coming from.
Then she heard him ask:
"Will you stay for dinner?"
Where time matters
Nhật Lệ was awakened in the middle of the night by deafening techno music. After a brief orientation, she got up, put on a cardigan, and went to the neighbor's apartment where the music was coming from. She knocked on the door, which someone immediately opened. Smoke, noise, and strange looks came at her. Someone saw her, yelled "CORONA" and ran away. She asked the person in front of her to muffle the noise.
"Hey Li!", Nhật Lệ heard her neighbor greet her as she came to the door.
"Hi Toni, it's two in the morning. Please turn down the music so I can sleep."
"You can sleep when you're dead! HAHAHA!" shouted the Corona-screamer, sticking his head out of the door. "Come and party with us!"
"No thanks!" she replied, crossing her arms. Her voice was thin and shaky. She felt like a child whose sleep had been snatched from her hands. Now she was standing in the middle of a circle of bullies who were throwing their night's rest at each other and preventing her from getting it.
"Please turn down the music!" she added, and went into her apartment without waiting for an answer.
Twenty-seven years earlier, another woman came home at about the same time. She lay in bed with her eyes open and a big smile on her face. The beginning of something new was in the air, and she was confident that it would be something great. Her body was tired, but her head was alert, her heart was loud, and she wanted to stay awake to keep the thoughts of the evening alive.
In the present, Nhật Lệ tried desperately to get back to sleep. The music was turned down, but the conversations were all the louder. A bright voice on the other side of the wall, right next to her bed, said that she loved jazz. Someone asked her who her favorite jazz musician was, and she began to name white men. Nhật Lệ took earplugs from the dresser, put them in her ears, and buried her face in the pillow. Her body was tense, her thoughts were jumping around, her heart was squeezing. She wanted to banish all thoughts, she wanted to surrender to sleepiness, but the insomnia won. A black shadow came from the ceiling and hovered over her bed. Small at first, then larger, coming closer and closer to her.
"What would Minh do?" she asked herself. This was nothing new; she had seen the same shadow for years. It didn't do anything, but she didn't want it around either.
With twenty-seven years of time difference, both women fell asleep towards morning. Đào's last thought was the smell of him still in her nose, and she wanted to take it with her into her dreams. Nhật Lệ's last thoughts were confused, brief, interrupted: Shadows. Noise. Work. Minh's difficult accessibility. Her apartment. Her father. People who like jazz. Sleep. Sleeping pills. Drinking water. Buying water filters. Buying bread. Bread on the table in the dark. Sleep.
Tears of the Sun
"Did you know that your name means 'tears of the sun'?" asked Minh Nhật Lệ as she peeled a potato. She had come after all because the interview had not taken as much energy as she had expected and because she liked to prolong the time when she was alone at home for a while.
She looked up in surprise: "Really? Why do you name your child that? No wonder I'm always so miserable when I'm sadness personified."
Minh stopped chopping onions and looked at Nhật Lệ: "Tears don't always mean sorrow. And I see that you haven't become a bit more optimistic since the last time we had a serious conversation."
"We always have serious talks!" She replied, smiling mischievously at him. They had once joked that she suffered a lot from being too misanthropic. Sometimes she wondered if he knew what unhappiness felt like. It was unimaginable for her to be a monk all her life. She didn't know much about him, only that he was dropped off as a baby on the doorstep of a pagoda in Cần Thơ and raised by the pagoda's residents. It was never his conscious decision not to live a "normal" life. She wondered what he was like as a child, if he was ever a child. He had never called anyone father or mother.
"I am a monk, but my heart is still flesh and blood," she had once heard another monk say in a lecture. Since meeting Minh, she had become interested in Buddhism. And she had found Minh because she was looking for access to the Vietnamese community. It was only with the advent of Corona and the anti-Asian racism that she realized how uprooted she felt and how important it was to be with people who had similar experiences. Minh, on the other hand, was unaware of the problem. He spent his days in the pagoda with mostly Vietnamese migrants who looked up to him. Although they were the same age, they called him - like all pagoda visitors - Thầy, which has many meanings: Monk, Master, Teacher, but also Father.
Nhật Lệ sometimes wondered what Minh would have become if he had grown up outside the pagoda. Would he have ever questioned this path, as she did with every step of her life? Would she be happier, like him, if she hadn't been spoiled for choice, if she hadn't had the freedom to choose? Though perhaps the word "free" didn't quite apply. After all, she couldn't be everything she wanted to be. She would just choose the lesser of two evils to protect herself from financial insecurity. The word dream job was an oxymoron to her. In her dream, she would never have to work. After all, what's the point of knowing what you want if, in reality, you have to do something else just to stay alive?
Nhật Lệ received the job offer by email while having lunch with her father. He didn't know she had applied for a new job, and she didn't want to tell him until she had changed jobs and passed her probationary period. She didn't want to worry him, and she had the feeling that he had never gotten over the fact that she had left physics behind. After all, it had always been her favorite subject in school. As a child, she had told everyone that she wanted to be an astronaut when she grew up. But as an adult, she quickly realized that this wish was unrealistic. She was an average student. She had too many daydreams to become a scientist.
When her father returned from the bathroom, she hung up the phone. She tried to appear neutral so he wouldn't get suspicious. She often found it difficult to talk to him about herself, and she knew little about who he really was. Neither of them had ever learned to be a part of the other's life, and it became harder and harder to start as time went on. Although they only had each other as family, they were anything but close.
"I recently started going to a Vietnamese pagoda," she told him. She thought it was okay to tell him about it, as the subject seemed quite harmless to her at the moment.
"Why is that? Are you religious now?" he asked, surprised, almost concerned.
"No. I'm just curious. Besides, it can't hurt to have some Vietnamese contacts and practice speaking Vietnamese."
"I didn't know you wanted to. You never said you wanted to!"
Nhật Lệ began to regret bringing it up. The topic wasn't as harmless as she thought.
"This is also new to me. I just stumbled upon it by chance. The pagoda isn't far from where I work."
Now it occurred to Nhật Lệ that this would soon no longer be true. The new job was right between her home and the pagoda. Would she still have so much time to make a detour every week to visit Minh?
"What is it like there? How did you even get there? What do you do there? What do you get out of it?"
"Oh, Father!" she sighed, taking a sip of apple spritzer, hoping her father would change the subject.
"I'm sorry, but I wonder why you're doing this? Do you have to pay anything when you go there?"
"No, I don't have to pay anything. Why do you ask that? I'm not doing anything wrong, what kind of reaction is that?"
Her father didn't answer, but just looked at her in an offended way. She immediately felt guilty.
"I'm sorry, but I want to be allowed to have my experiences. Can you please trust me?"
He still didn't answer. Nhật Lệ felt the need to save the situation, but also to escape. But they remained silent until the bill arrived.
"How was your last day at work?" asked Minh when Nhật Lệ came in.
The scene had become so familiar to her that she sometimes felt like she was living in a loop, reliving the same experience over and over again - she found it reassuring.
She told him about the coffee with her colleagues, about the parting gifts she could do little with: A Sudoku book, the Maneki Neko waving cat, and an "Asian cookbook".
"These are things from your home country," she was told as she unpacked the bag, looking confused.
"Didn't you ever tell them you were from Vietnam?" Minh asked her.
"I'm not from Vietnam," Nhật Lệ replied, rolling her eyes. "But that's okay, they don't know any better."
"Do you like Sudoku?"
"No, I prefer crossword puzzles." Nhật Lệ had to admit that she was surprised that Minh knew Sudoku.
"Are you excited about the new company?" Minh asked after handing her some tea.
She thought for a moment and finally answered: "I'm glad to have escaped the old job, but there's no reason to be excited about the new one. It's a job I'm paid to do. I don't expect anything else out of it."
"That's reasonable," Minh commented, nodding to himself. Nhật Lệ was surprised to hear this.
"And you're not going to lecture me about only doing things you're passionate about?"
"That's a different topic. But it's good not to get too excited about something or too sad about something."
That sounds like him, Nhật Lệ thought. She thought he always looked the same, not only because he wore the same clothes every day and his head was always shaved, but also because he always had the same expression on his face. He would win every time he played poker. But he would never play poker.
Most of the time, Nhật Lệ was afraid of imposing herself on others, but she never had that feeling with Minh. For one thing, she thought that as a monk he certainly didn't have any negative thoughts or feelings. For another, there was a chance that he enjoyed her company as much as she enjoyed his.
"What do your parents say about you changing jobs?" Minh suddenly asked during dinner. Only now did Nhật Lệ remember that she had never told him about her mother. However, she didn't know if he knew that his family situation was known to all visitors to the pagoda.
"I haven't told my father yet. I can't tell my mother because I don't know her. I think she left after I was born, but I don't know much about it."
It was the first time Nhật Lệ had talked about this with anyone. She was surprised at how easily the words came out of her mouth. Although she was a little nervous, everything felt right.
"I'm sorry to hear that," Minh replied. "Would you like to talk more about it?"