“The ideal family”?

Last week, I had a chat with a friend about my favorite topic, the Vietnamese family. The “traditional Vietnamese ideal family”, we both agreed, was one where the husband worked more to support the family and had a lot of say in big matters whereby the woman would take care of household issues and childrearing. Each person has a well-defined role (by the contract they made among themselves and by social expectation).

Nothing new here. This ideal version says a lot about our cultural values: unity and harmony above all else. If most husbands and wives are happy with this “ideal”, society will be cohesive. There will be some outliers, but most families would hope to become the ideal.

My friend then mentioned that such ideal might not be the ideal after all. The husband can feel too much entitled for his contribution (is that what a lot of men feel? I’m somewhat disappointed of my own race… I understand that males need to have big egos to survive and thrive and procreate from evolutionary perspective, but that’s a bit too much. Big ego is the nemesis of unity).

This isn’t too new either, for I have lived overseas for several years. In the West, invididual right is at the core of how people think about living; consequently, the division of labor in the family is less pronounced because every member of the family should be treated and contribute to the family on roughly equal terms.

I was raised by a widowed mother, so these points weren’t immediately applicable. However, I thought about the host parents I was living with in Saigon. The division of labor was clear: My aunt would do all the housework; my uncle would spend time on business. My aunt often came back home earlier, had dinner and enjoyed TV programs while my uncle came home late after hanging out with his friends and went upstairs to read online news or play computer games. Ok, so what do all these observations mean?

Living with other people and seeing their different lifestyles have two distinct benefits on me. First, I became a lot more accepting. It’s no surprise that as we meet more people, we withhold our judgments more readily because everyone is different! My aunt and uncle chose to live that life, so it must be something they both prefer. How can I know I am better to judge that it’s not as good? If a drug addict tells me he’s enjoying his life, what can I do? Live and let live, right?

Thinking this way requires two assumptions: first, people know what they like. Second, they are telling us what they really think. We can examine these assumptions, but that’s for another philosophical essay. For now, pointing out these two assumptions should help us see that there are ways to counter this argument.

The second benefit, which is more important for me, is that as I had more exposure to different lifestyles, I understood much better what made me tick. I personally would not want to live this way, having too little interaction with my future spouse. Admittedly, there must be personal time and space. But part of the social contract of marriage includes time together. Conversation is not always necessary, but at least one must feel the presence of each other in everyday life (literally). I believe that “Quality of a relationship = Time spent together x Depth of each interaction.”, as mentioned in my previous post on friendship.

I appreciate the value of such division of labor in the family. It frees up the husband to earn enough money to support their needs. It also lets the traditional wife perform what she’s good at: taking care of household issues. It’s great if the goal is to maximize efficiency in dealing with money and household matters. But that may not be the only goal, especially up to the point where the family has sufficient financial support. The goal now maybe to spend more quality time together and rejoice, not get bored, in each other’s presence. In the end, how can love and mutual understanding, the most important factors of marital satisfaction, grow without interaction?

How much is “enough interaction”? Our preferences keep changing over time, let alone the fact that we have to compromise that with our partner’s too. That takes a lot of planning and constant re-evaluation of our plans. A few of my friends told me “Khuyen are you crazy? This is not a project!” To which I replied “What does “a project” mean for you? For me, it’s a series of steps to achieve a goal”. Building a family, getting fit or finding a job are all projects in that sense, and to do a project well I need to start with a design recipe.  That’s learning in real life.

I’ve seen a number of unsuccessful marriages, divorce or worse – still staying together yet already divorced in hearts. While I’m no counselor, have no experience or even know the full circumstances to judge, these stories still pain me: Why do we make bad choices in such a big matter? (and it’s not one single choice but rather a series of choices, each leading up to the next one in a slippery slope). I need to know the Whys before I can help.

Some people worried for me that I was thinking too much, “You still had the entire young adult life in front of you to explore the world, why bother thinking about this, Mr Old-n-Wise?”
I appreciate their concerns. I don’t think I’m spending too much time on this; it’s only one blog post, a few hours of thinking here and there. Maybe a few hours less from Facebook (still surfing too many random feeds anyway). Plus, for something of this big, it doesn’t harm to think in advance. Learning from both positive and negative examples is never wasted. And isn’t seeing the lives of people part of this great exploration?

As usual, after writing a blogpost I end up with more questions than before. How can I and my host parents think so different? Is there really a better version of the “ideal family”? What if they haven’t tried living a different lifestyle and thus not having enough information to choose? If so, what is my role?

I recalled another friend’s favorite quote: “You can’t change the way people live, but you can live the way that will make people change.” Perhaps that’s the answer for me now.

p/s: Perhaps I have been thinking about this topic since my brother is getting married soon. Can you believe that my 3-year-older brother who used to play pranks with me around the neighborhood is marrying in less than a month!?

p/s2: I initially planned to write a looooong reflection from these two months living in Saigon, but with this rate of writing I probably won’t have time before school to clear up all my notes to publish. At least I recorded all of them down.


Thinking through my letter to mom.

“So it’s going to be my 5th year staying away from home. It’s the 11th time I go to Noi Bai airport for an international flight. Mixed emotions, and I guess you too, mom.

This 9 month staying at home with you has taught me a lot. I was used to the communal living style in the boarding school where I was constantly surrounded by people. In contrast, I’ve been living alone from 8am to 7.30pm on most days at home. Only then did I realize I had taken the human warmth for granted. Do you remember I often sulk when you come home later than 7.30pm without notifying me? I have been waiting for someone for the whole day!

I thought you felt the same too when you came back to the hauntingly empty house after a long day at work, and that’s why I always wanted to wait for you for dinner: to compensate for the time that I’m not around. My number one worry before I leave this time is how you will live alone again. I asked you that question and of course I didn’t trust your answer “Don’t worry, I’m fine”. Now I’m glad to tell you that I no longer worry about that: observing you for the past few months assures me that you indeed had been and would be fine living in solitude.

And that’s the first lesson you may not know you’ve taught me. I thought I was the extroverted type who always needed other people around, but I’ve indeed learnt to spend time on myself. I have lived slowly. I’ve lived more contentedly in the first half of the year than I thought.

Another lesson you taught me was that the deepest influences come from leading by example. Nothing touches the heart more than true authenticity. You may not be as funny, stylish or intellectual as other mothers, but you walk your talks. You teach me to be nice with people, and times and times again people come and whisper to me how nice you are. That coherence is what matters.

It meant a lot when I came home at 11pm and found the hot soup on the table while you were asleep. You didn’t do that to show me that you were a caring mom; you did that because you were a caring mom. In juxtaposition with you I feel I’m so petty. Many times I do things because that would make me look good in the eyes of others.

You have taught me a lot that non achieving is the real achievement. That developing relationship should be my goal.

There are things that you may not be aware, but I’ve learnt from you nonetheless. That the fact that we are all fallible and idiosyncratic sometimes just makes us more human and loveable. That we have hope. That a quiet life has nothing to do with a meaningless life.

And there are things I have yet to agree with you. While I’m fully aware that when I’m 50 I may just want to take care of my family, for now I don’t want to settle yet. I still want to maximize my impact. [……]”

<I wanted to share part of the letter so I translated it into English.>
A few more thoughts when I looked at that letter again recently.

I may sound like idolizing my mother. Yes, she is a great mom, and I do feel immense gratitude and admiration for her singlehandedly taking care of the family. It’s not easy being sandwiched by two naughty boys and a grumpy mother-in-law without going crazy. But she is not perfect, and that is precisely what matters.

Living with such a humble person definitely makes me more mindful of myself, because I have a constant reference point.  She once told me about her Buddhist beliefs and practices “I’m not as bright and eloquent as you are and so I can’t express the ideas clearly to you, but you have to practice in order to see it”. I was deeply touched at that moment: here she was, a humble and loving mother, aware of her own weaknesses and still wanted to do her best to help. Perhaps (some) maturity and more conversations helped me seeing her in this new light and gave me a fuller understanding of her as a human.

Now is the strange part: once I start seeing her not only as my mother but also as an ordinary person I feel even closer to her. Couples often talk about how they love each other’s idiosyncrasies. The common sense explanation is perhaps that the romantic passionate love usually overcompensates these flaws (think “love blinds”). Apparently it doesn’t apply to mother-son relationship. I’m well aware that I’m endlessly indebted to her, but that has nothing to do with also accepting her flaws and mistakes. I accept because I have learnt to see her for all she is: a human.

I’m probably the top 0.01% luckiest people on Earth for not having the pressure to return a huge financial investment by parents in their kids’ education. Because of that, I’m freed up to think about how best I should pay back my unfathomable debt. Some people advise me to make my mom proud. It certainly feels nice to hear “Oh your son is so good he achieves this and that”, but I suspect if that good feeling lasts long. Most importantly, isn’t it true that how much my mom is proud of me depends on her more than on me? I think any mom can be immensely proud by the amazing fact that she is a mom. The advice should be for moms, not children.

For the New Years that I was away from home,  she asked me to call and wish happy new year to a few people who have helped her a lot throughout her life. I used to feel very awkward and even fake when I wished someone whom I didn’t have a strong personal connection with – after all, my cynical self asked “Do you even care that much?”. But I stopped fearing that awkwardness because of what they always said after my wishes “Thank you. Your mother must be very blessed to have you”. Then they would text or call my mom to say exactly the same thing: “You must be very blessed to have your son”. Then my mom would tell me about that text or call, and I would be deaf if I could not sense the immeasureable joy in her words. That is what she cared about: building relationship. She wanted to express her gratitude to these people – how better can one do so than saying “Not just I but my entire family is thankful of you”? And of course she walked her talk right there. She really wanted me to be thankful.

Ultimately, the only thing she cares about my decisions is whether they will make me a good person. Same for what I want to her. She is generally more contented than many adults I know, but she too has to deal with the vicissitudes of daily life. She too is on a journey to become a better person, and I am a part of that journey. For how can a good person not be a good child, and a how can a good child not want his parents to live truly better?

The red plastic mess tin

This post was another essay that I wrote for college app but didn’t use in the end. It brought me back lots of childhood memories and emotional attachments. It’s just not suitable for my application, but I liked it nonetheless.
Mình có dịch ra bản tiếng Việt ở dưới.


For years, the street vendors selling all kinds of food on Dai La Street knew me as “the boy with the red plastic mess tin”.

Every morning, my grandmom would ask: “What is my grandson craving for today?” By buying her breakfast, I would always get a share of it as a reward. Yet, mom wouldn’t be very happy if I shared with grandmom. She said, rather contemptuously, “What’s so special about eating out? So expensive for so little. Eat at home, nutritious, delicious and cheap.” She thought that not eating home cooked food would spoil me. More importantly, I knew how little grandmom ate. She had to eat more.

Thus, the fight between me and my grandmom began. Whoever ate a larger share would lose.

“Whatever up to you grandmom. It’s your breakfast!” I replied in the most indifferent voice I could act, as if buying for her was just my duty.

She insisted for my preference, so I suggested phở – the traditional Vietnamese soup noodle – with chicken intestines. It was a bizarre combination to many people, but I knew for sure she loved it. The best part was I couldn’t eat intestines, so she would have to finish all. One-zero for me.

Grandmom’s ways to counter me were brilliant. From then on, she ordered me to buy beef phở, knowing well that it was my greatest temptation ever. She asked me to eat first when the plastic mess tin was still so hot that it almost burnt my fingers. I resolved to eat just a bit, but ended up finishing almost everything.

Thus, the next time, I made her eat first by deliberately going somewhere else and only coming back after a long time. To my disappointment, she said when I returned: “They gave us so much today that I can’t finish.” I begged: “You can, grandmom. You eat more, please!”, but she was even more stubborn. The whole mess tin of phở, laden with untouched slices of beef and sometimes an added omelet – the most costly and nutritious parts, was then for me. Half way through my eating, she asked “Where have you gone for so long? It has gotten cold”. I stammered, sheepishly: “Grandmom, please just eat. No need to wait for me ”.

Better yet, sometimes she would grimace in struggle to swallow, or even spit out right after touching the soup. “It tastes so horrible today”, she would say. I was sure it tasted just as good, if not better. Plus, who would still buy phở four times a week with such an intense dislike? To alleviate the guilt, I brought the mess tin downstairs to eat with the rice and vegetables that mom cooked. I would eat until my stomach bloated to show mom “You see, I can still eat your food!”

However, after seeing grandmom’s ebbing health, I was determined to win. I reused her trick, playing on our thriftiness: “Grandmom, I already ate so full with mom. If you throw away, I will give it to our dog”. Grandmom finished all. She still could. I was encouraged. I could win the fight. I could win her back.

“Grandson, what are you craving for today?” She still asked me in her tender, fading voice. I forced her, frantically: “Phở, won’t you? Phở with chicken intestines. You have always loved it!” She didn’t have to pretend to hate it anymore. She could really have only a few spoonfuls of what previously was her favorite.

I lost, completely.

Whenever I return home, I buy chicken intestines phở, still with that mess tin, and put on her tomb. “Grandmom, you eat first. It’s still hot”. And while she’s eating, I whisper to her “Grandmom, we had a great fight, didn’t we?”

p/s: My mom later told me that pho with chicken intestines was the cheapest – my grandmom wanted it so that she could give me the most.


Các cô các bác bán quà sáng ở con phố Đại La kiểu gì cũng biết đến thằng bé với cái cặp lồng đỏ.

Cứ mỗi sớm, bà tôi lại hỏi “Hôm nay cháu bà thèm ăn gì?” Tôi biết là mua đồ ăn sáng cho bà kiểu gì tôi cũng được ăn một phần. Nhưng mà mẹ không thích tôi ăn chung với bà. Mẹ bảo “Ăn ở ngoài có gì ngon đâu, lại đắt nữa. Ăn ở nhà, ngon, bổ rẻ”. Thực ra mẹ không muốn tôi được chiều, nghĩ rằng ăn ở ngoài nhiều sẽ làm tôi hư. Hơn thế nữa, tôi biết bà nội tôi chả ăn được mấy. Bà tôi phải ăn nhiều nữa lên!

Và thế là bà tôi và tôi phải luôn đấu tranh: ai ăn nhiều hơn người đó sẽ thua.

“Ăn cái gì cũng được bà ơi. Quà sáng của bà mà.” Tôi giả vờ hục hặc như thế nhiều đến nỗi đôi khi tôi hục hặc thật, như thể việc đi mua đồ ăn sáng chỉ là nghĩa vụ của tôi thôi ấy.

Bà tôi vẫn gặng hỏi nên tôi đành bảo bà mua phở với lòng gà. Lạ lắm phải không? Nhiều người thấy lạ nhưng tôi chắc chắn  bà tôi rất thích. Phần thích nhất là tôi không ăn được lòng mề nên bà tôi phải ăn hết. 1-0 cho cháu.

Tôi không vui mừng được lâu, vì bà tôi phản công giỏi quá. Từ hôm đấy trở đi, bà không hỏi mà bắt tôi mua phở bò tái lăn, thừa biết là tôi thèm món đấy nhất. Tôi từng nghĩ  thực sự thì ai chả thèm. Bà tôi bảo tôi ăn trước đi cho nó nóng, nóng đến mức mà cái cặp lồng nhựa còn làm bỏng tay tôi. Ban đầu tôi quyết tâm quyết tâm ăn mấy muôi thôi, nhưng mà cám dỗ quá tôi vét gần sạch cả cặp lồng.

Tôi phải trả đũa. Hôm sau, tôi bắt bà tôi ăn trước bằng cách giả vờ đi chỗ khác và nửa tiếng sau mới quay lại. Một mũi tên bắn chết hai con nhạn luôn: không nhìn thấy tôi sẽ không thèm nữa. Bà tôi cao tay hơn. Bà bảo khi thấy tôi quay lại “Hôm nay người ta cho nhiều quá, bà không ăn hết”. “Bà ăn được hết mà bà ơi, bà cứ ăn nữa đi!” . Tôi khăng khăng nhưng bà nội còn bướng hơn thằng cháu. Thế là cả một cặp lồng phở, toàn thịt chưa sờ vào, thỉnh thoảng còn thêm quả trứng –cái phần bổ nhất – là của tôi. Đang ăn dở, bà tôi vỗ vai bảo “Nãy giờ cháu đi đâu lâu thế, nguội hết cả rồi”. Tôi lí nhí “Bà ơi, bà cứ ăn đi mà. Đừng đợi cháu làm gì”.

Oái oăm hơn nữa, thỉnh thoảng bà tôi vừa ăn được một thìa còn nhăn mặt, cố nuốt và thậm chí còn nhổ ra. “Hôm nay người ta nấu dở quá’’. Tôi đảm bảo phở ăn vẫn ngon như mọi ngày (người ta bán hàng mấy chục năm nay làm sao mà khác được?). Chưa kể là nếu phở không ngon như thế thì ai còn khăng khăng bắt tôi mua một tuần mấy lần nữa? Tội lỗi quá, nhưng mà bỏ phí phải tội chết. Mà ăn no thế này bụng đâu mà ăn cơm, mẹ tôi lại mắng. Thế là tôi mang cả cặp lồng xuống nhà ăn với cơm rau mẹ tôi nấu, ăn đến khi no vỡ cả bụng. “Mẹ thấy chưa, con ăn của bà nhưng vẫn ăn được cơm của mẹ nữa!”

Tôi cứ thua thế như vậy suốt cho đến khi bà tôi bắt đầu hơi ốm. Tôi phải thắng. Tôi dùng lại kế cũ của bà, lợi dụng tính tiết kiệm của nhà tôi. “Bà ơi, cháu ăn cơm với mẹ cháu no lắm rồi. Bà không ăn là cháu đổ đi cho chó luôn đấy”. Bà tôi ăn hết cặp lồng phở. Tôi vui lắm. Tôi có cửa thắng trò này rồi. Tôi có thể thắng bệnh của bà rồi.

“Hôm nay cháu bà thèm ăn gì?” Bà nội vẫn hỏi thằng cháu đi xa về với giọng ân cần đấy, nhưng giọng bà yếu đi nhiều rồi. “Phở bà nhé! Phở lòng gà. Bà thích ăn cái đấy nhất mà”. Bà tôi không phải giả bộ là bà không thèm ăn nữa rồi. Thực sự bà chỉ ăn được có vài thìa. Tôi cũng chẳng muốn ăn phần còn lại nữa.

Tôi thua.

Mỗi khi về nhà, tôi lại mua phở lòng gà trong cái cặp lồng đỏ cũ đấy và đặt lên mộ bà nội. “Bà ăn trước đi bà không nguội”. Bà đang ăn dở, tôi nói thầm “Bà cháu mình vẫn chơi trò này ác nhỉ?”

p/s: sau này mẹ bảo tôi mới biết: phở lòng gà rẻ nhất, mua về chia cho cháu được nhiều nhất.

The black butterfly



I initially wrote this for my US application essay, but a few days before the deadline I wrote another piece. Don’t get me wrong: I still like it a lot, but it doesn’t seem to be the right personal statement for me. It is more like a glimpse of my life.

A black butterfly flitted across the rays through my window slits, as if it was playing these twinkling frets of light. Many people believed it was a bad omen, but grandma told us something different: “It’s him!”

I never believed in superstition, but how else could anyone explain the presence of that black butterfly the same day every year since I could recall? It had been twelve years. Everything in this house had a fragment of memory of him: The fish pond with boulders of strange, algae-covered shapes, the old wooden toolbox full of oil smell, the modest plant at the corner of the lush garden. Yet, the only tangible thing that I could barely identify myself with was a stained photo on the altar that I stared at often. A lanky face with slightly disheveled hair, wide forehead and somewhat aggressive eyes. It stuck in my mind. How did I, this fifteen years old son, in any way, resemble him?

“The more you grow up, the more you look like your dad” said my neighboring barber. Having my hair cut had always been a chance to learn more about some astonishing facts. If our appearances were not the same, then at least some personality traits could be? “He was stubborn, hot-tempered and carefree. Loved dismantling things and putting them back. Loved speed or anything risky. Too naively nice all the time”.  My little hope shattered. I thought of my brother, of the oily toolbox and of the hours he spent upgrading his motorbike, undoubtedly oblivious to mom’s frustrated scolding. That sounded more like him. I was fumbling in my pocket searching for the bills when the barber stopped me. “No no, it’s free. He was almost like my brother.” At least I was sure that my dad was a great friend.

“Finish all these vegetarian dishes. Your dad would never touch them. He would bang the entire tray if he didn’t like the meal,” said my mother. “You’d better be thankful you never saw it” added my brother, who, according to mom, inherited most of my dad’s traits. I was puzzled: it didn’t fit in what I thought I knew about him from that inanimate photo on the altar. “You know he hated vegetarian food; why did you cook so much?” I asked mom.”Because in our family, we never want anyone to have too little. By the way, you finished all didn’t you? You are really his proud successors. All three have equally huge appetite” She sighed, rather quizzically. I could sense in that ambivalence a tinge of nostalgia, but perhaps a note of genuine pride in seeing her two sons eat like giants. I wanted to cheer her up by joking “Mom, if he were still here, you wouldn’t have to worry about your weight. You would be too busy serving for us!” I didn’t, though.

Without knowing the whole picture, I fill the unfound pieces of this jigsaw called “My Dad” with my own imagination. A brief recollection from an old friend, an outdated cassette tape with 1990s songs or just a dusty photo, every seemingly trivial discovery gives me a little, tingling joy – the joy of knowing a bit more about an unfamiliar person that I’m supposed to be similar to, of wondering about the vast differences, and of realizing that I’m simultaneously putting together the jigsaw portrait of My Dad’s Son with even more confidence.

On his sixteenth death anniversary, the first anniversary that I wasn’t at home, I was sure that fluttering shadow would still visit my house. I saw through the black butterfly the image of a vaguely familiar man. A voice rang in my head “I’m always home”.  For a moment, I did think that was my dad’s voice, but then I remembered it was mine. And that was when I realized the part the two jigsaw portraits have in common: a piece called “Family”.

I translated it into Vietnamese for my mom to read. She liked it (I think). Anyway, as strange as it may seem, it was quite hard to translate it into my mother tongue because the piece was originally written in English. Not sure if it’s a sign that my Vietnamese has got much worse 😦

Chú bướm đen khẽ lướt trên chùm nắng rọi qua khung cửa sổ, làm nắng lấp lánh lên như thể những phím đàn bằng ánh sáng. Nhiều người nghĩ bướm đen là vận xui, nhưng bà tôi bảo bọn tôi khác cơ. “Bố mày đấy!”

Tôi chả bao giờ tin vào mấy cái mê tín, nhưng làm sao mà từ hồi tôi còn bé tí, giờ này năm nào tôi cũng nhìn thấy chú bướm đen này? Mười hai năm rồi đấy. Mọi thứ trong nhà dường như đều còn đọng lại một chút kỉ niệm từ bố: cái bể cá với những hòn non bộ trông là lạ phủ đầy rêu phong, cái hộp gỗ đựng cờ lê mỏ lết đầy mùi dầu xe hay cái cây nhỏ góc vườn cây cảnh của ông nội tôi. Lạ thật. Thế mà điều duy nhất làm tôi cảm nhận được bố lại chỉ là tấm chân dung cũ đã hơi phai trên bàn thờ mà tôi thường ngắm nhìn. Gương mặt gầy gò, tóc hơi bù xù một tí nhưng vầng trán rất rộng. Đôi mắt nghiêm nghị đấy lắm lúc còn làm tôi sợ. Thằng bé 15 tuổi này giống bố nó kiểu gì nhỉ?

“Cháu càng lớn trông càng giống bố”.
Chú thợ cắt tóc hàng xóm thường bảo tôi thế. Việc cắt tóc ở nhà với tôi luôn là dịp biết thêm một vài ngạc nhiên nhỏ. Dù tôi với bố trông không giống nhau lắm, biết đâu tính cách lại như nhau thì sao? “Bố cháu hồi đấy bướng lắm, hơi nóng tính nhưng xuề xòa không bao giờ để bụng. Lúc nào cũng thích dỡ ra lắp vào mấy cái máy móc, đặc biệt là xe cộ. Ưa tốc độ, ưa mạo hiểm. Nghe có vẻ sành sỏi thế nhưng bố cháu lúc nào cũng quá tốt, nhiều khi tốt đến mức nhẹ dạ cả tin ấy.” Hi vọng nhỏ bé của tôi thế là đi tong: tôi nghĩ ngay đến anh trai tôi, tới cái hộp gỗ đựng cờ lê mỏ lết. Anh tôi có thể ngồi cả ngày độ xe máy đến mức mẹ tôi mắng mãi đâm ra chán. Thế mới là giống bố chứ.

Thấy tôi lục túi trả tiền, chú thợ cắt tóc bảo ngay “Không, chú không lấy tiền đâu. Bố cháu với chú như anh em mà.” Ít nhất tôi biết bố là một người bạn tốt.

“Bí ăn hết mấy món chay đi, bố không bao giờ đụng đũa vào đâu. Bố mà không thích bữa cơm là đập hết đấy”. Mẹ tôi bảo. Anh tôi chêm vào. “May cho mày là mày chưa nhìn thấy thế bao giờ đấy”. Lạ thật, tôi cứ tưởng bố tôi không hung dữ như thế cơ, nhìn ảnh không đến nỗi nào mà.
“Sao mẹ nấu nhiều đồ chay thế, đằng nào bố cũng không ăn mà?” “Tại vì nhà mình không ai được để ai đói cả con ạ, thừa còn hơn thiếu. Mà hai đứa cũng vét sạch cả mâm rồi còn gì. Chả khác gì bố”. Mẹ tôi hơi đăm chiêu. Trong tiếng thở dài đấy tôi cảm giác như mẹ đang nhớ lại chuyện cũ. Mẹ cũng có vẻ tự hào khi thấy hai thằng con ăn như voi. Tôi đùa “Mẹ ơi, bố mà còn ở đây mẹ chả phải lo chuyện giảm cân nữa rồi, tay xới cơm liên tục thì ăn kiểu gì nữa”.

Tôi tự tưởng tượng ra những mảnh ghép còn thiếu của bức xếp hình mang tên bố dù không bao giờ biết tấm ảnh gốc. Dăm ba câu chuyện mấy chú bạn cũ kể lại, cuộn băng cát sét với những bài hát tiếng tây từ những năm 90 bố tôi đi tàu biển mang về (tôi nghe bài Heal the world lần đầu tiên từ đấy) hay đơn giản chỉ là một tấm ảnh cũ, mỗi khám phá nho nhỏ như thế lại làm tôi thấy vui vui – niềm vui khi biết thêm về một người tôi chưa gặp bao giờ mà tôi đáng ra phải giống. Tôi chợt nhận ra rằng khi nghĩ về người đó và tự hỏi sao chúng tôi khác nhau vậy, tôi đang tìm ra những mảnh ghép để hoàn thiện bức tranh mang tên mình.

Ngày giỗ thứ 16 của bố là lần đầu tôi không ở nhà, nhưng chắc chắn chú bướm đen đấy vẫn đến. Cái bóng đen bé xíu ấy như đang phác lên trong đầu tôi hình bóng của một người đàn ông vừa là lạ vừa thân quen. Và rồi một giọng nói chợt vang lên “Mình luôn ở đấy mà”. Trong phút chốc, tôi tưởng đấy là bố đang nói, nhưng rồi nhớ lại đấy là mình.

À, hiểu rồi, hai tấm ảnh ấy đều có chung một điểm: một mảnh ghép mang tên gia đình.