She looks just like her father. A refrain that compresses my large eyes, high forehead, broad nose, and plump lips into an image of a man that lives in my mother’s photographs from Vietnam. I wonder if my mother gets tired of hearing this.

In the 1980s, my mother and father were high school sweethearts. My mother was one of the smartest students in her class, and my father was the handsome boy who lifted weights and practiced ballroom dance. They wanted to get married.

Earlier that decade, my mother’s brothers escaped Vietnam by boat and arrived in America. They found jobs and wives there, and planned to sponsor their parents to join them. US immigration also allowed my uncles to sponsor their siblings, but only if these siblings were single. Without marital ties, departing from one’s home country would result in a clean and uncomplicated break.

My mother, the hopeless romantic, treasured her love more than a coveted ticket to America. She and my father thought that if they had a baby together, their families would expect them to get married, giving her a reason to stay behind in Vietnam.

My father didn’t even wait until I was born before he started to see another woman, who would later become his wife. This woman would also give my father a child, six years later.

On my birth certificate, on the line that asked for the name of my father, my mother wrote nothing. A year and a half later, she carried me onto a plane to America and left him behind.


In the summer of 2019, when I was about to turn 29, I prepared to go on one last big vacation in Asia with my partner, Jimmy, before I started a new job. My mother encouraged me to meet my father and half-brother during our stop in Vietnam. I had seen them during my last trip seven years ago. My half-brother hardly said a word to me, and my father had one too many beers, exuding a bravado about how well things were going for him. I felt like a foreigner in my birth country, a stranger to my family. The daughter my father did not hold on to.

“But he’s your father and always will be,” my mother reminded me.

“What has he done to make him my father?” I retorted.

She didn’t have a response to this. The gulf of silence between me and my father felt too wide. For years, I’d left his Facebook friend request pending.

“You don’t have to go back,” Jimmy suggested gently. “We can fly right past Vietnam.”


6:25 pm. The elevator doors open to the Hotel Majestic Saigon lobby, and Jimmy and I step out and take a seat on the French jacquard chairs. With my back to the hotel’s entrance, I shift around in my chair, glancing over my shoulder whenever I hear the swish of the revolving doors.

Five minutes later, exactly on time, my father steps through the spinning doors. He hasn’t changed much. Just a few more creases around the eyes and a rounder stomach. His eyes are watery and red. He approaches me briskly, stretches out his arms like Christ the Redeemer, and wraps me in a tight embrace. “My daughter,” he says. A sniffle presses against my ear.

Still gripped in my father’s arms, I stare at the tall slender boy over his shoulder. The boy holds two dozen cherry red roses bound into a perfect globe-shaped bouquet. He looks at me through his black rimmed glasses. I take in the same large eyes, high forehead, broad nose, and plump lips. I see myself reflected back to me.

“For you, chị,” my brother says, handing me the roses.

“Cảm ơn. This is so nice,” I say in English, too flustered to reach for the Vietnamese phrases I know how to say. I can’t tell if the flowers were his idea or my father’s. “Let me go put them upstairs before we go.” I bolt to the elevators, leaving my father, brother, and Jimmy standing under the golden glow of the lobby’s chandeliers.


We decide on dinner at a dim sum restaurant, where my father orders plate after plate of carefully wrapped assorted dumplings that come in pairs. My brother and I ask about each other in a mix of accented English and broken Vietnamese. “What are you studying in school?” “What will you do at your new job?” “What do you like to eat?” I realize I know nothing about my brother.

Tùng pauses to translate our exchanges for our father, who responds by encouraging us to eat more. He’s unusually quiet, observing us while sipping on his beer. “Con muốn ăn gì nữa không? Bố sẽ gọi cho con.” Do you want anything else to eat? Dad will order it for you.

After dinner, we walk towards Hồ Chí Minh City’s Times Square, where rows of exhibition booths display various food products and other consumer packaged goods. With Jimmy and my father a few paces behind us, out of earshot, I ask my brother if this is weird for him, too. “Does it feel strange to suddenly have a sister show up like this, after years?”

Tùng pauses, and I think I’m asking too much too soon.

“I have a lot of cousins, but I’m the oldest. I help them with their problems. I don’t have anyone to give me advice, or someone I can talk to if I have a problem.” I, too, grew up with younger cousins, and know this feeling all too well. “So, I think this is nice,” Tùng says. “I like having an older sister.”

We sheepishly grin at each other.

“I’m sorry I didn’t say anything the last time you visited,” he continues. “I was shy. I was just a kid. I didn’t know what to say.”

We stop to allow Jimmy and my father to catch up with us. My father looks at his children and says, half-whispering and nodding to himself, “Happy, happy.”


Tùng calls me chị, which means elder sister. I don’t know if I deserve this, when I’ve always called myself an only child. Explaining a half-sibling to other people meant exposing a part of myself that has never felt quite whole.

I imagine how much my father must cherish my brother, in a culture where sons are prized. I imagine Tùng getting rides to and from school on the back of my father’s motorbike, and in the evenings, my father sitting with him at dinner, spooning more rice and braised pork into his bowl. On birthdays, Tùng might pose for photos with his mother wrapping her arm around his waist and my father’s arm around his shoulders.

My mother’s love was enough for me. She was always there to help me with my schoolwork and to attend every single one of my dance performances, even through college. I never felt like I had less than other children. But I still fantasized about how it would feel to be the center of gravity that kept two parents balanced and bound together, rather than a distant star that pulled my mother into a solitary orbit.


On my third and final night in Hồ Chí Minh City, my father drives Tùng, Jimmy, and me to a Korean BBQ restaurant near the airport for one last dinner. My father lets us order all the cuts of meat we like, eating very little himself. Tùng asks me for advice about post-college options. He wants to come to America, but says that getting accepted to a graduate program as an international student from Vietnam would not be easy.

“I have to figure these things out for myself,” Tùng explains. “Mom and Dad have never left the country, so they don’t know how to help me with this.”

Listening to my brother’s aspirations and restlessness, I see pieces of my younger self in him. In America, I was the first in my family to go to college and to build a career on my own. Tùng will do the same.

“We could try to get Tùng to America through a marriage visa, but I don’t want him to have to do that,” my father says. “I want my children to choose for themselves what makes them happy in life.”

I want to ask my father if he is content with his own life, with the choices he’s made. Tùng and Jimmy place some more pieces of raw beef onto the grill to fill up the pause in conversation.

“Hey Tùng, do you know the Justin Timberlake song Mirrors?” I ask. He shakes his head. “That’s what I think of when I look at you.” In my best JT falsetto, I sing, “It’s like you’re my mirror, my mirror staring back at me, staring back at me!”

On the other side of the table, Tùng bursts out laughing, and I do too, both of us appearing like the positive and negative of the same photograph.

Jimmy later tells me that I haven’t looked that happy in a long time.


At the airport drop-off, my father hugs me goodbye. He needs to go meet a client. Tùng wants to stay and wait with Jimmy and me until we get past the security checkpoint, to give us a proper send-off, so he tells our father that he’ll hail a ride home via the Grab app.

“What was it like to have Bố with you?” I ask Tùng while we scan the display screens and confirm my flight’s status among the other departures. Jimmy has gone to find a restroom, and this might be the last moment I have alone with my brother.

Tùng looks down at his sneakers. “If I tell you, you might feel disappointed, so maybe I shouldn’t.”

I reassure him that I’ve already been disappointed.

“The only difference between us is that our father lives closer to me. He doesn’t even live with my mom and me. He spends a lot of time on his work, like he did even when I was little.”

Tùng explains that his mom would work long hours so that she could pay for his school tuition, while his grandma cared for him — just like my grandparents would babysit me while my mother earned a living for us.

“Bố isn’t perfect, but he’s our dad. Try to not hold it against him, chị.”

I didn’t know that sharing a father would mean sharing so many things. The same eyes, mouth, laughter, curiosity, but also the same loneliness. I can see now that my brother and I didn’t grow up with the father we needed and wanted. Living over 8,000 miles apart for more than two decades, we may never know the true scope of what we could have been to each other had our parents made different choices, but we know now what we have lost. And found.

“I wish we had more time,” Tùng says.

I try to make my eyes look bright and hopeful, holding back tears. “Next time, we’ll have more,” I promise, embracing him, not knowing when or where we’ll see each other next. Jimmy gives him a hug, too, and we turn to walk away.

In line for security check, I look over my shoulder and Tùng is still there standing in the departure lobby, long arms dangling along his sides, watching us attentively. I grab my bag off the conveyer belt and give him a final wave. He waves back but doesn’t turn to leave until I’m out of sight.


Image: By Huy Anh, licensed under CC 2.0.

Thuy Phan
Latest posts by Thuy Phan (see all)


  1. What a stunning and beautiful piece of writing!! Really enjoyed the read and all the metaphors woven in (wishing you could be the gravity holding your parents together..), and the honesty and authenticity of it. Wonderful job!

  2. Chớp chớp mắt khi mình đọc bài rất nhiều tình cảm này. Siblings rule! I appreciate your writing!


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