That question popped up every single time I have an interview, or a conversation with basically anyone. There would be a few options for me to choose from, depending on the occasion and the level of intimacy between me and the other person: 1/ I wanted to go back to Vietnam to contribute to my country, 2/ I had some family issues, and 3/ I couldn’t stand the life in the U.S.
All are true, especially the last one.
It was December of 2011. A snow storm had just ended and the foot of snow that covered the whole campus before had just been shoveled into dirty, black piles scattered around. The temperature was well below 0. Everyone had left the campus to go home for Christmas and New Year, only a few international students stayed back.
I lay on my bed, the running laptop a few inches from me. Under 4 layers of blankets, I sweated all over. The freezing night wind blew through the closed window. I tried to pull the blind to cover the leak but couldn’t stop it, so I pushed my head under the blankets. With the splitting headache, I soon had to give up from the suffocation.
I had had this persistent 40-degree fever for a whole week and coughed as if my throat was going to tear into pieces. Everyday I took 4-5 advil pills and overdosed on cough syrup that I thought I might develop an addiction. But nothing changed. i wanted to go to the hospital, but how was I going to afford a doctor appointment? I only had 300 dollars in my bank account, 300 for me to survive 2 more weeks of winter break and the first 2 weeks of the spring semester, until my first paycheck came.
“I can lend you some money” – Ruohui told me, but I shook my head. Of course I could. But how was I going to pay her back? My first paycheck didn’t come until the first week of February, but even then I would have to use it to pay back the school loan, and so would I to all other paychecks – my parents had stopped being able to support me completely and I had to take up a part of my school tuition.
Even if I had money, how was I going to go to the hospital? It was 10 miles away, in Harrisburg. There was a clinic just 5 minutes drive from my dorm, but that would mean a 20-25 minute walk in sub-zero degree. And I couldn’t even walk properly to the kitchen. The overdose cough syrup, the hunger from eating only a steamed sweet potato for the whole day for the past week, and the sleepless nights made my head ache and spin worse than in the worst hangover.
I looked at the address list in my phone, hoping to see a name who I could ask for a favor. They had all left for their homes in different states. Anna and Trang were all the way in California. Reva was in Ohio. And Daniel was God knew where. Bahamas, maybe? Given up, I read the text messages in my inbox. Reva wished me to get well soon before switching to her story of anonymously texting her crush. Anna told me to take care of myself. And Daniel’s last text to me was weeks ago, asking me to go spinning with him.
What did I expect?
But Ruohui was different. She was my best friend. She was supposed to care for me, not watching Chinese dramas in the other room like this. Or at least, when she cooked dinner, she could have cooked a little bit more so that I didn’t have to starve in bed? I paid for the food in the fridge too.
Music came out of my laptop. It was my mom calling me via skype. I hadn’t called her for months. In fact, I never phoned her, just once every week, I left her messages on skype telling her I was still alive, and once every break, we skyped. I was scared of talking to her. The recent divorce and financial difficulty made her bitter and depressed, which in turn was infectious even through the internet.
Right the moment she whispered “hello, darling”, I burst out in tears. Gosh, this fever, this drowsiness, this hunger, this headache, this fucking wind coming through the window, this dirtiness from sweating for days without showering, I was broken up into pieces. I had never felt so abandoned, so lonely, so betrayed. Ruohui was my best friend. We cried, we laughed, we shared secrets. Reva was my best buddy. We did everything together. Daniel said he loved me. I thought he meant it.
My mother cried when she knew I had been sick for a whole week but couldn’t go to the hospital. She told me to use the money in her account for the health check. That money was her salary she just got paid – and she needed that to survive a whole month just like I did, but she told me to use it anyway.
The first one to cry for me. The first one to lend me money even though I could never pay her back.
We cried together. That moment, I would do anything, anything, to be in her arms. But we were half way around the world apart, and all I could do was cry to her through skype, my heart broken into pieces from the homesickness.
That was the moment I realized in your worst time, only family cared about you. That was the moment I realized no one loved you more than your family and nothing was more important than your family. That was the moment I realized everything in this country – all the friends I made, all the love I thought I had – was just an episode passing by in my life and did not mean anything anymore. That was the moment I realized what was real and eternal.
Dear interviewers, friends, acquaintances, that was the moment I decided to go back home and nothing could change that.