Little Bird of Saigon

“Little Bird of Saigon,” Friend, Dec. 1987, 12

Little Bird of Saigon

“You have to tell Ba (Father), Loan (LoAnn).”

Loan looked up at her older brother as they walked home through the snowdrifts. “I … I know, Giang.” She buried her nose deeper into her scarf. “But what will he think when he finds out that I’m singing the solo tonight in our school’s Christmas play?”

Her brother’s answer came in frosty puffs. “I don’t know. It is a great honor that Miss Watson chose you out of all the third graders. But I’m afraid that Ba will not approve. After all, he is a leader in our Buddhist religion, and we do not celebrate Christmas.”

Loan felt tears stinging her eyes. “I wish Ba would understand. Sometimes it’s hard being different. If I was good at something, maybe I could make friends easier.”

“I know, Loan, and you are good at singing.” Her brother put his arm around her. “It’s just that Ba might not like your singing in a Christian program.”

“Loan? Giang?” Their mother called from the front porch.

“We’re coming, Ma (Mother).”

“Ooh, you are wet.” Ma bent to help with their coats, giving them each a kiss. Loan caught the comforting scent of almond shampoo as her mother’s hair swished against her silky aó-dài (long, side-split dress worn over pants). More good smells drifted from the kitchen.

“Mmmm. What’s for dinner?”

“I’m making something special tonight—fish, with your favorite nu’o’ c mam (fish sauce), and mangoes for Uncle Lan.”

“Uncle Lan?” Loan asked.

“Yes, remember? Têt Nguyên Dán (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) is early this year—at the end of January. Uncle Lan has offered to help us get ready for it by fixing our broken couch. Your Aunt Mai and I will sew new clothes.”

Tet, a day filled with fireworks and gifts of money, celebrates the renewal of body and spirit. Loan wondered how she could have forgotten her favorite Vietnamese holiday. She’d forgotten other things too—Buddhist relatives, neighbors, and friends. What would they think if they found out about her solo? Ba would be ashamed.

But it was too late. The play was only a few hours away. Loan stood in the middle of the room, her foot tracing a pattern in the rug. “Ba?”

“Yes?” He looked up from his book. Then, seeing something in her face, his voice turned deep and warm. “Come here, little one. What is it?”

She drew closer, and he put his big hands on her narrow shoulders. Suddenly she was not afraid. Her story poured out.

“Ahhhh.” Wise lines crinkled around her father’s eyes. “Loan, you are too young to remember our home in Vietnam. When you were born in Saigon, it was the season of the rains. Outside our window was a flowering bush where a thrush lived. All day long he sang. I think that that little bird of Saigon gave you his beautiful voice.”

“Then you do not mind?”

“No, my little bird. I am proud for you to be chosen. Go tonight and do your very best. Sing with all your heart and soul.”

“Oh, Ba, thank you.”

“How will you get to the school?”

“One of my classmates, Molly, and her parents will pick me up on the way. There will be a party afterward for my class members and their families in our classroom.”

“I see.” He nodded slowly. “But I wish you to come straight home after the performance. I will send Giang to walk with you.”

“Yes, Ba.

Loan saw her mother standing in the doorway. “I’m sorry I won’t be here for your special dinner,” she said.

“Do not worry.” Her mother smiled softly. “Hurry, and I will have some food for you before you leave.”

A few hours later Loan climbed the platform in the school auditorium. It was time for her solo, “Silent Night,” the final song in the Christmas play. As she took her place by the nativity scene, the rest of her class filed onstage behind her, holding pinpoint flashlights.

“Shhhh,” Miss Watson signaled. The auditorium lights dimmed, and the curtain swept back to reveal a sea of faces. Loan could feel her knees begin to tremble nervously. Her mouth felt dry. Then Ba’s words floated into her memory: “Sing with all your heart and soul.” She pictured the thrush singing in his flowering bush, and her voice sailed out over the audience, high and pure. “… Sleep in heavenly peace.” On her closing notes, the lights went out. Only the children’s flashlights dotted the dark like a sprinkle of stars. The applause was thunderous.

As the curtains closed, Molly hugged Loan. “You were wonderful,” she whispered. Miss Watson and Loan’s classmates beamed at her.

Loan smiled, too, but her pleasure didn’t last long. Her classmates were already hurrying off the stage to join their families. They were getting ready for the party, and Loan knew that she must leave with Giang.

As the lights went up, Loan spotted Giang in the back of the auditorium. Then her eyes widened. Uncle Lan and Aunt Mai were beside her brother, and next to them, smiling proudly, were Ma and Ba!

They came to hear me sing! Loan realized. Tears blurred her vision.

Suddenly Molly was beside her on the stage. “I hope you’re coming to the Christmas party, Loan.”

“Yes, … I think I am.”

Molly waved to Loan’s mother and father. “Your house was so cheerful tonight when we picked you up. Were you celebrating something?”

“We’re getting ready for our new year—Tet.” Loan hesitated. “W-would you like to come over and see sometime?”

“Could I?” Molly linked her arm through Loan’s. “I’d like that very much.”

Together they ran toward the side of the stage. Loan felt her heart soar and sing like the little bird of Saigon.

Illustrated by Robyn S. Officer