An excerpt from “I Hotel”: “The year of the monkey”


So my name is Walter Cronkite. And it’s February 27, 1968, and I say, the United States is stuck in an impasse in Vietnam, and You are the.

But whoa, let’s go back twenty-nine days until the Lunar New Year. Now we know the Vietnamese call it Tet, but the Chinese have it: New Year, they call it. This year is important for Paul because that night his dad grabs his heart like he’s been anti-personnel with a BLU-43, what you call dragon tooth, like he’s waiting there in one of those jungle paths, waiting for someone to put their foot on the de-toe-nator, and boom! There are firecrackers popping up and down on Grant Avenue so Paul can’t hear his dad screaming, but he walks behind through a narrow in the crowded festivities and the lights spitting above him to fall on his. father collapsing in a pile of laundry on the sidewalk.

” Bah ! What is that?”

Ba has a vision when he passes: his big mistake and no atonement. “When your mother died,” he gasped, “for your sake I should have remarried.”

“What are you talking about? Help! We need help. An ambulance!”

“More than the two of us from that point on” – gasp – “Good son. Only son.”

” Go away ! Give it some air!

“Now my son … I’m sorry … to the world all alone …”

Maybe he said that, maybe not. Paul can’t hear it with all the explosions and drums. This Lunar New Year of the Monkey. There is a chariot with everyone dressed as monkeys. They rush with their bouncing wire tails. Every day for a hundred days Paul tries to hear his father’s last words. Maybe he said “… may the world be strong …” Every Chinese New Year for the rest of his life, he tries to hear his father’s last words. And every year he will hear something different.

This extract appears in the Winter 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

Who is Paul? Just one of those sensitive Chinatown kids in high school, senior in Lowell, now an orphan. Isn’t her story the story of every child in the Year of the Monkey, 1968? Each of us has been orphaned this year; just that paul knows it first, a midnight orphan on the gung hay fat choy. Who are we to know that our black daddy Martin with a dream and our little white dad Bobby are going to be shot in the brains? At the end of the year, we are orphan monkeys let loose, wreaking havoc; no dads to pull the stops, temper the member; those wired tails sway from every rafter, we’re finally free, brother, finally free.

On Tet, the boys back in Vietnam on the verge of being orphaned too. Their helmets are snug to the chin, their faces smeared like football defenders, clutching those rifles for a sneak attack, all camouflaged as if the VC can’t see them. This must be the reason why more Vietnamese are killed than American boys: 58,000 to 3,895. Figures for Vietnam are rounded to the nearest thousand. Figures for boys are correct. Do the math, it’s fifteen to one. We must have won. Saigon, Khe Sanh and Hue, we all get them back. There are also small places, like Ben Tre and My Lai. In Ben Tre, an unnamed officer said, “It has become necessary to destroy him, in order to save him. At My Lai, Compagnie Charlie receives its orders: This is what you have been waiting for – seek and destroy – and you got it. LBJ, CIA, Westmoreland, McNamara, wise men, they all say, let’s wash our hands, let’s go into this good night quietly. Bye. See you on the day of judgment. •

Used with permission from I Hotel (Coffee House Press, 2010). Copyright © 2010 by Karen Tei Yamashita.

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