One summer, I received a message from a friend who was visiting her hometown in China. We’d met and grown close in graduate school, so I was excited to hear from her.
“I showed your photograph to a face reader. He’s famous in the village,” she said.
I felt somewhat ill at ease that she’d taken the liberty to show my picture to a stranger, though I was nevertheless intrigued. Having been raised in Vietnam, where ghosts, spirits, and past lives are part of dinner-table conversations, I wasn’t entirely unfamiliar with the concept of facial reading, in which the features are indicative of not only one’s past but also one’s future. To change your face is nothing less than to change your destiny—a fact that had saved me from impulsive surgical changes during my more insecure years.
“The first thing he said was that you grew up without a father,” my friend continued. “I was so freaked out afterward that I immediately left.”
My first reaction was to laugh, feeling a bit like a spiritual guinea pig, but I decided to entertain my friend.
“How could he tell?” I asked.
I wished she could see what my brows were doing at that moment (a twisted furrow that was a combination of irritation and curiosity). I had light ash-colored brows that rounded down, which gave my face a perpetually sleepy appearance. In my younger years, a middle-school classmate had said my face looked so peaceful that I almost looked stupid. As straight chestnut-dyed brows permeated Asian mainstream culture, promising a more youthful and balanced expression, I’d considered microblading my brows, erasing the shapes I was born with. Would that have changed my fatherless nature? The truth was, I’d indeed grown up without a father; my childhood’s rotating cast of caretakers in Vietnam included my grandparents, my nanny, and my uncle, while my mother was often away on business trips. I wouldn’t mind the “youthful and balanced” qualities of the aesthetically tattooed brows either if they referred to my life.
At 13 years old, I immigrated to the U.S. from Singapore, a popular first landing spot for Vietnamese in the process of migrating to further corners of the globe. Still, every year my mother would give me updates of my tử vy—the closest translation, however inexact, being horoscopes—as interpreted by my uncle Đồng in Vietnam. He works as an oil painter and has been reading astrology exclusively for my family for years, from my mother to my uncles, aunts, sister, and me. To this day, my mother has not conducted a business deal without first consulting with my uncle Đồng. A trustworthy man, he knows of the most intimate events about the individual family member’s affairs, betrayals and financial crisis; our anger and resentment toward one another are filtered through his tempered presence. As a teenager, I didn’t pay much attention to these predictions, but as I got older my uncle’s words gained in influence and ominousness.
You have an illness, which causes you to be forlorn all the time. It makes you think you are alone, but you are not alone. It is not reality.
I’ve never spoken to my uncle, or really anyone, about my struggle with navigating the random doses of despair, though I’ve written about it in English, a language that alienates the majority of my family. Despite the recent progress we’ve made in the U.S. on dialogues about mental health, for me, depression still isn’t entirely free of shame. Over the phone with my uncle Đồng, I chuckled, for lack of a better reaction. Yet there was something about predetermination, a life’s path as sketched by the stars, that gave me a sense of relief. Until then, I didn’t realize that I’ve perhaps been waiting for years to hear that the problem wasn’t me. I wonder how many Americans might benefit from hearing the same? In a culture of self-reliance, Americans are empowered to believe in their own abilities to steer the course of their life, and therefore their destiny, yet this viewpoint is not only limiting but also at times unkind. It suggests that we merit the life we end up with. Vietnamese philosophy, like many non-Western philosophies, tends to favor the concept of destiny, which presents its own limits but can free us from our ceaseless self-blame. One must make do with the cards one is given. There is only so much we can manage within the map the universe has outlined for us. Munch on your sorrow as you would a bar of chocolate, my uncle said. It’s part of the gifts. I couldn’t help but smile at the comparison of melancholia to chocolate, but I believed I understood what he meant: The good and the bad are all parts of the great mysterious gift from the heavens.
In my upcoming novel, Constellations of Eve, three people encounter one another over and over again through three reincarnations. No matter which decision they might make or how they choose to live their life, they are destined to meet, bound by forces beyond human control. Despite having spent the majority of my formative and adult years in the U.S., I realize the influences of my first culture are more deeply rooted than I had imagined. In 2018, I wrote in one iteration of my novel that the characters flee the city for the country, and in 2021 my husband and I also moved, from the hub of Brooklyn to a cabin in upstate New York, in an effort to heal our relationship and ourselves. Fiction, like the pattern of the stars, had predicted life. As Oscar Wilde once wrote, “Paradoxically though it may seem, it is nonetheless true that life imitates art far more than art imitates life.” Or is it that we find it easier to take leaps and attempt changes when we’ve already imagined them and lived them in some ways? I wonder if life is then a union of both fate and will.
Our move to the countryside had always been meant to be temporary. Six months into our cabin life and nightly chases with a flying squirrel we named Jerry, who had wormed his way in through various cracks in the ceiling, I was browsing for apartments for rent in the city and planning our transition back. Yet nothing could have prepared me for what came next: My grandmother in Vietnam was diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Between my two grandparents, I’d always assumed her to be the healthier one, the one to live the longest, as my grandfather had suffered a stroke 20 years before that left him weakened. The shock was tremendous; I’d treated time as not a limited resource but a commodity within grasp. After over 20 years of being away from my birth country, I somehow still believed that I could make up for lost time at some other ambiguous points in the equally ambiguous future. Suddenly, time was being stripped away—and, with it, choice.
“We need to move to Vietnam,” I announced to my husband. “This is my only chance left to be with my grandparents.” Unsaid was the fact that they had raised me, and I not only wanted to find myself there at the last moment to say goodbye, I wanted to talk to them, get to know the huge universe inside them, annoy them with my overly westernized manners, be annoyed in return by their old-wives’-tale advice.
“Okay.” My husband smiled, seemingly a little anxious of the future and excited too.
I studied the map of my husband’s face, the lines under his eyes that I love so much, the straight brows so different from mine. Is there any indication from these particular features that this American man, of Scottish and German descent, would follow me across the Pacific Ocean to live in a country that can’t be more different than anything he has ever known?
I, myself, had not considered a return of this magnitude. However, coupled with the news of my grandmother’s rapidly deteriorating health was also the revelation of my own pregnancy. Life waits for no one. I was now compelled to go back to Vietnam for more than one reason. I needed my baby to know our motherland in the same way I had, in his or her spirit and soul, no matter the distance he or she might go in the future.
What is the map of a face? Perhaps it is the miles one treads as an immigrant, a person who has to intentionally make and remake a home, crossing cities and plains, rudely bending the pattern of stars. I am the confused product of all the places I’ve been, the people I’ve loved, the constant negotiation between self-determination and destiny. I am neither, nor am I both. If the arcs of my brows betray a lifetime of loss that I won’t ever be able to fully seize and make sense of, the reverse curve of my smile welcomes all that is to come.
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