Rebirth of the Phoenix

Ylan Mui helps remove whatever is still usable from her parents' house in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The family Christmas card photograph had been taken on the staircase behind her.
Ylan Mui helps remove whatever is still usable from her parents' house in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The family Christmas card photograph had been taken on the staircase behind her. (Michel Ducille - The Washington Post)
By Ylan Q. Mui
Sunday, November 20, 2005

When the Vietnam War stripped them of everything, they found a way to rebuild their lives. Unfortunately, they did it in New Orleans. Can the Mui family find the strength to start over again?

My mother slowly picks her way across our broken and toppled furniture, trying to absorb what Hurricane Katrina has cost us.

The first floor of our two-story house is completely wiped out. The heavy kitchen table, carved out of a tree trunk and imported from Thailand, is piled on top of a mound of unrecognizable debris. Next to it lies the china cabinet. The glass chandelier hanging in the foyer is shattered.

For 15 years my family has lived in this house just outside New Orleans in Chalmette, La. We've been in this neighborhood in St. Bernard Parish for 25. It has been the only place we've called home since my parents fled Vietnam to this small town of oil refineries and drive-through daiquiri stands.

Mom doesn't say much as we trudge through the mud that is still ankle-deep inside the house. Tears do not come easily to her. She has been through too much in her life to be a crier: Years of separation from my father during the war. Failed attempts to escape from Vietnam. Starting over in a strange new country.

Now, though, my mother's eyes are tired. The mask that she brought to stifle the stench of the sludge hangs unused around her neck. I keep waiting for her to break down. But Mom just climbs to the second floor of the house in silence. Everything up here sits exactly where it was left, as if everyone's life were simply on pause. Even my little brother's dirty clothes and video games are still strewn across the floor of his room.

But what Mom really wants is downstairs in the muck. She tells me to find what she just calls "the picture" in Vietnamese. I know what she means.

It's a large professional photograph that my parents had taken out in California a few years ago. They had the image imprinted onto canvas, almost like an oil painting. Dad wore a tuxedo, looking very much the distinguished doctor, with his wavy hair neatly combed to the side. Tall by Asian standards, he hovered protectively over my petite mother. She was in a low-cut lacy black number, and her jet-black hair fell to her shoulders. Mom is a former beauty queen and still has smooth porcelain skin and a Cindy Crawford-like beauty mark just above her chin. My parents were proud of that picture. It was the emblem of everything that they had worked all their lives to achieve. It hung in the living room next to the grand piano in an ornate gilded frame.

I head downstairs to look for it. But the sludge is so thick I can't even get into the right room. Ceiling beams have fallen down, and hunks of furniture and shards of glass block my path. It's as if all of our belongings have been thrown into a huge washing machine that spit everything out halfway through the spin cycle. I look at the wall where the portrait once hung. Empty.

"Did you find the picture?" Mom asks when I return upstairs empty-handed.

No, I tell her. It's gone, along with everything else down there. Nothing is salvageable.

She doesn't say anything, just keeps pacing the second floor looking for valuables. She doesn't mention it again until we are back in our minivan, the trunk stuffed with whatever we could quickly carry out: computers, clothes, my brother's Boston Red Sox plaque. But not the portrait.


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