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.
"Did you find the picture?" she asks again.
I cut her off. No, I tell her. I am tired and depressed. I couldn't get into the room, I say. It's not going to be there. It's been destroyed along with everything else on the first floor.
She lets it drop. But later that day, when we meet up with my father, he surveys our meager haul and immediately asks me, "Did you find the picture?"
No, Dad, I sigh. It's gone. Everything is gone.
It is the last weekend in August, just before Katrina is scheduled to make landfall. My big sister, Vy, and I are bickering over whether Dad should buy a life vest.
Honestly? I think it's a stupid idea. We both agree that our father, Dr. Bong Q. Mui, chief of staff at the hospital in St. Bernard, should have his own stash of water and food while he rides out the storm there. But my sister presses on over the phone from her home in Little Rock: He also needs a flashlight, batteries and emergency supplies, she says.
That sounds a bit excessive to me, as I listen from my distant perch in Washington. It's a hurricane, I think, not a terrorist attack. Still, it's easier to agree with my 32-year-old sister than to argue -- until she adds a life vest to the list. I nearly laugh. I roll my eyes while she drones on about meteorologists predicting that Katrina could be the Big One. A direct hit on New Orleans. Storm surges could topple levees.
Whatever. I'm sure Dad will be fine, just like my family has always been fine through all the other hurricanes. Vy makes a last-ditch effort: Could I at least try to persuade Dad to bring a kickboard or one of the floaties from our pool in the back yard? Now I really do laugh. Whoever heard of a foam noodle saving someone in a hurricane?
I can't even remember the names of all the storms our family has gone through. There was the one where we made big X's on our windows with masking tape -- only to spend months trying to scrape it off when our house once again was unscathed. Another time, we evacuated to Houston, where I happily ate at the Cheesecake Factory and shopped at the mall. When Hurricane Isabel was bearing down on Washington in 2003, I laughed at how scared everyone was. The worst hurricane I'd ever experienced was the alcoholic kind at Pat O'Brien's off Bourbon Street.
But my sister won't let up. She nags my parents until Mom finally agrees to evacuate to Houston on Saturday night along with my 16-year-old brother, my aunt and my maternal grandparents, Ong Ngoai and Ba Ngoai. Mom brings two outfits and some jewelry. My brother, Dan, packs one of his two laptops, an iPod and a T-shirt with the name of his high school, Jesuit, where he has just started his senior year.
The same day, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin issues a mandatory evacuation of the city. St. Bernard officials follow suit. By Sunday, Katrina is upgraded to a Category 5 hurricane. News reports say that Lake Pontchartrain already is rising two inches every hour.
That afternoon, my father leaves his car in our garage because he thinks it will be safer there and catches a ride with a friend to the hospital -- sans floatie, life vest and even food and water. I call his cell phone to check in. Don't worry, he says. The hospital has plenty of supplies. He'll be fine.
But Dad is not at full strength. A few months earlier, he learned he had rectal cancer. Chemotherapy was brutal. The medicine caused his hands and feet to crack and blister so badly that he couldn't walk or touch anything. They were bleeding so much that he went through 40 to 50 bandages each day. All he could do was sit at the computer, typing out e-mails with his fingernails. Every time I opened my inbox, there seemed to be a letter from Dad.
My parents took it as a sign that they needed to slow down. Dad is almost 60, and Mom is 56. They were getting tired. Dad thought about traveling more -- he'd heard New Zealand was nice. "Just live each day like it's a bonus day," I remember him telling me. He even talked about retirement.
But Dad couldn't stay away from work. He got bored at home. Less than halfway through chemo, he decided to take a break from his treatments and return to work. His hands and feet had just healed as Katrina gathered steam in the Gulf.
We talk on the phone again Monday morning shortly before the storm makes landfall. Of the seven or eight doctors who were supposed to report for duty, only my father and two others have shown up at the hospital. Dad says the wind gusts are getting stronger. The roof of a nearby high school has blown off. Power at the hospital has gone out, so the building is running on generators. There are about 50 patients and staff, all safe and sound, he says. But he's worried that water might get into our house and ruin his home theater equipment.
"I don't know what's going to happen over the next two hours," he tells me.
I keep checking the news wires at the office. And the reports keep getting worse. The eye is headed straight for New Orleans. St. Bernard is flooding fast. The levee on the Industrial Canal, near where the parish meets New Orleans, is the first to break. Then cell phone service goes out. I try Dad's number but can't connect. I try again and again with no luck. I call my mother. I can't get through. I call my brother, my aunt, my best friend from New Orleans -- anybody. All lines are dead.
Now I am officially freaking out. The Superdome -- New Orleans' refuge of last resort -- is leaking. Water in St. Bernard is so high that cars are floating down the street. The parish president, Henry "Junior" Rodriguez, issues a desperate open letter to President Bush: "Of our community of 67,000 citizens, many are surrounded by water and have no place to go. We have NO food, NO water, NO sanitation, NO power, and NO communication. We have no way to rescue or recover our citizens . . . I am in danger of having many citizens die if they are not rescued now. On behalf of the citizens of St. Bernard Parish, Louisiana, I am begging for your help."
On Monday night, Dad paces the roof of his hospital, dialing and redialing my sister's phone number in Little Rock. It takes about 20 tries, but he finally gets hold of her husband. Everyone is huddled on the second floor of the building because the first floor has flooded, my father says quickly. And the water is still rising. The connection drops. Dad is gone.
Only once did my father consider not becoming a doctor. In 1963, he won a fellowship to study chemistry in France as a 16-year-old high school senior. Dad had planned to take the entrance exam for medical school in Saigon, but now that sounded lame compared with a year in the City of Lights.
"Going to Paris was like a dream for all of the young students of the time," Dad says. "Paris was like the capital of life."
But my grandfather -- or ong noi in Vietnamese -- would have none of it. He was an aviation inspector for Shell and had also worked as an interpreter for the French. Life had been difficult for him and my grandmother, or ba noi. One of their children had died from lack of medical care, and Ong Noi had lost his left arm during war with the French. They had made a decent living for themselves over the years. But they knew Dad could do better.
My father is the oldest of six children, so Ong Noi poured all of the family's resources into his education. Medicine was the most prestigious career my father could choose. It was his duty to live up to the those expectations. Stay in Vietnam, Ong Noi told him. There would be time to go abroad later.
My father was depressed, he says now. A poet and artist in his spare time, he felt like he belonged in Paris. But Dad was not a rebel at heart. He followed Ong Noi's wishes.
Dad met my mother, DanTam, in 1967 when he was in his third year of medical school. He was at her high school to meet up with a different girl. But then Mom, who was 17 and one of the prettiest and most popular girls in her school, pedaled her bike past him and dropped her book bag. Dad picked it up. They were married a few years later.
At the time, Dad was 25 and poised to take over his medical school's department of parasitology and mycology after graduation. My mother, 22, was in law school. My sister, Vy, was born about a year into their marriage.
Then, in 1973, my father got an offer to study public health and tropical medicine for one year at Tulane University in New Orleans. Finally, here was his chance to go abroad.
Ong Noi had been right. Some of the students who'd gone to France had been lured away from their studies by drinking, drugs and debauchery. Ong Noi was wise to forbid my father to join them, Dad says. The lesson stuck with him. "That's why I more or less follow the philosophy that you have to do your duty," he says. "If you have a duty that you don't do, then what's going to happen?"
Vietnam was being torn apart by war when he flew to New Orleans, but my father wasn't worried about leaving my mother and sister behind. Our entire extended family was there to watch over them. Even in 1973, Saigon felt far removed from the carpet bombs and napalm. As Dad explains it, war always seemed to be going on in Vietnam -- with the Chinese, with the French and now with the Americans and each other. Disaster had been looming in the background so long that it simply became a fact of life.
"We didn't think the communists would take over," he says. "Nobody did. If we did, I wouldn't have gone."
Mom is frantic. It is Tuesday, the day after Katrina hit, and she still has not been able to contact my father. She and the rest of my family are safely ensconced at a friend's house in Houston. I call to check up on her, and my aunt answers the phone. Your mom is not doing well, she tells me. She cannot sleep for worry.
I am grateful to my aunt for telling me this. My mother never lets on when she's
worried, frightened, sad or heartbroken. Experience has taught her that life is hard -- just deal with it. But I know that she is thinking about what happened after my father left for the States. He was supposed to stay for one year, but he tacked on a few months so that he could earn a doctorate in science as well.
Before he could return, Saigon fell. Suddenly, my father was locked out of Vietnam, and my mother and sister were trapped inside.
When I was growing up, my parents rarely spoke about Vietnam, and I rarely questioned them. I knew the general outline of their story, but the details were hazy. It wasn't until Katrina swept away everything safe and familiar that I learned how strong my parents have been all their lives.
My mother tried to escape the day in April 1975 when the communists captured Saigon. But her plan to sail to freedom with my sister and a distant relative on a navy ship fell through. Rumors swirled of helicopters airlifting people out of Saigon. But chaos reigned in the crowded streets. My mother says she was afraid that if she tried to push her way to a helicopter, she or my sister would be shot. So she stayed at home while the country collapsed around her.
Dad watched the fall of Saigon on television. He was devastated but helpless. There was no word from my mother for six months, until a letter from her finally arrived by way of a family friend in Paris. It didn't say much, just that she and my sister were safe. Mom was scared to write more because all mail was being censored. And saying the wrong thing could be dangerous. The communists sent my mother's brother and my great uncle who had fought with the South Vietnamese to reeducation camps.
Desperate to be reunited with my father, my mother tried several times to escape with the boat people. She traveled to small beach villages with my sister, waiting days for tiny canoes that would ferry them to international waters. There they would flag down passing ships and beg to be let on.
On the third attempt in 1977, my sister, then 4, nearly drowned. She and Mom were being pushed in a small basket out to the canoes because they could not swim. Vy toppled into the ocean. A stranger grabbed her by the hair and pulled her back up, saving her life. They made it to the canoes only to wait endlessly with little food and water for a ship to pass. When one finally did, it refused to pick up the refugees. Too crowded, Mom remembers the crew telling her. So they returned to shore. The communists were waiting for them.
My mom and sister were detained at an abandoned house nearby. Everyone was sick and vomiting constantly. After a few days, Mom begged the people in charge to let her leave. She had my sister to take care of, she said. They let her go.
Meanwhile, my father had been working on his own plan to rescue Mom and Vy. He had lost his scholarship to Tulane when the United States cut off relations with Vietnam. But his adviser at the university offered him a position as a research associate at one of its centers in Colombia. There, his new boss helped him craft a desperate plea to the Vietnamese government to save his family: Dad was deathly ill with hepatitis and suffering from deep depression. Without his family by his side, he would surely die. He and his boss forged medical documents to back the diagnosis and faked Colombian citizenship papers.
The government bought it. My mother and Vy flew to France, where they stayed about a month with distant relatives. Then, in 1979, nearly six years after my family had been split apart, they were reunited in the airport in Bogota.
Mom cried then. There had been so many questions and doubts. A friend of hers had reunited with her husband only to find him involved with another woman. But when my mother arrived at the airport and saw my father, she says, she knew their love had survived everything.
"When they came back, we had such a brighter future," Dad says. "It just, like, opened up a new chapter in my life."
An official at the U.S. Embassy in Colombia helped them emigrate to New Orleans. Mom and Vy were having trouble getting visas. A military attache who was married to a Vietnamese woman arranged to get them green cards and even a flight to America.
Once in Louisiana, my family settled in St. Bernard to be near the elderly American couple who had hosted my father while he was at Tulane. My sister, who was 6 at the time, dubbed them our American grandparents.
Now my American Grandma and Grandpa are camped out at their daughter's home in a small town outside Houston. Like my aunt, Grandpa is worried about Mom. He remembers when my parents first came to America together after so many years apart. "I thought she'd never let him out of her sight again," he says. He starts to tear up, and so do I.
On the phone with me, Mom says nothing of her sleepless night. Only that she wants me to do her a favor: If Dad gets in touch with me, she says, I must tell him to come to Houston immediately. Bus, plane, whatever. It doesn't matter. Just tell your father to leave that hospital. Now.
Two agonizing days pass before Mom finally hears from my father by phone. Don't worry, he tells her on Wednesday evening, someone is coming to rescue us.
He wasn't sure how. First, he heard they would be taken to the St. Bernard prison, where it was unclear if there were actual prisoners but supposedly there was electricity and running water, and that was all that mattered. Then they were going to be shipped to Jackson Barracks, the National Guard base that sits along the border between the parish and New Orleans. Then to Algiers, on the dry west bank of the city. Then, Baton Rouge.
On Wednesday morning, all of the patients were evacuated to the prison, including a 500-pound woman who had to be lowered from the roof and placed in a waiting canoe. But Dad stayed behind to help care for the more than 200 people who'd sought refuge at the hospital after the storm.
On the first day of the hurricane, the hospital lost power and the generators gave out, he told us. There was no electricity, no water, and the toilets stopped working. The hospital began to heat up, just like an oven. Some of the more enterprising employees managed to get a small, water-damaged generator running and found a way to grill hamburgers. But as the hours turned into days, food began to run short. Five nurses collapsed from exhaustion and depression. "I'm fine, I'm fine," they told Dad before they crumpled.
And still, the people were coming. A man in his sixties was plucked out of the flood-waters and dropped off at the hospital. He had tried to chop his way out of his house with an ax and swim to safety. He nearly drowned. Dad and other hospital employees administered IV fluids by the glow of a flashlight. They also found themselves caring for a 300-pound person with diabetes, and an 18-month-old baby who was vomiting uncontrollably. The hospital was filled with displaced children. There was no rioting, but there was death. My father lost four or five patients during the evacuation.
Dad finally left the hospital on Thursday afternoon. A helicopter brought him to Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, which had been turned into a makeshift hospital. The elderly and sick were lying on the baggage claim belt or sitting on mattresses soaked with water.
Dad asked FEMA officials what he could do. They told him to mop the floors. Dad was not authorized to assist in emergency situations, they said. Liability, they said. Dad protested, but they wouldn't budge. He sat down and cried for the first time.
"We spent five days in the hospital, five days in Hell, and we didn't cry," Dad says later. "Now, at the airport, we cry. It was a nightmare."
A few hours later, buses arrived from the Hospital Corporation of America to evacuate their doctors and employees. Dad's hospital is owned by a different company, but one bus had extra room. Dad and his staff got on. In a few hours, he was in Lafayette, about 135 miles west of New Orleans. He got a hot meal, fresh scrubs and a chance to shower. On Friday, Dad boarded a bus to Houston.
A week after the storm, the survivor stories begin to emerge. I read them carefully, looking for familiar names. In one newspaper article, I find the family of the guy I took to winter formal my senior year of high school. In another, I discover the police officer I interviewed as a rookie reporter. I even spot the owner of a bar where I celebrated my 21st birthday.
For the first time, I am not reporting the news. I am living through it.
My brother, Dan, is one of the "Katrina kids." He was excited about his senior year at Jesuit High School, getting his class ring, homecoming, the state math convention. Now my parents send him to live with my great-aunt in Rockville and commission me to watch over him. Another Jesuit school, Georgetown Preparatory School, takes Dan in, and soon I find myself attending back-to-school night and nagging him about his college applications.
My cousin Michael was a member of a Louisiana National Guard unit deployed to Baghdad when Katrina hit. His mother had just bought a new house near my parents' home two weeks before the storm. It was destroyed. My cousin and his unit were rushed back to help the relief effort. But Michael opted for a discharge and decided to move in with my great-aunt in Rockville as well. After a year wanting nothing more than to go home, he had no home left.
There are so many unanswered questions. Will insurance cover the damage? When will the family be able to go back? Is anyone guarding our neighborhood? How much is there left to guard? But the biggest one of all is simply: What next?
My parents had planned to stay in our house forever. They had even kept my and my sister's bedrooms intact so that we could sleep there when we visited. Trophies from my fourth-grade piano competitions, my sister's science projects and my brother's karate tournaments filled the living room. Every nook and cranny -- the cupboard where Mom used to keep our Lunar New Year money! -- was filled with a lifetime of memories.
Yet Mom and Dad make the decision to walk away with breathtaking speed. They aren't going back to Chalmette, they tell me. The entire parish has been wiped out.
Almost all of the 25,000 homes, including ours, are damaged beyond repair. At least one of my father's two private medical clinics is destroyed. So is my mother's beauty salon.
The decision might have been harder if some semblance of our old lives had remained, my parents say. But there is nothing to hold on to. And they don't want to rebuild in a place where another hurricane could strike.
"Running away," my mother tells me in Vietnamese, "it will make you crazy."
They begin looking at new houses in Houston. The city is an obvious choice. My dad's five siblings immigrated to Houston. His parents are buried there. Dad puts in his application for a Texas medical license so that he can start working. Mom is on the phone with the insurance companies and FEMA all day. Though my parents have access to some cash, Mom still waits in line for five hours for a $1,500 debit card from the Red Cross. For the first time, we get food stamps.
Yet somehow my parents remain upbeat. Dad is interviewed on CNN, and a stranger who hears his story sends my parents a check for $20,000. They learn that their flood insurance will pay full damages for the house, though they still aren't sure about the businesses. My sister announces that she is pregnant again.
"We always believe that if you do not do any harm to people, then you will get a reward sooner or later, no matter how much hardship you have to go through," Dad says. "That's the principle of my life."
My parents just keep doing the same thing they've always done: Looking to the future.
It takes two more weeks for parish officials to let us back into St. Bernard to see firsthand what has been lost. I fly to Houston to meet my parents and aunt. Together, we make the long trek back to Louisiana.
The minivan is stocked with rubber boots, paper towels, bleach, two cases of water, gasoline canisters and croissants, in case we get hungry. But my parents have forgotten the goggles. Not the goggles! Officials are warning about E. coli, tetanus and hepatitis -- for real this time. What if we get pink eye or toxic mold flies into our faces and we all go blind? I demand that we go to Home Depot before getting on the road.
Fine, Mom agrees. But first, she wants to stop at the Hong Kong Market to buy Asian vegetables for friends who are still in Louisiana. Fine, I say impatiently. Fine.
Mom spends nearly an hour in the grocery store. Then we order Vietnamese po-boy sandwiches for lunch. We still haven't gone to Home Depot. I close my eyes and breathe deeply. I am annoyed. Dad is annoyed. Mom is annoyed that we're both annoyed.
The drive to Chalmette takes more than seven hours. I compete with my duffel bag for leg room -- there is nowhere else to put the luggage. The trunk is stuffed with supplies. I don't know how they plan to make room for things we hopefully will be able to salvage from our house. I mentioned this to them before we left, but they dismissed it. No one listens to me.
My parents and I have always exasperated each other. I like to believe it is because I am too much like them, as sensitive as my father but as stubborn as my mother. Katrina has only intensified that dynamic.
Mom makes conversation about new houses she has been looking at in Houston. None of them quite measures up to our old one in my parents' eyes -- the rooms are too small; there are too few rooms; there isn't enough light. Mom is set on having at least four bedrooms, maybe five. Our old house had five. Dad is adamant that it have two stories. He has seen what happens to one-story houses during floods.
So far, Dad's favorite house is a $600,000 mansion that they now cannot afford. It has two wet bars (So what if neither of my parents drinks alcohol?), a tiki hut in the back yard and a pool with a stone waterfall.
This is ridiculous, I say. You don't need that much house.
Dad is plaintive. "You don't like the $600,000 house?" he jokes, but sounds almost hurt. We sit in stony silence for a few minutes. Then he relents.
"Do you need to ask me anything?" he says. I had told my parents that I want to interview them to write this story. But I am too sullen to muster up the energy. Let's talk later, I say to him. Dad nods in agreement. Then he makes one of his hallmark cheesy jokes.
"You need to interview me? Ask: 'Are you hungry? Are you thirsty? Do you need anything?'" he says. He then answers his own question. "I need to win the Powerball!"
I laugh half-heartedly, but it is enough to break the tension. Soon, we cross into Louisiana.
The line to get into St. Bernard snakes all the way up the Paris Road bridge. Traffic is not moving.
Mom is now riding in the SUV of a Louisiana family friend who has volunteered to help. Dad and I are behind them in the minivan. The moon is still out, high and hazy. The sun is rising deep red in the east. From the interstate, New Orleans looks like a ghost town. Cars are piled on top of one another. Houses look like they've been punched with a wrecking ball. The Superdome is nearly bald.
St. Bernard lies just southeast of New Orleans along the Mississippi River and suffered some of the worst flooding in the region. This is where nearly 30 nursing home patients died.
The smell starts near the exit for Elysian Fields Avenue, a putrid, dirty smell like the wall of port-a-potties at Jazz Fest when it rains. I don't want to think about what's causing it. We sit on Paris Road, one of only two "big streets" in St. Bernard. We snap pictures of military Humvees cruising by, overturned boats at the marina across the street and the decimated Mr. Binky's Adult Superstore.
Paris Road and the other big street -- Judge Perez Drive -- have been largely scraped clean of sludge. But the muck still clings to the homes and businesses that once made up our neighborhood. There is the Jiffy Lube that used to be a snowball stand that I went to in elementary school, destroyed. There is the Piccadilly Cafeteria, where we ate after church on Sundays with my American grandparents; I can barely see it through the debris and flooded cars lining the parking lot. There is the Mexican restaurant that used to be a daiquiri shop that used to be an exotic pet store. Dusty memories of my childhood haunt every abandoned building, lurk around every godforsaken corner.
"All of this familiar scenery," Dad says as we drive through, "saying goodbye to it."
My parents started off living in a rented duplex here while Dad did a postdoctorate at a hospital in New Orleans. My mother worked as an interpreter at Charity Hospital in New Orleans, where I was born in 1980. When I was a small child, we lived in a tiny two-bedroom house owned by our American grandparents. Grandpa was the pastor of a local Baptist church. Grandma directed its preschool and kindergarten program. Slowly, my family began to put down roots. By 1985, my father was running a family practice clinic in St. Bernard that was owned by the local hospital. In addition, he and a partner opened a private clinic in eastern New Orleans. My mother quit her job as an interpreter to run the office. When they bought out the practice in St. Bernard in 1989, Mom and Dad split their time between the two, working side by side.
They worked constantly. Dad often didn't get home until after 9 p.m. We always ate dinner late. I hated that they worked so much. I wanted my mother to make Rice Krispies treats like the other moms at my school did. I wanted Dad to come to my piano competitions. But they were too busy.
When I became a teenager, I worked at the clinics, too. I filed patients' charts, typed letters and spun around in my swivel chair. I didn't know then what my parents had been through just to afford those swivel chairs. I do remember once asking Mom what her dream job was. She said she had always wanted to own a beauty salon. I was surprised. What did running a medical clinic have to do with beauty salons?
I was in fifth grade when we moved into the house where my family would stay until the weekend that Katrina hit. To me, it was the biggest, nicest house on the block -- the biggest, nicest house my 9-year-old eyes had ever seen. I thought I would get lost in it. We kids had our own rooms upstairs, along with my dad's parents, ong ba noi, who had left Vietnam to come stay with us. My parents lived downstairs. Their bedroom had a Jacuzzi tub, sauna and fireplace. My parents never used them, of course, but just the fact that those things were there was somehow comforting.
I moved out of the house in 2000, when I was a college junior in New Orleans, and left for good three years ago to come to Washington. By then, my mother was studying for her aesthetician's license. She already had a name for the salon she planned to open: La Belle Evelyn, after Vy's daughter. She had a building, across the street from Dad's office in St. Bernard. It was going to look like a West Elm catalogue. Then we found out she had breast cancer.
She refused to let it get in her way.
After surgery and several rounds of chemotherapy, she was hitting the books again and trying to persuade me to let her wax my eyebrows. The salon held its grand opening in 2003. Massage therapy, laser treatment, sunless tanning, manicures and pedicures -- the salon had it all. She threw herself into it, working harder than she ever did at the clinics. She was there seven days a week, sometimes until 11 p.m.
Now my father parks the minivan in front of La Belle Evelyn. It is our first stop in St. Bernard. He pulls on a pair of rubber boots over his green scrubs. A mask goes over his face, and yellow dishwashing gloves cover his hands. We can see the high-water mark on the outside of the building, but otherwise the structure seems intact. Mom unlocks the front door, and we follow her inside.
The sludge is so deep it covers our boots. I pull my mask up over my nose to block the smell, but it doesn't make much of a difference. Silk scarves and clothing are strewn everywhere. The sunless tanning booth is covered in slime. Mold dots the ceiling of the first floor.
My mother makes a beeline for the cash register, sloshing unheeded into the water that still stands inside the room. She pulls out a tiny silver key from the folds of her clothes and tries to open the register. But the key won't turn in the lock. "There's money in there," she tells me.
Just leave it, I say. It's been sitting in that water for weeks. I bet it's disintegrated. But she won't listen. She picks up the cash register to take it home -- maybe she can break it open later. But as soon as the register tilts, a flood of dirty brown water pours out of it.
Just leave it, Mom, I implore. She says nothing but puts the cash register back and heads upstairs. The aromatherapy candles on the walls, the water cooler, the nail polish station are all perfectly intact. We pack bottles of pricey Obagi and Dermalogica skin care products into at least half a dozen plastic crates. The microdermabrasion machine and tubs of wax also make it into our minivan. Finally, we can carry no more. It all takes less than half an hour.
We cross the street to Dad's clinic. We can see from the road that there is nothing left to salvage here. The large glass windows and door are busted in. Our boots sink in the mud that cakes the driveway. Medical records are embedded in it. A chair from the waiting room sits outside. The entrance to the examining rooms is blocked by debris. And though I didn't think it was possible, the smell inside is worse than in the salon. Mom just waits in the car, while Dad wanders around outside the building for about 10 minutes taking pictures. There is nothing to do here.
We press on to our house. That is what we have really come for. We are prepared for the worst. A reporter friend of mine had gotten into the neighborhood and sent us some pictures of it. I could see rings of mold around the front columns in the photos. Orange spray paint marks the house clear of dead bodies. The garage has collapsed. But we still hold out hope for a hundred little things that might have miraculously survived.
We drive up the street until we get to our turn. It is blocked by a military tank and National Guard from Colorado. There are metal barricades that normally come out only for Mardi Gras. We were not prepared for this. The guards forbid us to cross the street. Our half of the neighborhood is not allowed back in yet. It is not safe, one of the guardsmen says. He has a big gun. I am inclined to follow his orders.
But my mother won't listen. We can almost see our house just two blocks away. Can't we just go in for a minute? We're business owners. We already crossed the street once to get to the salon. What's one more time?
The officer is adamant. Dad refuses to argue with him. The law is the law, Dad says. He turns the minivan around.
We stop at a friend's house on the west bank of New Orleans, where there is power and running water, to rest before heading back to Houston. Mom begins venting as soon as Dad gets in the shower. There has got to be a way to get into the house, she just knows it. Your Dad never challenges the rules, she fumes. He doesn't realize that rules can be bent.
Her cell phone rings. It's my aunt. She was riding in a separate car, and, sure enough, she has found a way into our neighborhood using a side road. My mother's eyes light up. One of our friends offers to drive us in his minivan. Mom looks at me and grins. I grab my camera and pull my boots back on.
In less than half an hour, we are back in Chalmette. There is no longer a line to get in. We drive past all the old landmarks again, but now I am numb to them. Soon we are pulling the minivan into the cracked, dry sludge in our circular driveway. We stand outside our blown-out front door.
The house is worse than I imagined. It is almost surreal, even though I can see the water mark near the top of the stairs and smell that horrible stench. It is our house, certainly, but I feel detached from it. This isn't home as I remember. As my father said before we left Houston: "We are not going back to the house of the past. We are going back to the house that we lost."
I had wanted so much to come back with my parents. To help them to say goodbye. But now that I am here, all I want to do is get out. If my mother is feeling the same way, she doesn't show it. She is not one to pine over what has been lost. She climbs the stairs to the second floor, which is still intact. She grabs some insurance documents and other important papers that she and my father had the foresight to move upstairs. I take whatever electronic equipment I can easily unplug and carry. I dart into my room to get two pictures that my dad painted of me as a child. I stop in my little brother's room to pick up his only two requests: his Manny Ramirez Boston Red Sox MVP plaque and his old laptop.
Dad calls my cell as I haul another box downstairs. I answer the phone, but the connection breaks up immediately. I can't hear what he's saying, but I yell into the receiver that we're okay. I am afraid that he is worried or even mad at us. We're in the house, I yell into the phone. We're leaving soon, promise.
Mom and I work largely in silence. We go only as far as the foyer on the first floor -- the debris and sludge is so bad that we can't get in any farther. All we can do is stick our heads around the corner and stare at the ruins of the kitchen where we ate countless family dinners, fought over who was going to wash the dishes and poked fun at my little brother's antics.
Mom walks outside and stands in front of the gaping hole that used to be the floor-to-ceiling windows of her bedroom. She peers in, trying to find a path into the room. But she is little, barely 5 feet tall, and the mound of broken furniture is so big. I walk over. I touch her shoulder and ask if she is okay. She says quietly that she wants to get into the bedroom. But she just stands there, immobile. For the first time, I see her eyes turn red.
"Never mind," she says in Vietnamese. "I don't want to go in anymore."
She slowly walks across the driveway, not even looking at our garage or my dad's flooded Mercedes. She lingers by our dead plants. Then she turns around.
"Okay," she says in English, "let's go."
On our long ride back to Houston that same day, my parents insist they are not afraid of starting over, though there are still so many questions hanging over them. What will they do with the house? Will the parish bulldoze it, and if so, who in their right mind would want to buy the land? How will they pay my brother's tuition when he starts college next year? How will they restart their businesses? What will happen to their retirement?
"Retirement is boring," my father says. "We still want to work." They hope the rhythms of work will make life normal again. But they admit that they are weary. They don't have the energy they did 25 years ago.
They have been back to Vietnam only once since the United States normalized relations in 1996. They went alone, and when they returned, Mom told me she couldn't believe that she used to eat fruit from the open-air markets. The market was so much dirtier than she remembered.
I went to Vietnam for the first time just after college. Dad thought it was important that I understand my roots. But my mother couldn't understand why I wanted to go. Your dad doesn't know how bad it got, she told me. He wasn't there when Saigon fell. We left for a reason.
Now they are starting over again. Leaving Vietnam was hard, my dad says. But they built a better life for themselves in America. Maybe the same will be true for Houston.
"Maybe something good will rise from the bad," he says in English. "Like the phoenix."
What's a phoenix? Mom asks. Dad explains it to her in Vietnamese. It is considered a mythical creature in Vietnam, representing virtue and grace. In other legends, the phoenix is a bird that burns itself in a fire every 500 years and is then reborn from the ashes.
Oh, Mom says in recognition. Then she turns to me. "It's not real, you know," she explains.
I roll my eyes, but I'm grinning.
When we return to St. Ber-nard for the second time, my father is with us. My parents have brought a trailer and a truck to pack up everything that isn't covered in mold or bolted down -- and I do mean everything. A trash can from the salon, a cheap plastic clock that a drug company gave us for free, clothes that my parents haven't worn in so long that they have literally melded to the hangers. Anything that is remotely familiar is thrown into the trailer.
Dad is as stoic as Mom while we are working. All of the pictures that we took the first time back helped mentally prepare him, he says. Yet he doesn't believe that everything on the first floor is lost forever. There must be something down there.
He wades deep into the sludge, his rubber boots leaving dirty stains on our overturned couch as he steps over it. I follow his lead for a while but soon give up. Dad keeps trudging until he finds what he is looking for: the picture.
It is the one that they had taken out in California, a reminder of better days. It is in the middle of the living room, buried underneath the muck. Dad gingerly carries it out to the front porch. It is barely recognizable, the canvas damp and covered in mud.
Dad wipes it off to reveal a flash of red, a hint of Mom's black lace dress. See, he insists, it's still good. He just has to clean it. Then he lays the picture out on the front steps to dry in the unforgiving Louisiana sun.
Later, when they are back in Houston, my parents will have to throw it in the trash. It is dirty and stinky, and besides, by then they've realized that they can have a new portrait made from the original photograph. And it will be every bit as good as the old one.
Ylan Q. Mui is a staff writer for The Post's Business section. She will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.