The Americanization of Sammy Tsai

by Marko Fong

I changed my name back to Yut Lee after I started college, but all the way through high school, my first four years in America after coming from Vietnam, I was Sammy. I didn’t dislike the name. I even picked it out with my host family. I stayed with them in Concord for two weeks before I went up to boarding school in New Hampshire.
…..“You’re lucky” they told me, “You get to see America where it started.”
…..They liked being Americans. Every year they took in foreign students and helped us learn about the greatest country in the world No one paid them or anything. The dad was even a banker, just like mine was. They showed me an old bridge, a pond where some guy went to think a lot, and a statue of a man with a gun.
…..“This is one of the Minutemen, they hid behind trees and fought the British empire.”
…..I didn’t believe them. I’d seen lots of American soldiers in Saigon. They hated the jungle and hardly ever talked about freedom and liberty as much as they hung out at bars and listened to rock and roll.
…..Anyway, I liked the ice cream at Howard Johnson’s better than trying to follow Paul Revere’s ride. When they took me around, they would tell people I was from Vietnam. Most of them looked at me like I should be wearing black pajamas and sandals.
…..A couple times they asked me to say something in Vietnamese. The first time I tried to explain that I didn’t know any Vietnamese.
…..“My family’s Chinese, my great grandparents moved there a hundred years ago,” I started to tell them.
…..That just confused people. The second time I spoke Chinese for them and no one knew the difference.
…..Mostly people were nice to me and they were all really interested in Vietnam. They would ask me things like, “Do you think the Viet Cong can win?”
…..Like most fifteen year olds, I didn’t know the answer. I would shrug and tell them what my host family told me, “America’s the greatest country in the world.”
…..At New Year’s, the third day of the Tet offensive, a mortar shell hit two hundred meters from our house. That’s the closest I ever got to the war. The neighbor insisted that the Americans had destroyed his garage–there was no way anyone could tell, but everyone knew that the V.C. never paid damages. We shut off all the lights in the house that night and slept in the cellar. We had one of the only homes in our neighborhood that had a cellar. My father stayed awake through morning, a gun in his lap. The next day, he showed me the brick in the corner of the cellar where they kept the gold. That same week my parents decided to send me to high school in the United States rather than wait for college as they’d done with my sisters.
…..My host family got me up to Exeter in their station wagon. In two hours, we drove the whole width of Vietnam. It was hot and sticky like home, one of their kids was sick. We got to the school and before I could even see my room, they had to take me to the infirmary. I had the mumps too.
…..None of the other boys were there yet, so I spent my first three days in New Hampshire in this big-brown-bricked infirmary by myself. The nurse brought me all the 7-Up I wanted and they even had a television in a room down the hall. The second day they brought the TV into my room since no one else was there to watch.
…..The doctor was nice. He looked just like that American doctor who I’d seen on television, the one in the white coat with the gray hair. He had hard long fingers which he pressed just below my cheek to check on my progress. Each morning, he talked to me about the numbers on my chart. He asked me about the doctors in Vietnam. I told him about my eighty-three year old grandmother who wouldn’t see a doctor, a story which he shook his head at, and the time my sister’s appendix almost broke and we took her to the French hospital, a story which made him nod.
…..After the first couple days, the swelling went down. I still had to sleep most of the day. Just before they let me out, the nurse came and gave me a bunch of shots so I wouldn’t catch any more diseases. In America they had a shot for everything. Before they let me out, the doctor examined me one last time just to make sure I was all right. He counted my heart beats, tested my blood, looked up my asshole, stuck a finger up my crotch. He told me about a student from Africa somewhere who came to the school with three rare tropical diseases.
…..“I’ve never been to Africa,” I tried to assure him.
…..He laughed.
…..“Well, we’ve got wonderful medical facilities in this country. We can even give people new hearts now.”
…..“Like in South Africa,” I said.
…..He didn’t laugh.
…..“It’s good that you take advantage of everything we have to offer here right from the start.”
…..He patted my head.
…..“Sammy, you’re very lucky. This is a wonderful school. I’ve been here thirty-five years and I haven’t regretted a moment.”
…..I started to get dressed again. I reached for my underwear. “Sammy, there is one more thing I wanted to discuss with you.”
…..I looked up to see the doctor staring at my crotch. I’d heard about these kind of men once. My parents warned me to stay away from any Americans who were too friendly. I felt the cold linoleum on my feet. I checked to see if the door was locked.
…..“Could I get some 7-Up?”
…..It was the only thing I could think of.
…..“Just put on your clothes and we can talk first.”
…..I pulled my clothes on so fast that I left my underwear on backward
…..The Doctor sat behind the desk in his office, “Sammy, everything seems to be just fine, but I noticed that you’ve never been circumcised.”
…..“I’ve had all the shots. Measles, tetanus, polio, the nurse told me there wouldn’t be anymore.”
…..I started to cover my crotch with my hands. The doctor laughed very loud this time.
…..“Circumcision’s not a shot. In America, almost all men are circumcised. It’s healthier, because it’s more hygienic. It helps to prevent cancer. It’s a simple operation.”
…..I sat up on the examination table. My hands stuck to the brown vinyl.
…..“What kind of operation?”
…..The doctor didn’t answer for a minute. At first he kept tripping over his words like he was the one who didn’t speak English that well.
…..“Well, your penis has something we call a foreskin. It covers the tip and you have to be very careful to wash it regularly underneath. In America, we remove it.”
…..I felt my hands go up to my lap. This time I stared at the Doctor’s zipper. “You mean you cut it off?”
…..It came out louder than I meant to say it.
…..“No, no, of course not, just the part you don’t need, just the little bit of skin.”
…..The doctor was very serious.
…..“Why don’t you let me make an appointment for you? We can discuss it in a little more detail and I can show you some things.”
…..Three days later, I came back to the infirmary.

When I had the mumps, the receptionist, Hilary, a college girl much younger than the doctor or his nurse, used to save articles about the war and ask me about them. All sorts of things about the number of Americans in Vietnam, Vice President Nixon’s secret plan to end the war, something about a group of soldiers who had killed an entire village. She didn’t read the local newspaper. She didn’t even read that paper from New York which most of the teachers insisted had the real news. She read these slick backed magazines with out of focus pictures of naked women inside. I acted like the articles interested me, but I was really much more curious about those pictures. We had made a secret of it.
…..“The doctor wouldn’t like it, if you read magazines like this.”
…..So late in the afternoon, Hilary would bring me the magazines and try to talk to me about the articles inside. She was at her desk. She wore a shirt made out of blue denim. Her hair was braided in the back and she wore wire rimmed glasses. Just above her breast, she had on a white metal button with a circle and a pie slice cut out of it.
…..“Sammy, I heard you were coming in. I saved you this.”
…..She motioned to a newspaper on her desk.
…..“Have you ever heard of defoliant?” They kill off entire pieces of the jungle, just so they can see their targets better. It never grows back.”
…..I hadn’t really read most of the articles she had given me before. I still had a hard time reading English and a lot of it I just didn’t understand, but for some reason, this one I wanted to read.
…..This time I took her article into the three chair waiting area and read anxiously, getting up at least once a minute to ask her what things meant, “Surgical bombing”, “routine operation”, “target area”.
…..When I finished, I went back to the desk.
…..“That’s terrible. Awful.”
…..“It’s imperialist.” She whispered.
…..I could tell by the way she said it she was determined not to be one.
…..The doctor was glad to see me. He didn’t take me into his exam room. Instead he brought me into his office. Books covered the back wall. Diplomas and certificates filled half of the side wall. A picture of the doctor shaking hands with LBJ and a general faced me from the desk.
…..“Sammy, I just wanted to show you a few things.”
…..The doctor brought out some medical journals, even a picture of a penis with cancer followed by one of a healthy circumcised penis. I giggled at first.
…..“I know it’s embarrassing. But it’s just a simple operation and you won’t have to worry about it again. Normally, we do it when you’re very small, but it can be done at your age. It hurts some, but the sooner the better.”
…..He closed the book. He moved from behind the desk to a chair next to me and whispered like we were the same age all of a sudden, “Besides, women find it sexier.”
…..I found myself thinking about Hilary, the receptionist. She was the only American woman I’d met who was close to my age.
…..“It’s entirely up to you.”
…..He put his hand on my shoulder.
…..“That’s the way we do things here.”
…..I exchanged telegrams with my parents about the matter and they assured me that I should trust the American doctor. After that, I told one other friend in the dorm about what the doctor wanted me to do. The next day it felt like everyone knew about it.
…..“Hey Sammy, I hear you’re getting operated on.”
…..They yelled at me from across the circle on the way to class.
…..“Tell the doctor not to miss.”
…..At first I didn’t understand, then it started making me mad.
…..“Shut up, it’s not funny. God dammit.”
…..It was the first time I ever swore in English.
…..One night I asked Lucky about it. Lucky was the only other Asian in the dorm and he was a freshman like me. He was born in California and some of the time he seemed to avoid me like he was afraid everyone would think we were too good friends. Lucky had just gotten a package of sweet jerky and preserved plums from his family.
…..“I hate lom,” he said, “You want it.”
…..He dumped a mound of Chinese candy on my bed. There must have been a hundred pieces, each wad wrapped in blue paper and sealed with a twist at each end. I swept it up, popping lom into my mouth, until a second pile of untwisted blue paper filled the other side of the bed. We sat on the bed together and just started talking.
…..“They have all this writing on the wrappers, I’ve never known what it says?”
…..Lucky pointed to the Chinese characters on the lom wrapper. I picked one up to read it, “You don’t speak Chinese. I always forget that. It just says happiness, long life, preserved plums.”
…..I pointed to each character trying to show him.
…..“American candy’s wrapped in clear plastic. You know with a machine. Just the name of the candy,” Lucky explained.
…..He then told me more about California, how he was the only Chinese in all his schools, about how his parents wanted him to be a lawyer or something. I told him about my dad’s bank, about my sisters who went to college in Connecticut and their white boyfriends. He tried to explain why he didn’t speak Chinese. I offered to teach him, though I couldn’t understand how anyone couldn’t speak his own language.
…..“So are you going to get circumcised?” he asked me.
…..“Are you circumcised?”
…..“Yeah, sure almost everybody is. It’s supposed to be healthier.”
…..Lucky got up off the bed and moved to a chair across the room.
…..“Did it hurt?”
…..Lucky shrugged, “I don’t even remember.”
…..“Can I see it?”
…..Lucky started for the door.
…..“I just want to see what an American penis looks like.”
…..He tried to describe it to me at first, “Well, it just kind of sticks out, like when you have an erection.”
…..“You mean it’s hard all the time?”
…..“Just go to the gym,” he said.
…..“They won’t let me start gym until next week because of the mumps.”
…..“Oh, yeah.”

Finally, we agreed. We locked the door, lowered the shade, shut off all but one light. I pulled down my pants, because he’d never seen an uncircumcised penis. He lowered his. He pulled his pants up less than a second later and scrambled back to the chair by my desk. I pulled mine up equally fast. I’m not sure either of us saw anything.
…..They had to give me a local for the operation. I didn’t dare look. It hurt for two weeks. At first, I couldn’t even sit up. I tried not to drink anything the first couple days because when I urinated it felt like I was going to die.
…..The other freshmen from the dorm came to see me in the hospital. The receptionist visited me, brought me another article this time from a newspaper. This one was about the ten mile piece of the DMZ that had been defoliated, the world’s newest desert separated tropical South Vietnam from the North.
…..“It was a good operation,” the doctor told me,”We won’t even have to use stitches.”
…..For three days, I read comic books, watched TV, and after it stopped hurting drank 7-Up. One afternoon, the nurse came in.
…..“Sammy, we have someone who wants to meet you.”
…..The nurse smiled at me.
…..“My friends from the dorm?”
…..“No, but they said they’d be coming back.”
…..“But maybe you’ll want to comb your hair and shave.”
…..She brought me a little tray with a basin and a comb and a razor. I had only shaved three times before, each time six weeks apart.
…..“Who’s coming to see me? I asked again.”
…..Later that afternoon, there was a knock on the door. Two of the nurses came in first, behind them was a girl. She had on a fancy green dress which came down just below her knees. Her hair stacked carefully on top of more hair, her shoes had heels. She looked enormous. A white banner which read “New Hampshire” covered her from her left shoulder to her right hip. She wore lots of make up and it looked like she hadn’t stopped smiling for the last eight months. She was very pretty, like the girls in the TV commercials.
…..“Sammy, meet Vicky Charles. Vicky’s Miss New Hampshire. Vicky, Sammy just came here last month all the way from Saigon.”
…..“Saigon,” she repeated it, like she was still trying to recognize the name.
…..“In Vietnam,” I said.
…..She stopped smiling for an instant. She moved forward and bent toward me. Her voice softened.
…..“Are you going to be all right?’
…..“Yes, fine. They just made a little cut. I’ll be out in the next couple days.”
…..“Well, you’re very brave. I don’t think I could survive what you’ve been through.”
…..I could smell her perfume. Close up I could see that Vicky Charles couldn’t be more than five years older than me.
…..“I was at a Veterans hospital last week. It’s so horrible what happens over there.”
…..It hadn’t occurred to me that she thought that I had been shot.
…..“Oh no, I wasn’t wounded in the war.”
…..“You weren’t?”
…..She stood up.
“I’m a student at the academy.”
…..“Why are you here then?”
…..I had never seen anyone turn that red before.
…..A day later, after the pain subsided, I went back to the infirmary for one more day. The infirmary was quiet and I thought all the people who worked there were busy wth other patients. I put the photo of Miss New Hampshire next to one of Hilary’s magazines on top of my sheets. I held up the covers and pulled up my hospital gown to admire my new sexier American penis. The door was shut and the shades were closed, because I was supposed to be sleeping. I was startled by the turn of the doorknob.
…..It was Hilary. I shook my head. My brain told me to say something, but my mouth wouldn’t open. For a moment, my only words were in Chinese. I flung the photo and the unopened magazine to the floor.
…..“Sammy, I thought we were friends.”
…..“Sorry,” was the only English word I could manage.
…..Hilary retrieved her magazine from the floor then tossed it in the trash as if disgusted. Our eyes met.
…..“I thought you wanted to know what was happening to your country, but you’re just a boy. I should have known.”
…..I don’t think she meant to, but she stepped on the back of my photo of Miss New Hampshire just before she ran out of the room. I picked up the photo of Miss New Hampshire. I still have it complete with faint shoeprint across the back in a drawer at home. Hilary’s Avant Garde magazine stayed in the hospital trash can.
…..For the rest of my stay in the infirmary, I worried that she had told Doctor Hale, but he said nothing about it. Hilary and I avoided one another.
…..“Foreskin and seven years ago, our fathers founded a new smegma.”
…..It was the favorite joke in the dorm before I left. Some of the guys didn’t even realize they were circumcised until they heard the jokes. When Hilary closed that door behind her, I wasn’t thinking about the dorms or about joking. For some reason, I began thinking about the mortar shell that hit a garage in my neighborhood at home, the bank account my father had me open here every month they sent me five hundred American dollars the limit, the bare strip in the DMZ, communism, cancer, the doctor’s office and his pictures of diseased penises. I started to cry, but not about Hilary or even about being caught by her.
…..It was the first time that it had ever occurred to me that I might never go home again.

Marko Fong lives in Northern California and published most recently in Memoir (and), Solstice Quarterly, Brilliant Corners, and Prick of the Spindle. His fiction has been nominated twice for a Pushcart Prize.


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