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Because of his military service, our Chinese-American father could have an American flag in his casket. So we filled out VA Form 27-2008, and they tucked a folded blue triangle with 10 white stars just above our father’s left shoulder for the viewing.
“We never bury the flag,” the undertaker said, so before he bolted the casket shut, he gave the flag to our mother, who held onto it with both hands, her heels sinking into the sod, as we stood on the grassy plot.
We thought of the mornings we ate Cheerios and toast while he drank gin and told us about the time he went out one night in Vietnam, and was fired upon by someone from his own company. “Thought you were a gook,” the soldier said. Like the white squad commander who called him a slanty-eyed chink, and the GI in his patrol who said, “Who you going to fire at? Your brothers shot me six times in Korea.” And when his company was overwhelmed by a VC battalion, wounding him and a dozen others, he was left alone, half buried in the mud, while he watched the others lifted to safety through the trees.
We remembered the nights crouching by the upstairs vent, watching our father in the bedroom below, pacing with his fists clenched. Our mother crying in her nightdress, and how we shook every time something glass shattered against the wall.
Twenty years later, we had almost forgotten. Until we watch the news about the elderly Asian Americans being pushed to the ground and left for dead, told by their assailants to “Go back to your country.” Like Pak Ho, 75 years old, whose face we see memorialised on TV, and we immediately think that’s what Dad would’ve looked like if he’d lived that long. Our father, who bought his gin and cigarettes at the same intersection of Jayne Avenue and Perkins Street where Mr. Ho was murdered. Our father, whose eyes would well up if he knew we’d put the Stars and Stripes in his casket, because it meant he was finally being recognised by his country.
So we call our mother frantically that evening to ask where she put the flag. Her house is cluttered with junk – figurines, paper bags, old fruit. But does she keep the flag somewhere? Somewhere safe? In a place of honour in her home?