111_box_348x490Bác Thu Dang was not a blood relative as far as I know. Vietnamese family trees are notoriously convoluted, with the farther branches of second uncles and cousins twisted and labyrinthine. But I suspect that his bác was an honorific, the way that some Vietnamese refer to Ho Chi Minh as Bác Hồ — Uncle Ho. (My parents refuse to speak Ho Chi Minh’s name in any incarnations — their version of the 614th mitzvah.)

I knew nothing of Bác Thu Dang’s life. My father told me, at one point, that he worked as a janitor. He spoke very little English, but in Vietnamese, he had a knack for puns: slight tonal shifts, switched consonants. When he came over for visits — once a week, it seemed – he and my parents played cắt tê for nickels and took sips of Remy Martin V.S.O.P. until they were red-faced from laughter and alcohol. My mother let me taste her drink (Remy and 7-Up) and sporadically explained what was so funny. I suspect that most of Bác Thu Dang’s jokes were dirty.

One Christmas, Bác Thu Dang gave me a bag of Hershey’s Kisses, and I ate them all, except for three — one of each color: green, red, silver. I had a habit of hording candy — in a Sucrets tin, one of each flavor out from a bag of Jelly Bellys kept in a Sucrets tin; in a lidded jar, the accumulated cherry pieces from a Halloween’s-worth of SweeTarts. A few years ago, when I was cleaning out my childhood desk, I found those three Kisses, still in their bag, crammed in the back of a drawer. They’d dissolved into dust by then, eaten by something larval, their foil pocked with holes. This was my last physical reminder with Bác Thu Dang, but still, I threw the bag away.

I’m struck by how M. Hulot reminds me of Bác Thu Dang: the tall frame, the long face, the air of calm bufuddlement. I don’t recall ever seeing Bác Thu Dang without a hat, most often a droopy fishing hat that sat low on his head, much like the one M. Hulot wears on his holiday. The similarities end there: Bác Thu Dang also wore large glasses, and his front two incisors were nicotine-stained and slightly twisted, giving him the appearance of an overbite. But he was a familiar sight in our house, a constant presence in our lives.

Until he wasn’t. At some point, the visits stopped, I’m not sure why. There hadn’t been a quarrel that I was aware of, and when my parents encountered him, they were still convivial. But the level of closeness wasn’t there anymore. Maybe the friendship had simply run its course. The young boy in Mon Oncle never questions why his uncle is suddenly no longer a part of his life; he instead forms a stronger bond with his father.

For me, I know there’s must be another secret stash of chocolate somewhere.

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