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Nose Kisses on the Screen

Words by Linh S. Nguyễn
Illustration by Christie Wong
May 27th, 2021


Children of the diaspora, we know it better than anyone. Our bodies were built for warmer days. Our first words echoed in a different tongue. Our ancestors lay buried across the ocean. We greet the distance like a long-time acquaintance, too well versed in the language of loving through screens.

I grew up in this world of space, learning piecemeal how to hold relationships over calling cards, Skype, and then blurry Viber screens when my parents pressed the phone to my face. In the days before WiFi, we punched in long numbers on the keypad as money added up. We prayed for the connection to hold. Conversations sounded rigid to start, rusty with the lack of gestures to compensate – a hug, a meal, an invitation to stand up and go out for a drive. I never reached a point of comfortable silence in many familial relationships. Silence cannot exist comfortably on a call.

At thirteen, I remember feeling stunned when the little boy I babysat mentioned a casual visit to his grandparents. They lived the next block over, he told me, and the monotony of that statement threw me. Our strange reality hit me – how carefully we have to save, how long we have to coordinate for a journey home. I considered the grove in my grandparents’ garden, the mango, star fruit, and wax apple trees that I’d loved climbing as a child. They had been chopped down, the land sold, when I’d last returned.

“Eight thousand miles apart, I felt my grandmother’s years in my own bones built from hers, the fragility of her tissue-paper hands and failing memory.”

The year I began to work, I tried on minimum wage to make ten vacation days worth the cost of the flight: twelve hundred dollars. It barely allowed time to cross three continents and make it back home. With time, my frustration at the circumstance faded; I adjusted to misremembering faces, a haircut unfamiliar, or a weak jawline sharpened out. I kept up with graduations and love lives in pictures. I forgot to resent the lack – but then, nothing exacerbated it like a planet locked down. Eight thousand miles apart, I felt my grandmother’s years in my own bones built from hers, the fragility of her tissue-paper hands and failing memory. Amidst closures and curfews, my loved ones tracked flights by day and prayed by night for safe returns. We stand in the stillness, waiting for a reunion, while time does not.

When I moved to Montreal, I saw how beauty rose from compensation, an art every immigrant practices unfailingly: in full family calls spanning five time zones, photos of food shared in group chats, and how I film my orange cat to amuse my bà ngoại. Her hearing worsened, but nose kisses on a video call sent messages broken up words could not. She learned to recognize my mother by the gesture alone, performed over and over at the end of every talk in which we repeat the same questions like a script.

What did you eat for breakfast? (Porridge) What are you having for lunch? (Rice)

Did you exercise yet today? (A walk in the early morning)

I watch my mother prompt childhood songs to jog her own mother’s memory. They sing ditties of hunting storks and cats in areca trees. In these routine chats on grainy screens, I stare at a horizon built on hope for a future of if and when. I think of a boat deck drifting in the bay of Hạ Long, of short days every decade or so when every cousin, aunt, and uncle can reunite. No place ever made me cry like Nội Bài airport. Now in my tiny apartment in Montréal, I listen to conversations of plans, revised as realities shift, as though we have decades to spare.

Traditional love languages disappoint us, but we are immigrants. Again and again, I witnessed the ways we are adept at starting anew, lives from scratch, snippets cobbled together like a lullaby.

Linh Nguyễn is a Vietnamese immigrant to Canada and a writer, specializing in creative non-fiction and children’s literature. She is passionate about examining depictions of marginalized identities in popular culture and creating space for underrepresented voices in mainstream media.

Christie Wong is a multidisciplinary artist who loves intersecting mediums especially in poetry, illustration and photography. She has been transitioning her past seasons of ceramics work and painting into a natural dyeing and pigment foraging season. She is also a lover of creating welcoming spaces for others to develop and challenge their craft and connecting her community with their inner work and unique expressions.





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