The snailest mail
I slid the postcards into the slot on the right side of the mailbox, marked for international mail, and patted myself on the back. After Christmas, my funds and attention are usually depleted, and I have been known to miss some February kid birthdays. This January not only was I on track with gifts, I was in the process of sending cute tiger year-themed postcards to my family members with plenty of time to arrive for Tết. What a model Daughter/Sister/Auntie Abroad.
I wish I could buy stock in the Japanese postal service, because it’s the only system left in this world that I believe in. If you miss a delivery, you get a QR code that lets you reschedule for the same day, down to the hour. I told a teacher that once, and she said, “A QR code? I just call the number and tell the guy what time to come back.” Once a gift came from B in Fukuoka with a postcard taped to the side that said the postage was 20 yen short. I could accept the package and paste 20 yen worth of stamps on the postcard, or I could check a box to refuse and leave the package to be sent back. Chị Hai has sent me multiple letters with digits missing or swapped, and they still arrive, a tiny mark of correction in pencil on the label. Once when my parents’ hotel lost a piece of important mail, none of the eight or so employees we spoke to, nor anyone at their corporate headquarters, could muster the ability to help; in the end it was an English-speaking customer support rep from Japan Post who resolved it over the phone.
That’s why my faith was so shaken when I realized, six weeks after Tết had passed, that no one had mentioned the postcards. The US postal service having the shruggie emoji reputation that it does, I would have expected unreliability on the American side, but the fact that none had arrived at all, meant there was a delay on the Japanese side. Trump somehow escapes blame yet again.
Then on May 13, a photo popped up in group chat of the tiger face. One had surfaced, in Manhattan, at Chị Hai’s house. Did anyone else get one? No. A fluke? But then two days later: May 15, one arrived in Pasadena. Then May 17, another in Manhattan. Finally, May 18: the last one landed in central New Jersey. More than three months late, chúc mừng năm mới!
Puzzled, on May 18, I wrote out one letter and one postcard as a test, and went to the post office to hand them both to a human, to ensure all the variables were the same. I expected the letter to take about eight days and the postcard to take, I guess, four months? Five days later, they both arrived at Chị Hai’s apartment.
In March 2020, when everyone was struggling, I sent two postcards from Fukuoka. One to Heidi in Brooklyn, because I wanted her to know I was thinking about her, that I knew she was having a hard time, and because I thought a super cute Totoro drinking in a tree with friends could soothe a weary fearful soul. The postcard didn’t arrive until five months later, the freshly scribbled feelings on its surface long dry and stale.
The other I sent to N, in southern India. He had just bought a ticket to come live with me in Japan, and even though everyone was suffering, we thought we’d at least be doing so together imminently. We were days away from finding out that his flight would be canceled, that the borders of Japan would be closing indefinitely, that flights out of India would stop all together. The missive was sent out with one specific intention, through an impossibly narrow but profoundly deep crevasse of hope.
It didn’t make it to the other side. His father received it in August, after N had already left India to return to the US. His father has since passed away from covid. And as many readers know, N never came to Japan. Our years together ended over a video call on my tiny phone screen. Months of poorly timed signals, dropped connections, missed sentiments, crossed regret, dispatches sent across all the packets and packages, the pulses of light and emotional cables that connected our two selves, collapsed into one unambiguous message delivered in seconds: This ends here.
My parents were in their late twenties and married less than a year with a newborn when my father left to study in the US. He was meant to return the following year, but it was 1974 in South Vietnam. They couldn’t, or didn’t, imagine what was coming.
The year my parents spent on either side of the Pacific Ocean, they were too poor to even think of making an international phone call. My mother says she didn’t pay attention to how long the letters took to arrive, she just wrote and sent, wrote and sent. My father says he thought they took a week or two. He still has the ones from her.
In March 1975, following a profile of Cher, Time published two cover stories: “Indochina: How much longer?” and “The last retreat.” A few weeks later, the cover was of an unnamed child crying in close up, photographed by Nguyen Cong Phuc: “Collapse in Viet Nam.” My father and the other Vietnamese students in the dorms at the University of Missouri-Rolla read the headlines and were glued every day to the TV. It now seemed imminent that the north would take Sài Gòn, and everyone was scrambling to try and get their loved ones out of the south.
“We grew up in a society at war,” my father told me over Skype, “So these kinds of stories were not so dramatic to us.” “We were scared, obviously,” my mother said, “But we also believed we had a fate, and we just hoped that it was a good one.” My mother did of course make it out with Chị Hai, four days before the fall. Calls even within Vietnam were too expensive, so she had no way of letting her own father and sister in Cần Thơ know she was going. My father didn’t know either, was just watching the inevitable march toward the loss of his country, without knowing when he’d see his family next. He didn’t find out until my mother was evacuated to Guam, where people were allowed free calls to their family from the camp.
I’d ask how it felt to get that call, but it seems the story is lost to time: According to my father, my mother called to tell him the good news before the war ended on April 30, so he wasn’t a complete wreck. My mother remembers this reversed; she says she heard on the radio that Sài Gòn had been surrendered before she got to Guam and was able to call him. “So maybe it was April 31,” she said. “There’s only 30 days in April,” he said from beside her.
I write and send, write and send. And then I wait. Happy new year, mazel tov, I miss you, I want to see your face, I’m thinking of you right now. By the time you read this, will it still be true?
P.S. Did you know? (Why would you?) In Japanese culture, it’s considered rude to include a postscript in a letter to someone senior to you.