By Brian To, Contributor
I gently unbuckle the watch from my wrist. The bare, whitened skin is left with a keen want, feeling for something vitally important. I felt closest to everyone during our big family get-togethers when the food was cleared down to the awful bits and crumbs and lonely unfinished beers. The cars trickled out of the driveway, exposing the sharp sound of gravel to the neighbor’s dog, who viciously howled and snarled, attentive in its supervision. When the drowsy drive back to our own little corner of family meant scouring sleepily for the lines of the road like being drunk, or sometimes actually drunk, accompanied by nonsensical and incoherent shouts in attempt to keep Mom awake. A fond world was left behind, and another returned to.
Within that fondness, Uncle and Grandfather, softly gripping their tepid bottles of our favorite Vietnamese beer, speak with their usual hushed tones and dreamily spastic hand movements. I don't entirely understand their meaning, but their words manage to speak through their hands. I stand far across the room and move to listen in. They notice my watch.
The formative throes of youth are grounded not in how we form identity, but really how we strip away the things that have failed to define us. We are born with everything, and we cut down. Filter the nitrates, remove the grains and clear out the remaining debris. Despite this foundation of youth, we cling to the things that are not a part of us with rabid fervor, and the unattended things sift through our grasp. I think sometimes as it happens, these forgotten parts of youth can be swallowed whole into one huge mass, heavy and ignored at its surface and ultimately dismissed as hormonal nonsense towards its gritty center. We build on that mass of identity until it swells and explodes. We don't realize that if we condensed ourselves and culled what we needed, we'd be saved a great harm. In those days my identity was so swollen it was practically bulging at the seams, caked in incongruities I couldn't solve. The faceless, simple entity was drawn in a mold, power-pressed to perfect symmetry by the thousands. And I was content.
The first watch I ever bought myself was an older Casio model. Gold with accents of black, a retro timepiece fitted with a useless calculator below the time.
One afternoon, a scheduled lunch with my father. We lived our lives virtually separate from each other, so for me, these weekly meals were treasured. After a wandering glance towards my wrist, he began to recount his youth.
Those lunches we ate were more often than not at Vietnamese restaurants. I can count on one hand the times we went elsewhere. Over the fresh, steamy rice noodles we both liked, he spoke of the long, hot days in Vietnam. A glimpse into the struggle and jubilance of a land far away.
In his youth, the wealthier brats on the playground seemed to have infinite familial riches, and bore on their wrists watches adorned with pride. The kind of pride that goes beyond a reckless, brazen flight into the sun. A pride that carried those brats through political tribulations, that liberated them from the earthly things that, without any iota of doubt, challenge those of all ages, of all backgrounds, of all places. Once upon a time, Dad wanted a watch like that. A watch like mine. And the rest of his words, his story of youth in a land that I always promise to visit but don't, flowed like a beautiful stream of water, sparkling and seductive in its capacity and vastness. Those words bore a deep hole inside me that I kept filled to the brim with that distant, immeasurable pride. The mold was drawn, embellished with the finer details, and finalized for production.
Becoming a shadow of my father, I wore my watch. It was a confession of my feelings to him, my love for his youth and my own, having it gaudily displayed like a shining jewel in the heart of a museum exhibit. Some days I slept with it on. To this day, the battery is still running.
Uncle and Grandfather inspect my watch, molding their hands into shapes of silent disapproval. Each leave for a moment to their rooms and return with their watches, those glowing remembrances of pasts I scarcely know. How lovingly they brandished their relics before placing them in my hand. Seiko. In reading the name, something inside me stretched and tugged at itself in an anxious excitement. I liked them.
Dad creates for himself an undying importance in the value of a name. Some consider it a quirky hallmark of northern Vietnamese folk. Others more incisively abase my father and write him off as an impetuous and haughty sort of man. In him I see a man of image, a fatherly lesson in nobility, a lifelong journey in the development of a gentility from scraps of poverty. The name worn on his wrist is Rolex. There is no room left over for anything else, not a single space spared for the name on mine. He has several watches of that proud name. Many times during our lunches, he'd take them carefully from his wrist and plant them upon mine. "One day, this will be yours," he told me, overflowing with love. But every time in response, I nodded and spouted hesitant considerations.
In the moment, Uncle and Grandfather passed their watches to me, and although it was only a short time that I held each one, I felt as though they gifted me a permanent dressing, one wound tightly around me, of understanding and warmth. Their watches were ancient things, and though they were battle-scarred and rusting away, I felt in each a delicate nature. These watches were invaluable treasures to them. I'm unsure if I said anything as I inspected their watches, but I know Uncle and Grandfather could see my approval.
The identity built on my wrist, the name carved into it, remained unchanged for a long time. Later, it shifted from Casio to Seiko. One of these days it may change again with Dad's whispered echoes of Rolex. In the past, my identity was a mold prescribed by forces over which I had no control. I allowed it to be pressed into me, and sometimes I wonder if that was the right choice, allowing it to happen. But in its massive, amalgamated state I found areas that I could call my own. From the surface to the inner recesses, to the blasted center of it, there was not much that I could stamp my label into and call my own, but the places where I could, I did. And in each of those places are pieces of me I find of monumental importance. These pieces I've gathered—pieces that are not in some faraway land, that are not within meeting places doused in beer and feast, that are not on any other wrist than my own—stand over all else. The name that my father bears is not the name I bear. Still, it is a part of me, the watch my father doesn't wear.