Trần Khánh Linh
Adjust the mirrors. Check.
Turn the key. Check.
Step on and push the accelerator pedal. Check.
Slowly turn the throttle. Check.
“It still doesn’t work, dad!” I said, for the fifth time on that humid summer afternoon. Sweat was all over my face and the throttle started to get sticky in my hands.
My dad, sitting right behind me, decided to get off the saddle to check if I did something wrong. Though I knew he might have been just as exhausted as I was in that heat, his voice was still calm and soft as he explained the procedure all over to me.
“I’ll teach you how to ride a motorcycle!” my dad exclaimed just a day after I returned home from college last summer. “You can’t go everywhere by taxi, and as a Vietnamese, knowing how to ride a motorcycle is a must!”
That suddenly reminded me of the summer before my 11th grade when my dad tried to show me how to ride an electric bike so I could go to school by myself. Before I could even get on it, my arms shook while holding it loosely and the bike, which was about 88lbs, fell on my feet. I couldn’t walk appropriately for a while. That’s not to mention that an electric bike, which runs automatically, is nothing compared to a motorcycle on the scale of difficulty level.
“So, what do you say?” My dad interrupted my flashback with a smile on his face, so I decided to say yes, though not absolutely positive.
So there we were, in the middle of a tiny playground near my house, under the heat of 37oC, which is the equivalent of 98.6oF. I thought it wasn’t a very good idea, but my dad insisted that it was the only day he’d have some time off from the construction site he was working on.
I went outside to see him waiting on a shabby ten-year-old Honda underbone motorcycle, the kind you’d try to avoid using when picking a girl up for a first date, but required for the motorcycle driver’s license examination. He probably borrowed it from someone else, since all the motorcycles we had at home were scooters, the trendier and easier to ride ones that appear everywhere in Italian movies.
After fifteen minutes paying close attention to my dad’s instructions and demonstration, I finally made the Honda move. Controlling the speed and pedal and lights and signals, however, was a completely different story. My dad, sitting behind me again, looked visibly concerned when I glanced at him through the front mirror. That was probably the worst ride of his life.
I somehow managed to laugh out loud amidst all the heat and danger and confusion my dad and I were going through, as I realized how long it’d been since we last had some private father and daughter time like this. My dad is neither a tech lover nor someone good at keeping in touch, so in my first year studying abroad, we only talked when me and my mom Skyped. Even before that, we had an okay relationship, yet just not the kind of “I will tell you everything about my life” or “I will ask you for advice because I consider you my best friend.”
One of the few things that connected us, I suddenly realized, was the motorcycle. When I was in first grade, at one point my dad sold motorcycles for a living. He would pick me up at school every afternoon, using a different one each day. I remember him asking me what I thought of this grey Sirius or that shiny red Yamaha, to which I’d say I missed the stylish, yellow Suzuki he rode the other day.
I remember falling asleep on my dad’s motorcycle on my way to school, so often that he had to use a buckle belt to tie us together and prevent me from falling backwards. So every morning at 6:30, my dad sacrificed his sleep to take me to school while I was still asleep, my head resting on his back.
All these years, the motorcycle has gone above its usual function of a mere means of transportation, to serve as me and my dad’s travel companion as well as memory-facilitator. In my family in particular and the Vietnamese culture in general, a motorcycle can mean so much more.
It means a fortune when a fisherman spends all his savings on buying a secondhand Future so he and his wife can transport fish to more distant markets and make a better living. It is a status and wealth signifier when a person rides a $5,000 fancy imported SH next to someone else on a scruffy Wave. And lastly, that seems-to-be inanimate object can be an invaluable gift and a family heirloom when my grandpa gave the tiny Charlie, his life-long friend, to my mom before her wedding day.
From an extremely expensive possession that only elite families could afford in the 1940s, the motorcycle has become one of my country’s national symbols. Although it’s rather young when put in the context of our 3000-year history, it’s been a wonderful companion of Vietnamese people through the toughest times. It took people from other provinces all the way to Hanoi to witness Ho Chi Minh reading Vietnam’s declaration of independence on September 2nd, 1945. It carried us on its back to overcome the arduous process of rising from the sorrows of wars, finding our identity, and rebuilding our socio-economic system from scratch. The motorcycle has taught us that the only way to keep balance amidst all the road bumps, or hardships in life if you look at it from a broader perspective, is to stay focused and keep the wheels rolling.
No matter how our life standards have improved and owning a car is within reach for many people, the motorcycle is still an irreplaceable part of the Vietnamese way of life. No cars can take you to the narrow and busy alleys in Hanoi’s Old Quarter, and let you stop by a street vendor for some afternoon snacks without getting a ticket. They can’t let you feel the breeze through your hair on an autumn night, or the smell of earth before a summer pouring rain. Most importantly, they can’t bring to your senses my beloved Vietnam with all its beauty and imperfections.
Last October, while I was walking back to my dorm, a scooter that looked exactly like the one my family has at home all of a sudden passed by me. I stood still for a few seconds, because not only was it strange to see a motorcycle in Oberlin, but it also reminded me of my hometown and my dad that I dearly missed.
The sight of that scooter took me back to the morning of my motorcycle driver’s license examination, when my dad once again got up at 6:00 a.m. to take me to the examination site. He pulled out from the motorcycle trunk a bag of sticky rice with dried shredded pork, my favorite kind of breakfast, that he had bought the night before, and gave it to me.
He stayed there for the entire three hours, and even recorded a video of me riding a motorcycle for the practical examination. That was the first video he ever took with his smartphone.
The motorcycle influenced my life in its own way, as my dad loves me in his own way. Silently, yet wholeheartedly.