Saeng, a teenage girl, and her family have moved to the United States from Vietnam. As Saeng walks home after failing her driver’s test, she sees a familiar plant. Later, she goes to a florist shop to see if the plant can be purchased.
It was like walking into another world. A hot, moist world exploding with greenery. Huge flat leaves, delicate wisps of tendrils, ferns and fronds and vines of all shades and shapes grew in seemingly random profusion.
“Over there, in the corner, the hibiscus. Is that what you mean?” The florist pointed at a leafy potted plant by the corner.
There, in a shaft of the wan afternoon sunlight, was a single bloodred blossom, its five petals splayed back to reveal a long stamen tipped with yellow pollen. Saeng felt a shock of recognition so intense, it was almost visceral.1
“Saebba,” Saeng whispered.
A saebbah hedge, tall and lush, had surrounded their garden, its lush green leaves dotted with vermilion flowers. And sometimes after a monsoon rain, a blossom or two would have blown into the well, so that when she drew the well water, she would find a red blossom floating in the bucket.
Slowly, Saeng walked down the narrow aisle toward the hibiscus. Orchids, lanna bushes, oleanders, elephant ear begonias, and bougainvillea vines surrounded her. Plants that she had not even realized she had known but had forgotten drew her back into her childhood world.
When she got to the hibiscus, she reached out and touched a petal gently. It felt smooth and cool, with a hint of velvet toward the center—just as she had known it would feel.
And beside it was yet another old friend, a small shrub with waxy leaves and dainty flowers with purplish petals and white centers. “Madagascar periwinkle,” its tag announced. How strange to see it in a pot, Saeng thought. Back home it just grew wild, jutting out from the cracks in brick walls or between tiled roofs.
And that rich, sweet scent—that was familiar, too. Saeng scanned the greenery around her and found a tall, gangly plant with exquisite little white blossoms on it. “Dok Malik,” she said, savoring the feel of the word on her tongue, even as she silently noted the English name on its tag, “jasmine.”
One of the blossoms had fallen off, and carefully Saeng picked it up and smelled it. She closed her eyes and breathed in, deeply. The familiar fragrance filled her lungs, and Saeng could almost feel the light strands of her grandmother’s long gray hair, freshly washed, as she combed it out with the fine-toothed buffalo-horn comb. And when the sun had dried it, Saeng would help the gnarled old fingers knot the hair into a bun, then slip a dok Malik bud into it.
Saeng looked at the white bud in her hand now, small and fragile. Gently, she closed her palm around it and held it tight. That, at least, she could hold on to. But where was the fine-toothed comb? The hibiscus hedge? The well? Her gentle grandmother?
A wave of loss so deep and strong that it stung Saeng’s eyes now swept over her. A blink, a channel switch, a boat ride into the night, and it was all gone. Irretrievably, irrevocably gone.
And in the warm moist shelter of the greenhouse, Saeng broke down and wept.
14It was already dusk when Saeng reached home. The wind was blowing harder, tearing off the last remnants of green in the chicory weeds that were growing out of the cracks in the sidewalk. As if oblivious to the cold, her mother was still out in the vegetable garden, digging up the last of the onions with a rusty trowel. She did not see Saeng until the girl had quietly knelt down next to her.
Her smile of welcome warmed Saeng. “Ghup ma laio le? You’re back?” she said cheerfully. “Goodness, it’s past five. What took you so long? How did it go? Did you—?” Then she noticed the potted plant that Saeng was holding, its leaves quivering in the wind.
Mrs. Panouvong uttered a small cry of surprise and delight. “Dok faeng-noi!” she said. “Where did you get it?”
“I bought it,” Saeng answered, dreading her mother’s next question.
For answer Saeng handed her mother some coins.
“That’s all?” Mrs. Panouvong said, appalled, “Oh, but I forgot! You and the Lambert boy ate Bee-Maags2….”
“No, we didn’t, Mother,” Saeng said.
“Then what else—?”
“Nothing else. I paid over nineteen dollars for it.”
24“You what?” Her mother stared at her incredulously. “But how could you? All the seeds for this vegetable garden didn’t cost that much! You know how much we—” She paused, as she noticed the tearstains on her daughter’s cheeks and her puffy eyes.
“What happened?” she asked, more gently.
“I—I failed the test,” Saeng said.
For a long moment Mrs. Panouvong said nothing. Saeng did not dare look her mother in the eye. Instead, she stared at the hibiscus plant and nervously tore off a leaf, shredding it to bits.
Her mother reached out and brushed the fragments of green off Saeng’s hands. “It’s a beautiful plant, this dok faeng-noi,” she finally said. “I’m glad you got it.”
“It’s—it’s not a real one,” Saeng mumbled. “I mean, not like the kind we had at—at—” She found that she was still too shaky to say the words at home, lest she burst into tears again. “Not like the kind we had before,” she said.
“I know,” her mother said quietly. “I’ve seen this kind blooming along the lake. Its flowers aren’t as pretty, but it’s strong enough to make it through the cold months here, this winter hibiscus. That’s what matters.”
She tipped the pot and deftly eased the ball of soil out, balancing the rest of the plant in her other hand. “Look how root-bound it is, poor thing,” she said. “Let’s plant it, right now.”
She went over to the corner of the vegetable patch and started to dig a hole in the ground. The soil was cold and hard, and she had trouble thrusting the shovel into it. Wisps of her gray hair trailed out in the breeze, and her slight frown deepened the wrinkles around her eyes. There was a frail, wiry beauty to her that touched Saeng deeply.
“Here, let me help, Mother,” she offered, getting up and taking the shovel away from her.
Mrs. Panouvong made no resistance. “I’ll bring in the hot peppers and bitter melons, then, and start dinner. How would you like an omelet with slices of the bitter melon?”
“I’d love it,” Saeng said.
Left alone in the garden, Saeng dug out a hole and carefully lowered the “winter hibiscus” into it. She could hear the sounds of cooking from the kitchen now, the beating of eggs against a bowl, the sizzle of hot oil in the pan. The pungent smell of bitter melon wafted out, and Saeng’s mouth watered. It was a cultivated taste, she had discovered—none of her classmates or friends, not even Mrs. Lambert, liked it—this sharp, bitter melon that left a golden aftertaste on the tongue. But she had grown up eating it and, she admitted to herself, much preferred it to a Big Mac.
The “winter hibiscus” was in the ground now, and Saeng tamped down the soil around it. Overhead, a flock of Canada geese flew by, their faint honks clear and—yes—familiar to Saeng now. Almost reluctantly, she realized that many of the things that she had thought of as strange before had become, through the quiet repetition of season upon season, almost familiar to her now. Like the geese. She lifted her head and watched as their distinctive V was etched against the evening sky, slowly fading into the distance.
When they come back, Saeng vowed silently to herself, in the spring, when the snows melt and the geese return and this hibiscus is budding, then I will take that test again.
“Winter Hibiscus” by Minfong Ho, copyright © 1993 by Minfong Ho, from Join In, Multiethnic Short Stories, by Donald R. Gallo, ed. Used by permission of Dell Publishing, a division of Random House, Inc.