Autobiography in an Automobilical Chord

Art via WikiArt

By Long Tran


Periods of my life with family are defined by petrol vehicles. And for sure, their story can be told in vehicles as well. There were the days when my father sat on the back of a truck to travel to school. And when he was late, he would have to walk all the way there. Their family had a single bike when my aunt and uncle were in high school. She would sit on the backseat as my uncle pedals. Kids around their neighbourhood would jeer and mistake them for a couple. 

My parents met at university and dated on bicycles. Two years after graduation, they married and bought our first motorbike, helped by my maternal grandpa. I was born shortly after. I remember the emerald green. It was cool, the design, neither robotic nor feminine. Though for a while, my father lent it to his sister to use while he kept biking. I was six months old when my mother returned to work and bought another motorbike. It could have been a beige Vespa, not the brand but the scooter shape. The one I sat on as she took me to kindergarten. My first burn was from its engine. A child of three or four, I was curious as to what would happen. I was also curious about what would happen if I turned the key once, and as I did, the machine roared forward. I was deathly scared. Out of a fear of falling off, I always hugged on tightly to the rider whoever they were. 

There are still trees now but few spaces for people. I got out of the country before that happened. I was not there to witness its tragedy.

It was not until we had our new house when I was 6, a three-storied place in the suburb, that my father received his drivers’ license, before my mother. His first car was a burnt orange Kia Morning. It was small and compact but took up the yard space that I used to play football nevertheless. When my mother passed the test, he got the silver Toyota Camry. Silver was his element, according to some superstitions that we held. I liked the Camry, it was long and spacious compared to the Kia. It smelt different, of leather, of growing privilege. In those cars were my clearest memories of the city I grew up in. Hanoi passed by in lanes of traffic, a windowpane separating myself from the ant-like flow of motorcycles outside ejecting black air. My world was inside those cars: going to cram school, dozing off to the radio, spotting other cars on the road. Back then, there weren’t as many. I had fun identifying the brand and model. Toyotas and Hondas were common, but Nissans, Mercedes, BMWs were rare. Luxury cars, even in dealerships, were the ultimate collector’s items. I remember a yellow Hyundai sports car parked around the corner of my house near the pho restaurant where I sometimes ate breakfast. 

I gazed out at the shops and restaurants that passed by. Shopping malls were built one after another in the crowded city. Later, those cars delivered me to those malls, with all the same shops, same toys, same cinemas, same food courts. I had fun regardless. There was little else to do when public spaces dwindled and became costly. Cars filled up the park behind my house where every afternoon for two or three years I had played football with the neighbourhood kids. First, it was the big field used by bigger boys. Then they came for our turfs. The circular section, where conveniently, there are two paths at either end for goals. There was also a circular flowerbed bang in the middle that we all dribbled around. We took my sister, born in 09 to that park for photoshoots. My parents held my hand there as I learned to balance myself on the bike. There are still trees now but few spaces for people. I got out of the country before that happened. I was not there to witness its tragedy.

I moved to Japan when I was twelve, halfway through sixth grade, and a few months later, my mother sold the Kia. We were moving to Tokyo after my father. He had transferred to the Japan office a year earlier. The Camry was also already gone by then. And when I came back in summer to visit they were not there any longer. I asked my mother in regret who she had sold the cars to, but she never told me. The colour was rare, but the model common enough for me to wonder whether those similar cars on the road once belonged to us. 

In Hanoi, I would watch kids riding on the back of motorcycles with their parents, holding onto them tightly as I did once. In the Lexus, it was just us, my family and I, drifting closer and apart at the same time.

For years in Tokyo, we did not have a car. The city was convenient, trains connected everywhere in the metropole. Yet during this time in Saigon, my grandfather was switching wheels every few years, cycling through every good model of Toyota there were. He had a Lexus for a while, and so does our family now. Five years in Tokyo, we bought a house and subsequently a Lexus SUV, silver again. My mother drove us around first because my father did not pass the Japanese license test on his first try. He was also briefly relocated back in Viet Nam for a year when he ordered a black Mercedes. The first German car we own. I barely rode on it, only once or twice we travelled as a family. My father was moved to show me the ride. It was pretty cool. 

But when we had the Lexus was when my love for cars faded away. Time there feels like they pass by on highways. The streets did not call out in excitement like back in Hanoi. No street names that ooze our heroic history. Everything was neat and numbered on the surface. No nostalgic attachment to the lives on the sidewalk or the lives in the vehicles around us. In Hanoi, I would watch kids riding on the back of motorcycles with their parents, holding onto them tightly as I did once. In the Lexus, it was just us, my family and I, drifting closer and apart at the same time.

Maybe I was used to the subways and the trains. I was being conscious of fossil fuels consumption and a warming world. I held ideas about communal transport and romanticized my morning and evening subway rides. Completing homework at the very last minute. Revising. Savouring the 22 minutes of sleep to make up for a late night. The joy of returning home with friends. Different kids stepped on and off at different chunks of that ride. You turn your head to those blinding headlights that appear and expand from the tunnel until the whole thing fly by like clockwork. I knew my Tokyo by its sprawling train tracks. It was the summer of 18. I left for university with that confidence in the world. 

Yet, the Lexus did take my family many places inaccessible by anything else. We road-tripped more around the Kanto region than we ever did on trains. In the Lexus, we visited mostly natural sites, drove on winding, spiralling roads, gazed onto the places that we know not the name of. It happens often enough for the drive to become family time. We focus not on our phones, only the road and ourselves. It is easier because we do not look straight into each other’s face like we do across the dinner table. It is small and private. Everyone sat upright but still relaxed. Many frustrating and revealing conversations happened in the car. Real talk, a bit more than the mundane day-to-day at home, that almost do not occur at any other times, any other places.

I was encouraged to look outward and idolize the greater world. Now I yearn for the implicit knowledge I had about life in my hometown. Access to such rhythms can only be through the automobiles long parked in my body, in the pumping engine of the heart. 

I was drifting away, one whole continental plate. Yet those rides buckled me back in during the winters and summers I return. I earned my driver’s license just before my 20th birthday. It was manual, but, I have only been driving an automatic in the Lexus since then. It is a good smooth car. It is a good smooth feeling driving your family around. The responsibility is big, speeding alongside cars in the big city. Slamming on the gas when entering the highway. Overtaking someone. Snaking along the mountain road. All these feelings I had thought I would not like. But here I am, the vehicle feels like an expansion of myself, larger, stronger, faster, more perceptive: freedom aided by navigation, by fossil fuels, by the infrastructure of the state. Would I buy a car in the future, when I grow up? 

Have I grown up? 

Have I grown bigger in this world, where my size is determined by the depletion of things I am not even aware of? 

My younger self had a romantic obsession with things, with their foreign names and foreign categories. I was encouraged to look outward and idolize the greater world. Now I yearn for the implicit knowledge I had about life in my hometown. Access to such rhythms can only be through the automobiles long parked in my body, in the pumping engine of the heart. 


About The Author

I have just told you my whole story above but I guess I should add that I study Philosophy and Anthropology. Also, I like to play Blonde by Frank Ocean on road trip – an emotional tour de force!

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