The thing I want to talk about is something I’m not in possession of anymore, but of all the things I’ve lost it’s the thing I think about the most. It’s a patch that had my dad’s name on it from his old flight suit. He was a pilot in the South Vietnamese Air Force. He and my mother were both refugees, and they met in a refugee camp. Because both of them were affiliated with the South Vietnamese government, they couldn’t stay in Vietnam. They came to Arkansas, and then moved to North Carolina, where they had my brother. And then they moved to Virginia, where they had me.
I grew up in Falls Church, Virginia just outside of Washington, DC, where my father worked as an electrician for the Metro system. There was a pretty robust, close-knit Vietnamese community where we lived, and my parents had a lot of friends who were also refugees. At home my parents mostly talked about lighthearted family tales. They never spoke of anything directly referencing the war. No one really wants to relive that kind of traumatic experience.
I grew up with my father until I was about eleven or twelve. To be honest it was a pretty tough life with him around. He was a very mercurial, turbulent, complicated guy. But he was also charismatic and charming, and I loved him. When he left, he took hardly anything with him. I remember I would sit with his collection of ceramic miniatures, replicas of household items. He had put together a display case for them, and I used to stare at it a lot. Maybe in some way I was trying to process what happened. After he left, my mother didn’t speak of him, even though she held onto his belongings.
I found the flight suit when I was in high school or maybe the beginning of college. I was just rummaging through stuff in the basement when I saw it lying there in a bag of clothes.
I think I may have been desensitized at that point, but I didn’t really feel anything—at least not consciously. I decided to take the patch off the flight suit and keep it with me, even though it felt somewhat contrived. I think I felt like I should want something of his. And I felt that I should want to feel close to him. I didn’t think I missed him at the time. When people would ask about him, I would make jokes. And I remember in some way feeling less of an obligation, or duty, or guilt that I didn’t have feelings about him, because I was carrying the patch around. It became a kind of placeholder for my feelings.
When I was in college, my father would call me but only sporadically and I wouldn’t see him for two or three years at a time. I carried the patch around with me in my wallet, and I would take it out from time to time, and look at it. But I would feel nothing, even though I still thought I should feel something.
Then, I think in the incredibly understated, devastatingly silent way that our relationship evolved over time, I eventually grew disgusted. I don’t think it was one event but just the gradual realization that I didn’t want to keep the patch anymore. There was no ceremony or fanfare when I parted with it. But just as keeping the patch didn’t make me feel closer to my father, letting it go it didn’t free me from him, not in the way I wanted to be free.
It has taken me a long time to acknowledge how much my relationship with my father has impacted me and how much pain our estrangement has caused, even though it has been the engine of a lot of things in my life. Even now, at age thirty-two, it’s something that’s very hard for me to talk about. But I’m at a stage in my life where I feel more ready, and more open to doing that.
Addressing our relationship on my last record wasn’t so much my choice as a necessity. Every song that was written, I couldn’t write about something else even if I wanted to. It just felt like it was happening. I knew that I could either let it happen or make a record that was less than it could be.
At first I had this idea that the record would be an evolution, that each song would mark a different moment in my journey to be free of all the baggage. But the process didn’t go that way. It was intense at every stage from start to finish, and I found in the end that a lot of the catharsis was in arriving where I am now. Instead of a linear progression as I had imagined, the songs hit a lot of different points and then they return. It’s not as if I forgive him once and then he’s forgiven, just as it wasn’t that he left once and then was gone.
I also realized that part of me still wants some recognition on his part, and I’ve written a few songs from his perspective, where I project a kind of remorse that I would hope that he has. I don’t believe I will hear from him. Making this record was not about hoping to communicate with him. It was about me saying things out loud.
Wanted/Needed/Loved: Musicians and the Stuff They Can’t Live Without is an illustrated column where musicians share the stories behind meaningful objects. As told to Allyson McCabe and illustrated by Esme Blegvad.
San Francisco-based indie folk-pop musician Thao Nguyen has been writing and playing songs ever since she was an adolescent. Nguyen met Adam Thompson and Willis Thompson while attending the College of William and Mary, and together they formed the band Thao & the Get Down Stay Down, whose acclaimed debut album was released in 2005. Pitchfork has called the band’s fourth studio album, 2016’s A Man Alive, Ngyuyen’s “most rhythmically robust and gleefully discordant release to date.” Nguyen has also collaborated with artists including The Portland Cello Project, Mirah, and Merrill Garbus, who produced A Man Alive, and she has performed as part of Radiolab‘s “Radiolab Live: In the Dark” tour. She is currently touring with the Get Down Stay Down.