On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous

On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous Summary and Analysis of Part One: 4-5


Little Dog tells us of the time when Lan worked as a prostitute during the war. He was plucking Lan's grey hairs and she began to speak. Lan met Paul at a bar and they immediately fell in love. After Little Dog spends the day harvesting basil for pesto sauce, Rose later tells Little Dog that Lan fabricated parts of the story, including the part that Paul is Little Dog's grandfather. We also learn that Lan was already four months pregnant when she met Paul. Rose's father—Little Dog's biological grandfather—is an unidentified soldier whose identity is rendered meaningless.

Little Dog then recalls the time in which Rose takes him to church. As the congregation is singing hymns and prayers, Little Dog listens to his mother shout "Where are you, Ba?" which blends in with the other voices of church and goes unnoticed. It is here that Little Dog realizes that his mother still holds trauma from the war and has unresolved personal traumas from not knowing the identity of her father.

Later, when Little Dog meets Paul again, he grapples with his desire to tell Paul that he knows that he is not his biological grandfather. When Paul eventually learns of Little Dog's newfound knowledge, he suggests that Little Dog not call him "grandpa" any longer, though Little Dog expresses his keen desire to continue naming him as such. Following this moment, we are reminded that Little Dog is still writing a letter to his mother. Little Dog attempts to name the difficulty he is encountering in the writing of the letter: there are many things he wants to say, but he feels entrapped within syntax and grammar.

As a child, Little Dog could never understand why announcers on ESPN called Tiger Woods black. Tiger’s mother is Taiwanese, but Lan always thought he looked Puerto Rican. When Little Dog arrived in the United States with Rose and Lan in 1990, color was a pretty big deal. Lan, who was considered dark in Vietnam, was now considered light, and Rose’s skin was so light, she could nearly “pass” for white. Tiger Woods’ father met his mother in Thailand when he was stationed there during Vietnam. They married in 1969 and moved to Brooklyn, but Tiger’s father returned to Vietnam for another tour in 1970. Tiger’s real name is Eldrick Woods, Little Dog says, and he is “a direct product of the war in Vietnam.” In 1964, General Curtis LeMay of the U.S. Air Force said he was going to bomb the Vietnamese “back into the Stone Ages.” So, Little Dog says, to destroy someone is “to set them back in time.” In 1997, Tiger Woods won the Masters Tournament, and in 1998, Vietnam opened the country’s first golf course. Little Dog states that one of the holes is an old bomb crater.

There is so much Little Dog wants to tell Rose, but he is stuck and doesn’t know exactly what he is trying to say. Sometimes he doesn’t even know who he is. He feels more like a sound. When Little Dog first started writing, he couldn’t stand how uncertain he was. He started every sentence with conditionals and "maybes." He wasn’t sure about anything, just like he is unsure of what to call Rose now.

At times, Little Dog says, there are limited choices to choose from, like in an article he read from an 1894 printing of the El Paso Daily Times. A white man was arrested and accused of killing a Chinese man, but the judge let him go. According to Texas law, the murder of a human being was defined as the killing of a white man, an African American, or a Mexican. Since the Chinese man was none of those things, he wasn’t considered a human. As a girl in Vietnam, children would try to scrape off Rose’s skin with a spoon. Little Dog then remarks on Tiger Woods once more: he says when Tiger Woods is asked to describe himself, he says he is “Cablinasian” because he is a combination of Chinese, Thai, Black, Dutch, and Native American. “To be or not to be. That is the question,” Little Dog says. “A question, yes, but not a choice.”

Paul recounts a time to Little Dog when he found him crying because the other kids didn't like him and "lived more." We encounter more xenophobic and racist language. To console him, Paul takes Little Dog for a walk, where they meet one of their neighbors who stops to say hello and Paul introduces Little Dog as his grandson. This becomes a moment of belonging within a kind of "American-ness."

The following chapter we learn that Little Dog is in a dark space and he cannot gather his bearings. Little Dog is pulled into a dark space by two women, and until Rose screams, he has no idea who they are or where he is. He feels movement and knows he must be in Rose’s rusty Toyota. “He’s gonna kill her, Ma,” she says to Lan, talking about sister, Mai. Mai’s boyfriend, Carl, has been known to beat her. The clock says 3:14, and Little Dog thinks that both his mother and his grandmother have gone insane. Rose speeds down the street and comes to a stop in front of a house. She gets out, ordering Little Dog and Lan to stay in the car.


This passage again underscores the importance of stories. Little Dog better understands Lan and Rose’s history in Vietnam through Lan’s stories. Lan is clearly ashamed she was forced into sex work to survive, and this further reflects her lasting trauma related to the war. The Tet Offensive was a major invasion of South Vietnam by the Việt Cộng and the North Vietnamese, in which 8,000 soldiers attacked over 100 South Vietnamese cities and towns, targeting both the military and civilians. Little Dog’s interruption reminds the reader that Little Dog is writing to his mother, which can easily be overlooked during some of Little Dog’s longer stories. Little Dog’s interruption again draws direct attention to memories, which, in this case, are unlocked through the singing of a traditional Vietnamese song, another form of storytelling.

Like Tiger Woods, both Little Dog and his mother, Rose, are direct products/consequences of the war in Vietnam, which speaks to their unique hybridity. Both Rose and Little Dog are only partly Vietnamese, just as Tiger Woods is only partly Taiwanese. The fact that Tiger Woods looks Puerto Rican and Rose can “pass” for white implies that skin color can be a poor indicator of one’s actual race and exposes the logic of racial formations as it is locally produced within different geopolitical contexts. Little Dog’s preoccupation with skin color reflects the racism that plagues both America and Vietnam.

Little Dog then recalls the time in which Rose takes him to church. This moment allows us to pry open the nature of race relations in the U.S. since we learn that Little Dog and his mother were the only Asians in the service. It is clear that some of Rose’s trauma is related to her not knowing the identity of her real father, which is again directly related to the war. Rose’s father was just a random man Rose’s mother slept with as a prostitute during the war, but not knowing his identity has left a mark on Rose. Rose’s “pink and beige” mannequin hands reflect the racism that pervades 21st-century American society. As white is considered the default race in America, the mannequins reflect this, which disregards Little Dog and Rose’s race as Asian or “yellow.”

When Paul eventually learns of Little Dog's knowledge, he suggests that Little Dog not call him "grandpa" any longer, though Little Dog expresses his keen desire to continue naming him as such. The power of naming to declare one's relation is illustrated powerfully here. Little Dog's inability to write without getting "bogged down" by syntax and semantics function as a commentary on the limitations of language and becomes meta-textual, underscoring the very power of language and its failure to express. The paradoxical conundrum of this formulation is one that does not go unresolved in On Earth We're Briefly Gorgeous; rather it is embraced as a problem for thought and as a site of generative conceptions of language.

The following chapter becomes a radical departure from the previous chapters, as it is disorienting and its tone is one of urgency. We learn that Little Dog is pulled into a dark space by two women. Little Dog later realizes that he is in a car and we soon learn that this passage showcases the scenes of domestic violence. This is another one of Little Dog’s memories from childhood. The way in which the passage is relayed with its disorientations and unknowns marks it as a traumatic episode in Little Dog's life.