Echoes

phoenix1Recently, I noticed something peculiar: I heard my voice echoed in the writing of other women. I heard my personal journey, something that I had learned to hold as sacred and singular, in the stories of other Vietnamese American women writers. I don’t know if this is a fleeting moment or the beginning of a wave of narratives from my sisters.  But in any case, I hear them, and through their voices I see myself anew.

Thi Bui’s The Best That We Could Do, told her story in vivid drawings with pen and ink starkly outlining the harsh realities of life in war torn Vietnam, and in simple words, expressing the distance between generations and the disconnect of the immigrant experience. It was not easy for me to read her book for it essentially told my story. The passages about families torn, scarred souls and immigrant struggles hit so close to home, so very close to the box that I keep tightly shut. But though the box remains closed, it cannot stop the mind from remembering and the heart from hurting.

Even my son understood that this story was about his mother, and perhaps that acknowledgement was most bittersweet of all. A teenage son, learning more about his mother through the narrative that she shares with thousands of others, is both heartwarming and traumatic. He will understand me better, but he does not yet realize that in doing so, he will become a part of that historical pain. It will be a loss of innocence so slow he won’t know it’s happening.

Julie Yip-William, would say that my son will also have learnt empathy from embracing that shared tragedy–that he will better appreciate the pain and struggles of others. She would’ve said so much more had she not passed away from cancer in 2018. Julie was an attorney and a writer, whose cancer blog is being turned into a memoir.  I do not have to read that memoir to know that we shared similar journeys from Vietnam into privileged American lives. I have begun to read her blog, knowing that I must pace myself, for once again, there is a familiarity that rattles me.    

“I never felt like I belonged in any of these fine institutions: a poor immigrant girl who wasn’t that smart but was willing to work hard, rubbing elbows with America’s elite.”

Julie was talking about attending Williams College and Harvard Law School. Her words eerily echo my own feelings about being a student at Brown and Harvard; the same insecurities, the same will to succeed.

I do not know why these women and their stories are coming forth now. I also don’t know if there will be more stories like theirs, like mine. But if this is indeed a moment, our moment, no matter how small or fleeting, I will embrace it as a sign that from great adversity comes great strength. In my feeble attempts to tell snippets of my own story, I’ve come to understand that finding one’s voice requires not just determination, but also bravery of spirit to welcome others into such a private space. We Vietnamese American women, born of war and weaned on struggle, not only have persevered, we have blossomed and our stories are worth telling. Thank you, my sisters, for being my voice and reminding me to speak up more for all of us.

PS. I am aware that our Vietnamese American brothers are also having a moment, from Viet Thanh Nguyen to Bao Phi and Ocean Vuong, but their voices don’t fully capture my journey. Their success and their words fill me with pride and we have a certain kinship, but they do not share with me the weight of Vietnamese expectations of daughters and American expectations of mothers. Any Vietnamese family of a certain generation will tell you that boys and girls were treated differently. While my Vietnamese brothers will always have the advantage of their gender, even beyond the confines of their families, I find the strongest affinity with my sisters and their stories of love, loss and perseverance.

For more about Vietnamese American writers, please visit: https://lithub.com/vietnamese-and-vietnamese-american-literature-a-primer-from-viet-thanh-nguyen/

PPS. The Vietnamese Phoung (Phoenix) was often used as an emblem for queens. Richly symbolic it symbolizes grace, pride, and nobility. Unlike the Western phoenix myths, the Phoung are truly immortal. They are not reborn from their own ashes.  Like the western phoenix they do however represent longevity, renewal and most importantly hope.

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Com Ga: Vietnamese style Haianese Chicken Rice

img_0934 copyLast year, in a cab in Hanoi, my family and I saw a sign for Com Ga (chicken rice) and asked our cab driver if he could recommend a good place for us to try it.  Up until this point, the driver had been rather dour and unengaged, but upon hearing about com ga, his face brightened and we embarked on a lively conversation about how the best com ga has to be homemade; how to get the chicken skin to be unctuous and a mellow yellow; the best kinds of chickens; the importance of chicken fat; etc. By the end of the short cross town trip, we had learned the Vietnamese term for free-range chickens (ga di bo, which translates to “walking chicken”) as well as a secret ingredient: turmeric.

The Vietnamese com ga, is a close cousin of Haianese chicken rice, a well-known and well-loved dish throughout most of Southeast Asia. It also happens to be one of the national dishes of Singapore, where it is served in the ubiquitous hawker centers throughout the city nation.  It is essentially a dish composed of a poached whole chicken and rice made from the poaching liquid.

Today, I share with you my version of this famous dish, where I’ve put my own spin on it, adding fish sauce to the soup and turmeric to the chicken.

Chicken:
4 lb young chicken, trim the fat around the bottom cavity and set aside
2 tbs coarse sea salt
2 scallions, tied in knots
1 garlic clove, smashed
3 inch piece of ginger, washed and smashed
2 tbs soy sauce
1 tbs shaoxing cooking wine
1 tsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbs fish sauce
1/4 tsp turmeric
1 tsp canola oil

– Rub chicken vigorously with coarse sea salt to “polish” the chicken. Rinse and place butt-up in a stock pot that fits snugly around the chicken but is tall enough for the chicken to be entirely submerged.  If you use a pot that is too big then you will need a lot of water and that will result in a very diluted stock.  I recommend a 6-8 qt pot.
– Place in chicken cavity: scallions, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, shaoxing wine, sesame oil, fish sauce, and salt.
– Fill pot with just enough water to submerge chicken.  Bring to a boil and then cover and cook on lowest possible heat for about 25-30 minutes.
– Remove chicken and place on plate breast up. With a damp paper towel, gently wipe off the chicken, being careful not to break the skin. Continue to boil leftover stock to reduce it.
– Mix turmeric with oil and then rub onto chicken–use a brush because the chicken will be very hot. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and leave to cool.
– When ready to serve, carve chicken by removing the legs and wings first. Then carve out each breast and slice them against the grain into 1/2 inch slices. Arrange on a plate.

Rice:
1 tbs canola oil
reserved chicken fat
3 inch piece ginger, cleaned and smashed
1 garlic clove, smashed
2 cups jasmine rice, rinsed and drained
a couple dashes of turmeric
1/4 tsp salt
2-3 cups reserved chicken stock

– In a hot pan, add oil and reserved chicken fat and saute on medium until fat dissolves.  Add ginger and garlic and cook until fragrant.
– Add rice and cook for about 1-2 minutes, stirring.  Add turmeric and salt and stir to combine.
– Transfer rice to rice cooker and add stock according to your rice cooker’s instructions.

Sauce:
4 scallions, thinly sliced
2 inch piece of ginger, smashed and then minced
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup canola oil

– Combine scallions, ginger and salt in a heat proof bowl. Make sure the bowl is big enough that it is only 1/2 full.
– Heat oil until HOT, then pour over scallions, being careful that the oil doesn’t bubble over in the bowl.  Mix well and set aside.
* This scallion/ginger oil is super addictive and can be made in bulk and stored in the refrigerator for up to a week. Drizzle on vegetables, eggs, sandwiches–it’s AMAZING!

Soup:
3 cups reserved stock, add salt to taste
1.5 cups sliced bok choy, or cubed butternut squash (dice size), cubed tofu, or spinach
1 scallion, chopped

– Heat stock in a pot until simmering, then add vegetables or tofu.  Simmer for another 3-5 minutes.  Ladle into small bowls and garnish with a dash of black pepper and a sprinkle of chopped scallions.

Serve chicken on a platter, rice in a big communal bow, and inidividual soup bowls and dipping bowls for scallion/ginger sauce.  A dash of soy sauce on the rice is super nice.  I also like to chop some fresh chilis and pop them into a small bowl of say sauce for dipping. Pairs well with a chilled Sauvignon Blanc.

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Instant Pot Adventures

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For months now I’ve been stalking two Vietnamese cooking Facebook groups: the Vietnamese Cooking Group (VCG) and the Instant Pot Vietnamese Food Recipes. Both groups are totally nuts in the best possible way about sourcing, making, and eating Vietnamese food.  Everyday I am bombarded with photos of drool-inducing Vietnamese delicacies that come out of home kitchens around the world–from the ubiquitous pho and bun bo hue, to ca ca thang long and banh xeo.  With a membership if nearly 80,000, VCG members post from all 50 American states, Canada, Europe, Australia, and even South America.  The topic du jour (and really tous les jours) is Vietnamese food, but the cooks aren’t always Vietnamese, which just underscores the popularity of Vietnamese cuisine across the world.

As I pored over daily posts on my FB feed, it became increasingly clear that both groups are nuts about two cooking appliances: the airfryer and the Instant Pot. A couple of weeks ago, I finally caved and bought myself an 8 quart Instant Pot Duo with 7-in-1 functions:  Pressure Cooker, Slow Cooker, Rice/Porridge Cooker, Yogurt Maker, Sauté/Searing, Steamer, and Warmer. I gleefully opened the package and stared at all the buttons and doo-dads. Huh? What had I gotten myself into? I then read and re-read the menu. Oy. What is the difference between low pressure and high pressure? What is quick release? Natural release? It might explode?!? This is not how I’m used to cooking. But so many people have been raving about this contraption and they managed to figure the darn thing out, so surely I can, right? Well, four Instant Pot meals later and I’m still learning!

I love to cook and prefer to make authentic dishes over hasty shortcuts–mostly because I am Type A and like to know how something is supposed to taste even if I don’t quite know how to get there.  I clearly didn’t get the Instant Pot to make cooking easier/better/faster or because I don’t enjoy traditional cooking methods.  I got the Instant Pot because I love soups and soups take a really long time to make the traditional way–bones simmering for hours on a stove that needs to be tended to. My Facebook comrades had assured me that the broths made in the IP (with traditional ingredients) could still be as good or pretty darn close.

So I took a deep breath and did what I do best: cook!  After perusing the recipes on the IP Facebook group, I decided to start with pho ga (chicken pho), which came out pretty good. Relieved that I hadn’t made a big mistake, I launched into pho bo (beef pho), banh canh (chewy thick noodle soup), and bun bo hue. My first tries were just a bit off, especially with the cooking time for the various cuts of meat, but the broths were pretty spot on.  Without further ado, I present you with my first round of IP recipes! We’re going to start with pho today.

Pho Ga (chicken, 8qt. Instant Pot)

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4.5 lbs free range chicken, scrubbed with salt and rinsed
2.5 lbs chicken bones (backs and necks)
1 tbsp chicken stock paste
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp fish sauce salt
1 large onion, charred and peeled
1 6-inch piece of ginger, charred, peeled, and slightly bruised
1 package pho spices, lightly toasted in a pan

 
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 cup chopped cilantro
2 package fresh pho noodles
lime wedges
Thai basil
2 cups bean sprouts, washed and drained

 

 

Place the first 8 ingredients above (as much of bones as possible and set aside the rest) into the pot and fill with boiling water.  Set IP to pressure cook on high pressure for 15 minutes, then QR. Remove the chicken and plunge into ice water bath.  Also remove onion. Skim scum and impurities. Add remaining chicken bones and additional water or chicken stock, and reset IP to pressure cook on high pressure for another 20 minutes, then QR. Remove bones, ginger, spices. Skim again. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and fish sauce. The broth should taste slightly salty. When the chicken is cool, shred into bit size pieces.

In a separate pot on the stove, separate the pho noodles into individual serving bundles. Using a noodle strainer, dunk noodles into boiling water for 15-20 seconds and place into bowls. Top with chicken, scallions, onions, and cilantro, and pour soup over. Serve immediately with lime, herbs, and bean sprouts.

Pho Bo (beef, 8qt. Instant Pot)

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3 lbs beef bones (preferably a combo of oxtail, marrow bones and knuckle bones), parboiled and rinsed
1 lb pork hock/foot, parboiled and rinsed
1 lb boneless beef shank (more poundage if with bone)
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp fish sauce salt
2 medium onions, charred and peeled
1 6-inch piece of ginger, charred, peeled, and slightly bruised
1 package pho spices, lightly toasted in a pan

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1 lb sirloin tips sliced as thin as possible (tip: place meet in freezer for 15 minutes then slice)
2 scallions, thinly sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 cup chopped cilantro
2 package fresh pho noodles
lime wedges
Thai basil
2 cups bean sprouts, washed and drained

 

Place the first 8 ingredients above (as much of bones as possible and set aside the rest) into the pot and fill with boiling water.  Set IP to pressure cook on high pressure for 12 minutes, then QR. Remove the beef shank and plunge into ice water bath.  Also remove onions.Skim scum and impurities. Add any remaining beef or pork bones and additional water to the max line and reset IP to pressure cook on high pressure for another 60 minutes, then QR. Remove bones, ginger, spices. Skim again. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and fish sauce. You can also add a bit of water to taste. The broth should taste slightly salty. When the beef shank is cool, slice thinly.
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In a separate pot on the stove, separate the pho noodles into individual serving bundles. Using a noodle strainer, dunk noodles into boiling water for 10-15 seconds and place into bowls. Top with beef shank, sliced raw sirloin tips, scallions, onions, and cilantro, and pour soup over. Serve immediately with lime, herbs, and bean sprouts.

 

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Vietnam 2018

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No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. – Heraclitus

Vietnam used to feel so far away from my life in the US. Not only is it physically half-way around the world from New England, but in my mind, the country and people–my people–seem to inhabit a different time and space, separate from my everyday life. But two months ago I returned to Vietnam for the second time in less than 3 years, and this time, the country and I finally existed in the same reality.

On this trip, I accompanied my mother to Vietnam–the first time she and I had set foot on Vietnamese soil together since 1980. Not to mention that it was also the first time she, my father and myself were in the same place at the same time in 38 years.  As with many of my trips to Vietnam, I didn’t know what to expect. My mother is not an adventurous or confident traveler, not even in her own country. And her anxiety made me anxious.

Ever the planner and with multiple trips to Vietnam under my belt, I make all the arrangements–hotels, transportation, cruises, local tours, etc. In my mind I reasoned with her fears: all she had to do was show up and everything was taken care of.  And indeed, everything went very smoothly. Knowing about her concerns and reservations (as well as mine), I tried to pre-empt every potential disaster. I made sure she had her own room when possible. I made sure airport pick ups were punctual and followed up repeatedly.  I made sure that our Ha Long cruise junk had only three decks and that our cabins were in the middle deck so that she would never have to go up/down more than one deck to participate in activities and meals. I double and triple checked that a car and driver would meet her upon arrival at the airport. My mantra was plan, plan, plan!

I spent as much of my energy as possible on the logistics, so I could avoid pesky feelings that kept coming up before, during and after the trip. I wasn’t quite sure what I was anxious about.  There were no planned grand reconciliations or reunions, nor did I expect any sudden resolutions or renewed relationships. I am no longer the young girl, like many young girls from broken families, who dreamt of her family being whole again.  I have a whole family–my own family with my husband and children. No, this time the anxiety felt different, almost separate from my own narrative.

Now, several weeks after I’ve returned home, I think I know what it was that lurked in the back of my mind. I was anxious for my parents, both of them. I wasn’t worried about how I felt, but rather how they felt and what they felt. My father is getting older and more frail and there is a part of me that senses his desire to “set things right” before he leaves this world.  Every time I leave Vietnam I worry that my next return will be for his funeral. He is a man of few words but I can sense that there are things he wants to tell me; maybe simple stories, or perhaps more painful confessions. And I simply don’t know if I can hear them, if I can bear the weight of them now that I have moved on and finally found my peace.

My mother, who is forever reliving the past, struggled to reconcile her past life with the present Vietnam that feels so different from the country she left behind.  Her memories are a fixed point amidst a gushing river. How does one relive a past in the same places when the present keeps moving on? On the one hand I worried that she would not be able to find her Vietnam anymore. On the other hand, I worried that all she would find only darkness and old wounds. She too seemed to want to tell me something. And again, I couldn’t listen. I am that gushing river, rushing past her memories. 

But if I am to be honest with myself, I was motivated by a selfish sense of freedom. After carrying their regrets and resentments within me for so long, I am free now and cannot go back. I don’t want to upset that delicate balance between accepting the past and living beyond the long reach of its shadows. I cannot rehash old grievances and misunderstandings anymore than I can heal old wounds that still fester.  They are not my grievances, not my wounds. I feel selfish, but also self-preserving, as if I need to protect myself, my sanity, my way forward. I don’t usually put myself first, so this is a deliberate and meaningful struggle.

And yet, I often think that perhaps if I did ask, if I did listen, they would have a measure of peace. Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe next time.

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I am woman, hear me roar.

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One year ago today, I gave my son a soaring lecture while wearing a white pantsuit. He didn’t want to come with me to cast my vote. He whined and hid under the covers. What he got in return was an epic lecture. According to the official Facebook record it went something like this:

I just had a pull out all the stops with Souper Boy to explain to him why he had to suck it up and come with me to the polls today. Here were the highlights:
– Your grandmother risked her life, my life, and your uncle’s life to come to this country for a better life. It is our country now and it is our duty to stand up for our beliefs and values and vote.
– You came out of my belly–heck everyone came out of a woman’s belly. So you will come with me to support me, your mother, as well as your sister and all the other women in the world because without us you would not exist.
– I am wearing a pantsuit because just a couple of decades ago women were not allowed to wear pants in Congress. And I am wearing white because it was the color that the women who fought for our right to vote wore.
– You will honor me, your grandmothers, and other women by standing in line and watching me vote.
– There will be times in your life when you need to stand up for your values and beliefs even when it is inconvenient, this is one of those times.
– Suck it up.
(Add many exclamation points.)

Little did I know that those 24 hours would be so gut-wrenching, devastating, and traumatic. The results of that election knocked the wind out me. The next morning, with deep sadness and uncharacteristic tears, I sat on my son’s bed to tell him that we lost. I give you the Facebook history once again:

I’ve been holding it together okay. Sad, angry, disappointed, but stiff upper lip and all. But then I told Souper Boy and I lost it. I didn’t want to tell him how people voted out of fear and resentment. But I forced myself to be honest with him that some people voted out of hatred–racism, misogyny, etc. This is his world too, and he needs to know that sometimes, good doesn’t win. I also stressed that just because you lose doesn’t mean that you give up on your beliefs and values. You get up and fight for what is right even if it just got a lot harder. His response: Where are we moving to?

Something else happened during those 24 hours–something even more important. During the highs and very low, lows, I found myself, I found my voice. Enough of this shit (apparently my new voice likes to curse a lot). After more than 40 years on this earth, persevering through hardships and finding myself in an unexpectedly comfortable life, I owe it to all those who came before me and those who will follow me to speak up. My voice–this voice of a Vietnamese American woman born of war and sacrifice–not only matters, it’s important. So, I don’t shut up anymore. I don’t wait for someone to say the same thing I was thinking. I don’t aim for perfection before I speak. I don’t stand for f-cking mansplaining or any other kind of condescension or prejudice. I call it like I see it.  Above all, I need my children to see the path that I forge so that one day they can widen it.

I know that today, the one year anniversary of our heartache, will be a tough one. I know I will want to stay in bed and cry. But I won’t. You see, over the past 12 months I have found ways to be heard. Mrs. Next Doors and I started a Facebook page to support the Resistance in our town (over 1000 members joined in 5 days). I have joined the board of a Harvard pro-bono alumni service organization. For once I am not hesitant to mention Harvard to lay claim to the privileges of this institution to further social change. I have joined a venture philanthropy group, putting my money where my mouth is. I have also taken on advisory and advocacy roles at Souper Girl’s elementary school, helping to shape the conversation about education, diversity, and the power of community in our progressive Massachusetts town. I have ideas. I have opinions. I have a voice. And damn it, I will be heard.

Many of you have had the same reaction. We have rallied ourselves, friends, families, and communities. We have started Facebook groups. We have supported progressive candidates. We have made enormous donations to the Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU and Planned Parenthood. We have worn pantsuits. We have marched. We have resisted. And we have tired. Resistance is thankless and it is exhausting. My efforts have ebbed and flowed, but I know that deep down I am still itching for a fight. The only recourse we have is to fight–not just resist, but fight for something.

So here is my proposal. Rather than treating this anniversary as a dark moment in our lives, let’s think of it as our awakening. For on this day 12 months ago, we saw the light and it was withheld from us. We saw the shining city on the hill but couldn’t break down the final wall (or ceiling). We know what the future looks like and it begins with us. We know what we are fighting for–women’s rights, health care for all, immigrant/refugee rights, civil rights, LGTBQ rights, education, the list goes on. They poked the wrong woman. I am here and I will roar. Roar with me.

 

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Becoming an American

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In light of the recent Executive Order curtailing immigration and refugee resettlement, I am sharing my own story of becoming an American citizen. Coincidentally, it’s been almost exactly 20 years.

In 1996 I was a junior at Brown, working towards a degree in International Relations. One day, I heard that Robert McNamara was coming to Brown to give a talk, but attendance was strictly by invitation only.  Upset that such a figure could come to Brown and not address the entire student body, a friend and I sought out the professor who brought him there. We expressed our disappointment and concern about such limited access.

Enter Jim Blight, a dear man, who along with his wonderful wife janet became my mentors and close friends. Jim was impressed by our gumption and asked us if we would work for him as research assistants on a new critical oral history project about missed opportunities to end the Vietnam War. Not knowing what we had gotten ourselves into, we said yes.

Shortly after joining the research team, I was planning for a project conference for February 1996 in Hanoi–it would be my first trip back to Vietnam since I left as a child in 1980. I was excited and a bit anxious.  When I informed my mom of the trip, she was adamant that I should not go.  In fact, she forbade it. Her argument was simple: I was not an American citizen and I did not have a passport so therefore I should not go. She was afraid that the Vietnamese government would not honor my US permanent resident status and I would be detained. In disbelief, I protested that surely the Vietnamese government wouldn’t create some diplomatic row over little me when I was accompanying Robert McNamara and the two countries had just normalized relations. But she was unyielding. No passport, no trip.

I reluctantly told Jim about my predicament, flinching at how ridiculous this must all sound. He listened patiently and asked if my mom would allow me to go if I had a passport. I said yes. He paused and declared that I just needed to become an American citizen.  With barely two weeks before departure, I blanched. There was no way to make that happen.  Jim just told me to let him figure it out.

What happened next was nothing short of a miracle:

– Jim called Senator John Chafee’s office.
– Senator Chafee’s staff called me to reschedule a citizenship test.
– I crammed for 2 days for the exam–luckily (and strangely) I am a colonial buff.
– I showed up for my test and was asked to do the following: Write a simple sentence. Read a simple sentence. Identify the first president of the United States.  Voila! Congratulations, I passed the test. It had taken less than 3 minutes.
– 16 years after I first emigrated to the US, I attended a naturalization ceremony and got my passport the next day.
– I was on a plane heading to Southeast Asia within two weeks.

Thus began my foray into a 5-year engagement with a high-profile project with Robert McNamara as a principal investigator. I would spend the next five years traveling the world, with frequent trips to Vietnam to attend conferences and conduct research into declassified documents. I was often the only woman at the table, surrounded by male government officials, military staff, and historians.  I provided interpretation services for Robert McNamara and the rest of the team, helping them navigate cultural and historical complexities.

Those years went by in a blur.  The work was interesting and often intense, with geopolitical undertones and diplomatic maneuvering. But above all, there was the personal journey that I couldn’t appreciate until many years later. Here was a young woman, caught between her family’s history and her new country.  I was both the Vietnamese daughter and the American college student, and the contrasts were great and difficult to resolve.

Obviously, none of this would’ve been possible without that passport, without Senator Chafee, without Jim and all the other people who went out of their way to help me.  I keep this in mind as we watch the scenes of protest unfold at airports across the country tonight –from JFK and Logan to O’Hare and SFO.  This is a country of immigrants and we will rise.

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More about the Missed Opportunities Project:
The Missed Opportunities conference reflects the “critical oral history” approach used by the project’s organizers at the Watson Institute. While the conference focuses on face-to-face exchanges between high-level leaders on both sides who participated in the historical events, the critical oral history approach adds two important elements to ensure that all exchanges conform to the historical record. First, each delegation will include respected scholars who have mastered the historical record and understand the significance of the discussions. Second, scholars and participants from both sides have had access to thousands of pages of new and existing documentary evidence, including recently declassified material, that bears directly on the substance of discussions. The project resulted in a series of publications, including Argument Without End.

For more about my journey from Vietnam visit my blog post A Story to Tell from December 2015.

For more about Jim and janet: Visit my blog post Time and Place from April 2015.  

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Parental struggles

UPDATE:
Thank you to everyone who has chimed in from near and far with words of wisdom and encouragement. As always, I am amazed by the strength of my community and the support that you all provide.  

It’s been a couple of days now and the dust has settled enough that I can see and feel a bit clearer. So, a few thoughts on my emotional outburst and what I’ve learned from you and from myself:

  • As parents we too often lose sight of ourselves when we put our children first.  Sometimes it’s just the little things, such as giving them the last cookie.  Other times, it’s something bigger, like putting mom-duties before woman-duties. To balance the two is difficult and not always possible. But we must try because being true to our WHOLE selves is a great lesson to impart.

  • We don’t just lose sight of our personal selves, some times we lose sight of our partners too.  Amidst the jumble of breakfast, lunch, soccer games and homework, we see the due dates and not the harried partner or unmet needs.  I will do better.

  • Parenting doesn’t start the day the kid is born or even when they are in utero.  For some of us, it starts with reflections about our own parents and how we will strive to be just as strong, or perhaps even better.  Growing up with a single mother, way before I was married or pregnant, I placed a lot of expectation on myself to be the mom I always wanted/needed.  Along the way, I kept moving the goal posts and stressing myself out by focusing on all the ways I needed to be better.  Less obviously, I didn’t realize how not having a father has made me overlook my partner’s contributions–it all seems like gravy to the girl whose father didn’t contribute much.

  • Middle schoolers are just difficult. That’s all.

  • What a ridiculously privileged life I lead to have the luxury of these concerns while so many families struggle with more basic needs.  I am a bit embarrassed by my frustrations and will do better.

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Our family went to see Hidden Figures today.  The film was wonderful, the family experience not so much.

As parents, we all struggle to do the best that we can. I really do believe that we all try.  But what happens when you have to drag your 11 year old son to see a movie about women’s empowerment and he not only doesn’t appreciate it but he continues to act as if his soul is being sucked out of him?

I have failed as a parent, as a mother.  I have failed.  I write these words with tears in my eyes.  All this time, I thought having an “enlightened” mother would be enough.  All along, I thought that he has seen and appreciated the hard work and sacrifice that his mother has made. I thought that leading by example would be enough.  I am wrong.

My son scowled his way into the theater, through the movie and on the way out.  As an added act of defiance, he refused to wear a coat in 30 degree weather.

My god it hurts.  More than I would want to admit and more than I let him know.  He doesn’t realize how much his condescension and snarky put-downs about the movie hurt me, his mother.  He thinks that he is being rebellious, refusing to be a subject in his mother’s grand scheme.  He thinks that by putting down the movie that he is exerting his independence from me.

He doesn’t realize that his remarks, his snide comments, cut his mother, and perhaps, more importantly, his sister.  He doesn’t realize that to be a good parent, to not scream at his insensitivity, his mother is swallowing a part of herself.  I am not a martyr, but I am a pragmatist. I know that to preach to him right now will only make him less willing to hear the more important message. I know that if I harp on his negative attitude too much he won’t hear my long-game message about being a good, caring man. I know that playing the long game is harder than the short one. I know that being his mother has often meant putting myself second or even third. What I don’t know is how to do it any differently, any better.

And what of the little sister?  How am I to navigate that fine line between the sister and the brother?  How do I call out his insensitivity in a way that not only makes him see it, but also makes her stronger? How can the sister not notice the disrespect that he has shown towards a movie about women?  Do I call him out on it for her sake? Or do I approach it quietly for his? Do I put her strength before the hope of his awareness?  He won’t hear me now, but she is always listening. My silence could be defining for her.  But his enlightenment could change so much.

My head and heart both hurt.

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