Remembering my father

 

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My father died one year ago and I’ve struggled to write about it. 

I hear that grief is different for each person; different for each loss. But when the grief is your own and it holds no shape, how do you engage it? I tried to write about it.  I started and stopped twice, trying to capture the complicated feelings that his death produced–feelings that ebbed and flowed as daily life took up my brain space. I don’t know how to finish these essays, so I present them unfinished… perhaps the best metaphor for grief. 

* * * * *

Technically, my father didn’t leave us, we left him.  We walked away onto a boat to face the unknown and started life anew. But for all intents and purposes, his refusal to join us was the same as leaving. I saw my father several times since our initial separation, and each time, I walked away, returning to my home in America. Each time I left I could understand a little better the conflict he must have felt back in 1980. Each time I left I believed that there was nothing else I could do, that we had each made our decisions and just had to live with the consequences. Each time I left I believed my decision was the right one. I don’t regret any of those trips and returns; I have done all that was within my capacity for forgiveness and empathy. But in the process I did understand him just a little better.  

We all make choices that affect those around us, some big, some small, most without really thinking. My decision to leave each time, though bound by plane tickets and other responsibilities, was always a choice. I see now that each choice brought me a little bit closer to forgiving him, letting anger and resentment go. I see now the strange parallel between us and how my decisions helped me to make peace with his decision. I hope he understood that in the end we were at peace with each other. 

* * * * *

If you’ve kept up with this blog you know by now that my relationship with my father was unusual, complicated by time, place, distance, and the long shadows of memories that are not my own. In many ways I never really had a relationship with him, certainly not the kind where we really knew each other’s tendencies, likes, dislikes. Whatever it was that we had was based on blood and duty. His blood runs through me and for that  we both felt a strong sense of duty that manifested in small acts now flashing through my mind like postcards from a trip long ago. There are fleeting sepia images of my first trip back to Vietnam 20 years ago, awkward embraces, quiet meals. More recent images in vivid color of his brief visits with his grandchildren; less awkward, more bittersweet. Beyond these images I have no access to the simple memories of his daily life or important milestones.

The few times I visited, my father and I would inhabit the same physical space but very different emotional and psychological spaces. In fact, for the whole of my life, I do not know if we have ever shared the same thoughts or feelings, but I sensed that my internal conflicts had a parallel in his. And now that he has passed, there is a void not in me but in the space between father and daughter. My grief, amorphous and unbound to the usual bonds between father and child, has no counterpart and feels unmoored. So I leave it to float about in my mind, trying my best to not lock it into a box or contain it. But it does not feel real, resisting my attempts to acknowledge and engage.

One year after his passing and I still do not know how to feel or what to feel. There are times when I wonder if I have subconsciously avoided the grief, worried about what lies underneath. Perhaps my feelings aren’t resolved as I think them to be. Perhaps I have deluded myself and now when further reconciliation is impossible I will have to deal with guilt and regret. At other times I wonder if perhaps I fear that there is really nothing underneath at all. Perhaps the reconciliation is complete and there is nothing left to resolve and no true feelings to profess. The former would mean that I will have to live with regret. The later would mean that I had no true relationship with my father, outside of duty and compassion. I am not sure which scenario is preferable. 

But enough about me. My father died and his life was full of challenges and difficult choices. 

Le Thanh Son was born on March 20, 1941 and died on July 21, 2018, he was 77 years old. He is survived by his estranged wife, Rosette Le, daughter, Kathy Le, and son, Joseph Le, as well as 3 sisters and 1 brother. He leaves behind an extended family and  loyal friends. He spent his entire life in the same house that his parents built. Le Thanh Son was a dutiful eldest son; he remembered all family anniversaries and tracked extended family relationships. He served in the South Vietnamese Army during the American War and afterwards, survived several years in a re-education camp. He never spoke of his experience in the war or the re-education camps but he never forgot them either. War and its aftermath ultimately separated him from his wife and children. 

The most important memory of my father that I take with me is the belief that he always tried to do the right thing and didn’t always succeed.  In this, we are the same. 

 

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2020

2020

I admittedly have had my head in the sand about 2020, but today I attended a small women of color meeting with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. Interesting. We started immediately with questions for the Senator; no stump speech or warm up. Many people asked questions about the situation at the southern border and policies around maternal health, economic and education opportunities for low income families. She had great, specific policy answers each time.

When my turn came I asked, “I share your deep appreciation for the policy details, but given all the issues that the current administration has been stirring up and our numerous national challenges, what three issues should we prioritize?” It was an earnest question from someone suffering from Orange-fatigue. She kind of answered with the usual trifecta: healthcare, education, jobs. Right. I followed up with: What about foreign policy and global leadership? The Senator launched first into all of Orange’s foibles with the Middle East peace process, North Korea and then settled on China as our biggest threat.

The question and answer session was then followed by a how can Kirsten do better sesh with her staff.  I nearly rolled my eyes when one female participant criticized the Senator’s wardrobe. Oy.  One step forward, two steps back. Most comments were about the need for storytelling as a vehicle for policy discussion as well as a tighter focus on core values and key policy positions. I can’t imagine that this would be different for any other candidate.

With that build up, I give you my key takeaways:

– Senator Gillibrand is a smart and tough lady, whose grasp of policy and legislative process I admire. She provided very specific policy recommendations for issues from black maternal health to student debt, higher education, and even reparations. Mayor Pete and Beto should take note that policies matter.

– She talks very fast, some would say too fast.

– When answering a question, one should always lead with the most important point first. If China is the real threat, then you should lead with that.  Don’t take a trip around the world to get there.

– Her clothes are fine, though I wish all the candidates would show more personality with their wardrobes. How about some funky socks for the gents and some statement footwear for the ladies? I think Beto could rock some Van Halen socks, Elton John socks for Mayor Pete, cow socks for Bernie, Obama socks for Joe. I don’t know about Corey?? As for the ladies, I bet Kamala could rock some high-heeled mules, clogs for Elizabeth, penny loafers for Amy, and ballet flats for Kirsten.  I wish I could assign someone Rothy’s sneakers, but I’ll save those for Stacey should she decide to enter the fray. Just no kitten heels, please.

– I, and probably many like me, suffer from Orange-fatigue. Let’s make 2020 about NOT Orange. How about we just ignore him completely and thereby deprive him of the attention that he so craves? Rather than focus on all the horrible things Orange and his people have done, how about telling us what you do to fix the mess he’s made.

– As a woman of color, I would love to have a female or POC presidential nominee, but I have been known to support a blonde white lady, so they need to up their game and do more to distinguish themselves from one another. Otherwise, Kamala stands out more. 

– Upstate New York does not mean Manhattan, but does it still mean “coastal elite”?

– And BTW, can we just take back the whole “coastal elite” thing? I am a smart, Ivy League educated woman of color working to strengthen our communities AND I happen to leave on a coast; if “coastal elite” = NOT Orange, then I’ll gladly embrace it!

– To impeach or not impeach, that will be a question.  Not quite sure where I fall on this, but it is guaranteed to come up.

– Al Franken is going to be a skeleton in the Senator’s closet that needs addressing.

Thank goodness it’s only 2019.

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Kathy’s OMG Chili Oil

IMG_4457 copyI have searched far and wide, looking for a versatile chili oil that could be used with a range of dishes, from Western to Eastern. Unsurprisingly, I haven’t found one.  So I decided to make it myself. I considered various flavor profiles and decided that I wanted something that wasn’t blistering hot, but with subtle notes of pepper, ginger and anise and a good dose of savoriness. I rummaged around in my pantry and settled on a mix of dried chilis, Sichuan and black peppercorns, anise, fresh ginger, shallots, and garlic. To really amp up the umami notes, I reached for the Red Boat fish sauce salt and mushroom seasoning. And to let all these flavors take center stage, I use a neutral oil like sunflower or canola.

About the chilis… I am fortunate to live near a Penzey’s Spice brick and mortar store and can get a variety of dried peppers.  Penzey’s labels include the heat units of each chili–the 3 highest that I could find are the Very Hot Crushed Red Pepper (40,000),  Indian Sanaam (40,000), Chinese Tien Tsin (60,000) and Mexican Chili Piquin (70,000). I use a mix of these but feel free to mix and match to your own specifications. Use more of the higher heat unit chilis for more spice or less if you have less tolerance.  For the whole dried chilis, I use a spice grinder or mini-prep to crush them; you will want a consistency close to the crushed red chilis sprinkled on pizza.

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My main complaint about most of the chili oil recipes I see are that they cook the chilis in the oil, which I think gives the final product a burnt taste that overwhelms the more delicate scents and flavorings.  So for my chili oil, I only cook shallots, garlic, ginger and fresh peppers in the oil before adding all that to the dried chili mix. The result is magical and makes excellent homemade gifts in beautiful little glass jars.

I use my chili oil with so many different dishes. I use it in marinades and as a finishing component. Combined with Chinese black vinegar, crush garlic, and cubed cucumbers make a delicious side dish or snack. I also drizzle it on soups, roasted meats and veggies. With black vinegar it is also delicious as a dipping sauce for dumplings or wontons. My friends have used it in Italian  and Greek dishes. And the husband declared that it was good on Greek yogurt! Let your imagination go wild!

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Dry ingredients
⅓-½ cup crushed chilis (use a mix to get the most flavor and the right level of spiciness)
2 anise stars
½ teaspoon Sichuan peppercorns
½ teaspoon black peppercorns
1 teaspoon Red Boat fish sauce salt
½ teaspoon mushroom seasoning
½ teaspoon kosher salt

Screen Shot 2019-03-28 at 10.18.06 AM1 shallot, minced
1 garlic clove, minced
1 inch piece of ginger crushed
2 fresh Thai chilis, minced (optional if you want extra heat.
1 ¼ cup sunflower oil (any neutral oil will work)

Squirt of sriracha hot sauce (for color)

 

  1. Place all dry ingredients (crushed chilis, salt, etc.) in a 16 oz glass mason jar.  Give everything a stir to combine. Break up clumps of fish sauce salt as needed. Place jar on top of a dish towel.
  2. Heat oil in a heavy pan until hot.  Add shallots, garlic, ginger and fresh chilis (if using). Cook until shallots and garlic begin to brown.
  3. Carefully pour or ladle hot oil mixture into glass jar.  Please handle the hot oil carefully as it spills easily and will splatter–that’s what the dish towel is for. Once in the jar, the oil will gurgle a bit.
  4. Stir chili oil mixture.  Mix in a squirt of Sriracha if desired for color.  Allow oil to cool before covering with lid. If you cover it before it’s completely cool the oil will look cloudy but it’ll still taste the same.

Note: This recipe can also make two 8 oz. jars of chili oil. Just make sure to scoop out the fried shallots, garlic and ginger to divide evenly between the two jars.

Storage: From what I can tell so far, a jar of chili oil will keep in the refrigerator for 3+ months–if you don’t use it all up first!

 

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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 Hiananese 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 tbs fish sauce
2 tsp sesame oil
1/2 tsp salt
1 tbs fish sauce
1/4 tsp turmeric

– 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, 1 tsp 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 30-40 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 1 tsp sesame oil and then rub onto chicken–use a brush because the chicken will be very hot; let 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
1 tsp fish sauce
3 cups reserved chicken stock

– In a hot pan, add oil and reserved chicken fat and sautee 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 (any neutral oil will work)

– 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/fish sauce 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.

helen-reddy-actress-quote-i-am-woman-hear-me
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

american_passport

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 schedule a citizenship test.
– I crammed for 2 days for the exam–luckily (and strangely) I am a colonial history 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.

***********

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.

**********

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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