This is not a mid-life crisis.

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Today I resigned from my position as Director of Development at a health care nonprofit.  I have never before resigned like this. I left my last two jobs to give birth to my children and to embark on new work as a stay-at-home mom. This time is different. This time I left without knowing what’s next.

There are many reasons I am where I am. This did not happen spontaneously–perhaps it would be easier if it had been out of the blue. On the work front, the fit was increasingly misaligned. The critical thinker in me questioned too many things–from programmatic execution to over all strategic direction. Eventually, the questions became too loud for me to ignore. I struggled to reconcile my growing discontent with the stubborn desire to accomplish something, to make any kind of progress. I don’t like leaving unfinished business. As a mother, work is time away from my children, so when that work ceases to be meaningful and sustaining, I can no longer justify it. This all explains my departure, but none of it explains the lack of “what next.”

What is next?  I don’t know–acknowledging that is both liberating and utterly terrifying. I don’t do well with ambiguity so you can imagine how nerve-wracking this is for me.  I have always been proud of my nonprofit career, working to advance social change that the private sector has no interest in and that the public sector is too slow to engage. My work, regardless of the specific issue or focus, has always been a part of how I define myself, how I see myself against the backdrop of family and the larger world. Without it, I feel adrift and unsure about who I am.

I am in a position of privilege; I recognize that. I am able to leave my work because Mr. No Nom makes a good living and we are financially secure. More importantly, he supports (encourages, even) my decision to take time off to reflect and take stock. But leaving a paycheck is not easy. Growing up in an immigrant family, the importance of earning a living was always a central focus point. I watched as my family struggled to find financial security. My mother has had a public sector job for decades, relishing the security and passing up riskier opportunities. She also instilled me in a deep belief that a woman must earn her own living, that we should not depend on men. My paycheck, no matter how trifling, represented my independence, my sense of self and purpose. Without it a part of me feels missing–like a numb limb. (I don’t know how I will tell her about this latest development.)

But this is absolutely the right choice for me at the right time. I firmly believe that. But believing it alone does not quell the anxiety in the pit of my stomach, wondering where I will land and when. It has taken much courage for me to make this move for it implicitly means that I am facing questions about what I really want in a career, what work is meaningful for me, and how to balance ambition/family/impact. Many of you would agree that time off is beneficial, but I suspect that many of you would also agree that facing such questions would be terrifying.  But if not now, then when?

Clearly, I did not come to this decision lightly. The past 12 months have been defining for me in ways that I never could have anticipated. Our trip to Vietnam last April liberated something in me, allowing me to appreciate my past without being bound by it. Instead of forever feeling like a daughter caught between two parents and two worlds, I am my own person, free of their grievances and histories. I can do what I want. And last fall I attended an intensive leadership training workshop that put my career under a microscope, making me question what I was doing and why. What I wasn’t doing and why. The revelations were disconcerting. My decision to leave was made in the midst of that training, forcing myself to take an honest look. It took a few more months for me to execute the decision.

Today is not my last day on this job, but it is a significant one nonetheless. I don’t know what I will find on the other side of whenever, but I promise I will let you know when I do. There will be cooking and writing. Maybe I’ll get a sports car. Stick with me for the ride.

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A story to tell

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I wrote this piece in 2013 but haven’t found the right time to share it until now.

For months, the refugee crisis in Europe has been worsening; the EU’s response has been divided and inadequate in the face of massive suffering. Then November happened and the situation has been further complicated by terror attacks in Lebanon, France, and Mali. Desperation, fear and violence have created a vicious circle where suspicion and division threaten our shared humanity. This narrative must change. I want to add my voice to the counter narrative, to share a story from long ago, a story of determination and grace. May this story encourage us to embrace our shared stories and find a way forward together.

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I lived through it but I don’t remember any of it. And yet I know the story well. It featured in my college essays and I’ve learned to tell it with dramatic flourish. But mostly, during quiet moments throughout my life, I think back on this story of my mother and the strong will she once possessed. I didn’t know it then, but our passage from Vietnam would use up nearly a lifetime of her tenacity and fight to survive–not much would remain.

It was March 1980 and I was 4 years old. After nearly five years under communist control, Saigon was a bleak place with food shortages, nightly curfews and great uncertainty. Poverty was everywhere, no one had an easy life, not even the victors. Vietnam was still reeling from so many decades of war with lingering wounds and suspicions, grudges unforgotten. Affiliated with the former South Vietnamese government, my family was persecuted, jailed, struggled to survive. My father, aunts, uncles were sent away to re-education camps, to toil and suffer unseen for years. Upon release they were broken souls, resigned. Unable to bear any more, my mother decided it was time. In blinding darkness under a moonless night, we paddled along in a sampan and boarded a tiny boat with 100 other people. There was only darkness and silence, nothing to distract the mind nor the heart from the journey ahead. We had the clothes on our backs and a jar of preserved ginseng. My mother was nearly nine months pregnant; neither of us could swim.

What happened next is a story well-known to the world. Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese boat people fled in the late 70s and early 80s. They resettled all over the world and have told their stories of hunger, piracy and death. We faced similar obstacles, quickly running out of fuel, potable water and food, fighting seasickness along with a deep dread for the endless horizon. Into this world came a new soul, born upon the waves with a cry and a yelp, unaware of the danger. We sought solace in a school of dolphins, believing that they guided our drifting boat forward. Dolphins are a sign of good luck to the Vietnamese.

On the seventh day we rejoiced at the sight of a huge cargo ship heading in our direction.   The crew lowered down water, fuel and supplies, and then tried to leave. The only English speaker aboard, my mother pleaded with the captain to rescue us. He must have felt a pang of guilt at the sight of my mother and her swollen belly for he relented and offered to take the women and children. Disheartened but resolute, she declined, calmly declaring then “that we should all die together.” Exhausted, dehydrated, she fainted. The captain then must have felt an even deeper pang for he changed his mind entirely. His men carried my mother and the small children onto the ship and the others followed. Perhaps the dolphins had led us to him but my mother made sure he would not leave us. Luck and determination.

Did we watch our small ship disappear into the horizon?  Were we apprehensive about what was coming next?  Did we even know where we were being taken? Perhaps we were too tired to care, too tired to ask questions or entertain sentimental thoughts.  We were alive. Onward.

We were deposited in Singapore, where a dingy camp had been set up to receive refugees. The camp was run by a group of nuns. After a few days at the camp, my mother went into labor and was taken to the hospital. I have in my mind a faint image of a small girl running after an ambulance; I think she was crying.  Alone at the camp, I was cared for by someone–a nun, a compatriot from our boat, a stranger? I don’t know. I don’t have any memories of the 2 weeks that I spent alone but not alone.  (I have often wondered what the camp looked like, smelled like, what I did each day? Almost immediately, I am simultaneously relieved that I cannot remember.  Some things can’t hurt you if you can’t remember them, right?) Meanwhile, my mother endured a difficult birth that left her bedridden for two weeks. My newborn brother was cared for by the nuns at the camp, where he was given the name Joseph and slept in a drawer in the main office. We were each of us alone, in our own way.

IMG_2809Anxious and overcome by homesickness, my mother summoned all that was left within her.  She recalled that her father had a business associate in Singapore–she had met him once, when she was a child, more than 30 years ago.  She looked him up in the phone book and called. Their reunion was tearful, emotional. She never told me what he said, what words he used, only that he had not known about her father’s death and was distraught about the family’s suffering. She never told me what she had said, what words she had used, only that she cried and pleaded for help. I can only imagine, it pained her too much to recollect. He did not fail her, immediately swooping down to the refugee camp to bring us to live with him in a villa high up in the hills. His staff arranged our immigration forms and travel papers.  Three months later, we boarded a plane for America, each with a large suitcase of clothing and gifts, including a beautiful china doll that I clutched all the way to Seattle.  I don’t know his name and I don’t remember anything about him (not even a photograph remains) but I am thankful for his help.  He treated us with grace and generosity.

We are not the same, my mother and I, but I have not judged her fairly. It has taken me many years to realize this and to understand how much of herself she had to lose to guide us through danger and to a new life.  Because of her, I have a story to tell.

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Losing the elephant

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It took me nearly six months to plan our trip to Vietnam.  Airfare, lodging, transportation, tours, visas, itinerary–it all took a while to come together.  Add to that all the complications of traveling with a large group that included 4 children, all 10 and under.  So yeah, it wasn’t a straightforward vacation.  But more than the logistics and decisions to be made, there was a real sense of anxiety in the back of my mind, a wariness about the emotions that might take over once we land in Hanoi, once I hear the native accents, once I speak to my father.

In all my previous trips, there had always been a deep inner turmoil that I fought hard to contain.  I am Kathy, she who is confident and in control.  But not really.  Not always in ordinary circumstances, and rarely on those trips when I confronted the ghosts of my family’s past and the consequences of agonizing decisions made long ago.

I have proof. There is actual documentation–photos–of me in deep distress as I meet my father for the first time (in my memory) after a 17 year separation.  There are tears streaming down my face as he awkwardly embraces me in front of a crowd of colleagues and hotel staff, all of whom seemed more familiar to me than my own father.  Cameras clicking, a few people clapping. The hush of quiet observers. I can still recall the acute sense of being a spectacle, of embodying everyone’s vision of a joyous family reunion.  But if that is what people saw, it wasn’t what I felt. Instead, I felt a confusing mix of joy and sadness, tinged with a growing certainty that it was all wrong–the meeting was a mistake, and I had ripped off a bandage too early.  Oh, what had I done?!  That initial meeting was followed by more anxiety as father and daughter toured Hanoi, attempting to get to know each other; only I was quickly realizing that we would never really know each other.  My anxiety built, mixing with guilt, anger, regret, resentment, and uncertainty. Gah!  Overwhelmed, I remember crying myself to sleep in my room at the Metropole. I was thankful that I had a job to perform during that trip, responsibilities that gave me a reprieve from these festering feelings.  But I could never entirely shake them.  

On another trip and in another photo, there is great discomfort on my face as my father again embraces me at the airport in Saigon.  His face is full of joy and pride.  Mine is withdrawn and cautious, eyes looking down and body stiff. On the tail end of a work assignment I had come to stay with him in Saigon for 3 weeks.  I don’t know why I made this decision; perhaps I did so out of some misguided sense of duty or filial piety.  Whatever the reason, as soon as I landed and realized that I was on my own, dread and panic set in.  During the 20 minute drive from the airport I devised a plan of retreat.  When we reached the family home, I promptly called my mother, telling her that if I decided to leave early I would contact her once I got to Singapore.  That was hardly a vote of confidence for this trip.  But in the end I didn’t flee; I stayed.  I dug in and reminded myself that I wanted no regrets.

You see, I grew up surrounded by regret–it was everywhere in my family.  No one was really happy with their lot in life nor how they had gotten there.  My mother had so many regrets that she sometimes lost sight of her own children.  I was convinced that I did not want that life.  So I stayed.

But it wasn’t easy.  The awkward silences were punctuated by well meaning but clichéd pronouncements.  I was told to be good to my mom, to take care of my brother, to study hard, to put family first. Rinse, repeat.  I knew in my mind that he was trying to “be my dad” the only way he knew how, “teaching” me about my duties and responsibilities as a good Vietnamese daughter.  But these statements only drew attention to the elephant in the room.  The BIG elephant that I was trying so hard not to acknowledge for fear that it might crush my resolve to stay, crush any hope of a relationship with my father.  And one night, it did.  After another round of pronouncements, I lost it. The elephant went on a rampage.  Duty? Responsibility? Family? Really? My father was the pot but I was not going to be his kettle.  I said everything that needed to be said and I felt all the worse for it.  It gave me no relief, no satisfaction to wound him. I cringed as he absorbed the impact of my words, head bowed and shoulders slack. He didn’t fight back and it hurt even more.  I don’t know if I cried more for myself or for him.

I cannot say that the incident helped or hurt a relationship that barely existed. Instead, what took root was a feeling of resignation and hopelessness; that somehow I had become a vessel to carry his regrets and my mother’s resentment. But I stayed, pushing the elephant to the far corners of the room. And when I left, I hoped rather than believed that I could leave those feelings behind.

Prompted by the painful memories of these previous trips, I approached this trip with a good deal of trepidation, knowing that this time I was going to have to deal with these emotions in front of my children.  As much as I feared the feelings, I feared more what Soup-er Boy and Soup-er Girl would think and feel–for themselves, each other, and maybe even on my behalf.  I did not want to pass on the elephant to them.

And then, nothing happened.  Nothing.  We landed, we traveled, we toured.  The kids had a grand time. Mr. No Nom and our friends enjoyed themselves, and so did I. But I kept waiting, anticipating.  I felt some pangs of anxiety when I called my father to confirm our arrival in Saigon, but the conversation was brief, cordial, done. Nothing to it.  I couldn’t quite grasp what was happening. Where was the elephant? Was it hiding somewhere in the recess of my mind? Will it suddenly manifest? When?

It never did.

Not even when we had dinner at my father’s house, when the children met their grandfather for the first time, surrounded by awkward but good intentions.  Not when he joined us on our excursion to the Mekong. Not even when we said goodbye at the airport.  The embrace was still stiff but there was no longer any resentment, anger, or regret.  I left Vietnam bewildered by what never came to pass.

What just happened?  I’m still not quite sure but I suspect that time and empathy have worked their magic.  I’m older now and I hope wiser, too.  I accept now that we live life in the gray area between right and wrong.  And that though we try to do our best, often many things are beyond our control.  I’m learning to let go a little.  I just didn’t notice when the elephant snuck out.

PS. No elephants were harmed in the telling of this story.  

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The Untangling

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It’s been a month since we’ve returned from Vietnam and I haven’t been able to compose a decent post to document any part of the experience.  The combination of post-vacation catch up and juggling hasn’t left much time for thought or reflection.  But I must admit that there’s really more than just the lack of time or opportunity that keeps me from writing.  I honestly just don’t know where to start.

There are so many different perspectives, so many discoveries, so many grey areas between past and present, so many sights and smells.  My mind is a jumble, and untangling all this will take some time.  But stick with me for I promise that the stories will be worth telling and our time together will be well spent.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with one recurring thought: I found much peace in Vietnam, amidst the frenetic city traffic, idyllic scenery, and chatter of my children.

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Time and place

DSC00877This is our third and final day in Hanoi and I’ve been trying to figure out these feelings of déjà vu.  I’ve been here before many times, many years ago. Back then I never ventured very far from the Hoan Kiem and Old Quarter, so in many ways I am seeing the city anew.  Not to mention of course, that Hanoi has changed so much since my first visit in 1996.  The streets are cleaner, the buildings taller, the store fronts more chic, and traffic lights actually mean something!  Imagine all that!

And yet the people are unfailingly the same–generous, curious, and friendly.  Our strange group of foreigners–curly-haired children, bearded men–have gotten much attention and most of it positive.  We’ve been well-taken care of by hotel staff and tour guides, many of whom have gone above and beyond the call of duty to locate lost phones, re-arrange rooms, and even make medical appointments on our behalf.  It is the people who I will always remember.

Speaking of people, I have come to realize that for me, Hanoi will be forever linked to J and j.  I haven’t mentioned J and j before, but their history with this city and me runs deep, deeper than I had thought until this trip.  Wandering around Hanoi I have been preoccupied with leading our (mostly) merry band of travelers through tangles of traffic, orchestrating our path through rivers of motorbikes, and ordering family style meals to satisfy a variety of tastes.  But when we went to the Metropole, the significance of time and place became obvious. Hanoi is about J and j, the two people in my life who first brought me back to my homeland and held my hand as I struggled with the emotions of that first visit.  For on that visit, I not only returned to the country of my birth, but also met my father for the first time (in my memory) and faced the government that my family vilifies.  I was both the Vietnamese daughter as well as the American college student, all while occupying that strange place between Vietnam and the US, wondering how to deal with all the contradictions swirling in my mind. 

Through this whirlwind, J and j were a steadying force, reminding me that one moves forward, however slowly.  Forward.  One step at a time.  They were there when the plane landed and the tropical warmth hit our faces, announcing the presence of a country pushing advancement at a mighty pace.  And they were there when I met my father, making sure that I was not alone and being the family that I needed at that moment.  The irony of it all is that I came to Hanoi to meet my father, but in the process, created new bonds with people who would become just as close as family.  

This time, Hanoi seems a bit clearer to me.  I see a vibrant, beautiful city that doesn’t look back. This clarity is most likely due in good part to my own inner peace.  I’m okay now in that space between Vietnam and the US.  I don’t mind being mistaken for a Japanese tourist only to surprise everyone when I open my mouth.  And I love watching my children take in all of the bustle and chaos.  

So, I owe J and j a special heartfelt thank you, for starting me on the journey to find peace with my heritage.  

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Personal Narrative

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I’ve been reading Quan Barry’s new novel, She Weeps Each Time You’re Born, and I feel haunted.

As I’ve gotten older, with the addition of a husband and two children, I’ve gotten more sensitive to painful story lines, particularly those involving children getting hurt or dying. I’ve had to stop reading many a book because I couldn’t deal with stories and images that came to mind. There was Behind All the Beautiful Forevers, with its stories about children in the slums of Mumbai. I stopped after the 3rd chapter. I couldn’t bear the suffering of the children picking through trash piles and abused by not just friends and neighbors but also their social system. Then there was Sarah’s Key, which I stopped reading once the children are separated from their mothers in the camp. Honestly, I nearly didn’t make it past the woman who committed suicide with her child in a Paris gymnasium where thousands were being detained.

Clearly, there is the maternal (and morbid) part of me that can’t help but imagine my children in these situations. It’s not hard for any parent to imagine what it would feel like if these stories were about their children. My empathy curve has certainly gone up significantly since becoming a parent. I don’t remember my younger self feeling this acute discomfort when I read The Diary of Ann Frank or watched To Live or Sophie’s Choice. I guess there’s also a certain degree of self-indulgence now—I don’t have time to read things that make me uncomfortable. There are so many books to read, why force myself through something painful?

But Barry’s book is different. Yes, there is immense suffering—a pregnant woman who lasts for only one chapter, bodies torn and burnt from explosions and fires, and the general hardships and depravity of wartime. There is even a baby, orphaned by her dead mother and Viet Cong father, wandering in destitution with her blind grandmother. I’m 100 pages into the story and had it had been any other story, I might stop here.

I won’t stop. Or perhaps I can’t stop. You see, this story is set in Vietnam, during a period that would eventually lead to the time of my birth. The story is about Rabbit, a girl born during the war and her otherworldly ability to talk to the dead. She becomes a complicated symbol of Vietnam in the aftermath of war and social upheaval—trying to move on while tethered to the suffering of the past.

In many ways, most of us are Rabbit, living our lives while still tethered to some past struggle or injustice. From Jews and the Holocaust, and African-Americans and slavery, to children of domestic violence and mental illness—we all have our stories. A key character in my story is the Vietnam War.

But why do our historical narratives have such power over us? How do they make us cringe at the slightest suggestion of suffering, even fictitious suffering? And why do they only manifest at certain times and not others? I have not always reacted this way to stories about Vietnam.  In my youth, I was a scholar of the war and treated my own history with intellectual gloves, far removed from any emotion. But now that I can see myself in my children, now that I have to pass on a piece of myself to them, there is greater meaning in the stories, both real and make-believe. Perhaps all this is because we somehow hold the scars of the past in us, even if our memories are imperfect, even if these traumas were never ours in the first place. I don’t know if that makes each of us part of bigger narratives or reminds us of the singular human narrative.

What I do know is that my narrative, my scars live inside of me and they alight with Rabbit’s journey. They bring out a deep sense of sadness and pain that must be etched into my soul somewhere for there is nothing in my life now that could possibly cause it. They bring out a desire to mourn the lives lost, families ruined, and histories forgotten. But they also bring out a searing need to survive and triumph. And in persevering with the story, sticking with it despite the discomfort, I am, in a strange way, bearing witness to my own narrative.

In Buddhism there is much focus on the cyclical life. Barry’s book reminds me of the cyclical nature of my life. The girl born of war whose memories are lost bears witness to the trauma of that war 40 years later through the life of a fictional character.

Thanks for reading these musings about my Vietnamese heritage. Stay tuned for more as I prepare to return to Vietnam next month and document the journey on this blog.

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Dear Goat: This year, I wish for…

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Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! Happy lunar new year everyone!  I am not a good Vietnamese girl when it comes to celebrating Tet. Honestly, once Tet rolls around, I’m still recovering from the Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Years trifecta.  I can’t handle all the cooking, baking, festivals, and coordinating.  Plus, it’s ‘effing winter in New England, which makes everything harder.

But I do try to make some effort, no matter how small.  This year, I made banh tet for the first time (at a friend’s house).  I’ll also be throwing together a Commune + Soup-er In-laws new year’s feast of pork belly buns, longevity noodles (a noodle dish is required for longevity wishes, which means we’re also calling them immortal noodles), and the aforementioned banh tet.  This morning, we also introduced the Soup-er Kids to the tradition of wishing their elders a good new year (in return for a nice red envelope).  Soup-er Boy wished me good health (or “no sickness” in his words).  And Soup-er Girl wished that I will receive flowers on my birthday.  Awww… They each passed the test.

What does the year of the goat (or sheep) have in store for all of us, I wonder?  Well, I definitely know what I would wish for:

– No more snow: Really, this is getting ridiculous. The Boston area has been walloped by over 96 inches of snow this winter, with about 80 inches coming during the past 3 weeks. We even had to hire someone to remove all the snow from our roof, fearing a massive avalanche of sharp icicles or interior leaks from the ice dams.  I am tired of the snow.  I am tired of shoveling. I am tired of feeling like a lab mouse in a maze.  And I’m tired of being scared of getting hit by a falling icicle.

– No more cold: It’s been cold, really cold, for really long.  Any day we hit 25 F feels like a heat wave.  The cold is hurting my wit.

– Happy travels: The Commune + the Soup-er Cousin will be taking our grand trip to Vietnam this spring.  In addition to looking forward to the tropical warmth, this will be my first trip back in 15 years and the Soup-er Kids will be meeting their grandfather for the first time.  2.5 weeks, Vietnam from North to South.  There will be an overnight stay on a junk in Ha Long Bay, visits to the old Imperial City in Hue, lounging on the beach in Hoi An, and navigating the chaos of Sai Gon.  Can’t wait. This is going to be epic–I really don’t ever think anything will be epic, but this trip will be.

– Happy travel eating: No trip would be complete without the food, and the food in Vietnam is going to be awesome.  I am so excited for the fruit (mangosteens!), seafood, and yummy regional specialties (bun bo hue!).  And pho for breakfast everyday will be heavenly.

– Good health: As we get older, good health becomes ever paramount. I sincerely wish for good health for family and friends.  And on the public health front, I hope for an end to both Ebola and measles epidemics.  Both are tragic in so very different ways.  Sending out the good health vibes…

–  World peace: Impossible, I know.  But peace in some parts of the world where there is current upheaval would be better than what we have now.  Incremental progress is good–though it often feels like 2 steps forward and 1 step back.  It’s a dance we have to believe in.  For the year of the goat, I’d specifically like to see the end of ISIS and Boko Haram. Can we do that please?

What about all y’all?  What do you think the year of the goat will bring?

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