Parental struggles

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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Chao ga: chicken rice congee


The Vietnamese are experts at comfort food. Bowl after steamy bowl of noodles and broths, large pots of simmering soups are at the heart of many family kitchens. Soups hold a special place in Vietnamese cuisine, cleansing and soothing the palate, the body, the soul, and sometimes even the occasional hangover.

Chao (rice soup) represents the simplest, humblest, and heartiest of Vietnamese soups, providing nourishment and comfort. Easily consumed and digested, chao is fed to young toddlers and elders alike. Thermoses of chao can be found by many a hospital bed, soothing new mothers and invalids of all kinds. And in the streets of Saigon, in the wee hours of the morning there are little old ladies, serving bowls of chao vit (duck congee) for late night revelers.

As a blank canvas, chao can take on many different versions, from plain rice with salt or soy sauce, to more luscious chicken and duck soups.  I recently had a holiday party where I set up a chao bar that consisted of plain chao (just a touch a salt) with a selection of toppings: salted duck eggs, raw quail eggs, cha bong (dried shredded pork threads), braised mushrooms and tofu, ginger poached chicken, pickled mustard greens, scallions, cilantro, fried shallots, slivers of ginger, soy sauce, and fish sauce. Guests were invited to assemble their own bowls of chao. The plain salt chao made it possible to meet a variety of dietary restrictions (vegan, vegetarian, egg allergies, soy allergies, etc.). The chao bar was a BIG hit!

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Below, is the recipe for chao ga (chicken congee), one of the most popular version.  This recipe calls for uncooked rice that is sauteed with ginger and garlic before being added to the chicken broth. Sauteeing the rice first helps the soup to stay a little thinner and adds a nice garlickly aroma.  You can substitute cooked white rice instead (about 2 cups), which will cook faster but will result in a thicker soup that some prefer.

Chao Ga
4-5 lb young, free-range chicken, rinsed and dried
3 lbs chicken bones, rinsed
5-6 quarts water
8 quarter size pieces of ginger
1/3 cup fish sauce
1 1/2 cups jasmine rice, rinsed and drained
3 cloves garlic, minced
3 quarter size pieces of ginger, minced
2 tablespoons canola oil
1/3 cup fish sauce, plus more to taste

2 chopped scallions
1/2 medium onion, sliced thin
1 cup chopped cilantro
1 lime, cut into wedges
fried shallots
bean sprouts, rinsed and dried
thinly sliced Thai chili peppers (optional)

Place chicken, chicken bones, water, and ginger in a pot deep enough that the water covers the chicken. Bring pot to a boil, then quickly reduce to a low simmer. Skim scum off as needed. Cook chicken for about 45 minutes or until cooked through. Remove chicken and submerge in cold water until cool.  Allow bones to simmer for another 30 minutes. Remove bones and discard.  Skim soup carefully and leave on simmer.

In a sauce pan, heat oil over medium heat and add minced garlic and ginger. Stir until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in rinsed rice and sautee for 5 minutes, stirring frequently.

Add rice to the soup and simmer on low for about 30 minutes, stirring very frequently so that the rice does not settle to the bottom and burn.  Add more water/broth as needed.

When chicken is cool enough to handle, carefully remove meat and shred into bite size pieces. Set aside.

The soup is ready when rice kernels have broken up and the soup reaches porridge consistency. Ladle into bowls, top with shredded chicken, chopped scallions, cilantro, onions, fried shallots and a sprinkle of black pepper. Serve with a plate of bean sprouts, lime wedges and chili peppers.


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Conversations worth having


A few weeks ago an old college friend, the mother of two young children, reached out to me via Facebook.  She asked me for general parenting advice.  What she got in return was likely more than she bargained for! I hammered out a heady email (posted below), with the thoughts just streaming out faster than I could type. She responded in kind. Clearly, this was a conversation that we both craved in some way.

I recently came back to this email thread and realized that this conversation was important not just to share, but to encourage other parents like us to engage with each other more.  So, I’d like to start the conversation here and see where it goes. What are your thoughts on parenting, self-worth, social contributions? What do you struggle with?  What advice would you share with another parent?

Dear X,

It must be the phase of life that we are all in, but I’ve been ruminating on these issues for the past few months. I will give you as thorough an answer as I am able.  And forgive me if this is not what you are looking for. Bear with me as I’m not quite sure where to start, so I’ll just start in the middle. 

First, the grass is always greener from the other side. Don’t believe the lovely FB posts and photos; no one’s life is perfect and mine certainly isn’t.  I am not unhappy, mind you, but like many parents of a certain age (ahem), I am struggling with where family ends and I begin. Or, put in another way, what would the younger me think of me now?  

It’s cliche, but I am older and wiser now. I know that idealism has its limits and reality always perseveres. I know that life is not black and white, and moreover, I live/think/feel in the grey areas. I know that as a woman, a mother, a daughter, I am constantly choosing (with my full intention) to put the needs of others before my own. I also know that that’s not what I wish for my daughter or other women. But it also happens to be the most expedient, efficient, financially responsible and loving choices that I can make at this time for my family. I know that I would regret choosing otherwise. And somewhere, in the midst of all that, I fear that I am losing a part of myself. Contradictions abound. 

I wonder daily what kind of mark will I leave? What contributions have I made? I am also simultaneously reminded, in my ever so super-ego-realistic way, that there is still time. That Julia Childs wasn’t Julia Childs until way into her 40s. Deep down inside, there is also a small voice that tells me that I have made contributions, that I have made a difference.  But the ambition in me tells me otherwise.  Again, contradictions. But while I hear both voices, I just don’t know how to reconcile them and where they will lead me next. 

As for motherhood, well, I will be frank with you and tell you that it gets easier and it doesn’t. There will be an end to the fog and you will sleep again, but the worries and stress over sleep and feeding will give way to more difficult concerns. With a son and a daughter, I am keenly aware of the world that they will grow up in and inherit. I worry about bullying in middle school and how to prepare my son for the inevitable disappointments, frustrations and failures. I wonder if his fear of dying (and the tears and anxiety) will manifest in other ways. I wonder how many social expectations my daughter will internalize–she already prefers the beauty of blue eyes and blond hair. I wonder if I am setting her up for failure and confusion by not sharing the truths about our misogynist and racial society. I wonder how to instill in them compassion for and curiosity about the world and people around them. I worry that they are too far removed from poverty and struggle to value hard work and sacrifice.

I am also fully aware that I don’t have many answers, that I will have to do the best that I can (with Mr. No Nom of course), to navigate their childhoods. At the end of the day, I try to remind myself that they will hurt, they will cry, and the best I can do is teach them how to pick themselves back up and move forward.  And above all, I want them to be kind to others and themselves.  But it’s all really a crapshoot, isn’t it?  Just as none of us were able to choose our children’s personalities, tendencies, and talents, we cannot control their path in life–the highs, the lows, the periods that will require great fortitude and personal strength.  We can only try to lead by example, to translate our values into real actions. We hope that we will have given them the skills that we think they will need, and then we keep our fingers crossed. We will fail, in some parts or many. I still have a hard time coming to terms with that.

That I even have time for such wonderings is a massive sign of immense privilege.  Some days I don’t even know how I got here, so far from the little girl who once shared a small apartment with 13 family members. The past seems so far away, and yet a scent, a picture will bring back all the old anxieties and fears. I had forgotten how much has happened and all the way points of this journey. And I realize that much of journey had been running away from things that I now finally have the courage and strength to embrace. 

Older and wiser. I hope that I am doing some small justice to that statement. We are old enough now to have seen something of the world with all its imperfections and moments of transcendent humanity. I think the best we can do for ourselves, each other, and our own children, is to be supportive, to not judge. We each have our own stories and struggles, and as parents, we owe it to each other to appreciate and support each other. Our children are watching and listening. 

I hope you do not regret asking me for words of wisdom.  I’m afraid wisdom is always a work in progress.  But since you’ve asked, this is what I’ve got:

– Be kind to yourself. Don’t be too hard on yourself. 
– Showers are overrated. 
– They will not be wearing diapers when they’re in college. Ditto for not sleeping through the night.
– Don’t give up who you are — the kids will need to know how to not give up who they are.
– Pacing is everything. There’s plenty of time left to make your contributions to society.
– Ask for help when you need it. There is no shame in that.
– Don’t believe the lean-in shit by Sheryl Sandberg–most of us don’t live with that level of privilege.
– Talk to your friends as much as you can.  I can’t tell you how many extra years I will live because I can bitch to Mrs. Next Doors on a daily basis.
– Trust your instincts and trust your love for your family.

– Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, it’s a losing proposition. 

I think that’s all the wisdom I have for now.  My apologies for going on such a rant and if it’s not entirely coherent. Thanks for reaching out. Let’s make sure to catch up in person soon! In the meantime, I’d be delighted to keep the conversation going.  You are not alone!

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Summer Travels: 2016 Edition

(Beaucaire, France)

My family did not travel much during my childhood. Any traveling we did do was to visit friends and family, with the visitors crashing on couches and floors. I hated those family trips to San Jose, Vancouver, and once, Montreal. I hated being dragged around to visit aunties and uncles to whom I wasn’t actually related, sitting around uncomfortably with various kids while the adults talked. I remember being bored to death.

But then college happened and I suddenly wanted to see more of the world. I envied my friends who could afford spring break and ski trips. Tuscany and Provence sounded like such exotic places–heck, so did Florida and Bretton Woods! I dreamed about backpacking through Europe and visiting the night markets in Hong Kong and Taipei. That was 20+ countries ago and I am still determined to leave the US at least once a year. Below is a short essay (and some photos) about our travels this past summer, when we spent 4 weeks in London and the South of France.


Being in another country, whether just over the border in Canada or halfway around the world in Vietnam, always makes me consider the world a little differently, like bringing back souvenir perspectives. More than the trinkets and food (there is always food), I remember the people we meet and the circumstances of their lives and communities. Like the lovely older lady who rents out her apartment, full of artifacts from her youthful adventures life. And the Australian innkeepers, whose journey wound through multiple continents before they settled in a tiny village in the South of France. I marvel at the cultural differences—French ladies and their scarves and English pubs and love of football—and try to experience as much of the local life as I can, roaming markets, sitting in parks, chatting with other parents.

But as much as we are different, I often find that our travels make the world feel smaller; we have so much in common, more so than we usually think. Regardless of language or food, there is a universal language of family, community, and shared histories. And with the recent violence around the world, we now have more in common than ever before.

Many of our trips have coincided with difficult situations back home. A few days after 9/11 we were in Canada, unsure how to enjoy ourselves in the aftermath of such tragedy. On the morning of the 2013 Boston Marathon, unbeknownst to us, we were on one of the last flights out of Boston’s Logan Airport before it was shut down because of the bombing. We landed in Mexico, oblivious of the commotion back home with our cell phones abuzz as family and friends frantically tried to reach us to enquire about our safety.

And then this summer, we spent four weeks in London and the South of France while being on a steady diet of disturbing news from home and abroad. We arrived in London on the heels of the Brexit vote, witnessing dramatic protests, crisis in the political leadership, and lamentations of Londoners. Such an international city, London was having a particularly hard time coming to terms with the Brexit reality. Then there were the repeated police shootings of black men back in the States, followed by the news out of Dallas, the tragedy in Nice and the coup in Turkey. It was a surreal and sad few days for us in bustling London—doubly strange to be marveling at historic sites and new wonders while the world was falling apart. And yet, all around us and throughout the world life went on. I confess it was hard for me to make any sense of it all, my mind was overwhelmed and I felt hopeless and small up against such violence and madness. Instead, I focused on daily tasks and planning. I didn’t know what else to do.

But in the back of my mind lurked a persistent unease. While waiting in a tube station I suddenly started to look for exits, wondering how we would flee if there was some kind of terrorist attack. I hated myself for having the thought. On another occasion in the French village of Beaucaire we happened upon a parade honoring Saint Madeleine. We had prime viewing seats at a lovely Moroccan restaurant, and again, I looked for exit routes in case of trouble, eyeing every passing van with suspicion. I looked at Mr. No Nom, wondering if he had the same thought but I was too afraid to ask. I hoped that it was just me.

Throughout the trip, Mr. No Nom and I would have quiet conversations about the news (away from little ears), sharing our disbelief at the violence and state of world affairs late at night. We wondered equally about the ascent of Donald Trump as well as the brazen vitriol of his followers. But Brexit showed us that we are not the only ones preyed upon by fear of foreigners. And violence in France is just as horrible as violence in Dallas. Alas, we Americans do not have a monopoly on fear, violence, or crazy.

The world is smaller today than in generations past. Our tragedies affect more than just us and similarly, we feel the pain of others. I don’t know if that’s a silver lining but it does make me feel a bit more whole and a bit less lost. I hope that our travels help teach our children to appreciate and care about people and places beyond their everyday lives. For better and for worse, this is their world now, too.

Peacock at Kew Gardens

View of London from the Sky Garden

Tablewares at the Borough Market in London

Holland Park, Kensington

Mas St. Antoine in Rognonas, France

Gordes, France

Arles, France

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An update: dispatch from the other side


It’s been seven weeks since I left the working life for the other side, and it’s time for a little update. I’m still getting used to it, but I’ve enjoyed the unhurried life a lot, relieved to not be dashing to all corners of Arlington and Cambridge and juggling competing demands on my time. There are still demands on my time, but the competition has certainly died down.

The extra time has been beneficial for family life, where not much may have changed on the surface–kids still go to school, Mr. No Nom still goes to work, and I still cook a lot–but there have been subtle shifts below. Soup-er Girl is delighted that I can take her to an afternoon swim class in the middle of the week.  Mr. No Nom doesn’t have to cover afternoon pick ups. But perhaps most telling of all, Soup-er Boy seems more relaxed and we’ve had more time together. He’s the one who has benefitted the most from my extra time; I am home in the afternoons and there is greater flexibility for his after school activities. Sometimes this means he can bring a friend home, or stay later for school activities. A few times, we’ve even managed to squeeze in some tennis before I have to pick up his sister. There’s only so much time before the teen years hit hard and he’ll turn into grumpy, moody boy.  I’ll take what I can now.

In other news, I also managed to check off a few to-do items (from a crazy long list!):

  • 1 car inspection sticker–only 9 months overdue and lucky to not have gotten a ticket!
  • 1 new set of car tires–after having to re-fill a leaky tire for months, but man are they expensive!
  • 1 mammogram–what better way to face middle age head on?
  • 1 failed barre class–I’m sticking with tennis.
  • 1 stove repaired–the beeping was beginning to drive us crazy and a PSA to everyone out there to AVOID BOSCH STOVES.
  • 1 massage–my 41st birthday indulgence!
  • 1 summer trip booked –this was no small feat as it involves a 26-day trip to Europe.  I booked plane tickets, train tickets (we’re taking the Chunnel!), 1 hotel , 1 apartment, and 1 farmhouse, and a car rental.
  • 1 trip to Vail–we left the kids at home and I learned to ski!
  • 1 book read–Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. Oof, that was a doozy.  Nothing like reading about how parents can really screw up their kids while on my first trip without the kids.  Guilt x 2.
  • 40+ hours of volunteer consulting work for Bridge Over Troubled Waters, an organization working with homeless youth.
  • 1 gala–in support of Bridge Over Troubled Waters and I got to wear they ao dai I had made in Hoi An last year.
  • 1 political fundraising event–my first ever in support of a dear friend’s inaugural run for state senate.  This whole political campaign involvement thing is new to me and a little weird. I am clearly out of my comfort zone knowing that there is so much money being bandied about for various candidates and yet the political process is so out of whack.
  • 4 lunch dates with friends–so lovely to catch up with people doing wonderful things.
  • 2 passports renewed–I’m going to miss Emma’s baby photo in her first passport.
  • 1 new flower bed–I faced my worm-phobia head on and not only dug a new flower bed, but also planted the flowers!
  • Multiple soccer carpools arranged and driven–10 year old boys talk about the darndest things!
  • Endless loads of laundry and meals cooked–it never ends.

It sounds like a lot and it feels very jumbled. As you can see, with my new-found free time, I’ve been pulled in multiple directions, dealing with overdue family errands as well as postponed self-care. More importantly and most glaringly to me, there has been an utter lack of direction.  I suppose that the crazy long to-do list still takes precedence, but I am surprised that my time hasn’t been more directed, more purposeful.

Of course, I am of two minds about this; really, when am I not of two minds? Most of the time I think I was born with two minds. But I digress.  On the one hand, I am disturbed and a bit guilty about now accomplishing more towards the thus-far-unidentified-goal-for-the-next-few-months.  Shouldn’t I be spending more effort and focus on figuring out this aforementioned goal? And how can there be so many items on my to do list?  And why won’t the list stop growing?  On the other hand, there’s a reason that the thus-far-unidentified-goal-for-the-next-few-months hasn’t yet been identified.  I’m supposed to be taking a break!  Figures I wouldn’t know how to slow down properly or cope with ambiguity.

But ambiguity was the point right?  I’m supposed to be taking time off to get a new perspective.  But truth be told, most of my time has been spent on tasks and errands, without any bigger picture considerations. I find myself still in the weeds. True, weeds need to be dealt with, but they have taken over my entire view.

Perhaps I’ve gone about this wrong, coming in with the wrong set of expectations and ineffective implementation.  I didn’t want to over-think this, but some re-thinking is in order–otherwise I will just jump from task to task and come out feeling like I’ve wasted precious time.

Starting this week, I’m going to set aside at least one day per week when I am not focused on chores and errands. I’ll come up with a separate list of things that I want to do (as opposed to things that need to get done) and start ticking them off.  Wish me luck!


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Vacation cooking


Many people go on vacation to escape the everyday, including cooking. They go to luxurious resorts or hotels and eat out daily, sometimes for all three meals.  The Soup-er family doesn’t do that.

Ever since we’ve had children, we have rarely stayed in hotels, opting for rental apartments or houses that offer the kids more space and a separate bedroom–thereby sparing the parents from having to share a room with the kiddos and go to sleep at some ridiculously early hour.  We’ve rented vacation homes near and far–Wellfleet, Paris, Bermuda, Portugal, Tulum, Puerto Rico, Barcelona, the Dordogne, New Hampshire, Maine, and even Los Angeles.

DSC03835.JPGWith access to a kitchen, we are able to have a lot of flexibility around meals, eating in or out as we feel like it.  Most recently in Martinique, I loved having a leisurely breakfast in my jammies overlooking a gorgeous bay. In Paris, Mr. No Nom and I would wind down after the kids were in bed by sharing a late dessert and a bottle of wine, as the City of Light twinkled.  And in Wellfleet, we would feast on fresh shucked oysters and steamed lobsters on a deck overlooking a salty marsh.

DSC02072.JPGHaving a kitchen means that we can take advantage of fresh local ingredients, savor fresh pain au chocolat for breakfasts in Paris, or make our own rum drinks in Puerto Rico and Tulum.  As a cook and foodie, I love visiting local markets on our travels–whether the grand food halls at Harrod’s in London or the Mercado de la Boqueria in Barcelona, to the floating markets DSC02388.JPGin the Mekong Delta or the musty aisles of a village mercado in Portugal.

Markets are windows into the a specific culture, from the local specialties to people watching itself. And without fail, when I visit a market, I want to cook.
Some of our most memorable dishes have been made in vacation kitchens, where the knives are dull, the pans far from nonstick, and many of my staple ingredients, especially fish sauce, are missing.  And yet, these impromptu meals, built on whatever is fresh and available, are often so very satisfying. Two particular dishes stand out in recent memory: spice-rubbed roasted bluefish in Wellfleet and grilled whole red snapper with spicy mango salsa in Martinique.  In both cases, we bought fresh fish and then made do with whatever we happened to find in the pantries.  And in both cases, the results were delicious and memorable.  The food was good, but vacation cooking also embodies a certain je ne sais quoi that makes everything taste brighter, more vibrant.  Perhaps it’s a local element–the taste of the ocean, the terroir, spices in the humid air. Whatever it is, it always leaves me wanting more.

Spice-rubbed bluefish
Blue fish is native to the Atlantic waters off the coast of New England and are often abundant in the summer months. Many folks are put off by the oiliness of the fish, which makes the flavors more intense, though still less “fishy” than mackerel.

3 lbs fillet fresh bluefish
2 large shallots, sliced into thin rounds
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
olive oil
salt and pepper
lemon wedges

Pat dry the bluefish and season generously with salt and pepper.  Mix together the coriander, cumin, paprika, and chili powder. Sprinkle 3/4 of the mixture onto the bluefish, rubbing the spices gently into the fish. Layer the shallots atop the spice-rubbed fillet and then sprinkle with the reserved spice mixture and drizzle with olive oil.  Place the fillet on large piece of foil and wrap into a loose flat packet.  Grill or roast (at 400F) for 15-20 minutes depending on thickness of the fillet.  Open packet carefully and serve immediately with fresh lemon wedges. I served this dish with some simple green salad and cappellini tossed in a pan with sauteed garlic, tomatoes and capers.

Grilled red snapper with mango salsa
This dish was the perfect blend of the exotic bounty of the french Caribbean–marrying the fresh local seafood with the fresh fruits and spices of the region. I made the dish twice, the first time with marlin steaks instead of the red snapper.  I prefer the red snapper, but a thick steak of firm white fish would also work.


2 whole red snappers (about 3 lbs total)
olive oil
2 ataulfo mangoes, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 small red onion, diced
juice of 2 small limes (use juice of one lime first and then add more to taste)
1/2 habanero pepper, de-seeded and finely minced
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro or parsley
salt and pepper

Generously sprinkle salt and pepper on the fish, then drizzle with olive oil.  Grill over hot coals, 8-10 minutes per side.  Combine mangoes, red onion, line juice, habanero, and cilantro in a small bowl and let sit for 10 minutes.  Add salt to taste. Remove red snappers from grill and arrange on a plate. Spoon salsa mixture over fish and serve with rice, grilled veggies, and a chilled dry white wine.



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This is not a mid-life crisis.


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


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.


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


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


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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