i know what you mean!

“When bác Trâm was your age, Timmy”

when my oldest sister, bác Trâm, was your age, i was born.  

This was 3.5 years after South Vietnam lost the war, American soldiers left, all of my mom’s family left for the US, my dad took 3 kids, Bác Huy (9), bác Châu (5), bác An (3) to the sea in an attempt to escape by boat to reach a refugee camp outside of Vietnam.  My mom was pregnant with me when my dad was caught, along with 3 kids.  Bác Trâm said the day my mom received the news, it was the first time she lost her mind.  Bác Trâm said my mom laughed, and then wept, and then laughed.  Bác Trâm was very frightened, but she just kept absolutely quiet, and tried her best to help out wherever she could.  

All of us kids grew up very distant from my parents.  We were most indifferent to our dad, but also to our mom, to some degrees.  Like I myself feel very estranged from my own mother, and I don’t even want to get close. When i was growing up, i spent a lot of time around her, but just existing in my own world, I didn’t share my world with her.  I just took care to help her out where i could, if putting in a bit of effort would make her happier, I was fine with it, but I never felt the kind of love and attachment I see other children have with their mother.  Bác Trâm was different.  She said it was because as she grew from a 5 year old into a 13 year old, she was the one person who was constantly by my mom’s side. She saw how life tumbled my mother and made her into a person full of anxiety mixed with depression.  And because of that, my sister cares about my mom and sympathizes with her in a way the rest of my siblings and I cannot.  

When my mom gave birth to me, it was just her and bác Trâm at home.  When my mom’s water broke, she went to the hospital alone, my sister slept at home by herself, at 8 years of age.  All of us grew up afraid of the dark and afraid of being alone, but my sister had no choice back then, and she just quietly accepted that she would have to spend a night on her own.  Then the next day, she rode the bike to my mom’s cousin, we call her bá Thảo.  Bá Thảo lived about 1 mile away, and during the years my mom was stuck alone in Vietnam without her siblings and parents, bá Thảo was her big sister who helped out my mom.  So bác Trâm went to let bá Thảo know about the new baby.  And then at some point, my mom came home with me.  

When women give birth, a lot of changes take place in their body chemically.  With the baby inside, the body produces a lot of hormones to help the mom’s body nurture the baby. But once the baby has been born, the uterus sends signals to the body of the mom, causing these hormones to drop.  I was lucky in that with 3 kids, the hormone changes did not give me any bad effects.  But my friend had postpartum depression after she had her kids. And so did my mom.  People with mild postpartum depression may spend their day crying or feeling overwhelmed and hopeless.  People with more severe postpartum depression sometimes want to kill themselves as well as their babies.  It’s a scary thing.  I think my mom must have had postpartum depression, because I have seen her after she gave birth to my little brother, as well as my little sister.  For months, she was just in bed, not doing anything, not motivated to get up.  So my older siblings helped out with caring for the babies until my mom slowly crawled out of her depression.  

When bác Trâm was 8, my mom came home with me, and the first night, bác Trâm woke up to the sound of me crying.  She found me with a dirty diaper and hungry, and my mom was just lying there, laughing and crying too, not functional.  So bác Trâm changed my dirty diaper, mixed formula, and fed me.  Then she went downstairs to wash my dirty diaper.  I think that saved my life.  She took care of me when my mom was not able to.  The next day, another one of my mom’s cousins  came by to check on us, probably because bá Thảo informed her.  That cousin — her name is bá Ngọc — took one look at the situation, and carried me away.  That, i believe, also saved my life. The agreement was that bá Ngọc (my mom’s cousin) would raise me, and each month my mom would send money.  That’s how I grew up — in a household full of cousins old enough to be my parents, but i called them older sisters and older brothers.  The woman who was old enough to be my grandma, I called her mẹ, just like the rest of her children.  This lasted for 4 years, and then when my dad gained his legal resident status in the early 1980’s, I came home to my birth mom.  

When i left shortly after i was born, the house continued to have just my mom and bác Trâm.  At your age, she witnessed my mom being scammed by her so called friends.  People would come visit my mom because she’s nice, they would try to talk her into investing money, because they knew she had money that my aunts and uncles sent from the US.  Life was unkind to many many Vietnamese people the 4 years I wasn’t at home, not just my mom, but my mom was traumatized by it.  She was afraid of seeing people and talking to strangers, so bác Trâm would have to do things like going to the commune store to buy rice on her own.  Rice bags were not light, they were 25-30 lbs rice bags.  But my sister knew that if the commune is open, one must get in line, and whatever the commune sells, one should buy, otherwise it won’t be available for a long time.  So she bought rice on her own, and proceeded to drag that thing home somehow, refusing to take a xích-lô cab, which is a giant tricycle with passenger seat in the front.  

If you put yourself into my sister’s place, do you think you would have been capable of saving your younger sister’s life like she did?  Think of the middle of the night, when you are so sleepy, and the baby cries next to your mom, would you think “mom is there, baby should be fine” and cover your ears, trying to go back to sleep?  Would you have been able to quietly existing next to a mother who doesn’t seem to be able to hold things together, offering help in anyway you can, and if you can’t help, simply being there, but not causing any trouble ?  My sister told me about her goal to cause no trouble for my mom because she saw how hard it was for my mom back then.  It’s definitely a world that other 8 year olds are living even now.  All around you, maybe in Albany, or in Berkeley, there are still moms like my mom who are having a very hardy time, and 8-year-olds like my sister, being the little pillars for their moms to lean on.  Think about these kids and bác Trâm, will you, the next time you hear me yell “You are having a rich kid’s problem, stop complaining!”

chapter 2 — My happiest memory

Timmy, one of my happy memories when I was your age was my second trip to the beach.

Beaches in Vietnam are like Hawaii — warm tropical water, hot humid local weather. white puffy clouds, fresh salty air, new sights and sounds for a city kid like me.  The city where I grew up was about 2.5 hours away from Vietnam’s famous beach, Vũng Tàu (Bay of Ships).  That’s about the same as from where we live going down to Monterey.  But back in the 1980’s, Vietnam was a very poor country, no one could afford their own car, so in order for a beach trip to occur, we all depended on my dad’d office. 

My dad worked in the municipal architecture department or something like that.  My dad wasn’t an architect.  By training, he has a Masters in economics from the US; before the war ended in 1975, he was an instructor at South Vietnam’s military academy.  After the war, he was put into reeducation camp by the new government, where all people who worked under the South Vietnam’s government had to undergo communist indoctrination, to enlighten them.  It’s brainwashing, but they could not change anyone’s heart, because the doctrines were led by poor examples.  The communist government told their prisoners daily that the Party is benevolent and just, that they work for the people and with the people, they said that year after year while starving hundreds of thousands of men, treating them maybe just a bout 25% better than the way the nazis treated the Jewish people in concentration camps.  I say 25% because they didn’t line everyone up and shoot them all dead, or gas them, or used them for scientific experiments. But these camps didn’t care whether the prisoners lived or died. Sometimes they deliberately made the condition harsh to inflict sufferings, hastening many deaths.

Many people died, they were somebody’s fathers, husbands, brothers, sons. My friend’s father died in one of those camps.  Your great grandfather on Ba’s side almost died because he was sent nearly a thousand miles to the north, where the prisoners were treated so much more harshly.  My own dad faired much better, he made it out after 3 years, but his life after reeducation camp wasn’t great.  When I grew up, the Vietnamese government taught us kids in school that the communist party — the only political party in Vietnam — was fair, just, and compassionate.  But I never believed them for a moment, because I didn’t see them in action.  I was fearful of their policemen, adults around me taught all children to be careful around government officials, and the atmosphere around me was one of suspicion and secrecy. 

The Vietnamese operates on a system of registry for residency, very different from here in the US, but quite common in Asia. Japan, for example, still runs on some sort of registry system. Registry means the local government “registers” you into their books, and gives you a small booklet that certifies you live at this so and so address, your household has X number of people, all names and date of birth listed, etc etc.  In Vietnam, men who got out of prison (reeducation camp) could not get their names into local registries, because the government wanted to relocate them elsewhere —undeveloped areas, for example.  That’s one of the reasons why after the war, many people left vietnam illegally and became refugees. My dad, Ba’s dad, both of them could not get their names added to their family registries in Saigon, so they were sort of treated like illegal immigrants in the US — if the police got a hold of them, they were in trouble, they could get rounded up and sent far away.  

My dad was in reeducation camp from 1975 to 1978, then because of his “illegal” status due to lack of registry, he took bác Huy, bác An and bác Châu, who were 9, 3 and 5.5 respectively and tried to leave Vietnam on a boat.  That trip failed, they were caught by the police, and ended up in jail for another 3 years.  Technically bác Huy, bác An and bác Châu were also “in jail” when they were young because of that trip, but the authority released them back to my mom after 3 months, and only kept my dad for the next three years.  So he was in jail from 1978 until 1982, released, faced the same registry problem again. He was always in hiding right after he got back to Saigon, according to bác Trâm.  Thousands of men like him were hiding all over Saigon during those years. Finally, with the help of someone he knew, he managed to forge some documents around 1983, and gained residency status thereafter.  When he was able to be reunited with his family, I finally left my foster family and came home to see my mom after 4 years of separation since birth.

Once he gained his residency status, he found a job at the municipal architecture department and worked there until we left Vietnam.  It was this municipal architecture department that used to sponsor seaside bound trips of my childhood.  

To this day, it’s still very common for Vietnamese work places to hold annual trips for their employees.  Everyone would need to pay a fee of course, but the workplace takes care of travel and accommodation logistics, and the fees are not greatly inflated, so it is good deal all around. 

I was never told about these beach trips in advance.  I would only find out about them the day before. Some trips I didn’t get to go.  In second grade, the whole family went, minus my oldest brother who lived with my grandfather, and we got to spend one night by the sea, in a motel.  The beach we went to that year is called Long Hải, near Vũng Tàu, but not as touristy as Vũng Tàu.  The distance was about the same.  

The day before the trip, the adults and my older siblings were busy packing. I think mostly it was my mom doing all the works.  We were always extremely frugal, so my mom packed food to bring along for meals instead of eating out.  I can’t remember too well what we ate, but most probably my mom packed chà bông (pork floss) to be eaten with rice, and perhaps packs of instant noodles.  Then she packed clothes for all of us, a few towels to be shared, toileteries…. I didn’t pay much attention because I was super excited at that point, and I had to keep a very low profile.  Remember how I always tell you to strive for low profile?  I had learned to keep a low profile at your age, it was the best way to avoid punishment for me at that age.  I didn’t want to get my mom angry right before a trip, out of fear that she could leave me at home — she had left me at home alone before when I was 4 or 5.  But I made sure the whole neighborhood knew I was being left at home alone, because I sat by the stairs with a big windows opening to a courtyard and wailed the entire time.  The old woman who lived one wall over had to hear me wail for however long it took for my mom to come home — I told you I was an annoying kid.  

Anyhow. The trip.  I remember going to bed that night full of excitement. We went to bed later than usual, because everyone was up late checking to make sure we packed everything.  And because the adults were busy, bedtime wasn’t enforced as strictly as usual.  I must have passed out the moment my head hit the pillow.  Sleep was brief, because by 4am, all of us had to get up to get ready.  I ate a quick breakfast, typically left over rice from the previous night warmed up on the clay stove, sprinkled with salted crushed peanuts and sesame seeds.  Then I got dressed, my dad drove some of us on his motobike, while the rest piled on one or two cyclo, following behind. 

Cyclo was the taxi cab in Vietnam in the 80’s.  Do you remember the tricycle at Albany Preschool that has a seat in the back? A friend can sit in the front and you can sit in the back. Your friend does all the pedaling, you sit in the back doing nothing?  A cyclo is sort of like that, except the seat is in the front, on top of  two big wheels, and the driver is in the back, on top of the third wheel.  A cyclo can comfortably seat 2 adults, but back in those days, in Vietnam, everyone wanted to get the most for their money.  If you could pile 5 people on a cyclo, you shouldn’t put 4.  Nevermind that the driver was a scrawny malnutritioned man who was just as poor as everyone else, people who paid him just want to milk him for all he was worth.  My family was like that too, if we ever hired a cyclo, we would pile until there was a little mountain of kids on it…. So maybe we hired just 1 cyclo for my trip to Long Hải the year I was 8….

I remember sitting in the back of my dad’s motorbike.  My dad drove; my little brother Tin was 3.5 at that time sat right behind him, then me, then my mom.  That’s just based on my reasoning, because the only thing I still remember now is the feeling of sitting on a moving vehicle in the early morning, just at daybreak, crossing my city as everyone was waking up.  The usually super busy streets was strangely empty  at that early hour, but smoke with delicious smell would rise along the roads. Those were steams from food stalls that were finishing up the food they will soon sell to hungry breakfasters.  Bakeries that just baked french baguettes finished their last batch around that time as well, and I could see bread distributors and sellers riding their bicycles passing me, in the back of their seats were huge woven baskets filled with loaves of bread.  Those baguettes were the color of my childhood’s dream, because i rarely got to taste them at your age, and they tasted like heaven to me every time i could lay my hand on just a piece of them.  

The streets were still dark around 5am, but i could see the sky steadily changing color, and i could hear the sounds on the streets getting louder and louder and thicker and thicker as my dad drove us to the meeting point.  It wasn’t a bus station, but a meeting point, where the company hired two or three buses for everyone.  By the time all of us got seated, the first sun rays were upon us, but the cool night air still lingered.  

As soon as we got onto the bus, some people started to feel nauseous.  My sisters, all 3 of them, had really bad carsickness back then.  They said it was the smell of gasoline that made them feel ill, and then when the bus started moving, they started puking.  My little brother and I didn’t have that problem, but many other Vietnamese people had carsickness.  So the entire trip, I sat next to my sister Châu, who held a plastic bag, and by the end of the first leg of the trip, that bag held her half digested breakfast.  People got carsick so often in Vietnam that back in those days, those “sick bags” didn’t seem gross to me.  I didn’t want to touch them of course, but the fact that one was dangling right next to me the whole trip, and my sister retched into it every 40 minutes or so didn’t gross me out. 

I liked looking out the window, because I rarely get to see the world beyond half a mile radius of my house.  The city landscape quickly changed into country side landscape, with farm lands and even lotus ponds spreading out before my eyes.  I remember singing to myself for the longest time, my sister even complained about it.  But I sang because I was happy.  The song I sang was a patriotic number, because that was the kind of kids music I heard back then.  The song was about a child whose uncle is a naval officer.  It was relevant, see? We were heading for the ocean, and so I sang about the sailorman who was on a ship and saw some pretty seashells.  

Nowadays the trip to Long Hải takes about 2.5 hours, but I think back then, it was around 3-3.5 hours because the driver made at least one, usually two, rest stops. My bus was an old bus that didn’t move too fast, because it was crammed full of people and luggage. The rest stops were bus stops along the way where small vendors congregated anticipating travelers.   I remember these stops, because they filled my childhood with a sad song.  There’s a famous Vietnamese poet name Hàn Mặc Tử who eventually succumbed to leprosy and died young at the beginning of the 20th century.  Some musician wrote a song about him before the war ended, and that song became THE SONG that beggars, many of them were lepers themselves, would sing at bus stops while begging for money.  I never got off the bus, because typically I didn’t need to go pee, and I hadn’t puked, so I didn’t need to get down to wash my face or throw away my sick bag.  I sat by the window and listened to the beggars’ song. 

“Would anyone like
to buy the moon?

I will sell you the moon but i won’t sell love

….…. the midnight waning moon 
over the rocky slope
brings to mind an old sad tale….”

Vietnam in the 80’s was filled with beggars, and they didn’t even look like the homeless people you see out on the street.  Vietnamese beggars were missing limbs, or deformed, or disseaded, or all of the above.  We were just 10 years out of a civil war, casualties were everywhere.  

But as  a child, I was so used to my environment, I wasn’t bothered by what I saw.  It was as if the entire country got used to it.  So I was less disturbed by the beggars who sang, more intrigued by the “deer jerky” vendors.  I have never tasted venison jerky, even now.  I didn’t hear much about venison jerky except during these beach trips.  They made me think that “deer jerky” is a local specialty of the southeast region.  I never looked it up, so I still have no idea about them.  People around me sometimes said to each other, “I bet that’s not even real deer jerky, they were just faking it.”  Is venison jerky that special?  So hard to make that you have to fake?  I still don’t know.

There were also a lot of fruit vendors trying to sell local fruits. Vietnam is a tropical fruits heaven, even now when I see little mountains of fruits I feel happy, just because as a child, I used to look at them wistfully.  

After about 20 minutes, everyone got back on the bus, we were back on the road, and Chau who sat next to me started puking again….

We got to Long Hải a bit before noon.  My memory becomes hazy here.  I remember Long Hải had a lot of beach pines back then.  The sands were fine and soft, the beach  pines dropped a lot of little cones into the sand, and I used to pick them up, full of curiosity.  I remember my family renting a few chairs and situated them under the beach pines, where everyone in my dad’s department also sat.  Lot of adults talked. Maybe we ate lunch. Maybe we got a treat that day and had vietnamese sandwiches—one sandwich divided into 2-3 pieces for the kids.  I for once didn’t care about eating rare food that day.  I wanted to be down in the water.  

Do you know that back then, most people didn’t own a bathing suit?  You must have at least 4-5 pieces plus wetsuits here in the US, right?  But not a single person in my family had a piece of bathing suit.  It wasn’t economical to go and buy one — no one went swimming, we rarely went to the beach, so the more common thing that I saw back when I was your age is this:  when I walked down towards the water with my siblings, I would see vendors along the beach.  Some rented out beach umbrellas, some rented out chairs, a lot rented out floaties, and a lot had swimming suits for rent.  I think my three older sisters got permission to rent swimming suits, but my brother and I didn’t need to.  Kids were sent down into the ocean completely naked, or with a pair of boxers on.  I don’t remember what I wore, but I wasn’t naked.  I have no memory of my little brother on that beach. Or anyone else in my family, for that matter.  I don’t even have memories of myself in the water.  In my mind’s eyes, I only see the bathing suit rental stall. The owner had a rack with bathing suits hanging on them, against the turquoise water and blue sky, all sizes and shapes.  I have memory of my sisters picking a few pieces and went into the makeshift stall to try them on, and then my memory cuts to the night we spent in the motel in Long Hải.

It’s nothing like the hotels we have stayed at in Monterey.  The Vietnamese motel my family stayed at in Long Hải was barebone, with no room service. It wasn’t even in a big building.  The lay out of that motel was more like a bunch of baracks. White walls, fluorescent light, two wooden twin beds, concrete floor, a window to the left, looking out to the path that leads towards the ocean.  At night you can hear the waves.   My family stayed in one room.  My mom, dad, and little brother Tin were on one twin bed.  My 3 big sisters and I were on the other twin bed.  

Can you imagine?  A bed like the one you currently sleep in.  Two girls were about my size, but skinnier.  One girl about May’s size. And then one girl about your size.  All of us had to fit, like a puzzle in a box.  The beds had nothing, just wooden slats plus a straw mat over the slats.  No blankets, no pillows.  But we all fit. I remember it being the most cramped sleeping arrangement I have ever experienced. All of us wondered if we would fall off in the middle of the night.  We slept head to toe, two heads north and two heads south.  But no one fell off, no one even moved.  Because we were all so badly sunburned, it hurted to move.  Vietnam was just as hot as Hawaii, if not hotter, yet back in those days, no one knew anything about sunblock, UV rays, skin cancer.  Everyone just considered getting sunburn until your skin blistered up and peeled for weeks a normal fact of life.  

I think I spent a good chunk of the 2nd day sitting in the shade, looking out to the ocean, as my  mom packed things up.  the bus departed around 3pm, and by the time we got back home, it was already late night.  I missed 2 days of school, everyone would know where I have been due to my suddenly very red face, where skin would start to peel in the next week…. 

that was one of my happiest childhood memories when I was your age. 

  1. “When I was your age, Timmy”

When I was your age, Timmy, I was in Saigon, Vietnam.  I was in Phú Nhuận district, near a river, I think.  There was a bridge that would take you to the next district, Trương Minh Giảng bridge, but because I didn’t really roam the streets, I don’t have a good idea of the area where I lived.  

At 8, I was in 2nd grade, just like you, because I was also born at the end of the year.  We didn’t have the law of letting kids who are born later than September to wait until the following year to enroll, and my mom was worried that I wouldn’t be able to catch up with my class, so she bribed officials at the hospital to change my date of birth so that I could enroll with the next class.  I was older than many of my friends by a few months.

In 2nd grade, I met my best friend, the one whose handwritten letter I still keep.  I only managed to reach her once, one year after I emigrated to the US, and she only managed to reach me that one time as well. I still think of her and she has a special place in my heart, because my friend Lan Phương was someone who was genuinely good and kind.  She was honest, kind, generous, and I have never seen her doing anything mean.  Her family was blue collar, maybe poorer than my own family, but her mom used to give her some pocket money on Sundays when she and I started going to Sunday School the following year. I remember the little bit of change she got from her mom was only enough to buy a glass of coconut juice. Do you remember sometimes I buy a fresh coconut, cut it open, pour the juice out, and scrape the young coconut meat for you to eat? That was what my friend Lan Phương used to buy in Vietnam. The little change she got didn’t buy us a whole coconut, just an 8 oz glass of juice with maybe 1 piece of young coconut meat. We both loved it, but I never had any money, so it was always her buying one glass, and the two of us shared. She never asked for anything from me in return, and I regret to say, after I got some money in 5th grade, I don’t remember sharing with her. I was rather selfish, I only gave stuffs to people whose love I could not get, while the ones who loved me, I hadn’t learn to cherish them and give all my best to them first. But in time I did learn, and people like Lan Phương who were kind to me, patiently waiting for me to learn my lesson, I am grateful to them.

I met her in second grade because she was seated right next to me, and naturally i talked to everyone who sat near me.  My teacher in 2nd grade was someone who was also kind, and loving, who loved kids, just like your teacher.  She had a booming voice, and she sounded intimidating, but she was someone who genuinely cared about me, even though i drove her crazy in 2nd grade.  

You remind me a lot of myself at that age.  Sometimes I’m so hard on you, or I might say something mean to you, most probably because when I look back, I can hardly stand myself as a kid.  I was a really annoying kid to many people.  But my 2nd grade teacher loved me.  Like you, I was just throwing my heart out there into the world, wanting to connect with people, genuinely interested in everything, loving to share everything I knew, everything I didn’t know, and the rest in between.  But I think adults just want kids to shut up.  Many adults anyway.  Kids, though, friends, they always want to hear from you and keep you company. So I talked, my friend responded, and that disrupted the class, because you’re not supposed to talk during class….. So that’s how I got into trouble.

And then I was also that messy kid who was always losing things or not keeping stuffs neat.  Unlike you, though, if I lose things, I would get spanked, so from the fear of punishment, I was more careful.  But I would still make mistakes like spilling all of my ink, or forgetting my ink bottle at home, and then I would have to ask my friends to help me out. Teachers didn’t like that.  And then I used to misplace my stuffs, went to my teachers afterward, absentmindedly swore up and down that SHE had my stuffs. My teacher broke down and cry at one point from frustration, because she thought she was losing her mind.  She said she spent a whole night searching for my math notebook that I said I had turned in, couldn’t find it, so she had to buy a new note book, put my name on it, and gave it to me as a replacement.  I went home and showed it to my older sister, all happy, like, look, I got a new nice notebook from my teacher because she lost my math notebook.  My sister whacked me with my math notebook that fell behind the bookcase, and said, no, you didn’t turn it in — but hey dude, if you saw it, how come you didn’t say anthing!! Right?  

Man i was in a lot of trouble when I told my teacher what happened the next day.  Second grade was just so dramatic for me.  Many things happened.  Like somehow I managed to get into a fight with some mean girls in my class.  Except they weren’t really mean, they were just acting like Summer sometimes, and I was also acting like Summer sometimes, so as the result, we started to take sides, us vs. them.  And we escalated the battle to the 5th graders who came down to our class as part of their Buddies program.  Well the 5th graders really got into trouble when my teacher found out about our petty cat fights.  I remember her yelling at them, “You guys are older, you guys are supposed to know better!”  My parents heard plenty from my teacher that year….. 

Ultimately i ended up sitting all by myself, away from the rest of the class, because I was just too damn disruptive.  But I was doing well in school, like you.  I would always give the right answer when the teacher calls on me. I was that reliable kid who would make her look good when inspectors came.  So you and I, we have our strengths and weaknesses.  

Second grade was also when I lost my 2 front teeth, just like you. I pulled your front tooth out with thread, but one of mine fell off one morning when I was getting water to brush my teeth. I accidentally knocked the water cup on my tooth, not hard at all, and it fell into the cup. I barely bled. My sister pulled a lot of my wiggly teeth out with the thread, that’s how I’ve learned to use it on you guys. After they did it a couple of times, I just did it on my own, but that came later, in third grade.

My baby molars also got infected and hurted me for nearly a month, I used to cry and beat my jaw to make the pains go away. In the end, my mom told Châu, who was 13 at that time, to take me to the dentist. Except it wasn’t really the dentist, it was the neighborhood’s nurse station. That’s where you can get the cheapest medical care, if you are ok with the fact that people there may or may not have the right credentials. The dental assistant who took care of my teeth, i doubt him to this day. Because he said he was going to pull my teeth, and then offered my sister 2 types of local anesthesia — generic brand, or imported brand. Generic was the cheapest, so my sister said, generic. He injected something into my gums. He said, it will numb soon. Nothing went numb. And in spite of my protests, telling him that i have not felt it yet, he proceeded to pull my baby molar out. I felt that pain, I screamed, and Châu was scowling the whole time, telling me to quit being so dramatic. After the guy finished with one side, he moved to the other side. He did the same thing again. And I screamed again. Then Châu took me home and complained to my mom that I was too noisy.

Every night before I fell asleep, I would design a dress in my mind. For some reason, in 2nd grade I dreamed about a white multi layer dress with roses attached to them. And before I fell asleep, I held that dress in my mind’s eyes, entered my own world where only things that bring me joy existed.

Here’s a very memorable event that happened when I was 7, not yet in 2nd grade, but still around your age. In 1985, mount Nevado del Ruiz erupted in Colombia, South America. Some days that event, my dad’s copy of paris March got to our house, and then the adults started to talk about some pictures. Typically my dad would just read his foreign language magazines to himself, us kids could browse through the pictures, but seldom understood the contents. That time, because a lot of other adults were interested in the subject, my dad started to summarize the main story for us. It was about the agony of Omayra Sanchez, a 13 year old girl who got trapped in volcanic mudflow, and then died. Nearly 25,000 people died from that natural disaster. I became haunted by Omayra, and all the sufferings that I saw that day. I could not brush stuffs off my mind until 2 days later. And I had a once in a life time nightmare that night. I can’t think or recall any other nightmares I have had. I don’t think I have nightmares. Even the nightmare about volcanic eruption I had, it was fragmented and meaningless, just lots of images of people suffering, and Omayra sinking deeper and deeper into the mud, until she died in front of her photographer. Everyone around her tried their best to save her, but they simply couldn’t. That sense of helplessness still suffocates me when I think about it to this day….

Outside of school, my life in 2nd grade was sort of like your life right now during the pandemic.  My parents rarely took me anywhere, i spent a lot of time indoor, no TV to watch, no games to play.  Books were my joy and escape.  Books, and my older sibling, sort of like May to you, and my younger sibling, sort of like Summer to you.  My older sister, bác An, was 3.5 years older than me, just like May to you.  She was always cool, fun, and independent.  She liked to do her own thing, and didn’t need company, while I was desperate for playmates.  I used to beg her all day, please play with me, please please please.  One way to beg in Vietnamese was phrased in  away that at the end of the sentence, the verb “to go” would hang.  So it looks something like this “ blah blah blah blah ….go.”  And then bác An would tease me, “Go where?”  and then I would patiently restate my plead, ending with “………..go.” And then she would say, “Go where?” 

When she was done teasing me, she would say things like, ok we’ll play a game of Chinese chess, if you can beat me, then i’ll play with you. That’s how i learned to play chinese chess.  My sister was a very good chess player, and she enjoyed it.  I hated chess, still hate it to this day, find no joy in strategizing.  So in Chinese chess, you can give your opponent handicap advantage, which mean, ok, I will start out the game with 2 castles already out, or I will give you my 2 knights, I will play against you without 2 knights…. things like that.  And yet I would still lose.  No matter how many chess pieces my sister gave me at the beginning of the game, I just blindly moved with no strategy, and quickly lost.  I think you are not like me, in that respect.  I think you like to play chess with Ba, and you do have some strategies.  

Other times my sister would say, I’m shooting some marbles, if you want you can play with me. So I shot marbles, half heartedly.  I just really wanted to play with bác An, because she was very creative, just like May.  She could think up all kinds of interesting games, we used to pretend that we were going out on an adventure, for example, and so we packed up things in a bag, and took our “guns,’ and then we went into “the forest” to shoot some deer for food, built a fire to cook, looked for a cave to sleep in at night….  Or we used to be on a hammock, looking at the moon, and pretending that we were on the boat, rowing down the river……

But by the time I was 8, my youngest brother, who was 5.5 years younger than me, finally reached 3.5-4 years old, he could respond, he could somewhat interact, and I was relieved that I now had the option to play with the younger sib.  Doesn’t that sound like you and Summer?  Except we didn’t fight like you and Summer.  My brother was much much more quiet and peaceful. Summer is fiesty, I love it, but my little brother was just willing to play along with anything, so I didn’t have to waste my time arguing over stuffs. 

My brother was also the favorite child in the family, because my dad considered boys to be much better than having girls.  So my brother got the best of everything, he could do no wrong in my parents’ eyes, and plus he was a really really good kid, so he was much more loved than me.  I love all of you equally, but I do know that the way i interact with each of you is different.  Different kids bring out different reactions from me, but I will always try my best to remind myself that I need to be fair.  If I ever make you feel less of my child, that’s not true.  I was just an annoying kid to adults, and I’m sorry I passed that quality to you, but didn’t turn into the adult I used to love having when I was your age….

Posted on: October 26, 2020

Had a dream about my mom 2 nights ago.  She was still old and with dementia, but when I visited her in a nursing home, she was healthy, happy, and completely lucid.  It wasn’t a long and detailed dream, but I didn’t realize that I miss her being herself until I had the dream.

I think this dream was brought on by me remembering how a few years back, she asked me, “Do you want my St. John clothes?”  I was about to freak out, like omg you are asking me to wear middle age fashion now :(((  I said just hold on to them, I might ask them later on, but I didn’t have any need to dress up at the moment.  Now we don’t have spontaneous conversations like that anymore, or at least for the time being, because I’m far away.

I have the tendency to completely throw things that are unfortunate out of my consciousness, just because I feel it’s futile and unproductive to dwell on them, but I know they are somewhere in the back of my mind, probably brewing.  If i ask myself, am I sad about it?  Yes, I am, but more sad for her than for myself, i guess?  We are so far away, whether we see her once or twice a year in person, it wouldn’t make too much difference to our lives whether she remembers us or not. That’s what I think.  But knowing that far away, she is losing herself fast is a sad story no matter how one looks at it.

If anyone tells me, i’m sorry to hear, or i want to give you hugs etc., I don’t need it.  It’s useless for me. truly.  I have people who love me and hug me everyday, it’s her that this post is about.

my heart hurts today because we as a nation have lost someone who has tireless fought for women’s rights and minorities and equality. She has fought all the way until the end, and now I feel a bit lost because she’s no longer with us, but I will try my best to fight my little battles as well. I hope my children will continue to fight, however things might look down the road for them.

happenings right now

Later!

April 2021
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