Mom, younger brother, and grand parents

Taken in 2010. The year before my mom died. I didn’t see this picture until 2013. It’s strange to see pictures of my mom smiling when I don’t have many memories of her being happy that year. I found it while visiting my maternal grandmother’s sister in Hải Phòng.

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Trusting a Stranger in Cambodia

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Riding with a kind stranger around Angkor Wat in Cambodia

I found myself uninterested in exploring the temple inside Angkor Wat so I looked for someone to answer a question I’ve had on my mind since I learned about the Khmer Rouge’s genocide after visiting the Killing Fields. They wanted to eliminate the upper class by murdering the educated people. They smashed babies heads against a tree and pushed people into mass grave pits and pour DDT on them. I sat and spoke to tour guides as they were waiting to find clients outside of Angkor Wat. I asked them, “Why did the Khmer Rouge kill so many people?” but all of them said that there is no simple answer. They said that even the Cambodian people wonder and are not sure why so many people were killed by their own kind. After that, they were joking around and curious about my background.

While we were laughing about marriage and talking about earning a living, I met someone who liked how I didn’t want a husband or a family (at least not a conventional one). He invited to take me around Angkor Wat. I found myself very scared and nervous as I trusted this fellow, Om. Before I left for Vietnam, I was told not to travel alone, not to trust men, and especially not to go anywhere with a man by myself. He told me that we never know when we will die so why waste our time pursuing money, sex, and material objects. We cannot take any of these things after we die. I found myself trusting him after our talk about rejecting a materialistic life. It was a pleasant ride around the moat. He didn’t just show me the landscape, he showed me that the truth does not lie in people’s fears. I know that people are concerned about my safety and I am too but I wish not to sacrifice my own desire to experience the world for fear. Now, I am planning to go to a temple with him to visit his sister who is a nun and learn about the Buddha. I am still unsure of how safe it is, but I hope I end up wiser by the end of today.

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Banyan Tree, Om, me, a man who was schooled under the Khmer rouge

Trusting a stranger in Cambodia continued

I met up with Om the next day. He and his brother-in-law took me to a monastery that was about a 30 minute drive away from Angkor Wat. There, I saw monks in orange robes studying in the forest, a bridge over a pond of lotus flowers, and nuns who grow food and cook for the monks so they can study teachings of the Buddha. Om told me they only dream of the Buddha, not money, not a nice car, not riches. He took me to one monk who gave me a book of Buddhist terms in Thai and English. A new practice I learned of was withholding from eating until you have given something to another person. The monks eat once or twice a day so they can spend more time learning about the Buddha. They invited me to stay at the monastery to study for as long as I want and I said no, thinking about the many things I still have to do in California and Vietnam.

Standing with my new friend and a monk who lives in the forest

Standing with my new friend and a monk who lives in the forest

I still held some hesitation about my own safety when I rode with 2 men I barely knew to go to a place I didn’t know. I must have seen enough evidence pf his kind heart. As I searched for him, I found he had quite a few friends in the community. I got smiles and helpful favors from the motorbike drivers and street food sellers. I didn’t sense greed, desire, or ill will. Perhaps this trusting nature of mine will lead me into danger in the future. For now, it feels like freedom to be able to let go of the fear.

I learned a bit of history about Om. He bought me a coconut to drink and as we sat at table next to food vendors. There were children in dirty clothes selling nuts and live turtles they found in the water. After people left their meal, they were eating the leftovers then Om decided to buy them friend rice and egg. I gave them coconut flesh. He told me he used to be just like those kids, eating people’s leftovers and trying to make money.  To play, he used to swim in the moat of Angkor Wat. He used to hang around the temple and learn English by listening to tour guides and tourists. He was raised by his aunt after his father left his mother then his mother found a new husband. Now he works as a tour guide, making enough to buy clothes, a motorbike and phone. He tells me that he won’t own these things after he dies, only his karma and connection to the Buddha. Later that night, I saw Beatocello play at the Children’s Hospital in Siem Reap. He met me after the show and gave me dark wood so it could be carved into the shape of the Buddha and cloth from a nun. I cannot help but feel so humbled and somewhat guilty by his kindness and generosity. Guilty because I want to be able to give without feeling held back. He told me to never forget the Buddha, I told him that even if I wanted to the Buddha could never leave me.

Sidenote: What some Cambodians told me: They work really hard, arriving before the sunrise and leaving after sunset in order to make a living. The tuk tuk drivers get commission when they convince their client to purchase food or hospitality. There are fields and fields of land where trees once stood because the rich get richer from selling the timber while it is illegal for citizens to cut down a tree. The tour guides can earn about $100 a day. Cambodians view Vietnamese people living in their country as job takers. Hotels like to hire women because they are less likely to dissent or protest than men. Monks don’t necessarily know or practice the teachings of the Buddha well. The ants, birds, and snakes are also people but were reborn as animals because of their karma. Humans are very lucky to be born as humans. They can speak and eat animals.

Lessons from staying in rural Vietnam

I am astounded that there are so many things that I can live without and still feel complete. Audio recording equipment, mp3 player, sneakers, refrigerator, microwave a western toilet…

Bến Tre

People in the Vietnamese countryside are said to be more generous, kind, and humble. I don’t know if this is true from my limited experience of spending a night in Tây Ninh and Bến Tre but I do see that people who have simple needs live and act differently than people who try to feel satisfied with life through appearance, money, or power. I think I could find this to be true all around the world.

Host mother for 1 night in Tây Ninh

Host mother for 1 night in Tây Ninh

Being in the farmland, there’s less dynamic input from the surroundings. Your body’s senses are not triggered or aroused as often. Less advertisement, less noise, less products, less global diversity. Time is stretched, less rushed. If the pace of my mind didn’t adjust, I would find myself impatient. If I were more consumed by the desire of finding an activity to occupy my attention, I would find myself bored. If I were fearful of bacteria, bugs, and dirt, I would have a very hard time eating or showering. If I was more attached to an idea that the lifestyle in California is better, I’d find myself more judgmental.

Finding some fruit to harvest along farmland in Tây Ninh

Finding fruit to harvest on farmland in Tây Ninh

The parents of my host friends are quick to offer food and hospitality. They buy fruits for me to munch and at meal time, we sit on the floor and eat together. I was given a beautiful craft that took 2 months to make with no expectation of repayment. This benevolence doesn’t come from the wealth of material goods.

In California, I have some self pity when there isn’t warm water. Hunger is not signaled by the body’s need for food but by my mind’s desire to get the pleasurable feeling from eating. I believe I am poor when I compare how much I have with others. I can become saturated with my own beliefs creating a reality limited to relative experience.

A man who lives alone in the countryside. Bến Tre.

A man in his 70s who lives alone in the countryside. Bến Tre.

It’s weird. I feel like many strangers here are more inviting than people I’ve known for much longer in California. Perhaps, it’s because they know I’m from the USA and want to impress. Perhaps, they genuinely treat each other with the kindness and consciousness that we are part of the same community. Either way, I’ve learned how important it is to care and show that you care about the people in your life.

Vietnam Day 9: Changed Family Relationships – Grandma

Bà ngoại (2nd maternal grandmother) cutting sugarcane.

Bà ngoại (2nd maternal grandmother) cutting sugarcane.

Seeing Vietnam has helped me understand my relatives. Why they say what they say, do what they do, feel what they feel.
To understand them, I had to put aside my programming. For the first few days I was a blank slate and mostly did whatever they told me to do (except eat beef, chicken, or pork) and simply observed the culture. It’s not just the language that’s different, there’s a certain way to treat each other based on age and ancestry, a different way you hang out, a different way you prepare meals, a different way to eat, a different way to walk on the street, different way to raise kids, a different way to say hello and goodbye, a different way to communicate outside of words.

Things I gained:
• Gratitude for what my family has done
• Tolerance for what my family does
• Forgiveness for myself and for others

I learned about my family history. How my grandfather was the single income earner for a house with 12 children. How they used to be so poor that they ate flour with sugar. How my cousin was named after my mom and my uncle in case they didn’t survive prison after being caught crossing the Pacific Ocean. How parents and elders are respected and cared for because when you were little and had no worries about life, they were caring for you. How family bonds are strong enough that relatives may live together, share houses, share resources, and eat together.

Grandmother
Growing up I disliked living with my grandmother (bà nội, dad’s mom). I didn’t like how she was commanding me to act proper, how she told me that I needed to learn how to cook and clean or man would take me as a wife. I hated how her method of teaching me how to cook was to show me, watch me do it wrong, scold me, call me stupid, then do it for me. I hated how she would tell me that I shouldn’t stay out late. I hated how she would always check up on me. She would order us to wash the dishes and talk so much, so much about how the house was dirty. I hated it. I would make mean faces at her, cover my ears, lock my door so she wouldn’t come in, ignore what she said. I feel remorseful and guilty now admitting that many times I had thoughts wishing that she would die early. After she lost the ability cook, walk, or remember our names, I would push my dad to put her into a senior home so we wouldn’t have to take care of her. I would hate how my dad didn’t want to put her into a home.

Now I understand that my grandmother’s intention was to do what she thought was best knowing as much as she did at the time. In Vietnam, there is a strong pressure to get married and have children. Traditional gender roles are for the wife to cook and clean the house and for the man to work. Adults, especially mothers order kids around and tell their kids straight up what they think (usually the way their parents raised them). Parents don’t compliment you about your grades, talents, or skills but they will tell other adults. I have been helping out at a kitchen and doing housework at my uncle’s house and see my grandmother’s behavior: So much commanding, so much calling each other names, and so much slapping (hehe). I stayed at my mom’s half sister’s house and my aunt checked up on me just like how my grandmother did when I was addicted to computer games. Mothers, grandmothers, and aunts interact by small talking or play talking smack. Here, great grandmothers live with their great grandchildren. Several generations in a house and they take care of each other. I watch my grandmother on my mom’s side. Age 84 and still washing dishes and behaving in life long patterns, washing dishes, preparing food, and such a dear. Seeing her reminds me so much of my dad’s mom. Seeing her makes me want to go home and hug grandma at home.

I’m grateful that my grandmother helped me so much. After my mom died, she stayed with us to help us. She cooked, cleaned, massaged lotion onto my hands, get worried sick when we stayed out late, boiled yams, and peeled fruit for me to eat. Simple things that meant a lot but I didn’t know it.

Now I understand. In 2009, my house caught on fire. At this time, I didn’t like living with my grandmother and had constant thoughts wishing she was gone. Yet I pulled her out of the house as it was smoking. If she was left in there, she would have died. I always wondered why I pulled her out when I had thoughts wishing she was dead. There’s an unconscious part of me, beyond thought that has infinite wisdom. I believe this wisdom took over at that moment.

Right now, my dad’s mom no longer speaks in sentences, no longer stands on her own, no longer feeds herself. There’s a part of me that really wants to give back to her what she did for me for so many years.

Looking to the sky from the road

Looking to the sky from the road

Day 5 in Vietnam: Adjusting to a different culture

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The view from the window of the house where I’m staying

I haven’t stepped outside California or been in an airport until this trip, so there have been many new experiences! I’m staying with relatives who live near Saigon. They say I am người mỹ, gốc Việt which translates to an American with roots in Vietnam. They acknowledge that my mom died when I was young,  that I don’t speak Vietnamese fluently, and that I’m not from around here. People are pretty patient and understanding. I don’t take offense when others laugh. I know they don’t laugh at me, they laugh at my behavior, speech, and actions.

Culture Change: From U.S.A to Vietnam. Specifically, middle class suburban 2nd generation Californian to middle class suburban South Vietnam.

One key thing I have done to be able to feel at home is to leave behind attachments to the culture I was normalized in. We create constructs of what is “good”, “bad”, “rude”, or “polite”

I rarely hear “hello”, “see you later”, “goodbye” or “good night”. When somebody says “chao *title*”, its pretty formal and seems to be reserved for the elders. Saying “goodbye” is also pretty formal rather than casual unless its on the phone. I think this is because it is perceived that at some point, you’ll see them again. I now find myself walking away from small talk without saying good bye.

People eat and talk about food pretty often. O_o. While we’re eating lunch, we’ll talk about dinner. While we’re eating dinner, we’ll talk about what smoothie, milk tea, or dessert to get. While we’re eating dessert, we’ll compare the dessert we’re eating to some other dessert or fruit. When you visit a home, they offer food. While you’re eating, they offer food. When you’re full, food is offered. While you’re eating food, you’ll talk about how the food tastes and compare to other times you have had the same kind of food. Hahahaha!

Dinner at aunt's house right after I arrive

Dinner at aunt’s house after pick up from the airport

Families eat together. I have experienced a sit down meal with my family only a handful of times in my life and those times were memorable. Preparing a meal, eating together, and cleaning together feels makes you feel “at home”, “welcome”, and that people care about you. It’s quite hard to describe in words. =)

People slap or nudge each other when they play. For example, when friends talk smack to each other’s faces. Good instances would be, “Pshhh, the hell you talking bout?!”, “get oouta here!”, “Oh shiiiit!”, “Oh no you di’nt!”.

Elders show their love by telling their kids what to do. They will make food without your permission, give it to you then say “Eat this!”, they will stuff your face, hehe. They will tell you what clothes to wear and how to wear it. They will do things they think is good for you.

Family = friends. There isn’t a strong divide between relatives close to your age and friends. You may hang out with your cousins like you would your friends. Also, your friends may call your mom, mom.

There is less awkwardness regarding the “payback” of money. If a friend or relative buys you something, it is not expected that you return it. When friends go out together, one person will pay and the next time another person pays.

Nap time does not mean laziness. In fact, relatives tell me to rest, sleep, or lay down. The offer is almost as often as food. “Come! Lay down and rest a bit!”

It's nap time after lunch in Vietnam! Even the dogs know what to do

It’s nap time after lunch in Vietnam! Even for dogs

Individual privacy is not as strong. People want to know what you’re doing and will come in and check up on you. Bedroom doors are not locked for the most part.

Family sleepovers. It isn’t awkward to use your relative’s shower, bed, food, or clothes.

Word spreads fast. What you say to someone, they will be telling to someone else. Whether you have a job, what kind of food you like to eat, how you look. My aunt told me that the more you talk with others and share, the smarter you are because you don’t just have your own perspective. You have the wisdom of a lot of people when you listen to them.

Signs of globalization is everywhere and is spreading. From language, to clothes, to music, to little cultural practices. Kids know about Gangnam Style and Lady Gaga and you can find images of them on shirts or websites.

People will say crap about you, if not in front of your face, then in the next room where you can hear it, if its some serious crap, its reserved to more private setting. It ain’t too big a deal if you don’t take it personally. Kids talk crap to each other, adults talk crap to each other, kids sometimes talk crap to parents if they’re brave or foolish.

Know your family. Family is a big deal. It is expected that you marry and have children. It’s also important to know your maternal and paternal grandparents and even great grandparents.

Alter to offer fruit to deceased relatives

Alter to offer fruit to deceased relatives

I have so much more to say but there’s so many things to do, I must write more later. Other topics I hope to cover include: How coming here has changed my relationship with my dad and relatives in the USA, tips to understanding a different culture, how traveling is a journey of the mind more than the body, gender norms and expectations, simple versus complicated lifestyles, consumerism and the middle class, and more comparing and contrasting. Toodles!

Packing and nervous

I’m leaving tomorrow morning and I’m nervous about not speaking Vietnamese fluently, meeting relatives for the first time, my first time in an airport. No idea where this feeling is coming from, blahaargh, hahaha! It’s similar to my first guitar performance on stage, or a speech in front of a large audience. So new and unfamiliar, but hey, I’m very lucky just having the opportunity to do this. =)

Preparing to leave: Made copies of passport, and other important documents. Got contact info of important contacts. Some goodbyes. I returned stuff I borrowed, lent out stuff.

Below is what I packed. I’m gonna carry or wear this stuff on the plane. I also have a luggage case of gifts from my relatives. Since this is my first time, I don’t know how I will fare but we’ll see.

packingforvietnam

Listed in order of picture above: Backpack (Dakine), belt, 5 pairs of underpants, 1 long sleeve shirt, 3 short sleeve shirts, 2 pairs socks, capri-pants thing, ear plugs in plastic bag, gray travel belt (for theft safety), netbook charger, digital camera (+charger+usb cable) sunglasses, pantyhose, blue pajama pants thing, artist business cards (swag), black reusable grocery bag, red medication container filled with baking soda (soap, shampoo, toothpaste all in one!), floss, first aid kit, blue book Vietnam Lonely Planet (recommended by a friend, postcards, passport, netbook inside case, gladiator sandals, 2 oz insect repellent, pads, Thich Nhat Hanh book, pencil, pen, black marker, flash drive, paper planner, paper notepad, jar of organic coconut oil (sun protection), zip lock bags, menstrual cup (not bloody at the moment).

packingforvietnam02

packingforvietnam03

Listing all this makes me feel like I have so much, and I do. I have access to so much wealth, monetary and material. The kind that many people in this world will never hold.

Why I am Going To Vietnam

I’ve got a one-way ticket to Vietnam. I will stay with family the first few weeks then volunteer with an NGO possibly. This will be my first plane ride and first time outside of California. I speak some Vietnamese but not fluently so I’ll be disorientated in many aspects.

People say that this will be quite the adventure. I expect that some things will go wrong. I’ll lose something, get lost or confused, feel sick, misunderstand directions, get hurt or worse. I chose a one-way ticket to give me space of an open ended return. I’d call myself naive if I assumed that things will go smooth and I’d call myself reckless if I made no considerations for safety or organization.

I am very privileged to have this opportunity to go on such a trip. I don’t have to work to feed or raise kids (although I should come back to help my grandmother with dementia), I have resources that allow me to afford this trip, I am a documented USA citizen and able to get a passport to travel, I have support from friends and family (although my dad has tried to get me not to go, not working hehe).

I’m not in this for the sake of adventure or fun although I did think about it at moments. I would like to feel closer to my relatives and to know my roots, especially my mom’s side. I’ve always felt a and anxiety with them since my mom died when I was 12 (11 years ago). There’s something in me that wishes to belong and be accepted by my relatives. I hope to do this by letting them see my character, getting to know them, and learning how to speak Vietnamese. I want them to see me for who I am, not by my appearance, not by my family drama, not by how much money I make, not by how good a wife I would be for a husband. I want to understand them, their identity, and accept them as they are.

Another very important objective is to free myself of the limits created by fear. Some of the fear indoctrinated by American society and some ingrained in me by my upbringing. Fear of murderers, rapists, thieves, embarrassment, losing money, losing career opportunities, losing face (reputation), losing favor of other people’s opinions. If I want to make a difference in the world to the best of my ability, I must shed that which holds me back: fear, greed, anger, shame, guilt, pain, death. This way, I’ll have more space to concentrate on the things that really matter in life.

I also want to understand what it is like to live life and work on issues from a different perspective, a more global perspective. I hope to make many new friends and see how other people around the world work to cultivate peace.