Monday, February 24, 2014

Breaking Dishes

My dad left home and dropped out of school when he was 15 years old. He lived with his vegetarian Buddhist grandmother who doted on and enabled him to do and go where he pleased. Pops led a kind of thug life under a strict personal code of ethics. Physical labor and hard work was what made a man, not academics. On the one hand he believed that intellect and athletic faculty were god-given, on the other that one could achieve anything through perseverance. He didn't need a formal education. He could teach and train himself to do anything. Or so he claims.

I am unconvinced. One night I heard my mother screaming and crying. I don't remember where I was in the house or what I was doing, but I remember being terrified, profusely sweaty and quiet as as a mouse. I wasn't in school yet, so I must have been four years old or younger. I heard the sound of dishes braking, and things being shoved around or turned over. She said she wanted to go to school. She told him he had no long term goals. She called him a coward, an idiot, something to that effect. I was terrified he would hit her. In the early years, my mother hounded him for refusing to set long term goals. If there's anything I've learned about myself it's that I've inherited just about all of my father's quirks, from his freckles and high cheek bones to his personal demons. He's impatient, a terrible listener and has to be the best at everything he does, even if it is delusional.


We had planned to meet at 11 am at one of our two spots, Pho Bolsa in Westminster. It is a good midway point between the City of Orange and Long Beach, and the food is cheap. It's a 20 minute drive to Westminster from both cities.
My cellphone clock read 10:45. I checked myself in the bathroom mirror one last time. I hadn't noticed earlier the little stubs of hair sprouting up around my eyebrows. Hastily I began plucking away the tiny stubs, growing impatient as the blunt tweezers broke a few follicles, leaving little black dots under my brow and making it almost impossible grab hold of the tiny things.
I'm a few minutes late to events all the time. Even to work. I can't find the right shoes to go with my pants, my lip color is too cool against the warmer tones of my blush, or I stay in bed a few minutes too long after dismissing the snooze alarm. This time I couldn't leave without perfectly groomed brows.
10:55 and I decided to transfer everything from my purse to a messenger bag, in case I needed my laptop. On my way out the door at 11:02 I called to let my father know I'd be late to our interview. "I'm on the freeway, there's some traffic. I'll be there in a few minutes ok?"
"Eh," my father said patiently. "Okay. No problem, I'll wait."
I knew he wouldn't be angry with me if I told the truth, but for whatever reason, it didn't seem appropriate. It wasn't a good enough explanation for disappointing him.

Five years ago I believed my father could never feel love without bitterness and disappointment toward his three children. But the Spring of 2005 seemed to lift away a layer of skin so hard and callused that his beaming face when I delivered my commencement speech seemed to belong to another man. A wide smile and sparkling eyes betrayed a child-like sweetness I thought had faded with the old photos.

Can't Sleep: Harry Potter, Lunchboxes & other Rants

Jesus I can’t sleep.

I think about keeping a journal everyday.
Mostly to document my dreams.
They’re like long epic movies. 
Very intense, and extraordinarily vivid.
I wake up drenched. like i wet the bed or something.

Those damn dreams would make a good book some day.

Drank too much tea earlier.

Thinking and making lists in my mind.

Lists and lists and lists of things

What I could be doing
What I should be doing
What i should have done
Where I thought I would be by now
I thought I would be someone important
My life feels insignificant.
I want to do something that matters

We all want to matter somehow.

I know it's not great writing, but

I’ve listened to the Harry Potter books five times now.

In a row.

I can’t stop wanting to. Every time, I think there’s a way Dobby will survive.

It’s something to keep my mind busy so I don’t spiral into my own “downer” thoughts. Many times I feel I understand the autistic need to repeat things, as a way of focusing, because it's hard for me to focus I get so lost in my own negative thoughts or trying to jump ahead and it's hard to see things there's so much information. I need a better filter. and a faster processor.

I need to stop being a downer. Being a downer makes me feel hopeless, and unmotivated.

I always need others to motivate me. I can’t motivate myself.

Why can’t I motivate myself?
Therapy helped lead me to the conclusion that I don’t think I’m worth the trouble.
But to do something for someone else is rewarding.

Plus it's the old “I need someone to blame” complex. I'm not religious so I need something to project responsibility onto, like: I’m doing this because so-and-so said to, or, I’m doing this because if I don’t so-and-so will be disappointed, 

or, I won't do it because people I care about will be sad.

But I feel so tired and I don't want to play anymore.

Ok, I know. Where's the violin, right?

Let’s get it all out now. Let’s take that time, just this once, to be honest.

In writing.

Let’s make this official.

I blame capitalism. and money. 
People think they need shit they don't. Ever desiring, never fulfilled. Trading labor for something that isn't even fucking real. People starving over something that literally doesn't even exist. Fuck it. Don't get me started.

I blame those white people who colonized the world. 

Yup, I said it. 

You’re either in the club, or you’re not.

You either play the game, or you don’t.

Trouble is, there really is no option beyond the game.

Enough of that. 

How about I tell you about myself.

I was born in viet nam. My parents took me (then 3 months old) and my brother (about 1) onto a boat in the early morning, after months of planning, to reach international waters, where, hopefully, we would avoid being robbed murdered or raped by pirates and instead be picked up by some friendly ship that would carry us to another country where we could have a happier ending. We were bona fide boat people.

Imagine a Hollywood film where there is much suffering and crying and desperation. Throw in some unlikely heroics; the moment where the fugitives almost get caught, but through sheer nerve and luck, get away. That’s our story. In a nutshell.

Anyway, fast forward. I started kindergarten at age 5. Jealous of the kids who got to go to pre-school.

Felt very alone. Worst feeling in the world for a little kid. You feel so unsafe, and you feel abandoned like no one gives a shit about you.

All the kids stared but none would talk to me. No one could or would pronounce my name.

I hardly spoke any English. Or Spanish.

The mexican girls were the meanest. They told me i was ugly, and I should go back to china.

The white boys in the class told me to go back to china. 
It didn't matter to me as much because I thought white people were better than me. 

The white girls in the class complained when the teacher made them play with me.

The one chinese boy everyone left alone because he was a genius and his mom spoke english.

One day I heard the word “amiga,”
So I repeated it.

That day the Mexican girls were nice to me.

My teacher loved me.

I stole things from my teacher: Flash cards. Pens. Erasers. Construction paper. Manila folders.

These things were talismans of organization, authority and officialness.

Stability. that’s what these things were. things white people had.

I longed for the kind of organization and 1950s-style family shit white people did:

Things like having snack packs everyday for recess.

Making your bed, and
actually using the flat sheet.

Changing towels regularly.

Eating dinner together at the same time every day.

Having mom braid your hair.

Having mom read to you.
Having mom help you with your homework.
Having mom talk to other moms.

Being made to clean your room
Being made to brush your teeth

Flossing properly
Being taught to floss
Being taught to cook
Being taught to clean
Being taught by your mom to do anything

Boo hoo. Poor me, etc.

So that was kindergarten.

First grade Mrs. Hart started spelling my name out phonetically.


It was still weird. Still so ethnic.

I hated it, and wished my name could be “Tiffany,” or “Jennifer,” or “Melissa.”

I’m thinking about Khang again. I get sad when I think about Khang.

In therapy I have learned to try to let go of the guilt.

But over and over I replay little vignettes in my mind. There are three. Here's one:

Mom took us to Pic n’ Save
Other kids had lunch boxes
We wanted lunch boxes like the other kids

Mom picked out a red plastic one with a cartoon turtle. It wore a back pack. The box had simple cartoon flowers and trees.
It wasn’t “cool.”
I told mom I hated it, and told her I didn't want it.
Khang said no too. He wanted a superhero one from Target.

So mom got him a superhero lunchbox from Target.

Khang got made fun of by other kids for his lunch box.
He was in the 5th grade, and kids were saying lunch boxes were for little kids.
I made fun of him too, to my friends. 

I thought I was being tough and cool by potentially hurting him.

Then later that night, as with many nights, I laid in bed,  and let my guilt eat at me.

Replaying the film over and over in my mind. Wishing and hoping it would change every time, like Dobby would get rescued this time or something.

He was standing in line in front of the classroom, holding the lunch box awkwardly. It dangled from just one of his fingers, as if by touching it as little as possible he could minimize his association with it.

I can’t get that scene out of my head.

Over the years I’ve wished that I could go back to that moment at Pic’ n’ Save where my mom picked out that lunch box for me.

I would take it, and tell her I really wanted it.
I would use it everyday, and tell everyone my mom picked it out and wasn't it so cute.

I see this episode in my mind at least once a week.

It makes it hard for me to sleep.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Half Bitter Jokes

As a young and brash teenager, my father allowed his equally insolent friends to shame him from taking his placement exams for university. It was only a half bitter joke within his circle that his father's prestigious position, as a locally reputed and high ranking police officer, had handed him life on a gold platter – a network of doting girlfriends and teachers, the freedom to come and go and to do as he pleased throughout his childhood; he could talk his way into and out of just about anything. In those days, young men in Viet Nam had but two acceptable paths to travel: pass your exams and lead a comfortable bourgeois life, or join the military.

My father has always been one with an ego and a loose enough tongue to dish out insult and ridicule. But when the butt of a joke involved him in any way–especially if it threatened his alpha male status–he would show the world what he was made of. My father balked at taking his exams and joined the military. He'd always had itchy feet.

The first time he left home was 1952. My father was eight years old. Earning a living through menial work, he sold newspapers and delivered bread for a baker. He crashed at friends' houses, and sometimes his grandmother's. Wandering about the city, he learned to play cards and hang out at hip cafes where locals often jammed together with acoustic instruments. After a couple of years he would run out of money and come home. The cycle repeated three times before he joined the military at 18.

My father's only constant during his traveling years was his grandmother. He names her as the most influential, and single parental figure in his youth. A vegetarian Buddhist, she ran a small local temple and lived charitably. She was a local household name; the saintly woman who cooked and fed meals daily to those in need. For years I struggled to understand my father's vehement contempt and almost violent disapproval for animal sympathists; He was more or less raised on a vegetarian diet most of his childhood when he lived with her. One day, he off-handedly mentioned, very matter-of-factly, that her diet was responsible for her chronic illness and eventual death.

At 17 he came home, (it was hoped permanently, this time) to fulfill an obligation. He had been betrothed to a girl from a well to do family in the city. His mother commissioned a custom tailored suit from the finest tailor in Saigon for the traditional ceremony a day before the wedding, in which he would ask permission to "take" the bride. His father and grandparents boasted to their friends about the bright prospects of their eldest son. He had demonstrated a special aptitude for engineering at a national level, and going to university would remove him from the trauma and atrocities of the ongoing war . There was even a warrant out for my father's arrest if he was caught attempting to skip town.

Just hours before the confirmation ceremony, he was no where to be found.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Lost Ship at Sea

The name I was given at birth was Bích Ty.

My mother was a demure and dreamy eyed bookworm as a girl–the kind that took to reading fantasy or fairy tale stories alone in her bedroom all day while her sister and brother were outside raising hell with other kids. There was an old romantic and nationalist Chinese poem she was particularly fond of, about a fair maiden who'd for years faithfully awaited her husband's return from battle. Each day, this woman sat by her window and gazed anxiously over a rich billowing sea of emerald-like grass that stretched beyond her vision into the horizon. When he finally appeared on the horizon, it was like a long lost ship at sea had found its way home. That oceanic field of grass is what I am named after; a body through which one finds her way home.

In the 1980s, political correctness and postcolonial theory were not as deeply embedded in mainstream culture as they might be in 2010. In kindergarten, flustered teachers and administrators who frequently mispronounced my name decided to call me Biddy; the two names are somewhat phonetically similar. In first grade, Mrs. Hart contacted my mother about kids purposely mispronouncing my name. I was called "Bitchy," she said. She urged my mother to respell and anglicize my name so as to avoid confusion and, more significantly, "help me assimilate into the American culture." It had to be explained that "in America," my name "sounds like a bad word."

So I am called Biddy. It is a common Irish name, short for Bridget, meaning "exalted one" in gaelic. The name is incidentally fitting, for the most part. But as in my case, poetry is so often lost in translation.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

A Bona Fide Boat Person

In the dead of a Spring night, 1981, I left the country at 3 months old. My mother nearly killed me and the rest of our party. In the dark, while boarding the tiny boat, she slipped and smashed my head against the rim. My face was bright blue before an infantile shriek could awaken the jungle, and it's jingoistic patrollers. Mother's hand clamped my face shut. Drawing attention to ourselves would provoke consequences severe beyond a child suffocating. Fleeing the country is treasonous. The penalty for that would be at least imprisonment and torture. At worst and most likely, it would also mean death.

It's easy to forget that this road to Hell had been paved with good intentions. Revolutions so often merely hand injustice and power from one group to another.

My grandfather was in jail for 5 years after refusing to succumb to the whims of the new administration. After his release, prison guards who recognized him as a former detainee frequented his home, harassing him and his wife and raiding their pantry for food and liquor. Often he was expected to provide them with dinner, entertainment, and a place to crash. This was the corruption of the new administration.

The night of the rendezvous, these guards showed up at Grandfather's door. If they weren't gone by the time we were to leave, he'd have to kill them.