When you become the same age as your dead brother

I think I’ve had group birthday dinners or events for the last four years. But this year, I didn’t really feel up to it. Part of the lack of desire was due to friends who I’d normally invite and consider close who have moved away. But I think a bigger part of it is because the age of 33 is weird for me. It’s weird because that’s the last year that Ed got to see before he passed. He was about three weeks away from turning 34 when he ended his life. So to think that I was 27 at that time, and now, nearly 5.5 years have passed since then, and I am now at the age that he was is so jarring to me. It doesn’t feel right. How can you be the same age as your older brother? Your older brother… is supposed to be older, right? So this doesn’t make sense to me.

From a purely rational perspective, it does make sense because he effectively is either gone forever and no longer has an age (depending on your perspective), or, he stays 33 forever. Even though we celebrate his birthday every year, in my mind and heart, he will be 33 forever to me. He will barely know what it is like to experience real wrinkles beyond the tiny fine lines on his forehead. He won’t know what it’s like to go grey and even white. He won’t experience dental issues with age because he’s never going to age even a minute again.

That just makes me sad and feel hurt. I don’t want to be his age. I want him to be older the way he is supposed to be. What am I going to do with this year and the next and the year after that that will be worthy of him?

 

 

My Vietnamese identity

I grew up in San Francisco, a cosmopolitan city with a high proportion of minorities. But when we actually examine the Asian breakout of the minorities there, a quick conclusion you’d reach is that the city’s Asian population is primarily Chinese. What does that pretty much mean for someone like Ed or me, mixed ethnicity who identify as both Chinese and Vietnamese? It means for the most part, we’ll have friends and relatives who are Chinese and relate to us in that way, and who know and are exposed less to Vietnamese culture and people. It means that our Vietnamese side gets looked down upon or even ignored. It resulted in people making disparaging comments about Vietnamese language and culture. Because when you are a minority, it is supposedly only natural to have the “survival of the fittest” mentality, that when you are oppressed, you have to find others who are lesser in numbers than your group that you can oppress and look down on even more. Oftentimes people like to associate racism with white people looking down on every non-white person, that white people are the real oppressors, but in truth, and as I have experienced myself, a person of any background can be prejudiced towards anyone else. I had friends and even family say to me that Vietnamese sounds ugly (yes, because Mandarin, Cantonese, and Toisan are like music to the ear!), that Vietnamese women in San Jose were all slutty with their extremely tight-fitted clothing and platform heels that were too high, that Vietnamese men were all gross, gambling drunks. A Chinese ex-boyfriend once told me, “I favor your Chinese side.” What the fuck does that even mean? I asked him what he meant, and he merely responded, “It just means what I said.” I said nothing then, much to my regret now.

In my life, I’ve heard people say that Vietnamese people were the poorest Asian race in the U.S., that they leech off the government with their food stamps and welfare payments after having come over as refugees from the Vietnam War. Sometimes, when they were trying to excuse themselves or be “nice,” they’d end these insidious comments laced with racism with, “no offense.” I never knew how to respond to those comments, so generally, I shrugged them off and didn’t respond much. It also did not help that my dad’s mom was racist against anyone who was not Chinese and looked down on my mother simply because she was Vietnamese from Vietnam. She rejected my mother and didn’t respect her at all, treated her like garbage until she gave birth to my brother six years after coming to San Francisco from Vietnam. She used to scream at her and say she wanted to have her sent back to Vietnam.

The consequence of that racism within my own family resulted in my mother internalizing the bigotry against the Vietnamese, even believing it to some degree despite it being her own culture and identity. My mom also started making negative comments about Vietnamese people both in the U.S. and in Vietnam, saying they could not be trusted. My grandmother didn’t want Ed or me to learn Vietnamese, saying it would be a useless language. Chinese would be the other language we’d learn because there are plenty of Chinese people in San Francisco (granted, we learned Toisan at home because that was the only language my grandmother knew; let’s not bring up the fact that this dialect is not standard Chinese and would be a useless language by global standards to learn. And my mother agreed, sadly. “What use will this for them since they will grow up in America and speak English?” she rationalized to herself. So, we never learned. I didn’t even learn how to say “thank you” or “hello” in Vietnamese until I was in college. She didn’t teach that to me; my Vietnamese friend from Arkansas did. But given I was exposed to the sounds and intonations of the Vietnamese language occasionally hearing my mother speak to others on the phone or in person, I picked up the words and the correct tones fairly quickly.

As an adult, especially in college surrounded by Vietnamese classmates from around the country and even the world, I felt embarrassed telling people I was Vietnamese but could not speak the language at all, not even a basic hello or goodbye. Walking around Vietnam today, I recognize when people ask me if I am Vietnamese because they say I look like I am. What they reallywant to know is if I can speak the language, and they are dismayed when I shake my head or say no. At age 18 at Wellesley, I made my very first Vietnamese friend ever. So clearly, “cosmopolitan” San Francisco was severely lacking in many ethnic minorities. I understood some Cantonese, knew Toisan (actually a useless village dialect of Cantonese), and was learning Mandarin Chinese in college, to speak, read, and write. But I knew zero Vietnamese. At times with my Vietnamese friends, I felt like I wasn’t Vietnamese enough (probably because, well, I wasn’t). But the times when I did feel at home with them was when we talked about food and ate it. I knew most of the dishes, having spent a lot of time in San Jose and Orange County growing up, both areas of the state (and the world) heavily concentrated with Vietnamese populations, but my Vietnamese friends taught me that similar to Chinese culture when certain foods are eaten at certain times of the year, like Tet (Lunar New Year’s in Vietnamese culture) or Mid-Autumn Moon Festival, specific dishes are also considered sacred or special at different points of the year in the Vietnamese community. It was as though I was uncovering a part of my identity I had no idea about through my new Vietnamese friends. Food was the one part of Vietnamese culture that my mom passed onto me. And I literally ate it up one bite at a time. While my brother really only embraced mainstream Vietnamese dishes even non-Asians would be aware of, such as pho or banh mi, I embraced everything she presented on the dinner table growing up. Instead of having “kid” food pre-packed for me at Vietnamese restaurants in the Bay Area, at a very young age, I was given a small bowl with a portion of her pho with extra noodles and squeezes of lime. I loved the traditional braised shrimp and pork dish (thit kho tep) in a caramelized sauce she made, especially with the braising liquid, over rice. I gobbled up cute little banh beo, steamed rice cake medallions originating from Hue, topped with ground shrimp and drizzled with scallion oil as a snack. I got excited when she picked up different versions of che, or Vietnamese mung bean, coconut, and jelly-based sweets for dessert after dinner time. And as a teen when, for the very first time, I had banh xeo, the sizzling and fragrant turmeric, ground rice, and coconut crispy “crepe” that is currently becoming all the rage in hip Vietnamese restaurants around New York City, all I wanted was to eat that (okay, well, that actually isn’t much different from me today).

So, it’s true. I don’t know a ton about Vietnamese culture. I didn’t grow up surrounded by my Vietnamese relatives other than my mom, who felt restricted to not expose it to Ed and me much. I didn’t celebrate Tet or traditional holidays with Vietnamese customs. I know just a few phrases and can say a lot of its dishes properly with the right tone. But Vietnamese culture through its food stays with me. My mom gave that to me. Maybe it isn’t much, but it’s what I have. I love and embrace my Vietnamese culture through eating and cooking its food, not to mention evangelizing both the cuisine to others who have been unexposed to it, and this beautiful country to those who haven’t yet visited it. I’m still reading about it, though, and still eager to learn and see more. I’m still learning about my Vietnamese side because my existence isn’t static. I’d like to think I am constantly growing and learning more… because through travel and speaking with so many different people from various backgrounds, cultures, and birthplaces, I realize more and more how very little I know. But what I’m really trying to say is, I embrace my identity and my mother’s identity even if there are others who have tried to prevent me from doing so. Being Vietnamese is a part of who I am, and I embrace what I am.

Sharp eyes

I am near-sighted. I am -1.50 in both eyes. I learned this when I was 15 in my geometry class, wondering why the teacher insisted on writing equations on the board so softly with the chalk so I could not see… until a classmate with mild near-sightedness gently suggested I try on his glasses to see if I might need my own. I put on his glasses, and suddenly, everything in the world became clear, and I saw all the little details I overlooked before. I own contact lenses that are between -1.0 and -1.75. My optometrist told me that I was overstraining my eyes, so he suggested this time around that I get -1.0s. To see 100 percent clearly, though, I’d really need -1.50s, but that is borderline over straining according to what he observed based on my eye exam, plus what I reported to him when I view a computer screen or my mobile phone with my contacts on. Eleven years ago when I first went to Vietnam, my vision was far better. I wore glasses occasionally, but I didn’t strain to see road signs or even wear glasses at all that entire 2.5-week-long trip. This trip, I’ve packed my prescription glasses in addition to my contacts. Maybe it’s because now, I want to see more details. Or, maybe what is actually true is that my vision has declined in the last 11 years.

Regardless, it’s both funny and strange to observe Chris’s maternal grandmother catch things I do not even see or notice. She’s had multiple eye surgeries due to cataracts and glaucoma, so now, she can see only in half of one eye. But boy, does she manage and get along just fine. She noticed that the front door key was still in the door from across the hallway with that half eye, from her peripheral vision. She calls out things across a room, details I don’t even see. And she asks questions about topics you discussed in the room next to her when you were talking to someone else, but she clearly heard every single word you said. Her eyes and ears are sharper than mine. I am not sure if that is a sign of how young she is at heart or how old I am at heart.

As we grow old(er)

Today was Christmas Day, as well as Chris’s 37thbirthday. It’s strange to think how quickly time has gone by. He’s officially in his late 30s, and although I am in my early 30s, given I will be turning 33 in just a few weeks, I feel old, too. While much about us is the same as seven years ago when we first became a couple, much has certainly changed. I flipped through a few older photos of us seven years ago, and there are some differences that a nuanced eye could see: Chris’s hair is slightly thinning at the top, his sides are receding just a tad. My face has a bit more definition when I smile, with skin that isn’t as “tight” as it once was. They are not quite wrinkles as they are skin just getting a little looser with age. It doesn’t matter how much sun block I apply, what SPF I use, or however many hats I wear or sunglasses I put on; my age on my face is definitely showing over the years. Both our bellies are a little rounder, most likely from this time of year when food indulgences are at its peak, but also because it’s just simply fact that our metabolisms are slowing, slowly but surely. We’re getting older together.

It’s our seventh Christmas together, our seventh Southern Hemisphere Christmas together. And it’s always a beautiful and literally warming break from the cold and darkness that is New York City at this time of year. I wonder where we will be at this time next year at Christmas, or the Christmas after that, or the Christmas in 10 years’ time. I wonder if they will be just as happy, or what our lives will be like. I wonder what changes will come, for better or for worse, and how we will get through all of them. I do hope it is good. I hope it only gets better and fuller.

Photo arrangement change

We went to Chris’s aunt and uncle’s house two evenings ago for pre-Christmas festivities. His aunt made a delicious Kerala chicken stew with appams, a fermented and leavened coconut and rice-based “pancake” that is spongy and puffy on the inside and crispy and lacey on the outside edges. I wasn’t really sure what the mood would be given that his aunt’s brother in Kerala had recently passed away in the last month, plus their youngest son had separated from his wife in July, but it was obvious that things were different because the décor had changed dramatically.

The last time I came two years ago, the house was pretty evenly split up with photos of both of their sons and their respective lives. Their oldest son is married with three sons, and their younger son had gotten married in 2015. On prominent mantles in the living room, the space was evenly divided: one son’s wedding photos on one side, the second son’s wedding photos on the other. On another mantle, photos of the first son and his wife, plus their children, with couple shots of the second son and his wife. The walls pretty much followed the same pattern. It was obvious that whoever decorated and chose the photos was very deliberate about making the love for both sons and sides “even.” That person is Chris’s aunt.

This time, all the wedding photos from the second son that I remembered that were on the fridge were removed. In fact, ALL wedding photos of both sons and their wives were gone. The only photos that remained were of the four grandchildren, three from the first son and one from the second son. The only time one of the sons appeared in photos was when one of the grandchildren was present.

Well, that was quite intentional.

His aunt at one point of the evening pulled me aside. I guess I have what the Charisma Mythbook calls “empathy” charisma; people just love to tell me all the things they keep a secret from others.

“I still haven’t told extended family that they have separated,” she confided in me. “I just don’t know what to say, especially with their child. I struggled with whether I should just keep the photos the way they were or just take down Andrew’s wedding photos, but then I thought when relatives would come over, they would ask why I only displayed Robin’s and not Andrew’s, and I don’t want to answer their questions. So, I thought it would be best to just take down all their photos and leave the grandchildren’s. I rushed to get it done before Andrew arrived back. This way, no one would say anything. Maybe Andrew will say something, but I can deal with him. Other relatives and friends, I don’t want to deal with them asking and wondering why.”

I felt sad for her. She’s powerless. She cannot do a single thing to make that situation better. But at the end of the day, I suppose there’s no reason to tell people who aren’t close because what good does that do? It only begs for more questions about why and how, which are all futile.

 

A mother’s “love”

I tried calling my parents’ house line and their cell phone two days in a row to no answer. I wasn’t sure whether they just were ignoring the call because the number would come up as unlisted since I was dialing them via Skype, but they knew I was abroad, so I would have assumed they’d know I’d try to call at some point. So after the second day of trying to call, I emailed my dad and told him I tried calling. He responded and asked what number I was dialing from, and I said Skype. His response? “We blocked all international calls unless they are coming in through a pre-paid phone card.”

What is the logic in that, especially when they know I’m not in the country?

So I finally got through after he agreed to unblock the calls. I asked my mom about it, and she defended the decision, saying that she leaves those decisions up to my dad and that if that’s what he wants, then he should do it the way he wants to (that’s very nice of her, isn’t it)? Then, she grew irritated when I didn’t have much to share with her other than high-level updates she wants to know (who I am seeing, what I am doing). She never explicitly said she wasn’t thrilled with me, but it was pretty obvious from her tone and the words she was using that she was not happy I was in Australia with Chris’s family and that she thought it was unnecessary. “Send everyone my regards,” she said icily.

One of Chris’s cousins asked how my parents were doing, and I told him that my mom always gets jealous when I come here. I said she doesn’t think it’s “necessary” to come visit Chris’s parents. But she’s completely fine that I come to see her three to four times a year in San Francisco; in fact, she was really disappointed that I *only* came to San Francisco three times this past year. “She does realize that you’re visiting… your husband’s parents and family, right?” he asked, quizzically. “There are two sides to each couple — isn’t that true?”

Yes, she realizes it. And, well, she hates it. That’s what jealousy is.

Traveling for Christmas to see family

I was chatting with a colleague this morning about traveling during the Christmas period. Although he and his wife both live in the San Francisco Bay Area now, they are both originally from Ohio, where they met, dated, and got married, so they have similar friend groups and their parents live only a 15-minute drive from each other. So when they go home during the Christmas period, they always fly back to Columbus and go back and forth between each set of parents’ places every few days between the days before Christmas and before New Year’s Day. “We’re really fortunate that we don’t have to travel far or take turns seeing sides each Christmas since we’re both from the same home town,” he said to me. “I know other people who have to drive hours and hours between homes or fly thousands of miles.”

“Oh, really?” I said to him, smiling. “I know what that is like. But I don’t see it as a misfortune. I see it as a benefit for me.”

He immediately realized why I responded the way I did and started laughing, though a bit awkwardly.

When others make comments about how hard it must be for Chris and me, both being from very different parts of the world and thus having our families thousands of miles apart, I usually laugh and say that I don’t see it as a bad or hard thing, that we actually enjoy it. We’ve both left our families and moved to new places where we pretty much knew no one, but that’s part of what growing up is supposed to be about — starting a new life for your new family with hopefully more opportunity and thus successes. And that oftentimes means leaving your hometown. No one ever really looks back and wonders how their grandma or great-grandfather left their parents to immigrate to a new country and how sad it must have been for them to leave their families. My dad’s mom immigrated to the U.S. with her husband and first son, and she never went back to China ever again, meaning she never saw her parents or any of her siblings ever again. No one seems to comment about any of that much. My mom married my dad in Vietnam and left her hometown in 1973, never to see her mother again, who died three years before I was born. She didn’t return to Vietnam until 2008, when she had only one living sister remaining and endless nieces and nephews, all other siblings and parents/aunts/uncles gone. But I get comments all the time about how hard it must be for me. It really isn’t. I get to have a home in New York City with my love, my original home in San Francisco with my parents across the country, and a third home away from home away from home in Melbourne, Australia, with loving family on Chris’s side. That’s three cosmopolitan, beautiful cities across two countries. That is not a “hard” thing. It’s quite a beautiful and blessed state of being if you ask me. That means I get to call three different places globally “home.”

I think we’re both better for being with each other with our different backgrounds. We’ve both learned a lot about each other’s home country and cultures, and we’ve learned things that we just wouldn’t get by being with someone from our own hometown or own ethnic backgrounds. We have an understanding to a depth that others would not have, an awareness about the pluses and minuses of both cultures and countries that would not exist without each other. As Michelle Obama wrote in her book Becoming, “Sameness breeds more sameness until you make a thoughtful effort to counteract it.” You can choose to only stick to the familiar, whether it’s the type of people, the places you choose to live, but you can proactively and consciously try to expand your knowledge and understanding of the world by stepping outside of your default bubble.

At this time of year, I actually oftentimes stop and think to myself, I feel like one of the luckiest and most privileged people to be alive. I’m no Bill Gates or Mother Theresa, but I have been blessed with so much good fortune that I wish everyone could have at least a bit of. I want for nothing, and I have people in my life who love and respect me. I have a lot to be thankful for, regardless if others view what I have as “hard.”

Christmas cards 2018

As part of my nearly annual tradition for years now, I handmade a subset of my Christmas cards that I am sending out. This year, I made 16 for close friends and family and spent most of today baking and writing messages in them, getting them ready for either hand delivery or for mailing out.

As I sorted through all the different designs and laid them out to take photographs of them, it suddenly hit me that it had been many years since I first made a handmade card for Ed. It had been years since I had sent him any Christmas card. And the piercing memory of coming back to the house and going through the belongings in his desk after his death in July 2013 hit me: the moment when I opened his second desk drawer to find several years’ worth of my handwritten and handmade cards I’d given to him, neatly stacked in a short, single pile. I remember immediately tearing up, reading each message I wrote him one by one. And in a slight fit of rage, I tore all of them up and threw them into the recycling bin. Maybe I should have kept them. Maybe I should have preserved them to remember what I used to write to my Ed with pen and paper. But my emotions got the best of me and they’re now all gone.

He only kept my cards. He kept them because he knew I wanted him to. He actually listened to what I said. Each Christmas, it’s hard to forget how much Ed loved Christmas — all the lights, the trees, the smell of Christmas cooking and baking, the idea of togetherness in even a dysfunctional family. He isn’t here with me anymore, but each Christmas, I think of him constantly, both fondly and sadly, and hope that he is happier in a better and more peaceful place, celebrating Christmas in his own way somewhere above us.

When your child’s marriage fails

Chris’s aunt and uncle just left us yesterday afternoon to continue on to Philadelphia to visit more relatives. Throughout their visit, they were both visibly distraught at the recent breakup of their younger son’s marriage; although they were together about six years, they were “married” less than three, and the news came as a shock to all of us. Granted, none of us can ever be fully aware of what goes on between two people in a life partnership, and it’s even harder when we infrequently see them due to geographic distance.

His aunt frequently made comments about how strange it feels to be someone’s mother-in-law and then suddenly the next day, not. It’s weird to be comfortable enough to call your daughter on the phone, then be told that you cannot call her anymore… ever again. It’s deeply upsetting to know someone as your daughter-in-law, the person who gave you a fourth grandchild and your first granddaughter, and then be told that she is now considered just the mother of your granddaughter. She teared up frequently, saying she wished her no ill will and just wanted what was best for both of them and their child. It was really hard to see her and how emotional she was. She in many ways blamed herself. “Maybe if I had raised him differently, this wouldn’t have happened?” she asked me. “What do you think?”

I had nothing to say. What could I say, really? So many factors go into a relationship working and not working. They both clearly worry about their son a lot and want to help, even if they are unable to. They are concerned, loving parents. She said she hoped they’d be able to work things out, that a reconciliation could possibly happen.

It would be great if it did, but from what I can see, that’s next to impossible.

Family vs. sights

Chris’s aunt and uncle, who have been visiting us the last few days, don’t do much travel. His aunt goes to Kerala in India for long spurts to visit her parents, brother, and other relatives, and it’s easy for her since they own an apartment there. But other than that, they only travel when there’s a family event to go to, like our wedding back in 2016 when they came to California.

I learned a lot about them during this trip that I had no idea about; his aunt was saying that traveling with her husband was more hassle than it was worth since he has a short temper when he gets confused or lost during travel, which is pretty often and can be counted on. She prefers to travel and be in India on her own rather than with her husband. “It’s like taking a child around; I want to do my own thing and at my own pace, and he’s useless there on his own!” she exclaimed. She said it was important for them both to have their own time separately. She also said that the more she thought about it, while it is nice to travel and see sights, the both of them are fairly like-minded and prefer to travel to places where there are family and friends. They rather spend time catching up with friends and relatives than see sights; it would mean that if they do see sights that they’d have a guide and would not have to worry about getting lost; it would also mean that they’d get quality time with people they know that they normally do not have.

It’s funny to hear them say that. My friends and family are not that spread out, so it’s not like I have a reason to go travel to those places because I probably already know them. But I’d rather travel to see sights and have new experiences than visit people I already know. Or maybe that’s just because I don’t care about my people as much as his aunt and uncle do? What does this say about us as people?