Six years since.

Dear Ed,

As we approached this date, I was in denial that it had really been six years that have passed since you died. I don’t know if it’s my heart and my mind’s way of not getting over you, but I still don’t really think you’re dead. Realistically, I know you are gone, but in my body, I do not feel this is the case. You still feel very much alive to me; maybe it’s just my internal organs’ way of denying the truth of your death. Or, maybe it’s my body’s way of saying that it is fully aware that a part of you still exists out there and is still connected to me.

It was hard this year for me to turn 33. It doesn’t seem like a particularly remarkable age or number, nor is it considered some milestone age. But the core reason is that I didn’t really think it made sense to be turning the same age as you were when you took your own life and died. At age 33, I have lived a very different life than you had, and in many ways, I felt like I wasn’t that worthy of what I had, that it would have been better if you had at least enjoyed half of the privileges and experiences I’ve been so lucky to have. Our lives were not even at all. And how could I possibly be the same age as my big brother? I kept asking myself. None of that makes sense at all. The whole point is that you’re supposed to be my older brother. That means you are older than me. But now, you aren’t. I couldn’t wrap myself around this. I just felt so upset. Logically, it makes sense. But I still didn’t want to accept this.

They say that everything heals in time. Grief eventually is replaced by gratitude, it is often said. Yes, I am grateful for our time together. I am grateful for having you in my life as my big brother. But I don’t think I will ever fully heal from your death… your untimely death, your suffering, your pain. I’ll be honest and say that as time goes on, the more and more I seem to meet people I truly believe are absolutely useless, have no purpose, and are just a waste of space, self-serving, self-seeking, and overly entitled human beings that probably shouldn’t even be called human beings. And then, I think of you, and I think… why do these people get to exist, and you do not? How is that possibly fair? If anyone with half a brain thought about this, there’s no way to rationalize that life is fair. Life is so far from fair that it hurts when I think about this.

Our mom has aged exponentially since your death. I don’t want you to worry about it, but it’s true. It’s like she really just doesn’t care how she looks anymore, puts together the most random pieces of clothing, and walks out of the house. She says, “it doesn’t matter; I’m old now,” as though older people shouldn’t want to look and feel good. She thinks she is somehow undeserving of looking and feeling good. It’s so sad. If you can believe it, she probably worries and panics even more after your passing than before. She really loves you so much, and she occasionally mentions it in quiet moments with me. I know deep down, she blames herself and goes in endless circles thinking about what she could have done differently. I know it doesn’t matter anymore because it won’t change things, but I can tell just from how she talks about you now that she definitely feels this way. She misses you every single day, even if she never fully appreciated you when you were here with us. I am guilty of that, too, though. I think we all are.

You know what is the most frustrating part about all of this? That I know no matter what I say or do, that I will never get to see you again. I still dream that you faked it all and that you never really died, that you faked your death, got a fake dead body and had it stuck in a casket to resemble you. It was never supposed to be like this. I never thought life would end up this way. I never thought I’d be married, living in New York, missing my dead brother who died by suicide. We were supposed to be in it together until the end, Ed. I still remember when our mom used to talk to each of us after we’d have fights when we were little, and insist that we had to find a way to get along and “show love.” Because one day, she said, our parents wouldn’t be around anymore, and we’d only have each other, and we’d have no one else who would unconditionally love us. So we had to look out for each other and stick together. That has been lost now for us, for me. Sometimes, I still feel really lonely when I think about you and how you are gone.

I miss you so much. I love you. I hope you are safe and at peace. I also hope that you still think of me with love. Because that’s the way I think of you, even when you were being annoying and insane like most siblings can be. Please don’t forget me. I’ll never forget about you.

With all my love,

your moi moi Yvonne

Tupperware

I participated in six hours of onsite customer meetings today and am completely drained. Something surprising happened today, though, when I was at a prospective meeting this afternoon with the company Tupperware. I usually do not attend prospect meetings since I work on customers post-sale, but since I was down in Orlando anyway, I offered to come with my colleague to visit this prospect to shed light on what they could expect from a post-sale enablement standpoint. One of my colleagues mentioned how she owned Tupperware products because of her sister-in-law’s Tupperware parties. I shared that my parents owned Tupperware, as well. Towards the end of our two-hour onsite meeting, one of the prospects quietly stepped out of the room. I assumed she left to use the restroom or take a call, but instead, she actually came back with multiple gift bags with Tupperware products – as gifts for us! I ended up taking home a Tupperware microwaveable container, as well as a Tupperware flask that keeps liquids hot for up to six hours. 

I am not used to customers giving gifts to me at all; as a technology company, we are used to treating customers and sending them gifts, much less having a prospect, not even a customer, give usa gift. The other funny thing about this happening was that it all reminded me of Ed. While working at Macy’s, Ed befriended one of his colleagues who hosted Tupperware parties and asked him if he would be interested in buying some. He took a look at the products when she brought them in, declared they were far superior to any of the plastic reusable containers my parents had at home, and bought three different types: black lidded, teal lidded, and dark blue-lidded. He insisted we needed to buy better quality products, and he told us these were much, much better for us to use. These Tupperware are not at all cheap; each of these pieces costs $25. Ed was always far more generous than anyone could know or ever fully appreciate. For someone who didn’t earn much money, he constantly surprised me with his level of generosity. It made me sad when I got to the airport this evening and opened the containers, wondering what Ed would have thought if I told him that I not only visited the Tupperware US offices, but that they even gave me free Tupperware. I’d imagine he would have been really excited and would have wanted to know what they looked like. I don’t know anyone who would have been as thrilled to hear about the Tupperware visit and gifts as much as he would have been. It is a depressing thought. 

Chocolate chip cookie memory

I went back to the doctor for a follow-up appointment, and to reward myself (for nothing really), on my long walk back home, I decided to stop by Levain Bakery to pick up a few of their famously oversized, gooey chocolate chip cookies.

As I sat at my kitchen counter and ate this after dinner tonight, I suddenly remembered the one time when Ed baked something: he made chocolate chip cookies once, and only once. At that time, we didn’t have a regular oven since our oven was broken, and our family, being cheap and Chinese, not only had no use for a regular oven, but didn’t want to replace the broken one we had. But what we did have was a small convection oven, which was mostly used for dishes like roast chickens or other cuts of meat. Convection ovens aren’t typically used for baking, but it was all we had access to. So Ed went ahead, bought his chocolate chips and other random ingredients he needed for cookies, and went about making them.

At that time, I’d baked quite a bit with my aunt, but despite my experience baking, Ed insisted he wanted to do this all, step by step, by himself. So in between homework and other things, I’d stop by the kitchen to see how he was doing. He would carefully measure out each portion of flour, sugar, and other ingredients, then double and triple check the recipe to ensure he got it right. And at the end, when the cookies came out of the oven, I went into the kitchen to see how they’d turned out. They looked pretty good… but I noticed that the cookies were a bit paler than normal.

“Did you remember to use brown sugar?” I asked. “These don’t look that brown the way they normally do.”

“Oh, crap! I forgot the brown sugar!” he exclaimed, looking embarrassed and annoyed with himself at the same time. “Well, sugar is sugar, right?”

Well, not really. Brown sugar has a richer flavor, aids in caramelization, and because it has less moisture in it, it tends to lead to taller, cakier shaped cookie. White sugar has more moisture and less acidity, so your cookie will be paler, spread more, and also be more crisp.

I still commended him for baking since he’d never done it ever before, and had never expressed any previous interest in it. We both tasted them, and they were quite delicious (but when are they not right out of the oven?).

“Well, I did it!” he said.”I succeeded! I wanted to make cookies, and I did it!” He had this big, goofy smile on his face. He was clearly so proud of himself.

I thought it was cute at the time, yet a bit pathetic. He was already an adult by then, and it seemed a bit funny to me that he would get so excited about something as simple as this. But in retrospect, I just feel sad thinking about it.

In Ed’s life, he had little validation. He just wanted to know he was able to accomplish little things that meant something, and unfortunately, our parents weren’t really capable of doing that for him. His teachers weren’t capable. No one really did it. I guess there was the occasional positive validation from his cousins and me, but that was really it.

I wish Ed could taste this Levain cookie now. He might obsess over it, wondering if it was really cooked through enough (well, “enough” is subjective, right?), but I’m sure he would enjoy it just as much, if not more, than I am right now.

the doll house

He rarely comes when I want him to, but sometimes, just sometimes, he does something to surprise me. The last couple of nights, I’ve been seeing Ed here and there in my dreams. He doesn’t come in an obvious way, but rather when he does show up, he pops in for a moment, just enough for me to know he is there, and then he leaves. In my dream, I am standing in a large room with massive displays on each of the long and wide tables. I can see my uncle wandering around, taking a look at some of the displays and quickly walking by others. But there is one that I take notice of, and it’s of a huge dollhouse that is two stories tall, has at least four bedrooms, and has a large living and dining area that includes many miniature Christmas decorations. The staircase leading up to the second floor is covered in Christmas lights, fake Christmas tree branches, and snow.

“So, where is your dollhouse now?” Ed says, randomly and unexpectedly appearing next to me as I glance inside the house. “I thought our father said he was going to build it for you.”

I pondered that. I’m 33 years old today, and the very last thing on my mind is the thought of a dollhouse, still unbuilt, in a box that was given to me by “Santa Claus” when I was five years ago. That means that dollhouse has been sitting unopened in a box in the basement for the last 28 years. While yes, it is literally a symbol of broken promises as we’ve discussed many times before, I’m really past it and have gotten over it.

“It doesn’t matter anymore,” I say back to him, looking at him in the face. “I shouldn’t care about something that never existed in the first place.”

He looks back at me with a straight but warm face. He isn’t smiling, but his eyes are looking into mine, trying to figure out the meaning of my words. His eyes soften, and he seems to smile a bit.

“If you say so,” he says. Then, he walks across the room to look at some other displays, and then disappears from the corner of my eye.

I am still trying to decipher the meaning from that.

 

 

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.

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.

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.

Rockefeller Christmas tree

Every Christmas season, as we gradually approach the day we are departing for Australia (or, last year, the UK and South Africa) to celebrate Christmas with Chris’s family, Chris and plan a special dinner out from our curated Yelp list, and then, we will have our annual “trip” to visit the Rockefeller Christmas tree. Yes, it’s touristy. Yes, it’s crowded as hell with both tourists and locals. But it’s our thing, our annual Christmas time tradition. And this year, I really did not want to go tonight. It was so cold and windy, and I felt cranky and irritable from the cold weather as well as the chaos and busy-ness of work and catching up from traveling this week. But when we actually arrived at the tree, all the complaining in my head stopped. It really is a spectacular sight every year. I get why people want to come to New York during the holiday period to see all the Christmas lights and experience the festivities. There’s something really magical about seeing this insanely tall and fat tree lit up with what is probably thousands of colorful lights that flanks the Rockefeller Center. When I saw this tree tonight, I thought… wow. I’m really lucky to live in this city that others marvel over, that others travel thousands of miles for just to see this freaking tree. There is really nothing quite like New York City.

 

Thankful

Every weekend before Thanksgiving in the U.S. as we are getting ready to leave for what is now our sixth European Thanksgiving away, all of my social media and even my news sources are flooded with posts and articles on the latest and greatest ways to prepare a turkey and all those beloved Thanksgiving sides: mashed potatoes – how to keep them fresh for longer because we know how temporary their fluffiness is? Cranberry sauce – to eat the canned or to do an innovative twist with additional spices and fruit that may piss your aunt off? Then there’s also the stuffing; everyone has an opinion about stuffing. Should it be traditional bread stuffing with white or wheat bread, or corn bread-based? Is anyone going to be upset if you sub in Chinese rice stuffing instead if there are people of Asian descent at your table?

But by this point, we already would have had our early Thanksgiving meal, or “friendsgiving” meal as others like to call it since we’re not with our immediate family members. I already would have done my early Thanksgiving cooking for the year. Any tempting recipes or cooking tips I pick up this weekend I would just bookmark or save for next year. It’s planning a year ahead and adding more to my browser bookmarks list and copying and pasting new recipes into my Evernote for Thanksgiving ideas in the year to come.

Sometimes, I have fleeting moments when I feel a little sad that I have no family to “go home to” for Thanksgiving, but then I quickly realize and remember how lucky I am to have a life partner who loves to travel and see the world, and what better week to explore the world when most Americans are stuffing their faces with turkey and mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie, when it is typically low season in most of Europe, to enjoy and relish the moments there with lesser crowds and American accents. I’m thankful to have what I have – the globe-trotting, worldly life partner I have, the money and work flexibility to travel as we do, and the good health to allow me to trek up endless hills and windy cobbled streets, and run through airports to get to the places we want to see and learn all about. I have a lot to be thankful for.

 

Costco chicken bake

Today was Chris’s second time ever going to Costco. After we finished paying for our haul of goodies, Chris asked, “don’t you want your chicken bake?” It’s like I had heart eyes on the spot. The first time he came with me back in June, he was annoyed by the crowds and didn’t want to wait for a chicken bake in the Costco fast food line, breaking my personal tradition of always getting a chicken bake when visiting a Costco in Manhattan. This time, he humored me. So we got the chicken bake and took it home to share.

It’s really nothing that will wow anyone or be on the list of the most incredible foods you’ve ever eaten, but for me, it holds nostalgia from my Costco trips with my parents growing up, and my dad surprising me with one in the car. But if you really think about it, the Costco chicken bake encompasses most elements of what defines “comfort food”: meat (thick chunks of chicken breast), bread, cheese, a creamy sauce, bacon, a crusty cheesy exterior. You can’t really go wrong with that unless you are trying to entice a vegan, right? Chris smelled it, and he said he could already picture what it tasted like. And when he actually took a bite, he said, “Okay, yes, this is good, but it… just taste like pizza bread!”

It tastes like my happy memories of home. I will always love this baked goodness.