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.



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.

My supportive love

After sending out a reminder email last night to previous donors and friends from my Gmail list who have not yet donated this year and also sending out a very public message via our Team Slack channel, my inbox has received over a dozen new donation notifications in the last 24 hours. Chris has been closely tracking the progress of my fundraising drive as he does every year, and him being him, he is very competitive and has a lot of commentary about the other people who are “competing” against me for the top fundraiser spots in this year’s Manhattan Out of the Darkness walk. He’s unhappy about the fact that every year I’ve participated, all the people who are usually ahead of me in fundraising are a part of a team, which means that they have more power in numbers in terms of raising funds. So, with that logic, there should be a differentiation between “team” rankings vs. “individual” (that’s me) fundraising rankings, and they should not be grouped together and ranked. I kind of get this rationale, but at the same time, each team member of a team has his/her own page, and therefore they are responsible for their own numbers.

A real message of annoyance from my husband today:

“Bottom line …no. 1 isn’t a real individual fundraiser, …no. 2 as defined as 2 ppl, no. 3 is suspicious, and no. 5, I have said a lot already plus works for AFSP  … and all of them are teams. You win!!!”

I love my baby even when he’s being super cute and excessively competitive. My general response to all this is that at the end of the day, we’re all just trying to raise money for an important cause that often gets overlooked, so the rankings or the teams versus individuals don’t really mean that much to me. But my heart warms when he says combative things like this because he is always the most supportive and thus always wants me to win. I have the most supportive and loving spouse. Ed would be proud and grateful.

Ed’s 39th birthday in Vancouver

It’s my first time celebrating Ed’s birthday outside of the U.S. It was just Bart and me today, so we had to make it worth it. We enjoyed the sumptuous breakfast buffet at the hotel’s Executive Lounge, complete with cold-pressed juices and even chocolate almond milk, wandered around Granville Island and enjoyed looking at all the local arts and crafts, especially the hand-crafted pottery designs. It reminded me of the ceramic designs that we admired while we were in Seattle together in 2004. I actually brought back a small little ceramic jewelry bowl from Pike Place Market during that trip that I placed next to my framed photo of the two of us together on our bedroom dresser.

We then took the ferry back to the West End and walked along the urban beach overlooking the English Bay. Walking through the streets of the West End, both residential and commercial, I found myself thinking that a lot of these streets felt like the ones I walked with Ed in Seattle 14 years ago. We walked through Canada Place and looked out at the harbor, admired the cruise ships and their massive fleets. I then sat with him at the bar of Miku, a well-respected aburi sushi restaurant in Vancouver, and we enjoyed the Miku Zen lunch special; he posed with the sushi and agreed with me that the wild British Columbia sockeye salmon aburi oshi sushi bites were truly the best and most memorable bites of this entire trip, if not ever. They were fresh, mouth-watering, savory, a little sweet from the Mizu sauce, and literally just melted as soon as they hit your tongue. We debated whether we would get another half order of the salmon aburi, but decided against it unless we wanted the bartenders to wheel us out.

We wandered over to a cafe in Gastown known for London fog lattes and enjoyed a large mug while gazing over at the Canadian baristas so naturally doing their day to day jobs and not even realizing that a little Bart Simpson was watching over them. Then, we headed back to Yaletown to pick up a slice of Erin Ireland’s “to die for” vegan lemon coconut loaf slice to save and enjoy for later when we’d be at the airport with lesser tasty options. We did some window shopping before heading back to the hotel, stretch our legs, pack up our last little bits, and grab a cab to the airport for our two flights home.

It felt nice to be traveling alone on my own today, to feel free and to go at the pace I wanted to go and wander around a little aimlessly, to stop at random places to take photos with Bart. I’m sure I almost mowed over a few Canadians and tourists alike with my speed walk and didn’t do my hamstring any favors today, but Bart seemed to enjoy himself for Ed. I hope Ed was watching today.

Happy 39th birthday, big bro. We ate well for you today and miss you. We’ll never stop thinking about you.

Going solo at a wedding

A colleague and I were talking about the concept of going solo to a wedding. He told me  that he hates going to weddings since he’s almost always attended without a plus-one, and as an introvert, he hates socializing with people he doesn’t know. People tend to pair up at these events, and as someone who goes without being paired up, he feels like the weird outlier. Weddings make him want to go to the corner of the room and fall asleep.

I am actually quite the opposite in mindset. I’ve gone to a lot of weddings with a date, but I’ve also attended quite a number without a plus-one and have been perfectly fine; in fact, at the weddings I’ve attended by myself, I always had a really notable and memorable time. At the last wedding I went to alone in March 2017, I had so many conversations with everyone from the grandfather of the bride to all the friends in attendance of the bride that I still thought about them days after I left. I consider myself more of an introvert than an extrovert; maybe a “closeted” introvert because most of my colleagues would never label me an introvert since I’m generally fairly social and friendly with everyone, especially new people. Being social at events like weddings is always a gamble, especially if you don’t know many people in attendance, but the worst thing that will happen is that the person you speak with will bore you to tears for a few minutes (or however long you allow), so then you just move on to the next person. It’s not so bad, really. If you do have a plus-one and you’re having a separate conversation that isn’t going so well, you can end it and latch onto whatever conversation your plus-one is having. That definitely can act as a crutch in times when you do not feel like being the screaming extrovert.

Today, I had a number of really interesting conversations with friends and relatives of the groom, and even had a chance to catch up with some of the groom and bride’s friends who I’ve previously met. I went a lot later than I thought I would and really enjoyed myself. And even if Chris had come with me, it’s not like we’d be glued at the hip to each other; we tend to be fairly independent people and have our own conversations at social events unless it becomes relevant to include one another due to where we are standing or the topic at hand. I’ve always loathed couples like that, anyway.

When chatting with friends and family of the groom today, it was so obvious how loved he is by the people in his life. And it was even more obvious how much he loved all of them, including me. He and the bride love food, culture, travel, and of course, the people in their lives, and that was pretty much everywhere as a theme of their wedding, being here in diverse and beautiful Vancouver, having local and sustainable foods and even ice cream on their reception menu, ensuring transportation is provided to and from the wedding ceremony and constantly checking in with people personally to ensure everyone has arrived safely (when you’re the groom!), and even providing the most thoughtful wedding favors in the form of local and organic maple syrup (because who leaves Canada without bringing home maple syrup?), a Canadian airplane magnet, and even a compass with their initials on it — all wrapped in a little drawstring patch with a map of North and South America.

When they first met, they bonded over their shared passion for films. So their wedding ceremony was actually full of famous movie quotes of films that they enjoy. It was so great to see their personalities and passions come through everywhere. They wrote their own vows, short and sweet. Surprisingly, this is the only wedding I’ve been to, well, other than my own, where the couple wrote their own vows.

Instead of table names, they went with photos of significant people who had passed on in their lives who could not be there to share in their wedding day; when they described this, I immediately started tearing up, especially knowing how close Adam was to his stepfather, who passed away just a month before Ed did. He is someone I have heard many things about from my friend, especially that he was likely the most intelligent person he’d ever known in his life; I was actually seated at that table. He was also very close to his biological father, who had passed many years before, who was represented by another table. It’s the personal touches of a wedding that always get me… assuming they are done.

During the MC’s speaking moments here and there, he noted that the bride is actually not a stereotypical “bridezilla” at all, and that on the contrary, she’s been extremely calm and collected throughout the wedding planning process. It is actually the groom that has been his own version of a “groomzilla,” obsessing over the little details and all the possible things that could go wrong, even as the wedding was happening today, even the choice of words coming out of the MC’s mouth, which were quite comical and borderline questionable (funny to me, though) at times. It is certainly true of the friend I know, but I know he does it out of love. He knows people are flying from around the country and the world who normally do not do a lot of travel, and so he wants to know that they all feel like he’s provided them a wedding that was worth traveling all this way for. It’s part of how he shows he loves the people in his life, by obsessing over whether everyone else is having a good time and enjoying this experience he has provided. His amount of care and generosity truly knows no bounds. I felt very grateful to be a part of this day for him and his new wife.