2016 Wasn’t Terrible

Last year, I was focused on healing the heart and conquering depression. I basically ran a lot of half marathons and got super self-helpy. It was pretty great despite all the crying. (Thank you to all my Yay Area friends who helped me during this time, you know who you are).

I wanted 2016 to be about content creation, consistency in health and productivity, and closeness with friends, family, and culture. While I got unnoticeably fatter, I also became a better artist and human being. I will always be a work in progress, but it’s pretty exciting to see growth year over year.

Things I’m Proud Of

  • I quit my corporate job. Suck it fear.
  • I moved to a different continent.
  • I sang all by myself with my ukulele. In front of people. For money.
  • I discovered my roots and got closer to family.
  • I discovered girl power, from Gap Girls, to 3.5 Asians, to Yayas, and the Musketeers. Oh, and all of Harpswell.
  • I collected stamps on my passport. Six languages surrounded me this year, which is pretty nuts.
  • I dated people. I liked some of them. I ghosted others. Don’t worry, karma did its thing.
  • I read 17 books, 2 less that last year. But Steve Jobs was really long. And I also read a textbook on Educational Psychology…
  • I had a good grasp of my sadgirl and figured out ways to uplift myself.

Things I Failed At

  • I got sidetracked and didn’t focus on my work. Given the opportunity, I should be doing more.
  • I didn’t create as much as I wanted to. There’s still a bit of fear and doubt that linger even though two fortune tellers have told me not to worry about it.
  • I wasn’t consistent with my health. At all. I blame it on the humidity.
  • I didn’t keep in touch with people as much as I wanted to. The Pacific Ocean really creates distance, doesn’t it.
  • I let anger get the best of me a few times instead of letting gratitude do its thing.

Next year will build upon these last two. Build your community. Make more things. Jump off the (metaphorical) cliff.

How to Conquer Fear

Step 1: Quit job.
Step 2: Move to another country.
Step 3: Discover roots.
Step 4: Continue to not have real job.

I stripped myself of a title, salary, and 401K. I tossed out my curling iron, deleted Yelp, bid adieu to infrastructure and moved to a developing country. I trekked the land of my parents to see what I could discover, and followed that with a solo trip around Asia to see what else I could learn. Now, I’m working on personal projects, living a nomadic lifestyle that most people dream of.

This journey has been inspiring and delightful, with a little bit of strange. Countless times I’ve uttered, “Damn, this is going in my memoir.”

You’d think that I’d be brave, a champion for the fearless, at this point. And yes, tackling the projections of what society expects of you in order to find your individual frontier imbues strength, patience, and a deeper understanding of yourself.

But as the dust settles and static makes a reappearance, I realize that I’m still scared, perhaps even more anxious and frightened than before. My tarot card reader told me to let go of my fears, and while the words came out of her mouth so easily, I struggle to find the answer key.

I’ve always seen the edge of the cliff from afar but never dared to wander close to see what laid beyond. My journey has led me closer and closer to the fringe of this cliff, now with a clear view of the panorama before me for the first time. I realize to move forward, I need to jump.


Siem Reap

This was such a magical place in my Cambodia experience. My connection to the city, temples, and people shifted my thoughts of the country. I hold fond memories of this trip in my heart, with a red thread bracelet from Angkor Wat on my left wrist to remind me of the fortune that is coming my way as I take the next leap.

siem reap buddha

angkor wat jennie le

angkor wat jennie le

angkor wat jennie le

angkor wat jennie le

angkor wat jennie le

bayon jennie le

bayon jennie le

ta prohm jennie le

siem reap buddha

angkor-wat-2-jennie-le

Mother(land)

My mother grew up in rural Việt Nam. I can’t say that she was raised there because both her parents died by the time she was 11. Like many of those around her, her upbringing was beyond poor. In this patriarchal society, she wasn’t given an opportunity for an education past primary school, instead forced by circumstance to work. During the short period she was in school, she experienced a bomb exploding and witnessed her classmates dying before her eyes.

At 30 or so, she risked her life, left everything, and escaped by boat alongside her one-year-old son, husband, and a few family members. She arrived at a refugee camp in the Philippines, where she had another son. Because my Dad fought for the South, my family was allowed to immigrate to America. There, they had another son, and then me, their only daughter.

I, on the otherhand, was raised in America. When I was 6, my Dad died. Food stamps and housing assistance kept us afloat. My mom worked multiple jobs to support and shed us of government assistance. I was continually encouraged to pursue an education, jumping into GATE and magnet programs before making my way through Cal.

At 27, I moved to Cambodia by way of plane so I could learn more about the ways of the world. I had a suitcase with all my necessities, a decent living situation, and a community for support. I only had myself to look after.

In Cambodia, I see that people are poor. Many rural families don’t have electricity. Floating villages rely on the sullied water they live on for cooking, cleaning, and waste disposal. Education is not for all, as poor children are pulled out of school and forced by circumstance to work. In school, it is not uncommon for teachers to demand small bribes from students due to low wages. While young men can pursue higher education by living in temples during school, young women do not have such an option. That’s why the Harpswell Foundation exists.

Mom, was this how life was like for you in Việt Nam?

When I came to Cambodia, I thought I was just passing through before returning home to America. Now, I have all these questions about where home actually is, where I want it to be. These 7,000+ miles between us have actually brought me closer to my origins and to you in ways that Little Saigon could never do. It’s still in America after all.

Mẹ ơi, next month when I return to Việt Nam for the first time in 9 years for Ba’s đám giỗ at Ông Nôi’s house, I hope you can understand my decision to stay in this region indefinitely. I’m finding my roots to be closer to you and our family. I want to know what it’s like to be surrounded by the music of our native tongue, to continue to see faces that look like mine. I want to have more moments with Grandpa since he’s 93, and I’m not sure if I’ll get that chance again. It’s been way too long since I’ve had Cô Sương’s phở. I want to get to know my cousins, their spouses I’ve never met, their children I didn’t even know existed. I desperately yearn to understand what it’s like to be Vietnamese in Việt Nam.

I know you disagree with me taking my Berkeley brain back to the country you fled from. But in Cambodia, I’ve learned so much about the meaning of family, ancestry, and tradition. Imagine what I’ll learn when I’m actually in the place of our origins. (Okay, maybe I’ll learn nothing and hate it and quickly return to America.)

I’m sorry I can’t celebrate your birthday with you today. Please know that I’m thinking of you and love you very much. Happy Birthday Mẹ thương của con!

mom and jennie le
Me and Mom, in front of a casino, as Vietnamese people do