Happy Accidents

When I arrived in Asia a year ago, I was told I was brave to have no plan, to follow the wind. Nowadays, I find it harder to breeze through life, to not succumb to the stresses of purpose, career, and status.

Sometimes I wake up, aware of this directionless and titleless place I’m in, and I can’t tame the malaise that starts in my stomach and stops me mid-breath. Sometimes, it morphs my thoughts into something not my own.

Moments where I lost sight of mindfulness or mishandled my love, that malaise spread. The same malaise that plagued me two years ago, that left me feeling so powerless and unloved.

Yet while this thing remains within me, my responses to those moments are different. Yes, I’ve had those bed ridden days where all I can do is cry, those instances where I bruise my heart out of foolishness, those moments where I run away to find my peace of mind.

But for once, for once I really do think I’ll figure it out.

It’s never been a dream of mine to call this place home. To explore my heritage, that’s something I frankly didn’t care about. It simply came to me. And in an unexpected way, I feel like I’m living the dream.

Last week, I visited my grandpa in Nha Trang. As I said my goodbyes, he did something he’s never done before. He muttered, “Six years old,” grasped my hand, and gave me a warm hug.

I was six years old when my father, my grandpa’s only son, passed away from cancer. It’s been years, possibly decades since I’ve received something resembling a father’s embrace.

Since my move, my grandpa has given me a notebook of his poetry, gems I’ve yet to understand. Everytime I visit him, I also take a book from my father’s collection from when he was young, from over 40 years ago, before the war plagued his history.

Unplanned moments like these keep me here in Sài Gòn, where I’ve been living for the past three months. Here, I have no real job nor clear direction. I spend my days living, learning, and exploring. I let my heart and intuition lead the way for once.

I guess this is my way of saying hello, I’m back. It’s been weird and happy and difficult these past few. But I’m still standing, knees bruised but dusted off, ready for the next leg of this marathon. What a privilege. What accidental bliss.

Nha Trang for Tểt, January

Saigon Cà Phê, February

Sài Gòn Đẹp Lắm, sketched by Foxtly, April

Ride or Die, Sài Gòn, March

“Best” Friends in Huể, April

Chasing sunsets, Cần Thơ, April

Some of my favorite Viet Kieuties, Cần Thơ, April

My new calling, Đà Lạt, May

Just a regular non-best-friend in Đà Lạt, May

More coffee, what Vietnamese blood is made of, May

A Vase, A Ukulele, A Dictionary

I leave Vietnam with more than I came with: a vase, a ukelele, and a French-Vietnamese dictionary. They’re all bulky and annoying to carry as I wander South Korea. But I can’t get rid of any of them despite their bothersome nature.

The vase was imparted onto me by my cousin in Saigon as a gift to my mother in LA. I am the courier. Perhaps I should have said no to his request or suggested a smaller, more convenient gift. But at the time, I just couldn’t. He really liked his idea, and I did too, and I think my mom will really like the vase. His gesture felt so sweet, and to reject his request to hand deliver this vase felt wrong. Because, that’s not what families do.

Families carry vases across the globe for you. They take you into their homes as their own and shower you with food, comfort, and love. They sacrifice their time and needs to take care of you and spend time with you. They drive you to the airport on their moto during rush hour traffic because that means they get to spend more time with you before seeing you off, since who knows how long it’ll be before you see each other again. They are your tribe, your ride or dies, your blood. So you carry that vase, even if it means it goes to South Korea, Thailand, and Cambodia before it makes its way to its destination.

The ukulele was purchased on my last day in Vietnam. It’s made of Vietnamese wood with a natural finish. I’m in love with it. My host in Saigon was playing hers, and I wanted one too so that I could play music again. Just like that, I headed towards Guitar Street in Saigon, walked into the shop with the nicest display, and bought one for 40 bucks.

The average monthly income in Vietnam is about $218. I spent over 18% of that on a non-essential in under 45 minutes. What a privilege. In Cambodia, before I had left on my travels, I decided to refuel my dream of making music, this time in Southeast Asia. What a privilege. For the rest of the year, I’ll tinker with beats and strings and microphones. If I fail or get bored, I’ll go back to a corporate job in America. What. A. Privilege.

The last item is the least useful but the most prized. My Vietnamese is average, and my French is terrible, and this French-Vietnamese dictionary serves no purpose in my life. Except, on the edges of the book are the handwritten names of my late father and my grandfather, inked on in 1968 by my then 16-year-old father. On this trip, I learned that my father was fluent in Vietnamese, French and English. He also dabbled in Mandarin, Russian, and Japanese. I could tell by what was left of his book collection that he was really into philosophy and literature. Predictably, he was an excellent student with a lot of potential.

The six years that I knew him didn’t really showcase that though. By that time, his main courses were Budweiser and Marlboro. After he died, no one really talked about him in a nice way. But coming to my grandfather’s house, seeing the hopes and dreams my father left behind on those bookshelves, hearing the stories of his youth from both sides of my family made me realize the tragedy of my father and mother’s sacrifice. They escaped Vietnam for a better life for themselves and their children. But they left behind their tribe, dreams, and familiarity. America provided opportunities only if you could overcome the foreignness. It appears as though my father could not find his path, and so his days ended in melancholy. As it turns out, he wasn’t a bad guy. He was just human, going through a really bad time. This dictionary represents a piece of his dream, and a reminder to continue seeking my dream in order to honor the sacrifices that have gotten me to where I am today.

With every sunset I watch in Seoul, every whim I fulfill on my travels, every choice I make out of privilege, I’m so much more grateful for everything I’ve received. Who knew all it took was a vase, a ukelele, and a French-Vietnamese dictionary to feel a bit more complete.

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