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.