I blame my legs. These non-proportionate stumps that move me around. They loathe when I sit around too much and love it when I push them too hard.
Like the time I nearly collapsed from the shooting pain in my right knee during the 40+ mile trek through the Annapurna Circuit in Nepal. It was the last day of our 4-day hike and I wanted so badly to just sleep for an entire month. Instead, I popped a dozen Ibuprofens and pushed myself until I landed in the van that drove us back to Kathmandu. My knee was mad at me for a while after that, making it difficult to walk up and down flights of stairs for weeks afterwards, but we both know that it was worth it.
Because wanderlust is insatiable, and my legs gobble it up. One in front of the other, marching forward because they know no other way.
Where will they bring me next?
From Saigon, Vietnam. February 2007.
Happy valentine’s day (or another painful reminder of my one-year forced celibacy.) Don’t take it for granted, my friends.
Just like I wanted to. Even sunburned.
We're in Mui Ne with beautifully pristine beaches and cheap seafood.
Today we're gonna go sand sledding down big ol' sand dunes!
I woke up much earlier than the break of dawn with the gnarliest poops ever, and I'm blaming it on the southeast AZN hallucinogens. From now on, I'll stick strictly to shrooms plucked from the dung of southern cows.
Rick and I bounced around in a tuk-tuk as the driver peered over his dirty windsheild to navigate through the pre-dawn darkness. My belly was feeling better and we were heading to Hanoi for a connecting flight to Saigon.
We've only been in Saigon a few hours and we've already been overcharged for pho, solicited for a cramped cyclo ride and I have also bought a counterfeit book (Lonely Planet's Vietnam guide). Tonight is the eve of Tet, the Lunar calendar new year. I'm gonna try to meet up with my second cousin then wander the streets of Saigon watching flashes of fireworks and firecrackers explode in celebration.
Chúc mừng năm mới (Happy New Year!)
The full Vietnam Fotorama has many morezies!
From le “Monster of Fun” column in Razorcake #29. I designed the cover! Check it:
First Encounter with the Third World
‘It’s like Back to the Future, third-world style.’
‘It isn’t that bad,’ my mother said after reading what I had written on a postcard intended for the States. Even with her semi-limited understanding of English, she had no trouble deciphering my exaggerated claims about the country where she and my father were born and raised, survived a war, and ultimately, fled from.
Returning to Vietnam with my parents was like being a secret trespasser to an alternate storyline of my life if mom had squeezed me out in some dingy hospital room in a remote jungle village rather than having given birth to me in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, nestled between downtown skyscrapers and the Hollywood sign. My version of Quantum Leap plays in slow-motion, in a foreign language without subtitles. The Viet me finds simple pleasure from a leisurely trip on the back of a small motorbike, riding through the countryside, rather than constantly sitting on congested highways racing for more money, alcohol, and things I can’t even remember.
Mom was right. It wasn’t so bad and it could’ve been worse:
‘I didn’t throw a fit when a man walked into my path and shot snot onto my bare leg.
‘Ewww!’ I screeched. I looked at mom, who tried hard not to laugh.
‘You’re in Vietnam,’ she said matter-of-factly.
‘What’s that supposed to mean?!’ I asked, still coping with the shock of having some dude’s nasal slime splatter on me.
‘Vietnam means dirty.’
‘What’re you talking about? In what language?!’
‘Vietnam means dirty in Vietnamese?!!’
She grinned and nodded. When she says that Vietnam means dirty in Vietnamese, she doesn’t say it with disdain or pity. It is as if she read that fact in a world almanac, in a special trivia section that explains the name origins of various nations.
‘I didn’t even cringe when my youngest cousin asked if I was pregnant, or when a second cousin poked at my round stomach and suggested that we shop for a special waist-cinching elastic girdle-type contraption. I was at a lost to justify my beer belly. How does one explain the effects of having worked an almost sedentary desk job for two years, the compulsive consumption of alcohol, and that my insatiable appetite for In N Out were to blame? Instead of defending my physical deformity, I just smiled because I was so amused that I was a ‘fat American’ at a buck twenty.
‘I didn’t need to be hospitalized after violating the first rule of traveling to Southeast Asia and ingested tap water. I didn’t refuse the unrefrigerated glass of Tiger beer and practically welcomed the ice cubes that were tossed in. I don’t know what’s worse: getting explosive shits from beer of having to drink it with ice.
So, when mom tells me that present-day Vietnam doesn’t even compare to the thought of Marty McFly landing in Saigon before April 30th, 1975 in some souped up sports car, I believe her.
After we boarded the plane to Ho Chi Minh City, mom was trying to figure out where the restrooms were but she couldn’t remember how to ask in Vietnamese. She spent her first twenty-one years living in a one-bedroom home with her parents, aunt, and five siblings in rural Tung Nghia. Since we’re ethnically Chinese, she’d spent the last twenty-seven years in the States only speaking Cantonese, Mandarin, passable English, and some Spanish. Vietnamese used to roll out of her without even thinking, but now she had a better chance of finding a toilet in Springville, Alabama than she did on a plane ride to her native Vietnam.
This was the first time my folks have been back to Vietnam and mom’s inability to ask for the most basic amenity was a sign that they didn’t just leave this land physically, but that their hearts never belonged to that country either.
When asked about the trip, I always automatically explain that ‘we’re going back to Vietnam.’ It never felt dishonest to say that I was returning to a place I’ve never been to because that country is in my favorite catfish soup mom cooks, and in the curve of dad’s spine as he squats to work on another project like a third-world MacGyver. Vietnam floats through my parents’ American suburban home like the smell of the incense that my brothers burn every day for our ancestral alter. There’s a spot in my heart, soft and nostalgic, for a place that my parents no longer considered home’and even when they did live there, all they dreamt about was escape.
For the past three decades, much of our extended family has trickled into the States to enjoy Kentucky Fried Chicken’s original recipe, reel in deals by buying bulk at Costco, and lounge lazily in front of the omnipresent big screen TV’the ultimate symbol of immigrant success. But there were those who had not made it here, and we returned to visit. The cost of the trip was more than just airfare and spending money because if you were fortunate enough to earn a living in America, you were expected to share your wealth. Years of my parents’ savings were going to stay behind in small jungle villages. As working class folks, dad has been putting in time as a embossing machine operator at a box factory since before I was born, and mom has spent the last decade slowly working her way up from serving Chinese fast food to managing other servers. Even so, they earn more in a month than what my farmer uncle makes in two years.
Twenty-seven years ago, mom and dad left Vietnam without a moment’s notice when a refugee boat picked them up at the right place at the right time. They endured a three-day journey to Thailand, where they risked pirate attacks and death from exposure and lack of anything remotely hospitable. Mom suffered motion sickness the entire way; vomiting and dry heaving over the side when she had nothing left to expel. Dad took care of her and that’s how they wound up together. They left with the clothes on their backs and without a dime between the both of them. Now they returned as millionaires, at least in terms of Vietnamese currency: $100 USD is 1,500,000 Dong.
I have two sets of paternal grandparents: the ones who gave birth to dad and his aunt and uncle who raised him like he was their own. A-Mah, dad’s adoptive mom, is my only living paternal grandparent. In all these years, I had never even seen a photo of her. Then after months of daydreaming about the strip of land that could have nurtured me, there I was sitting beside her as we rode into Saigon.
‘You’re here,’ she said. Her small eyes beamed from beneath wrinkled, droopy eyelids. ‘You’ve come all this way to see where A-Mah lives.’ She placed her hand on my knee. Her tenderness and warmth flooded my body. My heart filled and gushed with my blood, our blood, and the color rushed back to the surface of my yellow skin.
Her gaze drifted away from me slowly as she looked at the serene madness outside. My pupils followed her eyes and scattered across the streets of Saigon from the belly of Manh Sok’s rickety Korean-made Mercedes van. Manh Sok, dad’s youngest adoptive brother and biological cousin, navigated through the chaos of motorbikes and bicyclist with infinite finesse. Everyone lurched forward at once like an orchestrated acrobatic automobile routine, going in all directions and inches from one another, seemingly seconds away from an accident.
I was hypnotized by the rhythm of traffic and the constant beep of horns. It was difficult to imagine that a war ended here, with this city in defeat. I looked out at the faces of the dark-skinned men in thin dress shirts, the women in matching pajamas and large-brimmed caps. They were all preoccupied with daily lives and not concerned with being a post-war nation whose very name is synonymous with warfare. My parents seldom discussed living amongst gunfire and falling bombs, and my brothers and I never asked because we saw them as just our parents and not as victims of violence beyond our comprehension. I always understood that mom and dad are survivors, and as I watched the city pulsate with heat and energy, it became clear that Vietnam endured and moved on with the sort of humility that is a delicate balance of having defeated the world’s most powerful nation while trying to emerge from a third-world shell.
We spent the next month visiting. We visited family, many of whom I didn’t even know existed, like my eighteen-year-old first cousin who told me that they had old photos of my brothers and me when we were children posing on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. I felt ashamed that there was family thinking of us this entire time and I didn’t know they were alive. We visited the graves of my two paternal grandfathers and a maternal great-grandfather. My great-grandfather’s gravesite was the size of a small studio apartment set on the side of a lush, green hill that overlooked Tung Nghia. Hell Bank Notes were burnt for him because he enjoyed gambling when he was still alive and it was a given that he’d be doing the same in his afterlife. My grandfathers’ burial lot was hidden on a piece of farmland in Bao Binh. Their graves were large heaps of weed-covered dirt that sat against simple white headstones engraved with red characters. We burnt gold notes for them too, and a couple paper suits fitted with sandals and reading glasses. We prayed to our ancestors, asking them to watch after us even though they never laid eyes on us while they were here.
The entire time we were there, we indulged in a single day of tourism. All I wanted was to visit the Cu Chi Tunnels because when there’s cuchi to crawl through, I'm your man. I was a sweaty little Viet Cong after creeping through the intricate tunnel system and I also enjoyed an old grainy, black and white informational video on the history of the tunnels where they said American soldiers were ‘like a crazy batch of devils, they fired into women, children, and chicken.’ We couldn’t leave Cu Chi without partaking in some crazy devil activity ourselves and we shot off a dozen rounds on an AK-47, aiming into a dirt field with paper targets featuring menacing orange tigers. I can’t blame them for capitalizing on the war and our primal need to shoot things.
The day before we left, we celebrated A-Mah’s 81st birthday with a banquet dinner that was held on the muddy pasture of my uncle’s land. About 150 people crammed beneath a bright pink tent, sitting at round tables enjoying an eight-course meal, trying to avoid the occasional downpour in between hot dishes of fried shrimp and roasted duck. The night before, the entire family stayed up until three in the morning to pay homage to A-Mah in a Buddhist birthday ceremony. Three dozen of us, all of A-Mah’s kin, crowded onto a hard wooden mat in the living room where we sat on our legs facing an altar and bowed our heads in unison. Mom said that all of us huddled together in the middle of the night looked like a picture from a refugee camp. Outside, the night was so dark that it was difficult to even see your hand in front of you. Earlier that week, I was on a back of a motorbike speeding down the main paved road in front of A-Mah’s house, clutching onto my cousin as cool air rushed passed us. There were no streetlights, just vague beams coming from nearby homes. I couldn’t see and I didn’t know where we were going, but I felt completely safe. It felt natural, comfortable. It felt like home.