Archive for February, 2015

WARNING: The story I’m about to tell you is about my transformation from a tragic mulatta into a punk-ass half-breed bitch. I’ve probably already offended you with my appropriation and use of historical derogatory terms for mixed race/heritage people. You might think I’m being disrespectful by telling the story below. But people like me in Vietnam have not been respected. Their mothers were called whores for having relationships with American soldiers. My mother was called a traitor and a whore by her family when she married my father and got pregnant by him several times. My father was shunned for bringing home one of them, and it wasn’t until I was born in America that his family accepted my mother. I took a lot of crap for being an “Oriental” in school. My mother and sister didn’t get any respect when they visited their Vietnamese family 20 years later. My experience has been different from my sister’s, especially with our family here in Vietnam. But for three weeks, I’d avert my eyes when I felt people’s stares smacking my not-quite-Vietnamese face, and I’ve held my tongue. So it’s taken three weeks for this story to have taken place, or perhaps even longer, for what I experienced today, I’d never before experienced in my whole life.

We woke up at an ungodly hour to go to some mountain somewhere far away. I knew it involved a gondola. That’s it. That’s all I knew. We drove and drove and drove, and by mid-morning, we reached our destination. I was trying to figure out what this place, as my uncle, auntie, mom, and I were walking. This place seemed to be part (crappy) amusement park, part souvenir-hawking, part going up this mountain for the view. We went up the mountain on the gondola, the experience being very much like the other gondola experiences I’ve had. And yes, the view was nice.

(Hold on a sec. I gotta back up so you can check out this woman’s gnarly foot.)

When we got to the top, we exited and walked up a bunch of rocky stairs….to go to yet another temple. I know lots of people, whether or not Buddhism is their religion, are fascinated by temples, or I guess by big fancy religious places of interests in general, but I’m not. Chalk it up to me being non-religious, or me wanting the money and efforts spent on those fancy buildings actually being used to help people in need, but those places don’t interest me, and in fact, I’m sometimes repulsed by the grandiosity. So while my uncle, auntie, and mom went into the temple at the top of the mountain to give their offerings of incense, flowers, and money, I told them I would wait for them and sit down in one spot and write and drink beer.

In the 20 days that I’ve been in Vietnam, this was the very first opportunity that I was given to be by myself in public. My mom has been scared to leave me to myself outside, afraid someone will kidnap me or worse. I’m sure you can imagine. And really, I followed her fears. But I figured, hey, there are lots of people here on top of the mountain, they were going to be in the temple for a few minutes, and I’m just going to sit here and write. What could possibly happen? Here’s what happened.

Within seconds of placing myself on a step of a building where other people were sitting, this woman started sweeping all the garbage on the ground in a big pile right in front of me. Yea, she could have picked a different spot to pile her garbage, but eh, so what? Then this dude came around to sell me lottery tickets. These lottery ticket people are everywhere. Mom always buy five or ten tickets from these people, and they cost 50 cents each. I keep asking my mom, “What do you win? How do you know if you’ve won anything? How do you check?” She’s tells me she doesn’t know. She just gives them to Auntie. And there’s a ritual when choosing the tickets. Auntie goes through the booklet and tears out the ones she wants. I have no idea what the difference is. Lucky numbers, I’m guessing.

Anyway, this dude sees me writing and comes by with his lottery tickets. I say, “Không,” which means no. He still stands right in front of me, trying to make me feel uncomfortable. I wave him away. No dice. So I write in big letters in my journal, “Tôi là con lai Mỹ,” which means “I’m an American mixed kid.” I look at him and say, “Được rồi? Đi đi! Hết rồi.” This means “Okay already? Go away! Enough.” I go back to writing in my journal, and write this in HUGE letters, “Đụ má mày!” Or “motherfucker,” for those of you wishing to learn Vietnamese. He went away, but more lottery ticket hawkers swarmed me, and the people on the balcony above me were watching and talking about me. So I kept my journal open to the pages boldly declaring and owning what I am and that those who don’t like me can go fuck themselves (or their mothers, really, as the translation goes), and though I didn’t know how to write in Vietnamese that I didn’t want to buy any goddamn lottery tickets, I think they got the idea.  At that moment, my family came out from the temple, and I started off with them while maddogging every person who was staring at me. I told my family what happened (leaving out the swearing part because my mother would have slapped me across the head), and they laughed.  But when we got back down to the bottom of the mountain, she told me to just say I’m American, or Vietnamese American, and leave out the half-breed word. I said, “Why, Mom? After all, that’s why they’re staring at me, so I might as well just say it out loud for everyone to hear.  Tôi là con lai Mỹ.”  She shook her head.  We know the negative connotations, but fuck it, I’m gonna say it. Why should I be the only one made to feel uncomfortable?

We got back to the car, and I thought we were going back to the hotel. Little did I know that we were going to Tây Ninh, home of the original Cao Đài temple. Yes, another temple. But this one caught  my interest because this is mothership. Here’s a short summary of Cao Đài: it’s Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Vietnamese folklore all mixed together into an all-seeing eye. Wikipedia that shit. It’s wild. But that’s what my mom goes for, so it is. She usually just tells people she’s Buddhist because it’s too difficult for her to explain Cao Đàism, and to Americans, it all looks the same anyway.


However, I didn’t know that this is one of the stops on the South-to-North bus tour for foreigners. The first white guy I saw wore a tee that said, “I’m silently correcting your grammar.” I said, “I am too.” He gave me a confused look, partly because he was surprised to hear English coming out of my mouth. “Your shirt,” I said. He laughed. I said, “We word nerds have to stick together.” I saw him later after we made the rounds, and we chatted a little. He was with the other white people….lots of them! I wanted to take a picture with some. I mean, here they were, snapping photos of the masses of Cao Đaists in their white áo dài.

So I went up to this older white couple and asked them if they spoke English. With a surprising tone (I’m sure they never thought anyone in Vietnam would be asking them that question), they said “Yes?” And then I asked to take a pic with them. I said I wanted to take a picture with white people because I’m half white and happy to see them. They gave me a hesitant (and kinda offended) “Okay,” and I asked them where they were from. They said Holland. I told them, “Trust me, it’s okay because this is so postcolonial,” as I took the selfie. My mom gave me a look that said, “What you do?!” I grabbed her arm and told the couple, “This is my mom. Isn’t she cute?” They chuckled and quickly boarded their tour bus.


Oh shit, before I forget….here’s a monkey eating a watermelon! He even spat out the seeds.

So that was my day. Take that, multiracial identity politics! I’m an equal opportunity offender of both sides of me.

Ending on a positive note, here’s a cute pic of me, Mom, and Auntie, whom I told to SMILE!!!

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Je m’appelle Brandy, et je suis la mère de Chloë. La grand-mère de Chloë est Vietnamienne, et pour la première fois dans ma vie, j’ai l’occasion de voyager au Viêt Nam, un pays qui France avait colonisé pendant 1887-1954. Maman et moi, nous resterons au Viêt Nam jusqu’à Mars 1, 2015. Aujourd’hui au Viêt Nam, il est Nouvel An Vietnamien, ou Tết. Je voudrais partager avec vous des événements de notre voyage.

C’est moi et Maman le premier jour dans Long An, la province où ma famille habite.

C’est la ville, Bà Ria, où ma mère a voulu de visiter un temple Bouddhiste (particulièrement Cao Đài) à donner des offrandes pour Tết.

Ces moines ont reçu des offrandes de ma mère.

Après les rituels, les moines nous ont donné un petit déjeuner végétarien.

C’est une photo d’un arrangement floral pour Tết. Chúc Mừng Năm Mới traduit par Bonne Année. Ils y ont beaucoup de ces arrangements et des autres décorations partout Viêt Nam.




Des petit plaisirs pour Tết.

Pendant Tết, des maisons, des enterprises, et même notre hôtel ont les petits autels pour honorer les dieux et les esprits de famille et des amis qui étaient morts.

Ma mère et mes tantes au petit temple à Long An, à la veille de Tết.

Mes tantes et ma mère ont donné ces cadeaux, qui ont situé sur l’autel au temple.

Voici une motocyclette avec beaucoup de poulets!

Maintenant, voici des photos des fêtes de Tết en Saigon (ou Ho Chi Minh Ville). Ville est thành phố en vietnamien.

Ma tante et ma mère étaient devant l’exposition pour L’An du Bélier (ou le Chèvre ou le Mouton) de Bois. En Vietnamien, nous parlons Ất Mũi.

Il y a une rue des fleurs pour Tết (Đường Hoa), avec des milles des fleurs.


Nous avons mangé au restaurant sur Đường Hoa. Il y avait des choix intéressants sur le menu…Regardez!

Mais la vue de Đường Hoa du restaurant était très belle!


Quand nous avons retourné à l’hôtel pour se reposer, j’avais une surprise! Mon amie Kieu Linh, un professor en Californie, était la vedette d’une émission au sujet des gens Vietnamiens qui avaient immigré aux États-Unis et des autres pays (Việt Kiều, en Vietnamien). L’émission est une spéciale pour Tết.


J’ai porté áo dài, une robe Vietnamienne traditionnel, et je m’ai amusé avec mon ami Roland, qui avait éte mon ami pour vingt ans. Maintenant, Roland fait des films au Viêt Nam.

Ma tante, ma mère, et moi–nous avons regardé des masses dans les rue.

Beaucoup des gens, motocyclettes, voitures!

Un feu d’artifice à minuit!

La circulation était très folle. Il était très difficile à conduire!

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới, Các Bạn! (Bonne Année de la Chèvre de Bois Vert (précisément), Mes Amis!)

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After a quick hop in the air from Harrisburg to DC, the woman pushing my mom IMG_2090in a wheelchair and I ran like hell, going up and down 7 elevators and in one train to get to our gate in time. The woman, herself an American immigrant, understood how important it was for us to make our flight, and that is why she worked beyond her shift without pay to get us to the gate on time for our flight to Tokyo. Once in Tokyo, the next wheelchair woman and I had to run, go through security, and run to the gate to make our flight to Saigon. One 30-minute flight, one 15-hour flight, and one 6-hour flight later (with lots of running and sweating), we landed in Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Yeah, it was fucking insane. But there we were—my mother and I in the motherland.

IMG_2262As I watched the sunset tonight from my hotel room window in Tan An, I reflected on the last 5 days. It feels like I’ve been here much longer. It feels like last month, or maybe six months ago, that I was watching This is Where I Leave You and If I Stay on my marathon flights. Both movies have a common theme of what is left behind when someone dies, and what the people who are left behind do with their lives—how they deal with the sudden change. Change in a breath. Change you don’t see coming. Change that so cruelly stays forever, way beyond the fractioned-second moment it’d happened.

One of the main reasons I agreed to come to Vietnam with my mother was to find myIMG_2287 brother Hieu’s ashes. My older sister had come to Vietnam twice 20 years ago for that very reason as well, but she was unable to or forbidden to see his remains. Hieu and my sister were very close, not unlike my older two children who are joined at the hip. When my sister came to the U.S. with my mother and my father in 1971, and Hieu was left behind, a huge hole ripped open in her soul. I’m quite certain it has never been repaired. That moment changed her forever, and in time, it would change me too.

For two decades, I’ve been living with my brother Hieu’s ghost, especially in the way my sister would come apart with such deep sorrow over the years. When she first told me about him, I couldn’t believe that I had a brother, and that my mother had left him behind. For years I struggled with anger and confusion, wondering how any mother could leave her son behind and go to a different country. But as I got older, some of my questions were answered with Mom’s brief signs of remorse and regret. When my father died last year, the story of Hieu opened up, got bigger.

We all thought that Dad never knew about Hieu and how he was abandoned. But a few days before my father passed away, I asked him if he knew about Hieu. He simply nodded yes. He did know. But he didn’t want to cause Mom any pain, so he let her keep her secret, and he took his secret of knowing to the grave with him.

This is where Dad left us—not only with an unending bottomless pain, but also a liberation for my mother to tell her stories that she thought she couldn’t tell before.

Today, when I woke up, I didn’t know what was going to happen. I knew we were going to My Tho, but I didn’t know why. Before we headed off to My Tho, we went to Uncle’s house and picked him up. I was even more confused. I didn’t know that Uncle would be coming with us. I was sleepy and nodded off. When I woke up, we were parked along the side of the street, across from an alley. “Why are we here, Mom? Where’s Uncle going?” I asked, as my uncle disappeared into the alley. “He going look for your sister family.” I sat there, stunned. I didn’t know we were on this search today. He came back and told us that we had to go further down the road. We stopped again, he got out again, and came back. Further.

Finally, we stopped near the end of the street, and he told us to get out of the car. We IMG_2229walked down the narrow alley until we reached my sister’s aunt’s house. The woman was old, like 90-something Mom said. She was so happy to see us. And she chatted with mom. Her daughters came by as well. I got the Vietnamese affectionate touchy feely pat-down, my mother gave them some money, and then we left.

“Wait, Mom, aren’t we going to see Hieu’s ashes?” I asked as we walked down the alley to the car. “You want see that?” she asked quietly. “Uh, yeah, that’s why I’m here.” She told Uncle what I said, and we turned around and walked back to my sister’s aunt’s house. When she and Uncle tried to explain my wish, they started to discourage a visit. But I remained firm. “If Hieu’s ashes are at a temple around here, I want to see it, Mom. Tell them.” Mom got the courage to insist on us seeing Hieu’s ashes, and finally, they gave in. In some ways I didn’t expect them to agree so easily, after hearing my sister’s stories of how they aggressively denied her access. But this is something I need to process over some time.

Here is the emotional video I captured when I finally got to see Hieu’s ashes. I feel so so so much in terms of closure and in terms of opening up really ancient wounds. 

This is where Hieu was left. Would he still be alive today if Mom and Hanh had stayed? Life is so random, yet we are all fooled into an idea of permanence. This is what I’m left with now. This is where I stay.

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