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17 Days: Day 1

I assume we all have our own rituals
beginning today, even though today is March 9, and back then it was March 10—
it was a Monday, and that matters more.

I picture Mother kneeling, kowtowing to his picture and all the Buddhas,
goddesses, and all-seeing eyes at her altar, wooden prayer beads
around her neck falling forward as she does, supplicating
my father’s still nascent soul into someplace good,
so her soul will go someplace good someday too.

I picture Sister going about her day as usual,
nothing remarkable or special to note
except for the sadness that’s always there is deeper today,
and she tries to not know why.

I woke up today almost not knowing how today already has changed me
from yesterday, when I lay in convalescence from a malaise I’ll always have.

One year ago, I was on my way to where Father lay—
or I had pictured him lying, scared and confused,
or more likely resigned. On a plane, in the clouds,
I wondered why teleportation had not yet been invented,
why five hours is sometimes too long, sometimes not long enough.

Today I bring the heavy blue ceramic urn from the altar in my bedroom
to the kitchen table. I select small smooth pebbles and tiny seashells
to fill the candle holder. I can’t find my candles in the dark
where my husband sleeps.

I turn on the burner on the electric stove to 8 and wait
for the tip of my lavender incense to glow red.
Incense in the urn. Ashes to ashes.
(Oh god, Daddy, my heart!)

I make a pot of chamomile tea, three pinches of dried flowers
from the container to the pot, hot water hitting the flowers,
steam rising to meet my muffled sobs. I want to WAIL WAIL
CRY SHAKE at this utter bullshit,
but I know better than to wake my family like that.

So it will be. For the next 17 days, I will remember
each of those last 17 Days, now knowing how they were numbered
on Fate’s calendar,
each morning lighting incense on the stove,
my tears sizzling when they hit the burner,
upon contact, water and fire, brief pop,
just like his last breath,
the final laboured one after 17 days-worth.

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!!!

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.


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


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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.


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Ces moines ont reçu des offrandes de ma mère.


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


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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.

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Des petit plaisirs pour Tết.


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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.


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


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


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Voici une motocyclette avec beaucoup de poulets!


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


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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.


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

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


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

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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.

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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.


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


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Beaucoup des gens, motocyclettes, voitures!


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Un feu d’artifice à minuit!



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


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

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.

By this time next week

I’ll be in Vietnam. I can’t seem to adequately describe to anyone how profoundly terrifying this is to me because every time I say that I am going to Vietnam and that I’m nervous about it, the person with whom I’m talking dismisses my statement and says, “Oh, but you’re going to love it there!” And I have a big problem with that. Here’s why. You are not me. You did not grow up half-Vietnamese, half-White with two parents who were scarred by war in very different ways. You did not grow up not understanding the language your mother spoke but looking like you should. You did not grow up watching your father medicate himself against the visions he kept seeing of gruesome deaths of his friends. You did not have the nightmares that I have had about a place that you heard about all the time, but only in a limited context that you knew was far from the whole horrific story. You are not going alone with your Vietnamese mother, whose brain is super-fucked up from the sudden death of her husband of 44 years, who took care of everything that had to do with her survival in a country far from her family—your Vietnamese mother who can’t trust anyone because of all the times the people she did trust betrayed her and threatened to kill her or her family—your Vietnamese mother who knows this is likely the last time she will ever step foot in the country from which she came. You are not traveling with that baggage, Person I’m Talking To. So please, do not tell me how much I’m going to love it there just because you did, because the Vietnamese were so warm and accommodating to you and your Western ways, with your guidebook and your curiosity and fascination, with your conscience void of trauma–don’t tell me how much I’m going to love Vietnam because you don’t have a fucking clue.

I might. I might not. I don’t know. I just don’t want to be told. So don’t tell me. Don’t tell me anything. I’m used to not being told.

***

Vietnam, February 2015 (40 Years Later, soon)
Part II

He’ll guide me to the places
He always hid from me but wanted to show me
at the same time, when He could show no one else,
not even Her in their closest moments.
She only understood so much in the way
of the mythology of the GI Saviour born from/
strayed from/returned to Jesus Christ,
like how it was when He couldn’t rescue Her anymore,
and then it was Her turn to rescue Him,
console Him at the cross.

He was supposed to show me the places where
tourists marvel at the spectacle of war
as shown by the victors, while confiding in me
in good faith, the cynicism of governments
versus humans—people who become inhuman
with their power, in their power
while blood thickens mud.

So I’m told that this country is full of perfume,
sweat, sorrow and joy—the beauty of overcoming
this Thing that people visit, then leave all the time
because it is a country of dreams, so so so many of them—
but don’t forget the people left behind.

He couldn’t forget. She tried.
Except when tradition told Her to remember.
And still, She tried.
He’ll guide me to the places They couldn’t forget,
those places I know from which I truly came.

When Souls Go Somewhere

The rain, the soul of the world crying with me,
made me feel more hollow,
an unending blackness of WHY
sighed like that last breath breathed out,
an eternity of last sighs.

The light turns red, and our car stops by
a homeless guy in a mud-splattered poncho
with a warped cardboard sign about
being homeless and having a terminal illness.
“Hey Buddy!” I shout inside my head.
“Life is a fucking terminal illness!”

And it sucker-punches you in the gut,
the light turning green and how things are still going,
but he is not.
He stays glued to that hospital bed, head still beading
with cold sweat, breath shallow,
aggressive cadence on the chest until the last beat,
he stays there, and he can’t feel you touch him anymore
but all that is in you washes out so fast you can’t breathe,
just like him, you want to choke on that last breath, just like him,
you want to stop moving, just like him. But you can’t.

The car pulls up to the curb. The rain keeps on.
I open the door. I steady myself
because this is today. This is one foot
in front of the other.
This is me, and how he used to be.

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Alliteration Altercations

I like alliterative themes so here it is: your challenge for 2015. Post and hashtag these days of the week, and I promise you, your life will change, my friends.

Mod Mondays
Toothy Tuesdays
Weird Wednesdays
Throw-back Thursdays (cuz it already exists, I guess)
Freaky Fridays
Sadistic (or Salivating, if you’d rather keep the peace) Saturdays
Sullied Sundays

Check out this amazing Facebook contest! Please participate, and share widely!

Fun referral contest! You already like this Facebook page? That’s awesome. How about your share the love with your friends? If you go to the left side of my page, you’ll see a thing that says “Invite your friends to like this page.” That’s where you can invite your friends.
Here are the contest rules:
1) Invite your friends to like the page.
2) On your wall, tell your friends that if they go ahead and like my page, to post to my author page that you were the one who invited them to like it.
3) I will keep track of the posts and likes. The person who gets the most people to like my page and post their referrals will win an autographed copy of What Doesn’t Kill Us, a beautiful full-sized autographed poster of the book, our awesome bookmark collection, and a poem written especially for you!
4) Contest ends at 11:59PM on December 31, 2014.
Feel free to share this status update too, so that your friends who like my page can participate in the contest!
Good luck!

//

Mark your calendars, Vancouverites and visitors to our wonderful city! Thursday, January 15, 2015 will be a night to remember, as I read from What Doesn’t Kill Us, as well as share new work from 17 Days, my work-in-progress that’s the sequel to WDKU. In addition, jazz musician Laurel Murphy will be joining me and performing songs from her just-released and much-anticipated CD, When I Was a Bird. A portion of the sales from the my book and Laurel’s CD will be donated to Callanish Society, a small non-profit organization that serves individuals and families dealing with cancer. Please join us for this special event, bring your family and friends, and spread the word! Happy Holidays!

WDKU-Heartwood

WDKUpr

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