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.


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!



Kitteh Endorsement



One of the critiques that I got about the book–one that I’d been expecting–was how I portray my mother’s voice. Her broken, heavily accented English. Would people think I’m mocking her, making fun of her? Then I thought about how I also portray my father’s voice–his slow, grammatically incorrect yet vernacularly appropriate twang. Let’s make this quite clear: these are the voices I’ve heard growing up and still hear in my head. They ARE my parents’ voices. And they are colourful, wonderful, unique–they are their own. And to portray them otherwise would be to erase those voices and all the quirks and highs and lows that come with them.

Several people suggested that it would be so wonderful and fun to do an audiobook version of What Doesn’t Kill Us. When I thought of the possibility, I became filled with glee.

When my father passed away almost nine months ago, I would call my parents’ house in the hopes of no one being home, so that I could hear my father’s voice on the answering machine. That simple message, “You reached the Worralls at 436-xxxx…,” wrapped around me like a thick blanket, warm and fresh from the dryer. I guess this is what I’m saying: when you’re writing stories about people you love, pay very close attention to the voices in your head, and in your heart.


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