Posts Tagged ‘mixed race’

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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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.

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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!



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It’s my birthday! Happy 39th to me! One way I’ve decided to celebrate is by making the Kindle version of my book free for a limited time. So tell all your friends, and if you haven’t already gotten a copy, go get yours now before the promotion period ends.

When I started the publishing journey with this book over two years ago, I was so excited to have numerous agents thrilled to represent my work. Even though I had all the skills and networks to have moderate success with publishing my own memoir, I decided to go the traditional route and have it sent out to publishers in the hopes of getting a decent contract. My agent has been incredible in guiding me through this process, and my book has landed in the laps of several reputable editors. However, as much as they loved the book, they could not get it past the true gatekeepers of the publishing industry–the marketing people. I was told that though my voice was fresh and raw and my story was compelling, the market already had too many “cancer memoirs.” My book was boiled down to those two words, and anything else that makes it unique, timely, and nuanced was made invisible, erased. Also, what these responses say to me is that the “cancer memoir” is done and over, nothing more to be said about it, we’ve heard these stories too much already, unless you’re a celebrity–which I find completely ridiculous. So I made the leap and decided to move forward with publishing the book through my publishing company, Rabbit Fool Press.

The one regret that I have with spending time going the traditional publishing route and not trusting my gut initially with self-publishing is that my father passed away before seeing the book in print. He was excited for me to write this and tell our family’s stories, but he died the day my agent told me that the book was ready to be sent out to the publishers. He did manage to read the first few chapters after he was diagnosed–and he laughed appreciatively. That was awesome. I’m glad he was at least able to do that.

So on my birthday, and in honour of my dad who passed away from cancer which was thought to be caused by exposure to Agent Orange, we are making the Kindle version available free for a limited time. If you agree that this story is worth being heard–that other cancer stories are worth being heard–then share this status with everyone you can, download the book, consider buying the paperback, ask your public library to purchase the book, teach the book, and come out to see me when I do a book tour in Spring 2015. This book’s success depends on grassroots efforts of the communities with which I am aligned–communities that I know all care about making silenced and untold stories known and heard.


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