About Wonder Woman But Mostly My Dead Grandfather

Lynda Carter’s Wonder Woman was the only superhero I grew up with.

I saw Spider-Man and Superman on balloons and piñatas my parents found too indulgent to splurge on, but my father’s father had a DVD set of the ’70s Wonder Woman TV series. I was often left in his and my grandmother’s care, and we watched it together, casually but constantly.

It wasn’t that long ago that I laid in bed listening to a boy who didn’t care about me teach me the nuances of Adam West’s Batman and the Jason Todd Robin, but the words to the old Wonder Woman theme were probably among the first I ever picked up in English: In your satin tights, fighting for your rights — and the old red, white, and blue!

I didn’t see Batman v Superman, so I only first heard the new Wonder Woman theme in theaters a couple days ago. It sounds nothing like the old disco-y jingle — it thumps and writhes like “Immigrant Song” — but I felt the way I did as a 6-year-old watching Lynda Carter rescue men from water and trees and their own incompetences. For a brand-new fragment of music daring to attach itself to a decades-old character, it felt inescapably familiar, and I wept, and I spent the third act of the movie (the weakest act anyway) thinking about the grandfather who’d connected me to this franchise in the first place.

  1. This is a eulogy I think I’m now old enough to give — or rather, maybe it’s been long enough that I should update the essay I wrote right after the funeral. That writing embarrasses me now, as this eventually also will, but I’ll just write something new when this starts to rot.
  2. Dead people are easier to write about, in some ways. The discrepancies are easier to summarize, sandpaper down to a splinterfree, coherent characterization. I’m free to remember my cremated grandfather as glittery or wise or cruel or kind as I want, the only thing in my way being good taste.

Here are things I know about you, among others I only hear: you were brilliant and severe, quick with language and quick to laugh, stubborn and contrary and usually right. You carried your money in a fanny pack, or on a pouch around the neck, like a year-round tourist. You were tall—almost 7', but I only knew you with a stooped spine. I didn’t realize your height until mẹ pointed out how much room you take up straightened out, lying asleep. You were exceptionally cheap and exceptionally generous, a big believer in buying in bulk. You liked kimchi and Hong Kong cinema. You liked that I draw and paint and write, and you bought me oils before I deserved them. In middle school, you gave me a secondhand SAT prep book for a version of the exam they’d stopped administering in 2005.* You didn’t tell people you loved often enough that you did; you and your pride and your impatience hurt people who loved you. You loved me. Ba looks more like you every time I see him. You could be brutal. You were good with plants, and you spent most of your life in the sun. Once, in the first grade or so, as the school bus dropped me off, a classmate asked me whether you were black.

You worked on a farm but were also some sort of headmaster at a point, and you had an doctorate in agriculture — maybe from the University of Vermont, but I don’t really know. I didn’t even know your name. You changed it. (You were named after the village where you were born, and it bolsters me to know other Vietnamese, let alone non-Vietnamese, people found your name as odd as they do mine. (Imagine a boy named Las Vegas.)) Here, in the States, you were Kim, but I calling you anything but ông nội feels wrong. Even “you” tastes foreign.

In Paris, you were a Vietnamien—a consequence of colonialism, brilliant or not. (I don’t know much of your time in England, but you were there, too. It made me smile to hear you once nearly fistfought a British man for being disrespectful. Checks out.) When you moved here, to my homeland — this time as a refugee, not a scholar — you suffered and endured. (I don’t ask ba about New York and New Jersey because it sounds awful and precious, and I don’t dare intrude on whatever you two shared those years. But I don’t think you deserved that much cold.)

You would scold me for such foolish sentimentality, but at least part of the reason I went to Sapa a couple summers ago — during my week off from the Beijing language program I was in (and it’s no coincidence that you spoke Mandarin) — was to look for you, to make something grownup of a relationship I’d only had 13 years with. Keeping my hair long reminds me of you, you called it pretty, but so did cutting it to my jawline later that summer. (I needed to cause physical change to my person to remind myself that it was mine.) With my hair as dark as that of everyone I’m descended from, shortly to be the shortest I’ve had it since I was a toddler, I stood before the Lào Cai station, staring up at letters naming a place that, a month before, I hadn’t known to be your childhood home. I tried to be still, and I tried not to imagine anything that wasn’t there, and I tried not to give that backwoods downtown any importance it wasn’t due. I waited for the train with some white backpackers, and I translated for them. I got some food, and the waiter commented on my Huế accent, which only exists in contrast, when I’m anywhere but Huế proper. My Vietnamese isn’t really from anywhere but our pine-shaded house off Antoine Drive. A bit of your/bà nội’s Northern primness, a touch of Sài Gòn from ba, a lot of Huế from my mother.**

We’re moving. You planted the pines in our front yard three or so decades ago; I’d take them with us if I could. I’ll miss them as dearly as I do the ties in your closet.

I never know what to do at temple when we visit. Ba mẹ never taught me how to pray, and I never got down all the mechanics. At the altar, I bow at the waist and bring my clasped hands down, but I can’t figure out the fingers or elbows or shoulders. There are too many joints. It’s always a relief to head to the smaller pagoda out back, where I usually end up just crouching before your urn, a shelf up from the bottom. It’s strange to see a whole eighth of myself contained in so small a box.

I’m not ashamed I can’t write you as truly in Vietnamese or French, but I do wish I could.*** Of the things I carry, these are yours: ideas and ideals of transgression, irreverence, and uncompromising righteousness. A love of camp and Wonder Woman.

I was so young when you died my sophomore year of high school, everything I feel relative to you is conjecture. But if people are to compare me to you, I might as well remember you in the best light I can, as someone worth aspiring to. I don’t think you watched Wonder Woman with me with any grand intention of empowerment, but any lessons I did take from her were allowed to stand unopposed. Before this version of you, I don’t feel small. I feel worthwhile; I feel that my flaws and errors are, too. I feel gracious and capable, almost enough to not resent generations of foreign occupation and a lifetime of you being made to pay cultural tribute in ways you never agreed to.

I don’t know a lot about you, but as far as I know, you thought I had nerve. I’m graduating the day after the next, from a school you didn’t live to see me even apply to. I miss you every day — these days, especially. I wish you were here — I always do.

* I’ve found that this makes people raise or furrow one or both eyebrows, or otherwise cringe. After all, it’s chic to let people know that you (too!) think America’s students today are over-tested, that you (too!) know how problematic the Ivies/HYSPM are. I’d rather people keep their pity. It is important to me to make clear that I did not take this as an act of aggression, shepherding me toward the long, foggy path of ~elite~ college admissions. To me, this was just an articulation of faith, picking up on aspirations I’d independently expressed.

** Here’s a quick primer to what these dialects sound like, if you’re interested and like, not my grandfather.

*** Medium can’t handle the diacritics, anyway, and you did write a doctoral thesis in English, even if I never heard a single English word leave your mouth.