Memories from ten years with Vietnam
September 25th, 2003
“While in Vietnamese class, my thầy told me that I’ve been reading well and that made me feel good. I know that I have a lot of work to do with the language and know that sometimes I forget how to give even a simple hello, how are you, but I’m trying my best and that’s all I can do.”
September 29th, 2003
“Today I submitted my final piece of the study abroad application that I’ve been working on: a $45.00 check and a figurative farewell to the States, assuming I get into SIT. Let’s hope I get in man.”
November 18th, 2003
“I got a letter in the mail today notifying me that I have been awarded a $4000.00 scholarship for study abroad in Vietnam next semester; thank god for people willing to put faith in the desire of the youth to learn. I’m so lucky.”
December 7th, 2003
“Yesterday I attended a study abroad orientation that lasted for three hours. Of the things I learned, the most I took out of the meeting was that I would be shell-shocked and homesick at times.”
February 18th, 2004.
Daddy never supported my decision to go. He had given me a large pocket knife the previous Christmas and I’d made the mistake of not only storing it in a carry-on but telling the Singapore Airlines agent at LAX that there were no sharp objects inside of my luggage.
This error in judgment at twenty-one years old in a post-9/11 America nearly prevented me from making my flight to Ho Chi Minh City, the final destination for what would be my first international flight and the start of the semester abroad that changed things.
I was the last passenger to board SQ12, visibly shaken by a mean TSA interrogation and winded by a full sprint to my gate. My lasting memories from that moment were relief and sadness. I was on my plane but with thirty hours of travel ahead of me and no tangible keepsake from my father.
It wasn’t until just before he died that he finally began to accept that Vietnam wasn’t a phase or random act of asserted independence. He never acknowledged the importance this country had in developing my manhood and I suspect it was in part because he thought I loved Vietnam more than him. I can’t recall us ever having a conversation about my life here that didn’t end with “When are you coming home?”
My most embarrassing mistake during my first semester in Saigon was sitting in an internet cafe on Dong Khoi one morning and firing off an email to Bao Phi—a Vietnamese American spoken word artist and community activist—and telling him that I appreciated how he kept it real.
After spending four months here as a coddled foreign student I developed the idea that I had agency over determining who was Vietnamese, Vietnamese American, American Born Vietnamese, Overseas Vietnamese, real Vietnamese, fake Vietnamese, and just enough Vietnamese.
It was a very cringeworthy, self-congratulatory approach to interacting with the world. What could have been an email simply thanking Bao for his poetry, which I’d heard and deeply admired firsthand during college, turned into an awkward exchange that ended with me feeling like a gated community kid who asks confused questions about Black hair and water.
This was the first time I internally acknowledged that if I ever were to build a life here, I’d need to shut up and listen. I’d been so eager as a kid to gain acceptance into any group by talking about who I was and hoping to find others like me or myself in others.
The Vietnamese life experience will never be mine. I was young and silly and didn’t know any better and thought that I could will my way into understanding all of it.
I was taught a useful lesson.
June 3rd, 2004
“Tonight I said goodbye to the Spring 2004 students of SIT with no more than a nod of acknowledgement and ‘if it matters, I know we’ll meet again…’ ‘cuz that’s life. If it matters, it will happen.”
I had returned to the United States during the summer of 2004 and knew that I wouldn’t stick around Rice University long. I wanted to quit. I hated everything about my first two years at the school: the drinking; my academic underachievement; how lonely and depressed I always felt; how I was never fully comfortable in my own skin to be my authentic self. My future was full of best guesses and failed attempts at sticking to one field of study. One year I wanted to be an engineer, the next a doctor, and the next a lawyer.
Were it not for Asian Studies I do not think that I would have ever graduated from Rice. It was the one field that I knew for a fact was a poor career decision—a B.A. was all I could stand—but the one field that gave me joy. Reading about and studying Vietnam kept me connected to the place when I wasn’t here. I had all but emotionally checked out of my life at Rice, and whatever I could do to finish up there while not losing hold of Vietnam I would do. So I bided my time in Houston during the second half of 2004 and returned here at the beginning of 2005, happy to be away from Texas again.
SIT had just opened a new additional study abroad program in Cần Thơ, at the time a four hour drive away from Ho Chi Minh City. Whereas my first ever trip to Vietnam was done with more than a dozen other students, the Mekong Delta trip only contained three. I stuck largely to myself, as the two other American students were girls who were new to Vietnam and sometimes in separate classes.
It was in 2005 that I became a part of my homestay sister’s family. When I talk about family in Vietnam, she’s who I am talking about. It’s been nine years and I’ve been there for the entire duration of her children’s lives. I love her, her husband, and her children like they are blood.
In Cần Thơ I felt so special and loved.
Falling in Love.
It’s hard for people to understand me when I say that I grew up in Vietnam; it doesn’t make sense to them and it’s ambiguous, so what I now say is that I became a man here. Most of what I know about self-sufficiency and navigating relationships I learned here. And everything I know about falling in and out of love I learned from Vietnam.
I returned to the States in 2005 to take some time off from school and then finish my degree at Rice. I had met a girl in Saigon during 2004 who had also just moved to Texas. She contacted me and told me that she was living in Houston and asked me if I was nearby. We had met in Ho Chi Minh City and a year later were living twenty minutes away from each other in Houston.
We got to know each other, fell in love, and for a few years she was all I knew how to care about, even at the expense of myself. We both felt so alone in Houston and kept each other sane, mixing our lives from Vietnam and America together to create a sense of comfort in which we both found peace.
But we were immature, young, and emotional. Half of our time was spent loving each other and half of our time was spent threatening to hurt each other. It was a dangerous, unstable relationship founded on codependency and passion, and yet it felt like the most beautiful love I had ever known.
We discussed having children together, a plan for if she became pregnant, and whether or not she would be willing to move back to Vietnam with me. It felt weird that she wanted to be in the States and I wanted to be in Vietnam.
2007 was the closest I’ve ever been to marriage.
I’m often asked if I want to marry a Vietnamese or American woman. I always answer that it doesn’t matter, but the odds of me ending up living with an American in Vietnam or Southeast Asia are slim. I’d likely sooner marry a European in Hanoi.
The reason I haven’t been in a serious, long relationship in seven years is due to how much I’ve moved around, how much the first cut hurt, and how my fear of dying with regret for not living to my full potential has been stronger than my need to build a new family. It’s not that I’m not open to love; it’s that it’s easy for me to let go when I think that building something with someone won’t make us happier in the long term.
Two events in my life have completely broken me. One was the death of my father on November 24th, 2009. He died in Rusk County, Texas, and was found by my older brother with a laceration on his face. An autopsy performed three-and-a-half hours after his passing revealed the cause of death to be hypertensive cardiomyopathy alongside the presence of alcohol and alprazolam. The laceration likely happened against a coffee table after he stumbled and fell.
“Additional findings at autopsy include cirrhosis of the liver and chronic pancreatitis. Based on information available at this time, the Manner of Death is classified as Accident.”
He was 55 years old and on November 28th, 2009, he was buried.
The three days between when he died and when we said goodbye to him were numb. I was so crippled with shock that I wasn’t able to process what was happening. All I could focus on was buying a matching belt, pants, and coat set for his funeral. I couldn’t give any attention to the fact that our last ever in-person meeting ended in another fight about Vietnam.
My relationship with my father was fractured and complicated. I moved out of his house at 14 and didn’t speak to him again until I was 18. At 19, I moved from Longview, Texas, to Houston, Texas, for college, and at 21 I left for Vietnam. Between 5 and 14 I spent some time with him and some time with my mother. He simply wasn’t around for the big changes, like the weight loss or the move to New York for a summer job or the move to another country. I tried my best to keep him up to date via my brother and sister, who have always lived in Texas, but our relationship was complicated. The last stable, happy memory I have of us together is from when I was a young child.
Still, he was my God and the closest thing to absolute authority that I will ever know. I feared him with every fiber of my being and respected him. He was more powerful than any other man I’ve ever met and the reason why I have a problem blindly taking orders from anyone.
My father was so flawed in so many ways—but so am I—and I suspect that the reason we rarely sat in harmony is that we both demanded respect from each other. Respect is more valuable to me than money, status, or material goods. It has either made or ruined every relationship that has mattered.
Before dying my father told me that the reason we had a troubled life together was because we were one and the same. We fought in our own ways, his through sheer fury and mine through deafening silence. He yelled whenever he was angry. I walk away and shut people out. Both killed us.
After his death my best friend saw me through two-and-a-half years of crippling anxiety, panic, and depression, trying to pick up the pieces around me. You learn who your friends are when panic and anxiety take over your life. They remind you time and time again that things will be okay.
I lost a few close friends in the States after his death because I felt like they didn’t care about how much I was suffering. It was one of the weakest moments of my life and a few friends who I thought cared couldn’t be bothered to check in on me.
The ones who were in Vietnam called, and the ones who I’d met in Vietnam and had returned to their countries called. The ones living closest to me didn’t. That hurt.
December 2009 — Summer 2010.
I spent time in Texas and Mexico after Daddy’s death trying to pick myself up, spending six months in what was an abyss. I felt like I was dying and suffered from severe panic attacks with increasing frequency. I called the police at least four times during the span of a few weeks, crying and asking for them to send help because my heart was beating too fast. I made no sense and felt so weak, and didn’t understand why my father’s death had crushed me so much. I thought I was smarter than that.
My mind and body were a wreck.
Weight and body image have always been a struggle throughout my entire life, and one month after Daddy’s death I hit rock bottom. Between 15 and 18 I lost around 125 pounds with my mother’s help and encouragement, and between 24 and 27 I put it all back on. At my heaviest I weighed nearly 360 pounds, had taken up smoking, and was diagnosed with Panic Disorder.
Imagine knowing that you need to exercise but being afraid to exercise because you might trigger another panic attack. It’s a vicious, vicious cycle that I do not wish on my worst enemy.
Being afraid to shower alone, to lock my doors, and to be isolated all dominated my thinking during these months and in order to lose weight I cut down on my food intake while trying my best to walk at least a little bit. The way that I lost weight again was primarily by not overeating, the same way that I had lost it during high school.
I do not feel ashamed of my body in Vietnam, and it’s not because people do not tell me that I’m fat, or big, or tall. They tell me it all the time, so much so that it’s simply a point of fact and not a way of hurting me. In America fat is a loaded word, people are afraid to disclose their weights, and fat people blame genetics on their conditions rather than poor lifestyle choices. America makes it both okay to be fat and not okay to talk about how being fat is bad.
The culture around being obese in America made it easy for me to stay obese because people are dishonest about it. In Vietnam, strangers will tell me that I have gained weight, that I need to stop eating so much, and that I need to take better care of myself. They are not doing it to be mean or rude; they are saying these things because they are true and there is no filter when it comes to remarking on someone’s appearance. This doesn’t work for some people.
It works for me because if someone in Vietnam tells me that I’ve gained or lost weight it means that they’ve been paying attention to me and they care.
I didn’t stop suffering from severe panic attacks until two or three years after Daddy’s death. I still have high anxiety and worry that another one will come, but it’s not like it was before. The last part of 2009 and early part of 2010 were the worst points of my life. I’m thankful to have had someone by my side during that time.
The first time that I ever came to Hanoi was in 2004 with my study abroad group. I hated it here. I didn’t like the people, the culture, the food, the weather, or anything about the lakes. I had grown so in love with my time in Saigon and had been so influenced by my Vietnamese friends in the States and Vietnam that the thought of living in Hanoi had never crossed my mind. Still, after my father’s death and having been away from Vietnam for a year I knew that I needed to return.
I applied to guest lecture a course in advanced web development at Hanoi University through Volunteers in Asia because an old friend who I met during 2004 had become the Vietnam program director of the NGO. As with everything else in my life related to Vietnam, the timing seemed to work out.
When I returned to Hanoi six years after first visiting things had changed. I no longer enjoyed Saigon and thought that the city was too crowded and too hectic for a peaceful life. My father’s death had made me colder and harder, which seemed to work more suitably with Hanoians. The lakes here gave me a sense of stability; they were so still and calm. The weather became a constant topic of conversation, which I enjoyed. The women cared and talked about things that I cared and talked about. The food wasn’t sugary like it was in the south. There was so much culture, both foreign and local. Things felt good.
It’s hard to reflect on a time that’s just passed. It’s so difficult to put in perspective the last few years and I think that ten years from now I may be able to look back on recent memory with a more objective and surgical approach. What I do know, though, is that something has changed.
I’m not sure when or how but something has changed. I used to ask myself daily if Vietnam would continue to be a part of my life. I thought that staying in Vietnam was failing and that leaving my country was wrong. I tried a move to San Francisco because that’s what successful technology people are supposed to do. I wasn’t able to shake the many years that my father questioned my wanting to be in Vietnam. I no longer feel this way.
The last few years were a blur, mostly due to work and travel. It will take some time to figure them out but I took from them that the United States is my birth place, but I no longer see it as a place in which I will want to settle down again. It’s hard to tell other Americans that our country isn’t for me.
July 9th, 2014.
I turned thirty-three in Vietnam today and I feel old. I’ve been feeling this way for a while now. I’m called older brother and uncle a lot more. Strangers ask me why I haven’t married anyone yet. Friends are having babies.
Ten years ago it would not have been unusual for someone to ask me if one of my goals in Vietnam was to find a girlfriend and bring her back to the United States. I joke now that my goal is to marry my way into being able to live here forever.
Things feel slower. Traffic doesn’t move as quickly as it used to. Miscommunications don’t happen as frequently as they did a while back.
July 20th, 2014.
When I was twenty-one years old I came to Vietnam. I’m much older now and haven’t quite left. There’ve been a few extended returns to the United States during that time but for the most part my life has centered around this country.
With the exception of my immediate biological family and a few close friends, America doesn’t play a very large role in my life anymore. I don’t know if it ever will again. It took me many years to have peace with my decision to move away from my country and I’ve only recently found the confidence to discuss this with my family without hedging my bets or avoiding hurting their feelings. I do not move back. I visit as much as I can.
Time has given me memories in Vietnam. I dream and love in both English and Vietnamese. I’ve learned things here and become a man here. Sometimes I open old journals to understand how far I’ve come.
“Remembering Things” was written in cooperation with the I Am Vietnamese Project, a non-profit dedicated to the collection and publication of short stories about personal and Vietnamese cultural identity.