November — 3 stories, spiced with reflections

1) on smiling and linguistic limitations: my mother always taught me to smile. it was a lesson i never learned well. she would sometimes say, “mặt con 5 xu cũng không mua” (roughly translated, ‘your face is so pissy that i wouldn’t even care for it if it were free…’ or more directly, ‘your face looks like shit; smile a little or i will indirectly shame your opinion of beauty and self-worth’).

it was a skill she had: to beam her mega-watt smile, her row of front teeth like the kernels of bắp nếp (hominy/glutinous corn) that she was fond of and so often found nibbling on. it was a treat. her smile open doors smoothly, reinforced her humanity and encouraged generosity.

in Vietnam, i find myself sitting in silence and smiling more than ever before. i bow my head in humility, sometimes in shame. when people start speculating about whether i’m korean or japanese, about how my hair looks like some anime character, about why my accent sounds so different, i clam up and smile as quietly and as shyly as i can muster. it’s counter-intuitive to the contemplative, resting bitch-face to which i am accustomed. it reinforces the quiet stereotype in the hospital wards i bitterly battle.

sometimes my limitations in speaking vietnamese frustrate me. pride and ego make me reluctant to admit this obvious truth: i am capable of speaking vietnamese, but i am not capable of fully expressing my thoughts in a nuanced way. i meet road blocks and limitations. my pronunciation is flawed and harsh, instead of smooth and arcuate. my word choice is awkward, flavored by my american education. my vietnamese is not poetic; it is not cogent. i do not know/get literary or cultural references. occasionally, this means i’m choked up with thoughts and feelings; i am cloaked in self-imposed silence. i sometimes leave social situations with a slew of sentiments that spring forth from my mouth and fingertips, like the spray of sparks from the ubiquitous welders at every vietnamese street corner. but in many ways, i think it also opens doors for me to listen. and to better understand what my mother must have felt for her 29 years in the states. and to all the other folks who dare speak a second tongue, however imperfectly or imprecisely.

2) on identity and being a northern vietnamese: one of the ladies i’ve met is a member of the communist party. her grandmother, who is 89 this year and sports a short salt-and-pepper pixie, joined the party when she was 20. when we first met, she showed me a photograph of her young grandmother in military garb, both dainty and fierce. i kept asking why? like what led her to join?

“it’s just something that people believe it; it’s like coming to jesus, like joining church.”

which is interesting, because it has literally NEVER been my experience that communism is just something people believe in. growing up amongst vietnamese immigrants, who all left vietnam, in pursuit of capitalism, or freedom, or whatever illusions and fears they projected onto the state, communism has never been salvation.

as such, i’ve never had to question their viewpoint and their adherence to the “cờ vàng ba sọc đỏ” (the old vietnamese flag, the equivalent of the confederate flag).

but i can see why there would be a fight for freedom, especially in a land that actually has to struggle with changing seasons, augmented with temperamental and tropical weather patterns. a place teeming with political turmoil and a pervasively inadequate food supply. it doesn’t just rain here — an ocean of water falls from the sky for as long as those heavy cumulonimbus clouds want. a powerful display of mother nature and climate change.

i can’t express how it felt to walk through hours of rain and endless kilometers of đất sét (clay), watery dirty that runs and holds hostage. i kept thinking about war and what it meant to trudge through these conditions, uncertain of the destination, unsure of whether the next steps forward promised death or disfigurement, but committed to the cause. the familiar refrain that even if there were doubts, stopping wasn’t an option. no one would save us but ourselves. and for the millionth time in this most recent trip, i go a little deeper inside myself. i can imagine myself joining the communist party.

3) on why we don’t forget or move on: have you ever wondered how the dead may go on living, but the living become ghosts? it can happen when there are no new experiences, when we continue to live in the recesses of the past, the labyrinth of our mind, chains of the old and familiar. something traumatic, like losing your nước, your motherland, your life source, like losing a limb. it is an intentional act to let go of what was. sometimes it’s easier when there’s an incentive to move on: a reminder and impetus to forge new memories. to debride out the necrotic tissue; to let new, healing life fill in layer by cell layer.

part of why i took a year off was so that i could live. the quick and simple recap is that my first year of medical school my mother died; the second year my father got married to my 34 year old maternal cousin and we pretty much stopped talking; the third year my uncle with whom i grew up died. aside from studying and working and doing chores and occasionally exercising/crying/writing (sometimes all at once), i haven’t done a lot of living. i haven’t connected either to myself or to those around me in the way that i did prior to these losses, before medical school. i haven’t had any major life defining experiences. medical school has been my life.

and perhaps vietnam was fitting for this year because i have too many memories/triggers about this place that i needed to defuse. i could have easily avoided all of these reminders, but taking that route feels like i’m setting myself up for the mis-step that fires a waiting mine. there has been a war within me; the ruins, the ghosts, the wounded are all shrouded in smoke and ash. it is time to uncover what living remains among the debris.

i needed to climb onto the back of a xe ôm again, to let go of the feeling of cruising down the streets of saigon with my mom. i needed to talk to evasive vietnamese men and be reminded of how much fury i still have at how my father communicates. i needed to implode like a supernova with the brilliant burn of being scorned, of being denied a voice, of being abandoned. i needed to remember that it hurts to become. i needed to recount the story of my uncle dying in a puddle of his own urine and a massive hemorrhagic stroke, and how i never, even for a second, seriously considered going to see the remains of his body over completing the end of my 3rd year. i needed to admit how much guilt i continue to carry at how a grudge kept me from seeing him in december, how my own self-absorbed tendencies denied me a chance to speak with him prior to his death. there is still a small part of me that believes i could go to southern california and find him there, in that green and white mobile home, sitting amongst the stacks of chinese work books and spy novels, his fingers crippled and disfigured, his bare feet calloused at the heels, his toothless smile soft and open. of course that reality is not possible. of course it still hurts me to hold the shadow of his existence without closure, without goodbye. i don’t know what remains in the house where he last lived; all i have left of him is the false apparition of my memory, his dog-tag from the war, and a Charles Dickens novel.

i’m sorry i don’t do a better job of censoring myself. i’m sorry that it worries those who read these things sometimes. i am often stubborn to a fault and i cannot stomach silencing myself any longer about these stories that i carry around like stones in my gallbladder, like osteophytes on my joints. these memories ache. they are colicky. they sometimes cause blockage and inflammation. they sometimes burn inside me like a brackish fever and keep me up at night.

my mother died and i went to school. my remaining biological family fell apart and i went to school. my uncle died and i still went to school. for once, i need to not be so practical and structured. i have taken the advice to not be sad, to focus on school, to make my dead family proud, and it has hardened around me like an exoskeleton, like a stuffy sarcophagus. it is time i fall apart so i can put myself back together again.

i want to reassure everyone that the biggest risk i’m taking these days is biking down the streets of ha noi. i do not want to hurt myself with any seriousness. but i also want to be open to and real about the depth of how these experiences have affected me. on the surface, i have moved on. time has passed around me. but internally, i know that i have just packed it all away, compartmentalized it into some inaccessible space and shoved it deep inside my volcano chest. and i am afraid that ignoring it, when i have a chance to air it out and heal it, is like looking into the barrel of a shotgun that i’m packing with gunpowder.