Leave the Chinese Out of Chinese New Year

Lunar New Year 2014Happy New Year!

Yes, I’m wishing you a happy New Year way past January 1st.  This is the time of the year where millions of people are celebrating the Year of the Horse. Families have cleaned and decorated their homes from top to bottom, altars have been constructed, special New Year’s meals have been cooked and consumed.  Everybody is doing whatever they can to ward away evil spirits.  Traditions run deep during these celebrations.  But there is one tradition I want you to break…please take “Chinese” out of Chinese New Year.

Just because over a billion Chinese citizens celebrate the Lunar New Year doesn’t make it exclusively their own.  That’s right, it’s not Chinese New Year, it’s the Lunar New Year. On the same day, Vietnamese people celebrate Tet and Koreans celebrate Seo naal.

So what’s the big deal you might ask?  Who cares if it’s called Chinese New Year? Well, I do.

By calling it Chinese New Year, it once again reinforces the ideology that Asians fall into two categories:  Chinese or something else.  Inherent in this ideology is that being Chinese is superior and not being Chinese…well, just sucks.

All my life, the first question people ask me concerning my ethnicity is, “Are you Chinese?”  No offense to my Chinese friends and associates, but the question provokes an intense reaction.  So when well-intentioned people wish me a Happy Chinese New Year, I have to control the urge to not throw a full-on-yelling-pull-my-hair-thrashing-on-the-floor tantrum.  Yes China has the lion’s share of Asians in the world, but that doesn’t mean they get dibs on making the Lunar New Year exclusively theirs. They can have Chinese lanterns, Chinese horoscopes and even Chinese buffets…but I say hands off the New Year.

Also, since when does a New Year have to be ethnically descriptive?  When was the last time you heard someone wish another person Happy Caucasian or African-American New Year?  When Jews celebrate the New Year, you’ll never hear them say, Happy Jew Year.  People simply wish each other a Happy New Year and so the same courtesy should be extended to those who celebrate the Lunar New Year.  Trust me, even Chinese people while wishing each other Happy New Year leave out the “Chinese” part. It’s time the rest of the world should too.

I know that change can come. I am impressed that nowadays more and more people are accepting and acknowledging different cultures and traditions. For example, more people know about Vietnamese pho and banh mi then I ever thought possible.  Not long ago, Sirracha hot sauce was a condiment only found in Asian restaurants and households, but now I find the iconic bottle in Target and grocery stores.  Perspective and attitudes can change.  So when the Lunar New Year comes around again, don’t wish people a Happy Chinese New Year, even if they are Chinese. Just wish everyone a Happy New Year like you would do on January 1st.  Non-Chinese folks like myself will not only appreciate the sentiment…we’ll also appreciate the inclusion.

 

South Florida Asian – A Rare Breed

If I were to write a personal ad, it would go something like this: short male, black hair, brown eyes, caramel-colored skin…then I would probably go on at length about my sculpted body and model looks…ok so that’s more wishful thinking than anything.  If you came across my profile, you wouldn’t hesitate to think Latin male right?  The dark features and tan skin are dead giveaways.  But what if I added slightly oval eyes, like large almonds, what would you think then? Asian?  In South Florida?  No way…there are no Asians in South Florida.  Perhaps not many, but there are.

Yes I’m Asian, more specifically Vietnamese.  I moved to South Florida after finishing college in New Orleans.  In New Orleans, you couldn’t walk a couple of feet and not bump into another Asian.  Not the case down here.  Every once in awhile I would spy another Asian and then a slightly awkward exchange occurs.  First there’s that moment of disbelief.   Did I just see another Asian?  Or was it a mirage, like when you’re driving and you swear the road looks wet.  After a couple of double takes confirming that they are indeed Asian, a serious stare down ensues.  A silent game of guessing their nationality commences. Side note here…for those who say they can distinguish the different Asian nationalities…you can’t.  I get mistaken for Filipino all the time.  After the stare down, a couple of things can happen…both parties do nothing or they give simple nods acknowledging each other’s presence or a pretense to finding a spec of dirt on the floor interesting so one party can move in closer.  If greetings are shared, the indubitable questions are asked: where are you from, how long have you been here, you know there aren’t a lot of Asians in South Florida, etc.

Living in South Florida, Asians are definitely a minority.  You would think the tropical weather would be a magnet for Asians, but for some reason, the azure beaches aren’t much of a draw.  Due to proximity, Latin and Caribbean cultures dominate.  I took French in school, but much good that does me down here.  I quickly learned to ditch “bonjour” for “hola.” In no time, saying “mira” and “ay dios mios” required little effort.  And the one thing I’ve learned living in South Florida is people are divided into two categories…Latin or Not Latin. And if you have the slightest resemblance of being Latin, you’re presumed to be so.  People approach me all the time speaking Spanish at full throttle.  There’s no point in saying, “Yo no habla espagnol” because the response I receive is, “Si, tu habla espagnol!”

One line does not a fluent Spanish speaker make.

So what I usually do nowadays is point to my eyes, the obvious sign that I’m Asian.  Sometimes that’s enough to convey I’m not a Spanish speaker, but more often than not, the person looks up and continues to hurl Spanish words at me.  Confusion sinks in.  Should I be offended that they’ve ignored my Asian identity or impressed that they are so willing to accept me into their culture?  No Salsa or Meringue auditions, no flan making test…who knew that the mere utterance of  “que tal” is the Spanish equivalent of “open sesame.”

As an immigrant myself, I find that I have more in common with my Latin and Caribbean neighbors than I ever thought possible.  The chorus of the immigrant song is a familiar tune no matter where you are from.  Some immigrants have escaped oppressive regimes.  Others, who at any costs, risked their lives to ensure brighter futures for their families.  It’s why I understand the push for the Dream Act.  When mothers recount their struggles to get their children to the US, I see my own mother.  Fathers are channeling my own when they talk about overcoming insurmountable obstacles.  I see Haitian refugees on rafts and it reminds me of the throngs of Vietnamese refugees escaping after the war.  What if my family were turned away?  Where would I be today?  Even though, I still find it hard to add “American” after “Vietnamese” when describing myself, I’m grateful that I have the option.  Many would gladly change places with me.

So I have chosen to live in South Florida where the nearest Chinatown is over 1,000 miles away and perhaps, I don’t see people that look like me very often, but you know what…I’m ok with that.

Latin spices, Caribbean flavors, beautiful beaches…in retrospect I think I’ve gained more than I’ve lost.

 

This article was published by WLRN.  The link is here:

http://wlrn.org/post/being-asian-south-florida-means-disbelief-stares-and-latin-confusion

 

Defriends No More

Et tu Facebook?

While it’s not exactly betrayal, being defriended can feel like it is, especially when you’re still friends with the person in real life.

Friending, liking, fans are new – well newly adopted at least – concepts that have invaded our popular culture.  We find out more about our friends through status updates than through actual dialogue.  People post their likes, their gripes and their desires faster than you can read them.  Suddenly, you realize how much or little you have in common.  Fascinating how some are willing to share intimate tidbits about their lives over the Internet, but remain cloistered in real life.

So when a friend gives you the virtual heave-ho, can you salvage the friendship in real life?

Let me first say that I rarely post on Facebook.  Every once in awhile, I’ll update my status or respond to another post, but for the most part, internet savvy people would label me as a lurker, someone that follows the forum, but doesn’t post.  So when I get defriended, it makes me wonder why.  What’s even more puzzling is when real-not-acquaintances-who-I-talk-to-friends defriend me.  No fights, no falling out or brewhahas that would result in my dismissal.  What went through their minds as they moused their way over to the Unfriend button?  Was the decision made with guillotine swiftness or delayed like the long pause before nuclear warheads are launched?

One click, poof…friendship’s disappears faster than a magician’s rabbit.

It’s irreversible, once you unfriend someone, you can’t un-unfriend them.  Even if my friends regretted their decisions, there is no way to friend me back without my approval.  Facebook doesn’t allow you to see who or how many people defriended you.

The last time I found out I was defriended happened when a “friend” instant messaged me.  The conversation started out with the usual pleasantries until I mentioned that I hadn’t seen any Facebook posts from him.  Long pause…cue the crickets.

“I defriended you,” he finally wrote.

“Interesting,” I replied.

When questioned, he said my negativity and bitterness didn’t mesh well with him.

“Fair enough,” I responded.

“Don’t take it personally,” he added, “it’s only Facebook.”

Truthfully, I didn’t take it personally.  He was right, it was only Facebook, but what troubled me was that he still wanted to be friends with me outside of Facebook.  I guess I’m only negative and bitter online, in real life, I was rainbows and wagging puppy dog tails.

I wondered if we could still be friends, if I resented him for excluding me and that my no longer wanting to be friends in real life was retaliatory.

Defriend me will you?  I’ll show you

And if I that was true, do you blame me?  Nobody takes rejection well.

In the end, I concluded that all was not lost.  Friends exist because of connections, real ones, not the ones that plug into our computers.  I don’t know when the lines of virtual and real friendships got crossed, but I much prefer to lose the virtual one.  So what if I have one less Facebook friend, it’s not a popularity contest.

Or is it?

Sigh…I guess that’s a question for another time.

Mistaken Eye-dentity

This time, it happened as I was exiting my car and walking towards an office building for a meeting.

“How many trucks do you have, Leonard?,” this 40-ish looking man, standing in front of the office doors, shouted at me enthusiastically.

I didn’t recognize him.  I turned around to see if he was talking to someone behind me.  No one.  When I approached the doors, he ovaled his arms to give me a hug, but when I stepped back, he stopped short, his hands suspended in the air like he was dancing with an invisible partner.

“Oh I’m sorry,” he said.  His hands deflated to his sides.  “You looked like an Asian guy I know.”

The time before this, I was changing in the locker room, when a man came up to me and buddy punched me.

“Hey man, long time no see!”

“I’m sorry, but I think you got the wrong guy.”

“No way, you don’t remember me?  I’m your massage therapist.”

“I’m sorry, but I think you got the wrong guy.”

“No way man.  I remember you.  You need to book another appointment!”

His insistence made me wonder, for a slight second, if he indeed was my massage therapist, but I knew I never met the man.

“I’m sorry, but I think you got the wrong guy.”

“You’re sure it wasn’t you?  It was an Asian guy,” he told me assuredly, almost as if I needed reminding.  I finished dressing and walked out.

Millions of Asians worldwide and I just happen to look like every one of them.  People see my eyes, my hair, my skin color and instantly I’m the Asian they’ve seen on TV, the Asian they work with or the Asian they went to school with.  I never knew I had the universal Asian face.  This must be the reason why I’m the subject of so many cases of mistaken eye-dentity.  Because if it wasn’t for my eyes, how would they link me to an entire race?

Recently, I was at my company’s Christmas dinner and while I was sitting at the table, one of my co-workers mistook me for Bohn, the other Asian in the office.

“Hey Bohn,” she said to me.

Everybody at the table looked at her, then at me.  No one corrected her.  Perhaps she just confused our names, but then she continued.

“Bohn, who’s that guy sitting next to Mary Ann?”

The guy she was referring to was actually Bohn’s co-worker.

“That’s Sean,” I said.  “He works with Bohn.”

She glared at me.  The confusion switch flipped on.  At first, I wasn’t sure if she thought I was the type of person who referred to myself in the third person.

When Bohn talks, Bohn likes to address himself as Bohn.

But then it dawned on her, that perhaps I wasn’t Bohn.

Bohn and I are roughly the same height, but that’s where the similarity ends.  His hair is almost shaven, while mine is spiky with a punk silhouette.  His skin tone is darker.  He’s more rotund.  He’s Cambodian.

In my opinion, we look nothing alike, but the fact that we are both Asians made us indistinguishable.  When I left the table, still unconvinced, my confused co-worker turned to the table and asked, “That’s not Bohn?”

I know people have cases of mistaken identities all the time, but the frequency of it happening to me is quite high.  Is this just an Asian phenomenon?  After all, Asians have amassed a worldwide population of almost four billion.  I’m bound to remind someone of an Asian they know.  But the curious fact is that not one Asian has confused me for another.  Do Asians see the differences that are obvious to us, but are subtle, if not invisible, to non-Asians?  Perhaps it’s the same way specialists discern stripe or spot patterns in tigers and leopards.

When other co-workers approached me a couple of days after the Christmas party, they were still tee-heeing about the incident.  “At least she got the Asian part right,” I told them.  If she had confused me with Sheldon, my black co-worker, then perhaps then I might be slightly worried.

Worried not for me, but for Sheldon.

After all, can he handle being the poster boy for the Asian community?


 

The Night of the Gun

Night-of-the-Gun_l

Initially, David Carr’s The Night of the Gun wasn’t a book I thought I would be interested in reading.  First, the title is very Soprano-ish, second, it’s another addiction memoir and third, it’s expansive (almost 400 pages).  As I started to read, I discovered that, yes the book was about his epic battle with cocaine and crack, but what I found more interesting was his attention to the fragility of memory.  How our memories, even the ones we believe as solid and unbreakable, can be nothing more than our attempts to hide our personal demons propagated with our desires to be someone else, someone better.  Such was the case on the night of the gun.  Carr steadfastly believed that on this night of binge drinking and cocaine indulging, his friend pointed a gun at him to make him vacate his friend’s apartment.  But when Carr dug deeper, it turned out his friend wasn’t the one with the gun, but Carr who wielded the .38 Special.  That false memory was the tipping point for Carr’s book.  As Carr stated, But if I was wrong about the gun, what else was I wrong about?

Thus began Carr’s journey, well actually more like in-depth reporting, on as what he dubbed as the darkest story of his life.  As impressive as his writing was, it was not as impressive as his exhaustive reporting, documenting, video recording and transcribing of all his interviews.  In the end, he recorded 19.3 gigabytes worth of material.  Astonishing.  All of this because he couldn’t trust his memory.  He wanted to get the real story, not just his version of what he believed happened.  He even hired an investigator to follow up behind him, just in case he missed any key facts.  For him, Memoir is a very personal form of creation myth, and perhaps less and less truthful.

That’s what made this book brilliant.  Instead of just writing about his struggle and the eventual overcoming of his addiction, Carr allowed the reader to step into his mind, to get his perspective and then flipped that perspective around, giving the reader the real truth, the really oh shit moment that truly happened.  By doing this, the reader can’t help but trust that Carr is giving them the rawest, most truthful account he can provide.  A couple of years ago, I read Augusten Burrough’s Dry and I thought it was a good book, although a tad bit sensationalized, about his own struggle with addiction.  After reading Carr’s book, I now wonder about the validity of Burrough’s recollection.  Burroughs didn’t do as nearly as much reporting as Carr did.  Honestly, it’s not just Burrough’s memory that has left me in doubt, but my own as well.  Carr’s book makes me question the accuracy of my memory and if what I’m writing about is really the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.  The only way to tell, as Carr proved, is to dig deeper, to ask those uncomfortable questions and to listen to what actually transpired.

After reading this book, I’m left with the impression, that when writing a memoir, it’s important to choose the right story but more importantly, if not more, it’s getting that story right.

You’ve fallen and I can’t stop laughing

fallingI have an admission.

It’s not something I am proud of but, as the old adage goes, the first step in solving a problem is to admit you have one.

So here it is. I laugh when people fall.

I don’t mean a slight snicker but a jackknifing so hard, I get whiplash.  Someone could trip from a bump in the sidewalk and I will laugh so violently, my convulsions could be mistaken as seizures.  I don’t know why I find falling, tripping, sliding, face planting and bum crashing down right hilarious.  Actually, I don’t limit my outbreaks to the lower extremities, anyone stubbing their fingers, bumping their funny bones, going face forward into a glass door all get the same reaction: me holding my sides, tears streaming down my face, yukking so loudly, people stop what they’re doing and stare.  And if you think I only laugh at people, think again, animals are definitely fair game.

Now before you think I am this heartless, insensitive creature, I do want to clarify.  I do have the ability to discern the difference between fainting, collapsing or tumbling due to medical emergencies and I do act appropriately.  However, all bets are off if the person revives and manages to walk away, albeit limping.  Then, and only then, in my opinion, is it OK to laugh.

Once, when I was at dinner in a quasi-formal restaurant with a bunch of friends, we got on the subject of tattoos.  There were some debate about who had one, who wanted one and who wouldn’t be caught in hell with one.  The conversation steered towards the pain and the needles involved.  One of my friends, a State Trooper, mentioned casually he doesn’t like needles or anything blood related, in fact, the mere mentioning of either topic causes him to feel queasy.  With three to four years of Trooper experience, he’s a tall guy, at least 6’3, probably around 200 pounds, teetering on the slippery edge of being thirty, not overly muscular, but no couch potato either.   Sitting at the end of the table, he pleaded softly for us to change the topic.  Not taking him seriously, I carried on how the needles really didn’t hurt, how it felt like someone pressing the bristles of a hairbrush against my skin and that’s when it happened.  My friend’s eyes rolled back into his head like stuck numbers on a slot machine.  Before we could grab him, he fell face forward, intimately going to first base with the shag carpet.  His face dug deep in the carpet while his body teepeed up with his rear end flashing us.  Imagine a giant upside down V.  Of course, we all jumped up and ran to his side, flipped him over and began slapping his face.  His eyelids fluttered like the quick beats of a moth’s wings.  As he came to, he muttered incoherently, “What happened? Where am I?”  “On the floor,” I said, “You passed out”.  With the help of some cold water, he regained consciousness.  We quickly paid the bill, pulled the car around and carried him out.  Afterwards, he had a huge strawberry that skunk tailed down the front of his face.  He told his co-workers he got smacked with a branch while working in the yard.

The whole time I was in stitches.  First, the image of him – a State Trooper, face smooching carpet, ass up in the air – was hysterical.  Second, him lying supine in the middle of the restaurant, diners huddled over, managers frantically wanting to call 911 was something out of a comedy.  Third, because of his size, everything was exaggerated – the dramatic fall, the awkward positioning, the hunched over rescue.  Afterwards, each time I saw him, I would imitate a redwood tree falling.  Knee slapping, eyes watering, I would guffaw like a barking seal when I was done.  He didn’t find it very amusing, nor did my other friends.  You are evil, they told me.

When I went back home to Vietnam, my reserved cousins were absolutely shocked at my brazen laughter.  When one almost tumbled into the creek, I was doubled over in hysterics.  When she straightened herself out, she looked at me and said, “How can you life at the misery of others?”  Hmmm, easily I thought.

But I’ve gotten better.  I have controlled my fits of laughter so that I don’t bust a gut immediately.  For instance, a couple of months ago, I was washing my hands in the bathroom, when a man, using the urinal, lost his pants.  I don’t mean lost as in he couldn’t locate them, but lost as in the middle of relieving himself, his pants plunged to the floor.  I couldn’t see the reaction on his face nor could he see mine since he was facing the wall.  For that, I was grateful because I was desperately trying to suppress my reaction.  Another man came in, stopped and did a double take when he saw the underwear-clad man.  He saw me and tilted his head towards the semi-naked man, I shrugged, feigning ignorance.  I left as the man bent down to lift his pants back up.  I barely contained my laughter as I walked out.

I think Miss Manners would probably advise us to ignore these situations and pretend they didn’t happen, but that’s easier said then done.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t exclude myself when I fall or trip.  If I take a tumble, I’m the first one hunched over laughing afterwards.  It’s funny.  It’s the reason why videos of people nose diving or ass cracking are the most watched videos on the Internet.  C’mon admit it, you chucked a little, if not a lot, when you imagined my friend with his face buried in the carpet and ass to the ceiling.  It’s ok if you did, he’ll never know and trust me, I won’t tell.  We’ll just make it our little secret.

The Gangster We are All Looking For

0375700021.01._SX140_SY225_SCLZZZZZZZ_Le thi diem thuy’s (according to her, she likes her name in lower case) The Gangster We Are All Looking For is not so much a biography but a collection of vivid poems beaded together to form a succulent narrative.  Although the book is a work of fiction, she borrows events from her real life (her assimilation to American life and the deaths of her brother and sister) to weave a powerful and moving tale of overcoming adversity and sorrow.

le’s background as a playwright is evident in this novel as she crafts tremendous scenes portraying the hardships her family endured.  Using simple but eloquent sentences, the majority of her paragraphs are no more than five or six sentences long.  Like clipping along a fast current, this style enhances the back and forth time and location shifts as she writes about her life in Vietnam as well as her life in America.  She prefers to paint the scenes with dramatic imagery rather than deliver a straightforward approach,

He would gaze beyond a person’s shoulder as though watching storm clouds gather on the horizon. Neither holding the clouds back nor inviting them on, his eyes merely took in their approach. More than once I have seen people talking with him turn around to see what was behind them.

As a Vietnamese writer, I understand and relish what some may describe as an over-dramatic style of writing.  The Vietnamese language is inherently flowery so when writes this Vietnamese English, I appreciate its complexity as well as its simplicity.  For example, she doesn’t just write about war, she allows the reader to partake, to suffer and more importantly, to imagine what war was like for her as well as her family.

Ma says war is a bird with a broken wing flying over the countryside, trailing blood and burying crops in sorrow. If something grows in spite of this, it is both a curse and a miracle.  When I was born, she cried to know that it was war I was breathing in, and she could never shake it out of me.

A good writer knows when you can show more then tell: show.  And does this wonderfully.

Even though the theme of the book is centered around tragedy, the book doesn’t bog you down in pity or deep reflection.  Structurally, it reads more like a fairy tale and an adventure novel.  By telling the story in brief, fragmented spurts, it keeps the reader’s attention and builds tension along the way.  As each scene unfolds, I found myself quickly turning the pages.  Her words, like morsels of good food, made me want to consume more.

Other Is Never a Good Category

OtherOtherFront_001In middle school, my teacher, every once in awhile, asked all the white students to stand, followed by all the black students and then she tallied the results.  At the time, there were only two Asians in the class: a Vietnamese girl and me.  We both looked at each other, not knowing if we should speak up.  This purgatory confused us: we didn’t know what group we belonged in.  We were more white than black, so did that mean we should be included with the white students?  Then again, the black students were considered minorities, so it was probably more appropriate for us to join their group.  To make matters even worse, the teacher neglected to even include us, which made our status even more ubiquitous.

It turned out, the teacher was conducting a survey of the ethnic makeup of the class.  She saw the class as black and white, with no shades in between.

When we did speak up, she looked at us, her eyebrows cocked unevenly as she wondered how to categorize us.  She wondered out loud what box she should place us in.  She took some time and decided to include us with the white kids.  The first time we didn’t argue.  However, the second time she conducted the count, I decided to take a stand.

“I’m not white,” I said, “Nor am I black.”

She stuck her pencil in her mouth and began to chew on the eraser.  My words, like water dripping from a crack, seeped in her mind.

“Don’t you consider yourself white?” she asked.

I shook my head no but secretly I had been.  My friends were white and everything I’ve come to associate with America thus far had been through the perspective of a white American.  But for some reason, this time I wasn’t content to being lumped together with a group of people that was completely different from me.  Something was nagging me to be more authentic.

“What do you consider yourself as?” my teacher demanded.

“Vietnamese,” I replied.

“There is no category for Vietnamese.  I will just have to make another category and label it as other.”

Other, the catchall category that combines together every ethnicity other than black and white.  It’s the closet you hide all your junk in when you want to do a fast clean up.  I hated the word other.  It always connoted something that wasn’t a first choice: the other women, the other friend, the other child.   I didn’t want to be other.

“Can’t you write Vietnamese instead of other?” I asked.

She looked at me, her lips pursing as if she just licked an invisible lemon.

“No, I can’t because then I would have to write something different for everyone.  It’s easier to just write other.”  She said this congenially like a parent convincing a child to eat his vegetables.

“It’s not that important anyways,” she added.

At the time, I was hard press to argue otherwise.  Being Vietnamese was the least of my priorities.  If a friend had a plastic Superman watch, I wanted one.  If one had a GI Joe lunch box, I wanted one.  I was taking my cues on how to be an American from them.  I tried to dress like them – I even wore cowboy boots with shorts because a friend did so, much to the ridicule of my siblings.  I tried to get my parents to buy a set of Encyclopedia Britanica because after all, according to the brochure, almost every American family had a set.  I tried to match our thrift store bed linens together, so that our beds would look like the model beds showcased in houses christened the American Dream by television commercials.

But my family showed no interest – they cared less about encyclopedias and were happy with the mismatched sheets and pillowcases.  It was hard for me to be an American in a Vietnamese family.

It didn’t help that my mother planted her rau muong or water spinach in the ditch in front of our house.  Similar to the texture of spinach, rau muong is a popular staple in Vietnam.  It only needs a steady supply of water for it to grow so when my mother saw the ditch, she knew it was a perfect place to plant it.  In no time, my mother had a nice crop of rau muong sprouting in front of our house.  When she wanted some, she headed out to the ditch and snip the stalks with scissors leaving the roots behind.  Freshly clipped, the tips of the roots poked out of the ground liked newly transplanted hair plugs.  When my friends came over, I never mentioned the garden.  To the untrained eye, the plants looked liked over-run weeds.  My mother usually picked the plants in the evening before dinner, so I didn’t have to worry about my friends ever seeing her, but once she decided to pick the plants a little earlier and as chance may have it, my friends and I happened to walk by.  They saw my mother in the ditch, squatting on her haunches toad-like, snipping away.  All she needed was a conical hat and you could imagine her planting rice in the waterlogged fields of Vietnam.

“What is your mother doing?” one friend asked.

“Nothing,” I quickly replied.

“Does your family eat grass?” another questioned.

“No, we don’t eat grass,” I replied angrily.

“It looks like grass to me,” the friend said.

The rest nodded in agreement.  That’s how it came to be that my family ate grass.  A running joke that surfaced when any of my friends cut their lawns, how they would save the clippings for us.  If I had been savvier, I could have retorted with a clever comeback. My mother was using the exotic miniature leaves as garnish or in a wedding bouquet or that she was a horticulturalist conducting research. But I wasn’t very clever, so I endured the ribbing.

After much pleading, my mother later moved the garden to the backyard.  I figured if I couldn’t uproot my past, I could uproot the garden. The garden didn’t last and the plants died.  She never grew rau muong again. From then on only cooked what she bought at the store.  My mother never expressed her disappointment in the garden or in me.

HELP, another four letter word

Help1The other day, my friend Todd and I decided to go out for a bite to eat.  We’re pretty open-minded when it comes to food, although he stops short of eating the steamed tripe I usually order when we have Dim Sum.  He says it’s tasteless but I think he can’t get over the fact that tripe is the intestinal lining of a cow or pig.  Before you wince or ewww yourself to death, you should try it, if you haven’t already.  Too many people immediately pass over a dish because of its appearance or texture.  For me, I like the flavor as well as the rubbery consistency of tripe, sort of like chewing on steamed ginger-flavored jelly strips.  I have succeeded in getting him to taste it but have yet to get him to take a second bite.  I don’t even attempt to order chicken feet€

This time, we chose a Chinese restaurant down the street from my condo.  The place has been there awhile.  It’s not the best Chinese food I’ve ever had but it’s edible and close by.  The restaurant, located in an old run-down strip mall, is typical of many Chinese restaurants – a Chinese calendar hangs behind the cashier, lucky bamboo plants in glass cylindrical vases sprout up like persistent weeds around the restaurants, paintings of tigers, dragons or phoenixes on canvas material resembling straw placemats decorate the walls.  It’s a no fuss, no thrills restaurant with a mixture of booths and card tables hidden underneath red tablecloths.  We were seated at a table, our chairs, with padded cushions, were similar to ones found in convention halls.  We ordered our food: ginger garlic chicken for me, chicken and broccoli for him.  I opted for brown rice, my attempt to be health conscious.

About fifteen minutes after our dinner arrived, an older, heavy-set man suddenly collapsed to the floor.  I don’t know if he was sitting near the front or if he was on his way out, but he buckled over like a sack of potatoes.  The man was passed out, beached on the tile floor, not moving.  His dinner friend was leaning over him, trying to resuscitate him.  Luckily, there were some police officers in the restaurant and they called for Rescue.  Todd, with his back turned, missed the drama.

In a city filled with older retirees, it is not uncommon for people to collapse, whether it be at the grocery store, the mall or at a restaurant.  So it wasn’t the man’s blackout that shocked me, but the people’s reaction, or lack thereof, sitting around him.  When he fell, I immediately pushed my chair back and was about to rush over but before I could, the police officers were already there.  When they stayed with him, I pushed my chair back in.  What amazed me was that the people, literally inches away from him, watched him fall and did nothing.  I’m sorry, I stand corrected.  They did do something: continued eating.  The man was sprawled out on the floor with his friend huddling over him and they continued cutting up their General Tso’s Chicken, slurping up their Wonton Soup and dipping their eggrolls into orange duck sauce.  One guest glanced down on the fallen man looking annoyed almost as if he was expecting him to apologize for interrupting the guest’s conversation.  Nobody made an effort to help the man or his friend.  They all sat and ignored him like a child misbehaving in public.

To make matters worse, the restaurant employees, deciding they would not be upstaged, demonstrated a whole new level of indifference.  The front house staff including the receptionist, the cashier and the manager, circled the man and just stared.  No one asked his friend if he needed help or offered a cool wet cloth or even water.  I could see each staring down at him and then to one another.  It was as if they were thinking how they could move him so he wouldn’t block patrons entering and leaving the restaurant.

The wait staff was even more callous.  Each time a waiter came out with a tray of food, they looked disgusted when they realized they had to walk the long way around to deliver the food.  One waiter, deeming the food an emergency, stepped over the helpless man to a nearby table.  He didn’t skip a beat, after all, there was Chinese food to be had.

The man finally recovered and managed to sit in a chair salvaged by his friend.  Fire Rescue came and placed him on a gurney and wheeled him out.  The relief on people’s faces didn’t seem like they were concerned but more for the fact they could continue their dinner in peace.

I sat there and wondered if this is what we have become?  Have we, as society, been reduced to becoming cold, insensitive, turn-a-blind-eye kind of people?  We, myself included, see homeless people on the street and we stepped over them or cross the street to avoid them.  We roll up our windows in an effort to shield ourselves from panhandlers at a stoplight.  People witness accidents, robberies and beatings and don’t report anything.  We see someone fall to the ground and we continue to eat our Moo Shoo Pork.  Hell, we can’t even say thank you when someone opens the door for us.  I know when it comes to natural disasters, people are more then willing to offer help.  I’ve witnessed the generosity and outpour of help.  But why can’t we do the same for smaller scale catastrophes?  What if that was you who had fallen down or your mother or your father?  After all, in the big scheme of things, how much time and effort does it take to offer a hand, a seat or a smile? And if you are at a Chinese restaurant and someone falls, help them.  Trust me, Chinese food tastes even better a little cold.