"We will develop and cultivate the liberation of mind by lovingkindness -- make it our vehicle, make it our basis, stabilize it, exercise ourselves in it, and fully perfect it." The Buddha

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Why I love all things Vietnamese

My sister and me

One talented IT manager I hired who later became my friend said something to me that I will never forget. He said he doesn't like to date black women. I was shocked. He is a black man. My theory on why he feels that way is simple, which I shared with him: his past experiences with black women were negative, whether they were with his black mother, sister, or female friends. He didn't deny it. But he's wrong. The black women who he and I both know are dignified, stylish, and compelling. They brighten my day. I feel sorry for him and his warped view on half of the black population.

Unfortunately, he's not the only one. Jia Tolentino recently wrote in The New Yorker a review of poet Cathy Park Hong’s book, Minor Feelings:

Not enough has been said, Hong thinks, about the self-hatred that Asian Americans experience. It becomes “a comfort,” she writes, “to peck yourself to death. You don’t like how you look, how you sound. You think your Asian features are undefined, like God started pinching out your features and then abandoned you. You hate that there are so many Asians in the room. Who let in all the Asians? you rant in your head.”

I was confused when I initially read this. Then it broke my heart. Hong had a troubled childhood. Her Korean mother beat her sister and her with "a fury intended for her father," who apparently was an alcoholic. Parenting is the most important job in the world. Too many people are bad at raising children, but there isn't any required formal training. Instead, some people refer to their own poor upbringing when they become parents, and that's a bad idea.

In contrast, my past experiences with my Vietnamese grandmother, mother, sister, and female friends were positive. Growing up, I can't help but remember that my earliest feelings of love in its various forms were with them.

My grandmother was a devout Buddhist who was refined and had an air of elegance about her. She took me, a mere boy, regularly to the Vietnamese opera in Saigon. Since Saigon was always hot, the best seats weren't in the front but under the ceiling fans. I reveled in the dramatic sights and sounds of the opera. On most mornings, my grandmother cradled me where she hugged and kissed me with generous affection.

My caring mother single-handedly took the family to America safely after my father died in a communist Vietnamese re-education camp. Upon further reflection, I realized how eerily similar both my parents were. A Vietnamese man cannot be put in a cage. He would rather die than to live in a cage. As a Vietnamese woman, my mother was the same way. After the fall of Saigon, she had enough money to live comfortably for the rest of our lives in Vietnam. But we all would have lived comfortably in a cage under an oppressive government. My mother decided to sell the house and belongings and leave for America for her children's future. In America, we didn't have much in material wealth but my mother ensured we always had food on the table and a stable environment to excel in school. She never did remarry.

My younger sister and I were best buddies. She was always honest and sweet, and I often saw her as an angel sent from heaven. In our bunk beds, we bounced ideas off of each other and discussed about countless topics. She later graduated from Stanford with her doctorate.

The female friends in my youth were special. Today, I will share my experiences with a couple of them. Notice I didn't say Vietnamese girlfriends. Growing up, I was never intimate with any of them, although I was certainly attracted to them in varying degrees. Some of them were attracted to me in varying degrees. But my sole focus and attention were on my academic achievement. There was nothing of greater importance to me at the time. I will discuss this interesting dynamic later.

No doubt my Vietnamese grandmother, mother, sister, and female friends influenced how I currently view Vietnamese women. The joke I sometimes tell people is I like my women like I like my coffee: strong and Vietnamese. All Vietnamese women are strong and beautiful to me.

Now, below are two of my childhood Vietnamese female friends who personified the qualities of strength and beauty.

First, Vietnamese strength can be found in a Vietnamese girl named Nga. She was a neighbor of mine during my early teenage years. Although we were of the same age, she was petite, while I was stocky. Her brothers would hang out with me almost every day. Nga seemed like a typical Vietnamese girl. She liked to go shopping at the local mall with her female friends. I paid her little attention. Until one day she kicked my butt.

On that day, it started with her brothers and I talking about leg wrestling. We learned about it at school during PE (Physical Education) class. We challenged each other to leg wrestling. Stronger than most Vietnamese males, I defeated them with ease. I excelled in academics but I also excelled in physical activities. Nga soon came into this scene of testosterone carnage and challenged me to a match. I nearly died laughing. Her brothers immediately warned me she was pretty good. I should have listened, because she took me down in less than two seconds. I was embarrassed. Believing I might have gone too easy on her the first time, I asked for a rematch. Same result. Except this time I wasn't embarrassed but was highly impressed. I later learned nobody at school could beat Nga either. Even back then I understood Nga's strength resided not in her physical attributes but in her incredible mental concentration and sheer determination. I was in love.

From that point on, I made every excuse to talk with Nga and be next to her. I even let her borrow my prized bicycle, something I never let anyone else get close to. It was a sad day when her family moved away to another side of town. When my mother couldn't take me, I'd bike to her house. The round trip was an hour long. But it was worth seeing a Vietnamese girl I thoroughly admired.


Second, Vietnamese beauty exudes in a Vietnamese girl named Nhi. I first met Nhi in elementary school. Her beauty was such that practically all the boys liked her. She was in the fourth grade, while I was in the third grade. She was a year older than I was. Of course fate dictated that I would skip the fourth grade due to my academic performance, and so we both ended up in the same fifth grade class together the next year. As usual, I quickly secured myself as the top student in the class. Showing off in the gaudiest of ways, I tried to help her with her schoolwork. It was ridiculous because she didn't need any help. But she was much too sweet and kind to tell me to buzz off.

Fast forward to high school. Nhi's beauty only increased with time. The boys, now with hormones, were still chasing after her. And my focus was still on my studies. She and I sat next to each other in some of our classes. I enjoyed every minute of it. It was around this time when I fell in love with Nhi. Yet besides her letting me play with her gorgeous hair when I sat behind her, nothing intimate transpired. So let's step back here for a moment. I was in love with a Vietnamese girl. But my full attention was on my academics. This, my friends, describes the clash between my natural tendency to be responsible even as a Vietnamese boy, and my emotional want to tell someone I love her. It would be another 20 years until I finally told Nhi how I truly felt about her. She said I was always smiling and happy. Truth is, she had a large part in my happiness.

The nostalgia from my Vietnamese experiences is so strong that they permeate into my love of all things Vietnamese -- the food, the language, the people. My love for the Vietnamese people goes beyond what I can currently see. Tall skyscrapers? Booming economics? Cutting-edge technologies? Meh. My love for the Vietnamese people is only enhanced by my heartfelt past shaped by the female persuasion. Vietnamese women exemplify what's best about the Vietnamese people: their strength and their beauty. The rest pales in comparison. Perhaps only another Vietnamese man could fully understand and appreciate what I am saying here. For if you want a Vietnamese man to do something worthwhile and extraordinary -- "to go for the sky" -- there is no need for promises of fame, guarantees of financial rewards, or threats of punishment. None of that will work on him. All a Vietnamese man needs is a Vietnamese woman to tell him to do so. ๐Ÿ’› #WomensHistoryMonth #WomensDay

Nhi's note to me


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"Irrigators channel waters; fletchers straighten arrows; carpenters shape wood; the wise master themselves." The Buddha