Stir Fried Beef FAIL

As nice as it sounds to have all your meals prepared by excellent cooks who specialize in your favorite food — homemade VN food — after awhile you start to feel like a freeloader. I try to help my cousins in the kitchen but they usually shoo me away, insisting they’ve got it covered. All I’ve been able to do on a consistent basis is wash dishes, which I’m neither particularly good at nor fond of. More accurately, I’m too good at washing dishes, as in I’m too careful and thus too slow. I can’t stand the feel of oily dishes so I scrub carefully and sometimes re-wash two or three times. My pace is far too slow for any rinsing partner, and even when I’m on rinse duty my scrubbing partner will still outpace me. I especially dislike dishwashing in VN because I don’t feel like the dishes get really clean. I guess when you have to manually wash every single dish because automatic dishwashers are practically nonexistent, you adapt by speed-washing. It’s yet another fact of grossness for which I have to look the other way.

I’m happiest in the kitchen, and in general, when I’m cooking. One of the happiest moments of recent memory was when I was cooking at home as my husband worked nearby on his laptop and my kids played on the floor. I actually remember thinking to myself, “This is what happiness feels like. This is how I would define it.” I derive such pleasure from food, eating it, preparing it, serving it to people I love, that cooking is hardly ever a chore. Because I enjoy cooking and haven’t had much opportunity to do it since I’ve been in VN, and because my female cousins never get a break from doing it, I volunteered to buy ingredients and make lunch for my uncle’s family. A simple proposition, right? My mother had misgivings from the start. She worried that we wouldn’t know what and how to buy at the local market, which was very different from an American grocery store. She worried that our VN relatives weren’t accustomed to our American portions or style of cooking. I brushed aside her concerns. For crying out loud, I wanted to say, it’s just lunch, not the end of the world. I decided to make what I considered an easy, straightforward meal: cubes of beef marinated in garlic and soy sauce, flash fried in butter and served with a simple green salad tossed with onions, tomatoes, and a lime juice and olive oil vinaigrette. I chose beef fried in butter because it’s a crowd-pleaser and I observed over the course of several weeks that beef was never served. Fish was the primary fare the vast majority of the time, while chicken and pork were served sparingly. At the market I realized why; the price of beef was astronomical compared to other foods. A cousin who was a regular at the market accompanied me so there was no risk of getting ripped off. Even so, our grocery bill for the day was triple of what the family averaged.

I went to work as soon as we got home. I cubed the beef against the grain and mixed it with plenty of minced garlic and shallots. I added soy sauce and oyster sauce, a liberal sprinkle of cracked pepper and a few splashes of sesame oil and combined everything until it smelled familiarly fragrant. I made this meal at home so many times I could do it in my sleep. I soaked thick slices of white onions in lime juice, sugar, salt, pepper, and more sesame oil. When it was almost time to fry the beef, I scooped the slightly pickled onions into a vat of freshly washed lettuce leaves and whisked olive oil and soy sauce into the lime juice concoction to make a dressing. As I lightly tossed the lettuce with the dressing, the leaves started to wilt in my hands. Was it the heat or humidity? Was VN lettuce wimpier than what I was used to? By the time I plated three serving trays with the dressed salad, the lettuce had completely lost all will to live. Even obscured by slices of bright red tomatoes, the salad looked pathetic. I started to get nervous. I heated the wok for a long time because I knew the key to saving the meal was to fry the beef in a screaming hot pan. Unfortunately I realized for the first time that the fire on the burner remained fairly low even on the highest setting. On my stove at home it would have constituted a medium low fire. My heart was pounding as I added oil and waited to add scoops of margarine (butter was nowhere to be found at the market). I whispered a little prayer to the kitchen gods as I spilled the marinated beef into the wok, hoping against all odds to get a good sear. Surrounded by my cousins, I felt their expert eyes watching the American girl fumble clumsily around their kitchen. In my own kitchen I’m completely at ease, know where everything is and exactly what to do, move and work confidently. Being watched by superior cooks in a foreign kitchen was so nerve-racking that it was difficult to suppress the trembling in my fingers. When the beef hit the wok, hot oil and melted margarine splattered my hands. I pretended nothing happened to cover up my rookie mistake. After the initial sizzle, the meat started to purr and sweat, which was the opposite of what I wanted it to do. I knew I was doomed, even before I tested a slice. It smelled good and was properly seasoned but the consistency was rubbery and tough. I couldn’t afford to over-fry the beef, which would make it even tougher, so I scooped the limp, gray slices onto platters of soggy salad. After enjoying so many incredible meals at my uncle’s table I was humiliated to serve such an inferior dish. Was it my imagination or did more family members appear at lunch than usual? I wanted to run away and hide, rather than sitting through the meal, picking at a half bowl of rice and eating as little as possible of the ruined meat, my face burning in shame as family members offered words of comfort and consolation, as if I had needlessly sacrificed a cow, which is essentially what I did. To my mother’s credit, even though she ended up being justified in her apprehensions, she didn’t rub it in with innuendos of “I told you so” but instead tried to defend my failure. She explained how meat in the U.S. was so much more tender than in VN and how we were used to cooking at higher levels of heat. She scolded the cousin who shopped with me for not selecting the right cut of meat and criticized the inadequacy of the stove burner. I usually hate it when my mother is right but in this instance she handled it as graciously as I could have hoped for.

Even the side dish I prepared, a foolproof omelet of duck eggs stirred with fermented bean curd, soy sauce, scallions and pepper, was a flop. It was another simple dish I liked to make at home (with chicken rather than duck eggs) to eat with rice. One cousin cautioned me not to make too much because she wasn’t sure if the family would like it since no one had cooked bean curd with eggs before. Out of nervousness and insecurity, I reduced the amount of bean curd. The same cousin who cautioned me about preparing too much whispered to another cousin that my omelet was bland. It was so disheartening to hear how I had mismanaged eggs, the lowest form of cooking. I’m not sure if I have the courage to attempt another meal in my uncle’s kitchen, but if I don’t I’ll never redeem myself and be forever remembered as an incompetent cook. Until I decide what to do, I’ll be nursing my wounds – three burned fingers, a sliced thumb, and a bruised ego.

Men Are the Sun, Women Are the Moon

Tom, my mom, my uncle and I got into discussion about gender roles and disparities. My mom mostly facilitated the conversation by acting as translator. My uncle is in his sixties and is about as old-school VN as you can get, without being a jerk about it. Respectability and social formalities are important to him. Before you partake in any meal at his table you have to invite all of your elders and superiors to partake.

Tom and I were explaining to my uncle that parenting our Vietnamese American children is a complicated balancing act. There are qualities and characteristics from both cultures that we want them to embrace, though they are sometimes at odds with one another. We want our kids to be obedient and respectful, but not too deferential and timid. We want them to be confident and aggressive when pursuing their goals, without being obnoxious or arrogant. To illustrate our point, I described how women’s salaries in the U.S. were consistently lower than men’s salaries for comparable work and experience. When the discourse started trending toward feminist themes, my uncle posed a question: why were women treated as unequal to men, in the U.S. and throughout the world? I listed a host of socio-political factors: women were less opportunistic when negotiating on their own behalf, were less vocal about their accomplishments, were often punished rather than rewarded for aggressive behavior. He interrupted by putting up his hand. I had it all wrong. Men are the sun, upon which all things in nature and on earth depend for life and sustenance. By reason of its power and magnitude, the sun compels everything to revolve around it. Women are the moon: smaller, weaker, and fated by its insignificance to follow the trajectory dictated by the sun, utterly incapable of forging its own path. At night the moon reflects a shadowy version of the light that radiates from the daytime sun. As the moon absorbs the sun’s light to cast a weak moonlight under which nothing can thrive, a woman merely shadows her husband’s ability to think, plan, decide, and act. She cannot exist without him and cannot hope to reverse the course of nature. In short, women are treated as unequal to men because they are unequal to men. I wasn’t sure how to counter his circular and conclusory reasoning and decided not to try. Tom was laughing at the look on my face, which I can only guess is the look I wear when confronted with inordinate quantities of bullshit, but I honestly wasn’t offended or even incredulous. My uncle’s generation, especially in light of his upbringing in VN, gets a free pass when it comes to sexism. I find it amusing and quaint. And to be fair, considering his staggering success and ability to amass more wealth than we could possibly hope to, he has grounds for being a little smug in his masculine judgment.

I sometimes find it hard to adapt to the gender roles and expectations that confront me in VN. For example, when my uncle launched into his “men are the sun, women are the moon” rhetoric, he wouldn’t make eye contact with me. I was looking directly at his face like I normally do when anyone is speaking to me. After a while it occurred to me that my direct gaze was making him uncomfortable so I averted my eyes and cast them downwards. In my peripheral vision I saw that he at that point looked at me as he spoke, and realized that direct eye contact was too confrontational under the circumstances, not deferentially demure enough for a niece being addressed by her uncle.

Later at dinner, I sat at the table after I finished eating to hang out as others continued eating and talking. Mosquitoes love to feast on ankles under the dinner table and I was already scratching a few bites so I lifted my foot to my chair to keep my ankle off of the floor and to gain better access to the itchy hives. My uncle motioned for me to lower my knee and leg off of the chair. I was mortified, for being perceived as acting inappropriately or unladylike and especially for being corrected in front of everyone. I don’t worry about crossing boundaries or acting unladylike in the U.S. because I at least know that I’m doing it. In VN I’m sure there are things I do that are overlooked because I’m Viet Kieu (like taking swigs from Tom’s beer can) but I’m in constant fear of crossing some unknown social or gender boundary. I’m not one to obsess about manners or decorous behavior so this is new, and uncomfortable, for me.

There’s No Such Thing as Privacy in VN

At home my favorite part of the day were those few precious hours after we put the kids to bed on the weekend. During the week those hours were often spent working but on the weekend they were reserved for luxuries like movie night with Tom or pleasure reading. It’s almost impossible to manage anything like that when you’re sharing a bedroom with your kids. In theory we could go downstairs to the living room after putting them to bed but somehow that doesn’t seem like a real option. The concentration of mosquitoes is worst on the first floor, so we don’t like to hang out there unless we have to. Due to the perennial heat, there aren’t any comfy couches or cushioned seating at all, just hard wooden chairs. The only comfortable seating for us Viet Kieu are beds. Also, by around 9pm the household pretty much shuts down and all lights are turned off. I don’t think anyone would mind or care if we ventured downstairs and turned on some lights or watched TV afterhours but since all the nuclear families withdraw to their respective bedrooms after dinner, we don’t want to be the oddball couple any more than we already are. I don’t even know if there are any English language channels worth watching; I seem to have less time for TV than ever before, which is fine by me. We also theoretically could escape to the spare bedroom on the third floor where Tom works during the day, but we don’t. It’s fairly comfortable to work there in the daytime with the windows open, armed with only our mosquito-electrocuting tennis racket and a fan, but at night any lights would be a beacon to bugs everywhere, and I don’t like the idea of being a floor above our sleeping kids and insulated by closed doors and windows. On occasion I’ll continue working for a short time on the laptop in the dim light of our bedroom’s nightlight, but for the most part when it’s lights out for our kids, it’s lights out for us too. It’s so bizarre for me, the habitual night owl, to be ready for bed by 9pm. It’s also really hard for anyone to sleep in because one person’s stirring usually wakes everyone else. Because we now go to sleep and wake up with our kids (which may be what other parents do, but it’s never been our practice), the only other way to enjoy those blissful periods of our children’s unconsciousness is to skip the afternoon siesta. My mother and I have worked out a highly informal, fluid schedule where, when she feels like it, she looks after the kids while I join Tom in the spare third floor bedroom to read or blog while he works. It’s as close to “alone time” as anyone can get in VN. Fortunately I’m always happy to hang out with Tom and he’s always so engrossed in his work that he hardly notices my presence.

Our daily craving for seclusion is something of an anomoly here. In VN people are accustomed to being around family all day long. All the time, everyday. It’s part of the reason why no one sleeps alone and kids don’t leave their parents’ beds until middle school (and the reason why our bed is the size of two queen beds pushed together, because it’s expected that nuclear families sleep together). Being alone is considered scary. Our VN relatives don’t seem to have any need or desire to escape from one another. Of course there will always be in-fighting and tension when multiple generations and branches are forced by the patriarch to live under one roof (my cousins would prefer to have separate households to prevent bickering among wives and in-laws but what could they do except acquiesce when my uncle built a mansion specifically designed for everyone to live together), but everyone gets along surprisingly well considering how they’re in each other’s faces all the time. I could spend the entire day just hanging out with various relatives, and some days I do exactly that. Family members are always milling about, congregating in the kitchen/dining room area to chat, joke around or sprawl out on the cool marble tiles of the floor to escape the heat.

My mom moved in with us last year to help out with the kids and even though she’s been a godsend, I find it hard to be as nice to her as I should be. Part of it’s cultural, part of it’s emotional baggage, part of it’s typical mother-daughter stuff, but I just need to get away from her sometimes. In America we’re conditioned from the time we’re prepubescent to seek independence from our parents, to keep secrets from them, to sneak out of the house so we can have fun behind their backs. Parental presence means parental supervision which means loss of autonomy and fun. Here, it’s unthinkable to go anywhere without inviting my uncle and my mom, along with everyone else (my aunt is summering in Australia). Outings always include parents and kids unless they have other commitments. So if we’re going out to dinner or having drinks or grabbing coffee or a snack, EVERYONE has to join. Tom and I see our kids as a nuisance in public, but my cousins don’t mind being around their kids at all; I don’t think it’s occurred to them to mind. A few days ago my youngest female cousin, the baby of the family who’s called Ut, invited us to grab an afternoon snack of banh beo (little steamed rice cakes topped with dried shrimp, a miniature pork rind and fish sauce), and because we didn’t want to deal with the hassle of bringing along our kids who weren’t going to eat and who were most likely going to whine or cause some other mischief, we asked my mom to stay at home with them while we went. Even though she initially agreed, she didn’t hesitate to accept Ut’s invitation. My first instinct was to be annoyed. Annoyed that she wanted to tag along, annoyed that it meant our kids were going with us. I don’t know why I was so reluctant to have them join us; the outing took less than 90 minutes and simply involved eating trays of banh beo. We weren’t gossiping or telling secrets and my Vietnamese is so poor that it’s not like I could have a profound conversation with my cousins even if I tried; besides, all of their kids were there too. I’m just so used to the idea of needing to escape from my mom and my kids to have fun. Because it’s not possible to have fun around them, because being around them is a chore or obligation. Which makes me feel like a terrible daughter and parent.

In my defense and as an aside, my cousins don’t spend all day with their kids. In VN those who can afford it send their infants off to daycare as soon as possible (which to me is the reverse of how daycare is viewed in the U.S., not as an amenity but a necessity because neither parent can afford to stay at home or hire a nanny). Daycare and school hours extend much longer in VN than in the U.S. After kindergarten, it’s customary for children to have 12 hour school days!!! On top of the mandatory curriculum, parents pay for additional hours of schooling in the evenings and on weekends. Even if you don’t want to force extra schooling on your kids, teachers and your own kids will pressure you to pay for extra schooling so they don’t fall behind their peers.

In any event, I need to take a lesson from my cousins who not only tolerate their parents’ and children’s company, they prefer it because they don’t want to exclude anyone from the fun. That’s why outings are always so family-friendly. It’s endearing how innocent my cousins are. When they want to go out for drinks, they don’t mean cocktails; they mean blended smoothies that are consumed with strange snack concoctions like this one:

I keep having to remind myself that one of my goals this year is to strengthen relationships that are meaningful to me. My mom is definitely someone I need to reconnect with, and both she and my kids deserve to be cherished. Isn’t that why I stopped working in the first place? I just need to get over my baggage with my mom. It’s easy to see why my cousins love her. Around them she’s perfectly charming; the jovial aunt who’s teased and teases affectionately. Around me, she’s hyper-sensitive and easily offended, I guess because she has her own baggage when it comes to me. She constantly nags and treats me like a twelve year old. Is that compulsory behavior for all mothers? Am I destined to become like her? I shudder to think how much like my mother I already am: impatient, judgmental, a know-it-all. Maybe that’s why we clash, though less so than before. I need to make a point of being kinder toward her, to appreciate my time with her. I’m sure our interactions would be more enjoyable if I wasn’t always trying to distance myself from her.

As for our kids, honestly, who doesn’t need a break from their kids? Young children are inherently annoying. They’re capricious, temperamental, irrational, have short attention spans, interrupt every conversation to badger you with inane questions like “Momma why do flies fly? Why? Why? Why? WHY???” And if I’m ever sitting down, one of them inevitably tries to worm their way onto my lap. Ordinarily this would be a sweet gesture and I must sound like a heartless mother for complaining, but it’s unbearable because it’s a million degrees outside and neither of them is capable of sitting still. I’m already sweating like a pig just sitting there by myself so imagine the discomfort generated by another hot, sweaty body squirming on your lap. It’s times like these that I need to invoke Buddhist mindfulness techniques. As soon as I stop perceiving their presence as a distraction, as soon as my focus shifts entirely to them and I notice their adorable smiling faces and remember how unconditionally they love me, how if I lost them I would be forever filled with despair and longing and wish that they would climb into my lap and badger me with their innocent questions, I’m suddenly aware of how brief and precious my time with them is. Of course, it’s not practical to apply Buddhist mindfulness to my kids all the time. It wouldn’t be healthy for anyone if I catered to them every time they demanded my attention, and I would probably look like a freak if I were fixated on my kids all day along. But I need to practice mindfulness more than I do. I need to resist the urge to escape from the present. Sometimes privacy and isolation can be good, therapeutic, restorative. Given the chance, being around your loved ones can be too.

Tofu Is Delicious No Matter What Anyone Says


I mentioned that I liked to eat the silky soft tofu dessert that’s served with ginger-infused simple syrup and sure enough, the next day my cousins summoned the tofu lady who squatted beside the house handing out warm bowls of the stuff. Creamy tofu swimming in a richer syrup than you’d normally get in the U.S., flecked with bits of caramelized ginger, with coconut milk spooned on top, which I never had in this dessert before. So simple, comforting, and delicious!

My Vietnamese Still Sucks

My Vietnamese doesn’t seem to be improving at all and I’m a little frustrated and disheartened by that. My kids are definitely picking it up and it’s so cute to hear them utter little VN phrases to their playmates. Even though I have plenty of interactions with my cousins, I usually stay pretty quiet because I’m so self-conscious about my poor vocabulary. Sometimes my cousins will say entire sentences in which I don’t comprehend a single word. Tom isn’t self-conscious about his limited vocabulary so he’ll participate in the conversation more, which is what I need to do. It would be helpful if my cousins dumbed it down more. Once one of my cousins was trying to ask me if the boy had any adverse reactions to honey. I had forgotten the word for “honey” and to my inept ear it sounded like he was saying “the face of a bee.” I was confused and thought maybe he was asking if the boy was allergic to bee stings and responded that I didn’t know because he had never been stung by a bee before. My cousin got frustrated and kept saying what I thought was “the face of a bee” over and over again in progressively louder tones before it finally clicked and I asked if he meant the yellow stuff that bees make. It’s helpful to try to find another way to describe what you’re trying to say, not saying the same word louder. I don’t really blame him though; he’s just not used to speaking with such an unproficient speaker. I’m more frustrated with myself because my strategy of squinting really hard and looking confused when people talk isn’t working. Maybe fluency takes longer than a month and a half?

Not All Relatives Suck

Family dynamics can be a little tricky to navigate, especially when there are ulterior motives and awkward situations like we experienced with my dad’s side of the family. My mother’s side of the family is a completely different story. I try not to be too biased or judge too harshly, knowing that a large part of the reason why there’s such a difference between the two branches is because my mom’s family is so much more financially secure than my dad’s family. Even so, my maternal relatives are so genuinely kind-hearted, down-to-earth and good-natured that it’s hard not to be biased. Thanks to them we get to live in a mansion as long as we like. Sure, my uncle can afford the space and extra mouths to feed but there’s no reason for him to be so welcoming other than simple generosity, for which I’m very grateful. It’s unlikely that I could have afforded a year off from work or we would have cared to stay in VN so long if not for his generosity. This is pretty much as comfortable as it gets in VN. I’m still reconciling myself to the fact that this is not a traditional vacation. Amenities and creature comforts are not the reason why I’m here. I’m realizing more everyday that the purpose of my sabbatical is to cultivate relationships, to connect or reconnect with people, and to cherish those who deserve to be cherished. The upside to such an extended stay is that I’m getting to know my cousins far better than I could possibly get to know them during an average two week sojourn. It’s the day-to-day act of living and eating and being together that breeds intimacy and affection. And I have true, although not fully expressed, affection for them because they’re such cool people. They’re extremely considerate and it’s never in a calculated or ingratiating way. They just try to make us as comfortable as they can. For example, when they found out why we weren’t sleeping with our windows open, one of my cousins immediately bought a mosquito net and another cousin installed it over our bed the same day. They also gave us a tennis racket-looking device that electrocutes mosquitoes on contact. Not exactly child-friendly but an essential weapon in VN.
It’s been a struggle to get them to let us pay for anything, a drastic contrast from our dealings with Aunt #6 and her family. And even though my maternal relatives are gracious in an easygoing, unassuming manner, we’ve learned not to reveal too much about our likes and dislikes because they’re so quick to accommodate us. If you mention that you like a particular food or fruit, it’s sure to appear at the next meal. I made the mistake of letting it slip that it was Tom’s birthday as we were heading out to dinner last night. Tom swore me to secrecy because he didn’t want anyone making a fuss like they did for the boy’s birthday. When Chi Ca pressed me for the reason why we invited everyone out to dinner on a Monday night, I figured we were in the clear because we were literally on our way to the restaurant, so I confessed that it was Tom’s birthday. Word spread quickly and unbeknownst to us, a call was made to one of my cousins who was picking up her kids from school en route to the restaurant. She made a detour and arrived a little late to dinner bearing gifts and a birthday cake. These people are sneaky and they work fast. Tom was not happy with me which resulted in a scolding for my big mouth. He got over it by the time he was being serenaded in the karaoke room. These people also take their karaoke seriously.

We’re bound to be treated less like guests of honor and more like regular family members as time goes on and the novelty of the Viet Kieu wears off, and I’m looking forward to that.

Happy Birthday Baby Daddy!


Today my babies’ dadda is 37 and almost middle-aged! We’ve been married since our early twenties and I’m so grateful for the life we’ve built together. If I were to pen an open love letter, at the risk of sounding cheesy, I would write that you are the perfect husband and life mate for me. Neither of us is perfect, but we’re better when we’re together, and were absolutely meant to be. I hate that any words I come up with are clichés that all wives say to their husbands on their birthdays — you’re my best friend, we’re soulmates, I’m so lucky to have you in my life, etc. — but those clichés are nevertheless so true. I can tell that my happiness is the priority of your life because I make certain to let you know if I am, and therefore you are, ever unhappy, and you always try your best to remedy it. You’re consistently kind towards me, and accommodating to the point of being indulgent. When I got it into my head that I wanted to live in a third world country for a year, you obliged. I like to take credit for having the good sense to marry you as early as I did, but the truth is that when we started dating, I had such a powerful, visceral attraction to you that I couldn’t help myself. In other words, I was so hot for you that I would have married you even if you hadn’t turned out to be a good person. I’m just lucky that you turned out to be more than I could have asked or hoped for. You’re the only person in the world that I never tire of, never need to escape from. I could spend every second of my life in the same room with you and be perfectly content. You’re like a drug addiction; in the beginning you made me euphoric and now I need you just to feel normal.

Even though it’s universally acknowledged that I’m the better looking half, you compensate for your deficiencies in so many other ways. So what if you have bad breath or sneeze too much or if hair grows in absurd parts of your face, ears, and body. You take care of our home, our children, and me. I have an enhanced appreciation of you after observing how unhelpful husbands, and men generally, in VN are. When I was consumed with work, you took care of everything else. As overwhelmed as I sometimes felt, I never felt like I was doing everything by myself. You always asked if there was anything you could do to ease my stress, my anxiety, my unhappiness. We’ve fought, sometimes intensely, over division of labor and sleep, but not because someone wasn’t pulling their fair share. If you ever feel unappreciated, that I take the things you do for granted, or that I don’t notice, please know that I do notice and I’m very grateful, even if I don’t express my gratitude as much as I should. I know that I don’t have the faintest idea how to operate the pool equipment or maintain the pool. That I don’t pay bills or dust or pull weeds. That I don’t know how much diapers should cost or how to load or operate the dishwasher. That if I had to mop the hardwood floors you installed in our home I wouldn’t know where to begin because I’ve never done it before, just like I’ve never taken out the trash or made coffee or gotten an oil change for my car. That you know and do all these things so I don’t have to. And that most people would probably be shocked at all you do, without being asked, and might wonder why I’m admitting how apparently useless and utterly devoid of domestic prowess I am. I’m admitting all these things because you deserve recognition for being the wonderfully amazing person that you are, and I want to thank you and remind you, in case it’s not obvious, how very deeply loved and appreciated you are.

Happy Birthday Baby Boy!

Happy 3rd birthday to my cutie pie! How could you not love such an adorable munchkin of a boy?

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We celebrated at a restaurant where we sampled various preparations of goat – grilled, roasted, steamed, and thinly sliced – while the boy enjoyed his favorite request – white rice drizzled with soy sauce!


Since he’s allergic to eggs and dairy, we stacked some oreo cookies on a plate for candle-blowing. He doesn’t know any better so he had a great day.

A Lesson in Humility

Modesty is not one of my virtues, mainly because I think I’m the shit. I pride myself on my all-around awesomeness in everything except sports, geography, science, math, technology, current events, historical events, music, the arts in general, politics, and spatial intelligence. Other than that I’m pretty awesome. I really pride myself on my work ethic and skills in the kitchen. I’ve pulled more all-nighters or near all-nighters for work than I care to remember, and an extreme foodie needs to know how to feed herself competently.

One of the reasons why I felt I needed, and deserved, a sabbatical so urgently was that I was starting to feel sorry for myself for working so hard. I honestly believe that I need more sleep than the average person and was convinced that I was getting far less than the average person, which was causing great unhappiness. My entire existence centered on work and trying to make up an ever increasing sleep deficit. I routinely chose work over sleep, and sleep over spending time with my family. At the time it felt like I was acting out of necessity rather than choice, and even though I knew I was facing the same struggles that countless other women face, my working mom martyrdom felt very lonely. I felt entitled to a break from everyday life. At the beginning of my sabbatical, witnessing how so many VN people idled their days away only reaffirmed my sense of entitlement and self-pity. Able-bodied and able-minded workers are underemployed in VN, and retired seniors like my aunt and uncle reenact the same leisurely, unvarying routine everyday: rise at dawn, take a morning stroll, eat breakfast, read the newspaper, eat lunch, take a nap, watch soccer/news/soap operas, eat dinner, take an evening stroll, wash up, early bedtime. Except for an occasional visit to or from relatives, each day was indistinguishable from another. I thought, these people have it so easy. Imagine how much our collective quality of life would improve if only the U.S. would institutionalize the afternoon siesta. Napping after lunchtime seems like such luxury but throughout many parts of Asia and Europe, it’s expected. What’s also expected in VN is the flagrant oppression of women. Women are certainly oppressed in the U.S. but usually in subtler, more insidious ways. In VN, and indeed most of Asia, women are simultaneously tasked with women’s work and men’s work and continue to be victimized by domestic abuse. Men do not do women’s work, period. A staunchly patriarchical and chauvinistic society such as this one is rife with examples of true female martyrdom. Case in point: my uncle’s eldest daughter and my oldest female cousin, Chi Ca.

Chi Ca is in her early forties but looks at least 10 years younger. She has to be one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. She’s also exceedingly helpful. If she’s in the vicinity of anyone performing a chore or doing anything remotely unfun, she jumps right in to help. It’s not unusual for the rest of the family to be sitting around chatting while she’s alone in the kitchen chopping, cooking, washing, sweeping, wiping, scrubbing and generally just always working. Right now as I type she’s mopping the spiral staircase as she makes her way down to the floors of my uncle’s palatial mansion, as she does everyday. She literally works from dawn to dusk, and often beyond, which is actually an improvement from her former married life, when she routinely went to bed after midnight and rose at 3am. Before her divorce several years ago, she worked ceaselessly to support her two children and her husband’s drinking habit. He was also in the habit of accruing mistresses and gambling debts. In addition to his infidelity and overall fecklessness, he was physically abusive. You’d think that such a scoundrel easily cinches the title of Worst Husband Of All Time, but his behavior, and Chi Ca’s experience, are all too commonplace. Time and again I hear tales of downtrodden and horribly mistreated women who persevere through unimaginable trials for the sake of their families, all the while suffering unspeakable depredations at the hands of their husbands. When I see firsthand how hard Chi Ca works, and hear about how hard she’s always worked and what she’s been through, I realize that my own work ethic and perceived sufferings don’t hold a candle to hers. As much as I whined about sleep deprivation, I certainly averaged more than three hours a night. And although I’ve always been self-motivated to work hard, I’ve never known what it’s like to be motivated by fear of bodily harm or hunger or the need to avert disastrous consequences. My children’s survival and prospects have never been seriously threatened or endangered. My husband is a loving, caring, respectful, supportive life partner, which is, in many respects, the opposite of the quintessential VN husband. I don’t have it so bad after all.

Chi Ca is also a superb cook who puts my kitchen skills to shame. It’s not that I don’t think I’m capable of achieving her level of culinary expertise (eventually, after years of practice), it’s just that the extensiveness of her repertoire of dishes and the mastery with which she executes them are awe-inspiring, and humbling. Mine pale in comparison. I won’t be bragging that I’m a bad-ass cook until I get back to the U.S. As for Chi Ca, she’s not opposed to the idea of coming to America. If you or anyone you know might be interested in an insanely hard-working, kind, competent divorcee who’s a fabulous cook, let me know.


Beach Day, VN Style

My uncle rented a van so that our 22 person entourage could spend a day at Vung Tau, a locals beach that’s about an hour and a half from Long Khanh. Because beach day is serious business, we rose at four in the morning and were on the road by 4:30. We were in the water by quarter after six. Even though the sand was silky soft and the ocean was as warm as bathwater, the beach suffered from what much of the country suffers from; its inhabitants don’t take care of it. Several times as I was swimming I freaked out thinking that a jellyfish had grazed me, only to discover that it was a plastic bag. The litter on the beach was so disgusting that when workers arrived with their rice hats and straw brooms, I spent a little time helping them collect debris because I couldn’t stand to see my kids playing in sand littered with so much garbage.

Our meals at the beach, however, perfectly illustrate the paradox that is VN. The family brought a tiny charcoal grill and butane stove and feasted on fresh crab, shrimp, grilled fish, squid, spareribs with French bread, stir-fried egg noodles with beef, and for the grand finale busted out fish hotpot in a tangy Thai-style tom yum broth, served with fresh greens and rice noodles. I can’t imagine that very many American cooks would attempt such an undertaking in the comfort of their gourmet kitchens, let alone outdoors. Americans are all about convenience. There’s no shame in ordering a pizza and calling it a day. My uncle’s family, however, does not take any shortcuts when it comes to food. These people lugged all these ingredients and prepared all these amazing meals at the beach. I’m starting to understand that my obsession with food is part of my ethnic, cultural, and familial heritage.