On My Father (and Shedding Skins)

A descriptive writing assignment is an exercise on observation, where you part describe what you see and part make an educated guess at what the teachers expect you to say. It was all I did in Literature class up until fifth grade. Whether it was because of the nature of the prompts or my natural tendencies I couldn’t tell, but the truth is: Almost all of what I wrote at the time was about my mother. I knew what the common daughter should feel about her mother. It was easy having words put into my mouth about how gentle and loving my mother was, how I shared with her all of my little secrets, how her hair was long and black and her eyes sparkled like the night sky. But I’m not getting into that now, because today, I’m writing about my father.

My father, to the ten-year-old me, was my father and nothing else. He was this being that came into existence just to be my father. He is, of course, in reality a construction engineer, a lover of Chinese historical novels, a Vietnamese food expert, a friend and colleague to men unknown to me whom he drinks and discusses politics with. But around me he was his beer belly, too big to wrap my arms around; his fuzzy arms and dark tanned skin, always warmer than mine; his broad back against which I leaned and relieved whatever was on my mind. He was mine alone, mine wholly, mine forever and after. The things we thought we knew, us ten-year-olds!

Every year my family go on a road trip to Dalat, or the city of flowers, as people call it in Vietnam. Dalat was where my father used to travel to with his friends in high school, each of them on a motorcycle (the cheap kind that carried itself quietly with a feminine shamefacedness) carrying a girl on their backseat (he did not know my mother then), with just enough money to probably fill the gas. I gleamed these stories from grandma, who hoarded them with every last bit of her strength, refusing to surrender even as other things, like what Qui n’avance pas, recule means or where she put her glasses, started to slip away. I never dwelled on the details though. The stories didn’t mean much to me–didn’t make sense, even. Dalat belonged to us–Dalat the city of flowers, of spirits in tree hollows, of foggy mornings and horse rides by Ho Xuan Huong lake. No stories can change that. 

hình với ba

This photo was taken on one of our trips, in front of a statue of the Buddha that my mother the photographer chose to exclude. Instead, there is the dragon, my spirit animal according to my birth year, my father, and I, on the long flight of stairs leading towards the praying area. My father was wearing the hotel’s slippers, way too large pants, a sports jacket he’d owned nearly ten years. I was wearing what my mother dressed me in, snugly enveloped with my head against his chest. People said I was his copy, feature by feature–his downturned eyes, wide nose, large ears, tanned skin. You can really see it in the photo. It was that time when I resembled him the most. It was that time when we were together in a oneness that was later deprived us. It was that time when I bowed down beside my father, looking up at a distant god, and he clasped my hand together and told me to pray. 


Thoughts on Death (and the Crap Written about it)

People say dead souls become stars because stars watch over us and are closer to heaven. But dead souls are stars because there are so many of them. To put it into perspective: If you watched all of the dead marched through your window it would probably take you all your life, depending on how many years you have left, not that you would know; and if you stacked fifteen dead people together with a living person, every living person would have for himself a merry company. How curious a company that would be! But death itself is a curious ritual, as much so as birth is and identical to it in several ways: both involve an unconscious being, not quite alive, not quite otherwise; and that one sees it happen to others but never to oneself. In this way, death is just like life, conjoined to it like a less-loved twin who’s bitter about it. 

But I’m not saying this to sound like a smartass. No one who is alive knows death, which makes it ridiculous how much have been said about it. It is ironic that I am myself discussing death in this post, but irony is healthy, so I’m gonna go ahead and say that death has been overly dramatized and romanticized. Through countless theatrical and literary productions, death has embodied literally everything in the world—love, sacrifice, courage, dignity, innocence, loyalty, the meaning of life, the meaninglessness of life, human folly, greed, punishment, redemption, and so on and so forth. Not only are these representations miserably recycled, they are also wildly misleading—death will not be eternal glory for many of us, and is probably not worth dreading nor dreaming about. One of my neighbors died while the dentist pulled out her teeth; another had a heart stroke coming out of a shower; Dr. Juvenal Urbino dies falling off a ladder trying to catch his parrot. These kinds of death are rarely talked about because they are deemed meaningless, but the truth is that death itself is meaningless. Life is what has meaning. Drama, regret, pain, anger—these are the matter of Life, which Death neither solves nor ends. Death just leaves you hanging, because you’re never ready for it. Death is really just an end stop popping out of nowhere, which doesn’t stop life but, ironically, maintains it through its endless cycles of rebirth. 

On a less radical note, I have for you a recycled message which you’re more likely to agree with: Do not fear Death, fear Life. Fear your own fears, which will prevent you from living that good life you know you deserve, even though you saw it in other people’s Instagram. In the end, if your life is well-lived, it might as well go on, and on, and on, beyond death.