Thursday, March 25, 2004

A LONG MARCH, PART II

She whispered to me. But I turned back to sleep. (C'mon, it was Saturday around 10 a.m. You'd do the same!) Ah, Cuong!, she coaxed again, then in a hurry, she released her words, waking me. I gathered myself, turned to her, but she was gone. Her words lingered. Maybe it was a dream. I sat on the edge of my bed. I dialed my sister. She told me California Grandmother's children were summoned to the hospital around 5 a.m. this morning. When they got there, the doctors had pulled her out of my dreams and brought her back to us.

The California Grandmother had an unforgettable laugh. A laugh that opened her smile, that grasped for words. I think every time she laughed it took her breath away. You never saw it in pictures, she never smiled for them. Grandmother came to California in 1981 with her husband and three adult children. She cooked, she cleaned, she took care of her diabetic husband (until he died in 1986). She raised many generations of family. In some ways, she was everyone's mother. Grandmother was so dutiful, so lovely.

But Grandmother also had an insatiable fascination for American television. She, like millions of other Americans in the 80s, loved Dynasty. She referred to the show as The Old Man, well, because John Forsythe was pretty old. Every Wednesday night, she and my aunts sat in front of the television in a trance. She also loved The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. The show always made her laugh uproariously along with Johnny or his audience. Then she'd turn to one of us grandkids, a smile still in her laugh and asked us what he said. See, Grandmother didn't understand a word of English, but growing up, to us, you'd never know it the way she understood her American world. She always laughed so hard.

All day I kept thinking about that dream. It felt so real to me. That night, my sister called. I now forgot her words. Only that the California Grandmother had died this morning. Grandmother's children had come home shortly after sunrise, but around 10 a.m., they were summoned back to the hospital. This time, Grandmother was gone. All day her words illuminated my mind. To tell you the truth, when she punctuated my dream, I heard her clearly. Four years ago today, my grandmother, my father’s loving mother died. Her laugh extinguished...

Thursday, March 18, 2004

UGH!

"The American corporate executive, the foremost representative of Man in the world today, was perfectly capable of burning unseen women and children in the Vietnamese jungle, yet felt a large displeasure and disapproval at the generous use of obscenity in literature and in public."
-- Norman Mailer, The Armies of the Night
The stage is set, the masses are fuming. From gay marriage to censorship, basic human rights are being covertly denied. Under the guise of protecting our children, the Bush administration is seeking to silence Americans with its fury over broadcast censorship, and advocate discrimination with its policy on marriage. It's egregious, unjust.

The masses are fuming. Outraged, Americans are waking up and claiming their voice. Take for example, Jennifer and Dana, who were married in a small town in New York. Howard Stern (though not my favorite), using his radio show to unleash his opposition to anti-gay marriage and censorship, and advocating listeners to remove Bush in November! And Alexandra Paul, from Baywatch (one of my favorite shows!), has made it her mission to attack war and demolish Bush. Like them or not, celebrities have the power to reach and access many Americans, and perhaps present issues in a way that can compel many to act. Some have. In the fight for basic human equality, we've formed strange allies. And motherfucker's going down!

Please check out the links throughout this entry. There are worthy reads. Also, see Britain's Channel 4's star-studded ad, though not about censorship, I like the idea of re-articulating what is decent. And a North Carolina elementary school in the cross-fires of controversy when parents of a student were outrage by a book about a prince marrying another prince!

Many Americans, compelled by a mighty conscience to act, are making a difference. So moved by their actions that, well, I'm seriously considering registering to vote! Maybe...

Monday, March 08, 2004

A LONG MARCH, PART I

Two years ago today, Viet Nam Grandmother, my mother's mother, left us. She was 87 years old. In the days following her death, her children from Canada, California and Australia, and many grandchildren returned to the soil of their blood. Grandmother wouldn't have wanted it. She had insisted they not come home for her. Her words were so clear. But Grandmother had already gotten her way, dying when she did. Refusing to wait for her children, refusing to let them breach her life's last wish. So, two years ago, with a touch of defiance, in the calm of day, she bade us good-bye...

I lost her in my earliest memories. There are hazy gray images of a house in Ca Mau, a childhood in the aftermath of war, and a flight from home into endless waters. But no Viet Nam Grandmother. For years, she came to me on paper. Flat, still images of an old woman with shoulder-length white hair, perfect wrinkles, and smiling eyes. To me, she was the picture grandmother, almost mythical.

Many years later, Grandmother came to life to me. But it was another time with her, in her world, that I saw the strength of my life blood. In 1995, weeks before Grandmother turned 81, the family from across many oceans, Oldest Uncle and his family, Oldest Aunt, my mother, Fourth Aunt, Youngest Aunt, little Stephen and I, returned home. To their Saigon. Along with the Viet Nam siblings - Youngest Uncle and Third Aunt, Grandmother was reunited with all her children, for the first time since they fled more than a decade earlier. So for her birthday, they all returned home.

For two weeks, Viet Nam stood still in time. The united family illuminated the house with ordinary moments: laughs, food, and stories. We woke up early. We went shopping. We made offerings at Grandfather's grave, cleaned his tombstone so the red and green characters shone. We held a banquet in Grandmother's honor. We snapped so many pictures. The tiny moments seemed somehow more than ordinary. The oceans separated us, the years passed us by, but we were now a family.

In the family home, I found pictures of Grandmother no one sent me: During the war, Grandmother was forced into the jungle to perform war's work, working so hard, I think she became blind. When she came home, she was forced to attend late-night meetings like so many other families. Despite the destitution and poverty, she saw how beautiful her country was. She was a woman who felt the greatest pain of loss when her children fled, but she endured.

The Viet Nam family had almost forgotten the time, almost erased the years of sadness of separation and lives apart. But time doesn't wait for anyone. And on the last day as a family in Viet Nam, on the day of inevitable separation once again, there was a tense, somber silence. No one wanted to cry, no one wanted to be the first to cry. But somebody did. Then, we all did... Somehow, we packed into a van, but not wanting to leave, not wanting to let go of her. We tuned the corner. Grandmother stood there in the yard and waved.

Grandmother had talked about death before, about wanting to be with Grandfather. But in 2002, when she called Oldest Uncle, her words lingered. "I'm going to die," she told him. She was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. The children in Canada, California and Australia told her they were returning home. Grandmother didn't like the fuss. "Don't come," she protested. "I'll be dead by the time you get here." There were more calls, some emails, and plans were made to return home to see Grandmother.

Shortly thereafter, Grandmother went into the hospital for a minor procedure. Something with a toe. Youngest Uncle had left her, leaving Third Aunt to look after Grandmother. When Third Aunt checked in on her, she was blue or green, the Vietnamese word is the same. Fourth Aunt panicked. But Grandmother was gone.

This is what happened: After 20 years of being separated from Grandfather, Grandmother was ready to go to him. She heard him calling all these years, but she told him to wait... All these years, she stayed alive for her children and grandchildren. But she could no longer bear it, she couldn't hold on to life any longer. She told Grandfather she was coming. Told her children not to come home for another good-bye. Grandmother had already said too many good-byes in her life, each one seemed like the last. So, that day, in the hospital, she quietly left us. But Grandmother turned herself blue or green so they knew unmistakably that she left to be with Grandfather. Grandmother died three days before Oldest Aunt and my mother were to arrive home. Gone, like she said she would be...

Within days, Grandmother's orphaned children and many grandchildren returned home. In her house, her body laid still. Her children gathered around her. She looked so tiny. So much smaller than the life she embodied. Then, she was finally laid next to Grandfather. On the headstone, her name in green, now traced over carefully in red. Her name now etched in red too.

Two years ago, Viet Nam Grandmother gathered all her children together one last time. Only she could do it. So she did. She wanted them to be with each other, to lead her to Grandfather and return home, without her. They united their parents and retreated to Grandmother's suddenly empty house. But after they released her, Grandmother found her way home too. She wandered into her house, in on her children. Undetected. They were all there, her children and grandchildren, full of thoughts. She held them close one last time, so proud, so happy, before she said good-bye. And Grandmother left to be with Grandfather...

Thursday, March 04, 2004

CUONG'S BOOK CLUB

If Oprah Winfrey can do it, I can do it. Oprah has such an enormous impact on people's lives through her show, her magazine and her philanthropic work. And to top it all off, she's the first African American woman billionaire.

They say that if you want to succeed, the most effective way to do so it to model yourself after someone you want to aspire to be. One day I would like to be Oprah. Just not the female or African American part 'cause I like being a guy and I like being Asian. But I digress... So, if Oprah can do it, I can do it...

On my road to Oprah-dom, I am going to start small. So, if Oprah can have a book club, I too can have a book club. (Since I'm so far behind Oprah, only this list will contain more than one book). Without further ado, my first step towards Oprah-ness: Cuong's Book Club's first list...

Charlie Chan is Dead, by Jessica Hagedorn
The title refers to the "death" of the stereotypical caricatures of Asians as depicted in the nefarious Charlie Chan movies. With bold and often provocative stories ranging from sex to revenge to homosexuality, this anthology proves that stereotype is, indeed, dead. And in doing so, confirms the depth of Asian Americans and Asian American writing.

Becoming A Man, by Paul Monette
From the first line of his book, Paul Monette captures your attention and takes you on a journey of self-discovery, shame, and life in the closet, where "self-pity becomes your oxygen." Monette chronicles his life and traces his struggle to breathe. It is raw, bittersweet, intense, but the writing is poetic and gorgeous.

The Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston
Maxine Hong Kingston's National Book Award-winning novel Woman Warrior is part fiction, part memoir about her childhood living among "ghosts" of the past and "ghosts" in a new world. It explores sexism, racism and the forming of new cultures. Kingston's writing is full of beautiful prose, great mythology, and startling truths.

The Armies of the Night, by Norman Mailer
Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night was mentioned in a previous entry, but it's worth noting as an official Book Club selection because it is thought-provoking. Mailer writes about many things, in particular re-articulating war and peace. Full of great observations and ideas, Mailer leads you to question history and your place within it.

Paradise of the Blind, by Thu Huong Duong
Thu Huong Duong's Paradise of the Blind was banned in Viet Nam, where the author lives. It is the tale of a mother and daughter whose allegiance to Viet Nam's past rips at their relationship. The book is sometimes brutal, sometimes tragic, but the mesmerizing writing brings into clarity so beautifully the people, the culture, the life of Viet Nam.

The Four Agreements, by Don Miguel Ruiz
This book was initially recommended to me by my therapist. Five years later, I finally read it. While it is not a lyrically well-written book, I feel the agreements Ruiz presents are worth considering and exploring, and if it makes sense, incorporating into your everyday life. The lessons are purposeful. Give it a chance. Try it.

There are many books that should be shared, read and treasured. I chose these six books for a variety of reasons. But, to me, they all shed light onto the darkness of life, whether it's about love, loss, war, peace, revenge, resistance, identity, or self-improvement. In doing so, each one, in their own way, shed light into and about our world.

I look forward to your suggestions and recommendations, as well as, sharing more great books within Cuong's Book Club. Read well!