5 Mondays until Christmas

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Hi,

 

It’s late at night and I am evacuating from the apartment in the nearby Starbucks (Matt has an hour-long skype call to make). It’s Christmas season again! I am so glad that it’s here upon us all. Jo reminded me of a November evening years ago in Saigon when we got to witness the fairy lights lit up by the café staff, merry tunes in the background, cold beers in our hand. That evening of years past remains the quintessence of Christmas season in me – so much hope and coziness.

 

I am voicing my hopes to the universe in this Christmas season. I hope that I can finish my curriculum development project in time for Christmas break (and for my sanity, if I’m being honest). I hope that I can work towards my employability somewhere other than Asia, especially in the States. I hope that my mom Lanh and dad Toan can enjoy a sense of wellbeing that rightfully comes with retirement after years of hard work. I hope that my mom Robyn and dad Marty will continue to enjoy good health, high spirits and much joy as they have skillfully introduced into their daily life. I hope to connect with my girlfriends Quynh, Trang and Jo more often. Writing on this blog helps. Whenever a friend texts and says that she finds a specific something I write here so relatable, I feel like all this long distance is a little bit more okay.

 

In this season of hope, however, there are sobering moments where I struggle to find my bearing. Parts of this struggle, I feel, comes from my neurotic brain. I have had my fair share of anxiety much of my adult life. The sources of anxiety vary widely, depending on what literature or whom I am exposed to at a certain time. For example, I woke up from a nap today and got obsessed thinking about retirement fund, because recently I have read more on the topic of, you guess it, aging. This kind of ruminating anxiety, my psychologist advises, can be prevented by me having a kind of structure to my day. I haven’t been up to date with a daily structure lately, with productivity suffering. That comes at the cost of increasing my own anxiety. There you have it – a vicious cycle of little structure – more anxiety – need for structure. (Insert 30 minutes of how I want to help structure my days more inspiringly. Be right back.)

 

More than most, this Christmas season has brought with it such a hopeful promise as we are coming back home to Lititz to be with mom Robyn and dad Marty. Upon knowing that I have never had the experience of cozying up with family by the fire as it gets cold outside, Matt decided to bring us back home. And I am so grateful for that decision. To be with mom and dad is the emblem of coziness for me. Dad will cook, Mom will bake, Matt will get cold and I will get pampered (I kid, I kid. More like: Matt will need time alone reading and I will try to get Bella and Blotch – ahem, Patch – the cats to love me, in vain. Dad will still cook and same goes for mom. Hihi.) As mom and dad’s car pulled away from our last union in DC, I found myself yearning for more, more time and more being with family. More of this coziness and tender hearts, please. I realized that I have started feeling Mom and Dad as home. And that, my friends, is a balm for the homesick soul in this season.

 

I think the café staffs are trying to close up shop. I need to get on my feet. Five more Mondays until Christmas! Joyeux Noel, beloved ones!

 

 

Food for the homesick | Spring rolls peanut sauce

Ehem! Here’s the thing about spring rolls: Everyone can make them. Here’s another thing about spring rolls: The gist lies in the sauce. The sauce makes or breaks the dish when it comes to spring rolls. There are only two good recipes for its sauce. The first one belongs to the chef at Lotte Legend Hotel Saigon. During our stay last July for the wedding, Dad, Mom, Matt and I got obsessed in its brown smoothness. I have the second one, which I adapted from this book. I was too chicken to talk to the Legend Hotel chef; so by the law of elimination, there’s only one good recipe at all. In the entire world. And I’m about to share with you here. If you go into the trouble of making your own spring rolls at all, please do me a favor and follow this step by step, only taking liberty with how many chiles you want to add (but don’t make this sauce sans chili, it’s my order.)

Last summer when we visited Mom Robyn and Dad Marty, I lugged all the way from Vietnam a bottle of fermented soybean. It smelled! Although Dad made it clear that he could eat the sauce alone and call it a meal (My Dad knows his food, what can I say!), I was still determined to continue that hunt for the perfect recipe. Back to my Bangkok kitchen, I embarked on trying the renowned Charles Phan’s version, which threatened me at first by its list of ingredients: glutinous rice, red miso, toasted sesame oil, vegetarian stir-fry sauce, what! Anyway, efforts pay off in all Vietnamese sauces guys! I was lucky enough to find good red miso – the Japanese red soybean paste that people usually put into miso soup – at the Max Value minimarket on the ground floor of our apartment building. Don’t skip on this ingredient because it’s a make-or-break 3 tablespoon of goodness.

With all the ingredients assembled, I’m able to whip about 2 cups worth of good spring roll sauce in a flash. I store it in the fridge to use over 4 days, choosing to buy the rest of the ingredients for spring rolls just before meals. Nutty, fatty, thick-textured and flavorful brown sauce is topped with aromatic crushed peanuts and crunchy shredded carrot. This is really comfort food for this homesick Viet bride.

Here goes: The delightful spring rolls peanut sauce

Spring rolls peanut sauce

Adapted from Vietnamese Home Cooking by Charles Phan

1 cup sweet rice flour, another name for glutinous rice flour

1/2 cup roasted peanuts

2 gloves garlic

1 Thai chile, stemmed

3 tablespoons red miso

3 tablespoons ketchup

3 tablespoons canola oil

3 tablespoons sugar

2 tablespoon vegetarian stir-fry sauce (other names include mushroom stir-fry sauce or vegetarian oyster sauce; a substitute is oyster sauce)

2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

1 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

Makes about 2 cups

  1. In a bowl, add 1/2 cup water to glutinous rice, stir until combined. Pop the bowl into the microwave until the batter forms an non-watery elastic paste, usually 30-40 seconds.
  2. In a food processor or blender, combine the rice paste, peanuts, garlic, miso, chile, ketchup, canola oil, sugar, stir-fry sauce, lemon juice and sesame oil (basically everything, sorry you have read all that step by step) and process until the mixture is a fine paste. Thin with water to achieve a smooth and creamy consistency (as much as 1/2 cup). I like mine a bit thick so that I can scoop it up with a spoon and drop onto my spring rolls.
  3. Serve right away as the sauce is still warm. Or cover and refrigerate until ready to serve. The sauce will keep, refrigerated, for up to 4 days.
  4. You’re welcome.

 

The Art of Aging* for a daughter

You, me and the City | Watercolor 3

Last year my aunty was diagnosed with non-small cell lung cancer, which is a surprising common type of cancer (making up for 80% of all lung cancer cases, according to America Cancer Society). My extended paternal side of the family was shocked by the news, and I was suggested to accompany her to Singapore to get treatment from a private hospital there.

With a flexible work schedule, I enlisted my willingness to help aunty. Aside my love for aunty, I decided then that I wanted to use this chance to build the skill set of caring for the elderly of my family. It was August 2014, I just moved back home 4 months earlier upon finishing grad school, having witnessed how much more frailty there was in my dad’s gait. I remember the shift in parent-child power relations, and how we talked with each other then. Over breakfast, Dad would start: “I think I have just a little over 3 years,” implying how long he got to live. Mom would nod her head as if it were the same for her. Or, “Sometimes I wake up in the morning, thinking to myself I am still alive.” Or, “Would be great to go in our sleep”. Mostly, I just kept quiet, increasingly confused by the scarily one-way approach to living – thinking repeatedly about death.

I was conflicted inside. On the one hand, my hunch was to find a way for me to live the way I wanted – moving out, having my own space, entering a relationship, a rewarding job, a door I can close myself, my own kitchen, no curfew. On the other hand, I felt tugged and torn listening to my parents’ fears and exasperations about their situation. They had grown up paying their due respect to their own parents, sending money gifts every month, sometimes living an arranged marriage, staying quiet at often unsolicited parental advice, and generally figuring out countless ways to let my grandparents be the leader of the extended family until the day they died, including living together, with my grandparents sleeping in the living room – the biggest and most powerful place in the household. My parents raised me and my older brother Nam with that same expectation, learning along the way that one by one, their children wouldn’t stay under the same household, their daughter – me – planning a non-traditional wedding ceremony, sending home no monthly gift money envelopes. For my parents, to take care of themselves and not rely on children is a misfortune. They have gradually realised, much to their chagrin they expressed implicitly, that they might not enjoy the same kind of care that they have so dutifully and selflessly shown their parents as well as their children.

That was one year and three months ago. My aunty has since then got targeted treatment until the cancer cells refused to respond to medication, then chemotherapy, and now under hospice care, slipping in and out of consciousness. My dad is now 63 years old, my mom 61. My dad is still talking about death daily, waving his bags of pills in conversations with visitors and new friends alike. He has once been hospitalized after a bout of high blood pressure leaving him constantly with heart burn and dizziness. On my part, I have moved out, got engaged, got married, and moved to Bangkok. Our lives are drifting apart physically – I am making my new home with my husband, my parents are aging and suffering from old-age problems. A somewhat universal ordeal in the relationship between people my generation and my parents’, I believe.

However, we as a family have never openly discussed our evolving parent-children relationship. Under the surface of life-per-usual, my parents, my older brother Nam and I all know that we are eluding a critical conversation: How do we want to get involved in caring for my parents as they become frail and dependent on extra help in their life. I know I need to take action, and I hope to document this process in writing. I use writing as a tool for informed decisions and hopefully a sense of well-being. In writing about this personal and sensitive matter, I will attempt to be truthful about particularly tricky parts of our parent-child relationship. That said, my writing remains a reflection of my own navigation of this water – by openly and honestly discuss how best to relate and support my parents in their old age, not just the way my parents imply for it to be, is what my conscience needs.

*The title of this series is inspired by a book by Shep Nuland – a physician who famously wrote about how we live, age and spend the final years of our life. In reflecting on my relationship with my aging parents, I have read and consulted from literature on the matter. This small niche of literature I’m exposed to so far has included Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, How We Die and The Art of Aging by Shep Nuland, Già Sao Cho Sướng (roughly translated “How to age happily”) and Gió Heo May Đã Về (“The autumn breeze arrives”) by the Vietnamese physician Bác sĩ Đỗ Hồng Ngọc. These books have introduced me to further research and literature, and most importantly, guided me to important questions in conversations with my parents. Getting old is not an art practiced by the elderly of families alone, it involves the younger generations, our constantly evolving parent-children relationship, however sensitive modern life has made it. The Art of Aging for a daughter, therefore, is my wish to own my part in a journey my mom Lanh and dad Toan have ominously dubbed “a downhill battle.”

Work in progress

strawberries

I have drifted from life lately. I would wake up late in the morning, pick up things in our apartment, do laundry and leave behind a mess of dirty dishes for husband (Yup.) I would curse my late-night Internet binge the night before. Without even stepping one foot out of the house, I have already succeeded in bombarding myself with demeaning thoughts.

Your life is a mess. A physical mess. You’re a mess.

Recently, I’ve reached a milestone in my curriculum project, putting together the first textbook and assessment materials. I learned to put together the materials on a book layout in Adobe InDesign, stumbling along the way. The moments stretching up to the deadline, a self-imposed one, I was in a rut.

Look at the haphazard compilation! You don’t even produce your own materials. Slice and dice is all that you have done. No other company will ever pay you any respect for your work. Just like Thammasart University had looked down on your stint at British American Tobacco! Who in their right mind works for a tobacco company? Who in their right mind just takes other people’s intellectual work for her project?

Just like that, my feet dragged me along.

Entered a change this morning. I sat on my bed in a quiet house. Matt’s words echoed in my ears. “We should do a wall gallery, Nhung. All your watercolor works. We can rotate them.” With that, he was telling me, all of my progress is part of the journey. I’ve been raised up with the thought of being perfect, of fearing what other people may think. In fact, whenever we’re in a public space together, my mom would constantly correct how I stand, and how I look, fixing my strayed bang, or a shirt collar. When we get home, my mom would say “Why did you joke that you’re in a pickle of choosing whom worth your time and courtship? People may think…”

Oh the internalization of the fear of what “people may think…” runs deep. If I manage to unwrap myself from one vine, another vine creeps in so tightly against my rib cage. And my rib cage feels like a prison, more than a mode of self-protection.

Bring your unfinished work. Show the imperfect brush strokes. Let yourself be uplifted with the first draft of the book you have compiled. Pat yourself on the back, will ya? It’s part of learning. You have accomplished. 

I stepped out into the sun. The crowded street of Bangkok is a slap on the senses every time. Dropping by the corner coffee stand, I saw that the owner just renovated the stand. A brick and mortar shop now, in place of what used to be tables and tin roof put together. Like a second draft after a first draft. Her precise and brisk hand movements in fixing up each drinks are still the same. 

Something shifted. I smiled to myself. There’s joy in seeing my life, and others’, as a work constant in progress.

Christmas Wishlist

Christmaswishlist

I think wishlist is a beautiful thing. Whenever I shop for husband, best friends, or Mom and Dad, I walk away from the shop feeling a tiny bit guilty. Shopping gifts that I personally like is a good thing, but I feel like the gift is more for me than for the beloved person I am with. Wishlists, on the other hand, are practical and thrilling. I got to know for sure that the person needs it, and likes it, and most importantly, will use it. For the past few years, my girl friend Jo has done this marvelous move for my birthday – I will send her a link to whatever gift I want, and she will buy it online and have it deliver to wherever I am. (2013 was Utrecht, 2014 Saigon, and this year Bangkok). Isn’t that amazing? Long distance friendship and relationships mean we don’t get the valuable small exchanges over the kitchen counter to get to know what the other person needs, loves and will use. Enters wishlists!

Anyway, I have just put together a Christmas Wishlist. And I feel no shame about it.

  1. For years I have wrapped myself with many layers of acrylic scarves, and found myself trembled from the cold wind of melbourne and utrecht. While I love myself a good chunky knit number, a beautiful handwoven cashmere scarf sounds like what I should move onto. This scarf is so long it’s amazing. Other options are this merino wool chunky knit scarf, or this thick cable braid infinity scarf. So many choices! (By the way, I have this delirious love for Etsy.)

2. Yep. It’s winter in American North East Coast this year. I have done research and this winter jacket got rave reviews. I like that it is actually a windbreaker and a down jacket combined, meaning it keeps me warm (and dry) from autumn to winter and then spring. perfect for a multi-climatic traveler (who’s based in a very hot and humid country).

3. For our date nights, Matt and I would ride the train to the nearest Kino Kuniya bookstore, where we will say goodbye at the gate, him off to the fiction section, me to the section that stocks Monocle magazine. I will read to my heart’s content until closing time. It’s actually pricey as magazines go, but it never fails to give me delightful glimpses to makers and sellers of the world. a subscription to Monocle will definitely comes handy when I don’t want to trek to the bookstore in the monsoon season.

4. I have enjoyed listening to books instead of reading. At first, it’s hard, since listening to stories in English is a novelty to me. But then I started to get it. And there are aspects about listening to the book that I can’t get from reading a book. Right now I’m listening to The Martian on my Audible, which I don’t think I will read. Listening to the man’s voice, though, gives me such joy. If you stumble upon a one-bedroom apartment late at night and find the house dark but two souls cracking up to their earphones, you’ve reached our household. A subscription to Audible will open me up to explore this medium for books greatly.

5. I’ve taken a few watercolor classes as free trial on this website called Creativebug. It’s a great site with a wide selection of art and craft classes. Right now, I’m taking Beginner Watercolor course offered by this incredible instructor named Yao cheng. She has this way of making me feel confident in putting the brush down to the paper. It’s a great way to feel relaxed after a day staring at the computer and texts as a curriculum developer. A subscription to CreativeBug.

6. It’s winter. I need body scrub. Flakes be gone!

Food for the homesick | Tomato Capers and Basil salad

tomato

It’s hard to call this one a salad, because all my dad Marty did was to slice and assemble the tomato, plug basil leaves from its plant and spill olive oil and scatter tiny salted capers on top of the slices. Simple as it is to prepare this dish, it fills your mouth with flavor while you realise suddenly that this is it, this is your last taste of summer.

On that dinner table with mom Robyn, dad Marty and Matt, I devoured the tomato, so sweet of the summer sun, the basil flavorful, and perfectly salted by the tiny capers. Conversations were blurry until I heard Mom tugging onto Dad’s shirt sleeve and gently asked him to make me one more of this salad.

So here you go, The last taste of summer.

Tomato Capers and Basil salad

1 big tomato, preferably homegrown in your garden.

A few sprigs of basil, shredded

1 tbsp salted capers

A few glugs of olive oil

Slice the tomato. Arrange on a large dish. Top up with shredded basil and capers. You can chase it down with a glass of white wine and great conversation as the sun is setting outside the windows, over the field.

Three phrases to cope with negative self-talk

Three minutes into our first time ever talking in a Saigon cafe, Matt told me he had OCD and had been struggling with it for most of his adult life. Since then, OCD is a matter of fact in our life together. Matt has this way of dealing with it heads-on, recognizing it for what it is. “What’s going on, babe?” “OCD,” he would say, with a flick of the head as if to signal the usual occurrence. Nothing new.

Sometimes though, his OCD episodes can become a muddy ground for my own negative self-talk to flourish. We were at the mall in Bangkok, late for a good seat at the cinema. I suggested the movie in the hope to lighten the mood in the house. For two days straight, he has been suffering from OCD cycles. Most of the times, OCD is in the background, simmering away. This time though, it was full on. Matt was not his usual cheerful self. His eyes were red with veins. His face so tired as if energy had been sucked from him. His sentences short.

In that busy cinema hall, with no tickets in hand, the next movie 1 hour from now, I found myself thinking, “I don’t enjoy this.” Among the people swirling around us, I heard my own nasty voice saying: “Oh he is feeling trapped in our life. In this life we created together.” There must be something wrong with me, something I have failed to do. Must be!

We abandoned our movie, getting home on the sky train. Matt went home to rest, I retreated to my office. In the empty office room since it was a Thai holiday, I sought out these strengths from my favorite authors. In sharing with you here, I hope to strengthen them even further.

Selk talk 2

In that cinema hallway, my head wanted Matt to say “I love you. Our life together is what I want. My mood right now is not your fault.” That brutal need to hear “I am a loving person” is mostly valid. However, in the middle of my partner’s semi-breakdown, demanding to hear it from him is brutal. Stephanie Dowrick, my favorite author about self-awareness and the self in relationships with others, in her book The Almost Perfect Marriage, demands that we monitor our need for reassurance.Demanding constant reassurance feeds our insecurities. It undermines our relationships and it’s irritating. Instead, we learn to reassure and remind ourselves. I am lovable and loved. And I am a loving person.

Another beloved author, Anne Lammott, says one of our greatest sufferings are in thinking it’s on us to fix things. That whatever problems that are intertwining around us like a vine, they happen because of us (“Must be because of me. Must be!”) This is what Lammott dubbed “the hook”.  Lammott says help won’t come until we let ourselves off the hook, the hook being the single worst place to be. In her book Help, Thanks, Wow!Lammott says when you’re on the hook, you’re thrashing, helpless, furious, like a smaller kid lifted by the seat of his pants by a mean big kid. When you get your hooks out of something, it can roll away, down its own hill, away from you. It can breathe again. It got away from you, and the torture of listening to you whine “What if I can fix this?” and “Wait, wait, I have ONE more idea…” It helps me greatly to know that I don’t have to fix whatever it is that we were going through. And this may sound obvious, but I need to get myself off the hook of creating the perfect time for both of us.

Selftalk

The late Shep Nuland, a surgeon and author of How We Die, was admitted to psychiatric hospital because of his depression where every treatments failed. To ward off depressive thoughts, he used a short-hand prescription. And for me, short-hand is the most efficient of all self-talk. So, here I am, adopting a new found strategy to cope with negative self-talk, I muttered..self talk 3

The blank pages.

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After college in Australia and grad school in The Netherlands, I have more or less struggled to find a place or way to share with my dear friends about my life. I have since moved back home in Vietnam, and moved to Bangkok, Thailand, where I am now living with my husband Matt. Friends are scattered in Saigon, Melbourne, Utrecht, Toronto, among other cities. Addresses change. People move to new places. As much as emails are convenient, they are limited as a collection of my personal musings. A collection of sort is what I hope conveys my attempts at celebrating this life with you, physically or digitally.

I have decided to set up shop in this place. Here’s hoping I can share snippets of my new life with you, wherever I am and wherever you are.