Seasons of life.

Now that Addy goes to school, I’ve got a bit more time for myself, to work out and to work. I joined a gym and the yoga class has been wonderful. I love myself a good savasana. The few minutes of rest at the end is what I go to yoga and sweat my butt for. It’s mind clearing and soul affirming. And yesterday practice did not disappoint. As I was lying motionless on the floor, a crystal clear thought ran through my mind: There are seasons of life, and I can accept them for what they bring and what they don’t. I am deep in motherhood with my own daughter and I am far away from my own mom. I am attached to my daughter at the hip and I visit my mom and my dad once a year, for a few days.

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Gia đình

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Ba mẹ anh Matt yêu gia đình và yêu Addy cực kỳ. Bọn mình được ông bà cưng, chăm sóc, nấu nướng, dành thời gian, chăm bệnh, v.v vượt không gian và thời gian. Đặc biệt là khi có những lúc hai đứa cũng buồn do phải khó khăn nhiều trong công việc, trong đối nhân xử thế.

Bữa trước cãi nhau với Matt xong, mình biết là Matt qua nhà tâm sự với ba mẹ anh ấy. Sau đấy Robyn và Marty qua nhà mình chơi, giúp mình chăm Addy và nấu ăn. Mình buồn tủi thế nào đấy thì khóc với ông bà. Đươc lắng nghe được khóc xong rồi cũng thấy cân bằng lại. Khóc được với ba mẹ chồng về chồng thôi kể cũng tốt nhỉ.

Hôm nay cả nhà vừa ăn món sườn heo khìa nước dừa do Marty nấu nhân dịp mình bị bệnh. Robyn còn nấu mì thịt gà bằng nước súp gà nấu từ bộ xương gà thật cơ. Từ lúc mới sinh, nước súp gà giúp mình có sữa cho Addy, vừa làm mình cảm thấy hồi phục hơn rất nhiều. Bài hôm nay lan man, tâm trạng cũng chưa định, chỉ biết rằng mình muốn sống thật vui thật năng động, hết mình vì gia đình hai bên mà thôi. Nhớ ba mẹ mình – ông bà ngoại của Addy lắm. Mẹ ở nhà đang mệt và chóng mặt, nghĩ mà thương cho mẹ – mong sớm gặp lại nhau.

đọc Virginia Woolf

Hôm nay cả nhà – Nhung Matt Addy Robyn Marty – đi nhà sách. Nhà sách gần nhà, đi bộ khoảng 15 phút qua khu Barrio Gothic. Tên là La Central. Matt rất ghiền. Mỗi lần đi ngang qua con hẻm dẫn vào nhà sách thì Matt hỏi Nhung – Em có nghe thấy tầng sóng rung động lan toả từ hướng ấy không? Kinh.

Đi nhà sách có Robyn bế và chơi với Addy Nhung được ngồi 1 chỗ đọc sách, đã. Lâu lắm rồi mới được như vậy. Đã vậy đi ra bố Marty thấy cầm sách bố mua tặng luôn. Sướng số 2. Ẵm Addy cho em bú và ngủ thì mình vừa nằm cho bú vừa mở sách đọc, thấy có hơi giống bò sữa. Trong lá thư Woolf gửi bạn thân Violet Dickinson có đoạn tả về solitude – điều mà Nhung luôn cảm thấy bị thu hút: “I lead the life of a Solitary: read and write and eat my meal, and walk out upon the moor, and have tea with Madge, and talk to her, and then dine alone and read my book, which I might be doing now if I weren’t writing to you. There is a Greek austerity about my life which is beautiful and might go straight into a bas relief.” Có lẽ, Nhung thích solitude và có thể sống trong solitude.

Sáng nay Addy và Nhung đi học đánh box với các mẹ và các bé khác ở công viên. Các mẹ khác đa số người Anh, và họ nói giọng Anh thật dễ thương. Nhưng Nhung vẫn ngại ngùng khi kết bạn. Nhung thấy Nhung có kiểu “tui sẽ nói và tui đang nói đây nhưng điều tui nói ko quan trọng lắm hy vọng tui kết thúc và đừng ai hỏi thêm nhưng tui sợ nếu ko ai hỏi thêm tui lại buồn tủi”. Hehe. Thôi từ từ. Nhung sẽ can đảm kết bạn, và vẫn bảo toàn solitude của mình.

PS. Các trò có biết Woolf tên là Adeline? Adeline Virginia Stephen – trước khi cưới chú Leonard Woolf.

Gia đình rời Bangkok đến Barcelona

Từ đầu tháng 6, gia đình Nhung rời Bangkok. Bên ngoài trời mưa tầm tã, Addy vẫy vẫy tay chào Alet, người đã giữ Addy từ khi vừa chào đời. Khi bay Addy rất ngoan, em 8.5 tháng tuổi. Addy thích khều ba Matt rủ chơi, ba Matt khó lòng từ chối. Tụi Nhung mua luôn 3 vé ngồi để Addy có thể ngủ trên car seat mà Nhung với Matt quẩy lên máy bay. Có thêm một chỗ trống làm Nhung cảm thấy thiệt là đã.

Lúc đến sân bay Barcelona trời đã tối khuya, tụi Nhung cũng khá đuối, khi bước ra quầy taxi thì có bảng thông báo các chú lái xe taxi đang đình công vì muốn chính phủ thắt chặt quản lý ride sharing services như là Uber hay Grab lại. Cũng may còn có xe buýt về trung tâm thành phố, mà từ đó đi bộ cũng chỉ 20 phút, băng qua khu phố cổ Barrio Gothic. Addy ngủ trong lòng Nhung, trên baby carrier. Bọn Nhung đi bộ giữa lòng thành phố về khuya, trời hanh ấm của đầu hè, trên phố nhiều người vẫn tản bộ. Cảm giác rất là … siêu thực. 6 tháng kể từ ngày ba Marty và mẹ Robyn động viên bọn Nhung mua nhà ở Barcelona để có investor visas ở dài hạn ở đây. Rồi ba Toàn mẹ Lãnh nhanh tay cùng với ba mẹ của Matt góp tiền giúp 2 đứa. 6 tháng làm việc với luật sư, môi giới nhà đất. 6 tháng nín thở, cuộc sống on pause. 6 tháng kết thúc việc ở Bangkok, bắt đầu Real Clear English. Đứa con thứ 2 của Nhung và Matt, sau Addy. 6 tháng mà mình phải lo lắng giấy tờ mà ai đã từng trải qua việc lấy giấy tờ di dân đều hiểu rõ cái môn thể thao chạy nhảy qua sào này. 🙂 Có những lúc cảm giác như chuyện này sẽ không thành sự thật. Nhưng rồi, tối đầu hè đó, bọn Nhung đi bộ giữa lòng thành phố này…

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IMG_11522 tuần đầu tháng 6 bọn Nhung bắt đầu vào nhà mới, sắp xếp cho có nước nóng, chờ 20 ngày mới có wifi. Nhung có cảm giác như ngựa non được huấn luyện vậy. Tưởng tượng bọn Nhung đến từ châu Á, nơi dịch vụ được đáp ứng rốp rẻng, hôm nay trả tiền, mai có wifi. Rồi bọn Nhung cũng đem cái đà này qua bên này. Bị bắt chờ 20 ngày không có internet trong nhà làm cho bọn Nhung, một cách hơi kì quặc, quý trọng cái dịch vụ của người thợ lắp đặt internet hơn, khi cuối cùng, sau bao nhiêu lâu chờ đợi, họ cũng đến.

Có lẽ, sau 3 tuần ở đây, bọn Nhung đã có một nhịp sống, dù có khập khiễng như thế nào đi nữa. Buổi sáng Addy sẽ đánh thức 2 đứa dậy lúc 6h sáng, Nhung và Matt luân phiên nấu nước pha cà phê. Nhung sẽ gọi điện về cho mẹ Lãnh để bà ngoại và cháu hai người catch up với nhau haha. Rồi Matt có lớp trên skype với học sinh cả buổi sáng bắt đầu từ 7:30am. Nhung thì chỉ có lớp vào thứ 4, nên nhờ bố Marty và mẹ Robyn trông em giúp hôm ấy, chứ còn lại thì Nhung đi chợ Santa Katerina Market gần nhà mỗi thứ 3-5-7 với Addy, mua cá, mua green beans vì Addy là green bean machine. Rồi quay về lúc 10h cho Addy ngủ. Rồi nấu ăn với Marty và Robyn có khi ăn tối ở ngoài ở các sân sảnh nhỏ trong khu El Born. Cuối tuần hoặc ngày nào Matt & Nhung đều không có lớp cả nhà bắt tàu đi ra các bãi biển khác. Rồi về nhà, mặt ai cũng bóng hới từ cái nóng của mùa hè và từ kem chống nắng, cởi quần áo ra đi tắm thì cát rơi đầy sàn, rồi quá đuối cùng nhau ngủ trưa một giấc đến chiều. Mùa hè oanh liệt bắt đầu.

 

 

 

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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.