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When my Mom spoke Vietnamese

“The Best We could Do” by Thi Bui is a graphic novel that tells the story of her family’s journey. The story spans four generations, from pre-war Vietnam, though their experience as refugees, and finally as immigrants in America. The book won several awards, and it Bui deserves them all. The book also revived a strange childhood memory for me, of my mother being able to speak Vietnamese.

I don’t like graphic novels, but the medium really brings Bui’s story to life.

Bui’s family, like many people from the South, saw that they had no future in the new Vietnam, so they took their chances and left by boat. We will never know how many people drowned when their boats sank, or were killed by pirates, or died of other causes during their flight. The lucky ones made it to a refugee camp in Malaysia or other Southeast Asian country. The very lucky ones had family in the United States, and were sponsored by their relatives to go to America.

My family was on the other side of the Vietnamese refugee crisis. We were the part of American society who helped the refugees to find a new life in America. My church “adopted” a Vietnamese family.

I think their name was Mai (I now know that Mai is a family common Vietnamese family name). They were a married couple with some children, I don’t remember how many. My church rented a house for them, donated clothes for the kids, and tried to help them adjust to life in chilly Michigan. Of course it was hard. Their English wasn’t good at all, and everything was new for them, from the weather to the food to the schools. We tried to communicate, but it was a huge challenge. But to my amazement and confusion, my mother could speak a few words of Vietnamese with them!

One Sunday afternoon we went to their house for a visit. I remember my father was talking with Mr. Mai about gardening. Mr. Mai’s English was better then the rest of the family’s. But they still had trouble communicating. Every once in a while, Dad would call out an English word to Mom, who would tell him in Vietnamese. Dad and Mr. Mai managed to have a conversation, thanks to Mom’s knowledge of Vietnamese(?!).

But how did my mother, born and raised in Michigan, ever learn Vietnamese? I remember being really amazed and confused. I wanted to ask her how the heck she learned Vietnamese. But I got distracted, and then forgot to ask her later.

As I started to learn Vietnamese, and to learn more about Vietnamese history, I learned that through the 1950s, French was the colonial language, so it was the language that a Vietnamese person would be educated in. The Mais, as part of the upper crust of Vietnamese society, would have spoken French. My mother also speaks French. So to my disappointment, I had to accept that my mother wasn’t speaking Vietnamese with Mr. Mai. Rather, they had found a literal “lingua franca” in French.

Mom couldn’t speak Vietnamese after all. Too bad, a little disappointing. She’s still awesome, of course. But man, she really blew my 8-year-old mind that day.

Good-bye for now, Vietnam

“It’s probably too much to hope that my next tour will be as memorable as this one.” I wrote that at the end of my first tour in China. I really thought that a tour couldn’t be as eventful as that one. Boy, was I ever wrong. Not to discount my adventures in China, but my two years in Vietnam were so much more action-packed than my time in China. By a huge margin.

I didn’t write as much while I was in country, mainly because of the nature of the job. A lot happened, and it all happened so fast. I still have a lot to say about my tour in Vietnam. But I need some time to process it first. Like I wrote more than two years ago, I’m still not sure what the hell happened, and how to understand it all. But there I know some things already:

You can never really prepare.

I spent a year in D.C., learning job skills and Vietnamese language. Even after so much time in training, I didn’t feel prepared for Vietnam. I was right. I wasn’t ready. Toward the end of my tour, I mentioned to my boss that I felt incompetent and useless. He smiled. “How many years until you retire?” he asked. I told him I was planning to stay in the job until mandatory retirement at age 65. “You’ll feel that way until then,” he predicted.

We work in a country for two or three years, then move on. The Department doesn’t allow us to stay in the same country for a long time. That means that we are always investing time to learn about the country we serve in. There’s a ramp-up time before we hit our stride and get efficient. Then it’s time to move on to the next country. There are good reasons for this system. We should keep our perspective and always advocate for the United States. I’ve personally seen the loss of perspective in officers who stay in country too long. The huge investment in time and resources to train us can seem inefficient. But it’s like what Winston Churchill said about democracy: it’s the worst form of government except for all the rest. Maybe our system has problems, but it does work. We just have to get comfortable with some inefficiency and feelings of inadequacy.

Loneliness is built in to the job.

They read this book to us during A-100. It’s all true, every word.

Because of some family issues, I was at post by myself for a year. It sucked. It’s hard enough being separated from your family, being alone in a foreign country is harder. They warned us about this. It still sucked.

I “celebrated” my birthday while on a business trip in Hanoi. The hotel noted my birthday when I checked in, and left this cake for me in my hotel room. Nice gesture, but it actually made me feel worse.

Friends help with the loneliness.

The locally-engaged staff at post are great. They are dedicated, professional, kind, good people. I will never forget them.

I worked with some friendly, kind, funny, loving people. They are like family to me.
I got to interact with the next generation of Vietnamese leaders. They made me feel optimistic about the future of their country.

Unlike my last tour, when I felt uneasy about making friends with the local people, this tour I made some life-changing friendships with Vietnamese people. One friend introduced my to the writings of a quiet Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh. I have a complicated relationship with religion, and don’t agree with everything about his religion, but his writings about mindfulness touched me deeply.

Maybe the purpose of life is the good that you leave behind.

Not to get too philosophical, but this job is like human life: we arrive at a place that was there before we got there. We’re there for a short time, do some things, meet some people, live, love, then leave. After we go, the world goes on. What’s important is to leave the world a little better than how we found it.

Me and Mr. Phi.

I wrote before about Mr. Phi, who works in my apartment building. He once told me that he wanted to work in the Consulate, and has applied several times unsuccessfully. The next time the Consulate posted a job opening for a local staff, some other officers and I helped him polish his resume, and helped him with his application. Just a few weeks ago, he received a job offer. I might have been as happy as he was.

My tour is over, I’ve left Vietnam. My replacement has arrived and will take over for me. The work in Vietnam will go on. The Vietnamese people will live their lives. I will miss my dear friends. I hope that I did some good.

Idiot Boy Makes a Real-Life Escape Room

I considered packing my Leatherman multi-tool (thanks again, DW, best Christmas present ever) when I came to Taiwan for this little vacation. But I decided against it. Because I am an idiot.

The AirBnB that I’m staying in here in Taipei is a small studio apartment. The door lock is a Korean electronic lock that you open with a smart card. Pretty modern and convenient. and foolproof. But not idiot-proof, as I proved.

I have to say from the outset that this is not entirely my fault. It’s mostly my fault, but I can share some of the blame. I blame physics. Doors that are opened too quickly have a infuriating tendency to slip out of one’s grip and slam into the wall. Is that my fault? I think not. On top of that, fast-moving objects, like door handles, have the bewildering tendency to break when they slam into a wall. While I admit responsibility for starting the door in motion, can I be held responsible for the laws of physics? That’s a little unfair.

Oops

Now, I’m pretty sure that the engineers anticipated a lot of eventualities in the process of designing this electronic door lock. They clearly did not consider the idiot factor, though. That’s where I come in.

From the inside, you have to use the door handle to open the door. There is no other way to open it. I know this, because I was trapped inside the apartment while I tried to figure out how to open the door without a functioning door handle. Turns out, that’s kinda hard to do.

None of the “tools” in the apartment (forks, chopsticks, clothes hangers, zipper pulls, electric appliance plugs, paring knives) would fit into the hexagonal hole in the door mechanism. I was completely trapped inside. On top of that, it was a national holiday, and the service center was closed. The landlord was out of town too. It was a perfect storm. I was on my own.

After an hour of increasingly panicked head-scratching, I decided to think outside the box. Using a table knife as a screwdriver, I removed the screws holding the bathroom doorknob on.

I could jam those long screws into the hexagonal hole. But I still couldn’t turn it.

So I used the knife as a lever.

That worked.

Once I was out, I ran to the nearest hardware store and bought an Allan wrench. It worked like a charm.

So now I’m paying for my idiocy. Literally. A repairman is currently replacing the whole mechanism, and I am paying for it.

Next time someone suggests that we play escape room, I will cheerfully suggest that that someone kiss my butt. I played escape room for real. I won, and it only cost me $80 for a new lock. Even better, there was no guarantee that there was a solution to this one. I’m an idiot, but I’m a resourceful idiot.

Call me MacGyver. Idiot MacGyver.

And from now on, I am taking my Leatherman with me on every. single. trip.

Good morning Tuy Hoa, good night Saigon

For the last few days, I was on a business trip to the small town of Tuy Hoa. I had a great view of the ocean from my hotel room.

I woke up this morning just before 5:00, and this was what was waiting for me outside:

When I got home to Ho Chi Minh City this evening, this sunset was waiting for my outside my bedroom window:

If I were a philosopher or a poet, I could probably come up with some deep meaningful statement about sunrise and sunset symbolizing good beginnings and good endings or some nonsense like that.

But, being the Philistine that I am, I’ll just show these photos and say: “golly, that’s pretty, isn’t it?”

No One is Diplomatting

What a strange way to mark my five-year anniversary of employment as a Foreign Service officer.

The partial government shutdown affects the State Department.  That means that embassies and consulates have to cease “non-essential” operations.  Of course, as with everything else in the real world, what exactly gets shut down is complicated.  What we did not do is to send everyone home, lock the doors, and shut down the consulate.  The Department’s activity is affected by budgets, of course, but national security and the safety of American citizens abroad have to be prioritized.  In addition, different activities of the State Department are funded differently, so some sections can remain operational.  Some people still go to work, and maintain essential operations, like security of the consulate buildings themselves.  Most of us have been sent home, with instructions to monitor the media for news that the government shutdown is over.

I’m…on vacation? unemployed? neither? both?

Regardless of whether we are put on furlough (like me) or we still go to work, none of us are getting paid.  For my dear friends in the Consular section, its business as usual.  Every day, hundreds of Vietnamese people arrive at the Consulate for their visa interviews.  My consular colleagues still conduct the interview and issue the visa or refuse the applications.  The local staff still perform all the administrative processes to print the visas and return applicants’ passports to them.  Everyone is still employed, their work goes on as though nothing is different.

What is different, though, is that none of them are getting paid.

The only thing worse than working and not getting paid is… can’t work, and not getting paid.

According to past practice, after the shutdown is over and the government has funding again, all of us will be paid for the work that we did during the shutdown.  But there is no legal requirement for the government to give us back pay.  What that means is that those “essential” personnel are required to work with no pay.  I’d think, given our nation’s history, that we’d frown on making people work without paying them.

Hyperbole aside, shutdowns are disruptive to government operations.  We have important business with foreign governments that affect American citizens, involving trade, health, and security.  These problems don’t go away when the government stops working on them.  They don’t even slow down.  After we go back to work, we won’t just pick up where we left off.  We will have to recover a lot of lost ground and try to restart the momentum.

My work doesn’t involve national security.  I don’t have nuclear launch codes.  I don’t even know any interesting national secrets.  But because I’m furloughed, I couldn’t do my job, and that has directly affected some Americans.  Last week, I had to cancel several meetings with American students who are in Vietnam for a study trip.  I was going to give them a briefing on U.S.-Vietnam relations, to help them understand this country that they traveled 7,000 miles to visit.  But due to the shutdown, I had to cancel.  I couldn’t even meet with them unofficially in a neutral place.  That would circumvent the rules.  So, sorry, students, I really wanted to talk with you.  I hope that you were still able to get the information you wanted.

I’ve decided that the healthier attitude to have about this situation is to look at it as a staycation.  Sure, there’s no paycheck coming in, so I can’t go away on a vacation, but I can still get some things done.  I can still study Vietnamese (on my own – no budget to pay for language lessons).  I can focus on learning iOS programming (Swift is a much easier language than Objective-C, but it’s still hard).  I can work out and stay healthy (not to get ripped, but just to stave off decrepitude and hopefully live a few months longer with lower medical bills).  And I can make treats to bring to my poor coworkers who have to work, often doing extra work, with no guarantee that they will ever get paid for it (Consular section, you’re getting coffee cake tomorrow).

My sock drawer has never been more organized.

We had a very interesting (but worrying) all-hands meeting last week.  The management officer, who has to try to find money for practical things like paying the rent and electricity bill, delivered some sobering news.  The shutdown means no money.  Things that we take for granted, like our housing, is currently paid up, but at some point, there will be no more leftover money.  Eventually, posts will be looking for loose change under the sofa cushions just to keep the infrastructure of diplomacy running.  This is now the longest shutdown in U.S. history.  So we don’t have any experience to draw on from this point on, there are no more lessons learned from past shutdowns.  We are now navigating uncharted waters.  And no one knows how much longer it will last.  The smart people are spending a lot of time and effort making long-term plans to deal with an unknown and unclear future.

And aside from a few exceptions, no one is diplomatting.

Why I like to put things away

This story in the New York Times today focused on the negative, So I’d like to focus on the positive. The article reinforced my enjoyment of putting things away. Let me explain:

The article highlighted the stress that household clutter creates. We have too much stuff in our houses and in our lives. All that stuff creates stress. We hate our life because we have too much crap in it. As an aside, the article centered on physical stuff, possessions, and the pressure that stuff creates. But it’s also probably true that emotional “stuff” creates a great deal of stress, too. I haven’t found an effective way to put away emotional stuff. Maybe that can be a future project for me.

Anyway, the article really resonated with me, because I find clutter to be not only stressful, but also paralyzing. Especially in the kitchen and in my office. Every time I look at a big mess in my kitchen, or when my desk is so crowded that I can barely see any empty table space, my mind freezes. Maybe some people can work around the mess, but I can’t. Chaos is not a productivity booster for me. In fact, the exact opposite is true. It’s a productivity killer. It’s impossible for me to focus when I’m working in a mess. But interestingly, the opposite is also true, and this where I wish the article had gone. The author recommended reducing clutter as a way of reducing stress. But the article could have gone an extra step by showing how a tidy environment can unleash productivity.

Like many Americans, I have a lot of stuff. The reality of living overseas means that I have to move every few years. The exercise of packing and unpacking the huge piles of unused and half-forgotten things is a motivator to reduce the quantity of my possessions (but it doesn’t stop me from acquiring more all the time).

In contrast to clutter, I find that a clean kitchen and an empty desk is inspiring. It’s as if the space is saying to me: “let’s get to work!” Unlike a messy room, which repels me, a clutter-free environment is an invitation to do something. That’s why I like to put things away: it opens up a space, both physical and mental, to be productive and creative. A tidy work environment is like a blank canvas, waiting for the artist’s first brush stroke. Not that I’m an artist or a particularly good cook. But you get the idea. I can FEEL like an artist, or experience the inspiration that an artist feels, when I have a tidy work environment.

There’s probably a psychological principal at work here. I can’t claim to have invented some new productivity hack. There is no insight from a zen master here. My realization is probably more like the happy accident when a caveman accidentally dropped his raw giraffe haunch into his fire and discovered that cooking food makes it taste better. Regardless of the psychology, tidying up my space allows me to focus on the task at hand, and helps me think clearly.

I’m not trying to deliver an allegorical lesson here. Just sharing some insight from my strange little mind, and rounding out the NYT article with a personal anecdote. Thanks for reading. Now it’s time for me to go clean my office so I can get some work done.

My favorite thing this week

From an email exchange with a dear friend currently serving in Pakistan, commenting on my happiness in getting posted to Bangladesh:

“We’re not the kind of officers who bid on cushy places. We like grit & interesting places.”

So true.

My latest obsession

We’ve all been here. You’re in Starbucks, and you hear a song that really catches your ear, so you open the Shazam app in order to identify the song, then you get the name of the song, then you open Prime Music to see if Amazon offers it for free, then you see that no, Amazon doesn’t offer it for free, so you go to the iTunes Store and buy the song, then you listen to that song for the next several days. We’ve all been there, right? Please say yes. I don’t want to feel like I’m the only one who obsesses over songs.

It turns out that the song in question came out a few years ago. It’s called “Summer Sun” by the Ruen Brothers. I highly recommend it.

The song is the epitome of “low key.” Literally. The opening vocal sounds like a Roy Orbison song. Then the instruments join in, all at a low pitch, to match the singer’s baritone vocal range. Even the guitar solo sounds like it was played on the lowest two strings.

The money shot is the climbing vocal climax, that’s reminiscent of the goosebump-rising vocal in “When your mind’s made up” by Glen Hasard (a previous obsession).

Every time the song ends, I think to myself: “What?! Over already? You just got started!” So I have to listen to it again.

This all started on Friday. It’s now Monday, and the song is still in my head. Songs won’t give you cancer or make you fat, so if I have to binge on something, at least there isn’t any physical harm. So I’ll feed my obsession.

Sure-fire diet plan

If you’d like to lose 5-10 pounds in only one week, then pay attention, because I have stumbled on a method to drop weight fast.  For the cost of one low-priced meal, you can watch the weight melt away.  It’s as effortless as sitting down.  And sometimes, kneeling.

Here’s how it works: you eat lunch at a restaurant that looks clean, but really isn’t.  Within hours, you will feel the process begin.  An unmistakable feeling of impending loss of matter from your body will start to percolate in your gut.  Before you know it, your body will begin to relieve itself of parts of you that you no longer need.  You will lose 2-3 pounds instantly. And that’s just the start!

As the days go by, you will not be hungry.  Think of the money you’re saving on food, as you lose that weight!  And when you force yourself to eat or drink something, your body will auto-correct for you, reversing your actions as fast as you can say: “Get out of my way! She’s about to blow!”

I’ve gone through this process three times since I’ve been at post, and each time, I’ve been super impressed by the results.  Sure, some people call me “sick,” or “pasty,” or “at death’s door,” but I think they’re just jealous of my slimness. Even the nice nurse at our med unit was so envious that she wanted me to take drugs to counteract my diet plan.  Just to humor her, I took the medicine, but we both knew that it wasn’t really necessary.

Added benefit: drugs!

In short, if you need to take a few days off work, and catch up on your sitting around not wanting to move, then I can recommend this method. I promise that in one short week, you will be thinner.  You will also have a new appreciation for the simple things in life, like not spending half your day in the bathroom.  The benefits of this plan are almost endless.

One word of caution: while you’re on this diet plan, you can’t trust your own farts. ‘Nuff said.

I’m homeless

I really loved this house.

Some people join the Foreign Service right out of grad school.  For them, living abroad is the norm, and they don’t have a permanent house in America.  My situation is a bit different, though.  For me, the State Department is a second (or fourth, depending on how you count) career.  Which means that I already had a family, a home, roots in my community, etc.  Because I had a house in America, home leave and vacations were easy.  I had a place to stay when I was in the U.S.  For some of my colleagues, it isn’t as easy.  Because they don’t have a permanent house in America, they have to stay in hotels or with family when they’re in the States.  For my friends with big families, home leave is a big hassle.  They have to find someplace to stay for a month while they are between assignments.

While my kids were still in school and staying in my house, it was a good situation.  As long as someone was still in my house, I could maintain a residence in America, and have somewhere to stay when I returned for vacations and visits.  I didn’t want to leave the house unoccupied.  Houses shouldn’t be left empty, for maintenance and security concerns.

A blazing fire in this cozy fireplace at Christmastime is a happy memory.

However, change happened, as it always does.  My son moved out, leaving no one to take care of the house.  It doesn’t make sense to try to keep up an empty house, so the logical choice was to sell the house.

I lived in Asia long enough to have absorbed the idea that everyone needs a house.  One of my Taiwanese roommates once told me that he didn’t feel like a grownup while he was still renting a house.  He felt that it wasn’t responsible to get married and start a family until he had a house of his own.  To some extent, I share that feeling.  Everyone should have a roof over their heads.  So this process spurred a big battle inside my tiny head.  The logical half of my peanut brain pushed the rational reasons to sell, but the emotional side screamed that we need a place to store our stuff, goddammit.

The logical side won the battle.  We sold the house.  The emotional side, while licking its wounds, maintains that we will eventually win the war.

My wonderful wife, who is a better person than I am, was in America, and did all the legwork and handled the in-person work of selling.  As it turns out, selling a house is at least as complicated as buying a house.  She did everything, while I was still working overseas at post.

We made this built-in bookcase.  I loved having a “library” in my house.

We closed on Friday.  So now I don’t have a permanent address.  For the time being, my “home leave address” will be my parents’ house.  I am still declared as a Michigan resident, which means that I will continue to pay Michigan income tax.  But I don’t have a property tax bill any more.

Silver lining: I won’t have to mow this anymore.

The plan for now is to buy another place after we retire.  Maybe somewhere near the kids.  Maybe somewhere by a lake (my dream).  For now, we’ll use hotels, Air B&B, and the graciousness of family when we visit America.

This is for the best, the logical half of my brain reminds me.  But my fireplace! My books! My stuff!, sobs the emotional side.