The Pondering Grapefruit
a blog of moments and musings
Well, I truly have been dragging my feet with restarting the blog this year. If April is the cruelest month, then January is the longest. This month contains the start of a new year, a birthday where I now officially feel old, recovery from the holidays and extended family time, reintegrating back into work. Time has felt really dense, and it's taken me several weeks to work my way up to the top and float again, arriving at a place where I can write with a sense of freedom.
So, here I am. I want to start this year with something uplifting. The topic, naturally, is human development.
One recent improvement in my life is that I've bought a dawn simulator--an alarm clock that uses light and sound to wake you up, as if the sun was rising in your room. It really helps with the overcast mornings which don't do anything to lower melatonin levels.
I encouraged my housemate to get one too, and she did! After a couple weeks I asked her how it was going.
"I wake up and just turn my head the other way." She pauses for a second and then says, "I'm like, the opposite of a sunflower."
We both laughed. I thought it was funny though because she was growing, even though she didn’t think she was.
I recently confessed to someone a dream of mine, which is to become someone who brings joy to others, who has an inner light so strong that their presence alone can bring peace and happiness to those surrounding them.
"Well," she says, "then you probably will become that."
I gazed at her incredulously.
"People tend to grow towards whatever they want to become," she explained. She spoke in such a gentle, matter of fact way that I did not question it at all.
Once again I'm going to pull in a plant analogy because that's the only way I can make sense of things these days. Plants grow simply by taking in the carbon dioxide (and water) around them and recycling the carbon into their own bodies. They literally take the air surrounding them and turn it into something solid.
I don't think humans are that different. We are a product of our environment, everything that we integrate within ourselves another carbon added to the backbone of our lives.
I'm starting to see now that almost everything that composes me has come from something else, and not from me.
This twist in thinking came about when I was riding my bike somewhere at night, probably to the grocery store. As I went across a bump, a random childhood memory suddenly rose up, and I remembered when my parents gave me my first bike for my birthday. It was one of the happiest moments of my childhood. I rode that bike every day, up and down the hill in front of our house.
Just then it all clicked together: I love biking, not just because biking is awesome, but because I associate it with a feeling of love and happiness. My relationship with bikes began that way, and so now every time I ride a bike, I feel loved.
After this moment I thought of all the other things that I love to do and discovered that they all have roots in happy memories.
I love to cook because helping my mom in the kitchen was our primary way of spending quality time with each other when I grew up. It was also one of the few activities we did together where she wasn't yelling at me, and was actually quite happy. We created something together with each meal. I loved watching how the vegetables I cut became dishes under her conductance. I haven't stopped cooking since.
Other things: an interest in science and research because my sister would take me to all of the science things that she did, like bringing me to the science museum, showing me her science projects in high school, or taking me to her research lab in college. Science evolved to become a field associated with security and warmth, remnant of my sister’s relationship with me.
And then my love of plants. In my childhood home, we had a very large backyard with a cluster of pine trees and bushes in the back. In that mini pine forest was a small garden where my parents grew various herbs. I would often go to this garden, walk around the pine trees, play with the pine needles, and look at the shapes of leaves that sprouted from the floor. I remember being fascinated by the spores on the backs of ferns. This was what I did when there was nobody else around--plants have always been there for me.
There are also things that go back to when I was a baby. My mom tells me that on the plane ride to America, I played nonstop with the roll of toilet paper in the airplane bathroom. Perhaps that's why I have this peculiar attachment to toilet paper even as an adult. I get a lot of pleasure from really plush, good quality toilet paper, and I find it quite comforting when there is a lot of it available…
One love that I can't trace back is my love for climbing. My mom tells me that as a baby I loved to climb, that she'd pick me up from my nanny and find me climbing the windows with a huge smile on my face. Where the f* did that come from? I must have been born a climber then, but I’m pretty sure everything else was shaped by loving experiences.
This seem obvious, that you would do the things you like, but I've found that the most obvious things, when we really look at them, are the most shocking. I used to think that my traits were acquired through cognitive resonance—me doing things that matched my given intellectual tastes—but I'm realizing more and more than the heart is stronger than the mind.
All these years I have been growing towards the things that make me feel loved without even knowing it. It was as if my body knew instinctively to take me to places where I would be nurtured and safe, no matter what tragic acrobatics my mind was enacting at the time.
If love is light, then we are plants that just naturally grow towards the sun, against all odds. I love thinking of human development in this way, because it feels so much more grounding. This perspective focuses less on what I haven’t been able to do or become, but rather all that I have managed to become. I like knowing that the core tenements of my life were not constructed by accident. There was actually a gentle reasoning behind every brick laid, and sensing the depth of meaning in each wall, I can’t help but look at the final result with a sense of triumph.
This fall, I sold out of all my copies of The Washing Room. As I wrapped up that last book for shipment, I felt a welling of pride in having completed a project, but then after that, to my surprise, came a prolonged aftertaste of relief. I was so glad to be done with that story. Since that day, I have reflected a lot on the role of stories in my life, and of that I have three main things to say:
1. All stories end;
When The Washing Room first came out, I treated it like my own child. I shared news of it to everyone I knew, I let people hold it and caress it, and I saw it as a part of me. The process of writing, revealing, and conversing with others about my depression was deeply therapeutic and incredibly relevant to my life during that time, when healing was my main focus and desire.
More than four years later, I’ve reached a different stage of my life. A lot of healing has already been done, and while I am still mending my scars each day, the battle has moved to a different field. The themes of Washing Room don’t really apply to me as urgently as they used to, and more so just rest in my pocket like a warm reminder of where I’ve been. What strikes me is that, while I used to pass that stone to others occasionally, I now feel super protective of it, and kind of don’t want people to know about it at all.
Kind of sadly, it’s because there is still so much mental health stigma, and now that I am focusing on my career, it feels incredibly dangerous to have that knowledge of me so publicly known. But, since I am stubborn and refuse to give in completely to the stigma, I choose to remain true to my original intention of writing the book, which was to make my story available to others as inspiration. So it is there, a bit hidden, but not destroyed, like a rare orchid in the woods to be stumbled upon.
And so, The Washing Room is done with. It feels good to be able to move onto whatever is next… perhaps The Drying Room?
2. Stories can be retold;
After The Washing Room came out, I thought that I would never write from my childhood again. Not because I didn’t want to, but because I felt that the details of my childhood were like flowers in a field that, after being plucked into a story, would wither and expire.
In general, I have a tendency to not want to go where I have been before. I order new dishes at restaurants all the time and actively resist from ordering the same dish twice. When walking I avoid walking down the same street twice or retracing my steps in anyway.
But recently I had a conversation with a friend who told me that John Updike basically wrote about his childhood in every book. Each time, with slightly different variations, and it worked damn fine. “And even if you dedicated your life to walking,” she said, “you wouldn’t be able to walk down every road.” Updike walked back and forth on one road and each time found new perspective which turned it onto all the roads in the world.
Inspired by this conversation, I want one of my next major projects to be a revisiting of my childhood, from the lens of an adult piecing it all together rather than a teenager who was gazing into the abyss for the first time. So this winter, when I’m home for the holidays, I plan on interviewing my parents to put together our family story. If I can understand all that came before me, I have a feeling it will add meaning to my own story.
And I’ve already begun to do this a bit. I’m starting to see that my story is not one of depression, but of trauma. Even clinically, this makes sense. I have been reading a lot about trauma and going to seminars on the treatment of trauma in various populations, and learned that people who present with certain symptoms like anxiety and depression really are just showing that from unresolved trauma. Once the trauma is addressed, the rest fade along with it.
In terms of intergenerational trauma, a phantom of a storyline appears: The trauma held by me, an incredibly silent and confusing and grey childhood that filled me to the core with loneliness, was passed down from parents who never had good role models for affection. Both sets of my grandparents were abusive and cold in their own ways. And why were they like that? Perhaps because my great grandparents lived under French occupation, when people were starving and oppressed.
So, the root of the trauma is colonization? Abuse? Oppression? I don’t know, but this is the beginning of a story retold.
3. Stories are just stories.
As someone who loves stories more than anything, I forget that in the end, life is life, and stories are stories. I’ve often felt like my life was a movie, but one day my ex told me that that’s a very dangerous way of thinking. That comment stayed with me, and I’ve slowly begun to understand why that is so.
When a story is compelling enough, it can easily become our life. I’m thinking of someone I know who is a poet, and whose poetry is filled with beautiful women whom he is in close contact with, but never in the way he wants. One girl makes a frequent appearance. In his real life, he shies away from women and doesn’t talk to them at all. Sometimes I wonder if he loves the story so much that he'd rather embody it rather than bending to the potential cadence of his own life.
When a story becomes stale, and we continue believing it, it becomes a lie. One scary realization I’ve had is that I’ve been lying to myself with a particular story, not about the thread of my life, but about who I am. I’ve always told myself that I am someone who is very creative, hardworking, kind, and many other sexy sounding things, but one day during a mindfulness practice I realized that at the core I just want to be safe. Underneath that outline of a capable, fierce and determined woman is a little girl trembling behind a door.
I am glad that The Washing Room came to an end because now I don’t have to live under that theme of being someone who is battling depression—I can be so much more than that. Lately I have been spending a lot of time with Little My Ngoc, the protagonist behind the door, and I think she will turn into something quite remarkable.
Now that we’re approaching an end to 2017, I want to invite this new mode of thinking into the new year: May you have the creativity, not just to write your own stories, but to also abandon your stories, and just be free.
ooOn Thanksgiving weekend, I went to see The Color Purple performed at the Schubert Theater in Boston. I was surprised that I was able to go at all. A week before, as part of my new goal of being more connected to the world, I was looking up events in Boston and found that the show was playing for the next two weekends.
I knew I wanted to go but hesitated because I didn’t have anyone to go with at the time. None of my friends close by liked musicals, and those were did were out of town. After several days of mulling, I convinced myself that I needed to see it solo so that I could nurture more emotonal independence.
Unfortunately, I ended up going with someone. Before I bought the tickets I asked my housemate, C, if she wanted to go—I remembered that she enjoying going to the movies and had also helped choreograph a few dance performances. To my surprise, she said yes! In the end she managed to get us $24 tickets in the orchestra, so perhaps it was a fortunate thing after all.
As I sat in the theater, I first had an incredibly hard time paying attention. I had just eaten a very heavy meal, and my poor brain could not follow the storyline because all the blood was rushing to my stomach. However, after some food had cleared, I was finally able to digest what was occuring outside of my body. Soon I began to experience the full range of human emotions. By the end of the first part I was crying so much that C had to give me a hug.
It was hard to believe that the show was real because the singing was impeccable. I felt like I was watching a movie with an excellent soundtrack full of incredible, powerful black voices. We could hardly stay in our seats, yelling and wooping and rooting for Celie, Nettie, Shug, and Sofia.
The next day I found myself much more vivacious, making jokes and feeling like more wholesome. I realized that something in me had lit up after hearing so many black voices and seeing an all black cast alongside so many black people in the audience. All these voices reminded me of my childhood, where I grew up alongside so many black communities in Atlanta. Watching The Color Purple had uncovered a part of me that had gotten dusty in spending so much time in predominantly white spaces.
Because life, like food, is both bitter and sweet, I woke up this morning feeling quite down even though the past few days had been filled with much vitality from The Color Purple. I admit to calling my mother to speak about my woes. She recommended, as my spiritual antidote to heartbreak, a Vietnamese song about burying romance in a grave.
While we talked, I spoke very loudly in Vietnamese. It felt good to speak my language into the world without shame. If the landlady downstairs can shout in Chinese to her son, then I can match that with my own language and have it echo throughout the house.
I listened to the song while walking to work, and then on repeat for the rest of the day. It was good. In fact, I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Each language communicates sorrow in a slightly different flavor, and this song spoke to a side of my heartbreak that had not been heard before.
Growing up, I only engaged with Vietnamese music when singing karaoke at family events. After a while, I sang fewer Vietnamese songs and more English songs. Eventually, I stopped singing Vietnamese songs altogether. And while I had at points sung in Vietnamese, I never listented to it for pleasure. I excluded it from all my playlists so that I wouldn’t be fobbish—all I wanted was to assimilate and be American.
I’ve gradually learned over the years though, that it’s useless trying to be American. Most people will not see me as fully American even if I tattoo the flag on my forehead. I mean, I’ve already gotten a college degree from one of the supposed top institutions in America, and people still are surprised that my English is so good.
This morning was the first time in my life that I had listened to Vietnamese music for pleasure. Walking down the streets with Vietnamese words ringing in my ears, I felt rebellious, as if I was marching with a whole army of friends who were born of the same soil, and who spoke the same language. And because no one around me spoke Vietnamese, it felt like a secret that I could keep in my pocket as a warm reminder that I am not alone here. As long as I can speak, hear, and sing in Vietnamese, there will always be a home for me away from home.
Someone once told me that any song that gets stuck in your head actually is giving you an answer that you need at that time. It sounded ridiculous, but as I’ve paid attention to the music in my head, it made uncanny sense. Whenever I’ve been brooding and gently existential, I hear Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto. Recently, after my breakup, I found myself constantly singing Bjork's "It May Not Always Be So." Tonight, I began singing a song in the shower that was from my teenage years, “Listen” by Jennifer Hudson, about finding one’s own voice.
It certainly seems that I am finding my own voice, now that these forgotten halves of myself are being brought out again. I’ve discovered how much I missed hearing certain voices in my life, and hearing those voices again brought me back to the voice that I’ve missed the most: my own.
I find myself speaking louder, sassier, less apologetically. I’m growing less afraid of my own voice, and as I gain more confidence in it, there is less and less need to substitute other people’s voices for my own. I had been letting others speak for me so much these past few years, that my voice dwindled without me even knowing. There is also less need to remain quiet in order to maintain peace. I’m discovering more and more how to be angry, to be upset, and to still be ok in the midst of emotion.
Of all the things, voice is perhaps one of the most unique traits of each person. Not just the quality and tone of the voice, but the way it speaks, the cadence, rhythm, language, and volume. Voice is the genetic imprint of the soul, and to find your own voice is to connect ever more deeply to your soul.
In a few days, I will be performing a Vietnamese song in a world music concert. After all these years, I’m singing again.
This story begins with an encounter I had while grocery shopping (Lately it seems as though most of my insights have come while grocery shopping. Perhaps it's because I love doing it, and in a happy state I am more able to connect with others) a few weeks ago at Market Basket, the greater grocery store on the planet, during the busiest time. The people in front of me all had fully loaded carts. While I was waiting, a bald, portly man roughly in his early forties came up behind me in line. He seemed restless, and I heard him mutter to himself, "Oh! I can go in the 20-item lane, I think I have 20 items."
He soon darted away to that other lane. Before this I hadn’t known that such a lane existed, just the 12-item express lines. It struck me as a wonderful balance between people who weren’t just grabbing a few items but also weren’t stocking up for the entire winter. After a few minutes, when I saw that the carts in front of me were not moving any faster, I decided to give the 20-item lane a try too.
I ended up standing right behind the guy. We caught eye contact for a little bit, and then he continued putting his items on the belt. "19!" he counted, with a lot of excitement.
The grocers seemed to know him too. A woman from the next register gave him a few extra paper bags. He took three paper bags, opened them up, and then carefully placed them inside plastic bags.
"Looks like you got a good system going on," I told him.
His face lit up, and he smiled. "Oh yeah," he said. “With this system, I can all this home with me on the bike.”
"You can take all that home in a bike?" I asked, incredulous.
While we talked, I glanced at the things he was getting. He had donuts, milk, coke, snacks and ice cream, all items that I wish I ate more of but would usually never buy.
He went on to explain how he maneuvers the groceries on his bike: He puts some in the basket in the rear and then attaches the rest to his handlebars, securing them with cables so that they don’t hit the tire.
I was impressed; I also bike to get my groceries but can carry whatever can fit into my backpack. Usually that’s nore more than 60% of a handheld basket. This guy had enough to fill a car.
"I've had ten years to perfect this system," he said. "But don't get me wrong, accidents have happened,” he said, and started to chuckle. “Once, the bags fell, and, oh god, you can just imagine--coke and milk spilling down the streets! That hill over Washington street is just awful!”
I knew what hill he was talking about because I bike over it all the time. I could imagine him on his bike, with his mound of carefully wrapped groceries dangling precariously on either side. Suddenly a bottle of coke falls to the ground, exploding in a frenzy of foam, closely followed by a fallen gallon of milk; and soon streams of coke mixing with the puddles of milk as he throws out a slew of curses.
I was about to make a comment about how coke is a really good for cleaning blood off of streets, but decided not to, as he was already almost done paying (and it didn't seem quite appropriate for any social context with strangers).
"Have a nice day," he said as he left. I wished him the same.
For the next few days I thought often about him and how proud he was, not just of his system of transporting groceries either, but for his knowledge of how to navigate Market Basket. Every time he comes to mind, I think, “How wonderful.”
Our little encounter reminded me of the things that connect us: The need to feel proud of ourselves, and how much joy can come from healthy pride.
About a week after that Market Basket encounter, I found myself walking down a road close to the hill of spilled milk. I was strolling with my hands in my pockets, enjoying the rare sunshine, when out of the corner of my eye I saw a girl about my age walking quickly in the other direction. She had a brace on one of her knees and a slight limp. Yet that wasn’t stopping her from getting where she needed to go, and fast.
I glanced at her for less than a second. When she passed me, I was suddenly struck by how much willpower it must have taken for her to move so fast. And not just that, but she was well dressed and well groomed.
I was so proud of her. In the past I’ve rarely felt proud of other people, even when I saw people with prosthetic limbs totally owning it in the rock climbing gym, but somehow with this girl, I really felt it.
Our culture does not cultivate pride. We are taught that we can only be proud of ourselves once we’ve achieved certain standards in our relationships, careers, education, bodies, even our minds. More often than not these standards are out of reach and vague, that even if we did reach great lengths of accomplishments in any field, it would still not hit the mark of pride.
But life, is so hard, so so hard, to the point that it’s almost intolerable (quoting Mark Epstein). Just waking up and giving another try at life is deserving of the utmost pride.
All this reflection has led me to meditate a lot on my relationship to pride. I was raised to understand shame as distasteful arrogance and bashful humility as honorable. I don’t think my parents ever once praised me for anything, no matter how big the accomplishment. It wasn’t just my family either; this was a trademark of almost all Vietnamese immigrant families. I supressed any longing for pride, but that made me desperate for pride. As a result, I became scared of taking any risks that might result in failure—another reason to not feel proud.
Very recently I went to a talk given by Judith Herman, the queen of trauma research. She presented this theory that trauma is a shame disorder (please don’t ask be about the specifics, I understand very little about the mechanisms and physiology of pride and trauma, so my understanding of this is very poetic). But it made sense to me. That a good amount of shame in life is useful for learning and in social interactions, but when an event happens that overwhelms you with shame, it becomes trauma. And then there is only shame that is comrehensible.
Judith said that the antidote to shame is validation by one’s peers, a reminder that “you aren’t a bad person,” that “nothing is inherently wrong with you.” The answer is, essentially, pride.
Where am I going with this? I’ve gone from grocery shopping to coke and milk, then to limps, pride, and now to trauma research. It is leading me to happiness.
It will take years before I actually am proud of myself, but I can start by taking a top-down approach. The first step is to learn how to be proud of others. Just as how it can be easier to be kind to others than to yourself, so too goes the relationship with pide: If I can feel proud of others, as I have with the man in Market Basket and the girl walking with a limp, the feeling will become familiar enough (or synaptically reinforced enough), that I can start directing the pride at myself, first with actions, and then to the self.
It makes sense to me, both experientially and theoretically. I think Judith Herman and Bessel Van Der Kolk would also support me in this.
So I guess it’s almost Thanksgiving. However you celebrate this holiday, it might be nice to practice, alongside gratitude, feelings of pride as well (These two are cousins and go well when served together). Wishing everyone a good holiday, and to end, here’s a toast to healthy egos!
Recently I started sprouting. Mary, my housemate joined me for dinner one day, and we soon fell into our usual lovely conversations that I look forward to so much. She then mentioned that she has a giant bag of seeds to sprout.
Just a few days prior I had gone over to my friend’s house to bake some pies, and there I met her husband who introduced me to sprouting. He showed me the glass jar filled to the brim with excited little green plants.
After the pies were done baking, and right before leaving, I had a light dinner consisting of an English muffin cheese melt served with a side of these sprouts dressed with olive oil and sea salt. I had never tasted anything so fresh and delightful. It was as if these baby plants had twice as much joy as their adult plants--not so different from humans to be honest.
So when my roommate mentioned sprouts, I immediately caught interest and couldn't believe the timing of events.
We started sprouting that night. I decided to begin with a batch of alfalfa and red clover seeds, something easy. The back of the bag had a label of instructions: Soak the seeds; cover the top with a cheesecloth and rubber band and let the jar sit inverted overnight; in the morning rinse and rain the seeds; and then continue to rinse and rain the seeds twice a day for the next few days. The simplicity of the instructions left me a bit dumbfounded, but I figured there was only one way to learn if it really works: by taking the first step.
We began on a Sunday night, and throughout the week I found myself looking forward each morning to rinsing them before I left for work and excited to come home and see their progress. It was like having children, lots of them, children who you can keep in a glass jar in the corner of a room… and this is where the analogy falls apart.
And then, towards the end of the second day, I saw little roots! The seeds had germinated! From then on their growth seemed exponential. The roots grew twice as long the day after. Somehow a single tablespoon of seeds had grown into two cups of sprouts in just a matter of days.
"How do you know when they're ready?" I asked Mary.
"When they have tiny little leaves, I guess," she said.
After the fifth day, they had tiny little green leaves. I took them out of the jar, rinsed away all the seed casings, and put the sprouts inside a dry container in the fridge.
The sprouts have found their way into many meals since then. I garnish noodle soups with them, slip them into sandwiches, sprinkle them on top of buttered egg muffins. They taste just like the ones I had at my friend’s house: like sunlight, so fresh and sweet.
You can't get more local than your own kitchen," I remember her husband saying.
Some more seeds are growing as I speak. This time I experimented with growing two tablespoons of seeds in each jar and with growing some large and medium sized seeds. Aside from culinary pleasure, sprouting brings much psychological joy. It provides something for me to look forward to twice a day. Furthermore, it is mesmerizing to witness these seeds growing in spite of their circumstances. It doesn’t matter if it’s warm or cool, dark or bright—they just grow because that’s what they were meant to do. All it takes a just a bit of tending every day.
Taking care of these sprouts has made me realize that I am not so different from them. I too have the potential to grow every single day. You could say that growing is what I was meant to do too. My growth also requires care, though the instructions are a bit more complex (at least I consider myself to be a bit more complex than that of alfalfa sprouts, but who knows… I may be wrong!)
Now that the seasons are changing, and my mood is more vulnerable, I'm reminded that happiness is incredibly physiological. It is not found, but fought for, and once it grows it must be maintained.
For the past few weeks I’ve put a lot of attention to my lifestyle and come up with a daily checklist to upkeep my happiness. If I don't do these things, my happiness will begin to rot, just as the seeds will rot if I don't clean and drain their water. It's also a checklist because I've found checklists to be an invaluable tool for getting things done.
So here is my happiness checklist, to be repeated every morning:
It really is a simple list. Just good sleep habits, good eating habits, physical activity, and basic upkeep for the mind. I’ve found that even if one of these four pillars is defunct, I have a really hard time being my optimal self.
I’ve never asked anything of my readers before. This seems like a good place to start. If you feel inspired to create your own daily happiness checklist, I really encourage you to do so! And if you feel even more inspired to share with me, either in the comments or through email, I would love to hear about it.
May all beings sprout and be happy.
I found home the other day when I got my hair cut at a small unisex hair salon in Cambridge. My hair had become jagged and uneven, the layers jumbled and awkward because I cut it myself a month ago, too impatient to go to a salon to chop off the frayed ends.
As it is with most physical imperfections, I was the only one who thought twice about my hair, and since it was passable in public, I kept pushing it back. Part of the reason was because I didn't have time. Most of the reason was because I didn't feel comfortable in any of the hair salons around here.
The thing is, for most of my life, the people who cut my hair have been Asian women. Mostly Vietnamese, sometimes Chinese, perhaps once or twice Korean, and a few times men, but still predominantly Vietnamese ladies who also converse with me in Vietnamese.
As a kid my mom took me to these salons, hole in the wall places with a few Vietnamese workers lounging around, a Vietnamese dubbed Chinese soap opera playing in the background. We'd pay in cash, and the haircut was always the same: layers beginning around the jaw line that curve softly beyond the shoulders.
I rebelled against this paradigm during the first week or so of college and got my hair cut into bangs at Leonard Stephen salon, a fancy salon in Harvard Square. It was the best haircut I ever got, and also the most expensive. I was so eager to be in this fancy new school, and wanted a haircut that proved that I was hip and rich enough to belong in the Ivory Tower.
I rebelled again by cutting all of that illusion off, and getting a pixie cut halfway through college, when everything was falling apart. It's been about five years since then, and my hair is finally long again.
Other times and places where my hair has been cut: in the kitchen of our old house. Back then my mom had more time and would cut it herself. She laid out a stool, put newspapers on the floor, and took out her pair of cutting scissors to give me straight cut bangs, precisely the ones so typically made fun of in Asian stereotypes.
At other times, I've cut my hair myself, often in moments of boredom, destruction, or desperation.
No matter who cuts it, I am always dissatisfied in someway. If it's a good haircut, it's too expensive. If it's cheap, it's subpar. At best, I can have a decently cut and decently priced haircut at the Hair Cuttery, but even then, I feels not quite right. I know what I want my hair to look like, but don't have the skill to make it happen. Most of the time, people just don't get it.
My hair is thick. It doesn't bend, doesn't curl very well unless you put copious amounts of hair spray. It's stubborn, like me. It needs to be cut with a very sharp blade.
For a short while, I found a nice enough hair salon back home, run by Vietnamese women. The haircuts were good and cheap, but I felt like I had to watch what I said, and how I said things, because word travels faster than wildfire in a small and gossiping community. That went away when I moved back up here, and for months I felt lost.
So, this time, I spent time researching any places nearby that specialized in cutting Asian hair. I found a place right next to where I live, but it was $45 for a haircut. I kept on searching, and two miles out a bit beyond Porter Square, there was a little place called Hair International. I called asked how much it cost for a haircut, and a woman with the most beautiful, warm, and soothing voice answered with a simple "Hello." She said the haircut was just $20. I was sold and made an appointment.
A couple of days later, I stepped in the doors and found the place filled with plants. Pothos and money trees, green leaves running wild over the brick walls. The place was clean and simple. No bullshit. I liked it immediately.
The woman came out and greeted me with the same way she had on the phone: a warm hello. I said I just wanted a haircut. She didn't ask me if I wanted it washed, didn't ask about styling or blow drying. No questions at all. She guided me to my hair and gently folded the drape over my neck, and when she touched my hair, it reminded me immediately of how my mother touches my hair.
She held it so tenderly, and moved slowly with it, almost as if stroking my hair. "You remind me of my niece," she said. She cut with a single pair of scissors, holding my hair up strand by strand, taking care with each cut. The whole time, I savored the memory of the last time I saw my mom, how she came into my bedroom at night and held my head in her hands, patting my head as if I were a kid again. (Then she fell asleep and started snoring so I had to kick her out).
"You have such beautiful, long hair," the woman said.
Surprisingly, I didn't feel the need to say anything, or make small talk. I was already comfortable; there was no need to speak smoothly and gain someone's favor so that they would treat me fairly.
It didn't even occur to me that this woman was Vietnamese (I kind of had assumed she was Chinese), but then I heard the sound of a Vietnamese TV show roaring from a side room, and my eyes bulged: "Wow, I understand that! That's Vietnamese!"
To my surprise, she didn't ask me the usual lieu of questions about when my family immigrated to the US, about our family back in Vietnam, etc. She just cut my hair and smiled, asked me more about my life here and now. She understood and was proud of me for graduating and finding a job that I wanted.
Eventually, we did come to talk about how we got here. I told her that my family moved first to Atlanta. She explained that her brother went to the US first. He had graduated from Harvard, and then sponsored her family over.
I then understood why I immediately didn't recognize her as Vietnamese. She didn't have the same accent that I was familiar with, the Southern Vietnamese tones. Her family in Vietnam was probably quite rich to send a brother to Harvard, and probably from the North.
I asked if she went back to Vietnam to visit, and she said no, hasn't gone back since she came here. She asked me the same question, and I explained that my dad will rarely go back now that both of his parents have passed. "There's no more reason really, and it is also really... complicated back there."
We changed the subject. I didn't feel the need to ask anymore questions. All was already understood , and besides, it didn't really matter anymore, more than twenty years later.
We learned eventually that we have some things in common. That both of our families lived far away: her brothers and parents now in California, and mine in Georgia. We both liked it up here more. We both love peaches (she had given her nephew a box of peaches for his birthday). And to my continued surprise, we spoke in English the whole time.
Soon the haircut was done. I loved my hair, I loved the way it looked on my face. I didn't get the usual embarrassment and almost dissociative feeling of looking at the mirror at a stranger.
I think it's because she knew who I was better than anyone who cut my hair did before. Better than my mother, who can't help but coddle me as her child; than the Vietnamese women back home, who see only the Vietnamese in me; better than the women at the Hair Cuttery, and I don't know what they see in me; and better than Leonard, who saw only fancy and none of the refugee.
Probably, she has led a life more similar to mine than any of those previous people: she knew of being Vietnamese in a cold place, and liking it. The dissatisfaction with the pho restaurants here, and loving to cook at home more. Of being Vietnamese and somehow connected to Harvard. Of choosing to live far away from her family. Of wanting and at the same time not wanting a home that does not exist anymore, and perhaps never existed at all.
(Or maybe she is just really good at cutting hair).
When I asked her what her name was at the end, she said Suzy.
She asked me what mine was. For a second, I pondering whether I should say My Ngoc or Mina. I chose the latter, and for the first time in my life, the name did not feel false or catastrophic, but truer than ever.
I thought of silk worms the other day. I'm not sure how the conversation came up, but we started to talk about silk worms, how silk is made, what happens to the cocoons. To be honest, I didn't know, even though my mom and I had visited a silk factory in Vietnam and observed the silk worms from when they were eggs to end.
The question was: what happens to the bodies of the silk worms? Are they boiled inside their cocoons? Are they taken out of their cocoons? Or do the harvesters let them escape first, and then boil the empty shell?
I tried to rack my brain with all the sights and images from that tour with the silkworms. All I could remember was yellow, green and white. And a sense of fascination. So, like in most cases where I am confounded by life, I ask Google for help.
My suspicions were true: they are boiled inside. It is possible to wait for the to hatch into moths first, but the act of hatching would ruin the delicate shell, compromising the integrity of the silk. Still, I couldn't find what actually happens to the bodies when they start to unravel the silk. When I watched a documentary about the process, I then saw an image of bowls filled with very large worms. I guess that's what is left over when all the silk is gone, a very fat and dead worm, perfect for a meal.
Death, and carcasses, is often left out in explaining the process of making silk. There are companies that offer death-free silk, but the silk isn't as good.
In doing my research, I also found out a couple of other things that I did not know before. That it takes 5,500 silk worms to make 1 kg of silk. That even if the moth hatches, it is blind and helpless and will die soon.
The most interesting for me was that the environment has to be perfect for the silkworm to make silk. The slightest change in humidity, temperature, light, the quality of the mulberry leaves can shock the worm and cause it to stop spinning.
It struck me then, the delicacy of it all. That silk cannot be taken for granted given, not just how much death goes into it, but how much life and labor. It really is a miracle that hundreds of years of sericulture have allowed us to cultivate silk worms so consistently under perfect conditions.
But the point of this is not to marvel at sericulture, at the silkworm herself, but to really deduct some applicable lesson to human life.
To think of yourself as a silk worm: what conditions would be optimal for you, and in those perfect conditions, what would be your silk?
I do have a few barometers for how well and healthy I am, and those would be evidence of a cocoon, I suppose. Such as if my fingernails and toenails are in good condition, manicured and clean. I don't paint my fingernails anymore now that I rock climb, but I aim to repaint my toenails every three weeks. If I can cook homemade meals. If I am talking to my friends, both near and far, often. The finest silk that I think I can make, however, is probably my writing. It takes a healthy body and a healthy mind to write, and to write well I need to be in the most wholesome state.
Lately, as an attempt to reach more perfect conditions, I've been feeding myself a lot more. Part of that had to do with going on vacation, but a part of it is also showing kindness to myself, taking it easy as direct behavior change from my tendencies to be very harsh and self critical, a revolt from overworking. It feels good to be full, though instead of mulberry leaves I have been eating ice cream and steak (but after watching Okja I am more committed to eating plants).
Food is just one example of how I am learning to cultivate myself. I won't bore you with the other methods, but I think it is having some positive effect. Perhaps the most important part of this process is just learning to accept that I am a highly sensitive creature, clairsentient, an empath, whatever you want to call it. But part of that is also recognizing that the most sensitive creatures can make silk.
The other day I went to Star Market, a grocery store just a block from my apartment, to get cleaning supplies. I also bought 5 mangoes because there was a deal to get give for $5. There was a senior woman in front of me who was buying one pack of 12 Bounty paper towels. As I stood and waited in line, I watched the cashier ring up the towels--the price popped up as $21,09.
The woman in front of me looked bug eyed at the screen. "That's not right," she said. "They're supposed to be $10.99"
It went back and forth a couple of times between the woman and the cashier, both insisting that they were right. The woman kept shaking her head, muttering, "There's no way that's right, no way that's right." Finally, the girl behind the cashier said she would go check the aisle.
After she left, I remarked to the woman, "Yeah, that seems pretty expensive for paper towels." She seemed so upset over the price discrepancy in her head, and seemed to appreciate the solidarity.
When the girl came back, she explained that the paper towels would be $10.99 if she buys two of them. The explanation seemed clear to me--but it seemed to confuse the woman even more. She then thought that if she gets two, then she would get two for just $10,99, and not each one for $10.99.
He eyes, her mouth, her entire face seemed to about to burst with confusion, frustration, and embarrassment for holding up the line. I really wanted to tell her that I did not mind at all, and that it was in fact quite the opposite: I really felt for her and wish that she wasn't so upset.
This moment brought me back to what I learned in my meditation retreat: that suffering comes from holding onto things too tightly. This lady could not let go of her idea that the paper towels would only cost $10.99. Even when she was explained otherwise, that number was still imprinted in her, and she could not let go.
Eventually, the cashier, bless her, she was also eating a bar of white chocolate and did not give any fucks at all that her customers might find it a bit icky that their receipts would be covered in chocolate and spit (and I admired her boldness), decided to give the paper towels to the woman for just $10.99.
My mind was blown at that second. I had no idea that she could do that. I then wondered why she didn't do that right away, it would have made things so much easier, and then I realized that it would create problems if all customers think that they can get deals so easily, with just a little fuss. And then I admired the cashier for having a sense of justice and compassion for the woman. That is a true, noble example of a cashier, holding the fort at the transition line for customers to exit with their new belongings, a sometimes delicate act of judgment. A victory for the woman with the Bounty paper towels!
The woman was more than elated. I was happy for her too, and happy also when the cashier began ringing up my items. I bought a huge bottle of Lysol spray, hand soap, and Clorox wipes because my apartment got quite dirty over the weekend when I was away. Part of the package when you live with four other men I guess. I never thought my life would end up this way, but I wouldn't trade it for any other thing. They are sweet and respectable, and come from the most diverse backgrounds I could ever imagine. But that's a story for another time.
When I walked out of the market and through the parking lot, I saw the woman loading the paper towels into her car. She drove all the way here with the sole intention of getting paper towels. Questions ran through my head: did she live alone? Did her partner pass already? Is she short on money? What does her kitchen look like? How far was the drive?
I felt a lot of love for this woman, and a lot of joy that she got her towels. But mixed in there was some sense of poignancy, knowing that she was not able to experience the peace of mind that comes with letting go, and if it was with something as small as paper towels, I wonder what else she holds onto.
In general, I have been thinking more about the things that I hold onto, and noticing what things other people hold onto. Often, it is notions of happiness: I will be happy if I do this, have that, have this person. And once we have those things we hold onto them in ranges of tightness. I can't speak for others, but I know that I've held onto, both long term and short term.
For me, I've held onto many toxic notions throughout my life: this sense of mindless achieving, feeling that accomplishment leads to self worth; holding onto positive ratings from others, that I need people to like me; that my face needs to be clear and beautiful to be pretty. And so often it's many small things: at work I tend to fixate on one random small detail or task that needs to get done, and on which everything seems to hinge upon when in reality it's not urgent at all. And then I laugh at myself for being so silly.
The best thing about letting go is perhaps having more compassion for others when you recognize the mindsets that are holding them back. From the moment we are babies, we like to grasp. It is a universal human thing. And adulthood, it seems, is learning to loosen that grip.
What are the things you're holding onto that are preventing you from seeing clearly? What are the Bounty's in your lives?
Well, after so many gory and bloody stories, which I’m sure have made my readers feel uneasy, and a fair number of my friends worried about me, here comes time for the happy parts! My stories have happy endings, even though they seem impossibly bleak at first :)
7. The White Fish
Remember that white koi fish? It lived in that meditation pond, and it taught me one of the most important lessons. During the first few days of the retreat, we kept learning about the important of awareness and equanimity. Awareness, I understood, and was naturally good at. It was easy for me to do anapana, to find the rate of my natural breath, to smile at my mistakes and draw myself back to the present moment. It was easy for me to begin Vipassana and feel the sensations on my body come and go, the painful ones as well as the subtle, pleasant ones.
But equanimity was mysterious. Sure, I heard Goenka talk about it each night during the dharma talks: to be equanimous is to not favor the pleasant or to shy away from the unpleasant. To be equanimous is to no longer be craving or aversive. I understood half of equanimity in the sense that I was used to not being aversive. I have experienced a lot of pain in a myriad of forms—situational, emotional, physical—so I am accustomed to finding silver linings, recycling suffering into beautiful things, etc. I soon realized that my problem rested with handling my cravings for pleasure.
It all happened when we started working with “the flow.” We were taught, that when we feel uniform subtle vibrations in a certain part of our bodies, to sweep through them rather than scanning part by part. At some point, there could be a moment where the entire body is in uniform subtle vibration, and sweeping the entire body would allow for a flow of energy across our whole being.
I incidentally experienced the flow before we ever learned about it. That day I was just sitting in bed meditating, with my back against the wall and legs straight out before me. After going through my body once, I became aware of this lightness throughout my body, and decided to just let go of the scanning and just breathe. I was swept into a flow, and I felt like I was floating in a gentle buzz.
A couple days later, when we learned about the flow, I tried to recreate that moment each time I sat down. But the flow never came, and I became increasingly frustrated. It was near the end of the retreat too, and I began to feel an increasing sense of despair: despair that I had come so far, done so well, only to fail at the very end.
I talked to the teacher about this, and immediately after she told me, “Ah yes, you need to work on equanimity.”
Though I had heard the word many times before, this was the first time I understood it directly through experience.
She told me not to crave the flow, that it comes when it comes. She told me that she had the best flow of her life almost twenty decades ago, and she has to be mindful to not crave that every time she sits. We ended our meeting. Later that day, I went to the pond.
The white koi fish was there, gleaming brilliantly, and then vanished in a matter of seconds. I thought that I may not ever see it again because it is so rare. I then saw how silly it would be to expect the white fish to be there for me every time.
I then realized that the white koi fish was like the flow. If I craved to see the it every time I came to the pond, then I would never be able to enjoy looking at all the other wonderful elements of the pond: catfish, minnows, reeds, water lilies, dragonflies, ripples. The pond looks different every time I see it, and it doesn’t need to have the white fish to be appreciated. Similarly, my body never contains the same sensations twice. The flow may come, or it may not—either way, it doesn’t matter. I can’t be mad at a fish for not surfacing, so how could I be mad at the flow for not arising? If it does come though, I will cherish it.
I gained a lot of insight into my suffering—that a lot of my pain came, not from aversion, but from craving. I brought with me a sense of craving to many aspects of my life. In school and work, I craved the pleasure of constant praise and acknowledgement. In relationships I craved attention and pleasure from my partners, and when any of those waned, I threw a fuss. That explains why so many of my relationships, up until now, had been such a disaster.
One side effect of learning not to crave is that it actually helps me appreciate things more when they do happen. I don’t expect the koi fish to be there, aware that it will go away, so when it does come, it looks so much more magical. Applying equanimity to my current life, I feel like things are that much more precious, and I’ve learned to cherish what I have in the present moment. It’s led to many wonderful results… a new job, deeper friendships, and a great relationship with my partner.
And so… I witnessed the white koi fish, and that has made all the difference.
Excuse me for the long gap in writing—I guess by “soon” I meant several weeks! I’ve been busy giving goodbyes and saying hellos, moving away to start a new job. Things have finally settled down, and just as scattered particles of an exploding star eventually gravitate and condense into a stable, radiating sphere, my life too has gained enough ground for me to write again. I would like to finish all of Vipassana Part II, but it’s getting late, and I have to work early tomorrow, so I will do just #6 tonight, and finish the rest, 7-10, at some other opportune time.
6. Memories and Dreams
On the second day, I got tired of sitting in the humid, stuffy meditation hall, so when it was time for the fifth sitting, I went outside instead to sit on a chair, enjoying the sunshine and cool breeze of the late morning. When I settled into the anapana meditation, memories from my childhood that I had not thought of in years suddenly came flooding up. I remembered how in the third grade, I would make all these origami paper cranes and thread them together to make curtains for my bedroom. I remembered in excrutiating detail the garden in our backyard, how there was a square patch of dirt in the small pine forest where we would grow various herbs and vegetables. Sorting through these memories, I saw my childhood in a more accurate light. I saw how much time I spent alone as a child, in the quiet whimsy of my own world. But I also recognized that it wasn’t as depressing as I thought, because even amidst all that time spent alone there was a lot of curious happiness, creativity, and wonder. I realized that my love of plants goes way back to when I was a small child observing the spores on the back of ferns. It struck me how many good memories came up, including many pleasant ones where I spent time with my sisters too. I realized how, over the years, I had tinged my recollection of my childhood with a patina of sadness that was unfair to all those pleasant moments.
Then, on the third or fourth day, after we finished an afternoon meditating, we were all walking towards lunch when we heard the sound of gunshots. It might help to explain that hunting is a major pasttime in Jesup, Georgia, where the only attractions are the animals, the Wal-mart, and the church. At the end of every sitting, the course manager walks around and rings the gong to signal students who didn’t meditate in the hall that it’s time to move on to the next event. The sound of gunshots was interspersed with the rings of the gong, a schizophrenic dance between a vibrationof peace, and then a series of violent explosions that might have resulted in the death of something. The shooting went on for almost three minutes, and the gun must have fired at least fifty times. I laughed from the sheer absurdity of it all, the juxtaposition of this meditation center inside a hunting community.
That night, I had a nightmare that was similar to the ones I had when I was going through the worst of my depression. It was gory, bloody, almost demonic. I was walking through a city at night, going to a dinner party of some friend. We were leaving the house when I saw a man on the balcony, hunched over and vomiting over the ledge. It was one of my uncles. The lens zoomed in closer, and I saw that the man’s body hung limp over the edge of the balcony. A bit closer, and I saw that he had thrown up something red. Still closer, and the red gunk was actually meat, a huge chunk of meat that was as wide as my wing span. He had thrown up his own gut, a blood dripping sirloin with the bone still in the middle, the bone, of course, was his own vertebrae.
Though this nightmare was really similar to the ones in the past, I did not react with terror in my dreams. I was aware that I was dreaming, and aware that this must also be old stuff coming up. I also thought that, perhaps because I experienced so much pain during meditating, the vomiting of flesh might also symbolize me getting rid of internalized pain. Still, it was rather disturbing. I woke up from the nightmare to the sound of my roommate snoring. Her sinuses had gotten very bad, so her snores sounded like some carnivorous animal roaring. I then heard the sound of loud footsteps, and it wasn’t until a minute later that I realized it was the sound of my own heart beating. That’s what terror felt like, but unlike in the past, I was aware of my terror, and was able to look at it objectively. Eventually, my heart calmed down, the snores became neutral, and the image of my uncle’s flesh vomit ceased to be so vivid. I wonder how much this had to do with the shootings…
I had one other nightmare that began the night following the meat dream. I was somewhere in Japan, walking in the streets at dusk. Someone was chasing after me, so I took a right turn down a small alleyway. Eventually the path became wider, and I was running along a railroad track. I then starting running inside the railroad tracks, and the tracks kept becoming deeper and deeper. Soon I was knee-deep, and then chest deep in the tracks. As it got deeper, it also filled up with cherry blossoms, beautiful pink ones, and the sun also began to rise. Soon the sky was blue, and I was neck deep in flowers, feeling both incredibly joy and incredible fear. I then heard a train coming from behind me. I still kept on running, and it was no longer possible to get out of the tracks. I knew I was going to get run over by the train, a most beautiful death to be covered in flower petals. But just as it was right behind me, erything became quiet. The train stopped. I was spared death. I never looked back to see it, but I knew that it was gone—I was going to live.
That same dream happened again the following night. I felt the same terror, and the same unbelievable relief when the train suddenly disappeared from behind me. I signed up to meet the teacher after the second night of the train dream. She told me that sankaras can also come up in the form of memories and dreams, and told me not to hold on or worry too much about the significance or meaning of these events. I took her advice, for the most part—I wonder if writing about them right now means I am holding on…
Since the retreat ended, I still experience memories that I hadn’t thought of in years flashing into my mind at the most random times. Once, while eating breakfast, I remember how my sister, dad and I would do house projects together in our old house, adding sections of concrete to the back porch, or how my sister and I would play hours of street puzzle fighter, how the couch felt, and how safe I felt watching her play other videogames. My active memory also has improved greatly. I have an easier time remembering things, and when I work, I am more focused and productive. I haven’t had any more nightmares.. I think that the ones I had during the retreat were some rather deep-rooted seeds that reach back to my most depressed days. But because the dreams happened, and I did not react to them, I was able to dissolve that evil remnant. I feel cleansed, and still lighter and lighter.
So yeah this is some serious shit! We were told from the beginning that this would be a deep surgical operation of the mind, and these dreams ad memories are evidence of the changes. A lot impurities removed, as indicated by the nightmares, and a fair amount of restructuring as well, which gives room for memories to flow up. Many mysterious things happening, I find myself amazed, humbled, and grateful. Until next time!
About this Blog
I have no idea how to describe what my writing is about. I just write. I post when I can, which can be weekly or monthly depending on where the universe is taking me. As for the Grapefruit, my Vietnamese nickname, Buoi, means grapefruit.