The Pondering Grapefruit
a blog of moments
Part I: Revolution
Hello there, occasional reader. It's almost the end of November and I am now finding time to regurgitate a few thoughts that have been on my mind. I'm afraid I will never be that blogger because I cannot force myself to write something every day simply for the sake of writing and having followers. I would rather be obscure but produce good content, and while this may not gain me the most readers, I know I at least am being true to myself. I am, after all, my most important reader.
Yet sometimes I wonder if this attitude will make my fate similar to that of Llweyn Davis (from Coen brothers' movie Inside Lleweyn Davis), who has talent, but ultimately fails because of his inability to work with the system. However, the difference between me and him is that I am not an asshole. Hopefully my grace, some luck, and lots of persistence will attract the right crowd of people to expand my writing influence.
I have had some exposure to the current publishing industry and been involved in circles with access to supposed great literary connections during college, but I have not felt connected to those people or their philosophy. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that I come from a different background. It's not that I am not willing to work with the system, it's that trying to mesh with the system will ultimately destroy the things that make me unique. My goals now are to not act rashly, and to slowly build my connections with like-minded, artists and writers I meet along the way, and to build a revolution that people won't know is happening until the throne has already be overthrown. When the revolution is over, writers of color can write and be successful even if they don't write about color. Until that day, the most powerful weapon I have is myself, which I am never going to compromise.
Part II: The Manatee, and the War
It so happens that a lot of the most profound revolutions occur during the most mundane circumstances. Leo Szilard conceived the nuclear chain reaction when crossing a sidewalk. The subReddit showerthoughts speaks for itself. As for me, I had a major revelation when watching, from the corner of my eye, a TV show about saving manatees.
I visited an old friend a couple weeks ago, and we went in the morning to have breakfast at a cafe before my bus left. Over my plate of mediocre scrambled eggs and toast, I watched a group of noble citizens rescue a manatee from its watery deathbed. The water was too cold, and the manatee was too helpless to save itself. The rescuers caught it with a net and hauled it overboard onto their tiny boat. All this was narrated by a deep male voice that spoke with subtle self-congratulation.
Watching this enraged me. I hated that humans would first ruin the manatee's habitat and then return later to save it. I kept in mind that different groups of people were responsible for harming and rescuing that manatee, but that quelled my anger only slightly. What disturbed me the most was that the the manatee had no choice in anything. It could not choose to die, it could not choose to live, and it could not choose how it was portrayed--stupid, cumbersome, and worst of all, thankful.
Something inside me clicked when I saw the manatee writhing on the boat. Up until then I had been reading Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer, which had gathered in me a fair amount of anger and perspective about the Vietnam War. I had become heart-breakingly aware of how Vietnamese people, and Asians in general, have been misrepresented in the US. Seeing this manatee netted but supposedly free ignited the ultimate realization that this manatee and I have much in common: Our habitats were destroyed beyond repair. We were saved by people who did not care for us in the first place, and then those people rewrote history to portray themselves as heroes, us as their rescued victims.
The only reason I am living in the United States is because the war in Vietnam burned everything to the ground and left in its place a government regime that took even more away from its people. My grandfather had no choice but to flee by boat back in the 70s, and when he offered to sponsor us over to the US, we had no choice but to accept. Life in Vietnam would have been too unstable and dangerous, even if the economy was developing.
The difference between the Vietnamese and the manatee was that our homes were destroyed by fire, not ice water. My family and I are not the only manatees either. The Koreans are here because of the Korean War. The Chinese are here because of the cultural revolution. The more recent refugees from Bhutan, The Democratic Republic of Congo, Pakistan, Iran, Colombia, and so many other countries, are here, too because of war and conflict. Though we may not see in the US any soldiers or tanks, bombs or rifles, the fact that these immigrants exist is evidence enough that war is real and it is going on right now. After seeing the manatee, I saw with shocking clarity that I come from war.
Part III: Revolution
But ultimately, I am not a manatee. I am a human. I have the power to speak for myself and take charge of my own representation. Knowing that I come from a war generation (and also with Trump being president) makes my will to fight even stronger. There's a new documentary coming out about saving manatees. In this one, when they've hauled me onto the boat of American soil, and the camera zooms into my face hoping to get a pity shot, I can say instead words that will start a revolution: "I, too, am American."
Yes, American. Not Asian. Not Asian-American. Not Vietnamese, or Vietnamese-American, but plain old American. Growing up I always thought that American had to be white skin and football, white skin and beer, white skin and body hair, white skin and Jesus. Perhaps this is because I've started to believe what those around me think: that we don't belong, that because our eyes are slanted, because our eyes will never be blue, and our hair never blond, we will be at best only 3/5 American, even if we speak perfect English.
I can only speak for the Vietnamese. I know that we are looked at with some form of "anthropological condescension," another great term used by Nguyen. The best compliments we get from our fellow Americans is that our pho is great and our women beautiful. We can't complain because we are part of the model minority and should be grateful for all the money we make. We are confined to the paradigm of the immigrant narrative, stories of success and overcoming hardship--we are not allowed to have unredemptive character flaws, to be simply human, or display beautiful Didion weaknesses. People view us with the lens of the silent, uncomplaining, hardworking, submissive, effeminate, obedient, stoic Asian (ever notice how Asian characters in Hollywood films never talk and do all the work?) (No wonder why asian women are the mostly likely to have depression!). We are the misrepresented manatees that must be thankful for this new and more privileged life in racist America.
But I believe that American can be yellow too. I am taking ownership of that word now because I know that to be American is to be an immigrant stepping on American soil to escape war and prosecution. To be American is to believe in freedom and also have roots from somewhere else. And so: I am an American with Vietnamese roots, just as an other American would have French, Scottish, Irish, or Germanic roots. These words will be my anthem when fighting.
It so happens that in Vietnamese, the words for "to write" and "to kill" are so similar - "viết" and "giết." Revolution is in my blood, and revolution starts now.
I went to the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco recently. It was the first time in my life that I had been to a museum specifically dedicated to Asian art, and it was no short of a life changing experience. I felt a very distinct pride in being Asian-American which I had never felt before.
In exploring every floor, I walked through the art histories of India, China, Tibet, Korean, Japan, Vietnam, and so many other countries. They had set up the museum to show the influences of religion on art styles. So, aside from learning about the art, I gained insight into the political history, rise and fall of empires, and religious influences on each nation.
For example, I saw how extensively Buddhism had affected the belief systems of China, especially during turbulent times. It offered sanctuary and hope to people and thus was readily adopted into society. Buddhism, when merged with the pre-existing tradition of ancestor worship, culminated in a very intricate, elaborate art style that often focused on natural beauty.
Another interesting observation was how Hinduism influence so much of Buddhist art in India--all of a sudden the Buddha had so many arms. Or how Islamic influences on southern India produced art forms nostalgic of Arabic scripts. What struck me the most though, was the distinctive, animated nature of Japanese art.
The first image was of a burial statue from Japan's earliest history. Even from its oldest period, the art already had an almost humorous quality to it. I then saw the netsuke figurines and was amazed at how comical they were: figures sticking out their tongues, pulling pranks on others, stubbing their toes. This was such a stark contrast from the reserved, traditional style of Chinese and Korean art that I saw just prior.
What I think made the difference was Japan's longstanding belief in animated spirits. As a result of this belief, their art becomes animated too, expressing so much emotion and narrative. It's incredible to think about how much one belief can influence, not just an individual, but the course of a nation.
After making this connection, I see that everything, all action, all thoughts, all that is put into the world, originates from a core belief, and as such, I have become more motivated to change my own beliefs.
Now that's how you know a museum is well curated!
In our backyard, my parents grow several pots of Thai pepper plants. Every morning, my dad spends fifteen minutes watering them, and occasionally he will place more fertilizer at their bases. I have always admired his consistency; surely if the pepper plants were under my care they would not be as large and fruitful.
We have had these plants for several years now, and every autumn the plants produce hundreds of beautiful, red, hot peppers that we eat with every meal. When I was in college, I would come home on holiday weekends and help to harvest them. We would have bowls and bunches of bags filled to the brim with the bright red fruits, which we would then store in the freezer.
Just today, I picked another round of peppers. Though it is November in Atlanta, it is still 80 degrees outside, and the plants grow strong. This is the second time this year that I have plucked off peppers, and there are still hundreds more green peppers on the branches waiting to ripen.
I have always enjoyed harvesting the peppers. For about an hour or an hour and a half, I sit outside with nothing but a bowl, a pair of scissors, and my phone playing music. As I try to be mindful with everything, I again aim to be mindful with this harvest, paying attention to the shape of each pepper, its colors, whether it is blunt or sharp at the tips, or if it grows straight or curved. It always amazes me how many variations of peppers exist within a single plant. Furthermore, I love paying attention to the shape of the leaves, which are thin and tapered just like the fruit; as well as the delicate tiny flowers whose petals also resemble the shape of the fruit. And I think to myself, as Billie Holiday sings to me and the wind and sun kiss my cheek, that this is quite a beautiful plant.
Spice is a pillar of Vietnamese cuisine, and these peppers often make their way into every meal. Growing up, I often watched in amazement as my parents took whole bites of these peppers, going through two, three peppers in one dinner. I could not understand their enjoyment, for if I even so much as licked a seed I would spend the next ten minutes crying.
But people change, and we change in ways that we would never expect. Soon after my first pepper harvest, I started eating peppers. Just one day when I sat down to eat lunch, I wanted to take out a pepper for myself and nibble on it between bites. It felt delicious. The sensation was the same, my tongue burned, my eyes teared up, but I liked it this time. It was as if I was going through another round of puberty, only this time, my body was ready to accept spice.
I started out biting just the tip of a pepper, but as my tolerance increased, I was able to eat an entire one. Last night, after two years of training, I was able to ingest two whole peppers.
Now that I am able to eat whole peppers, I feel, in a way, more initiated into adulthood. I also feel like I have something else in common with my parents, who always seemed to live such disparate existences. But now, at least we can have dinner and have set beside our plates a pepper each. I am, indeed, their offspring, and carry a set of DNA that sympathizes with spice.
What intrigues me is why I suddenly find the hot slap of spice so inviting. I imagine it's because life gets increasingly spicy as one gets older. The spice mirrors that, and feels good in its familiarity. Or perhaps life has become too consistent, with the daily rituals of work and responsibilities, that a dose of spiciness jolts one awake to the present moment. I imagine that both of these may be true, simply because of how spiciness works.
Spice is not a flavor, but a sensation. The active ingredient in any hot pepper is called capsaicin. We have receptors on our tongue, skin, and lips called VR1 receptors which were actually created to detect heat. Capsaicin, coincidentally, binds to those receptors, which explains why spiciness feels "hot." When spicy foods become unbearable, we reach for ice water because it feels like we are burning. And because spice boils down to a chemical binding a a receptor, the best way to get rid of spiciness is to drink dairy products, such as milk or yogurt, which can block the receptors. Water may temporarily relieve the hot sensation, but it won't do much to make it go away.
Spice, then, is essentially pain. That is perhaps why I like them so much. I began to eat peppers during a very rough time of my life. And having understood difficult times, failure, stress, and setbacks as an adult, I like foods that gesture towards those experiences and how I've grown from them. Compared to several years ago, my pain tolerance is much higher now.
I am grateful to have the pepper plants behind our house. After this last picking, we now have enough to last us for quite some time. My grandparents were farmers in Vietnam, and I imagine this is how they must have felt when they had a good season. With this plentiful harvest, I look forward to this upcoming year, and a lifetime, of good, healthy spice.
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.