Then / Now

December 2019.

It was a rare Christmas dinner at my house when all of my siblings were under the same roof. All three sisters were married with children, living in different states. Seeing them together made my parents happy, just like old times but with sons-in-law and little grandchildren. With my siblings being within two years of each other, they chatted nonstop at the far end of the table. I was relegated to a seat next to my parents, close to the kitchen to help my mom serve dishes. I was no longer in school. I was working a job. Wasn’t that enough life experience for me to finally chime in with them despite being eight years younger? Somehow the conversation always seemed beyond my reach. I wasn’t married yet. I didn’t have kids yet. I wasn’t old enough yet. I would always be a step behind.

Desperate to interact with my siblings, I sometimes sat at the table pretending to eat even though my mom was in the kitchen prepping the next course and could use my help—until inevitably she called my name and I had to go help her. When I was younger and knew I was too young to join in with my siblings’ conversation, I used to proactively hop down to the kitchen to help my mom. That was where I knew what my mom needed—cut up the cilantro and green onions, separate the pho noodles into bowls, put meat in everyone’s except for my oldest sister’s, top it with cut cilantro and green onions, and bring the bowls one by one to my mom so she could ladle broth. Now, in the kitchen, I couldn’t help feeling bitter and excluded. When would my siblings ever see me as being one of them? Why didn’t any of them help my mom besides me? Why didn’t they try to include me too?

By the time I finished with the next course and came back to my seat, my siblings had moved on to yet another topic, and I found myself silently eating my food, the smallest and quietest sibling of them all. I used to wish I’d been born two years after my youngest sister. Then we’d perfectly span 10 years, and the gap wouldn’t be so big. They sometimes remembered me every now and then, but it was not enough to stave off the loneliness. Sometimes I felt more like an only child surrounded by big cousins.

February 2020.

I was visiting home for Lunar New Year. M had to work so it was only me. His extended family always held dinner at his paternal grandmother’s house, and this year was no different. Except it was. M and I were married, but only I was there.

I wasn’t completely alone. I had come along with his sister, R, and his parents. I followed R, hoping if I traced her path I’d say hello to everyone I needed to and end up where I was supposed to be. But R was her own person with her own relationships with her family. So was M, to be honest. Even with M at these family gatherings, I normally felt like a shadow at the edges.

The folding tables were organized into one long banquet setup. I sat at the middle, at the edges of the younger generation and the older generation. I was too far to talk to the cousins, and even if I had sat at the heart of the group, what would I say? I hadn’t grown up with them. I ended up talking to the girlfriend of one of M’s younger uncles. We tried to have a conversation, but the truth was, she was too Vietnamese and I was too American. My stilted Vietnamese clearly revealed an American upbringing. As soon as another young aunt whirled in, effortlessly switching between English and Vietnamese, the uncle’s girlfriend immediately latched onto her and twittered away. I was in the wrong spot. I wasn’t cool enough to hang with the young kids, and I wasn’t cool enough to hang with the older crowd.

And I wasn’t sure if his family had completely forgiven me for breaking up with him at one point in our relationship. We were married. The breakup had happened four years prior. Surely I had proved that I was here for the long run? I wrung my hands at an invisible entity, everyone and no one in M’s family at once. Would I ever feel at home? Was it my fault or was it theirs? Did I make the wrong choice? But I never felt like it was the wrong choice when I was in M’s company.

I was relieved when the night ended and I found myself in the comfort of my own bed in my parent’s house. I wanted to visit home for Lunar New Year every year, but not if it meant I’d also have to endure uncomfortable gatherings without M.

A month later, Covid took care of that angst by canceling travel for an unforeseen number of months. I didn’t have to pretend with people I didn’t feel comfortable with, but I also wouldn’t see my parents for a long time. Suddenly not having a choice made it seem obvious that I’d have to visit home at the next opportunity. It’d be worth it to see my parents, but would anything change?

June 2021.

My middle sister, T, and I both flew home for a week in June. We stayed at our brother’s house because there was more room there. I would do work during the day and do personal projects at night in the dining room. T would be right next to me with her laptop. Our parents would come whirling in for dinner, several dishes in tow, and we’d all have a meal as a family. At night after our parents left, my brother would sometimes drop by the dining room and do one of his late night chats, and the three of us would talk about this and that. At night, T and I would share the same bed and continue chatting until the two of us were too tired to form a coherent sentence. My dear mom had prepared two different bedrooms for us, but it was a rare moment when sisters could have a sleepover, just like when we were younger.

On Father’s Day we celebrated with an elaborate brunch. My oldest sister arrived and gave us heartfelt hugs. Normally more reserved, she was the most excited I’d seen her in years. We were all happy to spend time together in the brief respite during the pandemic. Chatter continually flowed around the table. When my mom needed help serving the next dish, my brother, T, or I would take turns bringing down plates or clearing the previous ones away. After dessert, my oldest sister lingered for a bit instead of dashing off immediately to run weekend errands.

I didn’t want the trip to end, but inevitably T and I had to fly back to our respective places. How many more chances would we get to spend time together like this, as sisters and as friends? It had taken me a long time to finally find this balance. I was married—no kids yet, but at least I was married. When I ran my Kickstarter campaign for a Vietnamese-themed deck of cards, T had cheered me on and served as my primary sounding board for everything from naming the deck, pricing the deck, creating the promo video, and more. When she participated in a mask competition, I helped proof her written application, created diagrams, and watched other pitches to give her tips for hers. All of this brought me one step closer to where my siblings were in life. It helped me realize that adults are human too, and they don’t always know the right answer. Somehow, somewhere, I had finally grown up enough to join my siblings.

It was easier, though, to feel more connected to siblings. We had shared parents, a shared childhood, and shared experiences. We’ll laugh about the time one of my sisters got so mad she threw a slice of pizza down the hall. Or another time a different sister stayed out so late, she got locked out of the house and slept in the car overnight. Or agreeing that the best Haagen Dasz flavors are coffee and rum raisin. I’m glad I finally feel like one of my siblings. Would I ever feel this level of comfort and familiarity with M’s family?

November 2021.

M and I flew home the weekend before Thanksgiving. He had to go back before Thanksgiving. I stayed, which meant I’d go to M’s extended family gathering for Thanksgiving dinner to be a good sport. Like last time, I came with R and her parents. I followed her again, saying hello to M’s paternal grandmother, aunts, and uncles.

“You representing M?” said an uncle.

I nodded.

A cousin I hadn’t seen in a long time came over to say hi, and we launched into an extended conversation, cut short when we took seats for dinner. Instead of being a shadow, I was my own person, circulating from group to group, finding things to say to different people.

“How’s living in Dallas?”

“How do you make your reels on social media?”

“You’re gonna play Lost Ark when it comes out? Which subclass?”

“About the business logo. What changes did you want to make to it?”

“Have you drawn anything lately?”

I mentally checked off who I had spoken with and who I had yet to speak to. I was proud of myself for taking the first step and saying something to either initiate or bring myself into the conversation. What was different this year? Did Covid make us all appreciate the people in our lives more than before? Had I honed my small talk skill through making online friends and starting a new job remotely? Had I done enough online interaction throughout the year to make me seem like a fellow cousin? Maybe it was nice M wasn’t here or else I would be overshadowed by his golden charm. Hey, I understood his magnetic pull—he had reeled me in after all. But I wanted to build my own relationships with his cousins too.

“Hey,” a cousin said, “we’re going bowling tomorrow. You coming?”

“I wish, but I’m flying out next morning,” I said.

“R! You didn’t tell me she was leaving. Tomorrow. Morning.”

R, mid-bite, shrugs. The bowling date had changed multiple times. “It’s hard to find a time when all the cousins are free.”

I was a little sad I wouldn’t be there to join in the fun, but I understood how difficult it was to bring people together. It was hard enough getting all of my siblings together again, much less many more cousins. If anything, the exchange warmed me knowing they wanted to include me.

The cousins drifted to talk of getting boba, which then ramped up to bringing the hangout to R’s house for games. The boys went to get boba while the girls headed directly to the house, where R heated up cookies instead. While we waited for the cookies, we talked about this and that.

“Did y’all see Eternals? Who was the lady at the end? She looked familiar.”

“Oh, her? I don’t know if she’s been in another movie before, but she’s the actress from VEEP.”

“Julia Louis-Dreyfus! I love VEEP!”

“Yeah, her! That’s probably where I’ve seen her.”

“Is VEEP good?”

“It’s one of my favorite shows. I think you’d like it too.”

The doorbell rang. R jumped up to get it as well as to save the cookies from the oven.

From the door, I heard one of the cousins say, “Did LT leave already? I didn’t see her car.”

When he walked in, I waved. “I’m still here. I parked my car on the opposite side of the street.”

“Ohhh, that’s why.”

Then, the boy cousins saw the towering display of a Batman board game, and they all oohed and ahhed over the giant, gleaming boxes. R had brought it home with her. No one had claimed the package at her apartment complex. It couldn’t be sold, so she took it home. The board game was brand new, still in its factory packaged cellophane, but it was probably too complex to learn in a short time.

“So what game are we gonna play?”

“Oh, I can’t play with y’all,” I said. “I have to leave in 15 minutes.”

“That’s okay. We don’t have to play. We can just catch up.”

“Hey R, can we just unbox the Batman game?”

Immediately all the boys jumped at seeing the Nightwing figurine in all of its glory. R happily got down in the middle of the carpet and started tugging the cellophane off each box. Sometimes the cousins were focused on the unboxing. Other times they chatted amongst each other, showing off a funny TikTok video.

By the time I finished eating my cookie, 15 minutes had passed, and R still had several boxes to unbox. I reluctantly stood up.

“Think it’s time for me to head out. Gotta finish packing.”

R looked put out and picked up another box. “You can’t go yet! We’re not done unboxing. Oh, the next one has a dinosaur. You gotta see the dinosaur.”

“See?” said a cousin. “She doesn’t want you to leave.”

I didn’t want to go either. I wanted to stay longer too, but it wasn’t a matter of me losing sleep. My parents were waiting up for me at home.

I sighed. “Just one more box.”

R excitedly ripped off the cellophane and opened the box to reveal a giant figurine of a dinosaur from the Batman universe. I snapped a picture of all the cousins crowded on the floor. I’d send that to M. They all couldn’t wait for M to read the rulebooks to teach them how to play the next time he came to Houston.

“Bye, everyone!”

I made my way to the door.

“Bye, LT!” said R’s voice, bright but already distant in the next room as she unwrapped the next box.

That night in bed I had a hard time falling asleep. The evening had been such a bright memory, I couldn’t help but keep recalling it, turning over the golden bauble in my mind, enjoying each conversation I had. I excitedly recounted it to M over the phone. He was happy for me, though it was obviously bittersweet that he could not be there in person.

How different it was from February 2020. I was proud of myself for stepping out of the shadows. Maybe I didn’t have a place at first, but slowly I could continue to weave a place where I felt comfortable and at home. Somewhere warm and bright.

Then / Now

Turning 30

It was sixth grade, and my Language Arts class had just finished our debate unit. To celebrate, we would have a breakfast potluck the next morning to enjoy while we watched a movie. I excitedly went home and told my mom about it. What could I bring for my classmates? Anything American was sure to be brought by someone else. What could I bring that would be different? I don’t recall how exactly my mom and I mutually arrived at the decision. Maybe I had recently eaten it, or maybe my mom was thinking of making some soon. But we arrived at: banana rice pudding. It was a Vietnamese chè that doubled as both dessert and breakfast, depending on when it was eaten. A beautiful oatmeal color, banana rice pudding seemed both innocuous and inviting. Americans ate bananas. They ate rice. They ate pudding. It seemed like the perfect dish to share a little bit of my culture while contributing to the class, plus it was easy for my mom to whip up in a few hours.

The next morning, I proudly brought in my tupperware of banana rice pudding and set it up alongside all of the other dishes. I placed the ladle and the disposable cups next to it. I couldn’t wait to see what my classmates thought. To be honest, I prepared myself for not many people trying it, but at least a handful would, right?

We started to line up to serve ourselves a little breakfast buffet.

One of my classmates R leaned over the tupperware. I held my breath. R then said to another classmate J, “Hey, this is the gravy to go with the biscuit, right?”

There was a moment of silence. In an instant, my mom’s beautiful banana rice pudding soured into a gloopy gray mess equivalent to gravy.

“I didn’t bring gravy,” said J.

That was my dish. No one was going to come to its defense except for myself. I swallowed and said, “It’s banana rice pudding. It’s a—it’s a Vietnamese breakfast. With banana. And rice.”

“Oh,” said R. Another moment of prolonged silence. “My bad.”

He then passed on to the next dish, and everyone continued like normal, skirting around the tupperware like it was stinky tofu. Not even my close friends offered to try it. The only person kind enough to further inquire, W, politely said,

“So what is this again? You said it’s a Vietnamese dish?”

“Yeah,” I said, latching onto the opportunity. “It’s banana rice pudding. It’s sweet. Do you want to try any?”

“Oh, no thank you,” he said immediately. “It’s cool you brought it though.”

It was the nicest letdown, and yet it still hurt a lot. I didn’t have the words or the maturity or the hindsight to describe why I felt so embarrassed and upset. But I do now as a 30-year-old. I hadn’t brought chicken feet or blood sausage or duck balut or durian (all of which is very tasty). It was freaking banana rice pudding. Thai restaurants these days offer mango rice pudding for dessert. Banana rice pudding is only a step away from that. You have to remember, though, that sixth grade was an era when sushi and boba hadn’t yet entered mainstream. Ramen was only known as pre-packaged instant noodles, not gourmet food for date night or takeout.

Recounting this episode was supposed to be lighthearted and funny, but instead it makes me bitter and sad, a reminder that what I went through was a fraction of what my siblings, a decade older than me, must have gone through when they grew up in the United States. To be fair, I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. One could ask, what was I thinking, trying to introduce Vietnamese culture? But I was Vietnamese American. I didn’t eat pop tarts on the regular, and I certainly wasn’t bringing cereal to class. It wasn’t fair that I had to suppress a part of who I was to avoid being embarrassed.

These feelings of shame, embarrassment, awkwardness, injustice, heartbreak—these were the worst emotions someone could feel on an ordinary day. Every time it happened to me, it strengthened my resolve to prevent it from happening at all, and if others didn’t do it, then it was my responsibility to make sure the other person I was speaking to never felt that way with me.

At the end of class, I silently packed up my tupperware, untouched except for me. When my mom picked me up that afternoon, she could tell I was upset.

“No one wanted to try it,” I told her.

“That’s okay,” she said. “More for us to enjoy at home.”

Her nonchalant attitude surprised me. I had felt so strongly about it, but to her, it was nothing new. She had already experienced plenty of racism, subtle and not so subtle, since arriving in the United States in 1975. My family did enjoy all the banana rice pudding, though I can’t help but think of sixth grade breakfast potluck every time I eat it again.

The food scene has changed a lot since then. Would people these days be more amenable to trying? Maybe if they’re a young and diverse group. Many years later at my first job, I overheard some coworkers talking about boba. My ears immediately perked up because I loved boba.

“…Boba is so gross. It’s like having these weird eyeballs at the bottom of your drink.”

“Yeah, I would never drink boba either.”

I put my head back down and continued working. Maybe in a more casual, low-stakes setting I would have risen to the defense of boba, but as it was, I was working at a conservative O&G company. I already went out of my way to microwave my lunch once the majority of coworkers had left the building to avoid the smell from grossing anyone out. More surprising was that the coworkers who had spoken were on the younger side and people of color, and still they didn’t want anything to do with boba, which by then in 2014 had become mainstream. It was like people who only ate cooked sushi or well done steak, I suppose. That was their comfort zone, and they never wanted to venture out, not even a little bit.

I remember when I first tried boba. It was early high school. My oldest sister bought drinks and gave one to my youngest sister and me to try. We were fine sharing one drink because we also thought boba was a little weird. Why have these giant tapioca gobs at the bottom of your drink? Little did I know that I would come to love this Taiwanese drink in college, with every student organization (Asian or not) selling boba on Friday lunches to raise money. I would be there every week, grabbing a boba drink and supporting the organization on hand.

So I’ve been there. I understand trying something new for the first time despite thinking it’s the weirdest thing in the world. But what’s weird to you may be normal in someone else’s. So is it truly weird? It’s maddening seeing the things we love so much being trampled before our eyes. The other person may not even be actively aware of what they’re doing. For them, it’s just a knee-jerk reaction. I saw it play over and over again in so many different situations.

So-called nerds liking anime.

A little cousin being teased for liking Kpop.

An offhand comment about a choker necklace I thought was cute.

It’s even more maddening when we’ve been forced to hide the things we love, only to see them being bandied about like currency of cool.

“Did you see the Demon Slayer movie?”

“Oh my gosh, I love BTS!”

“I can’t live without boba!”

There’s no point in outright dismissing what someone likes. There might be a day when what they like is what a lot of people like, or maybe a lot of people already like it and you just don’t know being in your own social bubble.

So how does this all relate to turning 30, the title of this piece? I’m getting there. Quite a few people have asked me, “How does it feel turning 30?” To be honest, turning 30 did not feel any different from being 29 and a half or 29 and 364 days. But turning 30 is clearly different from turning 24, or turning 18, or turning 8. It took me a while to mull on the question and arrive at an answer: I finally understand how to talk to people. Is that a weird answer? I don’t know. I just know that that is the biggest difference I see in my 30-year-old self versus me at any other point in my life. And I think a big part of that can be traced back to my desire to make everyone I speak with feel comfortable and accepted for who they are.

Maybe I should start from the very beginning and explain what I was like as a young kid. I was shy, extremely shy, with strangers. When someone other than my dad was taking photos, I would instinctively grab for my mom’s hand. Once for an extended family photo, I was quite scared of all these aunts and uncles being friendly to me, when in my eyes they were complete strangers. After all, they didn’t live at home with me every day. Anyway, I grabbed for my mom’s hand—only to discover once the film had been developed, that I had instead grabbed my grandma’s hand. I felt betrayed even though my mom pointed out how she was standing right behind me and everyone was family.

When I got older, my shyness was eventually relabeled as introvertedness. That confused me because among friends and family, I had lots to say. It was only among people I didn’t know as well that I found it hard to find things to talk about or even the courage to say something. Was selective introvertedness a thing or would I never grow out of being shy?

In high school and college, I went through phases of trying out different personalities. Surely one of these could help me overcome the hurdle of being shy. At first I was a punk tomboy, who hung out with the boys. Then I did a 180 and leaned into my girly side, wearing dresses and making friends with all girls. I then tried to be the nicest person in the room, like this person I met who was known as “Nice Nancy” because she was so genuinely nice. Unfortunately, I have an occasional sassy streak that enjoys dishing out well-timed burns, so when the nice act didn’t come through, I tried to be extra sassy, fun, and loud. That backfired when I overstepped some lines and became so annoying and bossy that I lost friends. Weary of trying on different personalities, I withdrew into a shell and found myself falling silent. I didn’t say anything, not because I was shy or introverted, but because I didn’t have anything worth saying in the first place.

Staying silent was not a practical solution. There was no escaping small talk in the office, at parties, or with strangers. I had to find more things to talk about besides work. Not a lot of people read books. I at least watched movies, but TV shows were where conversation starters lived. Once I moved in with my husband, M, and had regular access to Netflix, I started watching TV shows, partly to entertain myself while he worked long hours and partly to have more things to talk about with people. Webtoons getting big? I started reading those. Kpop getting popular? M and I started listening to Spotify’s Daebak playlist. For the first time I realized what an asset it was knowing a little bit of everything to be able to talk to everyone.

Working in retail at Whole Foods Market had helped me understand that talking to customers means revolving the conversation around them. It became even more apparent when I ran the Kickstarter campaign and interacted with numerous strangers online. Often I had nothing to go by besides a username and a tiny profile picture. In others’ Instagram post descriptions, I jumped at any detail I could thoughtfully comment about in order to build a tenuous online friendship.

All of this finally came together when I started working at wikiHow, the first time starting a new job remotely. Every other week we were paired up with someone in the company for “coffee chats” to talk about mostly non-work-related conversation. Before the coffee chat, I would stalk them on LinkedIn and build up a mental list of questions to ask. Once I was in the coffee chat, I’d try to let the conversation flow naturally from there. I bonded with someone over board games and video games. With another person, I asked them about Seattle since I was planning to visit there soon. I had worried that these coffee chats would be awkward, but thankfully they were not (for the most part). My endless questions carried over to brown bag lunches in which a team would talk about what they did. Not wanting the presenters left with blank stares, I wrote down questions to ask at the end and show them that at least one person was listening intently to what they had to say. I was much relieved when others in the brown bag lunches started asking questions too. In fact, I was a little proud of myself when some of them said I had inspired them to ask questions instead of being passive listeners. If you had told me that would happen five years ago, I would not have believed you. Me, setting an example to ask questions after a presentation? No way.

I am not naturally chatty, extroverted, or energetic. I am still quiet, introverted, and calm. But I’ve figured out how to make conversation when before I thought none could be had. In fact, sometimes people have to find ways to extricate themselves from my continuously rolling conversation. I’m certainly not perfect at making small talk, but it’s so much better than before, and I owe it to every awkward encounter I’ve ever had in my life.

There’s one time in high school I was already trying to put my goal into practice. It’s a story some of you might know. I was in a band practice room with a piano, and at the piano sat M, playing the opening chords to my favorite song, “Clocks” by Coldplay.

Lights go out and I can’t be saved

Tides that I tried to swim against

Have brought me down upon my knees

Oh I beg, I beg and plead…

“Will you go to homecoming with me?”

In his hands were a bouquet of yellow roses, my favorite color. It must have taken M so much courage to learn how to play the piano, set up the room, and ask me out. I knew I had to verbally assure him that it was all worth it.

“Yes, I will.”

I took the bouquet from him, and we sat in that band room, me chatting about who knows what while he smiled, a nervous tic in his cheek, probably in disbelief that he asked a girl and she said yes. I remember being thankful that I found something to say to fill up the room with sound after the piano notes had faded away. Companionable silence can be wonderful, but it takes a certain level of familiarity before silence feels comfortable. Until then, I won’t underestimate the value of companionable chatter, something to put the other person at ease and give them something to think about.

Thinking back to the sixth grade breakfast potluck, I wonder how that scenario could have played out differently.

“Hey, this is the gravy to go with the biscuit, right?”

“Oh, haha! You thought this was gravy? Too bad it’s not. It’s actually a Vietnamese breakfast-slash-dessert called banana rice pudding. It’s sweet with a texture kind of like oatmeal, but better, in my opinion. You should totally try a little bit for dessert!”

Or, if I had been a bystander:

“Hey, this is the gravy to go with the biscuit, right?”

“It’s banana rice pudding. It’s a—it’s a Vietnamese breakfast. With banana. And rice.”

“Oh. My bad.”

“That sounds different. Can I try a little bit?”

“Sure! Let me get you some.”

I think about it from time to time. If only I had laughed it off, been more confident, or given my classmates a way out to defer trying it. If only someone else in that room had stepped up. Even if they took the cup and then trashed it without trying, I wouldn’t have had to know that except that someone jumped in and made it less awkward—and validated my contribution.

So that’s what turning 30 means to me. It means being mature enough and aware enough of other people and ensuring they never feel badly about something personal to them. As long as what you’re doing isn’t hurting anyone else, no one should be hurting you for it. Be proud of who you are. Be proud of what you do. And most importantly, be kind to others.

Turning 30

Imagine Dragons

On May 15 [2017], exactly six months before my birthday, I discovered that Imagine Dragons was coming to Houston. They were coming in November on a Sunday, three days before my birthday. I loved their newest album, Evolve, from the concept to the music to the art. From the start, “Believer” took over the radio by storm while “Thunder” followed up like an ember, slow to burn at first, but eventually you could at one point hear either one of those songs back-to-back on three different stations. Every time I heard my personal favorite, “Whatever It Takes,” on the Whole Foods Market radio at work, my inner self would jam out as I went about my job. I hadn’t been this excited for a band in a long time. There was no question about it. I had to go. I recruited two of my closest friends to join in on the plan. Happy birthday to me.

Once I secured tickets, I finally remembered that I had something happening the same weekend: my cousin in California was getting married. I don’t get to see my cousins often, so at some point I’d promised myself that I’d go to every wedding, our infrequent excuse for family reunions. Theoretically, I could go to the wedding and come back in time for the concert if I took the earliest flight out of Orange County. But I couldn’t guarantee a ride that early from anyone after a night of merriment and drinking. There was Uber, but I was both paranoid to ride solo and also didn’t trust myself to wake up in time. I conferred with everyone important in my life. Should I go to the wedding and forfeit my chance to see Imagine Dragons or should I make an exception this one time and do something for myself? Some people voted Imagine Dragons. Weddings were for only a day. One day was not going to make up for years of lost time. Others voted for the wedding. Weddings happened only once, and this cousin was the only son of an aunt, who I had stayed at her house several times. It was only right that I show up and celebrate this once-in-a-lifetime event. Some days I imagined myself saying, “F*** it, I’m seeing Imagine Dragons.” But I knew that in reality I would spend countless nights feeling guilty for reneging on my promise to spend more time with family, even if I had made that promise to only myself.

For months the decision to go or not to go hovered in limbo. Days before RSVPs were due, my parents and brother made the decision to go. My dad gave me the job of finding tickets, so I hopped online. When I saw that the only available return ticket was the first flight out on Sunday, I sent in my RSVP too. It was meant to be. I was going to go to the wedding and to see Imagine Dragons. Happy birthday to me.

The first time I heard Imagine Dragons was when I downloaded a free Itunes Single-of-the-Week, “Amsterdam.” This song didn’t leave much of an impression on me then, but soon after, “It’s Time” hit the radio. I listened to the rest of the album and quickly added “Demons” and “Radioactive” to my favorites, both of which later skyrocketed to Top 40s. Later on, “Bleeding Out” and “Round and Round” joined the list of faves. Their music is dark, uplifting, and epic all at once. Just the name, “Imagine Dragons,” can take you to visions of faraway places or a post-apocalyptic era.

In college I was part of an all-female acappella group called Low Keys. When one of the girls who supplied most of our music transferred to a different school, we scrambled to find material for all-female acappella that was high quality and either free or cheap. Needless to say, it was not easy to come by. A fellow member and I started to fill in the gap by arranging our own music. Though I wasn’t all that strong as a performer or in music theory, I found arranging music oddly satisfying, like putting puzzle pieces together until they fit and you go Aha! That sounds right. As an arranger, I had a personal mission: to arrange songs that pushed our musical repertoire, whether that meant finding a gem outside of Top 40s pop or doing music atypical of an “all-female” group. There’s nothing wrong with singing more feminine songs or songs by female artists. I have plenty of favorites among those, but if we only sing one type of music, certain people in the group are more likely to get the solo and harmony parts again and again because they fit the voice. It leaves others out who might have huskier or lower voices. Or thinking of myself, I prefer singing arias rather than pop songs, so it stood to reason that some girls might prefer something jazzier or metal even.

I eventually turned an ear to “It’s Time.” It’d been out long enough that radios no longer played it much. At the time, I think “Radioactive” might have reigned supreme, but I found “Radioactive” as well as “Demons” both challenging to arrange for acappella. We didn’t have a beatboxer, which limited the full impact if we were to pick either of those songs. Technically all three of those songs had been or were a Top 40, but with Imagine Dragons primarily classified as alt rock, their music wasn’t what I would consider as typical for female acapella. The more I listened to “It’s Time,” the more perfectly suited it seemed to acappella. I could hear snaps, claps, and slaps to form the background riff. The rhythm in Imagine Dragons songs is usually straightforward, nothing too syncopated or strange to cause me real trouble in figuring it out. So I soon had a piece to show my group. With others’ input we fine-tuned the snaps, claps, and slaps until the choreography flowed effortlessly. The more coordinated members were placed upfront while the rest (i.e. me) stood in the back row. Not every arrangement I make will work, but this one was high-energy and quick to learn, a crucial factor since we had mere weeks to go before the end-of-semester concert. We held auditions, and though I didn’t think my voice was a good fit for the song, I went ahead anyway. After listening to “It’s Time” on repeat for what feels like a hundred times (gotta catch all those notes in the background), I had all the words memorized. That and also I was afraid that no one would try out. What if I was the only one who wanted our group to sing this song? What if I was wrong in trying to expand our musical repertoire? What if all those hours I’d spent arranging turned into nothing, like other songs I’d tried and failed to unlock their secrets?

Thankfully, one other girl tried out, and I was more than happy she got the solo. She hadn’t gotten a solo before, and her lower voice had the right amount of huskiness to complement the song. The first time we sing with a soloist is one of the most magical moments of acappella. The sheet music is the skeleton, our voices the flesh, and the soloist the skin that seamlessly pulls it together into the creature of the song. Suddenly the meaningless monotony of snaps, claps, slaps, hums, dums, das, bas and every other nonsensical syllable transforms into something unified, cohesive, a narrative. There it was, our version of Imagine Dragons’s “It’s Time.”

It’s time to begin, isn’t it?
I get a little bit bigger but then I’ll admit
I’m just the same as I was
Now don’t you understand
I’m never changing who I am

* Note: Unfortunately the Low Keys’ YouTube channel doesn’t have a recording of “It’s Time,” but you can check out other songs we’ve done in the past. A few songs I arranged that you can hear are “Shark in the Water” by VV Brown and “Let It Go” from Frozen.

On May 15 [2017], I started writing a piece called “Dreams of Violet.” For weeks I had walked along the brick wall of my complex and mulled over the idea of a magical portal, of an entire kingdom on the other side, but accessible only if you wear a mask, one of those sequined ones you wear to masquerade balls. That Monday morning, all the pieces—the characters, the world, and the plot—fell into place and I launched on a journey of a character who goes to an underground concert and meets someone from that magical kingdom. And on this journey I played “Whatever It Takes” at least a hundred times.

Falling too fast to prepare for this
Tripping in the world could be dangerous
Everybody circling, it’s vulturous
Negative, nepotist

Everybody waiting for the fall of man
Everybody praying for the end of times
Everybody hoping they could be the one
I was born to run, I was born for this

After writing several short stories, I thought this one would be relatively short too, but as I continued writing, the story kept going. I wrote one ending. I wrote a second ending, then scrapped it. I moved scenes around, gave it a new ending. I added another scene and added another one. Imaginary red boxes floated over sentences that didn’t feel right. I wrangled them, rewrote them, or removed them. I scrutinized every comma or semicolon. Eventually I was down to the word. Was this the one word I wanted in this context? Which word did I really mean? Google definitions became my top search.

And all the while, “Whatever It Takes” continued playing. Though I’d listened to it a hundred times, I only knew snatches of lyrics here or there. Most of it faded into the background—at least consciously. Subconsciously, my mind must have absorbed the melody and the words, letting the song inform my story and my story inform the song.

Whip, whip
Run me like a racehorse
Pull me like a ripcord
Break me down and build me up
I wanna be the slip, slip
Word upon your lip, lip
Letter that you rip, rip
Break me down and build me up

Whatever it takes
‘Cause I love the adrenaline in my veins
I do whatever it takes
‘Cause I love how it feels whenever I break the chains
Whatever it takes
You take me to the top I’m ready for
Whatever it takes
‘Cause I love the adrenaline in my veins
I do what it takes

“Whatever it takes” became my mantra, my anthem. The main character plunges into a magical world she knows nothing about, armed with only a sequined mask and the strength of a love seasoned for only a few months. Through every obstacle, I imagine her telling herself she’ll do “whatever it takes” to get her love back. And there’s me as I write her scenes, telling myself I’ll do “whatever it takes” to write this story, to be a writer, to see my dreams take shape. When I hit my stride, I feel like I’m flying high, the words rolling into one another until they come pouring onto the page like a flood. This was the most work I’d put into any story yet, and because of that, I felt like it was my best story.

The song wasn’t just for writing. Any task that I needed a boost of motivation for, I’d think of it to help me power through. With “Whatever it takes” humming inside me, I felt invincible, like I could do anything if I set my mind and will to it.

Hypocritical, egotistical
Don’t wanna be the parenthetical, hypothetical
Working onto something that I’m proud of, out of the box
An epoxy to the world and the vision we’ve lost
I’m an apostrophe
I’m just a symbol to remind you that there’s more to see
I’m just a product of the system, a catastrophe
And yet a masterpiece, and yet I’m half-diseased

The moment had come.

I was back from the wedding in California. I had on my Imagine Dragons concert outfit, an outfit I had carefully planned for the right vibes: a black floral bomber jacket over a white v-neck, tucked into high-waisted black shorts, and a silver ear cuff to top it off. I had my two best friends sitting on either side of me. Friends and music—I couldn’t ask for a better 26th birthday celebration.

K. Flay opened, then Grouplove. I knew a few songs from each of those artists, but you could feel the whole venue shift with anticipation once the lights went dark. Imagine Dragons was here. Or at least, they should have been here. Three vertical screens dropped from the ceiling to form a single screen. The history of the Earth—the evolution of mankind—played out in black and white as fog billowed upward from the stage. Long minutes passed. Just when I began to think I was sitting in a biology lecture, colors of the spectrum lit up the dark, a triangular beam shining down on each member of the band.

We could be strangers in the night
We could be passing in the shadows
We couldn’t be closer if we tried
When we’re caught in the headlights

Prior to college I could sit through a concert, but after being part of an acapella group for four years, a concert could only be enjoyed one way—singing and moving to the music with your friends. I was the first of my friends to stand up, and I stayed standing by the railing to bask in the ethereal glow of the show. Then I heard the opening rift to my favorite song, and it was everything I’d imagined it to be.

Whatever it takes
‘Cause I love the adrenaline in my veins
I do whatever it takes
‘Cause I love how it feels whenever I break the chains
Whatever it takes
You take me to the top I’m ready for
Whatever it takes
‘Cause I love the adrenaline in my veins
I do what it takes

Happy birthday to me.

Imagine Dragons Concert, November 2017

* Note from May 15, 2021:

Since first writing this piece, Imagine Dragons released their album Origins in 2018. I listened to it a fair amount too—maybe not as much as Evolve, but there were clear similarities in musicality that tie these two albums together. The one track from Origins that continues to stand out to me is “Birds.” Combined with the animated video, the song just breaks my heart, perfect for those melancholy moods. The other song that gets me is “Bad Liar,” the acoustic or “stripped” version. The softer touch takes this song to a whole other level that the album version, while good in its own way, falls short of its potential emotional punch.

So what happened to the short story “Dreams of Violet”? One reason that held up this post from being published is because the arc for the short story doesn’t end on a positive note—not the short story itself (that’s a different thing entirely) but the feedback I got when I shared it with five readers. I started sharing it with friends one by one to gauge their opinion. Everyone had a different reading and commented on different things. It was one of the few pieces I wrote that didn’t have an overall consensus on whether it was good or bad or what to fix. I was trying to submit it for a contest, so with the deadline looming near, I asked a fifth reader who usually gives a very honest opinion, and her opinion, I have to admit, crushed me. She didn’t finish reading it. She saw all the holes that I had hoped to gloss over. She might have been one reader, but I know there are harsher critics out there. It’s one thing to enjoy writing fiction, which I did (still do…? I haven’t written fiction in a long time), and another thing to excel at it. After “Dreams of Violet,” that’s when I took a break from writing fiction to reassess my dream of becoming a writer.

Without a doubt, I enjoy writing. It’s a bit like arranging music or doing graphic design. It feels incredibly satisfying when things click into place. I couldn’t figure out how to do it for fiction, but I knew how to do it for personal narrative essay, a genre I picked up during college. So why not lean into that more? I still get to write and tell stories and connect with people, and I think those things are what I enjoy most about writing.

I could have ended this piece without the endnote, and for those of you not interested in reading author’s notes, you certainly could skip this part. However, I think this is the only place I can be fair to myself for explaining why a piece of writing might not get seen for a long time. Sometimes it just doesn’t feel ready, the pieces not clicking into place yet. This one didn’t until I removed the part of getting readers to read it “Dreams of Violet”. It kept the short story arc positive in tone like the rest of the piece. But to leave it out entirely doesn’t show how hard it can be sometimes behind each creative work.

Imagine Dragons

Visiting Home

First night in Houston

“Are you all settled in?” my mom asks over the phone. “Will you sleep okay in the room?”

“I’ll be fine,” I say.

I’m visiting Houston after more than a year since the last visit shortly before the pandemic, and I’m staying at my brother’s place for the first time. I’ve showered and changed into pajamas as I sit nestled in a swiveling chair, laptop in front of me, the warm glow of the desk lamp bathing the strange bedroom in a familiar light. The shelves filled with a random assortment of books on war, politics, and children’s rhymes makes me immediately feel at home. In a family of five siblings, nothing ever matches, and almost always most of it is not mine. Though my brother is the only one who lives here, my parents have claimed every other room in the house for storage purposes.

“Remember to close the blinds and use the cane I gave you,” my mom says.

“Don’t worry, I will.” As I say that, I flip the blinds and glance over at the “cane,” a.k.a. the door security bar propped up under the handle. The neighborhood seems quiet, and honestly, nothing will happen. But my parents are used to living in a gated community, unlike my brother’s house. Earlier when my brother popped his head in, he said,

“What? They gave you a bar, but they didn’t give one to me? What am I supposed to do if there’s a house intruder—whack them with my sparring sword?”

I nodded, laughing too hard to say anything at first. “You can keep the bar after I leave.”

Knowing my brother though, he won’t care to use a door security bar every night.

“I’m not scared,” I tell my mom. “It feels very homey.”

My mom can’t help but fret. After a few more exchanges, she says goodnight.

Though I’m staying at a house that I didn’t grow up in, it feels like home. I remember this desk and lamp that used to be in my room back in high school. I have a different laptop, but as I boot up a video chat with my husband M, his grainy face smiling back at me reminds me of those nine years dating long distance.

“Hello, love!” he chirps.

“Hello, love,” I say to him. I thought that it would feel strange to video chat after being married for two years, but it feels normal to me.

“Of course,” he says. “This was how I wooed you. Now let’s play WoW!”

During the pandemic, we had taken to playing video games together as a way to explore places and do a fun activity together since many of the things we used to enjoy, like traveling and doing escape rooms, were no longer easy or possible. After exhausting several other games, M finally turned to high school nostalgia and revived WoW. I play as a draenei hunter named Ephystaracia (Ephy for short, and no, I didn’t come up with the name—I got it from the WoW generator for an “authentically” draenei name), and M plays a pandaren monk named Minoca (short for myocardial infarction with nonobstructive coronary arteries—yes, he’s definitely in the medical field). Though M couldn’t take off time to visit Houston with me, we still have a way to see each other and travel through fantasy worlds, doing quests and taking down bosses together. And though I’m in Houston, it feels like I haven’t left California either, as though I’m sitting right next to him, playing WoW at night.

I step into the white tiled living room of my parents’ house, and instead of feeling like I haven’t been there in over a year, it feels as though I’m returning from school or work, like how I used to for over a decade. Around me my parents bustle back and forth bringing in things from the car. I set my bags down at the front of the house, where the afternoon sun lights the sheer curtains with gold. It’s not the right time of day, nor even the right time of year, but the sunlit curtains transport me to a hot summer evening, when the sun is about to dip below the horizon and I’m in a swimsuit ready for the pool. I try to shake off the disorienting feeling and help my parents bring in the rest of their things.

A little later I head upstairs. They’ve rearranged the framed art on the walls to accommodate more art that used to be at their Vietnamese school (now closed due to the pandemic). My art mingles with my sister’s. The eclectic salon-style arrangement feels right at home with the hodgepodge nature of my family, or perhaps the refugee mindset of hoarding everything remotely useful or valuable. To be fair, my parents are doing their best to Marie Kondo forty years’ worth of possessions from seven people.

In my bedroom, the sun shines more softly through a canopy of greenery before filtering through the curtains. I feel at peace, ready for a nap. It reminds me of after college when I moved back home. At first it had felt like a disappointment. Everyone else around me was jetting off to a shiny new job. All I could find at the time was an unpaid internship. Straddled with student debt, I couldn’t think about moving out. Little did I know that living at home with my parents would help me recover from a rough senior year. I took walks every day beneath these trees, finding solace with familiarity.

For the first time since being married, I wish I could stay at home with my parents again, to have that comfortable rhythm of coming home and seeing them every day. When I’m with M, I don’t want to leave him. When I’m with my parents, I don’t want to leave them. But I miss them both so much when I’m away from the other.

In the afternoon, my dad has to work. I planned to stay for only lunch, but I feel tired afterwards and go to take a nap on the couch downstairs. It’s the same couch that M slept on once when Houston flooded and he couldn’t drive home despite his house being a mere seven minutes away. It’s the same couch my parents squeezed in together to stay warm during the great winter freeze two months prior. And now it’s the couch I’m resting on. Opposite the couch is a shelf above the fireplace that my parents never use, but the shelf is a different story. It’s tightly packed with every trophy that my parents could keep from my siblings and me. The older ones are on the left, a little duller in shine, while the newer ones grow taller and more loudly colored, garish almost, with their shiny blues and purples. The newer ones I recognize as those from my singing days.

Yet among all these tall trophies is a plush Garfield, only six inches high at the most, and dating back to when I was much younger, seven or eight years old. We went on a family trip to Las Vegas. All the games are probably rigged there, and yet my dad managed to win this plush Garfield. As a kid, I was disappointed my dad hadn’t been able to win one of the big plushies. The little Garfield seemed so insignificant by comparison. My family does own nearly all of the Garfield comics, so I grew up reading about the fat cat who loves lasagna and hates Mondays. Looking at the plush Garfield now, I smile because it was from the good times when my parents could afford to travel. We’ve moved a bit since then, too, and somehow Garfield is still here, a small reminder of my dad when he isn’t around.

Thinking these thoughts, I fall asleep. When I wake up, I continue staying on the couch, and a few hours stretch into more hours, and before I know it, it is almost time for dinner. I keep saying I have to go back to my brother’s place, but my mom somehow finds ways to keep me here.

Have some pineapple.

Have some crispy coconut roll snack.

Have some more bún bò Huế from lunch since you like it so much.

I have to save room for dinner with a friend.

“Why don’t you go straight from here to meet her?” my mom says.

I’m about to agree when I realize why I can’t. “I left her gift at my brother’s house. I have to pick it up first.”

Her gift is a mochi box that my mom and I had picked out together at Costco. Neither of us say it, but I know both my mom and I wish I had had the foresight to bring the gift along with me.

“That’s ok. I need to pack a little more,” I say.

My mom helps me gather my things to bring to the car. While she can be emotional, I don’t consider her to be emotional on an everyday basis. At the back of the house though, she flutters to and fro, a sound of regret escaping her. In that sound I hear our combined wish that I could stay longer.

I reach out for a hug. “I’ll visit again tomorrow.”

She gives me a quick pat. We don’t have a history of long hugs, which I wish was not so, but that’s just how things have been growing up. Maybe we’re both afraid, too, that a long hug will make it harder to say good-bye.

“We’ll visit you tonight, make sure you get home safe,” she says.

Normally I would protest at their overprotectiveness, but this time I don’t. I want to spend as much time as I can with them, and if that’s their excuse to come by, I’ll take it.

I’m cheery enough as I get into the car. As soon as I’ve driven far enough not to see my mom waving anymore, I burst into tears. I had held them in, not wanting to make my mom sadder, though I hadn’t realized how much I was keeping inside. My flight from Houston to San Jose had seemed so far away before. Now, it’s suddenly tomorrow. Why must time fly so fast? With every passing year, time moves faster and faster. It’s starting to feel like water slipping through my fingers. One day I’ll blink and my parents will no longer be there.

I’m grateful to be busy packing when I’m at my brother’s house. It keeps my mind off the inevitable.

The next morning I’m back at my parents’, this time with my brother, for brunch before I head out.

“It’s a special occasion,” says my mom. “Your brother never comes at this hour. He only does this for you.”

I laugh and tease him. Though he doesn’t say anything to confirm it, I know he’s got a soft spot for his littlest sister. The other night we had talked for a good while, at least an hour or two, about music and video games. This kind of late night conversation only happens when we stay under the same roof, which rarely happens these days.

Brunch is a brisk affair with giả cầy, a pork stew made with galangal, and more bún bò Huế, beef noodle soup, since we’re on a schedule. Too soon it’s time to wrap up. My brother says goodbye and heads out first. I guess my mom has already said her heartfelt goodbye yesterday, so she doesn’t seem as down today. Then, my dad is driving me to the airport.

On the drive we don’t say much. Perhaps we’ve already said all the things we wanted to say. I don’t plan to, but I close my eyes in sleepiness and suddenly reopen them some time later.

“We’re almost there,” my dad says. I recognize the rundown neighborhood near Hobby airport.

Shortly after, he pulls up to the curb and helps me pull the suitcases from the trunk. As I put on my face shield and get ready to go in, I expect him to get back in the car and drive to work as he’s done when he used to drop me off at the bus station when I visited M in Dallas. Those dropoffs at the bus station had felt routine, perhaps even a chore for my dad since they happened about once a month. This dropoff felt different somehow. Not one to be emotional every day either, my dad continues to stand by the car watching me as I roll my suitcases away. Lately he gets tired more easily, but this morning he’s got a hopeful, happier air about him. He stays there, watching, until I’m inside behind sliding doors.

It’s the last memory I have of visiting Houston from this trip. I try not to cry as I input my flight info at the kiosk for checked bags. The flight back is honestly a blur, but that moment of seeing my dad by the car keeps coming back to me, long after I’ve safely arrived in California. And that moment of my mom making the wishful sound before I left. And the fleeting memories of going swimming or taking walks at my parents’ complex. And going shopping with my mom. And seeing the plush Garfield that my dad won. And all the nightly visits my parents made though they didn’t have to come.

Every time my parents call, I try to keep a happy tone. To be honest though, the calls now make me sad as I recall all those memories. I want to go home again, but I don’t know when yet. I used to dream about living it up in a different city, New York City or Los Angeles. Now I think about how convenient it would be if I lived in Houston again, a half-hour drive from home instead of a four-hour flight. All I know is that I can’t let a whole year pass before I see them again. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Lunar New Year can’t come soon enough.

Visiting Home

Pikachu and Me

One Christmas, my family went to California to visit my dad’s side. I was in either Kindergarten or first grade, and adults scared me. The older they were, the scarier they were. Of all the people who gave me a gift that year, it was my oldest uncle. He barely knew me. The most I’d ever said to him was probably “Yes, Uncle” or “No, Uncle” in Vietnamese. When it was my turn to take my gift, my eyes were glued to the ginormous box under the Christmas tree. What could possibly be inside that he thought I’d like?

I opened my gift along with my cousins. It was a Pikachu in its stoutest and roundest iteration. The one-and-a-half foot tall plush (a half foot was just the pointy ears) didn’t make much of an impact on me. Sure, I knew of Pikachu. All the kids were raving about Pokemon and asking me to draw this or that.

For example:

One kid requested, “Draw me an Aerodactyl!”

“What’s an Aerodactyl?” I said.

“It’s like a pterodactyl.”

I wondered why he didn’t say that to begin with, but I was obsessed with dinosaurs and I knew what a pterodactyl was, so I happily acquiesced and drew one.

“Thanks!” the kid said before running off with the fresh drawing.

But I somehow hadn’t gotten sucked into the Pokemon universe, so I politely said to my uncle, “Thank you, Uncle.”

I didn’t know what to make of it. My uncle had given me a Pikachu thinking I was like all those other kids obsessed with Pokemon. Was I missing out on something? I started looking more into the Pokemon phenomenon. To help me, my mom bought me a handbook on the original 151. Pikachu was #25 and apparently a type of electric mouse (not a rabbit as I’d initially thought). It was one of the starter Pokemon, but only a few kids were lucky enough to get Pikachu. Ash Ketchum was one of them, and his Pikachu never stayed in its Poke ball.

I got sucked into it. I started watching Pokemon after school. My mom bought me a Pokemon pillow and a Pokemon comforter. I learned to name every single one on my comforter at night. Every time my mom said “Pikachu” when she meant “Pokemon,” I immediately corrected her. Most telling of all, I carried my Pikachu plush with me everywhere around the house. If I sat on the edge of my seat, both Pikachu and I could fit. My mom bought a bigger, fluffier Pikachu pillow that I could hug at night in bed and then have my round Pikachu during the day. My mom got me a Pikachu backpack and my aunt got my cousin a matching one so we could go on Pokemon adventures together. It was now my turn to ask my sister to draw me my favorite Pokemon because I wasn’t skilled enough to do Rapidash or Articuno.

I never played the games, but I was pretty much obsessed with Pokemon until the fad tapered off. I didn’t stop carrying Pikachu with me until I was forced to accept the fact that Pikachu and I could no longer fit in the same chair. I had acquired many more Pikachus of varying sizes through the years, but none of them held the same spot in my heart as my first and original Pikachu. In fact, I had nightmares that its eyes had cracked and fallen off, and no matter how many times I tried to glue them back on, the half pieces kept sliding off in a white ghostly mess. Thankfully, that never happened in real life.

Pikachu was the most popular Pokemon, so collecting Pikachus was a coincidence. A friend or a family member would come across a Pikachu and get it for me, but I never set out to collect them. For someone with so many Pikachus, you would think my favorite color would have been yellow. When a kid in Kindergarten class posed me that question, I remember answering,

“The rainbow.”

I thought all the colors looked pretty.

“That’s not a color. You can only pick one.”

I thought long and hard before giving an answer.


“Black?” the other kid would say. “Why black?”

“Because it’s all the colors combined.”

Which is true. Get a black marker, draw a dot in the middle of a coffee filter, add water, and watch the myriad colors bleed out.

As I grew older, I came to understand that only emo kids (and art professors) loved black. I didn’t exactly fit the stereotype. Everyone seemed to love blue, boys and girls alike. Green was a close second. But neither spoke to me. In middle school, I became obsessed with horoscopes and astrology. According to Eastern astrology, I was born in the year of the earth element, and my mom said that fire fed earth, so red was supposed to be a good color for me. I started answering “red” for my favorite color. But it felt wrong. It was too aggressive for my personality.

Freshman year of high school provided me with the opportunity to start fresh. I was determined to figure out what my favorite color was. It would make life so much easier if I could default to a color for everything from folders for school to shirts and shoes in my wardrobe. I looked back at all of my favorite things. I’d loved horses as a kid. Horses were usually brown, but I’d get laughed at if I said brown because poop is brown. So is chocolate, but, you know, kids. I looked at my sizeable Pikachu collection. Pikachu was yellow. Was it possible that yellow could be my favorite color? Yellow and gold were considered colors of the earth. Yellow didn’t feed earth, but yellow was earth and I was earth, so therefore I was yellow. At the time I was somewhat aware that yellow could be used as a derogatory term for Asians, but I didn’t see why that would stop me from liking the color yellow for myself.

I started saying yellow. The more I said it, the more I knew it was true. Yellow was my favorite color. I loved basking in the sunlight, like a cat, and sunlight was yellow. Pikachu was yellow and reminded me of sunlight. Therefore anything yellow made me happy. My mom and I picked out a pair of yellow heels for me to wear to homecoming dance. More than a decade later at my wedding tea ceremony, I wore the same yellow heels to go with my yellow ao dai. Having a default favorite color really does make it easier to match everything in life.

Once I determined my favorite color, I sought out anything Pikachu, which had become a bit of a rarity since Pokemon was no longer in. The first thing I wanted that I couldn’t find was a Pikachu cap. I bought a yellow cap from Michaels and painstakingly sewed on a triangle nose, two red cheeks, two black eyes, and two white dots on the eyes. I wore it everywhere, and people loved it. The next thing I wanted was a Pikachu umbrella, but it couldn’t be found, not even on Amazon. I decided I would make one myself. Using my budding Adobe Illustrator skills, I drew up the design, had it custom printed on some random website based out of China, and had it delivered to my house a month later. It was the best thing I’d ever designed. Every time it rained during college, I’d whip out my Pikachu umbrella. My friends could spot me from across campus. It wasn’t the sturdiest made product. I lost the black cover that came with it, the handle eventually twisted off, and the strap broke in two. But I’ve steadfastly refused to replace it. It symbolizes the lengths I went to increase my Pikachu collection.

The LOVE sculpture in Taiwan

In 2013, I went to Japan as part of a student exchange program. During my time there, we went to a charity market hosted by university students. I found two things—a blouse for cheap and a plush Pikachu for only $2. It was smaller than my round one, but it was so dang cute with the softest fur. I hesitated because $2 was still $2 and I didn’t need another plush Pikachu. My classmate encouraged me to get it to commemorate my first trip to Japan. And so I did. I’ve never found another Pikachu as cute or as cheap. It sits on my shelf right next to my first Pikachu.

$2 Plush Pikachu

Then, another phenomenon occurred. Pokemon Go came out, and suddenly everyone was playing, myself included. With Pokemon Go’s immense popularity, the marketplace decided to cash in on it and make everything Pokemon-related. Now, Pikachu was everywhere. Shirts, socks, hats, hoodies, umbrellas–you name it. I was in Pikachu paradise. Two of my close friends separately bought me a Pikachu piggy bank from Target. I proudly display both Pikachu piggy banks in my bedroom. My husband (then fiancé) bought me a Pikachu onesie, my one regret that I didn’t get when I went to Japan in 2013. In Dallas, a friend and I bought matching Pikachu scarfs on sale for only $4 each. In Taiwan, I bought myself a Pikachu luggage tag. When I visited Japan a second time, I went to the Pokemon Center and got myself a plush Pikachu wearing a train conductor’s uniform. I’ve made the decision to actively grow my Pikachu collection. If I’ve accomplished nothing else with my life, I want to be that ninety-year-old lady with the world’s largest Pikachu collection. My house will be yellow on the outside and yellow on the inside. My car will be yellow with two red dots. My entire wardrobe will consist of yellow.

I’m a long way there, though, and I’ve wondered why I’ve chosen Pikachu to be my emblem. For one, Pikachu is the most common one featured on merchandise. Pikachu is easy to dress up for Halloween and anime conventions. Pokemon is cool and trendy but not too mainstream. Pokemon was created by an Asian man, and the whole world embraced it. Pikachu is an animal, and I love animals. The fact that it’s not a real animal puts it in on par with dragons and unicorns, which I also loved at different points in my childhood. In short, Pikachu embodies many of the things that make me, me.

At one point, I tried to branch out and collect all things Pokemon rather than focusing on just Pikachu. But when presented with merchandise that had multiple options, I almost always end up choosing the Pikachu option. The only Pokemon that’s come close to overtaking my love for Pikachu is Pachirisu, an electric squirrel with yellow cheeks. It’s pretty darn cute. Being Gen IV though, Pachirisu is much harder to find among merchandise and is not as iconic as #25.

I’d like to close today’s piece with one of my favorite songs, “Yellow” by Coldplay. During high school, “Clocks” was my #1 favorite song from Coldplay, but “Yellow” was a close second. I never thought that listening to “Yellow” would be strange or off limits because of my race. When a cover of “Yellow” was included in Crazy Rich Asians, that’s when I discovered that many Asian Americans finally felt comfortable reclaiming their love for the song. For my wedding, I chose a cover of the cover of “Yellow” by DAPUN and Monie since it featured male and female voices as well as both Chinese and English. It captured the duality of us—a guy and a girl getting married, him Chinese and Vietnamese, both of us Asian and American—and the duality of many things we may enjoy or may want to enjoy. I’m sad it took a blockbuster movie in 2018 for Asian Americans to finally embrace “Yellow” and yellow, but I’m glad that it happened. I’m glad that, for me, it took a little self-reflection and a love for a fictitious creature named Pikachu to help realize what yellow means to me.

Thank you, Pikachu, for being a long-time companion and shaping me into who I am today. Happy 25th anniversary!

Pikachu and Me

Christmas in California

When California locked down for the pandemic back in March 2020, I first held out hope that things would be well enough that I could fly home to Houston in October in time for my art show. House of Cards at Discovery Green, a public urban park, was the biggest art show I had participated in, both in scale and in reputation. It honestly felt like a once-in-a-lifetime event. Once school began in the fall, though, major cities were slammed with higher rates of infection. Being on the younger side, I could probably weather the coronavirus if I got infected while traveling, but getting infected while traveling for personal reasons seemed irresponsible and selfish instead of being infected because my partner worked in the medical field. Would I rent a hotel instead of staying with my parents, both well over 60 and with health complications? Would I rent a car because you can’t get around Houston any other way? Would I not see my parents or my parents-in-law at all despite flying “home”?

Some family members encouraged me to fly for the art show. My mother, who had gone to see it in person one weekend, said that it was—to paraphrase—while cool, not worth the trip. Was she acting the stereotypical Asian parent, playing down their child’s achievement, or was she trying to make me feel better about not being there for the opening weekend? When I asked my partner for his opinion, he said I could fly home if I wanted to, but this was opposite his firm decision not to fly home for Christmas a mere two months later. Part of that was because he only had five days of vacation, not enough to quarantine and see family.

Maybe, too, I had gotten comfortable hibernating at home. I only left the house to get groceries and go for neighborhood walks. Going anywhere farther, like hiking at a park or eating outdoors, required my partner’s enthusiasm to chase new experiences. It seemed easier—and safer—just to stay at home and avoid the realities of the pandemic altogether.

You better not regret your choice, my mind sternly told me.

To go or not to go?

Days before the last weekend of the art show, I finally accepted the difficult decision not to go to Houston.

I’ve always been more cautious at heart. Cowardly, perhaps? Maybe. I’m not a risk-taker or a thrill-seeker. Running the Kickstarter campaign was a huge exercise in courage, only after I’d run through calculations of every single possible scenario to eliminate surprises. Unfortunately, covid-19 has too many unknowns. I might catch it. I might not. If I do catch it, I might be asymptomatic, or I might not. I might be able to stay at home and get over it on my own. Or I might end up at the hospital on a ventilator. Considering how much I hate going to the dentist, a ventilator looks like a torture device. Had House of Cards taken place in non-covid times, I would have flown home for the opening weekend, partaken in all of the festivities, and taken lots of footage. While I couldn’t do it all as planned, what did make me happier was that so many people in Houston came out to support despite the pandemic because the installation was outdoors. The pictures came rolling in on social media, and I’m extremely thankful for everyone who shared photos and videos. House of Cards was meant to be a shared experience, and I did get to share it with friends and family. That lessened the blow of not being able to see it in person.

Keeping my spirits afloat in California were the weekly or biweekly visits with my sister, who lived in the next city over. I was glad that my partner had picked a residency program near family, and I looked forward to celebrating Thanksgiving and Christmas together. As the pandemic had gone in the U.S. though, covid rates worsened and California tightened restrictions on gatherings. To be safe, my sister canceled Thanksgiving. Over text I tried to act like a mature adult and say it made sense that my sister didn’t want to meet, especially with my partner working with covid patients. But at home, I openly despaired, dragged myself through work, and folded laundry in frustration. I didn’t realize how much I valued spending time with my sister and her family until the choice was taken from me. My partner worked late on Thanksgiving Day, so I couldn’t even spend much time with him.

It was in that low moment on Thanksgiving that I looked out my window and saw my neighbor’s Christmas lights on their balcony. They had had it for several weeks now, perhaps even before Halloween. I never thought twice about them before, but suddenly on Thanksgiving, those cheerful twinkling lights shone a hole in my heart. I wanted to have Christmas lights too. I was convinced that if I had my own Christmas lights on my balcony, I would feel happy again. If Target had been open on Thanksgiving, I would have walked over immediately to buy some lights. As it was, they were closed. I turned to the internet. Surely something suitable could be delivered the next day with Amazon Prime, right? Amazon didn’t have anything I wanted. Target had some things that couldn’t be delivered or it would take days to arrive. Days?! I could barely wait until next morning. Days would be too slow. I needed to patch the hole in my heart now. The Target near me had some things I wanted in stock, so I closed out the browser and forced myself not to think about it until the next day.

The day after Thanksgiving is, of course, Black Friday. I usually never shop on Black Friday (I’d rather stay at home than be crushed by overzealous shoppers), but this Black Friday, I was at Target minutes after they opened. For better or worse, the pandemic had driven shoppers online, and Target was a ghost town, its big screen TVs displayed at the front of the store but no one to admire them. I went straight to the back, where they kept the Christmas decor, and spent the next fifteen minutes debating what to get and how much to get. It would be annoying if I had to come back to get more lights, but I didn’t want to overspend if I could help it. I knew I just needed a little bit of something to make my heart happy. I finally settled on a six-foot spiral lit Christmas tree and a box of icicle string lights, all for under $40.

I walked back home, unboxed everything, and set up the spiral lit tree first. To my dismay, the unlit cord was quite short, and instead of centering the tree to the balcony, the tree was right next to the wall by the outlet. I was too lazy and cheap to consider buying a power strip, so I carried on with the icicle string lights. While the box said three feet of unlit wiring and nineteen feet of lit wiring, the actual string didn’t seem to match up to the numbers in any way. The unlit wiring was closer to two feet, and the “nineteen feet” of lit wiring only covered about ten feet of the balcony. Maybe half the balcony would look okay?

That afternoon when my partner came home, he confirmed my fear and said it looked weird with only half the balcony lit. While he napped, I walked to Target a second time (a little livelier in the afternoon and my procrastinator self squeezed in the flu shot!), bought a second box of icicle string lights, came back, and strung it up on the right half of the balcony. The whole effect didn’t look as neat as my neighbor’s Christmas lights, but it didn’t look atrocious either. As long as no one complained about it being an eyesore, I was proud of myself for making the effort to put up outdoor Christmas decorations, something I had previously thought was too much trouble. While it had taken some effort to put up, I knew it was much less than going to a nursery, buying a real Christmas tree, and decorating that inside my home. Perhaps if I had kids, I would have gone the real Christmas tree route, but with my partner and I being two adults, the pretty spiral lit tree and icicle lights filled the aching hole of missing family.

In the following days, I’d eat snacks by the window, the golden lights my companion while waiting for my partner to come home. Or at night, I’d snuggle in bed for a bit before reluctantly leaving the warm covers to turn them off. Every evening I turned on the lights at 5 pm. Even though the sky wasn’t quite dark yet at that time, I turned on the lights anyway because they made me happy.

A couple of weeks later, a small Amazon box showed up. My partner wasn’t home yet, so I opened it to see what was inside. It was a smart power strip that could connect to Google Home and time the outdoor lights. He had talked about getting something like that. I had been too lazy to look into it, but he had taken the time to secretly purchase it. It’s the little things like these that make the long quarantine bearable. I hurried outside to try it. It didn’t work, though, not even when my partner came home and tried it himself.

Well, we tried, I thought and put it out of my mind.

A few days later, another smart power strip arrived at my doorstep. I rushed outside to try this one. Once I had plugged in everything and connected it to the app, I opened my phone and hit “ON.” The golden lights flickered to life. My partner got lots of hugs as we snuggled in bed, the lights twinkling outside our window, until it was time to sleep. Then, I turned it off with a tap on the app. It was such a minor thing, and yet it made a big difference in quality of life. I later set up the timer so that it would both automatically turn on and off at certain times, and then I could fall asleep in the soft golden glow without having to worry about turning it off myself.

I usually put up the Christmas tree at home in Houston. This is my first year spending Christmas in California. While there aren’t the usual nostalgic decorations, it felt more like Christmas with some kind of lights, the silhouette of the tree visible through sheer curtains. Christmas may have come and passed, but I don’t want to take down the lights just yet. So long as my neighbors don’t mind, I’d like to keep them up for New Year’s and Lunar New Year. After that, it’ll be mid-February with no more big celebratory holidays. By then, it’ll be almost spring, as good a time as any to try something new. And next year after Halloween, I can look forward to putting up the lights again.

Christmas in California


Something I might say to my mom in Vietlish is this:

Thưa Mẹ, con sẽ về từ office lúc năm giờ. Sau đó con gặp bạn đi art exhibit và ăn dinner downtown.

Dear Mom, I will come home from work at five. After that I’ll meet my friend to go to an art exhibit and have dinner downtown.

Why do I say ‘office’ in Vietlish when I mean ‘work’? How do I say ‘art exhibit’ in Vietnamese? How do I translate ‘downtown’? I know the Vietnamese word for ‘dinner,’ so did I say it in English to alliterate with ‘downtown’? It’s only now as I’m writing this that I’m questioning my word choices. When I’m speaking, all of these decisions happen subconsciously in the moment.

I was fluent in Vietnamese and English up until I entered Pre-K. Once I entered school, English became my native language and Vietnamese faded to a long-lost memory of ruins hinting of a city. At home I spoke Vietlish with my parents and siblings. It seemed like a natural hybrid with my parents speaking almost entirely Vietnamese and my older siblings studying SAT vocabulary in high school. But Vietlish at home was a strange dialect spoken only within the four walls of my home. In addition to an American accent, the mix of Vietnamese and English words in mostly English syntax confused anyone outside of my immediate family. Even with aunts, uncles, and cousins, it was either Vietnamese or English, never Vietlish. In my mind I assume my siblings spoke Vietlish back when we all lived together at home, but it has been so many years that now I’m no longer sure. What if it was all in my mind? What if I was the only one who spoke Vietlish? Or is it because I was the last to leave home that I still speak Vietlish while my siblings gravitated towards switching between Vietnamese or English, rarely combining them in the same sentence?

I’m not sure why Vietlish became my default language at home. I suppose it stems from the fact that my parents tried to teach me Vietnamese, then enrolled me in Vietnamese school on Sundays, and lightly scolded me when I spoke too much English at home. They weren’t like some Vietnamese parents who encouraged their children to speak only English in order to be fluent and accepted in American society. It wasn’t that my parents didn’t want the same. They felt that school was enough, and home was the only place that they could enforce us to speak their mother tongue.

And they were right. School was more than enough. By the time I reached high school, I could read an English-language novel at a hundred pages an hour, skim-reading to find the most salient details to the plot. I studied pages and pages of obscure and absurdly long words for an English spelling competition. I wrote in my diary using English and composed lengthy novels in English. Short of me living in Vietnam for six months, which seems unlikely at this point, there is no way I would become fluent in Vietnamese while living in the United States. When my middle sister acquired the Harry Potter series in Vietnamese, she and I began reading them to brush up on our language skills. Both of us had ripped through the English version at lightning speed, so we already knew the characters and plot. Surely it wouldn’t be difficult to understand in another language. From the first page, I sat with Google Translate propped open on my browser. What the heck was a “ma cà rồng?” In my head, I imagined a macaron, which was not right at all. It turned out that a “ma cà rồng” was a vampire. It felt like I was looking up every other word on the page. Even when I knew what all the words meant, I had to read it word by word so as not to miss the meaning of the sentence. As I grew more used to reading in Vietnamese, my pace picked up slightly, but it took me days, maybe weeks to finish Harry Potter và hòn đá phù thủy (that’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone).

When speaking Vietlish at home, I used Vietnamese for basic words and English for the ones I didn’t know or remember. My parents at first would tell me the Vietnamese translation. As time went on, they had either grown tired of doing it or had finally accepted it for what it was. It was my turn to pester them for a word that escaped me in Vietnamese. My friends listening in on my phone conversations pick out English words all the time, sometimes figuring out the entire exchange because I don’t realize how much English I end up using. It makes me envious of friends who fluently speak to their parents in Mandarin or Korean or whichever language they know, and I can’t pick out a single thing. English has become my weapon and armor of choice. With English I can build a fortress, a forest, a whole universe. With English I feel invincible. My Vietnamese is a crumbling monument that I constantly struggle to patch up whenever I speak to my parents. I know I could make more of an effort to relearn Vietnamese, but I’m not a patient person. My mind constantly jumps forward to the next thing, and the thought of slowing down enough to relearn Vietnamese frustrates me when I have so many things I want to do in a day—drawing, reading novels, watching TV…

All the way through high school, I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. When I entered college, I joined the Vietnamese Student Association (VSA) and met enough Vietnamese-Americans in my generation to arrive at this conclusion. All of us were fluent in English. Many of us only knew enough phrases in Vietnamese to order phở at restaurants. Besides that, most spoke English to their parents. While some of us could understand when Vietnamese was spoken to us, most could not respond in Vietnamese. There was maybe only one American-born student fluent in Vietnamese, an impressive achievement given how I turned out with my parents’ best efforts. I didn’t conduct any surveys, but looking back, getting data behind this would have been interesting. By comparison to Chinese Student Association with language tables at lunch, we were a motley bunch resigned to speaking all English and occasionally cracking jokes like “what the heo” (what the h***) that everyone could appreciate and understand.

If my generation was like this as children of immigrants, this did not bode well for if and when we had children of our own. With a country of almost 100 million people, Vietnamese is a language far from the risk of being lost. But Vietnamese-Americans my age are not like other Asian-Americans with strong language support. When we meet a fellow Vietnamese-American, we don’t have the option of switching from English to Vietnamese to banter and to bond. Our proficiency in Vietnamese is so wildly varying from one person to another that English is the only language we can use with confidence. We may call ourselves Vietnamese-American, but our identities are not so easily defined as 50% Viet and 50% American. And I wonder, did our parents expect that outcome when they came to America knowing maybe only a handful of English phrases?

My dad as a doctor has a fairly good grasp of English, even knowing key phrases in Spanish since he has a significant number of Latino patients. For his patients’ sake, he calls himself “Juan” instead of “Hoang.” My mom’s English is not as good. She consistently pronounces the ‘g’ in ‘higher,’ the ‘l’ in ‘salmon,’ and calls ‘azalea’ the French way, ‘azalée.’ It’s endearing at home, but in public when my parents speak with accented English, I can’t shake the feeling of wanting to curl up and hide in my shoes because their English doesn’t reflect my level of English. I was born on American soil. I am American. No one can tell me to “go back” because I am where I’m meant to be. I used to wish as a kid that my parents could speak perfect English, like other parents I saw around me. Many years later as an adult, I understand why my parents’ English is the way it is, which is actually an achievement with them knowing so little in the beginning. Could I do business in Vietnamese? I don’t think so. Even knowing all of this consciously, in a time when cultural climates have changed and diversity is celebrated more often than not, it’s difficult to overcome the embarrassment that has been ingrained in me from childhood. While I may cringe at my parents’ Vietnamese accent when they speak English, their friends are surprised when my siblings and I reply to them in Vietnamese. In fact, they’ve praised us for our meager attempts, complete with American accent and bad grammar. I can’t help but secretly feel proud for exceeding their admittedly low expectations. At least I can communicate enough for someone to understand me.

This past Lunar New Year, I joined my husband’s side of the family for dinner even though he could not be there. I sat next to his sister at the center of a long makeshift banquet table. On one side sat all of his rowdy, American-born cousins who bantered and teased each other in English. On the other side of me sat the little kids and an aunt young enough to be my older sister. It was obvious she was thoroughly fluent in Vietnamese, but she made the first attempt at conversation. I thought it wouldn’t hurt to try, so I did my best to carry a conversation with her. As soon as another aunt sat down though, the two of them twittered away in Vietnamese, and I was instantly reminded how not fluent I truly was. The second aunt effortlessly switched to fluent English to include me every now and then. In that instant, I wished I could be just like her. My husband jokes all the time that I could be his guide in Vietnam since he can’t speak it well, but I know if I were to step inside a market, hawkers would immediately detect my American accent and swoop upon me with exorbitant prices targeted for a Việt kiều or overseas Vietnamese.

Despite my lack of fluency in Vietnamese, there’s one thing I’ve always secretly wished for—for everyone to call me by my name, Linh-Trân. As far as Vietnamese names go, this one is on the easier side phonetically: “ling chun.” I remember in Kindergarten I tried to teach my teacher and my classmates to say my name in what I considered to be the right way. After all, my many family members could do it. My parents’ friends could do it. Why couldn’t my classmates and teacher? The best that they could manage was changing it from “lin tran” to “lin tron”—not to mention their tendency to misspell it as Lihn-Tran instead of Linh-Tran. I expressed my disappointment at home, and my siblings sat me down to explain that English speakers weren’t used to Vietnamese names. Therefore, I shouldn’t expect them to pronounce my name the way my family could. Humbled and enlightened, I didn’t try to correct my classmates anymore and have ever since mispronounced my own name—or another way to think of it, I gave myself an Anglicized name. I remained “lin tron” all the way through high school. Then in college, I became “lin tran” because people whose last names were Tran pronounced it “tran.”

Since I grew up with mostly the same group of classmates K-12, most of them knew that my last name started with a D. Only a newcomer here or there asked me, “Why are you in the D homeroom?” Once I had a math teacher who called me “Ms. Tran.” I don’t remember if I corrected him or not, though I’m a little surprised he didn’t know based on his roll call list. Now that I’m married to a Tran, I don’t mind being called Mrs. Tran. Legally, I haven’t changed my name, but maybe, in another life with another name, I might have changed it to Tran (sorry to disappoint all my friends who were waiting for the day I’d be Linh-Tran Tran). So for the most part, you would be right in thinking Tran is a Vietnamese last name. But that Tran is actually spelled Trần. See that tiny downward accent over the ‘a’? That is all that distinguishes Trần, the last name, from Trân, my first name, a distinction lost when written in English. Even Vietnamese speakers get confused and call me Linh Trần. Having a group of friends back me up made it more bearable whenever I introduced myself.

“She goes by ‘lin tron.’”

It wasn’t 100% correct, but I would take it any day over “lin.” The real challenge came when I entered college and met so many new people on a regular basis that I started introducing myself as, “Hi, my name is Linh-Tran, last name Do.” Instead of that being the solution, people thought it was a strange introduction, and I found myself or one of my classmates explaining that people confuse “Tran” as my last name all the time. It seemed like I would never be able to escape the drudgery of correcting people when it was so easy for others, even those with Asian names.

“Why don’t you go by Linh?”

That’s my mom’s name, and all of my sisters’ names are structured Linh-[insert]. At home we go by the second half of our names.

“Why don’t you go by Tran?”

It wouldn’t solve the problem of confusing my first name for a last name.

“Why don’t you pick an English name or use a coffee name?”

Maybe if my parents had given me an English name to begin with, I would have gladly used it, but I did not feel comfortable choosing a name for myself. Connie? Jenny? Lily? Linda? Tammy? While I respect those who have both English and Vietnamese names as their identity, I feel as though consciously choosing an English name for me is erasing my personal identity as a Vietnamese-American.

In a moment of desperation, I cracked open the Han-Viet dictionary at home (Vietnamese names are based on a Chinese-Vietnamese system) and scoured the pages for a name that sounded somewhat similar to mine while not resembling a common last name. Châu? Tâm? Trâm? I knew people with these names. It would feel like wearing a mask on my face. My parents had picked my name. It felt in some ways disrespectful to remake my destiny. So I asked the source if they had any other names they considered calling me. My parents said no. Their answer didn’t surprise me. They probably had run out of names by the time they had me, their fifth child. The sad thing is, I like the name they chose for me. It just had the unfortunate consequence of being mistaken in a way that none of my sisters had to deal with.

My sisters do recognize, though, that choosing names for their children is an important decision fraught with many factors. All of them have opted to give their children both a Vietnamese name and an English name, or in one case a Romanian name that reads well in English. The names fall into two ways of thought: 1) the Vietnamese and English names are completely distinct from each other, or 2) the Vietnamese and English names are connected through shared consonants and vowels—for example, Linh could be paired with Melinda or Lynne. As the children of immigrants, we’ve seen certain Vietnamese names take a worse hit than others. Those named Dũng have, in some cases, changed the spelling to Dzung because the D in Vietnamese sounds like a Z whereas the Đ in Vietnamese sounds like the English D. It’s the easiest way to distinguish their name from the unsavory meaning of “dung” in English. Bích, Phát, and Phúc have all been the butt of many jokes, though Bích is pronounced more like “bick” and Phúc is more like “fook.” While Phát sounds similar to “fat,” Phát means to be wealthy with riches. Unfortunately, these names, no matter how meaningful they may be in Vietnamese, will be phased out for future Vietnamese-American generations in English-speaking countries. So yes, my name could be “worse” in that regard, but it doesn’t change the fact that I and many others struggle with our names on a regular basis, a shadow accompanying our every step through life.

In the end, I’m thankful that the person I married calls me “Trân.” It reminds me of home. It’s who I really am, the girl who speaks Vietlish. The other version of me is the Americanized, English-speaking one I reserve for professional and public situations. In fact, it would feel strange now for classmates and coworkers to call me “ling chun.” For so long my private and public lives have been kept separate. As long as friends include the “Tran” part so that I hear the hard T sound, I’ll respond and be satisfied. After all, how can I blame others for not being able to pronounce or spell my name correctly when I myself am beginning to mix up names and pronunciations the more people that I meet? I’m not even fluent in Vietnamese and yet I’m demanding others who aren’t Vietnamese at all to call me by my Vietnamese name. I should accept the fact that living in America means I will have an American or Americanized name. I’m a little embarrassed I spent so much time writing about my name, but I think I felt the need to write about it because, for me, it’s an analogy on how it feels to be Vietnamese-American—or any kind of multicultural identity that is in the minority. Home is our true identity. In society, it will always be a constant struggle balancing who you are versus how others perceive you.

These reflections on accent and identity began when I recently watched Bon Voyage, a TV series documenting BTS’s vacation in various parts of the world. For those of you not familiar, BTS is the international K-pop sensation sweeping the charts. Of the seven members, only RM is fluent in English, which he learned from watching Friends. When they were in Hawaii, member Jimin was alone at a grocery store buying instant ramen. He found disposable chopsticks, but unsure whether he had to pay for them or not, he flagged down the cashier with “Eck-scoo-zeh-mee.” He raised the chopsticks and said, “Money?” The cashier replied that the chopsticks were free to take. First of all, props to the cashier for understanding what the question was really trying to ask. Second of all, Jimin was able to navigate English without RM’s help. I don’t think I could do this much alone in South Korea.

What jarred me most about this exchange, though, was hearing the accented English, which sounds exactly like my parents and so many other immigrants who come to America. Except my parents and other immigrants aren’t beautiful or famous with a camera crew documenting their every move. They don’t have several music albums in their discography or sold-out concert venues. They’re just average people doing the best that they can to provide a better life for their children. My gut reaction hearing BTS speak broken or accented English is the same as when I hear my parents—intense shame and a strong desire for them to hurry up and get back to a language they’re fluent in. Let their smooth Korean lyrics flow through my ears upon a river of melody. Let my parents express their thoughts in five seconds instead of five minutes. Why in other countries are foreigners applauded for trying to speak the local language, but in America it’s expected to speak perfect English to be worth anyone’s time?

It’s funny that accent can refer to the “distinctive mode of pronunciation of a language, especially one associated with a particular nation, locality, or social class.” My parents’ Vietnamese accent of English reveals their uprootedness, that they lived somewhere else before coming to America. Accent can also refer to the marks that indicate how a syllable should be pronounced. Vietnamese is full of accent marks guiding the speaker up and down. Some people have likened the language to singing, and the comparison of changing pitch is not far off. Accent marks are critical to understanding Vietnamese. Without it, a word takes on multiple meanings, depending if it’s this mark or that mark. While someone who is fluent can make assumptions based on context clues, it’s much harder for me to figure out with my limited vocabulary.

My parents are fluent in the Vietnamese language, Vietnamese history, and Vietnamese culture in a way that I will never achieve. While working on a Kickstarter project for a deck of Vietnamese-inspired playing cards, I called or emailed my mom just about every other day asking questions like, “Who are the most well-known or influential ladies of Vietnam during the eighteenth century?” or “What are some of the most popular children’s stories featuring a fairy character?” If I ask my dad about ancient Vietnam, especially the Dong Son culture during the Bronze Age, my dad will wax on about how the Vietnamese people originated from here before moving there and conquering the people there and so on and so forth. At almost thirty years old, one of my biggest fears is that my parents will pass away before they can finish their goals to educate younger generations about Vietnamese culture. Of course, that’s a herculean task, and it would take more than a lifetime to achieve that. Maybe what I’m really trying to say is that I don’t want to be left without someone I can call or email the instant I have a question—instead of Ask Jeeves, it’s Ask Mom and Dad in Vietlish, if you will. There are many experts out there, perhaps more knowledgeable than my parents, but none of them would understand me the way my parents would when I ask something like, “Remember that illustrated multi-volume Vietnamese series I used to read as a kid? What was the title of that collection again?” While I can read Vietnamese at about elementary school level, it would take me years and years of reading complicated history books at a painstaking pace to research what could be answered in a few minutes. My parents wanted me to become a teacher at their Vietnamese school, but I quickly realized that there was no way I could teach anyone the Vietnamese language if I myself was not fluent. This is why my parents and many others have to continue their work as cultural educators.

But most of all, I love my parents, quirks and all. Selfishly, I want them around in my life for as long as I am alive. I know it’s not possible, and sometimes thinking about the future keeps me up at night. While I can’t control the future, I can control the present, and in the present, I want to be able to appreciate them as they are. Their wealth of Vietnamese knowledge can’t be measured by the brokenness of their English. Their sacrifices and love for my siblings and me can’t be measured by the accent of their English. No one should be defined by a language they cannot speak well or at all. While I consciously know all of this, I can’t stop the subconscious reactions to hearing less than perfect English. It’s going to take a lot of effort to rewire my brain, but I hope one day that when I hear someone speak with an accent, it’s an accent that tells untold stories of where they come from and who they are to be the person they are today. Some day, I want to be able to hear an accent like my parents’ and feel not shame but pride.


Logo Spotlight: NASA

One morning as I was scrolling through the news, I came across this headline: “The Worm is Back.”

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Announcement on NASA

This version of the logo was in NASA’s archives and now they brought it back? I didn’t even realize that they had an official version, a.k.a. The Meatball, and then this version, a.k.a. The Worm, which was designed in 1975 by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn and then retired in 1992. Despite all the edgy, new sci-fi movies that have come out, there will always be the connotation of space as a phase from the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the Worm nails it.

The Meatball

As for the Meatball, I wouldn’t have guessed it was designed in 1959 with its simple and straightforward but meaningful design. The retro vibes fit right in with current trends. I always saw the blue circle as a snippet of space dotted with stars and either a comet or some object orbiting on an axis. The red swoosh has never been clear to me, but, if hard-pressed, I would guess it represents the Milky Way. “The Meatball” seems like such a silly nickname for an institution of NASA’s gravitas, but perhaps it is this sense of humor of space aficionados that keeps space travel fresh and exciting.

The Seal

Normally a logo or icon should be simple so that it can be scaled down to small sizes and be easier to print. The Meatball is already a simplified version of the NASA seal, but it is still more of an illustration with its swath of stars. According to Wikipedia, it is this very fact that the Meatball is more of an illustration that made it difficult to reproduce back in the 60s and 70s. Enter the Worm, the modern and streamlined logo of NASA.

When designing a logo that consists of just the wordmark, one might think it’s as simple as typing out the letters, choosing a font, and picking a color. While those decisions alone can already be time-consuming, there are other ways to modify a wordmark to make it a unique logo, not just letters brought together. The font for the Worm seems to have been custom-built. Designing a font from scratch is incredibly time-consuming to get right, but when you do, it’s satisfying. For NASA, I find it interesting that they chose to combine the A and the S in the middle but leave the N and the second A intact. What would it look like if the four letters were each separated?

It turns out that on Wikipedia the NASA logo is downloadable as an SVG file, meaning I can open it in Adobe Illustrator and see how it was put together. The Worm is a series of lines and curves that imported into Illustrator with a thickness of 1 pt. I was surprised to see it appear so thin when clearly it’s shown with a thickness of more than 1 pt. After a few guesses, I estimated that 80 pt would fatten it enough to match the official one. At that thickness, the S automatically connects with the first A.

NASA at 1 pt

For curiosity’s sake, I pulled apart the letters until each one stood alone. It doesn’t look bad when the four letters are separated. In fact, I find the connected A and S slightly distracting because only two of the four letters are connected. Why not try connecting all of them? When you view the Worm at a distance, the letters blend together anyway. What’s the point of keeping the space around the N and the second A?

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NASA with separated letters

Looking at NASA as a whole wordmark, the only two letters that can be connected are the middle A and S. The N cannot be connected to the A without losing its integral structure that defines it as an N. Likewise, the S cannot be connected to the second A without losing the structure of each distinct letter. So why bother connecting only two out of four? I am not an expert nor am I the original designer, but I think it is the right move to connect just the middle A and S.

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NASA with connected letters

When you take another look at the wordmark, the N and the S are very nearly the same shape but flipped and rotated at 90 degrees. This means that NASA is comprised of mostly two shapes for four letters. Especially with the As, the shapes are repeated quite closely and don’t offer any kind of interesting contrast. When the first A is connected to the S, now you have three distinct shapes for four letters in which no two letters are a similar shape. Each one becomes unique because although our minds know that they’re made of similar shapes, our eyes register them as different, and that difference is what keeps the logo fresh and fascinating.

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NASA “The Worm”

The other important feature of the Worm is its bold red. The Meatball’s patriotic palette consists of three colors: red, white, and blue. So why not make the Worm blue? Or black, even? White text on white background obviously does not work, but black is usually a solid substitution for white. What’s more, black is simple and straightforward, just like the logo itself. But black would lose the connection of patriotism from the Meatball because there is no black in the US flag. As for blue, so many companies use blue. Blue is the color of corporate America. Blue is trustworthy and dependable, and companies want you to trust and depend on them.

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NASA in black

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NASA in blue

Space is not about being trustworthy and dependable. Sure, those are crucial values. Astronauts need to be able to trust that their team built a spaceship that will safely take them into space and back home alive in one piece. But space is more exciting than that. Space is about having a bold vision, facing our fears, and exploring the unknown. What better color defines that than red?

I’ll end this piece with a quote from President Kennedy’s speech on the space effort:

“We choose to go to the Moon! We choose to go to the Moon…We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win, and the others, too.”

Logo Spotlight: NASA