The Accidental Christian

I started attending Calvary Presbyterian church, perched atop one of the steepest hills in leafy Pacific Heights, San Francisco a decade ago. I was pulled in by the one-block proximity to my apartment and the inspiring sermons from Dr. Laird Stuart. Several years ago, while feeling a bit lost after life threw a few curveballs my way, I decided to go deeper and joined the Young Adult bible study group. After my first few sessions, I realized I lacked the background that most everyone else had – knowledge of the bible. Knowing this would be apparent soon enough, I opened up to the group about my ignorance. “I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I’ve never read the bible.”

As the lone Christian in a Buddhist family, I did not grow up going to church. My path to being Christian was accidental. When I was three years old, my family decided it was time to leave Vietnam. My mom made a deal that sealed my fate in exchange for our safe passage out of the country. We missed our chance to leave when most of my mom’s family was evacuated by American troops in 1975. Her brothers served as translators for the American army in Vietnam, which made her family part of a small and fortunate group to be airlifted out. My mom was four months pregnant with me at the time Saigon fell, and felt the journey would be too risky, so we stayed.

Three years later, my parents sensed that time was running out and we should plan our escape. My dad was a lawyer and politician in the South Vietnamese government before Saigon fell. It was a small miracle he hadn’t already been detained and sent to reeducation camp. The day before we fled Saigon, my Catholic nanny suggested that my mom visit the Catholic church and ask the nuns to pray for our family. We had a perilous journey ahead of us. If we were caught trying to leave communist Vietnam, the punishment would be serious. And if we were able to escape the borders of Vietnam, there was still plenty that could go wrong at sea. My family is Buddhist, as most Vietnamese families are, but my mom is a very practical woman. She figured we might as well get as many people (or Gods) on our side as possible. She went to the church and not only did she ask for prayers, she struck a deal with the nuns. If our entire family made it to the U.S. safely, my parents would have their youngest child baptized into the Catholic religion.

Getting baptized with my little cousins
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After a long and precipitous journey that spanned over a year, split up my parents, had us captured by pirates at sea, and had several of us flirting with death, I was finally baptized in a little church in L.A. once my dad made it over and our family was reunited.

This song’s title by my favorite Irish songstress, Lisa Hannigan, sums up the Vietnamese refugee escape experience — “Safe Travels (Don’t Die)”

 

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Pirate Girl

I often wonder what people’s first memories are, and how much the experience impacts their lives. My first memory is like something out of a movie, a movie called Pirates of the Caribbean South China Sea.

Mom and me before our journey

My first vivid image in life is of being at sea, and getting handed over to a skinny, greasy, machete-wielding pirate. During the period after Saigon fell, Thai pirates regularly hijacked, ransacked and often killed entire ships of refugees trying to escape Vietnam. As two pirate boats pulled up along either side of our lone ship, I was somehow chosen to be our ship’s peace offering and welcoming committee. Before the pirates had the chance to board our ship in search of valuables, they were handed a scared, smiling, little girl. The way the boat-people saw it, how the pirates handled me would indicate our fate. If the pirates chucked me over the side of the ship, that would be about the right time to start panicking.

Even at the age of three I remember feeling that it was up to me to keep the pirate I was handed to happy, and our boat safe, by trying not to wail in his face. We were lucky. I remember them being nice, and even playing with me. They were less dazzled by my brother, and dangled him over the side of the boat as a means to get my mom to give up her wedding ring. The pirates didn’t harm any of the four hundred refugees on our ship, but they did take all our stuff – gold bars, jewelry and other items we had brought to help secure our path to an unknown place.

To this day, neither of my parents wear a wedding ring, nor any jewelry, not even a watch. Although the pirates stripped us of what valuables we had left, they gifted us with blocks of ice that ended up saving our lives. We had run out of water and still hadn’t reached land. I nearly died of dehydration and dysentery as we finally came ashore. My mom sprang into action. Dirty and stinky with poo down one side of her body where she held me, she found an empty tin can on the beach, begged Red Cross workers for a bit of medicine to put in it, and nursed me back to health.

It’s interesting how some things don’t change. My mom still looks after my well-being. And I still count on the ability to make others smile for my livelihood, though in a less precarious setting.

Cookies and Milk

The land we finally reached after a week at sea was a Malaysian island called Bidong. My first childhood memories are from the ten months we spent on Bidong at a refugee camp run by the Red Cross. It turns out that there were all sorts of people escaping Vietnam – lots of families, good people, bad people, and even criminals. That’s the company we kept.

Many of the challenging experiences I had on the island have shaped me into who I am today. There is one positive nugget, however, that stands out for me as a defining moment in my young life.

We had a daily ritual where moms stood in line everyday for a ration of milk, while kids lined up for our one cookie-a-day allotment. I’m not sure how they kept track of moms who received milk, but for the kids, they put a large X mark on the back of our hands with black marker. Anyone that knows me as an adult, knows that I love to eat. This love of food started at an early age. One day, after standing in a long line, savoring and slowly eating my cookie, I still felt hungry and decided I wanted more. The plan was simple, scrub the X off of my hand with rough Borax soap, and get back in line after a little while. Heart pounding, I walked up, presented the back of both hands to the cookie lady, and collected cookie #2. I skipped back to our little tarp covered encampment, plopped myself on the dirt floor and started happily eating my second cookie. My mom looked up at me, “I thought you already had a cookie today.”

“I did, this is my second cookie. I scrubbed the X off of my hand and went back in line for another one.” Knowing that what I did was wrong, I expected to get in trouble. Instead, my mom shook her head, and with a hint of both wonder and pride in her eyes, said, “Whatever happens, you’re going to be okay.”

I learned early that sometimes you have to bend the rules. Life would be dull if we simply let others decide our possibilities for us. For the record, I only tried the cookie stunt once.

Food is Love

Sharing food is a big Vietnamese tradition. We serve up meals family style. Dishes come out on heaping plates placed at the center of the table, and everyone has a small bowl of rice into which they pile food. When I was little, my mom would select the choicest pieces of meat and fish and put them in my bowl. This was one of the ways she displayed her love for me.

Eating and enjoying food holds a special place in my heart. On the island where our refugee camp was based, storms were frequent and food supply shipments were often delayed. As a result, there was never enough food and I was constantly hungry. When I was too young to have manners, I would quickly eat my bowl of porridge, then sit and watch as the adults ate theirs. They in turn asked my mom to put me somewhere out of sight. It was difficult for them to eat with my wanting, hungry eyes watching them.

My unique bond with food has presented itself in my adult life in some funny ways. People are always offering me food. Strangers. It’s the way I look at food — with the big, excited, eyes of a child. At the farmer’s market, a man had just purchased an apple turnover from Frog Hollow Farms when he spotted me and asked if I wanted a bite of his untouched turnover. I hesitated for a split second before saying yes with a wide grin, and raising my lips to his outstretched hand to take a chomp. Strangers! We both smiled and waved goodbye. Zorro’s signature was a Z that he marked with a sword. My signature is a sizable bite mark and crumbs.

Americans on the whole are not accustomed to sharing food. An old boyfriend, who was possibly the kindest, most well-mannered person I know once made the mistake of reprimanding me as I took food from his plate. He was a few years older than me and grew up in an entirely different world. While I was pining for food in a refugee camp, he was learning table manners at St. Christopher’s, a private all-boys school in Richmond, Virginia. Before ordering, he asked me what I’d like to eat. I responded, “Thanks but I’m not really hungry.”

Before the food fight…

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Then the steak tacos arrived, looking and smelling heavenly. By the time I went in for a second bite, he stopped me. “Tina, I asked if you wanted anything and you said no. I’m hungry, please stop eating my food.” It was like getting slapped in the face. I didn’t say a word as big alligator tears rolled down my cheeks. There goes that meal. Poor fella. I explained to him that in my world, food is love. If you love someone, you share your food. That’s the golden rule with me. Bless his heart, he never forgot it.

The song is about one of my other deep loves – the Sea. 

America!

After nearly a year in Malaysia, my brother, mom and I boarded a plane to L.A. We had my Uncle Phuong and Aunt Ma Hai to thank for sponsoring us. They both put every penny of their $2.90 an hour minimum wage earnings towards our family’s freedom. Uncle Phuong worked as a gas station attendant in downtown Los Angeles, and Aunt Ma Hai sold towels and bedding in a retail shop in Hollywood. Working on the graveyard shift, Uncle Phuong was robbed at gunpoint several times, but remained in his job to get us to the U.S.

As we sat on the plane I daydreamed about a yellow brick road made of gold that awaited us in America. In my four-year-old mind, we were headed for the good life. My brother didn’t think about such things, he was too busy dealing with motion sickness and throwing up. When we stepped off the plane, my numerous aunts, uncles and cousins greeted us with two gigantic stuffed animals — a yellow pig for my brother and pink elephant for me. Both were as tall as I was and we kept them for years to come.

Our family of three moved into my Uncle Ngoc’s house in La Mirada, a suburb of L.A., with his wife and five teenage children. He was the eldest of my mom’s siblings in the U.S. and was the most established with a five-bedroom, two-story brick house. His family was extremely gracious and made us feel at home. My mom started going to school to learn English, while my brother and I enrolled in kindergarden and third grade. We quickly assimilated, picking up English without much effort, learning arithmetic at home before it was taught at school, and easily making friends. Learning was no joke. I became good at math, not only because I enjoyed it, but because my uncle reviewed my work with a wooden ruler in hand, and I received a smack on the hand for every wrong answer.

I went from being constantly hungry and the first to gobble down every meal at the camp, to being the last to leave the dinner table because I couldn’t finish my meal and wasn’t allowed to get up until everything was eaten. They were embarrassed by how skinny I was and wanted to fatten me up. I celebrated a slew of firsts. I finally had some meat on my bones for the first time in my life. I splashed around in my first swimming pool at a neighbor’s house. I played in my first American-style park with lots of grass, swings and a jungle gym. I loved throwing my body down the park’s grassy hill in a rolling race to the bottom.

What a difference a year makes
We celebrated our first Christmas with a little tree and loads of presents — mainly clothes since we had none. I cherished my warm white coat and twin cotton summer dresses, one yellow and one red. My cousin’s girlfriend introduced my brother and me to Easter by putting on an Easter egg hunt for us. Finding eggs filled with candy and treats all over the house BLEW our minds. It was like nothing we could have ever dreamed up. Easter quickly became my new favorite holiday. We were with family who loved us, and for the first time that I could remember, life wasn’t a struggle or scary. We finally found a semblance of stability. We’d come a long way.

Somewhere Over the Rainbow perfectly describes the magical feeling of coming to a new place, filled with hopes and dreams. 

And Dad Makes Four

In 1981, our family was reunited when my dad joined us in the U.S. after his boat was rescued by an American Navy vessel following its interception by pirates.

My mom dressed us in our best clothes to greet dad at LAX. I had no memory of my dad from childhood, and suspiciously gave him the once over as I met a gaunt-looking, shaggy haired man with a broad grin for the first time. After my dad’s arrival, we moved out of my uncle’s house and into our first family home — a one bedroom apartment in Whittier. Our rent was $400 a month. Two beds and a mattress lined the floor from wall to wall. I was happy, we had everything we needed — enough to eat, decent hand-me-down clothes from my mom’s siblings, and an old beater station wagon in which to get around. Best of all, we were all safe and together, a small miracle given the journey.

Greeting dad at LAX for the first time
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It took me a little while to get to know my dad and to trust him. On the rare occasion when it was just the two of us in the car heading to a destination I was unfamiliar with, I would wonder if he was trying to kidnap me. My early experiences in the refugee camp had left me in a state of high alert. At the same time, my dad was also getting accustomed to having us around. Early on, he took me to a grocery store, and promptly drove off without me, forgetting that I had accompanied him on the trip. My M.O. was to park myself in the toy aisle, and after a while search out my parents or peak outside to make sure our car was still parked in the same spot and they hadn’t left without me. To my surprise and sheer panic, our car was no longer there. My dad quickly realized something was missing and came back to get me before mom was the wiser.

The apartment building we lived in was filled with other young families, many of them refugees from Laos, and some from Eastern Europe. We were surrounded by people with similar experiences of displacement. My brother’s best friend was Todd, a Laotian boy, while my best friend was Ysumi, a girl from Yugoslavia. We had a swimming pool in the apartment complex, something the other kids enjoyed immensely, while I mainly looked on from the sidelines. My mom did not want me to get dark. In Vietnamese culture, girls are valued for the light tone of their skin, and for being demure. My mom does not know how to swim or ride a bike. If I had not pushed the boundaries and pestered my parents to the degree that i did, I might not know the joy of riding a bike or swimming in the ocean. Luckily, my persistence prevailed.

Truthfully, there was no stopping me, I was such a tomboy and had a mind of my own even then. When I came home one day with a bloody gash on my knee after falling off a bike, my mom made it clear from the steely look on her face that I would get no sympathy or help from her. Through her lens of growing up in Vietnam, it was more important for me to be pristine than to play or enjoy new experiences. Girls were valued for their appearance and not necessarily for their ability. You can still see the scar on my right knee today.

Meanwhile, since my dad was a scholar, he inherently valued smarts, and proficiency in mathematics in particular. He started his career as a math teacher before becoming a lawyer and was notorious for tossing his students’ books out of his classroom if they were caught not paying attention. When I was eight years old, I asked for my dad’s help in his area of expertise. I knew to pay attention and try my hardest. Still, I got the answer wrong to a math problem we were working through together. He was so incensed that he snapped and slapped me hard across the face. My cheek stung from the slap while my face burned with the injustice of being treated so harshly for what was hardly an offense. I went to my mom for comfort and announced that I would never again ask dad for help with homework. And I didn’t from that day forward. I learned how to set boundaries that day and to stand up for myself. Those skills have taken me a long way.

These clashes were born from the patriarchal culture in which my parents were raised. It is a tribute to how much they loved me and how flexible they were with their own beliefs that these are the two biggest beefs that I can gripe about as an adult. In the attempt to bridge the gap between two generations and two vastly different cultures, so much more could have gone wrong. I’m thankful to my parents for always putting our family first and raising a strong-willed daughter, even if they didn’t mean to.

A Lesson in Forgiveness

“To forgive is to set a prisoner free and discover the prisoner was you.” —Unknown

When we first landed on Bidong island, I was terrified. I wasn’t familiar with my surroundings, and if my mom was out of sight when I woke up I would cry and cry. I had a terrible fear of being abandoned in the chaotic refugee camp that was my new home.

Ominously, the name of the island, Bidong (bee-dong), phonetically sounds like a word that means “get spanked” in Vietnamese. When we escaped, my dad stayed behind and my mom’s younger brother came with us. He was often left to look after my brother and me when she was getting supplies or lining up for food. When I woke from a nap and didn’t see my mom anywhere in sight, I would immediately start sobbing, fearing that she was gone forever. A crying kid can be annoying, so her brother took to hitting me to get me to stop. For good measure, he also hit my brother who was four years older and couldn’t do anything to help me or himself.

Practically speaking, how is a child going to stop crying if you’re hitting her? I tried my best to comply to his commands by choking back my sobs. That was possibly the worst part of being on the island. Dead bodies would wash ashore every once in a while, and there wasn’t enough to eat, but being terrified and abused on a regular basis was a special kind of torture. It shifted something inside of me. That’s when I first learned to hate someone, and it’s the fire behind my disdain for cowards and bullies. As a child, it’s hard to protect yourself. As an adult, you can be darn sure that I surround myself with only the best people, as a means to make sure I’m safe.

With my mom’s brother before the voyage

I didn’t tell my mom what was happening while this was occurring because I thought I was being bad and assumed he had the authority to discipline me. In Vietnamese households, you’re raised with the belief that adults are always right, and I was too young to know differently. One day, a neighbor told my mom that whenever she was away, I would cry a lot and something wasn’t right. That was my mom’s first clue. When she bathed me and saw fresh welts on my body, she put one and one together and confronted her brother.

My mom is possibly the nicest, most non-confrontational person I know. Confronting her brother was incredibly hard for her, but she didn’t have a choice. She loved us too much to allow anyone to hurt us. Confronted, he admitted to hitting me. To which she replied, “Don’t ever lay a hand on my children again.” To this day, he’s the only sibling she isn’t close to. She’s never forgiven him.

Fortunately, her brother immigrated to Paris while we immigrated to Los Angeles. I didn’t have to see him again until I was a teenager, during his first visit to the U.S.  When we learned he was coming, my brother and I openly talked about our revenge fantasies. Meanwhile, my mom’s extended family prepared a welcome party for him.

My brother and I begrudgingly come along. At the gathering, mom feels the pressure to pretend the three of us don’t all hate him, and asks me to greet him. Though I certainly don’t want to, the dutiful daughter in me, who finds it hard to say no to my mom says, “Fine, I’ll do it.” Instead of the more fitting, “Huh? You crazy.”

I tentatively walk over to him and welcome him in Vietnamese. He pulls me close and whispers in my ear, “Can you still feel it?” I’m stunned speechless. I think to myself, somebody get me a gun. I pull away from him and walk off without making a scene. Asian children are taught early and often never to make a scene in public. Somehow it stuck.

Fast-forward twelve years. I’m fulfilling my dream of living and working in Europe. I’m based in Heidelberg and preparing for my company’s annual conference in Paris. Ah, Paris, the home of croissants, the Eiffel Tower, and the monster from my childhood. At this point in my life I start to feel that continuing to hate this man is sucking up energy that could be better used elsewhere, so I decide to reach out and forgive him. I ask my mom for his phone number and call to tell him I’d like to meet for dinner while I’m in town.

A week later, he and his wife pick me up from my hotel and take me back to their tiny apartment in the outskirts of Paris. We enjoy a delicious homemade Vietnamese meal that his sweet wife has especially prepared for me after she learns of the dishes I miss from home — catfish in a clay pot, caramelized pork, and sour soup. I meet his raucous four year-old son. He is roughly the same age I was when we were on the island together. His son is not able to sit still at the dinner table, and he yells at him to stop misbehaving or else he’s going to hit him. I flash back to the same voice issuing the same threat to me. My heart skips a beat. I make my excuses and leave soon after the meal is over.

Back in my hotel room, I feel a wave of compassion for him and his family. The economic and social system in France makes it very difficult for immigrants to work hard and move up the ladder like we can in America. His family is poor and they live in the neighborhood where rioting took place several years ago. My revenge is being successful and well-adjusted. It doesn’t feel all that good. I hope for him and his family to have a chance at a better life. It’s then that I realize I’ve truly forgiven him.

Follow the Sun is a gorgeous, uplifting song that reminds me that while darkness exists, there’s also light and hope. 

Mom’s Little Teacher

I’d rather live with a good question than a bad answer. —Aryeh Frimer

Pulling warm cushy socks on while sitting in my comfy PJs, I think of how similar I am to my mother. I can visualize her sitting in bed doing the same thing. It’s the first time I really think I’m like her. We are different in so many ways. She is patient, constantly puts others before herself, and is forgiving when people step on her toes. In one word, I’m rambunctious.

Mom at the age that I am now
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Over time, we’ve learned from our differences and grown closer as a result. When I was in grade school my mom called me her little teacher because I would help her with the pronunciation of difficult English words — like scissors! These days I’m still her little teacher, but in a new area. I’m teaching my mom life skills, specifically how to be assertive and set boundaries. She’s so sweet that sometimes people take advantage of her good nature. I want to protect my mom just as much as she wants to protect me. To do this, I’ve equipped her with a few key phrases, “Don’t talk to me like that” being one. If I can’t be there to speak up for her, I want my mom to channel me and speak up for herself. She’s taken amazing care of me my entire life, coaching her to look after her own well-being is payback.

I first came across the phrase “Don’t talk to me like that” in college. I was mouthing off to a friend when he admonished me with just those words. It caught me by surprise, no one had ever been so firm with me before. I thought, “Oooh, I like that.” And just like that I fell for him. It’s hot when people stand up for themselves.

Assertiveness aside, there is another big attribute that sets my mom and I apart. She’s a mother and I’m not. It just happens to be where I am. I value my autonomy, and with the deep friendships I have, I’m fairly happy on my own. But I want more, I welcome it, and I love children. It’s ironic that “the girl that you marry” is not married, and seemingly far from it. There’s a sadness that I feel for my mom. Societal norms influenced her to marry, perhaps before she was ready. She didn’t have the choices I have. And I choose to hold out. It’s a different time and place today where I can do that.

Mom on her wedding day

But I still get the questions, asking, “How are you not married?” Because I don’t want to settle, I don’t want to get divorced, and I’d rather not see an ex for the rest of my life because we share a child together. All those things sound hard. Much harder than taking my time to find the right relationship — one with equal parts attraction, compatibility, fun and respect. I’ve learned from my parents that marriage is a big commitment with innumerable compromises. From my own experience, I know that being in love and having good intentions are hardly enough. While they’re a fine start, things that are out of one’s control play a big role. These things are otherwise known as life in general, and other human beings in particular! That said, when the stars line up, anything is possible. And I hope to have my own little teacher one day.

This lovelyl song by Glen Hansard sums up the feeling of waiting for that perfect love.