Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Meeting Lan Cao

If someone were to ask me about the person I most wanted to meet, living or dead, my answer would be unequivocally the same: Lan Cao. Unknown to American pop culture compared to the Bachelorette or the Kardashians, my heroine is somewhat of a celebrity in Asian-American literary circles.

She wrote the first novel about the immigrant experience from the Vietnamese perspective, weaving folk legends and war-torn memories of a divided nation with a young girl's coming of age in America. Monkey Bridge. I first became acquainted with her work back in 1999 and was immediately enthralled with her lucid prose and the transcendence of her words: bridging gaps between generations and realities, in essence telling a universal story for all of us hyphenated Vietnamese-Americans.

Daughter of the venerable South Vietnamese general Cao Van Vien, Lan is a woman of many talents. By day, she is an accomplished attorney who is currently teaching international and business law at the College of William and Mary. By night, er…early mornings preceding the dawn, she writes.

As fate would have it, we were acquainted. Her late father worked intimately with my grandfather back in the days of the Republic of Vietnam, and my mother actually remembered Lan in the French-run convent schools proper young girls attended back then. So we were both daughters of a fallen dynasty.

After a long email correspondence, I stopped by her home in Williamsburg. A beautiful woman opened the door and introduced herself. She resembled Vera Wang in her sheer elegance and simplicity. An equally exquisite little girl of eight or nine stood and stared at me unabashedly, as if she had no conception of fear. Lan kissed her, and introduced her daughter Harlan.

I was a bit tongue-tied and quite awed, but Lan chatted as if we had known each other for years and in many ways, perhaps we had. Recently returned from a trip to Vietnam where she and Harlan assimilated back into the native heritage, she spoke of letting go of the anger for the political regime in order to embrace your roots. It boiled her blood to see the Communists desecrate old monuments and symbols of Southern Democracy. Yet, she couldn't hate the land or the people, and the motherland continued to call to her in a mysterious way.

There was a liberation in Lan that I hadn't realized. In fact, Harlan's surname is Van Cao, an amalgam of her parent's surnames as surely as she is a melding of their flesh. She encouraged me to follow my heart, my writing, and to never be satisfied with the conventions of others. She also gave me the most useful advice about men and romance. How well a man treats a woman when he is courting her is not important; all men look deceptively charming and considerate. How he treats the woman that he leaves is profoundly more telling about his empathy, compassion, and true capacity to love you.

Harlan took to me, and guided me throughout the house, as it consisted of many rooms and I feared getting lost on the concise journey from the dining room to the bathroom. Dinner with them was lovely and her husband was a prestigious law professor, so prestigious that he seemed a pillar of contemporary legal and intellectual thought. I was intimidated, but he was so human and down to earth that I understood why Lan had fallen in love with him.

Then I returned to the Marriott, to the parking lot where I was camping out in my rental car, since I ran out of hotel points. I was poor and unemployed, remember? Well, Lan and her husband wouldn't have it. She called me and Harlan left me a message imploring me to come back to spend the night.

And I did. I spent the night in their spacious home, with the entire west wing all to myself.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Ghosts of Colonial Williamsburg

I stopped at Colonial Williamsburg to taste a piece of good old American history. Now, I never liked the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia since it was a glorified poster hall and everything (besides that cracked old bell) seemed one-dimensional. Williamsburg promised to be a living portrait of history, with the entire town operating the way it had three hundred years ago.

So it was. Complete with horse-drawn carriages and guides in colonial clothing, it was a step into the past. The apothecary was open, with lavender for fragrance, vinegar for flavorings, and iodine to prevent infections. Wigmakers demonstrated the onerous craft of creating a wig, the many months it took to perfect curls made of corn stalks and powdered to a dignified white for special occasions. There were concerts on the piano and harp, as well as grand balls held at the opulent Governor’s mansion in which glorious ladies and cavalier men danced the night away. This was where I fell in love with English country dancing, the elegant dance steps a la Jane Austen.

Near the Capitol building and the public gaol, there was a flurry of revolutionary activities like tar and feathering, as well as various patriotic proclamations that led to the Revolutionary War. There were simulated cases at the courthouse, including the very popular witch trial, and tours of the cannons, rifles, and bullets of the magazine.

Most interesting though, was that this quaint town was rumored to be haunted. Approximately half the staff who worked there believed that they had personally seen or heard a ghost. A blacksmith told me of someone turning on the faucets in an otherwise empty house and he found no one present when he searched the house. Another barmaid confessed that in King’s Arm Tavern, she witnessed the dartboard flying off the wall and hitting the head of one obnoxious guest who criticized the original d├ęcor of the place.

No one would be caught in the village at night and there were specific places to avoid. One was the Peyton Randolph house, one of the oldest buildings on the property. Apparently, a young soldier had died of illness on the premises and many claimed to see an apparition or heard heavy footsteps climbing the stairs. Another was the Wyeth house, where a certain Ann Skipwith had allegedly taken her life in the bedroom and locals believe her spirit never left.

Minions of the infamous pirate Blackbeard were known to haunt the streets through the sounds of old wooden carts. Nonetheless, I was assured, they were friendly ghosts. Small-time entrepreneurs even managed to make a profit from these supernatural happenings; numerous ghost tours inundated the average tourist.

Ghosts. Hauntings. Spirits of the past trapped in the present. I began thinking of the hauntings of our past, things that we had done and said that were regrettable and ultimately unforgettable. Such incidents spur guilt, an insidious beast which eats away at our authentic selves, until we become a shell of porous holes, unable to contain any exuberance or passion.

I remembered Roxanne, a big-boned bully who had “beat me up” in junior high. I ran into her at pharmacy four years ago, where she apologized profusely for the pain she’d caused me. She said that now she understood; she’d suffered from anxiety and depression and could not leave the house for a period of time. While I was picking up allergy medication, she was there for something more potent, a remedy to make her life stop hurting. I told her she needn’t be so hard on herself as I had forgiven her a long time ago. She responded in gratitude and relief, accompanied by tears of joy. She confided that she was incessantly haunted by the way she had treated me.

I realized that Roxanne was her own victim, far more than I ever was. So I was a bit shaken up, broken glasses, torn books, and endured a bit of social ostracism. I had moved on far more quickly than my perpetrator did.

Ghosts are more than the dead. Ghosts are the mistakes of the living, the reminders of what could or should have been, the bittersweet consequences of a decision gone awry. Ghosts are our greatest fears about ourselves and the most devastating truths which we are unable to face.

Ghosts are the scars of the soul. We all have them.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Dining and Dating Etiquette

It’s amazing what you can find out about a man from the way he eats. Being a foodie myself (yes, even when I am poor), I occasionally splurge on fine dining when my taste buds beckon and the savory smells of gourmet cuisine tease my olfactory senses.

So I was seeing this Christian scientist attorney who was really quite good company, and a politician to top it off. We had dinner probably monthly for a year, and he appeared to be well-versed in Asian cultures, particularly the custom of communal eating since his campaign partner was Chinese. We had whole fried fish in sweet tamarind sauce and jasmine rice in this rocking Thai joint. Since we had not ordered anything else, I assumed we would share it. Share it we did. I told him that the fish head was particularly tasty. Well, he promptly took the entire fish except the head, and plopped it on his plate. I was left with only the bony groupier head while he feasted on that succulent fish, never offering me a bite. (It was good as a delicacy, not quite as satisfactory as a meal). I never knew quite how to approach him again.

Another recent dining fiasco occurred with another lawyer, one who prided himself as head of the legal department at some local corporation. I recommended some hole-in-the-wall places with really good, inexpensive food, and he always refused to go. Instead, he had this habit of taking me to posh, happening restaurants and only ordering a teeny-tiny appetizer. He’d appraise my food meticulously and raise his eyebrow ever so slightly whenever I ordered more than he did. Now, I am a hearty eater and I can’t abide being with a man where I was not free to eat what I liked. It struck me that this guy was all about appearances. He wanted to be seen in a gorgeous, well-decorated restaurant with over-priced food, but he didn’t really want to eat there. And he wanted to limit my choices. Good riddance.

Then there was my uncle’s Tai-chi student, who pursued me through email after seeing my photo. Let’s say his name was Johnny. Well, Johnny said that I was not qualified to call him Johnny, since only those older than him could call him Johnny. I had to call him John. (Hello, I was actually older!) Being Chinese-Vietnamese, he apparently believed that my views were too liberal and outlandish. He even came to the conclusion that my opinions had no grounding and it was up to him to set me straight. (Uh, I may be mistaken here, but you are trying to get me to like you, right?) Needless to say, this guy never made it to the face-to-face stage.

I have also noticed that there is the mature man and immature man in dating. The mature man realizes that if the attraction is not mutual and chemistry is one-sided, it is time to move on. Nothing personal. The immature man lingers, thinking, “If she knew me better, she’d like me.” Or better yet, “I’ll make her want me.” This kind of dogged persistency is very dehumanizing, and yes, this is a bitter lesson we all had to learn, male or female.

Now I know what you are thinking: this is kind of harsh. Perhaps it is, but such is the fiber upon which first impressions are built. And we don’t get to impress anyone a second time.

P.S. I am still learning the intricacies of these social rules myself. One I had to learn the hard way.

Offer to pay for your dinner even when you don’t intend to. Now, I am an old-fashioned girl who believes that if a man asks her out on a date, it is the gentleman’s prerogative to foot the bill. What I’ve heard is that even the gentlemen appreciate someone’s offer to go dutch. I absolutely despise splitting the bill and would never do it unless I had no intention of seeing him again, so why do I have to pretend? Apparently, men like subterfuge.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Not Thinking in Words

For those who are bilingual, there is usually one language that predominates over the other. For the majority of my immigrant friends born in another country and educated in America, they would say “I think in English.” Their thoughts would be confined to one particular tongue, with all its connotations, implications, cultural influences, and related philosophies.

This concept never made sense to me. When they asked me, I never seemed to have a satisfactory reply because I never qualified my thinking that way. I didn’t know what “language” my thinking was in because my thoughts were often abstract that I struggled to express them in either medium (English or Vietnamese). Admittedly, I used to stutter because my thoughts would get caught in translation and often choke there.

After Bobbie left, I was resigned to the silence once again. Far from being resistant, I relished it. I noticed things. Fog settled along the path to the chapel in early morning, accentuating the monastery with an almost gothic appeal. Think the moors of England. Cows grazed in varying locations every day. I found bird’s nests and cocoons, shells that harbored tiny lives that would someday grace the sky with soft wings. Dawn and dusk were symphonies of shade and light. The suddenness of entirety, the way the final stroke of color completed the sunrise, never ceased to amaze me, more luminous than any painter’s palette.

Each day was different. Despite the monotony of activities (hiking, praying, walking), I was never struck by the sameness and it honestly never felt “the same.” The river told a distinct tale every afternoon and as the currents washed along the rocks, I heard music. The bamboo rustled and the horticulturalist’s pond boasted a variety of dragonflies and grasshoppers that no longer repulsed me.

Then it struck me. Without words, I had forgotten pronouns: I, you, us, they, it. Divisions that existed in words were no longer part of my consciousness, we were all one and I was part of everything. I was as connected to a dragonfly as I was to the trees and mountains as I was connected to my family, to the human race. My thoughts had surpassed, i.e. erased the concept of “me.” There was no need for the containment of an identity in a separate package of “me.” Identity was in relationship, in unity, in harmony with all creatures and inanimate surroundings, this thriving, living breath that touches all things.

Thinking comes from the mind and loving comes from the heart, and understanding is a melding of the two when we act with one mind and one heart that is not entirely our own. Theologically, I have always believed. Experientially, I felt something greater out there, a presence that yearns to connect with us in a peace and serenity that far exceeds mortal happiness. I have always named it God.

Now I know beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Another interesting discovery is the obliteration of words removes judgment. You accept the fact for what it is and nothing more. No preconceptions, no notions, no suppositions. For example, “It is raining.” Before the silence, my logical conclusions from the rain would be “oh no, that means a lot of traffic and potential flooding,” or “thank God, it’s been hot enough,” or “hope I brought an umbrella.” Now the rain just is.

I was surprised how much I unintentionally judged people before by the same principle, by interpreting the facts when the reality is that I just don’t know. I have learned that people are. Motivation may be an intellectually stimulating exercise, but it is not my place and certainly not the truth. Acknowledge their actions and move on. People just are.

I have become much happier not trying to figure everything out.