We arrived in Ithaca a short 50 minutes after we departed. I drove straight up to Collegetown, since we were planning on walking around Cornell’s campus before we headed over to my alma mater. We passed by the candy store that Mary used to work at, and I thought about Christmastime during our senior year, when I would hang out at the candy store while Mary was working, listening to Peter Bjorn and John, while cutting snowflakes for hours to hang in the window display.
“Let’s park in the garage. It’s only a few dollars, and it’ll be safe to leave our car there.” The only time my Mom doesn’t reason with money is when safety is in the equation.
I park the car several spots away from other cars. This is what my Dad usually does, because he’s extra paranoid about hit-and-runs. Then again, he’s been pretty unlucky and has had three people hit-and-run him in a parking lot over the past five years. Their car insurance is now ridiculously expensive.
My mom gets out of the car, and opens the backseat. She reaches for a bag and pulls out an extra pair of shoes and a coat.
“I’ll put on my winter jacket now, since we’ll be walking a little. I only brought my nice pea coat because I knew we would be meeting some of your professors and I wanted to look kind of nice.”
I smile and take her arm as we walk out of the parking lot up towards Cornell.
As we walk through Collegetown and up the hill towards Cornell’s main commons, a faint sound of rushing water comes closer and gets louder. Ithaca is full of these waterfall sounds.
“I love the sound of that water,” my mom says, as she stops in her path in the middle of the bridge. “It gives me lots of good memories about water.”
She tries to look over the bridge, but a cement wall and fence keep her from seeing much of the scenery. I can hardly see over the wall and down to the river, which means my mother, who is a good 8-9 inches shorter than me, doesn’t even stand a chance.
“You see it, mom?”
“Yes, just a little.”
We continue walking across the bridge, with the sound of water now at its maximum volume.
“Mom, you know a lot of Cornell kids have jumped here and committed suicide?” The moment after I say this, I wonder why I had said it. No mom wants to talk about this, but like some untamed words, they just came out on their own.
“Really? Wow… that’s so sad. See, it would be great if you got into school here, because you would be so close to home and you already know you love this town… but I would never want you to feel that much stress in school that you would think of suicide. See all the Asian students walking around? There are so many Asian parents who pressure their kids to do well in school, and look at what happens. No… I would never want you kids to feel that much stress or pressure in life. Remember that, okay?”
“Okay, mom. Don’t worry. I’m pretty good at controlling my stress.”
We walk for a few minutes longer up the hill, until the campus chapel comes into view. If you come from a Catholic Vietnamese family, you should know this is your parents’ favorite part of a campus tour.
We walk into the hauntingly beautiful, dimly-lit, Gothic-styled chapel. The wooden pews are casting these perfect calming shadows, and cheery red bows are adorning every corner. A sole, giant, decorated Christmas tree is standing in front near the altar, lit up under a warm-colored spot-light. I walk towards the back of the chapel up to the organist’s seat and take some photos while my mom sits in a pew. After a few moments, I walk towards her as she starts wiping away her tears.
“it’s nice in here, huh Mom? I think if I went to school here and ever got too stressed out, I’d come here to relax.”
“And I miss your grandfather too. You know, it was on the night of Christmas Eve that he went the hospital. And then only 6 days later he died. I remember seeing him watch me a lot the week before. I would be helping him cook or would be doing my homework, and I would see him out of the corner of my eye- just standing there. Standing still, and looking at me with such sad eyes. It was like he was thinking, ‘Poor Phuong. I can’t believe I have to leave her so soon. And then, she’ll be the one to take care of her siblings. She’ll have to grow up so fast…’ –Really, that’s what it felt like he was thinking…
…and every time I would turn to look at him, he would quickly look in the opposite direction and pretend he was doing something else. I can still remember his sad eyes so well. But he didn’t want me to see him like that.”
I smile, even though I know my mom’s story is a sad memory. I smile, because she took me there. She held my hand and walked me straight into that vivid memory of hers. It felt so nice and real.
“Mom, I think when everyone is home, we should start going through the basement to pick things out to donate to the Salvation Army. We have way too much stuff, and you know that. And it’ll be easier, when all your kids are home. We can help you and Dad move the heavy things.”
“I know… but you have to give me time, Hy. I know I have a lot of stuff, but you can’t force me to throw away things that I like.”
“Mom, you have so many things you don’t even remember you have them until you find them in a random shoebox.”
“Yes I know… I know… but I’m slowly going through my things. You know, I gave away a lot of things a couple months ago! I gave about three bags of old clothes to this one Vietnamese man who just started working in my department. He just moved here, has a wife and kids, and they’re really poor… but, every time I give him some of yours or your Dad’s old clothes, he’s always so grateful.”
“I know, Mom. And that’s exactly why we should give away more things, because we already have everything we need. Now we can give what we don’t need anymore to families who used to be like ours. I know you’re doing it slowly, but I just think we can do it faster when everyone’s home for Christmas…”
Helping my parents clean out the basement over Christmas was actually an idea my brother Hoang and I thought about last week. We thought about how our parents have been trying to clean it out for so long, but are probably just overwhelmed by the amount of work. However, the subject has to be approached very tactfully, because my Mom has a really hard time letting go of her things. And it makes sense, if you think about her or any of my other aunts’ or uncles’ backgrounds. They came over to this country without a single penny, and for years only had second-hand clothes and toys for us. They shopped exclusively at the Salvation Army. They’ve been bargain shoppers all of their lives and take pride in their possessions. And to this day, they never want to throw anything away because it would be a waste of money. Everything is a waste of money. Two centimeters of old milk in a jug is a waste of money. A gas station that charges 1 extra cent for every gallon of gas is a waste of money. A suit that no longer fits me is a waste of money, even if I was able to wear it for a good four years.
“Every day, I come home from work and I tell myself I’m going to do a little bit of cleaning, sorting, and organizing. But, every day, I’m always too tired after work to do anything. You know, when I was young, I used to work a double shift, come home, cook for the family, clean up, and then take care of you kids. I used to have a lot more energy to do things. I just don’t have that energy anymore, Hy.”
Ah. A theme that I regularly think and get extremely emotional about: old age. I think about how I can’t remember my mom very well during her younger years. I can’t remember when my parents didn’t have diabetes. I can only remember when my mom had 1-2 gray hairs that I could pick out for five cents each on a long car ride, as opposed to the 100 she has now. And for the first time in my life, I could imagine how much of a machine my mom used to be. My mom is still that strong, confident, and energetic leader she probably once was, only trapped in a tired, aged body. I finally realize where I get so much of my perseverance and diligence from.
“Just think about it, okay Mom? If you want our help cleaning, then we’ll help. Just think about it.”
“Oh, no… I forgot Mom. It’s okay. It’s not that important,” I replied.
“Oh… what a waste. I left it on the stairs, but forgot to tell you to grab it on the way out… Well, if you see a CVS on the way, stop so I can buy some more. I should have gotten more, you know. They were only 2 for $8! And they were Whitman’s brand. I see American people eating that brand of chocolate all the time. I was thinking of wrapping a box for Joe, so he had something to unwrap on Christmas…”
“Yeah, Mom. People like Whitman’s chocolate a lot,” I replied, while actually wondering whether or not Whitman’s was a good brand of chocolate. My mom gets such a kick out of getting quality for a bargain though, that I didn’t want to rain on her parade. These kinds of “better to be supportive than not” situations happen often with my Mom and I.
It was 9:00a.m. It was one of those all too common, gloomy-gray upstate NY winter days that was cold enough to have snow, but curiously didn’t. Later in life, I would come to realize that all Upstate New Yorkers like to complain about these kinds of days and talk incessantly about how weird the weather is for this time of year. What’s astonishing is that they would do this without realizing that the weather has been messed up around here for the past five to ten years.
My Mom and I were headed towards Ithaca, driving on the back-roads over acres of hilly farmland and through several one-main-street villages. This year, my mom’s company is making every one of their employees use all their extra vacation days before 2012. In previous years, they would allow a total of four weeks of vacation to roll over, but this year the limit was two weeks. However, in my mom’s typical, truly flexible and grateful fashion, she doesn’t once complain about the new rule, still voices how thankful she is that she still has a job, and schedules the few extra days off contently. Thus, she came to Ithaca with me for some graduate school application errands.
The Christmas radio station starts going static as we ascend a steep hill surrounded by dead winter farmland. The Jackson Five’s version of “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” starts to slowly fade in and out as an unrecognizable, classic rock song slowly fights to overcome it. I thought about my friends, Nathan and Jake, who I remember mentioning how much they enjoy the sound of static or a loop on a scratched record. It was a pretty pleasing sound.
My Mom’s Christmas song humming starts to get quiet, and I try to find another Christmas radio station for her.
“So, that computer you just bought… just think of that as a Christmas present from Di Ut.” Di Ut was my aunt (my mom’s youngest sister) who committed suicide last year while I was in Vietnam. “Di Ut” literally translates to “Youngest Aunt,” which is what the kids always called her when we were little.
“Okay, mom. I will.”
“…poor Di Ut,” my Mom says as she takes a deep breathe.
“Christmas Time is Here” from Charlie Brown Christmas starts playing on the radio. I feel a sudden sadness come into the atmosphere.
“…You know Di Ut is in a good place now, right Mom? You know she’s not stuck in limbo or something. The Vietnamese Church might say she is, but the new Church believes in a merciful God. God wouldn’t do that to her. Hoang and I were actually talking last week about you and Dad, and the aunts and uncles, and how sad it is that you don’t think she’s made it to heaven.”
I take a sip of water. I know that I don’t actually believe in Catholic traditions very strongly anymore, but I do know how to speak my mom’s language. And I speak this way, because I know my mom finds the strongest comfort from her religion. It’s how she can relate to the world.
“God wouldn’t do that to her, Mom. And you know that one distant relative, who saw Di Ut’s ghost looking sad at Amanda’s wedding? Well, personally, I don’t think that means Di Ut needs more prayers to get to heaven. I think that just means she probably misses us, Mom, just as we miss her.”
My Mom takes a moment to think before she responds.
“Yeah. Maybe you’re right… but, I still miss her so much. And I wish I was able to spend more time with her. She was so young when her Dad died. I felt so bad for her. She never really knew her Dad.”
My mom gazes out the window.
“You know, every week, your grandpa would give us 30,000VND for food to eat. And Di Mai and I would always use some of it, but try to save most of it. Every week, we’d be able to save a little bit. But, Di Ut, she would always spend all of it! She just knew she had to spend it on food, so she did. She was too young to know how to use her money.” My mom giggles.
“I have to tell you- something weird happened last night. While I was lying in bed, I was thinking about Di Ut, about how I wish I spent more time with her when I was little. But, you know, when my Dad died, I was only just a teenager… and Di Ut was only 5. And when he died, I had to drop out of school and start working to make money for the family. And I never had time to play with Di Ut.”
"I’m sure Di Ut knows and appreciates what you did for the family, Mom. I’m sure she understands."
”…But, I still feel so bad. I felt so bad as I fell asleep last night… But then in my dream, I saw her. I saw Di Ut! But she was a young Di Ut, around 5 years old. And I was so happy to see her, because we could finally play… and I played the airplane game with her. I laid on my back and lifted her in the air like an airplane with my feet, and we were laughing and laughing and having so much fun… And it felt like we spent the whole entire night playing with each other.”
“That sounds like a really nice dream, Mom.”
“I wish I could have dreamed for longer.”
“You’ll see her in your dreams again soon, Mom. Don’t worry.”
“Not the artist alone, but every creative individual whatsoever owes all that is greatest in his life to fantasy. The dynamic principle of fantasy is *play,* a characteristic also of the child, and as such it appears inconsistent with the principle of serious work. But without this playing with fantasy no creative work has ever yet come to birth. The debt we owe to the play of imagination is incalculable. It is therefore short-sighted to treat fantasy, on account of its risky or unacceptable nature, as a thing of little worth. It must not be forgotten that it is just in the imagination that a man’s highest value may lie.”—Carl Jung
Approximately every four years, I give a computer-angel a set of wings, and upgrade to a brand new computer-child. This event usually marks the end of an era and the beginning of a new hope that maybe, just maybe, this new computer will be organized better than the previous one…
With my past three computers, I always end up acquiring too much; too many unsorted photos, .mp3’s without proper documentation, and documents scattered all over the place. And it keeps piling on and on, until I have to resort to avoidance tactics.
Well, now that I’ve gotten much better with my organization skills, I am determined to transfer all of my past digital lives to this current computer, organize it efficiently from the start, and make this my healthiest computer yet. That means, I’m going to organize my photos, music, and documents as they come and never let them linger on my desktop limbo ever again. I will stop keeping so many tabs open and use bookmarks more wisely instead. Also, photo editing will happen in a timely fashion, and I will no longer let myself get weeks behind.
Welp, before I can even get started on those resolutions, I have to focus on the past… and my God, have I spent some time on the computer these past four years.
Turns out, I have 70G of photos, 40G of music, 30G of video, and 20G of documents to sort through. 20G of documents? How is that even possible? Aren’t word documents less than 50KB?
Deep breathes. I’ll be a better man if I can get through this.
Your Individualization theme leads you to be intrigued by the unique qualities of each person. You are impatient with generalizations or “types” because you don’t want to obscure what is special and distinct about each person. Instead, you focus on the differences between individuals. You instinctively observe each person’s style, each person’s motivation, how each thinks, and how each builds relationships. You hear the one-of-a-kind stories in each person’s life. This theme explains why you pick your friends just the right birthday gift, why you know that one person prefers praise in public and another detests it, and why you tailor your teaching style to accommodate one person’s need to be shown and another’s desire to “figure it out as I go.” Because you are such a keen observer of other people’s strengths, you can draw out the best in each person. This Individualization theme also helps you build productive teams. While some search around for the perfect team “structure” or “process,” you know instinctively that the secret to great teams is casting by individual strengths so that everyone can do a lot of what they do well.
Things happen for a reason. You are sure of it. You are sure of it because in your soul you know that we are all connected. Yes, we are individuals, responsible for our own judgments and in possession of our own free will, but nonetheless we are part of something larger. Some may call it the collective unconscious. Others may label it spirit or life force. But whatever your word of choice, you gain confidence from knowing that we are not isolated from one another or from the earth and the life on it. This feeling of Connectedness implies certain responsibilities. If we are all part of a larger picture, then we must not harm others because we will be harming ourselves. We must not exploit because we will be exploiting ourselves. Your awareness of these responsibilities creates your value system. You are considerate, caring, and accepting. Certain of the unity of humankind, you are a bridge builder for people of different cultures. Sensitive to the invisible hand, you can give others comfort that there is a purpose beyond our humdrum lives. The exact articles of your faith will depend on your upbringing and your culture, but your faith is strong. It sustains you and your close friends in the face of life’s mysteries.
You love to learn. The subject matter that interests you most will be determined by your other themes and experiences, but whatever the subject, you will always be drawn to the process of learning. The process, more than the content or the result, is especially exciting for you. You are energized by the steady and deliberate journey from ignorance to competence. The thrill of the first few facts, the early efforts to recite or practice what you have learned, the growing confidence of a skill mastered—this is the process that entices you. Your excitement leads you to engage in adult learning experiences—yoga or piano lessons or graduate classes. It enables you to thrive in dynamic work environments where you are asked to take on short project assignments and are expected to learn a lot about the new subject matter in a short period of time and then move on to the next one. This Learner theme does not necessarily mean that you seek to become the subject matter expert, or that you are striving for the respect that accompanies a professional or academic credential. The outcome of the learning is less significant than the “getting there.
You are a conductor. When faced with a complex situation involving many factors, you enjoy managing all of the variables, aligning and realigning them until you are sure you have arranged them in the most productive configuration possible. In your mind there is nothing special about what you are doing. You are simply trying to figure out the best way to get things done. But others, lacking this theme, will be in awe of your ability. “How can you keep so many things in your head at once?” they will ask. “How can you stay so flexible, so willing to shelve well-laid plans in favor of some brand-new configuration that has just occurred to you?” But you cannot imagine behaving in any other way. You are a shining example of effective flexibility, whether you are changing travel schedules at the last minute because a better fare has popped up or mulling over just the right combination of people and resources to accomplish a new project. From the mundane to the complex, you are always looking for the perfect configuration. Of course, you are at your best in dynamic situations. Confronted with the unexpected, some complain that plans devised with such care cannot be changed, while others take refuge in the existing rules or procedures. You don’t do either. Instead, you jump into the confusion, devising new options, hunting for new paths of least resistance, and figuring out new partnerships—because, after all, there might just be a better way.
You see the potential in others. Very often, in fact, potential is all you see. In your view no individual is fully formed. On the contrary, each individual is a work in progress, alive with possibilities. And you are drawn toward people for this very reason. When you interact with others, your goal is to help them experience success. You look for ways to challenge them. You devise interesting experiences that can stretch them and help them grow. And all the while you are on the lookout for the signs of growth—a new behavior learned or modified, a slight improvement in a skill, a glimpse of excellence or of “flow” where previously there were only halting steps. For you these small increments—invisible to some—are clear signs of potential being realized. These signs of growth in others are your fuel. They bring you strength and satisfaction. Over time many will seek you out for help and encouragement because on some level they know that your helpfulness is both genuine and fulfilling to you.
My sister-in-law, Christy, just sent me this extremely entertaining online “StrengthsFinder” test made by StrengthsQuest that she’s also used with many of her students and co-workers. The test helps you identify your five most dominant themes of talent (of the 34 themes measured) called your “signature themes.”
"Your Signature Themes are very important in maximizing the talents that lead to your successes. By focusing on your Signature Themes, separately and in combination, you can identify your talents, build them into strengths, and enjoy personal and career success through consistent, near-perfect performance."
After finishing it, I was astounded at how accurate, indicative, and informative the evaluation was- not only in regards to my perceived strengths, but even my personality and life’s philosophy. It’s as if it was some cheesy horoscope reading… gone absolutely right.
For documenting purposes, I’ve decided to immortalize my five signature themes on my blog as personal reminders to constantly celebrate and utilize these strengths…
[I have a feeling I’m going to be very busy in Vietnam this Spring/Summer.]
I recently discovered that for the past few years, both my sister-in-law and brother have been involved with strength-based leadership development with their students. A strength-based perspective basically embraces the identification and cultivation of each individual’s strengths and abilities, rather than focusing on “what’s wrong.” It’s an approach that’s fueled by the belief that every individual, no matter how distressed, compromised, or “high risk” they are, has strengths.
What I didn’t realize until now was that this philosophy is exactly what Ai and I have been trying to encourage and instill within our kids in the children’s shelter over the past few years… and it’s been a long, difficult struggle given the stubbornness and tradition of the Vietnamese psyche, which consequently hinders on both young leadership development and acceptance of innovative developmental approaches.
In Vietnam, there’s a strong focus on developmental intervention youth programs for two complete extremes: the “gifted and talented” and the most unfortunate mentally/physically disabled & financially disadvantaged. However, there’s very little for those kids who landed somewhere in the middle: the intermediate, the mediocre, and the average. Unfortunately, most of the kids who were once in extremely unfortunate situations, but are trying to transition towards better living conditions (i.e. kids in children’s shelters) have difficulty rising above the Vietnamese societal standard of mediocrity. And as much as Ai and I have been trying to encourage, inspire, praise, challenge, restore, and strengthen these kids so that they can reach their full potential… every once in a while, we’re reminded of how difficult it really is to break a cultural psyche. Teaching these kids to believe in themselves in a society that doesn’t fully believe in them is easier said than done.
Well, we’re not going to give up just yet. Because of one fateful dose of “duyên,” we somehow both ended up at the same children’s shelter, developed many of the same passions, and are now pursuing very similar academic fields. Probably the most serendipitous and fortunate part is that we’re interested in different, yet complimentary aspects of community development and youth empowerment. Ai is more focused on the strategic content of innovative developmental intervention programs, while I’m more interested in understanding the psychological development of high-risk youth in changing economic and cultural contexts.
Looks like our preliminary research will begin this Spring. My Vietnam homesickness is now completely overshadowed by my excitement for life.