Archive for January, 2011

My Lai

PBS’s American Experience re-examines the massacre at My Lai.

What drove a company of American soldiers — ordinary young men from around the country — to commit the worst atrocity in American military history? Were they “just following orders” as some later declared? Or, did they break under the pressure of a vicious war in which the line between enemy soldier and civilian had been intentionally blurred? AMERICAN EXPERIENCE focuses on the 1968 My Lai massacre, its subsequent cover-up, and the heroic efforts of the soldiers who broke ranks to try to halt the atrocities, and then bring them to light.

You can watch it here.


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The show-offs

Random white guy approaches me and taps me on the shoulder.

The conversation went something like this:

“Where you from?” he smiles.

“I was born in Vietnam,” I reply.

“Do you speak Vietnamese?” he asks.

“No, I was adopted and grew up here,” I say.

Proudly, rambles off something in Vietnamese.

“I have no idea what you’re saying.  I was brought here when I was six months old and only know English,” I elaborate.

“That’s too bad.  I speak more Vietnamese than you,” he grins, “I learned it real good when I was over there.”

Rambles more random Vietnamese phrases.

I put my hands in my pockets so he doesn’t see that my fists are clenched.

Rambles more Vietnamese.

I scan the immediate vicinity and entertain the idea of dropping this rude mofo right then and there.  One punch is all it would take.  Nah, not worth the trouble.

“You sure you don’t speak none?” he asks again.

Thinking:  No, but if you can tell me how to say f*** off in Vietnamese, I’ll gladly repeat it.

Instead, I let sarcasm take over, “You must be very proud of yourself.  Not that I can tell, but I bet your Vietnamese is better than your English.”

And I walk away.

What is up with that shit?  The same scenario has repeated itself at least three times in the last month or so.  If people like that want to show off, they should do it in front of someone who can appreciate it.  I don’t.

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Epilogue for 2010

It’s one of those moments when I have so much to say, but the right words seem hard to come by.  Lately, there were times my mind seemed so heavy with thought that I feared my brain would collapse.  I’d end up disappearing from sight as I sank into my own personal black hole.  Bye bye, Sume.

The holidays were good to the kids and I this year.  We managed to have a “real” Thanksgiving and Christmas complete with all the trimmings.  It’s not that I’m big on those particular holidays, but I think I missed the tradition.  Having played a major role in providing it for myself and my children added extra meaning.

I crossed into the new year and my 41st year quietly as I had intended.  Instead of celebrating, I preferred to take the time to just relax, spend some time with my family and contemplate the previous year.  The only damper was running into my adoptive father at work on New Year’s eve.

I heard my name being called and turned around to see him and my step-mother standing there.  I smiled and greeted them both.  My step-mother smiled and said hello.  My adoptive father looked at my name badge, pointed at it and said, “What’s that?”

“My name,” I replied still trying to smile.

“No it’s not,” he said coldly.

No longer feeling the need to justify myself to him, I decided to ignore his disapproval and turned to my step-mother to ask how she was.  We had a brief conversation about what and how everyone was doing.  I said goodbye to my stepmother.  They left.

I’d be lying if I said the encounter didn’t bother me.  I’m sure the rift between us will always be a source of sadness.  After they’d gone, I realized I hadn’t really even looked at my adoptive father.  I don’t think I can really look at him anymore – or maybe it’s more appropriate for me to say I can’t really see him now.   After all that’s happened, I no longer view him from the perspective of a daughter.  To be honest, I don’t know how he fits into my world – if at all.

During the short drive home, I tried to shake off the experience.  Maybe it’s selfish of me, but I wanted to observe the arrival of the new year in quiet celebration of having survived the previous year.  It wasn’t the time to hash over my shortcomings, and that’s what my adoptive father always made me think of – failure.

But I’d realized that his disappointment stemmed from whether I’d succeeded at the things he’d wanted in the way he’d wanted them.  Anything outside his expectations was either a failure or not worth noticing.  This might be an issue with many children and their parents; but if I take into account the added layer of my adoption, the hit on my self esteem doubles.  Not only was I a failure as a daughter, but as a human being as well.  It was as if he were constantly saying I had been a waste – not worth the expense, not worth trouble.  Fail.

The day I stopped viewing myself through his eyes and stopped seeking his approval was the day I began to feel my own worth.  It had been the same situation in my marriage.  Twice trapped and lucky enough to have escaped twice, what choice did I really have if I were to keep any sense of self worth?  I ceased to give a damn about what either one of them thought.


Restless, I walked out and sat on the stairs.  It was 4am, New Year’s day.  I sat shivering in fuzzy, pink plaid pajama pants and a plush, burgundy house robe.  The air had grown colder since I’d come home from work, but it felt good.  It was strange how the cold I once detested didn’t seem to bother me so much anymore.  Maybe it had something to do with my age.  Maybe it was was all the changes.  I mean, after all I’d been through, the cold had become the least of my worries.

It was around this time two years ago that I moved to Texas and around this time last year that I moved out of my adoptive father’s house.  That might explain why I was suddenly feeling restless.  It was as if some part of my subconscious had jumped to attention as if to ask, “What’s going to happen this time?”

My insides felt heavy with emptiness as I thought back over the entirety of my life.  Those old “if only’s” began to scroll before my mind’s eye like an electronic ticker tape.  If only I’d kept my eyes closed and just played along.  If only I’d kept pretending to be the dutiful daughter, the pious wife.  If only I had kept my memory short and ignored the obvious.  If only I’d ignored the lies, the patriarchy, the misogyny, the misuse of religion, the manipulation.  If only I hadn’t learned to see through the hypocritical justifications.  If only I hadn’t learned to deprogram myself.  I could have lived the happy dream in oblivion.

No, not that again.  I should be celebrating.  There was no time for regrets and no room for self-doubt.  But even as I mentally and spiritually renewed my sense of purpose, I knew my heart and mind would (just as they’d always done) repeat this conversation until the day I died.

It’s human nature to ask those “what if” questions and to speculate on the unknowable.  Again, it was about finding a balance.  Questioning to the point of inaction hinders progress, but not to question oneself at all would point to a bloated ego.

This was one of the many lessons I’d learned and in some cases, had to re-learn over the last couple of years.  This was, after all, something I’ve come to think was more important than either “success” or “failure”.   What did I learn?  Had I applied previous knowledge successfully or had pounded into my thick skull once again?


My adoption would always, in some sense, flow into my existence, but it was I who chose how it shaped me as a human being.  It’s something so obvious and self-explanatory and yet, was something I had to learn. As a sentient being, I had been taught that self-determination was a “God-given right”, but that had somehow not extended down to my adopted self.  Why?

I could fill pages and pages in an attempt to answer that question, but would rather sum it up by saying, “I allowed it to happen, because I didn’t know any better.”   My brain didn’t possess the tools to recognize what was happening.  Afterward, even though  I had opened my eyes, I lacked the sense of empowerment to do anything about it.

Whether it was due to my parents, society or my own sense of helplessness, the shadow of my adoption seemed to say, “We saved you, and now you must prove you are worthy according to our standards.”  It was never said directly, but was in actions that contradicted words and in words left unspoken.

I’ve jumped from one side of the fence to the other most of my life.  Fear of disapproval and rejection ruled one moment and then outright rebellion when the frustration became unbearable.  Guilt over ingratitude would gradually creep in, and I’d be back where I started.  The cycle would repeat itself over and over again until I could do nothing but sit there and feel defeated.

The decision to end the repetition was like a gradual awakening from a deep coma.  At first, I couldn’t tell whether I was awake or asleep.  In truth, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to be awake.  There were times when I wanted nothing more than to keep my eyes clamped shut.  Even so, I could still perceive from behind my closed lids, the luminous reality that I was living a lie.


“Romantic love can be like one of those pitcher plants,” I told my friend, “Once you’re tempted to fall over the edge, it will digest you until there’s nothing left.”

“That’s your history talking,” she said, “So you were in a bad marriage.  It’s not like you won’t find someone else.”

“Finding someone else isn’t the problem,” I laughed, “I’m not looking for someone else.  And yes, it is experience talking.”

“That doesn’t mean you need to give up on the whole thing,” she frowned.

“Just because I’m not pursuing a relationship like it’s all there is doesn’t mean I gave up on the idea,” I argued.

“Whatever.” she huffed.

Sometimes, I wasn’t sure if she was arguing with me or herself.  She hadn’t been in a relationship or had any prospects of one since I’d known her.  I can point to no obvious reason why other than the unapproachable demeanor she wore like a second skin.  Like me, she’d developed a thick hide in order to protect herself – though her circumstances and reasons differed from my own.

She was vocal about her desire for a companion but I wondered if she hadn’t built her defenses up to the point where they were impenetrable even for her.  I had strategically constructed my fortress with a hidden door to be used at will.  For me, the problem had been learning when and how much to open the door.

Of course, I could be wrong.  This was how I perceived us.  Perhaps we were both seeing each other through our own eyes rather than how they really were.  How could she know that all my defenses were strengthened by the kind of love you only find once in a lifetime?  Barely perceptible, yet eternally strong, it was the kind of love that bound souls rather than “hearts” and fused atoms rather than bodies.   How could she know that when she spoke of “love”, I pictured something entirely different than her romantic version?

Perhaps it was romantic in its own way.  It had, after all, helped to set me free from so much conventional thinking.  It had kept my vision clear enough to recognize when I was walking into another trap and likewise when I was inadvertently leading others into one.  It had given me strength enough to cut the rope when it threatened to hang us both.  Love should strengthen and set two people free, and I refused to be the siren just as resolutely as I refused to be lured into the kind of  “love”  that consumed one from the inside out.

But it wasn’t that I had written off romantic relationships altogether either.  As I told her, I just wasn’t looking.  I didn’t share her sense of urgency.  I have yet to fully become “my own person” and until I do, any romantic relationship would be a threat to my sense of self.  My adoption had taught me that I needed other people to validate my existence.  That had translated into needing another person to make me feel complete.  TRA Survival 101 – Learn to recognize your own worth.  You do not need a savior.

To lose is to gain…

The one question I never took into account which I wish I had just for the sake of being prepared was, “Am I willing to pay the price?”  My adoption had also taught me that in order to gain something, you have to give up something.  Life is like one big flea market where the prices are never set and what you think you’re getting and receiving aren’t necessarily what they seem.  Perhaps it’s better that way.

Had I actually thought about it too hard, I might never have gone forward.  From the point of view of my comfortable illusion, the price might have seemed too high.  If I made a list of all that I’ve had to give up, of all that I’ve lost in order to reach this point in time, the list would go on and on.  Not only that, but more importantly, the path I chose has affected all those around me.  Will we all be the better for it later?  Who can say?

What I can say is that I am immensely proud of the way my children have adapted and remained strong throughout all the adversity.  Just like any self-critical parent, my one regret is the negative affects their parents’ choices have had on their young lives.  If I were to humble myself before anyone, it is to them that I owe a great debt of love and yes, apologies for my shortcomings as a parent.

Likewise, I hope they gain something positive from watching their mother struggle against her self-doubt, her fear and against the odds to simply…become.  The world out there can be cold and harsh, but sanctuary can be found from both within and without.  I hope they come to understand that you may need the help of other people along the way, but first, you need to learn to rely on yourself.

I hope they know that they aren’t and never have to be alone; that they are and will be truly and deeply loved.  Sometimes, that will feel like a good thing and sometimes a bad thing, but they should know they are worthy of love as they are.  Respect is something you earn, but love is something that grows.

For all the adoptees out there still struggling to be. Much love to you all.

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