#TenYearsLater Dinner Time

Reflections of my #TenYearAnniversary to Korea :

I believe I’ve shared this story once on Facebook several years ago, and have only told a few people prior. I often struggle with sharing this particular story because this one feels very sacred to me. It is perhaps the only story that I’ve written where I’ve openly wept, and unable to bring this story on a storytelling format. So here’s a recap from that post with my own updated version:

“Back in my old teaching days of Korea, I dealt with the weekday chaos and blessings of 700 middle school boys, and somehow lived to tell about it. During break time, I would see students playfully wrestle and chase one another in the hallway, nearly knocking me as I’m bringing my laptop to the next classroom shortly followed by another student that decided to do the “ddong jim” (a common prank where a student puts 2 fingers together and pokes you in the butt). Of course, this would elicit a very agitated, soul-grabbing takedown of that student from me. Nevertheless, I felt like a big brother to many of my students even though there were many days where I wanted to just throw them out my classroom window. At the end of the day, I wanted to run back to my apartment, turn on my iPod and rest my voice for the next day.

One day when I was in the school office, I saw one of my students crying to my Korean co-teacher. I later asked her what happened.. She told me that he had been living by himself in his own home. His mom disappeared, and his dad would only come home twice a month. As a 7th grader, he was home alone and had to make meals by himself, and do his own housework. One day, his father changed the entry lock into their home. My student called the police, and when they confronted his father, he told them that he didn’t know who he was—right in front of his own son..

My student tearfully told my co-teacher that he had no future, and didn’t feel anyone loved him. I was so shaken hearing this. I knew in my mind that there had to be something that i could do. I remembered just randomly blurting out to her, “I can take him out for dinner after school sometimes.” My co-teacher paused and looked at me, and said, “Are you sure you want to do that?” I became a little hesitant because it was not my job to be a savior and rescue him out of a terrible situation. Then I remembered the impact that a few of my teachers did for me when they took me under their wings when I would get bullied by my white classmates and when I was secretly contemplating suicide after dealing with not just the bullying, but also the constant shaming from my dad. For my student, I was hoping to at least give him a reason to trust an adult when the ones in his life were abandoning him. I was concerned about what his situation could potentially lead him down to.

My co-teacher complied and she asked him if it was okay for me to hang out with him. He would agree to my request.

I never had him in my class since he was in a lower-level English class. He barely spoke English, and I was not exactly conversational in Korean either. During my first dinner with him, I took him out to a Korean barbecue place, I was amazed by his mannerisms and politeness despite the absence of his parents. We mostly communicated by hand gestures and one word replies in English or Korean. He was shy yet so kind. Each week, I took him out to different local places nearby. We never had a full conversation, but the food we had, at least made us feel comfortable with our limited interactions.

One night, his father threw him out of the house in the middle of the night and he was forced to sleep in the school playground. My co-teacher found out about it and he had to be moved into an orphanage. I would still continue to do my once-a-week dinner with him. Despite his own challenges, he still remained the ever-so-kind, gentle, and polite kid each time I was with him. I remembered the excitement he felt when he did well in his English class that I didn’t teach in. As time went on, he became like a little brother to me, but then, less than a year later, I made the decision to not renew my contract with my school, and I was ready to go back home.

For me, to tell him that I was going back home was personally devastating to me. It’s not just that we would no longer be able to continue our routine, but that “going home” was not an option for him, as it was for me.

In our final dinner together (frankly, I couldn’t even remember the restaurant or what we had for dinner because I was dreading to say my goodbye to him). I gave him my farewell gift which included a notebook, pens and a short thank you letter written in hangeul. I escorted him to the subway station. As I was about to say my goodbye to him, I saw him wiping his tears. The first few tears came down on one side of my cheek as I quietly uttered “goodbye’ to him. I briefly hugged him and I quickly walked away without ever looking back. As I did, those tears continued and they never stopped until I reached home 10 minutes later.

It has now been 7 years since I’ve seen or heard from him. The beauty of social media has allowed me to keep in touch with several of my students, but with him, I still don’t know what has become of him. I often wonder if he was still able to carry the same kind mannerisms he had, and if he is able to find a way to be on his own, or whether he was able to have a relationship with his parents. Those are questions that I may hope to have answered one day, but as I reflect on this particular chapter in my former expat life, I am grateful that I was able to have that connection with him, and that despite his own barriers, he never lost the ability to be loving and kind. I am fortunate to be on the receiving end of his kindness. I’m just hoping that someone will offer that to him.

#TenYearsLater

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American Greed

I shared a story that I once swore I would never talk about again but after watching my former boss Seth Gillman on CNBC’s American Greed. My silence had to end….

The Name That Could Have Been

“You should learn how to speak Vietnamese”.  “Why can’t you speak your language?” “You should try to learn it”

“You should learn how to speak Khmer”  “Why can’t you speak your language?” “You should try to learn it.”

“Why don’t you get married to a beautiful Vietnamese girl?” “Why don’t you get married to a Khmer woman or any Asian girl?”  “But wait, don’t marry with a Filipino girl” “Why don’t you marry someone who can take of your mom?”

“Where are you from?”  but “Where are you really from?”

“You speak very good English”   “You’re an English major? I would never imagine you doing that.”

“Your last name is Kim, but  you are not Korean” “How does that happen?”

“I like Asian men.  Can I ask you if you are a bottom?”

These are the questions that come from my family members, the Vietnamese and Cambodian-American community, the taxi cab drivers, hotel clerks, wait staff when I was in Vietnam, older white folks, the 3 years that I spent in Korea and from random Korean folks here, and of course, from random gay men who have an appetite for the Asian skin that seek me out on Tinder, Jack’d, OKCupid, and Grindr

These are the questions that spray bullets into my queer Southeast Asian-American existence, some penetrating into my brown flesh, some penetrating into my queerness, some penetrating into my psyche, but all of them penetrating into my heart.

I was born as Randy Kim, a name that does not reflect my Vietnamese and Cambodian heritage.  The last name “Kim” which is a common Korean last name, was never my dad’s true last name. It was simply given to him when he was sponsored through a refugee program when he came to the US after escaping Cambodia.

Randy is the name that I carried since birth. I found out recently from my mom that my dad was going to name me “Rady” which would have been my Cambodian name but he was scared that the kids would make fun of me.  Who knew that a one letter difference can create such a fear?

Living through my name,  I often struggled to know where my place was within my own family, the communities that my family was a part of,  my peers that I went to school with, the places that I have worked at, and with those within my own social circle.

Whenever I hear questions of where am I really from?  I ask this same question to myself which leads to the next question, “Where do I belong?”  

I remembered going to Vietnamese and Cambodian related events, and having been told that either I’m too dark to be Vietnamese, or too Vietnamese looking to older Cambodian folks. Through the two ethnicities that I share, both Vietnam and Cambodia have long been historical rivals for years.  Growing up, it was not uncommon for me to hear anti-Vietnamese sentiments from my own Cambodian side of the family and hearing it vice versa on my Vietnamese side of the family I saw myself as the bastard child of my family, and made myself believed that I could never be accepted by either.

And of course, being queer sure as hell didn’t help matters.

Through my childhood, I was one of a few minority kids in my school out in the Chicago western suburbs. There was the expectation of having to assimilate quickly into a society that my parents knew very little of, and unable to offer guidance on how to navigate in an environment with people that did not look like us. I was unable to learn my parents’ native language early on, and was pushed to use English as it was part of the goal in trying to succeed academically and having a shot at a future which was denied to my parents.

But in the path of reaching these goals, it was often thwarted by my struggle to fit in with my peers.  I stood out from the rest of my peers from the way I looked and acted, and sometimes that resulted in hearing racial slurs and other jokes that came at my expense.  I also discovered in my teens that would terrify me. I was starting to realize that I am gay. I was fearful because for the longest time, I had been taught from my family that being gay was never to be tolerated, and it carried through in the attitudes of my peers in my community. I remembered Matthew Sheppard, a young gay man died of a hate crime because of his sexuality. When my High school English teacher brought it up, I remembered my classmates were laughing and one of them commented that he deserved it. It is those words that would haunt me and would keep me in the closet in the years to come

So here I was as a teen, struggling to find people to accept my multi-ethnic identity, would also be struggling for others to accept my queerness on top of it.

I fast forward 20 years later, and here I am, surviving, thriving, engaging, struggling, laughing, and existing.  The intersectionalities that I carry through all of these identities as a queer Southeast Asian American can be very heavy and back-breaking to walk around with, but these intersections of my life have also been gifts and opportunities for me.  It gave me the opportunity to expand my empathy,  deepen my connections with people that i have intersected with through similar identities and backstories, and learning to transition from my own self-hatred to embody myself with the love and care I rightfully deserve. 

The 2nd generation of folks that came after our parents’ arrival should no longer be seen as, “Not enough” for their parent’s homeland, and our homeland.  The queer / trans identity that we carry should not be seen as a burden, or another part we have to explain about. The combination of additional intersectionalities in regards to our race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, physical / mental health should not be an added threat to our survival. 

I sometimes wonder what impact my life would have been, had my name been Rady instead of Randy, or if I was born in either of my parent’s homeland, or what my life could have been like had I been straight.  

The name Randy may have had some bruises and dents along the journey, but it has traveled many miles, and seen its shares of beauty, connection, and solitude.  I am confident that Randy  has got more than enough miles to finish the journey.

What do you call yourself?

I was asked by a fellow Vietnamese person after the show of whether I consider myself more in touch with my Khmer than Vietnamese, or vice-versa?

I said “Neither.” I don’t consider myself one or the other, even though the last 2 years, I’ve been more associated with the Cambodian community through my volunteering and having close friendships with some of my Khmer friends. Having those two identities are a challenge when you consider the history between the two countries which has been conflicted for centuries, and how that has transferred over to people that I’ve known through my family circles for years to which, in some ways, affected how those folks saw me as (specifically with my parents’ generation), and then you throw my queerness on top of it, which kept that distance fairly wide.

What made me step back into the Cambodian community was my friend Lyk Yoeun who, as a queer Cambodian woman, made it possible that I can be in that space without having to suppress my intersectionalities, and Savi Charmwho helped me to navigate moments when I’ve been triggered as I was reaffirming myself in that space.

She asked, “Has the Vietnamese community here been the same way as well?” I took a moment, and I said “Not necessarily” I was fortunate that I had Lyk and Savi to be the ones who actually reintroduced me back. However, my friend Vân who is Vietnamese , has been a person that I trusted in the Vietnamese space to navigate my said intersectionalities. The Vietnamese community in Chicago seems very distant and not as accessible as I would like it to be. If it was more accessible and inclusive to my identities, then I would certainly consider being around the community more, but I would never call myself “more” or “less” of this identity.

“So what do you call yourself as?” Queer Southeast Asian-American or Queer Viet-Khmer American. There’s no need for me to pit both identities against each other, or have a preference for one or the other. If I put down or lessen my identity, then I wouldn’t be loving myself. It’s just a matter of whether there are spaces that are down for what I bring to the table. Other than that, I’m existing and living my identities everyday on my own, and I know that I carry that history with care and love.

Post Newsy Interview

Many thanks to everyone who took the time to watch, listen, share, and express positive feedback to my sit down interview with Newsy on my family’s experience as former refugees. As many of you may be aware, the refugee community(ies) hold a special place in my heart, and not a day goes by, do I think about their survival, their battles, their resiliency, and how difficult the integration process is once they are in a new land. For many former refugees like my family, the scars & trauma from the violence, the escape, and arrival will never disappear, and in many ways, the psychological effects gets passed down to the children who never had to experience that first-hand trauma. It is also said that it can continue on for up to 6 generations! Refugees are more than just people who have been displaced. They once were a part of their former society. They were doctors, lawyers, grandparents, nurses, farmers, restaurant owners, taxi cab drivers, etc. They have witnessed the destruction of their environment, places such as their favorite restaurant / ice cream shop and other places they frequent no longer in existence. They witnessed seeing their family members, friends and community disappear violently.  Then, they are forced to escape through enemy territory (both by neighboring countries and mother nature) where they are often avoid death within a day, hour, or minutes. Their arrival into a foreign country that they know so little about, and being forced to start all over again. There is a lot to unpack for many of our refugees (both past and current), but if our society holds itself to be compassionate, then we must create those spaces for them to safely unpack, heal, and be able to once again, contribute their gifts and ambitions to society.

I was a very fortunate one.

I was born in the US several years after my parents arrived. I never saw the trauma that they witnessed, but I certainly saw their struggles from the past resurface time and time again.  The pressures from integrating into this new society became an everyday burden for my parents and my family members.  The pressure to speak a new language, learn new customs, provide stable income despite the lack of sufficient training and upward mobility, and very few spaces and education that provide healing and counseling tailored to their needs only extends the refugee trauma for an even longer period of time.

When I first learned of intergenerational trauma, I thought to myself, why am I even connecting myself to my parents’ narratives when I was never a first-hand witness to the Vietnam War or the Khmer Rouge? As I began to uncover the roots of my father’s mental health struggles, I recalled how much my father’s personal trauma had an effect on myself and my brothers. His unpredictable mood swings, his obsession with our academic success, his paranoia and controlling nature over his family led to the downfall of our family’s relationship with him. In return, I experienced my own bouts with low self-esteem, temperamental issues, and distrust with people.

However, through these struggles, I have also found community, creative outlets through writing, volunteering, and public storytelling, and confiding in folks who made it safe for me to unpack my own trauma. There’s also the kind of resiliency that I have discovered, that in some ways, I inherited from my parents.  How else could they have mustered enough will to survive when they were moments away from facing death, several times over, on their way to safe territory.

When I was approached to be a part of a story for Newsy on genocidal trauma, I had some reservations.  I was feeling jaded with the Chicago Reader when they mishandled the story about the Cambodian Museum last year. I was also wondering whether or not my mom would feel comfortable enough speaking about her trauma publicly for the first time, or whether my brothers would be okay with me telling our family story.  Certainly, my dad, who I have been estranged from the last several years, would not take part in the story, but I also wondered if I was wrong for doing this story without his consent.

I developed a great rapport with Melissa Prax, the reporter for Newsy, as she was attentive, sensitive, and took great lengths to make sure that my mom and I was okay through the process.

As with the life of journalism, there are always going to be things that are left on the cutting board.  My mom spoke about their escape from Vietnam, and how her father (my grandfather) had served in the South Vietnamese army along with her son-in-law in both high-ranking positions.  It was until the North Vietnamese took over that they would confiscate my family’s property, placed them under arrest, and closely monitored. Their fears of the North Vietnamese government led to their overnight escape by boat that led them to Malaysia in 1978.

My mom spoke at lengths about how traumatic their escape was, but also the hardship they experienced when they arrived to the US.  She spoke about how scared they were when they flew on an airplane for the very first time.  She recalled how they expressed “shock” when they saw that all the trees were “dead” but come to realize that they came in during winter, and would see them come alive in Spring.  She spoke about how her family was put to work after 3 days of arriving, and having to rely on their hosts from the church that sponsored them to run errands, take English classes, and to be more self-sufficient like going to the bank, driving a car, etc.

For my grandfather, she said, it was the hardest for him. He often broke down, and felt defeated at times.  His life up to that point, was being fiercely independent, and navigate his own way to raise his family, but instead, he had to rely on his children, strangers, and fellow Vietnamese friends to get by.  He was unable to learn English, and struggled having to work under somebody else.

During my interview process, I began to hear stories that my mom has never told, and for that, it was something that for the longest time, I was scared to ask.  Writer Ocean Vuong once said to me, “When we ask our parents about their trauma, they consider it as betrayal because you’re asking them to relive something that you did not go through.” As I have seen older family members aging including my mom who survived a near fatal stroke 5.5 years ago, I have been on an urgent mission to find out about their narratives before it dies with them. The importance of hearing those stories from family members in the past two years have allowed me to understand the root of my dad’s struggle.  It allowed me to understand my family’s “emotional triggers.”

Through this sit-down interview process, I knew what I wanted to discuss. I was no longer afraid of my past. It was time to bring these stories to light. I wanted the stories of our aging Cambodian genocide and Vietnam War survivors to know that they still matter. I wanted folks to know that as we are going through another refugee crisis, I was one of many that existed and have contributed to society because my family were able to come into the US when there was nowhere else for them to go.  I also recognize that there will sadly be more genocides in the future, but that we must never forget our compassion when refugees are in dire need of a hand, and to help them to rebuild their lives when they are in safe ground.

An Ode to “Little Vietnam”


Chicago’s reinvention, which inspired the name “Second City,” became a safe haven for European immigrants in the early 20th century. As the city achieved its international status, it would welcome a flood of new immigrants from Latin America and Asia in the last 50 years, helping to make Chicago as one of the most diverse cities in the world. For one neighborhood in the Chicago north side, “New Chinatown” began as a Chinese community but would soon transition over with the influx of Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian immigrants (I.E. Cambodians, Laotian, and Thai) into the neighborhood. There, it would introduce the Southeast Asian culture to the city, and as a destination for Pho enthusiasts.  

 

For my family, they made Chicago its home after they were forced to flee Vietnam after the war. They found a Vietnamese community in the “New Chinatown” area. Located on Argyle Street and Broadway in the Uptown neighborhood, “New Chinatown” would become the “home away from home” to many of the Vietnamese immigrants that came to Chicago in the late 70s through the 80s.

 

Growing up in the western suburbs, my brothers and I moaned whenever we had to go shopping with our parents on Argyle Street. In the days of pre-smartphone and mp3s of the early 90s, there was nothing less exciting than being trapped in the backseat of a car, listening to emotional Khmer ballads, and having to endure more of it when we were stuck in Chicago traffic. We dreaded the boring 1 hour commute on the Eisenhower expressway to get there. We then go through downtown Chicago which led us by Buckingham Fountain and into the scenic Lake Shore Drive which is parked right next to Lake Michigan. As kids, the city never seemed to excite us. It became merely routine, and didn’t appeal to us the way the Brookfield Zoo or the Field Museum did. As we arrived, my dad would spend nearly an hour trying to find parking in that condensed, crowded street of Argyle. Never mind the fact that he never wanted to spend an extra few bucks in that parking lot down the block.

 

Gazing through the aisles of the Tai Nam grocery store, I see a tub full of live blue crabs living out its final days. Customers would use the tongs to pick out the crabs, but they would cling on to each other in its final moments of solidarity. Passing by the meat section, I would hear the sound of machinery cutting through the meat and bones as customers eagerly wait for their freshly cut order at the counter.

 

I eagerly walked towards the dessert section, and grabbed a handful of packaged white rice cakes, which are in its rectangular, glutinous form, fried sesame seed balls with the red bean paste inside, the green and yellow striped mung bean snacks, among others. I spotted the sweet soybean milk, the CoCo Rico drinks (coconut flavored soda), and grabbed a couple of those, much to the chagrin of my mom who was always cautious about how much sweets that my brothers and I would take in. At the very least, she understood that these sugary-filled delights would keep us occupied during the long trip home.

 

On the intersection of Argyle and Broadway lies Ba Le Sandwich. In the early 90s, it was a classic hole-in-the wall joint with its blue exterior store sign, and inside, was its grimy, rough, and dingy appearance. Despite its unappealing physical nature, Ba Le had kind of a charm that was found in their food. The Vietnamese sandwiches called Banh Mi, partly inspired by the French during its colonialism of Vietnam uses its French bread and foie gras on top of the pork, ham, soaked onions and carrots, spreaded out with mayonnaise, jalapeno, and cilantro. It was oooooh soooo tasty. As a kid, I rejected nearly every Vietnamese dish including pho, but those banh mi sandwiches were the first Vietnamese food I ever love, and continued to love as I have been reclaiming part of my family heritage that was lost under the Western assimilation shuffle.

 

My mom would buy her Vietnamese cassettes at Trung Tin, which was one of the more well-known Vietnamese music stores in the nation. The vocal sounds of Che Linh and Huong Lan often blasted into the store, and eventually into my parents’ stereo in the family room. My dad would buy his Khmer cassette tapes at a Cambodian music store that was located just under the Argyle CTA red line viaduct, and carry on a long-winded conversation with the owner.

 

As we departed from Argyle Street, we would drive past the abandoned Uptown Theatre and the still-existing Riviera and Aragon Ballroom, and head out to Montrose Beach to sit down by the lake as the paleta men walked by us.

 

We would happily munch on our sandwiches as my brothers and I would conveniently forget the groaning and moaning that we carried with us during the ride to Uptown until we have to do it again next weekend.

 

I Am George Michael 

​I was introduced to George Michael when I was 13 years old, several years after he hit the climatic peak of his career. It was when the “Older” album came out in 1996, and the song “FastLove” came on. I remembered really enjoying that song. I was into a mix of music from Madonna to Mariah Carey to the Smashing Pumpkins, RHCP, to Bone Thugs N’ Harmony to 2Pac, but George Michael was a very peculiar one, considering that he was not the preferred choice of many of my teenage peers. I remembered asking a mom of one of the neighborhood kids that I grew up with, and asked her what she thought of GM, and she replied, “Hmmm….I’ve always liked him, but I wonder if he is really gay?”

His sexuality never came into my conscience. I was simply a guy who liked uptempo music, and thought that this man knew how to put together a catchy pop song. As I started to learn more about him, I was intrigued by his sexual / gender ambiguity. I wasn’t sure of whether he identified as gay / bi / straight, At that time, he left it up to the public to conjure up whatever their own conclusion was. As I entered into my early teens, I was at the point where I started to feel “unconventional.” I was born into the idea that I would be in a traditional marriage and have children. I started to develop what I thought was this “unusual” attraction to boys at the time. I remembered that not many girls would flock over to me, while at the same time, I was much too intimidated to being asking anyone out to any dances at the time. I was making myself believe that my lack of dateability qualities had something to do with that paradigm shift into the same gender. Perhaps, that this was just a phase or my greater curiosity getting in the way. 

In a way, I was George Michael. 

It was around that time, shortly thereafter, that he was caught in the men’s bathroom in Beverly Hills in what was described as a lewd act. I remembered being shocked and confused about what he did, but what really took me by surprise, was the fact that he was forthcoming about his sexuality, about his own subconscious way of coming out by what happened, and more importantly, that he was never going to apologize for his sexuality, or his way of pursuing it (w/ consent). In a time when the mainstream media was ready to bury him alive and use his gayness as their weapon of choice against him, he proudly stood up, and owned his “full” identity to his advantage. He talked about how he was willing to torpedo his own fame for the sake of his own privacy, meaning being able to live his life as a gay man when being an out pop star was not encouraged and where he could have been vilified by the music industry for doing so. He had lived the straight life and was simply curious or trying out relationships with women until it no longer desired him ,and that he didn’t have his first same-sex relationship until his late 20s. 

That moment when he spoke out left a first great impression on me as I was beginning to confront my own parts of my identity. He made it possible for me to understand that my own sexuality / gender were not a result of some mental illness or depression that I was having. While I was much too young to live through the Wham! and Faith era, I came in at the right time as a teenager to hear the words of George Michael declaring his own liberation. 

Like George, I didn’t have my first relationship with a man until my late 20s. Like George, I had spent a lot of my time keeping my identity private for years as a way to protect my mom and my family from having to defend me against other family members and family friends. Like George, I did date women and was in a few early relationships with them, but never at any point regretted those experiences.  They were experiences that I needed to have, in order for me to move forward and validate what I had learned from those times. 

His loss was much more than his music. He was the first gay person that I looked up to growing up in a time when I needed to feel validated. He made it a-okay to be unapologetic as a queer man, and that I didn’t need to be bound by old-fashion monogamy, that gay sex is natural sex, and that it should be enjoyed or fulfilling (with consent and transparency of course). 

He will truly be missed.  Without George, there would be no version of the “me” that you have been a witness to the last several years. Thank you George, and may you forever rest in paradise!

Here is a link to this wonderful article about him below:

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/26/george-michael-defiant-gay-icon-sex-life-lgbt-rights

The Immigrant Sounds of Argyle Street


Bustling three-block street of Argyle

With the rumbling noise and vibration of a CTA train passing through the viaduct

Accompanied by the cacophonic sounds of the Vietnamese language heard

As it enters and exits out of the local grocery stores on a busy weekend day

The rapid chopping sounds of a knife slaying into the lifeless, barbecue-drenched duck on the stain-covered white table as the remaining pig carcass hung by its hook on public display to entice carnivorous customers to consume its remains at one of the local Chinese bbq digs.

The sounds of tongs clasping the body of a lone blue crab as it is pried away from its inmates and into the brown bag. The unforgettable sounds of machinery sawing through the frozen meat in the butcher section.

The sounds of coins shaking from a homeless man muttering for a few more as Vietnamese shoppers obliviously walk by

At Chu Quon bakery, the sound of a cash register impatiently printing out tiny receipts with faded blue ink and concluding with the slamming of the register door as customers take home their desserts filled with rice cakes, flaky wintermelon cakes, and moon cakes.

The slurping sounds from folks basking in the broth of freshly-made Pho at the Pho 777, Pho 888, and Tank Noodle (presumably the missing Pho 999).

The sounds of drivers angrily honking at the intersection of Argyle and Broadway as pedestrians unwittingly mistime their crossing.

The water hose being turned on to feed the mini Japanese bonsai plants outside on display in front of an antique store where walking inside is the sight of bamboo plants, Buddha statues in various poses, and incense used to awaken the spirits of ancestors past ready to be sold.

Walking by the mural, I see this street’s history.

The art depicting the welcoming arrival of my folks who came here to survive after having lost their community during the war, recreating a piece of Vietnam on that very street,and to be built on a place that didn’t carry the sounds of bombs and machine guns.

I step away, and hear the sound of relief.

 

Seeking Liberation

For the first time in years, I mustered up enough courage to go with my brother Andy to make an attempt at visiting my dad.

 

I was nervous. The ghosts of my past surrounded me like a bedside vigil and kept my eyes open in fear for these past 48 hours. In the last 4 years, I had anger, rage, disappointment, concern, and empathy for the man that brought me here. My old friend and neighbor once told me, “When you see your father and you’ll see what he has become, I know you will feel sad for him.” Her quote has reverberated into my consciousness as I prepared to see him.

 

My brother and I drove together and reminisced a lot of our struggles with my parents’ court case. An hour later, I saw my family house. The backboard of the basketball hoop we had in our driveway was slowly decaying. I stepped out, and slowly walked along the sidewalk to observe what I remembered of my former home. The bonsai bushes along the sidewalk was dying. I was walking around the backyard and saw the garden my mom used to tend to. The tomatoes, the banana peppers, the lettuce plants are still there.

 

My brother and I took turns ringing the doorbell, knocked on the window. No answer. We waited, and waited some. Still no answer. We went to a grocery story nearby to pick up a notepad and pen. I wrote a short note asking him to call me.

 

We left, and decided to drive around Ty Warner Park, his favorite place to jog. As we were driving along the road, I saw him on my passenger side from a distance. He looked gaunt. His brown skin darkened. His face expressionless as he huffed and puffed. I motioned to Andy that I was convinced it was him. He didn’t believe me at first and we pulled over from a distant as we watched my dad jog closer towards his car. We decided not to surprise him. From my experiences in working with social workers and with someone as emotionally volatile as my dad, we decided not to take a risk at agitating him in public. We silently drove off. 

 

I came home, and he did call.

 

He was emotional. He was lost. He was wondering why my brothers and I wouldn’t see him. I chose not to indulge him of every hurtful thing he caused. I needed to give him space. He had been trapped in isolation for the past few years, and he needed an outlet. He said his teeth are falling apart but he believed that the dentist is out to destroy his remaining teeth so he can profit off of him. I asked him why he had his phone deliberately turned off whenever his family tried to contact him, and he rambled something in the way of, “well T-Mobile is out to rip me off…..” and talked about how he refuses to trust anyone except us, and went into another long-winded incoherent rant before I had to cut him off and say, “I will try again next weekend. I promise.” He quickly told me that he wants to see me, and my brothers. He wished me well and said “I love you.” I turned away from my phone, feeling sadness that he is still imprisoned by his conscience that has been invaded by trauma all these years.

 

I anticipated worse, but today, the door was cracked opened even if he didn’t answer it. 

To be continued……

…………………..

Before seeing my dad, I was sitting next to my mom facing her lawyer in his other office in downtown Chicago. It was our first time to that office, but we were more than eager to make it our last time seeing him. It had already been nearly 2 years, and our last court date resulted in the judge threatening to have my dad come into court via police escort as he had already been ignoring court appearances. My mom did not want to see her former abuser, nor wants to see him get arrested and potentially cause disorder in the courtroom due to his own mental health issues. She decided that she had enough. She had long been going through sleepless nights over her divorce case. She feared seeing my dad. She feared being forced to memorize certain words she would have to say in court despite her mental and language limitations. She agonized over the court fees, and how she would get the money that is tied over to my dad’s account. She became stressed over my dad’s missing court appearances, and whether the case has any end in sight.

Our attorney, who still messes up the pronunciation of her name (which is one-syllable) had her sign the documents agreeing to conclude the case, and ensuring that my dad wouldn’t be faced under arrest.

To her, it was not worth all the troubles. She had already lost so much before the case. She lost her mobility and part of her cognitive skills due to her stroke. She had to leave the house that she lived in for so many years, only to now be taking up space between my brothers and I. She was married to a man whom she felt protected by for so many years, but to only become a threat to her safety. She was already defeated before the case, and as the case dragged on, the losses kept piling up.

As she started signing the documents, I hung my head down in resignation thinking about what this court case did to her. I felt responsible for helping to create the chaos that have swirled above us like a scavenger finding a fresh corpse. I refused to talk to my dad and take most of his phone calls. I was intent at times on trying to punish my dad for causing harm to our family. I tried to hold back the sadness that was building up as I see her sign the paperwork. She then looked up and told her lawyer, “Now I can move on. I don’t have to worry about this anymore.”

She was relieved. She didn’t care about getting a settlement from my dad. She talked about how her new peers in her ESL class and Adult Day Care are struggling even harder than her, and that she still has an amount of privilege that they don’t have. She sees that she is able to get taken care of by her children. She is able to experience new things without having to worry about my dad controlling every aspect of her life.

As we got out of the office, I pushed her around in her new wheelchair along State Street in the downtown Loop area past the Chicago Theatre, and visiting Nordstrom Rack and a few other stores along the way. She mentioned how she never got to see the downtown area so intimately because my dad never wanted to be around it. She was relaxed and curious about what was in front of her. She became a tourist in that moment. For the first time, it seems like she has finally achieved liberation, than she ever did when she was able-bodied.

Though my dad more financially privileged and somewhat able,  is still searching to be free……

To be continued……….