Sunday, August 01, 2010

Rainy Season in Saigon

Rainy season in the southern part of Vietnam lasts for about half of the year from about March until October. Each day has occasional rain showers passing by with people taking shelter and others just going about their daily routine. By the way, this is the first video I've ever tried to edit and post on my blog so I hope you like it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Who are you?!

Just the other day I sat in one of my regular joints where I grab a bite, escape the oppressive Saigon heat and ponder life. I sat in my usual area at the back wall where I usually camp out for a few hours, eating lunch, having a cappuccino, and using my laptop. I couldn’t help, but overhear a group of women on the far end of the room. The head of the group was a middle-aged woman who unmistakably spoke in a firm American professorial style at a level the dining crowd could easily hear her annunciate as if she were giving an important commencement speech, Dear class of 2009 it’s with great pleasure and pride that I say, “please order anything on me, there’s a wide selection of menu items ..American, Mexican, Thai and Vietnamese; you’ll find the selections have funny names like the Elvis or Halle Berry.” Great marketing pitch I thought.

After finishing my Romeo sandwich and catching up on some office emails, I paid attention to the professor again now talking about inequality for women artists starting with China as the example. Her statement was that while women’s art work is better and more detailed, it is the men who get the attention and are paid more time and again. Based on this statement, she made a forceful vow to not let this happen to her students, the Vietnamese female artists, and to be their voice. A group discussion mixed in English and Vietnamese then ensued of which I didn’t catch everything and went back to my laptop to see what world riveting events occurred in the last 15 minutes on Facebook.

“WHO ARE YOU?!” errupted through the room. The professor exclaimed rather than asked. It came across in the way I remember Dana Carvey doing his best McLaughlin impersonation where whatever you might answer the response would be an emphatic “WRONG!” Maybe they understood the professor’s question, maybe it was not a simple answer, but their reaction was respectful silence which led the professor to prod them with multiple choice answers, 1. You are an artist 2. You are a wife or girlfriend 3. You are a daughter. From what everyone in the room heard, the professor was urging them to pick answer #1.

For me this was a moment of reverse culture shock and I was instantly transported from Saigon back to any classroom-USA. I reflected upon how much individual identity and success are stressed. According to the professor’s tone of voice you must hold who you are high in the air like flag and don’t wane or women will be never be equal. She continued by breaking it down for the lunch group discussion “Who are you” can have priorities where 1. You are an artist 2. You are a wife or girlfriend and 3. You are a daughter. Her words were delivered with such force and conviction you might have expected a group huddle and chant 1-2-3 Let's go Team!

But, there was the calm after the storm. A moment of silence. I couldn’t help but think that the professor might have discovered a fault in the American view as the students then calmly, politely, and collectively commented 'who they are' depends who they answer this question to. Of course they strive to be successful artists, but they equally strive to be good wives/girlfriends, and daughters to their parents. Whether this is a hindrance to beating male artists time will tell, nonetheless these women are very ambitious.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Nurture versus Nurture

We cannot definitely say what part of us is biological and what part is a product of our environment is, but for some adoptee friends coming back to Vietnam has resolved some of these issues and helped us figure out ourselves. Being able to look at your biological family might answer a lot of questions for who you are, but take this away and then you can only go back to the environment you originally came from.

When asking Kai what part of him is Vietnamese, he confidently says that he can relate to how people here share, especially in the family. For Kai, there’s no doubt that he’s willing to share and take care of those around him which is obvious by his generous and friendly nature.

What brought Kai back to Vietnam was a gradual process of learning Vietnamese culture, first back in Munich and continues in the present now living in Ho Chi Minh City. Unlike my experience in the US, Kai did not have the same early opportunities to attend adoptee reunions to learn about Vietnam and meet others adoptees. Being adopted was rather a fact, remaining for a long time undefined, and something that Kai had to process by himself.

From the day Kai arrived into his mother’s care, Kai was a part of his German family and undeniably accepted as German from that point on. To discover what it is like to be a Vietnamese adoptee came later in Kai’s teenage years as what he explained as a personal self-exploration to understand who he is. It was later in Kai’s early adult years that he started to connect with other adoptees and had a Vietnamese girlfriend. From dating a Vietnamese girl Kai said he learned so much about Vietnamese culture and the importance of Vietnamese family such as dependency and his role to take care of girlfriend which extended to her family.

There have been many studies on how much environment affects one’s behavior and for many adoptees the ratio between nature versus nurture can never be fully answered. One thing we can undeniably state is that we are the sum of our experiences. For Kai, he laughs when he says many things about him are typically German. For example, he says like other Germans he complains a lot, that he’s not flexible and that he’s very decisive. Kai is eager to learn Vietnamese and embraces the culture, however he knows that characteristics about him are Western and it also important that others understand that about him as well. Kai states that “as adoptees we are lucky since we can go back and forth between being western and being Vietnamese, we are both. This is to our advantage.”

Being adaptable is a common trait amongst Vietnamese adoptees. Having grown up in western culture, mostly in white families and neighborhoods, we accepted our difference and adapted to fit in. Coming back to live in Vietnam is also challenging being confronted by language barriers and learning the nuances of the culture, but again we can adapt and continue to grow.

To live with a Vietnamese family is probably the best way to know Vietnamese culture and for Kai this was something he had sought and found with his fiancées family. Something so little as sharing a meal with a family is considerably an ordinary activity; however as adoptees we take to such actions with both pride and humility. We know that others who do not know our backgrounds usually expect us to have gone through these motions our entire lives. And so we can only identify with this and feel a sense of fulfillment as it is something comforting, almost familiar as it makes up who we are.

Kai Kleiber

Hometown: Munich. Germany
Birth date and Birthplace: April 18, 1974
Occupation: Regional Sales Director for Medical Devices
Duration of stay in VN to date: Been coming to Vietnam to visit and for work since October, 2004. Living in Saigon since September 2008

Monday, July 07, 2008

Turn of Events

Through chance encounters while living up in Hanoi about 6 months ago, Tiffany had met someone who was interested in her story of her search for her birth mother. This acquaintance just so happened to know the host of the TV show 'nhu chua he co cuoc chia ly,' a show based in Saigon about people trying to find long lost relatives. After months passed and a few failed attempts, Tiffany finally was able to contact the host and arrange to be on the TV show.

Just this past weekend I had made plans to meet Tiffany and another Viet-American adoptee Brent, who like Tiffany, is also from Minneapolis, MN. Tiffany was passing through town as she was planning to travel the region before departing back to the US in the fall. We met at Brent’s regular hangout, the Trung Nguyen Café across from the Tan Dinh Market where Tiffany and Brent had been catching up at the café before I had arrived.

Tiffany and I were going to get a quick bite before her TV show interview when it started to pour and I mean torrential rains. So Brent, Tiffany and I were stranded in the café waiting out the flooding with a front row window seat of the motorbikes below navigating through what was the street and now transformed into a canal.

It was getting close to 7pm and the rain was starting to let up. Another adoptee friend, Tuy, was on his way to pick Tiffany up to head over to the VTV1 studio. Tiffany asked me if she should ask the lady at VTV1 if it’s okay if I join. I had no plans and my girlfriend was busy that evening so I wasn’t too keen on heading back to my house for a Saturday evening alone.

Tiffany and Tuy had been to the TV station earlier that day. The hostess was interested in her story about her search for her birthmother, her story as an adoptee of the babylift, but beyond that Tiffany knew few details about the show. At the café Tiffany showed me photos from her digital camera of the small studio which was a small stage covered with cracked plexiglass and surrounded by what Tiffany described as stadium seating reminiscent of high school days.

Upon arriving at the station, Tuy, Tai (Tuy’s driver), Tiffany and I scoffed down some banh mi (Vietnamese sandwiches) and stood in the dark and dank entrance with no acknowledgement of Tiffany’s arrival. After about 20 minutes Tiffany went to search for her contact and we made our way into the little studio. The audience was greeted by two hosts (male and female) briefing us of what to expect, then after some waiting, lights, camera, and action! Tiffany sat in the middle of the small dim lit stage with the hostess as a video introduction rolled. It was the all too common black and white footage of the war 30+ years ago to set the context of the time and also included images of the babylift. The hostess spoke in a calm and steady voice introducing and welcoming Tiffany. She proceeded to cover Tiffany’s journey back to Vietnam, show footage of Tiffany’s life over the past year in Hanoi teaching, doing volunteer work and teaching yoga. However, it was Tiffany’s search for her mother that was the focal point, Tiffany’s reason for being here.

After introductions, another video footage showed Tiffany with the hostess on a bench in Lenin Park, Hanoi. Tiffany described what she thought her mother might be like and what Tiffany wished to say to her. It was after this clip when the video footage stopped and the hostess presented Tiffany with a black and white photo in a black frame of a young woman, her mother, that it all settled in. Through a translator sitting next to her, Tiffany learned that her mother had long since passed away.

[Picture of Tiffany's mother at 30, next to photo of Tiffany at 18]

We then saw a clip of a TV station staff member’s follow up search based on paperwork that Tiffany had from Holt International. Till now, this was Tiffany’s only trace of her history consisting of a brief description of her mother, Tiffany’s condition at birth and the hospital where she was born. The reporter followed the same path Tiffany had on an earlier visit to Saigon to visit the hospital to find out as much as possible. The story was starting to unfold as footage of the reporter showed him on a search through the maze of alleyways in the Saigon streets and talking to people who knew this story. When the footage stopped, the hostess then told Tiffany that her half brother and sisters, niece and grandmother were sitting right there in the front row of the audience. I could only imagine the shock that Tiffany was going through, as if time had stopped and nothing was real. Tuy and I sat there in the audience, also in shock only able to say that the photo that Tiffany looked like the photo she was holding of her mother. The search was over.

After the show was over, the hostess and Tiffany’s new found family surrounded Tiffany and the rest of us in a celebrity buzz. Through Tuy’s translation they made arrangements to meet the following day. Tuy, Tai, Tiffany and I later went to a café to absorb what had just happened. Later Zion and a friend of Tiffany’s, Christine, also joined us. So many thoughts, so many questions going through Tiffany’s mind. I told her that she was in good company, especially since Tuy had also been through a similar experience finding his birthmother. Tuy asked Tiffany if there’s a bubbling sensation on the back of her neck, as if she feels drunk to which Tiffany said yes. Tuy said that it doesn’t go away fast, that he had it for years…

"Như chưa hề có cuộc chia ly..." (As if never separated)
To watch the interview you can go to nhu chua he co cuoc chia ly 08.  For more information about the program ->

Friday, June 20, 2008

Crash Course to Living in Vietnam

Everything I ever needed to learn when first coming to Vietnam, I learned from my good buddy Tim Holtan. Before coming back to Vietnam for my first time in 1996, I had lots of questions and luckily Tim was there to answer them. We were also roommates in Hanoi back then so it was good to have him show me the ropes while I got settled in a strange place. While some of these rules to live by might seem insensitive I can only say you have to live here to understand.

1. Don’t ask, just accept it

When Tim and I were studying Vietnamese, another student Ong Lou (Mr. Lou)would often interrupt the class excusing himself, “xi xi xin loi” usually asking what everyone deemed as a stupid question like why do Vietnamese shake with 2 hands to show respect? Tim’s response was don’t ask, just accept. While it’s interesting to learn culture and tradition, some things you just gotta accept!

2. Don’t watch them wash the dishes

Many times eating Pho or rice at a street stall, I was often told not to look over to the side where there’d be someone ‘washing’ the dishes. Tim’s advice to me was not to look or I’d throw up. Over time, I’m quite used to seeing this quick scrub and dunk into what looks like murky water that’s been used and reused through many cycles. FYI, locals usually wipe their bowls and utensils with a napkin. This helps you at least feel like your dishes and utensils are cleaner.

3. Don’t help, just watch

There were many times I'd see someone drop something or have a minor accident. I clearly remember riding on the motorbike with Tim and seeing a cyclo rider in Hanoi carrying what seemed like 100 bags of rice. He turned the intersection ever so slowly and dropped a few bags. This blocked the road for a few minutes while everyone just watched him heave his bags back onto the cyclo.

4. Have a beer in the morning

I can now say that drinking alcohol at anytime of the day is no big deal. While it seems to mostly be men drinking throughout the day, alcohol consumption carries no guilt and fondly associated with social bonding. Upon finding an apartment to settle into, Tim and I were invited to what I thought would be a mid morning coffee with the landlord. Sure enough, he offered up some beers. Okay, sure!

5. Don’t try to do too much in one day

I like lists. Shopping lists, packing lists, lists lists lists… I guess it’s a neurosis of mine, but I like things organized. Well my penchant for order didn’t really fit with the way Vietnamese do things on the fly. In my first weeks after finishing my Vietnamese class I was determined to set out to do things including looking for work, regularly mailing family and friends, plus other errands. I jotted these things and mentioned them to Tim. However, as time went on I understood I couldn’t get everything accomplished due to circumstances beyond my control. Oh, the post office was on extended lunch break, the HR Company rescheduled again, where do I get that thing I wanted to buy…oh I’ll just wait to ask so and so.

6. Just call her "Em"

To the untrained ear, Vietnamese names are hard to catch at first. Because all words are monosyllabic so it’s like hearing someone sneeze or a quick whooshing sound, “ZOOM, CHIN, CHANG..” However, Vietnamese names are very beautiful with poetic meanings like moonlight, perfume river or hero. Maybe it was the age range, but most Hanoian girls Tim and I met in 1996 were named Huong which means perfume. So while many names are common, Tim broke it down for me,” Just assume every girl you meet is younger than you and call them Em it’s easier than remembering their names.” Em is the pronoun used to address anyone younger than you within approximately 10 years. Em!

7. It’s hot in Vietnam!

Before I even returned to Vietnam, I was really curious about knowing what the place looks like to which Tim mentioned it’s hard to explain when comparing it to places in the US. He said it’s tropical so a little bit like Hawaii or Southern California, but still nothing in the US really compared to the appearance of Vietnam. However, one thing he could clearly tell me was that, “it’s hot in Vietnam!” While I’ve been through heat waves in New York, nothing could prepare me for the sweltering oppressive and what seemed like neverending summer heat in Hanoi where temperatures are close to 100 everyday with nearly 100% humidity. I felt like I was lightheaded, the same way you feel dizzy when you've had one too many to drink, but it was just the heat doing this. The simple answer to this is stay out of the midday heat!

8. Watch what I eat

When you’re invited to a friend’s house for a meal or event, it’s not uncommon they go out of their way to cook dishes for you to try. While Vietnamese commonly eat rice, meat, vegetables and a light soup with some fruit as dessert, they often bust out a handful of dishes for you, the guest of honor. This was the case when I attended Tim’s friend’s house where about 10 of us sat in a circle on the floor with what seemed like an ocean of food between us, bowls and dishes filling the middle. Since I love to eat I thought I’d just try most dishes which were great, but some not as great. That’s when I realized not even the family was eating all of the dishes, especially those not so great dishes. Rather then going over the multitude of dishes (some common, some strange), Tim just said watch what I eat. Easy enough!

9. Look to the side, don’t look forward

Traffic in Vietnam is crowded, noisy and a mess. Sitting on the back of the motorbike watching Tim weave through traffic was impressive; however watching oncoming traffic nearly hit/miss you by inches every minute can make you almost shit your pants. Better to just look to the side and enjoy the secenery.

10. Learn how to ride a motorbike

Tim and I were leaving our hotel to meet a couple of friends, two girls Tim knew through work when he previously lived in Hanoi. They showed up on separate motorbikes to pick us up. Tim naturally jumped on the front of one and since I just arrived and never rode a motorbike before I jumped on the back of one of the girl’s Honda Dream. When we took off, Tim leaned over telling to me to learn how to ride a motorbike (1) everyone does (2) learn to drive a girl around, it just doesn’t look right with her riding you. I soon after learned to ride a motorbike which is great for getting around. Also, you do sometimes see guys riding on the back of a girl’s motorbike, but it's mostly foreigners who tend to be significantly bigger than the girl. It just doesn’t look right.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

I want to be a writer!

It is my lifelong dream to one day be published in the New York Times and there’s still time. Like Andy Warhol said, everyone gets their 15 minutes of fame. I’m just waiting on mine.

To be a writer you have to write. There are many defining moments that shaped my desire to be a writer, the first being my mother. Before she passed away in 1995, my mother was a prolific writer, but not writing novels, rather family history. She created the genealogy of both her and my father’s lineage and when she finished most of her work, she showed my sisters and me a binder that looked like something out of the periodical section of the library. It was a massive 3 ring binder with the history of the family’s Finnish roots that went back to the 19th century tracing to Sweden, Russia and France.

My mother wasn’t only a great writer, but also a great documenter. She followed my family, relatives and our friends relentlessly with her video camera capturing our childhood events like birthdays, soccer games, my ice-hockey games and graduations. It was at times embarrassing to be followed by her, but we got used to it and later just accepted it as background voyeurism. Having a video camera during the 80’s was cutting edge, but not in a trendy way, but rather in a TV reporter way as she carried around her heavy JVC camera and video pack that weighed the equivalent of what felt like another person.

It’s not strange that any parent want to document their children’s development and fond memories, but my mother took it a step further by giving my sisters and me our own huge photo album binders that she put together by amassing tons of correspondences that she kept and many photos of our youth up till our young adulthood. My mother did this out of the love of her children, but also with an uncanny sense of knowing her time might be short and that she wanted to give us a legacy of our own, our time with her. While she spent her free time planting flowers and reading tons of books, my mother spent hundreds of hours researching, interviewing, and recording my family’s genealogy as a hobby.

I’ve always enjoyed writing, but I never thought I was that good at it. In fact, I vividly remember my college professor telling me my writing was totally disorganized. While he was very encouraging, I realized that I wasn’t going to be an English major, nor accomplish anything until I realigned all the tangents I tend to go off on. Throughout college I developed my writing skills and learned the common practice of getting feedback from my professors and peers which helped me improve.

When I came back to Vietnam in 2004, I felt rejuvenated and wanted to try out new things. I left the corporate world of financial software and dealing with stressful clients to pursue some dreams. One dream was to seek independence through entrepreneurial ventures with friends like exporting clothes which will hopefully happen one day, while the other was to write more.

My first crack at writing came when I decided to interview my friends who are like me, Vietnamese adoptees living in Vietnam. I’ve always had a fondness of writing about present day life in Vietnam, specifically Saigon, but I also wanted to write about what I thought are interesting and meaningful journeys, adoptees coming back to settle in Vietnam.

I think we have similar reasons to other Viet-Kieu (Vietnamese overseas) for returning to Vietnam, but also personal reasons to discover our roots and learning what it’s like to be Vietnamese, something we grew up with, but never had a full identity because we didn’t have Vietnamese family, know how to speak Vietnamese, nor did we know much or anything about Vietnam. These interviews and some other postings I wrote about life here in Vietnam are now on this blog and I hope to expand this with the growing number of Vietnamese adoptees still returning to settle here. Like my mother, I too want to leave a legacy for us adoptees. While we don't have any past here, we do have a lot of experiences and thoughts to share on living in Vietnam today.

As many people experience, turning a hobby into a job is rather tedious which I experienced when I wrote articles for restaurant and nightlife reviews.

It wasn’t a horrible experience and I chose places that I like, but I wrote the reviews in rather hasty style seeing if I could keep a pace. While it’s nice to know my work is out there, I didn’t have any sense of pride until another restaurant writing project came up. Out of the blue, my friend Christine called me asking if I’m still doing freelance writing. I was sort of surprised, yet happy to know she even remembered me as a writer. After a few sessions of planning and interviewing Christine, I was able to work with the engineer and photographer to turn out the website and brochure.

Putting together the website and brochure was a lesson in many ways. Not only did I have to force myself to produce pages of writing, but I also had to think of avoiding cliche style like using words like tantalizing or mouth-watering. I also had the challenge of coordinating work with an engineer and photographer which I was fortunate enough to work with friendly and hardworking folks. Both Tuan, the engineer and To Phuong (Tofu), the photographer were also new to this business so it felt like a group of newbies learning and trying to get business done. Luckily everyone was in it for the experience, wanted to turn out a good website and all of the feedback since completing this project has been positive.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Someone Watching Over Us

This article is about the re-found connections between Vietnamese adoptees and the orphanage workers who took care of us during such desperate times from the early to mid 1970's. Through various traces to our past, we have found the orphanages where we are from. For many of us, this is as close as we can get to our origins. Even more amazing was meeting the social workers who took care of us more than 30 years ago, familiar faces who we were too young to remember, but very well remember us.

It's almost impossible to explain how grateful we are to these beautiful women who seem so familiar. Visiting their houses is the same closeness anyone would share with their own family. Like our very own aunts would, they still want to visit as much as possible, feed us and ask make sure we're okay. Despite the many years that slipped away when we were all sent to our unknown destinies , the meaningful bond we have with the social workers is timeless.

[To be continued]