the Margin

In Media Res

When I first saw Việt Nam, it was the year I got into UC Santa Cruz, the second-to-last in a string of colleges that kept my eye on the education prize while my mind still wandered, angry and discontent with the person I had become or angry at people in general.  It was obvious that I was distracted in every pursuit of higher education, not because I didn’t want a degree and the career that would summarily accompany it, but because there was a preconceived identity that went alongside it.  College asks for a choice—to be something or define something about yourself.  “I want to be” or “I am interested in” become the guidance counselors of definitive answers of who we are intent on becoming.  Throughout my life, I knew that the philosophy of being was something to be questioned.  Who was I? Where did I come from?  How did I get here?  Where do I go now?  Choosing a college major, a thread of temporal existence, was to define oneself in strict methodologies that were assigned and cultivated for you—a string of CRNs paving the journey to a diploma that offered a modicum of expertise and a crafted identity.  I worked, for many years, to gain access to science and the fields that would develop my aptitude for inquiry and investigation in return for a lucrative or respectful career.  Although my interest in science never disappeared, somehow, I ended up falling into the familiar valley of literature and English, my ability to write prose and analyze other people’s writing an easy route to follow despite the absence of a clear-cut path to a career with an English degree.  But this, of course, wasn’t until I returned home from Việt Nam in 1996—my journey into existentialism realized there alongside street-side cafés and a myriad of experiences interacting with people who did not care for me or who, at best, tolerated my existence.  I spent most of the time catching the sideways glances and curt words of people looking down upon me a someone that shouldn’t be—who had no worth in that country.  Oddly, I would have to agree.

I studied in Việt Nam as a student, foregoing Santa Cruz for a study abroad in Southeast Asia.  I went to history and language classes with my fellow students but the history of Việt Nam, even in its fascinating complexities, could not compare to the personal history I was trying to learn and uncover.  The various conquests of Lê Thái Tổ or the overthrow of each dynasty held little sway over the mind of someone who was contemplating the insurrection of their own being—a violent, ripping apart of my soul and identity in a war that I would carry with me forever.  Or, maybe it was because the instructor was foreign herself and the authenticity of studying the history of Việt Nam was much less glamorous delivered by someone who could never truly speak to it, especially at that time.  Moreover, textbooks are never that accurate and would not contain the chapter on “Orphans of War” that would explain a semblance of my storied past.  So, a great deal of my post-secondary education that year came from not going to school or classes—resisting the formality of four walls, peeled paint, and wooden desks, and instead, studying the culture and history of Việt Nam from an outsider’s point of view.  Most days, 20,000 VND offered me a lot more education than the paid tuition of my study abroad experience.  For $1 USD, I could catch a ride on the back of a xe máy, a motorbike, and make my way to nearly any street that I wanted to go to in Hanoi.  Thirty cents would get me lunch and another twenty an ice cream at Fanny’s just on the south side of Hoàn Kiếm Lake.  My $6 USD per diem was meant to support an American exchange student at 3x the actual cost of a bowl of phở across the street from our dormitories. I learned that the extra money I pocketed from eating and spending frugally would save me on the nights I had to shell out extra money for those still wielding AK-47s.

Meanwhile, my friends still persisted in their pursuit of traditional education and sometimes, I would find them walking back from classes just as the xe máy dropped me off at the gates of the housing complex.  I took my liberty without asking for it because I could and because I had to. There was no other way to figure out who I was except by rejecting everything I was before—a model student, an obedient daughter, a person whose beginning, middle, and end could be found in the worn pages of an aging textbook or in the papers I first traveled with.  But as I swiftly learned, there was no beginning, middle and end.  Only in media res, the midst of things, where life doesn’t ask for who you are but instead, asks for who you are not.

Dear Adoption, I’m Tired.

Worn out from years of explaining who I am and who I am not. I have grown weary of trying to assimilate into countries and cultures that ask me to be for them and not with them. I have grown fatigued of tracing a story that befits only a partial narrative, left only with speculation and the inability to reconcile the truth of the story. And I am one of the lucky ones—one of those whose story gaps were nearly filled after looking so long for the answer. But there are no complete answers, only more questions. I am tired of the questions left hanging like a string of lights above my head, filaments twisted on the inside and no longer producing a spark. They will remain unchanged—my once-steady hand exhausted from stretching out to change the bulb, the ladder I’ve used all these years weakened from my constant climb. I ache, after 40 years, from the moments I had to reel myself back in from feelings of loss and inadequacy, trying to find value in a space that wanted to compartmentalize me: my feelings, my worth, my identity. I am weakened by decades of trying to articulate what it means to be adopted, knowing that even in the best circumstance I could have been given, in many ways, I still lost. I was lost. Shuffled under damp blankets that suffocated me, weighted down by tears that accumulated in the taut threads of longing and silent suffering. Words left swallowed back down when I knew that I could not say what I felt. Hurt. Lonely. Sad. Simple statements you’re not allowed to voice because you’ll sound foolish. Ungrateful. Incomprehensible. I have typed out these ideas over decades—arthritic fingers connecting with black keys that are stiff from constant use, trying to capture the sentiments that sound like a betrayal to what I have been given. But they’re not. They’re just words, coalescing over waterfalls of ambiguity that I have lived with all these years. They’re just thoughts, simmering under surfaces of loss that I drag behind me. I am exhausted from pulling. The ropes are beginning to fray from the weight of all the time I was trying to find my worth because of one moment that makes you feel worthless forever. I am tired, Adoption. Not because you gave me everything but because sometimes, you gave me nothing.

First published on DearAdoption.com November 14, 2017.

Trade Off

Randy punched me in the mouth when we were ten. He said it was an accident; I thought it had something to do with my baseball card collection and not loaning him my Willie Mays. My upper lip swelled on the right side and the inside was slightly cut so I couldn’t eat any salty foods for a week. My mom called his mom and complained. His mom called his father at work and complained. Randy saw me at school the next day and complained. He couldn’t see me very well though because his eye was black and blue and almost swollen shut.  He couldn’t speak very well either because his lower lip was split and puffy on the left side. But still, he wanted to meet at lunch to play catch. Randy murdered someone when he was twenty-one. He said it was an accident; I knew it had nothing to do with baseball cards.

 

Copyright: Joie Norby Lê 2007

Writer’s Block

Richard sat down at his desk for the fourth time that day and stared at the blinking cursor, counting them.  He tried a couple of different things: batting his eyelashes in time with the blinks, holding his breath for twelve, thirteen, even fourteen blinks.  He tapped his index finger against the desktop twice for every blink and liked that the rap of his fingertip against the wood sounded like a heartbeat, maybe even his own.  Several times, he tried to lose focus of the cursor by allowing the page to blur, an occupation that took a great deal of effort from his eyeballs to the point it started giving him a migraine.  It was then that he took his next break.  He needed ibuprofen, a new beverage, a couple of crackers and perhaps a slice of the summer sausage he spied in the pantry earlier that morning.  He pushed away from his desk, the familiar squeak of his rolling, faux-leather chair distinctly audible in his otherwise quiet office.

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Vizzini Academics: Kneeling? Inconceivable!

One of my all-time favorite movies is “The Princess Bride.” There’s not much to NOT love about the movie, especially with its witty lines and characters. One of my favorite characters is Inigo Montoya, played by the talented Mandy Patinkin. His most famous line, “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die” has infiltrated the memories of 80s youth everywhere. Similarly, I love the moment when he’s looking at Vizzini who keeps saying “Inconceivable!” and he finally says to him, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

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Paper Trails

With the recent worry about providing paperwork to affirm one’s citizenship, I have been sorting through files and boxes in my basement looking for my naturalization certificate. I just recently received a new passport, but in this political climate, I’m worried that it may not be enough. When I lived in Hanoi in 1996, the first advice given to those of us who were Vietnamese adoptees was: “Do not get in trouble with the law. If they throw you in jail, you’ll have a hard time getting back out.” I was twenty-three and rebellious enough to not care but mindful to store that bit of knowledge for later use. As adoptees of Viet Nam, most of us did not denounce our Vietnamese citizenship (effectively granting us dual citizenship up until 2011 or so). As a result, my U.S. passport was somewhat moot in 1996 in the event I was caught in the clutches of the Vietnamese government for some 23-year-old-rebellious-reason. Fast forward to 2017 and I’m now concerned about my U.S. citizenship, wondering if I will be detained upon reentry from international travel and questioned about my purpose, my background, or honestly, about my faith. It’s stressful and sad that I would question my years of U.S. citizenship or the gold star on my license. I have been filing taxes since 1992 and have enjoyed a privileged and democracy-driven life as a hard-working, U.S. citizen. Nonetheless, I still worry, and I still haven’t found my naturalization certificate.

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When Difference Matters

First published on The Adoption Exchange Blog: https://www.adoptex.org/the-adoption-journey/blog/

Over the course of my life, people have been curious about my adoption story. It is a story that begins in the Vietnam War. At the time, adopting from Vietnam was as much a humanitarian movement as it was an opportunity for couples hoping to establish or expand a family. As such, questions about my adoption were numerous and while many people were supportive of my parents’ transracial, international adoption, it was still a tenuous time and the choice was not devoid of criticism by others. Adopting a child was one thing; adopting a child from an unpopular American war was quite another. Even so, my parents fielded the positive and negative comments with dignity and managed to pass on to me a healthy sense of love and belonging in a society that would not always afford me the same.

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Lost Time

Over the past forty years, my biological father may have remembered me now and again. He may have remembered my presence in the passing of a young, Khmer girl, a furrowed brow resembling my own even though she was not his daughter. He may have wondered how my mother and I were carrying on across the Delta, believing I was there with her the entire time. It’s hard to say. Either way, 42 years came and went without my knowing him or him, me, and now, more than ever, I feel that loss of time. I sometimes want to clutch those wisps of memory, like thin strands of pulled cotton-batting falling away from the much larger memory called family. I want to collect them as they lay pooled at my feet, stuffing their thinness in a clear jar I can hold on to. But really, there is nothing more than recollection, someone else’s telling of the story and all I can do is nod with understanding. But still, I do not understand. It was only me that lived on the other side of the world, with memories of my own to fill the pillows that cradle my head. In those four decades, I lost time.

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Get Back on the Boat

When I think of school I am caught off guard by the multitude of racialized experiences that sent me daily preparing for battle.  I remember the kid that pushed me down in a bus and called me a nigger, stepping on my head as he walked over me and out the swinging doors.  I saw kids in seats all around me, oblivious to the behaviors of others because, back then, a push and a shove were common experiences for kids riding to and from home in yellow busses.  No one classified such incidences as bullying and frankly, no one really cared.  I knew that when I caught the eye of the bus driver as I was getting up.  He had seen the incident and did nothing.  Said nothing.  But he watched me as I got back up, gathered my things, and made my way out the door.  On the bus I knew I was on my own.

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Opting Out

I am tired of being a pawn, a piece in the teaching game that is sacrificed for the greater good. I am your pusherman, peddling mandates of curriculum and assessment to turn profits for the wizards behind the curtain where the stakes are high and no one ever wins but the dealer. Best practices are packaged in shiny, new sleeves and rolled out as the latest goods for sale. States are still buying, but the products are just another method to stratify rich from poor, good from bad, losses felt by those who can’t afford to be a part of the solution. It’s a metaphor, but I don’t have the time to teach that properly because I waste valuable instructional time in rooms of silence, listening to the click, click, click of a mouse that will drag and drop kids into boxes that will never explain who they are just what they are not. I forgot what I was doing; teaching lost its shine the moment I became a pusher, an expendable chess piece of little consequence no matter what side of the board I am standing on.

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