It is Thanksgivingukkah week, the coinciding of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah that occurs every 70,000 to 80,000 years due to the insertion of a leap lunar month into the Jewish calendar to align with the solar year. Twice the pressure to eat enough to satisfy your mother….

The labial Me is Vietnamese for mother, formed by lips pressing softly together around a nipple, or just before crying for help. It is the sound of enveloping a morsel and gently sweeping it down to where it will nourish. I watched the endless hours that Benjamin hung on my breast with his pursed sucking creating a second dimple in his cheek, his one exposed eye staring unblinkingly up to keep me in sight and his thighs and knees folded into my belly, shuddering contentedly under my stroking fingertips. When he sat in a high chair and took his first spoonful of butternut squash mush, I marveled at how, up until that moment, every cell but one in his body had come from me.

My mother did not nurse her children, having proudly been able to afford the fancy foreign-made baby formula that my father bought at the commissary on the U.S. Army base where he worked part time. But as soon as we moved to solid food, she ruled everything that fed us. Our housekeeper in Saigon was sous chef, going to market and doing prep, but Me picked the menus, applied the heat, judged when the seasoning was right. Rice and stir fry, clear brothed soups, and pungent meats punctuated each day twice, at lunch and dinner. On holidays symmetrically arranged plates of sticky red xoi gap fragrant with coconut milk, roast chicken, lemongrass pork skewers, and shredded papaya salad covered the long dining table. I learned when to lunge with my chopsticks for the choicest pieces of squid or rare beef in the hotpot, just as they finished blanching. And on Sunday mornings, she measured the sweetened condensed milk into my short cup of dense ca phe, and showed me how to swirl the concoction from black brown to the au lait color of her skin, then twist off a crispy chewy hunk of warm baguette to dunk.

The few months that we spent in the Ross’ house must have been torture for her. The ingredients were unfamiliar, the range of what the American palate could tolerate numbingly narrow. But once in our own row house, she turned the formica’d galley kitchen into a laboratory, skeptically but gamely experimenting with 1970’s staples like Minute-steaks and instant pudding. She gradually incorporated her own interpretations of spaghetti and meatballs, sloppy Joe, and steak frites into the steady dinner rotation, along with her core repertoire of rice meals. To this day, any of her children will exit a highway at ten o’clock in the morning for fried chicken; good or bad — it doesn’t matter – we are forever chasing the memory of weighty drumsticks seasoned with nothing but salt and pepper and fried in light batter just to the point where the moist muscle groups come apart in the mouth on their own. Continue reading

Posted in Chapterlets, Family history | Tagged , | 2 Comments

Hear, Say

After David arrived in September, we searched for a house to rent in the Old Quarter, the cobblestoned square of alleys close enough to the Saigon River that it is full of Naval officers and their families, and just a long enough walking distance from the city core that it is buffered from the thrum of tourists. In a wren of spindly, winding walkways, we found a three-story concrete row house newly painted a pale yellow, with two bathrooms and bedrooms, furnished with a pleather settee, carved wooden beds and a clothes washer, an amenity only found in houses on one side of the alley, the side that expats rented. Eight feet away, across the alley, were older, squat two-story structures with darker rooms and no air-conditioning, where some of the landlords and many naval families lived. Echoes of clanging cooking pots, scraping chairs, and arcs of conversation ricocheted down the air corridor between the alley walls, hitchhiking one on top of another with such fidelity that it was impossible to tell if a spousal argument we heard was happening next door or eight houses away.

An implicit set of expectations ruled decorum between Vietnamese and expats in the neighborhood. The Europeans, Australian-New Zealanders, Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and Americans would behave as became the moneyed and privileged, divulge the minimum amount of information necessary about their professional activities or other sources of their livelihood, and serve as an important revenue source by hiring locals to buy and cook their food, chauffeur their children, clean their rented homes, serve as interpreters. In exchange, the Vietnamese would honor a respectful distance, exercise discretion, offer small but useful tips on how to navigate the bureaucracy required for amenities like Internet access, and not go out of their way to cause legal troubles with the authorities.

We violated all these expectations. We swept our own floors and walked laundry up to the washing machine on the roof, where we hung clothes to dry.  We snuck out discretely to get street food and a few cheap restaurant meals a week, and otherwise bought and cooked our own food. I didn’t want to forfeit my trips to the local markets, my thrice weekly opportunity to trigger childhood smell memories and an explorer’s sense of triumph, fingering vegetables with unfamiliar skin textures, ogling open basketfuls of giant prawns, squirming eels, or indulging in a different permutation of che, a snack-in-a-glass, layered with the customer’s individual selections of preserved fruit, sweet beans, flavored tapiocas, all to be stirred into a primordial sludge with ice chips and coconut milk.

To our neighbors, these lapses in etiquette served as invitation. Chi Huong, the plump naval housewife across the alley from us, first sent over her pert four year-old to investigate. Quynh was a similarly large cheeked, audacious package, just one-fifth the size. The hair was cut pixie-style, the clothes usually plain shorts and box cut shirt, dusty from play dirt, the short body stocky with muscles, and because the name was androgynous and the voice somewhat husky, it was several weeks before we could determine with confidence that it was a girl and not a boy. She quickly fell in love with David, grabbing the broom and dustpan out of my hands to sweep the floor to impress him, pushing her way to his side at the laptop to point and question him about what was on the screen. He practiced his new Vietnamese with her, to her delight. This language is harder than I thought, he said at the end of an afternoon visit from Quynh. That’s because she’s sometimes speaking gibberish to you, I retorted, she’s four.

Within a few days, Chi Huong herself padded over in flip flops to survey my kitchen, the books and important looking reports on our coffee table, the laptops with their black rats’ tail adapters. She hid nothing in her punchy smile and unapologetically Northern accent, loudly peppering conversation with questions about my que huong (ancestral village), our salaries (in Vietnam and the United States, before and after taxes), telephone habits, what our parents did for a living, whether my siblings had married Vietnamese, how much we paid for rent, and making cheerful observations about the unfamiliar brands of soy sauce and odd cardboard cereal boxes on our shelves. Then, having politely excused herself as I put out dishes for dinner, she would efficiently and silently transmit the new intelligence to all of her girlfriends in the neighborhood. She’s not here or there (north or south), I imagined her saying, the accent is all muddy.

The exchange was minimally symmetric. Chi Huong revealed that her husband was a naval officer, but nothing about the family she left in the North. She volunteered his official monthly salary, but nothing about the rental income they or their neighbors collected from expats. And privacy or embarrassment kept her from ever inviting us into her house, though she would come to meet us on the stoop every time we stepped out or arrived back from errands.

To help penetrate the unsaid, and feel marginally competent in professional conversations, we each registered for private language classes at the university. By luck of the draw, David was assigned a young woman barely out of her teens from Hue, who preferred to come to our house twice each week, and who, having roots in the geographic and figurative center of the country, seemed to harbor neither love nor hate of the Americans who paid her nor the conquering northerners. Typical Hue, Chi Huong said, not unapprovingly, of her diligence, modest attire, willowy figure, and high cheekbones. David did not seem at all to mind spending hours dissecting his teacher’s heavy accent, where every tone is practically turned upside down.

I, on the other hand, was assigned to a stern marm from Hanoi who insisted on meeting on campus. She sat across a desk from me, always impeccably dressed in chic silk blouses and a bomber jacket, her face framed darkly by a severe bob, and led me through brisk oral exercises that always seemed to circle back to comparisons between America and Vietnam. Americans love pop music and movies but they have to borrow culture from elsewhere; Vietnamese have thousands of years of literature and history. Americans expect everything to be fast; Vietnamese are much more willing to work hard and wait to see the fruits of their labors. I focused on new vocabulary but could not stop my irritation from spilling over.  I see so much in Vietnam that is unique and beautiful. Why do Vietnamese not believe it?  She did not even seem startled by my challenge. Isn’t your husband named David? Don’t you remember David and Goliath? Why should David have believed that he could defeat a monster so much larger and mightier than him?

She redirected me to the short essay I had written for homework and began redlining my awkward grammar. Chi (Miss), she said, when you speak Vietnamese it sounds natural, but not when you write it.

Posted in Chapterlets | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


In celebration of my friend Sue Katz Miller’s grand “coming out” with her first book on raising interfaith families (Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family), I decided to post this chapterlet ahead of where it belongs in the memoir’s sequence. Sue’s experience as a parent, earnestly summarized in this New York Times Op-Ed, reflects the open, generous posture it takes to traverse traditions, and confidence of faith in your own faith. My chapterlet is about the swirl of all that in one person.

One and one-half wandering Jews; free to wander wherever they choose

Are traveling together, in the Sangre di Cristo

The Blood of Christ Mountains, of New Mexico

On the last leg of their journey, they started a long time ago

The arc of a love affair, rainbows in the high desert air

Mountain passes slipping into stones

Hearts and bones, hearts and bones, hearts and bones…


One and one half wandering Jews; returned to their natural coasts

To resume old acquaintances; step out occasionally

And speculate who had been damaged the most

Easy time will determine if these consolations

Will be their reward; the arc of a love affair; waiting to be restored;

You take two bodies and you twirl them into one

Their hearts and their bones; and they won’t come undone

Hearts and bones, hearts and bones, hearts and bones…


– Paul Simon

David was born to a tribe of St. Louis Jews, of great-great-grandparents who had migrated from the land that straddled Ukraine, Lithuania, and Poland. Educated and energetic, they planted their families in suburbs stretching north and west. Some became merchants and salespeople, accountants and business leaders, and prospered. Their descendants built summer homes in the Ozarks and joined synagogues that crawl with sport utility vehicles. Others struggled more to meet their middle class aspirations. One generation in, assimilation had become a natural goal for most. David’s grandparents sent his mother to Christian Sunday school.  By the time his parents met and married, it no longer seemed compelling to pass on the old traditions to their children. Into this void poured the liberal, secular values of New England, where David’s father taught at university, and the agitating social consciousness of his feminist mother and school teachers. David learned to celebrate Christmas as the pagan holiday it originally was, and to warily eye all organized religion. By the time we met, I had been to more Seders than he had. We listened to Paul Simon and joked, Who’s the one, and who’s the half?

My parents became Catholic in Saigon, in separate acts of conversion that completed their separation from the Communist north and the most passive elements of their parents’ Buddhism. They proudly had me baptized in Notre Dame Basilica in the center of the city’s old quarter, its spiritual core, where twenty-nine years later and pregnant, I gingerly navigated among herds of bicycles and romancing Vietnamese teens huddled together on the plaza outside.

The baptism didn’t take. Once in America and without memories of churchgoing in Vietnam to guide me, I was buffeted by my parents’ split allegiances. Some Sundays, we went to the Irish Catholic church in East Mt. Airy, where Latin still prevailed for half the service and we were the only dark faces in a sea of ruddy complexions. One weekend I spent the afternoon at the house of a leading congregant, a spinster whom my parents thought a saint and who had adopted a Vietnamese boy my age, and I watched her chase and scream at him until he dragged me into a bedroom and begged me to help him escape. I never told my parents. Other Sundays we drove down to South Philly, where a Vietnamese priest greeted my father with deference and I was herded in with Vietnamese kids who spoke English with heavy accents, if at all, and who were uninterested in my library books. Some Sundays we went to no church at all. My father had me join the Vietnamese church choir, until they figured out by my persistent muteness that I couldn’t read the song lyrics. For a while, he also had me join a Baptist church choir three blocks from our house, and while a few school classmates made that feel more comfortable, I was the only non-black member, and clearly not made of the right vocal stuff. Because it was unavoidable growing up in Philadelphia, I sat through my share of Quaker meetings too, with one friend or another.

The lessons were opaque to me. I did not honestly feel host to a Holy Ghost. I was not comfortable with the notion that someone had died for me and sins I had not yet committed. I was never confident that what I did with the communion wafer once laid in my mouth was proper. I went into a confession booth once and left befuddled after five minutes, having said nothing. Except for the obvious comfort it gave my parents and the music, none of it was healing. No one sat me down to explain where the story began and how it ended.  No one, it seemed, was willing to convince me to care. No one worried that I did not. When I was done counting hats, and feathers in hats in the pews ahead, I wandered off to meet Michael.

I knew but a handful of Jews; my parents had none for friends. But even from a distance, I felt a twinge of envy. In those houses, it seemed, everything got talked about. There was unedited argument, and questioning, and doubt. They wielded sarcasm and irreverence like whips, and somehow at the end of the day, knowing what it was to be outsiders and to pass, they still remembered to feel sad and burdened and fortunate. Those houses seemed so much more expansive than the chapels. If I had a house like that, I imagined, I could ask why I belonged in my family, what place I have in the world, and what I should do for it. I could ask where the story began and how it might end. Somehow, I thought, that story would curve on itself, and bring me back home to my grandparents.

We muddled through, David and I, without any more tutoring. In college, I watched with a quizzical awe as my college roommate, born of Congregationalists off the Mayflower, dove into her Judaic Studies major. I learned the Jewish holidays by marking when her classes were cancelled. A somewhat atheist minister friend married us. We accepted Passover invitations and fought over whether the Christmas tree should be live or artificial. We ran with the folky crowd, chasing Maypoles and random creation myths. And we listened to Bach and Handel, choosing to believe that God was merely a convenient cover for the patronage that fed their magnificent works.

I listened for cues from Jewish friends. Converts don’t really fit with the whole Chosen People thing. Of course German Jews are better than Russian Jews. Don’t worry, his family will love you – You’re a doctor; what’s not to like?

Then three months post-partum after my second baby, I inched a bit closer. As the progesterone drained, I craved something more than the intermittent wailing from the baby and the furnace. I missed the music. A friend suggested I visit her Episcopalian church. It’s very ecumenical, she promised, half the members are agnostic.  I used the two mile walk to rehearse a calm, reflective posture. I sat on the end of a rear pew, by the center aisle to better see the minister, and followed along. And when the singing began, I gratefully opened the hymnal.

There the problem lay bare. I could not speak the words Christ or Savior, not even mouth them. How did this happen? Every verse posed this hurdle. My brain pinched and my tongue lodged in the roof of my mouth. I quietly closed the hymnal, tucked it back into the corner of the pew, and slipped out.  I used the walk home to forget what had happened. Just outside the door, my milk let down and the baby wailed.

I thought nothing more of it, until the start of the second year with Blue when I was exhausted from my tug of war with Michael’s ghost. I could see the arc of that affair coming to an end and what it would feel like to rip apart from him. I would need to ready new support structures, internal scaffolding, something convincing in his place. And then came the quiet realization that it had been waiting there all along for me to claim.

I shopped for a conversion class. After three friends independently told me the same story of how the rabbi at their temple had called all the non-Jewish spouses up to the bema at Rosh Hashanah to thank them for their support, I thought that seemed a clear sign. He sounded like a good rabbi to learn from.

“I only have one requirement for enrolling,” Danny said on the phone after probing on my history, “Do you have a good sense of humor?”

“It’s excellent, but I thought you were supposed to turn me away three times?”

“It depends on how good your sense of humor is, and you’ve got spunk. You’re in. See you on Tuesday.”

I fell in love with him on the first night, and the second, and again when we spent a quiet hour together talking. Each class wound around his own ongoing, internal dialogue about his confidence, doubts, and associations with a given tenet or tradition. Another rabbi had come for a refresher. Danny stuttered with a child’s excitement over every scholarly detail and whenever we stumped him with a question. He cried when talking about Israel and rolled his eyes when someone asked repeatedly how God could ever forgive us on Yom Kippur if the people we wronged refused to forgive us first. Not everything in life gets resolved, you know. We argued more loudly after that, and the low-ceilinged basement classroom felt expansive.

One Sunday night the following June, I bathed and removed my nail polish and printed out my conversion statement. The next morning, David, the boys, and I drove to a conservative synagogue because Danny’s temple did not have a mikvah.. I passed before the beth din and their questions, then into the dark mikvah waters. When I emerged, flushed and lightheaded from the steam, Danny inscribed my Hebrew name on the conversion certificate, and Michaela was born, again. The list of people discomfited by the seeming abruptness of my decision and journey was at least as long as that of those who celebrated it, but I couldn’t afford to wait. I already considered you a Jew, one friend reassured me in email. This was a mere formality. It had been only eight months since I announced my intentions to Blue.

“Michael was Jewish….,” Blue began.

“Half Jewish,” I corrected him.

“His mother was Jewish, so he was Jewish,” he pressed.

“Yes,” I answered. Wasn’t that always clear?

I am the one, and the half.

Posted in Chapterlets, Family history | Tagged , , , | 4 Comments

Paper Sculptures — de plie

Deplie 3Deplie 2Deplie 1Deplie 4

Posted in Art | Tagged | Leave a comment

Blind Sight

This one is about making art blind….. 

Everyone knew my vision was inferior. By nine years of age, untreated astigmatism and farsightedness had made my eyes cross. I got my first pair of eyeglasses the same month that I rode a runaway bicycle down a long hill at my cousin’s house in Silver Spring, Maryland that sloped down at thirty degrees toward a six lane highway and, unaccustomed to the torque required to make pedal brakes effective at that speed and angle, I thought better of coasting into oncoming traffic and instead steered the bike into a telephone pole or a tree, which snapped my free fall in half as well as my front tooth and enough blood vessels to coat my face and shirt in red. In the intervening months before a dentist could put on a crown, the crossed eyes, black triangle in my mouth, and the hexagonal plastic eyeglass frames that kept slipping off my flat nose bridge (only expensive metal frames have ‘feet’ that can be molded to fit a nose) induced a Cubist sensation of my own face. My eyes seemed to migrate, not fully under my control, their muscles rehearsing new tasks under the discipline of the lenses. I worried that they pulsed visibly inside their sockets, some days bulging, some days shriveling, always asymmetric. Wonder Woman! the school photographer shouted, so I would smile for my yearbook picture.

Unknown to me, I was also colorblind. Despite regular optometrist exams, a couple of outpatient eye surgeries, and the phalanx of visual tests that accompanied them , no one bothered to tell me about this diagnosis. Hence the maddening sense of deficiency when I could not find enough birds teasing me from tree canopies to earn a bird watching badge in Girl Scouts. And the inexplicable headache that muddy colors – ochres, tans, mauves – gave me when other people cooed over them. The substantial fraction of the world that presented itself in small pixels, in orange next to Kelly green, blues next to purples, or pale pastels was elusive and mysterious. Sometimes I chose not to care, squinting my eyes to deliberately blur it all and wallow in my impressionist view of life. Other times I faked it, estimating what I could and using color labels that other people suggested. Other people knew what reality was; I merely approximated. I don’t think I see things the way other people see them, I confided to my first boyfriend.

My art lacked discipline. I didn’t have my older brother’s talent. He filled sketchbooks with swift charcoal and ink drawings with classical proportions, perspective, and detail. He sculpted and designed furniture. And he painted portraits and murals. I watched him channeling my grandfather’s small, sure hands and sharp eye. I, on the other hand, could not make representational art of any kind. What I perceived and tried to translate came through combinations of specific lenses – one for circles, one for zig-zags, one each for other shapes, another for shades of blue and other true colors – that filtered out blurry details I had no use for or could not replicate with precision. Where there were concrete stairs I saw a dragon’s teeth in neon yellow. On our summer trip through Europe, the rolling hills in Ireland where sheep freely wandered were just a monochromatic, pulsing sea of tufted pillows, a different color each day that we hiked, purple, dark pine, fiery red. I vigorously drew them over and over again in heavy oil pastels, one page for each color and day. Wow, that’s a lot of color; what’s it supposed to be? David and my mother asked.

For this and other reasons, my mother did not wait for me to choose my own clothes. I was a reflection on her and not to be trusted with color or fashion sense. Continue reading

Posted in Art, Chapterlets | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Nha (House)

This was the beginning of my “reclamation,” of family history, of memories, of ghosts and traumas.

Cathay Pacific made a dusty landing at Noi Bai International. Smileless brown men in uniform stood on the tarmac with familiar facial structures – delicate and wide cheekbones, high foreheads and heavy eye folds, the kind of tan colored skin that has no shine. The hatch opened and we stumbled in a silent line down aluminum steps. The midday July heat and vaporized petroleum slammed into my throat and nose. Saliva flooded into my mouth and would not stop, glands gone awry. I slammed my lips together and swallowed over and over again to prevent the vomiting.

A customs officer barked clipped instructions, but could find nothing offensive in our backpacks and suitcases. He did not pause over my paperwork, even though it was different from David’s, stamped and stapled at the Vietnamese consulate in Singapore, where a friend back in Manhattan had had to fax a copy of my visa that David had forgotten to bring to JFK. It’s okay, I whispered to him on the plane in uncharacteristic calm, What happens happens.

Twenty miles later, the taxi left the sole paved airport highway, and began winding down a wren of slim dirt paths by Ho Tay (WestLake). Tin and concrete shacks gradually gave way to sandstone and stucco two-story houses. Small men and women had crouched in front of shacks along the airport road, next to wooden store signs and small towers of canned food, cigarettes, hand wrapped foodstuffs, their feet bare or in thong sandals. Continue reading

Posted in Chapterlets, Family history | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment


When you are ready, when biology trumps logic and personal comfort and professional considerations, babies will beckon. David started seeing and hearing them everywhere in Manhattan, peeking out from strollers, waddling in the park. We had dinner with a new-mother friend and he stood from the table to pick up the mewing, squirming thing. He bundled it on his chest, face in, and bounced it tightly there to mimic the movements of a mamma ape foraging in the underbrush. The mewing stopped and the breathing slowed, and my friend told him he could have a job anytime he wanted one. He practiced on my nephews too, tying their shoe laces, answering their questions, telling jokes with a straight face.

We didn’t, couldn’t indulge his primal urge. I had only finished internship with two more years of training to go and uncertain job prospects. My body was tensed to spring, focused on something else entirely; it would have been hostile to the distraction of reproduction. It was time to grow up and there was only one thing to do. I want to go to Vietnam, I told David. After residency, we’ll take a year. Okay? We both knew it was mere courtesy that I asked him at all.

In one last dream, the Carpenter stood in the middle of an empty parking lot waiting to coach me. I sat astride a motorcycle, not a xe om or Vespa but a real hog, the threatening purr vibrating up my spine. I tossed my helmet to the ground and flicked the kickstand back. The bike came at him slowly without a wobble, and then veered away in a careful figure eight, each turn perfectly symmetric as I expertly placed an inside foot down to pivot. The laps rounded more and more smoothly, and then I heard his urging over the engine. That’s good, Mai!… Now, when you’re ready, just stop and get off……….. So I did. I cut the engine and left the keys. I walked away, toward the street and beyond, not bothering to check if he was following me. Continue reading

Posted in Chapterlets | Tagged , , | Leave a comment