In Vietnamese, Ong Noi means paternal grandfather. I’ve never met mine, yet I feel as though I have my entire life.

I was told that he passed away way before I was born. Way before my sister was even born in 77. As a child, his memory served as an ephemeral existence that I could only grasp through a tattered black and white photo on the dusty altar. I could see a semblance of him in my dad, his only son, if I looked hard enough.

When I was a kid, I would oftentimes cry whenever I dreamed something whether it be good or bad. It was the oddest thing, as if my four year old self feared anything my subconscious could conjure. I used to even chant “pink ranger, pink ranger, pink ranger” to myself before bed so I could dream of fighting crime in that awful pink Power Ranger suit. Though I’m sure that would have brought me to tears as well.

At night, I remember snuggling up in my 101 Dalmatians sleeping bag. Because my family had only been in America for only four to five years, we made do with a two bedroom home with ten people, sometimes more. I slept in that sleeping bag as a blanket and the fact that it zipped up made me feel safe and warm. Sometimes it’d be too hot and I could remember my mom unzipping the side to cool me down.

On one particular night, I dreamed of being in the bathroom and speaking to someone in the mirror. As usual, I began crying in my sleep. I was alone, my arms dangling barely able to reach the sink knobs even with the strain of tip-toeing. It was my ong noi’s face in the mirror. The same and only face I know from the photo on the altar. His voice, still and quiet, nudged me, “Tai sao con coc?” or “Why are you crying?” I don’t remember answering him. I don’t remember much more to be frank. I do remember waking, the padding of the 101 Dalmatian covers over me, and feeling safe with tears down my face still. And I’ve felt that most of my life.

I don’t know how to explain it, but I’ve always just felt very in tuned with him. Moments where I exhale a relief such as almost-accidents on the 405 or nights where I feel paranoid of the wind I just think of him.

Sure I’m human and I have fears and insecurities. I definitely don’t run yellows thinking “Whatever, grandpa’s got me” but I do feel a sense of someone guarding me. When I came back to visit Nha Trang this past month, my mom took my brother and me to his grave.

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During this past trip back to Vietnam, I was eager yet nervous at the same time. I wasn’t expecting to “find myself” or rediscover my identity etc like the cliches of many Viet Kieus. It was difficult to strike a conversation using my disjointed Vietnamese with my uncles who could share few words with me. I still appreciated the silence at times just sitting with family, the way my deaf and mute aunt pinched my cheeks, eyes grinning as she squeezed me. While it was fulfilling to see my place of birth in Nha Trang, I didn’t experience a KABAMM transformation of this new self-awakening and awareness. None of that Eat, Pray, Love.

I think, however, that my grandpa spoke to me on my last day in Nha Trang. While having breakfast with Brian, I decided to pack my Vietnamese Iced Coffee with tons of ice since it mainly comprises of espresso. Brian began chuckling in a bemused yet charmed way. I had to ask, “What?”  He pointed to the coffee.

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I couldn’t believe it. I too then burst into laughter with accompanied hiccuping gasps. We both looked mad laughing at this glass of coffee amid the din of the breakfast buffet. It could’ve just been that I pounded that ice and let it sit a tad too long. Or that the precise combination of cubes just happened to hit the glass a way to create random shapes, leaving it to my madness to over-analyze them. Or that ong noi just wanted to say hi to his granddaughter, his chau noi.


One year and twenty-six days later, I am finally composing another blog. A lot has happened, and I cannot believe how much I’ve grown in one year. Many people my quarter of a century age fear closing in on thirty, but I can’t wait to be wise, badass financially-secured knee-deep in my career with a masters under my belt at thirty. Plus my Asian genes will  ensure I look 23 anyway. So I get to look young but be 10x smarter…hm.

So one year and 26 days later I am sitting in  yoga pants that I bought when I was about 19 and lounging around in my new one bedroom apartment. Just 12 days ago I was just on some island in Thailand and just 20 days ago I was having beers with my cousins in Nha Trang, Vietnam where I finally embarked on my birthplace at Khanh Hoa General Hospital. It’s not as poetic as it sounds since the cab driver merely pulled over for 4 to 5 minutes so I could stand in front of the sign for a picture.

I am grateful to have a career that allows me to reflect and breathe. I’ve always known that I wanted to build my life around writing, teaching, and traveling. With that, I wanted to share some anecdotes from my recent Vietnam and Thailand trip. And because of my undergrad experience and work in social justice, my stories will be told through a race and gender lens. Come on, who wants to hear “this is me and  some important tree” story anyway. BORING.

Gender Norms: drinking as a Vietnamese-American female.

In my first week of Saigon, I walked around with my little brother who towers over me at 5 ’9. We decide to go into a swanky cafe in an ultra-commercialized part of Saigon where the cafe tries to replicate an American, New York feel. The prices are fairly priced and align mostly to a typical Starbucks. The cafe also served beer, so I opted for that with the 100+ weather and humidity. When the male server took our order, we asked for two beers and an ice cream shake. The shake was for my brother since I don’t care much for sweets (except when it comes to coffee you better put 7 cubes of that sugar in there).

When the server came back, it appeared that he had misheard the order since he only brought out one beer. Without doubt, he placed the cold beer on my little brother’s side. He walked away before we could order anything else, so my brother and I made eye contact and just chuckled. It got even better when the ice cream shake came out and was placed in front of me. My brother felt bad so we swapped–leaving me with the beer and my brother with the shake.

When we finally waved the server down for another beer, he thought my brother’s can of beer was empty and that my brother wanted another one. It wasn’t until we pointed out that the beer was for ME that it finally had occurred to him that the lady wanted a drink. Hm.

It was so striking to see how the male locals naturally react to an order like this. It’s not as if the idea of women drinking was abhorred or anything–it was merely the idea that if a guy and girl were ordering a beer that the drink is automatically defaulted toward the male.

Race: passing for Thai in Thailand

When I was in Thailand, the locals automatically began speaking to me in Thai. It had never occurred to me that I could pass as Thai, but it was one of those minor culture shocks for me. They would speak to me until my non-responsive blank stare cued them to ask “Where you from? I thought you Thai!” And so I’d tell them and “America? You look Asian! Where you from?” Then I’d have to further explain.

The concept of being ethnic and abroad in America deemed almost foreign to most. It even became more and more ambiguous to even myself– I’m not wholly accepted by either country. Either I am told my Vietnamese is “lo lo” or mediocre in Saigon or some racist asshole at Powell Bart Station yells out “Welcome to America!” 1. I think my Vietnamese is pretty fucken good and 2. I hope that guy caught some STD on his bar crawl and cries from the burn. Regardless, my keen self-awareness has always made me hypersensitive to race and how it dictates people’s reaction to it. And by it, I mean me. Because I embody race even with my name–seriously I have the most Vietnamese name ever. Tuyen Bui. My students don’t even bother trying to call me by my first name because they can’t pronounce it. I embody it with my name, my face, my unrelenting use of a chopstick to stir my tea and how my sunny side up eggs have to have the right soy sauce ratio. And what.

This acute hypersensitivity paired with my teacher Jedi senses have equipped me with the ability to anticipate other people’s fuckups. In education, we would call that predicting student mistakes and non-examples. Anyway, I was in need of some directions while standing between two major attractions in Bangkok. I approached a European woman and inquired, “Excuse me, do you know if the Reclining Buddha is from that direction?” She immediately, with both hands, gestured a “No thank you” while shaking her head. Within a second, I replied, “I’m not trying to sell you something. I’m asking you for directions.”

Let’s pause for a moment here and slow motion Tuyen’s thought process during that second.

1. Wtf is wrong with her?

2. I spoke English right?

3. Yeah I did. I did.

4. OHHHHHHHHHHH then

5. WOW

6. Don’t get mad bro. She’s just dumb.

7. Okay she’s not dumb. Pray for ethnic studies. HA

8. Gonna need more than ethnic studies to save this woman

9. Ok ok be nice or else you’ll look crazy

Hope you smiled during this read :)

Cheers,

<3 Bui


I’m currently teaching a summer enrichment program at a local high school in Richmond. It’s actually a great course, and I wish they offered it at every single school. It is more catered toward the honors/AP students who want to get ahead. In other words, it’s where the smart students become even more adroit with their onomatopoeias, their personifications, and most importantly, their ongoing desire to learn learn learn about the world world world.

Once, a teacher from my own high school said to me, “AP kids–they don’t think! It’s like robots just regurgitating information and when you ask another question they all panic and it’s like bam!” I understand where he’s coming from, but I thought and still do think it’s very flawed. Perhaps he’s just not teaching the critical thinking skills or as educators love to call it–climbing up the Bloom’s Taxonomy ladder.

Anyhow, this entire experience has been rewarding and challenging as I try to find ways to challenge the students. So, what the hell does Happy Birthday Jello have to do with teaching an enrichment program you ask?

***

I slouch over my laptop on a dark oak desk, sized too wide for my frame. I am clicking the Refresh button on my Firefox browser for the latest pins on Pinterest.com beneath “Humor”. I come across some mediocre memes and some worthy of an almost chuckle, a short-lived exhalation in staccato bursts. Two of my students race across my periphery.

“Ms. Bui, I came up with something for you.” My incoming senior, hair blunt and ash brown, squeaks off the Expo dry erase cap. She writes on my board MS. HBJ. “This is your thug name.”

“Oh god.” My eyes still on my laptop. I finally glance up. “What is HBJ?”

“You don’t know?” Her arms flailing, brown eyes round. “Happy Birthday Jello!”

***

Let’s back track for a bit, like two weeks kind of a bit. I tell my students tons of stories and if I know you–I’ve probably talked about you. No worries  no names were hurt during this process; I’ve kept everyone anonymous with my favorite reference “my friend.”

I’ve told my students about my family’s tradition and how we’d have Happy Birthday Jello at all our family parties. I grew up not really thinking much about this amalgamation of food coloring and flavors. Then I started inviting friends over and their turning down of the Happy Birthday Jello started to get me thinking.

I started realizing maybe it’s not just a Vietnamese thing–then the horrific epiphany: oh shit my family’s weird. Thinking back, none of my friend’s families ate Happy Birthday Jello. On birthdays they’d have cake, and on holidays they’d order dessert or bake. Granted my family does it cake, we’re not martians. We just like to have our Happy Birthday Cake Jello on the side too. You know, like an option, a plan B, a sidekick.

Personally, it’s not one of my favorite things to eat. I usually do it to make my mom happy. I remember being a sophomore in high school when my mom offered to make Jello for my teachers before the holiday break. This was a special occasion–this was not Happy Birthday Jello. This, was Christmas Jello.

“Aw mom it’s okay.” The 16-year old version of me said. I was trying really hard to get out of it.

“Just give it to them. Here, I’ll even put it in the ziplock back for you. How many teachers do you have?”

“Six.” I knew I had lost the battle.

Vietnamese mothers are not like the ones you see wearing an ugly sweater on a Coca-Cola commercial baking cookies with her children. My mother didn’t understand paying a lot for gift wrap, let alone give Christmas Jello in a fancy bag. I could have frisbee’d that Jello and really hurt someone in the face come to think about it.

So I dreaded and even became anxious giving my teachers these Christmas Jellos. Most of my female ones were ecstatic, receiving such “treat.” Really though, by the time the Christmas Jello hung out in my Jansport in 5th period it was gliding along, leaving its thin film of sugar on the ever so classy ziplock bag. Then I got to 6th period.

Today I use my 6th period history teacher to teach the word monotony. He marveled a framed photo of George and Barbara Bush. He became upset when I would fall asleep in class when it was he who turned off all the lights and held us hostage with the droning of his voice OHMMMMMMM.

So I gave him the jello and he plucks it by the tiny corner of the bag. “Uh, thank you.”

I don’t exactly remember what I did, but if I may dare say I know myself best, I probably was 1 relieved and 2 stalked away with a hunched shoulder.

***

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Who would’ve ever thought Happy Birthday Jello would make it this far in my life. Hm, the wonder to ponder.

<3 Bui


It’s been a while since I’ve watched, listened, or read something that has given me chills. I think the last time that happened was 2 years ago when I was writing a blog about a Lupe Fiasco song. Damn.

Writing is amazing. There’s always an underlying subconscious waiting to be unraveled and written.

So, I was recently offered (last-minute) a teaching assignment at a local summer school. It’s an AP/Honors/SAT prep class for English Language Arts. It reminded me of Father Vien, a Vietnamese Catholic priest from the documentary A Village Called Versailles. It took me back to that auditorium at UC Merced when I attended a conference and his words were “When opportunity arises, will you be ready?”

I had been looking for a summer job but nothing worked out. So I was just going to go on an artistic hiatus and read and write like crazy. Then the opportunity came, and I decided I’d be ready. Kind of anyway.

Teaching is undeniably the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do. It exhausts and frustrates me. At the same time, it challenges me every. single. day.

So I came across this video while doing some prep work to teach Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. I just admire his dedication and unwillingness to give up despite rejection letter after letter.

circa 2001

Gosh I read this in Ms. Gunderson’s 7th grade English class more than 10 years ago. Nothing’s better than picking up the same copy you read at 12 and teaching from the same book to your current students. More importantly, check out that awesome handwriting.

<3 Bui


When I was a kid, I used to have this weird phobia of losing my memory. I think this is why I kept a journal from 8th grade through college so that in the unlikely event that my mind would go blank, I could at least have my writing. You’re probably thinking well this rings a bell and yes that’s because I secretly wroteThe Notebook and Nicholas Sparks is still paying me on the side. How do you think I could afford to teach?

Anyhow, I’m getting all weird with the whole “what if I lose my memory” ordeal again. More so, what if I’ll never ever remember what it was like to be done with my first year of teaching. As if I write this blog five days later will truly change anything, but I’m OCD with this time thing. Just the same reason why I prefer to run on the treadmill is because I like to track the distance and etc…

The substitute did a little prayer for me in his note for my class.

So tomorrow will be the last day of school. I can’t believe this year is about to end. I mean, yeah I really do believe it but hot damn! Trying to think back at the “highlights” of this year…

  • Month 1 August: I got up in the middle of the night and started teaching in the dark. Like, in my pajamas and began pacing at the foot of the bed, lecturing about rules and expectations. No, I do not sleep walk. No, I do not sleep talk. One may recognize me as the furry pokemon called Snorlax when I sleep. It also didn’t help that I was staying at a friend’s place, so they all thought I was nuts.
  • Month 3 October: I think I was still suffering from anxiety at this point. I don’t know why the hell I’d come home and work from 4-11. Why? Why? Why? We did go through cases of wine much quicker. Thank god for the buy 6 and save 15% off deal. God. Bless. Safeway.
  • Month ? Springtime: Let’s be real I don’t truly keep track of the months. That was just for dramatic effect earlier on. I think I had taken a day off and seriously just went to buy a blender. I know, I know. Most people will go lounge or buy themselves brunch. Not me. I stayed in, and drove to two different targets across the East Bay because they ran out of blenders at the first one. Since when did lots of people start buying a blender anyway? My student texted me “Ms. Bui why aren’t you here to teach us.” Obviously having freak outs = finding the perfect blender day.

Trying to sneak Empathy 101 in every activity. We had to share our secrets anonymously

  • Later on: So the students got more and more comfortable with me I guess. Not that one would typically describe me as “intimidating” or “mean.” I got a lot of fun questions. “Ms. Bui, you pass the blunt huh” “Ms. Bui, are you married? You got kids?” “No? Well we just want you to be happy.” “You got a boyfriend?” and most importantly “HE BLACK?!”
  • Later on again: Tiffany came to visit me for my birthday and ended up going to work with me for a day. It was kinda neat since they were all “is that your friend Ms. Bui?” I know, teachers actually have friends. They asked her the funniest questions. “Did you guys ever fight over a guy?” Tiffany and I kind of looked at each other like uh not really. I replied, “We actually have really different taste in guys.” Then I forgot about being in teacher-mode. “Wait, why am I even telling you guys about this!”
  • Sometime after the half-way point: The calls home. So I made a point to be very diligent about communicating with parents. I was determined, even if all I could say was “she did no homework” or “bad grades” in Spanish, I would at least be able to say something to the parents. My favorite part of this determination was the fact that I had this entire speech down right? Like had taken notes and bullet points to mention to the parents. Usually the conversation would go like this:

Hello?

Hi this is Senora Bui at Kennedy High School

Yes?

Yes may I please speak with Senor/Senora____? I am the English teacher of ______

Ohh.

Excuse my Spanish. It is not very good.

Ohh it’s okay They’ll throw in a very kind laugh to break any tension. Or sometimes they may say something way too quickly for me to understand, in which then I laugh as if I understand.

I just wanted to say that your son/daughter is doing very well in school. He/She is diligent, nice, and does all of his/her work. He/She helps his/her class mates too.

Oh great! That’s so good to hear.

Okay but so I did not anticipate the “transition” or “closing” of the conversation. Obviously I would then proceed to laugh like an idiot because I did not know how else to fill up the awkward silence.

Okay if you have questions just give me a call

Oh thank you for calling!

Yes, okay. Uh. Good morning! Bye!

By good morning, yes, I meant to say good night.

I eventually learned how to resolve this problem by bribing my student with brownies so he could teach me some phrases.

  • Later later on: So I finally felt comfortable letting my guard down a bit with my juniors because they’re more mature. I read them one of my blogs. I know, what the hell was I thinking right? They can’t know that I’m human. What am I, like crazy? But then during one of my professional developments the facilitator mentioned that our (awesome) art teacher is actually a professional artist himself. She made a point that students need to see their teachers modeling their content in ways that are applicable and even (dare I say) COOL! So I was like whatever then–writing could be totally cool and what other why to exemplify that other than this awesome blog. Then I forgot I had some “bad” words on there. THEY DIED hahahaah. So hello students, if you’re reading this I’m glad you’re at least reading since it’ll help with your decoding and comprehension skills.

Anyhow, I would not trade this experience for the world. I’m sharing the funnier moments with you guys now, but there have been days where I just let myself cry for a bit. Pick myself up, and then get ready to pick up eggs after school or prepare for 6th period even though 5th period just tore me apart.

Yet, the good days have outweighed the bad.

Be back soon. Much more to share.

<3 Bui

I've been up here for almost six months now. I definitely am loving the bay area and how much being in a different environment can motivate you to do so many things outside of your comfort zone. I wish I had taken more advantage of southern cali and had been more adventurous, but I figure it'll still be there when I visit. Thought I'd share some of my neat explorations in the bay area for the past 6 months. I know I'm not usually a photo blogger because I like to do that on Facebook, but consolidating these into a mini blog is a nice way to reflect. Side note: I taught the word consolidating today. to combine together. I can't turn off teacher mode. Napa Valley. My friend Viet came to visit with his friends and we were able to tag along. The weather was gorgeous and it's really only an hour away from me. It's just so peaceful and all you see are vast acres of perfectly plotted greens. Broadway in Chinatown. I always feel at home here. We had gone to this Teach for America event where we had a picnic and played kickball in an Oakland park. I had never seen so many trees... and being a forest-deprived child, I had to run and be in the trees. Berkeley is pretty serious about their farmer's market. Just a nice way to spend Saturday afternoon. Critique on the history of Richmond. There is very much resentment toward these companies--they will spill money into TFA and donate laptops--yet they are the cause of the toxic soil and polution that give most of my students asthma. I saw this at a local community event (that was also a few blocks from a wasteland) and was instantly drawn. My weekend nights are usually spent here. Of course we had to travel to suburbia to pick out pumpkins in 80 degree weather. I loved every moment of it. Soo Berkeley. My "desk." Making sure I write each of my theater students a personalized Christmas card. Probably my favorite holiday photo thus far. It's a Christmas tree solely built from shopping carts sprinkled with some shiny lights and ornaments. I love the leaves here. Esp that little star-shaped green one is somewhat equivalent of a four leaf clover. The beautiful Point Reyes Station shore in the north bay. Absolutely stunning. Obviously we had to take a stroll and then set up a picnic to enjoy our brie, salami, bread, and cabernet in shot cups. I can't wait to map out more adventures here. Hope you enjoyed the photos! Until I get hired as a photographer for TIME, <3 Bui

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