Duality: the quality or state of having two parts

Dichotomya difference between two opposite things


My entire existence has only known duality. I speak it, constantly code switching between languages, compromising abridged versions of my expressions. I look it, a westerner in Vietnam, that foreign gait with an eagerness for smiling. An American in the States, but the where are you really from kind.

At times, it was definitely a dichotomy that I hadn’t learned how to navigate. I know that sounds like a deep, lofty statement, but I think it rings true for most people. It may be in the form of work/personal, ethnicity/nationality, gender conforming identity/actual gender identity. For some, these two parts may be opposing one another and maybe for others there’s space for negotiation.

But here’s the thing: as a kid, it may be difficult identifying these opposing things because you have no word to describe the experience. Or rather, what if, one aspect of your identity is being validated and the other part requires growth, maturity, and self-love to even acknowledge?

Growing up, I felt so much of my culture was discounted until an English word validated it. I was seven years old when I vaguely remember doing my spelling homework and the word was pray. My dad used to sit and wait for me to finish my work that year in particular since I wasn’t doing so hot (I used a calculator for 80% of the school year until Mrs. York shamed me, and I will forever be grateful for that). My dad doesn’t speak much English but he knew the word pray.

He then said to me, “See. We pray too. Like this” and placed both his palms together, the same way I did every Sunday morning at the Buddhist temple. Enthralled, this realization somehow made me feel more worthy of myself, legitimized even. I remember thinking this counts since I was able to invite this word into my other world-the one where attendance, certificates, sticker charts existed. Pray could sit with the cool kids. I could talk about praying. When I prayed Sunday mornings, it carried more weight. But the other things that lacked an English expression? Buddhist rituals, Vietnamese foods that aren’t pho, folklores, aphorisms-well they all stayed behind in the shadows.

I wish I had known then that it had always counted, mattered, deemed worthy regardless of its translation.

It was one of my earliest memories of making a connection between two different worlds-this dichotomy that I was just learning to understand. Let me be clear: I understood there were two aspects of my life between home and school, but I hadn’t quite understood how diminishing the other part of my identity felt because the dominant language, the one taught, validated, heralded as an immigrant success story, could not and would not encompass my other experience. 


I write this as a reflection of the shame I felt as “the other” growing through these growing pains. It’s just my way of processing. Listening to Barry Jenkin’s speech and interviews has reminded me of the power in writing one’s narrative.

The struggle with language for me today isn’t regarding acceptance-that, I had to come to terms on my own and speaks more to the culture of inclusivity. I’m more interested in exploring how we make sure another child experiences more “I matter” and “this counts” moments.



In my early childhood, I remember the Juki sewing machine’s vibrations, the way it shook and clinked the kitchen table utensils. I remember the staccato breaks after she stitched that line of thread. I remember asking her what time she would be done, and she only gave me a wan smile—barely certain of her indefatigable efforts. I can recall the way she’d stretch after being hunched over for so long; she’d arch her back and place her palm on her lower back, pressing onto the back brace—her latest purchase to ameliorate the discomfort. I remember secretly wishing that she would be pain free and that I could somehow absorb all of it.

At age seven, I used to fall asleep on Saturday nights next to a pile of clothes she’d just sewn. The scent of the new fabric and fuzz from the thread nuzzled against my neck. Age 7,  I was too engrossed in alien conspiracy theories and recent episodes of Beyond and Belief and as a result, paralyzed with an unshakeable fear of the dark. Background noises of the Saigon Radio Station spoke in steadied rhythms. The carpet sent flares of vibration with each step she took on the pedal. The Juki machine lulled me to sleep; its cadence swayed my innermost fears until my thoughts quelled.

Free Willy made you cry and Elvis suffered from a heart attack at an early age of 42. Both my old cars were named after them and sadly suffered from similar fates. Needless to say, their mechanic bills definitely made me cry and if cars could have a heart attack, they’d sputter the same noises before seeing the light.

I inherited Willy from my older brother when I was 17. It was a ’96 Honda Civic Hatchback (EK for rice rocket lingo amiriiitte). To be fair, it was only 11 years old when I first started driving it, so I didn’t feel like that kid driving a junk car to school. That would soon change throughout college. Over the next four years, I began to witness my car’s gradual dilapidation. I became reluctantly innovative with each decline. When the knob for the windshield wipers broke, I had to stuff tissue into the space that allowed you to press down or else my dulled wipers would incessantly from sweep left right, left right. It was like watching a car frenetically waving its white flag on an 89 degree day in sunny southern California, crying tears of wiper fluids and overheating.

Overheating. The tubes in my car were so worn that they’d tear, causing all the coolant to leak. I used to be a novice when it came to handling overheating. One of the first times it happened, I was driving all 2.3 miles from my West LA apartment to Beverly Hills. On Santa Monica Blvd, I suddenly noticed the gauge kicking up from cool to an alarming red “HOT.” Kidding, that red was imaginative because my car was so old, it wouldn’t light up. Anyhow, I started panicking and pulled over to the far right where luckily, the road created a space where buses could stop without causing an Angeleno to choke on their Sprinkles cupcake and throwing harangues of honks. I was 19 and well-trained of what to do in this scenario. I popped the trunk, got out of the car, and lifted the hood. I then proceeded to kick my tires and yell at Willy. A man approached me and tried to help. He looked working class and had to be at least 40. He was waiting for the bus and despite all episodes of Criminal Minds I’ve seen, I drove him to his destination.

Aside from the windshield wipers, my rear view mirror also occasionally fell down. The plastic that connected to the rear view mirror was chipped, so the mirror basically clung to dear life. Speed bumps were not kind to me. It was like watching Scar eject Mufasa off that clip every time I hit a speed bump. On top of that, you had the thuh thuh thuh thuh thuh from the wipers going off too.

My driver and passenger windows were not automatic, so I had to manually roll down the windows. During senior year in high school, we thrill seekers would ditch class occasionally. (Students, if you’re reading this, remember what I taught you. You do not deserve to ditch unless you earn straight A’s and get into UCLA). By we, I mean me and my best friend Quynh, and by ditch school, I mean we’d drive to the nearest I-HOP and order our usual Rooty Tooty Fresh and Fruity where subsequently, I’d take a nap in their parking lot in the car. Real wild. Before we’d plan our getaway, Quynh would pull up to the right side of my car, which meant I had to lean over and exert all shoulder and arm muscle into rolling in that damn window down. Anything for I HOP.

Eventually, I learned that the “window regulator,” was broken on my driver side. I was suspicious as this term was too advanced for what seemed to have the same technology as a Fisher Price contraption. What this meant for me: my left window was poorly supported and couldn’t be rolled down. Even worse, it would gradually inch each time I drove over a speed bump. I couldn’t even go through drive thru with my dignity in tact. I would pull up at the McDonalds, open my car door, step out, and clamp my window with both hands and forced it down. I’d get back into the car and clasp my seat belt. Then I’d look at the attendant dead in the eye and ignore the horror on her face, “6 piece chicken nuggets, sweet and sour sauce, and a hazelnut McCafe.”

To the average citizen, speed bumps simply demand that you slow down and carry on. You might spill some coffee at the very worst, but not much mental preparation is needed for this feat. For me, the speed bump meant that on top of the wipers pounding left and right, the rear view mirror fell on your lap and may or may not indiscriminately hit you in the nose on the way down, and now, your driver window slipped down and there was no way to roll it back up. I lie. You could “roll” it back up if you got out of the car, clamped the window with both hands, and manually slid it back up. But what were you supposed to do if you were driving? Say on the freeway?

One of the fondest moments was driving back to Orange County from UCLA. I usually found my solo drives therapeutic since I could just mellow out with some music. Since it was raining, I felt slightly invincible with speed bumps since ha! I happened to actually need my wipers today. I lavished at this thought as I kept my right hand on the rear view mirror over that bump. Couldn’t get ahead of myself. I figured that once I got onto the freeway, it’d be a smooth drive and wouldn’t have to worry about my driver window falling down.

It was roughly a 40 mile drive with the Carson Ikea being the midway point. My R&B playlist on my 30 GB iPod video was plugged into my FM transmitter (WHAT’S UP?!) and ready to go.

10 miles in: Music is playing. Everything seems good. I’m scanning for all the things I was supposed to pack home.

15 miles in:  After driving over some rough parts of the 405, my window opened a slight crack. The wind whistled and I could feel an occasional drizzle of rain. Nothing I couldn’t handle.

20 miles in: That crack now became an inch. Rain water began to hit my forehead but I saw that luminescent, Ikea yellow. Halfway point. I’d wipe the left side of my head and my hair absorbed the water.

30 miles in: The inch is now 2.5 inches and water is dousing my face. Not just the left side, my entire face. I now regretted this drive and it was anything but therapeutic. Actually, I think I just started laughing maniacally. If I were crying too, the rain made it difficult to tell.

40 miles / home: I was shivering in my coat. I mean, if someone dipped you into the dunk tank chest up, you’d be cold too.


In college, a good friend once asked if she could borrow my car. I hesitated but didn’t want her to take my silence for distrust.  My roommate casually suggested, “Maybe you should uh, warn her about some stuff first.”


Hello, beloved friend/family/stalker who loves and cares what I have to say or think. You made it here. I made it here. It is a sure sign that I’ve broken my “writer’s block,” which  is just truly a euphemism for my five year hiatus where I spent thinking about writing, reading about writing, listening to podcasts about writing, yet without actually doing the writing. Funny how that happens huh?

Instead, I’ve thrown myself into sadistic things such as marathon training and teaching English to high schoolers. I don’t know what it is, but I think it’s equivalent to those 30-day juice cleanses or mud runs. So basically just my own brand of mental discipline and test of will. Don’t get me wrong, I have definitely googled things such as “Why is running 20 miles bad for my health” or justified taking a mental health day because I couldn’t fall asleep by 1 A.M. on an early Monday. Sometimes, the mental burden just gets to you.

I see the Vietnamese locals here engaging in absurdly gregarious activities at 9 P.M. on a Wednesday night. Couples motorbike spooning (dibs on coining that term) and adults just having some drinks, tossing their heads back in laughter on the low plastic chairs. I swear I was witnessing all of this in sepia and that Snapchat filter where everyone’s acne is nonexistent. I take all this in and wonder: What the hell is wrong with you people? Don’t you get weekday work anxiety?

When I’m teaching in the States, I can barely manage an outing during the work week. Let’s do in on a Wednesday night because Thursdays at school mean that I can have quiet time to grade and plan. It became almost an incantation Wednesday Wednesday Wednesday. Even that takes a mental toll since I just want to veg out and watch an episode of Kimmy Schmidt until I panic that it’s 9:30 and I haven’t showered and needed to be in bed.

But I digress.

Writing, in a sense, felt very familiar to my marathon training process. I’d become profoundly good at “tricking” myself into completing tasks and developing mental games. All of which include a timer, music, and several Beyonce mantras. To which I owe my success since I’ve smiled at plants and rocks on a runner’s high once. Thank you rock, for gracing me with your presence. I nearly ate shit because of you, but I am you and you are me.

Oh and I also read tons of articles that go like this:

  • Lists of Regrets People Have Before Almost Dying
  • Dead People Leave Advice (not very tactful, that one)
  • Dying Man Shares List of Regrets with Wife, What Happens Next Will Shock You

And then I terrorize myself with my biggest fear: losing who I am and not fulfilling my greatest aspiration. And then I had to go and read another article that said Educated People Are the Least Happiest with Their Fulfillment. God dammit.

Until next time, friends. <3

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.



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.


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.


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 :)


<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.



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

<3 Bui