"Identity là khỉ gì?" or "What the monkey is identity?"

I was just talking to my friends Hetty and Chi and they said that my blog could put them to sleep. So in that spirit, I'm going to write a really long, boring, non-visual text-heavy post just to prove them right.

According to TheFreeDictionary, identity is:

The collective aspect of the set of characteristics by which a thing is definitively recognizable or known; The set of behavioral or personal characteristics by which an individual is recognizable as a member of a group.
But what does that mean in English? Well, I have my own theory as I'm sure everyone else does, but I don't like theory because it's too abstract. If I had to articulate it, I suppose it would go something like this: Identity is who and what you construct yourself to be (whether or not that is consistent with who and what you truly are) and how you choose to represent yourself. I'm not completely convinced about the search to "find myself," which I've seen go around in circles and end up closer to where you began than anywhere else, but I think that the real life journey is to forget trying to solidify our own "identity" and refocus on how we fit into the fabric of humanity. By positioning ourselves between our God and our fellow beings, we attain much greater depths of self worth and identity than by trying to reach inward all by our lonesome. But that's off my topic.

I started thinking about identity when my wife dropped this concept on me today in the car: ethnicity is negotiable. I love this topic, but it was kind of startling to hear it randomly uttered while on the way to pick up a new union membership card so I can buy movie tickets for $6.50 instead of $10. But it was the spontaneity that thrust my mind back into the internal debate I haven't entertained since my good ol' Asian American Studies classes. It all started like this:

I was sitting in a Vietnamese American Experience class and a grad student came in with a stack of papers and announced that she was doing her dissertation on Asian American identity. Part of her research included a survey to be taken by college-aged young adults. She then said these exact words: "I will pass the surveys around, please take one if you self-identify as an Asian American."  I didn't even really hear her say that, I was thinking about something else at the time, but I just remember realizing that as the stack of papers was passed to my hands, I almost took one before passing it on. I hesitated for a moment, then just handed it to the next student without taking one. It was only a small thing, but my mind began racing around and around trying to figure out why I tried to take one when I knew they were only for "Asian American" students.

For a long time, I had hoped that I could "pass" as Asian. I thought that maybe if somehow if I could claim a tiny bit of Asian America, I would then speak better Vietnamese, understand more deeply the culture, enjoy the food more completely. But it's not magic like that. The more I tried, the stupider I felt - I felt like a desperate man chasing his dream woman. I finally gave up and just focused on life, trying to live as best as I could. I just came to terms with the fact that I would never be Asian and therefore never be... well... never be Asian. Several months went by before I had that experience in class. After pondering the experience, I finally concluded that since I had stopped "trying" to be Asian, my life had unintentionally molded more thoroughly to the environment around me, which was mostly Vietnamese. My mind subconsciously affirmed that fact, to the point that when she mentioned self-identifying Asian American, my subconscious automatically categorized myself in that group. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was difficult for me to separate the parts of me that were uniquely Asian and uniquely non-Asian. I came home and pondered on the implications - I had always, always, always categorized myself as white, Anglo-Saxon, whatever it's called now. I had grown up white, and though I have some Asian blood in my veins, my life was practically culturally and socially and emotionally void of anything Asian. Is it possible to just change one's identity? Just like that? One question in a class and boom, I'm now converted from white to Asian? And that's when the epiphany gently floated down from the sky to my head (I'm sitting on my porch next to my ash tree and I kid you not, immediately as I wrote that last sentence, a leaf fell and about hit me in the head). No, it doesn't happen in a moment. That change has been working on me for a long time and now finally I realize that I'm as deeply Asian as all my classmates who took the survey.

I don't go around flaunting my new-found Asianness (maybe that's why God made me wait) because I'd like to keep it quiet, like a secret between me and myself. I don't lull myself to bed at night thinking, "I'm finally Asian, I'm finally Asian." In fact, I don't even think about it anymore, until something reminds me that at some point in the past, I had a change come over me. I don't feel Asian, but when I was white I didn't feel white either (I just looked it). I don't try to do Asian things (like eat everything with chopsticks - come on, cơm tấm and chè were not made for chopsticks!), but I just do what I do and I guess it's now a mixture of white and Asian because I can't tell anymore what's what. That's my identity - mixed. Not mixed blood, but mixed life.

James Allen claimed that a person is in control of their thoughts as well as environment. Well, we're in control of the environments toward which we gravitate, but those environments have a stronger pull on our identity and subconscious that many of us realize.

And what the khỉ is identity? I don't know. I was hoping that typing this would sort things out in my mind. It didn't.


Blogs of Interest

In the last two weeks I'm come across two great blogs that I like to share with all five of you (or maybe it's seven now, counting Sharon and Amy :) Here they are:

Brent and Jennie's European Experience Blog
I grew up with Brent, as our respective parents ran marathons or made cookies or played Nerts together. I looked up to him because he liked Pearl Jam and went to church at the same time. I haven't seen him forever (ok maybe only a year but it seems like many) but I ran into his blog today and found it fascinating to see him running around Switzerland and Germany, hauling two kids around and being hauled around by his wife. There are some beautiful pictures of castles and things so everyone definitely stop by the Cowan Family blog.

Phố - Thoughts of a time in Vietnam
Here is a blogger who commented on my blog a while ago. I just barely replied, and in doing so took a look at the blog attached to the profile. It looks like she just got to Vietnam a few weks ago to commence her year-long stay in a country that hasn't necessarily "welcomed" her. Yet. It's been a month since she's blogged, so I hope that she's backpacking the mountains of the North and will have many stories to tell when she gets back to a computer.

I love reading about people's lives, the intricacies that make up our mundane moments and how fluidly our lives connect with others' then separate. We're in constant flow, in and out of each other's experiences and with each intersection we take a little bit of that person with us. Sometimes I try to contemplate the vast world in which we live, the network of souls that make up human kind, the endless array of individuals that I come in contact with each day... then sometimes I remember that I have dirty dishes in the sink. Like now.


What I'm doing instead of blogging

A few weeks ago, I decided that my wife is more important than my blog, and my wife decided that I'm more important than Goong, so we've now been spending our free time with each other and friends instead of sitting at home with the computer (I guess that's what we get for having two computers). At home, I've reinvested myself in the garden, since all my plants will die in this heat if they don't have constant water. I haven't posted about my garden for awhile, but it's gone through a gradual transformation, which I've tried to capture in photos and have posted on Flickr (click here for complete slideshow, or click image for a few photos).

What I'm really excited about is my wife's new bike. We're amateur cyclists now. We've found out that we both love to bike and it's good for us too, so why not do it together? Plus, since we both hate riding on the sidewalk (or the road for that matter), we've been searching for little bike paths in our area and have been surprised to find so many. Here's a few pictures of our latest journeys, including this morning.


So what kind of people are those Communists raising, anyway?

While we were staying in Saigon, we were graciously housed at my sister-in-law's place, which was situated in one of the numberless hẻm (alleyways) that make up the city's residential areas. It was a quaint little arrangement, us sleeping upstairs while the renters - two students from Biên Hòa currently studying in the city - stayed in the downstairs quarters. My wife and I ran in and out several times a day, never saying more than a few words to the students as we went out the door or up the stairs. But there was one day that we stayed home because of the rain and the two students, Khôi and Ngân, had gone home to visit their family. I took the opportunity to get to know them a little better, behind their back.

I've heard horror stories of the educational system in Vietnam as it is run under the Communists, brain washing the children and other forms of cruel and unusual punishment. But what I found in Khôi was not a walking zombie, not a brain-washed robot training to be government spy... I found a self-motivated, fun-loving, study-holic young man who lived within the "regime," but without the slightest hint of allegiance (or displeasure for that matter) towards the government of his country. His focus was good grades, family unity and preparing for a global economy that is pushing its way into Vietnam even as we speak.

He's studying to be an architect. His desk fluctuated between two and three computers at all times, and the clutter on the desk and bookshelf was constantly shifting. But what really impressed me were the notes he hung all over the place. He ran himself through a strict schedule, as this image shows: 5:30 am - wake up, put a pot of rice on, brush teeth; 5:45 am - move around, morning exercise; 6:30 am - go to the store, make food... 7:00 am - rest, read... and then it's studying for the rest of the day. Not only did his hand writing impress me (and that is his writing, not a font), but his desire to push himself forward, to set goals for each day, to increase his capacity to accomplish by working by routine. I found myself wishing I could work like that...

Over the next few days I watched him as he worked - yes, he actually followed that routine. I also found more notes scattered throughout the house, in places that he would frequently pass by. I found some sticky notes taped to the wall, probably stuck up there after a particularly frustrating lazy phase. "No TV, no games, no sleeping in, no wasting time, no staying up past 11pm" is listed, in bullets, on one of the sticky notes, prefixed by an underlined admonition: "Cast away frivolous fun to focus on accomplishing your higher dream!!!" (notice at the end he actually writes "of" instead of "của" hic).

There's too many notes and lists, some even framed, for me to detail each one. Quotes, "Plan of Work and Goals," a sketch of his 9-out-of-10 point (why not a full 10 I don't know) project... and below is a nearly-finished example of what he's creating now. Click on it to see all the pictures I took of his stuff. I know, it sounds like I'm obsessed with this Khôi person, but I'm not. I'm just wishing I could be like him.

Oh, and by the way, we just got word that he graduated recently... valedictorian.


Netlore - I just can't get enough virus email!

I love urban legends and folklore. Actually, I hate urban legends because they're usually scary and then I can't sleep at night, but I love folklore. I didn't really know what that term meant until I took a humanities class where the professor was obsessed with folklore and told us all to forget Paul Bunyan and Washington's cherry tree and start looking at everyday superstitions and oral traditions. It changed the way I viewed life (I'm not being cheesy, it really did!) and the stories I hear buzzing around me day by day.

The idea for this post popped into my head 3 minutes ago when I was reading an email from my beloved friend who is always so kind to forward me email warnings about the virus that will destroy the Zero Sector of my hard drive and then crawl out and plug my toilet. (That's the best part about folklore, or "netlore" as it's evidently called: the story somehow stays intact throughout a plethora of retellings) The advent of email turned folklore into a tangible, trackable medium of expression - it's not so formal that everyday speech and stories are inappropriate, but it's not as fleeting and fluid as oral communication. Anyway, I'm reading my bud's email and as I read the virus' name ("Olypmic Torch") I think "Wait, this seems very familiar, maybe I got one just like it before..." so I look. Lo and behold, on April 12, 2006 I received not one but two emails titled "Fwd: READ AS SOON AS POSSIBLE" They were followed up on May 26, 2006 by an email from my beloved sister, entitled "FW: Fwd: Fw: Fw: READ AS SOON AS POSSIBLE" Yes, this is a hoax, a piece of netlore that has been circulating since early 2006, spreading panic and higher blood pressure throughout the United States and beyond.

My favorite one, to which I took a considerable amount of time to respond, was sent to me (the first time) on January 20, 2005 under the seductive title of "Fwd: FW: PLEEEEEEASE READ!!!! it was on the news!" It assured me that if I sent this email on to my entire address list, Microsoft and AOL and Toast Masters (something like that) would track it and send me a check for 3 billion dollars. Click here to read the email text

This seemed odd to me, and since if I made a dork out of myself by sending this potentially dangerous email on (who knows, perhaps that email contained the Olympic Torch?) then I wanted my money, I did a quick google search which lead directly to an article called "the Microsoft email tracking hoax" or something like that. It was great. The author was a mathematician and figured that if it were the real deal then Microsoft would be paying out more than the United States national debt. Click here for my reply, which used that guy's equation. I received that email several times over the next few months, including from my dad and brother. Email has greatly expanded the potential of folklore to effect our daily lives, from the jovial/superstitious (if you don't forward this message to 7 people you'll lose love for 7 years!) to the patriotic (Red Shirt Friday) to the down-right scary (like my introduction to netlore in '96, right before I learned to drive: Gang Initiation - Flash Your Headlights and Die!)

I found a decent article in Wikipedia on Folklore, but a simple search on Netlore hasn't revealed any substantial research on the subject of email hoaxes and folklore. I've only found lists of known email hoaxes - no real look at the history of it all and no analysis of netlore as an expression of Internet culture. Is it that no one has pursued the subject, brushing it off as petty emails that go straight in the Junk folder? Or am I just too much of a novice at googling? It makes me want to compile all my old hoax emails and start a wiki article about Netlore, plumbing the depths of where they start and why they're important. I think the type of oral and email traditions we pass around really does reflect the society in which we live. It might not be worth my time, but I know at least one person would appreciate it: my humanities professor.


Ouch! Tagged! Twice!

Ok, I give in. I was first tagged by Susan (who calls me Phương) but I was in Vietnam so she gave me until I got home to do it. Em Linh đọc bài này thấy trễ ko? Trễ còn hơn không! hic Now I've been tagged by Jennie, who seems quite busy since she stayed up all night to buy Harry Potter and still hasn't read it. (I'm halfway done :) The rules I got from Susan and Jennie were different: Susan's said write 7 random facts and tag 7 people; Jennie's said 8 and 8. After much deliberation, I've decided to take the average: Susan wants 7, Jennie wants 8, and I only want to do 1, so 7+8+1 = 16 facts / 3 people = 5.333333333333333333, we'll have to round that one off = 5.  There. (giỏi ghê ko?)

The Rules of this tag:

1. Link to your tagger and post these rules.
2. List eight (or seven or five) random facts about yourself.
3. Tag eight (or seven or five) people at the end of your post and list them (linking to them).
4. Let them know they’ve been tagged by leaving them a comment on their blogs.

Random Facts

  • I'm actually Harry Potter (according to some)

  • I love my guitar, even though I don't play it enough (tui cũng sáng tác nhạc nữa)

  • It had been scheduled that I get baptized right on my 8th birthday, but I cut my eyeball the night before while overzealously trying to break sticks for my new snake habitat (bark flew into my wide-open eyes). The doctor patched me up and told me that I couldn't get it wet. :(

  • I was converted from rap to rock while in middle school by two songs: What's the Frequency, Kenneth? and Black Hole Sun. Thank goodness!

  • I hate buying new clothes because I'm afraid of dirtying them. Còn 8 áo sơ-mi mới tinh, vợ mua năm ngoái, còn để nguyên trong gói luôn!

People I pick on to be tagged

Eating Our Way South - Saigon

Finally, a day off! I might be able to catch up on some rest today. Or catch up on some cleaning.... we'll see.

Now for the final installment of our gastrojourney through Vietnam, featuring dishes from the Southern part of the country. Now, I don't think that Saigon has any specialties per se, but the food there is great none the less. I don't have as many pictures this time, but here we go:


Bánh Mì - the sandwich that combines a French baguette with all kinds of interesting things to make a light, inexpensive breakfast meal (this place sold it for 5000 đồng, which is about 30 cents. At Lee's it's like $2.50 plus tax!) I already posted a bánh mì picture before, but it ended up that we ate here more than the other place, plus this picture came out better.

Next in chronological order (though not in Vietnam) are the dế chiên. These delicacies are sold in Cambodia and taste amazing like sauteed shrimp. The interesting part is how they catch the crickets: they setup a stick frame and an empty basin of plastic tarp at the bottom. Then they put a light at the top of the frame and crickets fly over to the light then fall into the basin and can't get out. (click for a visual)

Now, back to Saigon. The last restaurant of note at which we ate was called Cơm Niêu Sài Gòn. Not only to they have a one of my wife's favorite dishes (cơm cháy - baked/burned rice), but they do have a little performance to make things more interesting (luckily caught it on film). They bake the rice in a clay pot, then they just shatter the pot right in front of you and throw the lump of rice around, I guess to cool it off, or to show off. Fun! If you're interested in going, the addres is 6c Tú Xương Quận 3, TPHCM and we recommend the cá kho tộ (fish baked in a clay pot with sauce) with the cơm cháy. Here's the video of how they serve cơm cháy, and below is the finished product:

Well, folks, that's all. I'm off to clean the house. Sleeping can wait.

travel log
  • 02.13.08 - to the temple with Luan and his mom, good to be back
  • 02.14.08 - Mẫu's alive! and staying for the weekend
  • 02.15.08 - floor hockey and Thái food makes for some strange dreams
  • 02.17.08 - frisbee and swamp monster at the park: fun but I'm pooped!
  • 02.19.08 - just read Triết's response to my last post - game on!
  • 02.20.08 - raining and expected to continue through Sunday - thank goodness!
  • 02.21.08 - 3-hour nap is a bad idea right before bed
  • 02.23.08 - to the beach to watch kites, a baptism @ 5pm, and homemade bulgogi - what a day!
  • 02.25.08 - just gave myself a haircut - woo, cold head!
  • 02.26.08 - 75° and spring cleaning - couldn't feel better
  • 02.27.08 - fed the elders bún đậu tonight - think it's their first time
  • 03.01.08 - working on new background...
  • 03.02.08 - finalized javascript to change background without muffing up my other scripts
  • 03.03.08 - fhe: "In his strength I can do all things" (Alma 26:12)
  • 03.07.08 - some decisions are harder than others, but some are downright excruciating
  • 03.08.08 - there is life after work... i almost forgot
  • 03.11.08 - the distance between good and bad is much shorter than between better and best
  • 03.12.08 - conversion is sometimes a gradual process, so much so that we don't even notice
  • 03.14.08 - for some reason everything was a little harder today, looking forward for bed!
  • 03.15.08 - last night after blog reading, I missed OnlyBlue, today I find she's back
  • 03.16.08 - best day of my life!
  • 03.19.08 - "Pray for the answer that they've been looking for"
release notes v1.0 - FINALLY DONE!
  • 12.07 - first thought of starting a new blog
  • 01.08 - busy with election stuff but blog design still on back burner
  • 01.13.08 - first idea to imitate jk rowling with the "desk" theme
  • 01.28.08 - start sketching current design, breaking down development into phases
  • 02.02.08 - election only days away but still drafting final plans
  • 02.04.08 - v0.6 LAUNCH
    • main components (blog body, sidebar, header, etc) designed and implemented
    • styling for font, links, drop caps, etc. finished
  • 02.07.08 - v0.8 LAUNCH
    • image style to imitate polariod
    • moveability - post-it notes and static clings can be repositioned by drag and drop
    • release notes styled and written
  • 02.16.08 - travel log (beta) added in hopes of catching the mundane
  • 02.22.08 - lightbox 2.03 reinstalled and working fine (hopefully - let me know otherwise)
  • 02.26.08 - v0.9 LAUNCH
    • travel log seems to be working, so I'll keep it
    • lightbox also seems to have passed the test, so it's a keeper
    • some credits/info added to bottom (will expand)
    • keeping old Viet terms in archive for future viewing
  • 03.18.08 - v1.0 LAUNCH
    • installation and testing of time-sensitive background completed (for now)