startwithhoai

what I think about when I write


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Second Chance

It began when my friend choked on her espresso drink, spraying the concoction of caramel and chocolate all over my face. “So it’s not the most accurate word to use,” I said, wiping the brown liquid off with a paper napkin. “Okay, I’ll say it again. Sometimes, I feel as if I’ve a rap sheet.”

Until I heard the CEO of MOD Pizza speak about his company’s practice of hiring workers with criminal records and even felony convictions, I had never given a second thought to how labeling and pigeonholing have directly impacted my life. “Second chance,” Scott Svenson said. “We give people with troubled pasts a second chance to become successful.”

For days afterward, I mulled over the MOD model and gushed over Svenson and his leadership team’s willingness to look past their employees’ rap sheets. “I get it,” I said, recalling the challenges of persuading prospective employers to hire me. “When I left academia, I had the hardest time convincing people that as a former professor, I possess skills that are valuable and useful for the business community. If people didn’t give me, a highly educated, law-abiding citizen, a chance to prove myself, can you imagine the kind of hurdle that people with criminal records face?”

Even now, I still recall that first interview. “You teach, right?” the prospective employer asked, pointing to the assistant professor title on my resume. “Yes,” I responded. “But I also designed syllabi for my classes; I prepared lectures and graded exams; I coached students; I collaborated with colleagues; I sat on university committees; I attended and presented at conferences; and I conducted research and published results in scholarly journals.” I thought I had made an impression, but he then asked, “But you don’t really have any practical experience, do you?” Disappointed, I tried once more to convince him, explaining that I was highly trainable. But he couldn’t take that risk, he said. He needed someone who wouldn’t need much training and onboarding. I understood his concerns, but nine months later, I was not so empathetic. I just wanted a second chance, to engage with someone who would see my potential and give me an opportunity to prove myself. And it arrived in the tenth month after months of rejections. I finally landed a job at the University of Washington, managing a program funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation. A year later, I successfully transitioned to the corporate world.

Since my first transition, I have made a few more, and my decisions have hung like the shackles around my life, choking off my potential choices like a rap sheet. A professor who became a market researcher, a market researcher who became a writer, a writer who hopes to defy the odds of becoming an author. A recruiter recently found me on LinkedIn and reached out. “How should I sell you?” she asked. I saw her struggling and admitted that I have made it difficult for professionals like her to pigeonhole me. I have “this” but not “that,” and damn it, how would she push for a candidate who started in academia and found her first break in the beverage industry but switched to IT and then jumped to start-up and writing? Whether she saw my potential or not, she was unable or unwilling to build a compelling narrative about me to sell to her client. She asked for my résumé, and I shared it with her. She never followed up; neither did I. I suspected that she was looking for someone with very specific skills—a perfect match with most of the bullet points in the job description.

“My rap sheet,” I joked with a friend. As if I had articulated something that should not be vocalized, she whispered to me a caution to tread lightly. “Ex-cons have a much bigger hill to climb,” she said. She surprised me, because while I didn’t disagree that individuals with criminal records face a herculean task of persuading prospective employers (or anyone) to give them a second chance, I was struck by her use of language. My words focused on the offenses; hers pertained to the offenders. The former marked the offending behavior; the latter stigmatized the person.

As offshoring and outsourcing continue, many people will be forced to seek a second or third career. Successful transition is a long and difficult journey, and at some point we will need a good Samaritan, like Scott Svenson, who will look past our rap sheets, be they criminal records or a series of job titles and positions, and give us a second chance. Many people are attracted to a book by its intriguing title or enticing cover, but it is time for us to choose the book for its content—the characters, the plot, the themes, and the writing. And sometimes, for the flaws.

Best wishes in 2017.

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Cleaning House (Short story)

“Certainly,” the friend said when the woman shared the strange tale about her two-year-old niece, “there must be an explanation.” And the woman would have agreed had she not confirmed it herself—the volume on her phone was still switched off, just as it had been before Zoya went down for her nap.

The woman’s niece had been sitting on the couch when she went downstairs to grab a towel, and halfway up, she heard Zoya say, “Mom text you.” The niece’s voice, high pitched and childlike, stopped the woman in her tracks. “What?” she called out, rushing upstairs to find Zoya sitting in the same spot on the sofa, her back against the pillows and her legs stretched out. “What did you say, Zoya?” the woman asked, reflecting wistfully at the uncanny resemblance between her brother’s daughter and their mother. “Mom text you and ask where’s Zoya?” the toddler responded. Even though the woman desired an explanation, she did not ask. She already knew what her niece would say. The woman walked toward the counter where her smartphone, plugged in its charger like a comatose patient hooked to a life machine, lay waiting on the black granite countertop. She touched it gently, and it lit up. The woman caught her breath when she saw a text message from her sister-in-law.

“She must have heard your phone beep or buzz,” the woman’s friend suggested. “Or vibrate.” The woman shook her head, perhaps to clear the cobwebs from her mind or maybe to contradict her friend. “Well, maybe there’s an explanation,” she replied. “But certain things in life are unexplainable.” Sighing, she began her story.

A week before Mother’s Day in 2004, my colleagues and I flew to Los Angeles for work. We were a group of five—three men and two women, and on this occasion we chose to stay at a posh hotel in West Hollywood. Hardwood floors, custom-designed furniture, a renowned restaurant offering Latin-Asian fusion food, a sky bar, and a sweeping view of LA. Our accommodations boasted elegance, stylishness, and luxury. At the time, it seemed fitting to stay there. We were in town to complete a project, and, if successful, it would allow me to transition to a managerial position at my company.

It was a hot day in LA. Despite that the air-conditioning was turned to the coolest setting, it was stifling in the taxi. As we whizzed past Sunset Boulevard and climbed the hill toward our destination, I rolled down the window and immediately rolled it back up. By the time we stepped out of the taxi, my clothing was stuck to me like a baby clinging to her mother.

Cool air washed over me as soon as we entered the hotel through its thirty-foot mahogany door. Taking off my sunglasses, I marveled at the interior design of the hotel—from its simple yet inventive furniture to the white linen drapes hanging from the floor-to-ceiling windows. The hotel, reputed to be a haunt for the famous, the wannabes, and the formerly famous, oozed with excitement and glamour.

Check-in was swift. My colleague and I requested rooms on the same floor, and the receptionist, a Jennifer Aniston lookalike, assigned us to the tenth floor. After dropping off our luggage, we met our male co-workers in the lobby for dinner. That Sunday night, we dined at a popular restaurant on the Sunset Strip.

We spent the next couple of days working, and on Thursday evening, the second to our last night in LA, we went to Matsuhisa to enjoy the most exotic dishes that the famed Chef Nobu had to offer. After a couple of bottles of premium sake, my female colleague and I, tipsy, decided to return to the hotel, where we stumbled out of the car and up to our rooms. Once I reached mine, I immediately fell into bed.

It must have been early morning when I saw myself in a dilapidated old house. Gone was the posh hotel; gone was the comfortable bed. While I had never seen or been in this house, it felt eerily familiar. It must have been midday, because from where I was standing, I could see the sun struggling to penetrate the fortress of leaves and branches of the gnarled oak tree that loomed over the living room. The interior of the house was dark—made darker by the walnut hardwood floor that had once been well cared for and was now covered with a blanket of dirt. Cobwebs hung from the dark beams across the ceiling, and the floor creaked in protest when I shifted my legs. The room was sparsely decorated and furnished, the remaining objects mostly tattered or broken. In one corner sat an armchair with a long slit through its seat. There were a couple of chairs lying on the floor with a leg or two missing. In the dining room, a wood table had been half eaten by termites, almost reduced to a pile of dust. “What the . . . ?” I started to say but stopped when I saw my parents appear before me. Mom came forward while Dad kept his distance a few feet behind her, his eyes seeming to bore into my soul.

“Here,” Mom said, handing me the broom. “You clean house.” Her request sounded like a command, and it took me by surprise that I just accepted the broom without hesitating. Before I had a chance to respond, she and my father disappeared. What? I thought. But Dad is dead. My father had passed away two months earlier.

Although I had the intense desire to hurl the broom across the room, stomp my feet, slam the door, and shout out a string of expletives, my parents’ appearance unnerved me. I was spooked. It occurred to me that I had stumbled into something strange, and that perhaps doing what I was told would allow me to leave. So I suppressed my desire to throw a tantrum and began to pick up the broken furniture and deposit the pieces into a large trash bag. I used the broom to clear the cobwebs. As I swept the last of the dirt out through the front door, my mother reappeared. “Is the house clean?” she asked, and I nodded, returning the broom. She took it from me, and her face broke into a familiar smile. I looked around for my father, but he was nowhere to be seen.

I woke up from my dream to find myself on top of the king-size bed, wearing the clothes from the previous evening. The door to my room was cracked open slightly. “Holy shit,” I said. I scrambled off the bed, head throbbing and craving a glass of water. But my first thought went to my work laptop so I limped toward the desk. After securing the room and confirming that nothing was missing, I went to the bathroom and collapsed on the floor near the bathtub. Nursing my pounding head, I tried to remember yesterday’s events and sought to make sense of the bizarre dream about my parents.

By the time I met my colleague for breakfast, I had convinced myself that my dream was nothing more than the product of too much sake from the previous evening. “But weird,” I confessed to my female colleague. “I was flabbergasted to see my father in my dream but knew that he was no longer living. That’s why I freaked, I think.” My colleague agreed that we should blame the sake, and we laughed as we walked back to our rooms to prepare for work. An hour later, I sat in a taxi, heading to the airport to catch a flight to Texas. My mother was dying.

By the time my plane landed in Houston early Friday evening, I received news that my mother’s condition had stabilized. I rushed to the nursing home to check on my mother, and after much reassurance from the doctor that the danger had passed I drove to the hotel and collapsed on the bed. For the second night in a row, I slept in my clothing.

I spent the weekend with my mother, putting her house in order. On Sunday, I celebrated Mother’s Day with her; it was our last together. She didn’t have much, mostly insurance policies that required little effort to put in order. By the end of the weekend, I had one task left, and by Monday afternoon, I had completed it. That evening, I made plans to return to Seattle to put my house in order. My mother needed me, and I planned to return to Houston soon to care for her.

On Tuesday morning, I arrived at the nursing home at around 10:30 a.m. Mom was lying in her bed, eyes closed and hands folded across her chest. I approached her bed and sat down in the chair beside it. “Mom,” I whispered. “How are you feeling today?” I asked. “Good,” she replied, her voice soft, weak, and unsteady. “I’m getting stronger every day, and I’ll be up and about soon.” I nodded, smiling at her indomitable spirit. Mom was like that; she wouldn’t give up even though she was on hospice care. “Can I have a drink of water?” she asked. I poured water into a plastic cup from the pitcher on her nightstand and helped her sit up. She sipped it gingerly, licking her cracked lips for the very last drop. As she handed me the cup, she asked in the softest voice, “Is the house clean?” The words were barely audible, but I heard them. I didn’t ask for clarification. I didn’t hesitate. “Yes, the house is clean,” I responded.

I left Houston on May 11, at around 3:30 in the afternoon, and arrived in Seattle around midnight. Six hours later, I was awoken by the insistent ringing of my cell phone. The sun had yet to rise so I knew the significance of the call. Mom passed away at 7:30 a.m. Central Standard Time. According to the orderly who was by her side before she passed, the last words she uttered were, “The house is finally clean.”

 

 

 

 


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Fighting the Time Bandit

As Norman’s fist came closer to my face, I inhaled sharply and tightened my hands. Swallowing my nervousness, I felt the urge to move away from its path but resisted the temptation. I knew that Norman would track my movement and follow me if I escape too soon. Yet I must have betrayed myself because Norman abandoned his attack within a couple of inches from my face. “You need to calm down,” he told me. “I can see and smell your fear miles away.” Norman and I stood a mere two feet from each other in the garage that he had transformed into his personal dojo. Except for the two samurai bokkens hanging from the wall, the room was empty. “Okay, come at me with an oizuki,” he said. I nodded, preparing myself to attack one of the highest ranking black belts in my organization.

I lunged forward with my right leg, knee bending at a ninety degree angle. I straightened my back leg. Norman faced me, impenetrable and unmovable like a mountain. With my right fist clenched on my hip, I moved in quickly and punched hard. But before my fist had a chance to make contact with his chin, he knocked it off its path. I felt like a baseball that had been whacked hard by a bat. I looked up to discover that Norman had remained rooted in the same spot, his body relaxed. He could have been been drinking a cup of coffee. To evade my attack, he merely turned his face to the side. “You waste a lot of energy when you’re excited. It shouldn’t take much effort to deflect,” said the karate master. “Learn about timing,” he said. “It can be a friend or a foe.” It didn’t take me long to learn the former; the lessons were often painful and obvious. A black eye during karate practice because I moved away too late or a punch in the stomach because I evaded too soon and missing a couple of job opportunities or lucrative investments taught me the important of timing. But the latter lesson took nearly a decade to learn.

 

It was a sunny Saturday afternoon when I entered the community center. I arrived an hour early to help prepare for an event organized by a non-profit that I supported. That day, I was tasked with decorating the buffet table and setting up the food. I had just finished dressing the tables with tablecloths and decorations when the fire alarm went off. A staff member of the community center ushered us from the building; another went to investigate the cause of the alarm. She returned within minutes to report—it was a false alarm; an elderly gentleman had accidentally set it off. But we can’t let you back in until the fire department arrives to turn off the alarm, she told us. I caught the executive director’s expression. Her anxiety mirrored mine and those of my peers.

Over the next fifteen minutes, time seemed to move painfully slow yet fast at the same time. The waiting felt eerily familiar–the last time, I was anticipating an important email. The fifteen minute wait for the fire truck felt like a couple of hours yet time was constant. Sixty seconds in a minute; sixty minutes in an hour; twenty-four hours in a day. Time can be either move fast or slow based on our perception.

As soon as we were allowed back inside, my fellow volunteers and I headed to the kitchen. We strove to make up for lost time by carrying a large aluminum pan filled with beans to the buffet table. We had almost maneuvered our way out of the kitchen when we noticed a trail of bean broth in our wake. “Stop, stop,” I told my peer. She looked at me expectedly as I forced myself to make a decision. Should we continue and risk making a mess, or should we return to the kitchen and take the time to find a cart? Second by second, time marched on while I tried to determine the best option for us. To risk making a mess and get the food out as soon as possible? Or take the time to find a cart and delay the arrival of the food? I could hear the loud conversations in the other room. “Come in, come in,” the executive director said. “Help yourself to the buffet.” In the kitchen, one of the volunteers ran past us on her way to the buffet table with a plate of cookies. The chef and other volunteers were busy making a watermelon and cucumber salad. Amid the chaos in the kitchen and the noise from the other room, I tried to calm myself by controlling my breathing. Time began to slow down, and I felt myself becoming less anxious. “Let’s put this back on the counter and find a cart,” I said. “We’ll just waste more time if we make more of a mess from here to the buffet area.”

It took several trips to transport the food from the kitchen to the buffet area. Except for the initial spill, we accomplished the task without another incident. While we were late setting up the food, no one complained. And the event was hailed a success. The time we took to find a cart more than made up for the time we might have needed to clean up another spill.

That day, I finally understood Norman’s friend and foe comment. By controlling my reactions to a stressful situation, I made time work for me. Don’t overreact, Norman had said. Don’t waste time. And you don’t need to make a big effort to defend yourself. Just move when the timing is right, not too soon and not too late.


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The Art of Customer Service

Something in her voice made me cringe. As if a large, beefy hand had slapped me hard in the face, I felt its brute force. She seemed irritated, as though I had interrupted and intruded in her personal space.

“Do you have a room available next weekend, checking in on Friday night and leaving on Sunday? For two people?” I asked. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife had just opened three additional days of clam digging in Long Beach, and I rushed to call the lodging where we often stayed. The motel was small and outdated, but it possessed a sizable cleaning station, and we liked it there. We had met interesting people, including a couple from Portland who taught us how to clean razor clams. Ernest Hemingway hunted lions; I dug razor clams. We all need to lord over something.

“You want a queen-size bed?” I heard her ask. She was the new manager at this motel, having replaced the former one with whom we were acquainted. We had yet to meet her; we didn’t stay there on our last trip. No vacancy. But I could imagine her standing behind the counter in the front room of this small, unattached building that served as the motel’s lobby as well as her home and office. “We stayed there a couple of times,” I said. “Second floor. Room 209, I think. Can you see if that room is available?” Her tongue clicked; her voice sharpened as she informed me that no such room with that number existed on the property. “Can you check your records?” I asked. She sighed, inquiring when I had last stayed there. “Last year around this time,” I answered, wondering why she couldn’t be more helpful. Another sigh, heavy and long this time, as she repeated her request. “I need a specific date,” she explained. “I have two systems where I store this information, so I need specific dates.” She sounded annoyed and frustrated. I was tempted to hang up, but I had already invested too much time, so I gave her my best guess and my name. And while I heard the keyboard clicking at a furious pace, I remained silent. “Yeah, you stayed in room 229 the last time,” she said. “That’s not available, but I have 228. It’s basically the same thing.”

She didn’t offer more information, so I had to ask the rate. “Ninety-nine dollars per night before tax,” she answered. I contemplated for a second, but I already knew my decision. I wanted to give her a chance to change my mind. “Thanks for your help,” I told her. “I need to check on a couple of things.” As soon as I hung up, I placed a call to another hotel in the area. Ten minutes later, I gave the manager my credit card number. The place was slightly more expensive, but the manager made me feel welcome and wanted.


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Eleven Words

Eleven words have captured the purpose of my life for the past four years. I found them in a short story by Alice Munro, the Canadian writer who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2013. “Which I thought much superior to those fresh from the garden,” Munro wrote in “Progress of Love.” I couldn’t have predicted my reaction—for the sentence preceding those words provided no warning. But I stumbled over them and felt as if I had been punched in the stomach by Muhammad Ali. “OMG,” I whispered, clutching my stomach as if a force had reached inside my belly and pulled out my guts.

For days afterward, I would return to them and marvel at the sentence structure that revealed the protagonist’s state of mind and unveiled her background, the time and place in which she lived. The sentence read: “For one thing, I was hungry and greedy, and a lot of my attention went to the roast chicken and gravy and mashed potatoes laid on the plate with an ice-cream scoop and the bright diced vegetables out of a can, which I thought much superior to those fresh from the garden.” It was simple yet complex, and elegant in its construction. It transported me back to the past—to the late 1970s when my family had lived in a small Texas town. There, my parents had planted a garden because we couldn’t afford the canned goods that were part of the staple diet of Americans at the time. Like Munro’s protagonist, I thought that the fresh vegetables harvested from our garden were inferior to what I ate from a can of Del Monte vegetables at a friend’s house: processed bits of carrots, green beans, peas, corn, and lima beans. For a brief moment, four decades disappeared—my parents were recent immigrants in their midthirties; my youngest brother, a toddler then, was very much alive, and I, well, I was a teenager in possession of boundless energy and unbridled optimism and passion. My heart twinged when I recalled that my parents and brother had left this world years ago, and I cried because I couldn’t appreciate the vegetable garden that my parents had cultivated.

For the past four years, I have been asked about my decision to become a writer, especially at this stage of my life. “I have a story I want to write,” I would say. Most people would nod and smile, probably too polite to share their true opinions. Or perhaps they want to spare my feelings and not ask the hard questions. Can you create compelling characters like Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, or Katniss Everdeen? Or construct worlds such as Hogwarts, Middle Earth, or Panem? Or write like Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Wharton, or Munro? What makes you think that you can succeed when so many writers, those who may have more talent than you, have not? I have no idea, I would probably respond. I just know that I have to try. The answer is actually quite simple. Eleven words: “which I thought much superior to those fresh from the garden.”


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Yan’an

Mao Zedong

The loud pop and crackle of fireworks roused me from a deep slumber in the early morning. It was the first day of the Chinese New Year. The celebration began on New Year’s Eve, February 7, and continued into the early morning as we swung into the Year of the Monkey.

At half past midnight, I went to bed. My friend told me that she always found it difficult to sleep through the raucousness, but to my surprise and hers, it didn’t take long to fall asleep. I attributed this to the New Year’s Eve dinner that her cousin had spent the entire day prepping—those sixteen delectable dishes, including pigs’ ears, pigs’ feet, steamed fish, and pizza. There were sixteen because the Chinese believe that even numbers are more auspicious than odd ones, and because a generous number of dishes reflects both the socioeconomic status of the family and the hope for a prosperous and abundant new year.

My friend’s family was eager that I, a special guest, try everything, so I sampled every course, including the pizza with homemade Chinese sausage and corn. On this special occasion, the family opened an expensive bottle of báijiǔ, a distilled spirit that contains 53 percent alcohol by volume, which the father poured into shot glasses before inviting us to sit down. “We welcome our new friend from America into our home,” he began, pausing so my friend could translate. “Please help yourselves,” he continued, waving his hands over the various dishes on the table. “As we bid good-bye to the Year of the Goat and bring in the Year of the Monkey, may it bring us health, wealth, and luck.” He then stood up and raised his glass toward the china cabinet, pointing to the cardboard picture of Mao Zedong with a 100-yuan note attached to it. “And to Chairman Mao, who gives us money.” The father laughed and extended his glass toward ours, and we all stood and clinked our glasses with his. As he tossed the fiery liquid down his throat, I mimicked by taking a big gulp from my glass, wincing as the translucent solution burned through my body. As soon as I had finished, the father appeared by my side, ready to refill my shot glass.

That evening, we ate and drank, and when my appetite waned and I couldn’t take another bite, my hostess rose from her seat and went into the kitchen. When she returned, she offered me a small bowl of soup. I accepted it with trepidation but learned that in this region of China the soup was served last, signaling the end of a meal.

****
The loud bang from the firecrackers finally penetrated my consciousness. My body jerked in response, and I recalled a similar disturbance that had forced me out of bed in the early morning decades ago, on April 28, 1975. That morning, there was an explosion of firearms that sounded like fireworks, and I ran into my parents’ bedroom, thinking that Saigon was celebrating as it did in February when fireworks illuminated the sky to welcome the Year of the Cat. My parents exchanged glances and then whispered to each other before rushing me back to my bedroom, which I shared with my younger sister. I later learned of the Vietcong’s assault on Saigon that morning; two days later, Saigon fell to Communist forces.

I shifted my weight and repositioned myself on my friend’s king-size bed. My friend, whom I had met in Paris more than four years earlier, had relinquished her bedroom and had been sleeping on the sofa in the living room for the past week. Since returning from Paris more than eight months ago, she had been living with her parents in their spacious three-bedroom apartment on the twenty-first floor of a high-rise building in the middle of Yan’an. Her parents had moved here more than three years ago, and the apartment was a luxury compared with the one in which she and her sister had been raised. “Things are so much better now,” my friend said. “We didn’t have a bathroom in our last apartment.” And over the past decade, Yan’an had been changing, transforming as quickly as the rest of China. The standard of living and infrastructure in Yan’an, once a very poor region of China, had dramatically improved.

Prior to my trip to China, I did not know much about this city. In Paris, my friend never talked about her hometown, and I did not think to ask. I had assumed that her family lived in Shanghai or Beijing. Certainly, she had an air of sophistication and urbanity. It was only when I planned to visit her after a conference in Shanghai that I became aware of Yan’an. “I can’t believe that you will come to my hometown,” she confided. “It’s small and not beautiful, but it plays an important part in Chinese history.” Her statement piqued my curiosity, so I googled the name of the city. I learned that Yan’an was near the end point of the Long March and served as the site for the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. Mao Zedong spent thirteen years in Yan’an, and the Chinese Communists viewed Yan’an as the birthplace of the Chinese Communist revolution.

****
I arrived in Yan’an in the late afternoon of January 30, from Shanghai via Xi’an, the capital of the Shaanxi province and home of the Terracotta Warriors. While the snow had kept us on the tarmac for several hours at the Xi’an airport, it was sunny, cold, and snowless in Yan’an. It took us about ten minutes to get from the airport to my friend’s home, located in the new part of town, where clusters of high-rise buildings towered. Mountain ranges rose in the distance.

Even on a Sunday afternoon, there were plenty of cars on the road. From the backseat of my friend’s father’s SUV, I stared out the window and watched as drivers and pedestrians fought to share the roadway. That afternoon, traffic flowed steadily in both directions; drivers neither slowed down nor yielded to other drivers or pedestrians. From the corner of my eye, I saw a mother holding the hand of her little boy as they attempted to cross to the other side of the road. “Yikes!” I exclaimed, inhaling sharply. “That cab driver almost ran them over.” My friend turned around and spoke softly. “That happens,” she said. “You have to be careful when crossing the street here, but if you wait for the perfect opportunity, you will wait forever. If they’re nice, they will avoid hitting you.”

Yan’an, like many cities in China, has embraced automobile culture, but unlike Beijing and Shanghai, the infrastructure does not yet exist to support it. Except for a few traffic lights at major intersections, the streets are devoid of traffic signs. No stop signs. No signs posted for the speed limit. This lack of infrastructure creates a Wild West mentality among drivers, an aggressive attitude that is simultaneously admirable and frightening. For example, Yan’an drivers refuse to allow a pesky thing like oncoming traffic to hinder them from making a left turn. As though adhering to Nike’s tagline, they just do it. They move forward with the intention of making a left turn, even though there is a stream of cars barreling toward theirs.

****
For most of my life, I, too, have embraced Nike’s tagline. The mentality of “just do it” has allowed me to cast aside my family history and cultural baggage, to create a new narrative and reinvent myself. But standing at the site where Mao Zedong and his comrades forged a vision for China, I suddenly realized that history can’t be erased or conveniently altered. As the birthplace of the Chinese Communist revolution, Yan’an has its place in history, but so do the Great Wall of China, the Terracotta Army in Xi’an, and the Yungang Grottoes, near the city of Datong. Five thousand years of history and accomplishments cannot be easily eliminated, nor should they be. The irony, of course, is not lost on me—the irony that I, an American of Vietnamese descent, whose family escaped from Communist Vietnam, have learned the significance of past history and cultural heritage by visiting the birthplace of the Chinese Communist revolution.


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Old Wounds

On Christmas Day, an old enemy returned. It came without warning, and it occurred in the most unlikely place while I was engaging in the most mundane task. I was in the basement, doing laundry. As I bent down to retrieve some dirty clothes from the hamper, I felt a sharp twinge in my lower back. As if I had been stabbed with a sharp dagger, it pierced me, and I let out a coarse sound, “Kee-eeeee-arr!”

That day, what normally would take me a few minutes to accomplish took more than ten. From the washer, I shuffled toward the staircase and grabbed hold of the railing, hobbling up the stairs. I moved slowly, hunched over, passing the bedrooms on the ground floor toward the front of the house to access the second staircase. With one hand supporting my lower back and the other clutching the banister, I limped my way to the kitchen on the second floor to search for an ice pack and a heating pad.

I spent Christmas nursing my pain, alternating between applying heat to my old wound and icing it. Five years, I thought. And it continues to haunt me now. That accident changed me, redefining my character. That day, I had just finished swimming at the Bellevue Aquatic Center and was driving downhill toward 148th Avenue NE. I arrived at the intersection where the left arrow signal had just turned yellow. In retrospect, I could have made the left turn; I had plenty of time but decided to stop. The street was still wet from the morning rain, and I wasn’t in a hurry. It was Memorial Day, and traffic on the road was light.

The driver behind me, however, had different thoughts. He anticipated that I would make the turn, so he accelerated and, consequently, slammed into my car. His truck sustained little damage; my trunk and bumper required reconstruction.

The car was an easy fix; his insurance covered the physical damage. But it took months for me to treat my injured body. After the accident, I spent hours visiting the physical therapist and chiropractor, and months managing my pain and enduring restless nights. I couldn’t run or swim; I gained weight.

At first, I tried to be positive. I didn’t die, I told myself. Everything is fixable. But the pain from the accident and the inconvenience of it took their toll over time, and a darkness crept into my heart and mind. I began to resent the other driver; after all, I had incurred the cost for his reckless and poor decision. The incident echoed one that I had previously experienced—a driver had hit my brother with his automobile years ago and forever changed his life and my family’s. In both incidents, the drivers took mere seconds to make decisions that led to a lifetime of consequences.

I spent months in darkness, nursing my anger and becoming increasingly bitter. But I’ve never been one to let a jerk win, so I set out to become whole again. I enrolled in an exercise class to strengthen my back, and I fought through the pain and swam again.

The incident, I knew, would be a permanent memory, but I had hoped to recover from the physical wound. And I thought I had until Christmas Day when the pain recurred, reminding me that some wounds will never fully heal.

The day after Christmas, I moved swiftly to vanquish the pain. Saturday morning found me in a hot tub, sitting directly in front of a jet spray. The streaming water helped alleviate the stiffness and pain; a 90-minute massage afterwards decreased tension in the injured muscles.

As I write this, my back feels stiff and tight, and I can sense the pain hovering, ready to embrace me again. And the final scene from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, the final book of the trilogy, comes to mind—where Frodo makes the decision to leave the shire, and Sam, overhearing him, asks if he can come.

“Where are you going, Master?” cried Sam, though at last he understood what was happening.
“To the Havens, Sam,” said Frodo.
“And I can’t come.”
“No, Sam. Not yet anyway, not further than the Havens. Though you too were a Ring-bearer, if only for a little while. Your time may come. Do not be sad, Sam. You cannot be always torn in two. You will have to be one and whole, for many years. You have too much to enjoy and to be, and to do.”
“But,” said Sam, and tears started in his eyes, “I thought you were going to enjoy the Shire, too, for years and years, after all you have done.”
“So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them.”

Some wounds are too deep to fully heal, but for most of us, our fate isn’t that of Frodo. And while old wounds are an inconvenience, a burden, they also serve as a reminder of a life well lived.

Best wishes in 2016!