Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Across the Mississippi from Memphis

Across the Mississippi from Memphis the land was flat and wet, and there were rice fields just like where I came from. Unlike where I came from, the fields here were not segmented into small plots but ran uninterrupted over large tracts of rich soil. There was no sight of water buffalos and toiling peasants either.

Still the rice fields looked and smelled so familiar that my eyes unconsciously searched for a coconut palm or two among the hickory trees in a nearby grove.

Monday, June 25, 2007


I was in the gym working on my adductors, meaning my inner thigh muscles, and that's why Jim broke the ice with a remark that it's a good exercise for riding a horse.

Jim hailed from Montana and did a lot of horse-riding in his youth. He talked to me about life with horses in the prairie under a vast open sky. That life had been a tough one, so tough that he had left, leaving his brother behind to farm their father's land.

Sometimes while we were rowing his boat on a nearby lake, I could see Jim's prairie in his eyes. I should know, because a nostalgic yearning had also been gnawing at my heart until I made a trip back to the place I had left; it then dawned on me that the world I had been holding dear only existed in my selective memory, and reality was a lot less poetic.

That was what I wanted to tell Jim, and I often wondered why he never returned to Montana for a visit. After all, it was only at the other side of the country, while my native land was halfway around the world and I had managed to come back all the same.

Maybe Jim didn't want to find out what I did. Maybe he cherished his memories so much he wanted to keep them intact, joy and pain alike.

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Noses Around a Table

The meeting was so boring I could have fallen asleep, so I started looking for something entertaining to focus my mind on. Around me were the faces of my colleagues, all wearing the same dazed expression except one or two who were making an effort of showing interest. I turned my gaze to the table but it was just a bland piece of office furniture, so I was looking up again when my entertainment hit me in the eyes.

It was the noses, positioned around the conference table. If I kept my eyes down at the right level I could watch them as much as I wanted without the embarrassment of staring at anyone. I had never realized that there was quite a diversity of noses in terms of shape, size and shade of color. Some of these noses were bulbous, reminding me of the garlic bunches hung at counters in Italian restaurants. There was one that looked lopsided and beaten; I wondered if it came from a fight. Another was thin, sharp and twitching; it surely belonged to Greg, not a nice guy by any measure. And this one, elegant and just a trifle upturned for a grain of humor, had to be...

I looked up from that nose and saw Amy smiling at me, an amused twinkle in her eyes.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Impression of a Scent

It all started when I was a child living on a hill by the sea. The nights were warm, the sky was clear, and the scent was gently wafting through the air from a couple of michelia trees standing quietly in a dark corner of the front yard.

Years later I was riding a bicycle in a big city late at night, feeling all the weight of a hard life on my young shoulders, when the scent suddenly struck all my senses. In a flash I was a child again, sitting on a bench on a hilltop, watching the stars above and the lights from fishing boats in the sea below. Silently I thanked a michelia tree which rose behind a wall, visible under the streetlight.

More years later and an ocean away, I was driving along a country lane in a Southern state when the scent hit me again. I stopped my car to a screech, avidly looking for an old friend in a strange land. There was no michelia tree this time, just a lot of blooming honeysuckle vines growing on the roadside. Still the scent was unmistakably the same, and I slowly filled my lungs with an ami retrouvé.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Peanut Girl

I met this little girl who was selling boiled peanuts at a wharf in Can Tho, Vietnam.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Animal Circus

A cable car in Nha Trang took me to Bamboo Island where an amusement park is located. Ten more minutes and an animal circus started performing, dogs doing maths and monkeys acrobatics.

Adults and children alike were delighted and clapped their hands, except one little girl. She was looking at the emaciated, haggard monkeys with sorrow and winced at the occasional use of a whip by a trainer.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Rolling Hills of Pennsylvania

The rolling hills of central Pennsylvania with their picturesque tranquility quietly beckon to anyone passing by. Amid the lush green fields rise farmhouses complete with red barns and tall, grey silos.

When I look at these hills, there's a strange urge for me to walk barefoot into a field to feel my feet sink into the rich soil. I even long for a simple, natural existence where I sweat on the land during the day then come home for a good meal, hold my children tight, make love with my wife then sleep soundly with her in my arms.

Well, it's just daydreaming, but one can't help daydreaming when looking at the rolling hills of Pennsylvania.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007


I always think I have changed a lot since the day I left the old country, considering the drastic circumstances I had to go through. Sometimes when I look back at my own mentality or behavior many years ago, I wince at the immaturity, the narrow thinking, even the stupidity of my old self.

One day I met an old college friend for the first time after many years. She told me I hadn't changed a bit. I talked to a high-school friend on the phone, he chuckled and said he could still detect my old self at the end of the phone line. Just recently I exchanged some e-mails with a high-school teacher of mine, and she told me she still could see my old personality reflected clearly in my messages.

So what's going on? Is it true that I didn't change at all after all these years? Somewhere in the Bible it is said that the leopard cannot shed the spots in its skin, and the Ethiopian cannot change his color. Is it ancient wisdom that I'm contending against?

Maybe it's just the software of my personality which has changed while the hardware remains the same. Hmm, I kinda like that.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

The Oak Tree at Lake Ouachita, Arkansas

It is not straight, tall and proud like most oak trees. In fact, it's dwarfed and bent due to the lack of nutritious soil. You see, it grows on a high rocky cliff that makes a very steep drop into the lake.

Yet no other oak tree in the vicinity commands a more magnificient view of the lake and the surrounding mountains. While all the big trees jostle against each other in the ground below, this small and crooked oak tree stands high on the top of the cliff by itself, embracing the wind and the sun, looking down on the world. You could almost say it'd traded comfort for a fulfilling life by choosing to grow at that rocky spot.

Would you make a similar choice?

Monday, June 11, 2007


The messages in my mailbox today include a few from friends, one from my former high school teacher, some from job recruiters, a bill notification and several spams which somehow managed to escape the mail filter. It's amazing how a big part of my life can be summed up within a little window on my laptop. Just one click and an old friend is there saying Hi and teasing me about my single status. Or another friend wanting to know why I haven't written to her for a while. Or a long-lost teacher inviting me to her house all the way in the West Coast. Or my niece confiding her thoughts to me. All just one Internet connection away.

I imagine myself a convergence point where all these connections meet. In fact, each of us can be pictured as such a convergence point, like a spider at the center of its web. The denser the web surrounding you is, the richer life you have. But it'd be so sad if you have too few lines converging on you, in which case you'd be said to be lonely.

Still sometimes, despite a large number of converging lines, loneliness just sticks to my heart the way a shirt sticks to my sweaty back on a hot and humid day.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

Windows on the Sidewalks

There was a time when all the bookstores in Vietnam sold only books serving the ideology of the ruling party. Books of all other thoughts and ideas had been destroyed years ago, but a number of them had survived and later resurfaced on the sidewalks of Saigon.

I was very young and always hungry for a good read. It was my favorite pastime to browse sidewalks for used books, on which I spent nearly all my meager earnings. It was on the sidewalks that I encountered big names and smaller ones in a variety of categories, from classic literature to philosophy, from hardcore science to UFOs and vampires.

I still remember the pleasure of finding a tattered copy of Moby Dick or Jane Eyre, the thrill of Le comte de Monte Cristo, or the shock when exposed to mysticism, parapsychology and UFO tales. But particularly dear to my heart was A. J. Cronin's The Green Years, where I found pieces of myself in the young Robert Shannon and his buddy Gavin Blair. Most Cronin's books were then available in French translations though, and my copy of The Green Years actually bore the title of Les vertes années.

Many years have passed and some books I once was so fond of have lost their appeal to me. Les Misérables, for example, now seems to me lengthy and over-sentimental. Is it because I'm now older, wiser, or simply more insensitive? Nevertheless, I'm forever grateful to the used books of Saigon, which opened my eyes to the outside world. They were my windows on the sidewalks.

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Five Thousand Miles Ago

Today I had my car serviced, which I do every five thousand miles.

Last time I took my car there I was still in love. While waiting for the car to be ready, I called her and engaged in a silly, trifling and very long conversation.

Five thousand miles ago, my heart was full of affection and tenderness. Now it's just plain barren.

Friday, June 8, 2007

The Field

Across the back road from where I work was an empty field, filled not with crops but with grass and wild flowers. At a corner there were some trees and a shed with a rusty tin roof and crumbly wooden walls. During lunch breaks I liked to walk over for my eyes to embrace the green open space and feel a breeze caressing my face.

Then one day I saw a couple of bulldozers working in the field. I guess, just like the rest of us, fields also have to die sometime.

Thursday, June 7, 2007


On the outskirts of Saigon there's a park where rural scenes are replicated for the relaxation of stress-ridden city folks. Oxcarts and lotus ponds, thatched cottages and bamboo benches are carefully arranged to delight visitors.

Unfortunately the banana trees are too young and skinny to bear fruits, so a banana bunch is hung from a dried bamboo pole. The dragonfruit trees look sumptuously green, but the deep-pink fruits are plastic and attached to the trees by pieces of metal wire.

How many things surrounding us and inside us are ersatz? Artificial flowers and trees are quite common in America, and have you heard Edith Piaf sing about "fabriquer des souvenirs"?

I refuse to have ersatzes. It's either the genuine thing or nothing at all for me.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

I Didn't Catch It

My dorm room window looked down an alley between my building and the next one. There was a desk by the window, and one day I was sitting on that desk playing a Viet song on my guitar.

Suddenly I sensed the weight of a gaze and turned my head to look out of the window. A girl was watching me from the alley below. She's a Viet, I was sure. In her eyes, in her posture I could read loneliness and homesickness. I knew she saw in me a piece of the homeland she had left behind, and I knew she wanted to be my friend.

But I hesitated. I hesitated a tad too long, so she turned and left. She was throwing something precious into my lap and I didn't catch it.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Wild Flowers

I'm very fond of wild flowers. There's something particularly endearing about those who are left to fend for themselves and still manage to attain such beauty. I took this picture a few months ago at Black Hill Regional Park.

Monday, June 4, 2007

Wendy and Her Geese

The view from my office window included a green patch of trees and grass, and a pond where white geese were either frolicking or napping their time away, quite oblivious to the hectic human world surrounding them. Among the blessings they could count was Wendy.

Wendy was a security guard who had been working there for more than fifteen years. Twice a week she would walk over and feed the geese, which got so used to her that when she was still at a distance they would shriek, clap their wings and rush forward to meet her.

Then Wendy was laid off. The pond became quiet, too quiet.

One day I was distracted from work by a noisy ruckus. It was the geese welcoming their Wendy back. Wendy had decided to drive fifty miles every Thursday afternoon to visit her geese.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Joe Redman

Redman is what he calls himself, not his real name. He has red hair and likes to wear red jackets and T-shirts. He also has a red baseball cap. It's a relief to me that his predilection for the red color doesn't go lower than his waist.

Joe befriended me when I was new, alone and penniless in the City of Brotherly Love. I was struggling to find a foothold for my new life in a strange land. His marriage was in tatters and he had left home to make a new start.

Joe liked to take me with him in his dilapidated, fusty van to the New Jersey shore on his fishing trips. He took me to racing courses and horse farms. He brought me to the neighborhood bar to throw darts. I learned my first American bad words from him.

Life had never been easy for Joe. At ten, he had run away from an abusive father, mingling with picnic crowds to get food. He had drifted from place to place, taken all sorts of odd jobs to survive. Luckily enough, his hard life had made him tough but wise, kind and funny as hell.

Years went by, my life has changed for the better and so has Joe's. We remain friends and stay in touch, and I certainly hope that we'll still be friends for many more years to come.