Happy Lunar New Year!!!!


I’ve been getting wound up for the Lunar New Year, which is the biggest event in the Vietnamese calendar.  Most people in the States call it Chinese New Year.  This has always been a mystery to me…because I grew up celebrating the big event of firecrackers and dragon dances without thinking there was anything Chinese about it.

Me:  I’m most definitely not Chinese.

Vietnam was a vassal to China—beholden—and Lunar New Year is probably one of the influences that came from that sprawling kingdom, which also donated a whole bunch of other stuff, including its ideograms.  But like all things that Vietnamese have come to borrow, we have tweaked the Lunar New Year.


Take the Chinese zodiac.  They have twelve animals and so do we.  But they have the rabbit; we have the cat.  The cat is actually a pun that plays off the similarity in sound that the word cat and rabbit have in Vietnamese…and so we have evolved our own peculiar zodiac.

This is the essence of Vietnamese spirit.  If I could package it in gleaming little tins and sell it at a farmer’s market, I would name it Adaptability.  “Come and get your Adaptability.”  You can use it for anything.  “Sauces.  Juices.  Preserves.”


Vietnamese Lunar New Year traditionally is a one-month wind-up, so it has a fever pitch that reminds me of Mardi Gras, Christmas, New Years—all rolled into one.  It is also everybody’s official birthday…the moment all folks, no matter their true birth date, technically age by an additional year.

This is when we kill a big fat pig, settle scores, clean house.  All debts come due.

When I first revisited Vietnam, I came back as an illegal immigrant at the ripe age of 21.  The United States had had a twenty year embargo.  And this meant that I never got to meet friends and family.

My grandparents were simply pictures to me.

So I knew what I had to do:  as soon as I graduated from college, I took my savings and went on a four month trip to Vietnam—to see the alien birthplace that was so much a part of me.  Of course, my parents objected.  “It’s illegal,” my mom pointed out.  “You could be sent to prison.”

This was not paranoia, either.  My father was a high ranking officer in the Vietnamese Army and his name was still on lists.  Both of my Uncles had been in reeducation camps—prisons—for almost two decades.  And they were nowhere near as important as my father.

But I went anyway and, in the eyes of a young man, it made the journey seem even more adventurous, romantic.  I imagined myself in a trench coat like in those black and white World War I movies.  I took up smoking because I thought a match held close to the face made for great lighting in the camera that is the mind’s eye.


I planned the trip to coincide with the Vietnamese New Year—Tet—because I knew it was a big deal.  And it was.  It was such a big deal that Bill Clinton chose that exact event to announce that America would finally end the embargo—that we would begin full diplomatic relations with the United States—and just like that:  I was no longer an illegal immigrant.  I was made legitimate.

And this legitimacy was announced by the pop of fireworks that did not end for days.  Happy New Year!

Prime Suspect: Mystery, Murder, Binge-watching

I’m a binger—a binger of just about everything:  books, movies, television.  You can’t leave me alone with a box of chocolates.  I have been known to buy every color of a sweater than has gone on sale.

Sweater Every Color

With books, I’ll read through an entire series by one author and, immediately, read their entire oeuvre.  With TV, I’m even worse.  I usually won’t follow a show until it’s on its last legs. Then, I’ll watch it straight-through.

Of course, this kind of binge and bust cycle also makes me sad and moody when I’m done.  I’ve been a little bit mopey since my Game of Thrones tear.  So the other day, I was so happy to find a show that will allow me to marry my two passions:  detective fiction and binge-watching.

Prime Suspect is a British show that stars Helen Mirren as a shrewd, feisty detective trying to make her way in the all-male world of the precinct.  A tall no-nonsense, short-cropped blonde, the protagonist is in middle-age and mid-stride in a career that has left little stress lines of faint, but attractive, wrinkles around her mouth.

Prime Suspect

When we first meet her, Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison has just transferred departments on the force.  She is supposedly a figure of some authority, but really only a marginal presence in the testosterone-charged world where men still drink and smoke and cuss indiscriminately in the workplace.

Prime Suspect is a police procedural and is a working class counterpoint to the smooth, elegant world of Mad Men.  This world is a holdover from a time when men behaved like monkeys.  This is a chauvinist world—one that hardly bothers to hide this fact under the fig leaf of political correctness—and Detective Tennison has to literally wedge her way into the investigation of a murder that turns out to be one of six serial killings.

mad men

Immediately, everybody hates her and perhaps for good and bad reasons:  the lead detective kicks the bucket while questioning the main suspect.  Tennison strikes while the iron is hot and demands that she be put in charge of the investigation.  It’s a ballsy move and she finds herself in the middle of an investigation, leading a group of detectives who are already inclined to despise her.  Top of the list is the ex-partner to the recently deceased–her nemesis who will stop at nothing to humiliate her.

Meanwhile, she’s got a family life to contend with—a commonlaw husband whose business is floundering, a stepchild who is soon to become a regular fixture on the domestic scene.  There are some great role reversals.  The husband whines, mouthing the usual complaint reserved for the stereotypical female:  you’re never around for me…all you think about is your work…I always feel like I’m playing second fiddle…why is it always about you, never me.  It’s funny to watch a paunchy, jowly middle-aged man mouth the kind of lopsided dialog usually reserved for the marginal female character that everybody hates.  It revivifies that cliché of dialog, injecting parody and satire—all the while humanizing what otherwise is drivel.

This is no mean feat.

The genius in all this is that the domestic element is not just a side-note but a component of suspense.  Things get dramatic precisely because Detective Tennison has to balance the business of mothering and wifing with the smack-down that is detectiving.  When she chooses to question a far-flung suspect–possibly missing the last evening train—she knows that she will not be home in time to make her famous avocado dip for her husband’s client.  This charges the interview with several layers of consequence.  When she does indeed make it home in the nick of time with a bag full of groceries (that her man-assistant has purchased), she is shattered to find out her husband has canceled the dinner party.

Avocado Dip

He knew she would be late…as always.

Prime Suspect aired in the nineties, so it also the perfect show to binge-watch because it has stood the test of time and won numerous awards.  It is widely available, streaming on Netflix.   And another bonus:  it looks back to the recent past and so this nineties show has the feel of the eighties:  clothes, hair, make-up—these elements are back in style with a vengeance nowadays but there is no affectation in all this display.  In this show, there is no attempt to glamorize that period in the way that young folks evoke nostalgia for an era they never lived in.  The trousers, overcoats, jackets have all been stained and rumpled.  Like the detectives, they are not any worse for the wear.  Indeed, they are improved.


Tiny Desk Concert: Van-Anh Vanessa Vo

I still get excited when I hear about a Vietnamese artist who gets a shot at the spotlight in these United States of America.  You see:  I grew up in a time when Vietnamese people were simply refugees, boat people—ciphers—the latest wretched of the earth to pile up on the clammy, bronze-blue feet of the Statue of Liberty.



Not so long ago, the appearance of Vietnamese in the mainstream press was a rarity—usually occasioned by a high-profiled murder or some equally sad incident that you would rather disclaim.   But this has begun to change; and in this time, as we cross the threshold of a new millennium into a brave new world of dazzle and bright, Vietnamese artists doing cool, spectacular things have become more of a commonplace.

(Also, we have had many more wars and many more refugees to take our place on the evening new.)

So this morning, I was so excited to see that a Vietnamese artist has been featured on one of my favorite programs—Tiny Desk Concert—on NPR.  For those who haven’t checked it out, Tiny Desk Concert is a program that features artists performing, live, in the offices of National Public Radio.  Usually, these artists are true craftsmen, virtuosos.  Usually, they’re little-known but on the rise.


That’s what I love about NPR—they’re always giving you a taste of some real interestingness—like those hair-netted buskers at Costco that give you a bite of good, nutritional deliciousness.  I often make a special trip to Costco, just to sample:  to wander around like a nomad and take bites of everything and then leave satisfied.

I can skip a meal.

A visit to Costco is a whole paragraph in a dense and learned tome.

This is how I am, too, with Tiny Desk Concerts.

NPR usually favors musical selections that are poppy and much more mainstream—accessible music that is only “alternative” in the way that Rolling Stone might define it:  palatable music for the liberal suburban set that isn’t so much into Billboard Magazine hits.  Van-Anh Vanessa Vo—the featured artist—is an outlier in this regard.  She plays traditional Vietnamese instruments and, though she has won many awards (even an Emmy!), she is not accessible in the way that Britney Spears is.


Vanessa Vo comes from a musical family, is the Vietnamese National Champion (of what, I don’t know…but her website mentions this!) and is notable because she has become a master of traditional Vietnamese folk instruments in a world dominated by males.  She plays a menagerie of instruments on NPR but the 16-string zither is the one that she is known for…and what fascinates me is that, though she sounds traditional and plays traditional instruments, she is actively trying to be modern.

Here is a link to her, playing the Tiny Desk Concert.

I think this is what is at the center of the creative dilemma for most writers but, especially, for writers of Asian descent.  So many forms—the novel, for instance—are simply borrowings, which must be revitalized and made relevant.  Otherwise, their use is the worst form of imitation.  The great Japanese novelists—Yasunari Kawabata, Yukio Mishima, Kenzaburo Oe–had to make the novel something completely their own…or else their attempts at the form would have simply created pale imitations:  moths that only remind us that butterflies are more beautiful.


The Japanese novelists, like all Asian writers, also had to reinvent traditions that they inherited.  Take the haiku:  the haiku is an especially modern form that rips off the senryu form—a series of linked poems—and leaves us with a fragment of the very best part.  So while Americans think of the haiku as an old and venerable form, it is as modern as a horseless carriage:  all steel and girders.  What the Nobel Prize-winning writer, Yasunari Kawabata, does with the haiku in adapting it to his novels is a high wire act that fuses the traditional with the relentlessly modern.

Vietnamese writers are now grappling, too, with how to work within forms that only a few decades ago, they knew nothing about.  They are learning to adapt a language that is not entirely their own.  For me, waking up this morning, Vanessa Vo was particularly instructive because she takes the question from a different angle that few Vietnamese artists in the United States are thinking about:   how to make traditional stuff new, shiny, bright—worthy of a spot in the spotlight.