“The Luxury of Home: From Shanghai to China Beach”

HaLong-postcardDa Nang, Vietnam, 27 November 2013

… My laptop screensaver has a similar view of Ha Long Bay, from my last visit to Vietnam in 2007. 

Years, locations and career transitions have flown by, and this image has reminded me to keep a worldly perspective on whatever I do — and wherever I go.

Whether as a memory of a visit to my origins — like this moment in writing from a cafe at my birthplace in Da Nang — or as I renew my ventures abroad after six rather domestic years as an entrepreneur in my Western home in Los Angeles.

I must sail on like these ships in the South China Sea.  We are restless, driven by the rising Sun in the East, and in pursuit of the setting sun out West.  MDN”

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Da Nang, Vietnam, November 26, 2013

“Peeezzzz….” Swat!  Within a minute of laying my head down on the lumpy yellow pillow, a mosquito flew directly within striking distance of my left ear.  I knew more were en route as I used a thin worn sheet as a barrier – which barely covered my feet to neck and left my head exposed to their nightly feeding rituals.

Prior to arriving in Vietnam, I had spent two weeks as part of the UCLA-NUS Executive MBA program in the luxurious confines of the Royal Le Meridien in Shanghai.  The hotel upgraded me to a deluxe room on the 40th floor as a lifetime Starwood Gold Member, a status earned from 384 nights with that chain alone since my globetrotting began after receiving my first degree from UCLA in 1994.

But, every time I’ve returned to my birthplace in Da Nang (also known as “China Beach” the infamous military retreat and setting for the TV show from the 1990s) since the U.S. and Vietnam normalized relations about two decades ago – I have always stayed with my relatives in the center of the bustling city.  No screened windows to keep out the thirsty bugs, few creature comforts in the bathless bathroom and the communal bedrooms, and the occasional rat scurrying across the kitchen floor.  On the faded walls, they displayed pictures of me and my younger brother, cousins and family – and most prominently our graduation pictures which they are especially proud.

Graduation-Family

My aunts cooked the same meal this evening to welcome me, as they did the first time the saw me since my family and I left the country in 1975 at the end of the war – marinated beef with lemongrass, fried potato wedges, salad and tomatoes.  On the first visit back in 1995, accompanied by two fellow Americans and Fulbright Fellows who traveled with me during our year abroad in Singapore – we chuckled as we were served the same meal every night, but politely ate as they insisted we were all too thin, and were quite pleased to offer us meat and potatoes given the hardships they’ve faced.

… Earlier in the day, I had an appointment at the Hyatt Regency Resort in Da Nang Beach, one of the newest and most posh seaside resorts in the country, if not all of Asia.  It has an enviable location along a stretch of white sand, and reminded me of beachfront properties I’ve stayed in from Bali to Maui, the Mayan Riviera and the Venetian Lido.

Hyatt-DaNang

There I had an appointment with an American businessman who my long-time friend the Deputy U.S. Consul General in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) thought I should meet while visiting Da Nang.   This admirable gentleman served during the War, then returned to Vietnam a decade ago to help train entrepreneurs on modern management techniques.  We spoke of how local businesses were transforming their communities with innovative tapioca farms and sustainable fishing, while multinational companies continued to expand their presence by mining for gold and growing lumber for wood chips.

As we were leaving, we met the Director of Rooms who was previously at the Hyatt’s notorious property on the Sunset Strip in Hollywood, where I have been for entertainment industry events.

“You went from Guns ‘N Roses throwing TVs out their windows to this…” I remarked with subtle surprise.

“Yeah, no rock stars riding Harleys down the hallways here!”  he smiled, as we breezed through the pristine marble lobby. “Let me know next time you visit.  We would love to have you stay with us.”

Actually, I had checked the Hyatt’s rates the week prior and was quite tempted to book a room there – which was under $200/night given the off season – a steal for such a gorgeous property (and cheaper than the nightly rate I paid in Shanghai), but extravagant in the eyes of my relatives and most locals.  Moreover, staying there or anywhere but their place would probably have offended their sensibilities.

… The smell of the menthol-infused Tiger Balm wafted in the air; my aunt handed it to me with a reminder it would alleviate mosquito bites.  I looked more closely at the opaque little hexagon canister, which dated back to the mid-1990s when I first visited my relatives, and brought a box as a gift from Singapore.  Amazing they have kept these remedies for so long and perhaps held on to some for safekeeping for my future stays – since they knew I would return and stay at “home” – and therefore would be in greater need of it.

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Too Close to Home, Still Far To Roam…

October 10, 1998, Da Nang, Vietnam

Da Nang 1998

… family and friendships can be most endearing, and often enduring, despite the strained years.  On my second visit back to Saigon, and now of my birthplace in Da Nang, or “China Beach” — I am touched, and by no means surprised of how quickly — and intimately those emotions are evoked.

Yes, I shared shots of Johnnie Walker with my father’s best friend — and of course, my family keeps commenting that I am too thin — it worked, and I ate my fill.  The nurturing reminds me of just how close we are in spirt — yet so very distant.  MDN”

DaNang-1998-back

October 26, 2013, Los Angeles, CA

“Those are among the strongest chemotherapy drugs,” my oncologist friend explained to our family.

“Let’s hope he will pull through the treatment.”

We also reviewed the Advanced Health Care Directive, which my father signed to indicate his wishes in the event of medical emergencies.  We had to take every precaution as he is about to start chemotherapy this week to treat a tumor in a sensitive region at the intersection of his pancreas and vital organs.

My father has always been a solid pillar of our family… strong-willed, stubborn and bullet-proof (literally, after fighting in and surving the Vietnam War).  Now, he and we, are facing the toughest challenge to his well being and our family’s foundation.  In a matter of months, the cancer arose unexpectedly and has hit so close to home.

Meanwhile, my brother and I are poised to venture abroad again soon — after several years of being more domestic in our careers and travels since we moved back to Southern California.  He is leaving for Afghanistan for several months, while I am about to start the next session of my global M.B.A. studies in Shanghai, and a return trip to Vietnam.

“You need to go.  Do what you need to do,”  my father told us.

He has never discouraged us from blazing our own paths… whether my brother’s work assignments to conflict-prone areas in the Middle East and South Asia, or as I filled up four passorts on a jet-set career for over a decade.  We have always pursued the American dream, whether it took us to far-flung and dangerous locales, or navigating professional twists and personal transitions as we returned to our roots.

After we settled in our new home in the States in 1975, he and my mother have worked hard all their lives until their retirement this year.   We would often take our annual vacations in the national parks… Yosemite, Yellowstone, Bryce, Zion and the Grand Canyon and across the Pacific Northwest.  These road trips involved a lot of bouncing in the back of a Toyota camper truck across the Western states.  Our wanderlust was incubated, and has never been cured as my brother and I lived and studied abroad, eager to roam the world and explore the boundaries of our passions.

“If anything happens, take me to Yosemite.”  he said.   Yosemite National Park is among his favorite places, and where we went on many camping trips.  We would often give him poster prints from Ansel Adams and annual Sierra Club calendars… scenes of plunging waterfalls, snow-flocked trees and the rock solid Half Dome… reflecting upon moonlit valleys and Nature’s unpredictable intentions.

Dad in Yosemite

Pursuit of Love and Passion: Across the Oceans and Generations

2 September 2002,Da Nang, Vietnam

DaNang-PoscardFront

“… The city of Da Nang was abuzz with revelers on holiday as today is National Day — also Labor Day in the US.

My parents and I have returned, after many years (my mother after 27 years) to the country of our birth.  Needless to say, much has changed.  My grandmother at almost 90 is not as coherent as before, but still very glad and aware of our presence.

Other family have welcomed us with much love and kindness — without a hint of strain after many years and hardship.  We are glad they are now more content with their lives — and always the more appreciative of our own opportunities “back home” — which is always where the heart is… whether the California Coast or along the white sand beaches near Da Nang… MDN”

DaNang-PoscardBack

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April 5, 2013, Los Angeles, CA

“She passed away this week,” my mother said of her aunt, my great aunt Ba Le — who I first met in November 1996 over 16 years ago, on my first trip to Europe.

“She returned home.”  My mother explained, “She will be laid to rest this weekend in Hanoi.”

I wasn’t sure if my great aunt was still living in Lausanne, as she had moved over sixty years ago to France, then Switzerland — before Vietnam was divided at the 17th parallel between the North and the South by the Geneva Accords concluded on  July 21, 1954.

It was during the Geneva Conference which negotiated the Accords that the decisive Battle of Dien Bien Phu was fought, beginning on March 13, 1954 and ending with the climactic French defeat on May 7, 1954 — marking the end of French occupation of Indochine which lasted from 1887-1954.  The end of French colonialism set the stage for U.S. entanglement in the Vietnam War for the next two decades during the Cold War.

It was also 38 years ago this month that the Vietnam War ended, and with the Fall of Saigon — my parents, relatives and I fled the country as the Communist forces of the North overran the South and unified a divided nation.  April 30, 1975 was also a watershed moment in American history as diplomats were evacuated from the U.S. Embassy at 4 Le Duan Blvd in downtown Saigon — which reopened in 1999 as the U.S. Consulate in Ho Chi Minh City.  In fact, my good friend Robert Ogburn who I met while an intern at the U.S. Department of State in 1993, has returned to serve there in his current posting as the Deputy Consul General.

It is amazing how much Vietnam has been transformed, and is now quite welcoming of former Western adversaries and diplomats, as well as its ethnic diaspora like me, my parents and my great aunt — who have returned to our place of birth after wars and generations have passed.

*  *  *

November 1996, Lausanne, Switzerland

“He died with a broken heart at 24, with few realizing his talent until much later.”

So began the tale my great aunt told me of her childhood amour back in the colonial days when Vietnam was part of the French colonial empire known as Indochine.

“We were not permitted to marry,” she explained, with a deep pause.

The young composer who was captivated by her beauty did not survive long after their relationship ended, given the strict traditions of the day on appropriate love and profession.  Shortly after, his remaining artistic aspirations crumbled when his respected parents destroyed many of the seemingly frivolous songs he wrote as a means of disciplining him into reality.  However, with the withered songs of love, so went his broken heart.

His friends managed to salvage his compositions, and posthumously shared the secrets of his brilliance.  As for my great aunt, she ended up leaving Vietnam before the end of the French occupation in 1954 to marry a gentleman in France.  Later, after being widowed, she remarried a gentleman in Switzerland.  She currently lives alone in Lausanne in her grand age, where I have come to visit on my first trip to Europe.

There on the mantle in her small apartment were photos of the three men she loved in her life — tributes to their memory and her fascinating journey from Indochine to Paris, and now Lake Geneva.

*  *  *

My great aunt lived quite a full and international lifestyle.  She loved at home and afar, and returned to her ancestral roots after six decades in the West to her final resting place.  May her soul find eternal enlightenment…

My father also happened to return to Vietnam this week upon retiring earlier this year.  For the first time in his life, he is no longer burdened by a labor intensive job, and can finally take more than a few weeks off to relax with our relatives and his childhood friends.  He is spending nearly three months at his birthplace of Da Nang or “China Beach” pictured on the postcard above, which I wrote when I returned with my parents in 2002.

“I plan to visit Laos for the first time.” He told me as I dropped him off at LAX airport earlier this week.

His statement struck me and reminded me of when he dropped me off at LAX  nearly two decades ago, when I left for Laos for an internship at the American Embassy in Vientiane during the Summer of 1994.  It was my first trip abroad as a young adult and recent college graduate, and I was incredibly smitten with wanderlust.  The following year on July 11, 1995, the United States and Vietnam normalized diplomatic relations — allowing me and other Americans to visit Vietnam after a 20-year embargo.

Laos is next door to Vietnam.  I was quite surprised my father had never been before, and waited until his retirement to visit.  After 65 years of experiencing warfare in support of U.S. troops, toil in American factories and sacrifice to establish his family in our adopted home — my father is finally allowing himself to visit Laos.  He must have been proud his son went to Laos before he did, and the nearly 40 countries that I have ventured to since then.

In memory of the recently deceased and in respect of the living, I am ever grateful for the opportunities to have lived freely, loved dearly and pursued an artistic passion — no matter how fleeting.  The adventures have been enormously rewarding, whether to foreign and familiar lands, or to have expressed myself through writings and songs.  The destination, as cliche as it may sound, is not necessarily the end goal — but rather the journey itself.

May you also have the chance to live your lives with fewer regrets, higher hopes and greater fulfillment.

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