Legacy

A Grandfather’s Gift to a Grandson He Never Met


“Who has fully realized that history is not contained in thick books but lives in our very blood?” — Carl Jung


Visiting America

As my family tells it, his face—with its defined lines grooved by dirt, strife and time—held a solemn look most days. Weary or apathy was not the matter, it was a face well worn. A face having spent time in his village watching the nearby river slowly dismantle the fading banks. Even with all those years between him and the war, it was a face etched with wrinkles wrought by the tears he could no longer shed. Anymore, his mood would shift only after dinner.

“I’m going to America today,” he’d declare. Taking out his faux leather-bound album, grandfather would chuckle as he opened to the first page. The photographs were slightly crinkled having sat beneath cracked yellowing plastic covers for some years. But that didn’t matter. The true treasure were the faces sitting behind those sheets.

The smile would appear slowly at first. As pages turned, the creases in his brow and on his cheeks would stretch taut, crevices giving way to delight.

“Look at that!” he would shout slapping his fingers onto the photos. Then he would smoothen the photographs with those fingers, fingers well aged in setting bones, mixing herbs, punching posts and pulling triggers. “That’s my grandson!” he’d proclaim, as if sharing the images to the family for the first time.

My grandmother told me that during those span of years in their lives, this was the only time my grandfather really showed any emotion. The war and reeducation had wrested the rest away from him. What brought him life were his memories.

And that album.

Across the Seas

The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit. ― Wade Davis

Those were the early 90s. Telecommunications were much different then, strikingly so when considering the gaps between the Vietnam countryside and Philadelphian suburb. Phone calls were scheduled months in advanced by handwritten postal mail. A time was arranged and the family in Ang Giang would travel to the designated phone station where the phone sat. When the phone rang, they would answer. And we’d be on the other side waiting for a “Hello?”

At this point in my life I had never met my extended family. Beyond the perimeter of my parents and sister, the rest of my kin were all abstract ideas inferred by stories and brief phone conversations during special holidays.

I remember the last phone conversation I would share with my grandfather. I no longer remember the sound of his voice, nor exactly what we talked about, but vividly recall the setting that January evening.

Our lights were off. It was early. My sister and I were already asleep, but our parents woke us up in the dark dawn to call the family. With the 12-hour difference, our uncles and aunts would be back from their day’s work.

I still remember sitting on the shag carpet watching my mother with the cordless phone pressed firmly against her ear. In two weeks time it would be the Lunar New Year and my mother was excited to talk about some final plans before she would touch Vietnam soil for the first time in 15 years.

I remember her talking to the family as I rubbed my eyes, head rested on the couch with arms slung over the side. I wanted a chance to talk to grandpa and grandma. I wanted to hear their voices. My mother handed me the grey magical box that would send me to my family a whole world away. And we talked.

I can remember pacing the room, chirping excitedly. And then we said our goodbyes as I passed the phone along to my sister. And that was the last time I heard my grandfather’s voice. A week later he passed away.

Verbal History

There was no wealth after the war and so there were no heirlooms to pass on, no tokens, no mementos. All we had were the memories. All I had were the phone calls made 12,000 miles apart. And our stories. For a time, all we had were our stories.

Those stories and what they inspired became the only links left between me and my grandfather. Some were loving, others humorous, a few fantastical and others still, curious. My favorites were always the gung fu adventures involving my grandfather, his teacher and a mysterious man by the name of Ong Dao Luong. (While amongst my favorite stories, Ong Dao Luong will have to wait for another time.)

Hearing my grandfather taught gung fu in those days—that he, in fact, practiced in a familial style tied to our heritage—grabbed my imagination early in my post-toddler life. Vo Lam it was called, a general term for a variety of indigenous combat arts. Despite the lack of specificity in name, his art was his and therefore it was something worth exploring.

Grandfather would wake my mother up in the early mornings to practice in the predawn light. Atop the roof of their three-story home, he forged her through the skills of our family’s art.

I wanted to learn gung fu like my mother had. I wanted to practice with my grandfather. But at this point in my life, my mother didn’t remember much of what she had learned. That was so long ago, further distanced by other worldly trials and concerns. She was, however, able to recall a few movements from grandfather’s routine called “Man Ho Li Son”–Mighty Tiger Up The Golden Mountain. And while my martial arts journey blossomed in other ways, it was with those movements I first felt aspiration, an undying passion for a particular kind of cultural movement. Here was where I began to learn, not only my grandfather’s legacy, but also his secret in visiting loved ones so far away.

A civilization is a heritage of beliefs, customs, and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries, elements difficult at times to justify by logic, but justifying themselves as paths when they lead somewhere, since they open up for man his inner distance. — Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I spent the next years of my life asking my mother to retell me stories of my grandfather’s training, of his skills and of his personality. I dove into various styles of gung fu, boxing and MMA for the next 20 years of my life. In my early twenties I traveled back to Vietnam, to my uncles, aunts, great uncles and neighbors seeking nuggets of information about my grandfather. To discover how he interacted with people, what motivated him, the intricacies of his life and the peculiarities of his movements. With the help of loved ones I pieced together the aforementioned Man Ho Li Son in its entirety. My great uncle, a contemporary with my grandfather, attempted to show me applications and concepts he learned alongside his friend. The years prior spent refining other martial arts informed my practice with the new aspects I encountered from my grandfather’s art.

Fast forward four years. I met with another extended family member who recalled techniques and three additional forms. With a friend, I recorded this knowledge on video while dedicating a day practicing the forms, to not only document them digitally, but also commit them biomechanically. By day’s end, I received the physio-textbooks of my grandfather’s art, regardless of how patchwork the process, how piecemeal the research.

volam-elbow

Inheritance

There are aspects of gung fu and martial arts similar to dancing. But whereas there is generally a large level of cooperation in dance (there are certainly exceptions), communicating through martial arts offers more opportunity for abrupt randomization. While also requiring a level of cooperation and understanding, moments in martial arts provide plenty more instances of disruptive pulse-like exchanges. Many times, the purpose is to outsmart and out maneuver your friend, albeit in the hopes that your friend counters, returning the favor to you. It is communication on the level of a chess match—through feinting, counters and attacks. You not only learn your opponent’s or partner’s physicality, but also their mentality, personality and creativity. An exchange between martial artists can be made with anger and aggression or with amicability and admiration. Like life, communicating with martial arts has layers.

But how do you communicate in that way with a grandfather who passed before you met him? You can’t. But you can catch a glimpse of what it may have been like to do so by practicing the routines he practiced. By extrapolating the techniques from those routines. By contemplating what he would have suggested when you considered the relevance of using those techniques in exchanges with contemporary martial artists.

There is a concept of design called heritage design. It is the idea that in today’s planned obsolescence, in our daily items’ inherent devaluing over time due to the nature in which technology rapidly progresses, we should begin to again design things meant to last. Not simply lasting in our lifetimes, but creating things so well crafted they last generations. Designing family heirlooms.

These stories and the very tangible experiences of performing choreographed routines established by my grandfather, these are my inheritance. It is difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t had the isolation from family, who doesn’t desperately seek out glimpses of his past, it is difficult to describe how much this all means. For me, performing these movements are something very special, knowing that I am not simply reading a piece of history through which my grandfather lived, but for a moment in time and space performing the very movements he did, experiencing the same twist, turn and tumble of my limbs as he had. This experience, this art, my grandfather’s gift is my photo album. This art is a very sacred thing to me and it is through this art that I visit my grandfather

Some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors. You create yourself out of those values. — Ralph Ellison

You see, I was never handed an oil-worn baseball glove, or precisely tuned watch. No one would want to sell their grandfather’s old timepiece; I wouldn’t want to sell my grandfather’s gung fu. What was gifted me was deeper than a simple bit of nostalgia. I was given a way of communicating cultural value and heritage within the mediums of story and practice, bonding me beyond land, ocean, time and death itself. My grandfather lives on because I dream of him, think to him and practice the things he cherished. For a moment in time, my grandfather visited my family through his photo album. For a moment in time, I visit my grandfather when performing those movements he performed all those years ago.

During those moments in time, he lives on.

In Our Minds

It’s all a state of mind. Isn’t it?

Food. Fitness. Reality.


I. Food


I was sitting at a local restaurant and bar the other night. It was a cooling evening despite the earlier humidity that stubbornly sat over the city. Post workout, the food was delicious. The random tufts of wind that breezed by were equally satisfying. To say the least, it was a nice night.

“What vitamins or nutrients am I missing from this meal?” my friend asked, breaking the silence. Before him sat a large plate of mashed potatoes and a side dish of asparagus.

“Protein, for one,” I guessed. I pondered that for a moment and within my inner ear heard Michael Pollan chide: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” My friend appeared well off enough with his evening’s choice.

“Sometimes I wish we didn’t know about vitamins,” he went on, “then we would just eat whatever. I think it’s mostly made up in our minds anyway. We could eat whatever we wanted and not feel good or bad despite not having the ‘right’ vitamins.”

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants. — Michael Pollan

And so I mulled that over a bit. We do eat whatever we want. And for the most part, on the surface,—obesity, hypertension, high blood pressure, cholesterol and heart attacks be damned—we’re okay. How often does the average person consider what sort of nutritional value they receive when they plan their meals? Many, to be sure—I do myself despite the indulgences. But more likely than not, most consider taste, mood and setting before they consider the biochemical makeup of their fuel.

I have no doubt our minds are powerful tools capable of willing us to feel certain ways without us even realizing it. So there is something to be said with the idea that perhaps we feel better when we drink that coconut water after a workout precisely because we’re told that is what is supposed to happen. We need that cup of coffee in the morning to get things started because we believe it so. Ironically, placebos are real things with real effects.

II. Fitness


Earlier that day, my friend had also stated that we must be nearing a day when science could just make our bodies fit. We wouldn’t have to “workout” to get it “in shape.” Science in this near future would simply allow us to metabolize efficiently, produce muscular strength and endurance for no other reason than because that’s what we wanted (as opposed to our bodies adapting to produce physical labor.)

As we move our technology from physical manifestations—books, paintings, pen, paper, analog knobs, clocks and wallets—to the digital cloud, ebooks, tablets, and apps, are we envisioning a world in which we feel the same about ourselves? Do we wish that rather than dealing with the physical portions of our existence—the feeding of ourselves, the physical labor that so often produces physical health—are less relevant than the pursuits of our minds? Are our bodies simply annoying vessels requiring maintenance when the mind is where the “good stuff” resides?

We ascertain metaphors in books because we’ve physically experienced with our senses something similar to what is being described. What we take into ourselves and what we give out from it affects us and the world around us.

I don’t think I like that. There may come a day when we are nebulous matter floating around thinking deep thoughts about deep things. Perhaps there will be a day when we expand beyond our physical composition on a physical earth producing physical things and bringing forth creative ideas into the physical world. I don’t believe that day is around the corner. Despite our digital age, we still perceive those digital experiences in a very physical world. We ascertain metaphors in books because we’ve physically experienced with our senses something similar to what is being described. What we take into ourselves and what we give out from it affects us and the world around us. Our minds live in our bodies. Our bodies affect our minds.

III. Reality


Scooping up the remnants of our respective foods whilst discussing our day’s happenings, my friend mentioned how he spent most of his day in his fictional world, his writer’s world, more than the real world. He is quite a cerebral one this writer and so it made sense to me why in past musings he’d mentioned that he felt eating and exercise a chore. He did them to make him feel better, though perhaps given the chance, he’d not bother with them.

I chewed on that a moment as I dipped my last fry into a bit of vinegar. It occurred to me, though I am no longer religious, I certainly appreciate moments of gratitude prior to a meal. In our contemporary society, the majority of us don’t need to scavenge, hunt, kill, prep our food. Or concern ourselves with repeating it the next day. Our meals come delivered sliced, diced and cleaned whether at the grocery store or a restaurant. We don’t have to exert much physical energy to acquire our food and we certainly don’t have to worry as much about whether or not there will be anything to hunt or forage the next day. What was once our fundamental goal, our daily effort has been placed aside as a time management faux pas eating away at other things we could be doing. That’s our reality.

Maybe it was growing up knowing that a portion of my family did live that way, concerned with where the next meal was coming from and whether or not it would provide enough energy to procure more food the next day. Maybe it was growing up knowing that my parents fretted over whether this week’s funds would go towards food or another need or want. Either way, there’s a pleasure to eating foods and drinking drinks, but also a fundamental sense of accomplishment and gratitude that comes to knowing what I eat and how I use that fuel.

Our meals come delivered sliced, diced and cleaned whether at the grocery store or a restaurant. We don’t have to exert much physical energy to acquire our food and we certainly don’t have to worry as much about whether or not there will be anything to hunt or forage the next day.

I believe in a correlation between productivity and well-being, mental and physical both. I believe in a quality of life steeped in diet and fitness. While these factors are not yet accessible to the majority of the people living in this world, I do not think that is a reason for lowering the bar on well-being. I believe our knowledge, experience and humanity provided us with where the base line should be. And that it’s our jobs to see how we can get more people there.

Perhaps, if the mind is so powerful and so capable as to alter our perception of physical well-being, we may as well consider what it is we are putting into our bodies—and what we do with them. After all, the science already says diet and lifestyle will affect us accordingly, what does it hurt if we finally believe it too?

Further reading:

  1. Gut–brain connection is a two-way street, study says
  2. Mediterranean Diet Shown to Ward Off Heart Attack and Stroke
  3. Get Fit Now: Your Life (and Job) Depends on It

Rain-streaked Windows

“Suffering as the great educator is denied by the Western mind, which always pursues happiness.”
Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit


1

Again the rain begins. And so it’s been. Stare long enough out there into that rain-streaked window and you may start to lose sight of the picture on the other side. What you may start focusing on however, are the little globs dribbling down the panes. Some droplets may defiantly cling, holding on rather than sliding down to meet with others. Some likely pool in a corner, weighing heavily with every patter.

Waiting. Weighing. Waiting…

The magic is in those raindrops you know. Each reflects and refracts a familiar world into something distorted and new. It beckons you to look upon the familiar with unfamiliar scope. There’s a tiny microcosm in those droplets, every one of them. And they all magnify the existing world. Don’t believe me? Next time, take a look through a raindrop and tell me what you see.


2

Tears are probably similar in that way. They are probably similar in that way though I wouldn’t know. It’s been a long time since I’ve shed one.

I’ve forgotten how.

But if I were to use my imagination, I imagine that tears falling from your eyes are similar to the raindrops falling from the sky—tiny beads filtering your view. I imagine you can learn a lot from seeing through them. Not beyond them, but literally, through as you would bifocals, trifocals even, into another world.


3

Tears are probably a bit like the words you hold inside yourself, the words you want to say during all those awkward silent moments. You know those moments, I know you do. Those moments in which you need the right words to mean what you’re saying, but none exist. Those moments that slip beyond cordial “How’s the weather?” and “Did you have a nice weekend?”

I’m talking about those moments where the silence is shouting everything you’re feeling and questioning everything you’re screaming from within. It’s that awkward moment you’ve reached where no audible language can translate what you’re bearing, what you’re breathing.

You know the scene. You’ve been there. Sometimes it’s with a friend on the other line and she’s sitting there listening to your quiet. Neither of you say anything, but she hears it in the void, in the blank gap of darkness I always picture separating phone lines and airwaves.

Or maybe you’re at the bar and your buddy sits beside you picking at the coaster, tapping the edge of his pint to echo the reticence. It’s uncomfortable, but he’s uncomfortable with you. You don’t say anything, but he doesn’t either.

He. She. They are your friends and aware you’re feeling feelings and that you have no way to tell them so.

And so you wrap your hands, slip on the gloves and find a language that can convey the conviction to your thoughts.


4

Hitting the heavy bag is probably similar to the pattering of the rain. It offers a cadence, a rhythm your words can’t describe. It’s like the music others turn to, but here the lyrics are the poetry of a different language.

Because that’s what men do. We don’t give in to things we can’t fight with our fists. We shell up and punch through. Why would we be “man enough” to explore the origins of our sorrows when we can numb them by punching them away? Why should we communicate our care, concern and fears when we’re taught to “man up or shut up”? Why should we do anything but see:

love = vulnerability = weakness

And so you don’t want to shut up. You want to fill that nihility with your speech and so you keep throwing those combinations hoping they’ll unlock the response you’ve been looking for. It kept you safe before. Why not again?

Jab-Cross-Hook.
Jab-Cross-Hook.
Jab-Cross-Hook.

And Hook. And Hook. And Hook and Hook and Hook.


5

Unshed tears are probably similar in that way. You know they want to talk to you, but they don’t know how to break the threshold of silence. So you and those hidden tears acknowledge each other. You’re both subdued allowing solace in knowing you both care.

Men cry. But I can’t. Instead I look out at rain-streaked windows imagining what it’s like to answer a silent vacuum. The world sheds a tear so that I can hear. And when I can’t answer back, I let the beat of the canvas bag answer for me.

And now that it’s gone it’s like it wasn’t there at all / And here I rest where disappointment and regret collide / Lying awake at night / Up all night / When I’m lying awake at night.

Men cry. But I can’t. Maybe if I keep writing instead of fighting I’ll remember how.


Further Reading

Fears for Tears: Men and Vulnerability Higher Unlearning, The Good Men Project

Why Is Our Society Obsessed with Modern Men and Maniliness? Nicole Johnson, The Good Men Project