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.

Formations

On teamwork and individualism


Shield to Shield

While working today’s social hour, I flipped through a few pages of a book entitled “A Study of History” by Arnold J. Toynbee. It was here that I came upon a part in particular speaking of the evolution of the Spartan phalanx. 1

A phalanx is a general term for military infantry formation. The popular construction of the word describes a military arrangement of tightly packed soldiers armed with spears and interlocking shields. The shield of your colleague’s protected your exposed right side and your shield in turn protected your fellow teammate’s right side. The dense nature of the arrangement provided a compact defensive structure within an offensive mobile force. The Spartans in particular were able to maintain flexibility in this arrangement due to their single-handed dory spears (as opposed to the Macedonian double handed spears) and their short iron xiphos swords, thusly able to function as a single unit while maintaining some autotomy of the individual.

“One-against-one, they are as good as anyone in the world. But when they fight in a body, they are the best of all.” 2

While Tonybee chronicles the evolution of the basic phalanx into more sophisticated military formations, the modern analogy here is less to the lasting integrity of these specific strategies in an ever evolving battlefield and more on the fundamental component of their value: that each individual member is an integral component to the overall integrity of the unit.

Collaboration today is similar. A part of the usefulness in collaboration is the trust in your team and the ability to defer to their various disciplines of expertise . Relinquishing control doesn’t mean catering to your team’s whims, but rather placing trust in why you have a team in the first place. Each member has his and her strong attributes, each is capable of catching any holes you or any other member may make, and each reinforces the movement forward through tightly formed strategy. Like the phalanx.

Transcend Yourself.

There is strength in vigorous individuality. The composite of the whole is completely dependent upon the constitution of each individual member. And this is where disruption, the positive kind, can come into play, where diverse individuals challenge one another to provoke invigorating new solutions. This is the crucial spice in the recipe of innovative culture.

It can take a single idea to spark action, but it takes action to keep that spark burning. IDEO’s one tenant for Human Centered Design is to compose a team of varying abilities and disciplines.3 This diversity creates a breadth and depth of experience, but provides lateral thinking that enables the connection of a variety of dots—dots which likely may not exist without a particular member in the fold. Consider a melting pot of the strongest points of culture, perspective and skillset—this is innovative teamwork, when one’s individual value reinforces something greater than himself. When one can, for the moment, put his own individualism aside for the common strength of a greater goal.

“The most effective moral communities – from a well-being perspective – are those that offer occasional experiences in which self-consciousness is greatly reduced and one feels merged with or part of something greater than the self.”4

Our relentless individualism shades the fact that everything we do affects our society, the people around us, the people in our lives. Strengthen oneself to strengthen those around us. That’s why many of us got into the fields we got into in the first place; to make the world a better, more interesting place. And I believe that if we, from time to time, realize that our individualism is stronger when applied to the benefit of the formation, of the goal, of the pursuit, of the good for our constituents, that we can very rarely go wrong.


1. A Study of History, Volume V, The Disentigrations of Civilization; Arnold J. Toynbee
2. Herodotus vii (trans. G. Rawlinson)
3. HCD Tool Kit; IDEO.org
4. “Hive Psychology, Happiness & Public Policy“; J. Haidt, P. Seder & S. Kesebir (as quoted from Why Teams Make Us Happy; Scott Belsky)

 

Speculative Query

There is a proclamation that states people in public space need reconnecting.

This remains true. There is absolutely no better feeling than connecting with a complete stranger, in the end both agreeing that we’ve connected with our fellow man. Breaking through that barrier of mistrust, that thin veil of viscous armor, creates a connecting point. And relating begins. For me, however, the trip hasn’t simply been about the golden virtues of our mission. Nor has it simply been a tale of adventures, whether rough or with ease. It’s made me ask tough questions and personally inquire.

While we’re walking around Central Park on an afternoon, why are we quick to point out the people on their smartphones or with their headphones plugged, but pass by—sans comment—those reading their paperbacks or perusing articles in a (hardcopy) magazine? Are we more comfortable with “traditional” media in public space now that there’s been a century of precedence? Or is our discomfort with the on-demand nature of current technology that can spiral a person ever inward making them lose sight of the world around them? I have my guesses, but no substantive answers. What I do know is that while engaging a human being one-on-one is far more rewarding, having done so, following up with them is far more conceivable with the current technology available. “You want more information on our project? Sure, below is our web address, but if you provide me your email, I can also shoot you a one page overview of what we do.”

Could it be that engaging in public space changed, because the multicultural landscape changed? Perhaps engaging in public space became so difficult, because every culture on American soil came from a culture that engaged in public spaces differently?

How about the idea that there was a time when Americans connected better, that golden era of trust and community? What changed? Was it the Red Scare and then the Cold War that altered the American perception of trust? Or the technology that came with it?

Perhaps it was easier for Americans to stay connected before the 1940’s and 1930’s because America was more homogenous than it is now. There was a time when, while we fought the good fight overseas, we locked up any Japanese-American into interment camps due to mistrust.1 That was the 1940’s. So was the trust and community only for a particular concept of America?

Then came a wave of social change during a time when we were at war against Communism and terror causing the Second Red Scare, McCarthyism.2 Change scared folks. War scared folks. Misinformation and ignorance scared folks. Maybe this affected our perceived notion of trust and engagement in public spaces as much as the rapid adoption of digital technology.

I don’t believe we’ve become disengaged so much as we are in the midst of learning how to engage with a diverse pool of merging identities, values and shared enrichment.

More importantly, as the United States grew to become the melting pot, answering the call for opportunity and freedom, possibly so too came the freedom and opportunity of differing cultures, of differing practices. Could it be that engaging in public space changed because the multicultural landscape changed? Perhaps every culture on American soil came from a culture that engaged in public spaces differently? If this is so, I don’t believe we’ve become disengaged so much as we are in the midst of learning how to engage with a diverse pool of merging identities, values and shared enrichment.

These, of course, are speculative queries, quasi-hypotheses constructed after 17 days of being on the road, four of which carried a headache swollen and sodden. Cause and effect of today versus yesterday is too easily assumed. And I only have questions. I could consider Jürgen Habermas’ concept of public sphere3 and the role of the Internet affecting it and I could address how developed discourse communities4 affect communication in public space. The chance of answering the questions above along with their relation to the topics stated are currently beyond my scope of research, but certainly within my interests to further pursuit in the future.

So my personal mission isn’t so much reconnecting a la the “good ‘ole days” before technology and before people stopped talking to one another. Those were different days with different rules and different cultures. With the Union being a diverse, multifaceted nation full of diverging and converging ideas, our postcards give us a reason to engage strangers within a public space. A peace offering to gain trust and thereby connect with the various communities we encounter.

After the growing pains of the 20th Century, I believe that the SBYF Project’s aim to join together a large tapestry of what America is today is noble. It challenges the difficulties the nation had in the past and looks towards an intergenerational connectivity. Engaging with the unknown, with strangers, with the strange and new, this is good. It’s a part of what makes travel so compelling, about learning from cultures, histories and experiences different from our own so enriching. Who would have thought we’d have that opportunity right in our backyard, with our fellow countrymen? Perserving these stories is what draws me to the project.

Perhaps one day we’ll still continue sharing postcards, preserving memories and connecting generations, but no longer need them as a tool to meet a stranger. A genuine “hello” and a sincere smile should do.

1 Children of the Camps, PBS
2 Senator Joseph McCarthy, McCarthyism, and the Witch Hunt, The Cold War Museum
3 The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere: An inquiry into a category of bourgeois society, Jürgen Habermas, 1991
4 Discourse Community, Erik Borg, 2003