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.



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.

Childhood Memories: From the Perspective of a Child

Looking to minimize the amount of physical hoarded objects in my life, I stumbled upon a book I created in 1997.

It appears I was pretentious enough in the 8th grade to name my version of our major autobiographical project for Mrs. McCue’s class as “The Wisdom of Phil Le.” Because, didn’t you know? I was full of wisdom by age 13.

But really, my intentions were innocuous. I can recall the influence in producing such a name, a book I picked up while on the big field trip we took to Washington DC that year. It was in the Smithsonian bookstore that I fell upon a collection hidden in the far left hand corner of the golden lit room. “The Wisdom Of” series. From this series I purchased “The Wisdom of Zen.”

In picking that book, a collection koans Marc De Smedt felt appropriate to represent Zen, “The Wisdom of Zen” became the model for my self-made book: a collection of short narratives and inspiring excerpts from a myriad of sources I thought valuable to a future self in the coming years. If I would find this a daunting endeavor today, looking at this hardbound time capsule, there is no indication this was the case then. But here I am 17 years later flipping through pages of dot-matrixed type and poorly written words. With each turn I can hear the aged glue crinkle knowing giggles at what it must feel like to jump back in time to your own adolescent brain.

“Kind, sensitive, smart; who fears fear, who wishes for peace and love.”
–like the 140 character autobiographies seen on Twitter

The book does not hide my deep Christian upbringing. As a matter of fact, I currated portions of the book with resonating quotes from the Bible. These sections share verses on faith, love, good work and good deeds. They also demonstrate my past fears of sin and punishment in an imperfect of the world. In contrast, other sections reflect my exposure to other world religions, the writings of Albert Camus and, believe it or not, Bruce Lee (he was quite philosophical when not on screen kicking bad guys and flexing muscles.) This amateur work is anthropological evidence for the existential quest, my search for meaning in 1997 (unfortunately for my 13-year-old-self, I wouldn’t stumble upon Victor Frankl’s work for another decade and a half.)

I wrote about hope, hope for myself and for those around me. “Everyone has hope, whether it be for the family you love or the friends you meet each day. Hope is very important to people like us. Without out it, what would we be?” Apparently I questioned things like “Why am I here?” and hoped that in simply asking the question, we had purpose.

In one section was a copy of a favorite Zen parable of mine which involved a rooster trained for fighting. After many stages of conflict it was when the rooster didn’t mind its opponents anymore, not out of a lack of fear, but out of a lack of self, was he deemed ready by the king and the sage to fight. By then, the rooster wasn’t interested in fighting his fellow roost any longer. How simple that sounded then and how hard it is to try to learn that now.

This collection, this “Wisdom of Phil Le” was one of those teenage amalgamations of knowledge, an example of a youth who wanted to understand his world and so in regurgitating thoughts that came before him, thinks he does. It’s funny to read through it now as I see a lot of influences still with me today. As a matter of fact, some things haven’t changed. Other things, well, they’ve changed quite a bit.

My favorite out of this collection is a personal piece I wrote entitled “Childhood Memory.” It appears nostalgia held true then as it does now.

“Childhood is the best of times. It is a time when innocence is in the heart and fun is all you understand. Some of my best childhood memories are spending time with my two friends, Dan Alburger and Caleb Sebra. Though we are not as close now as we once were, we had great times together and they stay with me now. One of our favorite things to do was to sit and write together. We would meet up and just write.

Dan and I still have our stories from when we were younger. The stories were not done as well as to the ones we try to write now, but of course, we were much younger then.

Caleb and I grew up interested in the martial arts for as long as I can remember. Caleb is now in Bushi Karate and I hope to study different martial arts one day. I can only learn about them through books right now.

The three of us, we are each in our separate worlds doing different things these days, but in my heart they are still the best of friends. Together, we were great. I hope that as time goes on, we stay that way, as far apart as we may be.”

I reread those words a younger version of myself wrote and I feel as though they could have existed in a recent incarnation. Out of the entire book, this page is unadorned (save for the terrible italic serif font I chose.) In its description, it poses a question, looks to the future and holds on with hope. It shares the great value friendship had for me then and gives reference to why friendships are dear to me now.

Looking back on the entire analogue-would-be-Tumblr I created for myself, I find future me (well, I guess it’s present me now) asking the same questions posed within this book. I am wondering a lot of the same things. And in that wondering I am still using words, art and imagery to explore the questions that arise through daily living. The wisdom imparted from the book, if I can call it that, isn’t what I explicitly wrote then; the wisdom is in the process in which I chose to make meaning of things that were on my mind.

No one but my teacher at the time and my English teacher from the year before read this book. Outside of them, this was a book on self reflection, on preserving important memories, on recording honest feelings. I suppose it’s not very different from the collection of sketchbooks I keep to this day. And it’s a reminder to keep asking, to try answering and to keep creating. Because, “Running water never grows stale. So, baby, you just have to keep on flowing.”*

*Bruce Lee.

Egg Yolk Subways

Time. Like passing trains on parallel tracks.

I’m crammed into one in New York, and then Boston, then Chicago. In every one I can clearly see the lucid frames as my window intersects with the windows of the passing carts, all quick snapshots in time. I don’t know the person on the other side of the frame, but for one moment we share a space. It’s so tangible, I want to rewind the film, 35mm subway cars realigning that I may ask through these windows:

Who are you?
Have we met?
How far away was it from here?

He won’t respond, “1,000 miles.” He’ll tell you “17 hours.” That’s how it works. We don’t measure distance with miles, leagues or kilometers anymore. We measure it with time, a complicated conversion rate made up of the division of distances and seconds. Or minutes. Or hours. We finagle the answer, something that would accurately require minimal algebraic reasoning to accomplish. But we’re all so caught up with time, the saving of it, the managing of it, the worth of it, that even our physical distances are measured by it. We’re so attuned to giving time physical weight we are able to approximate its value when dealing with traversing tangible space. You can’t help but feel that same cull as when waking amidst a dream.

Dreams. I dream vividly. Some nights more than others.

When I wake suddenly middream, I don’t simply wake up remembering the dreams as past fog, wisps wiping away towards daylight. Rather, they click through from a continuous stream into the next, one scene and then the next, the next until the moment in which I wake.

If dream and reality were a film, the frames between dreamstate and awakeness would be a jumpcut of one shot to the next. I’m dragged unwillingly into the real world with a physical weight to my back, a fog in my mind, like an egg yolk slowly lifted from a bowl full of egg white. The mass of the yolk and the white of the egg are inextricably connected until that moment of break between glutinous substances: a sudden PLOP and I’m drawn to a waken state. The pull just lets go.

That was this morning. In one frame I’m dreaming of old friends, merry times that probably could have happened, but didn’t. And then within the next frame I hear a closing of the door, see a ceiling stark white, feeling smooth leather on my skin. I’m on a couch and I’m waking up, I realize. I feel heavy and my mind is confused despite the fact that I know I’m now in reality. Yellow yolk yanked from a pool of thickness. The window of a subway car zipping to match its counterpart.

It’s like that moment with friends forged long ago. Wasn’t it yesterday that I saw them together in New Zealand? And then the next day we were all at their wedding? No, it was another friend’s wedding we were all dancing, singing, and racing along the streets of Portland. Or was it the New Years of 2010 when we went to see the big Christmas tree in Boston? And then I meet their precious daughter Madeline, giggling at me like she has ages ago.

That’s the feeling you get when you’re separated by time. Each moment is inextricably linked to the last one. The Katilin and Chris that I meet now with their adorable Madeline only had a frame apart from the Kaitlin and Chris of New Years, of Lindsay’s wedding, of their wedding, of our time in New Zealand. Quick snapshots on subway cars pulled from the egg white of yesterday. I know there are tapestries of woven stories separating those moments, but the possibility to rewind back to see them again feels so logical. Like chosen scenes from a television episode, I’ll just go back to season three when we were in Boston on their wedding day, season four to smile with them on New Years Eve as we’re counting down the moment before the next frame cuts through.

I’m now sitting on a deck. Not the one on South Boston’s harbor, but the deck adjoined to my house in Philadelphia. Despite Matt being unable to relocate those steps he found all those years ago, I can hear from the slight breeze traveled the distance of the Pacific, across the snowy titans dotting the American plains, and over these rooftops reaching me say “Memory Hold The Door.” And with a nod, maybe a smile, but definitely reassured, all I can think back is, “May all the memories lived and yet be lived continue to hold that door.”

But then suddenly, the pull lets go. I’m here, now. That was all then. It’s been nine years. No, wait, it’s been four. Three. Two.