Little Light

I must get back to blogging more. An audit of my blog will probably show that I say this every year at this time. But I mean it every time. Whenever I use Twitter and Facebook, the analgesics of likes and RTs from my social network temporarily numb the little cuts that bleed my story. Why do I say stuff over there? I really ought to keep it here, my quiet little repository, my corner of the internet. I like it here. It’s not much, but it’s home. I really enjoy looking back and remembering moments and textures that would have otherwise slipped by in the stream.

I’ve only recently started reading Joan Didion. People talk about Goodbye to All That, an essay on why she left New York. Yes, it’s as relatable as it was when it was published, but I was interested in why she returned to New York and stayed. Nobody ever really talks about that.

I finally started reading The Year of Magical Thinking. I’ve actually had it since before my dad died. When I bought it, I thought I ought to gird myself and face my fear of death, but it also seemed so morbid to do so. And, who am I kidding, as much as I pride myself on being a Buddhist who addresses death directly, I wasn’t ready to know exactly what to expect.

At the end of chapter 4, having explored medical journals and psychological studies on the process of grieving, Didion begins a new section with this quote:

Persons under the shock of genuine affliction are not only upset mentally but are all unbalanced physically. No matter how calm and controlled they seemingly may be, no one can under such circumstances be normal. Their disturbed circulation makes them cold, their distress makes them unstrung, sleepless. Persons they normally like, they often turn from. No one should ever be forced upon those in grief, and all over-emotional people, no matter how near or dear, should be barred absolutely. Although the knowledge that their friends love them and sorrow for them is a great solace, the nearest afflicted must be protected from any one or anything which is likely to overstrain nerds already at the threatening point, and non have the right to feel hurt if they are told they can neither be of use or be received. At such a time, to some people companionship is a comfort, others shrink from their dearest friends.

When I read that, I was like, YES, THANK YOU. Didion reveals that the quote is actually from Emily Post, the etiquette guru, on how to behave at funerals. Isn’t that something? No summary I can write would do justice to Didion’s severe, keen eye. Read it when you’re ready to. If you’re like me, it’ll make you feel understood just when you need to be understood from a distance.

Last night was the final night of Hanukkah. My friend Jewlia invited me to come over to her house. She texted:

Bring a pic of yr dad we have been doing a lot of winter ancestor honoring.

I grabbed the photo we printed and framed to place near his open casket. We lit rainbow colored candles in a menorah that dripped onto a piece of aluminum foil and sang This Little Light of Mine. Then we set Pau’s photo next to photos of Jewlia and Anmarie’s dads at a little shrine on a wooden dresser decorated with slightly dehydrated pomegranates, a lone persimmon, bright winterberry branches, and a bouquet of tiny paper marigolds. Jewlia said a prayer and put her hand on my arm and told me she talked to her dad every day here.

My tears spilled from a cup I’d ignored, a cup brimming with all the things I wanted to say to my dad, too. About how my brother was annoying me and my mom was annoying me and I’m sure I was annoying them and I wish he were here to annoy me in a different way, but also to bridge the divides between the three of us. About how when I am in the kitchen at my brother’s house, cooking the foods that he cooked and stacking bowls in the cupboard in the way he would have, I understand how hard he worked for us, how thanklessly he did so even when he was sick.

I’m going to find a place for Pau in the kitchen.


If ye love me

I’m getting on, I swear. I’m exercising more regularly (when in Rome), which helps, but I’m also getting out there and doing shit instead of moping. This is me in the desert garden in front of a bunch of wooly cacti at the Huntington Gardens, taken a few weeks ago.

More recently, I went to the Walt Disney Hall and sat in the cheap seats listening to the LA Master Chorale perform some Renaissance tunes from Tallis and Taverner, etc.; the music was a little boring for me but what a marvelous thing to hear 36 people sing as one, as though they were a spectrum of colors contained in a single beam of light. By the way, the organ seats are marvelous—it’s like you’re on stage and in the chorus yourself.

They sang If Ye Love Me by Thomas Tallis: “If ye love me, keep my commandments, and I will pray the Father, and he shall give you another comforter, that he may bide with you forever, ev’n the spirit of truth.”

I spent a few weeks in New York in the fall and felt sure I would move back, that my dad would have wanted me to move back. And yet I’m getting into L.A., as improbable as that would have seemed to my college self. I miss east coast winter not at all, not an iota. If I never see snow IRL again for the rest of my life, I would be perfectly content. I’ve put away all my New York power dresses and sweaters in favor of mesh sneakers and leggings so I’m always ready to go on a hike at the drop of a hat.

Yes, there are lots of malls and strip malls and boring swaths lined with strip clubs and casinos, and it is totally my prerogative to complain about them when I need to. But there’s also an energy bubbling up that makes my antennae wave around in buzzy anticipation. Not to get all predictably crystal astrologist on you, but something’s happening here, and I think I want to be a part of it.


The Donut Hole

100 days is the length of the Official Mourning Period for Thai people. If you’re a proper Thai, you wear only black or white for those 100 days. At the end of the mourning period, you make merit at temple to honor your loved one.

I insisted on getting doughnuts for my dad. I wanted to go to a Cambodian-owned, smaller doughnut shop near the hospital where he spent too much of his final year. I remembered a small shop with a tiny, difficult lot somewhere on that vast stretch of Amar Rd. Whenever we took a trip to the pharmacy to pick up giant bottles of Lipitor and refrigerated vials of Procrit to increase his hemoglobin production, he’d always ask to stop there, always for an apple fritter, a plain buttermilk bar, and a coffee with cream and two Splendas. Half the time I would take him, and half the time I would refuse. But if I couldn’t let him eat doughnuts in life, I’d make sure he could have them in the afterlife.

photo-9My mom and I couldn’t agree on which shop. She insisted that he made her stop at The Donut Hole, a landmark doughnut drive-through tunnel flanked by two giant doughnuts being dunked into the hot pavement. After driving around for 15 minutes and not being able to find my shop, we wound up at the Donut Hole because we were running the risk of not getting to the temple on time for the monks’ meal.

The doughnuts line the windows on the driver’s side—glistening bear claws the size and color of baseball mitts topped with glaze or mottled with crumb, a long row of frosted cake doughnuts with many different glaze colors and sprinkles, golden twists and long maple bars and piles of golf-ball sized doughnut holes. As you wait for the person in front of you to get their order, you have time to decide, then change your mind, then change it back.

It seems obvious now that my lifelong obsession with doughnuts started at the Winchell’s near our house on Colima Road, where I used to pick out a pink glazed yeast doughnut with sprinkles before he dropped me off at the Montessori preschool across the street. It was the three of us in the morning, my Pau and my brother and I, long after my Mae had driven to west L.A. for work. It was our secret, because if my Mae had known we got to eat doughnuts a few times a week, she’d have put the kibosh on it right away.

Now I try to think of doughnuts as yeasty time bombs of atherosclerosis, powdered sugar as potent as cocaine, each bite a doomsday prepper sealing itself in by padding my arteries with a hard paste of hydrogenated shortening. I try to think of them as the enemy so I don’t eat any more than I absolutely must. I ate two of the apple fritters after the ceremony, each one about a pound and the size of my face. And I felt terrible about it.

It’s been a hundred days. I got a $63 parking ticket, my first. I turned 37. The life span of a housefly is 15 to 30 days, and I killed two today. I bought six pairs of shoes and returned four. I’ve paid four rent checks. I saw a therapist once. Every day I think about things I have done, things I could have done, things I did not do, things I should do now.

It is a long time to be recycling your black clothing, but not long enough for the lacy edges of the scab to complete their infinitesimal creep towards the middle.


Xi’An Kitchen

photo 1In an effort to get to know this unknowable city, I’m going to fling myself far and wide to do at least one thing I’ve never done each week. Enter Explore Mode.

Shortly before he died, my dad installed a motion detector which turns blindingly bright fluorescent bulbs in the kitchen on and off automatically. Unfortunately, the sensor stopped working correctly shortly after he died (or his spirit is haunting the kitchen which, you know, would actually be kind of appropriate). When sitting in the kitchen after sunset, the overheads will cut out suddenly, and there’s only a 50/50 chance that your frantic arm waving will actually flip the lights back on. Or you can leave the room with the lights on and come back at 3 in the morning to find that the lights still haven’t turned off yet.

This makes dinner after 6pm a frustrating affair in my parents’ house. After using the last hour of daylight to wrestle with and lose against the detector, I drove myself to Xi’An Kitchen, an always-packed noodle shop in a strip mall in the City of Industry. Under the kind of harsh, bright fluorescents only myopic Asians can appreciate, Chinese families sit at pushed-together formica tables for melamine bowls of hand-pulled or rolled noodles and Wimpy-worthy double stacks of pan-toasted rou ja mio, translated as “Chinese hamburger” on the menu.

The kitchen’s namesake, Xi’an, is apparently a city in the Shaanxi province of what’s considered “Northwest China”, and restaurants that pledge allegiance to it often serve the hand-torn noodles, lamb, and cumin-spiced foods of the region. But reading only the translations, you might not guess the menu’s origins; “Haggis soup” and “Shredded Hand Made Pita Bread in Mutton Broth” are both mystery items.

“What should I get?” I ask the waitress.

photo 2She brings me “Braised Meat in Preserved Sauce Hand Made Noodle”, a tangle of noodles that are like wider, thicker pappardelle, tossed with a tangy sauce of oil, soy, and vinegar. Tender, blanched lettuce and sliced scallions provide sweetness against the mildly piquant but toasty crushed chiles. The fatty fan of tender pork tastes of star anise. Each noodle I pull from the hot, haphazard pile curls over in a unique way, squeaking and resisting lightly against my chew. They’re delicious.

Even better for me is being in the crowd, soaking in the anticipation and conviviality. Several multigenerational groups of seven have ordered what looks like the $20 “Big Plate Saute Spicy Chicken With Hand Made Noodle”, a platter the circumference of a hug piled high with meat and a brownish sauce; the diners’ arms form an asterisk as they all reach for more. At one table, a toddler in a high chair bangs on a plastic plate until it flips over and lands on the floor to a round of his sister’s delight-filled guffaws. A stooped, grandmotherly woman wearing elastic-waisted sweatpants clings tight to a middle-aged man’s arm as they gingerly cross the room to meet their kin. Decor consists only of pastel posters with Chinese characters and giant, tasseled Chinese knots that frame the cash register.  There are no proclamations of authenticity; There is only food and family, coming and going.

After a week and a half of being haunted in my parents’ kitchen either by a fitful spirit or some junk Chinese electronics, the garish light and steady hum of Xi’An Kitchen stirs a little life into me. I’m reminded that not only does life go on, it stops for no one.

Xi’An Kitchen
18213 E Gale Ave
City of Industry, CA 91748
Right off Fullerton Ave., in the plaza near Home Depot
Plenty of parking, but if the lot seems full, check around the corner from Ruen Pair for extra spaces by the train tracks

Black and white

I think it’s traditional in Thailand for the family of someone who dies to wear black or white for 100 days, signaling that they are in mourning. This makes a lot of sense to me now, though I’m not actually doing it. Would be great if my wardrobe signaled to people that, hey, I’m in mourning, and that is why I am especially mean or tender or humorless. It would be a gesture that offers explanation without asking for forgiveness.

You know, on the one hand I would like to preserve the dignity of my relationship with my father by encapsulating it in a single, crystalline essay that expresses my deep love for him. On the other hand, my grief can be acidic, or sharp and piercing, or a dull ache. A laugh or two can bubble up from the muck. Sometimes I let it stew inside, but sometimes I just want to throw my guts on the wall. I don’t know.


la-oe-0407-silk-ring-theory-20130407-001(from the LA Times)

What do you do if someone in the same tier is dumping in your circle (not my mom)?

If you’re me, you have a fight, storm out, see that the driveway is being blocked by the other car, contemplate going back in the house for the keys, not want to deflate your storm out by having to re-enter the room where the other party is, be deterred from a walk by the blazing valley August afternoon sun, and instead sit in your car, parked in the garage, texting everyone you know and blasting Olivia Newton-John on your headphones until the other person drives off.

As I didn’t drive until last year, I can’t even say it feels like I’m a teenager again.



I had a chat today with my friend Anel. Anel has a mysterious broken blood vessel in her eye.

ANEL: I got EYEbola

ME:     Girl, stop importing bush meat

ANEL: I got El Mal OJO


ME:     Dios mio!

              We gotta go find the curandero

ANEL: I need a limpiada

ME:      I’ll go to the Chinese market for some live chickens, you get the candles


ME:      Seriously, what happened to your eye?

ANEL: I’m going to Optho at 5 to “see” whats up

I LOL. From the other room, my Mae yells.



The storm

Grief comes like a sudden storm, rolling in unexpectedly and with great vigor, then dissipating as quickly as it came. I walk into the kitchen at 9pm and think, the blinds are still open. That’s because Pau was the one who closed them at night. I look at his chair, his desk, like a set piece for an actor in the wings. The duffel bag of meds we brought back from my brother’s house sits on the floor, unzipped but otherwise untouched. I pass by his room, trapped in the amber of the dark. The house is filled with clocks, his clocks, second hands ticking loudly and out of sync. Grief drenches me, running down my face in rivulets.

That’s when I reach for my mantra. He died peacefully, without pain. He lived to see his granddaughter, and think of how happy he was. Remember how hard it was last year, how you weren’t sure he would, and he did? He didn’t spend his final days in the hospital, which he always hated. He told you he had no anxiety because he had lived a good life. You moved back home and you spent every night with him, listening to PG-13 stories about his youthful hustle. You got to know how much of your personality you inherited from him. You loved him and he loved you and there were no questions about that. You got so much. You got so much.

The storm passes. Each day there are fewer. Still, I watch for the fallen trees.

In honor of


Seven days ago, my father passed away peacefully in his sleep while lying next to my mother. They had been living with my brother in northern California so they could take care of my baby niece. I rushed up to be with them, not stopping at home to get appropriate clothes or a portrait of my dad. We had to go to Macy’s to buy a shirt and tie for him even though he has dozens at home. The funeral home went through the mandated itemized list of expenses so we would know exactly how we were spending our money. There is a $20,000 casket that we did not opt for. Embalming is priced at a fortune-bearing $888. My brother and I read through the paperwork before passing it to our mother to sign.

The funeral service was intimate and honest. One of my father’s friends, a 75-year-old, traveled overnight by Greyhound bus to pay his last respects, then took the bus back almost immediately after the service.

I wasn’t sure I wanted an open casket, but I’m glad we had one. In his last few months, he liked to tell people not to bother visiting him until it was time to see him in his tuxedo. As it turns out, he actually had a tuxedo jacket for us to put him in. He looked handsome and at ease in it, and we didn’t regret buying him a new shirt and tie, despite how he would have protested the extra expense.

I touched his chest and his smooth, cold cheek and gave assurances to him. “Don’t let your tears fall on the casket or your Pau will worry about us,” my Mae said.

My niece, Momo, is five months old. Does she notice that her A-Kong, her grandfather, is missing? I snuggle her warm body close to my chest and hide my face in her Einstein hair. She smiles at me, burning away my sorrow with her joy. Doug calls her a “tornado of life.”

I tell my Mae that holding her makes me feel better. “Imagine how she made your Pau feel,” she says.

Today, the seventh day after my father’s passing, we attend temple to make merit for him. It’s hot and muggy. A rooster in the San Gabriel Valley neighborhood crows. Just outside the kuti, bamboo springs tall and green. Feels like Thailand.

Preparing for the 7th day ceremony, we wonder what food we should bring. It is traditional to prepare something the deceased loved. “Make that ginger chicken. Your dad loved that,” my aunt says.

“He loved making it for other people, not for himself,” my Mae replies.

When we tell people he passed peacefully in his sleep sometime in the morning, they say, “Oh, the Chinese say this is good luck for you. It means he left every meal for you, his children.”

We sit in a long line that snakes out the door to pass tray after tray of food to the monks. Mae and I sit together, and I shift several times to keep my legs from falling asleep. As I lift one burden from her arms, another takes its place immediately, the dishes moving from savory to sweet. Nearly everything is homemade, and I see dishes I haven’t tasted in ages. An aunt has made her renowned sakoo sai moo, translucent tapioca sacs filled with a sweet pork and peanut filling. Skeps of kanom jeen noodles pass along with melamine bowls filled with fragrant green curry laden with bitter cluster eggplant. Tapioca and mung bean cakes are blanketed in an aromatic, grayish sand of sugar and black sesame. Trays of cored rose apples and uncapped rambutan pass alongside mini-muffins and donut holes. Styrofoam cups of ruam mit, a dessert whose name means “friendship”, look colorful and cool.

For the first time in a week, I can feel my appetite being called.

After the chanting, people file out to pile their plates high. Some people fill two plates to take home, pouring o-lieng iced coffee into emptied water bottles. It is a little uncouth, but perhaps it’s just as my father would have done if my mom weren’t there to chide him.

We are back at home now. It is at once bereft of him and full of him. I ricochet between wanting to save scraps of paper he wrote on and rushing to throw out his old razors from the bathroom.

I know the physical things don’t matter. He will always be in my hands in the way I hold a knife. He is in my suitcase in the Chinese-puzzle way I pack it tight. He is in my kitchen in the way I cook for others to make myself happy.

Pau left this world as he lived in it, treading lightly but bearing his family on his shoulders. I am so grateful that I came back to LA and got to spend the last year of his life near him. I am grateful for Momo, for the unmitigated joy and tenderness she brought out of him. I am grateful to have been shaped by such an honorable, generous man.

My mom’s friends swarm around her, place her in the center of the flock’s formation. They speak freely of death. This is what we pray for, they say, an easy, fearless end that doesn’t leave a burden on our children.

My brother said it best:

Those of you who met him probably remember him for either the food he cooked, the stories he told, or both. If you have the time and the inclination, please take some time to share your favorite meal or your favorite story with someone who would enjoy it.