Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Dreams and Reality

I arrived last week at the JHU ward in Tan Tock Seng hospital, Singapore, unfortunately in great pain and with only days left before the insurance ran out. The doctors tried two procedures last week to dull the pain, and though they didn’t appear to work right away, after two days the doctors started to ease me off of the stronger pain medication and it was quickly clear that the pain was far less. Though the doctors determined that I should not be discharged from the hospital, they approved me to fly back home to Hanoi today providing that I go straight to a hospital upon arrival. I will be accompanied by a nurse and my aunt directly to Vietnamese-French hospital.

The fabulous not-single-anymore Linh was with me last week, and Ben Zinner has been with me this past weekend. There are also many other visitors, including Dean Bonnie Wilson who shared with me the good news of a fellowship under my name (formerly under Professor Brown’s name). This was a great honor and I would like to send great thanks to Professor Brown and SAIS faculty for this amazing opportunity. My friends in Singapore have visited me very often and gone the extra miles to cheer me up, from simultaneous leg/arm massages to picking up food/drinks for me. David Rosensweig even agreed to a) paint his finger nails at least two different colors, and b) proposed marriage to his roommate and put the ring right on her finger (Ben hummed the tune of “single ladies” for the rest of the night) – just to make me happy. I had this attractive young Indian doctor who came to check on me and asked me “What did you eat today?” – my first instinct was to fire back “What have YOU eaten today?”. He even brought me green tea frappuccino from Starbucks, which energized me to stand for the first time in at least 48 hours and walk around the bed, flanked by three loyal supporters (new Starbucks ad coming soon).

I will be in Hanoi from now on and I would love to see you if you happen to be there – you know there’s nothing that makes me happier than receiving visitors. You may have to fetch ice water or give me foot massages. If you’re lucky, I may even treat you with one of my infamous waking dreams / hallucinations – the combined effect of the pain medication, sleeping medication, and sheer exhaustion. Here are some of the highlights of the past two days, which have been recorded by Ben for your reading pleasure:

• [while riding in wheelchair down the hallway] I wanna fly, like that woman just flew right through us. Did you see her? Ben, did you see her? She was riding a little bike. Ben did you see her? A small lady on a small bike.

• [crying] Someone was here to see me but I told them to go away. Why? I told them to go away. Oh no, I told them to go away.

• It’s dripping. The milk is spilling! I want a tiny baguette. I want a tiny baguette.

• Oh no, a man fell out of the window! A man fell out of the window!

• No, I don’t want to climb up there. No, my feet hurt, I don’t want to climb up there.

• I want that bottle, give me the bottle. You can’t steal my juice! Why do you steal my juice? Help meeeee! [mumbling in Vietnamese]… Give me back my juice, it’s not yours! I paid for it. Go buy another one. They stole my juice! [starting to cry] They stole my juice.

• Are you going to drive me to the airport? Can you hear me? Hello? Are you there?

• Right? It was yesterday, right? She was here yesterday, and she told all of us we have to take turns looking after someone else. And I was there, but I wasn’t sick. We should all volunteer to help other people.

• …And Andrei came. But he looked so bad. His clothes were torn. And he didn’t have any luggage. We were in the hospital, we were in my room. So he washed himself, and he wore my dad’s clothes. Then the next morning he came to the airport and found out they lost his ticket.

• No, Ai Ghee’s house isn’t safe. You should move.

• The kimchi has flies in it. Eeew, the bowl of kimchi is full of flies.

• Did you see that man? Hah hah hah. He had a big black ball on his ear

Where did these stupid lines come from? I don’t know. All I know is that reality - however it is, good or bad, happy or sad - is just better than any hallucination. I cherished every moment that I woke up and saw people around me, laughing at my stupid lines when I was in my waking dreams.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Two August 9's in Singapore

So then I have had two August 9 in Singapore. (For those who are not familiar, August 9 is Singapore's Independence Day)

Last August 9, there was high hope that I would have a chance to get back to a normal life of a Hoa "shining", of  a "Bunny that jumps around", of a "modern lecturer" that "gives some boring and even misleading international Political economy in the day time and brings students to go clubbing in the night time"...There was such high hope that I did not even need to watch the fireworks but still had the image of  their twinkling colors of star-and-moon shape.The surgery would take away all of the stubborn tumors and chemotherapy would take care of the rest to ensure those cancer cells would never ever be able to rise up again. 

But, as I said. I did not even watch the fireworks. It's all in my head.

So then of course, the life that we draw is often not the life that we actually experience. 

Then the second August 9 came yesterday. Things have gone up and down so much in the past year. The surgery could not take out everything. The radiation and chemo did not work. The non-chemo drug Avastin did work, but eventually due to a complicated medical reason, we could not continue it.

The timeline is 6 months. People seem to be in denial. I myself dont really know how to handle it. Most of the time I am in so much pain, other time I am drugged up so I am still not able to finish my translation work. 

But I could see the fireworks from my hospital window/!! It was not much, and it lasted just about 3 minutes. It means something. The doctors have found a way to reduce the pain. I will have some nerves blocked and I might be paralyzed because of that. But who cares! As long as I dont have to cry in pain everyday. I look ugly when I cry.

So just like the fireworks, we know that the nerves-blocking will not last for too long, The pain might come back. And in the future there will be more pain, pain that not only makes you cry but also makes you feel like committing a suicide so that you dont have to suffer from it anymore. 

But hey, hey, hey, the point is I did enjoy the beauty of the fireworks. The most important thing is not how long you can enjoy something, it's whether or not you enjoy it. 

And every time a friend reaches out to me, I can see the fireworks in my sky. It's definitely not a Singaporean fireworks. It's the fireworks of love.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

As simple as that

I was sort of having a fever. My head was burning and the heat made my cheeks turn red, but my body was shivering - two blankets and I still felt cold. A nurse came with a thermometer and a pulse oximeter. My temperature was 37.9 and my heart rate was 125. I could go home only if that was just a spike, and my temperature would go down to normal next time the nurse checked. I needed to drink more water. Iced water. I needed to do something so that this stupid fever could go away. And then Andrei called. "Hi Bunny!" I wanted to cry over the phone: "I am having a fever and they won't let me go home.". "Ok Bunny, everything is going to be fine. Remember how I taught you to breathe? Just inhale and exhale, inhale and exhale, and do it several times. It will make you feel better. Are you listening to me?". I did listen to him. And they released me in the late afternoon.


I could not sleep. This time it wasn't because my aunt was snoring so loud that the sound penetrated even through my earplugs. It was this terrible headache, probably the worst I've had in years, that drove me crazy. 2 Tramadols and 4 Aspirins could not help. The next morning my (other) aunt insisted that all I need is "a home-made steambath." She boiled a big pot of leaves from Prof. Welsh's lemon tree and star-fruit tree, crushed ginger, lemongrass, and some other herbs she got from the corner shop 10 meters away from Prof. Welsh's house. Then there I was, sitting naked next to the still boiling pot, under a thick blanket, trying to inhale the pleasing scent of the herbs and letting my body sweat as much as it could. 15 minutes later, as I dried myself with a towel, the headache was completely gone.


"Exercise, you need to exercise. You can't just sit at home and read all day", said my aunt as she dragged me out of the house and to a small park nearby. "But I'm tired and it's gonna rain again soon." "You're tired because you're inside too much. And we'll bring an umbrella." It took us 5 minutes to walk to the park, and I immediately found myself a bench to sit down. My aunt gave up on me and continued to walk around the park. As I looked around, I realized although it just stopped raining no more than half an hour ago, and there were still dark clouds clogging the sky, the park was not as empty as I had thought. There was an old Indian lady wheeled by an Indonesian maid who looked rather content. Another Indonesian maid was walking two big dogs around the park and speaking on her cellphone at the same time. A white man with a book in his hand hurriedly passed by my bench. I was surprised at myself. I was just doing some simple people watching - I wasn't judging or making up some stories of those people in my mind like I would under normal circumstances. I smiled and felt happy.

It is easy to let chemo and its aftermath drown you in tiredness and depression. But in fact, it is easier to make yourself feel good. A proper breathing technique (or a reach-out to your friends), a home-made steambath (or an aunt, and in my case, more than 20 aunts), or a 5 min walk (or the simplicity of some fresh air and a lazy afternoon in a strange park) is all it takes to do the trick.

It is not easy to forget chemo and its side effects. But It is easy to forget that the best feeling in the world is feeling alive. And chemo keeps me alive.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Lost in translation

Translation is no easy job.

My boss at the VNU gave me a textbook of International Political Economy to translate into Vietnamese. At first, I thought: "I've read this. I've studied the subject. It shouldn't be too hard for me to translate it". And I was wrong. As it turned out, both of my English and Vietnamese are not good enough to do the job. And I obviously know little about the subject (Believe it or not, I might teach an introductory course on IPE in the fall for college students!!!).

That worries me. IPE is relatively new in Vietnam - so far it has only been taught at 2 universities nationwide. There is a huge shortage for textbooks, let alone good ones on the subject. So future Vietnamese IPE students might well have no choice but to read the textbook that I've translated. And they would find it boring, or worse, confusing. My boss would fire me for ruining the future of Vietnamese IPE. Oh boy.

The irrational part of me would say: Blame it on the chemo, since it is a perfect excuse for almost everything now. But the chemo can only make you tired, it cannot turn you into a bad translator. And the truth is: I am simply a bad translator.

So I guess that I have to spend time restudying both languages. And continuing this translation project might be the only way to do it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The new me

To celebrate the end of the second round of chemo, I decided to go get a hair cut. You might think that it is such a waste of money, as I might lose my hair during the next rounds of treatment. But as I always say: looking good makes you feel good, so as long as I feel good, it doesn’t matter if it’s only a month, a week, or even a day.

My doctor agreed to let me leave the hospital for 2 hours to get a hair cut in the shopping mall opposite to the hospital (this is typically Singaporean by the way – you can find a shopping mall anywhere you go). So then wearing the hospital gown with a tube still hanging out on my chest, I got on a wheelchair, excitedly let my auntie push me toward a fancy - looking Korean hair salon

Ladies and gentlemen, I am happy to present to you the new me. :)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The red headband

The other day I was going out with a friend and I wanted to wear this lovely green dress with a matching headband. But much to my disappointment, the green headband was nowhere to be found. The only thing I could find was an old red headband that I rarely wear. I was so frustrated – I wanted to wear that green dress, and I wanted a matching headband!
But as I took a second look at the red headband, I thought it wasn’t that bad, and all I had to do was to match it with a nice red dress.

I thought the lesson I learned from this was that I needed a better collection of headbands, but it seems like the red headband has taught me a lot more than that. I was frustrated when I couldn’t find my green headband to go with my green dress. Similarly, I was frustrated when I knew I couldn’t have a normal life like other people. To put it simply, I am often frustrated when I don’t get what I want.

But as the headband story tells me, life isn’t always about getting what I want. I was fine with a red headband and a red dress, even though it wasn’t what I wanted. I am going to be fine living a life different from those of people my age. As long as I live it in style.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A happy Tet [Because I promised a friend not to write a sad entry this time]

A happy Tet is when you feel foreign in your own home.

A happy Tet is when you try to stop your tears from coming down in front of your aunt and her family because you do not want them to know that you envy their happiness.

A happy Tet is when your grandma and your mom yell at each other on the day of the New Year’s Eve. And things might even get worse the next day.

A happy Tet is when you realize that someone you care about just simply don’t have time to care about you. Oh, and this New Year’s Day happens to be St. Valentine’s Day by the way.

A happy Tet is when you sit alone in your boring room, blogging about how happy you are while people are cheerfully out on the street watching fireworks.

A happy Tet is when instead of your family or friends, you say cheers to your painkillers on New Year's Eve, because without them you will not be able to fall asleep.

A happy Tet is when you know that it might just be your last Tet on earth.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The handy man

Since I am now on a special diet – no high fiber food whatsoever, only fruit juices and vegetable broth, my mom decided to get a new and nicer fruit juicer for me. But somehow it did not work. My grandma suggested: “Call Uncle Chi! He lives nearby, and he’s a man, he will know how to fix it”. But he had some guests over at home, so he could not come help us. We tried to call some other people, but they were all busy as well.

I remember thinking to myself: my dad could have fixed it - he is quite handy. But he is no longer living with us. He is still a handy man, but he is just not OUR handy man anymore.

So we are still waiting for my uncle to stop by to fix the broken fruit juicer. Then it might take him a day or two to finish the job. I can’t help but wonder how long it will take us to wait for a handy man to come fix our broken home, and how long it will take him to do that?

Wait - I think my mom just decided that we should just get a new fruit juicer. So I guess we’ll just build a new home then. We don't really need a handy man, do we?

Friday, January 29, 2010


I have an army of aunts who take turns to come to Singapore to take care of me and make me authentic Vietnamese food. Although their personalities are very different from each other, they share the same thought: Vietnamese people enjoy much more freedom than Singaporeans.

In Vietnam, people are free to chew gums.

People are free to litter. (Throwing dead mice on the streets is one common thing, for instance)

People are free to pee openly in the street corners, or trees. (Kissing in public, in contrast, is less common!)

People are free to break queues. There is no such thing called taxi-stand. (If any, it would be a place for vendors to sell tea and cigarettes)

In Vietnamese hospitals, doctors and nurses are free to treat their patients like crap. If you want to have an extra blanket, you go find a staff nurse, give her some money, ask her nicely and wait. She might still yell at you: she has a lot of other things to do – she is not there to give you an extra blanket. And, you already have one blanket – a lot of other patients do not even have one!

Just a few examples of how free we are.

But all of my aunts wanted Vietnam to follow the Singaporean model. If I am not wrong, it is also the wish of the late former Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet, a well-known reformer who led the country away from poverty and isolation.

Some people (i.e. Prof. Welsh) would say: if Vietnam ever became something like Singapore, it would only be a change from this type of authoritarianism to another.

Many would just simply enjoy seeing street-peeing people getting fined, at least.

In the meantime, however, what Vietnam is focusing on is not to be Singaporeanized or not to be Singaporeanized. Who cares about which model of development to follow? We are busy preparing for the next National Party Congress. We are first and foremost busy with the power game.


On my last day of radiation, I saw a prisoner at the radiotherapy center. He was sitting in a separate room, hands cuffed, and accompanied by two police officers. He probably is a cancer patient waiting to get treatment.

You might think I am crazy, but I felt so bad for him. I cannot imagine how hard it would be to go through cancer treatment in jail.

You might say: he deserves it because he might be a murderer or a serious criminal and has to pay for what he has done. But isn’t he being punished already by being in jail? True believers in karma would not hesitate to point out: this is because of what he did in his previous life.

Now does that mean I must have done something really wrong in my previous life to have cancer in my present life? I’d rather think that I am paying upfront for my next life to be better.

But can it be a better life than this? I don’t have to worry about food or shelter. I am well educated. I have family and friends.

I don’t think I believe in karma, after all.