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08 Apr '20

"Matter of Consequence" vs. "Force of Uncertainty"

Posted by Lanchi Vo

There hasn't been an entry in this blog for a long while because, of course, I have been busy with "matter of consequence", spreading myself thinner than those rainbow-color oil slicks. Life had been dragging, pushing, shoving me on and on and on...until it came to a screeching halt. Now, I suddenly have the luxury to sit down and entertain some frivolous thoughts. Thank (but, no thanks!) to Covid-19!

The current situation reminds me of another time when my life got suspended in the forceful grip of uncertainty. On that day, I peeked through a basement's window, as massive combat tanks grinding onto the streets of Saigon. I saw my mom crying. I saw my dad's blank expression. As the world tumbled down around us, we gathered together and ate instant noodle to celebrate my 9th birthday, and to mark the first day of a seven-year wait.

Wait for a future that might never come.

Those were difficult years. There was not enough of everything to go around, Except for Humanity. Up to this day, my mom often mentions to us the gratitude she felt when a relative came by our home, casually dropping off a precious sack of rice, a bag of cookie, a bunch of bananas...They were looking out for us, knowing that my parents have seven kids to feed. There was also a lot of Inhumanity that went around, but that's a different story.  The kids eventually came back to school, but all the adults were unemployed, except for some gig jobs here and there.  The new proletariate society had no function they can entrust to white-collar people from the old regime. We lived on the government's miserable food ration. We tried to survive by selling whatever we could, down to a set of dictionaries--a well-utilized treasure of my parents as educators--by the kilo for scrap paper.

Yet, those were the most carefree years of my life. We all lived a rat’s life, but there was no rat race. We didn't have a future, but we had the present. One day at a time.  Most importantly, we had one another.  Life offers a strange comfort when it collectively hits rock bottom: it is, certainly, a very stable place!  There is no danger of an "existential crisis", since existence was distilled down to its  purest essence, uncontaminated by the past or the future.  At the end, the future came as a set of visas to the US, thanks to my uncle, who sponsored us over via the Family Reunification program. The day I touched down on US soil, I felt the tangible weight of the future and the obligation to siege it with a vengeance. I have been trying to capture the American Dream ever since, for myself, for my family, for my kids. How very busy have I been!

I was living in the cocoon of that Dream when this pesky virus exploded into our world, shook me up and showed me how fragile and ephemeral Dream can be. It brought to the surface this Uncertainty that we all try to suppress or mitigate. It asserts the fact that future, by definition, is never certain. No matter how thick the cushion of our wealth or how many insurance policies we own, the risk of unemployment, separation, failure, illness, death...are here all along for everyone of us. The thing we call "normalcy" is but a very thin veneer.  Apply a bit of pressure and it will disintegrate. 

How terrifying! Yet, how liberating!

For awhile at least, the pressure of maintaining the statue-quo suddenly lifted.  The weight of the future lightened.  In this chaotic force of uncertainty, families have to hunker down together, caring for one another, living more in the pressing present. In the past few years I kept telling myself to spend more time with my kids.  But there was always an art show coming up and I didn't have enough stock, so to the wood shop I went. In the past few weeks, I have shut down my work completely but I am not feel stressed out about that, since it is no longer a "matter of consequence" (to borrow Saint-Exupéry's expression). The problem is, my kids are teenagers now.  They prefer to spend time with their electronics rather than with us parents. But that's OK. I can tend to their needs and retreat to my room, saying Hello to my inner self: Long time no see! How are you?  Hang in there!  Stay alive!  We have been through this before. We will be OK.