The end of my Jesus year (33)

If you’re a spiritual junkie – 33 is significant.

Jesus was baptized at 30. And the general consensus is that he served for 3.5 years before being crucified. There was a rule in the Old Testament that all priests be baptized between 30-50 years old so the best guess is that he was in his early 30s. It’s a fair theory to say, he learned love and preached unconditional love by 33.

Gautama Buddha (Siddhartha) left his palace at 29 to see first hand and understand the suffering in the world. In that famous story, he sat under that Bodhi tree to awaken to “the truth” around 33-35 years old. The truth of self awareness and love.

In numerology, the life path number 33 is about awakening and then using that knowledge and experience for leadership and responsibility. Those with this life path want to use their life to raise the consciousness of others for a kinder and more empathetic world and become spiritual leaders.

For 2015, Numerology had predicted that it was going to be a tough karmic debt kind of year for me. Things would be unfair and not work out and the test would be how I reacted to not getting what I want. Luckily I knew this ahead of time and came up with a pre-game strategy to fail fast, take everything in stride, learn whatever lessons are repeating and popping up and try not to make more bad karma while overcoming these obstacles. (Ha! Easier said than done)

I knew there was no escaping big obstacles and challenges this year. Whether or not I’d be able to get through it one piece was up to me. More importantly how many casualties would I leave in the battle, would also be up to me.

Looking back, it was a truly amazing year.

Love

Turning 33, I conquered my fear of commitment and the system and signed my first mortgage 😉 It wasn’t that bad to finally have a home, in Toronto, surrounded by loved ones. I got to experience Christmas and Birthdays and Thanksgiving with the kindest most loving family in the world. Contrasting that life I used to live as a nomad with a suitcase and no fixed address, this new one where I could have regular meetups and celebrate kids birthday parties and people knew where to find me was pretty cool.

Vipassana

I stumbled upon Vipassana in March. I had never taken 2 weeks of “staycation” before and definitely not to travel inwards 🙂 I’m grateful I did. It wasn’t easy being in an environment where you have no choice but to look inwards and start facing your own issues and listening to yourself. Vipassana gave me a chance to truly dig deep and get to know myself, observe my reactions and really unlocked my understanding of human beings (and myself):

  • how we are wired to react based on our physical sensations
  • how we all have suffered/lost/grieved/been wronged in the past
  • how we all want to be happy and loved, wish for others to be happy and be loved.

It’s not very often you get a chance to pay attention and hear/feel what your mind/body/soul has been trying to tell you without constant new distractions and external influences. When you truly have time to listen to yourself, get comfortable with yourself, you start remembering why you’re here. You start remembering our goal as humans and how we are intricately connected to each other. You start realizing you can’t be at peace if your neighbours are not at peace.

The human experience is such a special one, where love isn’t just an invisible or intellectual concept. You can feel it and actually experience it towards others, towards sunsets, towards lakes and oceans, towards animals, towards plants.

To put it lightly, not only did I become a bigger hippy after the experience – I also knew exactly what my life purpose was. It was very clear what parts of my life were healthy and which didn’t serve me. All that I’ve experienced both the highlights and the tragedies are so that I could tell stories of rising, falling, coping and being comfortable in your own skin. Even if it helps just ONE person overcome abuse, rape, poverty, eating disorders, diabetes, cancer, or inspires someone to also listen to themselves and focus on their creativity – it’s worth it.

Cancer

After coming back from Vipassana, I went to do my biopsy. Not sure if that was a smart idea, but anyway it happened. In Vipassana, you learn that everything passes – all physical sensations including physical pain goes away eventually. You inflict pain on yourself by remembering, being fearful, carrying a grudge. But the actual physical pain, doesn’t last. So when it happens, experience it, in the moment. Then when it’s gone, just let it go. For the past 3 years, I absolutely hated my biopsies. You feel violated. You bleed and definitely feel pain. To makes matters worse, you fear the results. You second guess whether or not you should’ve listened to that doctor three years ago about a hysterectomy. It’s certainly a mind fuck as well as physically painful.

So there I was at my doctor’s office. The piercing gut wrenching pain happened. Cramps happened. I almost fainted. Then after gathering my strength to walk, I threw up. Then I ran to my car, closed the door and cried. It was a deep weep like I never experienced before. And then 15 min later, there was no more physical pain, I met a friend for lunch and that was it. Three weeks later, I came but there were no results yet. Four weeks later, I met my doctor again maintaining our usual candor and differing views of eastern vs western medicine. She finally said,

“Whatever you’re doing is working…because there no longer atypia sized cells. What are you doing other than taking tinctures, potions and vitamins?”

I smiled and said,

“Meditation… and oh… I found love”

Then I bounced out of there, into my car. I started texting my boyfriend, sister, updated Facebook as tears streamed out.

It was again a deep weep. I was grateful-blessed-lucky-shocked-relieved all at once. If you can imagine putting down barbells with weights of anxiety and fear. There are still likely hundreds of reps to go in the future, but just in this moment, you’re done your work out today.

As much as I disliked the fear mongering that mainstream media and people spread in relation to cancer; that once you had cancer, your quality of life quickly disappears and that deadly spiral to surgery, chemo and death was imminent. I spoke out for the past three years against that mainstream assumption but never did I truly admit how scared I had been and how I never really believed *I* could reverse it.

Sitting there in the car, I looked back at every step of my recovery which was the cure? And no it wasn’t just one of these things:

  • naturopathy
  • homeopathy
  • counseling
  • lifestyle improvements
  • meditation
  • exercise
  • cooking
  • reading books about other peoples journey
  • facing the past
  • kindness from others

I approached this whole process with an open mind, curiosity and only hoped that things wouldn’t get worse. I never really thought things would get better but here it was, tangible proof that trusting my gut worked out!

My ego even kicked in to take credit over a non-existent master plan of reversing cancer; that I had learned the secret to healing. But really I could not have planned out how I stumbled onto LOVE and SELF CARE. It was hope, luck and serendipity to meet the right people, and being able to have all the right resources to try anything.

I only learned after my memoir writing class in May, that feeling right then, that teary eyed happiness after overcoming three years of fear, that was joy.

Joy is not the same as pleasure

You can’t really experience joy without the suffering. It’s a priceless memory you will never forget, as opposed to pleasures you can buy. What I learned is that you can’t really know what good is until you experience the bad. The Ying and the Yang, they’re a packaged deal. And if you want to experience joy, you need to overcome pain. If you want to be an expert, you first need to be a beginner.

How do you capture joy? Joy is that first sigh of relief after what looks a lot like pain, sadness and suffering. Joy is worthwhile. So when things are not working out, and you’re in that cycle of suffering, just remember – this probably leads to a feeling of unbelievable joy…eventually.

I reversed Cancer!! (for now)

Then old habits kicked in for the rest year, relaxing my diet, not putting myself first, emotional eating, gaining weight. How quickly we forget 🙁 The one positive thing about fear is that when you’re used to being motivated by it, when it’s gone, that imminent danger is gone. And thus actions like self control and diet. It’s definitely something I’m aware of and a lesson that will keep repeating until I learn. Funny, this whole ability to be preventative and use wisdom and experience to avoid repeating the same mistakes is still something new for me. And definitely not natural. The problem with awareness is that it’s just the first step. You still continue to make mistakes, except now you see it first hand. It’s really not fun to see yourself trip and stumble and keep making the same mistake. I guess this way, you can finally be sick of watching yourself repeatedly fail and start changing for good.

My Career

Somehow I was ready for the onslaught of things that weren’t going to work out in 2015. I knew that my corporate job was not going to work out. I wanted to make the decision rationally and explore all my options and alternatives. So finally by September, it was time to exit.

Honestly it was a rewarding three years of work, I grew personally and professionally, got exposed to pretty cool things and stumbled upon on to my strengths of story telling and articulating that vision to pull off disruptive out of the box things. Being a multipotentialite has lots of advantages – the biggest is that ability to draw from different industry best practices and connect the dots. My pace of change was probably super accelerated by my personal life and fears of cancer, but now that I knew my strengths, I had to start figuring out how I was going to change the world. And I knew, it didn’t serve me or others around me to stay.

After finally deciding to leave, and almost rushing into another tech startup trap, I stepped back for a week at a Yoga Ashram and refocused again on what I wanted to spend a year on. The answer was: myself. I wanted to learn how to become a better story teller. I wanted to explore my curious (and re-occuring) passion for Vietnamese Sandwiches. I wanted to challenge myself to see how I could sustain a creative life as a writer – to inspire others, to help others sustain their creativity and find their tribe. I decided that would be my path. I took the past two months to explore catering, story telling and also consult in Kickstarter campaigns for musicians and authors. Being surrounded by others who support and thrive in creativity is the best decision and path I could’ve stumbled upon.

I even continued with creative writing class and found that writing and telling my stories have allowed me to reflect and bring closure and healing to my past, especially my turmoils with my family. And it’s amazing the kinds of people you meet, like-minded people when you just be you.

There’s really no better way to spend your time than on yourself. Call it what you will, self-asorbed/selfish. But when you do become at peace with yourself, even for a moment, it’s much harder to spread negativity, fear and hate in the world. It’s easier to pause and contemplate before naturally reacting. What I’ve learned is that working on yourself is a big contribution to society as a whole. And these posts and stories, even if they inspire one person – YOU – then it was all worth it.

So here we are. So sure, some things didn’t work out in the entire year. An when it did, I tried hard to minimize the casualties and acting out of anger. But truly this year has been life changing. It’s the year I actually grew up and finally take responsibility for my actions. It’s the year I learned a little empathy and figured out what how karma worked.

Just the same, there’s so much more I need to learn, so many things I still need to work on and so much more writing that I need to do. I can’t wait until to see what will unfold as I turn 34. All I know is that this life we live is the most precious gift. It’s got a shelf life, there’s a time limit to accomplish what we set out to do here.

I’ve got all the pieces and lessons now to make some lasting changes.Thank you for sharing this adventure called Life with me.

Love,

Uyen Thu

How I failed fast and shut down a two week old startup.

A few months ago when my best friend described to me his issues with coordinating temporary staffing, I became obsessed. Everywhere I looked, everyone had the exact same problem yet so many people were re-inventing the wheel to solve it for their own use case. For a while now, I’ve been itching to be excited about something, learn about a new industry and put me out of my misery of the corporate pace of red tape and risk adversity. And this was it. It was (and is still) a great idea.

I rounded up a tech team and the plan was to move down to the Valley for a few months to be in an incubator and get some mentorship and thus, left my job end of August. The pieces were falling into place fast. Though, I knew something wasn’t right.

After much reflection and digging past my own excuses – I realized: I’ve done this already. Three times, actually!! I’ve already moved to the Bay Area. I’ve already raised funding through Kickstarter. I’ve already gone through a tech incubator in Boston. Anybody that knows me knows my pattern of going from someone else’s company to my own every few years. Einstein said it best,

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

I’ve experienced the excitement of new opportunities and then the suffering and bitter endings. Every time, I get to a point where I know that whatever I’m doing isn’t fulfilling my life’s purpose or serving my happiness, passions or well-being. And then shortly after that, I cut the leash stumbling onto another adventure.

I did a thought experiment. I imagined what life in the best case scenario would be like two years later if I went down this path I just chose. The excitement of building a team, getting that first customer, making an MVP, raising money, growth hacking more customers, getting hockey-stick adoption, raising more money, finding more ways to gain adoption…and the thought made me want to throw up. I could see working 12+ hour days, constantly stressing about every little detail, having investors to answer to and customers, constantly stressing about losing money. I’d definitely be in bad mental and physical health with no balance, no time for friends, for writing, for cooking, for relationships.

It’s funny how quickly we forget past suffering. Even though I had seen it first hand multiple times, I conveniently forgot about it this year. It’s true that it’s all in our head: every day we’re faced with obstacles, we can look at them as opportunities or roadblocks. I’m wired as an opportunist but what I realize more and more, is that my stamina of perseverance and grit is fueled by passion. If I don’t believe in it, or not motivated to learn – I face that brick wall then try to blow it up, harming myself and others.

It even took an old friend to fly to Toronto and show up at my place to point out to me something I only realized this year, that my heart has never been in engineering. “Your passion is cooking and story telling, why would you go full steam ahead and bet the farm on tech…again?” That was all I needed to pivot away from #NoCollar after 2 weeks.

So the hard part was done, disaster avoided. I’d have to deal with the confusion of breaking the news to everyone. They’d get over it, or not, living to satisfy popular opinion can get you very lost, trust me, I’ve been there.  But now what? One helpful way to navigate life’s challenges is to figure out what you fear and face it head on. What popped up in that same conversation about pursuing my passion was my deep seeded fear that writers and chefs can’t make a living. Just the thought of saying Thu is a Writer or Thu is a Chef, made me cringe with fear, the first thought is, “I don’t know how to win at this game”. How do you figure out what you fear? My method is to observe my reactions, when someone else told me what I’d been thinking deep down inside, I cried. I had been avoiding this creative path for so long and trying to substitute it with a predictable technical path because I was…scared.

When I finally accepted that I was irrationally scared. I could finally reflect rationally. Yes, a creative’s life doesn’t have guaranteed income and six figure salaries are impossible. Most restaurants fail, most self-published authors have an audience of their friends/family. Ah, MOST…but not ALL. You can’t walk more than a block in any direction in the city without seeing examples of people making a living through storytelling or food. So if they can, why can’t I?

I’ve been so good at solving other people’s problems, what if this time around I have my arsenal of problem solving skills, wit and experience to tackle my biggest fear of thriving as a writer/chef. The only difference this time is that I would also have the passion. Another part of my fear is that the path to creative success isn’t clear. It’s not like you write a fixed number of words to reach more people or start making a monthly income. Or if you opened a restaurant on the busiest corner and get guaranteed money. We all hate failing. It hurts that poor ego. You wonder what people will think. And you fear you’ll never recover.

But really, you can’t control the outcome or the world. You can only control yourself, your actions, reactions and thoughts. Believe me, as a Type-A control freak, it’s been years in the making to try on surrendering and letting go in a few instances. And I think it’ll continue to be a work in progress all my life. That Serenity prayer summarizes what I’d like to master:

Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

So choosing to spend more time writing, cooking and figuring out how to keep doing it…sounds like a no brainer compared to my other recent decisions. I’ve always bet the farm on working hard for other people’s problems and vision. Why not bet the farm on improving myself.

What have I done since September? (Everything but blog)

  • I started connecting with authors and learning about how the self-publishing and traditional small press, big press work.
  • I started this blog and enrolled in my first creative writing class.
  • I’m freelancing with a focus on brand building and story telling for other creatives: authors & musicians.
  • I started a catering company as a first step towards building my food brand and applying everything I’ve learned about branding and story telling for others.
  • I started working in other kitchens in the city to get a feel for commercial kitchens and processes.
  • I cook almost everyday and make sure I have time to spend with people important to me and my hobbies.

No I’m not retired at 33 and no I don’t have much free time in this new chapter of my life. But, I’m happy that I finally listened to myself. It’s unbelievable the serendipity that happens after you choose your own adventure. You meet very interesting people like minded people, you find ways to solve issues that arise and you feel alive…and lucky. And when you just admit you need help, it appears – in the form of new and past friendships. Luck is when experience meets opportunity and the stars might be lining up right now.

I have no idea what the future will hold, and whether or not a year from now I’ll be back to survival mode when my savings are gone. This is not a recommendation for anybody to follow what I did. It’s just my story of how I stumbled onto creating my own path. Life’s got a way to redirect and remind you when you lose your way and it’s never too late to wake up.

No matter what happens, I am learning so much and wake up early each day looking forward to what will unfold. The other day I found this quote which has made all the difference in how I define success and failure. Success for me has been finding my gift and now honing it so that I can give it away. Failure is not living life authentically. For the first time in my life, I’m grateful for all the seemingly random experiences and epic fails in my life.

Grace means that all your mistakes now serve a purpose instead of serving shame.

Dragon fruits from the same cactus

My story of how I grew up without a father and our epic failed attempts at healing.

Until I turned 19 and my step sister 7, we had never met. Her room in Ho Chi Minh City was lined from floor to ceiling with stuffed animals, her father bragged about her being at the top of her class in a prestigious International School and she spoke English with an Australian Accent. I was insanely jealous and didn’t make an attempt to get to know her.

This happened during the dot-com bubble burst in 2001, my second co-op term at the University of Waterloo. Knowing that job opportunities were scarce in North America, I had the opportunity to go make a website for my father in Vietnam, whom I knew nothing about but enough to despise.

My father disappeared to Australia early in my mother’s pregnancy, with another woman. My uncles also left Vietnam as refugees while I was in my mother’s tummy and were fortunate to immigrate to Canada. My mother, brother and I landed in Toronto in 1985 and grew up in Regent Park with our extended family of uncles and grandparents. One day when I was 6, my father appeared to take a photo with us at the CN Tower and propose that we relocate to Australia (to which the answer was no) then promptly left. He came back again during my teens and took me shopping. I accepted the clothes but when he asked to be part of my life, I declared that just because he slept with my mother didn’t make him my dad. Thus, he vanished for a few years before reaching out through e-mail. I loathed him for abandoning my mother. Despite my contempt, I set off on my first adventure outside of Canada, on his dime.

Give a teenage hedonist her own villa, maid, security guards and driver and you can guess what happened. I indulged in the absurdly cheap cigarettes, alcohol, food, karaoke and parties and rarely did any work. My father smelled the immaturity and promptly decided that I was not fit to be his daughter. Thus, approaching the end of my co-op term I was no longer invited to family dinners and left for the airport alone. I never did get to have a conversation with my sister for another decade.


In 2011, I decided to travel to Vietnam to learn how to cook throughout the country and document it through my first book, My Quest for Yummy Banh Mi in Vietnam (which you can get if you sign up for my monthly newsletter on that side bar…yeah shameless plug…ok back to the story). As I made my way south to Ho Chi Minh City, I stayed in the guest room at my father’s house. For the first two weeks, he welcomed me, fed me well, and even helped me replace my broken laptop. I stayed long enough to watch my sister turn 18 and graduate as Valedictorian and pack her bags for a bright Ivy League future in New York City. Her shelf of stuffed animals had been replaced with high fashion. This time around we had much in common: gossiping, baking, eating, food photographing, watching movies and pushing curfew limits. When our father was in a bad mood, we would text each other in our separate rooms and rant. We confided in each other and were almost inseparable as the summer passed by.

Sure enough, whether it was coming back late stinking of alcohol and cigarettes or something else, he decided that I was a bad influence to his daughter, thus swiftly disowning and ignoring me for the rest of my stay. During dinners, he would pretend that I was not present at the same table and would only refer to me in the third person, indirectly asking questions through my sister. It worried him that once she moved to New York for school, not only would his precious daughter be in the same time zone as me, but also merely an hour’s flight away. He made her promise never to visit me or hang out with me outside of his supervision. Immediately after my book was printed, I packed my bags and he was nowhere to be found on the day I left for the airport.

What does disowning even mean? I suppose you can disown slaves that you bought or traded but your own children? If you can’t own, how can you disown? If you already chose to leave your children for over thirty years, what weight does that word even carry? Could it be this was not a rational decision but a fight-or-flight response to compensate for a bruised ego? Am I a threat because I don’t fit the mould of how a proper Vietnamese woman should behave? No matter who was right or wrong, the same fact remained: another decade had passed and yet another failed attempt by both sides for a peaceful father-daughter relationship. As I sat on that plane going back to Canada, I thought about all the times I’ve burned bridges and hurt others… The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.


Ever since our summer together in Vietnam, my sister and I have become the best of friends. We love to gossip about the idiosyncrasies of our families and the people we meet in everyday life. And more importantly she supported me through my struggles with health, the turmoils of entrepreneurship and relationships. I confided in her when my buried memories of childhood sexual abuse suddenly resurfaced, she listened with so much empathy and love. It took me over a year of therapy to somewhat become functional again and not constantly overcome with rage at the past. When I was okay, she told our father — who wept.

When my sister graduated, I saw my father for the first time in four years. It was the first time we had intelligent conversations about business, family and a new scholarship fund he’s been working on to help fund the education of poor Vietnamese students. This was our first week ever, full of rapport and mutual respect. Maybe the fact that I no longer drank or smoked helped.

While packing up to fly home from New York City, I thought about what was different about this encounter with my dad. The more I thought about his passion in pursuing and starting this scholarship fund, the more the puzzle pieces came together. My dad and uncles all studied in Catholic school together back in Hue. Last year, as a lesson to me about why life isn’t fair, my uncle had told me that when he and his brothers were children, they were abused by the priests at school. Back then, one of the only avenues for the poor to get education was through the priests. My dad was trying to provide ways for ambitious students to not have to give up their beliefs and dignity just because they wanted to learn. Could it be that he was abused? Damn I never saw it coming.

This realization brought me to tears. I finally understood. Abuse really is passed down from generation to generation. Being taken advantaged of when you’re a vulnerable child royally fucks you up. Whatever instant gratification and power it brings to the perpetrator, the suffering spreads not only to their victims but their social circles, in addition to their own children and grandchildren. No wonder at the first sign of embarrassment or vulnerability, we shut down and switch into fight-or-flight aggression. No wonder we share the same pattern of pushing away love and kindness and opt for money, power and control. At that moment, I understood and forgave my dad and myself. Our third major attempt at getting along might be the charm I needed.

Family members are like branches on a tree; we grow in all directions and places, yet we forget that we share the same roots. My lifelong thirst for control, the control of both people and situation, stems from being violated against my will. I can only assume that it was similar for him. Child abuse is despicable, it changes a child’s life from one full of potential to grow through love and improve through vulnerability into one shrunk into isolation, anger, hatred and abuse struggling to survive. Sadly, some never trust or love again, constantly building fortresses to protect from hurt.

If only we could communicate with each other and realize how much we could help one another, we wouldn’t have to wade through decades of suffering alone. No matter how isolated and far apart our branches spread, if we want our family tree to endure through centuries of sun, wind, rain, and hail, we need to collectively nurture and support stronger roots and acknowledge that we’ve all been wronged and have wronged others.

I think that the only way to stop abuse from being passed on is to just stop doing it. There’s always a higher path of love, kindness, patience and though I wouldn’t claim to master it yet with all these years of tangled wired responses. I’m at least aware when I’m about to dish out something hurtful and that I think is the first step in breaking this chain of hurting others.


In my travels to the south of Vietnam I was surprised to learn that dragon fruits grew on cactus trees and only bloomed at night. These flowers are called moonflower or the queen of the night and it’s a rare sight to witness it bloom. Maybe our family are like these dragon fruits: We are only our true selves a few times a year when we feel safe and nobody can see us in the dark; We strive for to have a vibrant, larger than life but tough exterior that survives all heat and droughts; Inside, when shared with those we trust, we’re soft, mildly sweet and have much antioxidants and fibres to help strengthen the immune system, heal bruises and wounds, reduce heart disease and cure diabetes.

Life really isn’t fair but it seems to place life jackets and guardians within our reach. We just have to be willing to accept the help. What a blessing the last four years have been to become best friends with my sister and accept help. Not only was I able to celebrate my sister’s recent commencement, with her by my side, I was also able to graduate from my past.

Launch of my new blog

Hi there,

I finally have website in my name instead of all the blogs, books and projects I work on. Here you’ll find a regularly updated blog and all things related to my writing and publications.

I know what you’re thinking, did I spell my name wrong and miss a few letters? (Truth be told, ThuNguyen.com was taken) My first name is actually Uyên Thư, which in Vietnamese means the love of literature. A poet helped my mom pick out that name and it took me 33 years to figure out what I was supposed to do in this lifetime: become a writer. So here goes, a little late in the game but hoping to live up to my name.

Thu