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.