A birthday party

I’ve always thought that birthday parties are overrated. I never had any surprise parties and I already forgot the last time I celebrated it. Last year, I even forgot that February 6 is my birthday.

When I was six years old, I remember my father and mother brought rice porridge, bread, and orange juice made from powdered orange mixed with water placed inside small plastic cellophane to my kindergarten class to celebrate my birthday. To my six-year old mind then, it was the biggest party in the whole world. Seeing my parents distributing the food to my classmates was more than what I can ask for. It was a nice feeling to be the object of a Happy Birthday song sung by my fellow 6-years-old children.

I forgot when I stopped celebrating it and eventually outgrowing the desire to have one every year. But I knew it was something I missed deep inside for no matter how tough we want ourselves to be, there are some truths that we simply can’t shut off from our psyche. Truths that has to do with our little dreams when we were too young to dream of conquering the world.

I just turned 23. It scares me a lot. Who wouldn’t be?

Being 23 excites me, nonetheless. I can feel all the possibilities in the future, of what I can do and accomplish, of what I can give and contribute to the people around me and the world.

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Outside Van Mieu (Temple of Literature), the site of the oldest university in Vietnam. The man on my right is a calligrapher. He was writing the character for happiness. I had to argue with Chi Le as to what symbol I’d have printed: wealth, wisdom, health. I opted for happiness. It’s been a long time that I was truly happy.

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Behind us are peach trees. The blossoms are the primary symbol for Tet and the coming of spring. It means new life, vigor, and hope.

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The birthday cake.

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There were six of us – Chau, Chi Le, myself, Duong, and the two guys not in the photo, Song and Hai. We spent it on the bank of Song Hong (Red River). The place is so beautiful that a lot of wedding pictorials are done along the river bank. In fact there were three couples having their pictorials there while we were also having ours.

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Of course Chi Le and I had to do some funny poses. The one above is the least funny.

I thought before that birthday parties are humans’ attempts to make aging easier to bear. But they’re more than that, I realized. They are meant to be savored with friends and the people we love and who love us. Birthday parties may be viewed as something pragmatic, but when we strip them down to the essential they’re expression of coming to age, friendship, love, happiness, hope.

Happy Birthday to me.

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Rice porridge and fear of (or fascination with) the unknown

chao

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porridge

In between my three-hour class in Tay Son this evening, I went to a quan hang, or a small kiosk selling rice porridge. I asked the old woman to give me a bowl of the thick mixture and to add egg into it. The steamy porridge alleviated my hunger for the next two hours before I had my full dinner back in my house. The soothing aroma of the herbs carried by the rising steam reminded me of the arroz caldo in my high school canteen back then and the comforting taste of a bowl of it as well as the memories of the past now impossible to revisit.

Chao, as Vietnamese call this rice porridge is a food devoid of any pretensions. It is as simple as the lives of most of Vietnam’s people. Only the necessary are mixed and cooked together, offered in plastic bowls and eaten while being seated on kiddie-size monobloc chairs beside the passing traffic of motorists and pedestrian.

I think that the unique flavor of chao is brought about by an amalgam of fresh ingredients, herbs, gossips, family affairs, early evening conversations, and other cacophonies that make up the Vietnamese society.

Co oi, cho chau mot bat chao voi trung. (Aunty, can I have a bowl of chao with egg?), I asked. She smiled at me, and suggested if I wanted to have mien (a kind of rice vermicelli) instead, since she might have noticed that I often eat at her place. I said, Chau muon chao thoi co a (I just want to have chao auntie). Which she responded with, Khong noi co, chau goi ba (Don’t call me auntie, call me grandmother). I pretended not to hear her. With my thirty-minute break, lengthening the conversation with her would not be a good idea; notwithstanding, I was already on the verge of starvation.

I am already accustomed to the simple life here in Vietnam. Everyday, I face almost similar concerns: cycling from my house to the university, translating from Vietnamese to English or vice versa, writing in Vietnamese, battling with heat or cold (although dusty roads are already a staple),  working out, attending my part-time classes, and other miscellanies such as going to coffee shops, writing literary attempts, or just to reading books by Maxim Gorky, or an anthology of O. Henry’s works.

I’ve never lived a life simpler than this one, and it scares me a bit because in three months time, I’m going back to the Philippines and face real concerns of an adult like me. I’ll be turning 23 in the next few months, although sometimes I try to brush off the thoughts of being older than I am old; however, there’s a part of me that says: “Hey, John have a time of your life; you’ve never had a good rest before. Enjoy what you have now.” And another part saying: “Shocks! You’ve wasted a good nine months of your life running after something you’re not even certain what it constitutes of. John, grow up. Give up your fascination for the unknown, the what ifs, the other side of the mountain, the dark side of the moon.”

I’ve reflected on these things while eating my rice porridge which almost made me forget the perfection of the aromatic blend of herbs, sticky rice, boiled chicken, and native egg in my porcelain bowl. It almost made me forget to have a taste of my present and to enjoy it while it lasts. I’ve tried to behold the future knowing that it’s futile to grasp it.

Ba oi. Chau tra tien. Bao nhieu tien? (Ba, I’m paying. How much is it?

Muoi lam nghin. (Fifteen thousand.)

Satisfactions doesn’t have to be expensive.