Category Archives: Personal

Father’s Day, and the power of storytelling

mad maxHi everyone, Father’s Day is coming up, and I’d like to talk a little about my dad, and then tie it back to our work in the nonprofit sector, specifically the importance of sharing our stories and connecting to one another. Like my Mother’s Day post, this one will be a little personal, and also potentially sentimental. If you are not in the mood for that, please skip this post and read something more hilarious, like Feng Shui for nonprofits, or 12 tips for not sucking as a panel moderator. (If you LOVE sentimentality, though, read this “Letter to my newborn son in case I die early,” which I wrote on my first Father’s Day.)

For the past few months, I’ve been taking my dad to see violent action movies. Kingman was awesome, and Mad Max: Fury Road was so awesome, it was like someone figured out how to distill awesomeness into its purest form and then allowed us to mainline it for two hours. My father doesn’t talk much about the movies after we watch them, but I think he likes our father/son excursions, and this is one of the few activities we can bond over. During the drives, we can talk.

“What was it like in the reeducation camp?” I asked during one of our drives from a movie. Dad is a great story teller with a sharp sense of humor. Charismatic and brilliant, he was born into a time of War. He fought against the Communists, and for that, he was put into reeducation camp when they won. Luckily, he was young and low-ranking enough that they let him go after a couple of years.

“They didn’t feed us much,” he said, “worms, grasshoppers—we ate those. If we caught a mouse, it was a rare treat. They made us set off unexploded mines. Two guys would hold a long tree trunk, one at either end. They set the middle part of the trunk down on the mine to make it explode. One time, a piece of tree trunk flew up and took off half of my friend’s ear. He found his ear, put it into his pocket, and continued working. Can you imagine wooden shrapnel just shooting into your face? I’d be extremely ticklish.”

“Of course,” he added, “we were the ones they didn’t shoot. If they found out you had been a high-ranking officer, they just dragged you off and shot you right away. You wouldn’t get to do fun things like explode mines and eat worms.” Continue reading

Nonprofit work, and the myth of indispensability

hyacinth-1403653_1280Hi everyone, this post may be melancholy and depressing. I won’t be upset if you skip this and read something more hilarious, like “Ask a Nonprofit Director: Advice on Love, Family, and Other Stuff.” Or these nonprofit cocktail recipes.

Mother’s Day is coming up this Sunday, and I will wake up to realize that my mother has been gone for ten years. She died at the age of 49 of a stroke. When you’ve lost someone, holidays can be terrible to endure. The first few Mother’s Days I just stayed in bed most of the morning, envious of all those happy people taking their moms to brunch.

Now I am older, so I try to figure out what this all means, what I can learn from all this. I run through memories I have. Since it was one of the last moments I had with her, I recall coming home from college, and being greeted by the smell of her cooking. Sweet and sour soup, tofu sautéed in tomatoes, braised bamboo shoots—dishes she had learned to make when I told her I had decided to go vegan.

My mother stood there at the sink washing dishes, smiling. The late-afternoon sunlight streaming through our kitchen window fell on her hair, and she’d greet me with these sweet maternal words: 

“You’re too skinny. You look like one of those drug addicts on TV.” Continue reading

10 Lessons about nonprofit work I’ve learned from my toddler

viet eatingFor the past 19 months, I have been a father, and it has been a fun, rewarding, and exhausting experience. Having a baby is like getting a really large multi-year grant: You’re like “Yay, I got the grant!” and then you’re like, “Damn, this is a lot of work…”

I have been a new father and a nonprofit director simultaneously, and this combination is a terrible experiment that no one should try at home. Sleep has been as elusive as general operating funds. This is why when I carry the baby down the street, passersby often remark, “Aw, what a beautiful grandson you have.”

Still, the baby is magical. I have been flexing my hours so I could spend every Friday with him. First, because life is short, and I don’t want to wish later that I had spent more time with my son. And second, because I am training him to be a nonprofit warrior, passing down the wisdom I have gained so that he could eventually take over for me. “Learn your ABC’s, son,” I would say, “so that one day you may fight injustice through grantwriting.”

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An immigrant kid’s reflections on community

Christmas_Town_by_PhilipstraubAround this time of the year, as I drive by the houses lit up with holiday lights, I think about Mr. Farnon and his family. It was about this time during the year when my family and I first arrived to the US, to Philadelphia. This was after a half-year stint at a refugee camps in the Philippines, where the adults were talking so much about how awful the communists in Vietnam were that I slept with a stick under my pillow to fend off any communists who tried to attack us at night. They were sneaky like that, those communists.

Life in Philly was wonderful, and by wonderful, I mean difficult. None of us spoke much English, and everything was new and strange. I remember going grocery shopping and being amazed by the aisles, how clean they were, and how there was not a single chicken running around, tracking mud everywhere and weaving between cheerful women who were hacking away at fish or bamboo shoots on giant tables under the pale glow of dirty and worn blue tarp.

School was pretty rough too. I was eight. Each morning I woke up dreading the day. I would watch Care Bears and The Thundercats, getting sadder and sadder as the shows reached their conclusions and I would have to leave my mother and walk in the freezing cold to the bus stop to be taken to a place where I didn’t understand anything. My mother gave me two quarters one day. At recess a group of children asked if I wanted to go buy some snacks. “How much do you have?” they asked, or at least that’s what I thought they were saying. I pulled out the quarters. “50 cents?” they laughed, “that’s all you have?” I remember feeling the shame of having only two quarters and wishing desperately that my mother had given me a whole dollar. A whole dollar would have solved all my problems.

I was anxious to get home each day, because everything was overwhelming at school, with the tests and the homework that I didn’t understand, and the kids who had stickers to show off and I had none. But it was also because I wanted to open the fridge and see if my water had turned into ice. In Vietnam, only very rich people had refrigerators, small ones, so the fact that we had a giant one in our house was astounding. Ice was a treat you could only get when your dad takes you out to a café. I left water in various bowls, hoping to make some ice, and came home disappointed to find only a thin layer had formed on the surface.

A couple of months after we arrived, it got very cold, and at night some of the houses lit up with colorful lights. We had never seen so many lights before. They made the cold, empty streets seem so much more inviting. My two brothers and I were walking around the block when we found a string of lights someone left in a trash pile on the curb. We dragged it home, taped it to the wall, and plugged it in. Magically, most of the bulbs lit up, and it was the most beautiful thing we had ever seen. They were our very own colorful lights, and we kids, aged 12, 8, and 5, would spend hours staring at them.

The hardest part about being in a new world was the community we lost. All my friends were gone, along with my teachers and neighbors and aunts and uncles and cousins. The women who sold fish and vegetables at the market were my mother’s friends, and now she didn’t have anyone to talk to. Our new neighbors would wave to us once a while when they saw us, but otherwise we were in our house, trying to make ice or plugging and unplugging our awesome one string of Christmas lights.

Around this time, a family “adopted” us. Mr. Farnon and his wife and daughters, probably through a program organized by their church or a nonprofit, came to visit us, bringing food and pots and pans and other useful things. Mr. Farnon was in his 50’s, and he and his family were the bridge to our fascinating new world. One day they came to pick us up, dressed up all nice. They took us to a restaurant that served these giant, flat cakes covered with sliced meat and vegetables and some gooey melted rubber-like substance. This was our first pizza, and it was difficult to swallow, but we knew Mr. Farnon was proud to show us this aspect of American culture, so we tried to eat as much as we could and to be appreciative. We couldn’t finish, though, since the gooey cheese was much too rich, and Mr. Farnon insisted we take the leftovers home.

After pizza, the Farnons took us to see the Nutcracker. I grew up in a little mountain village surrounded by red earth and pine trees, where kids make boats from banana leaves and float them down the rivulets that appeared after  the monsoon rains. The music and costumes and colors and grandeur of the Nutcracker were so foreign, so spectacular, so I promptly fell asleep.

It was a strange and unforgettable evening, with the pizza and the ballet, but we were anxious to get home. Mr. Farnon escorted us inside, where he placed the leftover pizzas in the fridge. “What is this?” he asked me, pointing at my different containers filled with water. “I make ice,” I said. He laughed. He opened the freezer, which was above my head so I never paid much attention to it. “You need to put the water in here,” he said, and that changed my world. I got even more anxious to get home each day, and sometimes I couldn’t sleep, so excited and happy I was that I could now make actual ice.

After six months in Philly, we moved to Seattle. During those months, Mr. Farnon continued to visit regularly, always thoughtful and trying to help us in whatever ways he can, connecting with us through simple words and pantomimes. They brought us warm clothing, which we would need when we encountered our very first snow in life. Vietnam is a tropical country, and most people will never see snow in their lifetime. Like being able to come to America, snow is something they only see in movies and something to dream about.

After we left, my father would continue to write to Mr. Farnon in his broken English, updating him on our journey across the US. At Dad’s insistence years later, I wrote to him to thank him for all the help he gave our family, and to tell him that we kids were doing fine, that we were in college. I told him I liked pizza now, and that I thought of him and his family each time I have a slice, or whenever I fall asleep at the ballet. After a few years of communications with my father, Mr. Farnon stopped writing. We never knew why.

Each year around this time, I remember our first few months in the US, how new and overwhelming and wonderful and scary everything was. And I remember the kindness Mr. Farnon and his family provided us. This kindness was one of the things that spurred me to go into nonprofit work. It made me realize the importance of community, and how building community is one of the most critical services we provide our clients.

This sense of community is something we don’t talk about often. It is too fluffy to be an actual outcome that anyone would fund. We talk about how many kids we help to graduate, or how many hot meals we provide, or how many jobs or affordable homes we help people find. But we nonprofits should be proud that we also provide community and a sense of belonging. Our clients come to our programs to get help with their homework or food for their family or whatever other services we offer. But they also come because if we do a good job, we help them feel that they are part of a community that cares about them. For those who have lost their community like my family and I did when the War forced us to leave our homeland, it is like we are water floating around, and community is a container to hold us so that we can gain strength and become solid in a beautiful but at-first cold new world. This service of building and strengthening community, as nebulous and difficult to measure as it is, cannot be undervalued. It is one of the most critical and noble things we do nonprofits do.

I recently googled Mr. Farnon and found his obituary. He died 5 years ago. As I drive around and see all the lights on the houses, I think of him and take a moment to be grateful for all that he and his family did for us. They brought us food and clothing and helped my parents find work and exposed us to new foods and cultural experiences. But most importantly, they made us realize that just because we left our community behind in Vietnam, it does not mean that we can’t have an equally caring one here.

What I’m thankful for before I grab a cattle prod and head out for Black Friday

Yum, a Tofurky!

Yum, a Tofurky!

Hi everyone, you may notice that the blog looks way different. I asked my ridiculously talented friend Stacy Nguyen to make it awesome. We are still experimenting with the features and getting everything to work right, but I hope the new blog format will be easier and more fun to navigate. Please do me a favor and surf through it and leave feedback and suggestions in the comment section; just keep in mind that we nonprofit humor writers have very low self-esteem, and a mean comment may result in my hiding in the bathroom, rocking back and forth, gnawing on a piece of wheat gluten…which is also what I do on days when we have board meetings.

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Thanksgiving is coming up this week, a time for us all to put aside everything, gather around friends and family, and reflect on all the things for which we are—OMG, a laptop/tablet with 13.3-inch touchscreen, 4GB DDR3 memory, and 128GB Solid state drive for only 500 bucks at Best Buy if you are one of the first people into the store on Black Friday!!! Hells yeah, I’m totally packing a cattle prod and some empty Snapple bottles and camping out in front of the store on Thursday evening!

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