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Dear Kien, You’re Six

File Aug 03, 8 02 44 PMDear Kien,

You don’t fit on my lap anymore, but you still crawl onto it. It’s what happens when you straddle the line between baby and kid, as you have done this past year. Let’s not get this twisted though – you’ll always be my baby. You’ve agreed to this deal – I double check with you about once every two weeks, and I’m getting a lawyer to draft up a legal contract for you to sign.

It’s been a strange year of wanting you to grow up and wanting you to stop. Just stop growing up. You will probably remember very little of this year. It was both difficult and incredible all at once.

This year, your obsession with snakes and reptiles gave way to make room for bugs. Right about now, you’re geeking out over scorpions. We had a scorpion on our mosquito net in Costa Rica. After we caught the thing in a jar, we huddled with our heads together just staring at it. I muttered out loud to no one in particular, “I wonder if it’s poisonous.” And you muttered back, “Yes, very. It has a big tail and small pincers.” I’m getting used to you knowing more about things than I do.

File Aug 03, 8 03 06 PMWhich brings me to the subject of school. Kindergarten. Well, that was… overwhelming. Nevermind that some of the other boys in your class looked like they should probably be on the middle school football team and you were THE youngest. I think we were learning right along side you. Kindergarten was a struggle for all of us. The first semester was rough – you not wanting to go and me running around like a mad person every morning trying to get us out the door on time. I’m owning my piece of the mess because the fall semester was a stressful time for me in my career and I’m sure I wasn’t as patient and compassionate as I know I could have been. That fall semester – there was a lot of yelling and crying in the mornings.

I think you struggled with the structure of school, the lack of transition from one topic/activity to another. The endless worksheets. Your mind likes to travel to worlds unknown by anyone but you, and completing worksheets did not fit into that world. So here’s what happened: At home and in your imaginary world, you loved learning about things like the differences between insects and arachnids, how trash decomposes, the ecosystems in a rainforest, how fossils came to be, and why chameleons can change colors . You love to learn. However, you hated school and so you wanted to skip that part. You know, the non-essentials like basic reading, writing, and math. You associated all that with worksheets and…learning. Here’s what saved us: the after-school program. Originally, we signed you up for brain games (aka legos) and sports (aka pushing our interests onto you). You loved brain games and you hated sports. In fact, on a number of occasions when we picked you up, we would find you on the soccer field intensely examining an ant hill located directly in front of the soccer goal. So everyone had to play around you and that was just fine by you, but perhaps not so much for some of the sporty kids. We quickly switched you over to Environment Club and it was like giving you oxygen. It was the thing that you looked forward to when you were struggling in the morning. It was the thing that reminded us and you that you love to learn. It was where you gained confidence and settled into school. And it’s led to some magical moments of the two of us in our own garden, tending to the plants and looking for bugs.

File Aug 03, 8 15 51 PM*And this is where I pause for a moment to shout out all the amazing teachers in my life and out there who inspire students to love learning. Ms. Stacey and Mr. Chris were Kien’s game-changers and I have so many friends who are game-changers as well. Thank you for what you do! Now back to our regularly scheduled program.*

You hit some big milestones this year. You learned how to swim. You quit your first sport – tae kwon do. (But we traded that for swimming lessons, so don’t worry. You’re not a quitter. You’re a negotiator, and I’m still a wanna-be tiger mom.) You learned how to read, but you’re too impatient to do it. Your lego skills are on beast mode. You made a real friend your age (you have lots of adult friends, so this was a big deal). You can do a jumping jack without falling down. You’re learning how to be a decent big brother…when you’re not ignoring your sister. You can shower by yourself, though there is no guarantee that your hair will get wet and there won’t be a glob of shampoo on said dry hair. You help with the dishes from time to time. You’re getting better at managing your emotions. I’ve witnessed many occasions when you stepped back from the ledge of that emotional cliff. For the last four years, you would’ve surely jumped off that cliff into a pit of tantrum despair every time. Big milestones, Kien.

But WAIT.  Slow down, I’m not ready.

(Like when you were starting to crawl and I would push your butt down ever so gently. Why rush the inevitable of bumping your head on sharp corners and chewing on electrical cords?)

File Aug 03, 8 03 52 PMLet’s slow down and savor the moments when you let me smother you, and the moments when you reach out for me. I experience this every night when I tuck you in. You always ask for me to lay down with you for a bit longer. You always request that I wrap the blanket around your face so you feel secure. And when I tell you I love you, you usually try to be big and tough about it and responding with just a shy smile and head nod. I smother you with kisses before eventually getting out a mumbled and exasperated “Loveyoutoo.” And when I walk out the room and down the hall, you always call out for me one last time, to make sure that I heard you say a loud “good night!” and a not so loud “Iloveyou.”

On your last night of being five, I asked you to list your favorite things about being five. Instead, you asked me what my favorite things are. “Tell me three things. No four. How about five? Ok. Just ten.” Negotiator. Listing ten was easy. You gave me lots of favorites this past year. You’re growing up so fast, yet you still want to hold my hand. That was my #10.

So the last thing you said to me as a five year old was this, “Mom, did you know that you can erase the chalkboard and write a message on it? Well, after you tuck me in you should think about going upstairs to do that. Good night mom. iloveyou.”

I’m such a sucker for you.

Gotta go write a birthday message on the blackboard.


Dear Quinny, You’re three.

Dear Quinny,

photoI’ve had the best time celebrating your third birthday. Your unbridled enthusiasm is infectious, and you stayed true to your character by being…totally random. You requested a birthday theme of “Christmas, rainbows, and pumpkins.” So we put up the tree, much to my dismay. I cringe at the thought of Christmas decorations going up before Thanksgiving because Thanksgiving is my favorite. And seriously people, ONE THING AT A TIME. When you’re 18 and I lament about all the sacrifices I’ve made for you, just know that putting the tree up in October is on the top of that list.  Auntie RaeRae made you the most amazing rainbow cake in the history of rainbow cakes. And, you meticulously put monochromatic stickers on baby pumpkins while your brother put stickers on my arm. I’d say this was a birthday in typical Quinny style: completely random, yet totally predictable, and always fun and laid-back.

As I’m still getting to know you, I’m finding it difficult to describe you. There are obvious things about you: the way you scrunch your nose when you laugh, your intuition, the way you tell me you “love me one hundred,” the way you observe before you dive in, your sense of humor…these are all given. The rest is still a bit of a mystery to me. The best I can do is say that you’re one walking dichotomy. Let me count the ways:

  1. Clingy AND independent: For the last few months, it’s difficult for me to walk anywhere in the house without you stuck to me. When you eat, you prefer to do so on my lap. You won’t let dad put you to bed if I’m home. We hold hands as much as possible. When I take you to do your business in the bathroom, you insist on putting our foreheads together while you grunt it out (and because you don’t like fruits or veggies, there’s typically a lot of grunting). However, you will often run off onto the playground with wild abandon. When you’re playing with a puzzle or drawing, you like me near you but don’t want any help from me. Dropping you off at school is a breeze, with barely an acknowledgement that I’m leaving you for the day. You are very much your own person. You never attached to a lovey when you were younger. I’m starting to realize that I might just be your lovey. Way to pull one over on us, Q.
  2. Salty AND sweet: gurllll, you love your sweets. You are a terrible eater except when it comes to snacks and sweets. When I ask you what your favorite food is, you say, “Snacks. And chocolate cake.” I would fight you to take five bites of your dinner, then I would watch you slam a whole bowl of fro-yo and lick it clean. However, you love your salt. I’ve caught you dipping your finger in the salt container more than once. One of your favorite snacks is ‘si mui,’ Vietnamese salted plum. It’s definitely an acquired taste, and you savor it one tiny bite at a time. Your taste buds are as random as you are. Strawberries and apples? Blech! Liver pate? Delicious.
  3. A mimic AND independent thinker: Your vocabulary has blown up this year. I hypothesize that it’s because you have been repeating what everyone says. Kien says, “I want to play hide and seek after my bath and then watch Octonauts.” And you say, “I want hide and seek my bath and watch Oc-nots.” I say, “Kien, stop doing that right now.” And you say, “Kee! An! Stop doing that. Right now! Go to timeout!” Meghan Trainer says, “It’s all about that base, about that base, no treble.” And you say, “It’s about this face, this face, no trouble.” So, you’re a very astute observer and then you practice what you hear. You’re just practicing though, because you have a mind of your own, and once you decide on something you’re very stubborn about it. I can see you churning the words around in your head to try out how they are supposed to get strung together, practicing a few times, and then, when it really matters, you say what you think and there’s no changing your mind.
  4. photoTomboy and Girly Girl: I think you might be an athlete one day, or a dancer. Or a mime. You embody all of them right now. Your favorite thing is to wear a dress so you can twirl, but you always pair it with your sneakers so you can run fast. You love to walk along curbs or anything that requires balance, and then you jump off everything, and nothing at all. You just like to jump. You have amazing running form: you bend both elbows, curl your fingers into a fist, pump both arms dramatically, and finish with a twirl. In the most random moments (in a shopping cart, at the pool, in the dentist waiting room), you’ll bust out some yoga moves. Mind you, you don’t know what yoga is, but there you are, doing downward dog and warrior two, Namaste-ing all over the place. You often act out what you’re feeling, complete with dramatic facial expressions…without saying a word. They usually don’t make sense, but perhaps you’ve got emotions and ideas that you don’t have words for just yet so miming is an outlet for you. And you have about a million different smiles that we’re still trying to interpret. You’re tough and delicate all at once, like being brave and vulnerable.
  5. Rule follower and rule breaker: this dichotomy is something I really hope you hold on to as you grow up. In the work I do, I’m constantly thinking about how people can work within a system while also finding ways to move it forward, whether they are authorized to do so or not. I think people gravitate to you because you’re reasonable and laid-back. You’re happy to go with the flow, agree with the boundaries that are set for you, and you understand consequences. It’s been the easy part of parenting you. Then there’s the side of you that knows how to pick your battles. When you are not willing to go with the plan, it takes two full-grown adults to get you in your car seat (that thing you do, I call it the “rigor mortis,” it is spectacular and puzzling.) That’s the activist in you. Then there’s the social disobedient in you, where you look me straight in the eye and slowly, intentionally, do exactly what you’re not supposed to do. Even as I tell you to stay in your seat, you have a hint of a smile, a glint in your eye, and you very carefully, ever so slowly, get out of your chair, as if I won’t be able to see you if you do it slow enough. It’s infuriating because sometimes I choose to look the other way (you win!) and other times I have to act mad even though I’d rather laugh at (with?) you.

We’ve always thought your brother was the complicated one, but I think you’re pulling one over on us. You’re straightforward, but under that laid-back, funny, and affable demeanor, you’re complex and strong.

Moreover, you have big dreams and big vision. On a weekly, sometimes daily, basis, you will ask me, “Mama, one day, I’m going to ____, ok?”  It’s half statement, half question, and it spans from riding a helicopter, to ice-skating, to eating an ice cream cone, to petting a penguin on a boat. You have big plans and you’ve got it all worked out in your head.

You showed me that much when we went shopping for your birthday present. I picked you up from school early on your birthday to take you to our neighborhood toy store – a big, mom-n-pop store with shelves and shelves of toys for imaginative play. You were so excited, hopping and twirling more than usual. We went down every aisle. You examined everything and took delight in most. This is exactly why I took you to a toy store rather than pick something out myself. I would have no clue what to get you because you are so random. (The last time I did this, I was sure you were going to pick out the puppet, or the toy bugs, or the stuffed flower. You went with an umbrella. An umbrella!) When you still hadn’t picked anything out, we went all the way to the back corner where they had random things – science kits, and odds and ends. You saw a box with a rainbow on it and pointed it out to me. I showed you the box and explained it was “just” a night light that projected a rainbow onto the wall. You looked me straight in the eye and said, “I want that.” {hop, hop, hop, twirl} I spent the next 15 minutes explaining to you that the night light was not a toy and you cannot play with it. We did another lap of the store to look at other toys to make sure this is what you wanted. And you held firm. So, a $30 freakin’ night light it was, much to my dismay. That night, crawling into your big-girl bed, wearing your little girl pj’s, we did our usual nighttime routine. Then, when I turned the reading light off and turned the night light on, the most brilliant rainbow illuminated across the walls of your room. It was quite unexpectedly beautiful to me, but I think you knew exactly what it was going to look like. You had vision. As I sat in awe at the sight, you put both hands behind your head and laid down beneath your rainbow with one of those smiles of yours. You had a vision that you would fall asleep every night under a rainbow. You didn’t want a toy to play with, you wanted magic. You wanted a dream, an experience, a feeling. You knew exactly what you wanted, and it was random and beautiful. Just like you.

I can’t wait to get to know more of you, Quinny. That, and hair.

Happy third birthday.




Quinn Age 2 edit


Dear Kien, You’re Five

Dear Kien,

Last year, I predicted that four was going to be a game changer. Boy, was it. This year, you let us into the workings of your mind a bit more. I think I like it in there! This year, I think we finally bonded.

I mean, we’ve always bonded. Well, not always. You played hard to get for a while. But this year, I think I get you.

This year, your obsession expanded from dragons to snakes. When you are into something you are ALL IN. Your snake obsession, combined with your imagination, meant that no string/rope/pipe cleaner/belt within eyesight could be saved from becoming a toy. When we purged your toys, you were willing to give up perfectly nice toys, like airplanes and dump trucks, for a frayed shoe lace you had turned into a snake. Your drawing skills have slowly improved, and thank goodness for that because you had a short obsession with squids before moving to snakes. For a two month period, anyone who didn’t know you and only saw your drawings would be worried about your unhealthy interest in drawing phallic things EVERYWHERE. Your obsession with snakes then expanded to reptiles in general, and then looped back to include dragons. So here we are, playing with ropes that are snakes, catching geckos and frogs every evening this summer, and celebrating with a dragon-themed birthday party. You’ve got your stuff together!

I think the biggest growth I’ve seen, besides the literal growth (you’re no longer easy to carry around), is the growth in your ability to express emotions. Before, you used to express three dominant emotions: indifference, ugly crying, and ridonk happy. Now we have all the shades in between. Your tears are more often silent and slow to form. Your rage makes you shake. You express your frustrations through controlled communication. And now, you express…love and gratitude! In fact, most mornings, I wake up to you cuddled right next to me. When I come home after a long day, you run to give me hugs (anaconda hugs). When I drop you off at school, you always demand a hug, a kiss, then you walk me to the door and wave and blow me kisses until I’m out of sight. You have no idea what a gift that is to start my work day with a huge grin on my face. You look forward to bedtime when we can talk about our day. You say “I love you.” See! We’re bonding!

Here’s another thing I’m excited about: you and me, we’re going to be food buddies. We’re kicking Dad and Quinn to the curb on this. I think we like the same stuff, like shell fish, pungent foods, adventurous foods…you’re willing to try it all. And, every time, you either say, “I don’t like that” or, if you like it, you simply ask for more. Most importantly, when I’m cooking, no matter what it is, you have been saying, “Mo-ohm, your cooking smells good.” I swear, my heart swoons every time I hear that.

This year we enrolled you in Tae Kwon Do (which we routinely follow with “It’s not Tae Kwon Don’t!”). We thought you needed a bit more structure and focus to accompany your quirkiness. And boy, those first few months, you were seriously, head-shaking, eye-averting, guffawing, crazy awkward. I loved it. Watching you do jumping jacks was like watching a baby orangutan do the macarena. Every punch, kick, or jump resulted in you landing on your butt. Even a simple bow to the instructor resulted with your head on the floor with your butt in the air. When everyone was doing laps AROUND the cones, you were going extra slow to make sure you could jump OVER the cones.  You hated it. Then you loved it. Now you like it. But you’ve stuck with it (or we’ve made you) and you’re good! I can’t wait to watch Karate Kid with you. The original one, not the remake with Will Smith’s son.

One morning, just one month ago, you woke me up and I noticed something different about you. You had brushed your teeth, washed your face, combed your hair, and made your bed. My jaw hit the ground and I shook you as if you were possessed. Who are you kid? It’s kind of what you do now – not every morning, but many mornings. When I ask you to go get dressed, you come out of your room with a collared shirt and slacks. Of course, there’s always a few strands of hair sticking straight up in the back and toothpaste on your cheek. But you’ve got a sense of yourself now. And, let me tell you kid, you’ve come a long way from screaming murder every.single.morning because the sky wasn’t the color you thought it should be.

This past year, your dad and I made a big decision for you and we won’t know if it’s the right one until perhaps puberty, or college. As a summer baby, you will be the youngest in your class in kindergarten. If we were to hold you back, we feared you might be bored. If we put you through, we feared you might be self-conscious and less sure about your quirkiness, and retreat more inward. I’ll be honest. I really agonized over this decision. There isn’t a right one. But many friends told me there isn’t a wrong one either. So, we’re putting you through because we think you’re ready. If this does prove to be wrong, I’ll go ahead and delete this post so you’ll never know there was a decision to be made in the first place. As this past year has progressed, I’ve been feeling more comfortable with our decision. You’re really coming into your own. I think there will always be bullies and naysayers, and kids who won’t understand why you answer questions with lines from movies, but hey –

You know Tae Kwon Do.

In addition to that, I hope you will always know that being different is what makes you special. Being kind to others, even when not everyone shows kindness back, is what makes you strong. I already see these things in you.

You know I’ve always loved you. Now, I really like you. I really, really like you.

Happy Birthday, Kien. You’re five.


Your mom


Kien Age 0_v1 Kien Age 1

Kien Age 3_v1Kien age 5 v2





Valentine’s Fail…or was it?

At 9 pm tonight, as I sat watching the awesome parade of sequins on the men’s figure skating short program, I realized we forgot to buy valentine’s cards for Kien and Quinn’s classes. After an adequate roll of my eyes, a dramatic sigh, and a silent curse to Hallmark, I mentally went through our options:

1) don’t bother – do 2 and 4 year olds really care if they don’t get a card from our kids?
2) get out of my pajamas and run to the nearest Walgreens
3) try to leave early tomorrow morning and pick up some cards on the way to school
4) make the damn cards ourselves

Option #1 was out because mother’s guilt trumps laziness 72% of the time. #2 was nixed because Olympics + pajamas + nighttime is a deadly combination for mobilizing anywhere beyond the comforts of home. #3 is impossible because I experience emotional scars every morning trying to get out of the house with the kids. No way am I adding another obstacle. So #4 it is. For a split second, I had visions of water color, doilies, craft glue, and even some glitter (channeling my inner Jenna Martin), but I’m also a realist, so here’s what DT and I ended up doing:


There were many card greetings we had good judgement not to include. However, after further thought, I think we might be on to something here. For kids under age four, who are these cards for anyway? I mean, they will likely go straight into the trash. The parents might read them. If that’s really the case, why not have a little fun? How about these valentine card greetings for your toddler’s classmates:-

–  Drop it like it’s hot
–  Your tantrums are awesome
–  Snotty kisses are the best
–  You make me pee my pants…wait, I’m just potty training
–  I love you more than Cheerios
–  You came in like a wrecking ball
–  Nobody puts baby in the corner
–  Your lack of fine motor skills is mighty fine
–  Want my boogers?
–  No.
–  You make me cry for no reason
–  Bites and lice and everything nice
–  Meh.
–  You cray cray
–  I like the way you twerk it with a full diaper
–  #whatevs
–  I don’t eat vegetables either
–  Be mine. Mine! Mine! Mine! 

What else you got?

The Motherland


Our trip to Vietnam was 15 years in the making, and then stolen borrowed from a group of friends. (Arpi! Kate and I dedicated this trip to you.)

After my first trip to Vietnam with my family the summer after my junior year in college, I came back and told tales of pho for breakfast, and ca phe sua da appearing as soon as the words left your lips. Kate was hooked and we began talking about going to Vietnam together. Yadda yadda yadda, 15 years later, Kate with an 11 month old and us with a 2 and 4 year old…perfect timing! Sort of. We waffled for a long time before we finally decided to make it happen.

I had already been to Vietnam four times since then, but never with kids. Despite having been there so many times and speaking the language, I was anxious about this trip.  My memories of traveling in Vietnam included lots of dirty tables, litter on the streets, controlled chaos on the roads, squatting over various latrines, restocking pockets with wet wipes and napkins. Then I imagined all of that with my potty-training daughter, who skips and hops with wild abandon…right into a wall of sars-mask-wearing, scooter-driving Asians. And my son, who eats like a feral cat, turns trash into toys, and licks tables because he thinks it’s fun. Of course, when they both throw tantrums, as they often do, they like to flop like dying fish all over the ground. The filthy, littered ground. Rightfully so, the thought of Vietnam with these two was giving me anxiety.  Of course, I had other memories of Vietnam too. I was amazed by the industrious spirit and work ethic of the people. I was mesmerized by the hustle and bustle of the cities. The landscape was gorgeous. The country’s history made the monuments humbling and heartbreaking. And the food.  The FOOD. The food was enough reason to go. Did I mention it rains ca phe sue da in Vietnam?


Moreover, we wanted to instill an adventurous spirit in our kids and expand their view of the world. I didn’t want my anxiety to keep that from them. Finally, we were going to be traveling with an adorable, blonde baby. That’s like money in the bank. Or should I say, dong in the bank.

The trip was worth the 15 year wait. Traveling with Kate, Peter, and Ben (which will forevermore be referred to as the Ninh Binh Lengend) was easy and comfortable.  We actually did have pho everyday for breakfast, and the coffee was abundant. We were treated like celebrities everywhere we went. Or rather, we were treated like the Ninh Binh Legend’s entourage everywhere we went. The surprise for me was how much Vietnam has changed since Don and I were there 8 years ago. Bathrooms, streets, restaurants, traffic…all upgraded. Of course, traffic lanes are more like suggestions, but people actually, sort of, mostly obey the traffic lights. In Ho Chi Minh, I hardly recognized the street my aunt lives on. On the road to Ha Long Bay, I was surprised to see so many construction vehicles. It seemed they were expanding every road in that area. The progress comes with a price as I missed the authentic charm of the small towns and the serenity of the country side. Of course, one of the upsides of progress is that every toilet we went to was fully functioning.


Another sign of progress was the markets. One of my favorite things to do when I travel is go to the markets. In Vietnam, my market mantra had always been, “If you’re looking, don’t walk. If you’re walking, don’t look.” The stalls were usually so crammed tight, the floors strewn with litter and other hazards. It was impossible to walk without looking where you’re going. This time around, it was a breeze, and we even drove our stroller straight through Ben Thanh market. Clearly the Vietnam that I remembered, and the one that was giving me anxiety, wasn’t there any more.


The shining highlight of this trip was the food.  The FOOD.


The food was just stupid good, and all of our favorite meals were usually under $15 for four adults and two kids (the Legend is still working on his eating skills). While popping delectable little hai cau dumplings into our mouths from one of our favorite street vendors in Ho Chi Minh,  Kate and I lamented on why we can’t get food this good in the states. It’s one of the main reasons why I love coming back to Vietnam. Here were our all-star street vendors:

In Ha Noi, it was Bun Cha, the regional deconstructed vermicelli dish eaten with chargrilled pork patties swimming in a bowl of warm, well-balanced fish sauce, served with raw garlic and chilis and a heaping plate of herbs. We hit it twice. Peter fell in love.


In Hoi An, Chi Phuong’s Banh Mi will haunt us forever more. The damn sandwich snuck up on us. We didn’t realize it’s genius until halfway through, and then we were left aching for more. And we all silently suffered until I timidly suggested we bail on our dinner plans and get more sandwiches for dinner. And every nodded their heads in earnest, with the sense of relief that the sandwich may not haunt us just yet.


In Ho Chi Minh, we came to love two street vendors. Co Phuong had been dishing up Banh Bot Chien and Hai Cau for over 30 years, right across the street from Ben Thanh market. We planned to go there for pre-dinner, but a sudden downpour trapped us and we cheered as we ordered a few more rounds. Both dishes were served with this sauce that was so simple and complex that I don’t know how to describe it more than a soy vinaigrette. Kien was drinking the sauce. Straight up drinking. And we had to stop him because, quite frankly, he was hogging it all. The other vendor was the Banh Cuon lady in Ben Thanh market. She’d been there 20 years and makes the Banh Cuon to order, where she pours a translucently thin layer of batter over a cheese cloth stretched over a wire frame to steam. Eating at a tiny counter in a frenetic market is an experience in itself, but everything kind of slows down and silences when the food is that good. I washed it down with a pomelo slushie from the vendor next door.

IMG_0794 IMG_5443

We had plenty of other highlights, but, of course, traveling with kids had its challenges. Everyone told us the flight was going to suck. But the flights were just fine for the kids. They even did a fairly decent job of adjusting to the time change. The challenge we had with them was no different from the challenges we have with them on a day-to-day basis at home: sitting down for meals, transitioning from place to place, putting on shoes, keeping shoes on, unexplained grumpiness, wanting to be carried instead of walking, and, my favorite, whining instead of talking. You’d think a trip to the Motherland would solve all those daily problems and replace them with new ones, but I’m here to tell you that the challenges of having small children in America travel with you when you go to a developing country. The new challenges included planning our days around nap and bed times, keeping their hands relatively clean, keeping their shoes out of their mouths, keeping track of the various strings and ropes Kien was pretending were his pet snakes, getting Quinn to eat fruit…And the biggest adjustment was realizing that traveling with kids comes with different expectations than traveling without kids. I will say, since we made sure the kids got enough sleep, I also got plenty of sleep. Way more than what I would normally get when we go on vacation. That’s a win.

Of course, The Ninh Binh Legend, as far as I’m concerned, was an angel. He breastfed, napped on and off in the carrier, wasn’t scared of the countless strangers who would pick him up, and cold chilled when he wasn’t hungry, sleepy, or poopy. Almost everywhere we went, someone would grab the Legend and rush off to show their friends, “Look at this adorable baby I found! He has orange hair and his parents should probably put a sweater on him, but look how cute!”And if there was a camera around, The Legend was doing selfies with the locals.

I’m sure Kate and Peter had their hands full, but we would’ve swapped in a heartbeat.


Four days into the trip, Quinn had a fever that lasted three days. She was a squishy blob of cuddle 24/7 on those days. I was just getting to the point of pushing the code red button but Don kept things in perspective, and we got some over-the-counter antibiotics and tylenol from a hole-in-the-wall pharmacy in Ninh Binh for $9. Thank goodness for the lack of high medical prices and lack of insurance lobbyists in Vietnam! She bounced back within 24 hours and was back to her old self, just in time for the best chocolate croissants I’ve ever had at a little joint in Hoi An. Fortunately for us, she got sick on the perfect days when we spent most of our time on a boat, in a car, or on a plane, so we didn’t miss out on anything.


Here are a few other highlights of our trip, and some photos:

  • Seeing Kate, Peter, and Ben at breakfast for the first time in Ha Noi and realizing this 15 year pipe dream was actually happening.
  • A cyclo tour of the Old Quarter in Ha Noi


  • Realizing that we got a whole boat to ourselves in Ha Long Bay, and the crew outnumbered us


  • Seeing how the seafood market comes to us on our boat in Ha Long


  • Rowing through caves at Ninh Binh


  • Seeing Kien’s sheer excitement when we got to the beach at Hoi An
  • Going on a sunrise date with Kien and giggling as we ran away from waves before he decided it would be more fun to run into them instead. Fully clothed. Cold.


  • Snuggling in bed with Quinn every day


  • Walking through the charming streets of Hoi An
  • Ben Thanh Market in Ho Chi Minh, especially the cephalopod section of the seafood area. We would go several times a day so Kien could look at all of the squid and octopus for sale and this one vendor let Kien touch the tentacles of a squid


  • Walking through the streets of Ho Chi Minh the weekend before Christmas and taking in the sheer humanity of so many people on scooters just cruising around
  • Figuring out how to cross the streets of Ho Chi Minh like a boss


  • Being part of the Ninh Binh Legend’s entourage and watching him get so much attention


  • Breakfast. Pho. Every. Day.


  • Vietnamese coffee: we got to taste the most exotic coffee in all of Vietnam – where the weasels eat the coffee beans and poop them out whole before they are roasted. As Trung Nguyen Coffee describes it, “It’s the Excalibur to the hero.”
  • Dinner with my grandma. She’s ninety-something years old, doesn’t remember much, but she is a feisty old lady with a fiction-like history. I’m so thankful Kien and Quinn got to meet her even though none of them may remember. Plus, the feast at that dinner was unreal.


I would go back in a heartbeat (you hear that BBRAG!). I relished the time we got to spend with the Walsdillos and share my country and my culture with them. I am grateful for the opportunity to see my grandmother, possibly for the last time. And it feels good to be able to see my kids experience a different part of the world and, hopefully, instill in them a sense of adventure for exploring and embracing difference.

Finally…here’s a pro tip…anytime you travel to a country where the currency is called the “dong,” no matter how mature you think you are, you will never lack for  jokes.


Dear Quinny, You’re Two.



Dear Quinny,

Of all your years, I’d say this was a banner year for you.  Teeth, walking, talking, sleeping, front-facing car seat – what more could we ask for? If that’s not enough, you’re exceeding our expectations in many ways.

First of all, you’re reasonable…most of the time.  A partially reasonable toddler is like a slightly empathetic traffic cop: it’s a gift. We can often talk you off the ledge before a tantrum:.

“Quinn, we don’t have any more cheese sticks but how about these cheese cubes?”
“Noooo! Cheese STICK.”
“We don’t have any. But tell you what, how about these cheese cubes? Or, no cheese at all.”
“Noooooo! … ummmm…o-KAY.”

Of course, your will power is fierce and it often gets the best of all of us. I’m holding my breath a bit to see what the dreaded ‘Terrible Two’s’ will bring. We’ve seen glimpses of spectacular 30 minute tantrums. Then, when you’re exhausted from screaming, we hug it out and you quietly rejoin the world of the civilized. Then you do something cute, like slurp up a long strand of spaghetti and grin shyly at us. And we’re all, what ear-shattering, soul-sucking, hope-busting tantrum?

IMG_0991That fierceness shows up in your quest for independence. Your favorite phrase these days is, “I do it.” And then, “I did it! High five.” When we went to the Rocky Mountains, I remember starting the hike holding hands. At some point we got disconnected and when I reached for your hand, you gently swatted it away and said, “I do it.” Then, you walked by me with your arms folded across your chest. I stopped in my tracks, trying to process what just happened. These days, you want to climb into your car seat by yourself (much to my dismay as we are almost always in a hurry), you want to sprinkle salt on your avocado by yourself (inevitably licking your finger and sticking it into the salt container), you want to put your shoes on by yourself (putting the right shoe on the right foot is so overrated), you want to brush your teeth by yourself (which really just means you want to eat the toothpaste).

I go back and forth about wanting you to be more independent and missing your dependence. Lucky for me, you give me large doses of both so that it doesn’t take me long to swing from one side to the other. It’s a good thing you’re so likable. You’ve got this charm about you that is so subtle that people have to take the time to stop, be present, and notice it. When you meet someone new, you hide your face just enough so that you can watch them out of the corner of your eye. And then the corner of your lips lift up just a tad if they are patient for you. You say please, thank you, and bless you (your inflection matches the gusto of the sneeze). You have two laughs: 1) a giggle that lights up your face and fades into a mischievous smile and, 2) a full-on belly laugh that’s equal parts crow kaw and witch’s cackle. I love them both.

You’re tough. Despite your petite frame, you don’t often cry when you trip or bust your head. You’re fearless on the playground. When your brother puts you in a headlock to kiss you, you handle it like a pro-wrestler. We have a bean bag downstairs and you figured out how to launch yourself onto it to make it slide across the floor. You get mad at mosquitos and wag your finger in the air, yelling at them when you get bit. You can throw a ball. Far. You like to hop whenever possible. When you run, you pump just one arm because you think it makes you go faster. If we play our cards right, you just might be going to college on an athletic scholarship. Though I hope it’s not for soccer because I see those parents sitting out there on the field in the 100 degree heat and I’m all “helllllllll no.” Let’s try for tennis or volleyball.  There’s shade and air conditioning.

IMG_1420The biggest area where you’re exceeding expectations is with your vocabulary. Even when you don’t know the words, you figure out a way to tell us what you want. Just today, you wanted to go into the garage to “Ride puh-poh. Ride puh-poh. Want to ride puh-poh.” After trying to convince you that there was not a police (poh-poh) car in the garage, I finally realized you wanted a ride in the jogging stroller – the PURPLE jogging stroller. You’re a parrot, repeating what everyone says. However, you do it in a way that makes me think you just might be making fun of us and we’re too dense to figure it out. I think you’re going to be a trash talker and I’m going to try to teach you everything I know. The best part about your verbal skills is that you can communicate your feelings and show concern for others. When I yawn, you say, “Mama tired?” When we told you that Mango passed away, you said, “Ba Ngoai sad?” It melts me. Also, you’re funny. Like that time your dad passed some gas and it got real quiet for a few seconds. He looked at you and you looked at him, and you said, “Aaaaawkward.” Nailed it! Drop the mic.

So it sounds like I’m just going on and on bragging about you. So how about this: you suck at eating. I’m not going to lie, it’s a big area for concern because I love food so much. Currently, Quinny-approved fruits are bananas, avocados, and tangerines. (Does apple sauce count?) Your vegetable list consists of broccoli, sweet potatoes, and anything we can hide in your carbs. If you could snack on nutrition-less carbs all day, you totally would. This topic is usually the cause of your glorious tantrums.

That aside, it’s been a banner year for you, Quinn. You’ve exceeded expectations. To be clear, we didn’t have low expectations of you. It’s just that it’s been such a fun ride so far that we might forget from time to time that you need more from us. For example, if you really want to get technical, all you got from us for your birthday was a helium balloon with an owl on it. (To be fair, you were pretty excited about it. Just sayin’.) Your toys are simple, your needs are simple, a hug usually does the trick, a soft song, a warm cup of milk, pretzel sticks, sitting on my lap. You don’t ask for much from us. I think I can learn a thing or two from you, Quinn. Your lessons for us are subtle but important:

  1. Why walk when you can hop?
  2. Why sit quietly in the car when you can sing?
  3. If you pay attention, you’ll see all sorts of awesome things, like construction trucks, birds, THE MOON!
  4. If you listen carefully, you’ll be able to make people feel like they matter.
  5. Try something new. Then ask for help if you can’t do it by yourself.
  6. Fall down. Get up.
  7. Be proud of your own accomplishments by asking for high fives.

You are reminding me to be present, be patient, be independent, ask for help, hug often, talk softly, laugh loudly.

Thanks to you, Quinn, it’s been a banner year for me too.


Your mom

Quinn Age 0 Quinn Age 1_v2 Quinn Age 2 edit

Raising Quinn


I recently read an article about how the gender wage gap actually starts in childhood. Not only do girls do more chores per week than boys, they also earn less allowance money. What the…?! I always knew that bump on my head throughout childhood was from knocking on that damn glass ceiling! Who can I sue?

All jokes aside, as I’m prone to be hyper aware of gender roles, I think often about how we are raising our kids.

My parents, as progressive as they are now, tried their best to indoctrinate us to traditional gender roles. I remember the pivotal moments clearly. I had discovered the exhilaration of playing soccer during recess when I was in the third grade. I was the only girl and I was running with the boys, keeping up with them not because I was fast, but quick. I recall vividly getting the wind knocked out of me by a ball to the gut. Just a few minutes before that, one of the boys told me that girls shouldn’t play soccer. It was that moment that I had to decide to either let the tears fall or to walk it off.  So I ran it off.  My parents were unaware of this newfound passion of mine until I started coming home with bruises on my shins. I was a tomboy (coincidence that I married a Tom?). They tried to talk me out of it in their oh-so-subtle ways. For example, “Don’t get bruises. No one will want to marry you if you have bruises.”  Then, later, “Make sure you marry someone older than you. And has more education. And makes more money than you.” Real subtle. Of course, it all came from a place of love.  [Great opportunity for a shout-out to my brother who managed to convince my parents to let me play middle school basketball after I failed to convince them myself.]

Then there was the “sex talk.” I use that term loosely because we never really did understand these very long-winded, riddled talks.  In fact, I don’t think the Vietnamese language has a word for “sex.” I tried looking it up in a Vietnamese-English dictionary when I was in high school – no sex.  Perhaps many of those vague, ambiguous fortune cookie soothsayings were actually written to help Asian parents with their sex talks? Well, our “sex talk” went something like this:

To my brother: Men are like bees. You must smell many different roses until you find the right one. Don’t stay on the first rose you find. Now go study for your SAT!

To me: You are not allowed to date. You are not allowed to have a boyfriend. Your pride and honor are the most important things you own and you must guard it like a temple. Now stop playing sports and iron the clothes!

My brother and I got the same allowance every week.  I was praised for doing housework (and I DO love me some praise); my brother, however, had no use for praise, nor housework.  Hence I worked more than him, and for the same amount of allowance.  So, in fact, I did earn LESS than my brother.  In all honesty, however, our allowance was probably more for earning good grades.  And had our family had the financial means, my brother probably could have retired as a teenager with a healthy Roth IRA.

Recently, through some events that required me to do some deep introspection, I’ve come to realize that I subconsciously feel like I need to prove myself– specifically at work , in an academic setting, or on an athletic field. At the same time, I’ve been quick to do more work for less, missing opportunities to be an advocate for myself. I carry a chip on my shoulder and always seem to be overcompensating for something I really haven’t been able to identify. I think it’s more than just a part of my gender identity, but I can’t help but have a hunch I’m not the only woman feeling this way.

Fast forward a few decades later and I find myself with a son and daughter, and a renaissance husband who does the dishes and is a hands-on dad. DT has always admired strong women and he treats Quinn and Kien pretty equally. What a difference a generation makes, right? However, I’m finding myself overcompensating for society (and perhaps for that chip on my shoulder). When any kind of princess-related anything comes on television, I quickly change the channel. When she falls down, I don’t baby her any more than I do with Kien. I am mindful to compliment her on things she does and not how she looks. Her toys are all the same toys Kien had at her age. She plays with trucks and plastic animal figurines. I try to avoid pink clothes. In fact, a large portion of her clothes are Kien’s hand-me-downs (with her stunted hair growth, she is often mistaken for a boy anyhow). I don’t mind. Now that I’m writing this, perhaps it’s less about gender equality and more about being too cheap to buy her new things.

But I want her to love superheroes and football.

My dear friend TNT,  who’s studying child development at Columbia, has done some interesting work on girls and the princess obsession. She asserts that little girls’ fascination of princesses does not necessarily teach them to value appearance and daintiness, or to be saved by a prince. She asserts that the critical piece is the dialogue around a princess’ role. It is, afterall, make-believe, an important component of imaginative play. I’m starting to get it and I’m learning not to be so hyper-sensitive. I get that it’s really our responsibility to raise her to have the confidence to express her gender in whatever way she chooses. It is our responsibility to raise her so that she understands that her contribution to the world is just as important as her brother’s. I get that this mindfulness is equally important to Kien as it is to Quinn. I also get that we really don’t know what the hell we’re doing, as my parents didn’t really know what they were doing when they were talking about bees and roses.

I’m still holding off on bringing anything princess-y into the house. At this point though, I’m hoping she takes a liking to dragons– we do, after all, have all this abandoned dragon stuff lying around…