My sister, my saint

A couple months ago I sat at Ki’s Restaurant overlooking the Solana Beach waves. As I ate butternut squash enchiladas with my friend Wade, we spoke about the novel I’ve been working on for a year now. The novel tells the story of my family and what it was like growing up in a conflicted world where I was taught how to be the “traditional” Chinese woman while exploring the dreams I easily garnered growing up in the U.S.

We spoke heavily about my older sister who I consider my best friend.

“Wow,” Wade said. “She sounds amazing.”



I remember a time when I was a child and went shopping with my mother and sister Lan. They decided to buy me overalls and had me try on two different pair. My mother wanted me to have the ones that were embellished with flowers and frills while my sister wanted me to have the other pair — no flowers, no frills, just overalls. They purchased both.

I’ve always said I grew up with two mothers.

My mother Nu Huynh, to me, was the “traditional” Chinese woman. She allowed my father to chime in with his thoughts and made him think he was the king of the household (to this day, she still does though) while conserving that wholesome housewife, mother role. She cooked, cleaned and taught my sister and I how important it was to be “that” sort of lady — the one who puts her family first. She taught us about Chinese culture, traditions and of course, the language. She demonstrated what it was like to put others before yourself, to love and offer your compassion. Devoted to her husband and intentionally appointed the role of the housewife and the keeper of the family I was also taught, by her and my father, that there were certain things I couldn’t do but my older brothers could because I’m a girl. It was simply, life.

At the same time, I held my mother on the pedestal she deserves to be on because I know how hard it was for her to adapt to the American lifestyle and to maintain a bicultural household. I know the difficulties she faced catering to my father while comprehending the culture her children most understood. She did well at it too. She learned how to cook American food — being the only mother of my Chinese and Vietnamese friends who knew how to make tacos and French fries — but made fried rice and egg rolls for our school functions. And, she helped us with the homework she could and attended our school award ceremonies.

Though I’ve treasure my mother and the lessons and thoughts she has offered me — I know it is my sister who I have most admired in my life.

Lan, who I often refer to as my second mother, is nine years older and she taught me other aspects of being a woman. In a world where I was told how important it was to maintain that “traditional” Chinese role, my sister encourages every dream that flutters into my idealistic mind. She didn’t stop me when I was 12 and told my parents it was OK if I was a girl who wanted to go camping with her schoolmates or when I was in high school and decided journalism was the career I wanted most. She didn’t stop me when I decided I wanted to start skateboarding (yes, I skateboard; Don’t be fooled by the vast number of heels I own) or gather the local art community together to support college volunteer efforts in a major benefit or start a program for hundreds of low-income children. She has always encouraged me.

But Lan was stern with me too. She discarded the idea of me reading magazines like TeenBeat and told me the one magazine I could read was National Geographic. She refused to let me watch “Barney” because he talked to children like “they’re stupid,” but praised Sesame Street. And when she found out I was skipping classes in high school, she called the administration and had them assign me a series of “Saturday schools.” She topped off my childhood by filling my days with all the wonderful books imaginable, endearing films like “Mary Poppins” and “Singin’ in the Rain” and dragging me along to an assortment of events.

But most importantly, as a fearless, uncompromising and opinionated woman — Lan, through her actions, showed me my thoughts matter in a household that was dominated by the other sex.

Though life in my family came easier for me, I acknowledge the difficulties my sister faced by paving the way for me. In fact, I remember the day she left San Diego to attend UC Berkeley and how much criticism she received from my parents and relatives who accused her of leaving her family behind or that girls don’t move out before they are married. I remember I wrote a letter to ask her why she did and if hardships did appear in our family, why she didn’t confront them head on. To this day, I’m shameful for writing that letter and that my 9-year-old mind didn’t understand that my sister’s move was the best for her, me and our family. At the same time, I’m thankful she forgave me for my ignorance.

Lan didn’t stop at UC Berkeley, she continued to bravely explore the world she wanted to explore — living in France and moving to Australia where she would obtain her graduate degree. Today, she’s back in San Diego and is going to school to become an acupuncturist.

Regardless of the miles that have existed between us, Lan continues to be the guidance I need in a challenging world. She gives me the blatant feedback I need on my work and life to become a better writer and person, while congratulating me when something exciting happens and sharing my disappointment when something goes sour.

Now, she’s a mother of two beautiful little girls and maintains her own household alongside a great husband, who I know is often in awe of the woman he is charmed enough to call his wife. The older daughter/my niece, two-year-old Ciel, is developing a strong personality. She’s daring with her actions and blunt with the little words she knows and the feelings she understands. Although it frustrates my mother/her grandmother at times at how honest Ciel is with her feelings, I can’t help but laugh inside because I know she is inheriting my sister’s brassy characteristics.

For me, it’s a given that I would be more than grateful to the mother who risked her life so selflessly to raise her children in a kosher U.S. under such strife. It’s a given that I would love my mother more than any person could possibly love her mother and that I would work hard in my life to ensure her happiness. But my sister is sort of that hidden saint — the person who told me it was OK to feel what I feel, love what and who I love, say what I want to say and do whatever my Utopian heart desires — that it’s OK to be the woman I’m meant to be.

So, Wade, is Lan amazing? Perhaps.

She’s amazing if that’s the best word available to describe the best woman I’ll ever know in my lifetime.

*Parts of this blog are included in the memoir Hoa is writing. If you have questions about the working book or her life, please contact her. Until then, keep coming back for more snippets!