the first read: personal essay


c/o new statesman

c/o new statesman

I knew that if I wanted to become David Sedaris, I’d have to let the entire audience see me completely naked. All eleven of them. That’s what they say you should do when you speak in public, right? Let them see you naked? Or maybe it’s the other way around. Although I’ve spent the better half of my career as a writer for world-renowned publications, I still find myself having difficulty discerning everyday colloquialisms like this one. I attribute it to being raised by a Vietnamese mother who refused to admit she knew how to speak English. I’m not exactly sure why she did this, but my best guess is it was her way of getting us to speak Vietnamese at home. She would always say to us, “No! Mom don’t know how to speak English you talk to Mom in Vietnamese.” All the while, she’d effortlessly gossip with her American co-workers on the phone. One time when I was little, I was running out the door to go play and screamed at her, “Mom! Me and my friend are going outside now!!” A moment later, my mom screamed back in her heavy accent, “You say your friend and I!” Her English was fine.

It’s not so much the public speaking that terrified me, it was sharing something super intimate with strangers. A few years before this moment, I got the great idea of acquiring public speaking experience by emceeing weddings. I had a number of friends from college who DJed, so I became a ceremony package add-on. Lucky for me, it was a very lucrative endeavor because there’s a considerable market for people who are bilingual. Also, it was kind of fun. I got to be a really big part of the couple’s big day. Which is shocking because I find it strange anyone would hire me to do this. In order to cope with the apprehension, I figured out just the right amount of whisky to consume so that I would feel loose, but not slur the bride and groom’s names. After doing this for a few years, I felt like I got the public speaking thing down. The primary issue with this whole reading thing was putting my story out in the world. Growing up in my household, we went to great lengths to keep our business private.

In Vietnamese families like mine, presentation is everything. Even during the most mundane of occasions, like going to the bank or stopping in the grocery store, my mom is in full makeup and dripping in diamonds. On so many levels, this was damaging to my persona. First of all, this put an excessive amount of emphasis on my physical attributes. My mom has regularly thrown shade at me because she doesn’t like my outfit or the way I’m wearing my hair. If I don’t have enough makeup on, she will make her disapproval known in the most passive aggressive ways possible. “Why you look so pale?” she’d say. During my days as a platinum blonde, my mom wouldn’t bring me around her friends or invite me to family events. “Con, you look like a Halloween,” she’d say, justifying my lack of Christmas presents. Her immense disapproval was confounding, and the unrelenting judgement ensued disparaging effects on me. This included a propensity to be fiercely hard on myself, and an unflinching need to rebel. I wanted to be nothing like her. Ever since I was little, I wanted to be unconventional. Needless to say, I made things much harder on my mom by having crazy hair, dressing like a slutty boy and getting bad tattoos.

I know, it sounds awful. And at times, it really was. We would get into it and I would say terrible things, screaming at her for caring so much about what other people think. It made me viscerally disgusted whenever someone complimented my looks in front of her. My mom would seriously get a hard on from this. Nothing brought her more joy than to have someone say she has a pretty, dutiful daughter. What’s strange is she wasn’t like this with my other sisters, just me. But as I got older and accrued years of deep contemplation (and therapy), I came to understand the root of this obsession: my mom was a refugee. By keeping this truth in mind, I can forgive her for almost anything. The reality is, my mom lost everything in the Vietnam War. She came from a relatively well-to-do family and when they escaped, all was lost. Every time my mom walks out of the house with her hair done and jewels adorned, she is saying to the world, “I made it”. And her emphasis on attractiveness? Well, that’s what it was like for my mom in the old country. It was a different time and culture where a woman’s value was heavily placed on appearances. Honestly, she really was beautiful. I think she romanticizes that time in her life - when she was young and her life was simple. All of that abruptly ended with war. I don’t know what that feels like, and hopefully I never will. So, if wearing a little more eyeliner will bring her joy, I’ll do it.

At any rate, going out and publicly disclosing intimate details of my family is beyond the pale. I realized that if I were to become David Sedaris, I’d have to get over my mother’s humiliation. Luckily I can blame this open mic thing on my friends, since I would never have done it on my own. As directed, I walked towards the stage pretending I was naked, faking the most confident smile I could muster. It felt like an obstacle course making my way towards the stage. The metal folding chairs were placed without rhyme or reason, jumbled between the rows of tall wooden bookcases. I felt like a soldier making my way through a jungle infested with landmines. I could feel the audience looking at me and I started to get nervous. My hands were clammy and my face felt flushed. About halfway towards the stage, I realized I completely misunderstood that saying. It was the other way around. I was supposed to imagine the audience naked, not me. Crap, it was too late I couldn’t turn around now. Plus, retreating would cause my friends to shame me for life and that would be worse than having the audience throw tomatoes at my failure. As I made my way onto the stage, I felt utterly exposed. Worst of all, I hadn’t shaved my legs in weeks.

I settled into the middle of the makeshift stage, but only after catching the heel of my shoe in a fracture in the wood. I didn’t fully trip, but the sound it made was so crude, it seemed to shriek at me, “Boo, get off the stage!” In all honesty, I don’t know how the hefty gentleman who read before me survived. I could feel the plywood droop under my weight. The whirring sound of the barista grinding coffee seemed to register at 140 decibels, the equivalent of a Boeing 747 jet engine. It was so loud and offensive, the audience cringed. When I gathered myself a bit more, I came to realize I was too short for the microphone. The host ran up and came to my rescue, making public note that I couldn’t reach it. Thanks, asshole. The audience gave out a chuckle, all in unison. The host would look at me, adjust the microphone, look at me again and lower it some more until he felt satisfied with the result. It was as if he was checking my height to make sure I was tall enough for the rollercoaster ride. Trust me, I wasn’t. I had to tilt my head as far back as I could to reach it, which left me looking completely boorish amid the blaring sound of the coffee machine.

I opened up a printout of my story and read it from start to finish, using as much charisma as humanly possible. Somehow, I implemented  a sing-songy inflection that was very reminiscent of The Steve Miller Band’s song, Space Cowboy. “I’m a joker. I’m a smoker. I’m a midnight tooOoOoker”. And when called for, I read sentences as if they were written in all caps and ended with an exclamation point or two. “SO. MUCH! EMOTION!!” I thought that maybe if my story wasn’t all that great, I could win them over with my enthusiasm. I was so consumed in my execution I barely looked out to see how they were responding. Plus, the lighting was quite reprehensible and I could barely make anything out. After turning the page, I noticed I was using a lot of hand gestures. Not only was I communicating as verbally emphatic as possible, I was also using sign language. After what seemed like a few hours and my throat was thoroughly parched, I was done. I crumpled up my printout and looked directly at each set of eyes in the audience. They looked back at me with indiscernible sentiments. I tried to carry out my version of magnetism by smiling at them using only my eyes, but they did not smile back - with their eyes or their mouths.

Did I say too much? Did I say too little? Was I speaking in Vietnamese the whole time? I don’t know, I think I blacked out. Wait, did I really blackout? I chugged so much pinot grigio in the parking lot it’s totally possible. All of their faces were cryptic and starting to blur; except for my two friends. They were the only ones standing, unsure of what to do next. After a few moments, one of them started “the slow clap”. The other joined in and pretty soon, they couldn’t contain themselves. They were pumping their arms in the air with smiles that expressed the same joy as receiving a box full of puppies on Christmas morning. One of them looked like they might burst into tears. Finally, the jury of hipsters gave a verdict of mercy: they began to clap too. Although I couldn’t discern the audience’s reaction to my story, I kind of didn’t care. Okay, so my mom may never speak to me again or provide my future husband my dowry. But hey, I did it. I started to walk off the stage and caught my heel in the floor again, but this time, I was feeling fully clad. Take that you naked ass, audience motherfuckers. Fuck, yes.

The reading couldn’t have gone better. I felt relieved, somewhat proud of myself and secretly drunk. Not only had I chugged my own personal bottle of wine in the parking lot, I effortlessly consumed two complimentary cocktails that were pretty much the grown-up equivalent of blue ribbons for participation. I possess the uncanny ability to put down astonishing amounts of alcohol without a flinch. Generally, most Vietnamese people do. Case in point, it is customary to have Hennessy at any and all notable occasions: weddings, funerals, dinner. No one leaves until the entire bottle is empty. I have always wondered why having Henney is a Viet thing. Not Bacardi, not Jack Daniels, but Hennessy.  Because of this inherent capability, I was able to get through this predicament without stumbling on stage. Well, sort of. This experience also made me realize, I had a lot of work to do.

I took my place next to my friends and they beamed like parents at their kid’s Christmas recital. If they could have it their way, they’d place a crown on my head, a sash across my chest, a few dozen roses in my arms, and parade me down Sunset Boulevard waving at traffic. There were only a few minutes before the next person went on, so they sang their praises faster than a hummingbird flapping its wings. “Oh my god, Sam, like you were so good, I was dying,” and “I was legit rolling on the floor laughing, you killed it,” also “That was like literally the best moment of my life.” They went on and on like this as I sat there shell shocked from the whole ordeal. As much as I was appreciative of their love and support, I couldn’t trust their excitement. They would have been proud whether I uttered a single word or not.  

After the event ended, we mingled around the bookstore. My audience of eleven had more than quadrupled because of the indie folk band that closed the show. The space was now full of beards, bangs, bad tattoos, and man buns. From the few attendees present during my reading, I was lauded with compliments and small bits of praise. This was the most positive affirmation I’d received since that time my mom bestowed her approval after I dyed my hair back to a more natural shade. “Oh, yes! Mom like that one so nice, so normal.” She always made us feel like she loved us, but approval was a whole other thing. Asian people understand this. Any sort of praise, no matter where it came from, felt exhilarating. In this situation, it was great but also felt forced, almost condescending. It made me feel like I just performed at the school talent show. They gave me sincere looks with furrowed brows that seemed to say, “Oh sweetie, you did such a good job! But honestly, you are no David Sedaris.” I felt like an amateur. And I was. But, I took those nuggets of affirmation like a stripper stuffing dollar bills into a plastic grocery bag.

I could feel myself losing my buzz, so I decided to remedy this by making my way to the bar. I met eyes with my friends from afar and they continued to show their love and affection by performing classic dance moves like, “the sprinkler” and “the running man”. Note, there was absolutely no music playing at the time. This is clearly a sign of true friendship. I headed towards them, shuffling through the crowd like a kid lost at the mall. I came to a sudden halt because I found myself staring directly into a man’s chest. A very broad chest. This chest was wearing a black tee and coordinating leather jacket. I looked up and there stood an exceptionally handsome man. He was so attractive, I had to look away. It was like staring directly into the sun. Instead of moving out of the way, he started to say something, but I couldn’t make it out.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“I said, how does it end?” he responded.

“How does what end?” I asked, completely confused.

“Your story,” he said.

“Oh well, I don’t really know how it ends, per se. But I’m guessing it’s some sort of “happily ever after” situation. But not in that “glass slipper” sort of way. More like in a Hunter S. Thompson, guns blazing, quaalude-induced escape to the desert. It’s combination Angela Bassett burning it down in Waiting To Exhale, plus O.J. Simpson Bronco chase. I imagine ghetto birds flying above and police cars tailing me in a v-formation. For some reason, there’s a dead hooker in the trunk of my convertible and bricks of cocaine are flying out, bursting onto the pavement. My dogs are totally my accomplices. Goggles, he’s 13 and a dumpster dog. I imagine him with an AK-47 and he’s like, blasting the police behind us. No, wait. He’s more of a tommy gun kind of dog. He’s an old man so he would have an old timey gun. So yeah, it’s that kind of “happily ever after”. We’d get away of course, otherwise, it wouldn’t be very happy. Ride off into the sunset, you know? But like, we’d need fake identities and stuff.”

He looked at me with bewilderment. He went through a whole scope of emotions trying to comprehend and digest my response. All of his sentiments visibly showed on his face. And as he went through those emotions, so did I.

“Then, you don’t believe in love?” he finally asked.

“Oh no, I absolutely believe in love,” I responded, “the whole “happily ever after” thing is a direct result of love. A whole trajectory of events driven by love. I mean, what would you not do in the name of love, right?”

“So then, are you looking for love?” he asked.

“I’m not so much looking for love at this very moment as I am looking for a cocktail,” I said.

We spent the rest of the night together. There was something about him that made me have to unscramble my thoughts and weirdly express them in successional run-on sentences. It was as if he was the very personification of my first public read. I was intimidated by his exceptional good looks, but really, he was just a guy. To be honest, what he possessed in attractiveness he lacked in charisma. My friends thought he was dumb as dirt. I realized there was no reason to fear something just because you want it, whether it’s love or becoming David Sedaris. I would rather put myself out there and face the hipster jury than never even try. What is the worst that can happen? Embarrassment, sure. Occupational banishment, why not. Public tomato-ing, I've got Tide Pods. Familial disownment, okay yeah that would be pretty bad and the most plausible. But when I was finally able to get over myself, I began to feel the joy of what I accomplished. I looked at my friends sitting across the way with obnoxiously exuberant smiles, and I was full of gratitude. I was full of gratitude and full of wine. It took awhile, but I finally got my buzz back.