Monday, February 28, 2011

The Ruff Side of New Orleans

New Orleans is a city where dogs, and their owners, occupy a whole world of their own. It is a place where owners are required to submit vaccination and breed papers before being admitted to the publicly funded City Bark. It is a place where dogs wear collars with fleur de lis patterns on them. And naturally, it is a place where dogs and their owners have their own Mardi Gras Parade.

Hosted by the Krewe of Barkus (not to be confused with the historical Mardi Gras Krewe of Bacchus, named in honor of the Greek god of wine), I caught a glimpse of the dog-owning New Orleans elite. During Mardi Gras season (the two weeks preceding the big day) there are over 100 Mardi Gras parades, and Krewe of Barkus is one of them.

So I parked my bike in the French Quarter to catch some of the action. As did everyone else, complete with their folding chairs and six packs of beer. I too was prepared and brought a sun hat, a daiquiri, and friends. But I'll admit feeling a little underdressed compared to some of the other spectators.

But not to worry, because when it comes to fashion, I've learned that anything goes in this town.

And, though the spectators were entertaining enough, the floats were also good fun.

I'm not quite sure why, but a lot of the floats had a Broadway/Hollywood musical theme.

And some of the floats were just weird. Though, in the end maybe it was more about the dog owners rather than the dogs.

The day grew hot and after a couple of hours, we all grew a bit tired, include the stars of the event.

So I left the parade before it ended and returned home to my American Staffordshire Terrier, Milo. He sniffed and whined, making it clear that he knew where I had been. I felt a little guilty that I left him at home, but quite frankly, he's just not mature enough to experience what goes on in the French Quarter.

Kudos to Krewe de Barkus 2011. May you and your best friends enjoy dog years' worth of Mardi Gras to come.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

25 Years Wasted with the Krewe de Vieux

It is nighttime, and the shops on Royal Street are closed, their antique wares reflecting like glitter the flickering flames of the gas lanterns hanging out front along the whole length of the street. The crowd thickens the farther we walk into the French Quarter towards the Marigny. Costumed couples, triplets and strings of people, are swaying in revelry and drunkenness, bunches of sparkling plastic beads dangling off their necks. There are beer bottles and plastic cups glued to hands which spill liquid contents into mouths or onto the street. It is barely seven o'clock, and everything seems blurry. If I didn't know better, I'd think I accidentally stepped onto the Pirates of the Caribbean roller-coaster at Disneyland.

But I didn't. In actuality, I, along with a caravan of seven friends and acquaintances, am hoofing it through the French Quarter to catch a glimpse of one of the unofficial first parades of the Mardi Gras season. It is hosted by the Krewe de Vieux, and, though I generally dislike large crowds and parades, as it is my first Mardi Gras in New Orleans, attending at least a handful of these things seems like the culturally respectful thing to do.

Dating back to only 1987, the Krewe de Vieux is ironically probably one of the most traditional of all the Mardi Gras parades. (Approximately 100 parades are hosted by different krewes in the New Orleans area over this two week period.) Floats in the Krewe de Vieux are towed exclusively by horse or mules, and live marching brass bands provide music in lieu of boom boxes and electronic sound systems. The floats are typically satirical in nature, commenting on local and national politics. Short for Krewe de Vieux Carre (the traditional name for the French Quarter), it is the only large parade allowed to meander through the French Quarter. For the most part, the streets of this first neighborhood of New Orleans--crowded with old little shops and traditional shotgun houses made out of barge wood--are far too narrow for most of the modern Mardi Gras floats.

This year, Krewe de Vieux celebrates its silver anniversary with the theme 25 Years Wasted. The floats poke fun at BP and the oil spill, the Tea Party, the Republican Party, the local Mayor Landrieu, and sex. I was pleased to see my former Governor Palin prominent on at least two floats in a variety of undignified poses.

A minute later, I turn my head, and catch a float emitting smoke as its denizens throw out plastic drinking cups (the New Orleans "Go Cup", which enable one to drink alcohol in public legally) into the crowd.

Soon after, my eyes are drawn unavoidably to a giant shaft of a paper mache penis with sperm flying to and fro, some of them walking alongside the float throwing plastic beads at spectators. I think the float has something to do with sex.

At one point, I see my co-worker Will in one of the floats, a recent preppy college graduate and New Orleans transplant from Rhode Island. At another point, another co-worker appears in double in a makeshift fairy costume involving a tutu and a hooded sweater.

Afterwards, we linger around the house of a close acquaintance who lives on the parade route. And maybe we also linger around the house of someone none of us knew, also on the parade route, who had bottles of imported beer sitting in her claw foot bathtub.

We wandered around, keeping our shirts on but still exchanging plastic beads, for no reason at all. We lost members of the party only to find them a few minutes later up the street in another part of the Quarter, all of which was closed off to car traffic. And if we didn't find them right away, we adopted look alikes until the real ones were found.

Sometimes, in an annoying sort of way, the Bourbon Street culture of New Orleans can make the city feel like a giant college fraternity. And other times, in a totally amusing way, the city can feel like a party thrown by a bunch of theatre geeks. Krewe de Vieux is the latter, and the merriment feels timeless, as if someone is saying in a lazy Southern accent Why of course this town has always thrown a party like this, doll. Like a snapshot from a time far past, tonight on the unofficial first parade of the Mardi Gras season, it seems as if these people, these crazy, intoxicated people, have passed the last 25 years wasted.

Monday, February 14, 2011


A baby is born with a need to be loved - and never outgrows it.
--Frank A. Clark

Last year on Valentine's Day, I was traveling in Argentina with Larah and Rocco, good friends from Alaska, who were celebrating their one year anniversary of a wedding I had attended a year before. Mostly by coincidence we were traveling around the same time in South America and arranged to meet up in Argentina, which overlapped during their anniversary. Though I was traveling without a boyfriend, it pleased me to see two friends happily in love in their own quirky way.

On that same Valentine's Day in 2010, I myself received two emails; one from an ex-boyfriend of a few months earlier who, much out of character, pleaded with me to give it another try; the second email was equally emotionally charged, from a high-drama trial attorney I ended up seeing for a tumultuous few months upon my return to Alaska where I was living at the time. And, though it was a day for lovers, I was relieved to be spending that Valentine's Day with friends instead.

I consider myself a reasonably intelligent person, but never have I figured out the phenomenon of love. At its best, I'm a gushing child uttering non-sensical compliments, staring longingly into the eyes of a man (or more often than not, a boy). At its worst, I have unwittingly incited a heated argument ending in tears by making what I thought was a passing joke about his boss. I have on previous occasion, while under the spell of love, knowingly made tragically poor decisions. I have also, while under the spell of love, experienced some of the most meaningful moments of my life. I find the perplexing nature of it all on par with a course in calculus. You can work on the problem for twenty minutes, thinking you have a perfect sense of what's going on, and arrive at the answer y=4x only to learn that the correct answer is actually z= 3(620y+t).

When she was bout twelve years old, I remember how my older sister overdosed on boysenberry pie after eating four pieces of it at Thanksgiving. She ended the night vomiting it all up, and for years we didn't order it again. While I resented that her poor decisions impacted my access to one of my favorite desserts, I eventually experienced firsthand that flavor of anxiety that kept her from going back to boysenberry right away. And, for similar reasons following my successive Alaskan break-ups of last year, I've decided to give this whole love thing a rest for a while.

This past weekend right before Valentine's Day, Larah and Rocco came to visit me, as a tribute to my status as their favorite third wheel, and I suppose also to visit the wonderful city of New Orleans. I was thrilled. The three of us ate at Vincent's Italian Restaurant on St. Charles Avenue.

Vincent's is one of those old school places that looks like a backdrop to a Godfather movie. Since 1929, it is the second restaurant standing where it is today, and as its predecessor did, Vincent's serves up Sicilian. Dimly lit inside, it is all candlelight and dark burgundy-colored interiors, with Frank Sinatra crooning on the stereo. The entire waitstaff have dark, slicked-back hair and tidy black and white attire with bow ties. The wine selection is extensive and on the menu are only rich, classic Italian-American dishes. It's one of those places where deals go down and marriage proposals are made. With the exception of Larah, Rocco and me, the patronage is comprised of either middle-aged men of business talking shop, or couples enjoying a romantic evening, staring longingly into one another's eyes, uttering nonsensical compliments to one another. If ever you had the urge to re-enact that scene from Lady and the Tramp with the two dogs and the shared strand of spaghetti, Vincent's is the place to go.

Since my serial Alaskan break-ups of last year, my two unimpressive attempts at anything remotely resembling romance or intimacy have been comically thwarted by circumstances beyond my control. With the most recent calamity, my good girlfriend and I decided it was the intervention of the Fates and other mystical forces; Aphrodite was telling me in no uncertain terms, that right now, I'm meant to be a fighter, not a lover. From that point on, I decided to kick my training up a notch and spend the majority of my physical and emotional energy at the boxing gym so that I can enter an amateur match some time in the fall.

So naturally, I spent Valentine's Day proper with a bunch of sweaty, unhygienic guys at the gym. I grunt a few monosyllabic words at my trainer, punch him, punch some bags, jump rope, and sweat like a pig. I tell the oversized man that he's an idiot for forgetting about my session last week and he tells me that he had to nurse his bulldog who just got out of surgery and that I could go to hell. In my current emotional state, I cannot think of a way I'd rather celebrate love than this.

On my bike ride home I see couples walking out of Vincent's, arm in arm, strolling beneath the gaslit street lamps, giggling. I overhear a playful debate about who re-gifted for whom some old chocolates and who does the dishes more. I smell cologne and perfume and hear the clicking of heels on the sidewalk. And, while I have no urge to enjoy a slice of boysenberry pie just at this moment myself, I recognize that some day I will fall in love again, and I appreciate Vincent's and all of its patrons for reminding me how charming it can be. Happy Valentine's Day everyone.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

My Tet in New Orleans

"Sometimes we feel we straddle two cultures; at other times, that we fall between two stools."

--Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands

It has been seven years since I've lived in a city with any noteworthy amount of Asians in it sufficient to cull together festivities for the lunar new year, and sixteen years since I've lived somewhere with some permutation of a Little Saigon. Those were my thoughts while driving to New Orleans East, one of the three cornerstones of the Vietnamese community in New Orleans. It is ten p.m. and I have successfully coerced Matt, my white building neighbor and friend to accompany me to a Buddhist temple off of Chef Menteur Highway on the eve of Tet, the Vietnamese celebration of the lunar New Year.

My intel on this venture is minimal. The day before I sent an email to a Vietnamese community organizer I met at a fundraising conference. She is ten years my junior, I barely know her but that didn't stop me from sending interrogational emails about the local Tet festivities. I longed for the familiarity of a Tet celebration, so in desperation, I pleaded for information and received beta on about the time, day and location. But I had no idea how public or how festive these events in fact would be.

As a child, I was one of a quarter of a million Vietnamese Americans living in Southern California in the 1980's and '90's. On the lunar New Year's Eve, my family would leave the house at approximately 11:00pm, all of us dressed up, and my mother in one of her nicest ao dai dresses and gold jewelry. We would pagoda-hop, all of which were spilling with hundreds patrons, drowning in the perfume of burning joss sticks offered up to the ancestors. Chants would be led by monks who sang their song to the beat of a small wooden drum shaped like a gourd, and verses marked by the clanging of a large bell sitting upright on its own pillow. The statues of Buddha were large and illuminated, their faces smiling that smile through the smoke and the lights and the chants; they seemed to watch over the scenario with perfect calm and poise. My parents would exchange niceties with their friends and acquaintances as my sisters and I would accumulate more blessed oranges in between respectful and obligatory bows to chatting adults. We'd get home at around 2a.m. and eat bowls of noodles and dumplings prepared by my mother and grandmother earlier in the day. The meal ensured us a long life (the noodles) full of wealth (the dumplings).

The next day my parents would allow us to call in sick to our Catholic schools. And on the weekend, we would hit the Tet Festival in the Little Saigon area in full form, which was (and probably still is) basically like a state fair, but just for Vietnamese people. Stands of food, games, and rides lined the streets, almost exclusively for this immigrant population who had made their presence known for the past ten to fifteen years. For the ensuing two weeks, we stuffed ourselves with banh chung, the Vietnamese pork and rice cake prepared for this particular holiday.

And then I went to college in Berkeley, and then law school in New York City, eventually moving to and living for six years in Alaska. While there wasn't quite the Vietnamese tour de force in Berkeley or New York City, the Chinese version was good enough. Alaska, however, was virtually a complete dead zone for Asians of any kind. In the Great North I had created my own Tet festivities, involving epic dumpling parties in a two-room cabin with live music in every corner. They were special and memorable parties spent with good friends, but an improvisation at best, in which I was the sole Asian, let alone sole Vietnamese. During those frosty Arctic years, my mother would send me banh chung and oranges blessed by Vietnamese monks in Orange County, California. They would typically arrive in Alaska from their lengthy sojurn somewhat dehydrated for a pretty delivery penny costing my mother $20-$40. This year, I assured her that everything was under control, that I would be picking up my own banh chung and oranges from the pagoda myself.

The Vietnamese population in New Orleans numbers at around 15,000, about 6,000 of which are in Village de l'Est, a section of East New Orleans also referred to as Versailles. Many were refugees from the 1970's and were Catholics who were sponsored in large part by the Catholic Charities branch based out of New Orleans. For that reason, though a minority of 20% in Vietnam, the population of Vietnamese immigrants in New Orleans is vastly Catholic.

For this reason, I am not sure what to expect as I head out to the barely-lit expanse of stripmall-ville of East New Orleans, where land is cheap and barren. I am driving in search of a Buddhist temple, with a white friend in tow, fairly unsure of what I am doing. It is as if I am chasing after childhood memories, in hopes of reviving them from the dead.

After correcting a few wrong turns, we find the Van Hanh Buddhist Center. It is quiet but the parking lot is full of well-maintained cars. I step into a room with about 20 complete strangers, all of whom are Vietnamese. They are looking at Matt and me, and I immediately second-guess my decision to bring a white guy roughly my age to a celebration of this nature. However, we are treated kindly and immediately are invited to a free meal of vegetarian noodles and tofu. We sit down at the end of the table near two guys in their twenties and I introduce myself and Matt, explaining eagerly that he is my neighbor and that his white wife his home with the flu. We enjoy the meal and Matt is a good sport as we eat more strange snacks and watch middle-aged monks and lay people sing karaoke in Vietnamese at what seems like 2,000,000 decibels.

The excursion is not made in vain. As twelve o'clock strikes three dragons come to life to the beat of a large drum. Dragon heads comprised of wood, cloth, feathers, and paint, and a train made of matching cloth begin dancing, as guided by the Vietnamese-American teenagers holding the head portions and others holding the tails. They wag their ends and bob their heads around, before entering the temple and bowing in front of the Buddha. In tow is a portly character with the mask of a bald man holding a fan; he is both the dragons' friend and toy.

The dragons then rush out in front of the temple and two streamers of firecrackers dangling from the ceramic tiled roof, each sixty feet long, are lit with the purpose of scaring away evil spirits. The dragons chase and dance amongst the explosive crackling as we spectators shield ourselves from the embers. Eventually the din stops and the dragons continue their frolicking, snacking on crisp dollar bills from members of the crowd, who playfully offer them up as if appeasing a local mafioso. The dance lasts for half an hour before the congregation of about 50 settle into the temple to listen to the New Years' service.

We first listen to the American national anthem, followed by that of the former South Vietnam. There is a look a stoic sadness in the faces of those present 50 years and older. The youth remain respectfully quiet, not quite seeming to share the same emotion. We listen to a benediction given by a Vietnamese nun visiting from her new home in Texas. She kindly says a few words in English as a gesture to the youth present, and, well, Matt. "There is no way to happiness," she explains, "Happiness is the way. It is in you already. You must find that quiet place that is not so noisy." The congregation then chants in unison for half an hour, kneeling, standing, bowing, standing, kneeling. Though I am not a particularly religious person, I welcomed the familiarity of kneeling and standing and chanting. It felt good. (Though I probably will skip the skinny jeans next time.)

Driving home, Matt and I are both sleepy, but only I am tired. I am reminded how long I have been wandering the earth more or less on my own, and how long it has been since I have lived in a Vietnamese community. On this evening I am reminded that I am part of a diasporic ethnic group that came from a country that, like many places, was changed irrevocably by a civil war. I suddenly miss my late grandma, the one who lived in my parents' home throughout most of my life. She is the primary reason I can speak Vietnamese at all, and up until I lived in Vietnam for a year while in college, she is what I equated with the old country.

Two days later, I drag yet another white friend, Sarah, to the Tet festival held at Mary Queen of Vietnam Church. We come too late for the dragon dances, but in plenty of time for food. We hop from stand to stand, sharing a pair of spring rolls, a banh mi sandwich, a bowl bun noodles with grilled pork, a bowl of hu tieu soup, a plate of banh xeo crepe, and a small cup of Vietnamese tapioca for dessert. We wander the crowd listening to the awful but lovable Vietnamese rock band warbling away under colorful lights and smoke machines, against a backdrop of a giant pagoda set.

We make our way to the casino portion of the fair. In keeping with tradition, there are Vietnamese craps tables with shapes of animals instead of numbers, and instead of die there is a roulet wheel with corresponding animal shapes. Vietnamese-Americans are staring intently at the drawings placing bets on the shapes with a certain level of focus, as if they were in Las Vegas.

We peruse the crowd and I notice that Sarah is being rubber-necked by one of the few white people. I also notice a handful of young, black teenagers timidly working the under-18 crowd alongside their Vietnamese-American schoolmates. It is a very cool scene. It is 10:30pm by the time we leave and the crowd is still growing.

Without hesitation I proudly identify myself as a Vietnamese American, but my expression of this identity has been a clumsy and unusual one at best. Though well in my thirties, I was born in this country. I lived in Vietnam, but only for a year, and as an adult. Unlike most Vietnamese-Americans, my parents hail from the North. I speak Northern Vietnamese, but it was never great and already is fading fast. I haven't lived in or near a Vietnamese community for over a decade up until now, but I look as Asian as one possibly could. My favorite cuisine of all time is Vietnamese, but sadly it comprises the smallest portion of my culinary repertoire.

When Matt and I are driving home from the temple, I thank him for humoring me and for being patient. I explain briefly to him that for some reason, these rituals and memories have become special to me, and more so as of late. "At least you have these kinds of traditions," he says to me.

I agree with Matt but it wasn't always this way. As a child, being Vietnamese and Buddhist seemed such a burden growing up in the United States attending a Catholic school. As I grew older and saw a little bit of the world, I learned to accept these things of my family and my life, but really just tolerate them. And now, as an adult, I have finally come to appreciate their existence in my life and the role they played in who I am and how I relate to people from all walks of life.

Where the previous Year of the Tiger symbolized unrest and conflict, the Year of the Rabbit is projected to bring peace and resolution. For me it seems this is the case already.