Sunday, August 18, 2019

100 Days of Mourning: A Chinese Tradition of Grief and Ceremony

Grandma Ma & me <333 from my scrapbook in CA.

It’s been 102 days since my Grandma Ma passed away and 111 since my Grandma Lee passed away. I’ve been thinking about them a lot this week, and my Grandpa Ma and Grandpa Lee, my Grandparents, my ancestors whom I am so deeply rooted.

I am wearing my Grandma Ma’s silk blouse that my sweet cousin Kitty Kat, who is more like my sister, had given me. I gave it a deep sniff and hug before putting it on this morning, savouring the warm morning sunshine on my back as I changed. I really feel her warm energy, beauty and strength as I wear it and type this post. I feel this way about the jade bracelet which was hers and handed down to my by my Auntie’s Nimbo Thin and Nimbo Nam back in May. Some might think me silly, it’s just a stone and blouse, they probably are thinking, but to me it is so much more.

I believe in the energy of the world all around us and everything holds a vibration of some sort. Natural materials I think really absorb the energies of their owners. Even synthetic materials I believe hold energy. I wonder to where my Grandma Ma wore this silk blouse. Perhaps she wore it on a lunch date with Grandpa Ma when they were first dating in Vietnam at their favorite French restaurant by the train station where they would meet during her business trips back in the days of the 1950s and 60s. She had such beautiful taste. I feel her love and comfort when I nap with her blanket as a throw. I believe in its rejuvenating and comforting energy.

The otherside of M. et Mde. Isnardi's field site where I work, France. 

Grandma Lee was a country girl too, here in a Vietnam.

I am reminded of my Grandma Lee everyday when I go to work in the fields with the organic veggies, hands in the soil, dirt on my shoes. While she never directly taught me gardening skills, I think she has gifted me with her green genes. And, those fond childhood memories of gallivanting in the backyard of that house on De Adalena street in Rosemead, CA with my brother as my Grandma Lee worked in her garden will never fade. Long before I would ever know it or harness it’s power, Grandma Lee gave me the seed of growing plants which would become my way of life and joy. These days, more than ever, I tightly hold on to these memories.

In Chinese tradition, the 100th day after the death of someone marks the end of the mourning period for the family and a final prayer ceremony is performed. My cousin Kat told me that it means that Grandma Ma has completed her journey to heaven. My cousin Kitty Kat sweetly sent me a message last night saying how she missed me and that the family was having a ceremony prayer for Grandma’s 100 days. She sent me some cute videos of my cousins saying goodnight to me, and it made me smile. While I’ve been thinking of my Grandparents a lot this month, I haven’t been keeping track of days, so I’m so thankful that my cousin Kat reminded me of this.

My brother Kevin and I happy with our Ama & Aye in Rosemead, CA

It is believed that the spirit of the deceased lives on and every 7 days during the first 49 days there are prayers and chanting to help the spirit have a good reincarnation. My Mom and I went to the temple with my Uncle Kanh and Auntie Quincee a few of the weeks while I was still in CA. We chanted mantras and left food offerings at the altar of the temple for Grandma Lee. We left a picture of her there in a special room with other photos of those who had recently passed. Flowers and fruit plates decorated the room.

Grandma Lee & me <333 in California

Grandpa Lee & me <333 in California

According to the Mahayana tradition of Buddhism, which most Chinese Buddhist practice, this period of 49 days is called Antarabhava in Sanskrit or the Bardo in Tibetan. The soul is between death and re-birth. What happens during this period has an influence on possible liberation or the form of the rebirth. For a favorable rebirth, the family assists their beloved by prayer and remembrances ceremonies, which are duly preformed.

Some of these concepts are still unclear to me and there is so much to further explore. If I ever find more information I will amend my post to reflect this. Kat says that Grandma is in heaven, but perhaps heaven can mean anything to the interpreter? Perhaps it’s a pure land, as in some Buddhist branches of thought believe, or perhaps it could just mean liberation. For me, I see my Grandparents in all the beauties of nature, the mountains, rivers, the sea, the butterflies. Their spirit/soul/consciousness, is too grand to be contained into one entity. To me, they are liberated, beyond form, beyond boundaries.

Our friends Laura and Gijs came to spend the weekend with us, and we went on a lovely like in the Gorges de Daluis to Point Sublime. It was a gorgeous view. At the top I sat on a rock and just marveled at the beauty of the moment we were in, amongst good friends and surrounded by incredible beauty. The silence was inviting me to feel into my heart, and there I felt the pulse of my Grandparents and other friends whom I miss dearly. I took a moment to think of them, thank them for all of their protection and sent all my love. Some days I feel so sad knowing I can’t see them again, hug them, kiss their cheeks, hear their voices tell their stories. In some moments I cling to the idea of seeing them just one more time, hugging them once more time, painting Grandma Ma’s nails one more time, holding Grandma Lee’s hand one more time. I haven’t seen either of them in any dreams yet. I’ll be ready when they come.


I wrote this eulogy for Grandma Lee and had shared it on the day of her Celebration of Life at Rose Hills Memorial. I want to share it here because without my Grandma Lee’s green genes there wouldn’t exist my blog Garden Gallivanter.

My Grandma Lee next to sunflowers, in Vietnam(?).

Most remember my Grandma Lee as an independent and strong woman: both in business and the way she carried herself in the world. She could do anything. While all this is true, I remember her most for her nurturing spirit, perhaps a side of her being she did not dare let shine through often.

My name is Tiffanie Ma and I am one of Cuc Lee’s 13 grandchildren, the first wave of grandchildren you could say. I’ve had the privilege of growing up close to my Grandparents here in California. Being a farmer in southern France now, I had begun two new jobs last month. One, working on an organic vegetable and chicken farm, planting veggies, harvesting and collecting eggs; the other, starting seedlings, which, for my non-gardeners and farmers out there, are baby plants which we begin from seeds and care for before they are big enough to be sold to the farmer or home gardener.

I promise I have a point to all this, and this is still about my Grandma Lee.

One day at my seed-starting job, I was starting various seeds in the greenhouse with my friend and boss. Having seen my other trays of seeds sprout beautifully, she mentioned to me, “Tiffanie, you have green hands.” I smiled and humbly-declined the comment, noting the cultural difference that in the US we say “green thumbs instead of green hands”.

Her comment lingered as I kept working, tiny seeds in my hands, new life before me. I reflected on where I could have inherited these magical green hands and immediately thought of my Grandma Lee.

As a kid, I remember so many pieces of joyful moments with Grandma and Grandpa Lee. My brother Kevin and I were so lucky and got to spend time with them at the park at Langley Center where they played ping pong. I remember Grandma Lee patiently teaching me division at the kitchen table, as she went back and forth between the kitchen cooking up something delicious, like those amazing noodles she made me for my birthday.

I remember the backyard of the house on De Adalena street, where Grandma and Grandpa lived in the front house and we lived in the back house. I remember playing outside and noticed her working in her garden. It wasn’t anything manicured, some Vietnamese herbs and veggies I would guess, a plot of weeds to the untrained eye. I just remember a lot of greenness surrounding her, the tall grassy leaves of lemon grass, and never any chemical sprays or plastic bottles. I’m not certain, but I think Grandma Lee was an organic gardener like I am today.

While I don’t remember precisely, I have a memory of her planting all sorts of home remedies out there to better her soil and plants. Maybe fish or shrimp pieces from the kitchen were buried to enrich the earth of her garden.

I was young at the time, but I only wish now that I was able to learn more about gardening from the green wisdom and hands of my Grandma Lee. She probably had such a wealth of knowledge about organic gardening practices, her produce from the garden were always so green and lush. 

But, we shouldn’t live in regrets and what ifs, at least I choose not to live that way. Instead, I am so grateful that Grandma Lee passed down to me her gift of gardening which I discovered intuitively 7 years ago. I am quite sure of it, since I have no recollection of being taught anything specific, though this urge to grow food and nurture land sprouted from my heart and that seed must have been planted by someone.

I want to thank my Grandma Lee for all of her love and sacrifice for all of 7 her children and us grandchildren. She had to be so strong for everyone, and I am just honored that I got those glimpses of her soft spirit as I skipped around the backyard as she tended to the earth. Now I know how much of a nurturing heart it requires to grow life and Grandma Lee could grow anything.

Literally, anything. My brother Kevin reminded me of the dragon fruit (thanh long in vietnamese) which she grew and proudly showcased telling us that the tropical fruit is not native to Southern California, but she was able to grow it into fruition anyway!! Pure Magic.

These flowers here are from my garden at my parents house, nothing exotic like dragon fruit, but I picked them this morning for Grandma Lee. It is her gift of green hands which she gifted me that I was able to grow these flowers which have brought joy and peace to that piece of earth in front of my parents house and to so many who encounter them.

I will always remember Grandma Lee as a beautiful and delicate flower, with strong roots. Her name means Chrysanthemum. With every garden I grow, wherever I go, I will aspire to emulate my Grandma Lee in all her beauty and strength.

Com un ba ngoi. 

Sunday, August 4, 2019

Sunday Morning

Sunday mornings in Saint-Léger call for sleeping in (8am, yes that's farmer time for sleeping in) and waking up to slow sips of coffee in bed brought to me by my wonderful husband. The morning sunshine floods through the window as Bodhi baby, who sleeps on the bed by my feet meows a sweet bonjour as he stretches himself awake. I pick up my book, Braiding Sweetgrass, which is one of a few I am currently reading. It's going to be a great day; I feel it already.

Bodhi meows to go outside, so I open the window of our bedroom for him to explore the wild. I make my way to the kitchen, but first a pit-stop in the office where Jorris is on the computer, and I lean in to give him a bonjour kiss. At the dinning room table, I continue sipping my coffee and read about different herbs and beauty dusts online. My mind is curious and intrigued. I make a purchase out of self-love which was a bit out of my budget, but no regrets here. Ashwaganda root powder, Amla berries, Goji berries, Pearl...while others enjoy buying clothes and shoes online, I prefer these adaptogens. After all, I've earned this self-treat, my hair and skin are in need of a little extra love after all I've put them through this season on the farm under the radiant summer sun. I learn along the way, googling the different plants and feeling the bubbly excitement in my chest for nature's gifts soon to arrive at my doorstep (yes the mailman/woman comes to our door!).

Summer has me feeling fine. I knitted this hair tie!

Next is yoga. Just me and my breath. I savour every moment. Some light music plays in the background, creating an environment for a Sunday morning kind of flow, steady, strong and rejuvenating. Jorris enters after working on the hives at the apiary here, which he had moved here to our piece of land some weeks ago. He bends over for a kiss as I am in Mermaid pose. He tells me he is heading to the other apiaries to work and that he'll be back before the village aperitif hour tonight. I'm making bliss balls!

For brunch I make 2 fried eggs with garlic on my cast iron skillet which I brought back from CA and it has been the best decision I've made this year! Haha...that along with many other decisions, of course. But, really that sizzle sound those eggs make when you just crack them over on a hot cast-iron skillet is incomparable to anything else and for me; it's the sound of the weekend. Of course we can't forget the dash of soy sauce and 2 slices of Pain de Bayasse, toasted. The little bit of extra toast I didn't use to sop up the yolky-soy saucy goodness, I spread on some butter and blueberry jam. YUM!

It's been just the two of us again. No more family visitors at the moment and while I miss them, especially Pap since he had spent the most time with us, it's lovely to spend some time alone in our new home together this weekend. And, it allows me to take time to write for pleasure and do yoga and read, all in my panties and bra-less yoga tank top. I'm becoming quite the advocate of the movement to #freethenipple. But that's a topic for another post.

Sunrise on my drive to work.

During the week I wake at 4:30 am to have my coffee, do a little yoga when I can and get to farm. So, when the weekend rolls around, it's really a time I guard for rest. Physically, my body doesn't want to move, so I listen and follow what is being asked of me. Mentally, I rest my brain as well, no more calculating efficiency, timing and tasks. I know it will be waiting for me on Monday.

Village life suits me. This quiet and slow rhythm of life which aligns so much with Mother Nature grounds me deeply. I went with Jorris yesterday to do some work in the apiaries. He worked as I found a spot by the Roudoule river to set my blanket and pillow down for a nap. The sound of the trickling river water and the fresh shade of the trees lulled me to sleep. At the other apiary, I walked into the Var river and just sat on a rock, admiring the stunning beauty of the earth we are so incredibly fortunate to inhabit. Since it's a private property, it is not accessible to the public, so I was completely left alone to enjoy the river, water, rocks and mountains surrounding me. This is one thing I really admire about beekeeping; we get to access the most beautiful places either because they are on private land or they are too deep into the wild to be easily accessible to the public.

Le Roudoule is a gorgeous river which flows into Le Var river. 

Our small beehives by the Roudoule river. 

While we don't have so much money, I feel so rich. I feel like we live quite a luxurious life and I am so grateful everyday. I have an amazing husband who works so hard with a deep motivation to make a happy life for the both of us. He affords me the luxury of sleeping by the river and doing yoga on Sunday while he goes off to work. I am so grateful for all his love and support.

Furthermore, we drink fresh spring water that is also heated by the power of the sun which our solar panels capture. We breathe fresh mountain air. Then there is all the organic and local food which I have the privilege of growing as my job! We live in such peace and abundance. While we are not rich in material abundance, we have all we need. I even made enough money to earn a car! Though she is old, this Citroën Saxo drives so well and allows us to get to where we need in these mountains. It feels so good to earn something, too.


Work on the farm has been very busy and in all honesty, quite stressful. It's been a rough season for my bosses and this energy has a ripple-effect on me and my colleague Indira, but we are pushing along, like the little train that could. Tractor problems, miscommunication, too many orders, the fatigue of summer and general intensity of this time of year, which I think all farmers share at the moment, have us feeling a little meh. We all do our best.

It's August already, and I'm really looking forward for autumn to arrive. I can't wait for the weather to cool down, for a change in the speed and rhythm of life, for things to slow down a bit so I can catch my breath again, read, reflect, write, knit again, with Bodhi in my lap and a cup of tea by my side. Perhaps even light the wood stove!

Les Petites Courgettes

Les Petites Tomates Raisins

Les aubergines

But, I am so proud of all the beautiful veggies we have cultivated with Mother Nature, and still, despite the "life situations," as Ekhart Tolle distinguishes in The Power of Now, life is still good. We continue to allow people to live a more healthy and wholesome life with the the organic food we sell. As I wash leeks and carrots or harvest more courgette (I don't really like them anymore, can explain later), I just think of all the people at the organic market who will buy these beauties and feed their families with good and clean food. Not to mention, extremely flavourful. Our job is so important, and it's easy to lose sight of all the greatness that we are doing. After preparing 25kg of leeks, you can easily get sucked into the meh of the "life situations" and forget about the goodness of the life you are living and, in our case, the goodness of the healthy food we are feeding people.

It's all about what we choose to think and focus on. We have the power to frame our day in a good or bad way. That's the beauty of choice and the power we hold over our minds. We shape our minds and mood by the thoughts we allow ourselves to think and believe. The truth is, there is no escape from miscommunications and complications and chaos and tractors that breakdown. Whether you work in an office behind a computer in the city, or on a farm behind rows of beets in the countryside, there will always be problems. That is just the nature of things. But, we can choose how to see these problems and ultimately, how to work with them.

So, those are my thoughts on this beautiful Sunday morning. I'm sending you so much love and light wherever you find yourself today. Get out there. Get some sunshine, feel the river water on your toes. Take a nap. Read a book, do it in your favorite panties and bra-less top, or better yet, in your birthday suit ;)

*Photos by Me. 

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Home Sweet Home

Our new village of Saint-Léger, Southern France

I once read that
"old doors won't open new ways". And since I read it some years ago, I have found it more true with each new year that passes, with each new life experience I encounter. About 3 weeks ago, Jorris and I closed one door and open another. We moved from our tiny studio apartment in the village of Puget-Theniérs to the tiny village (30 inhabitants year-round) of Saint-Léger.

Together we closed the door of village and apartment life. And now we have opened new doors to a house of 3 bedrooms, 1 bathroom, spacious kitchen and living room and, get this, a honey room/atelier (workshop) below!! Our new home acts as a home and work place. It is owned by the municipality and one must be a farmer to rent it. The mayor, as well as the villagers whom we have met so far have been very welcoming and kind.

Home Sweet Home; I'm envisioning flower pots.

The honeyroom and atelier below; I love the blue shutters, very Provençal.

While the road is windy and 30 minutes to Puget, it is a beautiful drive. Fatiguing yes, since we have to honk at all the blind-turns, which there are many. It takes me about 30 mintues to get to work at the fields below, but the days I have to go to the ferme en haute (farm above, the farm house), it takes about 45 minutes. After a long and hot day of work under the merciless sun, I sigh at the drive back ahead. But, no distance is too long when you know you will arrive to a place you can call home.

We'll probably eventually miss from time to time being able to just run down stairs and step out on Sunday mornings to get some freshly baked croissants, pain au chocolate, eclaires cafés et baguettes from the boulangerie as we did when we lived in Puget (no boulangerie in our tiny village). But for now, it is such a luxury to have so much space! Our tiny studio was a lovely start and a charming experience, but with running a business and building a life together we are in need of space to store all of our creations, honey and natural cosmetics, alike. There are also disadvantages of village apartment life that we won't miss like hearing music from your neighbors perhaps you're not so fond of and village chatter and motor bike engines in the night when you're trying to sleep.

St. Léger Village Center

We live a little outside of our new village. It's smaller than Puget-Theniérs and there is no grocery store. We have one neighbor whom we haven't formally introduced ourselves to yet, but they live below us and have goats and sheep. They produce soap from their goats' milk. Their home is also owned by the municipality. I think they are also a young couple, and we are looking forward to get to know them soon.

It's amazing what a difference physical space can have on one's sense of well-being. The other day, I wanted to play music but Jorris wanted some quiet time, so I was able to go into our guest room and play my heart out! It was so liberating! Like, we could fully express ourselves and share one space together, in different rooms. Both of us were content. Also, a physical distance from work and the village of Puget is so refreshing. Being surrounded by all this beautiful nature is so calming and nourishing to my soul. When I get home from work I can just let it all go, turn the noise down and just be in peace to cook, read, write, play music, snuggle with Bodhi etc.

Bodhi and Frida. 

Bodhi has been enjoying our new home as well. Now he can go outside and also explore nature. He is loving it so far. As an animal, I think it is much healthier for him to be in touch with nature, as it is for us. I love when he comes back home from one of his adventures outside and his fury head smells like wild flowers and herbs.

Bodhi baby exploring the garden with toy. 

Having more space in our home also means being able to invite family and friends over, which is what Jorris and I love to do. Right now, Pap, mon beau pere (my father-in-law) has been here visiting us since we just moved in. His name is Marcel, but in Dutch, pap means dad so I call him pap. It has been such a pleasure to have his presence grace our home. He is such an incredible human being, with a gentle heart and golden hands, as ma belle mere (my mother-in-law) put it so well. He can make anything! He makes guitars, furniture, the best mayonnaise in like 30 seconds (yes it was a life-hack he taught me) and so much more. He also plays the guitars which he builds beautifully, classical pieces and bassa nova, which I am listening to now as I write this blog post.

He has helped Jorris and I with so much: assembling shelves for honey room, labelling jars of honey, cleaning the house, doing laundry, cooking, playing guitar while I cook, playing guitar with me, and today as I write, building us a kitchen which he so generously gifted to Jorris and I. We are so grateful and honored to have Pap bless our home. All the laughs together have been so meaningful. I've always appreciated Pap and now spending so much time with him and getting to know him more, I appreciate him even more.

Meet Pap, our Head Handyman/Contractor/Chef/Guitarist...

Ta-DA!!! I love the touch of the sparkling lights Pap added & so does Jorris.

Also last weekend, Jorris’ cousin Emille and his family of 5 kiddos and wife Yvonne arrived! They are doing a trip throughout europe by train and public transportation. We had a wonderful dinner that Friday night, Jorris’ famous cous cous and ratatouille-sytle veggies. They too are a brave family, having opened a new door themselves 5 years ago when they moved to Sweden from Holland. It was spontaneous and perfect timing that we moved to a bigger house so we could host them. We were excited to receive a whatsapp message from Emille saying how they would love to stop by. They are such a kind and well-rounded family. Pap and Emille and his family inspire me in so many ways. It's such an honor to call them family. 

Pap (Dad in Dutch), about to enjoy a veggie spring roll. 

We had a wonderful time together taking them through Provence to la plage de St. Julien and Lac de St. Croix, through the Gorges de Verdun and up to the most charming village of Moustiers St. Marie where Jorris and I had our first gelato together many summers ago. It was so joyful to re-visit the places where we first got to know each other and to share that with family. We finished our long day of adventure driving through the Lavender fields of Valensole where some fields of Lavender hadn't been cut yet and we could still smell the magic. Jorris stopped by to check on his bees, naturally. I am so happy he had some time to enjoy summer and family since he is working so much. He would never take time off for himself and rarely for us during this busy time of the season, but he was delighted to take time off for family. 

Afternoons are for picnics; Emille, Yvonne and the kiddos. Photo: Pap

Evenings are for guitar concerts. 

Life happens in rhythms big and small. These cycles are constantly shifting and changing within ourselves, within our society, community, Mother Nature. Not to long ago I wrote about the Buddhist concept of Dukkha and reflected upon my own struggles in that moment. And, at now in this moment, we've shifted into a new cycle, moved through a new door, of such joy and abundance in good organic food and a household of love.  

Veggie Spring Rolls for dinner with some veggies from the farm. 

How about those views out those windows!

Fresh organic tomatoes from the farm where I work.

Emille and his family added their touch of love to our home, lending a hand with building the kitchen as well as adding a little surprise of art to the some of the beehives in the atelier. We were told by the kiddos that we were not allowed to enter the atelier. A few hours later they invited us in and the sweet sight nearly brought tears to my eyes. Jorris had a bright smile on his face. Their gift really warmed our hearts and home and our bees' homes. 

A little surprise the kiddos and their mom created. 

Handfuls of magic. 

An artful gift to the bees. 

Jorris and I have walked through many doors together now. We walked through a door of wwoofing and organic farming, the sliding door of the j9 camping car where we lived in while in Villetale Haute, then the wooden doors of the yurt, the door of marriage, and up until recently the grand apartment door of Puget-Théniers, and now the home-y one of Saint-Léger.

Our future garden space! How many butterflies can you spot?

I'm so excited for what the land here will teach me, what plants I will discover, insects, trees and animals. The air is so fresh and the spring water so clean (we saw the report from the Mayor's office!). We also get our water heated by the sun with 2 solar panels on the roof. To top it off, the week before was a full moon and lunar eclipse where, the Moon in all her glory greeted me through my bedroom window, full and bright with the silhouette of a tree in the left and mountains in the foreground of the window frame, a perfect picture. I soaked it all in. 

If you are going through a rhythm of life that is unpleasant, dark or uncomfortable, fear not, for a new door awaits you, sooner than you know. Hang in there. Just be compassionate and patient with yourself. Trust that you'll know which door to open when you see it, and when you see it, though it'll be new and unfamiliar, don't be afraid to step through.

Our old & beautiful door to our apartment in Puget.

*photos by me unless noted otherwise.

Sunday, June 30, 2019

Café Langues Échange

It was around back in January of this year when I posted this flyer around my village of Puget-Theniers here in the southern French Alps. At the same time I was taking a French Intensive course with Alliance Française in Nice. Everyday for a month I took the 790 bus from here to the city and the ride was 1.5 hours each way! But it was worth it because I learned so much and made some lovely friends.

Anyway, back to the flyer. I had this idea to make an exchange with a French speaker wanting to learn English. I imagined we could have a coffee and speak part of the time in French and part of the time in English. And, perhaps I could even make some new friends. Out of curiosity I did some research and turns out these types of exchanges already exist, which was fantastic to know. So I posted this flyer up at the local carrefour supermarché and on a village bulletin board, not knowing what to expect. I believe it wasn't until near the end of March when I got a call from Laurent.

I was nervous but we had a coffee and great first meeting. Laurent speaks English quite well and his level of English is higher than mine in French, but we manage well. Soon after our first exchange, he brought his partner Magali who also wants to learn English. Her level is more novice, but I've printed out worksheets for beginner English learners and we've had laughs and made progress over ambré beers at Chez Math, a local bar and restaurant. Turns out Laurent and Magali live just down the street from us. And, it also turns out that I have made two wonderful new friends.

It's such a small world because Laurent makes the deliveries of the veggies and eggs at the farm where I work at so we are also colleagues in a way. And, Magali is one of the bus drivers for the 790 which I took to Nice everyday for my French lessons. After I finally formally met her, I recognized  her right away as the really nice bus driver! That's the beauty of village life for you.

This is my 5th year studying French! I can't believe it's been that long. I've only ever had 1 month of formal study in a classroom. But I've been living on and off in France for the last 5 years and so have learned French mostly just in daily life, with some self-workbooks sprinkled in. Though it's been an informal learning, I would say it has been a very integrated study. I've been learning French as a child would learn a new language, all in the context of real life through practice and everyday exchanges with people. Below are my tips to learning French, or any language. I was 26 when I started learning French, so age is no matter!

Les Essentielles: Les cafés, la croissant et la dictionnaire. 

5 Tips for Learning a New Language:

1. Surrender, accept that you will make mistakes (lots of mistakes), some very embarrassing. For my surfers out there it's like when you are out in the water and you just have to surrender to Mother Nature and the waters, and going with where the waves and tide take you rather than resisting.

2. Surround yourself with the language. It really helps to immerse yourself, in whatever capacity you can. The best is of course living the country or a community with people who speak the language you are trying to learn and just hearing it everyday and seeing it written everywhere on signs and menus. Being forced to speak the language daily also trains your brain and those muscles in your mouth and tongue to formulate those words. If you can't quite immerse yourself yet, watch lots of movies or listen to music or see youtube channels about this language. If there is a specific topic you are interested in or have a passion for, like for me it's gardening, then look up videos or media on this in your language of interest!

3. Speak, Speak, Speak! Don't be afraid to speak the language as much as you can and with the surrendering of number 1, don't be afraid to make mistakes and sound silly. Have compassion for yourself, you are learning, your brain is growing bigger, people know you are learning and most of the time have compassion for you and appreciate you learning their language. It's all good. It's very important to keep exercising those muscles in our mouths and tongues that are foreign to our native language. Set a timer for an hour and speak only the language you are learning, no matter how hard it is. Start a Café Langue Échange in your community! Post a flyer or go to a forum/social media outlet and post that you are looking for a language exchange. Speak for 1/2 hour in the language you want to learn and 1/2 hour in your native language for your exchange partner.

4. Read, Read, Read! Carry a pocket dictionary or picture dictionary around and look up words you don't know or make notes of words you hear and don't know to look up later. My French to English/English to French dictionary is my best friend, well next to my opinel (French pocket knife). For me, looking up words the old-fashioned way with a book dictionary somehow allows me to remember better that word. Perhaps it's the time it takes to look it up and read the definition? But I find that when I look it up that way rather than google translate on my phone (although google translate can be helpful at times too) I remember the word so much better. As you build vocabulary, you have more building blocks to make new sentences with. For me, as a visual learner, when I see a word and how it is spelled and used in a sentence, I remember it better and know how to use it. I like reading these little pamphlets from the organic store which come out monthly, sort of like a newsletter. It's just my level of French, simple, and the topics are everything I am interested in: food, farming, creating personal care products, so I feel motivated to read and to look up words I don't know since it's a topic that interests me. Graphic novels are really great, too! Oh and subtitles! I would watch a movie in French and read the subtitles in English and then watch English movies with French subtitles. Or, French movie with French subtitles. All three ways can be helpful, as well as starting out with a film or story you already know. Explore what works best for you.

5. Make friends with people who speak the language you want to learn. If they don't speak any language other than that language you want to learn, even better! This will really force you to learn and practice. My landlord for our first apartment in France (the apartment castle) didn't speak a word of English, and I always enjoyed having tea or mojitos with her because she was a cool person but also because I could really hone in on my French with her. Even more romantic, if you can fall upon a lover who speaks the language you want to learn and, the important part, who doesn't speak your native language. So the last part of that last sentence is good for learning a new language I think, but I imagine that being really hard to growing a relationship with someone. Jorris, my husband, speaks French but also English (and Dutch, German and Spanish), so it's great because he helps me with my French but also not great because he loses patience quickly and turns back to English. For our relationship though, I'm so glad he speaks English so we can communicate our feelings.

*photos and flyer by me. 

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Goodbye to Grandmas

At the end of April I left France for California to spend the last few days of my Grandmothers' lives with them. And, no, that's not a typo of where I put the apostrophe, as you will soon see. I ended up staying for a month, unexpectedly. My Grandma Ma had not been eat for a few weeks and just out of the hospital for her irregularly beating heart. In short, she was declining. 

Interestingly and uncannily enough, Grandma Lee was also dying. When I had heard Grandma Ma wasn’t well, I looked for a plane ticket immediately, not knowing at the time about Grandma Lee. I followed my instincts without question and my farm bosses were so understanding, telling me to go and be with my Grandmother (they hadn't known about Grandma Lee yet either). 

The night before flying, I had a terrible dream. It was a feeling of imminent death. I called my mother at 2am France time, asking how Grandma Ma was and she said not good, and then clarified that she was talking about my Grandma Lee who was dying. My two beloved Grandma’s were in different stages of transitioning, and I was holding my breath to make it there in time.

G. Lee and my Mom in Da Nang, Vietnam.  By: G.Pa Lee

The starts somehow aligned and I think my ancestors and Grandpa Ma and Grandpa Lee had something to do with it, but I did make it in time. I had one day with Grandma Lee. She was no longer speaking and on oxygen, but I told her all I wanted to say, and was there to spend one day with her. The next morning she passed away. I was sad of course, though I think my jet-lag masked my sadness, and I had felt more tired than anything. My adrenal glands were working overtime, juggling life and death. 

I went to the nursing home each day to spend time with Grandma Ma. I stayed some nights with her and also got to spend time with my sweet cousin Vanessa and aunties Loan and Barbara when we all stayed over night with her, tending to her, monitoring her as nurses came by to take her vitals. Mostly, at least for me, I just wanted to spend every moment I could with her, knowing she would soon be gone.

Grandma Ma's last day outside in the sunshine. Arcadia, CA

Auntie Loan and Connie chatting amongst many family there for Grandma. 

Those last few days with her and all my family was the most beautiful and positive experience of death I have ever witnessed. It’s hard to capture it all in words, but there was this energy of love and deep peace that was so palpable in that room. My Grandma looked so beautiful and at one moment by her bedside I whispered to her that she was beautiful inside and outside in Vietnamese, and she smiled and humbly shook her head in decline.

She just had this grace about her as she was dying, and it was a honor to be a part of the process, to witness it all. She smiled so much of the time and her face lit up whenever she saw one of us. At one point, one of the last days of communication, she whispered in Vietnamese, “thung naow” which means “love each other,” as we all surrounded her bedside, delicately listening, since all her words were whispers. She clapped her hands gently, like she was happy for us to all be together and there with her. We couldn’t really understand or hear everything she was saying, but she looked at us all and her smile was so big, like she knew she had lived a beautiful life, like we were the reflection of a life well-lived; and she had all the love and peace in her heart to go well. Many times I tried but couldn’t hold back the tears, like many of us. I knelt on the floor on my knees holding her hand. We all took turns. 

I try to be strong for her but truthfully, it hurts so much to say goodbye. While I know there is so much more to my Grandma than her physical being, and while I try to not be attached, I am human after all and miss so much her voice, her soft skin and her scent, the little smile she had. Of course it was heartbreaking, I got to cry with my family and together we remembered her legacy of compassion and love for her family and community.

The night before her funeral we got together as a family just as we had for my Grandpa Ma in February and cooked her favorite meal, braised pork and egg in coconut juice, with a side of bamboo shoots, white rice, and of course, nuc mam (fish sauce). Grandma used to make this dish all the time. Dessert was this sticky dumpling with coconut shreds and peanuts. My Grandma used to make these foods.  After dinner we went in a circle and each said something we remembered about Grandma. When it was my turn, I froze, lost my words; It was as if someone had taken away my voice, and I couldn’t speak. I was overwhelmed and the tears came. Slowly I found my words, though that was the first time that had ever happened to me. 

My lovely Nimbo Nam cutting up the banana leaves <333. 

Toasted peanuts to be smashed and mixed with the coconut shreds. 

My Nimbo Thin making the rice flour dough <333.

Rice flour, banana leaf, coconut/peanut filling, oil. 

The coconut shred/peanut filling are molded into the flour and steamed.

My favorite part of the evening was hearing stories from my Uncles and Aunts about those days in Vietnam, a time before my own. My Uncle Mike’s stories were most striking to me. He, like me, had many pauses, holding back tears, while sometimes letting them fall, but he was brave like we all were to share his stories.

One was of when before they were going to escape Vietnam to America and my Grandpa had asked my Grandma to go through their coastal small village of Da Bac in Cam Ranh, Vietnam. This was circa 1975. My Grandparents had an herbal medicine and fishing supply business. My Uncle began by saying, “This is a story I remember of my Mom....” He was with her going house to house and while they were supposed to be collecting money from people who owed them for their herbal medicines and fishing supplies, since they often let people get what they needed without paying if they couldn’t, instead she saw how poor every family was and instead they went to the market to buy these people rice and some pork belly. They did this house after house. And when they got back to their home my Grandpa asked if they got the money and my Grandma said no. 

I love this story because even though I wasn't there, knowing her, it sounds like exactly something she would do. And it shows so much about her character and heart. Even during a time of war, when fear usually makes people suspicious and greedy, she loved her neighbors and acted with loving-kindness. 

Ma Family Têt (Chinese New Year), Da Bac, Vietnam 1973 

He shared another story of when in America, after escaping Communist Vietnam by boat circa 1977, he and Grandma were at a bus stop and they had just arrived to a new country so they were poor and on welfare; but she saw a poor person across the street of the bus stop and told my uncle to wait there and she crossed the street to give this person some money. Being poor is hard, especially with 8 kids, especially in a foreign country, but she still had such a generous heart to help her fellow human. Her humanity was grand. She knew how to love people. She always reminded me of this, and I will never forget.

There are so many stories like this, I could write a book. Actually, I am writing a book and have been for a long time now, but now is more than ever the culmination of research and family stories coming together to write the story of my Grandparents and my family’s journey from Vietnam to America. 


April was an intense month, to say the least. Two matriarchs of my life, gone, together at least. Perhaps they invited each other, my mother speculates. My mom said my Grandma Ma planned it out so well so that I could extend my stay in CA and spend some time with my Mom too. “Now I don’t have anyone to call Mom anymore,” she said to me after my Grandma Lee passed away, “I’m glad you’re here otherwise I’d be sad.” That was the most vulnerable expression I had ever heard from my Mom. “I’m here for you Mom,” I replied.

Being there for my parents who had just loss their parents was also another layer of emotional support I was happy to be there to fill. But, my family, being a big one, carried and shared the sadness for each other, which was another beautiful element of death and grief. It humbles you and if you're lucky, can bring your family closer together. 

Both funerals, celebrations of life, were held at Rose Hills Memorial where most of our loved ones who have passed rest in peace. My Grandmothers passed away one week apart from each other. Grandma Lee on May 1st and then Grandma Ma on May 8th. As a family we honored them in the best way we could and the flowers and speeches were beautiful.

Flowers from friends and family for Grandma Ma; Dad and Grandma photo.

Kev, Dad and I wearing traditional Chinese headbands. 

Flowers in honor of Grandma Lee from her burial site at Rose Hills. 

At 30, I now have no more Grandparents. I know I'm so lucky to have had 2 sets of loving Grandparents, and even more lucky to have had them until 30, except for my Grandpa Lee who passed away when I was 15. It’s still a concept I am adapting to. One chapter in my life has closed and a new one begun. I find myself missing them intensely in spurts.

I was honored to receive my Grandma Ma’s jade bangle, the one she wore everyday and I remember so well. My Nimbo Thin and Nimbo Nam said she would have wanted me to have it. It is beautiful and more importantly, it carries all the beautiful energy of my Grandma, so I feel so protected with it. My Nimbo Thin told me it’s over 40 years old; that Grandma had it since 1972.

I’m not used to wearing something so precious, and my greatest fear is breaking it by hitting my hand against something. But, I am very aware of it so try to be as careful as I can and so far so good. It was hard to get on my wrist! We had to use a plastic bag to slip it through, but it fits perfectly. I also was given her blanket, her beautiful white silk blouse, her knitted vest she always wore, which I had requested, and my sweet cousin Kat found, and a few other trinkets.

During all of this, I had the sweet opportunity to squeeze in some time to meet with my friend Madelon from yoga for tea at her lovely home. She is a gem of a person. I find her to be my spiritual friend, a wise woman and teacher of the metaphysical. We were reflecting together on this season of death in my life, of losing all 3 of my Grandparents within 3 months. She said death was an opportunity to learn. And, in her wisdom, and what I have experienced, she is so right. I’ve learned more than I can express in one blog post, and of course I haven’t even begun to speak of my amazing Grandma Lee yet, though I think I’ll share my eulogy of her here later, since she was an incredible gardener and Grandmother, of course. I wrote a eulogy for Grandma Ma too, but I think I’ve covered the gist of it here.

Lettuce in one of our fields at Isnardi's, my favorite. Puget-Theniers, France

Wild poppies share the field with our veggies.

When I left France, Spring was just beginning, and when I had first returned it was in full force. Beautiful flowers bloomed everywhere at the farm house. Not to mention all the lovely rows of salads and other veggies, which my colleague Indira had beautifully planted while I was away. She is amazing and held the fort down well while I was gone, as did Agnès and Renaud. 

Now, being back for about a month, it is definitely Summer. This week has been very hot 36 degrees celcius, which is 98.9 fahrenheit! I’ve been working just in the mornings from 6-11am or so, and it’s been wonderful. It’s just too hard to work in the heat and inefficient, since the body works slower. I love going to bed at 9 and waking up at 5, when it is quiet and feels like all the world is still asleep.

Coquelicot (poppies) make me so happy. 

Photos by: me, unless noted, or unknown.