Phillip Le connected with his grandfather through stories, technology, and gung fu. And he is ever grateful for that rich inheritance.
“Who has fully realized that history is not contained in thick books but lives in our very blood?” — Carl Jung
As my family tells it, his face—with its defined lines grooved by dirt, strife and time—held a solemn look most days. Weary or apathy was not the matter, it was a face well worn. A face having spent time in his village watching the nearby river slowly dismantile the fading banks. Even with all those years between him and the war it was a face etched with wrinkles wrought by the tears he could no longer shed. Anymore, his mood would shift only after dinner was had.
“I’m going to America today,” he’d declare. Taking out his faux leather-bound album, grandfather would chuckle as he opened to the first page. The photographs were slightly crinkled having sat beneath cracked yellowing plastic covers for some years. But that didn’t matter. The true treasure were the faces sitting behind those sheets.
The smile would appear slowly at first. As pages turned, the creases in his brow and on his cheeks would stretch taut, crevices giving way to delight.
“Look at that!” he would shout slapping his fingers onto the photos. Then he would smoothen the photographs with those fingers, fingers well aged in setting bones, mixing herbs, punching posts and pulling triggers. “That’s my grandson!” he’d proclaim, as if sharing the images to the family for the first time.
My grandmother told me that during those span of years in their lives, this was the only time my grandfather really showed any emotion. The war and reeducation had wrestled the rest away from him. What brought him life were his memories.
And that album.
ACROSS THE SEAS
The world in which you were born is just one model of reality. Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you; they are unique manifestations of the human spirit. ― Wade Davis
Those were the early 90s. Telecommunications were much different then, strikingly so when considering the gaps between the Vietnam countryside and Philadelphian suburb. Phone calls were scheduled months in advanced by handwritten postal mail. A time was arranged and the family in Ang Giang would travel to the designated phone station where the phone sat. When the phone rang, they would answer. And we’d be on the other side waiting for a “Hello?”
Those were the ways we communicated. At this point in my life I had never met my extended family. Beyond the perimeter of my parents and sister, the rest of my kin were all abstract ideas inferred by stories and brief phone conversations during special holidays.
I remember the last phone conversation I would share with my grandfather. I no longer remember the sound of his voice, nor exactly what we talked about, but recall vividly the setting that January evening.
Our lights were off. It was early. My sister and I were already asleep, but our parents woke us up in the dark dawn to call the family. With the 12 hour difference our uncles and aunts would be back from their day’s work.
I still remember sitting on the shag carpet watching my mother with the cordless phone pressed firmly against her ear. In two weeks time it would be the Lunar New Year and my mother was excited to talk about some final plans before she would touch Vietnam soil for the first time in 15 years.
I remember her talking to the family as I rubbed my eyes, head rested on the couch with arms slung over the side. I wanted a chance to talk to grandpa and grandma. I wanted to hear their voices. My mother handed me the grey magical box that would send me to my family a whole world away. And we talked.
I can remember pacing the room, talking excitedly. And then we said our goodbyes as I passed the phone along to my sister. And that was the last time I heard my grandfather’s voice. A week later he would have passed away.
There was no wealth after the war and so there were no heirlooms to pass on, no tokens, no mementos. All we had were the memories. All I had were the phone calls made 12,000 miles apart and our stories. For a time, all we had were our stories.
Those stories and what they inspired would become the only links left between my grandfather and I. Some were loving, others humorous, a few fantastical and others still, curious. My favorites were always the gung fu adventures involving my grandfather, his teacher and a mysterious man by the name of Ong Dao Luong. (While amongst my favorite stories, Ong Dao Luong will have to wait for another time.)
Hearing that my grandfather taught gung fu, that he in fact practiced in a familial style tied to our heritage grabbed my imagination early in my post-toddler life. My mother told me that he would wake her up in the early mornings to practice in the predawn light. Atop the roof of their three story home my grandfather would show her the routines that comprised of the basic movements and principles of our family’s art. Vo Lum it was called, which wasn’t very specific. It was a name easily attached to familial styles in the way many arts today attribute themselves to Shaolin or Chinese gung fu.
I wanted to learn gung fu like my mother had. I wanted to practice with my grandfather. But at this point in my life, my mother didn’t remember much of what she had learned. That was so long ago, further distanced by other worldly trials and concerns. She was, however, able to recall a few movements from grandfather’s routine called “Man Ho Li Son”–Mighty Tiger Up The Golden Moutain. And while my martial arts journey would blossom in other ways, it was with those movements I first felt aspiration, an undying passion for a particular kind of cultural movement. It was here that I began to learn not only my grandfather’s legacy, but also his secret in visiting loved ones so far away.
A civilization is a heritage of beliefs, customs, and knowledge slowly accumulated in the course of centuries, elements difficult at times to justify by logic, but justifying themselves as paths when they lead somewhere, since they open up for man his inner distance. — Antoine de Saint-Exupery
I spent the next years of my life asking my mother to retell me stories of my grandfather’s training, of his skills and of his personality. I dove into gung fu, boxing, karate and MMA the next 20 years of my life. In my early twenties I went back to Vietnam, to my uncles, aunts, great uncles and neighbors to try and find nuggets of information about my grandfather, how he interacted with people, what motivated him, the intricacies of his life and the peciliuarities of his movements. With the help of loved ones I pieced together the aformentioned Man Ho Li Son in its entirety. My great uncle, a contemporary with my grandfather, attempted to show me applications and concepts he had learned alongside his friend.
Fast forward four years and I met with another extended family member who remembered techniques and three additional forms. Along with a friend of mine I recorded them on video and spent a whole day practicing the forms to not only document them digitally, but to also commit them biomechanically. At this point, I had the physio-textbooks of my grandfather’s art, regardless of how patchwork the process, how piecemeal the research.
There are aspects of gung fu and martial arts that can be likened to dancing. But whereas there is generally a large level of cooperation in dance (there are certainly exceptions) communicating through martial arts, while also requiring a level of cooperation and understanding, has more of a disruptive pulse-like exchange. The purpose is to almost definitely outsmart and out maneuver your friend, albeit in the hopes that they counter and return the favor to you. It is communication on the level of a chess match—through feinting, counters and attacks. You not only learn your opponent’s/partner’s physicality, but also their mentality, personality and creativity. An exchange between martial artists can be made with anger and aggression or with amicability and admiration. Like life, communicating with martial arts has layers.
But how do you communicate in that way with a grandfather who passed before you met him? You can’t. But you can catch a glimpse of what it may have been like to do so by practicing the routines he practiced, by extrapolating the techniques from those routines and by contemplating what he would have suggested when you thought about how these techniques were relevant in the exchanges with other martial artists today.
There is a concept of design called heritage design. It is the idea that in today’s planned obsolesence, in our daily items’ inherent devaluing over time due to the nature in which technology rapidly progresses, we should begin to again design things meant to last. Not simply lasting in our lifetimes, but creating things so well crafted they lasted generations. Designing family heirlooms.
These stories and the very tangible experience of performing choreographed routines established by my grandfather, these are my inheritance. It is difficult to describe to someone who hasn’t had the isolation from family, who doesn’t desperately seek out glimpses of his past, it is difficult to describe how much this all means. For me, performing these movements are something very special, knowing that I am not simply reading a piece of history through which my grandfather lived, but for a moment in time and space performing the very movements he did, experiencing the same twist, turn and tumble of my limbs as he had. This experience, this art, my grandfather’s gift is my photo album. This art is a very sacred thing to me and it is through this art that I visit my grandfather.
Some people are your relatives but others are your ancestors, and you choose the ones you want to have as ancestors. You create yourself out of those values. — Ralph Ellison
You see, I was never handed an oil-worn baseball glove, or precisely tuned watch. You wouldn’t want to sell your grandfather’s old timepiece, I wouldn’t want to sell my grandfather’s gung fu. What was gifted me was deeper than a simple bit of nostalgia. I was given a way of communicating cultural value and heritage within the mediums of story and practice that bond me beyond land, ocean, time and death itself. My grandfather lives on because I dream of him, think to him and practice the things he cherished. For a moment in time, my grandfather visited my family through his photo album. For a moment in time, I visit my grandfather when performing those movements he performed all those years ago.
During those moments in time, he lives on.