The life of a butchered name

…is my name – and boy, has it had a whirlwind of adventures in its 25 years of existence. It’s been tossed into a linguistic grinder , verbally chopped and phonetically dissected to create possibly the most interesting sounds ever. 

I will have gotten your lips moving by now in your own attempt. No worries though, you won’t be the first.

From Ding Dong to All Wrong  

First day of 3rd grade, Mrs. Wainwright called the roll as her eyes glanced around our circle of 15 to fit the names with the faces. Each time a person’s name was read, the whole class would say in unison “Hi…” Kevin or Alice or John.

It was finally my turn and it’s still somehow engrained in the back of my mind, her knitted brows and the perplexed expression on her face as she hesitantly uttered “Dong?“.

Zuh-ong“, I replied , to which her face wrinkled up even more so, before stretching out to smile : “How about we call you by an English name, yes? How’s Jen or Jenny?” (what my classmate told me a year later)

You must understand, I was 8 at the time, I had been studying French the 2 years before and hadn’t a word of English in my head besides “Hi”.  And so I did what a lost person would do, NOD.

Only a second later, I realized what a huge mistake I had made, as the whole class shouted “Hi Jenny!

From Jenny to Jo – to Yoyo ! 

I still and forever will have sour memories of that name “Jenny”. By the time I was equipped with enough English to fend for myself, the damage had been done. Throughout the next years, I gave in to the “Jenny” stipulation, by doing the worst, introducing myself by that name. 

By high school, I was back in the States again and it was the perfect turning point to sack the name and begin anew. I even added a “z” turning my name into Dzuong, hoping it would somehow smooth out  the concerned brows.

The already-formed cliques of rebellious teenagers couldn’t give a beeswax about what Dzuong is and so the butchering began. You had everything from the coarse “Ding Dong”, to the softer “Zong” and “Zu” , and even “Zuzu”.  And, of course my AP Physics teacher, who just insisted on calling me “Jo“, to which some caught on and called me “Yoyo” -yes, like the toy.

It was a linguistic nightmare, and yes, I’ve sank to low points where I wished my name was just a plain and readable one.

Growing out the nickname phase

The college days were much kinder to my name. The poor thing had suffered enough and was in a such a tattered state, that it was shocked to meet people genuinely interested in getting it right.

My first dance performance freshmen year, I remember almost tripping over my next step, hearing a stark “Go ZUH-ONG!!!!! ” amidst the crowd. That was it, another turning point – the perfect time to grow out of the nickname phase.

Vietnamese explained

In Vietnamese, there are 2 “D” s in the alphabet and no “Z” s:

You have:  Đ which is pronounced like an English D 

          and:  D which is pronounced like an English Z 

Hence, my name!

I don’t really blame people for getting it wrong though. It’s a tough nut to crack even for Vietnamese, especially children. They usually say “Dua” or “Zuh” instead, which means Melon. There’s another one to my nickname collection. And I haven’t even started on the accents, Duong in Vietnamese is written like this: Dương.

The farthest thing from being unique

Both my parents’ names begin with D. They were pressed in a weird, perfectionist way to name their first child with a D word as well. My mom described the moment of an angry nurse tapping a pen on the side of the bed: “Either you give me a name now, or I’ll name your child for you on the birth certificate, hurry up” (That’s just how you were treated back in those food ration days in Vietnam) 

Unfortunate for me, it was the decade of hundreds of Vietnamese graduates coming back from the former Soviet Union, and everyone was naming their daughters : Thùy Dương , which means Russian Willow.

And so, with seconds and a pissed-off nurse to go, I was hastily named Duong, along with probably the tens of thousands of babies born that year. Needless to say, virtually every Vietnamese class I’ve been in, there has been another Duong if not 4 more. Along with the diverse array up there, for the teacher’s convenience, I’ve also been called Duong A and Duong B, or Duong number 1 and Duong number 3.

I started a part-time job in a Vietnamese restaurant here in London the other day, and what do you reckon, there were 2 other “Duong”s. And yes, the nicknaming has commenced again. The manager insisted and you’ll have to come to the resto to find out what it is (shameless advertisement)

This post is getting way too narcissistic, but to end it off and just to set the record straight once and for all: My name is Duong (pronounced Zuh-Ong)./.

Fun fact: my first dog – a German shepherd – was named Dim, to carry on the D-family tradition.

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CULINARY SNIPPETS: Sâm Bổ Lượng Dessert Cart- Saigon

My mind turns to the refreshing delights of my days in Saigon…and how I thirst for just a sip of that goodiness right now.

Now, you may have heard of or be like me, have many times over, in your life, turned into an utter fool for “Chè”, not the tea, but the dessert. It could be anything from well-cooked green beans soaked in sugar to a blend of syrup-drowned fruits, nuts and jelly,served either hot or iced. The topic of this much loved dessert would take countless days to cover, since it could be practically any number of combinations of sugar-related dishes in Vietnam.

Sam Bo Luong – this combination does not include all the available ingredients
The Sam Bo Luong Cart on Nguyen Thai Binh Str, Dist1

In Saigon, however, amidst the culinary adventure on which I and my palate fully and ever so often engage and yet fail to fully report on, I discover a genre of ‘chè’  known as ‘sâm bổ lượng”  – Pardon my Vietnamese, linguists out there, but my rough understanding after enjoying this once or twice, is that it’s a ginseng drink that is absolutely scrumptious and healthy, and it gives you a boost on metabolism.

No, it’s not “Redbull” in disguise. From my conversation with the vendor who happens to be of Chinese ancestry, this type of dessert is a Chinese treat brought to the southern metropolis by communities moving southward to settle. Beyond simply cooking different types of fruits and jelly, and letting it candy up and soak in sugar syrup in the case of many types of typical Vietnamese “Chè”, this ginseng refreshment uses ingredients that would be more known to Vietnamese people in a mixture of Chinese traditional medicine such as: ginseng, dried seaweed, ginko nuts pearl  barley, dried dates, dried longans…etc (Below is a sample of some ingredients) .

This makes it all sound so healthy…and my so far-done research of this drink is way too scattered to affirm this…yet my palate and I will attest, the ginseng flavored syrupy broth, coupled with the subtle differences in texture and taste of the ingredients involved, makes this drink definitely a worthwhile delight to try out. I find that it doesn’t have the ‘heaviness’ or ‘overwhelming sugary’ feel of some other types of Chè that includes further extraction of the fruits and beans into the broth. In contrast, it’s light, only slightly sweet, savory in texture, and refreshing in taste. It’d become nothing short of a culinary enigma if I attempt to describe any more.

Some ingredients (*Courtesy of Food For Four)

But, if you ever head over to district 1 in HCMC, a block or two away from Ben Thanh Market, down to Nguyen Thai Binh street during late night….it’s completely deserted, with the exception of this cart. It’s a very eye-catching cart indeed…plastered with what I see as stained-glass paintings (I could be completely off)…

These carts, the owner, in his 50s and a 3rd generation Chinese expat, says are typical for vending desserts and other goodies back in the heyday of the “Cho Lon” – Chinese-populated era of Saigon. His cart dates back to the 1930s, I believe and his family has been in the business since he can barely remember. After the passing of his wife, my friend shares, he had been fully dedicated to perfecting the trade, all from the comforts of this cute little cart, amidst the bustling chaos that is Saigon life.

He’s a journalism story in the making and I have plans to learn more about this man and his cart, of which I’ll share, and yet I digress, as this post is about FOOD…Anyhoo, it’s roughly around 175 Nguyen Thai Binh I think, a cart with aluminum cylinders of brewed delights ready to be mixed in with a range of different ginseng and sugar syrup. I’ve only had the drink several times, not nearly quite enough,  but what I can definitely notice is the clarity and lightness of the broth here compared to the place I tried in District 5 – Chinatown. How I would fly to Saigon just for a glass right now…!!!

PS: updates will be given to fill apparently huge gaps in the knowledge that I have about this delight. From what I know, Sam Bo Luong is but one…as this cart alone features many other types of ‘che” known through names that I fail to register in my head…ones that even include full eggs boiled in sugar (sounds weird yet enticing). For now, just take it from me that Sam Bo Luong is amazingly the best summer refreshment I’ve enjoyed so far, and you should go try it! Enjoy!

Filling in the blank spaces – Coehlo’s “The Witch of Portobello”

To be honest, Coehlo’s “The witch of Portobello” was a disastrous let-down after how much I had enjoyed “the Alchemist”.

Coehlo said he was trying to understand his spiritual side in this book and truthfully, that might have just been its problem. It had too much “sermons” and straight theoretic talk on spirituality and religion, and within the context of such novel about love and finding yourself, many other things would have been of more interest.

On the other hand, it offered ideas which I liked. It was a long story, whose details I would not like to get into, perhaps another time. But the protagonist talked about one particular thing, and that was the idea of ‘blank spaces’, and that we all have them.

People who are missing something in life have many blank spaces, these are the moments between the words that we utter, these are the moments when your thoughts are for a second outside of your mind, these are moments of ‘out of it”s when you’re in the middle of doing something, but you suddenly feel like you’re at a lost…and you don’t know why or maybe you do…but these are the “blank spaces”.

I try to fill these blank spaces with constant things to do and that is because blankness brings in thoughts that I would more often like to block out of my head. And it’s funny because, the protagonist says that the only way to effectively fill the blank spaces is to confront those thoughts, or whatever it was that created that hole, and gap in the first place. But if I were to do so, I wouldn’t even be writing these lines.

And so I continue to work, I continue to read, I continue to write because it helps me to not think about the things that make me feel sad, and alone in the world….and because it helps those blank spaces to go through me more quickly.

My favorite quote in that book because I think it’s true for me and all of us,

“- Q:’Are you happy’

– A:’Yes’

– Q: ‘Do you want more?’

– A:’Yes’

-Q: ‘Then you’re really not happy..?”

And this is exactly where the blank space is –  at our hesitation to answer this last question.

[Inspiration] The curious incident of the dog in the night-time

I finished the last few pages of “The curious incident of the dog in the night-time” last night or this morning, I should say, at 4 am.

I have this tendency to do what my mother says is ‘ a case of extremism’. I just think it’s memory loss, I’m afraid that if I don’t read it all at once (it was not too long or hard to read of a book) then I might lose the pace, the special flow of the story if you will. Or you could just say, I had a morning off today so I decided to push my limits. Anyhoo, the memory loss thing is no lie, I read things, and soon enough it just slips off my brain cells like a dog’s feet first time touching ice. I’ll find myself in situations where I try to describe something I had definitely read before, and with much interest, but then I just stop on brain-freeze, because I’ll only remember part of what was actually important. So I’ve decided to write things down, things I can go back on, drawings I can refer to should I forget this quite brilliant story that I just put down. Maybe you’d find it interesting too and have a look at it, it’s quite a short read.

‘The curious incident of the dog in the night-time” is a light, handy, orange, paper-back novel with an up-side down poodle on the middle of the front cover. I had found it in a quite dusty corner of Bookworm on Nguyen Thai Hoc street on Tuesday, and remember clearly that upon my removing it from the shelf, the owner had said “now that’s my kinda pre-sleep read right there, because then I won’t have to sleep”. Being there the first time ever, I wasn’t really sure if he truly liked the book or if he was just trying to get me to buy it. But my gullible nature surpassed any suspicions, and the preview in the back was quite catchy, so I gave in and the British (I presume) owner was quite pleased, and even gave me a free communist-themed bookmark.

The read was a new one to me, it’s written in a very simple manner,  but very, sometimes too logical and detailed that you get weary. But that’s just the point, the protagonist also narrator is a 15-year-5-month-n-2-day-old (at the beginning of the book) autistic boy. He doesn’t like talking to strangers because he believes in stranger danger lessons at his special needs school and also, being autistic, he just doesn’t like interacting with new people in general. Yet, he thinks in the most logical and concise manner that you could ever imagine. And he talks in this way: His favorite color is red, his most loathed color is yellow, and for that reason he thinks seeing 4 red cars in a row signal a super good day, while 4 yellow cars in a row mean a black day. And he knows all the prime numbers up to 376547898 and all the countries in the world, with their respective capitals and their respective populations. When he’s scared of being claustrophobic, he does math problems like multiplying 2 by itself until he gets to the hundreds of thousands, his record so far is 2 to the 52nd.

He thinks everything should follow patterns or some kind of rule…and he doesn’t believe in generalities. If I were to see a field of several cows, I would say it was a field with several cows. But he’d be able to say the exact date, and time at which he saw this field of cows, what hue of brown and green the grass was, what hue of blue or grey the sky was, how many cows there were, the patterns of black and white on the cow’s body …etc. And after a while, you get tired of his continuing on like this as you probably have with mine. And then something happens, the curious incident of the dog in the nighttime, of course…the poodle living across the street from Christopher, the boy, was killed with a garden fork.

Christopher jumps into this detective mission of his own, using all his logical alerts and know-hows…Father prevents him from “poking his nose into other people’s business” but he said that’s not clear at all – “people’s business”. He meets with other people and join in their “business” all the time, and it’d be impossible not to poke his nose into other people’s business. Slowly the story progresses, and the curious incident of the dog takes Christopher in stories of his father and thought-to-be-dead mother that his logical mind cannot quite comprehend. If I tell you all this part, then it really takes away the crux of the story…but it unravels beautifully in what would seem very touching for us but very disordered and unstructured for Christopher. As he finds his mother in his journey to London and goes out of his hometown of special foods, red, and yellow cars and known spaces, you understand the internal workings of how the autistic boy reacts to all these changes, to the parts of life completely unexposed to him, and how he surmounts his restrictions in social interaction abilities.

Again parts of the story are very detailed, with even drawings, and mathematical graphs and figures to demonstrate, you sometimes would stop on a page for nearly half an hour just to work out the math problem Christopher was talking about it. After reading this book, you’d think about how precise and meticulous his mind was, and for at least a day afterwards, you’d start to look at your surroundings this way, and you have the tendency to carry on your sentences until no detail was left untouched and untold. And that’s why I like the book so much, not just because you see into the workings of an autistic-savant* mind, you start to cherish too, the importance of intricacy in your surroundings.

* Now upon starting to read this book, I had no understanding of what autism was and what it meant to be an autistic-savant. Looked it up afterwards, and here’s the scoop on that: autism is a case of disorder in neural development, where the person has an inborn restricted ability to socially interact. About 10% of autism cases have savant abilities, which means they have extraordinary talents and knowledge such as Christopher: the ability to do mathematical problems up to endless numbers within seconds, the ability to memorize exact dates, time, years, cities..everything possible. The percentage of people who have these abilities in the normal population is only about 1%. These people used to be called “idiot savant” which in french, meant “unlearned skills”, but there, I’m guessing, later for the easily misunderstood terming, it was changed to autistic savant. Apparently there’s a movie called Rainman also about an autistic-savant and I’m curious to see it..but it is said that after seeing the movie, many people  presume that all autistic people are savants, which is not the case (only roughly 10% are, as said)

Apologize for the wordy description, I’m normally redundant in words but that has become more true after reading this book. Hope you’ll check it out!

[Vietnam] A country – NOT a war


My first day of Asian History in a public high school in Washington DC, a pan of the room and I found myself a loner amidst a group of American Caucasians. Considering the content of the course, all attention veered towards the obviously Asian girl across the room, as the teacher asked where I was from. “Vietnam”, I replied, to which the teacher posed to the class “What do we all know about Vietnam?” Hands popped to the air, as 8 proclaimed “Vietnam War”, while one boy enthusiastically shouted “Rambo”, and that was the end of it.

Throughout my next 6 years of living and meeting people in America, I would come to realize that in most minds here, Vietnam is seen no more than the notion of the “Vietnam War”. It’s a historical period so engrained in the memory of Americans and so popular for the anti-war spirit it inspired in American and global youths during the 1960s, that it has become the only perception most people have of Vietnam.

I’ve met people, who, in our second or third conversation, would hesitate before reticently asking me “So, do Vietnamese people still hate Americans?” or stories of veterans, who fear ever coming back to Vietnam not purely because of the revival of traumatic experiences but mostly, because they unconsciously assume that Vietnamese people “are not over it”.

Terminology-wise, first off, Vietnamese people have never referred to the period between 1954 and 1975 as the Vietnam War. It was never our choice to bring war upon us and naming the intentional efforts of the American government to colonize Vietnam – the Vietnam War, to Vietnamese people, is incomprehensible. Given our 1,000 years of rule by the Chinese and 100 years of colonization by the French before, the American invasion would be known simply as the American war.

I don’t blame the general knowledge of Vietnam being limited to the notion of war. We are, after all, a nation shaped by war and resistance, losing generations of Vietnamese to the battlefield while our society, today, is still riddled with unresolved consequences from the war. 37 years after the guns have fallen silent, ordinances and mines still dot our terrain threatening to explode at any minute and children born today live still with congenital disabilities due to the effects of Agent Orange. While the war is an inseparable part of Vietnam’s identity, however,  it is not the whole of it.

Hundreds of years of colonization have taught the Vietnamese to fully embrace their achieved independence and nearly 4 decades have been enough to see the Southeast Asian nation forge ahead first off, economically and more so, mentally past the war.

In sentiments to Americans, when he was alive, my grandfather, a witness to and active citizen in Vietnamese resistance against both the French and American invasion, stressed how many Vietnamese during and more so, after the war understood that it was the then American government and not the American people that their generation was fighting. While Vietnamese people may hold resentment towards the war, and what it took away and left behind in its course of destruction, I believe I speak for many when I say, we don’t hold a grudge towards the US as a nation and certainly not as a people. Let me take half a step back on my word to also note that there is no divide between black and white here, we must understand that even though it was a war between Vietnamese and Americans, there were Vietnamese on the side of Americans and Americans supporting the cause of the Vietnamese.  That grey area alone offers space for many questions and analysis into how the war was perceived then and even now. The opinion provided here is therefore, my general prospective on Vietnam today.

There are the Americans who fought endlessly against the American war in Vietnam, actively so in the series of protests iconic of the 1960s. There are then are untold stories of American youths who came to Vietnam to volunteer and even American veterans who only realized the war’s lack of purpose when their fingers hovered over the trigger on the battlefront. Vietnamese people receive their stories and sentiments with an open mind and hospitality.

I won’t go into how the economic growth has affected Vietnam, the perks and downsides are 100 posts in themselves, but it has certainly changed the face of Vietnam – a nation constantly struggling to balance the concept of communism, which had pulled it through the war, with its aspirations now to compete with its capitalist counterparts in becoming an economically-thriving country. You could say, Vietnamese society like any other modern society has a range of multi-faceted issues to face with, everything ranging from rising petrol prices, to motorbike congestion, to support to the shrinking rurality, to your everyday tabloid story about celebrities showing too much skin. It has so much to look forward to and so much to deal with rather than hold itself in a standstill to lament the war. This is not to say it should neglect working upon resolving the aforementioned consequences of war.

The S-shaped nation is also a beautiful one, a melting pot of cultures with its 53 ethnic groups and call me biased, but it has one of the best cuisines in the world.  Vietnam is imbued with history and culture. It stands at a crossroad between the old and new, the oriental and occidental, tradition and innovation, it aspires to grow, it struggles to face with daily national and regional challenges, it is in its own right, a country, NOT a war.

PS: this was from a short exercise this afternoon in class – very much not well analysed, sorry 😦

[Munch Spot] Snails for Lunch? – Ốc Đào Sài Gòn

So we all might have heard of the typical stereotypes of the French eating their grimy frog legs and more frequently are escargots (snails), and the mention of those “slimey molluscs” on any dinner menu immediately triggers a ‘yuck’ or two from a good number of my American friends. But mind you, they’re part of the street food specialties in Vietnam.

Aside from a tiny bias here that it is perhaps one of my favorite pastime munchies that I’m literally almost always up for at any particular given time, snails here are diverse in the myriad of breeds living across Vietnam and they become much more than just, as infamously accused, “rubbery pieces of blandness” through the plenty of ways in which you can marinate/cook/grill/stir-fry/a la carte/’younameit’ them.

Anyhow, just when my palate thought it was quite, very much, satisfied with the ‘Quán Cay’ (Spicy Resto) alongside the Giang Vo lake _renowned as the snails foodie row here in Hanoi, I find myself completely stupefied at the abundance of scrumptious snail possibilities in Saigon. There are perks in having to go on business trips down to the southern metropolis every so often, you start to discover the greener, well another color completely of the culinary grass. The collection of southern snails are for a great part, very different from those you could find here in Hanoi. My newfound snail haven in HCMC is ‘Ốc Đào’.

Well tucked away in a typically-Vietnamese-winding alley of Nguyễn Trãi Street, the resto’s headquarters, all under 2 umbrellas, consist of baskets full of different types of shell-fish, 1 or 2 cooks stir-frying on-spot, and a host of finger-pointing employees as to where you should sit. Behind the umbrellas, are two small rooms but the main eating area is across the alley, into a tent-covered yard with around 30 to 40 small plastic tables, and those tiny street food chairs that anyone above 1.8 metres tall who sits on them will immediately find his knees kissing his nose.


The thing that sets Ốc Đào (not sure if Đào (peach) is the name of the owner) apart is the fact that it is an exclusively lunch-spot. This is very odd considering most Vietnamese people look to snails as a night treat. Nevertheless, as I had mentioned my ‘timeless’ love for these shell delights, this fact, for me and I’m guessing also for the amount of people flocking into the place over lunchtime, the fact didn’t matter. The matter at hands were the SNAILS! They are around 25 different types of shellfish on the menu (shrimps and crabs included)…some of the stuff I have never even heard of, everything ranging from tiny-looking snails ironically named ‘ốc ngựa’ (horse snails) to oddities like ‘sò lông’ (hairy clams) . There are  some 13 different ways of cooking almost any particular snails, most scrumptious of which include, grilled with shallots and peanuts, stir-fried with tamarind, or  deep-fried in butter and garlic. From 25,000 VND to 100,000 VND per full plates, depending on the luxuriousness of the snails,  it’s definitely quite a budget yet sure-to-please street delight.

Ốc Mỡ Stirfried with Tamarind, Shallots and Fatty chips

In the middle of the seemingly commencing unbearable summer heat of Saigon, hiding below a tent, watching conical-hat covered employees hoisting tray-full of a multitude of shells on their shoulders, huddled to your knees amidst about 100 others,
sipping ice-cold sugarcane juice, twisting delectably marinated snails out of their shells, dipping them anxiously into crazily spicy fish sauce, and then easing those  lovelies into your palate , one by one …. it’s an experience beyond any preconceptions you might have about eating snails! Enjoy photos taken on my second visit to the resto!

Sò Lông Grilled with buttered shallots and peanuts
Sò Dương Grilled with Garlic and Peanuts

[Babbles] June June I croon!

3 years of using the VNPT service and this is the first time I’ve seen them decide to completely divert the blocking attention from Facebook to other forms of social media like WordPress and Blogspot. Why? who knows, maybe one day they just thought, the brain of the guy who sealed himself shut in his room, carefully scripted out the different interminable blog posts about the most inconsequential nonsense, must be a bigger threat than your average schoolgirl who refreshes her facebook profile every 20 seconds in anticipation of a new comment on her recently updated wall photo.But where would we (and Mark Zuckerberg and Matt Mullenweg (yah totally googled that one ) ) be otherwise? so really VNPT, what’s the point with trying to “tỏ ra nguy hiểm” as the colloquial slang goes?  Turns out all I had to do was add an “s” to the http and my “devastation” of being forever estranged from my already abandoned blog was completely dispelled. Yes, call me the prehistoric goon.