Monday, August 29, 2011

The End

As all my loyal readers know, I started this blog for my mom. I thought it would be easiest for her to know what I was up to if I posted a day-to-day account of my life when I left America. My mom's a mom and mom's worry. We all know that. The blog was meant for her to ease her nerves while enjoying my adventure. The fact that 75,860 unique visitors from 170 countries/territories started to read my blog just became a bonus and some extra writing motivation over the last few years.

Instead of going out with a bang, I'm sad to say that Ahoy Hanoi has fizzled to say the least. After writing nearly a blog a day for three years, I've written less than one a week since coming home. And well, I'm sorry about that. The truth is though, it's my mom's fault. Yup, that's right, I'm blaming my mom. Now that I'm living back home, my number one reader gets her Ahoy Hanoi updates straight from the blogger's mouth. Okay, it's not totally my mom's fault. Just like 96%.

I've thought for a while about how I wanted to end my blog. I thought about writing a giant thank you list like I did two years ago when I first left Vietnam on May 8, 2009. But I've already done that and truthfully, most of the people I would be thanking would be the same people I've already thanked. I thought about doing one final video of all my time abroad but I'm pretty sure most of my readers are over my videos.

Instead, I want to try and give the moral to my story as I see it.

In 2007 I wasn't happy. Frankly, I was probably depressed. My life wasn't where I wanted it to be. I had moved to LA to become a writer and I had failed miserably at that. I was working on a reality TV show that I hated and felt like I was wasting away, spending long days in a dark edit suite. On the relationship front, well, there was no front. I hadn't had a meaningful long term relationship in about seven years and didn't have any prospects on the horizon. To top everything off, I was living far from my family and my closest friends. Yeah, things weren't great.

I'm not exactly sure when I first got the idea to drop everything and move to Vietnam. Regardless of when it happened, it sparked something inside of me. I've always been a person who does what he says. Once I verbalized that I was moving to Vietnam there was no stopping me. I sold all of my things including my car and furniture. I donated a ton of clothing to the Salvation Army and then packed up all my stuff. I had whittled down my possessions to so little that I was able to get it all back to the East Coast by having three friends and my sister take home an extra suitcase for me when they flew back for the holidays. Truly, I was starting with a blank slate.

When I flew out of JFK on February 2nd, 2008 I had no idea what to expect. Even as a writer, I couldn't have imagined the stories and experiences I would have over the next three and a half years. At some point recently, I realized that I had spent more time in Vietnam than I did in Syracuse, my alma matter. That realization hit a chord in me. Vietnam was truly like a second education for me; it was my graduate school for life.

When I left LA, I had failed as a writer. When I returned to America I had written over 1,200 blog entries AND had a screenplay optioned for an original family comedy script I wrote. I had never had a script optioned in LA, yet had one optioned while living on the other side of the world. The script presently has a director attached to it and the production company is paying me to do a rewrite and a polish on it. This isn't even close to being a big deal in Hollywood, but it's a big deal to me. On top of that, Huyen and I went to LA for three weeks last month where I had a bunch of meetings. Hopefully the writing career will continue to move forward...but if it doesn't, so what. There's other things in life that are more important. I can honestly say that one day teaching at the school Huyen and I started was more rewarding than any paycheck I ever earned.

When I left LA, I was single. Well, obviously that's not the case anymore. Everyone knows my love story. Most of you feel like you know it too well. For those of you who somehow stumble on to this blog, here's the jist of it: During the first week I was living in Hanoi, I met the love of my life. Huyen has changed my life for the better and, just from two months in America, I can already see her changing my family for the better too. No matter how long I live, I'll always be thankful for meeting Huyen.

When I left LA, I was living far away from my family and closest friends. Logically one would think that moving to Vietnam wouldn't solve that problem but somehow it did. Not only was I welcomed with open arms into Huyen's amazing family but I also made some great new friends. Upon leaving Vietnam, I thought we would have to make a tough decision on where to live in the USA. It would be easier for both Huyen and me to find work in California (besides Hollywood, there's a huge Vietnamese population in California that Huyen could have networked with). However, there was no decision to be made. Huyen laid down the law and said we were gonna move to NJ/NY so we could be close to our family.

So what's the moral of my story? Well, it's simple: Live life.

It's so easy to get stuck in the daily pattern of life. Well, sometimes we need to change things up and just go for it. Moving to Vietnam was the best decision of my life. There's no doubt about that. However, one doesn't have to do something so drastic. If you hate your job, quit it. Things will work out. If you're miserable in your relationship, end it. Things will work out. If there's a girl or boy you like but are scared to ask out, go for it! What's the worst that can happen? If you wish you could spend more time with your family, do it! Don't talk about it. Do it! Live life!

With that, Ahoy Hanoi has come to an end. However, don't fret. From time to time I might post some epilogues. For example, Huyen and I are planning on going to Hanoi next February for Tet. I'm sure there will be lots of fun stories to write about after nearly a year away.

And for those of you who like Huyen more than me (which is probably everyone who has met her), get ready for some great news -- Huyen is starting her own blog. Check it out: Photastic USA!!!

Saturday, August 20, 2011

My Grandma

(PICTURE: My family -- Grandma is in the middle, as always.)

While we were traveling in India, my Grandma Cele's health started to deteriorate. Huyen and I immediately tried to change our flight home but the cost was astronomical. We called my grandmother a few times every week and constantly checked in with my parents to see how she was doing. With about twelve days left to travel, her health got a little bit worse. Huyen and I quickly called the airlines and once again tried to change our flights. This time the cost was reasonable so we booked it and canceled the rest of our travel plans. We ended up landing in the USA ten days earlier than we had planned and drove right to see my grandma. Well, thank god we did. My grandma was very weak when we arrived but she was lucid and able to communicate with us. She got to meet Huyen and talked to her whenever she had strength. The two of them held hands and constantly exchanged kisses on the cheeks. Right around the time we were supposed to land home, my grandmother's health declined even further. She passed away two days after we were supposed to come back.

There's no good way to die, but my Grandma did it right. She had a great life and passed away with almost her whole family by her side, holding her, as she took her last breaths. It was sad but also beautiful at the same time.

At her funeral, I spoke for my siblings. Here's the eulogy I gave:


I want to start off by apologizing to Grandma for three things. First, Grandma, I’m sorry for throwing Zev off the bed in 1983 when you were babysitting us. Sure, I meant to teach Zev a lesson not to mess with his little brother, but I didn’t mean for him to have to go to the hospital to get stitches. I know you had a little anger bottled up towards me over the years so I just wanted to say sorry.

Secondly, I’m sorry if there’s any incorrect grammar in this speech. Growing up, if I said, something with incorrect grammar, Grandma would strain her eyes and pretend like she couldn’t hear me. For example, if I said, “Grandma, Zev and me were wrestling on the bed and...” Grandma would stop me and say, “Who was wrestling?”. I’d say, “Zev and me”. Grandma would say “Who?” again and again until I’d caught on and said, “Zev and I were wrestling on the bed and I pushed him off and he hit his face and he’s bleeding a lot.”

My grammar was so bad that Grandma had to pretend to be hard of hearing so many times that I’m pretty sure I’m responsible for her actually going hard of hearing.

Thirdly, Grandma, I want to apologize that this speech is gonna be more than thirty seconds. I know you liked to keep everything short and sweet and well, this speech is a gonna be a little bit long.

When Grandpa Leo was alive, if you called over to my grandparents’ house, Grandma would pick up the phone, talk to you for ten seconds and then pass the phone to Grandpa who would talk to you for roughly twenty five minutes to around three and a half hours. After Grandpa Leo passed away, here was a typical phone call with Grandma:

Ring. Ring. Ring. Grandma picks up.


ME: Hi, Grandma!

GRANDMA: Oh, hi Justin.

ME: No, it’s Ben, Grandma.

GRANDMA: Oh, hi Ben. What’s new?

ME: Well, A, B and C are new.

GRANDMA: So, when are you coming home?

ME: I’ll be home in a month.

GRANDMA: That’s too long.

BEN: Well, I’ve got midterms.

GRANDMA: Well, okay. Goodbye.

ME: Wait, uh, Grandma. I lo--CLICK.

I swear, I didn’t get my first full “I love you” out until I was in my thirties.

But that was Grandma’s way. For Grandma, actions always spoke louder than words. Grandma didn’t need to tell us that she loved us. The proof was in the pudding. Or really, the proof was in the chocolate squares, the apple crisp, the strawberry cheesecake, the fruit mondolas, the chocolate chip cookies, the oatmeal/raisin cookies and about 2,867 other sweets that all of us grandkids will think about fondly the rest of our lives as we’re dealing with diabetes. Frankly, we all knew Grandma loved us because she wanted more of us – thirty to fifty pounds more of us.

But Grandma didn’t just cook. She could eat with the best of them too. Grandma always finished everything on her plate…even her second and third plates. Whenever everyone comes over to our house, we usually do buffet style. Whenever I’d get Grandma a plate I ‘d ask her what she wanted. Her response was always the same, “Everything.”

Zev was saying to me the other day how Grandma would eat a full rack of ribs, with two sides, at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que when she visited us in Syracuse. Let me just tell you that a full rack of ribs with two sides even makes my dad full. And well, my dad weighs a little bit more than Grandma did. But Grandma, as always, would clean her plate.

Besides in the kitchen or the dining room, I always think of my Grandma at Temple Beth Shalom. If you’re a temple member, you knew exactly where to find my Grandmother on high holidays. She’d be on the right side, about five rows back and would have a wall of protective siddurim around her, saving seats for her family members who didn’t want to show up to temple at 3:30AM.

I just want to be clear about something though, Grandma was a proud Jew, but I know she only went to temple at the crack of dawn so that us grandkids could have the furthest walk possible through the crowd so that every temple member could see who her grandkids were. And just in case people weren’t absolutely sure who her grandkids were, she then introduced us to every person over the age of 40 who was within seven rows of us even though she had introduced us on every Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur since we were able to walk.

On a side note, being at temple with Grandma on Yom Kippur was the only time us grandkids were ever with her when we were hungry. In fact, I’m absolutely certain that nobody had a harder fast than us because our stomachs had been trained to expand whenever we were within sixty feet of Grandma.

Us grandkids are so fortunate to have grown up so close to Grandma and Grandpa. Throughout our childhoods, they were at every event we participated in. Whenever we’d finish playing a sport, or finish up a concert or a play, Grandma and Grandpa would be there, beaming with pride. We’d always be greeted after our event with a “How about that” from Grandpa and a smile and kiss from Grandma.

I know that all of us are gonna miss Grandma. But nobody is gonna miss Grandma more than my mom, who not only lost her mother but also her best friend. With Grandma, actions always spoke louder than words. And well, my mom did every action there was for Grandma. She took her to the beauty parlor to get her hair done and to salons for manicures. She took her grocery shopping and to doctor’s appointments and anywhere else my grandmother wanted to go. Sure my mother takes after my grandpa in that she can talk A LOT, but her actions were always those of an angel. My mom is an amazing person and I know my grandmother loved and appreciated her with every bone in her body.

Like I said before, Grandma used to hang up the phone before she said I love you. In fact, until the last couple of years she never said I love you to me – although in retrospect maybe I’m the only one she didn’t say I love you to since I threw Zev off the bed.

Anyway, I know she loved her whole family and in the last days of her life, she couldn’t stop saying “I love you” to all of us. She loved my mom and she loved Barry. She loved my dad and she loved Donna. She loved Adam, Justin and Dana and she loved Zev, Hannah and myself. She loved Kathy and Rachel and she loved Huyen, who she liked to talk to on the phone more than me and who she got to meet in the last week of her life and smothered with kisses. And of course Grandma loved Lilah and she loved Max. And she loved Linda, who took such great care of her over the last couple of years.

Us August and Zucker kids are so lucky to have known all of our grandparents. My Grandfather Macky died eighteen years ago and my Grandpa Leo died 10 years ago and I still think about them all the time. Just as I know Adam, Justin and Dana think about Grandpa Leo and their Grandpa Harry.

As I lay in bed two nights ago, just as I did after Grandpa Leo died, I could picture the scene up in heaven between all of them. Grandma arrives and is greeted by Grandpa Leo, Grandpa Macky, Grandpa Harry and all of Grandma’s sisters and brothers and parents. Grandpa Leo greets Grandma with a big hug and kiss and says, “How about that. Cele, you lived to 94. What were you trying to show off?” And Grandma smiles at Grandpa and everyone else and says, “Is anyone hungry?” And Grandpa Leo says, “Of course. But first let me finish explaining to Max and Harry how to properly plant a hydrangea.” And then Macky quickly gets a word in and says, “Cele, maybe you should start cooking. Leo’s been explaining this since 2001.” And then Grandma heads off to the kitchen and starts to prepare a brisket and an apple crisp. And well, lets just say everyone up in heaven is about to get a little bit fatter.

We love you Grandma.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Goodbye, India

I've been in the worst blog writing slump since I started Ahoy Hanoi. There's basically two reasons for this:

1. Huyen and I arrived in America and have been running around like crazy.

2. I think I'm sad to end the blog and know it's about time. It's sort of like dragging out the end of a relationship that has lost its fizzle.

I've had more than a few readers yell at me recently that I need to wrap up India and get on with the blog. Well, I'm a man of the people so here's a goodbye to India video:

India is an intriguing place. There's no arguing that. However, it's hard for me to make generalizations about the country because we only visited a small percentage of it. There was so much to like but also so much to despise. I loved the history. I hated the way the people treated us. I loved the energy of the cities. I hated the vile litter and filthy streets. I loved the colors and the scents. I hated the scams and the lying.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Our first friend

In the past, whenever I've traveled I've made some friends. When you travel alone or with a friend, it's very easy to meet new people. When you travel with your wife, it's not as easy. For one, we were generally on the backpacker path in which couples are at a minimum and married couples seemed to be almost non existent. Secondly, you usually end up making friends at night when drinking at bars. In India, there just weren't that many bars and well, Huyen and I rarely drink. Those two things combined meant that Huyen and I had another month of basically just each others' company. Yes, I know, Huyen is a lucky woman.

On the bus to Agra we met our first friend -- Nate.

In a case of it being a very small world, Nate taught English in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. This obviously gave us an immediate thing to talk about. When we arrived in Agra we shared a rickshaw and ended up at the same hotel (Nate, being a way better backpacker got a way better rate on his room then we did). Over the next couple of days we ate and toured with Nate who turned out to be a very cool guy despite the handlebar mustache.

Monday, August 1, 2011

More of Agra...

Most people only think of the Taj when they think of Agra. However, there's actually a ton of other cool sites like the Red Fort and Baby Taj.

To me, the Red Fort is really interesting because the rich dude who paid for the Taj was actually overthrown by his son and imprisoned in the Red Fort. He spent the last years of his life staring at the Taj with this view:

(PICTURE: The Taj is out there somewhere.)

There were two common themes among all the sites:

1. We would inevitably be harassed by freelance tour guides as soon as we set foot near the site. The guides would grow increasingly angry at us when we told them we didn't need a guide. We had our travel book which gave a brief history, and frankly that's all I could really retain after seeing so many sites.

2. The ticket agents would try and scam the site. They had this little scam going where they would take your new ticket and then give you back an old ticket someone had put into a special "return ticket" box. The scam is so simple and brilliant. Basically the ticket agents would take our new tickets and return them to the cashier for money. It doesn't affect tourists (unless you want to keep your ticket as a souvenir). Instead, it just rips off the Indian government.

Here's some other pictures from sites...