My father’s birthday is this coming Sunday. He’ll be 81 years old. Bo Gia (“Boe Zaah,” Old Daddy in Vietnamese) has been through much in his life, having been forced to migrate repeatedly and weather Vietnam’s turbulent history through the 20th century.
As a young man, he pondered becoming a priest but went into the military instead, taking on the role of provincial governor by the time he was in his late 20s. After the Diem assassination in 1963, Bo Gia switched careers to become a business development consultant (today’s equivalent of a start-up pro). My dad had always wanted to study and live in the United States; in his youth, he even applied for a scholarship abroad. In the end, it was the Fall of Saigon in 1975 that brought him and our family here.
If you asked Bo Gia about his eventual good fortune of living in America, he’d respond that it was mostly because of his religious conviction. My dad attends mass every morning at his local Catholic church. He can lead a rosary in Vietnamese – which resembles a light chant – like no one else can in our clan. Religious statues are displayed in various prominent spots at my parents’ home.
My dad’s devotion to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is combined with his belief in three material things that have helped him get out of many tough jams: tiger balm, eucalyptus oil, and toothpicks. Those are his fix-it tools. Seriously.
We couldn’t take much with us when we fled Vietnam but he tucked small containers of tiger balm and eucalyptus oil into our hand-held luggage. He figured that if any of us got sick, the ointment and oil would save us. Got a cold or other afflictions caused by too much wind in your system? Dad brought out a silver dollar and the tiger balm to cao gio – scrape the wind out of our bodies.
A traditional Chinese medicine technique that’s popular in Southeast Asia, the Tiger Balm coining was done more or less to follow the rib bones. The result was a post-modern pattern of slanted red lines on our backs. It was painful but healing. (Physiological details on cao gio are at this site.)
The eucalyptus oil was Dad’s go-to remedy. He inhaled it from the bottle to relieve congestion, soaked a paper towel with it and made me wear it to school if I had a cold, rubbed it on his temples to alleviate headaches. I once suffered a seizure and he revived me with eucalyptus oil. He believed in the power of eucalyptus oil to cure us many (if not all) ills.
After we arrived in the US, he was delighted to find eucalyptus oil at the pharmacy; he wanted our family to run a pharmacy at one point too. To this day, dad keeps a sizeable 16-ounce bottle of the oil on hand (the 2-ounce one in the photo is mine). His house has a pleasant spa-like aroma from it. Eucalyptus oil is Dad’s aromatherapy.
In a MacGyver-like manner, Bo Gia often reached for toothpicks. I remember him using one to fix a pair of glasses. He employed toothpicks to apply minute bits of glue to things. When our family decorated Christmas Yule logs (Buche de Noel), my dad used toothpicks to carve out extra real, barklike details on the frosting. The delicate air vents in my mom’s moon cakes asre made with toothpicks. Bo Gia prefers cheap flat toothpicks for their great versatility and over pricier round ones, which are harder to manipulate.
My father has navigated a life full of uncertainties. While his religious beliefs serve as a ballast, so do several old school tools. The 81-year-old lesson here that maintaining your convictions is important. Happy Birthday, Bo Gia!
P.S. Novelist Monique Truong told me on Facebook that her holy trinity of Vietnamese condiments included fish sauce, soy sauce, and Maggi. I suppose that my holy trinity of ingredients is fish sauce, rice, and salt. What 3 ingredients or things do you rely on?
More posts on my dad:
- My Dad’s 80th Birthday Party
- From My Father: Wisdom and Wackiness
- Dad’s Tips on Pairing Beer with Vietnamese Food