Dear Mr. President,
I’m writing to share with you a moment I had in the Marina Bay Sands hotel. As I wandered around the room, the same room that I shared with my family for two days, I saw shreds of evidence that my family was indeed here. Shoes my mother wore jutting out of the small, cylindrical bathroom trash can, still bearing the dirt of Cambodia and Vietnam that we’d been treading on for almost three weeks. A ziplock bag of unfinished dried mangos, towels damp from my brother's morning shower, beds unmade from an early morning rise. The almost departed scent of my dad’s scent, a conglomeration of both sweat and cologne. Every dad has a slightly different but recognisable scent, don’t you think, Mr. President? My dad definitely has one of those. I would describe the scent as ‘woody’, but that’s pretty vague. To paraphrase Wittgenstein, how can one describe the aroma of one’s father if the audience has never smelled it?
Sitting on the cushy Sands bed with the rain pouring and Russian Church Choirs blasting out of my little bluetooth speaker, I paused to appreciate all of these shreds. It started with a small welling of what could only be described as a warm, fuzzy feeling that clutched against my chest while sprawling its feathers out. It was a feeling that said with finality that this holiday, this trip that I’d painstakingly organised with my girlfriend over the past three months, was actually over. But it also said,
“I love my family.”
I couldn’t remember the last time I actually felt this in such an enduring way. To feel that these were unmistakably my people and that I was theirs. And that we are inextricably entwined together in this life, not necessarily by blood or even fate, but by a love that no single one of us - not my brother, not my mother, not my father, not me - can really fathom.
I love my family.
Now, you’re probably wondering why I’m telling you - of all people - about this realization.
There’s really no link to public policy, to civic engagement. It doesn’t have anything to do with your presidency. In all honesty, I don’t really know why I’m writing to you. I know that, according to a New York Times profile (the same one that described your ritual around seven salted almonds), that you’re incredibly diligent with reading your presidential fan mail and all that, but there’s a pretty high probability that you won’t read this.
I think that I’m writing you because I’ve been connecting A LOT with you over the past year - and not just because I miss seeing you as my leader. Like that time at Charleston when, 35 minutes into your eulogy of Reverend Clementa Pickney and eight members of his congregation who were gunned down in hatred by a deranged 21-year-old, you paused for thirteen seconds.
That pause was as pregnant a pause as there ever had been, disrupting the flow of what felt like an unbroken sermon and reflection on the tragedy and God’s grace. And then you broke out into one of the most sublime acts of oratory that I’ve ever witnessed when you began singing “Amazing Grace.” You sang like an enthusiastic parishioner, sang in the style of the black church. Even though you probably wouldn’t make the cut for the choir - no offense - everyone, including the pastors and preachers behind you, rose to join you in song.
And when you all sang, it felt like all of that collective tension from the tragedy had been transformed into a moment of ecstasy, an ecstasy of communion that could engulf all sorrows in its path and remind us with our combined voices of how we can be graced by an infinite love. For, as Rumi once opined, the wound is where the light enters. And in that moment of communion, in my small, little one-room apartment in Singapore, I felt proud to be American. Proud, for the first time.
Yeah, I miss you. But you already knew that.
But I’m also in incredible admiration of your story - a story that I wholly connect with.
You see, Mr. President, both of us are outsiders. We are multicultural - I’m half-Iranian (dad’s side) and half-hispanic (mom’s side), half-Muslim, half-recovering Catholic. We both spent time growing up in countries outside the US. Sure, I don’t share your skin colour - and I knew that makes a huge difference in any discussion about being a ‘third culture kid’. In fact, I hardly look multicultural. My skin’s white, and while I have patches that almost amount to a unibrow (the lone trademark of my father’s heritage), I look like nothing more than your average (but good looking) Caucasian. When I grow my afro, most people think I look like a New York Jew. I can send you photographic evidence if it helps better evince that image.
The New York Jew look
But there’s an odd thing that happens when you blend into your surroundings as I did in my mostly white elementary school classroom in Texas. On Sunday, everyone went to church; I went to Bonyad, where I studied Farsi and Islamic ethics. During Summer holidays, my friends would go to visit their families in Arkansas, California, and other parts of Texas; I went to Iran. My family in the US - my mom’s side - consisted of generational ranchers who, while growing up, spoke Spanish at home but were coerced by their Catholic missionary teachers to speak English in school lest they prefer to receive beatings by way of the yardsticks.
And there I was in classroom, censoring out all of these details to my classmates, preferring not to let this background set me apart from my peers. I was embarrassed about all of this. I guess the only difference between us is that you couldn’t hide where you from - I always could. The only way I knew how to cope with all of this was to resent this weird family - my brother, father, mother.
The arc of both our lives has been one of seeking acceptance - of ourselves and the strange combination of places that compose us.
You traced your path to acceptance in Chicago, embracing your blackness though not at the expense of the white, of the multicultural. You can’t really choose to let go of those, right? And that’s what makes you so unique and yet so relatable.
I see you in you the same impulses I see in myself: to unite rather than divide, to please those around me rather than confront, to remain a bit more guarded and not too vulnerable. I’ve also felt the impulse to detach, to be unknowable, like you were to your early girlfriends. Because they just won’t understand, right? What it’s like to be an outsider everywhere you go.
I still haven’t really found my ‘tribe’ like you have. To console myself, I used to say that, because I never really fit in anywhere, I could fit in anywhere, camouflaging with my agile, chameleon-like pigments. And I did it pretty much everywhere I’ve lived and traveled to, from Iran to Bhutan, from India to Singapore. Blending in, as I’ve said, has never been a problem for me.
Blending in Bhutan? Just throw on a gho and speak Dzongkha
But accepting me - just ‘me’ and not the chameleon me - has been a longer, zig-zag of a process. I thought I could do it alone, until I met my girlfriend, Jialing, someone so loving in her spirit that she could lure out the parts of me that had retreated all the way into the dense foliage of an island where it had been cast off. Like the secret language that I speak to her in a special high pitched voice while beatboxing (don’t ask).
I’m so lucky to have her in my life, Mr. President. Did you know that she met you in Laos during a Young Southeast Asian Leadership Initiative meeting? She remembers your perky butt and the intentionality with which you shook everyone’s hands, locking eyes with them to give them that one glint of connection to you.
So she’s there. But all this time, for the past fifteen odd years starting around my pubescent period all the way up to my early adult life, I’ve been at odds with my family, resenting and avoiding them as I’ve traveled and worked abroad. And carrying all of that has, at an unconscious level, led me to rot away like a banana in a fridge corner that gets unpleasantly discolored because no one really notices anymore as it keeps getting blocked by all of the juice boxes and sparkling water cans. (That's what happens in my fridge, at least).
I finally acknowledged all of this pain over this past autumn.
I won’t go into detail about ‘why now’ or ‘how did it happen’; I’ll just say that it happened over the course of a leadership training. Maybe adding that bit of context might add a necessary emotional layer to the story that sheds light on why connecting was so important. I just feel that it’s difficult to describe, kind of like the aroma of my dad; to go into all of the inner work I had to go through to accept and feel the pain that had been lingering between us for so long, and how that pain had led me to hold back in other parts of my life. Pain, once captured and left unexpressed, can’t really be neatly compartmentalised in one’s psyche so that it does not affect other parts of one’s life, like my own confidence as a writer. Like, if I don’t see myself as a worthy of being loved, I’ll keep all of my writing to myself for fear of the ensuing judgment that will confirm this self-limiting belief and will only send me spiralling more. And if I fail to see my own beauty, I’ll fail to see the beauty of the nature, like the whirring sound of cicadas in the morning that can so easily fly under the radar until, once recognised, cannot be unheard and kind of functions as a pulse to the other sounds of the forest, like the chirps of parakeets. Does that make sense?
And that’s why I wanted this trip to happen.
Since graduating from my Master’s program at Georgetown sixteen months ago, I’ve been working in Singapore. While I’ve made intermittent trips to visit, including a visit to introduce my girlfriend, they’ve all been trips that allowed me to remain in my comfort zone. We chat about politics, we go to movies, enjoy nice meals together. But we can avoid all of those topics that have been fenced away, avoid probing into our inner lives and the pain that could be rumbling beneath. We’re in our comfort zones most of the time at our three-storey home in Houston, where each of us can retreat to our rooms when we want to be alone and avoid all of the friction that might result from too much contact.
From the moment my family disembarked into Singapore, I knew this would be an entirely different kind of family holiday. Now I’m sure that you know that family holidays can be stressful. There I was, waiting in the Changi Airport terminal for arrivals, feeling the weight of expectations to deliver not just as a son seeking to create connection and loving memories, but as a travel agent coordinating different parts of a multi-destination trip (Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia), a tour guide expected to give meaning to the landmarks that we would pass. I didn’t want to disappoint them after they’d journeyed so far, after we’d started this journey of opening ourselves up to each other. I wanted nothing less than a stellar, Instagrammable memory-filled trip that they would regale their friends with in Houston for years to come.
I delivered - but not in the way that I thought I would.
There were several missteps, hurdles, stressful moments, idle moments, moments that I’d hoped to avoid because they might be too combustible - even before they arrived.
While applying for my family’s visas, just one day before they would fly out, I’d realized that my brother’s passport would be invalid in less than six months - meaning that he’d be unable to obtain a visa in any of our destinations. I rushed to inform my parents, calling them at the crack of dawn to mobilize and get all of the documents together. Thinking that this snag would, in all likelihood, cause my family to postpone their flights, my family RALLIED. With less than 16 hours to their flight, my parents put together all the necessary documents, rising at 6 am to the Houston Passport Agency to renew the passport. They pushed, with my dad calling the airlines to negotiate a change in flights at no cost should my brother not be able to get his passport renewed. But they did it. Together, we made a very small impossible happen.
Days later, in Ho Chi Minh, while we were en route to Phu Quoc (a small, sunny island that we’d used as a proxy for Bali given the whole volcanic activity going on there), we hit another pothole. Our Vietnam Airlines flight landed with just a little over an hour to get through customs, re-check our luggage and check into our new flight. My dad, always deft with finding life’s fast track lines, spoke with a manager of Vietnam airlines, who shuffled us through a VIP customs line so that we could make our flight. While literally running to the domestic flights terminal, my mom humored us by checking her steps on her FitBit, all of us laughing when we knew that we just weren’t going to make it. And when we didn’t make it, the Airlines staff were incredibly kind, offering us premium seats on the next flight along with a ‘snack’ budget while we waited another hour to catch the next flight. That lull gave us time to chat over coffee, to pause now that we were grounded and had nothing else to distract us with.
There would be several more of these snags - Airbnbs that didn’t quite match the listing’s highly filtered photos, restaurants that served less than palatable food, so-called waterfalls that were more like mini Feng Shui springs that you place in your garden, a passing typhoon that delayed our ferry and marooned us on an island that we had all but tired of, border crossings that lasted for hours, New Year’s Eve celebrations that went awry, and botched hotel bookings. But we worked through it, even when it hurt to. We didn’t have a choice; we all shared the same hotel room, after all.
But it wasn’t all snags, hindrances intended to test our endurance as a family. There were also the moments of spontaneity, of unexpected enjoyment and fun.
Like when we serendipitously came across a resort with an incredible bar and restaurant situated on wooden planks by the beach, a site we chose to adopt as we sat by the sunset, sipping mai tais and take over the beach volleyball court.
Sunsets in Phu Quoc
Or the time when we realized a childhood fantasy of taking over an entire theme park, filled with safaris with tigers (though we later came to know that some of the animals there may be illegally trafficked), death slides with vertical drops, an arcade where every game was FREE, and dizzying rollercoasters and other rides that left us all ecstatically nauseated. And I’m not exaggerating when I say that it was practically OUR theme park for a day, Mr. President. I wonder if this is how Michael Jackson felt when he first set up his own Wonderland…
At least we had the river
There were also moments when we experienced beauty and awe together, the biggest example being Angkor Wat. Wow, Mr. President, what man is capable of! Creating an empire from all of these impressive, intricately designed structures that no doubt involved exploitation and human sacrifices. But what magnificence! What beauty!
There were also the Killing Fields. Now I would never attempt to fit this site into the category of beauty or awe - it is the very antithesis to all of this. The horror and shock of the unfeeling carnage man is capable of when ideology takes precedence over human needs and suffering. I guess what I appreciated was how our family sought to intimately understand the context of the complicated history behind these events and how they continued to affect the country’s collective consciousness. We read and heard personal accounts, watched several films, and reflected deeply about humanity and its capacity for violence.
Remnants of clothing worn by a Cambodian murdered in the Killing Fields. After almost 40 years since the Khmer Rouge's rule ended, fragments of clothing, bones, and teeth still rise to the surface after heavy rainfall.
The trip culminated, quite fittingly, with a communications workshop. On their final evening, I brought my family out to participate in an event where we would reflect together, with fifty other Singaporean participants, about our communication styles, differences, and ways to work around them. Using a concise survey, each of us was placed in one of four communications styles:
(1) Controller, those domineering, bossy types who will do anything - anything - to get the job done
(2) Promoter, the self-absorbed creative types who think they’re the most interesting people in the room
(3) Supporters, the relationship-driven ‘nice guys’ that are always concerned whether everyone’s doing okay
(4) Analyzers, the data-driven introverts always crunching numbers and processing through the lens of logic
Oddly enough, my dad and I landed in the Promoters corner, while my mom and Jialing landed in the Supporters corner. Don’t you think attraction to partners can be generational? My brother, unsurprisingly, turned out to be a Controller, which explained a lot about why we locked horns so often (Controller’s seek to dictate, Promoter’s seek to preach).
All of these experiences, the good and the bad, contributed to that moment in the Marina Bay Sands. Where I could look at these objects that had come into contact with (or exited from) my family and feel that these were my people and I theirs.
Thank you, Mr. President, for helping me move along this journey. Thank you for helping me find acceptance - and the power that comes from that.