For the past few months, I have been in the US taking over my parents’ household. After 14 years abroad, 8 in Vietnam, this has been a very tough trip and I look forward to coming home to Vietnam as soon as the borders reopen.
I left Vietnam at the beginning of March to come to Europe for the vegan festival circuit in order to increase our face-to-face fundraising so we could once again open the clinic. As the UK lockdown began and festivals started to cancel, I ran off to Edinburgh where I spent over 2 months working remotely and living a quiet and peaceful life that I forgot even existed after 8 years in Vietnam. I have not been that happy in many years, though I found that while I was a great lasagna chef, I also could easily gain much more weight doing so in my 40s and in the US am working that off. All was going so well there while I worked on getting new staff, developed a new for profit company to direct income to the shelter, and got our files finally sorted for incoming admin staff.
However, in mid-May, my mom rang and said my dad was in the hospital after an attempted overdose of his pain killers. He had tried to commit suicide because he was sure he was dying anyway and wanted to skip the rest of the nightmare that came with that. At 83 and mostly chair-bound, it’s hard to blame him for that, especially given the times we are in now. However, this meant that he was admitted to the psych unit at the hospital and as we are in a pandemic, was not allowed visitors for the following 5 weeks. As a result, I flew to Alabama 1 June to manage the end of my father’s life, the move out of my parents house, the sale of my father’s extensive collections of antiques, and then get my mom settled in a new life near my sister in North Carolina.
For those who have not had to manage any seniors during a pandemic in which older adults are among the most likely to be killed by the virus, then you are missing a superb shitshow. Moving my father from hospital to hospice, then from hospice from nursing home at a time when very few facilities will even take new patients (much less one with a suicide attempt on his record) has been a major challenge. Doing all this while trying to keep my mother bubble wrapped from the morons in Alabama who think masks impinge on their freedom is another issue. In addition, getting workers, painters, roofers, real estate agents, and estate sale people to the house safely has been difficult, time consuming, and very expensive.
On top of this, I have a family that is straight up hostile to me being vegan. I have a sister who fries pork chops when I arrive at her house after not seeing her for nearly 4 years since we last got in a fist fight about bacon. I have a mom who gets mad because I refuse to let her buy dairy, falls asleep or makes phone calls when I try to show her a vegan documentary, and couldn’t tell me what I actually do for a living in Vietnam for the past 7 years. I have a father who when he is lucid tells me he won’t support my “failed business” because it doesn’t make enough money, though can tell me nothing about what I do in Vietnam or explain why a nonprofit should be a cash cow. I’ve come here to probably the most ignorant part of the US during a pandemic in a country on fire with long overdue social unrest so I can sell a massive collection of my father’s shit while babysitting my Barbie doll mother and try not to sucker punch my psychotically anti-vegan sister. It’s even less fun than it sounds.
Over many years at the shelter in Vietnam, I have been asked why I am there by almost every visitor and volunteer. I think now I know the answer. I know why I fight so hard there and I know why I have dug in against all odds. I have seen the depth of ignorance of my family and the country I come from close up in a way I never had to before because I escaped this country so long ago. People always ask you as an expat what you are running from while living abroad and I can say for sure now that I’m running from my family. These people are batshit. But in the process of trying to settle my family’s affairs, I understand that Vietnam and animal rights aren’t a choice for me and no matter how much bitching I do, there is some kind of purpose to me being there that is dangerously addictive.
The experiences I have had over the 8 years in Hoi An have not all been great by any means and I spend most of my time in Vietnam wishing I could walk into the sea and stay there. I started running marathons there solely to have long periods of time without answering my phone for the rescue. Running a rescue has not been the kittens and beaches lifestyle one imagines it is. My parents, on the other hand, came to Vietnam in 1971 as newlyweds. It was my father’s third time there after 2 tours as a Marine officer before being shot in Quang Tri province in 1966. They came to Saigon as part of a life of galivanting around and taking what was never theirs to begin with, something Americans are prone to do. They came working for a government that was fighting a war we did not need to be a part of, one which was the cause of immense suffering for the Vietnamese people. But they went to embassy parties and fashion shows. They took holiday weekends to Dalat to stay in the Palace Hotel and took tours to the Montagnard villages in the highlands with other expats who needed pictures next to dirty children and mothers in embroidered traditional clothing. They had trips to Nepal and Hong Kong and took shopping weekends to Singapore. Every picture of my mother in Vietnam makes her look like a Vogue model. She is shocking incapable of breaking a sweat. Every picture of me looks like I have shit in my hair, rips in my shirt, and not a spot on my clothes dry from sweat. We live drastically different lives in Vietnam and I am grateful for that. I am no princess, and Vietnam for me is not a playground, but a home which I miss very much even if it spends most of its time trying to kill me slowly from exhaustion and dehydration.
Before I left for the US in June, I hired a new managing director, Brady, for the organization because I knew that I needed to move on from my day-to-day work in order to take on the role of parenting my parents. I continue to work 12 hours days managing this house sale and move after finally getting my dad into a nursing home where we do not expect him to live much longer. I keep up with emails as much as I can and I keep tabs on social media and fundraising and maintain the bank accounts, but I can no longer count VAAR as my baby anymore. I need to move on after selling the house and burying my father in order to have a living wage again, to find peace somehow in life like I had in Scotland during the lockdown, and in order to give me the space to work in the field of animal rights in a way that addresses the bigger issues rather than keeps me stuck managing single cases, fundraising, and building maintenance while drowning in nonstop crises.
Vietnam is my home and I am ready to get back, but this work here is probably a month from being finished before even putting the house on the market, and then getting into Vietnam may not even be possible. The animals there are my whole life, my real family that I will fight for until death do us part. I miss them every second of every day, but right now, I am just my parent’s child doing what kids have to do when their parents get old. I cannot be everything for everyone all the time. I will come home as soon as I can and will get continue to be involved in the progress of the organization as time allows, but hopefully the new generation of directors and managers can take over somewhat where I am leaving off to give me space to have a career which provides some kind of sustainable lifestyle and financial security that I have sacrificed to run this organization over the past 7 years.
Thank you all for your understanding during this time when I am unable to be as active as necessary in the organization.