From a young age, my dad instilled in me his paranoia.
“If you’re in danger, instead of shouting ‘help!’ you should shout ‘fire!’. People can ignore you when you are asking for help but it’s a fire, it’s everyone’s problem and they’ll look.”
He would tell me that he has eaten more salt than I’ve drank water: a phrase in our language to mean that he has not only more life experience but more difficult experiences than me. Though those experiences are described as ‘hard’, the English word I believe that better describes my dad’s experiences is ‘traumatic’.
“If there’s a gunman in your school, find a way to hide or escape first. Or pretend you’ve already been shot.”
I took my dad’s forewarnings and words of advice as him wanting to protect me, his only daughter. Occasionally I would get frustrated and upset. “Would you tell me these things if I was a son?” I’d ask in anger. However, the more I reflect on my dad’s advice, the more I think it comes from a deeper issue of intergenerational trauma.
“Always carry some cash so that if you’re being robbed you have something to offer. That way, the robber won’t kill you if he finds out you only have cards and no cash.”
In our culture, there are little to no exchanges of ‘I love you’s. Instead, you express your care to another person by asking ‘did you eat yet?’ or cutting fruit for them. My dad expresses his love through his survival advice. I know no other people who receive such advice from him besides myself and my mom. Though it can be interpreted that he is undervaluing our abilities as women to know how to survive and protect ourselves, I’m sure there is a layer of love and care involved.
Especially in the context in which my dad grew up in, survival advice was stuff you took seriously. Unlike in the US, children in Vietnam face many dangers. Parents would teach their sons how to fight and how to identify scams waiting to happen. My dad would tell stories about brawls he engaged in and tactics he’d use to overcome bullies.
There is one piece of advice though that sticks out from the rest.
“If someone tries to bully you, tell them you know kung fu.”
I recall using this exactly one time. I can’t explain why I decided to use it (besides my blind trust in my dad’s advice) but this piece of advice is very interesting to me in retrospect.
I grew up in a time when the most people knew about Asians was the martial arts skills of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan movies, and the lo mein that would be present every other street corner. What’s even more interesting is that my dad knew of this — be it consciously or subconsciously — and thought of a way to take advantage of it and make it a self defense tactic.
During the 2000s when I grew up, if you (as an individual with an Asian appearance) were to tell someone that you knew kung fu, it’s most likely that they wouldn’t question you. All Asians are secretly kung fu masters that can annihilate dozens of people regardless of their small stature and otherwise kind appearance. For all they know, a small Asian girl like me could be a Kung fu master. For me to claim that I knew kung fu was a power move utilizing the stereotypes to my advantage. People didn’t want to risk getting in trouble with a kung fu master.
The moment I used this piece of advice was when I was in the bathroom in 2nd or 3rd grade. At this point I had friends and people I got along with, but there were still some violations of my boundaries that I wasn’t comfortable with. I recall being pushed and punched in the arm by one of my peers and this continued in the bathroom. I would tell her to stop it but she’d continue anyway. My dad came to mind and I bravely announced to this peer, “Stop touching me! I know kung fu.” What I expected was that she’d back away in fear and leave me alone but instead she said, “Okay. Show me.”
My dad’s advice prepared me for a lot of things, but I wasn’t prepared for this. I fumbled on the spot and uttered stuff like, “Are you sure?” “Do you really want me to show you?” and “Aren’t you scared?” To my surprise, it didn’t work.
I don’t recall exactly what happened afterwards but I remember being called back into the classroom. There was no further questioning of my kung fu skills and the girls that picked on me eventually became bored of my lack of response. My dad also never heard about me using this one piece of advice, but I’m sure it would be a funny story to share, especially with how much it has stayed in my memory.