2016
was… a sad year of losses. In music, in civility and grace, in sanity. 2017, may you be just a little bit kinder to this world.

The flip side of this gruesome year in politics and the arts, is that I had a chance on my year off to be with family. I was able to hang with my father in Vietnam, a place where he is his most amusing, generous self. I got to spend valuable time with my mom, who is halfway across the world but always a skype call away. I got to see my brother and his lovely wife marry under the awning of colorful autumn leaves in college town, New England.

2016 is also a year in which I, completely and totally selfishly, discovered how much I enjoy writing. I love the repetitiousness of it, the daily ritual of heading to a writing spot, the sitting by myself, the loneliness, the memories one engages in recalling, accurately or not, the afternoon happy hour drink breaks, by myself or with a friend, the conversations that writing about place and people always bring to my days. One can fetishize the act of writing so easily, even though it can be a bore and an undeniable grind most of the time.

But I just like doing it. If I produce nothing that’s published at all this year, having this time to write has been balm to my soul.

Thus, to cheer me up in a sad year, I’ll give a brief update on what I’ve done since I decided to take this sabbatical year:

My half-sabbatical year accomplishments, in descending order of pride:

  • saw my brother marry the girl of his dreams and show off his dance moves
  • attended two weddings and wrote a funny best man speech and everything, to prove that I was finally the “best man” at something
  • made some lovely new friends in this city, though I miss the old ones that aren’t here
  • wrote about 18 essays I’m proud of in compilation for a book that will be finished by the end of 2017 – will be a very rough draft, but it WILL be finished. Current word count: 34,145
  • listened to Billie Holiday’s “autumn in New York”, while in New York, in autumn…
  • travelled a lil’ bit, though could do with more
  • wrote to Viet Thanh Nguyen, writer of The Sympathizer (I’m a fan), who will publish two of my essays about Vietnam on his website, diacritics.org, in late January/February
  • interviewed and wrote a short piece for an inflight magazine (Dragonair’s Silk Road). Be on the lookout for a future publication on strange guesthouses of the world if you fly Dragonair!
  • wrote on architecture, history, drinking establishments, happy hours, and the like, for Vietcetera and blissaigon
  • started a blog
  • shoved all mah savings into one basket and bought a flat that’ll be finished and liveable in around 2018
  • bought a motorbike and started driving it around – Yamaha Nuovo 2015, baby! Rides like a dream!

And below are my yuge, yuge, very important, very serious goals for 2017:

Travel a bit more

Other than destination weddings, destination bachelor parties, and going back home to America, I’ve actually not travelled significantly this year. Not even in Vietnam. This was partially because I knew my project was mostly about Saigon, and partially because a new, very part timey job has kept me here. Really though, it’s about laziness. Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar are on the bucket list. Let’s go!

Taking care of my physique so I won’t need to use filters to look good on mirror selfies on instagram:

I sometimes tell people who ask, that I’m taking a year’s sabbatical to work on my pecs, and maybe write a little bit in between sets of chest presses. Now, halfway through the journey, one of those has been looked to. The other, sadly, sags under the humid heat of Saigon.

All kidding aside though, I’ve not lived in a society that cares so much about exterior physiques and youthful looks as Saigon does at this current time. This is no country for old men.

If I can’t beat the convergence of social media, technology, and narcissism, I can at least use it as motivation to look great and feel great. Then, like Trump on twitter, I can praise myself in the third person as I get some proper gains, bro. Itsaphanlife: using the in built social pressure of instagram, to turn that sag to swag. Thanks Tuan.

Spend a little more time with the games that I love

It’s ridiculous that I’ve purchased Final Fantasy XV and haven’t had time to play it. This is Final Fantasy, my digital childhood. The reviews are good! It’s a fantastic alternate world! The narrative is a bromance! What excuses do I have to keep delaying this blissful enjoyment? It’s my sabbatical year, damnit, I’m made of free time!

Live a more environmentally friendly life

I don’t know how yet, but I do want to consciously focus on how to be better with the environment, given that we’re in for four years of a mess of policies that will unleash the tethers on companies and lifestyles that wreck our world.

I can start right away with consumption of plastics here. Most coffee shops basically say a gigantic “screw you” to the oceans. An iced coffee here will be contained in a plastic cup, container top, accompanied with a straw (sometimes in a plastic wrapper!), AND a plastic holder. Anyway, lots of room for improvement.

Have more conversations with people, and then write about them, thereby improving my Vietnamese:

I think the best part of this year has been the opportunity to converse in Vietnamese wherever I go, this being Vietnam, a place filled with Vietnamese native speakers.

I’ve chatted with motorbike drivers, orchard farmers, an architect of a loony guest house who’s also the daughter of a former president, street food vendors, bartenders, bar owners, students, artists in various fields. And anyone who comes here who speaks to people in Vietnamese can tell you, we Viets are a naturally talkative bunch, almost on par with Americans. We love to gossip, share absurd life situations, complain about traffic, talk smack and banter. The last uber driver I was in talked about a Viet Kieu customer who was awful, then turned it around and told me about famous model Ngoc Trinh and how, when he told her the same story, she talked the worst smack in his support!

But any native speaker who speaks to me in Vietnamese recognizes my limitation in the language right away, in vocabulary, comprehension, even in pronunciation. So I’ll formally take lessons in Vietnamese in this new year. I’d like to improve my reading skills to the point where I can comprehend some of the censored classics here without having to look up too many words in the dictionary.

Overall, I’d like to be more understanding and patient, a little less quick to anger, unless it be anger that can lead to positive action. I’d like to keep writing, to laugh more, to smile more, to live more slowly and deliberately. I’d like to attend more parties with nice, generous people, the kind of people I can bring home to meet mom.

Here’s to a grand 2017 of living in a sabbatical paradise.