Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao, FAMILY IN SIX TONES

Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao, FAMILY IN SIX TONES

Zibby Owens: This was one of the funniest podcasts I’ve ever done. I did it with a mother and daughter and watched them as they were fighting and rolling eyes at each other and all the rest about their beautiful memoir. It really spoke a lot to their communication. I found it pretty hilarious. I hope you will too. You can also watch this on YouTube, as you can all my episodes now. Anyway, it’s called Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter. It’s by Lan Cao and her daughter, Harlan Margaret Van Cao. Lan is the author of Monkey Bridge and The Lotus and the Storm and most recently of the scholarly work, Culture in Law and Development: Nurturing Positive Change. She’s a professor of law at the Chapman University Fowler School of Law and an internationally recognized expert specializing in international business and trade, international law and development. She has taught at Brooklyn Law School, Duke University School of Law, University of Michigan Law School, and William & Mary Law School. Her daughter, Harlan Margaret Van Cao, graduated from high school in June 2020 and is now attending UCLA, although as she tells us, remotely. She’s not happy about that. She was born in Williamsburg, Virginia and moved to Southern California when she was ten.

It’s so nice to be with both of you.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao: You’re so pretty.

Zibby: I am? That’s nice of you to say. Thank you. This is called Family in Six Tones, as you know, I’m telling this to viewers, not just you, A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter. This was so beautifully written. Your words, both of you are amazing writers. Do I pronounce it Lan or Lahn?

Lan Cao: Lahn.

Zibby: Lan, your writing is just — I mean, both. Now I feel like I’m being rude to you, Harlan. Your writing is so gorgeous. I was searching in my bedside table for a pen so I could underline some of the things that you said. Anyway, why don’t you guys tell listeners what this book is about. Also, what inspired you to even sit down and do this memoir and to do it together?

Harlan: The publishing house actually approached us for it because they had heard an NPR interview that was released on the Tet Offensive that had actually been recorded years before where I would ask her questions about her time in Vietnam. By the time it came out, I was about fifteen, sixteen. She had a lot of connections there from her first two books. They contacted us. They said, “I think Harlan’s of age now. Maybe we could make this a coming-of-age book that also links to themes of immigration.” Obviously, my mother, her first two books are greatly based on the war. To have two people, it’s important to have both of us because I think it created something most people can relate to on some level. It’s not just something totally separate. It’s also about growing up under completely different circumstances, also how the immigration experience affects the family and how the family affects the next generation’s life.

Zibby: What was it like collaborating on this project together?

Lan: It was unstable. I wish I could say it was cathartic, but I think during the time when we were going through it, it was very turbulent for us because it’s hard to collaborate with another person even if you’re writing non-personal stuff. I do a lot of legal writing. I have many, many legal articles. Only one was a collaboration. It’s hard because you have to take the other person’s point of view into consideration. When it’s something so personal, and especially between a mother and daughter, when the wires are there that connect us but they can also fray very easily and electricity is conducted through the wire, sometimes it feels like the insulation part of the wire somehow dissipated and we’re just now frying each other. It was hard because we had to decide what to include, what not to include. Also, Harlan wanted to include things I didn’t want to include. We had to come up with a compromise. The reason why we came up with a compromise was because I felt like it’s her first experience writing, so I didn’t want to silence her even though she wanted to write about things that were hard for me to write about. In the end, everything that’s on the page was a product of a back and forth. We also didn’t even write together. It was very hard — right, Harlan? — to write in the same space. We were totally separate. We only came together towards the end to read it. At first, we read each other’s, and it was explosive.

Harlan: We only read each other’s stuff at the end when we had to. It was a requirement. She came to me and she would tell me, “It’s time to read each other’s stuff.” She seemed scared to tell me. It was already difficult for me. At the time when I got the book deal, they wanted it to be greatly centered around my mom’s previous two books, meaning the brand is about talking about the war. I don’t have a lot of say about it except for what it’s done to my life. I can’t speak for everybody. I don’t want to sound entitled or anything. I also had that mindset of a teenager. I have so much more I want to say, so why can’t I say that? Then when I agreed to direct it all toward a theme and then on top of it, she was nervous to write about certain stuff, it made me upset because I felt like I was in a box. There’s only one thing I could write about, and that’s so hard to expand in an interesting way. I never imagined I’d be writing for adults, even though kids don’t really read anymore, which is really sad. It’s hard because I’m thinking probably women — I’m not going to guess your age. That’s so rude.

Zibby: I’m forty-four. It’s okay. I’m not ashamed to admit it. I am fine. I am at peace with my age. It’s okay.

Harlan: Adults, everybody’s read it. It’s not any age that I expected I would ever write for when I was little thinking I was a writer. That definitely brought out a lot of confusing things for me. It wasn’t just the writing process that made it hard to collaborate. We were just totally in different parts of our lives. I’m going through high school. Everything about us is different. I would write at two in the morning. She would write throughout the day little by little.

Zibby: Wow, are you even speaking to each other? I feel like I’ve intruded on a family squabble like there was a huge fight before the camera went on and now you’re pretending like everything’s fine. You don’t have to pretend for me.

Lan: We’re in quarantine, so we’re stuck. She’s doing her college online. You can imagine. It’s all pretty eerie.

Zibby: Aren’t you at UCLA, or did I make that up?

Harlan: Yes.

Zibby: So they’re not letting anybody go?

Harlan: No. It’s actually very depressing for me. I picked UCLA because of — you pick the school because of what it looks like. If you have two options that are kind of the same in what it will do for you, the campus was important to me. I chose UCLA over Berkeley, but now Berkeley moved people in.

Zibby: UCLA is in a beautiful part of LA. I love LA. You will have the best time. This time will pass. It’s a blip. You will get there. It was the right decision. Don’t second-guess. I took a writing class at UCLA right after I graduated from college. My husband always makes fun of me when we drive by it. We spend a lot of time in LA now where he works or he used to work. Every time we drive by, he’s like, “Look, your alma mater.” I’m like, “I did not go there. I took one class.” I wrote some essay about my first bra-buying experience with my mother. That does not make me an alum of there, but thank you. Anyway, I know it’s a really tricky time for everybody. That was so sad to hear you say that nobody reads anymore. Do you really feel like none of your friends read?

Harlan: Not really. We like to get information very fast. A lot of kids nowadays, it’s insane, have ADHD and stuff from the technology. I think it all bleeds into one. It’s been shown phones might cause ADHD or something. A lot of kids, they don’t have the attention span. They prefer movies and short articles. A lot of the news that we get now is on social media. The social media page will give it to you as quickly as possible, like five words and then that’s it.

Zibby: That’s a little disheartening.

Harlan: The only time that we really do read a lot — I’m talking about the people that I know.

Zibby: I get it.

Harlan: We will read if there’s — do you remember The Fault in Our Stars, for example?

Zibby: Yeah.

Harlan: The movie came out. Then everyone’s like, okay, I’ll read it now because it’s trendy. That’s when someone would read.

Lan: That’s very disheartening and depressing for me. When I first arrived in this country, my only solace was books. That’s why I wanted Harlan, let’s say, to love music. I feel like music and books are things that you can always turn to when other things that are not within your control are upside down. There will always be something you can’t control that hurt you. It could be a person. It could be a wider event. You could always go to that part that is the music part, the book part. You can immerse yourself in a different world. If you don’t have that, it just seems — maybe they’re different and they don’t need that. It just seems very different for me. That was my solace. I was just hooked on things like 1001 Arabian Nights because it exposed me to distant shores. It’s also a form of traveling too.

Zibby: I completely agree, especially now. Especially in the very beginning of the pandemic when we literally could not leave our house at all for week after week after week, I feel like, oh, look at this, now I’m having coffee and a glass of wine on a terrace in Tuscany. Here I am in China in this little apartment. I feel like books could take me everywhere. I totally agree with you. No matter what you’re going through, you can just open up a book and you’re immediately somewhere. It’s this empathy and escape. That makes me sad. I bet there’s a way, now this will be my new mission, of how to get — I also love social media. I have to get myself off Instagram with a hook. There has to be a way to keep that writerly escapist —

Lan: — books, I hope that will work for the youngsters.

Zibby: Yes. Hopefully, this podcast will change everything. I try really hard. I hadn’t been targeting young people, necessarily, not that I’m so old, but that hadn’t been my mission. It was more just to keep people reading who are already reading or who miss reading because life is so crazy. Books are, I just think they’re the coolest. I think everybody should be doing it. All right, I’ll tackle that tomorrow. Back to your book, some of the stories in here — Lan, I just wanted to talk to you about being thirteen and having to leave your country and coming over here just with a family friend and finally realizing that you weren’t going back and watching Saigon fall in 1975 and the whole thing and how you picked yourself back up. How do you recover from something like that? How do you deal with that separation from family and home and homeland and just go about your business? How does that work? Maybe this is your way, still writing about it and everything, but tell me a little more about that.

Lan: I think that my parents had two different approaches. My father was always telling me — it seemed paradoxical what he said because the one statement has a paradox within in. Remember what’s important and forget it immediately. So just don’t focus on the past. Yet I find that that is a very hard thing for me to do because my mother was always dwelling on the past. As I read more, I hear things by Faulkner like the past is, it’s not dead, it’s not even past. There’s always the past. I don’t think that one really recovers. Just like if you have a death in the family of somebody very close, yes, you will move on, but it’s not like that part is not forever inside of you. The notion of losing something, of having the rug yanked out from under you because you never expected certain things to happen, they were very spectacular. They took a very spectacular form for me because suddenly leaving the country and starting a new high school was spectacularly different. It helps me to compartmentalize, to just do this and this and this, but never recovering because I know that I can be easily brought back. I feel sometimes like when I’m walking my dog and I had a retractable leash, I feel like I am the dog. Anybody, actually, can just press that button on that leash and it will bring me back to ’75 or ’68 even though it looks like I’m farther away now. There’s this leash that takes me farther away from that part but can be brought back very easily. It’ll be startling for me. I have been thinking of myself, I’m farther away from that now. How did I get back so easily to that vulnerable spot again?

Harlan: How did you recover?

Lan: Never recover. Just sort of move on to the next thing or doing the next thing, but it’s not really a recovery. I know, let’s say, even when I’m dealing with Harlan, I know that the way I parent her is very much based on that experience that I have not recovered from. I’ll push her to always do well in school. Maybe all parents do that, but I think mine is more urgent. I feel very much like if she were to lose everything, one thing that nobody can take away from you because it’s inside you is your education. A fire can come and burn down your house. You can lose all of your possessions. You can lose everybody you love. If you have your education, it is the foundation that is portable. It’s not geographically anchored towards any place. While education maybe for other parents can be, this is a way for you to move forward in life, mine is, yes, of course, but it also has this no one can take it from you feeling, which I felt happened when our life was taken from us and we had to start a new one. In that sense, I can see how the fact that I’ve never really recovered even affects something like the emphasis I place on certain things for her, which can be very frustrating for her because she does not have that experience.

Zibby: How do you feel about that, Harlan?

Harlan: I’ve always been very conscious of — I think it’s just because I’m really interested in psychology and people. When I was really little, from a really young age, I figured out that my mom parented because of her experience. Also, it’s very easy to call her overbearing or controlling, which she is sometimes, but it’s hard to be angry about it because it comes from a very innocent place. She doesn’t mean to do that. I’m not saying any mom means to come off as controlling, but she literally can’t help herself. I can tell. We’ll have a conversation or an argument, and we keep talking over each other. I’m like, can you give me two minutes? I’m just going to say something. Just be quiet. She’s like sitting on her hands. She can’t even stay still. It’s true.

Lan: Somebody is stating something, if they’re going to have two minutes of conversation and the piece that follows the first statement —

Harlan: — She said what I say isn’t true, but it’s true to me. It’s not true to her because she’s so defensive. What I’m trying to get at is that in the past, most of the time, kids can tell their parents, this upset me when you did this to me or this hurt my feelings. With my mom, she doesn’t want to hear that it hurt my feelings because she’s defensive. People who are defensive don’t admit that they’re defensive because that’s the first trait. It’s a thing that goes back and forth. I know she’s not defensive because she sucks as a person. She’s defensive because her whole life has been about being on defense. Even when I talk about her being defensive, she doesn’t want to hear it either. It’s totally true when you hear the conversation. A lot of the time, an argument, even about the book, will start at something where — I don’t really try to start the argument. I’m good just being quiet the whole day. As the parent, she wants to correct and make sure that I’m good when I leave the house officially and start my own life. She’ll start a conversation a lot of the time and even in that conversation I see her psychology. That’s not to say I’m so much better. I’m a kid, but I know so much. No, that’s not what I mean at all. I mean because we know each other pretty well, I can tell where each thing comes from. I really want to help her. I started in therapy, actually, when I was fifteen from stuff that was going on in school. When I was in therapy, the therapist’s job, you kind of love and you hate your therapist because they open you up. They pry you open. It bothered me sometimes. She would tell me things like, I’m seeing a pattern and this and that. I’m like, you’re obviously scorekeeping in a hostile way. I took it as an attack. She was actually just pointing out that I’m just like my mom. I didn’t want to hear that because that’s the worst thing possible even though she’s great.

Zibby: No matter how great your mom might be, nobody ever wants to hear that.

Harlan: Nobody wants to hear that.

Zibby: In part, it almost feels like you’re fighting — you have all these natural feelings about your relationship. Yet there’s this invisible thing you’re fighting with also. You understand it logically, but I feel like emotionally it’s hard to really digest. You know your mom had this experience, but still, you’re annoyed, right?

Harlan: Right. I always thought, why can’t she have the experience and leave me alone? We talk about it. We suffer through it together. Then she can trust me to live my own life. I was always resentful of, she’ll expose me to everything that can possibly go wrong. Then she’ll show me the saddest parts of the world when we travel. Not the saddest parts. We go to nice places. She’ll tell me a story. She’ll read me a book. She’ll make sure I’m really educated. She’ll make me into someone who had an adult mindset, but when it comes to my own life, I’m four years old suddenly. It’s very interesting how moms, they always say, just go explore. But when it comes to the kid exploring, they’re really scared to do that.

Zibby: I don’t think I’ve ever felt like I could relate to both sides of an argument more than I feel right this moment. On the one hand, I’m like you. Then I’m the mom too. I have four of my own kids, and so I totally get where you’re coming from. As much as you love and want your kids to go off, it’s like a part of you. It’s like your right hand is out there walking around. It’s a part of you. You don’t mean to, necessarily. It’s like if you’re about to touch the fire, you want to grab your hand back. It’s just, you do it. It’s instinctive. Coming from a past like yours, Lan, where you’ve had all of this trauma before you were even a teenager, essentially, it’s a lot. It’s a lot to bring into, what should we have for dinner? I’m actually amazed that the two of you got this book done now that I’ve talked to you.

Harlan: So are all my friends that had to hear about it for two years.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. Does this now make you still want to be a writer, Harlan, or are you over it now?

Harlan: I do want to write movies more. If I’m being honest, I think movies are more my thing, if I could get up the nerve. Also, I really just want to make a lot of money and then give it to a lot of animals. That’s important to me too. I would write one by myself. Maybe one day when I’m older, it’d be really cool to end a career — starting it with a memoir and then ending it with a memoir. Maybe when I’m sixty I’ll write about what it was like to write with my mom. That would be cool.

Lan: She’s very good with conversation. I think a movie script would be good for her because it’s back and forth.

Harlan: I hate writing description. I like dialogue. I don’t like descriptions.

Zibby: Lan, did you just write like this from when you first started writing, or did you learn to do it? The way you even describe things is so beautiful. You can tell even the way you speak with all of your analogies, how you think about thing in terms of just the beauty and how you can talk about it. I’m trying to find a quote that I had. Of course, now I cannot find it. Maybe we could talk about your detachment, that your mother — that was actually a Harlan passage. Never mind. I had passages picked out, and that’s because I didn’t have the thing. Here, I’ll just read this one. “It might seem strange that being a refugee and being a mother feel so similar to me, but both involve a torturous and lifelong drive in search of home and security: in one case, for one’s self; and the other, even more furiously, for one’s child. The journey of a refugee away from war and loss toward peace and a new life and the journey of a mother raising a child to be secure and happy are both steep paths filled with detours and stumbling blocks. For me, both hold mystery.” That’s beautiful. I had never heard being a refugee compared to being a mother in quite the same way before, which you do throughout. Tell me a little more about your actual writing. Maybe your novel writing was the practice you needed.

Lan: I think I wrote basically because I read. I love to write. I’m not talking about legal scholarship. I like to write, the kind of writing I do for writing, because it’s very unruly. To me, it’s like a dreamscape. Even in this book, which is very much based on our lives, it’s the stuff that is underneath the surface that I’m interested in. A lot of times when you write even a memoir where you know things that happened already, I feel very much like I enter into a world that I normally don’t enter in my awake life. It’s like going to sleep and you dream. You can never tell yourself what dream you’re going to dream. The act of writing is very similar to me. It unravels. It unspools. It taps into a part of the self that is a little bit more of the unconscious digestion of what happens in the surface of daily life. I think that from having read so much, it helped me to write. I didn’t take a writing course, per se. If you read, you just know what works for you. In many ways, writing is very similar to other forms of creativity. For example, Harlan likes to watch movies. Also when I watch movies, I see — this helps me with writing. I see the angle of the camera. I see how the director places an object which maybe recur in the next scene. These are devices that are very helpful when you’re trying to construct a story. In the movie, it’s visual. In writing, it’s less visual. We all use the same device, which is a premonition, a foreshadowing, recurring images. I combine that with more of the dreamscape.

Zibby: If both of you would give advice to aspiring authors, what would you say?

Lan: I would say that it helped me when I first started that I knew nothing about the business. Having that beginner’s — I remember there’s a book I love called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. A lot of times we think of knowledge as something we accumulate, and the more, the better. Sometimes removing excess is also really good, things that are just baggage. I think knowing too much, actually, about something can be a hinderance because it makes you feel overwhelmed. Then you don’t get to the core. If the core is, I want to write, then you should just write and not worry about the next step. Shedding knowledge, actually, for me, was good for writing. If I had known how complicated the business is, I don’t think I would’ve had the innocence.

Harlan: When someone writes, it’s important to understand that — I can only speak for the memoir, fiction, or something, not research. You’re writing just about life. When you write about your own life or you write about an ordinary life, it’s not superhero or something like that, it’s something that is possible for everybody to go through. Every book is really just about different human relationships. Everybody’s going to experience that at one point or another. Your job is just to say it in a way that’s aesthetically pleasing, that people like to read about. I guess to just keep as much reliability as much as possible and remember that even though your writing is different and you’re talking about something different, you are very similar to everybody else.

Lan: You have to have something universal. I think all human yearnings are universal. When you write about your yearning and how it relates to the world, I think that it will create that connection with the reader, which is what you want to do because writing is so solitary. You’re just writing by yourself. It feels very, very disconnected sometimes. If you know that there is this connection you’re going to make, then it’s very helpful.

Zibby: I can tell you I felt super connected to both of you having read this and hearing your innermost thoughts and how literary they were and your anger. It’s great. It’s really good stuff. Then to be able to chat with you is .

Lan: Thank you so much, Zibby.

Zibby: Thank you. Family in Six Tones. Thank you so much for all of your time.

Harlan: We have such a busy schedule. We have time.

Lan: We’ll follow you on your Instagram too. We’ll do that.

Zibby: All right, great. Have a great day. Buh-bye.

Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao, FAMILY IN SIX TONES