I was not meant to come to America; at least, not as I did. It was accidental.
We lived in a small town in Vietnam. My mother had twenty children. But a bunch of us died. Growing up, there were twelve of us...then eleven of us. Living in Vietnam was like living in Kabul. There was nothing for us there.
Usually people sent the oldest son to America first, and he made money and sent it back and gradually people sent relative after relative over. But my mother knew if my father saw her sending my oldest brother to America, he'd know what was up and not let us go. So she used me as a decoy. I was much too little to go on a boat, so if she brought me along, he'd never suspect anything.
I was five years old.
We went to Hanoi. She said we were going to “visit some relatives,” so no one would suspect. Vietnamese have relatives everywhere. We were waiting for the ship to America. Nobody knew when it would come. Then one day we twelve children were standing in the marketplace, alone. Our mother had gone for some lunch for us. Suddenly one of our relatives came up to us and said, “the boat is leaving right now. You have to get on the boat. There's no time to pack anything. You have to go right now.”
So we left Vietnam in the clothes we were standing up in. When our mother got back to the marketplace she was frantic and looked all over for us. She had no idea where we had gone and went a little bit crazy, but things like this happened in Vietnam all the time; people were always trying to escape. She already had plenty of experience with family members escaping. And disappearing.
She didn't hear any news of us for a month.
On the fourth day, our ship ran out of food. On the fifth day, our ship ran out of water. We were only a tiny way in to a long voyage.
But then on the seventh day, we were attacked by pirates. Our men sent all the women and children below-decks. And they fought those pirates and overwhelmed them. We took all the pirates' food and water, and were saved.
Eventually an island fisherman found us.
Finally we made it to Singapore, where the UN processed us and got us ready to come to America.
Six months after leaving our mother behind, we arrived in America. Our relative had looked after us a bit on the boat but now we were on our own.
At first we did what everyone did when they arrived. We were strawberry pickers. We picked huge baskets of strawberries for a dime apiece. Except eventually they told me I was too little to pick strawberries, plus I was eating the strawberries, so they made me sit in the parking lot all day. Then I was bored, so I built a fire in the parking lot. They fired me for that. They fired all of us.
Eventually another relative took us in. He was in medical school. We lived eight people per room in a two-room apartment. I went to elementary school.
From the day I arrived in America to the day I went to college, I never had a weekend. Every weekend we worked at swap meetings (they're where people sell junk; we worked for the people selling the junk), from 5 am to 6 pm. That was how we got money for food.
We sent cassette tapes of us talking back to our mother in Vietnam. We were supposed to sing songs. “Sing, sing!” they told me. But I only knew one song, so I sang my one song: “butterfly in the sky, I can fly twice as high; take a look, it's in a book, a Reading Rainbow.”
My mother didn't speak English. She still doesn't, although much later she learned one phrase very well. Whenever I brought girls home as a young man, she would ask them, “how much money do you make? ….After tax?”
We knew that however little we had here, they had even less in Vietnam. So we would send boxes back with ripped clothes with holes in them, half-eaten expired Advil, everything. We knew it would all get used.
When I was in junior high, my mother came to America. She worked at everything, and whatever she did, we did with her. She took in piecework from a factory. You had to buy your own sewing machine. They sent us barrels full of clothes to sew, and every night from 5 to 7, we all sewed. For each piece we did, they gave us a dime.
One evening my mother's sewing machine needle went through her fingernail.
My mother was a cleaning lady for a Vietnamese doctor, a real Confucian gentleman. He had tons of beautiful art books and he shared them with me. He was married to a mean-faced lady. They were the kind of people to whom “tragedy” meant, “that day they went shopping and accidentally left $70,000 worth of shopping in the back of the taxi.”
We did whatever we had to do to survive. Later the bigger kids had a catering service. We were happy. Probably much happier than some of these people who have so much money. Nowadays, because we have relatives everywhere, people she's never even met, whose names she's never even heard, will write my mother, and she will take out a loan to send them money.
When I was a teenager, the place to go was the mall. But I wasn't into malls and shopping. So I hung out at the Rizzoli in the mall and read all their art books.
Later my best friend and I hung out in the bookstore and read the Princeton Review. We certainly didn't have the money to buy the thing. And we'd talk about where we wanted to go to college. Now she's the bureau chief of Bloomberg News in Hanoi. She wanted to do something. We all wanted to do something.
I got a full scholarship to UCLA. It was a good school and close to home. Berkeley only offered me a full scholarship starting my second year, because of something I'd done my senior year of high school, so I went to UCLA. I'm glad I did, because they paid for me to spend a year in Spain. I gardened for a rich filmmaker while I was in LA, and it was enough for room and board in Madrid. My Spanish friends taught me how to stay up late and go out. There was a great gay scene there. Their worst insult was that someone was ordinario. “Don't be ordinary!” they would admonish. That whole world felt like an Almodovar movie. Everyone was crazy. Everyone was up at ungodly hours. And they all spoke with impenetrable Madrid accents.
After college I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. My mother wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer. I worked on Madison Avenue. But it wasn't quite right, and I started studying for the LSAT's while continuing at work.
Then one day someone burst into the office saying, “is there a landscape designer in the house?” I certainly was not one, but my roommate was, and had gone to school for it, and needed someone to give him his first break. So I recommended my roommate to the stranger. But the stranger said, “no, I don't want him, I want you. You have the eye, and you're good with people. Everything else can be taught.”
And that was how landscape design came to me. I fell into it, and I've been doing it for fifteen years now. My mother refuses to understand what I do. She still thinks I'm a gardener—a manual laborer who digs holes. She wishes I would become a doctor or an engineer. I could, but I would fail at those things. I wouldn't be any good at them.
I learned a lot from the man who hired me. But he was very abusive. He just wanted to get into my pants. We had a long abusive relationship. He would grab my ass at work. It was great for him. I was young and hungry and eager and didn't cost much. I would work twenty hour days, seven days a week, and go eighty days without a day off. I still do.
One day he announced, “this has been a tough year. We all have to make sacrifices. I wasn't able to install solar panels on the roof of my house in Hawaii. And I'm cutting all you guys' health insurance.” That was when my friend quit. I eventually quit too, and broke up with him, because he was an anti-intellectual. I was always curious and wanted to learn all about plants, always educating myself. He was against all this. He was an asshole and a horrible boss.
I've been paying for my foreman Mateo's son to go to junior college so he can then go to Berkeley, which I will also pay for. But he's getting B's. I need to tell him, he has to get A's, and I won't pay for school unless he gets A's. Otherwise he won't get in to Berkeley. I've started employing him, so I can keep an eye on him and make sure he studies.
I summer in Tuscany and winter in Mexico, because of my dear friend Donatella. She used to be married to a man who was a count and something else, and a business mogul, and had more money than God. But she was bored, so she made her own money. She started a market analysis firm and it took off. So now she has a palazzo outside of Florence, and her family has a palazzo in Rome next to the Palazzo Pitti, and her mother lives in a castle, with turrets. They furnish their palazzi with furniture that used to belong to popes. She goes with her friend, another Donatella, to la Scala.
One day I was on the street and I went over to a couple of women and asked them for a cigarette. They turned out to be Italian, so we spoke Italian. I asked them where they had eaten so far in San Francisco. “We eat a hot dog on the street, you know, a bagel,” their friend Giuseppe said. “Oh my God, how can you be in San Francisco and not have eaten good food?” I said. “I know the best Vietnamese place in town. Give me your number, and I will take you to dinner.” Later I dropped by their hotel and left my homemade yogurt, berries, and orchids for them, and a note saying I was serious.
Then they called me at 9 pm and asked if I still wanted to go to dinner. I was working at my second job up in Sonoma, and it was impossible to get reservations for seven people at that hour in a city where the restaurants close at 10, but I made it back to the city and we went to a nice Italian place. Then we went back to a dear friend's house, he lives in a repurposed factory that used to make church organ pipes, and we drank wine and talked, and I showed them a beautiful moonlit private garden at 10th and Natoma, this urban wasteland, and you walk into this garden and it feels like an oasis. It was magical, We've become good friends, and ever since, I visit Rome every winter and stay with them.
The Other Italians
One day I was in Rome and I saw an interesting couple of women and I went and asked them for a cigarette. They turned out to be gallery owners, and loved art, and artists, and loved me. They said they spent half the year in Bali. The Bali expat community is small, so I said, “oh if you're in Bali then you must know my friend Jacques X,” and of course they did. A Spanish grandée. “Well then you may not have heard the news. He died in a horrible car accident in Cuba two days ago.” They were upset, but we have been friends ever since, so I visit them too, whenever I'm in Rome.
Adam and Eve
I was at a party and across the room I saw a gorgeous Vietnamese girl who had waist-length platinum hair. “Oh my God,” I said, crossing the room for her. “Your hair is beautiful! Where did you get it done?” And we were friends ever since. One day one of my friends who runs the art museum in Sonoma was doing an exhibit called “Visions of Paradise” and wanted to have Adam and Eve at the entrance to the exhibit. “What if you had a gay Adam and a Vietnamese Eve with beautiful blonde hair?” I said to her. “Oh my God, that would be hilarious!” she said. And so Lou and I did it, we were Adam and Eve, and it was hysterical. We really got into the parts too. I'd kind of curl away from her, like, “can you get out of the way, you're blocking my view of this beautiful bromeliad.”