Bao finds his airplane seat, 17F, right by the window on the port side, just behind the wings. He sees a mother and her 5-year-old daughter already seated as neighbors. After putting away one of his carry-ons into the overhead compartment, he squeezes past the mother and daughter to get to his window seat. He puts his backpack down. Blueprint, the blue teddy bear, has his head popping out of the backpack. The whole time Bao was at Minneapolis airport, passerbys had been staring at Bao, curious of the teddy bear that was peeking out of his backpack.
The daughter to his right is drawing imaginary figures with her finger into her yellow, fluffy blanket. Her long blonde curls appeared to soak up the golden colors from the blanket. Tired, Bao pulled the right arm rest down and set his head against the window.
“Excuse me sir.” Bao opens his eyes, turning and squinting towards the voice coming from the right, “Could you please put away your bag underneath your seats?” He saw a vague figure of what he figures to be the flight attendant.
He shuffles his backpack under the seat in front of him, with Blueprint’s head facing up. The daughter to his right is swinging her legs in alternate motion, anxious from the impending take off. Bao closed his eyes again, and listened to the roar of the plane engines, and felt the force of takeoff squeezing his chest tighter, before a lull of silence loomed, and patches of city lights in the black sky drifted by through the window.
“I’m glad you’re on speaking terms with her again,” Bao hears his best friend’s voice.
“I feel at peace about it,” Bao hears with his own voice.
“I really think you should say something to her,” Bao hears from another close friend’s voice, “She’s worked so hard on this conference.”
“Sometimes I don’t know what to say,” his own voice responded. Bao, at least his conscious part, wanted to say some more at the time, but the moment to speak never came. Instead, he filled the rest of the dialogue with his imagination.
“I will be sending her a chapbook, one written by a talented Vietnamese young woman. I know she loves that. Chicken soup for the soul kinda stuff. Maybe I’ll write something to her when I send it.” Bao hears his voice say.
Bao opens his eyes, and peered to his right. The cabin lights are off, with only individual seat lights intermittently dotting the aisle to provide enough light to make sense of the figures in the dark. The daughter, now with headphones donned, is watching a portable DVD player, with Scooby Doo, the dog detective cartoon, on screen frantically running from a monster. The screen was also flashing “battery low”, sometimes covering Scooby’s eyes. Bao looks up and sees the mother now asleep in her seat, with mouth agape and sharing her daughter’s blanket to keep warm against the crisp chill of the cabin air.
His legs start to feel uncomfortable. Bao shifts his legs around to little avail. He tries to close his eyes again to sleep off the discomfort. This time, he is imagining what he might say in the letter.
“My greatest worry, is that you are so hard on yourself, that despite earning praise from others, you can’t accept your own accomplishments.” Bao realizes he is in the same boat. He isn’t any different in reality.
“Bao, I just wanted to let you know, thank you for everything,” he hears his best friend say.
“Oh gosh, now you’re embarrassing me,” Bao hears his own voice say.
“Why is that?” Bao’s friend responds.
“Because you say it so often.” Because he says it so often that Bao actually believes it. Bao starts to think that maybe what matters is not the results achieved by one’s own hands, but rather the downstream effect. Bao didn’t make the scholarships grow to twice the size; that was the work of his best friend. But, his friend insisted that without Bao, he would never have found a role to play in community work. So really, Bao should be proud of the downstream effect.
Bao imagines writing this into the letter to be addressed to her. The downstream effect. “I really hope you find joy in the things that you helped enable because of your efforts. It’s hard seeing that sometimes, but that’s why I write stories about our Vietnamese community, to make those difficult connections come to light.”
Bao opens his eyes after feeling hair on his right hand. The daughter is sleeping but is leaning over, nearly touching the arm rest. She lifts herself back upright, with eyes still closed, but after a minute, begins leaning over to her left again. Then she lifts herself upright, and the process continues for another few more times. Bao, somewhat amused and concerned, pulls Blueprint out of his backpack. Right after the daughter lifts herself upright again, Bao puts Blueprint onto the arm rest and waits for her head to touch down onto soft blue fur. This time she stops lifting herself back up. Bao closes his eyes trying to find more time to sleep.
“There are times when I wish I could do more. But if I paralyze myself with those kinds of regrets, I would burn out and then become no good to anyone.”
Bao remembers being on the bus with her on the way back from the club. Aside from one young man sobering up, it was just Bao and her, seated side by side.
“I’ll send you this chapbook, I think you’ll like it,” he said to her, “And just to give you a sense of the tone of the entire booklet, let me share with you what the author wrote in the dedication page.”
Bao paraphrases the conversation between the author and her father.
“Bố, you look handsome.”
“No one has ever said that about me.”
“Well I should, because I look just like you.”
Bao tells her, “When you do read it, do send the author some words of encouragement. Sometimes I think she doesn’t put enough credit into her own work.”
“We all need encouragement,” she responds. Bao could not form the right words at the time to encourage her.
Bao remembers walking around earlier in the day during an exercise called “Touch”, where individuals are seated on the ground with eyes closed. In the room of over 200 Vietnamese youths from across the continent, select individuals, such as those born under a certain month, would go around and place their hand any individual’s shoulders to express appreciation or affirmation. Bao cheated by walking around nearly the whole time. He didn’t feel like he did anything that merited being touched, but he knew the others needed affirmation. He didn’t simply want to tap a shoulder like others often do. Instead, he placed two palms, each one covering a shoulder, and touched his forehead against their back, as if to say:
“I know your pain. Let me help lift that burden. Whatever insecurities you feel, know that there is at least one person who you can be real with. Have courage to accept others in that way too.”
For those who were crying, both men and women, he gave a hug, “You are beautiful even now, and I’m sorry that it took this long for someone to tell you that, that I can imagine you are crying because you’ve been craving that feeling for so long.”
After having done this Touch exercise at different conferences so many times, Bao could have felt cliché about it. But he fought against his own cynicism. Especially, this is the first time he has seen grown men cry during a Touch exercise. Bao takes comfort in the thought that men can cry too.
“We just wanted to let everyone know that we are 30 minutes from our destination, Phoenix,” a male voice blairs from the intercom, “Skies are clear, temperature 82 degrees.”
Bao opens his eyes. He looks to his right and sees the daughter hugging and sleeping on Blueprint.
When the plane lands, the mother turns over to Bao, “Thank you for letting her sleep on your bear.”
“Oh, well, she was bobbing her head, and I was just a little worried she would bump her head.”
“Wake up Gabrielle, we’re on the ground now,” the mother says while rubbing Gabrielle’s back. Gabrielle wakes up and begins to whine. It is probably way past her bedtime and she’s most likely anxious from not having proper sleep inside an airplane.
“It’s okay,” Bao tells the mother, “I have a little cousin her age, and I know how they can be quite…”
“Fragile,” the mother smiles.
“Exactly!” Bao smiles back. Except perhaps, it’s not only children who are fragile, but adults as well.
While he waits for everyone ahead of his row to disembark the plane, he recalls the vague memory of the 20 young men and women who wrote their names on individual hearts and placed it inside Blueprint from a year ago in Denver. Bao hopes that some of that love seeps into Gabrielle’s dreams.
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