Camping Weekend With Cub Scouts

I hadn’t had the opportunity to spend one-on-one time with Đán, my second son, too often; therefore, I was looking forward to our weekend camping trip together with his Cub Scouts. It turned out to be an enjoyable and memorable experience—at least for me.

Located right next to the skatepark, the Lake Fairfax campsite was a perfect spot for us. The clean family bathrooms were the bonus. On Friday evening around 5:00 pm, Đán and I drove to the campsite to check in and to put up our tent. Thanks to my wife for buying a CORE 6 Person Instant Cabin Tent with Wall Organizer, the setup was intuitive and easy. As someone who can’t put anything together, I guarantee that setting up a CORE tent is stress-free. After getting ourselves situated and setting up the zipline, we headed over to the skatepark around 6:30 pm to rollerblade and grabbed a quick dinner.

We returned to the campsite around 8:30 pm to join other families. While the kids were taking turns on the zipline, the parents gathered around and chatted. The kids and parents headed to bed around 11 pm, but I still sat around and chatted with a leader and another father. Out of all the parents, these two are my type of guys. We didn’t go to bed until 3:00 am in the morning. At night, the temperature dropped and it was too cold to sleep even though we had sleeping bags. Đán came close to me and told me I could hold him if I wanted. I was surprised because he rarely showed his affections. I wrapped my arms around him for a bit, but then I turned to the opposite side so that we didn’t face each other. I didn’t bring my CPAP machine; therefore, I didn’t want to snore right next to him. Still, I couldn’t sleep much.

Saturday was a busy day for the Scouts. They had many activities including setting up the tent, starting the fire, and cooking contest. They had their leaders running all the programs. The parents just observed and cheered them on. While the kids were busy with their activities, I went over to the skatepark for 30 to 45 minutes each time. One of the parents volunteered to cook phở and grilled BBQ. She had always been a great cook; therefore; her food had always been delicious. This time was no exception.

Later in the afternoon, I saw Đán sitting by himself on a rock. He used a stick to tap on the rock. I asked him what he was doing. He told me that he was practicing piano. After a while I asked him if he wanted to join me at the skatepark. He didn’t want to, but he wanted boba tea. I told him to hop in and I took him to Kung Fu Tea, which was about two miles down the road. After that, we joined the pack for dinner. The Scouts had more activities. Because I couldn’t sleep much the night before, I was sleepy and exhausted from skating. I went into our tent to rest and to take a quick nap. The kids were done around 9 something. We hung out for a bit and went to sleep around 11 pm.

We woke up on Sunday, ate breakfast, broke down our tents, joined the closing ceremony, cleaned up our area, then headed out around 10 am. Đán and I stopped by the skatepark before heading home. It was a great trip because we spent time outdoors and close to nature rather than sitting at home on our digital devices. Đán participated in all the activities and he made friends with his group, but he also seemed to be a bit distant at times.

Without his siblings, Đán behaved much better. I was so fed up with his constant fights with Đạo and Xuân. They got on each other’s nerves every five minutes. No matter how many times I explained to them the importance of bonding and getting along with each other, they never seemed to register. I was always upset and irritated to hear them insulting each other and to see them punching one another. At times, I wanted to beat some sense into them, but I knew I couldn’t. Banning them from their digital devices was my only form of punishment. When I was their age, I didn’t spend much time with my sister because she was already way older than me. On occasions she would slap me for doing something wrong. We didn’t have much memories together.

Determination and Perseverance

I can’t stop watching my three-year-old son, Vương, trying to climb up the curved ramp at the skatepark. When he grows up, I will show him this video when he would get discouraged. He can do anything if he puts his mind to it. Giving up is way harder than trying.

Đán Reviewed Popeyes

Two weeks ago Đán asked me to take him to Popeyes before his piano lesson, but I said, “No.” He replied, “OK, then I will fail my assignment.” He explained that he had an assignment on persuasive review and he had chosen Popeyes. I was not sure if he just wanted me to take him there or he was being serious. I took him and Xuân to Popeyes and ordered a family meal for us to share. I told him he better get a good grade or else I would ban him from playing video games.

Last week, his teacher sent me the following message: “Dan did a really nice job with his recent writing. It was a persuasive review and I am proud of how hard he worked!” She went on, “Have him share the assignment with you – it is on his computer!”

Yesterday, I asked him to share it with me. His teacher was right. His review was quite impressive and persuasive. I asked him to post it on his blog. Have a read.

I offered him a deal. If he would like to write any restaurant review, I would take him. He told me has five drafts already and Bonchon Chicken is on the list. Oops! I should have said one restaurant a month.

From Hip-Hop to Piano Lessons

As an immigrant kid from Vietnam, I learned English through hip hop. Because my English was limited, I paid attention to the way rappers enunciate their words and the way they put together their bars. 2pac was one of my favorite rappers. Once I got past his cussing, dissing, and gang-banging, I found the raw emotions in his lyrics, in which he spoke eloquently about police brutality, domestic violence, and personal expression. I listened to rap because I didn’t want to read.

My son, Đán, is not a reader; therefore, I wanted to see if hip hop could help improve his language arts. Before letting him expose to rap, however, I had to explain to him that he has to get past the explicit content. He cannot repeat cuss words, which he already knew. We often listened together in the car during our ski trips. He liked good beats; therefore, I let him listen to Kanye. We pumped 808 & Heartbreak at max volume. The productions on the album were top-notch and the lyrics were clean. On “Welcome to Heartbreak,” Kanye spat with AutoTune:

My friend showed me pictures of his kids
And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs
He said his daughter got a brand new report card
And all I got was a brand new sports car

I broke down the rhymes and the wordplays in those four bars. I also pointed out that “Coldest Winter” was a beautiful tribute to Kanye’s mother. After we listened to 808 & Heartbreak for a while, I had an internal debate if I should let Đán listen to Yeezus, which is Kanye’s strongest album. The productions were hard and the rhymes were harder. “New Slaves” is one of Đán favorite tracks, in which Kanye spilled a handful of references on racism, but the refrain caught Đán’s attention. When Kanye repeated, “You see it’s leaders and it’s followers / But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower,” Đán asked me, “What does he mean by swallower?” Kanye spoke his mind and he might offend people, but he rather be a jerk than to swallow his words. Obviously, I didn’t tell him about the other reference. The only track that he couldn’t listen to on Yeezus is “I’m in It.” It was way too inappropriate for him.

Next up was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The productions on this album were fantastic. We always enjoyed the instrumental interlude to “All of the Lights.” Of course, his favorite track is “Monster,” in which Nicki Minaj contributed a monstrous verse. Đán asked me if I knew the word “sarcophagus,” and I did not know. He told me it’s a stone coffin. See, I also learned from my son.

In January, as we prepared to hit the road for our ski trip, I wanted to introduce Đán (and also Đạo) to something else other than Kanye. I remember Clispe’s classic Hell Hath No Fury. Again if we can get past the drug-dealing storytelling, we can enjoy the intricate rhyme patterns Malice and Push T had crafted: “I philosophize about Glocks and keys / Niggas call me Young Black Socrates.” What made me choose this album, however, was the productions supplied by The Neptunes. Just as I expected, Đán was drawn to the simple, crisp, and dark productions cooked up by Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo. After we listened to the entire album the first time, Đán told me he wanted to be a producer. I explained to him that in order to be a great producer, he had to know music. The best producers, such as Kanye, Dr. Dre, Pharrell Williams, Chad Hugo, and even Hoàng Touliver, know how to play keyboard. Learning piano is the foundation to beat-making.

Without telling me, Đán asked his mom to sign him up for private piano lessons. He started five weeks ago and had his first informal recital yesterday. He picked up fast and played well. I didn’t expect him to get into learning the piano, but he seems to have the chops for it. I hope he will keep his dream alive.


As Đạo and I headed out the door this morning, he asked if he could take a banana to school for snack. Of course he could if the bananas have been ripened. He told me, “Dad, did you know that bananas release their hormones, but they don’t know when to stop.” Still in my clouded mood, I mused with him, “Are you saying they are always horny?” He looked at me with a puzzle on his face. He didn’t know what “horny” meant. I thought he would have learned that in school by now. My bad!

While we’re on the sex education subject, Đán came home one day and told me that he learned about his private parts in school. He explained to me how a penis can get hard and big. He even used the term erection. He also said that he knew about the girl private parts as well, but he didn’t want to talk about them. I challenged him to tell me something that he knew. He explained to me that every month a girl would bleed when she’s on her period. I asked him, “Where does she bleed?” He said with confidence, “From her nipples.” I almost fell off my chair. I said to him, “Son, you need to get some information straight. Go talk to your mom.”

Teaching Math to Đán

Đán has been struggling with math and I wanted to help him, but I am not sure what methods they taught him in school. I taught him the methods of long multiplication and long division, which I learned when I was a kid in Vietnam. Although he didn’t pay much attention at the beginning, he seemed to catch on. He just needed some hints.

I also incorporated word problems into his math so he can practice his reading comprehension. I tried to come up with scenarios that would align with interests. Here’s an example:

Đán would like to buy a brand new PC, which costs $1,950. If he gets paid $50 each week to clean up the house, how many weeks does he need to work and to save up in order for him to buy his PC?

Then I went a bit complicated:

Our family went to Red Lobster to celebrate Đán’s birthday. Grandma ordered a dish of fish that cost $24. Mom and dad ordered steaks and shrimps, which cost $49, to share. Đạo, Đán, and Xuân ordered mac-and-cheese bowls, which cost $12 each. Đán, the birthday boy, ordered a whole lobster, which weighed in at 4.9 pounds. The lobster cost $15 a pound. Find the total cost for the food then add 20% gratitude for the service. What is the total of the final bill?

He didn’t seem to enjoy the math problem as much as the food, but at least he learned something.

The Opposite Problem

I went back to the ice skating rink for the first time in two weeks. I went alone because none of my kids wanted to join me. The rink was super crowded. I couldn’t find a space to practice or to learn new moves; therefore, I just skated around the rink. As I observed parents skating with their kids, I envied them. I skated for about half an hour and left the rink.

Last night, I spoke to my sister’s ex-boyfriend. He phoned me once a year to catch up. We talked about children and he praised me for making the time to hang out with my kids. He regretted that he was too busy making money and didn’t pay attention to his kids. His daughter didn’t speak to him for three years. She told him and his wife that they never made time for her when she was younger. All they cared about was making money. He realized his mistake, but it was too late. His daughter is in college now and he is trying to spend time with her. I consoled him that it is never too late to make time for his kids.

After talking to him, I realized that we had the opposite problem. I wanted to provide my kids the opportunities to find something they would be passionate about. They picked up ice skating fast and leveled up their skills, but they had completely lost interest in it. They didn’t want to take lessons. They didn’t want to practice. They didn’t want to go skating just for fun. I made them go a couple of times. They went, but skated for ten minutes and just sat out.

We tried rollerblading. They liked going to skateparks at first, but then showed no sign of interest. Asking them to go to skateparks with me was like forcing them to do their assignments. I stopped asking and went myself.

They tried learning ice hockey. They seemed to like it, but then their heart was not in it. I didn’t see any reason to continue if we kept wasting our money. Ice hockey is not an affordable sport.

They are into skiing and snowboarding now, but I am sure they will start to lose interest in them soon. I can recognize the pattern by now.

The only thing that they have been consistently excited about is video games. They would sit and play all day if I let them. They would lose their minds if I ban them. All of the efforts I had been making to draw their attention away from their screens had been useless.

It hurt and irritated me to see them glue to their screens. Maybe I should just stop trying and let them do what they want. In retrospect, my mother did not watch over my every move. She let me decide what to do with my life. Then again, I wished my parents exposed me to these sports when I was a kid. Because I didn’t play any sport, I lacked athletic confidence. I was afraid to try out anything until my wife pushed me to do them with our kids. Now I am more into these sports than my kids.

Sad and Lonely

Đán’s English teacher reached out to us because she was concerned about his expression of feeling sad and lonely. He drew sad faces on the back of his assignment sheets and often placed a sad face on his online profile. He made passing comments that he had never felt real happiness. He thought that no one liked him.

After reading his teacher’s note, my wife and I had a talk with him. He told us that he felt lonely during recess at school. When he played football with his friends, no one passed the ball to him. He sat at the “buddy bench,” but no one wanted to be his buddy. We didn’t even know about the buddy bench until he explained it to us. The bench was intended for any students who didn’t have anyone to play with and would like someone to play together. It seemed like an interesting concept, perhaps.

We asked Đán if he felt lonely at home and he said no because he had his older brother Đạo to play with. He also shared that he felt sad sometimes when we rushed him and raised our voices in the morning trying to get him to school on time. We promised him that we will make that change. Later on, when we were driving home from their ice hockey practice, Đán told Đạo that things had changed after Đao left for Robinson. He said that kids sweared a lot more. We had the impression that he missed having his brother around at school.

Now that we are aware of his emotions, we check on him more often. We should also give him space to hang out with his friends outside of school. We usually have family activities like scouting, learning ice hockey, going to the skateparks, and eating out.

We appreciate his teacher for sharing her concerns with us. It shows that she cares about his well being as well as his happiness.

“If There Were No Internet” by Đán Trương

In celebrating poetry, a class project for Đán, the goal was for students to respond to poetry through movement, speech, or art to further their understanding. Students had to share the poem they had written in a creative way such as drawing a poster, acting it out, or singing it.

Sounded like a fun project, but Đán kept procrastinating. He came up with the concept, but he didn’t ask for help to execute it. Even though the project was due today, he had nothing over the weekend. I had to email his teacher to ask for the project requirements.

On Friday night, my wife made him sit at the table and write down everything before he could go to bed. She had to sit next to him to help him generate ideas. He protested, but wrote down the lines. Saturday morning, I helped him put together his lines into a poem even though I have no clue about poetry. He came up with the title: “If There Were No Internet.” Here’s the final poem by Đán Trương:

If there were no internet,
I would be bored to death.
I would fall down in bed.

If there were no internet,
I would stare at my Windows.
All I would see is my own shadows.

Because there was no internet
for me to play video games,
my brain burst into flames.

Because there was no internet,
I went to the skate park
and dropped into the bowl
like drowning in my soul.
And I didn’t stop skating until the sky turned dark.

One of the requirements was to use at least three forms of figurative language. He came up with three, “bored to death,” “stare at my Windows,” and “my brain burst into flames.” I helped him with the fourth one, “drowning in my soul.”

After helping him finish his poem, I went to Michael’s to pick up some posters for him to write and to draw. He drew an internet Wifi with a red strike, the Windows logo, his brain burst into flames, and a skatepark with him dropping into the bowl.

We practiced a few rounds of presentation. I kept reminding him to slow down, to speak clearly, and to engage with his audience. I hope he will do well. I am very proud of his work, which took the three of us to do.

Freedom to Learn

In the past few weeks, Đán has stepped up his rollerblading game. He has good balance, some confidence, and a bit of fearlessness. He dropped into a halfpipe without using the coping. He jumped over a ramp with a huge gap in the center, which scared the heck out of me. If he missed the landing, I would have to call 911. He picked up new techniques fast. I showed him how to do the T-stop and the power stop from watching YouTube and he could do them in no time. He loved skateparks because of all the adventurous things he could do. Watching him making improvements day after day made me realize how he thrived. He learned everything on his own and he always kept himself challenged.

In contrast, he didn’t do too well in a structured environment. When he was taking ice skating lessons, he was bored out of his mind. He didn’t pay attention to his coach. He made snowballs with his skate and gave them to his classmate instead. His techniques weren’t too good because he didn’t follow the instructions. He just wanted to get them over with. Even though he plays hockey now, he would rather go to a skatepark than an ice rink. Whenever I made him go to the ice rink to practice with us, he would just skate around us to get on our nerves.

Seeing his behavior at the skatepark and the ice rink becomes clear to me why he struggles at school. He is a bright kid who doesn’t like the structure of a classroom. Instead of paying attention to his teachers, he zoned out most of the time. When I asked him about his projects, he had no clue what he was supposed to do. I kept telling him that I wouldn’t be able to help him if he didn’t know the requirements. I can tell he has been trying hard because I warned him that I would ban him from playing video games if he didn’t keep up his grades. Despite his efforts, he seemed to be boxed in.

I wonder if there’s an alternative way for him to learn. Instead of giving him instructions to follow like ice skating lessons, we could provide him a skatepark-like environment to give him the freedom to learn and to explore on his own. The current educational system doesn’t accommodate kids like him.

When I was growing up, I didn’t know any better. I just had to follow the system. There were days I felt like I was in an educational prison. I counted the days until I graduated from high school. Even in college, I looked at the calendar every single day. I didn’t thrive until I finished my undergraduate. I learned design on my own and on the job.

In retrospect, would I need my high school, undergraduate, and graduate degrees for my profession? Hell no, but they are the papers that got me through the doors. I understand their values even if they don’t mean anything to me. I hung my graduate diploma on my wall not because I wanted to show off, but because I worked too damn hard for it and it doesn’t do anything other than taking up space on my wall.

I feel bad seeing Đán being trapped in the system, but until I could find an alternative solution, he just had to go through what I had been through. I would try homeschooling him to give him the freedom he needed, but I have to put food on the table for all of us.