MOSF 19.2: Remembering Nguyen Qui Duc, Where the Ashes Are, and Who We Are

Memoirs of a Superfan Vol. 19.2: Remembering Nguyen Qui Duc, Where the Ashes Are, and Who We Are

by Ravi Chandra
May 27, 2024

I hope you enjoy this tribute to my friend, Nguyen Qui Duc, who passed away on November, 22, 2023, along with a review of his wonderful book. Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family is available at The University of Nebraska Press, Powell’s Books, Indiebound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.

Duc’s book, and Duc with his partner Nguyen Mai Phuong, in San Francisco, March, 2023. Photo by Ravi Chandra.

Nguyen Qui Duc’s Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey of a Vietnamese Family is the most traveled book in my collection, and he was perhaps my most traveled friend, physically and spiritually. I believe Duc, my friend since I moved back to San Francisco in 2002, gifted his book to me, although I may have purchased it in preparation for my 2007 pilgrimage across Asia, around my 40th birthday. It is unsigned, somehow, so I have no record of how it came into my possession, a gift of mysterious origin, and this, perhaps is another definition of “friend.” 

I read most of it along the way of that 2007 trip, prior to staying with Duc in his Hanoi home where he’d moved with his mother, to care for her as she aged with dementia. In the end, my sojourn with Duc played a central role in the opening of my 2017 book on social media and the power, possibility, and tension of relationship in the modern era. 

(An aside: Duc recommended his friend as an editor for my book. But when I sent that friend my draft, he immediately wrote back that I’d have to ditch the opening chapter, which “didn’t work.” That opening chapter was about Duc, Vietnam, and journeys in time for mother and mother country. I ditched the editor instead. Link to a PDF of that opening chapter in references below.)

Duc with gallery owner Suzanne Lecht, April, 2015. Photo by Ravi Chandra.

But Duc’s book remained in my luggage, unfinished, as I completed that mind-bending, life-changing five-month trip of forty flights, many thousands of miles, and many millennia. I brought it back with me to San Francisco, and forgot that I’d never quite finished it. Last fall, I received notice that Duc was suffering from lung cancer. His friends rallied and put out the word to raise funds for his care, but he succumbed on November 22. I cried hard when I heard, in memory of his friendship and precious, stalwart life cut short. I’d last seen him in March, 2023, when he came for a visit to SF with his partner Phuong. He pulled me and another friend out of the bar where we’d met one night and invited us to their wedding he was secretly planning for last December. It was not to be, but I will always cherish how happy he seemed with Phuong, and she with him.

Nina Thorsen, his longtime friend and producer of his show at KQED, Pacific Time, kindly invited me to speak at his memorial in January. The recording is available online (password Dh2AR#2K).

Author reading at Duc’s memorial, January, 2024.

After the memorial, I pulled his book off my shelf, and it went into my bag on trips to Washington, New York, Boston, and Providence, from March through May of this year. I started re-reading it, and was surprised to find it filled with notes from my first partial read, 17 years earlier. I experienced what probably all his friends might experience when reading his book: he was in my mind, narrating his words, as if he was sitting next to me, clear as day, an audiobook in my synapses and the great soul that connects us all. I knew he must be with me, or have left a trace, because I reached the part where he moves to San Francisco just as I was descending back to San Francisco from D.C. I only had to imagine him in a Roy Rogers fast food costume, as I tried to see everything he saw and related in the memoir’s 30+ year span in the lives of his family, chapters alternating between himself, father, mother, and reunions, empathy growing with each vantage, as they experienced the American War in Vietnam, his father’s imprisonment and “re-education,” his mother’s flight to the South, and all their refugee journeys to reunion and renewal. I finished the book for the first time, finally, on my way to my own 35th reunion at Brown University, where I would be uniting with other alums in support of Palestine and against war, causes I knew he would support.

Image from Duc’s altar at KQED memorial. Photo by Ravi Chandra.

Both senior orators, Caziah Mayers and Marielle Buxbaum, spoke to the humanitarian and moral crises of Gaza and Palestine and against complicity with injustice, and Buxbaum spoke specifically about the importance of friendship and love in the difficult times we and her classmates inhabit. Please listen to them. Take hope and inspiration, and offer your support to the young people who carry a great share of this difficult load, even while still getting their lives together. Similar issues were hard for many of us at that age, yet what is happening now is an almost inconceivable challenge to individuals, institutions, and the entire world order which begins in culture, and ends, or depends, on each of our minds and hearts.

Caziah Meyers, Brown ’24

Marielle Buxbaum, Brown ’24

Forging friendship to face adversity – that’s what it’s all about. That’s why they call it Pal-estine, and that’s why we live in San Friendscisco. And Duc was certainly a Duke of our land. May this conflict liberate pal-estine everywhere.

Duc left me with so many gifts, and I was certainly not even his closest friend, confidante, or drinking buddy. I am still receiving his transmission, and broadcasting what I can. Duc was a much better and more descriptive writer than I am, but his gentle, compassionate way in words somehow reminded me of the best in my own writing, and perhaps the best in myself. Suffused with interiority, and the impact of suffering on conscience and consciousness, the striving to make the world a better place – Where the Ashes Are reminds us of the impact of war on families, children, the separated, the wounded, the imprisoned, those with mental illness; and reminds me of the man Duc was. I can only feel shame for my own meager efforts for the stateless and refugees, for the downtrodden suffering the sequelae of Empire and ideologies in conflict. When he was still a young man, he went to Indonesia and worked with Vietnamese “boat people” there, an all-encompassing effort that allowed him to be part of a bridge to safety for many, though simultaneously leaving him with difficult memories, like saving a man charged with rape from a lynch mob that had already beaten him raw. Witnessing the worst possibilities of humanity must have ignited an undying passion to fight for the common man and the good in whatever ways he could – though he complained to me that my account of him in my book Facebuddha made him out to be better than he really was. And certainly, he doesn’t concretely idealize himself in his book, instead idealizing his mother, father, and the Vietnamese people, and vividly portraying the lives of many, including his sister who suffered from physical and mental illness, whose ashes he finally brings “home” to San Francisco. He decides “home” is where the ashes are, though all the while he forlornly misses his true “home” of Vietnam. But in lifting others, as well as carefully exploring his own mind and heart, he brings the reader to see what must be seen and cherished, and indeed how to see and cherish. He closes his book with these words:

“As for Viet Nam – perhaps I should be content that it may one day be the home of my children. It may be they who, in the future, will welcome me back there. And they will know, they will know, to bring my ashes home.”

His poetic repetition (“they will know, they will know”) underscores the mystic importance of knowing and seeking another person deeply, of insight and mindsight. In his death, he imagines being held in the knowledge of others. And he is.

Rania Ho and others, offering burning money in traditional memorial. Photo by Ravi Chandra.

Indeed, he did die in Vietnam. He probably resisted the last-ditch effort to bring him back to San Francisco General Hospital for care. Maybe dying in Vietnam was the intended final movement of his heart, the ending to a difficult – and glorious – symphony of struggle, accomplishment, commitment, collaboration, and remembrance.

No, I’m sure he was not perfect. But I and all the people he befriended and helped would recognize the truth of the man, and within that, the ideal spirit which animates our entire community and orients us to the welfare of the world. 

Urn with offering. Photo by Ravi Chandra.

Duc writes, near the end of his book, about a visit to a factory outside Hanoi. He describes the genuine warmth of workers there, their lack of hostility to the United States, and their hopes to have their stories told in the U.S. by this friendly journalist-brother come home. One of them hugs him, a former “enemy,” and they both weep in catharsis of separation, loss, anguish, and reunion.

“As the visit ended, I knew I would try to help.”

And that is a succinct summary of the animating spirit I mentioned. I mean, Duc was working in refugee camps when I was in my 20s and barely knew of them. For myself at that age, I struggled to find a way to make myself useful. In the end, my pursuit of medicine was, yes, out of love of science and people, but also out of an almost non-existent sense of self-worth that told me I could only be worthwhile if I was of help to someone in need. Underneath that was the forlorn question, “did anyone in this world really need me? Did I have anything to offer? Was I good enough to do anything?” Or as my own mentor once put it of his own feelings as a young man, “was there a place for me in this joint?” Feeling lost, confused, and dwarfed by a hostile world is common to many young people. If only we could all latch onto the “animating spirit” as did Duc, early on, and I and my mentor and friends, eventually. 

Inside KQED entrance, for Duc’s memorial service. Photo by Ravi Chandra

As I write, I think of other people I know, born to strife but determined to make things better. People like Wilma Chan, whom I only met briefly online during a Stanford Asian Pacific American Summit during the pandemic, before she was killed in an accident, just crossing the street with her dog; and many others. We have to bring our connecting, animating, life-giving, affirming, expansive spirit to heart, mind and soul as we traverse this difficult journey with wars, and elections, and hatred, greed, and abusive power threatening to bring down the whole enterprise.

Duc’s altar at KQED memorial. Photo by Ravi Chandra.

I first heard Duc’s voice on Pacific Time on a public radio station somewhere in the Dakota’s or Nebraska, as I drove between San Francisco and Minneapolis in the early 2000s. (Pacific Time debuted in November, 2000.) His gift of Asian American identity on the Midwestern plains gave me solace, and planted the seed of eventual return to San Francisco. The Twin Cities were actually quite wonderful for my still-developing Asian American identity, though. I got involved with Theater Mu right away, and was soon asked to serve on their Board. That pillar of Vietnamese American poetry and community, Bao Phi, introduced me to slam. Bao also ended up in that opening chapter of Facebuddha, and I later told Viet Thanh Nguyen and others at a DVAN (Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network) fundraiser in San Francisco that “I immigrated to the U.S. from the far reaches of Greater Vietnam, my family changing their names from Tran to Chandra as they journeyed south. This got a good bellow of laughter. Though to be fair, I have claimed to be from Deep South Korea as well.”

Brothers and sisters, we should weep at our reunions, shouldn’t we? How long have we been apart… when will we see each other again?

I treated many, many refugees and immigrants in my Family Practice residency in Minneapolis, from Somalia, Laos, and Vietnam. Their stories reminded me I was more interested in learning about the journeys of culture, identity, and trauma, than bronchopneumonia, at midnight; and this realization brought me into Psychiatry at UCSF, and soon enough, jumping into what some might call a side gig in journalism, for CAAM (then NAATA), and now East Wind eZine, with another animating spirit and soul of the Asian American community, my friend Eddie Wong.

Corey Tong at memorial, alongside photo of himself riding behind Duc on a motorcycle in Hanoi. Photo by Ravi Chandra.

When I was asked to write an expert blog for Psychology Today, what else could I call it but The Pacific Heart after Duc’s cancelled Pacific Time? I got the blessing from Duc and Nina, and that blog has been online since March, 2011, with 275 posts to date, an average of over 20 per year and slowly closing in on 2 million total views. That’s not much compared to the extraordinary depth, breadth, and reach of Pacific Time, but maybe I’ve added to the animating, thoughtful, thorough, pacific spirit which Duc and the KQED team exemplified in their years of broadcast and community service. People he mentored and supported, like Mina Kim, now host of KQED Forum, continue their good work. (And just like KQED, I’ll now add a pledge drive to support East Wind eZine! Donate here to keep us in the black and pay contributors – other than myself – I’m a volunteer at this corner of the ‘joint’ :))

I underlined, starred, and dog-eared my way through Where the Ashes Are. It’s one of the very first Vietnamese American memoirs, a genre which has exploded in the last year (see picture below references for part of this last year’s harvest). When Duc’s death was fresh on my mind, his descriptions of volunteering in a hospital for war-wounded was painful to read.

I stayed at the hospital for the next two hours, helping the wounded onto stretchers and carrying them inside. As I left, most of them were lying in the hallways. There were no more beds.

The wounded people horrified me. The bleeding of their injuries was difficult to stomach, and at sixteen, I learned to avoid people’s eyes. More than physical pain, they reflected the mortification in having to lie exposed and helpless on the stretchers. Others who were helping out shared my difficulty. We worked in silence: no one knew what to say in the face of such enormous suffering. Yet we came back to the hospital again and again and did what was needed. The hospital scenes would return years later, vivid images in my nightmares. I would wake up thinking I once again smelled the odor of an overcrowded hospital, of human sweat and unbathed bodies, intensified by the tropical heat.

Once you’ve seen this kind of suffering, you can never really forget, and Duc never did. And I imagined him suffering like those wounded, on his hospital bed, and wept at the tragic circle of time which finally caught him, which will catch us all, too, in some way. I wondered if he was remembering these scenes he saw at age 16 as he laid there, in pain, dying. I know he was cheered by our emails, read aloud to him bedside by his friend Ben, and by the presence of Phuong and those who came to see him. I remain deeply sad that I didn’t drop what I was doing and fly to Hanoi. At least part of that “failure,” if you will, was the idea that he would somehow pull through. He’d pulled through so much before, hadn’t he?

At Duc’s memorial. From left to right: De Tran, Tien Nguyen, Isabelle Pelaud, Kathy Nguyen, Thai Anh Nguyen. Photo by Ravi Chandra.

It’s hard to face the most difficult things in life. Two close friends have lost their parents in recent weeks. A father, a mother, old age. A friend of mine from high school just lost his life to suicide, the third male in my class of about 100 to die this way. As I went to my college reunion, I remembered the first friend in my class to die that I knew of, of tongue cancer, just a few years after graduation.

All of them touched by that animating spirit, and gone. 

May Duc’s memory, their memories, be our anchor, inspiration, and North Star, and may we remember ourselves too, as we navigate this ocean of sorrows and sunlight, stars and schisms, chasms and cosmos.

May our eternal soul be medicine for the suffering we see. 

May all beings be free of suffering and the causes of suffering.

Nina Thorsen, KQED producer of Pacific Time, at Duc’s memorial.

For further reading:

  1. Chandra R. Hanoi Rooftop, from Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks

  2. Chandra R. What Do We Feel When We Feel Close? The Dim Sum Dialogues. Psychology Today, September 19, 2023

  3. Pelaud IT. Remembering Nguyễn Quí Đức. Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network essay, January 3, 2024

  4. Chandra R. Memoirs of a Superfan 14.5: Every Heart is a Rescue Boat.  CAAMedia Blog, May 8, 2019

  5. Four part series on trauma and healing, with two posts specifically about JA intergenerational trauma, and three connected to Tsuru or Tadaima (JAMP) events, published Sept-Oct 2023 (mostly at Psychology Today, with 2 cross-posted at East Wind eZine with better images) Three of these have associated YouTube videos, and two have associated podcast episodes.

Dr. Satsuki Ina on Japanese American Trauma and Healing (Psychology Today, September 26, 2023)

Cultivating Sense of Self to Cope With Trauma and Life (Psychology Today, October 3, 2023)

MOSF 18.9: On Creating Transitional Spaces to Heal Intergenerational Trauma (EAAPAAO Part 5) The conversation is available as an audio podcast with added music and intros and outros on SoundCloud and Apple Podcasts and on YouTube.) (October 7, 2023, with a version cross-posted at Psychology Today.)

MOSF 18.11: Abusive Power and Megalomania Perpetuate Racial, Cultural, Transhistorical, & Intergenerational Trauma (Part 2) (October 15, 2023, with a version crossposted at Psychology Today.) A podcast version of this talk (with added music and intros and outros by me) on Soundcloud and Apple Podcasts, as well as YouTube.

 

And wish me luck! I have to get caught up on diasporic Vietnamese memoirs, including these, all published within the last year (including authors Truong Tran, Christina Vo, Susan Lieu, Beth Nguyen, Viet Thanh Nguyen, and André Dao)

And here’s a short film with Duc –

Photo by Bob Hsiang, 2022

Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist, writer, compassion educator, and civilizational health shaman in San Francisco, and a Distinguished Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. Here’s his linktree. For fourteen years, he was lucky to have his MOSF posts published by the Center for Asian American Media, and is now at work broadening and building a diverse creative community and coalition through reflecting on culture and psychology for East Wind eZine. Sign up for updates here, and see all the posts here. He writes from the metaphorical intersection of The Fillmore and Japantown in San Francisco, where Black and Asian communities have mingled since the end of the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. He literally works there, between two Indian restaurants, go figure. His debut documentary was named Best Film (Festival Director’s Award) at the 2021 Cannes Independent Film Festival. The Bandaged Place: From AIDS to COVID and Racial Justice is available on-demand, and with the discount code “Awake” you can get a 20% discount. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won the 2017 Nautilus Silver Award for Religion/Spirituality of Eastern Thought. You can find him on Psychology Today, MediumTwitterThreads, Facebook,  Instagram,  YouTube,  SoundCloud, or better yet, in the IRL.