Sometimes I get this burning sensation like embers of fire slowly kindling inside me. And when I feel this way, I’m in a dream space where life becomes vivid like a movie. I would see everything in pictures, stories, scenes, ideas edited inside my head—and I’m directing a scene from a movie idea…and I’d do this a lot until the day I find myself on set—shooting that scene. Even if it doesn’t turn out exactly the way I envisioned—everything magical is born out of our internal flame.
In 2011, I was still living in Colorado. I had left my life in New York and went back to the hometown I escaped from. I slept for three years and spent most of those years inside a closet. I loved being in the dark and put a desk, chair, and lamp inside the walk-in and would blur time.
I wrote, I edited my art films. My parents didn’t see me. Sometimes they wondered if I was dead. I would spend three days not sleeping sometimes—just writing and writing and editing and editing. Then I would sleep for 24 hours or more. Sometimes I would surface at strange hours of the night—and my mom would finally catch me making tea. I was such a bitch about wanting to be left alone that they slipped notes under my door. And when my siblings would visit Denver, they would need to text me.
Everyone respected my privacy, so much that they had to live without knowing if I was dead. I really appreciate that. This was one of the best times of my life—of my adult life—where I took a Sleeping Beauty break from the world.
I detoxed New York City. I detoxed bad relationships. I detoxed chapters and serial novels of my life. Some people live their lives in chapters. I lived mine in serial novels.
My soul loves adventure.
I needed this time to clean myself out, to declutter my life, and to become new again. Then I moved to Vietnam to detox America.
Detoxing America was one of the best and most profound things I did for my Soul. I wish I could do again—but at some point in time, I had to anchor myself—because reality is, we all have to pay the bills…and get realistic. Or do we?
I ask myself that every day. Really? Do I really have to get realistic?
You see, a lot of people are realistic but they are not living life. They are living television. They are living news. They are living reality TV. They are living People magazine. They are living only for Friday.
So I ask myself. Really? Do I have to get realistic? Do I want to?
When I revisited Colorado during that short period in my life, I had amazing experiences that were nothing short of miracles. I was on a healing journey and would experience bizarre changes in the area I grew up in that never would have been possible before…
I had returned to the suburbs of Westminster where there are now not one but two Laotian markets. I grew up in the housing projects, and when we finally relocated to the surburbs, we were the token Asians (next to a Chinese girl around the block). Now, Westminster is filled with Laotians. You see, although I’m Vietnamese, I was born in Laos. We were freaks. The Laotians were so rare, people didn’t even have bad words to call them.
When my parents and us kids came to America, the racism was so horrible that you could never imagine a Laotian, let alone an Asian community surfacing in any suburb.
The FREAKIER thing is this: the Laotian market my mom now shops at used to be a Record Store.
I went to that record store a lot when I was in middle school…and it was there that I met the band BERLIN who was doing a record signing… The line was very short. Maybe 25-30 people were there.
So yeah, this new wave band from LA was in bum fuck nowhere Colorado, and I’m getting my record signed by Terri Nun. LOL. WTF.
Then, after the record industry went out of business, all the stores got wiped out too. And now, there’s the Laotian market selling shrimp paste, fish sauce and skanky things you could never confess to your white friends that you ate: because it all smells like pussy.
I met a kid who was in film school and he asked me to help with his film shoots. So I did. For whatever reason, I have always been good at recording audio; I think this is because I hear things “obliquely.” I hear sound from an angle. So when I record sound obliquely, I pick up a very rich range.
Long story longer, he goes and shows his film to his teacher and all his teacher was thinking was, “Who recorded your sound?”
So his teacher tracked me down and hired me to record sound for his documentaries.
It gets even weirder.
The teacher’s name is Dick, yes Dick. But that’s not the weird part. I wish he preferred Richard, but that was his name.
For the sake of this journal, let’s call him Rich.
Rich did documentaries about the Denver Public School system and was working on this radical project of teachers going into “psychological rehab” (well, that’s what I called it).
The school system was so broken, that the teachers were all having nervous breakdowns. One day, Rich brought me to a school to visit the principal and there was this very zen-like and gentle American bald-headed dude who had a photo of his idol, the Dalai Lama on this desk. He was kind-spirited on was on a very high mission to spiritually reform the teaching world.
So I went to these camps and places where these teachers would regroup themselves and did all these therapy group things—like drawing, playing games and talking about their traumatic experiences. They would laugh and cry and it was very emotional—to the point where I warned Rich, “Hey, if you don’t edit this stuff right, it’s going to look like a cult.” Only because, you never see a roomful of teachers bawling and stuff you know?
I ended up going to almost all the Denver schools and returning to places that I did not want to go back to.
I ended up having access to almost any high school I wanted.
I ended up listening to all these stories from teachers who were broken and it made me realize I was broken as a child: because my teachers were broken—and that made school hell for me. I didn’t have a good education.
So I started to go through this healing journey as well.
I gained compassion for all the teachers I’ve ever had who taught in inner-city schools and had to deal with us.
One day Rich called me up and said, “We’re going to an elementary school tonight.” I said, “Okay” and went over to his house.
We got into his SUV and we drove to a school somewhere in East Denver.
When I got there, I discovered that the entire event that evening was a big celebration of “Diversity” in Colorado.
Diversity? Since when did THAT happen? I was called every name in the book every day of my life since childhood until I finally left high school and now, there’s diversity?
So here I was, standing there with my headphones, mixer, and boom watching all these cute kids from all walks of life dressed in their country’s traditional clothing from all over the world arrive to perform for their “fashion show.”
I couldn’t believe it.
Their parents all brought homemade potluck cooked traditionally from their culture.
I’m standing there having flashbacks of when my mom had to chase some Cholos away by threatening them with a chef knife when they bothered us because while we were cooking in our backyard—calling us dog eaters and stuff like that…My poor mom.
I had wiped out that painful past from my memory—and here I was, seeing all these people from all different races bringing ethnic food to the “Fashion Show.”
Rich wanted me to capture the sound from the stage.
I told him, “Well, how am I going to do that without getting on the stage?”
He said, “You’re gonna have to get on the stage.”
I was like, uh, OK. So I tried to be discreet about and took sound by angling the mike through the split of the curtains.
Well, that didn’t work out so I opened the curtain and was standing in front of everyone in the audience. Nice.
I hung out near the benches where kids were sitting on stage. It felt strange that I had to be right next to them. Sort of symbolic, as if I was meant to heal, and feel like one of them; as if Life was showering me with blessings by saying, “It’s all because of you Ji. Your generation took the first arrow for this to happen, but it’s okay now. See?”
As I stood there, I realized that I was being powerfully healed from something that happened to me in the past:
When I was a kid, around 7 years old…I had courage made of iron. I was self-confident and very natural. I could not be broken down by anything anyone said to me.
All the bullies were afraid of me—not because I was big—but because I had a very large aura. And they didn’t fuck with me. Yet I was just this tiny Asian girl.
One day, my elementary school wanted to put on a play called The Onion Soup and it was a very hetero story about a Prince, Princess and something having to do with an Onion. When the teacher asked who wanted to play the prince, I said, “I WILL!” So the teacher let me be the boy. The princess wasn’t too happy about this. But I didn’t care.
After the play was done, I remember we had to go back on to the stage for the curtain call. So I knew I wanted to make a big splash…I tore apart the slit of the curtain and burst out like a superhero!
I was insane.
It was later in my life, after taking a lot of abuse that my spirit started to break…and when you’re beaten down for years with racism and name calling—your self-esteem and relationship to society will never be the same.
I thought I had left all this behind me. And here I was, back on that stage, splitting the curtain the elementary school—to help these kids celebrate their day of Diversity.
Unbelievable. Crazy miracles. Crazy healing journey.
Working on the documentary took me through a lot of amazing things—including the day Rich asked me to film the protest movement when the National Democratic Convention took place in Colorado. Colorado of all places! That was the first when Obama was first running.
I said, “Uh, no. I don’t wanna film a protest. I don’t like getting caught in that scene. It’s stupid.”
But for whatever reason, I ended up doing it. And God, it was exhilarating. I saw so many things during that period…and then I ended filming a Mexican protest that started another healing journey for me.
Rich calls me up and says, “We’re going to the immigration protest in Denver” and he gave me an address to a park.
I drove there to find out that I was back at a park in the housing projects where I grew up. I couldn’t believe it.
My elementary school was only a block away. Here I was, helping film the Mexican-Americans fight for legalization and I find myself amidst a culture who hated Asians, vandalized, and tormented us on a daily basis. But for some reason, I never held a grudge. I had the ability as a kid to see that they were being oppressed—and they took it out on the next wave of minorities—and even worst, a minority that worked much harder, which made them hate us more.
I’m standing there reflecting on all of this—and then I see a group of Native Americans arriving in their traditional wardrobe. And the biggest deal was that they had brought a shaman to the march. The shaman wore a massive headdress and went to great lengths of putting all this gear, rattles and stuff around his boots.
So as we marched out of the housing projects and over Colfax bridge towards downtown, we’re filming the Shaman who is leading this ritualistic dance with drumming music across the bridge. He was flanked by two females who were burning incense from small caldrons. It was like this surreal and amazing spiritual experience—a literal healing experience of cleansing all the pains of my past.
Miracles, yes indeed.
Earlier that morning, I had asked Rich to drop my car off at the destination of the march. It was a smart move. This way, we had transportation to get back to where we parked his car. So the entire film crew had to get back too—so guess who drove them? I did.
And while I’m driving my Jetta back to the park, we naturally had to go through the housing projects. And I’m having flashbacks.
I told them I grew up here—and their jaws dropped. To them, it was unimaginable to know anyone who could grow up here.
You know, when I tell people I grew up in the projects or ghettos of Denver, everyone laughs. People think Denver is just ski resorts, mountains, blue skies, and the Mile High Stadium.
For those who grew up in Denver, they know that were I grew up was no joke. It was rough. Think “LA Gang” and you get a better picture (if that’s your only frame of reference).
The weird part is, I ended up having to drive by my old elementary school, and then I had to drive by the old candy store, in order to get back to the park where everyone’s cars were parked.
So this film crew had a whole tour of my childhood life! LOL.
In some strange way, it was very healing.
Those years in Colorado in the late 2000’s brought a lot of closure to my life.
So when I say I live my life in serial novels, I really mean it. It is lived in volumes like a cat living nine new lives.
During those years, I ended up meeting a Tai Chi master—completely random. I wasn’t even looking to do Tai Chi, nor was I looking for a teacher. My acupuncturist sent me there because he said I was blocked and this would help.
The teacher took me under his wings and was like a surrogate father to me. He was such a positive role model. He was such a guy: a real guy, the way I like men to be—strong fighters with integrity and ethical.
My teacher was destroying the myth for all the newcomers thinking Tai Chi was some kind of yoga-arts of love and light and waving your hand around for meditation.
No. Bing was teaching us how to become warriors. Tai Chi is to weaponry what Sufi Poetry is to concealing the face of G*d.
We practiced Tai Chi in a warehouse right next to the railroad tracks. It was hysterical. Whenever the freight train would roll through through town on the hour, off Broadway, our walls would shake and dust would come flying off the wood beams above us. The entire floor would rumble and we couldn’t hear each other speak…
There’s a funny Chinese martial arts movie, I can’t remember the title but it is about a group of underdogs who have massive disabilities (like chopped off arms and legs, and so on) and couldn’t fight…but because they had these major disabilities, they had to get stronger and find ways to beat the shit out of their tormentors.
Well, the studio I was at was like that. It was hysterical: the character who were there. They were ALL defective. Each one is like a Seinfield character in their own bizarre way. And I just look at my teacher and think, You’re a weirdo. He liked taking people who are super weak and defective and making them super strong—and I walked into that studio super broken…
I did something ballsy that no one else did. I talked to my teacher like a person—rather than like a master. The first time I met him, after class, I said, “Hey, I’m hungry, do you know any good Chinese food?”
I figured he’s Chinese so he would know. And he said, “Yeah, there’s a great Dim Sum place on Federal.”
I asked if he wanted to have lunch.
So the first time I met him, I had become his friend.
And while we were having lunch, we started talking about Psychology. And he tells me about a friend of his who was a shrink.
Well, it turns out that that shrink was my shrink. Well, Steve wasn’t a shrink but was a Shaman and Jungian Healer. Bing never took him seriously. But I did. Steve was my spiritual mentor and interpreted every single one of my dreams. He was a mystic. It is only because of Steve, that I pursued filmmaking. He made me realize it was my spiritual calling–because I was having “Big Dreams” about it.
I had stopped talking to Steve after a number of years because we had a falling out. I never forgave him for it because what he did was so minor. Yet, to me, his words broke a spiritual agreement for why I went into therapy in the first place. To most people, what he did would have rolled off. But for me, it was a sign that I had outgrown my teacher. I had become wiser. So it was the end.
And here I was, sitting with a Tai Chi teacher who so happened to be his best friend since childhood!
When Bing told me about what my former healer was going through, I realized that karma was doing its work. And then I received a silent healing. Everything was connected.
Miracles. Strange things happen.
Bing was a character. In-between practice he would pause and tells us stories. Stories about his high school fights…the days kids used to try to bully and corner him but he’d break their ribs. Stories about his too many hot girlfriends. Days about the Chinese Mafia where his father was the leader. Stories about how he drove out to LA way back when to buy a vintage sports car from the Basic Instincts film director, Paul Verhoeven, and Sharon Stone’s hot ass had once sat on the seat of the car he now owns.
Many many stories. Funny stories…Just when we’d start cracking up he’d yell, “OK, GET BACK TO PRACTICE!”
There was a student there who was obsessed with Tennis. He was in a tennis team, he played tennis all his life.
Before I left Colorado in late 2011, I asked this man to give me a short tennis lesson. I told him that I was writing a movie script that had a tennis scene in it.
We met at a public court one day and he taught me basic terminology, the grip, the racquet size, and really basic stuff. I told him, “Look, I actually don’t want to learn how to play—can you just demonstrate to me how I would write and shoot this scene.”
When we parted, I asked him I could keep a few tennis balls.
I took those tennis balls with me when I moved to LA.
I put three of them in my car and one on my desk.
I told myself that I was not going to remove those tennis balls until I film my movie. So whenever I had a passenger in my car, they picked up a ball and say, “What’s this? You play?” I’d say no. I never told them that it was a reminder for me to make a movie.
That movie was Nune.
After our film shoot was over, I gave someone the ball. I don’t remember who I gave it to, it might have been one of the interns. But I said the ball was a charm, so to keep it. I hope they did.
I make this all seem simple now, but life is not that simple. Life is very hard. I left out many chapters of my journey that led up to making that movie. But the reason I simplified it is because it makes it easier to understand:
The tennis balls in my car are no different than the fire that burns in me today.
But now, instead of balls and tokens to remind me of what I promised to do in this life—I have this fire to contain. I won’t need to give it up after I’m done. It is a holy fire. And I have to keep it burning.