by Lynn Kim Do

Costa Rica Photo Diary | + Notes on "Family"

Family. I think I’ve always believed in the word family more than I actually did. I liked the idea of it. I wanted it. And when I thought I couldn’t get it, I sought it in friends and in my friends’ families. I use the phrase “Adopt me!” a lot. I had all these ideas about what a “family” should be. And I got most of those ideas from television or movies or kids from school so pretty much white-hetero-traditional-christian-value families. All of which aren’t me. I’m a Vietnamese American raised with Buddhist and nuclear family values who grew up poor. My family isn’t like these TV shows or Mom and Dads who had time to take their kids to after school programs. My family is very complicated and messy. And it didn’t help that my mom, dad, brothers, and I were the black sheep of our family. The outcast. The punching bag. And so my mom, my father, my brothers, and I all tried to forge our own path which is why we’re all quite independent. Even from one another. But that’s us. We never needed to speak every day but we will kill for one another a heartbeat. We are tied and intensely connected to one another, of our survival with one finger in each others’ lives and the rest in building our own. So that no one call look down on us, including our own selves.. But that was it. No one else was considered “family” besides our small pack. Not cousins, not uncles, not aunts, not in-laws.

And my back up plan — friends. Well, friends were great. Until they, too, disappoint you, abandon you, betray you. So what the hell? What is the solution? What have I been doing wrong? Well I think this trip to Costa Rica with 9 other people really was a gift. A soft clarity to my warped idea of “family” I’ve held for so long. 9 people who consisted of friends and my “cousins” who, until a year or so, I weren’t mutually in contact for years but were drawn together again through a series of surprising and melodramatic events. And funny how we just slipped back into this realm of familiarity, of loyalty and faith tied in centuries of ancestry. And of unspoken forgiveness. There was nothing to be said because it was understood. We all fucked up and we all were just doing the best we can. And that’s okay. 

But me, me who never really grasped or even truly gave the word “family” a chance is now with 9 others some of which are friends and some are blood relatives. All peers. And I am beginning to understand what a “family” looks like. I watched as each of us played our part in this one week trip in the jungle. And observed our frustration in our 5 hours long bus rides as our luggage sat on our thighs with the seat buckle wedged into our butts and the fear of a large truck cutting into our lane to kill us then and there come and go. Or at midnight when the star-covered beach night was interrupted by a sudden car headlight, swiftly approaching us, and how we were ready to defend this family of ours. Sand in hand, every one of us, ready to blind these intruders. Even the “new guy” became initiated as he lost to a triple in a game of high-low cards and had to take a three shot of shitty tequila right then and there. Or when we baptized two non-Viets in our crew in the pool with a teapot of Hennessy to the face first. Or when the only non-swimmer (me) put her life in their hands on her very first white water rafting excursion that lasted five hours AND voluntarily threw herself into the water for a “rescue demonstration” only to swallow a ton of river water because she had no idea that they were in “deep” water not shallow but then got the most stunning memory with the plea of her family of swimming in a  green-dressed cove (with a life vest) for the very first time….well, that’s a lot of trust.  So, family isn’t blood or kinship or boyfriends or friends-anointed-family. It’s a love that’s forgiving, understood, and kind. And and the very same time, I’m still learning what it is. Sometimes, it feels uncomfortable but even more so, I’m pretty excited about it.

Images by my family.