*a love letter to Norm Macdonald
Few people in this world impress me. Even fewer leaves a deep mark on me. Yes, I am talking about a friend of mine. Someone I used to know from yesteryears. That person was Trần Văn Liêm and this was my last sighting of him.
What can I say about Trần Văn Liêm? He was a few years older than me. He grew up in the district of Điện Bàn in the province of Quảng Nam in the Central region of Vietnam. A land that nurtures tough, brilliant men of character. And Trần Văn Liêm was a prime example. He was extremely intellectually bright. He was smart, I suppose. People back home called him ‘The Miracle Child.’ And he was miraculous, as they said.
While I was scrambling to get out of secondary school, Trần Văn Liêm had already gone on to the National University of Vietnam and earned himself three degrees by the time he was done. In addition, he even won a full scholarship to the Sorbonne and left an inalienable impression upon the folks over on the other side of the world. By the grace of Buddha, we thought he was going to be the next! In the past, we had Phan Châu Trinh, Huỳnh Thúc Kháng, and Trần Quý Cáp. You know, the Three Wise Men of Quảng Nam. And we expected Trần Văn Liêm to join that distinguished class of great men. But all of a sudden, he vanished from this world. Nowhere to be seen. No address, no numbers, no Whatsapp. Not a single trace left. The people of Điện Bàn, Quảng Nam thought he had passed on under mysterious circumstances.
During that time, I started doing stand-up comedy and travelled all over. From here to there and to here again. One time, in the early summer of 2019, I embarked on a series of shows in the Southeast Asian city-state/Disneyland with the death penalty, Singapore. In between shows, I would go sightseeing because man gotta take a break from the jokes. One time, I went to the Singapore Zoo. One of the largest of its kind in the Far East. They have all kinds of wildlife in that place. More than your wildest imagination. They have animals ranging from parakeets to bonobos. While I was admiring the wildebeests, I saw an odd figure walking by and it was none other than… your average zookeeper! The kind you would meet at a zoo. He was a lovely fellow and we debated for a bit on the Darwinian theory on the Origins of species. Once the vigorous debate died down, he pointed me toward where they were feeding the baby elephants. Voila! I love elephants. The Zookeeper read my mind. Wonderful creatures, the elephants. The largest land mammal on Earth, you know.
So I walked to where they were feeding the baby elephants. That's when I saw HIM. Trần Văn Liêm. In the flesh. After so many years and no news. I reconnected with my old friend. My heart was filled with joy but also equally in rage long conceived for many years. Thus, I approached him and immediately started scolding him in my own idea of a cinematic monologue.
‘Trần Văn Liêm! What on earth are you doing here? You have greatly disappointed me. You were our great hope. You were meant to accomplish great things. You were to go to Vietnam's national capital of Hanoi and articulate our hopes and dreams. All of us. All of Điện Bàn, Quảng Nam pinned all of our hopes on you!’
You can imagine it's a great deal of burden for an entire region to pin their hopes on one single individual. As I continued speaking, Trần Văn Liêm continued to feed the baby elephants. I went on ranting,
‘Trần Văn Liêm! I truly feel shame for you. You could have done so many great things! What do you have to say for yourself?
After hearing what I had to say, Trần Văn Liêm opened his mouth for the first time in millennia and he said,
‘First of all, let me address the elephant in the room.’