Stand By Me

Speaking Nearby*

On New Year’s Day 2021, my friend sent me a link to the music video for Temple, a song by Thao & the Get Down Stay Down. Temple features a cast of older Vietnamese dancers in a botanical garden. They strike poses and gesture together as they walk. The plants bear witness to their parade. I love this video for many reasons: the choreography that incorporates pedestrian movement and non-dancers, the family vibe, the song… My favorite part was shot indoors; the dancers improvise moving their bodies freely in ways that are authentic to each individual. Intercut with the dancing is Thao on her guitar. She wears a very wide brimmed hat that obscures her features, reminiscent of a traditional Vietnamese farming hat, nón lá. The lyrics to the song are heartbreaking.


I know your father can’t call anymore

He never meant to be a man of war

— from Temple by Thao & the Get Down Stay Down

Recently we had our sewer line repaired. It kept backing up into the basement. The plumber, who was white, came with two Spanish-speaking day laborers who dug a very deep hole in our backyard. After the hole was dug, the plumber commenced with the pipe work, replacing part of the sewer line that had root damage and installing a clean out. He backfilled the hole part way and then left the job half done.

This repair was a job that cost several thousand dollars and although the plumber claimed that someone would come finish backfilling the hole, I had my doubts that anyone would show up to finish the job.

But we found freedom what will you do now

Bury the burden baby make us proud

— from Temple by Thao & the Get Down Stay Down

One morning two days later, I spotted a young asian woman wearing black leggings and carrying a shovel wandering around in the front yard. She was accompanied by an older asian man. I put a mask on and stuck my head out the door to ask what they wanted.

“We’re here to finish the plumbing job.” She must have seen an incredulous expression cross my face because she followed that quickly with, “I’m the owner.”

I showed them to the back yard and they proceeded to fill the remainder of the hole.

Later the same afternoon, two young caucasian men came to scope the newly cleared sewer line. I asked one if the young woman was really the owner and he said. “Yes.” Curious, I asked if she was a plumber and he replied, “No, but she likes to pretend she is. Thay is a plumber.” From this short exchange I gathered that her father was the plumber and likely founder of the company.

We don’t have words for the way you have grown

We’ll always feed you

You can always come home

— from Temple by Thao & the Get Down Stay Down

My father is from a small village in the Philippines. He is a retired civil engineer and ran is own firm for many years, but the business always seemed to struggle. Ever the eldest son, he always paid his employees before he paid his bills or himself.

Firstborn, I was good at math and could easily have followed in his footsteps by becoming an engineer, but I didn’t. Instead I found my way as an artist, having studied dance and math and art and worked variously as a photographer, aerialist, software engineer, and graphic designer.

For Christmas, I sent my father a small bag of delicious salt and pepper pistachios and a short note. I related the story of the Vietnamese plumbing family and how that encounter made me wonder if he had ever wanted me to take over DeLuna, Inc., his now shuttered civil engineering firm. If he had wanted this, it was a wish that was never voiced. My father is a man of few words. In my note, I thanked him for allowing me to go my own way and for letting me be an artist. I know the pressure was there, unspoken, and this is the first time I had addressed it. At this time I am almost 50 years old and my father is close to 80.

A few days after Christmas, my father sent me a text message:

Got the package. Appreciate your little note and thanks for the pistachio

* “I do not intend to speak about. Just speak nearby.” — Trinh T. Minh-ha 12

Thay is a Vietnamese word for teacher; I recognized the term because students of Thích Nhat Hanh refer to him this way.