Native to Play

She in her own garments and he in those assembled by her prominently wrinkled hands. Yet, they do not define her youth, for her bright smile is the first thing I remember, paired with tentative lines by her eyes, fresh from her battle with illness. But should a question or comment come along remarking on her features, she’d simply say –


“There’s still some snap in these old vines!” (Mother Willow, 1995)


My eyes saw no weakness, not among her, who I dubbed Mother Willow, and not among him, who I called Chief Powhatan. With them though, I’ll say bà ngoai and ông ngoai. My beloved grandparents. 16 years, beginning at 0, with my head having lacked hair and my grandmother’s laments as she feared for her only granddaughter’s future.

“Oh what will the neighborhood say if they see that my grandchild has no hair?”


photo binggu 2010© (CC0 1.0)

Thankfully, black locks grew in a matter of time, and I could now gurgle and squeal in regards to her loving compliments. Not that she ever didn’t love me… I think. Alone in my crib, and soon on the bed, it would be her that I saw often. Chief Powhatan, not having laid his roots yet and Pocahontas and her brother off to gather the elusive green bills and I –

I was free.


“I don’t know when

I don’t know how

But I know something’s starting right now

Watch and you’ll see

Someday I’ll be

Part of your world” (Ashman and Menken, 1989)


There is no doubt. I am of Vietnamese descent, with a last name of Huynh and a common “Asian” name of Tracey. The words came naturally to me, but I did not compare to my Mother Willow. With her thick roots buried under the soft covers, she would usher me towards her right, draping a branch over my frail body. And with that, some of her petals floated away.


“To you, I’ll give my hat to you

And I will lie to Mom and Dad (ooooo)

That when I was on the bridge

The wind it blew…” (Tuan, unknown date)


And it was only to this that I could fall asleep. Still, there were times that my body hummed with energy, the sunlight flickering through the blinds and into my eyes, another encouragement for me to stay awake. “Grandma, tell me stories of what Vietnam was like.” “Grandma, tell me more fairytale stories like Tam Cam.”

“You’re such a troublemaker. You should be sleeping.” And after those two sentences, she would talk

And talk

And talk

And left no room for me say anything. But silence was key because then,

I could live her life, even for just a moment.


photo manhhai 2013© (CC BY 2.0)

Summer of 183 2000 something –

I was left with a book that “probably weighed more than I did.” Naivete gone from her face, Pocahontas’ youth was replaced with maturity, a greater understanding. No longer my Pocahontas. She was now my Mother Gothel, but without the intent on kidnapping young children. It was safe to say her remarks always touched my heart in the right places. She kept her feet on the ground, and told me to do the same. “Always follow after me,” she said.

Not surprisingly, I was told to do work in that book of mine.

“Do these problems and write these sentences. Do them. By the time I get home.”

It was 8 in the morning as she left with those words, my Mother Gothel’s daily gathering having turned me into an early riser along with her. But there was one thing I knew – I had plenty of time to get them done. So I brought out my utensils, some lavender, some dusty pink, and some gray. One of the more enjoyable presents from my Mother Gothel, her kisses on the lower end of the spectrum. Poor Rapunzel, with paints as a gift once a year and a frightening song every night.


“Knew that soon you’d want to leave the nest

Soon, but not yet

Shh! Trust me pet

Mother knows best

It’s a scary world out there

Mother knows best” (Menken and Slater, 2010)


Even with an array of tools at my disposal, I still lacked the most important materials. A lavender pan without anything to contain. Dusty pink spoons without anything to scoop. A plastic gray knife without anything to cut into. I was conflicted when told I wasn’t allowed to use real food, so I had to innovate. I had to plan. I had to invent.


image 3881102 2017© (CC0 1.0)

Out came the Halloween candy, the recent stored among the year olds and those a year older than the latter. Initially saved to savor later on, they ended up serving a greater purpose. The jelly beans as the base, with starbursts set atop, and gold chocolate coins to top off the masterpiece. Skittles and chocolate pieces in a different-colored pan, with kisses placed tentatively on top. A spoon ready, and a tap to interrupt my Mother Willow, I pretended to feed her my concoction – oh my beautiful and dangerous concoction.

Hide and seek. I don’t remember when such a concept entered my home. My one-story home. The home with 5 rooms with 5 people. A home where 4 out of 5 rooms have beds. But I always found a way, a trick up my sleeve to elude my Chief Powhatan, who seemed to embrace the 7 Dwarves all at once with his hard-working attitude.


Heigh-ho, heigh ho

It’s home from work we go.” (Morey, 1937)


He, who actually managed to hide behind the bedroom door, withstood my childish giggles and comments on how I would always win against him. I braved the dark to crouch behind the laundry basket and I sucked in my breath to fit into the closet. Among the forest of white surrounding us, we smiled and snickered as my Mother Willow looked on, her branches shivering with happiness.

The years flew by, slow enough that I could recall almost all defining moments that


image StockSnap 2017© (CC0 1.0)

occurred, but fast enough that I haven’t yet established a name for myself. The conflicting agony remains. 2 years among children that only understood play. 6 years with those that continued to enjoy life even as new information was presented. 3 years among competition as we believed that we were being defined by three letters: GPA. Finally, 2 years amid a total of 4 with over half extending their hands to grasp the bar that spells out “Ivy League.”

I’ve lost sight, but I’ve gotten more complicated. I continue to lie across my Mother Willow’s roots, but rarely have I stepped outside to greet the sun that continues to fuel her.

“Up where they walk, up where they run

Up where they stay all day in the sun

Wandering free – wish I could be

Part of that world” (Part of Your World)


The brother of Mother Gothel, the younger son of my Mother Willow can be seen as Prince Adam, more commonly known as the Beast. He too did not prefer the outdoors, often opting to stay inside with his valuables and tinker with them. With no interest in seeking romantic love, he tends to spend more time with me, often trying hard to evoke a laugh. With jokes exchanged and movies almost every night, it made spending 6 hours a day from my Mother Willow acceptable. However, it only lasted until the later 5 years came along. I wish I could keep it under control –  the frustration I feel when I cast him back to his castle, supported by my Mother Willow’s roots.

“I’m trying to do homework. Stop bothering me.”

Even my Mother Gothel sees my transformation. A girl slowly consumed by trouble.


“Who is that girl I see, staring straight back at me?

Why is my reflection someone I don’t know?” (Wilder and Zippel, 1998)


I cannot blame her all the way through for these paper chains tying me down. True, she’s presented the pressure, she’s provided the dropping self-confidence, and she’s produced a child that now places success above all else. Still, it was my choice to continue this said success without any acknowledgment to the rest of the world. It wasn’t until later that my Mother Gothel began to show remorse as I rejected every invitation to step outside and feel the sun that fueled my Mother Willow.

“Please…” she began.


Come run the hidden pine trails of the forest

Come taste the sun-sweet berries of the Earth

Come roll in all the riches all around you

And for once, never wonder what they’re worth” (Schwartz and Menken, 1995)

The unexpected is always suspicious. Pop-quizzes, 3 sections of Euro homework assigned on the day, how unpleasant. Then, the announcement of an event called Global School Play Day and the first thought that ran through my mind? How can we afford to play in high school? But the ringleader, the Mufasa of the class, refused to let us leave without understanding.

Play. It’s significance? Developing children mentally and physically. It’s goal? To have us enjoy life a bit more.

Enjoyment. Now that’s something I haven’t felt in a while. When was the last time I actually played with my friends?  A selection of activities to choose from: Jenga, Uno, playing cards, and the “realistic” Mille Bornes. Although having already settled on a plan with those I expected to spend my hour with, I did not hesitate to welcome the ones that sat more than an arm’s length away. With +2 cards waved around in excitement, a +8 placed down smugly, and the table attacked when doubles or sandwiches appeared, the blindfold drifted down. “We didn’t talk about school. We didn’t play with our phones.” (Michelle Duong, 2018)

Friends and family, the two often paired together, but on that day, I saw them as one. We were truly a large family, albeit for an hour.


“And at last I see the light

And it’s like the fog has lifted

And at last I see the light

And it’s like the sky is new

And it’s warm and real and bright

And the world has somehow shifted” (Menken and Slater, 2010)


The Lunar New Year came soon after with a total of 4 red envelopes in my hands, and my Prince Adam, Mother Gothel, Chief Powhatan, and Mother Willow by my side. It was only on that day that I emerged to make 5 from 4 and have the words of Xuân Đã Về resonate in my ears. Two joyous days in two weeks.

Even with smiles often being shared between my family of 4 and 37,

I can’t help but wonder and wish if we could hold another play session.


“I want adventure in the great wide somewhere

I want it more than I can tell

And for once it might be grand to have someone understand

I want so much more than they’ve got planned” (Ashman and Rice, 2017)

Featured Image – So often, play is out of reach (source:


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