Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter with Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao

In this interview, I’m joined by Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao, who are the mother and daughter team who have written the beautiful duet memoir, “Family in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter.” Lan Cao immigrated to the United States in 1975, after the end of the Vietnam War. She raised her daughter, Harlan, in the US. In their beautiful memoir, they both share about their journey in growing up. 

It was a delight to get to speak to them about their shared experiences, together as a family; and as they grew up with very different circumstances. It is also fascinating to hear about their writing experience: Lan Cao is a published author and a professor of law at Chapman University. Her daughter, Harlan has just graduated from high school, and is attending UCLA. 

Joy in the Messy Middle

Lan Cao has seen her share of difficult times, having left Vietnam after the war as a young girl. Her words about finding joy in the messy middle are to “focus on the part that you can control.” She also focuses on feeling a connection with others through watching movies, or reading. She can see the connection with the author, the film maker, and their works.

Harlan says that in hard times, she likes to focus on relationships where both people are working to build each other up, and that empower each other. 

I also really loved what Lan Cao had to say about her manner of approaching problems, which she takes back to finding the basics of the issue. She takes inspiration from when she was learning to read and write English, and used to look for the subject and verb in sentences:

“Now, when I see a problem, I try to find the subject and the verb of that problem, because the problem is not bigger. The problem can be a flowery sentence. Inside the flowery sentence is really just the subject and the verb. And if I can identify that I can solve the problem, because I’ve made it smaller. I ignore the flowery modifiers and that’s helped me. Sometimes when you’re in the middle of the problem, it looks bigger than it really is. So I’ve always used the diagramming structure, which I learned when I learned English and apply that to general problem solving.”

In this interview, we talk about:

  • Lan and Harlan’s experiences growing up
  • The importance of the role of both of their fathers in their lives
  • How they wrote a duet memoir as mother and daughter
  • The relationships between mothers and daughters
  • The awkwardness of high school
  • Dealing with isolation and the longing to belong
  • Vietnam, the war, and what it was like to move to the US as a Vietnamese immigrant 


Families in Six Tones: A Refugee Mother, an American Daughter on Amazon

Lan Cao’s website

Lan Cao on Facebook


Paula:  Welcome to Jump Start Your Joy. This week I’m really delighted to be joined by a mother and a daughter who have written an amazing book. Welcome, Lan Cao and Harlan Margaret Van Cao. It’s such a treat to have you here.

Lan Cao:  Thank you so much for having us.

Paula:  I start every interview with a question about the most joyful things people experienced in childhood, so if we could start there. Would you maybe separately or you can split it up however you want, but what did you love most as a child or in school, what were your earliest sparks of joy?

Lan Cao:  My most enjoyable memories were of Christmas. My father was in the Army and he had these gigantic, to me at the time, Army boots, which he kept very polished and he cleaned them every time after he came back from a battlefield, which the boots were muddy from. He would take a lot of time to himself cleaning the boots with a brush and then he would polish them. But for Christmas, instead of having stockings, as kids do in this country, because my mother was Catholic and my father was Buddhist, but we had Christian traditions as well, he would put the boots outside my bedroom just by the door.

There would be all kinds of presents stuffed inside his military boots. I believed in Santa Claus, so it was very magical for me that I got all of these presents from Santa Claus, but it was magical also because the presents came inside the boots. The boots were always mysterious to me because they symbolized this crazy scary part of life in Vietnam, because they represented war, but at home they represented safety to me because he is back home, and then now there are presents in them. So, they’re all layers of meanings that I interpreted and associated with the boots, and then on top of that just the Christmas was a very special memory for me growing up.

Paula:  Thank you. There’s a lot of layers in that. That’s amazing. Harlan, do you have something about childhood that you want to share?

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  I think mine is probably more simple. Just waking up my mom would dress me every morning, because she liked to put me in matching outfits with a matching bucket hat for some reason. Then during Fall, I would rake the leaves with my dad. We had a huge yard, but it was more courtyard style, like it didn’t have dirt in the front yard, so we would rake the leaves every day during the Fall. I had a puppy, and the puppy would run around. Then my mom would make popovers or something like that.

It’s pretty simple, but it means a lot, especially because that was always his thing, clearing the leaves, and then when the snow comes, he clears up the snow. He was always that person taking care of everybody.

Paula:  I’ve never had someone answer the question in front of their mom, which is kind of an interesting dynamic there. I love that you both reflected on your fathers, too. That’s really beautiful.

Lan Cao:   That’s interesting. I didn’t make that connection.

Paula:  You together have written an amazing memoir, Family in Six Tones. I really enjoyed it. It’s so different than anything out there. I don’t know if you would like to give an introduction to the work, because obviously you’ll do it better than I could, and maybe what your experience was of writing it.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  It’s interesting because writing a memoir is so difficult for me, just because I’m so scared, I guess when you’re 15 or 16 you’re already so self-conscious, then it’s like you’re going to talk about your life totally raw, you’re not even going to be able to make up a character to hide behind. Then on top of it, it’s about your mom and she reads it every time you write something. In the beginning, we would reach each other’s stuff. Sorry. What was what the question?

Paula:  Just about the book and your experience.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  It’s meant to go toward a theme, obviously it all goes back to the Vietnamese War, but because I didn’t know a ton about it and all I can talk about the war is how it affected my family, and I’m second generation, I was very nervous to approach that.

Because I’m working with my mom and she’s already established as an author, a lot of her audience is the Vietnamese community, which makes sense, so I don’t want to say anything where they’re like, “Who is she to talk about the war?” That definitely made me nervous. But it’s mostly just about falling in love with yourself as you grow up and then also falling in love with the relationship you have with your mother, because it’s obviously very complicated. I think we cover that pretty well.

The good thing about writing a memoir, too, is it’s autobiographical, but it’s not an autobiography. So, I don’t say anything outright. I don’t like giving directions to a reader to be like, “Appreciate your mother.” Just if they read, I hope they get that out of what I wrote. It’s all more subtle.

Lan Cao:  The genesis is very interesting, because our publisher approached us. That’s kind of unusual, because I didn’t come up with this idea myself. I didn’t come up with the memoir, it just happened because we had this interview on NPR, the editors happened to hear it. I did not even tell my agent.

All these people are now our friends, because I’ve known my agent since 1997, Ellen, and we’re good friends. My first editor who did my two fiction books with me, we’re very close friends. Despite that, it’s not like I had the interview and I said to them to listen. They just happened to be listening. I didn’t signal it to them.

When Carol heard it, I think she talked about it with the other editors at Viking. The wonderful thing about Viking, I have to say, because there’s a lot of stories about how publishing has become, you can fill in the negative adjectives. Honestly, I can only tell you that my experience with Viking – and I’ve been with Viking since 1997 – has been nothing but just incredibly good. I just feel like the company is very nurturing of the writer. It’s not this project and that project, it’s you as a whole.

I think what happened is that Carol went and talked to Viking and other people, and they just became interested in that idea of a book that is dual voice, and simultaneously mother and daughter in the present. Not like a daughter who looks back at her mother’s life with her. It’s both very reflective on my part, because I’m of an age where I have enough to look back on, and at the same time very present tense for her.

That makes it be both past and present all bundled up together, because you have these two voices with different first perspectives. That’s all through Viking. I would never have thought of it myself.

Paula:  It’s amazing. I very much picked up on some themes in it that I’ve since heard you talk about. Maybe Viking was also saying, “Can we talk about more of these things?” One of them that came through so beautifully was about both location and belonging for both of you through the series of Lan coming from Vietnam in 1975 and then also the two of you revisiting and going back there.

I know you said a little bit, Lan, about how America is almost a character in your own history, and I’ll link up to that interview, but how it plays a role that’s sometimes good, it’s antagonist and it’s the protagonist sometimes in your own story. I don’t know if you guys want to talk about how location and belonging has come up, or how you saw it in the book or in your lives.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  The issue of location and belonging are universal issues. I think every human being in the world wants to have a sense of belonging. Even non-humans, like the dog, want to belong. I think it’s a very instinctive yearning that every entity with a sense of sentience probably have. I know that my dog certainly feels that. He’s a rescue, he had been abandoned, and I can just feel that he is very much attached to the sense that he wants to belong with us.

In that sense, it’s universal. Our story is just taking a universal theme, which all humans with a human heart have, and then situated within the geography that is particular to our history. In my case, I’ve not often felt a strong sense of belonging. It’s something you have to carve out and find. I remember because I straddled so many worlds.

You can take an intellectual approach and think of it as a very positive thing, because it gives you access to so many touchpoints beyond nationalism and beyond just inheriting certain cultural norms. Because I’m in so many different worlds, I have access to all of those differences. In some ways, it’s great, but the downside to that is that if you are able to have a toe in each place, you’re not really immersed in any one place. As a result, you don’t really feel you belong. It’s something you really have to work towards to have that feeling.

I used to think of the belonging as attached to a place. I would think I just don’t belong in America. But if I were to be in Vietnam, I would feel that. Then when I did go to Vietnam in the early ‘90s, I was absolutely shocked that the Vietnamese there immediately pulled me out of the environment and knew that I came from America. I’m totally looking Vietnamese. I’m there dressed in jeans and they are, too, it’s not like they’re in black pajamas. So, I’m dressed like them and they identified me as an outsider when I went there.

It can’t be attached to geography or location, and it’s internal. But that’s much easier said than done. Just because you can say it doesn’t mean that you feel that sense of belonging internally. It’s a constant process.

Paula:  Yes.

Lan Cao:  I’m sure all of us relate to that. We feel like my partner doesn’t understand me, I don’t feel like I belong. I think those are things that are just struggles that we all have. It’s just that ours are in this particular location.

Paula:  Harlan, I don’t know if this helps give context, but I was moved by your description of going to Saigon with your mom. Even noticing how everything was different, I think when you were 6, and how you didn’t have the language to speak with people there, but that you really absorbed all of the things.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  It’s kind of hard to always follow her, because she’s like a professor, it’s her job, so it’s so hard. For me, the difference between the two of us is her lack of being able to feel that she belongs somewhere, it’s pretty clear where it comes from. Do you know what I mean? It’s like obviously you’re displaced horribly by this war, nobody treats you well when you first get here, and then you feel lost and you have to work your way up by yourself.

Because she struggled through that, and people always say immigrant parents just work super hard not for themselves but for their kids to have the choice to do whatever they want, so I feel – there’s no better word, I feel stupid complaining about I don’t belong in high school, because it’s such a typical thing for that age, especially being a girl.

I feel very grateful for my mom, because – I don’t know if this is going to make sense – any feeling that I had of feeling displaced, she let me have that come from a place that’s more normal, something that I can heal from.

She made it so I didn’t have to work all the time if I didn’t want to. A lot of my friends have to work, especially at the edge of the city. A lot of the friends I have didn’t have any time to do anything with their friends, because they had to actually support their own families because their moms couldn’t work, their dads didn’t work.

She always thought of me first. Just a week ago she said, “10 years ago I set aside this amount of money for you, it just came up, and I’d forgot about it.” Just to have that means a lot. That’s why when people ask about belonging and they always bring up the culture of Vietnam and America, it’s funny because to me, my sense of not being able to belong doesn’t come from that. In fact, I feel that actually helps me, it gives me an advantage of understanding the world, because I’m exposed to everything but I’m still safe. Anything that I’ve had where I felt displaced, it came from, I think, carrying her trauma with me, if that makes sense.

Because we’re so close, a lot of her personality traits – they’re beautiful, they’re very special – they’ve rubbed off onto me. My friends can tell, and they always say, “Oh my god, you’re just like your mom.” Obviously, nobody wants to hear that at this age. They’re like, “Oh my god, that’s my biggest fear.” But it’s actually a good thing. Even just now when you pointed out that we both talked about our dads, I had no idea. That’s a small thing.

Anything that I’ve felt of not knowing where I belong, I don’t know if that’s something that can ever be fixed and I don’t know if I need it to be fixed. That’s just human nature, no matter who you are. People always blame it on themselves, but even if you were the person sitting 10 seats away from you, you’d probably still feel the same way. It’s important to just accept and be aware of that with everybody, just being conscious of everyone else’s space. That’s how I think we can help.

Paula:  There’s a lot of depth to that. Thank you. I think you’re right. Obviously, people do experience things in different degrees. One of the things that stood out for me is also the theme of isolation. I think you both experienced that in very different ways in that coming of age time during high school. You both being different in many ways but feeling so much. My own experience of high school as an American was also very isolating. I think we all go through that. It’s very interesting that we all have feelings of, “Do I really belong?” and that’s kind of a universal question. I don’t know if you guys want to talk a little bit about how you see yourselves or each other maybe in that kind of high school state, because it was so different for you and yet there were so many striking similarities of the things that you felt that reflected back at each other throughout the book.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  Why don’t you say how you see my high school and I’ll say how I see yours?

Lan Cao:  I think high school, because it’s bookended, there are two marks, one is you’re entering high school around 13 or 14, and you’re leaving around 17 or 18. Those are very charged years for human development. A lot of times I think high school just shakes up a lot of the physiological, hormonal changes that all, whether they’re boys or girls, go through. Those years can be very traumatic in and of themselves.

For me, those normal human developments were papered over by the shock of arriving in this country. Never thinking that they would come, because when you’re in Vietnam, even though we were in the middle of the war and it was such a long war, one almost though that the war would just continue forever. Even if we thought that it would end, we never thought it would end in our defeat, that we would then leave. We thought maybe it would be like North Korea and South Korea, two countries, but the north would be up there and the south would just be down here, and we would have our life in the south.

The shock of arriving was huge for me. I think it was so shocking that it displaced all of the normal teenager stuff. I was just feeling totally like an outsider. Not an outsider because I was 13 years old and feeling like a nerd, even though I was that too. It was more like I speak English very tentatively, how am I going to learn it. It all became for me like the answer was very formulated. I felt like everything that was wrong came from my being an outsider to this country, and the way to become an insider was through education.

Education for me was really mastering the English language. Mastering the English language also helped me actually, because I was very interested in diagramming sentences. It felt like I could segment a big problem into smaller problems. I think that’s a really good skill, diagramming is a very good skill to apply in life generally. For example, when I was 13 and I read a passage in a James Joyce book or a Henry James, where the sentences are long, they’re not Hemmingway sentences that are really short.

If you have a really long flowery sentence and English is not your first language, the first thing you have to look for is the subject and the verb. Once you have that, then you realize that the adjectives are just descriptions of the noun and the adverbs are just further descriptions and modifiers of the verb. If you can identify the subject and the verb, you can understand the English sentence. If I can understand the English sentence, then I’ll do better in school.

Now when I see a problem, I try to find the subject and the verb of that problem. Then the problem is not bigger. It’s really a flowery sentence. The problem can be a flowery sentence, but inside the flowery sentence is really just the subject and the verb. If I can identify that, I can solve the problem because I’ve made it smaller and just sort of ignored the flowery modifiers.

That’s helped me, because sometimes when you’re in the middle of the problem it looks bigger than it really is. I’ve always used the diagraming structure which I learned when I learned English, and I apply that to sort of general problem solving.

Paula:  I love it. That’s kind of a mind-blowing idea, too. That when you can boil the thing down to the root of it, then you can unpack the rest of the thought or the problem or the language. That’s really beautiful. I can see how that plays through with how you’ve become a writer, and also how that relates to law, because you’re a lawyer as well. Breaking everything down to its core is wow.

Lan Cao:  That’s very lawyerly.

Paula:  It totally is.

Lan Cao:  I know a lot of lawyers who never practice law, they go to law school and they pass the Bar and they do something else. Some of them come to the university and talk about something interesting. They have themselves told the story that even though they got a law degree and they never practiced law again, when they talk people know that they’re lawyers because it’s very process in orientation, it’s step by step.

I think when you can break down a problem that appears humungous, because when you’re in the problem all problems appear humungous, there’s like a dust storm around you, being able to go process by process or diagramming subject and verb, even if it doesn’t show you the whole problem, it does calm your mind down. It’s kind of like in AA, one day at a time. Don’t think of it as, “Oh my god, the rest of my life I’m going to have to struggle with this.” It’s just one day at a time.

Paula:  Yes. We kind of meandered from the question. Harlan, I want to get your experience, too, of high school and that isolation.

I’ve also had trauma in my own background. I can see how being able to parse something down to the root of something also means I can deal with something from a very pragmatic point of view instead of getting lost in maybe being triggered or the emotions of it that somebody else is throwing my way. When I can just say this is the issue, then I can move forward with that thing instead of it being now all of my emotions are in play. So, that’s amazing. Thank you for that.

Lan Cao:  The problem is that when I looked at Harlan’s high school experience, when I was looking for her subject and her verb, I was using my subject and my verb to see if she was having difficulty in high school, and her subject and verb was different.

To me, when I’m looking at the problem and thinking in high school the problem is that you’re an outsider, because that was my problem. Her problem was not that she was an outsider, so when I saw that she was not an outsider, I thought she doesn’t have any problem, or whatever ones there were they were all manageable.

Her problem was that she was very much deeply an insider. When you’re an insider, you have very different kinds of problems, which is the jostling problem, you’re wrestling. You’re inside the arena and you are wrestling with others, whereas I was never even in the arena to wrestle. Since I was not in the arena, and she was in the arena, I thought she has no problem. But all of her problems came from elbowing, chokeholds, people kicking, that you have to be near them to be able to get to. I was never near anybody to get that kind of problem.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  It was a huge jealousy problem, too. I didn’t know that at the time. If you look back on things, girls, our instinct is to be jealous of each other. I guess it’s our biology. We all have to fight for one guy, and then the guy’s job is to just I guess is to inseminate as many people as possible.

Lan Cao:  Don’t subscribe to it, please.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  No. But I’m saying the jealousy comes from an instinct. On Instagram, a girl will post a picture of herself and a boy will look at it and see, “Okay, it’s a girl.” Another girl looking at it will zoom in on the picture. I’ve seen it all the time. We look at the stomach lines, we look at the face, the skin, everything. We’ll either be like, “She’s so skinny,” or, “She’s so pretty,” or, “Oh my god. Why did she post that?”

That’s not the point of the picture. She didn’t ask to be evaluated. I don’t think they do it on purpose. It’s not like a typical teenage movie high school thing. It’s to the point where you can’t even explain it if you want to talk about, which is the hardest part.

Then on top of it, technology, too. This is going to sound so cliché. I always feel like I was born in the wrong time, just because I only participate in social media and stuff because everyone else was and I didn’t want to fall behind, but I’ve never cared about it. Now as people get famous from doing nothing, they’re just on social media and they literally do nothing, it makes me angry. It’s like why are people being given attention when they’re not helping the world? What are you even doing?

It all goes back to something smaller. For my individual high school, SnapChat is the big thing. A lot of things disappear when you send them, so that opens up for a lot of sexual harassment. To the point where people don’t know it’s sexual harassment, because it’s so normal. Do you know what I mean?

It’s not normal for girls to constantly be asked for sex when they’re 13 and 14 years old, because the boys have been watching porn and they think that’s normal. It’s all a loop. Then it develops into this competition between the girls and they don’t even know that it’s happening. Sometimes it can even escalate so far that some girls and their families have to contact a sexual harrasment attorney to bring a case against those who are doing it relentlessly.

I think a lot of my problems came from that, too, just from the time we were growing up in. Also, I don’t want to become political, but obviously, when someone is elected who shows that it’s okay to cheat on your wife with a porn star and nobody thinks that’s weird, there’s obviously going to be some effect to that. I’m not even speaking about his skills as a President, but just his personality and what we’ve chosen. People saying, “I can forgive that, because I think he’s going to do this,” it’s like a very individualistic idea.

America as a whole, even though I think we’re one of the greatest countries, nowadays it’s not only America-first, it’s every American first for themselves. We kind of just think, “This isn’t convenient to me, so I’m going to vote him in because he says he’s going to do this, but it doesn’t matter if a woman should be punished if she wants to get an abortion because her baby might kill her on the way out when she’s giving birth.” It’s just this thinking one way for themselves.

I’ve seen it in high school. Again, I don’t want to be too dramatic. Not all of high school was bad. A lot of people were really nice. Each person individually is great. I think it’s the problem of the high school environment that’s the problem. I don’t think it’s the individual personality. I’ve hung out with a lot of these people by myself and they’re totally cool, they don’t say anything bad about anybody else. It’s just the high school environment.

Whereas her problem was more of just basic racism.

Paula:  I think you’ve brought up some interesting things around even though there is more connection through something like Instagram or TikTok, it’s just of an anonymous connection. It’s not a real tangible thing. Then some of the anonymity of it layers in and all of sudden people start to feel like they don’t… what is it? We’re missing something in the face-to-face, so there’s maybe a new type of isolation where some people in society feel like they can just act as if the other people in the world don’t matter or whatever.

I think you brought up a really valid point, Harlan, about when our leadership is showing that you can treat people poorly, what gate got opened when that became “okay”? I do not think any of that is okay. But I think there is some sort of tone that has been set that is kind of scary.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  It’s so scary, too, when his presidency marks the four years of my high school. That was really weird to me. The day he was elected was my freshman year. I already felt a difference. I don’t think that any boy in my school thinks, “Trump does it, so I can too.” They’re not simple. You know what I mean?

Just something in their head where they’re like Instagram makes things into a joke, for example. It doesn’t mean everything should be taken seriously. I remember when Trump said the thing on the recording about grabbing women, it was all over Instagram, but it was made into a joke and have an animal say it or have a baby say it, or something like that. It was like people don’t even realize that he’s literally running for President and they don’t get what that means.

This isn’t even part of the question. Sorry.

Paula:  No. It’s okay. It’s all interesting.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  I feel like the education system should have been molded when this was all going on, kind of like to reverse any negative that occur. It’s very interesting, because we always say climate change matters, we have to fix it, but the President is basically saying no, it doesn’t matter, and the schools barely even teach about it. It’s all up to us.

They’re instead teaching us about something that happened millions of years ago, but they’re not even pointing out that plastic is going to go in the ocean. It’s so simple, but people don’t seem to care. People who do care think the economy is good, so that trumps the plastic going into the ocean. It’s just impossible.

I think that mindset with politics also bleeds into social interactions.

Paula:  There’s a lot of truth in there. The other thing that I feel like is bubbling up for us is, kind of back to parsing down sentences, words matter. When people are being careless with them or, Harlan, like you’re bringing up, they’re kind of making a mockery and they’re bringing into almost being acceptable, that an animal or meme makes something acceptable in some ways. Those words, when we’re so careless with them, we’re not giving them the space and the emphasis that they deserve. This is a gross thing to say, but yet somehow it got into the echo chamber and now people are making it funny.

There’s something really special about the way that you are sharing in the book, and here, too. You clearly love each other so much. A lot of what I’m talking about in this season of Jump Start Your Joy is about how we’re kind of in the messy middle of things. Some of what you just brought up, Harlan. It’s rough. A pandemic, and in California there has been a lot of wildfires, and race and equality questions have come up big this year. There’s been a lot of that, and you both have faced a lot of it.

How do you see in the midst of sitting with discomfort, and maybe even in writing your book you saw some of that, how do you sit with that but also show each other and other people, or create joy in a space like this?

Lan Cao:  The one thing that I always felt confident about, even though my high school years were filling with instances where I felt not confident, but I’m now very confident that I’m just very adaptable, that I really actually have that resilience. Maybe that comes from just having shown up in life and gone from Act I to Act II to Act III. It’s not like her, because she’s young, so she’s only had a smaller part. Having gone through more years in life and having seen all of the up and down, I feel very much like I can accommodate.

When we’re in the middle of all of this, just really weird things that are beyond our control, I find that the way to, this is not to say that I can always do it, but it is a path that can help you get to it, which is to focus on the part that you can control.

In many ways, like when Harlan talks about climate change, there’s nothing we can control about whether or not a manufacturer of a car is going to decide to invest a technology that is going to help us reduce the carbon footprint. I can’t do anything about that. Instead of feeling like there’s nothing I can do, I do know that, for example, I’m just not going to buy bottled water. I try to bring a thermos with me if I feel like I’m going to need water during the day and I’m not at home.

I think just focusing on the part that you can control can also make you feel better. In the pandemic, I’ve not been able to do anything else outside of the house much, because everything has shut down. I like to watch movies. Those are things that I can control. It helps me write, because a lot of what I’m watching in a movie, I am watching almost as a reader would when the reader reads my work.

I’m thinking the director decides to put the angle of the camera this way, and there’s an analogy to how a writer writes, just with words, to put the camera angle a certain way on the page. By translating the movies, a director’s angle into a writer’s angle, it actually helps me think about writing, even though I’m not able to go see a movie and even though I may feel blocked in writing.

The way to sort of find your happiness is to try to find the part that somehow resonates with you, I find, and then focus on that. I don’t like to read when I’m all by myself so much, strangely, or while I’m writing I don’t want to read. By watching a movie, I’m able to segue into reading. It makes me feel less disconnected with others during the pandemic, also.

A lot of it is just focusing on what you can do, not on what you can’t do, because you’ll feel overpowered. For the part of what you can do, sometimes it’s a mental shift.

Paula:  That’s so true.

Lan Cao:  It’s not anything you can do actually, but just how you view the thing can help.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  I think for me for happiness and caring for people, despite everything, I’ve realized what works is to only put focus toward people that I know we benefit each other, if that makes sense.

Paula:  Yes.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  I’ve already never liked huge groups anyway. For example, it’s really hard to talk about, but two months ago there was a girl, she’s in the acknowledgements of my book, there’s a huge section about her, and I had to call it quits on the friendship because it was clear that I prioritized her too high. Other things in her life, like a new boyfriend or whatever, he wasn’t treating me well and she ended up picking his side, and he had just gotten here. It’s very irritating for me, because I’m thinking, “What has he ever done for you?”

I know people, at the end of the day, will realize exactly which relationships should have been worth it to them, so I’m sure she’ll understand later. But I’m not willing to wait, because that stage of waiting is too painful and it makes me feel unworthy and embarrassed of myself, which is something I haven’t felt for a really long time, since the beginning of high school. I just hate when that feeling comes up again, because when I’ve managed to be myself and it comes back, I feel helpless.

Any relationships that are not good for me, I’m going to only focus on the ones that are. I guess that’s a not a good approach. I don’t want to seem like I’m selfish, where it’s like if you don’t treat me nicely then I guess screw you. That’s not what I mean. And it is hypocritical, because there have been times, like with boys, they don’t treat me well but I’m like, “They will,” so there’s always times where I’m delusional.

But that’s important, knowing what’s right for you. I don’t want to go to a party if I feel like everyone there hates me. What’s the point of going to the party? I’d honestly rather just stay home with the one best friend that I have that treats me really nicely now. I’m happy in that.

Lan Cao:  That’s very hard to do, actually.

Paula:  Oh yes.

Lan Cao:  When is this a delusion and when are you just waiting it out? These things are things that we struggle with all through life, even as adults.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  It’s through a bunch of human relationships that have taught me that.

Lan Cao:  You only know it by having gone through it yourself. There is no manual that is going to tell you. I remember when I was pregnant, there’s a book that says What to Expect When You’re Expecting, it has like this is going to happen on the fifth month and things like that. But with human relationships there is no such things as a manual that tells you if this happens, at this stage this is going to happen. You’re just falling through trying to figure it all out, no matter what age you’re at.

Paula:  For sure. I remember a relationship in college with a friend that I’d had for years, and it did get to that point where there was the realization that I have a choice. This person doesn’t seem to honor who I am and she just seems to want to almost make fun of me was what it was boiling down to, that was the humor of it for her or something. Then really stepping up and telling her, “I can’t be friends anymore, because this doesn’t feel good to me.” That was hard and scary, but I’m really glad that I did it.

Harlan, to your point, when it’s not right in any kind of relationship, honoring yourself and knowing I’d rather spend time with people that see me for the good person I am and that celebrate me and life, that’s who I want.

Lan Cao:  Even you’d rather spend time with people who bring the better part out of you.

Paula:  Exactly.

Lan Cao:  Sometimes you have a dynamic with an established framework where certain things just keep recurring. It’s not necessarily one person’s fault or another person’s fault. It has its own pattern. Sometimes you’re not who you want to be when you’re in that situation as well.

Paula:  Yes. And that’s so hard, especially if there’s a long history, to say this doesn’t feel right. With other people, they just bring out the best in your life.

I am kind of curious, Harlan, because you started writing this book with your mom when you were 16-ish. What has it been like to be in the writing process through high school and now into college? What does that look like for you?

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  Every time that a teacher would tell us, “Time to do your homework now. I’m going to give you an hour to work on your computers,” I would work on my book, because the due date was literally the next day and I hadn’t done anything yet.

It’s obviously not a normal thing to do, if you want to say normal. There were times it would get around, “Harlan is writing a book. Watch out what she’s going to say about you.” This one girl, she was kind of really popular in school, it was a new school I had gone to, and she obviously didn’t like me very much. We had a mutual friend and I asked her why doesn’t the girl like me. She said, “She just thinks that you have a lot on your plate and she doesn’t want to deal with it. For example, you’re writing a book. I think she’s threatened by that.”

For some reason, people didn’t like it. Either people were really excited about it or they didn’t like it at all. They’d be like, “You’ll definitely get into this school or that school. Lucky you.” So, I didn’t like to tell a lot of people about it, because I didn’t like talking about my work until it’s done and I’m sure that it’s good and people tell me that it’s good.

In terms of time management, I guess, I hate to say this, but it’s never been a problem for me, just because I’m not a panicker. Things are only a problem if you acknowledge that they’re a problem. That’s definitely not a healthy way to see it, but it’s so true. Even if something is objectively a problem, if you don’t see it as a problem, then it’s not going to worry you. I didn’t see a problem in managing my time.

Honestly, I don’t even remember writing it, because I did it so quickly. I have so many feelings. Because my personality is so up and down anyway, not like bipolar, you can tell in the writing, I would sometimes have to wait for a feeling of something like a jostle in my head to write. I couldn’t just be in a new mood and start talking about my dad’s death. It’s like when you’re sad. I don’t know if you ever did this as a kid or even now, when you’re sad and you play sad music to make yourself worse. You just want to feel like that. It’s like that but for writing. If I feel happy, I’ll write it down to make myself feel better.

I was lucky because before I had started this book I had already a lot of things I had written about my life that I just put in. Probably 25% was written before I even got the book deal, I just had to edit it to seem more adult.

Paula:  If somebody wants to find your book, where is the best place to find it? How can people find you, before we get into our last question?

Lan Cao:  It’s all online, so you can go to the usual suspects. We did a talk yesterday at Chevalier’s Books in LA, so you can get it on their website.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  Just to support them.

Lan Cao:  To support the smaller independent bookstores. If they want it signed, we can even go to LA and sign it and they will ship it. But it’s available everywhere.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  We’re on Facebook and we’re on Instagram.

Lan Cao:  Harlan’s is @Harlan_VC and mine is @LanCao. I have a website at People can get all of the events that are forthcoming from there. Harlan has a website, too, at

Paula:  Wonderful. I’ll link up to all of them. The last question that I like to ask everybody is what are three ways that you can think of to jump start joy in your life, in the world, or in other people’s lives?

Lan Cao:  I think Harlan and I probably subscribe to this one, because I’m always telling her about it since she was little. I like the Gandhi saying, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” I try to implement that, because when I’m faced with am I going to do this versus that, I try to think of that. If I can bring out my better half, my better self, by applying the Gandhi mantra, that makes me feel really good. I could easily go the other route of being angry when something happens, so I try to go by that, and it makes me happier if I am able to succeed. I’m not always able to succeed, but that is my goal.

The other thing that I think has really helped me jump start my own happiness is, and again I’m not able to do this all the time, but I have a filter where if I want to say something I try to say, “Is it true what I’m going to say to the other person? Is it kind? Is it necessary?” That also tempers me if I feel an outburst. I’m not trying to say I don’t have outbursts, sometimes I can’t control myself, but I try to have that filter. When I am able to apply that filter before I say something, “Is it kind? Is it true? Is it necessary?” then it makes me feel happy as well.

A third thing that has always really helped me is I just love having a dog. The dog is just a joy to have around. A pet is really good. We have a rescue and he has been great for us.

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  That’s what I was going to say. People just need to spend time with animals. That’s a huge thing, because it doesn’t only make you more aware of wanting to take care of the planet and stuff, but people who have dogs are just more kind. Any animal, I’m not even talking about just a dog. Obviously, dogs are amazing. People who have dogs understand the relationship, like a dog or any pet, if you’re religious, it’s like every religion kind of subscribes to the idea of it’s very important to be loyal, to make sure acknowledge and that you’re grateful.

It’s so interesting because dogs, even when they’re beaten to a pulp, they will still come back wagging their tail at you. That’s not necessarily a thing for all humans, I’m not saying people who are abused should wag their tail at their abusers. That’s not what I’m saying. It’s just the idea of unconditional love.

Obviously, human beings are more complex than that, we can’t all have unconditional love for everybody. I just think it’s important to spend time with animals, everybody should. I think it would be really cool for schools to have dog day or something, with a dog in every classroom or something like that. It just relieves depression, and then depression will spread out onto other people, so that’s important.

I think another thing is just being self-aware, because that’s all you have control over is yourself. You always wonder what would it be like to live in that person’s body or to be in that person’s life instead. It’s okay to wonder that, but you have to acknowledge that it literally doesn’t matter. You are yourself. You can improve yourself. Tell yourself that you have control actually. It sucks when you feel like you have no control. If you think, “Well, I have no friends,” then go make friends. Especially at this age, during this time, it’s so easy now with technology.

Just always knowing what you have control over, what you don’t, being self-aware, being kind. What was the third one?

Lan Cao:  You and I always follow the Gandhi, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Harlan Margaret Van Cao:  Yes. But that’s so hard to do, too.

Lan Cao:  Like I always tell you, if you think that the sidewalk is filthy, pick the trash up, or bring the coffee mug to Starbucks instead of ordering online where you come and pick it up and it’s in a plastic cup. Those are small things, but I think when you see that you’re doing something like that, it does make you happier because you feel like you are doing something that matters.

Paula:  Yes. And you do set an example. Even the example of, like you said, picking up trash. Oftentimes when I’m out on a walk, I’ll pick up what I see. Then it seems like other people are picking up on it once they see that it’s clean. I don’t know.

Thank you, guys. This has been such a treat.

Lan Cao:  Thank you so much.

Paula:  I really enjoyed having you on. Thank you so much.

Lan Cao:  Thank you. Thanks for your time.