Uncontained Rants...

Friday, April 29, 2005

remembering

Who Will We Remember?
by Ky-Phong Tran

This Saturday, April 30, 2005 marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the American War in Vietnam, also known as the Vietnam War.

A number of media outlets are preparing for the day with articles, op-ed pieces, features, and special spreads. The Orange County Register and the San Jose Mercury News, which cover the two regions with the most Vietnamese Americans in the country, have extensive sections to commemorate the Fall of Saigon and Black April, as called by some in the community.

In my reading, I have found tales of escape from refugee families, coverage by ex-GI's and former war reporters, stories of return trips to Vietnam, and most of all, stories examining the successes of the Vietnamese American community: its diverse population of educated professionals, a world champion martial artist, CEO's, elected officials, and the rise of Little Saigons.

In an open and fair society, I do not advocate censorship and would not ask for these stories to be subtracted. But, what should be added? I think a balanced perspective needs to be added to both the occasion and the Vietnamese American community.

So, as the 30th anniversary pulls near, I ask: What will we do for the occasion? Will we seek to honor ourselves only? To pat ourselves on the back and move on?

My answer is this: We should create a new path for the memorial. Redefine it. Own it. Make it ours. And in that new memorial, we not only celebrate our glories, but we remember our struggles--past and present. We look at ourselves honestly, and in totality.

For me, this anniversary is not just a Feel Good Day. It is also a time to remember, reflect, and acknowledge the struggle in our communities today. Yes, we have doctors and lawyers and engineers and astronauts and a professional football player.

But we also have a large segment of our community living in poverty. We have those with limited access to affordable housing and adequate health care and proper schools. There are closeted queers afraid of their own parents. Those struggling with language access and in indecent working conditions. Domestic violence and depression are not discussed. What of those struggles? Those on the margins? Will we sweep them under the rug for the occasion?

There is a part of our own culture that hides our troubles and sorrows in order to not burden others. Dung co lam phien. How long can we bury our problems and hope they will just go away?

Politically, I am concerned that the intimidating, at-times McCarthy-like, anti-communist portion of the Vietnamese community is leading us astray, turning off potential leaders, and occupying too much space for discourse.

I am concerned when local and state Vietnamese American officials run on nationalist, anti-communist platforms. What are their stances on education, local business, senior and youth programs, health care, transportation, land use? What will they do for us today and in the future?

I am concerned that so many of us were so easily led to support the invasion of Iraq. That we could so readily dismiss other people across the planet as if we knew nothing of war. That the bunker buster bomb and the Patriot Act came from our ranks, like we had no previous experience with shrapnel and the curtailing of human rights.

Within ourselves, our tinh than, I worry about us often. I see the domestic violence. The social isolation of our seniors. The faraway eyes and empty silences that hide so much sadness. Frankly, I am tired of hearing how completely happy and re-adjusted we are. It's not true. We all know we smile when we are happy AND sad, so smiles are no clue.

I know my mom misses her family in Vietnam so much that she cries herself to sleep. That my neighbors and cousin fear homelessness and annual budget cuts to Federally subsidized Section 8 housing. I see the lost youth and violence of gang life. I know that I am not over growing up without grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.

I can feel the loneliness, the confusion of who we are and who we aren't. The more we hide it in ourselves, in our private space, or in our public space--our art, literature, media, policy--the more I feel the post-traumatic stress disorder, the high rates of mental illness eating at us, gnawing on our spirit.

I'm sad about that. It's okay to be sad about it. And it's okay to say it or write it. Paint it and sing it. Share it and talk about it. There is no shame in it.

Our sadness is our humanity singing.

Last, I ask: How will we measure our progress? By the first of us or the last of us? In our rich history, we as a people have demonstrated an intense unity in the face of invasion and colonization. We have also divided ourselves brutally, literally in half at times. What tradition will we cultivate here in the US?

I hope for the former and believe our progress is measured by how the first of us treats the last of us. I hope that we leave none of us behind. How long can we brag about cheap pedicures, while adult education is being cut for our foot massager? How long can we praise pho Vietnamese soup, and ignore the server who has no health insurance?

I am not a cheerleader. I am, however, a writer. One voice, one pen among billions. A community artist and a community builder. A fighter. A rememberer. A seer. A doer.

And on this important anniversary in the history of the Vietnamese Diaspora, I cannot rah-rah all the way through and pretend our problems don't exist. I love my community with passion. When I look critically at the Vietnamese American community and the way it is presented, it is so that we can better ourselves. So that we can honor ourselves and face our challenges. Teach ourselves. Heal ourselves.

So we can know ourselves. All of us. The well-to-do and the marginalized. The astronaut and the fish butcher. To see our smiles AND our scars.

Ky-Phong Tran is a former legislative aide in the City of Oakland, helping to pass the first municipal language access ordinance in the nation. Raised in Long Beach, California; he is now a writer working on a novel, napalm's children, and short story collection, 562. He is a founding member of the Vietnamese Artists Collective and will be a Graduate Fellow in UC Riverside's MFA Program in Creative Writing beginning this fall.

Monday, April 04, 2005

Reflections (April 30)

“When I was your age, I was washing clothes for my entire family…by hand!”

“When I was your age, I was already cooking meals for everyone…”

“When I was your age…”

“When I was your age…”

This was the mantra of my childhood if there ever was one. Peering into my messy room, my mom would begin her monologue as her voice penetrated my inner being. On those occasions, if not sitting in stony silence imagining myself far away from the conversation at hand, I was wondering what it was like scrubbing a basketful of clothes with a bar of soap or dunking a chicken into scalding hot water. These practices in empathy were few and far between, of course, and would diminish as quickly as it took for my mom to whip up a 5-course meal every night after work. Growing up, I really didn’t think I could ever understand her childhood or where she was coming from. And that was just at home.

At school, I continued to live out my hyphenated identity as a Vietnamese-American. Living in a low-income community, I went to school and rubbed elbows with a predominantly Black and Latino student population. Thus, my Vietnamese counterparts were always ‘the other”. At the time, it was never a conscious effort on my part, but I found I never wanted to associate myself with “those Vietnamese kids”, my only reason being that I didn’t have anything in common with them. Moreover, I could speak and understand the language, but I never spoke Vietnamese to anyone other then my parents and god forbid in public! Those “Vietnamese kids” were always chattering about something, and always too loudly. They assumed I didn’t understand and so I always had this lingering suspicion that they looked down on me because I was too “Americanized”. Thus, to combat this insecurity, I simply turned my shoulder and prided myself on my accent-less English.

Every weekend also meant a trip down the 405 to Little Saigon. As a kid, these outings weren’t so bad as I simply went along for the ride and found the Asian Garden Mall to be a cool place to score Sanrio stationary. But as I got older, I began to further disassociate myself with this bustling epicenter of the Vietnamese community and what it represented, finding every reason not to go.

It was not until years later in college, with a new consciousness about my ethnic identity and some time spent in Vietnam that I began to understand. In reality, the divide that I always thought existed between myself as an American-born Vietnamese girl and those true and blue Vietnamese people wasn’t as wide as I always assumed. As if a veil had been lifted, I began to take pride in the distinctive gifts of the Vietnamese culture and people—the hospitality, the honesty, and the sacrifices.

Given, there are still things about Little Saigon that I’m still learning to embrace. A microcosm of the Vietnamese-American experience, Little Saigon is in constant expansion, with new strip malls and structures being erected every week. Luxury vehicles share parking spaces with the good ‘ol Honda Civics as women strut their stuff on the catwalks of Bolsa, flossing their brand name handbags (whether real or fake, who knows) and cell phones. In this Saigon Nho, the glare of material wealth wrestles for attention with the Southern California sunshine.

Yet, with the approaching 30-year anniversary of the Fall of Saigon, I’ve come to understand how far I’ve come as a Vietnamese-American woman and how much further I have yet to grow and learn. As for my mother’s mantras, they were nothing compared to the real sacrifices she made to give me the freedom to do what I do, write what I write, and live out my dreams.

On April 30, 1975, her family had already fled their home in Tuy Hoa to head to Saigon, only to return years later to find their house already seized and converted into government office space. Life from then on out changed drastically, and it was in 1979 that she escaped by boat with her younger brother. In the small fishing boat packed 60 deep, they were at sea for 8 days. Reaching Hong Kong, she lived in the refugee camps for a year and worked in an assembly line making zippers and silk flowers before arriving in Orange County. With meager beginnings and a far cry from home, she wrote letters to her family and cried herself to sleep every night. She was only 14 years old.

Her story, as compelling as it is, mirrors that of countless others. Yet it is these stories that have laid the foundations in bustling Little Saigon and in the lives of many second generation Vietnamese-Americans. It took me some time to fully recognize those truths, and so, as challenging as it is, they are also the reasons I choose to reconnect with my community, to strengthen our voices by telling our stories. With 30 years behind us, there’s no telling how far we’ll go from here, for the depth of our future accomplishments is immeasurable.