Refugees in America, then and now

T
hirty years ago, the United States, then under the leadership of president Ronald Reagan, gave my family refuge. We settled in Toledo, Ohio, with help from the UNHCR and through a policy decision to shelter refugees of special humanitarian concern, the refugee act of 1980. Years later, my parents relearned their craft of medicine. I grew up to become a teacher of English literature. My brother, born one month after we settled in the States, is now a programmer for Google.

It’s worth noting, to any Republicans out there reading this, that the exemplar of presidential leadership your party always allude to, during every election, would have had strong words for what your party, under Trump and the silent acquiescence of its members, is doing now. In 1981, President Reagan said this about America’s relationship to refugees:

“We shall continue America’s tradition as a land that welcomes peoples from other countries. We shall also, with other countries, continue to share in the responsibility of welcoming and resettling those who flee oppression.”

He said this during a time when sentiment towards Vietnamese was worse than what’s felt against Syrian refugees now. And towards those drug addicted rapists from Mexico, no mention of walls. Far from it:

“We have a special relationship with our closest neighbors, Canada and Mexico. Our immigration policy should reflect this relationship.”

An American couple took my family in and hosted us, helped us to settle into the culture and find basic jobs to support ourselves. As mentioned, my mother gave birth a month later to the first American citizen in our family, my little brother. We named him after the American man who hosted us, William, or Bill. Bill and Cathy were generous with their home and Cathy, herself an immigrant from Germany, cooked us the German version of hamburger. My first taste of this “American” meal was made in its German form. My mother, in return, made caramelized pork chops, and we shared the space, and broke bread together, and felt we were one family, in Toledo, Ohio.

We stayed with our hosts for three months until we could get on our feet, and, remaining in the U.S. on our green cards, learned to live, and thrive. I became a citizen automatically years later, when my parents took the citizenship test and passed.

Ohio, as we know, voted for Trump this election. It’s part of the Rust Belt coalition of states that swung the election in his favor. It was also where I spent my childhood, where I learned to bowl, to turkey bowl, drink soda pop, get into Thanksgiving food comas, where I played hoops and watched the Pistons on tv, where I pledged allegiance to the flag every morning in school.

In light of what has been going on with this un-American, unconstitutional, horrifyingly destructive presidency, I wish to offer my memory of a past when cooler, calmer heads in government prevailed, when the country that adopted me, my country, honoured the age old code of kindness and civility towards exiles and refugees, sad sojourners whose homes were destroyed by war or who uprooted for fear of oppression or political reprisals.

Hospitality, or “xenia” in Greece, has as its root, xenos, the word for guest, or foreigner. The fear and mistreatment of such peoples now compose the current state of affairs in my country. This fear is directed by the president, amplified by his tweets and executive orders, and allowed to take on further shape and form by the silence of politicians who refuse to denounce such direct, brazen, oppressive racism. Misdirected anger and outright xenophobia are the current spirits of the day. They should not prevail.

Edward Said once wrote that exile from one’s country is… “strangely compelling to think about, but terrible to experience. It is the un-healable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted.” America, and its leaders, acknowledged this sadness thirty years ago, and gave the Vietnamese boat people, adrift and rudderless, a chance to make of her a new native abode. Thirty years ago, my parents and I were amongst the war weary, the tempest tossed, huddled masses, feared and distrusted around the world. America gave my family rest and solace. Eventually, she took a chance and embraced us. We made of her a new home.

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Humans of District 4

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hu Hong works with his wife selling Banh Mi in district 4 in a hem next to my apartment complex. This morning he made a banh mi thit nguoi (cold cuts baguette sandwich) and fried me an egg to add to the filling. It was delicious and cost 75c, would have been about 60c, but the egg added to the price. I sat on his stool and he talked a little about his life.

IMG_0397.JPG“I’ve lived here since I was a kid, in that house over there (points down the alleyway). Haven’t ever moved.

Yeah this neighborhood changed alot over the years. You can see construction right around the corner from you. High rises everywhere. Used to be helter skelter houses built everywhere instead of these complexes, hahaha.

My wife sells banh mi too, you might know her (I do). She sells right outside your apartment complex. She gets her cart there in the evening to late at night, and I sell during the day. At 2 AM she sells to all the construction workers on their break.They take the night shift and work throughout the night so my wife and I take shifts too. Or she’ll sell to the college students early in the morning, too. She sleeps during the day and I sleep at night, and work during the day.

I had a brother who escaped the country just like you did. He left and went to California with his wife. All the Vietnamese are there. Whenever his wife gets lonely they come back here and visit. It’s not easy there, he tells me. It’s really hard, they put in a lot of hard work. They worked at a car wash for many years to make a living. Now they work in an office, much easier work, so it’s better now. I see them come back every once in a while.

Come by a little later in the day next time and I’ll show you our place!”

What Work Is

First of all: what is work? Work is of two kinds: first, altering the position of matter at or near the earth’s surface relatively to other such matter; second, telling other people to do so. The first kind is unpleasant and ill paid; the second is pleasant and highly paid.
– Bertrand Russell

Work work work work work. -Rihanna

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If I were to do a breakdown of where my allotted cash for my sabbatical gets spent this year, the bulk of it went to leisure drinking: coffees and cocktails. I suspect that besides my rent, iced Vietnamese coffees, happy hour visits to cocktail bars and hipster craft beer bars, “…for malt does more than Milton can, to justify God’s ways to man” all drain the coffers much more than food or other necessities.

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The sabbatical year, half way finished

2016
was… a sad year of losses. In music, in civility and grace, in sanity. 2017, may you be just a little bit kinder to this world.

The flip side of this gruesome year in politics and the arts, is that I had a chance on my year off to be with family. I was able to hang with my father in Vietnam, a place where he is his most amusing, generous self. I got to spend valuable time with my mom, who is halfway across the world but always a skype call away. I got to see my brother and his lovely wife marry under the awning of colorful autumn leaves in college town, New England.

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The Viet Kieu Casanova – a short story

Absurd, crazy stories of love in the new Saigon provide inspiration for this short story: The Viet Kieu Casanova. This is a section of that story:

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Section 1: The Shopkeeper

This Viet Kieu comes into my cafe and store usually three, four times a week. He’s in his 30s I think, and he brings with him a new girl each time he comes, buys her a gift. Then, they leave. It’s an old routine. The girls are always 20 something, freshly made up, with the new bodies I see now on Vietnamese women, a little fitter, bigger, firmer butts. They’re the ones I always see on instagram, or in cafes taking selfies, or at the gyms in the city barely breaking a sweat, flirting with the trainers, also taking selfies. Many of them are part time models, I’d guess.

How exhausting it is to be young and single. It was different in my days, and I met my husband when we were young and in school together. It all feels so different now.

I think this guy made some money from living abroad. Or he’s here on a long holiday, because it takes a lot of effort and work to take a different girl to the shop each time. Think of the planning that goes behind it. Imagine having to remember all that you’ve told to each girl, and all that you’ve done, all of your different stories, and with whom you said and did these things with. It must get exhausting!

My shop is on a busy stretch of Saigon’s new walking street. When I started it with my business partner there was construction all over the street to turn it into a pedestrian friendly zone, so we didn’t have many customers then. The rare people that did come, would sit down, sip their coffee, complain about the noise, and leave. But we stuck with it because I knew, once all this work on the street was finished, we’d get plenty of visitors.  The trick was to figure out when construction would get done, because the government always promises quick completion times for their projects but they always get delayed, so the date keeps stretching into the unforeseable future, and we all wait, all of us in limbo. Everyone waiting. Like the girls and this Viet Kieu, each one of them waiting to see if their investment leads to some return.

Who ever knows when you can get what you put into your business back? Who knows when you can make some money finally.  You just keep working and hoping for the best. That’s what my partner and I did.  Continue reading

Humans of Saigon’s district 4

I
n my childhood, Saigon’s district 4 was dangerous, full of crime and violence. At least that’s what everyone tells me, from friends to family; I was too young to know much about it. My family lived on the other side of district 1, in Binh Thanh.

District 4 happens to also be the area undergoing the most major change and gentrification as Saigon booms and expands. New high rises and cranes have appeared on Ben Van Don, the thoroughfare that lines the main canal that distinguishes district 4 from the center of the city. District 4 also happens to be where I’m moving to this month, to finish up my year of living funemployed.

Below are brief talks with two of my new neighbors who’ve lived in D4 a long time and seen it go through all its changes.

Co ban nuoc mia, the sugarcane juice seller

I’ve been selling sugarcane juice here for thirty img_9656years. The city has changed alot since then! I have a son who drives a taxi for a living and a daughter who does nails. She’s very good, can do all kinds of colors on your nails. My son drives people for a living and makes 350usd a month, he makes a good living for himself.

Price for sugarcane juice: 30 cents per cup
Nuoc Mia, sugarcane juice, is made from crushed sugarcanes, and you can see it made in front of you as the canes are pushed through a set of steel rollers, to come out as pulp on the other side.

Anh Van, motorbike driver:

van-motorbike-driverI’ve lived here on Ben Vân Don for twelve years, before that I lived on (another street in district 4) for another ten years. It used to be really dangerous here. Alot of gangsters and criminals. A lot of robberies. It’s safe now and it’s changed a lot, but it’s more expensive too.

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Kiet, whose brother was a refugee: conversations with uber drivers, part 4

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Kiet, whose brother escaped the country in 1987
Chevrolet Spark. 58 minutes. 8.5 km.

Kiet (not his real name) is a 48 years old driver who has driven a taxi for twenty four years. We were stuck in horrendous traffic going from the airport back to my flat, and he told me his life story, from his attempt to escape the country in the years that my family did, to his time in the army. He is easily excitable, emphatic with his gestures, a rapid conversationalist. I honestly couldn’t follow all that he said.

Below is a bit of Kiet’s story that I’ve composed as well as I can from memory:

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o you, little brother, left the country in 86? Me too, I tried to leave multiple times.  My little brother and I tried to escape together, then I kept trying on my own after he made it.

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Conversation with uber drivers 3: Vinh, experienced taxi driver

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inh is about my age, (which meant that both of us awkwardly called each other “older brother” for the duration of the chat) with an 8 year old kid and a family to raise. I took a twenty five minutes long ride to the airport in his Honda City. It was early in the morning and he had driven since 5 AM. He drives daily until late at night, but was glad to chat with me.

How long have you driven an uber Anh?

14 years.

Oh that’s longer than how long I’ve taught. I’ve taught for 12 years.

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Conversations with uber drivers 2: motorbike driver Sang

Read an earlier posting on uber driver conversations here.

Sang drove me from district 4 to district 2, a total distance of 8.3 km. He drove a Yamaha Exciter 150, and he had a real helmet for me to wear (this is not always the case for motorbike drivers in Saigon. My anecdotal experience is it’s been about 50, 50 for getting a real helmet vs. fake). The conversation is translated from Vietnamese to English to the best of my admittedly limited ability.

Cost: 37,000 VND. 1.5 USD.
Time: 20 minutes. half of it in tough traffic.
Rated: 5/5 for the conversation, timely pickup, smooth ride, sense of direction.

How long have you driven a motorbike for a living, em (little brother)?

Just one month now, anh (older brother).

And you do this full time?

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Four Voices from the Diaspora

These days, when the plight of refugees so often make the news, the Vietnamese diaspora seems to be experiencing a literary renaissance. Foremost is the celebration of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer, with its deserved Pulitzer Prize for fiction (read my review here).

Alongside Nguyen, we have Nam Le’s collection of stories The Boat, Qui Nguyen’s new play Vietgone, Ocean Vuong’s poetry collection, all appearing in the last year or so. Are there suddenly more assured voices, or is it that the reading public has become more interested in the stories offered by the Vietnamese diaspora?

It might be a combination of both. Narratives written by immigrants have always spoken to the transient lives of people in the world, but it is just now that we see a mature collection of thoughts regarding the people who left Vietnam for even more uncertain lives abroad. The stories of the displaced, or those with multinational identities, are stories that speak to us of these particular times. The first refugees and their children, uprooted by America’s bloodiest war, seem especially able to speak of this displacement, of describing the shifting, tenuous foundations of home, of war’s wounds and shrapnel that rests embedded in the psyches of one’s offspring, years after its conclusion. The more the earth beneath us shifts, the more we listen to such voices.

The recommended works below by writers from the Vietnamese diaspora encompass four major genres: the personal essay, short story, poetry, and play. They all share fragmentation, loss, and a longing for home as recurring themes.

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