With “Postcards,” creative non-fiction stories grounded in place, we aspire to create a new cartography of California. For us, literature and language are as much about marking and representing space, as they are about storytelling.
Kenji C. Liu
A fig fruit is composed of hundreds, sometimes thousands of tiny flowers, florets, hidden inside a fleshy covering.
This inside-out world is why we never see fig flowers.
Some might think of oranges when quizzed about Southern California fruit, but oranges originate in China.
In science fiction, a Dyson sphere is a massive shell built to completely enclose a star in order to capture its total energy output. By containing the star, the sphere completely blocks all outgoing visible light, altering the way it appears to outside observers.
This hidden, inside-out world is why we might never be able to see advanced extraterrestrial civilizations.
Without the knowledge and experience of immigrant Chinese agricultural workers, California’s orange industry would have died quickly.
Los Ángeles has been the site of many science fiction stories, most notably Blade Runner. It is notable for how thoroughly it enacts an orientalist fantasy of a 2019 where “Asian-ness” has saturated society, but without any actual Asian people. We are an implied threat, but without us there is no future.
There’s an orchid (ophrys apifera) that looks like a certain female bee in order to attract certain male bees. But the bee is extinct. The orchid continues to testify to a bee that no longer exists. The bee is implied.
Some fig trees require a special female wasp to pollinate its flowers and grow fruit. In return, the fig offers the wasp a place to lay its eggs and reproduce.
Spanish missionaries introduced figs to California. But the fig wasp hadn’t been brought to the colonization, and the fig kept waiting for her. The Mission fig (ficus caricia) was bred to produce fruit without the wasp. The wasp is missing in our Blade Runner future.
The fig is the third tree to be mentioned in the Bible. Adam and Eve used its leaves to cover their nakedness after Eve supposedly messed things up for them.
It’s just like a colonizer to think he should cut female fig wasps out of the picture.
The self-pollinating fig is the ghost of conquest. It’s a memory of colonization. Does it remember the wasp? It might not, colonization is like that.
But when we eat a Mission fig, we eat the fruit of conquest.
In the fig community, there are different family arrangements. Some types of fig trees are monoecious which means they grow both “male” and “female” flowers. Others are dioecious in which some trees offer “male” and “female” flowers and other trees only have “female” flowers. All need special “female” wasps to facilitate pollination. Nature is naturally queer.
There’s a giant Moreton Bay fig tree (ficus macrophylla) in the heart of Little Tokyo, planted around 1920 by Reverend Shutai Aoyama of the Koyasan Buddhist congregation in front of its temple many years ago. The temple has moved, but the tree remains, watching over the block.
In some Buddhist traditions, contemplating the impermanence of the body is a way to develop equanimity and compassion for self and others. A person is basically a fig, thousands of flowers inside a fleshy covering, growing, opening, closing, passing away.
Close the eyes, turn inward. Notice the weight of our bodies on the earth. Watch the breath enter and leave the body. Watch feelings, thoughts, and sensations flower and pass.
It is hard to see what’s happening inside a person, just as it is with a fig or a Dyson sphere.
The Japanese word for fig tree, 無花果, is composed of the kanji for “no” (無)―a particle of negation—“flower” (花), and “fruit” (果). This refers to a tree that bears fruit without flowering. The ancient pictogram for 無 was a person holding something in both hands, but since then it has come to denote not having.
無 can be read as “mu,” which means nothingness, or a response to a Zen koan that has neither a yes or no answer. Rather than divide into a binary, “mu” refutes the question.
The problem with a Dyson sphere is it has a huge surface area, which makes it vulnerable to comets and meteorites. A meteor impact could throw the whole thing off-center, or burst through to the interior. An alternate vision is a tight network of stations weaving around the sun.
The ancient root of the word “wasp” is possibly related to “weave.” Weave can refer to interlacing a material together, but also to devising.
A strangler fig grows and envelops a host tree. Once the host tree dies and decomposes, it leaves a long hollow inside the fig tree.
Early Spanish missionary colonization established itself near Native American towns and villages, tried to envelop and strangle them.
The Aoyama fig tree is located in a parking lot, it grows straight up from asphalt and concrete. It is one of the only direct connections to the actual dirt below. It is also a strangler fig. What lives in its center? An entrance and exit for ghosts.
The fig’s response: 無 (mu).
If the star inside a Dyson sphere was to die and vanish, what would be left?
The Buddha was enlightened after sitting in meditation under a fig tree (ficus religiosa) for many days in Bodh Gaya, India. Though the original tree was destroyed and replaced, a branch from the original was rooted elsewhere, in Sri Lanka.
The problem with people is that we are vulnerable to everything. Almost anything can throw us off center.
The Buddhist insight of anatta or no-self reminds us that although we may have an experience of the self as continuous, when you get down to it, we are constantly changing, without a solid center. Empty of a true self.
The adjective “empty” evolved from the Old English word for “leisure.” The modern Greek word for “empty” evolved from a word meaning “freedom from fear.”
In Shinto, giant trees are often sites for local gods. Properly embued with sacred ropes and paper streamers, they become indistinguishable from gods.
There is an infamous black and white photo of the corner of First and Central, a block south of the Aoyama fig tree. It shows MPs forcing Japanese Americans onto buses headed to horse stalls at Santa Anita racetrack, then concentration camps.
Only a few more blocks away, next to the historic founding site of Los Ángeles, is where an 1871 race riot took place in which dozens of Chinese people were shot and hanged by a mob of hundreds.
Los Ángeles without Asians seems speculative, but they already tried to make it happen.
Gods, too, are implied by the empty spaces present in the everyday, leaving us wondering what or who could possibly have created this world.
The adjective “hollow” is said to originate in an ancient Proto-Indo-European root word meaning, “to cover, conceal, save.”
A Dyson sphere would only be possible because of extremely advanced technologies, which for us would probably be indistinguishable from magic or deities.
Next to the site of the 1871 massacre of dozens of Chinese is a park dedicated to Father Junipero Serra, who oversaw the system of California missions. Under the missions, Native Americans were decimated by disease, torture, forced labor, and starvation.
In the Bible, Jesus curses a fig tree for having no fruit for him. He goes on to Jerusalem where he drives out capitalists from the temple. The next day, they pass the same fig tree, which has withered. Some scholars say this symbolizes his fight against a lack of righteousness. Others say this is an example of a miracle wasted in service to a bad temper.
The fig’s response: 無 (mu).
Freeman Dyson, who came up with what’s now called a Dyson sphere, was a climate change skeptic who served on an advisory board for a conservative climate change think tank.
Figs and wasps have been helping each other out for about 65 million years, since dinosaurs were thumping around Los Angeles.
In Los Ángeles 2020, indigenous activists toppled the statue of Junipero Serra. In the social media video, someone can be heard yelling, “this is for our ancestors!”
Some fig wasps live up to two months, others only live one to two days. Research indicates that an increase of 3 degrees in global temperatures would dramatically decrease the lifespan of fig wasps.
Climate change skepticism rings hollow in the face of actual weather.
Things a female fig wasp probably hates:
Burrowing into a fig and finding another wasp already there.
Male wasps not acknowledging the immense amount of labor involved in pollinating and laying eggs.
When another wasp comes calling in the middle of the night and overstays their welcome in the morning.
Figs who act superior because they don’t need a pollinator.
Dying inside the wrong fig.
Some female figs can pretend to be male figs in order to seduce the female wasp. The wasp enters and pollinates, but cannot lay her eggs. She dies, and the fig digests her. Her ghost gives life to the fig.
Wasps and trees don’t actually give a fig about gender.
In Los Ángeles, there are a lot of fig trees, though you have to know what they look like. Usually, they aren’t just out in the open, waving their figs around. But they haunt the city’s corners, occasionally you meet one.
I hadn’t tasted a fresh fig before moving to California. I did really like Fig Newtons.
When eating a fig, we are also eating the ghost of a female wasp.
If fig wasps went extinct, could the remaining fig trees testify to the memory of its insect partner?
The old saying, I don’t give a fig, implies that figs are of low value.
The fig’s response: 無 (mu).
*A zuihitsu is a Japanese contemplative literary form characterized by loosely associated fragments of text.
Kenji C. Liu is author of Monsters I Have Been (Alice James Books, 2019), finalist for the California and Maine book awards, and Map of an Onion, national winner of the 2015 Hillary Gravendyk Poetry Prize (Inlandia Institute). His poetry is in numerous journals, anthologies, magazines, and two chapbooks, Craters: A Field Guide (2017) and You Left Without Your Shoes (2009). An alumnus of Kundiman, the Djerassi Resident Artist Program, and the Community of Writers, he lives in Los Ángeles.
On September 9, 1942, the members of the Merchants Association of Fresno, the largest city in California’s San Joaquin Valley, called an emergency session to respond to a burgeoning crisis. For much of the year, farmers and ranchers in the Valley—among the most productive agricultural regions in the United States—had struggled to secure sufficient hands to tend to their crops and herds. This labor shortage became particularly acute in early September, when checkups revealed that more than half of the region’s highly perishable raisin grape crop remained unpicked. In Fresno County alone, officials insisted on September 9, five thousand additional workers were needed to get the remaining grapes off their vines and on to drying trays over the next eight days. Otherwise, grape growers, and the Valley economy that the lucrative crop helped to fuel, would suffer a devastating blow. So, too, would American servicemen who were battling Axis Powers overseas. “These raisins,” Irvine S. Terrell, chairman of the Area Agricultural War Manpower Commission, told Merchants Association members, “must be made for the soldiers, sailors and marines on the fighting fronts, as requested by the government.” And if the raisins were not made immediately, Terrell warned, “you merchants are going to see the government step in and allocate labor.”
Terrell and his colleagues on the newly established Area Agricultural War Manpower Commission (AAWMC), which had jurisdiction over the southern section of the San Joaquin Valley, singled out Fresno residents—and especially the employees of local businesses—for failing to volunteer to assist with the vital grape harvest. Earlier that day, at a meeting between the AAWMC and the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce, Terrell had chastised “city people” for not contributing. “The school children are doing a fine job,” he insisted, “but when we can get only 200 or 300 people out of the stores to help in the harvest something is wrong.”
At the emergency Merchants Association of Fresno meeting a few hours later, local business owners agreed to immediately commence a recruitment program to enlist 25% of clerks at Fresno businesses to take leave from their jobs and report to Valley vineyards. They hoped that this plan would add at least six hundred more grape pickers each day, putting a sizeable dent in the five thousand–person county-wide shortage.
The recruitment program, combined with the broader mobilization of community members throughout the Valley that had begun in August and would last through the end of the year, worked. By September 16, just a week after the emergency session, Valley officials were praising what later became known as the Victory Harvest Army—comprising furloughed store workers as well as students, housewives, and other community members—for rescuing the grape harvest. “This voluntary movement of local volunteers to the fields and vineyards,” announced Willard S. Marsh of Fresno’s United States Employment Service office, “has been the salvation of the crops.” Marsh estimated that ten thousand people—fully 5% of the county’s population—had been employed by farms since the start of September. “Unless the movement slackens,” he added, “Fresno County’s raisin variety grape harvest will be virtually complete within a week.” Marsh was particularly keen to thank the area’s grammar and high school students for their willingness to lend a hand.
The Victory Harvest Army was in some ways a model of patriotism, volunteerism, and community cooperation. Faced with an unprecedented crisis, San Joaquin Valley residents from all walks of life rallied together to salvage the year’s raisin grape crop as well as a handful of others, including a cotton crop valued at $51 million. Through these efforts, they not only helped to rescue the region’s most important industry from potential ruin but also contributed to the worldwide struggle between freedom and democracy on the one hand, and tyranny and fascism on the other. Even if they could not produce munitions in a factory or use them on the battlefield, the harvest gave Valley civilians an opportunity to do their part.
Yet Irvine Terrell’s warning that Fresno clerks might be compelled to take to the fields exposes the fact that the successful 1942 harvest was not without its problems and ironies, some of which belied the very ideals for which American soldiers were fighting overseas. As the labor shortage worsened in the latter half of the year, for one, Valley authorities targeted individuals and businesses that did not appear to be aiding the harvest, at times even attempting to coerce “vagrants” and other reluctant workers into the fields. Communities across the Valley also experimented with the practice of promising leniency to prisoners who cooperated, while at the same time threatening harsher sentences for those who refused.
California’s 1942 farm labor shortage spurred a nasty public debate as well, much of which played out in the pages of the Fresno Bee, the Valley’s leading newspaper. While some residents hoped to tap Mexican nationals and especially Japanese internees held that summer in area relocation centers, others denounced these non-white sources of labor, often in unapologetically racist terms. The irony of the anti-Japanese attacks was that the labor shortage itself was to some extent the result of the federal government’s xenophobic decision to evacuate Japanese residents, many of whom had worked in agriculture.
The 1942 labor crisis revealed another irony, too—farmers’ deep-seated affinity for government aid. As they had for decades, Valley agricultural interests called for, and benefited from, interventions and resources from federal, state, and county officials, undercutting boasts that free enterprise and rugged individualism—embodied by the mythic Western cowboy—were sufficient for growing crops.
In the spring and summer of 1942, residents of the San Joaquin Valley—which stretches 260 miles from The Grapevine in the south to Lodi in the north—were plagued by war-related anxiety, much of which centered on Japanese Americans. Nearly everyone who wrote in to the Fresno Bee to discuss removal, ordered by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on February 19, just months after the Pearl Harbor bombing, supported the plan. The Japanese, whether native born or not, were disloyal. To trust them, argued Mrs. B.E.S. of Fresno, was “like trying to pet a mad dog.” W.R. Arrington of nearby Firebaugh agreed: “The Japanese people are somewhat unique for striking unexpectedly from behind a smile, a smirk or a bow.” One Fresnan suggested the formation of a home guard comprised of deer hunters—“some of the best shots in the world”—to protect against the enemy within.
Valley farmers, however, worried for other reasons. Surging wartime demand for food prompted local growers to bring more acreage into cultivation in 1942, but the draft and the lure of higher-paying jobs in wartime industry, among other factors, had already provoked farm labor shortages. This was no small matter in an agricultural powerhouse like the San Joaquin Valley, where just two counties—Tulare and Fresno, which ranked second and third in the country in the value of their agricultural output—combined to produce crops worth more than $55 million annually. What would happen to this bounty once Japanese residents, who played a central role in California agriculture as farm laborers and operators, had been evacuated?
Although some white Californians looked forward to acquiring productive land from their Japanese neighbors, many farmers expressed dismay that their Japanese workforce would no longer be around to assist them. In early April 1942, the California Deciduous Growers League, which represented the growers of cherries, apricots, peaches, plumbs, pears, and grapes, asked the Department of Agriculture to delay removal in twelve counties where twenty thousand people of Japanese descent were critical to picking operations. In Fresno, Tulare, and Kern counties, ethnic Japanese residents constituted 25% of the pickers; in Merced County, they made up 75%. Noting that the picking and handling of deciduous fruit necessitated “a high degree of skill and experience,” the League insisted that it would be impossible to train replacements in time. This was only the beginning, of course, as other crops—from olives, to strawberries, to cotton—would need to be harvested in the coming months as well. Production on farms operated by Japanese Americans would also be affected. Japanese internees had produced 20% of the total acreage of vegetables grown in California, Oregon, and Washington and 70% of the total acreage of berries in California. They also cultivated more than twenty-seven thousand acres of grapes, nearly all in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys.
The federal government had, to some extent, anticipated adverse consequences on farming. During initial discussions about the possible removal of Japanese residents in early 1942, several officials pointed out that West Coast crop production would suffer in the event of Japanese evacuation. The U.S. Army responded to this challenge by forcing Japanese farmers to carry on with the spring planting under threat of arrest for hindering the war effort, even though the removal order meant that they would not be around to reap the rewards of their efforts in the fall. The Department of Agriculture, in turn, created the Wartime Farm Adjustment Program to facilitate the transfer of farm lands owned or rented by Japanese residents to non-Japanese operators for the duration of the war. But this program, which began in the San Joaquin Valley in mid-March, was not a quick fix. It required finding farmers interested in assuming responsibility for the evacuated lands, some of whom then had to obtain loans. The program also did little to ensure that Japanese farmers got a fair price for their land, and it did nothing to make up for the loss of labor performed by Japanese wage workers.
Concerns about lost revenue and food shortages, however, paled in comparison to those about the so-called “yellow menace,” at least at the federal level. The Army announced in late April that the removal of the Japanese would proceed as planned, despite rumors to the contrary. As Colonel Karl R. Bendetsen, one of the loudest voices for removal, put the matter: “Military necessity is an unrelenting taskmaster.” By the end of the year that taskmaster had cost more than one hundred thousand Japanese Americans their freedom, according to one estimate, and in the process cost California between twenty-five and thirty thousand agricultural workers.
Some Valley residents, meanwhile, expressed skepticism about farmers’ worries, deploying a potent combination of racism and class resentment to make their point. There was no labor shortage, one Hanford man claimed; there were only big landowners—or “swivel chair farmers,” in his words—who loved the Japanese more “than they do their own people,” plenty of whom were available for work. Mrs. C. Z. Kerman of Fresno also found Japanese field hands unnecessary, though she was more inclined to blame New Deal programs than growers for any perceived labor shortage. “There are many, many people just roaming around,” she insisted. “You can see every day. If the WPA and welfare were cut off, they would have to get in and work.” “This yapping we hear about the shortage of vegetables we are going to experience on account of the dear Japanese being forced into concentration camps,” sneered a fellow Fresnan, “is enough to give a true American a severe attack of indigestion. Give the white race the same chance that was given the Japanese and its members will raise just as much and just as good fruit and vegetables as ever did the Japanese.” A Parlier man who described himself as a “100 percent…Arkansas red blooded American” similarly accused farmers of overlooking unemployed white Americans in favor of the Japanese. This Dust Bowl refugee proposed revenge, urging his white neighbors to refuse work as pickers or packers during the upcoming harvest season. If a group like the Deciduous Growers League needed laborers, he concluded, “I refer it to the many in the internment camps. Those are the headquarters for the Japanese.”
A whiff of sarcasm hangs over this man’s admonition. After all, he preferred that red-blooded Americans—which, in his mind, did not include people of Japanese descent, even if they were American-born citizens, as most internees were—be given farm jobs. But others were quite serious in suggesting the use of internees for field work once it became clear that there would be no delay in evacuation. Olive, grape, peach, and apricot growers were especially worried as spring turned to summer. In July, one vineyard owner asked the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce to petition the military for permission to employ the Japanese currently being held in the two assembly centers in Fresno. These centers held close to ten thousand people, many of whom were former residents of Fresno, Tulare, Kings, and Madera counties, awaiting deportation to permanent internment camps further inland. “Some of us will be lucky,” he declared, “if we harvest 50 per cent of our crop due to the present labor shortage.”
The chamber disliked this plan, which would have entailed transporting the internees to and from camps and paying prevailing wages. But the vast majority of organizations, farmers, and officials who went on the record—from the Fresno County Farm Bureau and district attorney to the Merced County sheriff to Governor Culbert L. Olson—did so in support of it, on the condition that the army strictly limit the mobility of internees. The Japanese “have been law abiding people,” argued one Clovis farmer, “and with a little supervision we should have no trouble at all.”
All told, 45% of Japanese Americans living in the West had worked in agriculture before the war, and in a few states some of them did end up doing field labor after removal. In Idaho, Montana, and Utah, for example, internees harvested sugar beets; in Wyoming, they built canals to irrigate farm land. But Lieutenant General John L. DeWitt, who oversaw internment as head of the Western Defense Command, ultimately decided against allowing the practice in California. In a July 8 conference, he told Governor Olson that “the use of evacuated Japanese as farm workers would require an entire change of program which had been adopted as a military necessity,” framing removal just as Colonel Bendetsen had done a few months earlier.
If anyone saw the irony of advocating for the use of Japanese internees to compensate for a labor shortage caused, in part, by their very internment, they did not let on. Instead, in the face of the government’s decision, San Joaquin Valley officials and growers swiftly dropped the idea. Soon the matter became moot. In mid-July, the Pinedale Assembly Center began transporting its 4,750 internees to the Tule Relocation Center in the remote, northeastern corner of California, and to a concentration camp in Arizona. By the end of October, when the Fresno Assembly Center completed the evacuation of its more than five thousand internees to an Arkansas camp, the only Japanese residents remaining in the Valley were three expectant mothers who were temporarily residing in convalescent homes.
These developments, however, did not stop Valley citizens from regularly expressing anti-Japanese sentiments. “It burns me up to hear some selfish Japanese lover rave about turning them loose to help with the farm labor,” fumed a Madera woman on July 13. “I say pack them up and send them back to Japan.” A few weeks later another Fresno Bee reader insisted, “There is no Japanese who is a true American. They were all sent here and born here for a purpose and that purpose was eventually to control the United States.”
As Valley residents continued to denigrate their Japanese neighbors, California farmers and officials pivoted to other potential solutions to the worsening labor crisis. On July 8, Governor Olson suggested several other sources for “emergency” workers, including Mexican immigrants. Bringing in laborers from Mexico was an idea about which state and federal officials, as well as growers in numerous western states, had been talking since 1941. Yet this prospect elicited the same sort of xenophobic response as had the proposal to employ Japanese internees. “I am a solider on leave,” wrote George Dulin to the Fresno Bee on September 23, “and read in your paper that they are bringing Mexicans to make up for the shortage of laborers.” Dulin believed it was time to take a stand against this measure. “We have millions of idle men, plenty of them, in every town and city. I say make them work rather than import Mexican labor.” One week later, Mrs. M. L. K. of Woodlake, on the east side of the Valley, wrote to the Bee to say that she agreed with Dulin: “Keep the Mexicans out of our U.S.A.”
These anti-Mexican residents had little to fear, however, at least in the short run. There was precedent for American importation of Mexican labor in wartime—seventy-three thousand Mexicans had come to the United States to work during World War I—and increasing support for the plan among both officials and growers. But the shortcomings of that earlier guestworker program, which was plagued by employers’ abuse of laborers and unwillingness to abide by contract terms, made both the United States and Mexican governments slow to forge another such arrangement. The two countries started sketching out a bilateral arrangement in the spring of 1942, but they did not formally agree to the Bracero Program, as the new farm labor program came to be called, until August 4. And the first group of five hundred braceros, who were brought in to work in the sugar beet fields of Stockton, in the north end of the Valley, did not arrive until September 29. Those initial five hundred were followed shortly thereafter by small numbers of braceros contracted to grow lettuce, strawberries, and artichokes in the California’s Salinas Valley and sugar beets in Washington state. All told, however, in 1942 the United States allowed in only 4,189 braceros—and just five hundred of them ended up in the San Joaquin Valley, all in Stockton.
The failure to bring in more braceros to redress the labor shortfall frustrated Valley farmers to no end. “We asked for Mexicans in 1941,” insisted Arphaxad Setrakian, president of the California Grape Advisory Council, in a U.S. Senate hearing on labor conditions in the West held late the following year. Yet “all we get is procrastination, delay, politics, and promises.” Setrakian, a diminutive Fresno farmer who went by the nickname ‘Sox,’ placed much of the blame for the delay on social reformers—“peddlers of bunk” and “mildewed braintrusters,” in his estimation—who questioned whether growers were prepared to offer braceros adequate housing. “They always meet with us and talk about housing conditions and baths and showers,” Sox complained, “they tell us we have got to have bathtubs.” But, he insisted, the housing question was no question at all. “We constructed an assembly point to house 10,000 Japanese in Fresno,” Sox observed, adding that he wasn’t sure whether it was occupied or not. Regardless, Sox wondered, “If we need food and fiber, can anyone tell me that the Government cannot overnight build assembly points where the Mexicans can be brought and properly housed and distributed to the farmers in the neighborhood?”
Japanese assembly centers were, in fact, eventually turned into housing for braceros. But that process would not begin until 1943. In the meantime, Valley farmers were forced to rely on homegrown workers. Governor Olson had highlighted one such source—“civilian volunteers’’—in his July 8 message, though he had his doubts about whether they could make the difference. Seeking out such civilian volunteers, Olson concluded, was “a little bit like looking for scrap rubber—you get some, of course, but probably not enough that is usable.”
The governor was not the only one who had misgivings about civilian volunteers. Earlier that year, University of California professor of farm management R. L. Adams had “warned that the city bred youngsters may not be able to withstand the rigors and monotony of farm labor.” In a subsequent letter to the Fresno Bee, a Mills, California, resident added that many school-aged children—whether from the city or the countryside—would not be of much help with fruit picking, which necessitated the use of top-heavy, 12-foot ladders. Other observers believed that city students were more than up to the task.  One young Fresnan, for instance, called Adams’s comments “an injustice and an insult,” insisting that Fresno schools provided sufficient physical education training to enable its students “to do some of the toughest farm jobs.”
Thousands of Fresno youths would soon find out if they were up to the rigors of farm labor, harvesting tomatoes, grapes, and other Valley crops under the scorching summer sun. Less than a week after the Army vetoed the use of Japanese internees as laborers, the Fresno Bee reported that a range of “city folk”—men, women, and children—had begun spending weekends and summer vacation as volunteer pickers at area farms. Over the next few months, the newspaper was filled with stories, often two or three a day, chronicling the campaign of a labor force that by the fall had been dubbed the “Victory Harvest Army.”
The San Joaquin Valley was not the only part of the country that tapped students, housewives, and other volunteers for the 1942 harvest. Farmers in at least five western states targeted these populations as well. New York and New Jersey each passed legislation easing child labor laws so that students over 14 years of age could be excused from classes to work on farms. Seven thousand New York City high school students applied for summer agricultural work on upstate farms, and some schools in Washington state moved to a six-day-week schedule to shorten the academic year and free up students to work.
Women, too, flooded farms—from the South Atlantic states to the West Coast. According to one survey, women accounted for 13% of total agricultural workers in 1942, compared to just 1.5% in 1941. During the fall cotton harvest, residents in at least half a dozen Georgia counties took picking holidays, while the Works Progress Administration halted all Atlanta-area construction projects to free up six hundred men to head out to the cotton fields.
But few, if any, communities marshalled a phalanx of pickers that matched the Victory Harvest Army of the San Joaquin Valley. Although the labor shortage impacted the harvest of a range of Valley crops, it was most acute for grapes and cotton.
The grape harvest, valued at $30 million, came first. Starting in mid-August, area businesses, including the main Bank of America branch in Fresno and two wholesale paper companies, began making arrangements for its employees to leave work and help pick grapes. The Fresno office of the United States Employment Service (USES), a New Deal agency that helped connect employers and employees, coordinated getting city residents to the farms where they were needed. School buses left the Inyo Street office each morning at 6:30 or 7:00 to transport workers to vineyards in Reedley, Fowler, and Kingsburg. The Sanger Parent Teacher Association and the Fresno City Board of Education provided nursery care for mothers who assisted with the harvest. In the small town of Selma, the USES introduced a two-ton mobile farm labor recruiting station—one of only two operating in California.
This initial wave of volunteerism was followed by the AAWMC’s more concerted effort to pressure workers at local businesses to join the effort. “City people,” as Irvine S. Terrell had complained to the Fresno Chamber of Commerce on September 9, needed to do more.
The Fresno Bee also pitched in, running regular stories and photographs that encouraged Valley residents to fulfill their patriotic duty to pick grapes. At the zenith of the grape harvest, the paper’s social news editor, Bess Middleton, wrote a column chronicling a day she spent in the fields. “As an American woman I volunteered yesterday to go out and pick grapes,” she wrote on September 11. “If I lived in Nazi controlled country, I, and thousands of other women, would have been ordered into the vineyards long ago, not just for one day or one week but until every grape was harvested.” Middleton worked alongside about fifty other pickers—“a true cross section of democratic America,” in her estimation—including a dentist, a country school teacher, a Fresno State College faculty member, and two dozen high school boys and girls. She was also joined by Bee photographer Edwin E. Schober, who was assigned to take photographs that might spark greater interest in the harvest. Schober lauded the personal benefits of the work, which helped settle his “rather jumpy” nerves. “Perhaps if you are feeling not quite up to par,” he advised Bee readers, “a few hours in the vineyard may be just what the doctor ordered. Then, too, you will be doing your bit to save the crop, help Uncle Sam win the war and earn a few dollars either for your piggy bank or for victory bonds.”
Despite the pressure exerted on Valley adults, area schools and their students were likely the most important factor in the success of the grape harvest. In mid-August, the principals of Selma, Fowler, Central Union, and Parlier high schools had agreed to a Fresno County Farm Bureau plan to use their schools to house and feed boys from Los Angeles and San Francisco who would temporarily be brought in to work in Valley vineyards. Meanwhile, many local schools decided to delay opening until September 28 so that their students could stay in the fields longer. Although Fresno city schools did not implement a similar delay, the Board of Education excused junior and senior high school students who wanted to help with the harvest and made provisions for 20% of city school teachers to accompany and supervise the student pickers. During the first week of school, nearly sixteen hundred boys and girls—comprising more than 25% of secondary students enrolled in Fresno city schools—were forgoing their studies to pick grapes. This included more than three hundred students from Edison Technical High School and 225 from Alexander Hamilton Junior High School, as well as members of the football teams from Fresno High School and Fresno State College.
Vernon Selland, one of the Hamilton Junior High School students who participated in the 1942 harvest, remembers those days fondly. “They called upon us to volunteer” before classes began, he observed in a recent interview, “and they said as a reward we will start school two weeks late.” Picking figs in Fresno and grapes in the Fowler, Selma, and Kingsburg area, Selland was happy to miss several weeks of school, to get paid a modest salary that “seemed really swell at the time,” and to lend a hand in the war effort. He did not find the work particularly arduous, perhaps because Selland—unlike some of his classmates—was familiar with harvesting crops, having spent several summers in the grape and cotton fields on a family farm near Caruthers. He recalls the kindness of the Valley farmers, who brought “out sandwiches for lunch and that sort of thing.” In sum, the picking holiday was a “really positive” experience for Selland and surely for many of his classmates, who were also happy to delay the start of the school year, earn a bit of money, and play a role, however small, in the war against fascism.
Vernon Selland and the rest of the Victory Harvest Army would, as we have seen, ultimately prevail in the fight to save the grape crop, saving growers from disaster by the end of September. They earned praise from the Fresno County Farm Bureau board of directors, which on October 1 passed a motion to extend its “appreciation to the volunteer workers in the grape harvest for the splendid response to the appeal from the farmer to save this tremendous food for freedom.” The board offered special thanks to Fresno youths, women, and schools, as well as to the members of the Fresno Merchants Association and “all the business interests in the smaller towns in our county” for making their employees available to work in the fields.
But these foot soldiers of the Victory Harvest Army soon faced a more daunting challenge: the cotton harvest. Like grapes, cotton was critical to the San Joaquin Valley economy—the crops were the two most important in many Valley counties—and it was deemed essential to the war effort, used to make servicemen’s uniforms, duffle bags, explosives, cellulose, and seed oil. Cotton was also California’s most labor-intensive crop, thus necessitating a large, transient work force, with a harvest season that stretched from September to January. Volunteer labor was needed to pick Valley cotton, explained Willard Marsh, Fresno district manager of the USES, “but this is not like the grape harvest—that was a matter of a few weeks, while cotton picking will extend over several months.” As such, “the volunteers must keep turning out if their efforts are to offset the shortage of transient workers.”
The Fresno Bee trumpeted the severity of the crisis in headline after headline that fall. “4,000 Cotton Pickers Needed in Kern County,” the paper declared on October 28. “10,000 Pickers Needed to Save Tulare Cotton,” it proclaimed the following day. By the start of November, the USES estimated that the Valley as a whole was short twenty thousand workers to harvest a cotton crop valued at more than $50 million. The agency tried to entice transient farm hands, sending interpreters to Southern California to interview Spanish-speaking workers living there. But it ran into hurdles getting many of these workers up north. Ultimately, Willard Marsh estimated that Valley cotton growers could count on just one third of the normal number of transient pickers in 1942. “This is the ideal time for volunteers to try their luck,” he observed on November 1, hoping to motivate locals to pick up the slack. “The weather is good, the first picking is heavy, and the wages—$2 a hundredweight—are the highest ever paid.”
Once again, local school districts ensured that students played a central role in the harvest. Many Valley schools, including those in Tranquillity, Alta Vista, Hanford, and Caruthers, adopted a minimum-day schedule, opening for four hours each morning and freeing up students to work in the afternoon. Other school districts implemented crop holidays. In mid-October, the Madera County Superintendent of Schools announced that its elementary and high schools would shut down for three weeks to enable students to pick cotton. Corcoran and Kerman schools both closed for two weeks, while schools in Tulare, Delano, and Kern counties implemented shorter crop holidays. At an October 29 meeting, the Fresno County War Manpower Committee asked school officials throughout the county to suspend classes while the weather was still good. Although the cotton harvest season lasted into January, the rain and cooler temperatures that typically arrived in late fall would jeopardize the quality of Valley cotton and make picking more difficult. “Every day gained before the advent of bad weather,” maintained the committee’s chairman, “means a higher grade product and increased supplies of cotton and its byproducts so urgently needed by America and her allies.”
On November 17, the Fresno County Board of Supervisors went one step further. Worried that less than 30% of the crop had been harvested—70% was normal by that point—the board adopted a resolution that called on “every able bodied man, woman and child in Fresno County to ‘join the Victory Cotton Army and aid in the harvesting the war crop.’” The Fresno City Board of Education, in turn, pledged “full cooperation” with the Board of Supervisor’s resolution. When city schools recessed for the annual Thanksgiving vacation later that week, School Superintendent Homer C. Wilson urged teachers and principals to encourage as many of the city’s more than thirteen thousand students to assist with the harvest as possible. “No more patriotic Thanksgiving service could be rendered by pupils and teachers than by spending Thanksgiving week…in the cotton fields to save the crop,” he held. “We may as well get used to doing these things voluntarily, because if we don’t, next year we may be drafted to do the same thing.”
Truth be told, quite a few people had already been compelled to participate in the harvesting of Valley crops. As the summer proposal to employ Japanese evacuees had already revealed, local farmers and officials harbored no inherent affinity for voluntary labor. The myriad stories of city folk and students sacrificing their time and bodies to pick crops for the war effort certainly buoyed spirits and testified to a wellspring of local patriotism. But coercion was not off the table. Perhaps the most obvious place to look on this score was the military. Several California politicians, including Governor Olson, asked General DeWitt to send soldiers to the Valley to work, for pay, in the fields. On at least one occasion in early September, about two hundred soldiers in Fresno—“all volunteers,” according to the Bee—did participate in the grape harvest. It is unclear, however, how much choice they had. Men who had enlisted in or been drafted by the army were unlikely to have been given, or to have expected, much freedom in determining how they spent their days.
According to War Department policy, troops could only be used to harvest crops when other sources of labor had been exhausted. And Valley farmers and officials, for their part, continued to believe that there were sufficient hands to be found among area residents, though these potential laborers—and their current employers—needed prodding. The emergency meeting of the AAWMC on September 9, at which chairman Irvine S. Terrell threatened merchants with the prospect of governmental labor allocation, provided evidence of this conviction. Terrell announced that “every ounce of authority of the War Manpower Commission is going to be utilized to save these crops. Non cooperators are going to feel the power of the people.”
Some in the audience had concerns about the limits of that power. When Fresno furniture store owner Louis Slater asked whether employees given time off could be forced to help with the harvest under this new proposal, Terrell replied that “such compulsion is not in line with democratic principles.” Yet the AAWMC went on to approve a seven-point program to explore designating several farm districts as emergency areas so that peace officers there would be empowered to roundup “loafers refusing to aid the grape harvest.” This proposal, however, was nixed by the regional director of the manpower commission, who informed Terrell and his colleagues that the conscription of labor was unacceptable. “Such a program,” announced the director from his headquarters in San Francisco, “definitely is not the policy of this office.”
Despite the disapproval of the regional manpower office, many Valley residents and officials embraced measures targeting so-called “vagrants.” “Go down the street,” a woman in Tulare County instructed, “and idle men are in bars drinking…Draft them or put them to work.” Local authorities by and large agreed with this sentiment. The Fresno County District Attorney ordered law enforcement officers to compel unemployed men to find work in the fields or face arrest. “I believe,” he announced, “that these idle persons are either slackers or persons not in sympathy with the war effort of our government.” Hanford judge Harry V. Breton and Delano mayor William B. Smith advocated similar policies, both of which were designed to get idle men off the streets and into the fields. The Delano Chamber of Commerce urged nearby towns to adopt its approach in order to “prevent loiterers from going to other communities and force them into the harvest fields.” According to AAWMC chairman Terrell, such steps were, in fact, being taken—and well beyond Delano. “The skid rows, gambling houses and pool halls throughout the San Joaquin Valley,” he explained in early September, “are being cleaned out and the men ordered to get into the labor ranks where they are most needed.”
State laws nationwide, including in California, gave authorities considerable discretion in defining vagrancy and, thus, in exploiting this potential labor pool. Updated in the summer of 1941, the California penal code classified a wide variety of individuals as vagrants, subjecting them to a fine of up to $500, jail time of up to six months, or both. Prostitutes, drunks, thieves, beggars, and “every idle, or lewd, or dissolute person” and “every person without visible means of living who has the physical ability to work” all qualified as vagrants. Wandering around the streets late at night was a sufficient enough violation for arrest. California officials had long deployed vagrancy laws for a variety of policing and coercive purposes, including compelling the poor to work. But the context of the war provided a patina of patriotism to justify actions that, to some, might otherwise seem to be government overreach. Authorities could argue that destitute men who refused to work in the fields failed not just themselves and their families, but their nation as well.
Authorities also targeted the incarcerated. On September 25, forty Valley police chiefs, judges, and other law enforcement officials unanimously endorsed a plan already adopted by the town of Stockton: unemployed men arrested for minor offenses, including vagrancy and intoxication, who agreed to do harvest work would have their jail terms suspended. Those who refused the offer, however, would receive more severe sentences than they otherwise would have. The secretary of the Fresno County Chamber of Commerce speculated that if implemented throughout the Valley, this plan could net six thousand additional farm workers. One month later, Merced County officials urged Sheriff N. L. Cornell to use prisoners in the county jail to assist with the harvest. “There is no way prisoners can be forced to work under existing laws,” replied Cornell. But the sheriff noted that he had been paroling as many prisoners as possible for farm work.
Valley communities even tried to limit the flow of alcohol. Bar and liquor store owners in Merced agreed in September to close on Sundays for the rest of the harvest season. Doing so, they hoped, would reduce Monday absenteeism caused by hangovers. By November, Merced farmers were asking that bar and pool rooms be shuttered for most of the week, with the lone exception of Saturday nights. In Stockton, Tracy, Marysville, and Modesto, retail liquor establishments reduced their hours of operation, closing at 12 AM rather than 2 AM and opening at 8 AM rather than 6 AM. The Fresno County War Manpower Commission (a subordinate of the Area Commission), farm industry representatives, and local law enforcement agents proposed this same plan to the county’s liquor license holders at a large meeting at Fresno Memorial Auditorium on September 28. “The midnight to 8 A.M. is worth trying,” urged the gathering’s sponsors, “for it will eliminate what seems to be one of the major hindrances in keeping available workers employed steadily.” Alcohol abuse was the worst between 12 and 2, they insisted. And the delayed opening would ensure that individuals won’t “visit bars early in the morning,” before they headed out to work. Although this plan was presented as a voluntary measure, numerous speakers suggested that if it did not pass, the Army might step in and impose a compulsory one. Eventually, four hundred Fresno County liquor license holders—representing roughly half of the establishments selling alcohol in the county—agreed to a slightly modified version of the proposal. Beginning in October and lasting through the end of the war, they would close early and open late every day but Saturday.
It is difficult to determine whether shutting down bars and similar venues early had much measurable impact on the farm labor shortage. The same goes for efforts to coerce idle, intemperate, or incarcerated individuals into the cotton fields. Judging by reports in the Fresno Bee, it appears that the bulk of the work in the cotton harvest was performed voluntarily by the local citizenry, albeit with significant prodding by government officials, as had been the case with the grape harvest.
By early December, authorities in some portions of the region were feeling encouraged by the progress that had been made on cotton farms. “The harvest in the vicinity of Fresno is well ahead of that in the rest of the county,” reported Al J. Brown, chairman of the Fresno Chamber of Commerce agricultural committee on December 1. He saw this fact as a testament to “the splendid cooperation and assistance we have been getting from the schools.” But in the county as a whole, not to mention the rest of the San Joaquin Valley, the situation remained critical. According to one cotton processing firm, by December 5, just 43 % of Fresno County cotton had been ginned, compared to the 90% that was typical for that point in the season. With that shortfall in mind, Fresno city and county officials decided to capitalize on the approaching Pearl Harbor attack anniversary, urging locals to “remember the Pearl Harbor treachery” by “doing their part on the home front to help avenge it.” Cotton clothing and equipment is “needed to win the war,” Brown reminded residents. “Our job is to get it picked. By doing that we can deliver a solid blow against the Axis.”
Patriotic pleas such as this one bolstered student turnout for cotton picking in Fresno on December 7 and throughout the Christmas holiday break. By mid-January, the statewide cotton harvest total nearly matched that of the previous year. Two months later, the state reported that the county’s farms had produced $83 million worth of food and fiber in 1942, surpassing the 1941 total by $24.5 million. Looking forward to the next year’s harvest season, Fresno County Chamber of Commerce executive secretary M.P. Lohse predicted that “if agriculture during 1943 is to equal the 1942 record, even greater dependence must be placed on workers recruited from groups not heretofore considered as being a necessary part of the agricultural picture.”
Lohse was correct, at least in part. Through the duration of the war, Valley agricultural interests continued to rely on thousands of local volunteers, especially students, to help with the harvest of key crops.
But volunteerism was only part of the story. The Victory Harvest Army’s success was also the result of intervention by the local, state, and federal governments. The 1942 farm labor crisis thus speaks to a broader continuity in the history of the San Joaquin Valley, of California, and, indeed, of the U.S. West, one that predated and extends beyond World War II. Despite the myth of Western individualism, since the nineteenth century Western farmers, ranchers, and residents in general have depended on federal government interventions and resources—from Native American removal to permits to graze on public lands to the massive flood control, reclamation, and irrigation projects that enabled the region’s growth and booming economy.
Throughout the 1942 harvest crisis, Valley growers looked time and again to federal officials—as well as to local and state officials—to redress their labor shortage. They asked the U.S. Army to permit them to employee Japanese internees, and they urged the federal government to negotiate a treaty to bring in Mexican braceros. When these efforts failed to solve the problem, Valley farmers relied on local, state, and federal authorities to encourage, coordinate, and at times compel the participation of Valley residents in the 1942 harvest.
In the years that followed, Valley ranchers and growers would continue to rely on the federal government to solve their labor problems by providing an increasingly foreign-born labor force. In 1943 and 1944, the San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Labor Bureau brought in nearly seven thousand Mexican nationals as a part of the Bracero Program. At the end of the 1943 season, Irvine S. Terrell, who managed the labor bureau’s Fresno office in addition to his AAWMC duties, praised these temporary laborers for their remarkably low turnover rate and “highly satisfactory work” on cattle ranches and especially peach, grape, and cotton farms. A Merced County official credited braceros for not only helping to avert major crop losses that year but also making “it unnecessary to issue a general call for volunteer labor from cities in the county.”
Not everyone, however, was enthusiastic about the new labor source. Indeed, anti-Mexican and Japanese sentiments remained as strong among some Valley residents as they had been in 1942, as side-by-side letters to the editor published by the Fresno Bee on February 23, 1943 make clear. In one, Robert G. Williams of Lodi accused Japanese immigrants to the United States of attempting to seize control of the country through propaganda, Japanese language schools, and espionage. In the other, Fresnan Cecil Clark lamented the ongoing “howling” for the importation of “Mexican labor,” which to his mind was inferior to “American white labor.”
The Victory Harvest Army, in the end, ultimately lived up to its name and saved the 1942 season. But such ugly assertions of bigotry against the Valley’s non-white residents—like the thorny questions about the duties of patriotism, the limits of government coercion, and the role of government support for private agricultural interests—reveal that the 1942 farm labor crisis perfectly encapsulated the real meanings, and costs, of victory in this campaign and in World War II as a whole.
 Our account of the San Joaquin Valley’s 1942 farm labor crisis builds on and is indebted to the unpublished research of Christina Morales Guzmán. See Guzmán, “Race, Citizenship, and the Negotiation of Space: Chinese, Japanese, and Mexicans in Fresno, California, 1870-1949” (PhD diss., University of California, Santa Cruz, 2012): 151-190.
 Heather Cox Richardson, How the South Won the Civil War: Oligarchy, Democracy, and the Continuing Fight for the Soul of America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020), xvi, 85-91.
 Devra Weber, Dark Sweat, White Gold: California Farm Workers, Cotton, and the New Deal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994), 225n1.
 Greg Robinson, By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2001), 108.
New York Times, Feb. 1, 1942; New York Times, Mar. 26, 1942; Fresno Bee, Apr. 14, 1942; Hearings Before the Special Committee to Investigate Farm Labor Conditions in the West, United States Senate, Seventy-Seventh Congress, Second Session on S. Res. 299, in Four Parts (Washington: US Govt. Printing Office, 1943), 187-188; Cameron E. Woods, “Mexican Agricultural Labor in California: 1941-1945” (MA thesis, California State University, Fresno 1950), 7-11, 46-7; Erasmo Gamboa, Mexican Labor and World War II: Braceros in the Pacific Northwest, 1942-1947 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1990), xii; Gerald D. Nash, The American West Transformed: The Impact of the Second World War (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985), 46-7; Fresno Bee, Apr. 4, 1942. This farm labor shortage, it is worth noting, was highly localized. Indeed, California as a whole had a sufficient number of laborers. Yet inefficient worker distribution, transportation challenges, and the perishability of Valley crops undermined growers’ ability to tap into this workforce. Don Mitchell, They Saved the Crops: Labor, Landscape, and the Struggle over Industrial Farming in Bracero-Era California (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 23, 434n9; Otey M. Scruggs, “Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement of 1942,” Agricultural History 34 (July 1960): 140.
 The long-term consequences of this program were devastating. Few Japanese farm owners realized any compensation for the time, labor, and expenses they devoted to the 1942 planting, and most ultimately lost their land—often unloading it to white neighbors at “fire-sale” prices. Robinson, A Tragedy of Democracy, 122-127; Aaron Mejia, “Dispossessed: Japanese Internment and the California Alien Land Laws,” May 8, 2019, unpublished paper in authors’ possession.
Fresno Bee, June 5, 942; Louis Fiset, “Thinning, Topping, and Loading: Japanese Americans and Beet Sugar in World War II,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly (Summer 1999): 129; New York Times, Sept. 14, 1942; New York Times, Sept. 22, 1942; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 28-29.
Fresno Bee, Apr. 9, 1942; Fresno Bee, Apr. 14, 1942; Fresno Bee, May 22, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 3, 1942; Fresno Bee, June 30, 1942; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 39; Hearings Before the Special Committee, 244; Scruggs, “Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement,” 141; Mitchell, They Saved the Crops, 22.
 Lori A. Flores, Grounds for Dreaming: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants, and the California Farm Worker Movement (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2016), 42; Mitchell, They Saved the Crops, 22-23; Wayne Rassmussen, A History of the Emergency Farm Labor Supply Program, 1943-47 (Washington, D.C: U.S. Department of Agriculture, 1951), 200, https://archive.org/details/historyofemergen13rasm/page/n1.
 Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 39-40; Flores, Grounds for Dreaming, 42.
 Scruggs, “Evolution of the Mexican Farm Labor Agreement,”140; Gamboa, Mexican Labor, 40-41; Flores, Grounds for Dreaming, 47.
Hearings Before the Special Committee, 244-48; Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1986. Fresno, in fact, had two assembly centers, not one.
 The Japanese assembly centers in Stockton, Merced, and Tulare were used as “holding camp facilities” for more than five thousand braceros who were either newly arrived and awaiting work assignments or in between jobs. In addition, some buildings from these centers were provided to growers, who moved them to labor camps throughout the Valley. Mitchell, They Saved the Crops, 51-52; Fresno Bee, Sept. 5, 1943.
Fresno Bee, July 8, 1942. Olson previously endorsed the recruitment of white-collar workers and students. Fresno Bee, June 30, 1942.
 Vernon Selland, interview with Blain Roberts and Ethan J. Kytle, Fresno, CA, June 3, 2020.
 Although the 1942 grape harvest was not the disaster many thought it would be in late August and early September, the state’s total raisin grape yield did drop from 1,421,000 tons in 1941 to 1,326,000 tons in 1942. In addition, California growers failed to meet the total of 350,000 tons of raisins requested by the War Production Board for 1942, producing just 250,000 tons. Fresno Bee, Nov. 11, 1942; Hearings Before the Special Committee to Investigate Farm Labor Conditions, 26.
Fresno Bee, Sept. 9, 1942. The San Joaquin Valley was not the only agricultural region where coercive tactics were used to secure farm laborers during World War II. In the Arkansas and Mississippi deltas, for instance, cotton planters employed government programs not only to depress wages among their workers but also to make it difficult for them to leave the region. See Nan Elizabeth Woodruff, “Pick or Fight: The Emergency Farm Labor Program in the Arkansas and Mississippi Deltas during World War II,” Agricultural History 64 (Spring 1990): 74-85.
 Risa Goluboff, Vagrant Nation: Police Power, Constitutional Change, and the Making of the 1960s (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), 1-4.
Fresno Bee, Oct. 26, 1942. Although California prohibited contract convict labor, some prisoners in the state were employed in harvest camps during World War II. See Ward M. McAfee, “A History of Convict Labor in California,” Southern California Quarterly 72 (Spring 1990): 22, 30.
 Patricia Nelson Limerick, The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West (New York: Norton, 1987), 82-83, 138-39; Norris Hundley, Jr., The Great Thirst: Californians and Water A History, Revised Edition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2001).
Located in the heart of the city’s Little Tokyo Historic District, a visit to Los Angeles’ Japanese American National Museum (JANM) is a humbling experience. JANM exists by active community collaboration. The museum’s exhibits tell the story of a group of people who persevered in their hopes of making America their home even as “white” America pushed back on accommodating and accepting people of Japanese ancestry. Anchoring the museum’s display is a wooden structure. The sparse and rickety edifice is frugally-built and a less sturdy version of the log cabins that one finds in the Great Smoky Mountains in the American South. The wooden structure is one of the few surviving housing structures bought and relocated to the museum from the Heart Mountain internment camp in Wyoming. It represents one of the most dismal and yet often overlooked chapters of modern American history—the forceful removal, relocation, and imprisonment of over 120,000 Japanese Americans to inland detention facilities from the coasts during World War II.
The wooden structure with its modest interiors greets visitors as the first object of display in the museum’s second floor. Beyond the wooden structure lies an exhibit that includes everyday objects, historic photographs, and useful anecdotes that support the visitor in navigating what is bound to be a fairly new immigrant narrative for most people. The open floor plan that one traverses to explore the first couple of rooms comes to an abrupt halt as visitors make their way past the thick glass doors into the section devoted to the Japanese internment. Although, it might simply have been an architectural choice to separate this section of the exhibit. I couldn’t help but imagine a curatorial intent behind forcing visitors to push open a pair of heavy doors to enter into an area earmarked for exhibits depicting life during a state-sanctioned sequestering of fellow citizens. Like the sudden, swift blow to Japanese American aspirations of realizing their American dreams, the visitor is transported, beyond the glass doors, from the tranquility of everyday Japanese American life to the hostile badlands of middle America.
Little Tokyo, the neighborhood that houses the museum is today a symbol of resistance and resilience. A gateway to Japanese immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the neighborhood was home to some 30,000 Japanese Americans before it was swept clean during Executive Order 9066 in 1941-42. During the war years, the once burgeoning neighborhood became a ghost town before being populated by large groups of Hispanic and African-American laborers. These workers who had arrived in the city lured by defense manufacturing jobs were unable to find housing because of restrictive housing covenants and occupied the abandoned Little Tokyo structures.
Bronzeville, as the area came to be referred to during World War II, was the site of the Zoot Suit riots between white sailors and Hispanic residents of the area. After the war, Japanese residents gradually started coming back to Little Tokyo. Under the leadership of the Little Tokyo Business Association, the area was rebuilt and revitalized around 1947 and is today a thriving tourist and business destination, even if escalating costs have forced the bulk of the Japanese American residential communities to move to Torrance, Gardena, West Los Angeles, and Arcadia.
The Little Tokyo neighborhood is framed by the JANM on one side and the Aratani Theatre on the other with the Little Tokyo Village plaza, with its convenience stores, confectioneries, and restaurants separating the two pivotal landmarks. The Aratani theatre managed by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) has been a point of pride for the Little Tokyo district. Since opening its doors in 1983, they have hosted some of the biggest names in Japanese theatre, music, and the arts.
The East West Players (EWP) is another stalwart of the neighborhood. EWP was founded in 1965 by Asian American actors. Now in its fifty-third year, the company is the longest-running professional theatre of color and is seemingly the largest producing organization of Asian American work. Snehal Desai, who is the EWP’s producing artistic director, explained how the East West Players is located at an interesting intersection of the city in that it is surrounded by the Los Angeles Police Department, City Hall, the erstwhile Los Angeles Times building, and a stone’s throw from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion and the Music Center. This puts it squarely in the middle of the multiple loci of power—intellectual, political, and administrative—in the city. And yet the nation’s oldest and largest Asian American company holds on dearly to its diminutive appearance, housed in a former church. It seems the company deliberately stays away from the glitz and glamor of the entertainment world even as it continues to produce and promote high caliber work that celebrates the diversity of the American experience.
EWP was founded in 1965 by Asian American actors. Now in its 53rd year the company is the longest-running professional theatre of color and the largest producing organization of Asian American work.
With Little Tokyo as its setting, the memories enshrined in the Japanese American National Museum as reminders, East West Players and the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center as partners, and the Aratani Theatre as its venue, Allegiance: A New Musical Inspired by a True Story made its Los Angeles premiere in March 2018. Before it arrived at Aratani, the George Takei starrer had had its world premiere at San Diego’s Old Globe and a brief Broadway run at New York City’s Longacre Theatre. The musical had been in the works since 2008 when Takei and his husband Brad initiated a conversation with its creators, Jay Kuo and Lorenzo Thione, about creating a musical that would embrace and put the experience of Takei and several thousands like him who survived the Japanese internment during the Second World War into a stage performance. The conversation started in the aftermath of two back to back chance meetings between Takei and Brad, and Kuo and Thione while attending shows in New York City. Takei was particularly moved by the song “Inutil” during a performance of In the Heights, which the four attended together. And the conversation that ensued convinced Kuo and Thione that Takei’s family experience would produce a moving show.
The George Takei story itself is a celebration of the Asian-American version of the American Dream. Born Hosato Takei in 1937 in Los Angeles to an Issei (first-generation) father and a Nissei (second-generation) mother, Takei was christened “George” after the British monarch of the same name. In 1942 Takei and his family were forcefully relocated first to Santa Anita, then to Rohwer, Arkansas, and finally to the Tule Lake War Relocation Center, Northern California as part of the Japanese-American internment during the Second World War. After the war and the release of the former internees, Takei and his family moved back to Los Angeles where his father took up a petty job to support his family. The world war not only claimed a part of Takei’s childhood, but it also took away an aunt and a young cousin who were found dead in a ditch in Hiroshima in the aftermath of the U.S. atomic attack on the Japanese cities. Takei originated the role of Hikaru Sulu in Star Trek and went on to achieve both critical and popular fame for this iconic television role. Since Star Trek, Takei has appeared in numerous films and television shows. Starting in the late 2000s, he embraced various social media platforms and became a social media celebrity with millions of followers across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. Takei also recently launched a YouTube series called It Takeis Two with his husband Brad. Using his iconic status first as a popular and beloved television star and more recently as a social media phenomenon, Takei has been vocal about pressing social issues, most notably LGBTQ advocacy and rights. Takei says, “Raising awareness of the JA internment has been my life mission,” and with Allegiance Takei has opened up a national conversation on Japanese internment while simultaneously touching on its overall national shame as much as it is a personal history for the veteran actor.
The most recent Los Angeles avatar of the play opens with a celebration in the Kimura household in Salinas, California where the family are shown to be artichoke farmers. Sammy (Ethan Le Phong), the young son of the family is portrayed to have just returned from college where he has been elected as class president. His father Tatsuo (Scott Watanabe) is quietly proud of his son, but still manages to push him to do better. This mentality rings true for most Asian parent stereotypes in that they seem impossible to satisfy. Kei (Elena Wang), Sammy’s sister and Ojii-chan (George Takei) make up the rest of the family. The celebration is short-lived as the family receives the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Sammy is eager to prove his allegiance by enlisting, but the family instead is forced to join other dazed and confused families as they make their way to Heart Mountain, Wyoming, “where their multifamily barrack is meager protection from choking dust and bitter cold.”
The Japanese internment in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attacks was one of the darker episodes in the modern history of the United States. Responding to the anti-Japanese sentiment sweeping through the country after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt issued the infamous Executive Order 9066. This executive order gave sweeping authority to the Secretary of War and his military personnel to designate restricted areas and exclude certain members of the population from these prohibited military areas. Under the aegis of the executive order and under the sweeping authority granted by it, the Western Defense Command announced that all people of Japanese ancestry would be relocated from the West Coast. Notices began to appear in Japanese communities in April 1942 instructing families of Japanese ancestry to make preparations and report to designated areas for relocation. Defiance of the order could lead to arrest and imprisonment.
Several Japanese Americans expressed shock at the turn of events. Miné Okubo, an artist from Oakland writes, “To think this could happen in the United States. We were citizens. We did nothing. It was only because of our race. They did nothing to the Italians and the Germans. It was something that didn’t have to happen. Imagine mass evacuating little children, mothers, and old people!” Evacuees were instructed to pack two suitcases and a duffle bag each and were warned that the relocation centers were pioneer communities without adequate infrastructure. 120,000 Japanese Americans, several of them American born citizens left their homes, businesses, farms, and possessions behind as they embarked on a new adventure inland, unsure about their imminent futures.
Not unlike their real-life counterparts, the play’s characters find themselves in a hostile environment and under brutal suppression once at the camp. Throughout the longer first half of the play, however, we see the internees reconciling with their fate and negotiating with the inimical situation, making it work. In the camp, Tatsuo Kimura, the proud Japanese patriarch of the Kimura household refuses to disavow his Japanese identity when he is asked to fill out an insulting questionnaire designed to test the allegiance of interred citizens. This form, reminiscent of several contemporary visa application forms where applicants are asked if they have ever endorsed terrorism or terrorist organizations, is seen as an affront by Tatsuo to the honest life that he has led while pursuing his American dream.
The play ends with an older Sam Kimura portrayed by George Takei, getting ready for yet another Pearl Harbor commemoration. A visitor, who he doesn’t know has brought a big brown envelope. In it we find a copy of Time magazine, with a young Sammy on its cover, memorabilia that Tatsuo had held on to till his last day, and a purple heart. Sam learns that the messenger is Hanako, the daughter of Kei and Suzuki, named after the slain nurse from the Heart Mountain camp—Hannah, the girl who Sammy had dared to love knowing fully well that their relationship would be considered illegal before law. Reminded of the past, and all that he had missed during the years that he stayed out of touch with his family, Sam Kimura breaks down as he welcomes his niece back into his life in a beautifully touching moment of familial reconciliation.
The cast performing “Wishes on the Wind” in the Los Angeles premiere of Allegiance starring George Takei at the Aratani Theatre, co-produced by East West Players and Japanese American Cultural & Community Center. Photo by Michael Lamont.
Director Snehal Desai says that this play has always had a Los Angeles connection, with Takei being from the city, the first reading of the play taking place in the Japanese American National Museum, and with Los Angeles being home to the nation’s largest Japanese American population. The director, who also heads the East West Players as artistic director was therefore excited to bring the musical back to its spiritual if not actual home. George Takei offered a more nuanced take on Los Angeles’ relationship to the play in an email interview. The octogenarian writes, “In many ways, the City of Los Angeles is the epicenter of the work we have done to keep alive the memory, history and education about the Japanese American internment.” He points to institutions of socio-cultural significance that call the area home to further his point, “With things like the JANM and the Go For Broke Monument, not to mention the JACCC and the support of venerable institutions such as East West Players, Los Angeles has resources that no other city has to integrate our show’s message and story with the rich tapestry of the community today.” But extant resources aside, the history of the neighborhood cements its ties further with the story that the play shares. Takei walked me through the history of this neighborhood highlighting pivotal existing landmarks that are reminiscent of this recent painful history: “Both the JANM’s first ‘building’ and East West Players’ original Union Church building are historic landmarks of the internment of Japanese Americans. The JANM’s first home was the former Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, which was first built in 1927 and served as the headquarters of the Shin sect of the JA Buddhist community until the evacuation order.” Takei continued, “Union Church was founded by JA Christians and was built to contrast with the traditional Buddhist ceremonial entrance of the Buddhist Temple on the east side of the same block. With the evacuation order coming down, JA Christians were gathered in front of the Christian Union Church and from there, they too were bused to Santa Anita Race Track.”
And if the historical past was not reason enough for the city to have a unique stake in the Allegiance story, Takei points out that, “Allegiance still lives here in LA” with the “JACCC, the Isamu Noguchi sculpture in the plaza, the Go For Broke Memorial Monument and in a cozy side plaza beside the JACCC, the Memorial Honor Court of War Veterans are all stirring reminders of the sacrifice, anguish as well as the resilience and indeed the true patriotism expressed in so many countless ways by JAs during the war years. One cannot not be aware of our history in Little Tokyo today.” Hillary Jenks has studied Little Tokyo as a lieu de mémoire. The place of memory serving as places that “not only recall the past but also represent lost alternate futures, making them constant reminders of the social and political consequences of previous choices rather than depoliticized diversions.” Takei’s deft recalling of the various nooks and crannies of this “ethnic” enclave in downtown Los Angeles, the presence of historically significant landmarks, and the inspiration that they lent to the creators of Allegiance to formulate and share the story signifies the importance of this neighborhood as a continued determinant of Japanese American identity even when gentrification rapidly changes the demographic makeup of the area surrounding this neighborhood. However, the changes effecting the community today won’t be the first time that this stretch between City Hall and the Los Angeles river have had to forcefully undergo a change of character to accommodate rapid social changes.
JACCC, the Isamu Noguchi sculpture in the plaza, the Go For Broke Memorial Monument and in a cozy side plaza beside the JACCC, the Memorial Honor Court of War Veterans are all stirring reminders of the sacrifice, anguish as well as the resilience and indeed the true patriotism expressed in so many countless ways by JAs during the war years. One cannot not be aware of our history in Little Tokyo today.
The forceful Japanese American relocation under Executive Order 9066 opened up a vacuum that was quickly filled by other minority communities—especially African Americans and Hispanic Americans. The Bronzeville period of this neighborhood was a result of the rapid westward migration of African American populations during the war. Segregated housing laws did not allow this new population to find reasonable accommodation resulting in the city’s newest residents squatting in houses and structures abandoned by the Japanese Americans. Takei reminds us how Little Tokyo landmarks, like the Nishi Hongwanji Buddhist Temple, were opened up to welcome the new African American Baptist congregation in order to hold Sunday services. Takei imagines that “during the war, this Buddhist Temple rocked with the foot stamping, hand clapping ‘Hallelujahs’ of Southern Baptist Sunday services” in the Providence Baptist Church. The same holds true for Union Church which also “welcomed African American congregants until the return of the JAs after the war.” The African American settlers in the Japanese enclave were hopeful of turning the struggling neighborhood around, but popular perception of the area as “the city’s most notorious problem neighborhood quickly overshadowed Bronzeville boosterism.” The neighborhood struggled under the pressure of the sudden growth in population driven by Los Angeles’ racist and restrictive housing laws. The California Eagle aptly summarized the situation, “With 95 percent of our town locked, bolted, and barred against us the Negro is bound into a ghetto as fast as any which binds the Jewish people in Germany today.”
The pressure on the already strained resources increased with the return of the Japanese American internees back to Los Angeles from their encampments. Takei recalls relocating back to Little Tokyo after he and his family were finally released from the camps. By then Bronzeville was a shadow of its confident resilient former self and was “skid row.” In Takei’s words, “It was a place for the poorest of the poor, and it was to be honest a harrowing experience—dirty, crowded, and crime-ridden.” The relocation was horrific enough for Takei’s sister to wish that they were back home to the camps, which Takei suggests were “at least clean even for a prison camp.” The African American residents of Bronzeville and the Japanese American stakeholders of the erstwhile Little Tokyo tried finding common ground to resist the racist segregationist policies and practices of the Los Angeles city council and the War Relocation Authority (WRA) respectively. In spite of concerted efforts from community leaders and some positive movement in reconciling the differences that separated the two communities and their efforts to achieve financial and social recognition in white America, “the events of the war had set in motion a divergence of experience between Black and Japanese American[s] that would … prove too wide to reconcile.” The shrinking landscape of the symbolic Little Tokyo “became a target for Civic Center expansion in the in the 1950s.” The development forcefully replacing residents with parking structures and the new police headquarters. The bureaucratic encroachment of the city into Little Tokyo was resisted by the Little Tokyo Redevelopment Authority or LTRA which was created in 1963 to prevent “external land grabbing.” In the 1970s, the LTRA development plan joined forces with the Community Redevelopment Authority (CRA) and Little Tokyo subsequently began its transformation. It thus was turning into a commercial area bearing the kitschy signs of Japanese-ness that would attract a tourist population often at the expense of the ubiquitous Japanese American features that it had celebrated since it was settled in the late nineteenth century.
The forceful “Japanization” of the area was also resisted by second generation Nissei Japanese Americans who spearheaded efforts to locate within the boundaries of Little Tokyo memory artifacts and promoted ethnic, historical, and cultural venues in the neighborhood. As the child of an Issei father, and a Nissei mother, George Takei seemed to have been at the hub of the Little Tokyo redevelopment. Looking back at the 1980s effort to stop “Japanization,” Takei recalls how
In the late ’80s, actress Beulah Quo and I spearheaded the fundraising drive to adaptively reuse the old Union Church as the new home of the EWP. Just before the turn of the century, in the late 90s, the EWP staged its gala opening with a new artistic director, Tim Dang, a new 250 seat theater and a spectacular production of Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures.” When EWP presents stories of the internment, it is told in a building that resonates with the heartbeat of the people who were gathered right in front of those four Ionic columns. Union Church today is a living landmark that tells the story that happened in and around its walls.
Jenks’ refers to the 90s effort to resist the touristic commercialization as a “suffocating pilling-on” of cultural memorabilia. The urge to pile on memory seemed to have stemmed from the need of the community to retain Little Tokyo as a lieu de mémoire (a place of memory). A location like this is peppered with landmarks that serve to remind the community of their Japanese roots. Fundamentally, the “internment demands they remember.” It is no surprise, then, that Takei celebrates the current avatar of his former neighborhood as a “vibrant JA community that welcomes all people to enjoy, discover and learn from the cuisine, the performances and our cultural heritage. It is not simply a ‘commercial’ district. It is a healthy, living and lively community with a unique cultural and historic heritage.” Locating Allegiance in this part of town which is so integrally connected to the story that the play shares therefore becomes as much of a political decision as it is a logistical necessity.
Allegiance, the musical is a reclamation of a history and curating it for retelling strictly from the victim’s perspective. The creative team at the helm of the show chose to soften the critical and historical blow by not creating a scathing drama, but rather a mellifluous musical that, barring its occasional highhandedness, holds its act very firmly together. And in the process the play weaves a musical journey that is reminiscent of the classic American musical. It is interesting that both Allegiance and David Henry Hwang’s Soft Power, (which held its world premiere barely a month after Allegiance closed) both use music that is not fiercely original but somewhat of a throwback to the greatest among the showtunes. Much of mainstream criticism of these new works have therefore criticized the music for not being original. It seems a deliberate choice on the part of the creators to critique erroneous representations of Asia and Asian-ness in much of mainstream musicals. It is also a quick draw for the crowds who are then introduced to a history, this new perspective, or even a story that they would have been hitherto clueless about. However, the musical as a form still has its ways of encompassing expressions that are beyond what has been used as definitive examples. Takei explained that every evening he witnessed audiences celebrating the work of the team both during the Broadway run of the show and beyond. And this popular reception seemed to have carried more weight for him and the others in the Allegiance creative team over the not always favorable critical responses that the team garnered. Audience enthusiasm and support continue to be the mainstay for musicals like Allegiance and Soft Power, which may quite possibly only continue to be unfavorably reviewed by mainstream critics who judge these works on the same parameters as most mainstream musicals, and without the nuance of the historical lacuna that the musicals aim to address.
East West Players’ artistic director and the director for the Los Angeles edition of Allegiance, Snehal Desai, mapped out the journey that led to the musical’s eventual coming to Los Angeles during an informal afternoon chat in the EWP premises in downtown Los Angeles. After the Broadway opening, the EWP felicitated members of the Broadway company at the EWP annual gala. George Takei himself continues to serve as a co-chair with his husband Brad of the EWP council of governors and has nurtured and nourished the company for the entirety of its existence. It was therefore only natural that the EWP were involved in conversations regarding the musical’s future after the Broadway run. And after plans for a national tour were shelved EWP teamed up with JACCC and the production team to bring the musical home to Los Angeles.
Desai decided to don the director’s hat himself because he wanted someone who hadn’t seen the musical to reimagine this edition. Even though he was in close proximity to the musical when it was developing from an idea to a fully realized musical, he had neither seen nor personally heard it. The decision to direct the musical was further motivated by his keen interest in politics, which was something that Desai cultivated during his college days as a political science major while simultaneously pursuing theatre. I quizzed Desai on EWP taking up the challenge of not only producing a play that had struggled to make a mark on Broadway, but also committing to a six-week run in an eight hundred seat theatre. Desai’s nuanced response downplayed the significance of Broadway as the benchmark for great theatre. He went on to say that a few decades ago, Broadway was thought of as the place where new voices and new works were to be seen but that has stopped being the case now when Disney is at the helm of several theatres and the entertainment on offer caters to a tourist crowd who watch plays to check off a bucket list item. And therefore, EWP did not balk from the lukewarm response to Allegiance on Broadway. They went instead with the fact that the show was one of the biggest successes at the Old Globe in San Diego. And Angelenos came out in large numbers to support the play. The overwhelming support that the show enjoyed in Los Angeles potentially could have stemmed from the politics of locating the play within the lieu de mémoire of Little Tokyo and the attempt of the neighborhood to strike a balance between touristy marketing and community engagement. Desai’s refuting of Broadway as a commercial rather than a critical benchmark for contemporary American theatre certainly hints at that direction as well.
The play temporarily enters the urban space of the neighborhood to offer a performed portrayal of not only the community’s reaffirmation of its distinct ethnic identity but also its relationship and resistance to literal and figurative encroachments of bureaucratic and economic forces.
Desai recollects that the Los Angeles edition of the musical came about at what was becoming an increasingly difficult political climate with regards to immigration. The exclusionary rhetoric employed by the current presidential administration towards citizens, citizens-in-waiting, and immigrants finds echoes in this shameful episode from fairly recent American history. An episode that some Americans are painfully unaware of to this day. Takei took me back to an even earlier political moment that the veteran actor heralded his team into during the 2015 Broadway run of the show. Takei says that the show’s creators could never imagine that the play would have such contemporary relevance even though he remembers that the warning signs were already visible. And so in, “2015, as then-candidate Donald Trump questioned whether the Japanese American internment was really such a bad thing, that he would have ‘had to have been there.’ We then invited him to see the show and reserved a special seat for him every night, so that he could ‘be there’ and learn this history.” The candidate never took the company up on the offer. Based on his recent experience of visiting the Texan border towns of Brownsville and McAllen, Takei reminded me of the ongoing vilification of immigrant communities and his memory of the internment, that “JAs cannot help but be reminded of our unjust incarceration and [so have] galvanized anew to fight for justice for others.” In Los Angeles particularly, the location of Allegiance near the various loci of power and the Metropolitan Detention Center (albeit not an ICE facility) is a powerful statement when seen in conjunction with Jenks’ characterization of the Little Tokyo district as a lieu de mémoire. The play temporarily enters the urban space of the neighborhood to offer a performed portrayal of not only the community’s reaffirmation of its distinct ethnic identity, but also its relationship and resistance to literal and figurative encroachments of bureaucratic and economic forces.
It was difficult to find tickets to the performance. The search was so difficult that I had to wait until the closing week to finally manage to scalp a ticket. Desai confirmed that the performance played to near capacity during most of its run, reaching roughly 200,000 folks over its course. Desai also talked about the Wednesday matinees which were for high school students. The company was really excited at the immersive day that the students would be having if they came for the play including a conversation with George, a survivor from the camps, the Go For Broke Monument, which celebrates and commemorates Japanese American soldiers who fought in 442nd Regimental Combat Team. And then visit JANM for a more hands on interaction with the history that they had just seen performed. Desai was thrilled at the way the community came out to support the telling of this important story and at the ways in which various people were able to relate to it on different levels—personal and historical. The company had anticipated some of this response and therefore as Desai confirmed they did their due diligence in terms of their historical homework. It is wise, however as Desai reminded me, to remember that this was the dramatization of a historical moment—a musical based on a true story, rather than a true story as it really was.
Japanese American critics vehemently have critiqued what they have termed as outlandish portrayals of camp life and the associated violence that comes with it. They all coherently contend that the “camp was degrading. It was dehumanizing.” Others have questioned how Frankie Suzuki’s resistance movement has been portrayed in the musical or how life in the camp was not as brutal as the musical would have us believe. Takei offers a nuanced take on the way this painful history was recreated for the stage. He acknowledges that the company was tasked with a “difficult job of creating a story that told many facets of all of our story, with respect to all of the camps in one location. This obviously meant that in some cases what we depicted might seem harsher than what some people remember at their own camps.” Based his own experience first at the Rohwer camp in Arkansas and later at the Tule Lake camp for the “‘disloyals’ in the community,” Takei recalls the harsh reality that “camp was brutal. There were beatings. There was enforced solitary confinement.” Historical fact is significant. An exception can perhaps be made under exceptional circumstances like in the case of Allegiance. The musical succeeds in instigating conversations about an issue that a vast majority of the American people are either ignorant about or would rather forget. And the success of the musical in this regard makes Takei’s confident assertion, “I’m proud of the story we told, and am not bothered by those who wanted a different one,” sound like a celebration for a just cause rather than a casual disregard for history.
Allegiance is a bold retelling of an episode that is often ignored in contemporary American history. And it is especially important that we revisit this historical period today when America faces several immigration challenges. Snehal Desai drew my attention to the parallels in language used to discuss and describe the Japanese in 1941-42 to the rhetoric from the top-down while discussing Muslims, Central Americans, non-white immigrants, and refugees today. The Los Angeles edition came about at what was becoming an increasingly difficult political climate especially with regard to immigration and immigrants. The exclusionary rhetoric employed by the current presidential administration towards citizens, citizens-in-waiting, and immigrants finds echoes in this shameful episode from fairly recent American history—something that a large number of Americans are painfully unaware of today. There seems to be more uncanny parallels between the time that we are living through in 2019 and the time when trucks rolled up in downtown Los Angeles more than seven decades ago to take citizens away from everything they had worked their entire lives for. The proposed amendments to the census forms, increased surveillance on non-citizens and their social media presence, and the erosion of civic discourse all seem eerily similar to the period that Allegiance puts squarely under scrutiny within its musical framework. More than anything else, this is perhaps the reason why it is such an important piece of work worthy of critical engagement. In several ways, this play is a metaphor for the city of Los Angeles—quietly significant, sprawling in its scope and possibilities, and irritatingly tedious at times. If so, then it is no wonder why it hit the mark here rather than in New York where many interpreted it simply to be this “singing history lesson” by someone who would rather be entertained while remaining oblivious to history.
And on a final point about George Takei, the headliner of Allegiance and an Angeleno by birth: I would be lying if I said that I went to watch the musical drawn by its story. I went to the Aratani to see Hikari Sulu in flesh and blood. I came away inspired, intrigued, and in awe of this octogenarian who has worked tirelessly over the greater part of the last decade to share a story that is at once extremely personal and yet universal in its ramifications. And, as if to counter the observation made by Kelvin Yu character Brian in A Master of None about Takei being busy with “gay stuff,” the social media phenomenon is a gentle presence on stage, essaying Ojii-chan as an affable grandfather who never ceases to lose his sense of humor and spirit. The older Sam Kimura, similarly bears the burden of family separation, witnesses war, and yet remained resolute as a soldier. Throughout the performance, Takei frequently takes himself to the background and makes room for an excellent group of young Asian-American actors to perform characters beyond caricatures and stereotypes. In the end, Allegiance celebrates inclusion like very few musicals are able to and, in the process, hopefully inaugurates a new kind of musical entertainment that is not intent on promoting superficiality when embarking on such relevant themes, but even more so informs and challenges the range of thematic possibilities.
George Takei as Sam Kimura in the original Broadway production of Allegiance. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
 See Roger Bruns, Zoot Suit Riots (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2014) for a detailed study on the infamous riots instigated by US Servicemen against Mexican-American and African-American residents of downtown Los Angeles.
 See Jonathan H. X. Lee, Japanese Americans: The History and Culture of a People (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2017) for a detailed study of the history of the community.
 Alison M. De La Cruz, “The Aratani Theatre: A Meditation on Impermanence,” Performances, March 2018, P10.
 George Takei, email interview with author corroborated by Scott Kurashige, “Bronzeville and Little Tokyo,” in The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2008), 160.
 Hillary Jenks, “The Politics of Preservation: Power, Memory, and Identity in Los Angeles’s Little Tokyo,” in Cultural Landscapes: Balancing Nature and Heritage in Preservation Practice, ed. Richard Longstreth (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 39.
Master of None, Season 1 Episode 4, written by Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang, directed by Eric Wareheim, released on 6 November 2015, Netflix.
Arnab Banerji is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Theatre and Dance at Loyola Marymount University where he teaches courses on Theatre History, Indian Performance, and Diaspora performance. His research focuses on Asian American theatre, contemporary Indian theatre, and theatre translation. His articles and reviews have appeared in Asian Theatre Journal, Theatre Journal, TDR, Theatre Symposium, South Eastern Review of Asian Studies, among others.
In the summer of 2006, my family and I moved from the Bay Area to Los Angeles. Having grown up in the San Gabriel Valley for most of the 1980s, technically I was moving back to L.A. But like many kids living in the ‘burbs, I had no real sense of “The City.” I knew about the world within my three-mile BMX biking radius, but every other neighborhood was just a name on a Thomas Guide page. Coming back after 16 years meant re-learning Los Angeles from the ground up: Its tempos and temperaments, its tangle of mini-metropoles, its physical and cultural terrains.
I decided to let my stomach lead. I’ll go a long way for good food, so I began to ease myself back into L.A.’s geography by chasing meals in whatever corners I had to. That meant, inevitably, turning to Jonathan Gold.
Gold began writing about Los Angeles restaurants in the mid-1980s (when he wasn’t busy profiling N.W.A), but I had no idea about any of this as a kid. By the time I came across his “Counter Intelligence” columns in that ’06 summer, he had already been writing them for nearly twenty years. No matter: Both in the newspaper and in his 2000 compendium by the same name, his reviews felt like a revelation.
It wasn’t simply that Gold was a gifted writer, though he absolutely was. His Los Angeles Times colleague Carolina Miranda said it best when she wrote that his reviews “were both erudite and joyous—his glee over a good dish was always infectious.” Seriously, tell me this passage from his 2012 guide to Koreatown dishes doesn’t make you want to immediately run out to Vermont Avenue: “hwe dup bap is one of those dishes where each bite is subtly varied in spice, marine savor and green crunch, with the smelt roe crackling under your teeth, the raw fish melting into the hot rice.”
There was always a palpable exuberance in Gold’s attempts to relate the sensory experience of eating a meal. Yet more than just how Gold wrote about food, what made him so important, so indispensable to the city, is where he went looking for it.
He wanted to embrace its complexity and contradictions. Everything that others find off-putting and unruly about the city is where he found kaleidoscopic, resplendent beauty.
One of the stories Gold liked to tell audiences was how in his early twenties, before his days as a food writer, he decided to explore every eatery along Pico Boulevard, beginning at a downtown pupuseria and moving west, intending to end at a Santa Monica burger shack. If you’re not familiar with the thoroughfare, it’s a rather prosaic 14-mile stretch that runs through a dizzying number of neighborhoods, including Pico-Union, Koreatown, Beverlywood, Rancho Park, etc. No one street can possibly contain all the multitudes of the many Los Angeleses out there but if you wanted an inkling of the Southland’s overlapping, distinct, and disparate communities, you could do worse than a Pico perambulation.
Gold never made it all the way to the beach, but he got two-thirds the way there, and more than anything the attempt alone says much about the insatiable curiosity that gripped him when it came to understanding food and place. In 1998, he wrote a Counter Intelligence column recounting, “The Year I Ate Pico Boulevard.” It’s one of his very best pieces—which is saying a lot—and this passage is worth quoting in all its giddy, run-on glory:
Pico is home to Valentino, which specializes in preparing customized Italian food for millionaires, and to Oaxacan restaurants so redolent of the developing world that you half expect to see starved chickens scratching around on the floor; to Billingsley’s, a steak house, which could have been transplanted whole from Crawfordsville, Indiana, and to the Arsenal, a steak house decorated with medieval weaponry; to chain Mexican restaurants, artist-hangout Mexican restaurants and Mexican restaurants of such stunning authenticity that you’re surprised not to stumble outside into a bright Guadalajara sun. Greek and Scandinavian delis still flourish on stretches of Pico that haven’t been Greek or Scandinavian since the Eisenhower administration.
It’s all there: Gold’s gift for deep description, the rhythmic pulse of his writing, and most of all, an earnest ethos of inclusion and exploration. He wasn’t trying to sum up Los Angeles in a tidy turn of phrase. He wanted to embrace its complexity and contradictions. Everything that others find off-putting and unruly about the city is where he found kaleidoscopic, resplendent beauty.
More than any other part of L.A., though, I always saw Gold as the champion of the San Gabriel Valley, a massive swath of neighborhoods that begin near the L.A. River and sweep eastward towards the Inland Empire. Gold and his family lived in the SGV—Pasadena to be exact—for decades, not far from where I grew up. Back in the 1980s, I don’t recall any of my friends ever bragging about coming from “The SGV” let alone wearing “626” emblazoned on a t-shirt (this was still the 213/818 era at the time).
By the mid/late 20-aughts, this had changed as a younger generation were now claiming the SGV like it was Brooklyn or East Oakland. Much of that pride is rooted in the region’s astounding food cultures, a result of decades of Asian and Latinx immigrant communities settling across its dozens of cities. The critical masses of those diasporas meant that restaurants could cater to palates not yet assimilated by anodyne American tastes; that reality is what drew Gold, again and again, to explore the SGV’s myriad offerings.
His columns became completely indispensable for me coming back to what I thought were my old haunts, only to realize I had never really explored the region at all. Through Gold, I ended up in more Valley Blvd. and Garvey Blvd. strip malls than I can remember, chasing Taiwanese beef noodle soup in San Gabriel, Vietnamese bun bo hue in South El Monte, Xinjiang cumin lamb ribs in Rosemead, Guerrero-style lamb barbacoa in Highland Park. The day he passed, I happened to be on Valley for dinner and I knew that if I just strolled around one single block, I could find at least half a dozen restaurants with his review turned into a plaque on their wall.
I also thought about one of my favorite memories of Gold’s influence: my parents, who still live in the SGV house I lived in during high school, invited me and my family out to dinner at one of the newer Sichuan restaurants to recently land in Alhambra. My parents, while they eat out on occasion, have never been on the front lines of trends so I asked them how they heard about the restaurant. As it turns out, my dad’s best friends Peter and Alice had taken them there previously. But that couple lived out in Pacific Palisades, on the other, far side of town. “So,” I asked, “how did they learn about this place?” It turns out they had read a review of it… in the Los Angeles Times. And sure enough, I glanced towards the lobby and there was a framed review with a byline for Jonathan Gold.
“So,” I asked, “how did they learn about this place?” It turns out they had read a review of it… in the Los Angeles Times. And sure enough, I glanced towards the lobby and there was a framed review with a byline for Jonathan Gold.
An easy way to understand the uniqueness of Gold’s culinary geography of Los Angeles is found by comparing his orientations to those of many of his colleagues. Pick up any older, middlebrow guide to “food in Los Angeles,” and it’s as if there is no L.A. south of the 10 or east of the 5. We’re not talking about “pockets” of the region being skipped over. We’re talking about massive geographic and demographic parts of the Southland rendered invisible. Gold was astutely aware of all this. In one of the most oft-quoted parts from the acclaimed 2015 documentary about him, City of Gold, he says, “you’re used to having your city explained to you by people who come in for a couple of weeks, stay at a hotel in Beverly Hills, and take in what they can get to within ten minutes of their rented car.” Perhaps he was too polite to add that those myopic “explainers” also included people from L.A., not just out-of-town Zagat editors. Case in point: I recently picked up the annual “best of” issue of a long-running Los Angeles magazine and in their food section, out of twenty-five primary entries, only one was located in the SGV and absolutely none in either South or Southeast Los Angeles.
It may seem odd to say this about a Pulitzer Prize-winning critic who worked for two of the area’s biggest newspapers but in his thirty-two years of food writing for the Los Angeles Times and LA Weekly, Gold created a definitive alternative guide to Southland food culture, one in which East Hollywood mattered as much as West Hollywood, where Huntington Park and Monterey Park carried greater cachet than Hancock Park, and where Koreatown could be more interesting and vibrant than downtown. As Danny Chau wrote for The Ringer, “there is no one true Los Angeles. Perhaps the closest we’ve ever gotten to finding that core is the vision of L.A. through the eyes, ears, and stomach of Jonathan Gold.”
For all these reasons, it’s impossible to deny fellow food critic Gustavo Arellano’s claim that Gold was “one of our greatest and most important literary voices” because “our food in his hands became the prism through which outsiders could finally see the real SoCal.” Gold wasn’t simply a consummate food writer, he was also a quintessential Los Angeles writer, using meals as a way to probe and comment on the city’s innumerable frictions and fantasias. The inevitable—and necessary—Jonathan Gold anthologies and readers that will come are likely to cement what many of us already know: Gold’s writing has shaped a collective idea of Los Angeles to rival those of earlier scribes such as Reyner Banham, Joan Didion, or Mike Davis.
Importantly though, as Chau insists, “the vision of Gold’s true L.A. doesn’t belong to any one person.” It would be, of course, hubristic folly to assume that an individual could replace Gold as a singular figure. But Gold had transformed the entire landscape of food writing here long before his passing. His influence isn’t only reflected in individual writers who work in the same milieu but it’s embedded in the public imagination of how we think and talk about food in the Southland, whether that comes in the form of a high-production documentaries on immigrant restauranteurs in L.A. or random strangers debating soup dumplings on a message board. Jonathan Gold didn’t “discover” a Los Angeles that no one else knew about, but column after column he built us new maps to help navigate it. In his time, too brief it truly was, his lasting gift was to invite us into his city of Gold and so we could find different ways to break bread within it, together.
 Gold began his career not as a food critic but as a music critic and journalist. His profile of N.W.A, for the LA Weekly is still considered one of the important, early examples of West Coast rap journalism. Jonathan Gold, “NWA: Hard Rap and Hype From the Streets of Compton,” LA Weekly, 5 May 1989, www.laweekly.com/news/jonathan-gold-meets-nwa-2385365.
 In the 2015 documentary, City of Gold, Gold describes Los Angeles this way: “the thing that people find hard to understand is the magnitude of what’s here. The huge numbers of multiple cultures that live in the city that come together in this beautiful and haphazard fashion. And the fault lines between them are sometimes where you can find the most beautiful things.” City of Gold, directed by Laura Gabbert, 2015.
 Wendy Cheng, The Changs next Door to the Diazes: Remapping Race in Suburban California (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2013).
 “The Migrant Kitchen” is a documentary series about food and immigrant communities in Los Angeles. Food Talk Central is a message board with a robust sub-section devoted to Los Angeles restaurants. The Migrant Kitchen, KCET, 2016, Food Talk Central, http://foodtalkcentral.com/c/usa-west/los-angeles.
Oliver Wang is a professor of sociology at California State University, Long Beach and co-editor of Journal of Popular Music Studies. He writes about culture, music, and food for KCET, the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Review of Books and National Public Radio.
During and after my father’s two-year terminal illness, and my own simultaneous cancer scare (2000-2003), I became concerned with individual illness as a metaphor for the failure of ideology and the political body, and called this series, “Still.” At the time, I was also dealing thematically with loss and the long shadow of HIV/AIDS in a continuing body of work entitled, “Pictures of You.” I was thinking of Susan Sontag, Douglas Crimp, Joan Didion, and Foucault. Above all else, I was thinking of two things: trauma and desire.
untitled (girlhood among ghosts)
Desire denotes emptiness, a void, an impossibility, an ethical conundrum. Desire unattainably sits on the horizon. What do we desire most in this political moment? What really ails us?
I have been rethinking illness and failure after reading and teaching Anne Cvetkovich’s Depression, Anne Cheng’s The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief, Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, José Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity, and Sara Ahmed’s The Promise of Happiness, in conversation with other texts, artists, and thinkers.
I now understand “illness” as being culturally constructed—systemic failure. On one hand, with continued systemic oppression (along the lines of class, gender, race) minoritarian subjects would be ailing, not particularly content with the status quo. Critical voices of dissent are “killjoys,” as Sarah Ahmed and Jan Bernabe have observed. Postmodernity and its discontents: to be a killjoy is to be attuned to—and respondent to—a range of violence from micro-aggression to lethal force. Neither of these come with a trigger warning.
untitled (The Death of Marat)
According to the Washington Post’s real-time National Police Shootings Database, there have been 408 fatal shootings by officers already this year (987 in 2017; daily the list grows). We are cannibalizing ourselves. These killings on our streets can be linked to longer histories of violence and empire, which is obscured under different guises. This mentality to “Make America Great Again” has viably amounted to making America hate again.
On top of all this, the U.S. Asian Exclusion Act of 1924 barred Asians and Arabs and also restricted immigration for Eastern and Southern Europeans. The Obama administration deported more than 2.7 million immigrants—a record for any presidency. October 2017, President Trump proposed restricting the number of immigrants to 45,000, down from 110,000 in 2016. But this isn’t limited to our gold coasts and miracle miles. Brexit and the outcry over the European refugee “crisis” suggest an unnerving political pendulum swing. Political victories and losses do not compare to and nor do they make up for the loss of rights, livelihood, and of life itself.
What do we do as a (social) body with threatening growth? We isolate, excise: through incarceration, corporal punishment, banishment (think about deportation, travel bans, and Muslim bans). Although, we can combat this mindset of threatening isolation through the Enlightenment discourse of rational helpfulness; racial uplift; liberté, egalité, fraternité; and the disguise of love. As Marguerite Duras writes of colonial desires: “love unto death.” Death is the end-logic of disease, of dis-ease, of being ill at ease.
The real illness lies in our fear of others—of terrorists, immigrants, refugees. Vietnamese refugees. Californians are not exempt from this, and have historically exhibited some of the more extreme versions in racist policies that get exported throughout the nation, and tend to fester here, hidden under the blinding sun. But refusing these, wherever they come from, is an option—an opting out of the ideological and real violence of empire, patriarchy, hetero- and homo-normativity. We do not want to be #winning (#whining?), if success means capitulating to capitalism’s misogynist, racist, ageist demands. We don’t have to give in, give up, cede to others, secede from ourselves (or the nation) to succeed. If to “succeed” under heteronormative patriarchy means to follow an ideal weight, age, skin color, (re-)productive timelines, ad nauseam, we would rather choose to fail, to un-follow, be fallow. The embrace of failure, indeed, opens up critical and creative possibilities. Muñoz admits, “Within straight time the queer can only fail; thus an aesthetic of failure can productively be occupied by the artist for delineating straight time’s measure.” Artist Sowon Kwon notes that being perfect and perfectly average—exceptional yet unthreatening (model citizen, model minority)—strands us intersectional feminists in no man’s land.
As our American idols fall (Weinstein, Rose, Spacey, Cosby, et al)—the fathers falter—their embodied pinnacles of success and predation display a pestering symptom. “A festering pustule in a diseased industry,” director/actress Sarah Polley called Weinstein in a New York Times op-ed. Beyond op-eds, there’s no option: up end, opt out.
We want to fail. We want to fail if corporate excess (cum execs, sex) and captains of industry are quietly complicit in perpetuating decades and centuries of trauma.
How do we question, query, and queer our inherited timelines, cultural mythologies, and individual myths? To use Halberstam’s term, this is the queer art of failure. Muñoz observes that utopia is even predicated on failure. It comes to be this impossible horizon. This is the paradox of desire—love, beauty, community. Yet, they are implausible ideals that we as a people continually strive for. This desire to fare better, then, is to fail better.
Illness and its metaphors. We cannot “be illin’” (Netflix-and-chillin’) when our bodies, our political bodies, and our earth is in a state of emergency. In critical condition, we need critical mass, creative intervention—an ethics of refusal—in our despair and desires. And here, in this ascesis, we may eventually find better ways to truly hope.
untitled (kitchen window)
untitled (temple drum)
untitled (waking alone)
untitled (laundry, after Vermeer)
All photographs taken by Việt Lê, 2001-05, Lambda print face-mounted on Plex, Edition of 5 + 1 AP 36″ L x 36″ W x 1″ D framed (91.4 x 91.4 x 2.5 cm). Used by Permission.
 Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and its Metaphors (New York: Picador, 2001).
 Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (New York: Vintage, 2007).
 Anne Cvetkovich, Depression (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), Anne Cheng, The Melancholy of Race: Psychoanalysis, Assimilation and Hidden Grief (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), Jack Halberstam, The Queer Artof Failure (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), José Muñoz, Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity (New York: NYU Press, 2009), and Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010).
Việt Lê is a Vietnamese artist, writer, and curator whose work focuses on trauma, modernity and popular cultures in Southeast Asian diasporas. He is Assistant Professor (Visual Studies) at the California College of the Arts. His art and research has been featured at H Gallery Bangkok, the Shanghai Biennial and the Smithsonian. Recent publications include “White Gaze” with Dr. Michelle Dizon and “Myriad Modernities,” a Visual Anthropology special double issue coedited with Dr. Lan Duong. For more of his work, see vietle.net.
Note: The following are reconstructed memories, based on a conversation I had with my friend Christine Pham, who grew up in San Jose in the 1990s. Christine went to Viet school while I did not. Her Vietnamese language skills are far better than mine, but that’s not the only thing.
Thi Bui was born in Vietnam three months before the end of the Vietnam War, and came to the United States in 1978 as part of the “boat people” wave of refugees from Southeast Asia. Her debut graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, has been selected as both an Indies Introduce and Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers title. She is the illustrator of A Different Pond, a children’s book by Bao Phi. Thi was a founding teacher of Oakland International High School, the first public high school in California for recent immigrants and English learners. She currently teaches in the MFA in Comics program at the California College of the Arts. Visit her website at https://www.thibui.com/.
Hao’s first trip to the U.S. was not what she expected. After nearly forty-eight hours of travel and two layovers with her young child in tow, she landed in New Orleans for a long drive to St. Landry Parish. She flew in after dark. The swampy physical surroundings she would come to know remained a mystery until days after her jetlag wore off. And while the eighty-five percent relative humidity smacked of Saigon, nothing else reminded her of home.
Her arrival to this relatively rural part of Louisiana marked the first time someone from her family set foot in the U.S. With a working husband, young child and no driver license (nor car) she was generally isolated and deeply homesick. Her vast network of friends and family in Saigon felt even further away since she had no wireless internet, but once she purchased a second-hand unlocked smart phone, conversations with her brothers and mother became part of her daily routine, providing some sense. Hao scheduled everything in her life around GMT +7, the daily time back in Saigon.
But Hao was not living in a Vietnamese diaspora—she was the diaspora in this part of rural Louisiana.
Our conversations in 2013 during her first months in the U.S. were marked by a longing for her family, the ease of motorbike transportation in Vietnam, Vietnamese food, and the vegetables and herbs needed to cook her favorite dishes. This is no surprise, for food and diaspora have long been the subject of inquiries into place-making, identity, and livelihood. But Hao was not living in a Vietnamese diaspora—she was the diaspora in this part of rural Louisiana. Given her transportation limitations and child care obligations, the Vietnamese diaspora in New Orleans might as well have been in Saigon. She was caught between places and communities all at once. Also caught between categories, Hao did not fit neatly into any of them. Her lived experiences in Vietnam, Louisiana, and eventually California all individually shed light on what it means to long for her homeland in Vietnam, but also California—a place that may serve to mitigate her homesickness and uncertainty about life in the U.S.
As Hao acclimated to Louisiana and the southern U.S., she spoke carefully and with intention about Vietnam, but she also pondered a life in California. She often asked me questions about “what it’s like in Cali?” Locating the Vietnamese diaspora in California requires locating California not in one particular place but in multiple places, simultaneously. Hao was formulating California as the nucleus of Vietnamese diaspora—as a place marked by an established Vietnamese speaking community with persistent social, cultural, and economic ties to Vietnam. Although New Orleans, just a few hours away, has a similarly significant Vietnamese diaspora, Hao knew little about the city, its size and diversity, or the community of migrants she may have identified with. As a recent migrant with an American husband and two young children growing up in the U.S., she did not fit neatly into the Vietnamese “refugee” category nor did she have the social and economic capital that some of her distant friends and acquaintances from Vietnam enjoyed as recent migrants. She more so felt disconnected from any sense of local community in Louisiana—living hours from a major city with a Vietnamese market might as well have been a world away. Yet in drafting a mental map of Vietnamese diasporic culture in California (however real or imagined) she engendered new opportunities for herself and her family.
Yên Lê Espiritu has examined the persistence of the “refugee” category in U.S. scholarship despite the existence of “multiple migrant categories, from political exiles to immigrants to transmigrants, as well as a large number of native-born” Vietnamese. However, over the past decade literature on the Vietnamese American diaspora emerged, which was a and necessary surge in critical refugee studies. This nascent but growing literature on Vietnamese socialist mobilities has opened up new possibilities for understanding the diversity of migrant communities across the spectrum and their respective lived experiences. Hao’s experience might even further an understanding of what it means to occupy multiple migrant categories at once, as well as what it means to construct California as a community despite her physical distance from it. After all, even without familial ties to the U.S., the two regions she was most familiar with prior to her arrival were Orange County and San Jose. Illuminating Hao’s experience helps us understand the complexities of new Vietnamese migrant experiences and how California is constructed as a particularly valued place for some Vietnamese migrants. Furthermore, her experience provides a reminder that despite the amount of uncertainty that encapsulates migrating to the U.S., the possibility of a better quality of life is still real.
During Hao’s first few months in Louisiana she lived vicariously through my own frequent visits to Little Saigon in Orange County and occasional trips to Vietnam where I spent late nights drinking and eating in a Saigon alleyway with her family. Years later, by the time I visited Hao in Louisiana, she had cultivated a full-fledged Vietnamese culinary garden and perfected her Vietnamese-style Cajun crawfish boil recipe long before she would see a crawfish boil spot every few blocks in Southern California. Without ready access to Vietnamese enclaves elsewhere in the U.S., where food is inextricably linked to homeland, Hao sated her nostalgia and dearth of community relations with Vietnamese herbs and creative southern/Vietnamese fusion. She was ostensibly carving out a new home with her family in Louisiana. Although, Southern California, and all that it seemed to offer by way of Vietnamese community and culture, called to her.
Hao’s perception of Little Saigon was shaped years before she left Vietnam by her working in restaurants in the urban center of Saigon, learning English through western media and later through her American husband, which all worked to produce an image and expectation of life in America. But chatting with cousins and friends who had traveled to Southern California and living next door to me in south-central Vietnam fashioned an idea of Little Saigon that she would endear herself to.
I had first met Hao and her American husband in 2010 while renting a room next door to their small house in highland south-central Vietnam. I shared my ongoing research with her, practiced Vietnamese, and exchanged life histories. We occasionally chatted about the complicated nature of Vietnamese bureaucracy but we mostly talked about regional food diversity spanning the narrow swath of country. She often asked me about California and the Vietnamese community, eventually constructing her own geography of the state with focal points on the weather, Vietnamese grocers and the best place for mì quảng. As the only English speaker in her family and the only family member with a tangible future in the U.S., she carried the precarious weight of expectation and uncertainty through her daily routine. Not long after we met, Hao moved back to a deep network of Saigon alleyways inhabited by her immediate and extended family and by other Mekong Delta migrants. Here, unlike the highlands, she did not have to worry about the chilly air. She celebrated her network of kin and easy access to the rice, vegetables, and noodles that her family brought up from the Delta and sold in the neighborhood.
When the possibility of moving to the U.S. materialized, she asked me about Louisiana as a residential possibility. All I could come up with was an analogy about Vietnamese regional accents, speculation that she might enjoy the food culture of the U.S. South, and mistakenly mentioned her proximity to a thriving Vietnamese community. Although she knew that the Vietnamese diaspora I often spoke of (Little Saigon) would not become her new home, it remained a place of pure fascination and attraction. My attempts at explaining California and its complicated strata, politics, diverse landscape, and ever-evolving food culture seemed to perpetually pique her interest, even after she joined her husband in Louisiana.
Hao first brought up the possibility of visiting California in the context of a potential job training opportunity in Little Saigon and asked if I would be willing to host her. After years living in the rural South, it was obvious that a break from Louisiana was an underlying motivation for her overall visit. Given my own recent relocation back to Southern California, it was clear that experiencing Little Saigon was paramount. Even without family ties in the U.S., Hao knew of Little Saigon and Orange County with stark detail. When I picked her up from LAX weeks later, she barely spoke as we drove south, past the port, the charbroiled hamburger and teriyaki bowl stands, fighting traffic even after midnight. When she did speak it was only to remark on how many people were out (in their cars). I narrated our journey through the South Bay and marked various arbitrary landmarks. For no particular reason I assumed she would be interested in In-N-Out and so I pointed out one and then two more from our vantage point on the 405. As we crossed the Los Angeles River and the threshold to my neighborhood, I noticed my local phở restaurant flashing “closed” in yellow neon. Hao had never really eaten phở in Saigon. I could not picture her eating it once; she opted for hủ tiếu, cơm tấm, ốc, bánh khọt, bánh mì, mực (dried and grilled), anything from the complex network of alleyways in her neighborhood and just about everything but phở. She still seemed pleased to see a Vietnamese restaurant around the corner and asked if it was any good.
But it really didn’t matter if it was any good or not.
The critical mass of restaurants with chữ Quốc ngữ was exactly what Hao expected from southern California. And her week-long visit was somehow quintessentially Southern California —a drive along the coast, walks on the beach, traffic—but also quintessentially Saigon in its own right. She spent a majority of her time in Little Saigon speaking Vietnamese and grocery shopping for our meals at home. California became the Vietnamese diasporic experience of her imagination. She managed to connect with a childhood friend who had recently moved to Little Saigon to be with extended family. He joined us for much of the week and explained what life is like in Little Saigon. We grilled ribs, okra, and squid while speaking Vietnamese and tallying empty beer bottles in a crate. These moments almost gave the illusion that we were back in her family’s alleyway in Saigon. She had been in the U.S. for a couple of years by then, but California seemed to be a sort of a bridge between her life in Louisiana and her family and friends in Saigon.
As we neared Hao’s departure back to Louisiana, we took one final trip to Little Saigon for a last-minute meal and shopping trip. She packed her bag full of her favorite brand of rice paper, tea, headache relief oil, and dried seafood, along with a separate bag for me to deliver to her family in Saigon that summer. It was not lost on me that she was purchasing made-in-Vietnam goods in a Westminster strip mall for her family in Saigon. Hao finally had the opportunity to show her family that she could potentially call the U.S. home and experience the Vietnamese community she did not yet have in Louisiana. Her family knew that commercially produced chocolate candies and toiletries were available everywhere in the U.S. but “Dầu Gió Đỏ” medicated oil came from a Vietnamese community. A proxy delivery of Hao’s California purchased Vietnamese material goods to Vietnam carried the symbolic significance of finding community, marking her wellness, and assuring herself and her family that California was everything she wanted and needed it to be. It could be a home. In our subsequent conversations, California still existed as an object of desire—a place Hao wanted to return to. Despite the limitations that come with being a recent migrant, California remains accessible. There still exists the possibility of bridging the distant space between the rural southern U.S. and Vietnam through a visit to Little Saigon.
 See Sidney Mintz, “Food and Diaspora,” Food, Culture, and Society 11.4 (2008): 509-523; Krishnendu Ray, The Migrant’s Table: Meals and Memories in Bengali-American Households (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2004).
 Yen Le Espiritu, “Toward a Critical Refugee Study: The Vietnamese Refugee Subject in US Scholarship,” Journal of Vietnamese Studies 1/1-2 (February/August 2006): 411.
 See Christina Schwenkel, “Socialist Mobilities: Crossing New Terrains in Vietnamese Migration Histories,” Central and Eastern European Migration Review (2015): 1-13; see also http://criticalrefugeestudies.com.
 For more on transnational migration, aspirations, and the unknown see Ivan V. Small, “‘Over There’ Imaginative Displacements in Vietnamese Remittance Gift Economies, Journal of Vietnamese Studies 7.4 (2012): 157-183. Small’s argument that “for aspiring migrants, life overseas may offer a comparatively uncertain future, but it is one that has already been tested by others who have gone ahead and, therefore, imaginatively invested with optimistic promises of social transformation” sheds light on why the uncertainty of migration holds such promise and opportunity for Hao as the first migrant in her family.
 On the importance of the migrant food culture and the relationship between food and migrant communities, see Parvathi Raman, “Me in Place, and the Place in Me: A Migrant’s Tale of Food, Home and Belonging,” Food, Culture, and Society 14.2 (2011): 165-180; see also Daniela Fargione, “Food and Imagination: An Interview with Monique Truong,” Gastronomica: The Journal of Critical Food Studies 16.4 (2016): 1-8 for more on the intersections between food, loss, identity, and change.
 Hao actually would find herself hours from the nearest Vietnamese diaspora in Louisiana. The Southern Foodways Alliance has since produced a number of short films, oral histories, and podcasts on Vietnamese in the U.S. South. For example see: https://www.southernfoodways.org/okracast-sue-nguyen-of-le-bakery-in-biloxi-ms/. See also Vy Thuc Dao, “From the Ground Up: A Qualitative Analysis of Gulf Coast Vietnamese Community-Based Organizations and Community (Re)building in Post-disaster Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, Tulane University, 2015.
Sarah G. Grant is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at California State University, Fullerton. Her ongoing multi-sited ethnographic research investigates the cultural, economic, and environmental politics of Vietnam’s commodity and specialty coffee industries.
College students universally experience insecurities about life decisions and the uncertainties of the future. In Western and “developing” countries alike, youth are enfolded into prolonged periods of under-employment and unemployment, sinking them into a deep oblivion of change that might never come.
For a majority of students from Vietnam, the journey into adulthood is marked with great uncertainties that lead to a series of actions such as excessive studying or seeking to emigrate to a Western country to ensure one’s educational and occupational future. My ethnographic research in Da Nang City captures the anxiety, emotional and financial investments, and the fostering of social relationships that young adults and their families partake in order to secure a socially and financially sound future. My research sheds light on the urgency of urban students to win admission into state universities as the must-have criteria for constructing a socially desirable public self. This criterion is also a must-have to possess the potential to win meaningful employment in an unpredictable market economy. For those that find themselves unable to win admission into a state university, a reality of start-and-stop career opportunities becomes the norm. For example, students that do not win admission into a university will often spend the next year studying to take an exam again. In the meantime, students find work performing menial labor such as customer service or being a café server to earn some form of income. Some students also fail the second time they take the exam, thus forcing them to continue working to earn a living. For a growing population, however, a life in the United States becomes an attractive viable option to start life anew.
California Dreaming Amid Uncertainty
California plays a focal dreamland in the imagination of young adults in Vietnam when it comes to the good life that America promises. The term “Mỹ” is the common moniker for the U.S., meaning “beautiful.” During my fieldwork, young adults often asked me about college admission in the U.S. More common than not, students expressed that if they were to come to the U.S., they would like to come to California because they have family there or have heard that there is a big Vietnamese community living there. Some also refer to California because of the Hollywood films they’ve seen, thus further amplifying its dreamlike quality.
Students from Vietnam seek entry into the U.S. through several paths. Admission into a college or university stands as the most popular legal route. However, stepping foot onto America is only the beginning of a pro-longed journey of uncertainties in the foreign social landscape. Students that come to the U.S. to study often venture on the journey alone only with limited English training back at home. Most are not equipped with any prior knowledge of the ethnic tension and political tension in the U.S. Some are shocked by the blatant racism that they experience from strangers because of their lack of command of the English language.
California plays a focal dreamland in the imagination of young adults in Vietnam when it comes to the good life that America promises.
For college students coming from Vietnam, adaptation to American life requires the know-how to maneuver the legal apparatus like obtaining an ID, driver’s license, and a legal place of residence. These processes are handled immediately after arrival and are often facilitated by family members, friends of the family, or through the courtesy of the college campus they are attending. However, the struggles of the foreign student become more pronounced after the resettlement process when they have to eventually confront the everyday social landscape with limited language skills, lack of comrades and, most importantly, the lack of resources to be a confident social actor.
Confidence as a tool for adaptation is one of the themes that I observed most among two research informants that I have come to know, Thanh and Huy. I have known Thanh since my ethnographic research in Da Nang City, Vietnam, from 2011-2013. I have continued to stay in touch with Thanh through her different life changes since immigrating to the U.S. Our conversations were in Vietnamese with English interspersed at different points, especially since Thanh has been living in the U.S. Huy is currently an adult returning student attending California State University, Fullerton. He immigrated to the U.S. as an adult in his early thirties when he already had a decent occupation in Vietnam as a lecturer and educator. Conversations with Huy took place in English with Vietnamese interspersed.
Thanh appears in my dissertation at various points because she was one of the most active informants for my research. As a student at the high school where I was conducting fieldwork, Thanh shared her life experience as a student herself and introduced me to her friends. Thanh attended one of the highest ranked high schools in Da Nang city with aspirations of winning entry into the Polytechnic University of Da Nang, but fell short of winning admission. Her scores were indeed high enough for her to enroll into a lower-ranked three-year state college, but why settle? Thanh, like many students in her position, was apprehensive about obtaining a three-year degree because she was worried it would not be strong enough to compete with degrees from other four-year universities. Ultimately, Thanh did not choose the three-year college path. She instead enrolled into a more expensive private university specializing in Tourism Studies. Thanh and her family made the sacrifice of choosing the more expensive private university to make her more competitive in the job market.
Thanh attended the private university only for a year and we kept in contact during that time via Facebook, and I also returned to the field for follow up research. She seemed to pushing along with her studies. It was indeed a great surprise to me when she posted a picture on Facebook one day of a passport and boarding pass. The caption cryptically read, “Goodbye Vietnam, I have to try harder.” I messaged Thanh to ask about the suddenness of her departure and she replied that she had passed her interview to come to the U.S. to study. Her family arranged for her to leave immediately.
In the U.S., Thanh lived with an aunt and an uncle who had immigrated to the U.S. years prior. They lived in the American South for cheaper rent and less competition in the nails industry. Thanh worked for her aunt and uncle as a nail technician while attending a community college taking ESL classes at first with the hopes of moving up to pursue a degree in business or even nursing. It was always Thanh’s goal to obtain a degree to return to work in Vietnam or to permanently stay in the U.S. It was never her objective to come to the U.S. to purely become a manual laborer. Her American dreams exceeded this type of menial work.
As an international student without any financial assistance, Thanh became weary that her status was becoming untenable. Her parents were borrowing money from her aunt and uncle in the U.S. in order to pay for her tuition. The debt was mounting and prospects of employment remained uncertain. Thanh eventually stopped attending classes at the community college to solely focus on working at a nail salon to make a decent living.
Thanh eventually stopped attending classes at the community college to solely focus on working at a nail salon to make a decent living.
Thanh recounted her life as a cycle of work, home, work, and church on the weekends. She often lamented her situation as nothing that she envisioned because her primary goal for coming to the U.S. was for education. She longed to attend school just like peers around her age did. Thanh expressed that she couldn’t achieve much of a social identity with her current, unmapped pattern of living. She relied on her co-workers to take her to work and back home at the end of the day. Outside of co-workers at the nail salon, she did not have many other social interactions. Due to complications regarding her paper work in August 2017, Thanh expressed to me in a conversation at the height of her disappointment. She frustratingly conveyed the following:
I keep thinking I came here to alter my future but everything that has happened has surpassed the limits of my expectations… I cannot continue to sit and be a nail technician forever like this… I would only be willing to endure this (life in the U.S.) for a few more years by going to my cousin (in Texas) to work then I will return to Vietnam and study again. I would rather do that then bury my youth (chôn vùi tuổi trẻ) at the nail salon… I have been here for almost three years and I can’t even name one friend. Increasingly, I have become a depressed individual with no voice and no laughter.
Following the peak of her frustration in Fall 2017, Thanh reached out to me to tell me that she was planning to move to Texas. I was surprised because it was such a bold move for a foreign student to be so brave to relocate. She was willing to pick up her barely stable American life and live in another state. Thanh asked for my advice on this decision and for me to help her with the process or purchasing a Greyhound bus ticket. When I asked why she was making such a drastic decision of separating from her familial base, she simply expressed that she had a cousin living in Texas and there was a much bigger Vietnamese community there. She would no longer feel isolated.
Thanh made the journey from Georgia to Texas as planned, and similar to past life changes, she writes me from time to time with updates and questions. With the passing of time, through our conversations I detected an emerging sense of joy and confidence from Thanh through the content of conversation that she expressed. Thanh was most joyous when she reached out to me to announce that she passed her nail technician exam in Texas: “Anh ơi, em đậu bằng nail rồi.” When I asked how she accomplished this task, she told me a story of the chain of connections set in motion by the local Vietnamese community in Texas that helped her.
Upon moving in with her cousin, Thanh routinely attended a Vietnamese Christian church. She met workers at a nail salon that introduced her to the owners. She expressed that the owners knew that she was in the country by herself and offered to help her with obtaining her license. The owners of the nail salon connected Thanh to a beauty school that they had social ties with. The nail salon owners assisted Thanh greatly because they allowed her to work while concurrently taking classes at the beauty school. The obtainment of a nail technician license with the aid of the community increased Thanh’s confidence. Now she was able to work without the fear of being fined.
The Vietnamese community—especially the Christian community—not only offered Thanh the help she needed to become a certified worker, but they also created social spaces for Thanh to become a realized social actor. In Georgia, her social interactions were restricted to her family members, coworkers, and patrons at the nail salon. But in Texas, Thanh now has expanded her social network by not only working openly, but also by establishing social connections through the church, of which she is also a member of the singing troupe.
From the Family Unit to Political Freedom
Thanh’s slow integration into American life began at the level of the familial unit, but then shifted to her breaking out of that unit to establish a social presence via the assistance of the Vietnamese American community. This highlights how confidence provides an impetus for discovering new political philosophies. The Vietnamese American community in Little Saigon also provides a foundation for the exploration of political freedom. This phenomenon is seen through the educational life experiences of a returning university student from Vietnam name Huy.
Living in Little Saigon, for the first time in his adult life, Huy finally felt the security to vocalize opinions on topics that mattered to him.
Huy arrived in the United States in 2013 at the age of thirty-three via sponsorship from his father. At the time of his departure, Huy was already a legal working adult in Vietnam with a Bachelor’s degree in Foreign Languages and a Master’s degree in Business Administration. Despite holding an advanced degree, Huy was not a contracted full-time worker, but instead found periodic work teaching and tutoring students near his home in District 11 of Ho Chi Minh City. He also taught classes at colleges and universities to make a living. Although the earnings were only enough to “make ends meet,” Huy was employed in a reputable field with a steady, decent earning. This made his living circumstances less arduous than a larger number of the young adult population living in Ho Chi Minh City.
Newly arrived to Southern California, Huy first attended Orange Coast College then later transferred to California State University, Fullerton. Living in Little Saigon, for the first time in his adult life, Huy finally felt the security to vocalize opinions on topics that mattered to him. While living in Vietnam, Huy expressed that he was very active in choral societies and music clubs, often performing at school and political functions. However, he shared that he only participated in those activities as an avenue to express his passion for music, and not an act of support for governmental ideologies or practice of socialism in Vietnam. In fact, Huy felt stifled by the politics in Vietnam because he did not feel free: “mình không thấy tự do.” One of Huy’s main contentions is that he is a firm believer in Buddhism, but religion can only be practiced quietly in Vietnam and must not interfere in any form of politics. Huy’s family is also from the south with no connection to the northern power holders, and thus he has not personally reaped any rewards from socialism.
As an adult university student in the U.S., Huy continually seeks opportunities to put his English communicative skills to use. In our conversation about adapting to American life as a latecomer, Huy articulates that the reality of living in America is not the dreamland that he once “saw in the movies.” Huy recounted his early experience of arriving to the United States:
When I first came here, things were strange. The reality here was different from what I saw in the movies. Spoken language was difficult. It was hard for me to express my ideas. I remember I asked a man for direction to my school, and he shouted at me! These experiences made me more of introvert.”
Huy expresses great gratitude for the presence of a strong Vietnamese community in Little Saigon, especially for the many Buddhist temples that are in operation so that he can practice his faith. Most important, he feels lucky that the community has given him the support and confidence to exercise his political ambitions, a freedom that he never felt in Vietnam. Per our conversation, I discovered that Huy possessed a strong desire to be an active political actor fighting for causes of democracy. Huy expressed the following in his own words:
I urged myself to study at any cost and get more involved in the surrounding communities… I choose to give before getting. Hence, I have joined a variety of community activities. I have co-founded a club of religion and democracy called Trần Nhân Tông club, co-founded and directed a musical band to entertain nursing homes and communities, joined the direction board of a scholarship fund to support poor and diligent students in Vietnam, co-founded a Vietnamese student fellowship of Fullerton, which is joined and supported by some Vietnamese professors and officials from CSUF, and recently started participating in some programs by a Vietnamese television.
Huy’s revelation forefronts the role of the Vietnamese American community in facilitating his goals of becoming an active social actor. By participating in the Trần Nhân Tông Club, Huy aims to promote discussions and practices that link Buddhism and traditional Vietnamese philosophies of democracy cohesively. Huy, like many Vietnamese Americans living in Little Saigon, hopes for a Vietnam that one day applies more democratic values to its governance in order for the citizenry to express their agreement or displeasures with the government. For the time being, participating in the Trần Nhân Tông club allows Huy to explore the democratic teachings of the former king divorced from political ideologies that he learned in Vietnam. Vietnamese American communities throughout the United States play significant roles in not only assisting new immigrants to establish a legal presence, but also the role of equipping them with the confidence to become social and political actors. Through the stories of Thanh and Huy, attention focuses on the often-overlooked struggles of foreign-born college students to become active members of American life. By linking the building of their confidence to the labor of past Vietnamese American generations, Vietnamese American communities continue to be vital forces in ensuring that newer generations benefit from and further contribute to the accomplishments of the Vietnamese diaspora.
Pollak Library, photo from Flickr user Brooke Williams.
 Phuoc M. Duong, “Unpredictable Agency: An Analysis of Youth and Educational Practices in Times of Political and Economic Precarity in Contemporary Đà Nẵng City, Việt Nam,” unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of California, Riverside, June 2017. This research conducted ethnographic research on young adults, education, agency, and governance in Da Nang City from December 2011 through March 2013. I then conducted archival research in Ha Noi City from October 2013 through January 2014. After that, I conducted archival research in Ho Chi Minh City from January to March 2014. I have returned to Da Nang City to follow up with informants in the summer of 2015, 2016, and 2017.
Phuoc M. Duong holds a Ph.D. in Cultural Anthropology, and teaches in Asian American Studies and Cultural Anthropology at CSU Fullerton. His current research interest focuses on the labor of young adults in promoting the economic and political “success” of Da Nang City, Vietnam. He is also concurrently researching the development of alternative philosophies of “democracy” within the Vietnamese American population in Little Saigon.
They came here because of war, though people might not think of it that way when sitting down in the massage chair to have Anna Nguyen or Ly Ngo bend gracefully over their fingertips and sit with curved back over their feet. But from the years of brutal conflict in Vietnam, the farmlands and jungles and colonial-era streets of Saigon, men who fought alongside Americans were sent to reeducation camps, tortured and starved, and their wives and children had to fend for themselves in the ruined land.
Now nail salons anchor nearly every strip mall and upscale shopping plaza. Excellent Nails, Star Nails, Hot Nails—thousands of doors out of which float the sharp smells of acetone and the lilting voices of women who paint delicate flower petals onto toenails, with a flick of the fingers and concentration.
At Nail Spa Boutique in Riverside, Kim Ngo sits on a low stool where she spends her eight-to-ten-hour days, tonight trimming excess cuticle from Charlie Freeman’s toenails, then rubbing off dead skin with a pumice tool, then rinsing the feet, and then massaging lotion into Freeman’s calves. Freeman, a realtor, comes here once a month, and so do her husband, daughter, son, and her seven-year-old granddaughter. She considers pedicures a necessary part of life, saying with laughter, “Red makes my toes look better.” Ngo finally strokes on the color. Twenty toes—Too Red.
Kim Ngo came to Riverside twenty-two years ago from Saigon. She murmurs in Vietnamese that she doesn’t miss Saigon so much because she makes a lot more money here, but there is wistfulness in her voice. Her husband was in a reeducation camp after the war. I saw Ngo last week in Target, and she gave me a hug. We stood in line together, her cart holding only bottled water and French-style baguettes for lunch at the salon; she glanced at other full shopping carts and said softly to me, “Americans all so tall—they have so much food. Look how short—I never had food in Vietnam.”
“Mani-pedi” is now a part of American lexicon because of women like Ngo, who left home. Minh Pham is here at Nail Spa today, translating. His sister-in-law Nga Pham is working on a manicure at the table near the door. Minh’s mother, age sixty-one, worked for twenty years at Nail Tyme in Corona and now works at Nail Soleil there.
My father was in reeducation camp for ten years for fighting alongside the Americans during the Vietnam War and for trying to flee the country by boat. He saw many of his comrades die from starvation, illness, and being overworked. My father was forced to go into a land-mine-filled forest and clear trees and till the land to grow fruits and vegetables. Once a day, he was fed a small bowl of rice and a tablespoon of saltwater. While working, he would pick wild mushrooms and vegetation from the forest to eat. To keep him alive, my mother quit college to sell cigarettes and used clothes in the streets of Saigon to buy my father medicine and dried fish to eat.
My mother had to find work less than a month after coming to America in order to keep our family from becoming homeless. Working in the nail shop was the best fit because she was not required to know English and she knew family friends who owned Nail Tyme. She liked working in the nail shop because the tips helped her pay for food and she could learn English from talking to her customers. But over time, she developed asthma from breathing in the fumes. Her only dreams were for her two sons to graduate from college and to visit her seven siblings still living in Vietnam.
The chairs are all filled on a Friday night just before Memorial Day. Ten women work at Nail Spa in a Target shopping plaza, opened fifteen years ago. My daughters came here for prom manicures, once or twice a year, and then for their brows. No one does my daughter Rosette’s brows like Kim Dang, who was always so kind, so patient, and when she asked about my family, I realized I knew little about hers. Her husband was also in a reeducation camp, and she came here twenty-two years ago from the Vietnamese city of Cuu Long.
The culture of Vietnamese-owned nail salons began in 1975, when twenty women refugees arrived at a tent city called Hope Village near Sacramento. The actress Tippi Hedren, famous for Hitchcock films, visited the refugee camp, and the women were fascinated with her painted nails. She arranged for them to attend beauty school, and an industry was born. Now, more than 80 percent of California nail salons are owned by Vietnamese-born or Vietnamese Americans, an estimated 50 percent of all American nail technicians are Vietnamese, and Orange County is the capital of the technology. From Florida to New York to Los Angeles, Vietnamese women dominate the business in salons that also offer eyebrow waxing, facials, and hair services. But sometimes customers forget how physically hard the technicians work, or that they’ve spent their own savings on technician training and licensing and the equipment of a salon, where specialized chairs cost $5,000 to $10,000. Now and then, customers berate technicians for a smudge, complain about a fill, make fun of their language, or accuse them of talking about customers in Vietnamese. Nail technicians say sadly that their work isn’t always appreciated, but men seem to love the pampering. Minh’s cousin’s favorite customer in Corona is an African American construction worker who comes for a mani-pedi twice a month, leaves big tips, and smiles.
Tonight, fifty to sixty women will relax in the big chairs, and ten women will pull up stools and sit and bend and stand and stretch, with the tiny bottles of vivid paint beside them like totems, like the big Buddha who graces the altar. Every salon has a Buddha surrounded by flowers and incense and fruit—offerings for a good day.
Ming Ming finishes Devan Benter’s toes with a hot pink called New York Summer. Ming came here in 2000 from Saigon, because her husband’s family was already in Riverside. Nearby, Sylvia Villa’s toenails are painted in the milky brown shade of Nirvana (reminding me of the color of the Mekong River), with an overcoat of Big Money, and she smiles.
Ly Ngo came here twenty-two years ago from Saigon, and now is the manager of Nail Spa. She works at the opaque Lucite table near the front, doing French tip manicures, keeping an eye on the sign-in sheet and the money, helping a customer into the ubiquitous flat-plastic sandals to wear while the polish dries. She listens patiently to a regular customer speak about her family, her work. Ngo and the others overhear cell phone arguments with boyfriends, sad stories of love lost. Do they whisper to each other about the past, about the foods or cousins they miss in Vietnam? Their customers will likely never know.
Photographs from the Pham wedding.
In a 1970s television commercial for detergent, Madge the manicurist would listen sympathetically to a story about a woman with dishpan hands, and Madge would say, “Try Palmolive; you’re soaking in it!” Back then, my girlfriends and I painted our own fingernails, inexpertly, with polish we bought from Kmart. I had never met a manicurist in my life. Manicures cost $70 or more and were the province of the wealthy.
But during that same time, on that same television, images of America’s war in Vietnam terrified those watching as napalm fires raged to the sky and children ran away, as soldiers were airlifted in helicopters and fleeing Vietnamese civilians were huddled in those same helicopters, leaving their country behind.
The boat people left during the late 1970s. A lot of the people who escaped had to stay in the refugee camps until a country allowed them to enter. If they were not allowed to enter, then they were shipped back to Vietnam. Boat people landed everywhere: Southeast Asian countries (Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Philippines). They waited to enter European countries and the U.S.
In the late 1980s to early 1990s, under Humanitarian Operation, families of Southern Vietnamese soldiers who suffered persecution from the Communists were allowed to come to America. Our family came under HO in 1994. My mother was studying literature and law in Vietnam before the Viet Cong invaded Saigon. My parents chose to come to America so my brother and I could go to college. My mother told me that if I stayed in Vietnam, I would be selling lottery tickets on the streets or making carpenter nails in a factory. My eighth aunt and her daughter, my female cousin, actually worked in a factory hammering nails until about two years ago. My other aunts helped their sister get a job selling clothes in the outdoor market.
Minh Pham graduated in 2013 with a Master of Fine Arts degree from University of California, Riverside, where he worked for three years on a book of essays and poetry about his parents. For him, his mother has bent over thousands of feet every year, and his father has worked hundreds of hours in a Chinese buffet restaurant. After twenty-two years, his mother has asthma, joint pain, and some trouble breathing. But she still works six days a week, brushing onto nails, ten at a time, the small strokes of color that will dry under her breath.
Photograph by Doug McCulloh.
Susan Straight is an award-winning novelist and essayist from Riverside, California. Her work has received a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Lannan Prize, and the Kirsch Award for Lifetime Achievement from The Los Angeles Times.
Editor’s Note: The Vietnamese diaspora comprises a significant population among California’s immigrant communities. For some of these, the trauma of involuntary migration and the subsequent necessity to negotiate Vietnamese and American identities did not lead to enriching new experiences or cultural formations. A less visible demographic than those currently celebrated by food, literary, or cultural critics today are the Vietnamese Americans currently incarcerated in California’s vast prison system. Not long ago, almost 65% of California’s Asian and Pacific Islander prison population was comprised of either immigrants or refugees, and Vietnamese Americans represented the largest segment of the Asian and Pacific Islander California prison demographic at 22%. This constitutes a significant number of Vietnamese Americans currently incarcerated in California—a fact remaining largely unknown to many Californians.
One such person, for whom the trauma of migration and the negotiation of identities in California produced a path to prison is Tin Nguyen, who is currently serving a “Life Without the Possibility of Parole” sentence at Los Angeles County Prison, Lancaster. As a former Vietnamese gang member, Tin is now a student in Cal State LA’s BA program at Lancaster, as well as a published writer. Boom editorial board member Bidhan Chandra Roy sat down with Tin over three meetings to discuss his childhood experiences of fleeing Vietnam as a child in the 1970s, his role in establishing a new wave of Vietnamese street gangs in Southern California in the 1990s, and his hard-fought transformation into the man he is today. Since recording equipment is not allowed in the prison during the interview, Tin wrote up his responses to the questions following the three meetings.
Boom: Can you tell us about your experiences traveling from Vietnam to California as a child in the 1970s? What do you remember of that journey? Do you ever recall these memories today?
Tin: At 145 pounds and thirty-two years of age, I was standing in front of the ‘C’ section shower in Building 3 on a maximum-security prison yard. A group of muscular, heavyset Crip members surrounded me, disputing for a shower that none of us own; really, the State of California owned the shower. I knew if I didn’t back down, I could expect at the very least a severe beating, and quite likely, a knife to the gut or a sliced throat. Yet I stood there, at the risk of my own life, because this shower was claimed by the Asians; the marking of our territory. At that moment, I thought, “So this is how I’m going to die… this is how my life sentence was going to end….”
In that moment, I couldn’t help but rapidly wonder, “How did I get here? What happened to the once little Vietnamese boy who pulled his small red wagon along the streets of Pomona and sold flowers to help his mother buy milk for his baby brother?” How did that innocent kid become a monster now tagged P24706?
At that moment, I thought, “So this is how I’m going to die… this is how my life sentence was going to end….”
I remember the boat journey in the late ’70s as flashes of images. There is an image of my godparents hugging me tight; through their tears, they tried to act as if everything was normal. I guess, because of the tension in Vietnam, they didn’t want any suspicion of what was going to happen, an attempt to escape Vietnam. Then there are images of my mother under the cover of darkness passing—or should I say, throwing (my mother would disapprove of this characterization)—me from boat to boat. Thinking of how our boat sped away from two other boats, I remember the word, “pirates,” repeated on everyone’s lips and a throng of rowdy men with all sorts of objects in their hands for weapons.
I remember us all on the boat’s roof, bowing our heads, and me trying to look over, seeing for the first time, men with pale skin standing on the deck of a large ship. We begged for their assistance, to no avail; they just passed by leaving us to fend for ourselves in the great ocean.
Then our boat finally landed. At the island where I have the fondest memories, images and feelings of happiness, swimming all day and following my brother on the shore as the tide was low, catching crabs and fishes. After that, I remember feeling frightened on a plane as I encountered people of different ethnicities, on our way to California.
Boom: What was it like for you growing up in Pomona during the 1980s and 1990s?
Tin: In Pomona, everything was different. In second grade, I was the only Vietnamese kid in class, and not speaking a word of English, I hated school. Kids can be cruel. Yet, the constant taunts of “ching-chong,” “jap,” and “dirty gook,” were the least of my miseries. Because they wanted to test my kung fu, I was punched in the throat and smacked on the back of my head during long walks home from school. To this day, I still have a vivid memory of being run over by a bike—my books were everywhere, I was facedown, and a BMX wheel was on my back, pinning me to ground, while the guy snickered, “You should’ve gotten out my way,” and spit on me. He then rode over me. I cried as I picked up my stuff off the ground, while other kids walked by and laughed, but no one helped. I cried all the way home, and then some. I thought it was my fault for being in his way, but then it occurred to me that all his friends had rode around me with plenty of room. That’s when a spark of anger ignited within me. But that anger from those physical discomforts didn’t compare to what ultimately fueled my anger with a real hate.
What truly fueled my anger was the thought of my family being subjected to the same abuse and discrimination. I remember my older sister sitting in the schoolyard lunch area crying, while other Vietnamese kids were making fun of her. What made this especially painful was the American kids were laughing about how they’d gotten us to turn on each other for their amusement. When I was nine or ten years old, I tried to help an older Vietnamese gentleman who didn’t speak English. There was a misunderstanding at a store, where the sales clerk was accusing the Vietnamese man, hurling crude comments at him, like, “You gook! You’re a thief, coming to the US just to steal and cause trouble. You should’ve stayed in Vietnam.” I remember a feeling of heavy degradation. With my broken English, I attempted to serve as a translator and tried to explain that the Vietnamese man had a receipt. But it was no use. The clerk kept ranting and ended up reducing the Vietnamese man to tears. From that experience, I had the sinking realization that my parents must be suffering similar indignities.
Once I was sitting outside of my older sister’s bedroom door, I heard her crying as she told my cousin how an African-American woman had mistreated her at the college’s financial aid office. I don’t quite recall the exact words, but I do remember clearly the feelings of anger and hate. Hurting me was one thing, but hurting my family was another matter. What made it worse was the helplessness I felt to do anything about it. This is the reason why I’m very protective of my little sister.
I couldn’t claim I was Vietnamese because I barely spoke Vietnamese, and I couldn’t say I was American because I wasn’t born here and barely spoke proper English.
I suppose all these external hardships contributed to who I eventually became, but no less significant were the internal dynamics of my family. Let me start by acknowledging that my father was a very good man who loved his children and always sacrificed for his family. Yet, there were a number of factors that enabled his violent behavior. First, he was raised in a traditional culture where the father’s words are absolute and indisputable, and corporal punishment was the norm. Back in Vietnam, my father was a person of some importance and social standing, so for him, it was a letdown being in America—after losing everything and making all the sacrifices that he did—to become a nobody who had to rely on his wife and whose children wouldn’t even listen to him. I can only imagine how this ate away at his pride, driving him to the edge. Typical days in our house had fights and arguments; I don’t remember a happy moment at home. The Christmas tree tumbled a few times every Christmas. During the year, my mother would vigorously defend her children from her husband’s wrath, after she’d worked all day to put food on the table. Even though my father never made a fist, he did freely use the backhand, the front smack, the belt, the telephone cord, the clothes hanger, and my own favorite—the chopsticks, with a hand full of them, they hurt like hell. I remember like yesterday… I was huddled in the kitchen corner while my mother used her petite body to shield me from being hit by an inch-thick stick as she told my father in Vietnamese: “you’re not going to hit my son with that.” But this was the Vietnamese way, right? Our culture? In such moments, I envied my American friends.
I think what made things worse was that I didn’t know where I belonged, who I was. I couldn’t claim I was Vietnamese because I barely spoke Vietnamese, and I couldn’t say I was American because I wasn’t born here and barely spoke proper English. I felt trapped between two generations of immigrants, one who knew they’re Vietnamese, and one who knew they’re American. My father pushed me to read more and to keep up with my sister in school, and when I couldn’t, I was “dumber than a cow” (English translation). During times when I could, I wasn’t “dumber,” but merely “dumb as a cow.” Either way, I was always dumb. This wasn’t just my father’s assessment, it was everyone’s. I guess they hoped I’d at least be good with my hands. To my mother though, I was always good and smart, but her opinion wasn’t enough. So I ended up with low self-esteem, insecure, lost, and filled with anger and hate.
Boom: How did this childhood trauma pave the way for you joining a gang? How did you see Vietnamese gangs begin to proliferate in South California during your adolescence, and what attracted you to join one?
Tin: In America, the first Vietnamese generation’s youth trend was “New Wave,” with its tight pants, pointy shoes, and spiky hair, and dancing to European bands like Modern Talking, CC Catch, and Bad Boys Blue. With no one I deemed worthy as a role model, I turned to my two older brothers. They were cool, and if someone wanted to test their kung fu, they didn’t have any problem showing that their kung fu was better. Seeing them fighting and winning, I developed a sense of Vietnamese pride, so it wasn’t long before I showed others my kung fu was good too. My first violent act was during a summer camp at Cal Poly. When a Caucasian kid tested me, I didn’t hold back, but instead, I punched him. Next thing I knew, a counselor was holding me and a crowd of kids was cheering me on. The counselor sternly stated that I was going to be suspended, and I replied that I didn’t give a fuck, at which point the crowd got even louder. This was not only my first act of violence, but also my first act of rebellion, and I knew then that this was how I must act in order to be respected, like my brothers. The final straw came when some of my boy scout troop and I were jumped by a group of African-American teens. After the teens’ laughter and us lying on the ground of the parking lot, we looked at each other and decided then that the boy scouts was not for us. We chucked our uniforms and donned blue jeans and chains, going from scouts to hoodlums.
In Southern California, there tended to be two kinds of Vietnamese gangs. The first was the street gang, largely unstructured. But unlike their Hispanic or African-American counterparts, it was rare for Vietnamese street gangs to truly represent a street or neighborhood. Rather, they were just some Vietnamese teens who got together and named themselves, mostly in accord with the city they were from—like “Pomona Boys” or “Santa Ana Boys”—or something to do with Vietnamese pride, like “V-Boys” or “Vietnamese For Life.” Since I was Vietnamese and from Pomona, my boys and I decided to call ourselves Vietnamese Gangster (VNG) Pomona V-Boys. We used the appendage “V-Boys” because we were the V-Boys’ younger association and under their protection. We started with minor things like cracking arcade games for money, and then moved up to GTA. Fighting was the norm now, and I soon landed in juvenile camp. Three months later, I came out bigger because I finally hit puberty. Everyone who mattered to me knew that I’d just come from the “box” and it wasn’t long before I went back to camp. My father still had hope for me, but after this second stretch, I disappointed him again and was no longer welcome under his roof. So with no place of my own, at age sixteen, I reached out to my brother Tony in Los Angeles, where I met the Black Dragon for the first time.
This is the second kind of Vietnamese gang, more exclusive to the LA area. This second kind was more engaged in organized crime, after the pattern of triads, perhaps because of the close cultural proximity of the Vietnamese to the Chinese. Black Dragon (Hac Lun) was one of these, and unlike the unstructured street gangs, Black Dragon had an ordered hierarchy where a soldier could move up the ranks and, if he is lucky and doesn’t land in prison for life or die, become an “Anh Hai” or a “Tai Lu”—the equivalent of a “Capo” in the Italian crime families.
The history of the Black Dragon began in the early 1980s. Its predecessor, the Viet Thanh, actually yielded three successors: Cool Boys, LA V-Boys, and Black Dragon. Since each came from Viet Thanh, these three were always at war with its rival, the Chinese gang Wa Ching. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Chinatown consisted of both Chinese businesses and Vietnamese businesses. But the Wa Ching began harassing Vietnamese businesses, so the youths of the Vietnamese businesses decided to stand against the Wa Ching. That was how Viet Thanh started. But what started out as noble acts eventually were corrupted as the Viet Thanh became thugs themselves. After the three-way split, Black Dragon migrated to the San Gabriel Valley where it established new territories.
I chose to be part of the Black Dragon mainly because of the respect their members received. For example, one time my boys and I were walking into a nightclub associated with the Black Dragon, and a new bouncer stopped us and pointed us to the back of the line, but then the regular bouncer told him to let us through. (We were all still minors and this club was for those over twenty-one.) When we entered, the new bouncer insisted that we walk through the metal detector, which, of course, we weren’t going to do. This was when the older bouncer stepped in and told the new bouncer, “These guys are the real security of this club.” I still remember his words, and the pride I felt then was overwhelming, but it didn’t compare with what happened next. After my boys and I settled in at a VIP table, this new bouncer asked if he could speak with me. Sitting across from me, he asked for my forgiveness, pleading that he didn’t know since he was new. Here was a middle-aged man humbled, apologizing for his mistake and offering me his services. Respect… at long last.
When I became a member of the Black Dragon gang, I was known as Tin Hac Lun, or Tin BD. I carried that name with pride. When others thought of Black Dragon, I wanted them to think of me. When I was twenty-two, the Temple City Sheriff led the Asian Gang Task Force and rounded up my crew, now known as the “gangbanging” side of Black Dragon. I was facing possible of fifty-eight years for numerous counts of extortion and robbery, so I took a deal for two years and did my time at San Quentin. Obviously, I didn’t learn anything, and worse, I was now connected and moved up the ranks because I’d been to the big house. During this time, my crew and I broke away from our Anh Hai, because we no longer wanted or needed to be under his thumb. We could protect ourselves without him, and we wanted to keep all our earnings and not have to give him a cut. No longer a soldier, I had my own crew. However, we still kept the “Black Dragon” name because we’d earned it, and our loyalty was still to the gang.
Boom: Tin Hac Lun sounds like a completely different person to the Tin I have known for the past four years. How did the lifestyle you led as Tin Hac Lun end in a prison sentence of life without the possibility of parole?
Tin: Drugs were a major detriment in my life. At a young age, I inadvertently unleashed a demon so voracious that it consumed me. I started drinking in seventh grade, and met Mary Jane (marijuana) and Coco (cocaine) when I was fourteen. A couple years later, at a party, I was sitting on the bathroom floor across from a beautiful woman in her twenties, and she passed me a pipe with some crack…. Part of me screamed, “No!” But the demon within me seductively whispered, “Don’t embarrass yourself in front of this glorious girl—just take a hit, that’s all.” And the demon was right; that was all. I became the demon himself. Mary Jane, Coco, and later Crystal (Methamphetamine) became the three loves of my life. They destroyed me and brought me to the edge of suicide. Yet for one reason or another, I couldn’t find the nerve to do it myself, so I went crazy with drugs and gangs, hoping to end it all.
In 1996, during a robbery in San Jose, I killed Mr. Stanko Vuckovic. Throughout the years, I have replayed that moment repeatedly. I asked myself, “Did I pull the trigger?” or “Did the gun go off during the struggle?” After years of contemplating, I realized there were other factors just as significant. The point that I cocked the gun, that I chose to use the gun in the robbery, and above all my decision to rob this man and take what was not mine were all what caused his death. Yet, these were not the only factors. Other elements, such as abusing drugs, joining a gang and choosing a life of crime, were all the bad choices I made that led me to that very moment. I was going to kill someone eventually. Thus, I am responsible for Mr. Stanko Vuckovic’s death; I pulled the trigger and my only hope is that I can make amends for my actions and decisions.
I was arrested a year after I killed Mr. Vuckovic, and in late 1998 I was convicted and sentence to Life With Out the Possibility of Parole. Let me express now, with all respect, what I have wanted to say for two decades. I’ve run this in my head thousands of times…. I mean, how do I express my remorse and say, “I am so sorry” to a man whose life and future I took, to a family whom I hurt, or to the community I damaged? It’s not enough, and I realize that I must do this in person, for words on paper can never be adequate to sincerely express my contrition.
Boom: Thank you for saying that, Tin. I know that you want to return to your remorse and desire to make amends for past actions. But before you had this realization, what was your life like in a maximum-security prison? Was there anything unique about it from a Vietnamese perspective?
Tin: At age twenty-six, I began my journey on the gravel yard track at Pelican Bay, California’s most dangerous state prison. On my first day, an elder Vietnamese convict approached me and said, “Welcome to Pelican Bay, we’re the worst of the worst in California. You’re with us. You run Asian.” As we approached a table full of Asians and Pacific Islander, he expounded on the first rule, concerning “the boundaries.” He explained that the Whites, Blacks, and Mexicans have their tables, workout areas, and basketball and handball courts, and approximately ten feet around those areas was an invisible line that I was not to cross without their permission—if I did, my well-being would be at risk. Likewise, I was not to allow any other race to cross over our line; my job (and the job of all Asians and Pacific Islanders) was to stop the other races from crossing over, and if necessary, to “take flight” (i.e., stab them). So, that was the creed I lived by for many years. In prison, racial segregation was (and is) the norm; this was one of the many rules I had to abide by.
Here, there are two sets of rules. One is the Administration’s. As a prisoner, if you violate those, then you’ll be put in “the Hole.” The other set of rules is the convicts’. If you violate them, then you’ll have holes put in you.
As for the Vietnamese culture in prison, we might be small, but we’re no less vicious than the other races. Maybe it’s the pride we have. I’d read in a Vietnam War book that there are two nationalities that never stop fighting: one is the Irish; the other, the Vietnamese. At Pelican Bay, we Vietnamese were a tight group, and we helped each other with most things, like food, clothes, etc. Even though we had divisions among ourselves, such as North Cali versus South Cali, we united when troubles came our way—we bowed down to no one, even at the risk of our lives.
Boom: That life seems a long way behind you now at Lancaster. Tell us about the man you are today, Tin. How did such a remarkable transformation take place?
Tin: This leads me back to the beginning of this interview. I believe there was someone up above divinely watching over me. When I was once surrounded and it looked like it was going to go badly for me, suddenly a big, muscular African American guy and his friends approached the crowd. These guys were Bloods, and they intervened and had a side meeting with the Crips surrounding me. Ultimately, the situation was resolved, and I survived another day. The Good Samaritan’s name was Jimmy, and we eventually became best friends, a big African American and a little Vietnamese. Today, Jimmy and I are both Golden Eagle classmates at California State University, Los Angeles.
Now, during my incarceration, I’ve experienced much pain, and I would shut this pain away, because to feel pain was to be weak, and early in my incarceration I chose never to be weak so that I would not be preyed upon. With this attitude, I felt dead, and in a way I was dead, just a walking corpse with no purpose, hope, or love. Approximately two years ago, I was in a very dark place. I know this sounds cliché, but a dog saved my life. It was part of the Paws for Life Program.
I used to be petrified of dogs— definitely not a dog person. However, all that changed one evening when a Boxer put his head on my lap. Before this happened, my ex-girlfriend had left me. A broken heart is never easy, especially while doing “Life,” and it is not uncommon to feel depressed. However, it should not make one feel hopeless, or even destitute. In hindsight, I realize that this was the pivotal point of my life; whether I was going make it or break it. All the pains of my life, that I had carefully locked away, came rushing out. The pains of my childhood, the regret and remorse of my crime, the loss of my freedom, and the death of my father and brother during my incarceration came back to haunt me. The break up was the key that unlocked my miseries. The pains were excruciating. I wanted to end it one way or another, wanted the pain to go away. I’d kept on like this until I was so broken that I couldn’t deal with it anymore. Once again, I contemplated the forever night, the long sleep. However, an angel came to rescue me. It didn’t come with its majestic wings or divine presence, nor even a halo, but rather with four paws and a mean mug. My angel turned out to be “Vic,” a battered Boxer-breed dog who’d been used as bait for fighting pit bulls. My encounter with Vic happened in a most unusual way.
One evening as I was talking to my friend Bernik, I noticed a Boxer dog full of anxiety. He stood there constantly watching as if something might attack him. Then all of a sudden, he came over and laid his head on my lap. I was scared, yet touched. Then he proceeded to lay down, and Bernik said, “Wow!” It didn’t seem out of the ordinary to me, so I asked why all the excitement. Bernik explained that the Boxer named Vic was a bait dog, who had come here all scarred up with a smashed paw. He had a rough life. Bernik said that since he came in, he hadn’t been able to relax, so lying down and sleeping at my feet was amazing. This broke through me in a way I did not think possible. I knew that I couldn’t help him amid my own pain, but he was offering his pain for me to help with. So I reached down, put my hand on his head, and whispered, “I got your back, bud. No one on this yard is going to hurt you.” From then on, I made sure that I spent as much time as I could to comfort him, train him, and protect him. Through this relationship, Vic got better, and that was the goal. However, though I thought that I was there for him, it was also the other way around; Vic was there for me. He comforted me when I was down and out. He trained me to be strong and get back up, and protected me from my destructive self. The funny thing was that I believed that when Vic came over to me, he was thinking “that guy is suffering like me; maybe I should help and protect him.”
What PFL did for me is extraordinary. PFL not only saved my life, but it also gave me life.
Though Vic gave me love, I was still somewhat lost, still believing that I was irredeemable and doomed to a life of constant bad decision-making. Then through PFL came a second angel—you Dr. Roy. With your kindness and untiring passion to see the good in all, in everyone, you amazed me and became for me the role model that I’d never had before. No words can express my full appreciation for what you have done for incarcerated people, me especially. You looked at us not through the eyes of an enemy or through hate, but through the eyes of love, and with respect for our humanity. As a result, you gave us confidence, hope, and purpose.
Now I’m a student on this extension campus inside this prison, and I’m on my way to attaining my dream of obtaining a BA degree. I once thought I was irredeemable, meaning that I thought I had to die first and be reincarnated or something else if I were to have any hope of ever being a good person again. Now, the professors and faculty and students at Cal State LA have taught me that I can take down those walls that I built around my heart. Even if it’s day by day, I can take down those walls, because I am the builder. I don’t need them to protect me from pain, failure, or disappointment, because I’m not inherently bad. I know now that being good is a choice that I’ll be faced with making every day of my life. I once was an advocate of all that’s dark and hate surrounded me with those walls. I promoted the Black Dragon and Vietnamese gangs’ lifestyles to other Vietnamese youth, but now, I encourage them to get their education, to transform their lives and live with hope and goodness.
I’m serving a sentence of Life Without the Possibility of Parole, which means that if the laws do not change or society has no mercy for me, then I will die in prison. “Life Without the Possibility of Parole” is a death sentence—the only difference between it and lethal injection is that Death Row prisoners get a final meal and a team of lawyers. Still, as bleak as my circumstances are, I find myself happier than at any time in my life since childhood. That little Vietnamese kid with his little red wagon that was imprisoned as P24706, today I walk my dog in the evening on the prison yard, and no longer feel the cold concrete walls with their sharp razor-wire, nor the tower with its gunner and Mini-14. Here, it is just me and my dog… and I feel free.
Editor’s Postscript: When the interview was completed at the end of the third meeting, without explanation Tin prostrated himself before Dr. Roy in the middle of the prison yard in front of all the guards and other prisoners. He performed a deeply meaningful ritual, later explaining it in the following way, asking that it be included in this interview to honor the family of Stanko Vuckovic—the man whose life he took.
Tin:I may never have that chance to apologize in person, so I’d like to do this now at least. I would like to do this in the Vietnamese traditional way. I am on my knees, and bow my head, prostrating myself, three times. With each: “I am so sorry, please forgive me.” I promise for the rest of my life, as a living amends, I will do my best to impact others’ lives for the good in homage of you, your family, and your community. Thank you for allowing me to be honest and express my remorse.
 These numbers, while a bit dated, are provided by the Asian Prisoner Support Committee, https://apscinfo.wordpress.com/2010/10/06/apis-in-ca-prisons/. More up to date details can be found in the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation’s offender data points demographic, comprising the most recent demographic information for those incarcerated in CDCR, https://www.cdcr.ca.gov/Reports_Research/docs/Data_Points_Dec_2016.pdf. From December 2016, the “Others” population (which includes American Indian, Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, and Asians, many of whom are Vietnamese) consisted of 8,907 individuals incarcerated in the state system (6.9% of the total population of incarcerated people). Of this number, 598 were born in Vietnam (in December 2014, it was 660). See pp. 10, 17, 85 of the report.
Tin Nguyen has been incarcerated for nineteen years, serving a Life Without the Possibility of Parole sentence. A son, brother, uncle, and capable of change. He is a student in Cal State LA’s BA program, as well as a dog trainer in the “Paws For Life” dog program at Los Angeles County Prison, Lancaster.
Bidhan Chandra Roy is an associate professor of English Literature at California State University, Los Angeles. He is the founder of WordsUncaged, a platform for men sentenced to life sentences in California prisons to dialogue and critically engage with the world beyond the prison walls. He is also the faculty director of Cal State LA’s BA program at Los Angeles County Prison, Lancaster, as well co-chairman of the board of Karma Rescue, an organization that runs the “Paws for Life” dog rescue and training programs in prisons throughout California.