Every two years, more than 200,000 pilgrims make their way to La Vang, a poor farming village in central Vietnam. They come from the around the world to pay homage to the Virgin Mary, whose apparition visited the village in 1798 and gave comfort to persecuted Catholics. From Vietnamese American Catholics to Thai Buddhists, they come seeking her blessings, solace, and comfort.
“She is not just the mother of Catholics in Vietnam but also anyone who comes and prays to her,” an Indonesian Protestant once told me during a visit to La Vang. His comment echoed the feelings of many who made the long, arduous journey to the Minor Basilica of Our Lady of La Vang. Although the Vatican has not recognized the historical apparition, Our Lady of La Vang has become a global religious and spiritual symbol.
Over the course of a few days, pilgrims pray to a large statue of Our Lady of La Vang holding a figure of the baby Jesus. She stands under three large banyan trees, adjacent to an old church building, wearing traditional Vietnamese attire composed of an áo dài and a crescent-shaped headpiece. With her black hair, dark eyes, and porcelain skin, she reflects an ideal image of beauty in Vietnamese society.
This Vietnamese representation of Our Lady of La Vang can now be found wherever Vietnamese people have emigrated, including: Japan, Taiwan, Canada, France, Australia, and the United States. This Vietnamization of the Virgin is a recent development. Until 1998, statues of Our Lady of La Vang were modeled on French representations of another Virgin Mary figure, Our Lady of Victories. But the new Our Lady of La Vang did not come from Vietnam. She came from Orange County, California.
Vietnamese Americans represent the largest Asian American Catholic group in Orange County. In 2010, there were nearly 70,000 Vietnamese Catholics in the region, according to the secretary of the Bishop of Orange. They constitute the largest Asian Catholic group in Orange County. The community has been growing since the fall of Saigon in 1975, when the first large wave of 125,000 Vietnamese refugees arrived in the United States.Many Vietnamese chose to resettle in Orange County due to its warmer climate, employment opportunities, and close proximity to Camp Pendleton, where many Vietnamese refugees first arrived.
As Vietnamese Catholics struggled to rebuild their lives in the United States, many sought comfort from the Virgin Mary. In 1978, more than 1,500 Vietnamese Catholics across the country attended the largest Feast of Assumption celebration in Carthage, Missouri, during a blazing hot August.The multiday pilgrimage became known as “Marian Day,” attracting mostly Vietnamese of different religious backgrounds from throughout the world. In Carthage, pilgrims worshipped a statue of Our Lady of Fatima and one of Our Lady of Peace (Đức Mẹ Nữ Vương Hòa Bình). For many Vietnamese Catholics, the statues symbolize miracles but also have strong anticommunist connotations.
Like the original Our Lady of La Vang, the statues of Our Lady of Fatima and Our Lady of Peace depicted the Virgin Mary with European features. European images of the Virgin Mary had long been the norm in Vietnamese Catholicism.
Then in the 1990s, when multiculturalism was being promoted by the Catholic Church in the United States, the bishop of Orange County permitted Vietnamese Americans to create a Vietnamese statue of the Virgin Mary. In 1994, this image, known as Our Lady of Vietnam, was completed and placed at the entrance to the Vietnamese Catholic Center in Santa Ana. Our Lady of Vietnam joined a growing collection of ethnic representations of the Virgin Mary in Orange County, including Our Lady of Guadalupe, a Korean Virgin Mary, and Our Lady of Czestochowa from Poland.
Created by sculptor Van Nhan, the white statue represents the Virgin Mary dressed in the Vietnamese national costume. She holds the baby Jesus in front of her with both hands, “as if she wants to hand her most beloved child to Vietnamese people in order to save them and their race,” according to the Vietnamese Catholic Center. She represents the “peace and tranquility” that Vietnamese American faithful seek as they adapt to life in a new country.
Our Lady of Vietnam also reflects Vietnamese American Catholics’ connections to coreligionists in Vietnam during a time in which the country was isolated from the United States after the Vietnam War. She stands on a grotto in the shape of an S that depicts Vietnam and its mountainous ridges. The Vietnamese Catholic Center explains that this representation of the Virgin Mary “guides the spirit of Vietnamese people to return to their homeland roots” and to pray for their coreligionists who are suffering under communism. This is another reason she is referred to as Our Lady of Peace.
In 1995—three years before the two-hundredth anniversary of the apparition of Our Lady of La Vang—the United States reestablished diplomatic ties with Vietnam. This timing helped to revive interests among Vietnamese American Catholics to reconnect to their homeland. In an article published in 1996, Vietnamese Americans were urged to visit the Our Lady of La Vang in Vietnam: “Now is the time for overseas Vietnamese Catholics to be spiritually united and connected with the Catholic Church in the homeland. This is our affirmation that, despite being far away from the homeland, we will never forget our spirituality as a Vietnamese faithful and a citizen of a country and a peoplehood.”
Our Lady of La Vang became Vietnamized through collaborations and agreements that reached across the Pacific. Clergy from Vietnam had seen the Our Lady of Vietnam statue during a visit to Orange County following the US-Vietnam normalization. They were impressed by Vietnamese Americans’ commitment to the well-being of Catholics in Vietnam, and their commitment to the preservation of Vietnamese Catholic culture and history despite decades of separation from their homeland. As a result of the trip, the visiting Vietnamese clergy commissioned Nhan Van, creator of Our Lady of Vietnam, to create another Our Lady of La Vang for the anniversary of her apparition.
Pope John Paul II blessed this Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang statue in Rome on 1 July 1998. He also proclaimed Our Lady of La Vang the patroness of the Catholic Church of Vietnam. Although this religious honor did not officially recognize the apparition of Our Lady of La Vang, it was a source of inspiration for Vietnamese Catholics throughout the world. For the first time in history, a Vietnamese icon of the Catholic faith was officially introduced to the global Catholic community. On 13 August 1998, two hundred years after the apparition, more than 200,000 attendees gathered in La Vang to worship Our Lady of La Vang as represented by a Vietnamese woman.
Since her transformation, there have been several visual reinterpretations of Our Lady of La Vang to represent the unique faith and experiences of Vietnamese Catholics. In La Vang, in 2002, the Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang was replaced with a new version wearing a headdress decorated with twelve stars. Although some believe that the stars are an allusion to the twelve apostles of Jesus, Vietnamese Catholics abroad have interpreted them as the stars that Vietnamese refugees used to guide themselves to their new homes. In the National Shrine of Our Lady of La Vang in Washington, D.C., completed in 2005, stars are used as a decorative motif throughout the sanctuary as reminders of the Vietnamese diaspora.
Today, statues of the Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang are popular diplomatic gifts often exchanged between Vietnamese Catholic communities in different countries. In 2002, Pope John Paul II blessed six statues of Our Lady of La Vang in Rome and gave them to Catholics in Orange County, who were responsible for distributing them to representatives of six different continents. Through the Vietnamese representation of Our Lady of La Vang, Vietnamese Catholics throughout the world have become reconnected to each other and have transformed the face of the Catholic Church in their image. In 2010, a stone engraved with the phrase Cộng Đồng Hải Ngoại (Overseas Diocese) was placed at the Our Lady of La Vang Pilgrimage Center during the start of the Holy Year. It recognizes the Vietnamese Catholic diaspora as the twenty-seventh diocese of the Catholic Church in Vietnam.
The growing global popularity of Our Lady of La Vang has spurred the construction of a number of parishes named after her outside of Vietnam, including two in California. These transnational ties are not simply nostalgia for the homeland but an effort among Vietnamese Catholics to heal the wounds of war and displacement. The Vietnamese Our Lady of La Vang represents re-connection among Vietnamese Catholics in the diaspora and the homeland after decades of separation.
Min Zhou and Carl I. Bankston, Growing Up American (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1998), 29.
Peter Phan, “Mary in Vietnamese Piety and Theology: A Contemporary Perspective,” Ephemerides Mariologicae 51 (2005): 457–472.
Van G. Bui, “Huong Ve La Vang” [Toward La Vang], Ky Niem 12 Nam Thanh Lap Cong Doan La Vang [12 Year Anniversary of the Establishment of the La Vang Community] (Orange County, CA), 13.
Thien-Huong T. Ninh is an assistant sociology professor at Consumnes River College and a scholar with research interests in race, gender, religion, and in immigration, particularly forced displacement as in the case of refugees. She is the author of Race, Gender, and Religion in the Diaspora: Ethnic Vietnamese in the U.S. and Cambodia (Palgrave Macmilllan).
As part of targeted evacuation efforts from Southeast Asia in 1975, the U.S. government arranged for military and commercial planes to transport Vietnamese children to the United States. In theory, the airlifts simply facilitated adoption proceedings already in motion. Children selected for the airlifts were already paired with suitable American families who eagerly awaited their arrival. And the efforts were bolstered by collaboration with social welfare and adoption agencies such as Holt International, Welcome House, United Catholic Relief Services, Friends for All Children, and Friends of the Children of Vietnam (FCVN). However, in its rushed execution, the program resulted in confusion and tragedy. One of the first official flights, carrying an estimated three hundred children and adult caregivers, exploded in mid-air; only half of the flight’s passengers survived.
The horrific accident only strengthened the resolve of organizers to get children out of Vietnam. While expressing sorrow for the victims of the crash, President Ford insisted, “our mission of mercy must continue…. This tragedy must not deter us but offer new hope for the living.” In prioritizing the plight of Vietnamese children after years of relative inattention, the U.S. government adopted the rhetoric of responsibility long articulated by left-leaning Americans. Admitting the nation’s culpability in the destruction and dissolution of Vietnamese families, officials sought not simply to atone for American sins and relieve the suffering of Vietnamese children, but to control the peace.
Yet Vietnamese would disrupt these efforts and dispute this message, reappearing as refugees who endeavored to have familial reunion within the United States. Seeking to preserve life amidst unfathomable loss, death, and ruin, Vietnamese mothers, fathers, aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents strategically chose Operation Babylift as a means of assuring the safety of their young kin, hoping they would be able to reunite with them if they were able to migrate to the United States successfully. Many of the children airlifted from Vietnam appeared to have family members who hoped to reclaim them—they were not all orphans. Vietnamese had seized the evacuation as a necessary, if desperate, step in a larger process of migration that could mitigate their grief and disorientation. Those fortunate enough to reach the United States and initiate their plans of reconciliation, however, were confronted with the contrary ambitions of American families, agencies and government officials who viewed adoption and the assimilation of Vietnamese children as both an apology for the nation’s wrongs and affirmation of its material and moral worth. In arguing for their parental rights and introducing Americans to the forms and obligations of the extended Vietnamese family, these refugees rejected American interpretations of the war in favor of their own. Such interpretations had challenged expected performances of Vietnamese women as either helpless victims or scheming enemies, which came to shape how they settled in the United States, how they sustained ties to Vietnam, and even how this would influence future foreign policy.
California played a leading role in this intense drama that was unfolding across the United States. Not only did Californians, Vietnamese and American, receive and process the largest number of airlifted children, but they also originated and organized the loudest opposition to American adoptions and benevolent representations of its war in Vietnam. In the process, the state provided a foundation for the establishment of Vietnamese communities and reinforced a tradition of protest and trans-pacific relations.
San Francisco’s Presidio, the largest of the reception centers, swiftly mobilized to process children airlifted from Vietnam. Indeed, of the over 2,000 children hastily removed as part of Operation Babylift, more than 1,500 passed through the military installation that was aided by more than 5,400 California volunteers who provided communication, shelter, food, security, and medical assistance. Among those Bay Area residents who answered the call (specifically for those fluent in Vietnamese) were Muoi McConnel, a Vietnamese nurse married to a former U.S. servicemen; Nhu Miller, a Vietnamese-born, European-raised, and American-educated (Barnard and University of California, Berkeley) woman who described herself as a revolutionary in later interviews; and Mai Chaplin, a homemaker of Vietnamese descent. While caring and conversing with children at the Presidio, the trio came to express such surprise that some of the youth did not appear to be orphans in their own right. Such youth had confessed confusion about their whereabouts and a longing for living Vietnamese parents and kin. Muoi asserted that of the twenty-three children whose names she recorded, three reported having two living parents in Vietnam, fourteen asked about their mothers, and two described grandparents residing in the United States. Mai recalled her exchange with two sisters who claimed their parents were alive and well in Qui Nhon. Reportedly, they had placed their daughters—two of their nine children—in a Catholic orphanage whose director agreed to send the girls to the U.S. until they might return to Vietnam.
Dismayed and determined to resolve the seeming problem of the non-orphans, Muoi and Nhu approached U.S. officials who straightaway ignored their appeals for assistance. However, Nhu’s husband, Tom, a Stanford trained lawyer, former staff member of the U.S. State Department, and long advocate for Vietnamese children who had helped establish the Children’s Medical Relief International and the Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery in Saigon, listened closely to the women’s concerns and chose to act. Drawing support from a network of California based, anti-war attorneys and the Center for Constitutional Rights, Tom helped file an action, Nguyen Da Yen et al. v. Kissinger et al., in the U.S. District Court, Northern District of California, charging Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger, Attorney General Edward Levi, and seven adoption agencies with bringing children to the United States who were not orphans properly released for immigration. Plaintiffs demanded “the accumulation of defendant’s records to determine each child’s adoptive status and enable any living parents to be located,” a process predicated upon halting the adoption proceedings of American families whom they conceded may be “concerned and loving” but “no substitute for biological parents.”
While expressing sympathy for adoptive families and eschewing political motives, the plaintiffs emphasized the superiority of Vietnamese families, the harm done to displaced Vietnamese children, and proposed the fundamental flaws of the U.S. Government. In its motion for preliminary injunction, lawyers asserted that they did not intend to challenge the wisdom of admitting children during the last days of war, a clarification that seemed to remove the question of child custody from the context of controversy about the war’s closure. However, over the course of the trial, they struggled to maintain an apolitical stance and refrain from a broader commentary about the perceived injustice of the war and the ignorance of American couples. In its complaint for declaratory and injunctive relief, the plaintiffs’ attorneys aired their grievances, accusing the government of orchestrating Operation Babylift “to create a climate of opinion favorable to the continuation of unconstitutional and illegal U.S. involvement in the war in South Vietnam to the end of securing from the United States Congress authorization and appropriation of additional funds to militarily support the war, and to provide a cover for United States military intervention.” In other documents, the plaintiffs found fault with adoptive parents, along with the officials and agencies who facilitated their efforts. “It is not difficult to imagine the pain and suffering the plaintiff children have already undergone, living their entire lives in a country torn by war, ripped from their families and home, brought thousands of miles away, held on military bases to be placed with families, no matter how well intentioned, of an alien culture with whom they are unable to communicate,” insisted lead attorney for the Plaintiffs, Nancy Stearns, in a court memo. To further support this reading, she offered the testimony of Joyce Ladner, a sociologist and civil rights activist who studied transracial adoption. Although Ladner acknowledged, “Asians may not experience as much hostility in the predominantly white American society” as African Americans, she believed that “they do experience subtler forms of discrimination.” Additionally, she anticipated how such Vietnamese adoptees would come to “face additional hostility as a result of feelings of anger in many Americans regarding the Vietnam war” and would suffer “a racial identity crisis comparable to that in black children.” Claiming the virtues of Vietnamese families, she concluded that “even if the circumstances to which they return are less economically secure than the American homes they are presently in, emotional security must not be traded for a middle class life style where racial and cultural gaps are so broad and so often ignored.” She portrayed Americans as a group whose false faith in material advantages blinded them to the problems of transracial families. This exposed a broader, leftist opposition to capitalism that had founded the antiwar movement and informed the plaintiff’s case, but which members of the Center for Constitutional Rights strategically preferred to understate.
It is not difficult to imagine the pain and suffering the plaintiff children have already undergone, living their entire lives in a country torn by war, ripped from their families and home, brought thousands of miles away, held on military bases to be placed with families, no matter how well intentioned, of an alien culture with whom they are unable to communicate.
In her April 1975 Affidavit, Nhu Miller further elaborated these points. She noted that Americans misunderstood the structure and strength of Vietnamese families, creating an unnecessary and self-serving crisis. Vietnamese practiced an extended system of family so that “if you lost your father, you still have your uncle. If you lose your mother, your aunt will still nurse you.” Rather than asylums, she explained, orphanages were used as places for boarding children during times of economic or political crisis…. Foreign adoption is an alien and repugnant notion to the Vietnamese.” Nhu countered a picture of neglected or absent Vietnamese mothers, chastising “foreigners, who see only orphanages and assume the Vietnamese don’t care for their children, do not hear about mothers struggling alone to care for ten children or women caring for children left in their care permanently who would never consider putting them in an orphanage.” Nhu’s portrait of maternal struggle and adoption disrupted prevailing images of Vietnamese women that had shaped U.S. assertions in South Vietnam. Perpetuating a habit of feminizing Asian nations and casting Asian women as victims or vixens, U.S. media, soldiers, and policy makers alternatively imagined themselves as protecting or punishing a vulnerable, if sometimes treacherous, South Vietnam. Lost within these gendered constructions and justifications of military action were the real Vietnamese women whom Nhu depicted: individuals making tough but deliberate choices amidst arduous circumstances. So confident in her conception of caregiving customs and the will of Vietnamese mothers was Nhu that she and her husband, Tom Miller, long resisted assuming fuller responsibility for Oktober, the son of a Vietnamese woman, A, who had pleaded for their help. Nhu’s mother, BachLan, had first supported the boy, but when she died, Nhu felt compelled to help A “take care of her own child.” Nhu removed Oktober from an orphanage where he spent some of his days after determining its operators “were essentially selling the children.” And when she finally accepted A’s pleas “to take care of him” on a permanent basis and bring him to the United States, Nhu made certain that Oktober sustained a relationship with his Vietnamese mother.
The cases of Vietnamese families who endured separations and sought reunions in the United States seemed to underscore Nhu’s picture of caring Vietnamese kin and Americans’ propensity to sin. Li The Hang, whose work as an interpreter in a U.S. hospital in Vietnam familiarized her with American personnel and regulations, placed two of her five children, Phuong and Holly, with Catholic Charities and begged the organization “to get them out” before conditions deteriorated further in 1975. As she said her farewells, Li The Hang pressed into their hands a photo inscribed with a message intended to reassure and inspire: “My wish is for you to grow up free. We would rather be away from this country and live in freedom then be together under Communism.” When Li and her remaining children arrived in the United States four months later, she began hunting for Phuong and Holly. Despite the reluctance of an Oregon-based foster family to release their charges, the adoption papers they had filed were not yet processed and Li was able to recover her children with the help of a Catholic Priest. During a 2011 interview, she recalled the joy of the trio’s reunion. Her antipathy to Communism not only animated her plans of dividing, migrating, and eventually reuniting her family, but her service to other Vietnamese refugees. After settling and opening a successful restaurant in Decatur, Georgia during the 1980s, the Hangs would sponsor as many as 150 Vietnamese families. Reclaiming her children within a context of virulent anticommunism and diaspora, Li confirmed an American narrative about the downfall and doom of Vietnam. However, her assertion of maternal rights as a refugee sheltered by the United States also underscored the failure of modernization and militarization in South Vietnam; rather than rescued or reprimanded under the discipline of American masculine power—fantasies that propelled American policy in Southeast Asia—Vietnamese women surfaced as independent forces seeking place and persuasion as parents within their new nation. Despite the trauma of dislocation and migration, experiences that many refugees have sublimated with silence, these women spoke out. Their declarations repurposed Vietnamese social norms and cultural types. Vietnamese society had valued women’s reproductive and motherly talents. The war both intensified the importance of and imperiled their duty to protect and prepare the next generation. While men’s contributions to the nation were typically connected with their military service and camaraderie, Vietnamese women demonstrated service by enduring separations from their adult children, especially enlisted sons, and waiting for peace. These gendered interpretations persisted in postwar Vietnam. Women were honored for surrendering and mourning their lost sons, a form of reverence that elided the less passive and broader roles they had played in combat and in daily life by managing households, businesses, farms, and family.
Like the Hangs, many refugees replayed and refined Vietnamese constructions of gender and family within the United States using the lawsuit spearheaded by Californians to reunite them with their dependent relative. After the death of one son and one daughter in 1968, Nguyen Thi Phuc feared for the future of her remaining children. “If I don’t let [my sons] go out, then when they grow up the boy have to go military, had to go fighting. They die. I know that,” she stated during court testimony. Resisting the trope of sacrificial mother and risking retribution as disloyal to the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Thi Phuc sent her boys to the United States in 1972. Two years later, she heard “the bomb and rocket shoot very close to Saigon,” which led to her placing her daughters in the care of a Mr. Jacobs who agreed to bring the pair safely to the United States. Thi Phuc insisted that she had never signed relinquishment papers and secured the promise of Mr. Jacobs that “if I stay in my country, later where I stay I be safe, he return my children to me.” However, eighteen months later, when she arrived at Fort Chafee, Arkansas—a domestic military base much like California’s Camp Pendleton that processed Southeast Asian refugees—and attempted to recover her four children, she was faced with significant hurdles. Her sons’ foster parents wished to adopt them, rather than to surrender the boys. Despite her queries to immigration officials, the United States Catholic Conference, and local press, she could not determine her daughters’ whereabouts.
Dang Thi Hao showed similar resolve and met similar hindrances as she solicited assistance in winning back the two-year old daughter, whom a Catholic organization had brought to the United States, from Camp Pendleton, California officials. Fear, not neglect, prompted Thi Hao to yield the girl. She pleaded, but her pleas soon fell on deaf ears. One authority supposedly even urged her “to have another child,” a deeply disrespectful, even if not premeditated, remark that betrayed an insensitivity to the histories and individuality of Vietnamese refugees. Thi Hao told Miller, “there were other women seeking the return of their children, but they were being intimidated by the military and voluntary agencies.” Char Thi Lan also portrayed American bureaucrats, specifically those employed at the California Department of Health and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, as anything but helpful. Despite her appeals, she had failed to recover her four-month-old niece whose mother had not consented to the airlift. In these three cases, and others beyond, Vietnamese women not only found fault with the American government and demanded reflection on its responsibilities to refugees, but desperately tried to configure their authority and relationship to the United States through intense parental terms. They drew upon a respect for mothers in Vietnamese culture, while criticizing a war and regime that had compromised their ability to fulfill that particular function. Rather than shore up the Socialist Republic of Vietnam by gifting their children, these women had dispatched the youth to the United States where they now expected to retrieve and enact their maternal powers.
One authority supposedly even urged her “to have another child,” a deeply disrespectful, even if not premeditated, remark that betrayed an insensitivity to the histories and individuality of Vietnamese refugees. Thi Hao told Miller, “there were other women seeking the return of their children, but they were being intimidated by the military and voluntary agencies.”
Adoption agencies and adoptive parents, including those in Cupertino, California who organized the Council for the Rights of Adoptive Families to protect their interests, had come to counter that Vietnamese children were legitimately abandoned, suffering, and available, that agencies had followed proper protocols, and that “the lawsuit was politically motivated and had nothing to do with the children.” In their defense, they outlined the chaotic conditions of a war-torn Vietnam, the free will of Vietnamese mothers who chose, rather than were coerced, to relinquish their children, as well as the opportunities that these Vietnamese children would come to possess in the United States.
Confronted by conflicting reports and divisive testimonies, the Judge ultimately ruled that “the case was not properly a class action suit,” due to the fact that “each child’s situation [proved] so individual that common questions did not predominate over individual issues.” He represented the cases as being so complex and dizzyingly unique to defy the kind of generalization the plaintiffs desired. While acknowledging the confusion and occasional duplicity that had shaped the removal of Vietnamese children, he expressed skepticism about the plaintiff’s broad advocacy of reunification: “While beyond the scope of this court’s inquiry in this litigation, it is possible, in the individual circumstances peculiar to certain children, that the best interest of the children would be to not return them to their biological parents. It is not necessary to ruminate too extensively to imagine many situations where, for emotional, psychological, medical, or other reasons, a child would be better off remaining with the adoptive parents.” Disappointed, but not dissuaded, select Vietnamese families initiated and often won individual custody battles in state courts—sometimes with the aid of Tom Miller and the California team who reached out to Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. and pressed the State Department to locate families in Vietnam seeking lost relatives.
California, once a place of concentrated social protest where Asian immigrants had come to historically struggle and settle, soon assured that concerns of cultural autonomy, responsibility, and imperialism that were once raised during the American War in Vietnam were sustained. Debates about the constitution and influence of Vietnamese and American families exposed the long and difficult entanglements wrought by American power in Southeast Asia. As time passed and the Vietnam War became a memory to implore rather than a war to fight, Vietnamese children were reunited with their biological kin, adopted by American families, or belatedly invited to immigrate as young Amerasians. They would soon mature and become actors, as well as symbols of discussions of being representative of war legacies, constructions of ethno-racial communities, and proud patterns of assimilation.
This article is adapted from Allison Varzally, Children of Reunion: Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Family Migrations (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2017).
 “Ford Vows to Continue Operation Babylift,” Los Angeles Times (4 April 1972): 4.
 RG 276, Box 11 Reporter’s Partial Transcript, 19, 20 May 1975, RG 276 United States District Court of California, San Francisco, National Archives at San Francisco (RG 276, NARA-SF). Note, the author accessed court records stored at the National Archives in two visits separated by two years. During this interval, the court records were reorganized and the box numbers changed. Box numbers in the 500 range reflect the most recent iteration.
 Dana Sachs, The Life We Were Given: Operation Babylift, International Adoption, and the Children of War in Vietnam (Boston: Beacon Press, 2010); Reporter’s Partial Transcript, 25 June 1975, Box 11, RG 276, NARA-SF.
 Plaintiff’s Memo in Support of Entry of Preliminary Injunction Incorporating Provision of Consent Order and Petition for Rehearing and Suggestion for Rehearing En Banc, RG 276, NARA-SF.
 Ibid., Complaint for Declaratory Relief, RG-276, NARA-SF; Affidavit of Joyce Ladner, 20 January 1976, RG 276, NARA-SF.
 Affidavit of Tran Tuong Nhu (28 April 1975), RG 276, NARA-SF.
 Heather Marie Stur labeled the competing types of Vietnamese women conceived by Americans as “damsels in distress” (those in need of rescue from communist aggression) and “dragon ladies” (those whose duplicitous behavior compromised U.S. ambitions and invited censure). See Heather Marie Stur, Beyond Combat: Women and Gender in the Vietnam War Era (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 176.
 Oktober is the boy’s “Berkeley, California” name. Author’s Interview with Nhu Miller 29 May 2012; “A” is a pseudonym for Oktober’s birth mother.
 Author’s Interview with Le Thi Hang, 13 October 2011.
 Helle Rydstrom, “Gendered Corporeality and Bare Lives: Local Sacrifices and Sufferings during the Vietnam War” Signs 37.2 (January 2012): 275-299; Lan Duong, Treacherous Subjects: Gender, Culture, and Trans-Vietnamese Feminism (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2012); Nathalie Huynh Chau Nguyen, Memory is Another Country: Women of the Vietnamese Diaspora (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2009.)
 Reporter’s Transcript, Box 12, RG 276, NARA-SF. Although excluded from the specific class represented by Tom Miller because the children had arrived in the United States earlier than 1975, their stories resonated and Nguyen Thi Phuc’s had stepped forward because of the law suit, RG 276, NARA-SF.
 Affidavit of Thomas Miller, July 1975 box 6, Folder 2, RG 276, NARA-SF.
 Certificate of Attorney, 24 March 1976, Box 33, RG 276, NARA-SF.
 Cherie Clark, After Sorrow Comes Joy: One Woman’s Struggle to Bring Hope to Thousands of Children in Vietnam and India (Westminster, CO: Lawrence and Thomas Publishing House, 2000).
Nguyen Da Yen v. Kissinger. 528 F.2d 1194. U.S. Court of Appeals, 9th Cir. 5 Nov. 1975. The Judge’s concerns about the emotional costs of searches likely shaped his decision to seal the case files rather than appoint special masters to review the files. This effectively frustrated the efforts of plaintiff’s attorneys, in cooperation with the International Red Cross and Vietnamese government, to help families in Vietnam locate children in the United States. Author’s correspondence with Tom Miller, 11 July 2015.
 The County of Adams, State of Colorado, Dependency Action No. J6-5679-N; The People of the State of Colorado in the interest of Le Thanh Tung, aka Vo Huy Tung, aka Hoang Tung, aka Brice Zenk; Duong Bich Van v. John T. Dempsey, individually and as director of Social Services and the Michigan Department of Social Services and David and Barbara Pederson, jointly and Severally Civil Action No. 76-140 499 (23 June 1976); Peter Brennan, “Tug of Love: A Boy’s Tough Choice Between Two Mothers,” US Magazine (28 June 1977): 71-73; Le Thi Sang v. Knight, California Superior Court, San Joaquin County, docket No. 125898.
Allison Varzally is a professor of history at California State University, Fullerton. Her publications include Making a Non-White America: Californians Coloring Outside Ethnic Lines (University of California Press, 2008), which won the Theodore Saloutos Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, and most recently Children of Reunion: Vietnamese Adoptions and the Politics of Family Migrations (University of North Carolina Press). She is Book Review Editor of Southern California Quarterly.
Cu Chi Tunnels, Ho Chi Minh City, via Flickr user David McKelvey.
Some years ago, I did the touristy thing. I went to see the Cu Chi Tunnel in the Tay Ninh Province of Vietnam and found myself in a van full of American vets. A few of their friends had died while trying to find the headquarters where the Viet Cong operated during the war. For them, it was a powerful moment. At the entrance of the famed tunnel, one of them openly wept.
Dug up two decades after the war ended, the tunnel was initially intended for malnourished Vietnamese guerrilla fighters. It was once a well-hidden, tight crawl space with entrances submerged underwater. The new version, however, was an open cave and widened considerably to accommodate extra large Westerners. The underground headquarters for the National Liberation Front (where guerrilla tactics were planned against the south) had, in peacetime, turned rather capitalistic and kitschy, all for a tourist dollar. The new version came with a shooting range nearby for those who, emerging from the dank and the dark, wished to shoot an AK-47 or an M16 at some target or another. The price was somewhere around a dollar a pop.
The middle-aged vets teared up gazing at an old war wound, but the young tour guide was all smiles when she and I chatted. Like the majority of her countrymen, she had no direct memories of the war. She readily confessed that, for her, the tunnel was a relic about which she knew nothing until she got her job. She reminisced with me about a friend’s son, a third generation San Franciscan who scrambled for history lessons for his summer job as a tour guide of the city’s famed Fisherman’s Wharf, a tourist trap he had long avoided.
“So you live in California?” she whispered, barely containing her excitement. “My dream is to go for a visit. I have friends over there.” The young woman crawled through Cu Chi 2.0 with foreigners on a regular basis to save money for her own adventures. She rattled off dreamy destinations: Disneyland, Universal Studios, the Golden Gate Bridge, Yosemite. If given the opportunity, she would like to study for an MBA in the United States.
For some the tunnel runs toward the bloody past. For this young woman, it leads toward a cosmopolitan future. The middle-aged men saw war and trauma and senselessness, a bloody memory that bore unfinished grief. This young ambitious woman saw a particular light at the tunnel’s end: The supposed Magic Kingdom.
But for me, where do I stand? I straddle the cave’s mouth as if an indecisive time traveler….
Born in the middle of the war to a military officer who served in the South Vietnamese army, I reached puberty in California a few months after the war ended. I was a refugee boy who quickly transformed into an American teenager. My voice broke that first summer in Daly City, south of San Francisco. I learned English fast enough to start devouring American novels by the second. In time, and with some struggle, I became an American journalist and writer. I traveled the world…
… and it was only then, standing at the far end of the cosmopolitan continuum, that I fully accepted that in the aftermath of the Vietnam war, the two countries are no longer separable for me. The ocean had become a nuisance in my imagination. California (where I spent the bulk of my American life) and Vietnam (my once lost homeland) had both deeply intertwined themselves, fusing, changing, melding, battling for my soul. They offer no final resolution.
Vietnam and the Myth of California
During my first few years in America, I learned many English words. My favorite was that odd, yet open-ended conjunction, “whereas.” I learned it in the eighth grade when I had to write compare and contrast essays.
The Vietnamese take holidays on Emperors’ death dates. I was told on my first school year in Daly City, at the southern end of San Francisco, that students get a day off for Washington’s birthday. Poor Vietnamese were reed thin, whereas poor Americans were hefty and meat eaters. Vietnamese don’t look at you in the eyes unless it is intimate or confrontational, whereas Americans expect eye contact, unless you appear to be untrustworthy. Americans talk about their apparent vision of the future. Vietnamese prayed to their ancestors’ spirits nightly. Americans say, “What do you do?” at cocktail parties, whereas Vietnamese ask, “Are you married?” and “Where is your hometown?”
California was geometrically sound with clean lines for borders, whereas Vietnam was all frills, a convulsed “S” with its messy borders that spoke of aggressions from and losses against China, Laos, Cambodia, and other ancient kingdoms. Vietnam was dirty and damp and its sidewalks were uneven. Its walls mildewed and rooftops curved and caved, its landscape pockmarked and cratered by bombs, whereas California was endless highways and full of concrete and glassy high rises. Its agricultural lands emulated a checkerboard pattern, like math.
Vietnam and California are both long and coastal. They both hug their own continent, framing the Pacific from opposed ends, seeming cursed to serve as one another’s opposed ideas in my child’s mind. If one represented sadness and loss, a country riddled with poverty and warfare, the other offered hopes and dreams—the freedom to remake.
Among the first few American songs I heard living in Vietnam during the war was “California Dreaming,” by the Mamas & The Papas, its cadence full of longing. It slowly dawned on me that even when you are an American living elsewhere, California still represents a dream-like destination. No wonder the Vietnamese had begun to dream the California Dream as the war raged on. In my mother’s “English for Today” textbook, which she studied intensely, she paid special attention to a lesson about San Francisco. My brother, sister, and I pored over her shoulders. She taught us about the gold rush and how it was gold that drew people from around the world. We learned that gold was so abundant that it fell out of pockets of drunken prospectors, and Chinese laundrymen collected gold dust in their jeans when they washed them. The Chinese even called it “Old Gold Mountain.” Gold made the place. I recall the first time crossing the Golden Gate Bridge on my seventh grade field trip. I was sorely disappointed when I was told by my teacher that no, it was not really made of gold.
Vietnam and California are both long and coastal. They both hug their own continent, framing the Pacific from opposed ends, seeming cursed to serve as one another’s opposed ideas in my child’s mind.
Stories told of California during my Vietnamese childhood bordered on the mythic. As a child, I imagined America as a world full of options. I saw it through the “31 Flavors” Baskin Robbins poster brought back by my visiting cousin, who was already living in San Francisco. One colorful scoop stacked on top of another, all on top of a single sugar cone, reaching an impossible height. The salivating child stared in wonder at those painted scoops of ice cream beyond possibility.
The family chauffeur, whom we called Uncle Phuoc, saw California as an open road. “Xứ Cali is so big that you can drive down this freeway,” he would tell us on those humid nights with nothing to do but tell tales. He referred to California as Xứ Cali, which is short hand for the nation of California. He’d never been out of the country, but Uncle Phuoc did business with American GIs on the streets on Saigon, buying and selling American stuff. Plus he saw photos. So for us, he was an expert: “And you can stop and pick an orange from an orchard or an apple to quench your thirst, and no one cares. Such a rich place.”
The Vietnamese word for country is Đất nước, a combination of two elements: Earth and water. Put them together and what do you get? Mud, which is to say where rice grows. The paddies for millennia thus held the Vietnamese soul captive—bent back and conical hats and cyclical life, live and die by the land, something both at once essential and sacred. Even to this day, rural folks still bury the umbilical chords of their newborns in the land, a kind of spiritual registration. Ancestor’s graves still dot rural landscapes, even in the backyard of farmers’ homes. An old ethos: Live and die by the land. Vietnamese pray to the dead. We talk to ghosts.
Alas, cyclical life gives easily to fatalism, imbued by a profound understanding that human suffering and loss are as inevitable as a norm. One accepted one’s fate. No happily ever afters, thanks. Children learn it early on: Vietnamese fairy tales often end tragically. The princess dies. The hero fails to marry the princess. The abandoned wife holds her babe in her arms and waits for her husband on a mountaintop nightly until both mother and child, pitied by the heavens, turn into stone.
The dead princess’ heart turns into a red ruby, refusing the cremating fire. The grieving king had it carved into a tea bowl. Whenever tea is poured into it, the image of the lone fisherman on his boat appeared, floating to and fro. He didn’t know. How could she have loved such a lowly commoner simply because of his singing voice? So he came back, too late, of course. But he cried. The fisherman’s tear fell into the bowl and it melted back into blood. It shimmered into nothingness.
Pati ergo sum? We suffer, therefore we exist. Tragedy followed Vietnamese narratives like Grimm, like Greek. To be acknowledged, to have one’s love requited, no matter how modest, how minuscule, a tear in a teacup was enough as a pay off. To be true to oneself was more important. Virtue was measured in term of stoicism, in endurance, which defined one’s characters, and wherein lived the divine. The rest? Up to fate. For a country invaded, steeped in warfare and losses, it was a luxury to think of happy endings.
One perhaps thinks why in the aftermath of that bloody embrace do the Vietnamese quickly shrug off the old fatalism (like the tour guide wanting her magic kingdom), and shift their gaze fixedly toward America. America’s powerful allure was self-evident through the story of progress of those who arrived in earlier waves, like those of my family.
Take my mother for instance. The letters and photos she diligently sent back home to relatives and friends, along with the care packages during the impoverished cold war years in the war’s aftermath, unwittingly became a powerful propaganda for Uncle Sam. They tell a story of wealth, progress, and transformation.
Sister, see my kids, see how they’ve grown!
Aunty, we bought a five-bedroom house with a pool… Just came back from Paris to see Aunt D. Here we are at the Eiffel Tower.
Those photos and letters were siren songs. Vượt biên—to cross the border, to escape overseas—soon became a powerful verb, upending the Vietnamese sedentary nature. The old narrative faltered: Goodbye water, so long land; no more bent back, blazing sun, mud. A new migratory ethos was born on the back of boat people, with the birth of the Vietnamese Diaspora. What America had offered as possibilities, as opportunities, as dreams, over time became far more potent than any bullets and bombs.
Evolution of places, of movement
A community was born from both memory and ambition. And if I dance at the far end of that migratory story, so many of us now live up and down its streets.
Shh, listen! That man committed cannibalism when he vượt biên. A friend whispered this into my ear while we were eating pho in Orange County’s Little Saigon sometime in the late ’90s. My friend was a local resident. I stole a peek: The man looked just like everybody else in the restaurant, but he was marked. He was on an ill-fated boat stranded on a reef, crowded with people. It was abandoned by an American naval ship. After providing the boat people with some food and water, the American ship left for its mission, promising to pick them up upon its return trip. But it did not. A few days later, the stranded people ran out of food and water. People started dying. The boat’s captain and his squad, out of desperation, started killing the weak. They started eating human flesh and drinking their victims’ blood in order to survive. It’s a story that was featured in a 60 Minutes segment many years ago and later in a powerful documentary called Bolinao 52 by filmmaker Duc Nguyen.
The man, the cannibal, so my friend told me, owned businesses. His children grew up to be tall and smart. They all prospered. That night, going home, and upon rereading an essay by Joan Didion about her California, it got me thinking: These pioneers—the Nguyens and the Trans of our modern time—those who risked death to find new homes, and those who crossed all sorts of boundaries and borders, who is to say that their stories do not rival that of the Donner Party?
Often survivors of a political fallout from another country become builders of another. Refugees and migrants have always helped themselves. It takes a special spirit and resolve, after all, to maneuver across boundaries and borders, risking death to reach the promised land. Given the right opportunity these people transform the world they enter. He walks across desert sands, she sails out to sea with her children, the teenager fleeing violence hops on a train and goes northward with nothing but a small backpack. Eventually in the new country, children are born, businesses prosper, and in time a community begins to form.
It is no exaggeration to say that California, home to the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam, has been radically altered because of the Vietnamese Diaspora. Up and down the coast, Little Saigons bloom, transforming the California landscape.
Just on taste alone: Take a look at my mother’s garden. Back in the ’80s, in her new suburban home at northern edge of Silicon Valley, she creates herbs from seeds and roots she got from friends who came later from Vietnam by boat. Now imagine that little garden spreading throughout California. Refugees and immigrants don’t just leave, they take seeds and roots with them, along with their culinary traditions and taste, and over time Southeast Asian tastes too come to be like the American taste. Go to a farmer’s market these days and see for yourself: Buddha fingers, lemongrass, mountain yam, coriander, bitter melons, mint, amaranth, buffalo spinach; even the air smelled of Southeast Asia.
No wonder the American taste buds demand more nuance, as some liking it hot, and others liking it even hotter. This is why Iron Chef competitions sometime make Vietnamese the Banh mi sandwich. And why David Tran became a multimillionaire, making a chili sauce from his Saigon memory in Southern California, calling it Sriracha. So popular and ubiquitous now that it inspires copycats around the world, and even threatens to usurp ketchup.
I, for one, do not underestimate the power of immigrants’ nostalgia. In the Golden State, it often has ways of becoming retroactive. Buddhist temples now waft incense into the streets of San Francisco, San Jose, Westminster, Long Beach, Sacramento, and Los Angeles. So much longing for home changes the new landscape.
So here too are the familiar rags to riches theme to go with the Vietnamese Californian narrative: The family that started with one modest Banh Mi sandwich truck in Silicon Valley, hoping to serve Vietnamese Americans working as assembly workers turned the business into an international chain. A man who was a rice farmer in Vietnam discovered that he could start his own company assembling electronic boards and so he started a corporation. A Vietnamese woman who sold used clothes on the street of Saigon married an American who worked in the Foreign Service in Vietnam. In San Francisco, the once used clothing seller on the streets of Saigon helped her husband shepherd in a multibillion-dollar investment fund.
So many stories of transformation overseas indeed ends up transforming the erstwhile Vietnamese sedentary soul.
California in Vietnam
“A brand new country,” a reporter friend from Vietnam recently rattled off to me the other day when we spoke. The once isolated country is fast in becoming the most wired, and the highest user of cell phones. “The hottest market for iPhone sales, far surpassing sales growth in India and China….”
“Facebook entered Vietnam’s market six years ago and at one point it was adding a million signups a month… It is expected to have thirty-six million users this year, that’s out of forty million Vietnamese who even have access to the Internet!”
“The average age of the Vietnamese is below thirty.”
Therefore, it’s a country of amnesia. Three out of four don’t remember the Vietnam War. Its gaze is forward and relentless. A Pew study in 2014 found that of forty-four countries, Vietnamese were the most optimistic about their future. Whereas Vietnam was once a country made up of poverty and isolation, plighted by wars and bloodshed, it is now expressive—a beginning of cultural renaissance.
Vietnam finally emerged out of the old war to be deeply wired, running on high gear toward cosmopolitan life. Vietnam cleaned up and repaved its broken sidewalks, like their wealthy Chinese and Japanese counterparts, beginning to travel overseas—no, not to vượt biên, but to shop. And to study and invest. Meanwhile high rises spring up virtually overnight in Saigon and Hanoi and Danang. A few months ago in my newsroom in San Francisco, an intern fresh from Vietnam came to improve her English and learn American ways of doing business so that she could get into an MBA program and start her own media firm back home. She seemed to capture that world wariness of the new generation when she commented that, “At first I was impressed with San Francisco, but a few weeks here and it feels, well, nothing special. Just the same as Saigon.”
Just the same as Saigon…
Once upon a time the ocean was treacherous and leaving Vietnam once meant a risk of death, or starvation, or drowning, or falling into pirate hands. Once it took three to six months to send a care package home, and with a government officer reading the letter before it is distributed to the addressee. Today, coming to America for many is a matter of purchasing a ticket on an airplane, and instead of marveling at its grandeur, the wary traveler begins to see America, as the intern sees it: “not that big of a deal.”
An inverse effect is taking place. San Francisco has more pedicab drivers than Saigon, which had gotten rid of them, and so a juxtaposition can be seen along the Embarcadero: Young, strong white people pedal tourists up and down the sidewalk—many of them from Asia. San Francisco has more homeless than its sister city, Saigon, which has cleaned up its streets. The poor/rich gap in the Bay Area is staggeringly third world and the cost of living is stratospheric. One out of three residents here ponder departure.
“You just have to realize that to vượt biên these days—the crossing of borders—doesn’t have to be outside of Vietnam,” a friend commented as he and I sat and drank artisan coffee in my hometown, Dalat, a few years back. Increasingly the dream can also be had at home. These days even middle class Vietnamese fly overseas to shop.
Whereas once Vietnam stood in contrast to America, to California, today it is running on parallel tracks, with its multi-strata and multi-class society. The once old echoed ’90s phrase, “Vietnam is a country not a war,” has now become an old cliché. Vietnam hasn’t been a war for many years, but it’s more than a country. It’s becoming a global entity, a major exporter of rice and coffee and seafood products, a major tourist destination.
Vietnam is a country, but it has taken on various shades of California. Vietnam wants to become the opposite of its former self—it wants to be globally connected, cosmopolitan. It has run fast and furious from war to peace and so like bamboo shoots spring up after the rain, cityscapes in Vietnam looks more and more like SOMA here in San Francisco. Vietnamese cities exist in a new world dotted with Starbucks and McDonalds. Remember those wondrous scoops of Baskin-Robbins? They too have made their way to Vietnam. In his wildest dreams uncle Phuoc could never imagine freeways being built with overpasses in Vietnam, and high rises that radically change Saigon’s city scape.
So be warned: The more you long for California, the more it comes to you. Turn on the TV and see what I mean. A rural teenager appears; she’s nervous, full of self-doubt. But when she sings, a golden voice. Judges swoon. The audience tears up. Soon, a month or so, she has been transformed, grows in confidence and beauty. The awkwardness replaced by the studied gestures of shyness and elegance. She gives a flawless performance. The audience roars with approval. A new princess is born. In the back stage, her yokel mother hugs herself and weeps.
Welcome to Vietnam Idol. Or Vietnam The Voice (The Voice of Vietnam). Or Vietnam’s Got Talent. Regardless of which reality show it is, a golden thread of optimism runs unmistakably through. The new “happily ever after” motif has eroded old world fatalism, and shifted the collective psyche. The Emcee of Vietnam Idol seems to say it all: “We will transform your dream into reality!”
Why was it that I ran so far and so fast from the parochial, the sadness? For some years after the war, after migrating to America, I failed to speak Vietnamese. I failed to form Vietnamese sentences that would shock my younger self, the chatty kid who talked endlessly in his schoolyard in Saigon among his classmates. The child sang the South Vietnamese national anthem with fervor each morning. But the teenager fled from his Vietnam memories, and even changed his name along with his preferred tongue, and read so voraciously that he even began to dream in English.
Only in adulthood did I come to realize that the English language was not one to be used to escape; but instead, to fully claim wholeness, English needs to be applied to commemorate and to grieve. I began to write. I now tell stories about my lost childhood, the lost country, and about the painful exodus out of Vietnam. I began to travel. And I began to go back.
As so did many others.
Victor Luu, who fled Vietnam a day before Saigon fell to Communist tanks on 30 April, 1975, has become a successful software engineer who participated in several start-ups in California’s Silicon Valley. In 2006, he returned to his hometown and founded Siglaz, a software company with more than fifty employees. In his new office in a tall building in an electronic corridor area near the airport called E-Town, where many Vietnamese American expats open their high tech businesses, Luu could see, when he turned around from his desk, the runway from which his plane full of panicked refugees took off decades years ago. “I fully believe in Vietnam,” he added. “The future is here. And I want to help it happen.”
Diep Vuong, a cum laude graduate of Harvard University with a degree in economics, left Vietnam as a boat person in 1979, but came back a decade ago to help fight human trafficking in An Giang, her home province in the Mekong Delta. “I always remember once we came to America my mother saying to my sisters and I that we were born Vietnamese for a reason, and it is up to us to figure out what that reason is,” Giang said. Hers is that she can protect at-risk young women being sold into slavery. “Increasingly, Vietnamese Americans are playing central roles in the philanthropy sector,” she said. “As for me, I can’t just sit and do nothing. Any of those girls being sold to Cambodia or China could be a cousin or a child of an old friend.”
A San Jose born Vietnamese American, known as Giay Giay, went back and married a local boy in Dalat. “Whenever I hear a chicken crow in the morning I get nostalgic for California. My mother raised chickens in the suburb.” Vietnam’s culture has moved toward an open sexuality, she told me, a new sexual revolution. Little Saigon continues to practice its conservative values left over from the time of the war. “The young here don’t care about history, about the past,” she said, “whereas I come back and I am obsessed with it. I want to know where my mother came from, the way she lived.”
The refugee becomes immigrant and then, it seems with opportunities, he, in the twenty-first century, turns into a cosmopolitan—someone who participates in multiple spheres and languages and cultural-geographical affiliations. It’s inevitable, too, for many Vietnamese abroad to take the journey home at some point.
In truth the Diaspora has always played an important role in Vietnam’s economic life, long before the Cold War ended, long before the return trip was possible. But over time, as borders became porous, as the forces of globalization swept over Vietnam after the Berlin Wall fell and the USSR unraveled, the Diaspora began to—individually, collectively—reach back to its homeland, investing, providing technological know how, sharing cultural knowledge, sponsoring others to come, repatriating, and performing philanthropic work, all forming a complex transnational network, becoming a bona fide global tribe.
In middle age, I too long to return. But each time I go to Vietnam I have to contend myself with several versions of my homeland.
There’s the visceral—that long lost country at war time, a world of clanship, intimate connections, of smallness, of a charmed and quiet provincial life of walled villas and servants, a childhood of slow rhythm in the tropical world, and romantic music Joe Dassin, Françoise Hardy, Silvie Vartan, Johnny Halladay, Christophe… and of little school kids in uniform streaming into the old lycée, and the distant echoes of bombs in those quiet Saigon nights after the rain. Even now, typing these words, I still yearn for all that—a world long gone, the fear and the wonders, and retrievable only in the recalling.
One refuses the singular narrative, marrying instead ideas and languages, living with many reference points. To return, one goes forward.
Then there’s that raging river called Vietnam, and it’s full of young, ambitious people wanting to transform the country and improve their lives. It’s consumerist. It’s hardworking. It’s highly wired and growing in sophistication. It’s a world of go-getters. It’s a long-dormant nation waking up, rejuvenating, it roars with sounds of millions of motorcycles toward an unknown future.
Do not get me wrong. Injustice remains. Human trafficking is a scourge. The rich/poor gap widened. But I also wish to tell you that it is a country made up of ambitions and an increasingly globalized landscape. And it’s an unknown country.
And here’s the third home—a landscape made of one’s invention and many points of connections. The only way back is therefore in going forward. One cannot go home again, not to relive the long lost world, or capture the past, but one can take up mantle in that familiar, yet entirely new country. One learns to see the many dimensions of the world simultaneously. One refuses the singular narrative, marrying instead ideas and languages, living with many reference points. To return, one goes forward. One marries opposed ideas and creates points of synthesis. One hears a new symphony over the cacophony. One commits all to memories. One is open to the flux, to change.
Last year in Saigon, not far from where I used to live, I went to a karaoke party with some friends. Not much of a singer, I nevertheless was, after a few beers, coaxed to sing. I selected “Feeling Good” by Nina Simone, which I know by heart. As friends watched in astonishment, I belted its lyrics out with gusto, especially this verse:
And this old world is a new world And a bold world For me For me…
Because, well, that’s how I felt about new Vietnam, and it does feel good.
 “52” refers to the number of those remaining from the one hundred ten people who survived their saga in a boat on the high seas before being rescued by Filipino fishermen from the seaside town of Bolinao, the Philippines.
Andrew Lam is the author of two books of essays, Perfume Dreams, Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, and a collection of short stories, Birds of Paradise Lost. He is a recipient of Creative Work Fund to write a series of stories exploring the relationship between Vietnam and California.
Please join us Wednesday, March 7th, 7-9 p.m. in Orange County’s Little Saigon for a discussion with best-selling authors Thi Bui and Andrew Lam, today’s chroniclers of Vietnamese California. Bill Gates called Thi Bui’s memoir, The Best We Could Do, one of 2017’s top-ten books; and frequent contributor to NPR’s All Things Considered, Andrew Lam’s book on the Vietnamese diaspora, Perfume Dreams,won the PEN/Beyond Margins Award, and Birds of Paradise Lostwas a finalist for the California Book Award. Ahead of an upcoming Boom series on “Vietnamese California,” these leading writers will be joined in a conversation by Boom editor Jason Sexton and by scholars of the Vietnamese experience:
Sarah Grant, Assistant Professor of Anthropology (CSUF)
Phuoc Duong, Lecturer of Asian-American Studies (CSUF)
The event will be held at in the heart of Orange County’s LITTLE SAIGON, at Viet Bao News, 14841 Moran St., Westminster, 92683. Come along early to enjoy some of the world’s best Vietnamese food at any number of nearby restaurants. Books will also be available for sale and signing.
Please RSVP since space is limited. Hope to see you there!
Japanese Tea Garden, San Francisco. Photograph by Robert Berowitz via Flickr.
Karen Tei Yamashita
On 9/11, I flew out of JFK on a 6:00 am flight headed for SFO, ignorant of danger and spared the consequences of the disaster in my wake. Though preoccupied for months later by my narrow escape and devastated by any news of friends and old acquaintances, I had long resolved to leave New York for a new start in the central coastal town of Santa Cruz on the northern peninsula of the Monterey Bay. Upon arrival, I turned selfishly to unpacking and situating myself in a comfortably clean and furnished rental, bathed in warm dry winds and swirling heat, hot days interspersed with cool, the fall season intervening in fits and starts. We call these days Indian summer, supposing that the Indians had long ago marked our calendar with their climate wisdom. By contrast, having just traveled in Europe from August to September, I was surprised to note, while in Fiesole, the autumn coolness trade away the summer heat, as if on schedule from 31 August to 1 September, which made me think that the parsing of seasons is a European expectation of time passing.
I had been offered a lectureship in art history on the subject of American architecture and the arts and crafts movement. My particular focus was the design of Frank Lloyd Wright and the architects of his Taliesan Fellowship, and the turn toward and uses of a Japanese aesthetic. On arrival in California, I thought I knew little of this coastal town, but this assumption of ignorance was eventually reversed. My previous forays to California had been brief and directed: for example, a tour of works by Julia Morgan including Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Asilomar in Pacific Grove, and various YWCA centers and gracious homes in San Francisco and on the East Bay—Oakland and Berkeley. While quaint Victorians, trolleys running beneath bay windows of pastel painted ladies were charming, I focused on the modern—the use of concrete and natural stone, exposed beams of giant redwood and extended garden landscapes, seaside cypress, crooked and windswept, reaching beyond glass open to natural light, wavering through sunset and fog. I was thus pleased to discover in Santa Cruz examples of the architecture of Aaron G. Green, protégé of Frank Lloyd Wright. Aaron Green had in the 1950s established himself independently in San Francisco and was the West Coast representative of Wright himself. I happened upon a building by Green somewhat by accident, a combination of fortune and misfortune, fortunate for my research and misfortunate in view of my health.
Soon after arriving in Santa Cruz I was plagued by dizzy spells, and while walking to class across the wooden bridges spanning long gullies that cut through the redwood campus, I experienced a curious sense of vertigo. I would stumble into my lectures, grip the podium for several moments to regain my balance, trying with difficulty to assure myself and any students who bothered to notice my distress that I had control of the situation. I learned that if I directed my concerns quickly to technology, in those years the use of a Kodak carousel projector, I would soon forget my dis-ease and turn to the subject of my lecture that day, whether interior design and craftsman furniture or perhaps the use of water as natural falls, pools, and flowing sound. So it was: I sought medical advice and was directed to a laboratory for a series of blood tests. The laboratory was located in a medical plaza of low roofed structures. As I walked into the waiting room, I immediately recognized the architectural style, the latticed windows just above waiting room seats—built-in couches facing a brick fireplace. While the narrow windows stained amber afforded very low light, light tumbled into the waiting room through a central Japanese garden atrium enclosed in glass. Such a waiting room for a medical laboratory seemed entirely out of character, but it was, as I knew, the architectural design of Aaron Green influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright and built in 1964. I would come to frequent this waiting room numerous times and would note over the years subtle changes that remade and distorted the original intensions of design and aesthetic, but these were changes of time and age and inevitable forgetting.
Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater House. Photograph by Mariano Mantel via Flickr.
You walk around the architectural model placed at the center of the large conference table and smile. You note the location of your future office with the insertion of a Japanese garden atrium. From above, you can see an open square in the low roof encasing a miniature maple, stones, and a pond embedded in moss. At the plaza center, a pharmacy is placed strategically in a pagoda, buildings graced with low eaves and convenient circling parking. You’ve driven up to San Francisco with your colleagues in your maroon Rolls Royce, enjoying the day and the pleasant ride along the coast up Highway 1. You exude a sweet confidence, your dress casual however smart, a red and gold silk scarf tied jauntily around your neck—your signature stylishness. Perhaps you, your doctor colleagues, the builder contractor, and the architect will dine in nearby Chinatown. You order for the group: Chinese chicken salad, roast duck, pork tofu, gai lan, bowls of steamed rice, beer for your companions, tea for you. Red lacquer and circling dragons swirl through the dining hall. You see yourself reflected infinitely in the surrounding mirrors, seated next to the architect as you discreetly suggest that you may be acquiring a mountain-side acreage; would he be interested in visiting the site?
Initially I was put off by the laboratory phlebotomist in charge, a commanding woman who seemed to bark out orders from behind the desk ensconced behind a half-door that served as a check-in station. Insurance card? Medicare? No doctor’s orders; who is your doctor? Are you fasting? Drink some water before you leave. What, no urine sample? Can’t pee today? Take this home, and bring me back some pee. Passing through the half-door, I realized she was a one-phlebotomist show—intake, paperwork, and phlebotomy all in one draw. That she managed this operation with efficiency and accuracy was a tribute to the job. She could slap my arm, tighten the rubber strap above the elbow, locate the vein, stick in the needle, and suck out my blood in five tubes in a matter of minutes. And despite all this, she remembered all her victims by name and likely our blood-types and disorders, and when in her infrequent absences, I truly missed her, those replacing her would commiserate with me. Ah yes, the general is on vacation.
Yet despite the general’s efficiency, I found myself on that first day sitting for perhaps 45 minutes in the waiting room with a pile of student papers, which I intended to grade in spare moments. Losing interest in student responses, I drew out the parameters of the space. The fireplace had ceased use, a potted plant in its altar, dark traces of smoke and ashes clearly smearing the brick within and above. The cubby designed to hold firewood was empty. I walked to the tall slabs of glass panes that served as the transparent wall to the garden and peered in. There was a pond with a small fall of flowing water and gold fish surrounded by grass and moss and flowering azaleas. A small maple shaded the area. And to one side was a bronze plaque set over a cement block imprinted with five names. Presumably the garden was a memorial to these names. Studying these names, I felt an uncanny awakening, a sudden sense of familiarity. I returned to my seat pressing a nervous palm into a slippery stack of papers and waited for the general to bark out my name.
You hike up an uneven path, the architect behind you. You point out trees and markers that designate the perimeters of the ten-acre hillside you’ve recently purchased. At some point in your trek, you turn around and look out toward the town below and the bay beyond. The view is spectacular that day, sunlight glinting off blue waves, the outline of the bay sweeping with lush clarity across the horizon. The architect nods with sympathetic pleasure, notes the southern facing direction, and agrees that this is the perfect open vista; no trees need to be cut or removed from this clearing. You will require a survey and structural engineering evaluations, but the architect imagines that retaining walls and foundation pylons to secure the structure to bedrock will pose no problems. The architect understands your intentions to create a home in concert with the living site, low to the ground and unobtrusive, bringing the natural outside into the gracious space of the home. You trade thoughts about your admiration for Frank Lloyd Wright. While living near Chicago, you’d admired examples of Wright’s homes; you admit your fascination for his architecture, bicycling through Oak Park and viewing the houses from the street, one by one. But you were a medical student and an intern in those days, and practical matters set you on a course away from your artistic pursuits. Your hobby has been furniture, following a craftsman aesthetic. Included in the plans, you’d like a carpenter’s studio separate from the house, a place to which you can retreat. You and the architect trade thoughts about the work of Isamu Noguchi and George Nakashima, but you demure, of course, yours is a hobby, something to pass the time away from your busy practice, your boisterous family.
I jumped to the general’s command, passed into the general’s quarters, and sat obediently at my designated seat. She peered, skewering her head toward my hanging face, staring into my eyes, and surprised me with her sharp query: Are you going to faint on me? I shook my head and woke to attention. I could not succumb to a dizzy spell at that moment if I were to discover the source of my malady. I thought that she must first draw my blood, and then, I could faint. Look that way, she ordered and pointed away from her needle, rubber hose, and tubes. I was offended; I had no such problem with the sight of blood. I purposely showed my strength and determination in this matter and caught her every movement with a purposeful fascination. I watched my blood syphon away into the general’s rubber hose, filling glass vials, one by one. By the last bloody vial, I knew the source of my discomforting remembering. The face of young woman rose in my vision, someone I had not thought of in more than 20 years.
Over time, you and the architect form a close relationship. He wants to see your furniture design ideas, incorporate them into the interior, and you’ve read about Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin Fellowship, prompting the architect to talk about his tutelage with the great master. The architect studied with Wright during the pre-war years, became a conscientious objector contending that his work with Wright was an important effort for democracy. He explains his keen enthusiasm for Wright’s philosophy of organic architecture, an architecture tied to natural space and the education of the individual. He spreads his initial draft plans over your dining table. Architecture with Wright was a calling, but when the war really began in 1941, the architect volunteered for the Air Corps. You bond over the Air Corps; both you and your brother volunteered to fly as well; your brother was a paratrooper in the war. You say your brother survived, came home, got his degree, then got back into training, but died only a year later, a jet pilot over Bavaria in ’51. You guess the war isn’t ever over. Democracy is a hard mistress. Your last stint was in Dayton, Ohio, at Wright-Paterson Air Force Base, in ophthalmology. When that was over, you piled the family, the wife and four kids and three cats and some of your furniture into a Volkswagen van and drove across country to Santa Cruz. Camped out for a while at your sister’s place, then started your practice. Despite everything—the war, prejudice, you believe that America has done right by its people, given you the opportunities your parents dreamed for. You peruse the ground plans surrounding the house—landscaping, swimming pool, garden with a pond and small fall. The architect asks if you know any Japanese landscaper or gardener friend with whom you’d like to work.
I remembered her exquisite beauty, perfect Eurasian features. It was 1976, the year I began my graduate studies in architecture at Columbia. I was in the elevator scaling the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum to the top. Through the faces and bodies in that rising box, I spied her in the corner, shy but with a certain nonchalance and happy innocence. I followed her through the elevator doors and wandered after her at a careful distance. I lost track of time and purpose and spent an entire and long afternoon in the museum as if smitten. I had originally intended to view a particular Léger and perhaps a matching Picasso, carefully attempt to memorize the structural design of the building itself, and then to rush off to my afternoon class. Instead I wandered and lingered in rooms, leaned from various viewpoints to view the hanging Calder—a cloud platter of red blood cells turning silently, ponderously, and followed her slow snail descent to the bottom. She wore the jeans of the day, bellbottoms over boots, covered by an oversized heavy pink Irish fisherman’s sweater, hand-knitted I assumed. On her head she wore a worn brown leather cap, which at some point she pulled away. I remember gasping at the glorious motion of her thick hair falling in graceful rivers across her face and shoulders. I was at the time studying architecture with an emphasis on historic preservation at Columbia. That moment in the elevator followed by my circling decline through the museum was the beginning of a tumultuous and torturous year for me in which I seemed to have lost all sense of direction.
You follow the execution of architectural plans with the extreme precision of a surgeon. In your line of work, perfection is a requirement. From the structural integrity of the foundation to the application of a subtle shade of paint, you meticulously manage every detail. The architect and contractor are conciliatory as you are kind but assertive, even forming your commands as gentle requests followed by astute observations and independent research. That is to say, before you make your recommendations, you hit the books, study the matter, prepare with knowing. Your assumption of authority has been learned in the military, but of gentleness, trained at the hospital bedside. But there is another veneer not so easily interpreted. You were born into one of the few Japanese families in a small rural town in Montana. Your father came at the turn of the century, labored as a foreman to complete the Northern Pacific—Minnesota to Spokane, and one day made enough to pay for your mother’s passage, a picture bride. As you come of age, you and your family represent an enemy from a place you have never known. To compare the small tightknit fishing villages of your parents to the rugged mountainous cowboy town of your upbringing is to imagine a folktale about two distant and exotic lands. If only it were a folktale and not a navigation through territories of hatred. Within months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, you are aware that less than 200 miles away, across the border in Wyoming, 10,000 Japanese Americans evicted from the West Coast have been incarcerated in the same spectacular but desolate landscape in which you continue to be free. But it is a perilous freedom, especially for your immigrant parents designated enemy aliens. Thus every movement, every action, every facial expression must avoid trouble, anticipate a precarious future. Like any other kid from Montana, your older brother volunteers for the military. Your mother embroiders a thousand knots into a woven cotton belt that he obediently wears under his uniform, a protective talisman; so he returns but only to be killed in peacetime. You follow your brother’s path as if to complete what can never be completed, but you are driven to succeed. You skip lunch and drive from your practice at midday to see the rising stone escarpment, 650 tons of quarried Arizona sandstone, flashing a toothy grin toward the Pacific, a gesture of grandeur and place against a precarious future.
UC Santa Cruz Arboretum. Photograph by Sara Stasi via Flickr.
I followed her out the museum’s glass doors down Fifth Avenue to 86th where she disappeared underground and caught a train downtown. Impetuously and mindlessly, I hopped on and emerged at Astor Place, following her to Cooper Union and into a classroom that I immediately surmised as a drawing course. Conveniently, I removed a drawing tablet from my satchel, sat unobtrusively in the rear, and leafed past my architectural renderings, mimicking other students with pencil or charcoal in hand. To my thrill and distress, I saw the object of my pursuit, now robed, walk barefoot to a middle dais. The white silk kimono slipped from her body, and there she stood, sans pink fishermen sweater, sans jeans and boots and leather cap—my Eurasian Aphrodite rising. I drew frantically, lousy drawings, one after the other, a cubist montage of breast, nipple, waist, shoulder, buttocks, nose, pubis, and eyes, my heart racing, my mind a bubble about to burst, and all my sensations a loaded gun.
You host an open house. The architect calls a few days before delighted about the invitation. He asks if a writer for Architectural Digest might also be invited. The writer would come with a photographer. You generously agree. The day is perfect, though somewhat chilly, but this is Santa Cruz. Guests who arrive early are greeted with the full expanse of the bay and sit in the stone veranda watching the fading sunlight cast a quiet orange glow. Your wife has ordered catering for the event—large platters of sushi, barbecued teriyaki on skewers, elegant pastel petit fours, saké cocktails, and champagne. You’ve gathered your entire family. Your mother from Montana and mother-in-law from Illinois have both flown in to visit. Your two young sons run in and out of the house with their friends with abandon. Your two daughters, teenagers now, appear and disappear with their cadre of friends, nodding politely when asked about their individual bedrooms, choice of colors, and décor. You watch your wife as she becomes visible through the interior light beyond glass doors. The bubble of her blonde coif shines in a halo. You fondle the stem of a champagne glass and nod at the comments of the writer, but your mind wanders to the day you first met your wife, your initial insecurity; could you hope to win the heart of such a beautiful girl? It hasn’t been easy, the loss of your first son, but she has weathered every difficulty, growing more beautiful as the years pass. You have become the perfect couple, the perfect family, and this house itself is confirmation. The photographer weaves about, surreptitiously it would seem, pointing a Nikon, capturing the house and décor from every angle, backdrop for beautiful people. Transmitted over pool waters, you catch the waves of a distant argument, something about bombing in Vietnam, and you wander in that direction with a wide smile, wanting nothing to spoil this perfect evening. Your very presence dissipates disagreement, a change of subject, compliments about the house, and you Japanese really understand nature. You glance again toward the lighted fireplace where your relatives seem huddled with your mother apart. In another room, your wife is showing off her current project on the loom; she’s weaving natural fibers dyed naturally for throw pillows. You feel your heart might burst. Meanwhile, the architect is telling the story of his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright to a group of rapt listeners. Wright built for his second wife the house he named Taliesin on family farmland in Wisconsin. Tragically, while Wright was in Chicago, this wife and her children and four of his apprentices were murdered by the housekeeper, a man from Barbados, who also set the house on fire.
At the break, twenty minutes later, I rushed from the classroom to the toilet, stood inside a stall, trying to calm the shaking in my knees. I threw cold water on my face and stared at myself in the mirror unsure of my own reflection. During the course of three hours, I did the same at every break, but I could not tear myself away. At the end of class, I lingered, waiting for her to emerge from the dressing room. A young man entered the room, and sure enough, to my sinking heart, he greeted her clothed body, and together they left the building. By this time, it was evening, and a slight drizzle had wet the dark streets. I watched the couple under an umbrella merge and disappear into the crossing crowd in a blur of car lights and neon. Reflecting back on this day, this was the moment at which I should have simply returned to my apartment in Harlem and continued my studies at Columbia, but I was ensnared in a design with a destiny I felt sure I must pursue to know. To be brief about the ensuing year, foolishly, I all but abandoned my coursework and research and was placed on probation. I forgot and lost contact with my friends and colleagues; if they showed concern, I shrugged away their questions and kept my secret counsul. I cannot precisely or chronologically relate with any detail what I did or how I lived during this time. All I remember is that my fulltime occupation was that of a detective, self-hired and certainly unpaid to know the daily life and moment-to-moment whereabouts of that young woman. I admit that my curiosity was made of infatuation, but it was an infatuation without any idea of finality, that is of meeting or consummating a relationship. Late into the early mornings, I pulled sheet after sheet of architectural drafting paper over my drawing table and feverishly designed structures of every sort, engineered houses in lilied valleys or on craggy promontories, next to astounding waterfalls, under snow pack, among bamboo groves, in tropical and desert climates. As much time as I spent as a detective, I was also enmeshed in geographical, climate, and environmental studies, always concerned with aspects of natural space and local materials. I was astounded by the beauty of my designs, the organic interwoven nature of place and structure, and always, she hovered ghostly above myriad drafts, rising perfectly from a white silk kimono.
The last time you speak with the architect is over the phone. The architect’s voice tremors, then retrieves his confidence with an edge of anger. He wonders what Frank Lloyd Wright would say if he were alive? The Marin County Civic Center was Wright’s last project; he died in 1959 and never lived to see the final inauguration of the building. It was the architect who completed the work. Every aspect of the center—its spacious elegance, skylight roof over interior gardens, arched windows framing the soft rise of distant hills, innovative jail design, the carefully studied configuration of the courtrooms themselves—honored Wright’s desire for democratic space. But this: first, the hostage-taking in the center’s courtroom and the shootout, the deaths of the prisoners and the judge and now, bombing the courtroom. You’ve read in the papers that some group called Weathermen say they are responsible. You commiserate with the architect’s sense of confoundedness and outrage. Everything the architect and you believe in is being contested and turned upside-down.
At first I thought she led a charmed life, prancing around the city from art to dance class to photo shoot. For example, I managed to follow her into the New York art scene—art receptions and openings where the likes of Yoko Ono, Isamu Noguchi, Nam June Paik, or the young up and coming, such as Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, might be the featured artists or emerge among the invitees. Despite her youth, she moved with an easy grace among celebrity. Always fashionably attired, she wore designs both chic and elaborate with a casual body language that said, of course. Modeling for art classes turned out to be a side job she did occasionally as a favor to her former teachers at Cooper Union. Professionally, she worked with a prominent agency, and I was able to catch glimpses of her strut the runway, for Ralph Lauren, Yves Saint Laurent, Hanae Mori, and Stephen Burrows, to name a few. Despite her success, I followed her weekly to the office of a psychiatric therapist. I waited patiently for the hour to end and tried to discern the results of each session; I comprehended nothing. I clipped her photographs from Vogue and Elle, taping them to every inch of my small one-room studio. In the night, sleeping on an old futon, I could hear the tape peeling away with the bad paint job, the magazine photos fluttering to the floor like autumn leaves. One particularly snowy night, I entered my cold apartment, banging on the old lever of the radiator, and finally noticed gashes of blood-orange paint beneath the powder blue, scarring the walls, her colorful images scattered. I saw my breath in the cold air of that horrid old apartment and wept.
You stare at the man with the gun who can’t be much older than your eldest daughter, thankfully safely far away, studying art in New York. He accuses you of crimes against the environment. You think you recognize him, a long-haired fellow, but they are all long-haired these days; even you are letting your hair grow out stylishly. Perhaps he came to the office for a case of pink eye. He told you how much he liked the garden in the middle of the office, never seen an office with a garden. His eyes were so infected they were almost glued together in gunk, but he could see the garden. But, he said, you can’t live in a little garden like that; maybe the Japanese could, but anyway he lived in the forest up there in the mountains, lots of room and close to God, he said. Nothing artificial. You nodded in agreement. Japanese gardens are artificially natural, miniature vistas to create the sensation of distance and expanse. Gardening is an art. You were thinking about your father’s garden in Montana. He thought about this and said he liked his art original, wild. No stunted bonsai for him, but of course he’d never been to Japan. Neither had you, except for a short R&R at a base in Okinawa before returning to the states. Looking at your watch and into the crowded reception room, you knew you didn’t care to reply. He had no insurance, no money to pay. You waved him off, told the receptionist to make an exception. She looked up, and her eyes said, another exception. As the fellow left, the mail arrived, and your receptionist handed you a box with a small card. You opened the card: Doc, a small token of thanks for your handiwork on my cataract. Sure is great to see clear again. You handed back the box of See’s candies and pointed to the reception room, gesturing, pass it around. Perhaps it is not the same long-haired fellow, but you, your wife, your two sons, and the receptionist will die today.
Photograph by Karyn Christner via Flickr.
One day late in October, I scanned the Halloween paraphernalia decorating shop windows, the proliferation of jack-o-lanterns, witch hats, black cats, and skeletons along my route. I had affected a disinterested manner, gazing with feigned interest in odd directions, at window treatments or sidewalk displays. At this particular shop, I pretended interest in a skeleton mask, knowing she was passing on the sidewalk behind me. In all the time I followed her, our eyes never met, and I supposed she never knew or felt my presence. But this time, for some reason, she turned back to look my way, and our eyes met through that mask. I saw her disgust and terror. She stumbled away, walking hurriedly if not running into the underground. I abandoned the mask and followed with trepidation, chasing my sightline for her white trench coat, the slip of red and gold silk scarf trailing in the overheated draft of our descent. Surfacing at 86th Street, she walked quickly toward Fifth Avenue, fall colors of Central Park sparkling beyond. I slowed my pace, knowing her frequent destination. It was her habit to visit Magritte’s False Mirror, staring into that surreal sky eye. I should have anticipated this day, but I was obsessed with my own arrogance, my manic certainty of my own artistic genius, poet and prophet. That day, only I looked upward from the rotunda into the last rays of that October day streaming through the glass dome and saw her body tossed from the top of Wright’s magnificent nautilus, her white trench coat flapping, windswept black hair separating in silky strands, red and gold scarf fluttering along, passing the silent Calder, imposing an unusual commotion on those glorious clouds of vermillion.
Even though you were buried Catholic, you wander the past as a Buddhist. There is no extinguishing your anguish. The beauty of this place has betrayed you. After the murders and the fires, they rebuilt it all completely new again, but unlike your wife and your children, it returns no love, a temple of permanent and radiant beauty. A real Japanese has been hired to keep the gardens in a state of eternal beauty, constantly trimming and replanting, leaves and fading blossoms flutter onto rock and still water to form exquisite traces, never rotting. Koi flap about, red and gold and white, turning their bodies in chaos or moving gracefully in liquid silence. The bodies of you, your wife and children and associates lie beneath in the dark shoals where your blood pools like lead. One night in Indian summer, I climb the hill to your house and meet you there. In the tepid night, I see you shape-shift between father and lover, doctor and architect, artist and prophet. I guide you to the Rolls Royce, and together we syphon gasoline, spread it gallon-by-gallon at the most vulnerable corners of your beloved architecture.
Karen Tei Yamashita is professor of literature at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her novels include I Hotel, Circle K Cycles, and Tropic of Orange, and the forthcoming Letters to Memory (September 2017), all published by Coffee House Press. A 2016 interview with Karen was conducted in Boom Californiaby Jonathan Crisman and Jason Sexton.
This is a work of fiction, however based on true events. With gracious thanks to Frank Gravier, bibliographer for Humanities at UCSC McHenry Library; Paul Shea, director of the Yellowstone Gateway Museum in Livingston, Montana; and Lucy Asako Boltz, research assistant.
Copyright: 2017 Karen Tei Yamashita. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/
Los Angeles is a city made from an assemblage of speculative practices. Spain colonized the region, surmising it was unsettled territory to be conquered—ignoring, of course, the Tongva who had lived here for thousands of years. Later on, as part of the United States, the region went through a stuttering period of growth as boosters proclaimed the magic of Southern California throughout the Midwest and elsewhere, fueling land speculation wherein gullible investors would repeatedly and blindly bid up land prices only to discover more often than not upon a first visit that the real estate was essentially worthless. And, of course, it became ground zero for all the imagination of Hollywood, projecting moving images of fantasy plotlines onto screens around the world. Across from La Placita, the mythical origin point of Los Angeles, is Union Station. The last of the grand train stations built in the United States, it was approved in 1926 and completed thirteen years later during the throes of the Great Depression and a world war. What was then Chinatown was demolished in the process, whitewashing the site of the largest mass lynching in US history1 with gleaming art deco construction. It is the terminus of a city upon which it seemed almost anyone could project their own minor utopia. Sure enough, in 1938, a bigger, better Chinatown was built about a mile away under the guidance of community leader Peter Soo Hoo and with the help of Hollywood set designers in designing its core, Central Plaza. As Edward Soja has noted, subverting the boosterist claim, “It all comes together in Los Angeles.”
To speculate might mean to assume rather than to know based on facts (as in Spain’s assumption of the tabula rasa of California, and later again with Manifest Destiny), or it might mean to envision historical or fictional realities (as in the imaginative work of Hollywood). There are, of course, endless varieties of financial speculation, such as land speculation or the mining speculation in the goldfields of Northern California and the oilfields around Los Angeles. We might read into Chinatown’s destruction an element of racial speculation: that the sullied, foreign, Chinese landscape was envisioned by city boosters as bleached clean, transformed into a gleaming beacon of Anglo LA. But we might also see the inverse of that in a work of speculative fiction: Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange, where, again, it all comes together in Los Angeles—“it” being a stunning kaleidoscope of new ethnic formations.
Decades of Anglo hegemony in LA literature gave us Chandler’s hard-boiled noir and Didion’s upper-middle-class neuroses. Yamashita gave us Bobby: “Chinese from Singapore with a Vietnam name speaking like a Mexican living in Koreatown. That’s it.” The book spans seven days, with seven narratives moving between Mexico and Los Angeles, just like its eponymous orange, which a character named Arcangel brings across the border (and, along with it, the Tropic of Cancer). It straddles magic realism and speculative fiction, suspending our disbelief about any number of perfectly plausible alternative realities for Los Angeles: palm trees as flags for the poor instead of street ornamentation for Beverly Hills, a traffic jam on the Cahuenga Pass as a meticulously conducted symphony, NAFTA as a luchador being defeated by el gran mojado…
In the university, speculative work most often involves theoretical development, from physics to philosophy. But there are some today who eschew conventionally understood “academic speculation” for something closer to what Yamashita practices. This form of speculation has something to do with race insofar as it aims to decolonize, and little to do with jumping through the hoops of theory. What we might call immanent speculation, this is the practicing of an inherently unknowable future in order to create the conditions for that future to unfold. In contrast to theory-laden speculative philosophy, or to the incrementalism of design in the built environment, or even to the extreme opposite of ungrounded utopianism, immanent speculation rigorously pulls out latent alternative realities embedded in a place through the method of making. It does so with the consequence that these other worlds—whether or not they are fully realized—expand our notion of what could be. It aims to decolonize the future from the forward march of time, from the imperfect conditions of the present, freeing it to become something just beyond what we imagine to be possible. It is called immanent because it is not pulled from thin air, but rather from the sites and places in which we live. It is undisciplined yet rigorous, intellectual yet artistic. In fact, an imperfect immanent speculation recently found its way into where we began: Union Station and Chinatown.
In October of 2013, the experimental opera company The Industry staged a performance based on Italo Calvino’s book Invisible Cities. Performed in collaboration with the LA Dance Project, the characters were embedded in Los Angeles’s Union Station. Some 100,000 people commute through the station every day, and they continued to do so as the opera was performed. The characters moved fluidly through the building, exploring imaginary spaces and playing out a war of words between Kublai Khan and Marco Polo. Viewers were given wireless headsets that played the full opera with live orchestra, but were given no instructions on how to view the piece. You could sit down and experience it motionless, you could attempt to catch every exciting moment by recklessly following where you assumed the action was, you could take your headset off to mute the orchestra and listen to the ambient noise, you could share your headset with a curious passer-through, and sometimes you could find yourself in the way of the performers. Donning a headset transported you to a different world that was overlaid on top of this one, in real time.
The opera was lauded by critics. Christopher Cerrone was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for composing the opera, while director Yuval Sharon’s spatially sophisticated interpretation won great acclaim. The performers miraculously transformed from anonymous commuters to fully costumed period characters. Dancers deftly maneuvered between audience members and passers-by like some feat of spatial jazz. Using postmodern techniques of fragmentation and nonlinear space-time, the opera traversed the present world, the age of Marco Polo’s exploration, and the many worlds he described. The technological novelty of listening to the fragmented bits of opera on wireless headsets, synthetically mixed into a whole, was equally impressive, blending the excitement of a full, live orchestra and the contemporary remix-mash-up sensibility of a DJ set.
Most striking of all was the opera’s site-specific deployment of Union Station. Each of the other elements played out in particular relation to the space, history, and essence of the site. Tropes of the traveler, of the explorer, of the grand hall versus everyday spaces were played out in the train terminal. This demonstrated immanent speculation because it was at once speculative—it imagined and performed an otherworldly fantasy—as it was embedded in the messy reality of urban space. At one point, a homeless person noticed the captive audience and began singing her own tune before a nervous stagehand awkwardly ushered her away to receive her own headset. And, of course, the inversion of who is watching and who is being watched cannot go unstated: as much as we privileged theatergoers invaded this space and tried to watch as much of the frenetic and fractured performance as we could, so too were we being gawked at by passers-by. We were a funny-looking mob of confused people with wireless headsets on, providing our own free show. There was none of the unidirectional comfort of a darkened theater. In this strange, ambivalent way, the audience’s discomfort with being implicated by the performance’s dynamics—of power, of privilege, of post-modern obtuseness—became absorbed into the opera, suggesting an alternative, immanent reality that had the potential to come into being.
A performance of Hopscotch.
In 2015, The Industry took on an even more heady and complex project. Titled Hopscotch, the opera was broken into thirty-six scenes that were repeatedly performed at a variety of sites across Los Angeles. Members of the audience could as easily be called participants: they viewed the opera by choosing one of three routes, and starting with a small group of actors, facilitators, and other participants, they would drive to eight of the sites before congregating with the entire cast and audience at a “central hub” for the finale. One of the participants would be responsible for capturing the experience on video, live broadcasting to one of thirty-six screens at the central hub where anyone could drop in and watch the live video for free. To complicate things considerably, the opera was written by multiple playwrights and composers, a few scenes consisted of lines shouted between cars or long quotes from French Marxist theorist Guy Debord, and multiple actors played single roles to manage the logistics of multiple locations—all in the service of a relatively straightforward love story. Loosely based on Julio Cortázar’s 1963 novel—which shares the title and nonlinear structure—Hopscotch follows a woman named Lucha who moves through a star-crossed romance only to discover her true love for her longtime coworker instead. As one could imagine, if Invisible Cities was on the verge of crashing down under the weight of its postmodern tendencies, Hopscotch casually blew past any nod to such concerns.
Hopscotch also blew past its predecessor in the cost of a ticket. While there is easy justification for the expense, given the opera’s incredibly intensive resource needs and limited number of seats, with prices in the hundreds of dollars it nevertheless catered only to an elite audience. This was partially remedied by the free viewing experience at the central hub, but the discrepancy between the segregated experiences was striking. In one, you were a participant in an immersive experience, while in the other, you had to wait in line to view a set of screens that could have almost as easily been broadcast online. The central hub was deftly designed by two SCI-Arc (Southern California Institute of Architecture) faculty and located on its campus but was almost certainly underfunded for its wider purposes. The design effectively deployed shape and interior sheathing to create the conditions necessary for both the broadcasting of the various scenes and the culminating act in which numerous cars pulled through the structure. Ticket-holders emerged from the vehicles like awards show attendees walking a red carpet, while many non-ticket-holders were unable to enter because of capacity issues. Their only view was of the exterior of the hub, which was literally wrapped in trash—no doubt the only affordable material after value engineering went its course. A group of musicologists in Los Angeles went so far as to boycott the performance—though tickets still sold out almost as soon as they went on sale. My own viewing experience was possible only by hacking the machine: by analyzing hashtags on social media, I was able to discern where the most popular nonmobile scenes were performed, and I staged my own complimentary private viewing tour. With stops at Angel’s Point in Elysian Park and the Bradbury Building downtown, my tour culminated in a scene that unfolded in Chinatown. That Peter Soo Hoo’s Central Plaza, designed like a movie set, now was the stage for an opera seemed fitting.
The scene involves Lucha, the heroine, receiving some kind of message from a soothsayer, amidst flutists, a pair of characters who bore an uncanny relation to the twins from Kubrick’s The Shining, and handfuls of raining rose petals. While the narrative wasn’t immediately clear, I could certainly sense a bit of the supernatural in it all. A limousine bearing a handful of ticket-holders would roll up to the plaza and the scene would begin, moving throughout the plaza and reaching its apex as Lucha sings them back into the vehicle, which whisked them to their next site. As in Invisible Cities, one of the most powerful elements of the opera was its site specificity, transforming the mundane space of the everyday into one that held speculative possibility. There was no set constructed apart from the preexisting set of the plaza, so characters aptly used benches, lamp posts, and steps to their blocking’s advantage. Bystanders who expected to do little more than buy lunch were presented with this otherworldly performance, generating curiosity and discussion between these happenstance strangers who bore witness to the opera. While this was, for the most part, the standard reaction to these pop-up opera segments, there were instances in which the fourth wall was more violently broken. One segment, which was to be performed in Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights, a historic immigrant community in Los Angeles currently under severe threat of gentrification and displacement, was regularly overtaken by shouting protestors demanding that these operatic outsiders leave their neighborhood.
Yet here there was another curious phenomenon that made Hopscotch, for all its issues, the beginnings of a work of immanent speculation. The logistical complexity of the opera made the kind of control found in a theater impossible, and this had the effect of opening up a discursive space within the performance. In between location changes, repeated scene resets, and the space between sites and participant vehicles, conversations between performers, participants, crew, and bystanders unfolded about the opera, the experience of performers and participants, and about Los Angeles itself. This also had the effect of making the plotline—something which oscillated between simple love story and overwrought reflection on postmodernity with the main characters in search of abstract centers—strikingly touching. It made an impact precisely because its simple narrative stood in such stark contrast to the numerous other complexities reflecting and reproducing the tropes of Los Angeles—that it demonstrated underneath all of the postmodern geography was an earnest and hopeful desire for connection. And beyond the narrative, the opera itself performed this relationship through the creation of a network of producers, actors, participants (intentional and unintentional), and places. It drew from this network, looking past and forward, simultaneously creating and suggesting potential for creation, expanding the margins of the possible.
Viewers at Hopscotch’s central hub.
Returning to the university, there are two additional examples worth noting, which demonstrate the budding of immanent speculation within the university. During the summer of 2014, two teams of urban researchers in the UCLA Urban Humanities Initiative produced short videos about Chinatown that delved into ethnography, fiction, space, time, narrative, and the future. The first, titled “en-Counter Chinatown,” is composed of a relatively disjointed set of rapidly cut shots of Chinatown, much in the spirit of the early city symphony films of the 1920s. Yet here the subject matter is not frenetically moving transportation systems and flashing urban lights—instead, there are decidedly slow subjects: smoke wafting up from sticks of incense, the gentle sway of red lanterns, old men sitting in a public park, slow pans of a mostly horizontal landscape, a feeding fish. The most intense movement comes from a rapidly spinning seat, part of a twenty-five-cent children’s ride in front of a shop, which instructs, “Enjoy The Ride !!!” We return to this shot several times, suggesting that the ride is, in fact, the video and we its riders. There are subtitles in the film though we hear no dialogue. “How are you connected to Chinatown?” “Those terms don’t apply to us.” A repeated exchange between typical ethnographic interview questions and apparently nonsensical answers devolves to the point where even the questions start to lose stability: “Who is Chinatown?” Indeed, the only audible sounds come from the ambient noises indicative of some kind of commercial space, punctuated with the regular chiming of a singing bowl. Toward the end of the video, a traditional song is played or, perhaps, performed—we aren’t sure because the soundtrack is utterly asynchronous with the image.
Here, much like in The Industry’s operas, we are presented with an everyday space made unfamiliar. And with our estrangement comes the ability to see things previously unseen, to imagine another world very much overlapped upon the one we knew. A question like “Who is Chinatown?” which on first blush sounds ridiculous now begins to make some sort of odd sense. Aren’t these the questions that any critically minded scholar first asks of a situation? For whom is this neighborhood meant? And who else is excluded? There is, again, a touch of the supernatural. Between shots of incense and prayers, the video’s rhythm is maintained only through a Buddhist monk’s tolling of the bells. It asks us to slow down, to read between the lines. Is there another Chinatown present, one that we looked past before? This immanent speculation is easy to brush past because it lacks the didactic quality of a futurist’s homily or the spectacle of an opera on wheels, but given time it is perhaps even more effective, more seductive, because we are the ones who are compelled to complete the task of speculation. We are given time and space with which we can attempt to make sense of the swirling assemblage of images before us.
Scenes from Encounter Chinatown. Courtesy of J. Lee, W. Ren, C. Robertson, A. Shrodes, and E. Yen.
Another video, titled “Welcome to Chinatown,” is perhaps the previous film’s opposite. When the team attempts to explore what the future might hold for the neighborhood, they are met by community members who only have the capacity to look to the past. They turn the film on themselves, setting out to explore the neighborhood. What they capture is a place ensnarled in decrepitude, bereft of life apart from cars passing through, and an octogenarian or two. Deploying the motifs of horror films, the filmmakers find one abandoned shop and empty lot after another in this ghost town, only to flee the neighborhood, running to the safety of a departing train. This narrative was less successful insofar as it presented a singular and straightforward reading of Chinatown as haunted and abandoned. It lacked the interpretability and openness found in the previous film, or even in the operas. Nevertheless, the decision to present Chinatown in this way was certainly an act of speculation: Chinatown, for anyone who has visited, is a largely bustling neighborhood, despite its declining Asian population. You are just as likely to see a hip art opening at one of its many galleries, or foodies photographing their lunch for social media, as the imported tchotchke shops of old. And it was grounded in trends immanent to the site: the Chinese population that remains is one that is in many ways stuck in the past, aging in run-down facilities with little drive for change. The collection of stunningly framed shots of abandoned malls, walkways, and plazas was more than an intentional decision: it was one that most certainly was difficult to fulfill. While this immanent speculation might be a weaker form, it still presents a visually striking narrative that pushes past the static boundaries of description and analysis to which most scholarly work timidly abides. This video may have a reserved view of the future, but it presents it with surety, again forcing us to reconcile this vision with the assumptions we have collectively thought as fact.2
Scenes from Welcome to Chinatown. Courtesy of C. Huang, L. Phan, G. Pugh, and S. Yoshida.
It seems appropriate for immanent speculation, this act long practiced by a subset of artists and storytellers, to find its way into the academy in California’s public university. The city of Los Angeles and, indeed, the state at large were shaped by a network of actors who were practicing the future, so that it would become their reality. Judged on the empirical and positivist terms common to education, immanent speculation might be seen as a trifling waste of time. Yet it is these speculative trifles, appearing ungrounded while actually utterly immanent to the spaces and places from which they rise, which have the capability to construct not only what we imagine to be our future but, moreover, what we might even conceive of as possible in the future. It is this speculative practice that Percy Bysshe Shelley saw in poetry when he proclaimed, “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” In a day when cynicism and fear appear to shape public discourse in a way not seen in decades, it seems ever more important to have intellectuals at all levels of society—in the university and out—practicing the future.
The Chinatown massacre of 1871 is widely believed to be the largest mass lynching in American history, where a mob of around five hundred white men chased down and killed around twenty Chinese immigrants. While the purported cause was vigilante justice after a local rancher was killed by a Chinese gang, the massacre coincided with increasing anti-Chinese sentiment throughout California, culminating in the Chinese Exclusion Act passed eleven years after this event. A trial was held for some of the killers, but no punishment was ever served out.
Jonathan Crisman is project director for the Urban Humanities Initiative at University of California, Los Angeles; director of No Style, a design and publishing practice; and with Jia Gu he forms LA-BOR, an interdisciplinary art and architecture studio.
A Boom Interview In conversation with Jonathan Crisman and Jason S. Sexton
Karen Tei Yamashita
Editor’s note: Karen Tei Yamashita is an American author and professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she is affiliated with the Literature Department, the Creative Writing Program, and Critical Race and Ethnic Studies. Her novels and plays are difficult to define by genre: they have been called science fiction, speculative fiction, postmodern, postcolonial, magic realist, and most certainly experimental.
Between her transnational history, her role as a maker, and the strong spatiality of her writing, Yamashita’s insights have shaped the way urban humanities are practiced. Her landmark 1997 novel, Tropic of Orange, has become a key text and model for creative practice for urban humanists based in Los Angeles.
This interview was conducted by Boom editor Jason Sexton and Jonathan Crisman, one of this issue’s guest editors, over email amid summer travel in Yellowstone National Park, London, Paris, and California.
Jonathan Crisman: Your early book Tropic of Orange was the book that sparked our thinking on an alternative form of urban engagement—partly because it was set in Los Angeles, but also because its structure allowed for a “thickness.” Time and space get interwoven in a new way, various voices—sometimes conflicting—coexist in a single narrative, and it created a kind of fissure in what we knew about LA—it opened our imagination to an LA, or multiple LAs, that could unfold in the future, or in the present, or maybe these already coexist. The book was published in 1997—almost twenty years ago. Could you characterize the LA you knew up to that time, sharing what led to Tropic of Orange, and what the book would look like if written today.
Karen Tei Yamashita: My parents were San Francisco Bay Area nisei who came to LA in the 1950s. My father was a pastor assigned to the Centenary Methodist Church near Jefferson Blvd. and Normandie Ave. in the middle of an old Japanese American neighborhood. That church I understood to be the largest Japanese American congregation on the US mainland. I point this out because, in the postwar, Japanese American institutions such as temples and churches became centers of community and hostels to receive Japanese Americans returning from wartime incarceration. My father ran such a hostel/church in Oakland, then came to continue his work in LA, largely to minister to a community of young nisei families trying to get a jumpstart on new lives. With the wartime evacuation of Japanese Americans out of LA arrived the influx of African Americans who came to work in wartime industries and occupied our abandoned neighborhoods. In the postwar 1950s and 1960s when I grew up in LA, our neighborhood around the church and along Jefferson reflected a cultural mix of working class folks of color, confined to circumscribed areas of the city through housing covenants. I didn’t really know any of this as a kid, but my family moved from the Jefferson neighborhood to the Crenshaw and then to Gardena, and the differences in the houses, gardens, streets, and schools, and the idea of upward mobility were apparent to me. I lost friends who moved to go to “better” schools. Growing up in LA, you couldn’t/can’t not know the color lines that divide and spread through the city’s geography.
Photograph of Karen Tei Yamashita by Mary Uyematsu Kao.
In 1975, I began research in Brazil and was mostly away from the US for the next nine years. In 1984, I immigrated back to LA with my Brazilian family, and it was evident that LA had become what theorists had predicted: a majority “hispanic” city. It was that city, created by migrating populations of people, their cultures and history, that fascinated me. However, this city seemed nowhere really written about in canonized LA literature, which featured white detectives noired by their undercover presence on colored streets. Tropic was perhaps a question and an experiment. What if the colored characters/caricatures spoke?
I don’t think much about how the book would be different if written today. The technology would be updated, cellphones ubiquitous, and terrorism and religious fundamentalism intrinsic to the plot. Someone else needs to write the update. It surprises me that the book continues to have reach and readership, but it is satisfying to know that, even with all the pop culture references stuck in time and the changes in LA’s landscape, new readers get it and find it possible to navigate. For example, your conversation about “thickness” and time and space help me to see why and how constructing the book works. Writing it was an organic process, the meaning of which I could not at the time articulate outside of the creative work itself. And believe me, twenty years ago no one wanted or understood that book. Prospective editors and agents turned it upside down to try to shake out meaning. One editor asked me to turn it into a love story; another said she could not represent a book with an agenda. I’m indebted to Coffee House Press who took the risk.
One writer I’ve felt close to these many years and whose work for me defines LA is Sesshu Foster. I first read his poetry in the journal High Performance, edited I think by Wanda Coleman, as a response to the LA riots in 1992. I have long admired Sesshu’s work, especially Atomik Aztex. While I grew up in African American/Japanese American neighborhoods in Central LA and the Westside, Sesshu grew up on the Eastside with the Mexican and Latino folks pressing up against the tracks and the LA River.
Jason Sexton: Do you think of yourself as a California writer?
Yamashita: I’m California-born, in Oakland, and raised in LA, and the history of my family begins in San Francisco turn of the century 1900. I’ve also lived and studied in Minnesota, Japan, and Brazil, but we raised our family here. My dad was a romantic idealist, liked to talk about “world citizenship” long before the transnational was a trend. While I may have set my sights beyond California, when I came back to LA and the San Francisco Bay Area, I thought that in order to really belong, I needed to study these geographies, not just to claim a birthplace but to understand a history during my own growing up. You can be born and grow up in a place and have no idea of the meaning of being there. I wanted to see and sense the arrival and labor of my folks and my generation, to know why and who we’ve become. I hope I’ve done the work to claim a place in California, but like so many of us come to hang our hats at home, I think it’s best to think I’m just passing through.
Crisman: You mentioned Sesshu’s work, which is fantastic—definitely in the spirit of Tropic, it seems. When you mention your book as an experiment in which people of color speak, I am reminded of the young artist, Ramiro Gomez, who has repurposed canonized (white) visions of LA, like Hockney’s A Bigger Splash, painting in the maids and gardeners that actually make such an LA possible. It seems that while race, nationality, and politics play an important role in your earlier work, these issues are presented in even more direct ways in your recent work. I’m thinking of the political struggles narrated through the fictional nonfiction of I Hotel, but also through the embodied performances in AnimeWong. Are there political realities today that drive you toward these more unequivocal narratives? Or is it part of your creative development as you grow older? Or perhaps something else?
Yamashita: Ramiro Gomez, yes. I heard a story on NPR about Lawrence Weschler, who’s written about Hockney, taking Gomez up into the Hollywood Hills to meet Hockney. My memory of the report is that the visit was cordial and generous, but I wondered what that would be like to encounter another artist whose work you satirize. Weschler, whose writing and thinking I so admire, must have known what he was doing. The erasure that Gomez’s work points to in Hockney’s paintings has always irked me, too.
By “unequivocal narratives,” perhaps you mean narratives tied to history or real events? I don’t think anything I write is not researched as history or cultural anthropology. I’m rather picky about getting this right even though it’s employed for fiction. But I do understand your query if it is about why the projects seem over the years to move from what’s been defined as transnational to more personal subjects of local community and home. Maybe I’ve been circling these issues and honing in. My next book is based on a family archive of correspondence between seven siblings, the core of which dates from 1938 to 1948, those war years when my family was incarcerated in the Utah desert at Topaz and dispersed across the country. You ask about growing older, and it must be that too, because I couldn’t really read or think about this project until everyone was dead. I didn’t want the sadness of this loss, but maybe it was necessary, having all those ghosts in the room.
John and Asako Yamashita (and Karen), Santa Monica pier. Photograph provided by Karen Tei Yamashita.
You asked about politics, and yes, writing about the Japanese American wartime internment and about the Asian American movement has been a political gesture, to make evident an injustice related to current issues of undocumented immigration, anti-Muslim policies, race-based policing and incarceration, to ask how movements succeed and fail from the grassroots, and to tell a longer history of the ongoing struggle for fair housing and employment. With Anime Wong, I’ve been curious about the relationship between technology and race, how the imagination of the future retains the same old representations of gender and race.
Crisman: I wonder if you could elaborate a bit about your view on fiction, its nature, its role in the world. I always liked the anthropologist Clifford Geertz’s description of his work as a fiction, where he goes on to describe that it isn’t fiction as in “false,” but rather like the Latin, fictio, something fashioned, something made. I would like to think that the same is true for your work: though you write fiction, your work involves “getting it right.” The importance of the reality held inside any one of your books is clear because of the care with which you construct it. When the current issues you list are at stake, what is the importance of writing fiction?
Yamashita: I teeter between thinking with urgency that fiction is the most critically significant creative work we do and, then, totter back to its utter uselessness, a foolish waste of time. Your reference to Geertz’s idea of fictio, especially coming from an anthropologist, makes me hopeful. Long ago, I thought I would go into anthropology, but then while in Brazil researching the Japanese Brazilian community, I felt I could not properly attend to the research required as I can’t read Japanese. So I opted to tell the story (in English) in what I thought was historic fiction, like fiction was some kind of protective vapor and came with a license to kill. What did I know? Writing fiction is harder than telling the facts because really you have to tell the truth. Sounds like nonsense I guess, but getting it wrong means you lose your reader. Italo Calvino in one of his essays talks about meaning that hovers above the narrative text, idea and thought captured by the reader in a manner that fiction and poetry can achieve. Maybe the reader gets zapped with understanding and change happens, and maybe that’s a reason for doing it.
Sexton: On this notion of helping readers reckon with truth, getting zapped, etc., I’m reminded at one point in Tropic where Buzzworm refers to metaphor as straight-talk, which seems to be what you believed about fiction in the sense mentioned above. Elsewhere in the book Arcangel tells Rafaela that some things, again what I reckon as truth, “cannot be translated.” But if with your other work you’re connecting the past to present issues, aiming to provoke and move readers to action, you’re addressing enormous themes: homelessness, temporality, contingency, justice, love, victimization, and humanness. Your writing style leaves readers on edge with little place to stand—like the shifting world in Tropic—but so do the themes you explore. What is the process for how you lay out these themes in your writing? And are there any themes you have not yet explored but hope to later, like say the next book based on the 1938–1948 family archive? Do you plan to bring back characters from your early writing to do this?
Yamashita: I know this is an “interview,” so I’m doing my best to answer questions, but with my work, I’m usually the one asking to know. That said, I so appreciate your thoughtful reading and the feeling of reading together—ha!—rereading that old book. I can’t speak for other writers, but I don’t think writers necessarily choose themes; themes seem to choose the writer. I think about writers like Salman Rushdie or Claudia Rankine, whose work became or has become so involved with and tuned to the political current, and I imagine the exhaustion and stress that comes with having to become a public personage, even though the writing may have begun with an image, a sentence, a story, or a scene and a question about why. So speaking about “enormous themes” makes me nervous. I didn’t set out to write about homelessness or temporality, but in writing about LA, I suppose I couldn’t not write about these issues. Okay, that sounds naive since I also think that experimental and speculative writing is more often about ideas, rather than real full-dimensional characters. So maybe it’s about characters inhabiting ideas. A few of the characters in Tropic (Manzanar and Emi) were taken from characters in the performances produced previously in LA (published much later in Anime Wong), but I haven’t thought about regenerating them again in another project. As for new work and what’s yet unexplored, the family archive project seems to be an epistolary meditation. On the big side, it’s about war and race and the philosophical trajectory of civil rights and reconciliation, but that sounds boring and pompous. I hope the letters read personally, intimately.
Sexton: Reading Tropic for the first time recently, I found myself ebbing and flowing with personal interest and connection to the writers one moment, after which I’d be deeply troubled in another, experiencing something of the effect of what’s happening with your characters. Do you generally want your readers to be hopeful about our world, or troubled by it? To deal with it as real, or as utter foolishness, or something else?
Yamashita: I think you realize from that spreadsheet at the beginning of Tropic, that the structure of the book was laid out over seven days and seven characters who performed seven narrative genres in seven timeframes and moving geographies. I chose that structure and stuck with it, and it produced a kind of literary kaleidoscope that described, for me, LA and troubled, as you suggest, all our narratives by placing them side-by-side. I feel I’m a hopeful and positive person, but I’ve also been very blessed and untested. I’m not sure how much pain I’m capable of living through. I want to think that when I fail, I take responsibility and get up and try again, and that going to where it hurts is real, is necessary to know. Writing is probably an easy way of learning by imagining. What readers do with all this is their business, though one hopes that the integrity of the writing is passed along.
Karen, John, and Jane Tomi (sister) at the 5th Avenue parsonage, Los Angeles. Photograph provided by Karen Tei Yamashita.
Crisman: I wonder if we can shift the focus of the conversation a little bit. As you know, the theme of this issue of Boom is the urban humanities—a set of academic programs, scholarly approaches, and research agendas emerging at UCLA and UC Berkeley. You gave a very compelling talk at the Knowledge Design: Making Urban Humanities symposium at UCLA a couple of years ago, providing insight into your writing methods as a kind of speculative scholarly practice. I would be interested in revisiting this conversation a little bit, in part because the methods that gave rise to your novels (particularly, Tropic and I Hotel) were so delightful and unexpected. But before rehashing anything, I would also be interested in hearing your thoughts about the teaching side of things: pedagogical approaches, means for allowing that speculative possibility found in your books to manifest in the classroom, and so on. I think reflecting on your role as a professor of creative writing within the contemporary university is part of this, but also, of course, might the relatively unique structure of the Literature Department at UC Santa Cruz, I imagine, also play a role?
Yamashita: I want to answer in the spirit of being useful, but teaching creative writing is tricky, and I really have no tricks up my sleeve. There are books by writers about writing, and they are revealing, but nothing seems to really provoke writing except reading. So in the beginning, I match student writers to each other, usually by what they read and the genres in which they write, to create conversations and community, to connect intellectual colleagues. After that, I spend a great deal of time listening to and reading the work, starting with what is there, what is interesting, then mostly asking questions that may be rhetorical or formed out of honest curiosity, but hoping to challenge the thinking embedded in the writing. There is a process of working through things with each individual writer; with one writer, it might be at the level of the sentence, with another, the question of audience. More than talent, writing requires a kind of creative, playful, and stubborn resilience. Not sure how one teaches this except to facilitate the doing and the matching of minds.
But I think you want me to say something more specific. Okay. What I have experimented with for many years is working with Italo Calvino’s novel, If On a Winter’s Night a Traveler, which is a novel explored by “you” the reader who must navigate the beginnings of ten different novels in which Calvino imitates and reveals the narrative conceits of each novel genre. I use Calvino’s novel as a text, parsing out each section into ten weeks, partnering students in panels to present and decipher the work for their fellows, and creating writing prompts to write it yourself. This has been more or less successful over the years, and I’ve had to add a reader with the beginnings of ten women-authored novels to balance out Calvino’s first-person male protagonists, all in pursuit of the female character. Even when students protest, I stubbornly continue to teach this text. This is the closest I get to my own speculative writing experiments, but I’m not interested in whether students know this. What I want to convey is the rich possibility of genre and narrative voice, that no matter what story you tell, you create a character who speaks and imagines for you.
I’m a fiction writer in a literature department. Maybe my creative writing colleagues and I are the oddballs, but we are perhaps the necessary right brain of the place. I figure creative writing is another door to the meaning of literature; you can critique the writing, but having to try your hand at it yourself makes you humble. The most fascinating scholarship of my colleagues is creative and formulated with the same imaginative processes of any new ideas. As you suggest about its unique structure, the Literature department at UCSC encompasses a diverse program of languages, geographies, theoretical discourses, and interdisciplinary thinking, and I have benefited from and grown in this way.
Karen Tei Yamashita is professor of literature at University of California, Santa Cruz. Her novels include I Hotel, Circle K Cycles, and Tropic of Orange.
Los Angeles is known for its diversity of all kinds: ethnic, linguistic, religious, species, topographic. It is the most populous county in the country and home to hundreds of cities, communities, and neighborhoods. All of these are reasons that after first visiting in 1998 I decided to move here and devote much of my time to exploring, usually on foot but occasionally with the aid of trains, buses, and my bicycle. As I explore, I make maps. Of particular interest to me are the region’s ethnic enclaves, which are to me central to the city’s identity.
For most of human history, ethnic enclaves have often been created out of discrimination and exclusion, but the role they play in the life of the cities in which they are located is complex. Los Angeles County and neighboring Orange County are almost certainly home to more enclaves than anywhere else in the world, and they are good places to explore where culture and demographics are encoded—and sometimes recoded—in the urban landscape. For new immigrants, these enclaves can help mitigate the strangeness of a new city in a new country, offering not just familiar food, sounds, and smells, but also social services. In today’s California, these neighborhoods are often as much business and economic districts as they are residential ethnic enclaves.
As ethnicities assimilate into the mainstream, enclaves sometimes vanish, as Los Angeles’s French Town, Little Italy, and Sonoratown did. Today, Los Angeles and Orange counties are home to Cambodia Town, Chinatown, Filipinotown, Koreatown, Little Arabia, Little Armenia, Little Bangladesh, Little Brazil, Little Central America, Little Ethiopia, Little India, Little Russia, Little Saigon, Little Seoul, Little Tokyo, Little Osaka, Tehrangeles, and Thai Town. Currently, there are efforts to officially designate a Peru Village, a Little Venezuela, a Paseo Colombia, a Guatemalan Mayan Village, and an Oaxacan Corridor. Enclaves are no longer just for immigrants; an official designation can elevate a restaurant into a destination for tourists from around the world and across town.
Filipinos have a long history in this section of Los Angeles, although the word “Historic” was added to the neighborhood name to appease its many non-Filipino residents when the area received its formal designation in 2002. An actual historic Filipinotown, colloquially known as “Little Manila,” was centered along First Street between Bunker Hill and Little Tokyo, but it was razed to make way for the Civic Center in the 1940s. That’s when many Filipinos moved over from Bunker Hill to what is now Historic Filipinotown, on the northern edge of the Westlake neighborhood. Greater Los Angeles now has several larger Filipino communities, including ones in Carson, Eagle Rock, Panorama City, and West Covina. You might still see a jeepney on the streets of Historic Filipinotown. At Christmas, you might see the paper star lanterns called paróls in the neighborhood, which is still home to an assortment of Filipino organizations, social services, churches, art stores, restaurants, and apartments with names like Larry Itliong Village, Luzon Plaza, and Manila Terrace.
What was historically known as Greek Town was cumbersomely designated the Byzantine-Latino Quarter in 1997. The neighborhood developed in the 1890s as Pico Heights; but when a hundred or so Japanese Angelenos moved there, wealthy whites fled, and their void was largely filled by Mexicans and Eastern Europeans, including Greeks—especially after the California Alien Land Law in 1920 all but halted Japanese immigration. Greek immigrant Sam Chrys opened C & K Importing in 1948, but his Greek restaurant, Papa Cristo’s Catering & Greek Taverna, inspired the most adoration. Across the street, Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral, built in 1952, towers over the neighborhood. Aside from those two vestiges, there are few signs of Greeks in the mostly Latino and Korean neighborhood today.
Little Tokyo has overcome several existential threats to become Los Angeles’s oldest extant ethnic enclave. Japanese people began settling in the neighborhood as early as 1869, and the first Japanese restaurants appeared in the 1880s. The neighborhood lost two thirds of its Japanese population during World War II. Then, in 1953, a large portion of the area was razed to make way for the Civic Center. In the 1970s, corporate interests—both American and, ironically, Japanese—led to mass evictions and redevelopment of much of the neighborhood. The Little Tokyo Towers, built in 1975 to serve those whose homes were destroyed to make way for a hotel, are now home to a population that is roughly one-third Korean. Korean investment continues to flow into Little Tokyo, and some Korean investors, like those who bought the dreary, half-empty Little Tokyo Galleria, have taken pains to preserve—or even promote—a more overtly Japanese image.
Businessman Lee Hi Duk sowed the seeds that would become Koreatown when he opened Olympic Market on Olympic Boulevard in 1971. In 1975, he opened a Korean-style restaurant, Young Bin Kwan, with imported blue roof tiles from Korea. He encouraged developers to follow his lead and build in an explicitly Korean style. Few heeded his wish, and his restaurant eventually became the Oaxacan restaurant Guelagetza. In fact, if you want to see Korean-style architecture, you’re more likely to find it in Little Tokyo, at the Little Tokyo Plaza.
Chinatown’s roots extend back to the great railroad projects of the 1860s. In 1871, when a white farmer was killed in the crossfire between two rival tongs, as the Chinese gangs were called, a mob of 500 murdered eighteen Chinese people in the worst-ever mass-lynching in United States history. Chinatown survived this racist terrorism but was later almost entirely destroyed to make room for the construction of Union Station. The last remnants of the old Chinatown were obliterated by construction of the Hollywood Freeway in 1954. By then there was a new Chinatown, built in 1938 and designed largely as an open-air shopping area. China City, with its red gate and hanging lanterns, was built in part from leftover set pieces that had been constructed for the film The Good Earth. This new enclave, built with both Chinese and non-Chinese in mind, helped the latter overcome their fear of yellow peril and even embrace Americanized Chinese dishes like chop suey.
The new Chinatown was built on top of Los Angeles’s Little Italy, which came into being without the input of Hollywood set designers. Had its architecture been more “authentic,” it might have garnered a greater preservation effort. The last Italian restaurant in the neighborhood, Little Joe’s, was demolished over almost no objections more than seventy years after its construction. But there are still a few vestiges of Little Italy in the area including Casa Italiana, Eastside Market, Lanza Brothers, the Pelanconi House, San Antonio Winery, and St. Peter’s. Most others departed with the Italian-American population, which headed in large numbers over the Repetto Hills into the post-war suburbs of the western San Gabriel Valley.
Large numbers of Armenians first began settling in this neighborhood east of Hollywood—and east of East Hollywood—in the 1970s. Often fleeing rising regional instability, they were immigrants not so much from Armenia directly, as from other diasporic homelands in Turkey, Iran, and Syria. Many came from Lebanon, where the well-known Armenian chain Zankou Chicken was founded before opening a second location in Little Armenia. Although the neighborhood has its share of imaginative architecture, including a Moorish auto shop with minarets, there are few overt signs of Armenian-ness in the neighborhood aside from bakeries with signs written in Armenian, the distinctly Armenian architecture of Saint Garabed Armenian Church, and several murals that celebrate Armenian history or commemorate the Armenian genocide of 1915.
Over time, the suburbs of the western San Gabriel Valley became home to Armenians, Japanese, Mexicans, Italian, Serbians, Cubans, and Puerto Ricans. Today recent Asian immigrants and Asian Americans dominate those suburbs. This demographic shift began in the 1970s, when realtor Frederic Hsieh began promoting the San Gabriel Valley suburb of Monterey Park as the “Chinese Beverly Hills” in Taiwanese and Hong Kong media. By the 1980s, Monterey Park was the first Asian American majority city on the American mainland. Soon, Taiwanese families began to move to more distant suburbs, such as Diamond Bar, Hacienda Heights, Irvine, Rowland Heights, and Walnut. The suburbs of the San Gabriel Valley are increasingly home to a multiethnic but largely Asian population that includes large numbers of Chinese, Vietnamese, Indonesians, Burmese, Filipinos, Koreans, and others—although, as with Chinatown, there are vestiges of the Italians who preceded them in the form of markets like Claro’s and restaurants such as Di Pilla’s, Bollini’s, Angelo’s, Mama Petrillo’s, and Vittoria. On the Far East Side, there is relatively little architecture that is recognizably Asian, aside from the odd home, shopping mall, Shun Fat Supermarket, and Hacienda Heights’s huge Fo Guang Shan Hsi Lai Temple.
Home to the largest concentration of Koreans outside of Korea, Koreatown may be the most vibrant neighborhood in Los Angeles; however, located in the Orange County suburb of Garden Grove is a small, suburban counterpart known colloquially as Little Seoul. Officially, it is designated as “The Korean Business District.” Little Seoul arose in the 1970s, around the time Korean Americans found a niche as greengrocers—and, indeed, the first Korean business in the area was a grocery store. As with several other enclaves, relics from before the enclave include seedy motels and adult video stores, but the dominant businesses in the almost invariably blue-tiled strip malls are markets that, unlike most grocery store chains, actually deserve to be called by the overused, honorific title of “supermarket.” The streets of Little Seoul are car-oriented and shadeless, but they are still quiet and walkable. Under the roofs of the markets, a super-extraordinary variety of businesses occupy the periphery, including restaurants, music stalls, discount shops, banks, optometrists, cosmetic shops, herbalists, and more.
Little Arabia’s development followed a familiar path. An immigrant couple, in this case Palestinians from Nazareth, opened a restaurant in a seedy, unincorporated area surrounded by Anaheim. In time, Lebanese and Syrian developers further built up the area and helped found the Arab American Council there. Locals began calling the area the Garza (and sometimes “Gaza”) Strip. Gradually, the strip bars, budget motels, and saloons were joined by halal butchers, bakeries, markets, and shisha dens—although, predictably, their presence wasn’t universally welcomed and ordinances were proposed to require special permits for live music and belly dancing. Anaheim ended up granting official recognition to Little Arabia in 2014, although it’s not strictly an Arab neighborhood as Turkish, Persian, Ethiopian, and Uyghur restaurants can all be found there.
Little India is located in the southeastern Los Angeles suburb of Artesia, a city with a Mexican American plurality and a large Asian minority (hailing from the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam more often than India). In 1970, the owner of Los Angeles’s first Indian market, Selecto Spices, moved from Hollywood to Artesia, lured by cheap rent. More markets followed, which in turn were followed by restaurants serving Gujarati, Punjabi, and Maharashtrian cuisine. By the 1980s, the area was colloquially known as Little India; however, to avoid offending non-Indian business owners in the area, it was officially designated the International and Cultural Shopping District, although I suspect that no one has ever referred to it as such. The Indian-business-dominated stretch of Pioneer Boulevard continues to grow, and Hindu temples thrive in nearby Cerritos and Norwalk.
The kids—four Cambodian children who lived in my Oakland neighborhood—frantically beckoned me to come quickly.
Having never seen a dancing ghost, much less a standing ghost, I chased them to an apartment upstairs. A dozen youth stood crowded around the front window of Bech Chuom, a Khmer native healer. I peered in, and I saw a ghost dance.
Inside the community leader’s home, a young teenager, Sarah, was dancing by herself in silence. Her hands, cocked at the wrists, waved about languidly, like sea anemone swaying in a current. She circled a room with no furniture, decorated only with a bamboo mat covering the floor.
I stared fascinated for a few moments and then felt self-conscious for ogling. She should have her privacy while dancing with a ghost, I thought.
That evening, Sarah’s mom told me in halting English that we needed to go to Long Beach in Southern California to buy a crown.
“A crown?” I asked puzzled.
“Yeah, a crown.”
I was very confused. Why was Sarah mutely dancing by herself, and why was I being told to drive 400 miles to pick up a crown? Fortunately, another Cambodian neighbor provided a partial explanation: an ancestral spirit had become angry and possessed Sarah because of a family conflict. They needed to offer a headdress—the crown—in order to appease the ancestors. Sarah wasn’t dancing with a ghost. The ghost inside her was the one doing the dancing.
Two years before Sarah’s ghost dance, I had moved into Oak Park Apartments in East Oakland to study Cambodian youth gangs. I was pursuing a graduate degree in sociology. But I was also an evangelical Christian hoping to replicate the work of the Christian Community Development Association, a progressive group that works to transform low-income communities. In their model, Christians go to live among the people they are serving and try to be Jesus’ hands and feet in the world, empowering local leaders to build economic self-sufficiency.
Our ministry at Oak Park included intentional Christian practices of hospitality and presence. My roommate, Dan, had moved in to the complex two years before me had started a housecleaning business that employed local residents. When I arrived, a Spanish-speaking congregation was using his living room as a food pantry for new immigrants to Oakland. Dan, who had grown up in the white, middle-class San Francisco suburb of Burlingame, wanted to develop solidarity with the poor and welcomed newcomers any way he could.
Since my family had been in California for five generations, I too felt like I was in a position to host and receive others to our state. In fact, we were upwardly mobile beneficiaries of government programs designed to help families like mine. The GI Bill, which overwhelmingly benefited nonblack veterans of World War II, enabled my dad to attend San Francisco State College for free, where he met my mom. He then used his veteran’s benefit to purchase a home outside of Chinatown, enabling my siblings and I to attend excellent public schools. The GI Bill shaped our fortunes.
Just as we benefited from certain racial privileges, we also stood on the shoulders of African Americans who fought for civil rights and political empowerment. I got a job working for Mayor Art Agnos even though I never studied political science. I was a native San Franciscan and Asian American, and he needed a community liaison. Even though I couldn’t speak Chinese, I at least looked the part!
Because of the extraordinary but unearned advantages I had benefited from, I came to believe that I could offer help to my neighbors in Oak Park. I could share the love of Christ by empowering those whom I hosted. I could use my social capital to connect my neighbors to the resources and networks they needed to get ahead.
Sculptures by Sayon Syprasoeuth.
Living in Oak Park Apartments with Cambodian refugees and undocumented Latinos transformed me in several ways. I was accustomed to getting things done my way. At Oak Park, though, nothing seemed to change. Known by local kids as the “Murder Dubs,” the neighborhood had long been a segregated ghetto where poverty was passed down from generation to generation. Newly arrived refugees and immigrant families had no means to get off of welfare or into something more stable than day labor work.
Even though Oak Park kids clearly wanted to learn, they had difficulty in school. Our living room became a mini-classroom, complete with alphabet wall borders. Kids came for tutoring every day. We attended the local school’s open houses to stress the importance of education. Later, my roommates and I received a family literacy grant to teach English as a second language to parents. The rationale was that if students saw their parents modeling learning behaviors, the students would also succeed. We started separate boys and girls groups to mentor them. Since we lived right next door, we figured we could be positive role models.
But despite our efforts, not one of the boys in our group graduated from high school in the eight years we held our informal classes. Meanwhile, in the two years I had known Sarah’s family, 332 people were murdered in Oakland. Only one or two refugee parents were able to land a job that paid a living wage. We saw the cycles of violence and poverty, and the intensification of inequality. These patterns were not just grim statistics that we read about, but dire situations facing our friends and neighbors, who by now had come to feel like family.
But now I was confronted by a ghost, and I didn’t know how to react.
When Chouen, Sarah’s mom, asked for the ride to Long Beach, I immediately protested and said I couldn’t go so far from Oakland. I wanted to avoid this situation altogether. I came to show God’s love by doing community development, not by casting out spirits. I didn’t believe a headdress was going to fix Sarah’s problem, and I said so.
At six the next morning, however, Chouen showed up at my door and said, “Time to go!” Something must have been missed in the translation. The family really wanted to get rid of the ghost.
And it was a family affair. Everyone showed up for the drive to Long Beach: Sarah; her mom; her younger sister; her father, who had been paralyzed by a land mine in Cambodia; her grandmother; and Bech Chuom, who brought along a boom box to play Buddhist chants to keep the ghost at bay. I didn’t feel like I could say no to the family; Sarah, all this time, had been staring blankly and didn’t respond to any of my attempts at conversation.
Of course, I had no experience in dealing with ghosts, except for chauffeuring them around.
Falling Down with Grace by Sayon Syprasoeuth.
Reluctantly, I borrowed a van and we were off. About halfway down I-5, near Los Banos, Chouen told me to pull off the freeway and get the girls and myself some lunch at McDonald’s. When I returned with Big Macs, the family had already spread out a mat in the parking lot and had begun to eat the lunch they’d brought for themselves. Bech Chuom took the boom box from the car and continued to blast the chanting. Meanwhile, locals in cowboy hats parked their trucks beside us. If they had known that—in addition to the bald man in a white robe with a saffron sash, a man in a wheelchair wearing a sarong, and a grandmother eating little rice from an ornate, silver rice-bowl caddy—there was a spirit-filled girl squatting with us on the ground, their uncomfortably long stares might have lasted even longer.
As a Chinese American in California, I don’t often feel like a minority. That lunchtime, I did.
Bech Chuom, the Cambodian healer, looked like the stereotypical Buddhist monk. Yet he wasn’t cloistered in a temple leading Buddhist sutra chanting. He lived across the courtyard from me and acted as a Kru Khmer, a traditional healer and community leader. His tattoos, which lined his arms and crossed his belly, were yantra, Sanskrit geometric figures that protected him from evil spirits. When people had bouts of illness, he would use a technique called coining to “catch the wind” and draw out their bad air. If they had bad luck, he would make flattened rice-dough figures, much like gingerbread men, and call out the spirits from the individuals’ bodies. The hope was that the spirits would enter the dough figures and quit harassing the humans.
Bech Chuom would also bless amulets and spirit strings for protection. Some believed that the amulets could make gang members bulletproof, so that they were emboldened in fighting for turf. One Cambodian young man whom I knew swore that his spirit string around his waist made a bullet miss him by a whisker.
Because Bech Chuom was the most colorful man in our complex and had a huge, brightly lit shrine in his living room, and happily accommodated guests, I would occasionally bring visitors to meet him. One was a student of mine, a 300-pound nose tackle on the Cal football team nicknamed Pee Wee. He had injured his neck in a car accident and desperately wanted to play again, so he asked Bech Chuom for a healing session.
Bech Chuom consented, motioned Pee Wee to kneel before the shrine, and then took a sip of water. I thought the kru was just for clearing his throat so that he could begin chanting. Instead, he began to spit, directly over Pee Wee. I froze, aghast, wondering if Pee Wee would blitz and tackle this eighty-year-old man. Fortunately, Pee Wee took the spitting ceremony in stride. He told me he’d never let anyone disrespect him like that on the football field, but since Bech Chuom was an elder, he gave him his props. The healing didn’t fix his neck, but Pee Wee, a sociology student, had a great experience.
The story around the neighborhood was that Bech Chuom had found his daughter abandoned and tied to a tree in Cambodia during the war, and that he saved her while under fire. I had heard many dramatic, tragic stories about the Cambodian “killing fields,” but this story was one of the few with a happy ending. When I got a chance to talk to Bech Chuom through an interpreter, I wanted to learn more about his heroic act.
“Oh, that story!?!” he guffawed, “That’s just a joke. I tell her that when I’m mad at her. When she doesn’t listen to me, I say I’m going to return her to the bush where I found her.”
Sarah’s family and I made it to Long Beach and back—headdress in hand—in fourteen hours. I didn’t participate in any ceremony or witness any exorcism that evening. But the next day Sarah was back to her sweet self again.
I asked her what she remembered of the experience, and she couldn’t recall any of the entire past week’s events.
The following week, I spoke to a Cambodian American counselor at Asian Community Mental Health Services about the spirit possession. She nonchalantly told me, “Oh, yes, we see that a lot. The girl may have been recently abused.” When refugee youth face traumatic experiences, she explained, they often disassociate from the experience and act in culturally scripted ways.
Sculptures by Sayon Syprasoeuth.
Had Sarah been abused, or was she really possessed by a spirit?
If pressed, I would say yes to both. Abuse is all too common among families dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder. But many of my neighbors, Cambodian and not, have said they have seen spirits hovering around the neighborhood. Both explanations are possible.
It was around the time of Sarah’s ghost dance time that I stopped writing about Cambodian Americans for sociological journals, because I knew it would take me years to learn the language and to grasp their spiritual worldviews. Dan, my roommate, and I also understood that if we wanted to really address the “felt needs” of our neighbors, as advised by Christian urban ministry strategies, we should focus less on economic development and more on our neighbors’ spiritual fears, including evil spirits and magic.
Of course, I had no experience in dealing with ghosts, except for chauffeuring them around.
After that week, I never saw Sarah again. I heard that she entered an arranged marriage somewhere in the Midwest. Bech Chuom and I kept busy. Together, we once made the New York Times when we were lobbying against welfare reform.1With Bech Chuom’s support, Dan and I organized two hundred of our fellow tenants and won a landmark housing settlement at Oak Park.
Birth of the Dragon Lady by Sayon Syprasoeuth.
But in the years since, I’ve come to temper my grand ambition to transform the community. In my search to be a more faithful Christian witness in the “Murder Dubs,” I’ve reclaimed my own status as a Hakka.
The Hakka were a landless Chinese underclass that migrated and settled wherever they could—Hakka literally means “guest family.” Local residents resented them so much that war broke out in the 1860s, and more than one million people were killed. Afterward, instead of resettling on a government reservation for the Hakka, my great-great grandparents sailed across the Pacific to build a new home in Monterey, California, in 1868. Four decades later, after establishing one of the largest fishing businesses in the area, my great-grandparents had to move again. Along with the entire Chinese fishing village, they were evicted and driven out of by the white townspeople.
Just as the Hakka are guest families, often at the mercy of those already living on the land, evangelical followers of Jesus are sent out as guests. This identity, as a guest rather than a Christian colonizer and as a lamb instead of a lion, helped me to reconcile my role at Oak Park. My gift was not that I brought upward mobility or resources. It was that I could be a Hakka refugee, too, a fellow nomad in our pilgrimage through California. Our role as guests is not to remake our host community, but simply to receive and reciprocate peace.
Eventually, Bech Chuom would take his settlement funds to retire in his hometown in Cambodia. I’m sure that when he got there, he saw more ghosts dance.
Following the protocols of the sociological research I was undertaking at the time, Sarah is a pseudonym, as are the names of her family members and others in this story.
1Tim Golden, “If Immigrants Lose U.S. Aid, Local Budgets May Feel Pain,” New York Times, 29 July 1996.
From 5 May 2115, hologram of the Associated Buzzfeed Times:
Today, California Governor Sofia Miranda-Nguyen signed a historic trade agreement with Chinese Premier Zhou Sanchez-Smith. From now on, China will favor the state with reduced prices for the soy needed to sustain California’s everlasting-tacos industry. In turn, California has agreed to sell everlasting-tacos at reduced rates to China’s remaining 1 billion customers.
“We welcome this historic arrangement between the two regions,” Miranda-Nguyen told the press corps, recently desegregated so that androids could ask questions alongside humans instead of having to wait for the governor’s drone to deliver the news. “We offer our deal as a good-faith present for China not attacking us during the recent Sino-Seattle War, and to apologize for recent geo-engineering experiments that reversed the movement of the Pacific Plate, triggering massive earthquakes and damages on the other side of the ocean we share.”
Sanchez-Smith, for his part, was equally magnanimous. “This represents the latest gesture of friendship between California and China,” he said in English, Spanish, Mandarin, Spanglish, Chinglish, and Chinespañol. “China remains happy to accept California’s gold, in any form, including crispy taco shells, just as it embraced my grandparents from Boyle Heights so many decades ago during the Great Mexican Migration to China.”
Both Miranda-Nguyen and Sanchez-Smith reaffirmed their commitment to wipe Texas off the face of the Earth.
More than a decade ago, I dated a Vietnamese American girl from Irvine. It didn’t work out because I was insufficiently leftist for her (true story: the guy she ultimately left me for called himself Lenin). But that wasn’t the best memory I have of that relationship: that would be her parents, mild-mannered refugees who were horrified that their college-educated daughter was dating a Mexican like me. It didn’t matter that I was a graduate student at UCLA at the time; for them, I was little better than a cholo with glasses.
My parents, on the other hand, embraced my girlfriend, in the way only Mexican immigrants could: they called her a chinita, a little Chinese girl. Even when I’d explain that she was Vietnamese, and that Vietnamese weren’t Chinese, they’d pause for a minute, then exclaim, “¡Que linda chinita!” (“What a beautiful Chinese chick!”)
Illustration by Juan Pablo Baene.
Just another episode in California’s lotería of racism, right? The relationship between California and its Asians has been notoriously fucked up throughout our history, from lynchings to internment, exclusion acts to good ol’ fear-mongering, with nearly every other group getting in on the act. But one group has always embraced Asians more than others in California: Mexicans, and in this unlikely-but-growing relationship lies California’s future, a future already present. Together, we will make California the nexus between Asia and Latin America, with the knowledge and relationships that ensure not only the future of California, but of the United States too—bigoted parents be damned.
It’ll be a beautiful coda to an unlikely pairing of California’s two most loathed ethnic groups. We already have a history: various Asian groups have settled across Latin America—Chinese in Peru, Koreans in Argentina, Lebanese in Colombia, Japanese in Brazil, Indians in Trinidad and Tobago—almost from the moment Cortés and Pizarro went on their merry conquistador ways. While those groups have integrated into their respective countries, integration came after centuries of segregation, exclusion, and even mass killings—let’s not forget that the US Border Patrol was established to guard against the Chinese trying to migrate into the United States, fleeing pogroms in Mexico.
But throughout twentieth-century California, any Latino resentment toward Asians or vice versa quickly disappeared as the two groups realized that they were in the same, nonwhite, discriminated-against boat. Through the decades, Asians and Mexicans joined to fight the good fight, in various battlefields in California (not to mention segregated platoons in World War II). If the following paragraph reads like a bullet-point presentation, it is: these facts need to be recited ad nauseam and entered in the official California record.
In the Central Valley, Sikh men married Mexican women because the era’s xenophobic immigration laws largely prohibited Asian women from coming to this country. Filipinos famously started the grape strike that launched the United Farm Workers, and manongs, such as Phillip Vera Cruz and Larry Itliong, were influential leaders in the union for many years. In the 1940s, when the Munemitsu family of Westminster were sent off to the internment camps, it was a Mexican American farmer named Gonzalo Mendez who tended the land while they were gone; the money earned from that good deed helped Mendez and other families pursue the famous school segregation case, Mendez, et al. vs. Westminster. And this is my favorite story, only because it’s so telling: Guy Gabaldon grew up with a Japanese American family in East Los Angeles, learning how to speak Japanese in the process. His language skills helped the Marines secure the surrender of more than a thousand Japanese soldiers in the Pacific Front during World War II. Hollywood made a movie out of it…and Gabaldon was played by the very gabacho Jeffrey Hunter.
Many more examples exist, of course. But my favorite example of the Asian Mexican partnership is in food. Studies have shown that Mexicans are among the world’s top consumers of dried ramen, and Chinese restaurants are a staple of barrios across the Golden State. The popular seafood dish ceviche came to Mexico via Peru via Japanese immigrants; at any Mexican supermarket, you’ll find cacahuates japoneses, Japanese peanuts, so named because a Japanese businessman introduced the soy sauce–soaked treats to Mexico City during the 1950s. One of my favorite meals growing up was teriyaki bowls, except the stands in my Anaheim neighborhood had essentially Mexicanized the dish by making the beef cuts lean like carne asada, throwing in cebollitas (grilled green onions) instead of scallions, throwing in containers of Tapatío hot sauce with every to-go order alongside the teriyaki sauce, and offering horchata to wash everything down with its sweet kick.
Using food as proof for the future of California might seem trite, but food is always at the vanguard of mestizaje and shows the beautiful possibilities of cultural exchange and fusion. Consider the story of the Kogi Korean BBQ truck, already legendary despite the fact that it’s only eight years old. Chef Roy Choi literally changed America’s perception of what race could be by doing something simple: offering Mexican foods like burritos and tacos with Korean ingredients. He never claimed to have invented that mash-up. Indeed, the Kogi origin story openly admits that the team got its inspiration to open such a truck from a blogger reminiscing about his undergrad days at University of California, Irvine, in the early 2000s, and how during a Korean American frat party, the students began stuffing Korean barbecue into leftover tortillas because all of the carne asada had run out. (How telling about Asian Mexican California is it that Korean students would not only grill up carne asada alongside Korean barbecue, but finish it first?) While the world was taken by the novelty of Korean tacos, Choi just brushed it aside; to him, Asian Mexican fusion was as naturally Southern Californian as traffic on the 405.
“We’re Korean, but we’re American, and we grew up in LA,” Choi told a reporter shortly after unveiling his truck. “It’s not a stigma food; it’s a representation of who we are…that was our goal. To take everything about LA and put it into one bite—it’s Mexican, it’s Korean, it’s organic, it’s California.”
We’re a century away from 2115, of course, but simple demographics dictate Choi’s definition of his food will manifest itself. California will become a living, breathing Korean taco: Mexican in structure, Asian in essence, wholly American, and spicy as hell. The two groups will intermarry, will become neighbors—more so than now, that is. Our respective ties to our ancestral homelands will become more important as the United States seeks closer relationships with the folks we left back home—we did globalization before it became popular. Foreign investment from Latin America and Asia will increasingly turn California into a global crossroad for the world economy, which it has been for a long time already; remittances back home will help modernize countries, while residents here will influence politics there—and here too. Our mutual love of bilingualism and multiculturalism won’t be so exotic by the twenty-second century, but rather the only way for California and America to survive.
Illustration by Juan Pablo Baene.
It’s going to get bumpy before we get to this bright future, of course—but we’re getting there. Last year, two Latinas were convicted of manslaughter in the beating death of Kim Pham, a young Vietnamese American woman who died outside a nightclub in downtown Santa Ana. People on both sides wanted to bring race into the mix to light a fire. Longtime Latino residents complained that out-of-town Asians (mostly students from UC, Irvine) were gentrifying their neighborhoods, while Asians complained that they were making the area “safer” (read: less Mexican) by being there.
A generation ago, such back-and-forth between ethnic groups in Southern California could have led to riots. What happened in the aftermath of the Pham verdict? Absolutely nothing—peace reigned, Asians returned to Santa Ana’s downtown scene, joined by Latino hipsters.
While this was a huge news story in Orange County, the biggest Asian Mexican news for me last year was the marriage of my second cousin to my childhood friend, a son of Chinese parents. I hadn’t spoken to him in twenty-five years.
But how the hell does a chinito marry a girl from my ancestral village?