1.5 generation

May 27, 2006

May 26, 2006

Do We Know Who We Are?

By Sonny Le, Hyphen Advisory Board Member

Our personal identity is a reflection of how we see ourselves, based on family and ancestral history and growing up-experience and what we believe to be perceived by others. As Asian Americans, our identity is fraught with unintended and unwanted connotations. Given the diversity within the communities and how much of our experience has been defined by and filtered through popular media, inventing and/or reinventing who we are seems to have taken on a new dimension.

Compounding the problem is the fact that many of our parents are either reluctant to shed light on their past and their coming-to-America experience or simply offer inexact accounts.

I am not one who’s quick to resort to handy pseudo-intellectual labels such as “internalized racism” or so called “self-hatred,” but what’s with historical revisionism among young Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese Americans? As a result it has become downright difficult to tell if we know who we REALLY ARE.

In recent years I see more and more Southeast Asians, namely members of the 1.5 and 2.0 generations, whose bios state that either they or their families “immigrated” to the US. Unless pressed, Cambodians and Laotians claim to have been “born” in Thailand and my biggest pet peeve is Vietnamese Americans often claim that their fathers “worked” for the CIA. At times it sounds like the whole of former South Vietnam’s population was on the CIA’s payroll.

With the exception for a handful of students and members of the diplomatic delegation and their dependents who were trapped in the US when South Vietnam fell in 1975, the majority, I emphasize MAJORITY, of Southeast Asians came to the US as refugees. That means escaping, fleeing, or running away from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam either on land by foot or by water in rickety fishing boats, even for those who were “evacuated” by the American military. The term “immigrate” indicates an act of will with mutual agreement among all parties involved.

I understand that it might be impossible to extract information from our parents and in doing so might force them to relive a painful chapter in their lives that they prefer to forget. But being born behind barbed wire in No Man’s Land along the border of Thailand is not what I would claim as being “born in Thailand.” The same thing goes for Chinese Vietnamese who claim to have been born in Hong Kong. The refugee camps (Hong Kong, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia, Singapore and Thailand) during the height of the exodus were run by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and those within the camps were wards of the UN.

Conditions in the camps in Thailand and Hong Kong were among the worst. Living quarters in some Hong Kong camps were nothing more than bunks separated by chicken wire mesh covered with a piece of fabric to provide a semblance of privacy. Gang violence, rapes, domestic violence and public drunkenness were commonplace. Though under the UN’s supervision and management, some camps in Thailand, especially those closest to the Cambodian border, were infiltrated by the Khmer Rouge, the same regime that the refugees had escaped from. There was freedom of movement within the camps but residents were kept behind razor-sharp barbed wire perimeter.

(I spent almost two years on an isolated and desolate island of Galang in Indonesia. There were beautiful white sand beaches and some vegetation but not much else. Three hundred and sixty-five days of this without being able to get off the island or doing much else can make one go stir-crazy. These were the conditions we had to endure after the harrowing sea-escape or dash through the jungles of Cambodia.)

And the CIA connection? By the time I arrived in the US in the early 1980s it had by-then become the accepted convention that Vietnamese refugees had to escape from Vietnam because of their ties to the old American-back regime of South Vietnam. I guess it would not be as sexy to say that we were farmers, fisherman or street vendors who came seeking better living conditions. Furthermore, to qualify for political asylum refugees had to meet criteria other economics. It did not take long for Vietnamese refugees to adopt similar reasons for leaving Vietnam.

I bought into it myself and for a while did tell people, whenever asked, that my father worked for the CIA and that he “spoke” both French and English. (I will go into the French connection in another post.) And to go along with the CIA connection, all the men were either captains or colonels in the old regime — all officers, no grunts or conscripts.

In the late 1980s this reinvention caught up with one prominent member of the Vietnamese-American community in Seattle, a respected leader who had founded and managed organizations that provided services to newly arrived refugees and a business owner.

It began as a local English-language weekly wrote about his run-in with the laws – opening a night club without proper license, which he claimed was a private fundraiser for the local Vietnamese Buddhist temple. This led to the FBI investigating his various business holdings and spending of public funds. A pair of Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s reporters dug deeper and, lo and behold, they hit pay dirt.

Asides from misuse of public funds and mismanagement of the nonprofit that provided services to newly arrived refugees, the reporters also discovered that he had claimed to be a “colonel” on the Saigon Capitol Police force and holder of a degree from the London School of Economics, among other claims. According to the expose, he would have been 17 years-old when he became a colonel and that he was in a refugee camp in the Philippines at the time that he claimed to be attending the London School of Economics.

I am not advocating that we should corner our fathers and uncles and force them to fess up. They had their reasons to reinvent themselves once leaving the old country. Escaping Cambodia, Laos or Vietnam may have also meant leaving behind life of hand-to-mouth subsistence living, leaving behind grinding poverty and backwardness, leaving behind a life that befitting only that of a water buffalo, they would say.

Now that we are all grown up and have been educated at some of the world’s best universities and colleges. It should not take much for us to find out where we came from and under what circumstances.

Being a refugee or having born in refugee camps should not take away from our achievements or distract us from our ambitions. In fact, they can be a positive re-enforcement of our character and humanity. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with having been the off-springs of farmers and street vendors either. We all have to come from somewhere. Our past is what has shaped us to be who we are today. There is no need to resort to the modern equivalent of the Southeast Asian-American creation myth.

So why do 1.5 and 2.0 generations of Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese Americans feel the need to embellish their families’ histories and coming-to-America experiences?

Sonny Le is on Hyphen's advisory board.

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