Closing the Gap Between Vietnamese and Mexicans

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Nguoi Viet, Commentary, Ky Phong-Tran, Posted: Oct 11, 2006

MEXICO CITY — Here, I walk down streets with names like Insurgentes and Reforma. It is morning and the city wakes with me: the smell of fresh bread drifts from a bakery, a deli owner chats in Spanish with his wife, the early traffic putters and beeps and honks.

I turn into Chapultepec Park, the capital’s main gathering of museums and monuments. The lush grounds are filled with walking trails, statues and lakes. I’ve never been here before, and yet somehow it feels familiar. Perhaps it’s the giggling pack of teenagers in school uniforms flirting with one another and kicking a soccer ball around. Perhaps it’s the old European touch, a colonial place with its canopy of large trees and wide, cobbled roads. No, no, it’s the trash cans that look like penguins and the pedal boats that are ducks.

When I close my eyes and take a deep breath, Mexico City’s pace, people and street life remind me of Sài Gòn, which reminds me of Vi?t Nam, which reminds me why I travel in the first place.

***

I grew up in Long Beach, Calif., which in 2000 was the most diverse city in the United States, according to USA Today’s Diversity Index. I studied with kids who went to both the Ivy League and to prison. At homecoming, we didn’t have a king and queen; we had international ambassadors that represented the dozens of ethnicities on campus. I was one of them.

Fourteen years later, old habits are hard to break and I still go out of my way to travel, to meet people, to learn new histories, to try to see the world through someone else’s eyes. In 2001, I went on my return pilgrimage to Vi?t Nam to see the country my parents left and my life that might have been. It was a life-changing experience, and still, I felt like I would have short-changed myself if I didn’t go to Cambodia as well.

Why? Long Beach has the largest population of Cambodians in the United States, second to Paris for the most outside of Cambodia. My classmates and neighbors were Cambodians, and I wanted to know more about them. I hoped that a week-long stay in their homeland could give me a glimpse into their global view. From Angkor’s majestic ruins to Phnom Penh’s hustle and bustle, I was not disappointed.

So when a graduate-school classmate invited me to Mexico City, I jumped at the chance.

I needed to see it not just as a tourist, but as a person trying to confront my own racism. Though I claim all responsibility for my point of view, I can say that in the United States it’s very easy to be racist. In a country built on the notion of race, racism naturally follows.

What an irony, right? I grow up in Southern California, formerly Mexico, surrounded my Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and I’m prejudiced to the point that I find it hard to reach out to Mexican Americans.

But why? I think it was two factors. First, there were no or few Mexican American kids in my classes so I never had a real life model to engage with. Second, and much more tangible, the rampant gang activity in Long Beach.

From the mid-1990s until now, there has been a deadly war between Mexican gangs and Asian gangs. Shootings, drive-bys and killings are common occurrences. In fact, at the peak of the “beef” in 1999, there were 17 homicides in one year. The terrifying thing about the conflict is that you don’t have to be a gang member to be threatened, just the wrong ethnicity in the wrong place at the wrong time.

So for a large part of my life, I have lived with the fear that some gang member was going to pull up next to me at a stop light and blast me with a machine gun. Was it rational, paranoid or even fair? Of course not. But was it real? Real as a coffin.

***

The Mexico City I see charms me, surprises me, challenges me. My classmate Gaby and her husband are from the middle- to upper-class and both grew up here. They are locally engaged artists— she a poet, he a video-installationist — and we spend the week going from film premiere to art opening to warehouse/garage-band party.

They live in the Condesa, a quaint walking neighborhood sprinkled with trees, cafes and restaurants. It was once destroyed by an earthquake in 1985, but has been revived into the hipster scene of the city. Its energy and vibe remind me of Greenwich Village in New York.

The other neighborhoods I visit all have their distinct charms: the history of downtown and its massive town square; the street life of the Roma; the upscale posh of Polanco; and my favorite, the villa feel of Coyoacán with its weekend market and Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera’s home.

On my own, I do the tourist thing and see the National Museum of Anthropology as well as the ancient pyramids of Teotihuacán. Near the city’s center, I fall in love with a building that at first seems out of place: a squared, angular five-story structure highlighted by blue tiles. It is Spanish, from the colonial days but distinctly influenced by the Arab Muslim Moors from Africa. With five or six rich cultures crammed into one structure, it lets me see the variety within Mexican culture.

***

It’s a hippie cliché to rave about “the people” you meet when you travel. But just because it’s a cliché doesn’t mean it’s not true or important. And hanging with my classmate and her husband and all their childhood, college, and professional friends, I feel like I had an insider’s access to local life in Mexico City.

In addition to everyone’s kindness and friendliness to their new Vietnamese friend from the United States, I was blown away by their diversity and worldliness. (Granted, I know I am around a very privileged class of people). A sampling of Gaby’s friends includes a Lebanese Mexican filmmaker, a Dutch ex-pat filmmaker, a Lithuanian-French-Jewish-Mexican best friend and her Egyptian Mexican husband. They worked in editing, translation, film, art and media.

Most had traveled the world, living in New York, Paris, Toronto, and were gracious enough to speak in English with me. (Though I speak rudimentary Spanish, I did awfully regret not studying harder in my high school classes).

From meeting this group of young jet setters, artists and intellectuals, I was stunned at how many were immigrants or the children of immigrants. As Americans, I think we often associate immigrants only with coming to America. Seeing Gaby’s eclectic, talented circle allowed me to see Mexico City as a world city, with the coming and goings of both new arrivals and global corporations. It opened my mind to a Mexico, a Mexico City and a Mexican culture that was much bigger than what I see in Long Beach.

In an “It’s a Small World” kind of way, Gaby’s friends reminded me of my friends in the U.S., immigrants and the children of immigrants from the Philippines, India, China, Vi?t Nam and Japan.

***

I’d by lying to say that after my seven days in Mexico my racism had been purged and I’m now a color-blind person. And it’d be lying to say I no longer get annoyed at my neighbors who play loud mariachi music into the night or I don’t still get scared walking certain parts of my neighborhood. But it’s easy and truthful to say that my trip gave me a fuller, more complicated, and more realistic view of both Mexico and Mexico America.

Of all my experiences on the other side of the border, the partying, the sightseeing, the delicious food, what stands out to me most is this: Wherever I went, people spoke to me in Spanish first. They asked me for directions or for a lighter. It surprised me, because even here in the U.S., many individuals assume an Asian face does not speak English. The assumption that I was one of “theirs,” a Mexican, was one of the most welcoming things I’ve ever felt in terms of dealing with my ethnicity and nationality (a lifelong struggle for me as a refugee).

On the Metro alone, no one stared at me. If I stayed quiet, no one knew I was a foreigner and did not speak the language very well. My brown skin and average height fit in well in Mexico and comforted me. (And if you believe that the indigenous people of the Americas came from a land bridge to Asia, then “racially,” this could be considered a long-delayed family reunion.)

***

Last month, congressional candidate Tan Nguyen allegedly sent intimidating and illegal flyers to Mexican American households. It was quite a despicable act, made a little more hurtful because it was one immigrant picking on another. I didn’t write about my time in Mexico City as some sort of rebuttal or political thought piece. But if I can make amends, build one bridge, lull one reader with my experiences, I also wouldn’t mind.

Back in the U.S., I miss Mexico City very much. I’d like to spend a summer or even a year there to get to know it better. I want to work on my novel at a café in the Condesa or talk world politics with my new pals at a bar. On a whim, I’ve looked up home prices there and found them manageable. After graduate school, I plan on taking Spanish classes. I’ve been to many of the world’s great metropolises — London, Paris, Rome, New York — and Mexico City is right up there with them, but with that something extra, a wild flare and charm, that fits me well. Along with Hanoi, it’s the only other city I’d consider moving to.

It’s a bit sad that a city and culture so close — only a four-hour flight — had been so far to me. But not anymore.

And that, that is why I travel.

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Vietnamese and Blacks: How We Come Together

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Nguoi Viet, Commentary, Ky Phong Tran, Posted: Nov 21, 2007

What are the ties between Vietnamese and African America?

In a sampling of today’s popular media, you’d think our two communities never come into contact with one another. And demographically it doesn’t help that the California cities of San Jose, Westminster, and Garden Grove — the epicenters of Vietnamese America — all have small percentages of African Americans. (San Jose 3.5 percent, Westminster 0.99 percent, and Garden Grove 1.3 percent.)

But in more urban, ethnically mixed communities like Long Beach, Oakland and San Francisco, we mix often and successfully.

I’m proof of that.

As Thanksgiving approaches, I’d like to acknowledge three men — a coach, a journalist, and a teacher — who mentored me during my youth. By taking the time to guide me, they have changed me for the better. Body, mind and soul.

The fact that I am Vietnamese and they are African American only adds to the complexity and richness of our bonds.

Body

In my ninth-grade year, Coach Larry Davis took a skinny, left-handed Vietnamese kid and made him into a basketball player. I remember trying out for the team at Long Beach Jordan High School, the only non-African American in the gym. I was intimidated. Scared. Short.

Not only did I make the team, I eventually became a starter and played all over Southern California. Can you imagine me, a Vietnamese kid breaking the press all over Long Beach, Compton and Watts? I’ve had a swagger ever since, on the court and off. How could you not?

My time on the squad also gave me a chance to become close friends with a number of my teammates and thus gain an intimate view of African American life that (I’m guessing here) few Vietnamese have ever had. I still cherish the times I slept over at their houses, had dinner with their families and laughed hysterically on our game trips.

But more than anything else, what I still keep from Coach Davis was his demeanor. He was not a demonstrative man who yelled at referees and players. At halftime, he would just remind us, ‘Play defense and make your free throws.’ If you missed a steal or lay-up, he wouldn’t berate you, he’d simply say, ‘Next time. Next time.’

Why did that little phrase stick with me?

Not only was it short and simple, it made perfect sense. It didn’t make you feel bad for a mistake, but encouraged you, made you believe that the next time you had the same opportunity, you’d make the play. It was brilliant because it looked to the future.

Mind

In the summer of 1990, Art Thompson III, a sports writer for the Orange County Register, was looking for a male African American journalism student to mentor. Unfortunately, there weren’t any at my school.

He could have gone back to his busy job covering the Los Angeles Raiders at the time, but when my journalism teacher suggested that he mentor an overenthusiastic, Vietnamese sports writer with a penchant for hyperbole, he did.

That same summer, Art took me to the Raiders summer training camp, an opportunity most sports fans would die for.

I interviewed then-head coach Art Shell. I met running back Marcus Allen, a legend in those days and now a member of the football Hall of Fame. I must have stood out because I remember Marcus razzing Art about the Asian

kid following him around. I didn’t care. Marcus Allen was acknowledging my existence.

What I remember about Art was his professionalism. I was not allowed to ask for autographs, for one. But I also vividly recall how prepared he was for his interviews. He had his questions and notes ready before interviews, a bunch of sharpened pencils, his note pad and a tape recorder.

It’s a testament to his journalistic integrity and respectful attitude that the players and coaches opened up to him and joked with him, even when part of his job was to critique them publicly.

As a writer now, I still apply the lessons I learned from him.

Soul

It’s hard for me to write about Tony Rogers, who passed away in 2002. He was so many things to me: high school history teacher, camp director, moral compass, confidante.

Other than my dad, he is the most influential male in my life. Many of his students consider him a father figure, and I’ve often and endearingly called him ‘my black dad.’

Mr. Rogers is probably most known in the Long Beach community for his work in building relationships while boosting diversity. He ran a human-relations camp at Long Beach Poly High called Poly North that brought together high school sophomores to learn about issues of race and interracial and interethnic friendships.

I still remember the night hikes and the dance, and I even have stayed in touch with some of my fellow campers, 17 years later. After camp, I enrolled in Mr. Rogers’ Black History class, again the only Asian in the room, which opened up my eyes to alternative histories. In college, he was good for advice at all hours and last minute letters of recommendation. With a wife and family of his own, he always found time for others.

When Mr. Rogers passed away, I woke up the next day and felt a physical void in the world. It’s the only time I’ve ever felt that way after someone’s death.

It’s taken me years of thinking to articulate what he meant to me, but it comes down to this: Mr. Rogers was a gateway to my core values of radical/progressive politics and my belief in social justice.

But what I respect so much is that he never forced his philosophy upon me or bored me with lectures. He showed them to me, he lived them. (For a while, when I found out that he had started the Black Student Union at Stanford University and protested for ethnic studies during the late 1960s, I looked at him like a superhero).

It’s funny to think that one man, a weekend camp, and a Black History class can have so much influence. But here I am today, 32 years old, a passionate advocate for social justice, a journalist and writer, and also an ethnic studies teacher.

One of the last times I saw Mr. Rogers was at a staff training for the human-relations camp where I had returned to volunteer. We had just completed a difficult team-building event. I stretched and stretched to complete a course 30 feet above the ground because I didn’t want to let my friends down.

When he returned to our cabin to debrief, Mr. Rogers told me, ‘You are one bad dude.’ It’s my favorite memory of him, but in truth, he was the baddest dude of them all.

***

Within Vietnamese America and popular media, there can often be negative stereotypes about African Americans, especially African American men. I’ve always had a hard time rectifying what I’ve been told and what I have lived.

In the past, Vietnamese and African America were most intricately connected through the lens of war. (Suggested reading: Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem ‘T? Do Street’ and the collection Dien Cai Dau).

But for me, it’s been through friendship and mentorship. That is how we come together.

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