"The leader is wise, honorable, benevolent, brave, and disciplined." Sun Tzu

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Ken Jennings of Jeopardy perpetuates misinformation of Vietnamese history

Thich Quang Duc

In its 36th season, the television game show Jeopardy is the most popular quiz show in America. Numerous contestants have competed in over the 8,000 episodes of Jeopardy. It's simply a matter of time when people start asking who is the greatest contestant of all time?

On January 14, 2020, Ken Jennings won a special contest called "Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time" by defeating two other Jeopardy greats, Brad Rutter and James Holzhauer. Jennings not only holds Jeopardy's longest winning streak of 74 wins, but with his victory in "Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time" last month, he is also officially the undisputed and greatest champion of Jeopardy.

But if you ask me, Ken Jennings isn't great at all. Of course I owe you an explanation on why I feel this way.

It all started this Tuesday when I read a post by Michael Sullivan (@regularmike) on Twitter that Jennings made an error on his weekly Tuesday quiz. The quiz is conducted via email when you sign up on Ken Jennings's website for "Ken's legendary Tuesday Trivia quiz."

My exchange with Mike Sullivan on Twitter

As you can see above, the great Ken Jennings was corrected by regular Mike Sullivan. Sullivan isn't Vietnamese but he knows a basic fact about the iconic photograph. What Jennings wrote is a common mistake. That common mistake can be found on question #5 on the quiz:

5.  What did a monk named Thich Quang Duc do on June 11, 1963 that made headlines worldwide? He set himself on fire on a Saigon street corner to protest the Vietnam War, immediately becoming one of the most iconic photographic images of the 20th century.

If you know the history of the Vietnam War, you'd know that Thich Quang Duc, the monk who set himself on fire on June 11, 1963, in Saigon didn't do so to protest the Vietnam War. Instead he was protesting against the South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, who was in power since 1955 at that time. A Catholic, Diem persecuted Vietnamese Buddhists who made up 80 percent of the population in South Vietnam.

As a Vietnamese Buddhist born in Saigon, I was very upset about this error. If it was an anonymous netizen posting wrong information, I wouldn't bother, but it came from the greatest Jeopardy champion of all time, someone who countless people look up to as a reliable source of information. If he can't get the Vietnam War right, then what are the chances of most Americans getting it right?

So immediately I responded to Mr. Jennings to put out a correction, because too many Americans are already confused about the Vietnam War. Furthermore, the obvious misinformation belittles the sacrifice of the monk and the important message he was trying to send to the world.

Even after 50 years later Americans are still getting the Vietnam War wrong. It's no wonder Americans are still confused about the war. Like Ken Jennings, they are still looking at the conflict through their Western eyes and their own narrow interests. It's not always about the Americans! Sometimes it's only about the Vietnamese. Thich Quang Duc didn't do it for America. He did it for his fellow Vietnamese.

Unfortunately despite my pleas for Ken Jennings to respond, he ignored my requests. He didn't respond to Mike Sullivan either. Because the mistake is common, it's probable Jennings has received feedback from other people as well. But he doesn't seem to care about getting an important historical event right. He perpetuates a falsehood. Does he realize that the history behind the Vietnam War is much more significant to get correct than, for example, Potent Potables? After all, those who don't understand history are at risk to repeat it.

So instead of acknowledging the mistake, Jennings seems content to not correct his bad error. Ken Jennings is famous for knowing many things. Even he gets the war wrong, but the real mistake is not correcting it. His apathy is glaring. In addition, his lack of response represents well the indifference of many Westerners during the Vietnam War, involving themselves in something with little knowledge and understanding.

Am I being too harsh on Jennings? I don't think so. If I choose to write about, for example, an Afghanistan event, I'm going to do proper research and then educate others on what I learned. If an everyday American corrects me on it, then I probably didn't do my research sufficiently. And if an Afghan corrects me, I wouldn't ignore her.

To clarify, the problem wasn't that Jennings made a mistake. We are all human. The problem was his apathy about correcting a serious historical error when told about it. Vietnamese history is important, especially in a war that costed so many lives. Therefore, I propose that individuals like Ken Jennings leave matters that are Vietnamese to the Vietnamese, and if not, then at least fact check before publishing. Given Vietnam's grave history, those matters are certainly not trivial to the Vietnamese. 💛

UPDATE on February 13, 2020, at 1pm. Ken Jennings posted the following message on Twitter, two days after sending out his last Tuesday Trivia:

Monday, February 3, 2020

Too many blue eyes in Ken Burns's Vietnam War documentary

Originally aired on PBS in 2017, Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's The Vietnam War documentary is now widely available on Netflix. The documentary has 10 episodes that last a total of over 17 hours. It took more than 10 years and $30 million to produce. Despite its claims of being different, the documentary is arguably similar to another PBS documentary, Vietnam: A Television History, which first aired in 1983 with 13 episodes lasting a total of 13 hours. The claim was that unlike Vietnam:  A Television History where the interviews were with notable historians and dignitaries (both Vietnamese and Americans), The Vietnam War aimed to interview everyday Vietnamese and Americans about their experiences. It seemed like a good start.

But my article's title is provocative for a reason. I wanted to underline The Vietnam War's striking shortcoming. The documentary failed to achieve an essential objective on why a new Vietnam War documentary is even needed: a cogent explanation of the rectitude of the war, if any. The reason why it failed was the film missed the opportunity to focus on a key set of people: the South Vietnamese. More South Vietnamese perspectives would definitively fulfill that objective. The Vietnam War isn't the only Vietnam War film that fell short; it is simply a continuation of the failure of film directors and producers to fill in a crucial missing piece by thoroughly examining the thoughts of the South Vietnamese. Those thoughts can illuminate unanswered questions that remain about the war for many Americans. Disappointingly, the documentary spent over 80 percent of the time bogged down in battle details involving Americans, the deliberations of White House leaders, and American sentiment for and against the war. Their perspectives were needed, of course, but let's not label it The Vietnam War if it doesn't highlight the Vietnamese. Given the content, a more accurate title for the documentary is The American War in Vietnam. Therefore, without a full presentation of South Vietnamese beliefs and experiences, we cannot possibly understand the crux of the Vietnam War, since the main reason why the war started in the first place and why we continued to fight it was hinged on the South Vietnamese. 

However, there were two notable bright spots in the documentary, both interviewees.

The first bright spot was Tran Ngoc Toan, a South Vietnamese Marine, who graduated from the Military Academy of Vietnam, Vietnam's equivalent of West Point. Mr. Tran told us that during the demoralizing battle of Binh Gia against the Viet Cong (southern communist fighters), American helicopters refused to help the South Vietnamese recover their dead despite those choppers picking up dead bodies of the Americans. In contrast, the Viet Cong didn't leave one dead body on the battlefield. The event symbolizes well how little some Americans value the views and lives of the South Vietnamese. Tran impressed me by his continued bravery during and after the war. He suffered several wounds to his body during his 13-year fight against the communists and suffered further through nine years of re-education camp (i.e., prison), much like my own father.

The second bright spot was Duong Van Mai Elliott, an American author who was born in north Vietnam. Her experience was pivotal to the documentary because it gave a balanced perspective of both northern and southern political views. At least one of her relatives joined the communist forces (Viet Minh). Ms. Elliott has a similar history as my family's: a north Vietnamese whose family migrated to the south during the land reforms of the 1950s, although unlike her family, we stayed in Saigon like Tran Ngoc Toan did and experienced the aftermath of the communist invasion. Like Mr. Tran, we felt we could not leave our country simply because of fear, and only left Vietnam when we observed firsthand that our very own Vietnamese people were every bit as oppressive as the French who they themselves complained about before they rose to power. Both Tran and Elliott's insightful South Vietnamese accounts were credits to The Vietnam War, and I'm glad the documentary presented their perspectives.

As some of you know, I'm a student of Chinese philosophy, especially Sun Tzu's Art of War, an immensely influential book on strategy and leadership. The Art of War is applied in the modern military, politics, business, and sports all around the world. Sun Tzu said the best accomplishment of a general isn't to win 100 battles, but to win without fighting at all. There is much loss and destruction in war, even if you manage to win it. In addition, a leader can only be famous by fighting in great battles, not by preventing them -- how can you be praised for events that never happened? -- so the best leaders of history are often unknown to historians. They did their jobs effectively and effortlessly without the need for shallow fanfare. In contrast, the Vietnam War was a sad display of such poor strategy and leadership that there were many famous people from the war.

If more leaders fully understood how a typical South Vietnamese think, they could have prevented many problems experienced during the Vietnam War. For instance, they would immediately understand the problem with individuals like Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt and autocratic South Vietnamese president. They would also have discerned the problem with accepting terms in the 1954 Geneva Conference for a nationwide election in Vietnam after two years when clearly most educated South Vietnamese wanted nothing to do with communism. Few Americans know that during the 1950s, close to a million north Vietnamese migrated to the south to get away from communism and its cruel policies. To leave your roots and home that your family has known for generations isn't a flippant decision. I know because my family did exactly that. It required the communists taking our family's property by force and my grandfather (along with 13,500 other farm owners) fighting and dying that caused his widow (my grandmother) and their daughter (my mother) to migrate south. These land grabs and killings took place for more than two years in north Vietnam. Despite such a consequential event, The Vietnam War documentary discussed it for less than one minute in the entire 17-hour series. This equates to less than one-tenth of one percent of the series! As a South Vietnamese, I could have personally told the documentary's directors Ken Burns and Lynn Novick of their egregious error. Many South Vietnamese intuitively understand that liberty and private property are paramount for happiness and prosperity. Those core principles are easily understood by many Americans who believe in free enterprise, to be able to keep what they earn.

We South Vietnamese wanted to determine our own independent path, much like the Americans did during the Revolutionary War. Did the Minutemen have doubts on whether their fight against the British monarchy was worth it? Patrick Henry didn't doubt it when he said, "Give me liberty or give me death!" Thus, like our fellow colonialists (Vietnam was a colony of France), we South Vietnamese detested oppressive systems, regardless of whether they were foreign or domestic. Although the north and south consisted of the same Vietnamese people, the south didn't want to unite with the north because of their vastly different way of governance. The north had adopted the ways of the Chinese and Russians. The south wanted to be left alone to implement a truly independent Vietnamese government, free from outside influence. Only a few American leaders, such as US President John F. Kennedy, understood that. Sadly, Kennedy was assassinated only 18 days after the coup d'état to oust Diem and his ruthless brother Nhu.

Therefore, nothing short of a negotiated agreement for a division along the 17th parallel in Vietnam but without any promise of a nationwide election -- more like the Korean Armistice Agreement -- would be necessary to prevent the Vietnam War from happening as we know it today. There would have probably been continued conflict and battles with the north, but the length of time and level of atrocities and suffering would have been much less, similar to Korea's situation. Expectations from Ho Chi Minh and his war monger co-leader Le Duan would have been tempered. If the Americans, French, and English understood and were aligned with South Vietnamese determination, then north Vietnam would have no choice but be satisfied with a divided Vietnam. The north Vietnamese government's fear of Americans being involved was quite conspicuous even after all regular American soldiers left Vietnam in 1973. They cautiously took another two years to finally invade a significantly weakened South Vietnam. As I mentioned in a previous article, I debated with an American college professor who claimed Diem was South Vietnam's best hope for survival. In his narrow-minded Western-centric view, he didn't realize South Vietnam has survived for centuries, even through oppressive Chinese, French, and north Vietnamese communist rule. We are still living history. The Vietnamese people are surviving. The Vietnamese will outlast any tyrannical system. If a college professor couldn't comprehend that, what are the chances of an average American comprehending it?

The Vietnam War documentary mostly presented non-South Vietnamese who tried to explain the whys of the Vietnam War -- its necessity, complexity, and rectitude. Not surprisingly they seemed confused on why they fought and whether it was worth it. And they remained perplexed throughout the 17-hour series. They were confused, because like the college professor, they hadn't firmly grasped how South Vietnamese think. But to the South Vietnamese, the answer was obvious and natural. We were the Vietnamese version of the Minutemen and Patrick Henry who found tyranny unacceptable despite the risk of being attacked and invaded for not acquiescing. If The Vietnam War documentary focused more on the mindset of the South Vietnamese, it could have accomplished something that no previous Vietnam War documentary had accomplished before: explain fully and convincingly why the Vietnam War was inevitable and why it continued for so long. Unfortunately, the documentary blew by more than 100 years (1858–1961) of Vietnamese history and context in only an hour and a half, but took over 14 hours going through only a dozen years (1961-1973) mostly detailing battle deliberations and results. The film directors fell into the same trap of explaining the whats and not enough about the whys, which can only be deciphered from the Vietnamese psyche. From that psyche, the moral question can be clearly and directly addressed, specifically in that the South Vietnamese would never accept a communist takeover. To educated South Vietnamese, the north Vietnamese government's totalitarian policies were repulsive, which are still evident to this very day, further proof that the fight wasn't at all in vain. Except for the elite few, the voice of the Vietnamese people in Vietnam has been silenced for over 45 years. America, of all nations, can understand the importance of free speech. Freedom of speech isn't free, and all Americans understand the price we need to pay to ensure that right. So it should make perfect sense the logic and righteousness of those fighting in the Vietnam War. The reason spoken was we didn't like the idea of the spread of communism -- the Domino Effect -- but in reality and in practice, the fight and sacrifice were for something much more tangible: basic inalienable rights.

It irks me greatly when people praise how courageous and tenacious the Viet Cong and northern Vietnamese soldiers were. What they failed to realize is how much more courageous and tenacious the South Vietnamese soldiers were in comparison. The South Vietnamese were outnumbered and disadvantaged in almost every major category and were literally formed from scratch, decades behind an already entrenched and established communist military force. The South Vietnamese were further hampered by a long string of corrupt and incompetent South Vietnamese leaders. Add on top of that ignorant American advice, war crimes, and eventual abandonment in 1973, I can't help but be amazed that the South Vietnamese army lasted as long as it did, ending with the fall of Saigon in 1975. While the north Vietnamese army had consistent material and troop support from two major allies (China and Russia), the south Vietnamese army ended up with no major allies. Even general Washington's ragtag Continental Army had France as an ally.

Of course the perspectives of north Vietnamese communists were also important. But there was little new information watching this documentary. Like the Vietnam War documentary Vietnam: A Television History of 1983, the The Vietnam War documentary of 2017 interviewed several north Vietnamese. But I question whether everything the north Vietnamese truly believed in was conveyed in the documentary. I must remind you that all Vietnamese who are living in Vietnam right now can receive a minimum sentence of six years in prison simply by criticizing the Vietnamese government. Such criticisms can be in the form of protesting in the town center of Saigon -or- simply sharing an anti-communist Facebook post. It happens regularly. In fact, two north Vietnamese interviewed in The Vietnam War, journalist Huy Duc and author-soldier Bao Ninh, endured interrogations and censorship by their own Vietnamese government. The only opinions of Vietnamese that can be reliably candid are from Vietnamese living outside of Vietnam, like Tran Ngoc Toan, who currently lives in Houston, Texas, USA, and Duong Van Mai Elliott, who is an American citizen.

Another failure of The Vietnam War was although it spent a large portion of the last episode discussing how Americans and the communist Vietnamese reconciled after the war, virtually nothing was discussed about the South Vietnamese diaspora. How can that possibly be overlooked? I often argue that the only real Vietnamese culture that is being practiced freely today is mostly found in Western nations. The Vietnamese in Vietnam are stifled by their own autocratic government, all the while the much improved Vietnamese economy benefits only a small percentage of factory owners and governmental officials. How ironic this is happening in a communist system.

When I was in Saigon, nobody was happy with the communist government but nobody complained. They couldn't unless they were willing to accept the penalties that would result from them speaking out. People hung pictures of Ho Chi Minh in their homes even if they didn't like him to appease government officials who can legally enter your house at any time for any reason. Sometimes petty neighbors would inform the authorities on those not supportive of the government, simply to receive a small gain or favor from the communists. Even today, the struggles of the average Vietnamese are evident, from the recent tragedy of 39 native Vietnamese found dead inside a truck container in England to 133,000 Vietnamese women being married to foreigners between 2005 and 2010 (according to the UN's International Organization for Migration) and its related human trafficking problem. The litmus test is to ask whether Vietnamese in Vietnam would rather stay in Vietnam or be in another country if they had a choice. According to the Henley Passport Index, Vietnam is ranked 95th in terms of travel freedom out of 109 total nations ranked. Rwanda, Cuba, and Algeria have more travel freedom. The official motto of Vietnam is "Independence, Freedom, and Happiness." Ho Chi Minh, as witnessed by American advisers on September 2, 1945, gave a speech that repeated verbatim the famous second paragraph of Thomas Jefferson's 1776 Declaration of Independence:

"All men are created equal. They are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."

Describing a Vietnamese as free is redundant. There are certain beings in nature who cannot live in captivity. No Vietnamese who embodies the Vietnamese spirit would accept living if it meant living in a cage. My grandfather and father possessed that spirit. They refused to be victims and instead fought back in spite of the risk of death. That's why we fought against the Chinese. That's why we fought against the French. That's why we fought against even our own Vietnamese people. They were all forces that would have us live in cages. Perhaps those cages provide safety but they certainly don't provide freedom, something we South Vietnamese cherish.

Therefore, I can confidently conclude that the best path for the Vietnamese people is to realize the vision that even Ho Chi Minh shared: the path of freedom, which we all can agree is the path to happiness. The Vietnamese currently walking in that path is the South Vietnamese diaspora. So The Vietnam War documentary could have benefited greatly in educating its viewers by emphasizing the one true objective of the Vietnam War: it was a fight for freedom. More specifically, that fight wasn't at all for the Americans, which the documentary focused on, but rather, solely for the South Vietnamese, and ultimately, by the South Vietnamese. Although the series was made for a largely non-Vietnamese audience, that doesn't necessarily mean the majority of the contributors need be non-Vietnamese. It might be more comforting to see familiar faces with blue eyes but it wouldn't be more educational and enlightening. In the words of Sun Tzu, "One who does not use local guides cannot take advantage of the ground." Thus, Ken Burns's Vietnam War didn't break much new ground. Like the many Americans engaged in the Vietnam War before them, the directors of the Vietnam War documentary largely neglected to turn to the South Vietnamese for guidance to understand with depth the Vietnam War -- a war that took place on Vietnamese soil and involved primarily Vietnamese people -- but instead focused more on themselves as if the series was really called The American War in Vietnam. 💛

Friday, January 24, 2020

Vickie Lan's interview with Cuong

My friend and author Vickie Lan recently conducted an interview with me. I rarely make public appearances or do interviews but Vickie is such a bright personality, I eagerly volunteered. In the interview, I gave my thoughts on the process of writing and, of course, my Asian-American experience.

Here is the link to Vickie's interview with me: WRITER SPOTLIGHT: Cuong 💛

Sunday, January 19, 2020

How to Succeed in 2020 and Beyond For Vietnamese Americans (and non-Vietnamese)

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới! 新年快乐! Happy New Year!

What is a New Year without well wishes of happiness and prosperity for the incoming year. I'm going to go one step further and provide you three useful principles for 2020 and beyond that will significantly increase your chances of success not only in business but in life itself. I grew up in America without my father and wished someone told me about these three principles earlier in my life.

Let's first define the word "success." Success is the realization of a plan. Since it's a plan, there is some thinking involved. Otherwise it's just luck. Many Vietnamese gamblers rely on luck at the casinos. I once knew a Vietnamese guy who claimed he was really good at baccarat. When I finally witnessed him playing, he promptly lost $5000 in less than five minutes. Don't be like him. In addition, success isn't for its own sake. There are tangible benefits. With success, you are proud, confident, happy. Many people think success is about financial success but that's only part of the definition, and it's not even the best part.

When you make up your mind to not lose your temper today by changing the way you look at problems, you are successful. When you work diligently to complete your work early so you can make it to your child's soccer game, that's success. When you start up a company that quickly gains market share because you provide a clear benefit versus the current offerings from other companies, then you are a successful businessperson. When you manage a company that behaves honestly and have the gumption to make tough economic choices to ensure that honesty, your company is, frankly, a success. When you have a large net worth and decide one day to reduce worry and sorrow by helping poor families in your community with your idle money, you are such a success that it will live on in fond memories well after you pass away. When you simply lend a listening ear to someone who is sad or upset, you have success coming out of your ears.

Now that you somewhat got the gist of what success looks like, lend me your ear and I'll share with you three principles of success based on my hard-earned experience.

Think Inside

The first principle is don't let everything inside your mind. Be a ruthless gatekeeper. I know my true worth, and it doesn't depend on externals. Be stingy about what you spend your time on. Rich or poor, everyone has exactly the same amount of minutes each and every day. If you were to pick a day and track all your minutes and what you use them on, you would probably be shocked. I learned to do this early in my career from Peter Drucker's The Effective Executive. People say they don't have time. But what I interpret is they are probably bad at managing their time, because they are bad at managing their priorities. Many of us are Vietnamese refugees. We don't have the luxury to relax. Relaxation is an option for our children, who now have a firmer foundation in America.

Furthermore, you must take the responsibility to be a primary source of calmness and strength in your world. When I was young, I wasn't able to master this. I was unrefined and had a very short fuse. I complained a lot. Today I heard a 50 year old Vietnamese author say complaining is a Vietnamese trait. He should speak for himself. Don't be like him. What I eventually learned was that positive, sometimes miraculous results can be achieved with genuine kindness and they are within my control. Instead of trying to control other people, I needed to control myself. I lower my voice. I watch the cadence of my words. Nowadays, I still point out improvements to be made, but it is without anger and only for a real concern for a better outcome. When I do get angry, I refuse to make a decision or take action, lest I later regret my decision or action. If things needed to be accomplished, they can be done at a later time when I'm not influenced by emotion. Self-control. Self-discipline. I pride myself of this. I gauge anybody I associate with by that yardstick. I will accept people the way they are. But that doesn't mean they have earned my respect.

The toughest friends I have are also the strongest mentally. I can still remember one Navy SEAL who taught me through his example. Even while he was dying of cancer, he was alive with cheerfulness. A decision was made and that was to control his actions despite the situation. In turn, his wife and children were in good spirits. He told me he was still swinging for the fences. He encouraged me to continue writing my articles. I can't let my dear friend down.

Think Outside

The second principle is everything you do to others must be for others. If your actions don't benefit anyone, don't do it. You're wasting your time. People complain about how such and such don't like them. My response is what did they bring to the table? What do you have to offer to move humanity forward? Even if you make individuals mad or they scoff at you, make them doubt whether you really mean what you say, and do what you set your mind to do. Often it is envy. And envy is their problem, not yours.

To support the second principle, be prepared for improper actions of others, especially on morality issues. The reason why many people are stumped when they encounter a dilemma or a tough decision is they haven't thought it through beforehand. And no, just because others are doing it doesn't necessarily mean it's what you do. That's a mindset of a lemming. Separate yourself from the common chaff and be a worthy example to keep. If you are in a certain profession, you know the potential pitfalls. Run through in your mind what you would do in such situations. Make adequate time and effort to work them through. Aim to find an elegant solution. But if you can't, then pick a side after much contemplation and immediately pick that side when you encounter the dilemma in real life. What was a tough decision is now a decision you know you can live with. Be firm and upright and you will live your life with few regrets.

Think Big

The third principle is to think big. Look at the video I posted above of Lei Jun, founder of Xiaomi. I selected the video to highlight the proper mindset whenever you embark on any endeavor. He conveyed it perfectly. When you do something, do it right or don't do it at all. When I was a teenager working minimum wage, I was asked to clean the windows one day. Like the stereotypical teenager, I carelessly cleaned them so I can be done with it. However, my supervisor, who was also a great teacher, took the time to counsel me that quality is paramount. He told me (and showed me) I needed to slow down and clean those windows well. Success isn't a race. It's a showcase. There is a clear difference between getting it done and getting it done in a superior fashion. In life, you better bring your A game. I'm not talking about A grades. If you receive a failing grade for your effort, yet if you poured your heart out into your project, it really doesn't matter what others think. A determined moth might meander but it always gets to the light. Likewise, be committed and serious. Don't settle. When I wanted to do a personal website, I didn't want any domain name except Cuong.com, my Vietnamese birth name. It was at a great financial expense, but there was only one path and I took it.

The first two principles are textbook. This third one of thinking big transcends them. You don't always think big because of logic. You think big because you want to be compassionate. You think big because you are the bigger person. You think big because you want to leave a mark in your world. You want to etch in the stone tablet of human history that you were there. You can do it by hurting others. But that's thinking small. Thinking big is to lifting others up such that they hate to see you leave. When billionaire David Koch died last August, people actually cheered. Don't be like him. It's cliche and trite but I want to remind you that money isn't everything. Your Vietnamese parents might have taught you otherwise. If they did, don't believe them. Make enough money to survive, which is a much lower bar than you probably think -- everything else in life is your oyster and you have the ability to open it.

Thus money isn't everything but success is indeed everything. What shouldn't be cliche and trite is to set yourself a worthwhile goal. You know you have found the right goal when your heart also tells you so. Going back to Xiaomi's founder Lei Jun, he eventually acquired the domain name Mi.com. The letters MI is an initialism for Mission Impossible. Business-wise, it's not logical to go after the impossible, but it's certainly inspirational. Also, the "Mi" logo turned upside down forms the Chinese character  心, which means heart. If you're not motivated by your goal, it's not big enough. Your heart isn't into it. Instead, make it big and shiny such that your heart chases after it daily. With your days filled with meaning, you are a success each and every day. You move with pride, confidence, and happiness. Nobody can take away what's set deep in your heart. So take heart, fellow Vietnamese Americans and non-Vietnamese. This year is your year. 💛

Sunday, December 29, 2019

What a Vietnamese-American Immigrant Wants All Americans to Know

Credit: CBS News

The following list isn't exhaustive. The initial four listed are just a beginning and more will be added in the future for educational purposes. Any updates will be noted. I wanted to start recording down issues about Vietnamese Americans that too many of my fellow Americans get wrong. They are also matters I'm simply tired of having to explain over and over again. (I'm looking at you Twitter!) This blog post probably won't be without disagreement from other Vietnamese Americans. We're certainly not a monolith. What I offer is another Vietnamese-American perspective hopefully grounded on good reason and relatable experiences.

1. Use the South Vietnamese flag, not the current flag of Vietnam

Not so much with young Vietnamese Americans but if you don't want to inflame the ire of Vietnamese Americans who risked their lives and livelihoods to escape communist oppression and persecution, then use the flag of South Vietnam. It's the flag with the three red stripes on a yellow background. See the photo at the top of this blog entry for reference. The design was created in 1890 by Emperor Thanh Thai and was used in official governmental capacity until the fall of Saigon in 1975. I call it the Vietnamese Adidas flag to make it more memorable for other Americans.

Don't use the flag of the current government of Vietnam. That's the one with the yellow star with a red background. When I was boy, I drew a boat with a flag that had a star. No colors. When my mother saw my drawing she was immediately distraught. I can still remember the incident because it's rare for her to be in such a state. So I learned very early on that the starred flag was toxic, and as I grew older and educated myself, especially given our family's history fighting against communism, I can understand why my mother was so upset.

Again, other Vietnamese Americans might disagree philosophically with me on this, but in practice, I know of no Vietnamese American born in Vietnam who is displaying the red star flag at the front of their store. Back in 1999, two Vietnamese video store owners, Truong Van Tran and his wife, put up the flag of Vietnam and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh in Westminster, California. The reaction was swift and massive. About 400 Vietnamese Americans protested outside of their store daily until a Orange County Superior Court Judge required him and his wife to remove the offending flag and portrait since they violated a provision of their rental agreement prohibiting displays that create a public nuisance. Also, the building owner had begun eviction proceedings. The Los Angeles Times reported at the time:

“This guy betrayed the community,” said Tony Nguyn, 52, who spent 10 years in a Communist re-education camp after serving in the South Vietnamese army. “He stabbed us in the back.”

The crowd cheered wildly as Tran’s wife left the store, holding the flag up in a final gesture of defiance.

“I’m really happy today,” said Bao Duong, 16. “I’ve been here four days. My throat hurts from yelling for freedom and human rights.”

It was a hard lesson learned for the video store owners. For their business's sake, they should have displayed the South Vietnamese flag instead. For Vietnamese Americans to fly the South Vietnamese flag that was also flown during the rule of the inept Bao Dai and hated French, you can get the sense of how much Vietnamese Americans despise the current government of Vietnam. But even more than that, the South Vietnamese flag symbolizes Vietnamese Americans' unique path of sacrifice, struggle, and success.

So when their children use the communist flag, I hope you can understand by now why their parents are at least disappointed. It's not the same as Mexican Americans displaying the Mexican flag, for instance, because their personal history with Mexico and its government is most likely not as painful. It would be more analogous to the children of American Jews displaying the flag of the German Reich. Given the many Vietnamese-American refugees who were tortured, imprisoned, and raped, and those who drowned and perished -- according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, between 200,000 and 400,000 Vietnamese boat people died at sea, or as much as an horrific 70 percent of Vietnamese died in their attempt to escape from communist Vietnam -- my comparison isn't a flippant one.

2. Vietnamese Americans are both Vietnamese and American

This would seem obvious but it's more subtle than that. If I received a dollar for every time people have asked me "Where are you from?" I could buy four Peloton bikes on a raised Macassar ebony platform overlooking Aspen. I get it. Several years ago at a special event, I was the very first person to greet former US President Jimmy Carter, a man who I respected as a person. The four words out of President Carter's mouth were, you guessed it, "Where are you from?" Depending on my mood, my answer ranches from my actual birth place to simply the city where I currently live. The latter was what I chose as my answer to Carter, refusing to fulfill his curiosity. My conversation with Carter on another subject (nothing serious) only exacerbated my already poor impression of him. They say to never meet your hero. I learned it the hard way that day. Thus I appreciate the sophistication of individuals getting to know my interests first, inquiring about the fountain pen I'm writing with, for example, before asking me to share the source of my Asian features. One US Congressman took the time to shake my little child's hand and chit chat saying, "You have the best handshake!" He then said to me I looked like an Asian doctor he knows. I expected him to treat me like any American constituent but because he treated my child so kindly, I didn't take offense.

If you still wonder why I don't like being asked "Where are you from," then you probably don't look Asian because rarely do I ever see a white person being inquired about his race, surely not within the first minute of meeting him. It can come across as rude and intrusive. I don't do that to anyone, and I expect others to show me the same courtesy. So don't be that guy.

Having said all that, I can't deny I am Vietnamese. Because I was born in Vietnam. I love that I'm Vietnamese. Just one-half of one percent of all Americans are of Vietnamese descent, even fewer who were born in Vietnam. When I first arrived in America, Vietnamese Americans made up a minuscule one-tenth of one percent of the total US population. Therefore while I understand the desire of Vietnam-born immigrants like myself for everyone to see us as full-fledged Americans, we must consider the fact our roots are still in Vietnam, to which we cannot entirely sever from. Only our children who are born in America can demand without qualification that others consider them full-blooded Americans, much like the children of German, Chinese, Irish, Italian, and Japanese immigrants before them. But I believe our direct roots are a source of great pride. When Americans debate whether to bring in new poor refugees, it's inevitable they evoke Vietnamese Americans as a model to why we should bring in more. Some day when our children run for public office (if they haven't done so already!), they can proudly proclaim they are the sons and daughters of Vietnamese immigrants, a serious badge of honor in America. If you listen carefully, notice the emphasis and immeasurable value they would place on the word Vietnamese. This wasn't always the case when I was growing up as a Vietnamese American because we haven't proven ourselves as successful Americans yet at the time. It wasn't until we fully embraced both Vietnamese and American aspects of ourselves did we prosper.

3. America was fighting alongside South Vietnam, not against it

Hollywood and war crimes aside, South Vietnamese wanted Americans in Vietnam. We needed allies and resources to defend against northern Vietnamese communist forces seeking to invade South Vietnam. Too many people ignorantly believe American imperialists invaded Vietnam as if all Vietnamese were on the same side. That is clearly false. But I do understand that it can be confusing. There were many variables, and when mixed in with government propaganda from all sides, it can muddy the truth. To boil it all down, there were two sides: the South Vietnamese and American forces versus the Viet Cong (southern communist sympathizers) and northern Vietnamese communist forces. North Vietnam believed in communism. The South Vietnamese were anti-communists, albeit there was also support for communism, hence the Viet Cong. There was indeed concern that if free elections were held, there was a possibility South Vietnam would have elected Ho Chi Minh. However, there was much poverty and education was lacking. Educated Vietnamese, however, knew what we all know now: communism in practice is autocratic. It would be similar to North Korea and South Korea holding an election today and Kim Jong-un came out the winner. Would we accept that? Even if it was legitimately democratic, the result would be disastrous.

When my family was still in north Vietnam during the 1950s, we were in the minority as farm owners. My ancestors have been in north Vietnam for generations. But soon private lands and properties owned by families like ours were confiscated by force by Ho Chi Minh's government and redistributed to supporters of communism. Poor and landless, most northern Vietnamese supported this unethical policy. My grandfather and many others fought back. He, along with an estimated 13,500 northern Vietnamese, died as a result. A total of close to one million northerners would eventually migrate to South Vietnam by the end of the 1950s. My widowed grandmother and other family members were among them. Of course I believe in democracy, but not blindly, because it sometimes leads to the abuse of the minority. Jim Crow laws in America were also examples of this. Strong leaders with moral integrity must be present to ensure such abuses don't take place. Thus, checks and balances, along with free elections, must be part of any benevolent government's foundation.

To this day, the Vietnamese government has yet to hold free elections, much less checks and balances. Now that more Vietnamese are educated, they realize their support has waned considerably. Critics posting on Facebook regularly receive sentences of six years or more in prison. In the effort to hide human rights violations from the world community, some authorities in Vietnam have stopped charging dissidents with "anti-state propaganda" and instead are charging them with more common crimes like destruction of government property, accepting bribes, and "unauthorized use of rudimentary weapons." This indicates weakness, as was the case back then as well. Only when most of the American soldiers left in 1973 did the communist forces finally were able to break through into Saigon two years later. After Saigon fell, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese like my father were arrested and sent to communist "re-education" camps. In actuality, they were more like concentration camps. The conditions were inhumane and appalling. According to academic studies conducted by American researchers, a shocking total of 165,000 South Vietnamese died in those camps. Who knows how many more were brutally tortured and mutilated. Therefore, the enemy wasn't the Americans. The enemy was our own Vietnamese people.

4. Vietnamese food is more than pho and banh mi

For modern everyday Americans, I'm thankful that Vietnamese are now known more for our food than our war. Vietnamese restaurants can be found in numerous US cities. From my observation, Americans universally love pho and banh mi. But as a Vietnamese American whose mother cooked mostly Vietnamese food at home, I ate much more than pho yet rarely banh mi. Furthermore, the pho at all the Vietnamese restaurants I've ever been to falls well short of what I'm used to at home. The same goes for banh bao, cha gio, and other common Vietnamese menu items. But I understand. The economics of operating a restaurant don't compare with the mindset of loving parents who aim to provide the very best for their children. Banh mi is more of a store-bought item in my family. Overall, eating out at Vietnamese restaurants for our family is mostly for convenience not quality.

Besides, Vietnamese food, if I can describe it more accurately, is geared more toward fish and seafood, since much of Vietnam runs along the sea. It is also focused on vegetables, like bittermelon, the bane of my childhood. Beef, chicken, pork, and duck during 1970s Saigon were expensive and thus unattainable for most Vietnamese households except for holidays and other special occasions. One small cut of beef is normally shared among all family members, likely in soup or stew form, rarely for one individual. In contrast, fish and vegetables were relatively affordable and plentiful. There were also squid, eel, and escargot. The elephant in the room is whether Vietnamese eat dogs and cats. Unfortunately there are a few Vietnamese who eat dogs and cats. But it's as common as Americans eating squirrels and opossums; they're relegated almost exclusively to country folks. Of course I'm obligated to mention nuoc mam, which is fermented drippings from salted anchovies left in wooden barrels under the hot Vietnamese sun for months, the salt two years, if done right. Pour me some more nuoc mam on my banh xeo!

Since Vietnamese food has a lot fish and fish-based sauces, expect Vietnamese dishes to smell like ... fish! For whatever reason, many Americans I encounter have an odd aversion to the smell of fish. Many years ago I heated up my Alaskan salmon at the office and by my coworkers' harsh reaction you'd think I just murdered someone. So I wonder when Americans say "I love Vietnamese food!" or "I had authentic Vietnamese food!" do they fully realize what they're saying? Until I see fast food chains offering mắm tôm packets, sick people are eating plain cháo instead of chicken noodle soup, and children screaming for more durian dessert (a wonderfully aromatic and delicious fruit I screamed for as a kid), only then would I be perfectly pleased with how far Vietnamese food and thus Vietnamese culture in America have progressed. 💛

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Refugees and Immigrants: A Vietnamese-American Political Perspective

Let me start by sharing with you two statistics.

First, for the entire month of October 2019, according to records from the US State Department, not a single refugee was physically admitted into the United States. You read that right. Not one! I did a double take when I first learned of it. But unfortunately I have confirmed it to be true. Despite refugee crises around the world, the US State Department pushed the refugee pause button in October. This is unprecedented given the nearly 30 years this statistic has been recorded and tracked by World Relief. It is no surprise to me that it happened during the Trump administration. Their hostility toward refugees and migrants is usually in full public display, from their inflammatory rhetoric to cruel policies, e.g., zero tolerance on family separation south of the US border which resulted in thousands of innocent migrant children being traumatized and abused. The administration's lawyer even callously argued before a court judge that legally it isn't a requirement to provide migrant kids soap and toothpaste. Of course real leaders don't make decisions based on whether they are legal but whether they are moral. As a father and child advocate, I firmly believe Trump is immoral. And I'm not alone. Christianity Today, evangelicalism's flagship magazine, wrote on Thursday that Trump should be removed as US President because of his "profound" immorality.

Second, according to the Asian American Voter Survey (conducted by the nonpartisan civic engagement group APIA Vote and the University of California, Riverside research program AAPI Data), 64 percent of Vietnamese Americans support President Trump. This is the highest of any Asian-American group. In fact, Vietnamese Americans are almost twice as likely to vote Republican than as to vote Democratic (42 percent compared to 28 percent, respectively). Vietnamese Americans' affinity toward conservatism and the Republican party isn't a big secret. In general, especially for older Vietnamese Americans like me, we are staunch anti-communists. I am old, Vietnamese, and anti-communist. So I fit the bill. Virtually all of us escaped Vietnamese communism, risking our very lives and livelihoods to gain freedom. Any person or organization that is strongly opposed to communism is considered an ally to most Vietnamese Americans.

Yet as a Vietnamese American, I find it difficult if not impossible to reconcile fully the two stats above. We cannot be refugees and immigrants and support Trump at the same time. It isn't logically possible. I've recently had heated debates with my fellow Vietnamese Americans. Some claimed I'm betraying the effort to fight communism by not supporting Trump. I don't think so. I can support the fight against communism and still refuse to support an immoral person. They aren't mutually exclusive. There are other more qualified leaders we can employ, not just Trump. Besides, I'll be damned if I escaped communism and not needing to wear a red hat to only later be pressured into wearing another red hat. Regarding immigration, they have said, "But Cuong, President Trump likes immigrants. He just doesn't want illegal migrants. We Vietnamese are legal immigrants." I've heard that argument so often, I've become tired of educating people about it. But I'm not tired today. Let's talk about it further.

On January 11, 2018, President Trump said, "Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here [specifically naming Haiti, El Salvador, and Africa as examples] ... we should have more people from Norway." From this comment and other evidence through the years, Trump surely isn't against immigration. After all, his wife Melania is an immigrant. Instead, he's against immigration for brown people. It's not a matter of legality but of racism. Hence, there is no such thing as "an illegal." It's a disparaging term that isn't only grammatically wrong (only an uneducated person would use it) but also doesn't reflect reality. The reality is laws aren't set in stone. Laws can and do change all the time. Even the US Constitution can be amended. What is legal is what our society and nation decide is legal, including the decision to make "illegals" officially legal.

For example, thanks to the humanity of US President Gerald Ford, he signed the Indochina Migration and Refugee Assistance Act in 1975, which eventually allowed 200,000 refugees from South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia to enter the United States under a special status, providing relocation and financial assistance at a cost of over $400 million. Would Trump sign such an act today? Not likely. Thus, Vietnamese Americans would have been rejected and deemed illegal from the start if Trump were in power in 1975. President Jimmy Carter and his administration continued to support Ford's act as Vietnamese boat people started to escape Vietnam in large numbers starting in 1978, culminating in the Refugee Act of 1980. With two Presidential administrations from two different political parties supporting them, Vietnamese Americans were lucky to have been given legal status to enter the United States during the 1970s.  However, some in the US Congress, mostly Republicans, opposed the acts, arguing that Vietnamese refugees "would never be able to assimilate to American culture and would detract from the value system already in place." We can all look back on these arguments and laugh. But incredibly, the same arguments are being made today by Trump and many members of the Republican party. Therefore, conservative Vietnamese Americans who blindly support Republicans and their xenophobic ideologies, would likely have voted against their ability to immigrate to America 45 years earlier! Personally, I don't do business with racists, much less vote for one.

By the way, current Democratic US Presidential candidate Joe Biden was against the aforementioned refugee act of 1975 but fortunately cosponsored its permanency in 1980.

I have encountered a good number of Americans who believe that refugees and immigrants are a drain on America. It tells me they haven't been educated and paying attention. If anything, it's the other way around. According to the Harvard Political Review, there is a widespread agreement among economists on the net benefits of migration for destination countries. The National Foundation for American Policy concluded that 44 out of 87 privately held companies worth more than $1 billion had at least one immigrant founder. These immigrant-founded companies each created an average of 760 jobs.

For me, the best proof is America itself. A formidable super power in almost every metric, the US is a result of the amalgamation of various immigrants and refugees throughout American history: English, Scots, Irish, Germans, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Hispanics, Latinos, Vietnamese, etc. Few people are as brave, motivated, determined, and hardworking as immigrants, especially refugees. If they weren't, they'd likely stayed back in the old country. America, as they say, is a "land of immigrants." The phrase is so ingrained in our American psyche it's become cliche. We have taken immigrants and the issue of immigration largely for granted. We have allowed demagogues to deceive us instead of spending the time and effort to educate ourselves. If we were intellectually curious, we'd see our long history of xenophobic behavior and policies that we can contemplate upon and learn from. For instance, the Immigration Act of 1924 stopped all immigrants from Asia. Also, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) in the 1880s opposed immigrants from Europe, even though most of its member leaders were sons of immigrants from Europe. We made the same immigration mistakes over and over again. And as discussed, we still make them to this day. America is known for thinking big, and I like that so much, but there is an awful lot of ignorant people who are embarrassingly petty, selfish, and narrow-minded. They are diametrically opposed to the can-do American attitude that has always made our nation great. Sadly, they have forgotten the heritage of their immigrant ancestry.

Sometimes I wonder whether being older tends to make us more conservative. But I don't think it's because we've become wiser or more mature, but rather, we have become more cynical, cranky, and close-minded. Close-minded because we think we have seen it all but in reality we haven't; the world changes in unpredictable ways at unprecedented speeds. Cranky because physically our bodies are falling apart before our very eyes. And cynical because we have experienced failures and other people disappointing us in our lives. So to more easily explain what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen in the future, we have calcified our beliefs even for matters that demand flexibility, understanding, and compassion. Unfortunately, life isn't always nice and orderly. It is often messy, harsh, and unexpected. Because of our past and what we've been through, too many of us older people are unable to put ourselves in other people's shoes. If we did, we'd understand that things aren't as simple and straightforward as we think it is. For example, I was blessed to have my parents. If I had abusive parents or no parents at all, which is not uncommon, there is little chance I would be the same person or have the same success. Thus, telling other people that the reason they didn't succeed was because they were lazy or didn't work hard enough is, in my view, myopic and naive, not to mention uncaring. We had more assistance and deserve less credit than we tend to believe.

For my part politically, I have taken the more difficult path. I'm neither a Republican nor a Democrat. I'm an Independent. I vote for the individual candidate, not blindly go along with any particular political party. As the comedian George Carlin wisely said, "I do this real moron thing, and it's called thinking." The very first Presidential election I voted in was when I was in college. I wasn't interested in the young and popular Democratic candidates Bill Clinton and Al Gore at the time. In my college campus, they were treated like rock stars. I love rock, but my first vote as an American was for Ross Perot, an old fast-talking business executive with a heavy Southern drawl, the antithesis of myself back then. But we both have something in common, and that's common sense. We were also both born in the South (in my case, South Vietnam!). We think different. We don't think petty and small. We think big and grand. We don't accept the status quo, because the status quo ain't good enough. So we don't (and can't) copy others. We do the right things the right way. On Tuesday, November 3, 1992, I voted for Ross Perot, an Independent. Over 18 percent of my fellow Americans thought the same.

Fortunately, new generations of young Vietnamese Americans are more progressive than their immigrant parents and grandparents. I suspect there will be a shift of a similar 18 percent in the future away from the Grand Old Party (GOP). Their recent cowardly support for Trump won't age well by the time he leaves office on January 20, 2021, and certainly not to future American voters and historians. The GOP might be old but it hasn't been grand for a very long time. 💛

Sunday, December 15, 2019

My Experiences in Saigon, Vietnam, During the 1970s

As a boy growing up in Saigon, Vietnam, during the 1970s, I had a large degree of freedom. It would seem ironic then that by the time I was able to walk, my beloved city of Saigon fell -- overwhelmed and invaded by communist forces on April 30, 1975. Tragically they would later rename it to "Ho Chi Minh City," after the symbolic leader of those invaders. Ho Chi Minh wasn't even a Southerner. It's analogous to renaming Atlanta to "William Tecumseh Sherman City," after the general who burned down Atlanta. Do you think Atlantans would be happy about it? So it may come as no surprise that to this very day many Saigonese and I still consider the city of my birth Saigon.

Similar to oppressive French rule, practically nobody liked the oppressive communist government in Saigon when I was there. The worst insult you could give someone was calling him a Viet Cong, a southern supporter of communism, whether the claim was true or not. He was accused of being a traitor. My ancestry actually originated from north Vietnam, near Hanoi. As farm owners, my family cultivated the northern lands for countless generations. We also have a long history of fighting communism as early as the 1940s, then came our migration to Saigon after the barbaric land reforms of the 1950s, and finally embarking on our perilous journey to America for freedom. However, unlike several Vietnamese-American authors, I refuse to be portrayed as a victim because we were not. My family actively resisted and fought. Some of my family members died defending our way of life. Those still living made a conscious decision and belatedly left the only Vietnamese city I have ever known.

Nostalgia would be the closest description of Saigon for me. The experience was beyond the sight of darting cars, mopeds, and Hondas (a motorcycle brand so ubiquitous, it was interchangeable with the Vietnamese word xe mô tô). Saigon was filled with the music of Thanh Nga, an actress of immense beauty, and Hung Cuong, a singer with probably the most masculine Vietnamese name ever (literally, Strong Hero). When Thanh Nga was murdered, the naive boy in me who had never felt cold or grief up to that point would feel what virtually everyone in Saigon felt: shock and chilling dismay. It would seem she was the final straw.

Today I really want to talk about happier times in Saigon. Yesterday someone made me cry. He said to me, "Your homeland misses you, Cuong!" He then shared me a song called, Bonjour Vietnam. I don't know for sure whether Vietnam misses me, but I sure do miss Saigon. It is with this in mind I'm sharing with you a few personal memories of my birthplace.

As a boy, I went out into the Saigon streets alone each morning to buy sweetened sticky rice with peanuts and coconut (xôi dừa đậu phộng) wrapped in a banana leaf. I cannot fully describe what a divine experience it was: the amazing smell, taste, and texture, mixed with the sights and sounds of a lively Saigon. When a multimillionaire in India was asked why he still sometimes eats cheap street food, I immediately knew his answer before he gave it. Comfort food. A priceless transport to a more innocent time.

Every few weeks, I went to the barber shop all by myself. I crossed the busy and expansive main Saigon street to get my hair trimmed and then crossed that same Saigon street back. There might have been a time or two I almost got run over, but who's counting. Occasionally I would fall down into one of the storm drains the city left exposed. At least I was well-groomed wading through waste water. Good times.

But the best times were when I was out and about in Saigon with my family. My dad often took me on his motorcycle and we cruised Saigon together. Most significant of all was my father always treated me with patience and kindness. Along with his gentle disposition he had the best smile and was the most handsome man I know. I was told he was very well-liked and popular with many people in Saigon. Sometime later, like numerous South Vietnamese men who fought against the north during the war, my dad was sent to the communist party's inhumane re-education camp. Students of history know that it was neither a camp nor was it an educational one. For me, those few family visitation times to see my father were happy -- his hugs and kisses were nice but his whiskers were rough! -- yet short-lived. Whenever I got mad at my mom, I would threaten I'd run away and see dad (ba). Only I was unaware this wasn't possible, at least not in this world.

I was privileged enough to know my grandmother. She was traditional and dignified. She had blackened teeth and always wore her long hair in a bun wrapped around by a silk Vietnamese turban. She and I regularly went to the Vietnamese opera theater shows (hát bội). Nguyen kings supported the art form. It was the precursor to the more popular Cai Luong. The stage characters and scenery were majestic and extravagant, portraying the days of old when kings were kings and generals were generals. When ordering tickets, my grandmother would request for us to be seated below the ceiling fans. Loud and dramatic, it was a nice breaking from our usual haunts in sleepy, hot, stuffy temples filled with burning incense and somber chanting Buddhists.

When I slept at home, it was on a large varnished wooden bed (no mattress!) covered from the ceiling by a large mosquito net. I don't remember ever using a blanket. In fact, I don't remember ever feeling cold, even when given a bath of only cold water. Because the cold water was naturally warm, which came from an enormous tiled concrete water reservoir located inside our house. My older brothers would put betta fighting fish inside it, which upset my parents, because it was also a source of drinking and cooking water. There were only two seasons in Vietnam: the summer and the rainy. Both were hot. My parents wouldn't allow me to play in the heavy rain like the other kids in our neighborhood. They were afraid I'd get sick. I remember watching my friends playing outside, chasing each other, laughing and having fun.

When it wasn't raining, there was always something to do in Saigon. One time there was an outdoor showing of a movie that featured an Aquaman-type protagonist. The thought that a person with gills being able to breathe underwater was pretty cool for a boy like me. I didn't understand the language it was in but the experience of being with my siblings and other Saigonese was thrilling enough. After the movie ended, there was a huge rush of people trying to get out. I had flip flops (dép) on, so I tried my best to hang on to them with my toes. Alas, I wasn't able to prevent them from being trampled on and thus lost them in the crowd. The scene of the aftermath was a sea of flip flops that other people have lost as well. There were so many that the effort to find mine was futile. One was too small, another too big, the others were of different colors. We gave up. The next day, my mom took me around the shoe shops. But no kid I knew wore shoes (giày), much less wear them with socks. As I mentioned earlier, Saigon was a hot and humid place. My mom bought me a pair of brown leather sandals with straps secured by little golden buckles. They were spiffy. I was ready to take on Aquaman again!

Taking care of the kids was what my parents did well. My siblings and I each had our own nannies. I was told that this practice wasn't all that uncommon in Vietnam. But apparently what was uncommon were a TV and a flushing toilet, both of which we owned, the only family in our entire block to have them. While many of the neighborhood children had little to eat, I shamefully recall a time when I stubbornly refused to eat and only wanted exactly two grains of rice for dinner. My parents were educated people. They didn't earn crazy money, just livable wages. They were frugal, industrious, and worked hard so their kids could be happy. Ensuring our future happiness, too, was why they left Saigon and Vietnam altogether.

And living and being happy were all the people in Saigon wanted to do and be in the 1970s. Whether it's the immoral South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem or the cruel northern communists, Saigonese didn't appreciate corrupt people standing in their way. Life principles are always difficult because we all have different experiences. Truth to me might not be truth to you, and that's ok if we can agree on the goals at hand: independence, liberty, happiness (độc lập, tự do, hạnh phúc). If we truly mean what we say, then it's well worth putting those ideals into practice today. 💛

Sunday, December 8, 2019

Racism: A Vietnamese-American Experience

The moment I identified myself as Vietnamese American, I am obligated to discuss the issue of racism. In a nation as diverse as the United States, I can't help but talk about it. To prevent any misunderstanding, I want to make it super clear that I can only speak on racism based on my own experiences, as one Vietnamese American born in Saigon, Vietnam. Therefore, the concept of racism that someone else has, such as from an African American or American Indian, with additional historical elements of slavery and oppression, might actually be quite different. In all likelihood you won't agree with everything I write today.

Let's first define what racism is. To me, racism is a lazy belief of an entire race that is negative or derogatory. I describe racism as lazy because it takes intellectual effort and wisdom to admit one is wrong about someone else from a different race; it's too easy to make broad brush conclusions without further reflection or consideration. Racism is also more than prejudice because sometimes pre-judging someone based on his or her race might actually be positive. That, too, isn't logical, but at least it's usually not harmful. So racism is an illogical and hateful assumption of someone based on his or her race.

Now I want to discuss the difference between racism and a clash of interests. Although racism can be a result of a clash of interests, not all clashes of interests result in racism. For example, my white neighbor might hate me because my party's music was too loud, not because the music was in Vietnamese. I might interpret his anger as racism but I would be wrong. If I were white, the thought of racism would have never crossed my mind. I'd merely think he's ornery and intolerant of loud parties.

The complication with racism is if you ask any racist, he would probably be offended and say he's not a racist. According to one study, 64 percent of Americans say racism remains a major problem. But that means a whopping 36 percent of Americans think racism isn't a major problem! And that's a problem. Nobody wants to be the bad guy. Almost everyone wants to be the good guy. Sure, being ignorant isn't necessarily a matter of good and bad, but ignorance is being illogical which can indeed cause great harm to others.

You'll hear someone say that racism is a myth or doesn't exist at all in America. This view isn't only completely out of touch with reality but also destructive. I can see racism when Caucasians move away from urban areas to settle elsewhere, even carving out and incorporating new cities to funnel property tax revenues away from school districts already lacking in resources. Disadvantaged children suffer even more as a result. But the majority of the people neither seem to care nor acknowledge that it happens. Some years ago an engineer showed me a blueprint of a major manufacturing equipment drawn up by racists during the 1960s. The drinking fountain's piping for "Blacks" was shared with this equipment whereas the drinking fountain's piping for "Whites" was directly connected to the city water line. I was appalled. When the root problem of racism isn't addressed directly, the proposed remedies only work around the periphery and that's simply not good enough. Countless people would be harmed indefinitely until racism is exposed and swiftly taken care of. We need to face racism head on.

On March 16, 1968, as many as 504 unarmed Vietnamese (including women and children) were killed by racist US Army soldiers led by their racist officers. It was later called the My Lai Massacre. Women were gang-raped. Infants were murdered. Only racists could have committed such horrific crimes. They viewed Vietnamese as less than human. Heroic efforts by Hugh Thompson, a US Army helicopter pilot, along with his crew members Glenn Andreotta and Lawrence Colburn, stopped the carnage. Almost as shocking as the actions of these criminals is that none of them was fully brought to justice. Over 20 soldiers were charged but only one was convicted, an officer, Lieutenant William Calley, who served no more than three and a half years on house arrest.

You might say to me, "But Cuong, that was back in 1960s! It's much better now!" Is it? See the recent case of Eddie Gallagher, a racist who was charged with shooting two Iraqi civilians (an unarmed old man and a young girl) and stabbing repeatedly to death an injured and sedated ISIS teenage prisoner with his hunting knife. Afterwards, Gallagher took a photograph of himself holding the dead teenager's head by the hair to send to his friends. He was later acquitted of six of seven charges in a court martial, and only found guilty of "wrongfully posing for an unofficial picture with a human casualty." Gallagher was subsequently demoted. However, last month US President Trump intervened and had his demotion reversed. So it's no surprise that I'm not a fan of Trump and won't be voting for him in 2020. The silver lining in all this was that seven Navy SEALs testified against Gallagher. I personally know several Navy SEALs and I couldn't be prouder. Also, Navy Secretary Richard Spencer was fired for asking Trump not to intervene, and Rear Admiral Collin Green, the highest ranking commander of the Navy SEALs, sought to strip Gallagher of his Trident Pin, a symbol of membership in the SEALs. In my mind, Gallagher was never a legitimate Navy SEAL; he was someone who neglected to "defend those who are unable to defend themselves" and thus failed to earn his Trident every day. He lost that honor and privilege long ago. In short, he's just another racist thug.

Personally, almost all of my experiences with racism have been nuanced. Rarely did I see a blatant racist act directed at me. Granted, I was raised in a socially liberal region where racism isn't much tolerated publicly. For instance, my arrival to America couldn't have been more positive. Everyone greeted us with open arms. The school I attended seemed proud it has Vietnamese refugees among them. Our background and why we were there were showcased at the school. All of my classmates were incredibly kind to me, even when I wasn't particularly kind to them. I remember one time I punched the arm of a fellow student who sat behind me for no other reason than to see how he would react. I was surprised he didn't punch back. I was fascinated by it. It was obvious I wasn't in Saigon anymore.

The American educational school system I was in was prepared. I attended English as a Second Language (ESL) classes. The teachers and volunteers were so patient and gracious despite my mischievousness. The only one who didn't accept much mischief from me was a Vietnamese teacher. She might have spanked me one time but mostly the punishment were time outs. Too easy. I could get used to America.

One of my first encounters with racism in America was actually my own. I found myself rooting for the blond protagonist in television shows like the Dukes of Hazzard or CHiPs. My strange preference didn't last long though because Knight Rider soon became my favorite show and dark-haired David Hasselhoff was the type of hero I wanted to be. As far as the fairer sex, Vietnamese women have always been my preference. Sure there were American women I was interested in but in general I related more to Asian women. One could argue this is racism on my part.

One time I read that Americans in the north tend to like a race but despise an individual in that race, whereas Americans in the south tend to like the individual but despise his race. Overall, racism exists in America even when it's not publicly displayed. Might there have been opportunities that I worked for that were rejected because of my race? I honestly don't know. What I can say is nothing is what it seems sometimes. When I'm in a region with a reputation of rampant racism, people there aren't as socially versed or savvy, but that doesn't mean they are more racist. They might have committed faux pas and called me "oriental," but in action, they treated me with no less respect and kindness as anywhere else. In such a case, I kindly educated them that the outdated term "oriental" should only be used to describe rugs, not people, and to use the word "Asian" instead. They took it to heart. We exchanged ideas and experiences. Our trust and relationships with each other became stronger with every encounter.

I must admit I'm often carefree when it comes to interpreting the intentions of others, albeit I refuse to associate with people I don't respect. Integrity and character are important to me. The Golden Rule is important to me. I just assume and expect people will do the right thing, and assume and expect things will go right if I do the right thing as well. It seems for every failure I experienced there were many more opportunities and successes afterwards. My sister said that things seem to come easy for me in life. In part because I work really hard. In another part I focus on endeavors I'm interested in and good at and ignore the rest. Sure I make mistakes daily and there have been times of sadness in my life, but upon further reflection, I inevitably come back to being grateful for what I have. Again, I am certainly aware that racism exists and can be present anywhere, but I'm not going to let it control who I want to be for myself and for others. Frankly, there are simply too many good people out there I can work with to spend any time thinking about those I don't want to work with.

Regardless, one good way to combat and prevent racism is to have a shared goal. If there is a serious common problem and you are solving it, people's perception of you is almost always better than before. Racism takes a backseat for a change. It might take some time, but it's effective. Picture a Vietnamese American helping someone in need, the neighborhood, a sports team, or a company. They need you. They want you to lead. Of course whether you want to participate is up to you. And that's a good place to be for any Vietnamese. 💛

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Future of Vietnamese Americans

I love Greek philosophy. It is beyond comparison. Socrates, Diogenes, Aristotle. The Romans made Greek philosophy better by refining and implementing it. Musonius, Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius. However, my first love is Chinese philosophy, namely Lao Tzu and Sun Tzu. To me, those two philosophers represent a rare balance of the ideal and the practical. They keep me grounded yet constantly remind me to reach for something greater than the status quo. You can certainly find good leadership instruction in today's business books, for example, but they have yet to beat what has already been stated over 2500 years ago:

"A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves." Lao Tzu

The context behind the quote above goes like this. A bad leader is cruel and ruthless such that the people despise him. A good leader does everything that the people asked of him such that they widely adore him. But the best leader unassumingly works for the people's best interests such that the people forget about his existence, that they even believe they did it all by themselves.

The once revered status of world leaders has been knocked off its pedestal. Mostly it was, and has always been, a sham. Many of those who have made it to the proverbial top are essentially ambitious thugs who bullied their way into their position. What a nation inevitably gets are arrogant old men who send young boys to war to kill other young boys (in addition to civilians caught in the crossfire) thanks to their ineptitude at politics and diplomacy. They think they know a lot but in reality they understand very little. They have no business doing what they're doing. Yet there they are. It's shameful and unacceptable.

That is not to say there hadn't been superb leaders in the past. Unfortunately many of them had been lost to history. Nobody writes about great battles that never transpired because those leaders prevented them. Nobody records down the countless names who perished while standing up to tyranny. Nobody can glorify those who dutifully yet humbly did their jobs asking for neither credit nor fanfare. All lost in oblivion.

For many years I've been observing young Americans, young Vietnamese Americans in particular. Wow! They are smart, witty, creative. I can definitively say I am encouraged by our future. When compared with my generation, they are much more empathetic to those less fortunate. They are also more open to people who are different than they are. They don't accept corruption and violence. They feel shame where many older people do not.

My observances also revealed something shocking to me: the tremendous physical and psychological abuses endured by many young Vietnamese Americans. They speak of their Vietnamese parents yelling and/or hitting them for any and every reason, from not doing a math problem correctly to having acne as a teenager. What I thought were normal issues, they were being punished for. As a Vietnamese American parent myself, I was horrified by what I heard. I'm aware of strict Asian parents before but never like this. From my personal experience, my parents were mainly concerned about my academic performance. And since I was achieving high marks on my studies, I had a lot of leeway and freedom growing up. However, given what I know now, I surmise if I had another set of Vietnamese parents, my situation could have been much different.

Whether they are Vietnamese or American, older people rebuking young people for being naive and immature is just illogical. For instance, being kind isn't naive. It's actually very wise. Whenever you act with benevolence you are always right ultimately, even when you're wrong initially. Think big, not petty and small. And regarding maturity, what's truly immature is rebuking young people and not helping them along and supporting them. They forget what it was like growing up themselves. The stuff we older people did when we were young were indeed naive and immature. Some of us, the so-called adults, are still naive and immature. Considering our current poor results, we are far from experts of wisdom and effectiveness.

And while I find it unfortunate that my generation has largely failed in fixing the problems we needed to fix, I believe upcoming leaders can ably take up the mantle because they have the emotional capacity to solve previously unsolvable problems. They would have understood what wise philosophers have always understood: no matter our differences, having shared goals unites people:

"The men of Wu and Yueh hated each other, however, encountering severe winds when crossing a river on the same boat, they assisted each other like left and right hands." Sun Tzu

Unlike many of my cohorts, I don't believe it is impossible for two opposing sides to achieve peace and even prosperity together. We must try harder, be more open, resourceful, and creative, and discard machismo and draconian methods in order to accomplish new incredible feats. Much of everything worthwhile we know today was one time or another seemingly impossible. Until we give the reins to the next generation, I highly suggest we adults try to give them a running start at that time. But first, we must be kinder human beings today than yesterday, kinder tomorrow than today, and so forth. It's the least we can do for ourselves and for our children. 💛

Sunday, November 24, 2019

Religion and Politics: A Vietnamese-American Perspective

There are two things you shouldn't talk about with other people if you want friends: religion and politics. Well, I'm going to discuss both today.

Growing up a Buddhist, I understood early on the importance of rituals, which involved long hours in hot stuffy rooms filled with incense, mantras, and honoring the dead. The dead were all around us in 1970s Vietnam. The only thing that provided sense and order to the living were the rituals. We didn't have much except happiness because we had each other.

In January 1790, the first US President, George Washington, wrote, "The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment, for promoting human happiness, by creating a reasonable compact, in civil Society."

Let's analyze Washington's wisdom in greater detail:
  1. America is an experiment.
  2. America might very well be the last of its kind.
  3. America promotes human happiness.
  4. America wants a reasonable contract with its people.
The "America" that I'm referring to above is the American government. If we're lucky, there is little difference between the people and their government. But other times, there is a huge difference between the people and their government. Unfortunately you can name any given government around the world to which this applies.

The year 1790 was at the beginning of Washington's presidency that lasted eight years. He retired for many reasons, some personal, but mostly because he didn't want to die while serving, which would set a dangerous precedent of making the US Presidency a lifetime position. Thomas Jefferson, the third US President, solidified the tradition by refusing to run for a third term. They both seemed to understand that power is a corrupting force, especially over time. Mortals cannot withstand its siren song. History is filled with such examples and it's folly to believe that current world leaders aren't susceptible to it.

Here is George Washington in his Farewell Address in late 1796:

"Though in reviewing the incidents of my Administration I am unconscious of intentional error, I am nevertheless too sensible of my defects not to think it probable that I may have committed many errors. Whatever they may be, I fervently beseech the Almighty to avert or mitigate the evils to which they may tend. I shall also carry with me the hope that my country will never cease to view them with indulgence, and that, after forty-five years of my life dedicated to its service with an upright zeal, the faults of incompetent abilities will be consigned to oblivion, as myself must soon be to the mansions of rest."

Typically American, Washington was concerned about the "many" errors he made unintentionally, because he didn't consciously make any mistakes intentionally if not for his "incompetent abilities," delightfully exposing his integrity and humility. I also sense a feeling of self-consciousness and inadequacy. He then turns to God asking for assistance on minimizing the negative effects of his errors, in addition to a biblical reference regarding his own mortality.

When a non-Vietnamese person thinks about Vietnam, he or she thinks about war. I know something about war. I've studied it all my life. War is the result of frail and arrogant old men trying to dupe other people's children to kill and die to help fix their political failures. In Vietnam's case, millions perished. When fools fail at diplomacy, they go into war. Only the strategically skilled and magnanimous prevent wars, but where is the glory in battles that never happen? So ruthless thugs take over thinking they can do better, and that, my friends, summarizes the last war in Vietnam.

Not everyone in history thought national conflicts necessitate war, violence, and death. About 2500 years ago, Sun Tzu, a Chinese military general said, "One who is skilled in warfare principles subdues the enemy without doing battle ... Winning battles such that the whole world cries, 'Excellent!' is not the highest excellence."

It's extremely upsetting to me when I see the weak being taken advantaged of by the greedy and corrupt. The last price to pay is death. Yet I can't help but wonder whether death is in fact the prize, because pain and suffering are conditions of the living, even for those who abuse others for some small advantage. It would seem only the dead have honor. How miserable and petty would a person have to be to take what little others have? Of course their gains are ultimately ephemeral, temporary, fleeting. They, too, will meet their fate.

Sun Tzu understood what true national leadership meant when he said, "The general who does not advance to seek glory, or does not withdraw to avoid punishment, but cares for only the people's security and promotes the people's interests, is the nation's treasure."

When a Vietnamese person thinks about Vietnam, he or she inevitably thinks about the Vietnamese people, namely the rich personal relationships with other Vietnamese in his or her life. The memories are vivid and indelible, no matter how long ago they were. These memories are especially enduring for the Vietnamese diasporas, having to leave one homeland to settle in another homeland. This drastic and scary change isn't for every Vietnamese. That's why Vietnamese Americans are unique among many. That's why America, a land composed of mostly immigrants, is unique among other nations in the world.

As displayed in George Washington's Farewell Address, America is obsessed with its doubts, self-improvement, and future. In one hand, we Americans (Vietnamese Americans very much included) have both the gumption and ingenuity to face impossible problems and truly believe we can overcome them. On the other hand, we continually call into question our own intelligence and competency. We always worry about whether we are good enough.

In contrast to the world's general view that Americans are arrogant, we are open to hearing out criticisms, and often those critics are ourselves. However, the freedom to air out our gripes indicates, ironically, true strength and confidence in ability. It's ok to think we aren't doing enough. Because we indeed need to get better. Manna doesn't last forever. We can't assume the "great experiment" will last without constant human (and divine) intervention. We need to continually ask ourselves what are we going to accomplish today, by the end of this week, this month, this quarter. But don't talk to us about next quarter. That's too far away. The future starts today. 💛