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

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. 💛

Sunday, November 17, 2019

What it's like being an Asian-American parent

There's a joke on the internet about the typical Asian dad: "You got B?? You not Bsian. You Asian!"

Asian parents are famous (infamous?) for being strict and demanding on their children to excel academically. My associates seem to believe this is especially true of Asian-American parents, because the need to survive in America is top on their minds.

There is a term for this type of parenting: tiger parenting. It originated from Yale Law professor Amy Chua's book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, published in 2011. For the sake of discussion, Prof. Chua is ethnically Chinese. Her husband is Jed Rubenfeld, who is also a Yale Law professor. Their daughters, Lulu and Sophia, were on a regiment of violin and piano lessons lasting six hours each day. It also included requirements such as no grades below an A, no play dates, no social life outside of school.

When the news articles first came out about Chua's parenting method, many people were aghast. Some claimed the two girls were being abused. Fast forward to today. Lulu and Sophia have since graduated from Harvard University. Now adults, they said growing up was tough but they had a happy childhood. Both are pursuing a career in law, much in alignment with their parents.

So it would seem Amy Chua's Asian-style, tiger-parenting method seems solid. It is here where I would like to add my perspective on being an Asian-American parent, for I am one myself.

To start, I don't completely agree with Prof. Chua that "Chinese parents raise successful kids," because the word "success" is so varied depending on who you talk with that it's practically a meaningless word. The only constant in the world is change. The world's leaders are often not doctors or lawyers, and most of them didn't graduate from Harvard. Furthermore, China's population has the same bell curve as any other nation in the world. I'm sorry to say but Asian parents aren't all that special. No one country or nationality has a secret to better education.

My own parenting method isn't much of a secret either. First and foremost, I teach by example. You want your children to read books? Read books yourself. You want to decrease the chances of your children smoking? Don't smoke. You want them to be kind? Show kindness to others. Surely there will be times when they will stray from your example, but from my experience, being a constant model is the simplest and most effective way to teach children.

Education-wise, my method isn't necessarily to push my children to have straight A's in rote learning. Rather, I cast a large net to help them find what they are good at and support them in their interests. Their interests (not me) will eventually push them beyond what they are taught and beyond the textbooks. Receiving a firm foundation of knowledge is a necessity, but fully understanding key principles and learning how to think, to arm them with the ability to discover new solutions to new problems, is the real value in a good formal education. Anybody can copy and memorize if they are forced. But not anybody can create if they are forced. In the real world, what's most valuable is the creation.

I've seen too many times Asian-American parents pushing their kids into something they're not interested in to impress other parents and it's almost always a complete disaster. Without constant supervision, the children would rebel and lie about what they are doing and not doing. Then many years down the line, the relationship becomes so strained that the child, who is now an adult, decides to break away and finally follow in his or her dream. What a waste of time and tears!

Frankly, I won't be around to see my children's full body of work. But since I'm around now, I want to prepare them to respond with aplomb to unexpected and unknown problems they will face in life, many of them emotional and psychological, not simply academic and economic. Asian-American parents must not forget that ultimately all they want for their children is their happiness. How unfortunate that some will make the common mistake of focusing on the means to happiness that often lead to much unhappiness. 💛

Sunday, November 10, 2019

What it's like being a Vietnamese American



Hi, my name is Cuong, an American writer born in Saigon, Vietnam. Cuong in Vietnamese is Cường, derived from the Chinese 強 or qiáng, which means strong, capable, better. The name Cuong was given to me at birth; it's a very popular male Vietnamese name. This website, Cuong.com, is where I will discuss a number of topics in the future, most focused on Vietnamese-American issues.

For the first post of Cuong.com, I would like to discuss what it's like being a Vietnamese American. Please note the following is simply from my experience. One man's experience. You might disagree and that's ok.

The first and obvious part about being Vietnamese American is looking the part. The US Census Bureau estimates there are over 2.1 million Vietnamese Americans. Unlike most Asian Americans, Vietnamese Americans are fairly recent Americans. Almost all arrived in the US no earlier than 1975, the year Saigon fell. I know a wonderful Vietnamese lady who came to America in 1968 but she's a rare case. Therefore, Vietnamese Americans are relatively "fresh off the boat." Being new immigrants fits the common narrative that no matter how many generations your Asian family has been here, some people are going to assume you're still a foreigner because you look different.

Looking the part of an Asian man is something I embrace fully. I own it and I flaunt it. I have the advantage of breaking the ice with just about anybody I encounter. Instead of being an extra wheel, I'm a unique and critical part of an entire group's success.

That leads me to the second part of being Vietnamese American: fitting in America. For me it's been easy. Except for a few instances of blatant racism, my experience has been positive overall. When we first arrived in America as refugees, everyone -- I do indeed mean everyone -- treated us so kindly and with open arms. I want and expect this to be the same for all refugees in America now. We can't allow ignorant haters to drown out the countless wonderful Americans I know. There were times when I was given the benefit of the doubt just because I looked Asian. Some call it Asian privilege. But since I pride myself on being a man of integrity, frequently to a fault, it's a virtuous cycle.

The third part of being Vietnamese American is the nuance. Racism can be present anywhere and within anyone. Some people are better at hiding it than others. It's not always what it seems. You can't be intellectually lazy, lest you make bad decisions. See people as individuals, not as a monolith. Don't make the same mistake others have made since recorded history. A further nuance is the hate that people sometimes experience might not be racism at all but a clash of interests. As a Vietnamese American, I believe it's important to understand the difference. Finding a shared goal with others does wonders.

For young Vietnamese Americans, my suggestion is to not overthink it. The occasional confusion isn't so much about being Vietnamese American as about maturing and being young. When I was young, I was often confused and self-conscious. But time enabled me to discover where I fit in, be comfortable with who I am, realize that being different is a good thing, and let love dictate my thoughts and actions. That's why you'll see hearts on Cuong.com, from the logo to my article sign off.

As mentioned, I will discuss more in the future. Until then, take care of yourself and take care of others. 💛