Banned, Ban Suspended, Rebanned: Immigration & Politics After a Generation

One of the benefits of propinquity are the encounters with the detritus of your neighbors and the capacity of these objects to take your focus away from what’s been preoccupying your mind. ADHD as urban design. The other day a modest pile of 1990s Playboys came into my possession after a routine trip to the laundry room. For me the decade marked my sexual awakening: Pamela Anderson Baywatch, the patience of a Buddhist for dial-up Internet, Adam & Eve mail-order catalogues that tattooed the postal delivery schedule into my mind, and of course those bunny ear head dresses. How could I not delve, at least for an afternoon, into my physiological nostalgia?

For the most part, I got exactly what I expected: monotonous dated texts, consumer electronic ads, Columbia House artist listings, cigarette promos, and busty girls with bad hair. But two issues stood out: May 1991 and June 1992.

May 1991 is the Tweed sisters issue: two long-legged, smiling women whose skin perfectly matches the pantone A7 studio backdrop. It’s a few shades from cosmic latte, giving one the impression that we as banana jerkers are either in a super closeup on the perfect skin of these goddesses or we’re at an intergalactic vantage point of how the solar system is structured: Tweeds all the way down. Competing with the Tweeds for your attention is a Steinbrenner interview, in which he attest his hatred for baseball. But at page 83 a dapper, two dimensional air brushed Asian gangster pinching a cigarette accompanies the title “big TROUBLE IN LITTLE SAIGON” (title capitalization [it was the 90s]) passes the finish line for the most intriguing time capsule of Americana found therein. Jim Goad’s two-and-a-half page article recounts the crime and depravity that has bubbled up in the Vietnamese refugee community in Orange County since the war.

The article opens into a video surveillance tape of a drive-by shooting at a restaurant and the subsequent denial of the event by the restaurant owner, from whom the police investigators are trying to garner evidence. The reader has just walked into a cul-de-sac of American good intentions, bordered by the baggage of distrust for authority that the refugee victims checked on the tarmac following the Fall of Saigon in 1975. Remember, in this era, anyone who’s roughly ethnic and partakes in violence with his friends is in a gang. The “gang members” are comprised of young men imagined as roving Asian outlaws on motor-horse back, drunk on the freedom that they’ve only recently acquired. Why do these men turn violence rather than express their gratitude for our saving them? Well, obviously, they lost their family following the war, they are alone, unloved and worst of all, bored. Goad’s narrative fits nicely into the Conservative explanation for all urban violence: the demolition of family values due to broken homes, single moms, welfare checks, urban plight and probably rap music in video games are accounted for in the following article. (Flip page to more nudie girls or…read on!)

Goad brings the article to life by following one gangster, Randy, whose biography oscillates between intra-national crime sprees and imprisonment. Randy echoes the broken home being…broken …broke, like his wallet, he explains his love for this free country; to Goad it’s freedom that he’s abusing through crime. Goad [phrases it, “Spoiled by freedom, they come off like suburban brats on a joy ride.” Okay, it’s like Clueless but instead of the incest, pink convertibles, and Valley Girl upspeak it’s bummed out tattooed skin merging with couch upholstery until violence forces the financial hand. Got it. 

But all of this is in Randy’s rear view mirror. He’s no longer dragged down by his broken home. He’s served his final time in prison; now he’s an honest working American, he’s found the light; the sanctity of freedom, its hallowed delicate fibers have calmed the salvage; Randy is born, again. The article ends with the same topic with which it began: the problematic distrust for authority from newcomers from a primitive world. Succinctly, Goad writes “many Vietnamese are puzzled by the U.S. justice system. When they see gangster back on the street hours after being arrested, they figure that payoffs, not bail, are at work. Fearing reprisal, they clam up.” Our justice system, like our freedom, is simply too complex for these simplistic fisherman to comprehend, is what Goad is trying to say. (Wait, in the 1991, would someone arrested for armed robbery or a drive-by shooting be let out on bail? If you’re paying 10% of the bond of 30,000-50,000, taking inflation into account, SCV Bail bonds and I are guessing the people being let out on bail aren’t the violent, gangsters that Goad’s article is covering.) Again, it’s the 90s and there’s the whiff of “getting tough on crime,” three strikes you’re out and getting down on those gun-loving, drug smoking inner-city gangs throughout this article. But all in all, it’s the end to a saga that started a decade earlier and has resolved as the American Dream. 

I read the article from the vicarious position of a Vietnam veteran’s perspective of experience: Enroll, train, ship off, eat MREs, get jungle boot, shoot at Charlie, take psychodelics, try to maintain a semblance of ethics with the village people by stopping that psychopath in the platoon who tries to kill them and wear their ears as a necklace, go home and suffer PTSD and now this. Ungrateful little brats. Why can’t I just enjoy my Playboy? Ok, good. I’m glad the kid worked it out; now the nudies.

June 1992′s cover advertises the Playmate of the Year, a bleach-blonde with almond-shaped face, glossy blue-green eyes messed with 80′s hairband-permanent, dressed in what looks to be a Martha Stewart semi-transparent white linen summer dress knotted at her abdomen, provocatively plucking the flower petals from a daisy next to the text statement of an interview with Ralph Nader. The PMOY is trash; Nader is golden. He’s laying out all the political complexities that have been batted during this last election and gives a brief historical overview of what he’s been up to since the late 50s. But what’s even more interesting and relevant to this topic of refugees is “Styled in Seattle,” a pictorial subtitled “once a refugee from vietnam, hairdresser angela melini is putting down roots on this side of the pacific” (subtitle capitalization). The paragraph of text that accompanies the half dozen images of Angela in silk sheets of a dusty mahogany living room of anywhere U.S.A. ca. 1970 focuses on the determination and level-headed attitude of the industrious hairdresser. She’s practical, hard working and smart. Her abridged biography is as a child of an Italian soldier who died in the war, she and her mother fled Vietnam in 1974, immigrating to North Carolina where she “began a typically suburban American childhood of bike riding, rollerskating an hanging out at the mall, i.e.“Americanized.” This process, identity, and the historical conflict is the subtext of the pictorial. There’s about 2.5 paragraphs of text. 

Ms. Melini embodies the American Dream. A disadvantaged immigrant struggles to make a life for herself in this Great Country and gets lucky by/after being “discovered.” Fame, fortune, national appreciation by heterosexual subscribers to the periodical. Freedom. Her big hair is nearly a stargate to travel back to the era when a dangerous majority of American women wore such style, the sheer volume being demonstrative of the greatness of the country. The sprinkles of quotes from the hairdresser clear her of any communist residue or foreign sympathies: “’There are plenty of pretty girls,’ she muses. ‘You have to be more than that.’“ Indeed.

Thirteen months apart, “Styled in Seattle” and “Big Trouble in Little Saigon” create a complementary image of how and whom this country accepts, what was expected by Americans accepting immigrant refugees, and how that’s changed over the last 50 years. In these two Playboy issues, this sociopolitical question is removed from a press conference or protest route and placed within the context of a men’s entertainment magazine. That is, these two stories, and the myriad of stories we hear or read about when policy confronts personal experience, really makes us realize how human these decisions can be and how human something like waiting in line at an airport or looking at a magazine is. We can read graphs and look at statistics, but the human story is what will resonate; the story of fear for Randy, or the story of making it ‘big’ for Angela.  These two individuals’ lives were disrupted by the war and then made examples of either side of a systematic concern for who comes to the U.S. and how they exist here; it’s the question that, today, is divisive as ever, it’s the battle over immigration reform, security v. civil rights, either side trying to stake claim to what is “American” and what is “unAmerican.”

One thing we don’t know as “American” is the Vietnam War, known by the Vietnamese as the War of American Aggression. From both perspectives it was a violent, traumatizing experience in longer tradition of military conflict, for both parties. Uniquely for both parties it resulted in the Indochina refugee crisis when 2.5 million people of the 56 million escaped Vietnam to other countries. That doesn’t include the thousands that fled in 1975. As a humanitarian crisis, the Vietnamese diaspora sets the dinner table for the subsequent refugee crises due to war, but only in terms of what’s televised and subsequently collectively feared across a continent that’s glued to dinnertime news. There’s been war refugees since the dawn of war. This fact shouldn’t soften our empathy meter when thinking about the millions of people who are annually put into the most inconvenient position of leaving a place where they can speak a language that’s understood, have their social valuation, and retain some semblance of dignity. Rather this fact of refugees as a constant in our world history should make us realize how inhumane and uncivil our civilization has been and continues to be.

American Dream

The last day of my trip to Viet Nam in 2015, I was finishing the construction of a vo be, a traditional Vietnamese (and found throughout Southeast Asia) fishing apparatus. The man who was aiding in my learning of how to do this, made the wonderful decision to order two crates of beer to celebrate. And he invited the neighbors there in Cu Chi. We gathered in the shed behind his house, a sort of mother-in-law tin-roof structure that had the unexpected amenities of a full kitchen, lieu and eating area. Exactly one person of that group of 10 spoke a basic level of English, but, just as my prior visit, that was no barrier for hospitality. Hand signals, giggles, nods. I understood the drinking ritual, the ching ching, the food sharing. I understood when solicited mouse as a delicacy to try sauteed that I should accept, as it was a sign that they knew the limits to my own culinary culture and wanted to give me the experience. 

Host & teacher, Sơn, testing the vó bè. The party shack in the background. Nephew (Phức Nguyên) in the foreground.

Host & teacher, Sơn, testing the vó bè. The party shack in the background. Nephew (Phức Nguyên) in the foreground.

As we ate and drank, it started to rain, heavily, The earth eroded around the structure and no person’s voice could be distinguished by the pounding above. Only laughter was evident and precise. Somewhere before I reached the point that I must stop in order to responsibly mount the motorcycle to take me to the airport, I realized that, while this moment was absolutely unforgettable, it was also unjustly unique for me. The beauty of this simple gathering was, most likely, not out of the ordinary in Cu Chi. The totality of the environment, food and company was quotidian to my hosts. A deep sense of being on one side of a bridge that had to be intentionally constructed by me, a returning for discovering, came over me. I thought of how many other children of refugees would have to make their own journey back across the war-scarred roads healed over. At that moment, the Refugee Crisis as it had come to be called (as if it was and were to be the only such crisis), was at full boil in Europe. Families broken. Children raised in new lands. A generation without a knowledge of their own culture. I knew certainly about the uncertainty others who would return must experience, abridged by distance but separated by language and culture throughout the visit. A visit it was and would be. And then the rain stopped and I balanced on the back of a bike, holding down the mouse as my driver took me back to Ho Chi Minh. Returning, leaving, waiting in line at the airport. Drinking beers. These are human things. Even dreaming is human.