Writing Exercise: Public Transportation

I recently went on a traveling jag that took me to several parts of this patchwork nation—Hawaii, Texas, Iowa—and this is why I have been a bit lackadaisical with the blog:  too much time on the road, too much jet lag.  Each time I landed in a new place, I found that I was a different person, that I assumed a new role.  It was strange—like being superman who enters not a phone booth but a plane—emerging as an entirely different person.

1940s-PhoneBooth

Part of this came from the fact that there were new people suddenly all around me.

At the Dallas airport, I met an eighty year old, a career salesman now happily retired, who was returning from his Caribbean cruise.  He was still wearing his tropical shirt and panama hat.  His face was pink, peeling from the exposure to constant sunlight.

used car dealer

Like all seniors, he had risen at the crack of dawn, getting to the Florida airport so early that the staff let him get on an earlier flight, which made him land now, with much time to spare, at his transfer point–Dallas.   Now he had a half day to spend while waiting for his connection and did not relish it.  This was a vast desert for a man whose occupation made him crave interaction, whose life had primed him for talking.

dfw-american-airlines-terminal-d-int-1_27238

“Are you going to Des Moines?” I asked.  And in minutes my attempt to read a John Grisham novel was put on ice:  he switched seats and was on me.

“No, I’m going to San Diego.  That’s where I live now.”  And thus began his life story.  By the time we parted company, I felt I knew too much about his sons, both in their sixties—one married with children; the other a confirmed bachelor, teaching community college.  I learned about his life as a used car salesman and the intricacies of making a deal.  “You can’t lie to people.  They’ll find you out and never trust you again.”  Used car sales, it turns out, makes a lot of money back in his day, but now the car business has been gutted.  “I put two boys through college with that money and once a month the owners took me and the wife to the nicest hotel in New Jersey and we could order whatever we want.”  There was a pride in his voice.  It was the pride of someone who bought IBM when it was still a small fish in a very big pond.  “Now these guys in the car racket, I feel sorry for them.  The commission is nothing.”

So here is the Creative Writing Exercise:  Put your character into a space of public transportation—an in-between space—where he can collide with all sorts of other folks:  salesman, data analysts, prostitutes, conventioneers, celebrities, students, confidence men, terrorists.  From there, he can pivot to a number of possibilities, a few of which I will name but many more of which I will leave you to figure out:  he can lie about his identity, he can suddenly develop a friendship or animosity, he can be caught in an intrigue, he can be forced to perform a task, he can catch somebody in a deception, he can have a confrontation.

bibi-casablanca

These are just some of the possibilities that come from a space of transit.  Transit yokes character to plot, the cart to its horse—pushing onward, pushing upward.  If your character is just lying around in bed or too lazy to get out of the house, public transit will force him to do some work for a change…so this exercise is a good remedy for the plot that has stalled.  Remember that many great novels and films both begin and end in zones of public transportation—Casablanca, to name but one—so this simple fix-all is not just an exercise that goes nowhere but a legitimate entryway to producing great art that goes somewhere.

Another Vignette Inspired by Audrey Chin: My Name is Snow

Recently, I published a review of Audrey Chin’s book As the Heart Bones Break–a novel that I found both intriguing and instructive.  In this review, I mentioned that I actually put the book down at points and found myself writing little vignettes–responses to her work– compelled by the rich subject matter.  What I ended up with was stuff that, in another liftetime, I swore to never take on–stuff that previously turned me off–but which I decided to take a stab at.  I’m glad I did it.  And I’m indebted to Audrey for opening a new world for me.  For this piece, I used the second person narration (the “you”) that Audrey made her centerpiece device. Give me your feedback.  Tell me what you think!

 

My name is Snow, but until I was thirteen, I never saw it, never touched it, never tasted it.  All I knew was that it was white, cold, distant—and at nights when I dreamed of this thing, this thing called “snow,” I envisioned a ghostly bride in a translucent veil, walking across a beach, trailing a train on sands that hold no footprints.  If you cup snow in your hand, it disappears.  It becomes something else.  It is no longer snow.

snow

An American soldier once said that in his native Alaska, the indigenous people have a thousand words for snow—all different kinds of snow.  I never met this man but I read it in a newspaper clipping from a now defunct newspaper.  And then I lost the newspaper but I kept the words with me.  The words of the newspaper were in Vietnamese but I thought he was speaking to me, only to me, in English.  There are words for slushy snow, icy snow, pure virgin snow.

I had a friend in school who shared my name.  It was a popular name and we had a choice of whether to become friends or enemies.  We became friends.  I told her of my American from Alaska.

“Is he tall?”

“He is tall, as pine trees.”

“Will you remember me when you go to him.”

“I will always remember you,” I told her.  She knew that she would never be able to go to the United States.  But me:  my papers were already in.  And it was just a matter of time.

If I close my eyes, I still think of this man—freckled shoulders, chapped thin lips—and in my dreams, he gives me an eskimo kiss, nose-to-nose, chaste.  I must have described him to my friend, Snow, so many times.

eskimo kiss

And then he instructs me about the properties of snow.  My, how he longed for his snow.  Snow is beautiful in Alaska and when it interacts with the light that bounces through the atmosphere, it forms rainbows, it forms fantastic illusions.  You have never lived until you see the Northern Lights.

It would be a long time before that would happen.  And I guess I never lived.  I cannot say that much of my life counts for much—much living, that is.  I am nothing in this country.  And I was not much of anything in the one I left behind.

northern lights

And then I saw snow for the first time at the age of thirteen when I found myself in Minnesota in the coldest winter.  The snow came down like ashes from a great fire.  It floated.  And then it came down like a curtain of finest lace.  “Don’t go out there,” said my sponsor.  “You’ll catch your death.”  But I was already out the door.

I am lying on the ground.  I am sticking out my tongue.  I am catching it in my tongue, and my tongue can taste its becoming and unbecoming, the unwinding of that spool of thread—first snow, then water—like a trick knot in a magician’s hand.  I am making a snow angel.  I do not know it.

I am making a snow angel.

snow angel

Vignette Inspired by Audrey Chin

Last week, I published a review of Audrey Chin’s book As the Heart Bones Break–a novel that I found both intriguing and instructive.  In this review, I mentioned that I actually put the book down at points and found myself writing little vignettes–responses to her work– compelled by the rich subject matter.  What I ended up with was stuff that, in another liftetime, I swore to never take on–stuff that previously turned me off–but which I decided to take a stab at.  I’m glad I did it.  And I’m indebted to Audrey for opening a new world for me.  For this piece, I used the second person narration (the “you”) that Audrey made her centerpiece device. Give me your feedback.  Tell me what you think!

 

Short, squat, brutal—you could have had a promising career as a mixed martial artist but you were born in the wrong time.  All you needed were the tattoos, you think, appraising yourself in the motel mirror, watching the fuzzy television set, which is feeding you spoonfuls of a blurry premium channel for free.

mixed-martial-arts

“He’s got the shape of a trash can,” said your uncle Hong, always rosy-faced with booze.  “He’ll never amount to anything.”  And you showed him.  You punched him in the face.

Now he’s dead.

Almost everybody around you is dead—you’ve got the igneous touch.  Hong killed himself with cigarettes and booze, then ran his car into a tree.  Your mother was a whore and she died a whore’s death—putting food in your sour little gullet. It was easier to tell you she ran off with a man, instead of telling you the truth, but you found it out anyway, in your own good time.

The rest of your family, they all fell into the ocean on a boat.  And you, the deserving one, floated like a message in a bottle into the arms of a religious couple in Minnesota.

Message-in-a-Bottle

At night, this is your foster child dream:  Underneath the black blue of the South China Sea lies the treasure of your extended family–diamonds, pearls, gold in the form of necklaces.  Drifting.  Scattered.  The currents are pushing them away, into oblivion.  Your mother is a mermaid and she glides among the wreckage, dapples of wayward sunlight like freckles on her shoulder, but she never turns back to you.  And then with a flick of her tail, she is gone.

mermaid

How much could that treasure have bought?  Could it have turned your life around?  Could it have bought you a tract house in Orange County? Would that have changed anything about the life path you have come to know as your own?  Probably not.

You became a little food horder.  Thief of Spam and Corned Hash.  Then, you kicked that habit and horde nothing.

Here you are, at fortytwo, already an old-timer.

But when you washed up on the shores of these United States, you were already fully formed—a delinquent.

You look at yourself in the motel mirror.   It vibrates from the couple next door, who are continuously fucking or fighting.  “Do it.  Go ahead.  Do it.”  The voice is a female’s, high pitched and yappy.  She is speaking alternately in Spanish and English.  But you have stayed in hotels long enough to know the Esperanto.

Your body, it is a funhouse mirror—lengthening and folding into itself, distorting, buckling, weaving.  Now’s the time you could say I could have been a contender.  You with your wifebeater shirt and your sneer.  You with your comb in your back pocket.  You with the igneous touch.

Fun house mirror

But you wouldn’t have gotten that reference.

Growing up most of your life in a foreign country means you are lobotomized of most popular culture.  No accent have you, but everything else is a little bit messed up—not all the wiring with all the factory parts.

You’re a perpetual foreigner, a dispensable cog.  You’ve only ever made enough money to splurge on a shit hole hotel like this.  That announcer who does the play-by-play asks you this question in the voice of Howard Cosell:  How does it feel to be on the run?

And in that finely tuned instrument that is the harpsichord of your mind, you answer deadpan—no accent, no stutter:  I been running all my life, my life all one run.

Review: Audrey Chin’s novel, As the Heart Bones Break

The first book is the bravest one.  The second, the third, the fourth—those too are feats of brawn, of calculated risk.  By “first,” I don’t mean the conventional sense: debut.  The book I am about to review comes from an author who has already written quite a bit, who has sharpened her knife on the whetstone of craft.

Heart-bones

By “first,” I mean novel, innovative, groundbreaking.  Highwire acts, first books of this order—the ones that open up the doors to new areas, bridging gaps in our intellectual DNA–represent an incredible feat of derring-do because they lay the foundation for a tradition.  First books are that seed in the oyster, that first crystal that forms a matrix of startling geometries, multi-faceted and sparkly.

Who cares about the umpteenth Harlequin Romance? Those books remain forgettable and anonymous–contraband wrapped in a paper bag, the detritus of a disposable culture.  We only care about the trailblazers:  Jane Eyre lives forever in our erotic memories, remade in our wet dreams and our silver screen fantasies, because it is the first book that set the stage for the formula of the Harlequin Romance.

Even the hero, who is described as charismatic but ugly, gets remade in our memories as startlingly handsome; in our idealizations of Jane Eyre, the craggy-faced Earl of Rochester transforms into Michael Fassbender and Plain Jane, into Mia Wasikowska.

jane_eyre_ver6_xlg

Audrey Chin’s book is definitely a trailblazer in this sense.  As the Heart Bones Break follows a Vietnamese refugee as he traverses a world that Vietnamese Americans know well but have yet to write about:  civil war, escape, displacement, integration into society as a refugee, trauma, memory, history.  Most Vietnamese American writers have taken a piece, a chunk, and woven stories with more modest dimensions.  But Chin’s book is singular because it is an ambitious book; Chin wants to capture the sweep of history—its complexities and contradictions, its ambiguities and dark shadows.

And she makes no bones about the fact that she is absolutely aware of the risks.  As a woman who herself married a Vietnamese refugee, Audrey Chin understands that she enjoys a privileged vantage point both as insider and outsider.  In a previous piece for Diacritics, she wrote touchingly about this position—the risks involved, the fact that she is well aware that she is still an utter outsider.  She has also put her finger on one of the pitfalls of over-identifying with any minority group:  the arrogance behind the faulty assumption that by marrying a refugee and indeed learning the Vietnamese language, you somehow enjoy special access.  Her conclusion is one that is absolutely true but oft forgotten by the people who choose to love us:  you may understand up to a certain point but, really, after that you are in a vast ocean on a rickety boat and you will never know how deep it is until you capsize.

o-OCEAN-facebook

On the strength of her very compelling essay, I chose to give this book a serious look-see.  Why?  Because of the self-consciousness, the unprecedented sensitivity, the candor it brought to the table.  Audrey Chin made it clear that she understood the power dynamics behind representation.

Most of our lives, Vietnamese people have not been able to control our own images.  Most times, non-Vietnamese who married into our special world—turbulent, ever-shifting, precarious—have had to do this work for us.  They get a bit cocky about actually “knowing” the world.  I’m sure every Vietnamese person reading this has met someone who, precisely because they have become attached to one of our tribe, will then act as spokesperson, cultural interpreter, tour guide.

The strength and also the weakness of Audrey Chin’s book comes from this sentiment of circumspection.  We can tell that the author has spent a lot of time meticulously researching the history of the Vietnam war, the causes behind it, the people, the places.  Why?  Because quite often she will display that knowledge.  She will explain.  Sometime, she will over-explain in order to prove she is on firm ground.  She will take care to insert points of history into exposition or dialogue.

The best parts are when the author lets go of the need to explicitly address history.  Here is a nice example that I wish there was more of:

You bit into the banh.  How you love the feel of the thin crispy skin in your

mouth, the nutty richness of the filling, the candied melon and sesame oil

aftertaste.  Nibbling the cake alone this way reminds you of 1979—eating in

hiding so you don’t have to share, swallowing slowly to keep the flavors in

your throat, to make believe you’d eaten more.

For a Vietnamese, 1979 is a year that doesn’t need to be explained.  It is a time of hunger, a moment when many folks are plotting their rickety escape.  There are people who are in refugee camps.  There are people dealing with the aftermath of war and embargo.  There are folks who are struggling to make it in the promised land of whatever country has shown them charity as aliens in need of harbor.  In this passage, history does not need to be explained but still reemerges as the trace.  The nothing.  This is how, in my mind’s eye, Vietnamese people experience history—less as sweeping narrative punctuated by battles and treaties, more as incursions into the every day, savored in odd moments.

I must say that I benefited from the book in great but unexpected ways, because I saw so many things still yet to be put into print—things I shelved.  I found myself putting the book down and seeing if I was up to the task of rewriting scenes, composing vignettes, refining portraits.  Why?  Because I was smitten enough by the novelty of the subject—a subject I personally never wanted to write about but also knew had to get written by someone with greater intestinal fortitude.  The book forced me to actually get off my butt and join in Audrey Chin’s high wire act.

Taking risks.

Gliding through the air.

Catching an idea on the upswing.

This may be a long way of finally saying that I recommend that people take a gander at this book, not because it’s a heartbreaking work of staggering genius, but because it just might get you to write a book that has yet to be written, that remains an embryo—anonymous—beckoning, biding its time, demanding that it should come to be known.

Cinco de Mayo: Stereotypes, Writing, Understanding

This essay originally appeared on Huffington Post but it was always intended for Los Angeles Mystery! 

Cinco de Mayo came and went, and this time, it developed its latest wrinkle:  the wide-spread charge that it is politically incorrect, corrupt, unwholesome.  The charge follows a pattern that we are long familiar with—that the American holiday has little to do with the event it commemorates, that it is simply an organ of capitalism, that it becomes the breeding ground for the mold spores of racial stereotypes.

There is some truth to that:  most people just don’t know what Cinco de Mayo is about, beyond the fact that it is an excuse to guzzle tequila.  They do not know that the event commemorates an heroic battle for the city of Puebla.  Not Mexican Independence Day.

Indeed, it is an obscure holiday—one that Mexicans South of the border do not celebrate with as much intensity as gringos up North. Cinco de Mayo celebrates the defeat of the French in Mexico by a force of men who should have lost.  It is notable, but for most of its history only notable regionally.

Cinco_de_Mayo,_1901_poster

The recent critique of Cinco de Mayo is that this kind of event is terrible because it is not harmless but insidious:  drunken men and women frolicking in sombreros, imitating Speedy Gonzales, only serve to reinforce the glee in racialism—so the logic goes.

Sleeping-Mexican-1029777

And there is some truth to that, too: this is the time of year that the image of the Lazy Mexican—that perpetual brown-skinned napper, ensconced underneath a cactus with his legs pulled to his chest and his sombrero shading his eyes—gets trotted out.

I’m sure this gets old for many Mexican Americans.

Me:  I’m entirely sympathetic.  I don’t personally celebrate Cinco de Mayo for that exact reason.  And the thought of rubbing shoulders with slobbering drunk racialists is revolting.

But part of me wonders if the sad exploitation of Mexican tradition also has some residual value.   After all, the point of a stereotype is that it makes things that are invisible suddenly perceptible.  The Art Historian E.H. Gombrich tells us that stereotypes originally were used by artists to train themselves to see and reproduce visual experience.  We can draw “from life”—we can therefore see–because we have a scheme already in place in our mind.  And this allows things that we cannot readily see to suddenly come into focus.

Frontispiece to E.H. Gombrich's master work Art and Illusion

Frontispiece to E.H. Gombrich’s master work Art and Illusion

So here is my take, which I will introduce as anecdote:  I was in Brasil a few years back, right when the craze for Chinese tattoos became a national obsession.  Everywhere on the beaches frolicked beautiful, brown-skinned people showing off tattoos that featured Chinese characters for luck, happiness, beauty.  Often those people didn’t know what the very words on their ripped, tanned bodies actually meant.  Many tattoos were drawn crudely by artists who clearly did not grasp the fundamental principles of calligraphy; none of the strokes held together; none cohered.  Many tattoos were simply applied with stencils, and so the words were written—permanently—backwards:  monuments to ignorance and poor life choices.

chinese-tattoo17

“Look at that,” my East Asian wife nudged me.  It was a little girl, no more than ten years of age, sporting with her family in the waves.  “That’s supposed to say Luck.”  But the tattoo had obviously been applied with a stencil; the character was spelled backwards.  And so this tattoo that was supposed to commemorate Good Fortune was its opposite:  un-lucky-ness.  You could say that the tattoo had cursed the girl for life but I saw the family–frolicking, happy, blissful–in the waves and could only think of them as blessed.

For me, the broader context of the tattoos was the fact that China now was everywhere in Brasil.  China is a major economic force, and a great importer of Brasil’s raw products.  There was even a float that year at Carnaval, commemorating the importance of soy production to the Brasilian economy, which is emerging as a juggernaut on the world stage mainly due to the alliances that are forged across the ocean in China.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

So for me, the tattoos were the sign of a culture grappling with the meaning of this encounter—turning it over in their minds, getting it wrong, getting it backwards, getting it sometimes right—and arriving at a dawning awareness of a mental coupling that is happening, that is manifest, that is all wrong but potentially, eventually, all right.

 

Notes on Gentrification: Highland Park, Los Angeles

Recently, I attended a presentation at USC about gentrification in my neighborhood—Highland Park, an area north of downtown that has quickly become valuable because of its new Metro system and the rezoning of downtown for mixed use.   HLP, as the locals call it, began its career at the turn of the century as a red light district. Later it became a bohemian zone, later still a white working class bedroom community of Ozzie & Harriet types.

USC Logo

More recently, it has become an ethnic enclave composed of Asians and Latinos.  The neighborhood has become a refuge for recent immigrants arriving in waves that coincide with each decade’s wars:  Salvadorans, Guatemalans, Vietnamese and Chinese.  Its latest waves are a mix of young professionals—NPR types–who have been priced out of the bidding war that is the LA real estate market.

The Highland Park Theatre Sign was Restored by the new wave of residents.

The Highland Park Theatre Sign was Restored by the new wave of residents.

Gentrification is a fascination of my own writing, because the mystery novel-in-progress is preoccupied with the re-zoning of Los Angeles in general:  the changing downtown, now the stomping ground of yuppies, has shifted the center of the city away from the beach communities of the Westside.  It’s a different downtown from the one I knew in my twenties as a grad student:  one populated by artists who lived like bromeliads—mostly on air.  They have scattered.

My narrator absolutely despises gentrification.  Robert is filled with self-righteous rage at the foul intruders who stink up his stomping grounds with dog piss and upscale boutiques.

But my narrator is not really me.  Yes, I’m an LA native.  Yes, I’m Vietnamese American.  Yes, I can claim some kind of legitimate sense of belonging to the landscape not only because I have friends and family in HLP but, also, I lived there over a decade ago, well before it became a victim of hipsterfication.  In my fiction, I love to channel the fire and brimstone of self-righteousness—it makes for great denunciations and a charismatic voice—but really I can see the good and the bad.

* * *

A huge orange Buddhist temple anchors the main drag—Figueroa Boulevard. It has been around longer than the over-sized Chicken Boy brought to the neighborhood by the first wave of hipster settlers and the Roaring Lions that are part of kitsch of the much-documented streetscape.

Mystic Dharma Buddhist Temple

Chicken Boy

Lion

Vietnamese refugees settled in HLP during the 80s.  You can sense their presence in little things—the front yards (which do not have lawns but vegetable gardens) and the doors (upon which are tacked red and orange banners that ward off bad luck).

I am the youngest boy from a sprawling family of eight and one brother ended up in the neighborhood next door three decades ago:  South Pasadena, which has gone through a warp-speed gentrification upon whose heels Highland Park nips. This is sadly one of the elements that was lost in the presentation at USC—the fact that the transformation of the neighborhood was scripted as a Latino-White problem oversimplified the dynamics and marginalized already marginal residents.

There may be good reason for this oversight: the numbers of Latinos have declined, mainly because many don’t yet own property.  In contrast, my Asian neighbors who live in multi-generational housing have not suffered as much of a decline because they have bought in.

* * *

John Tapia Urquiza–a photographer and the driving force behind the community arts organization Sin Turistas—made the presentation at USC.  He leads workshops in which community members document the disappearing culture of this North East corner of Los Angeles.  John grew up in Highland Park and owns a graphic arts business that once stood on the “hipster strip”—York & 50th—but was forced out when rent tripled.  “I am a refugee of gentrification.”  Mom & Pop bodegas, taco stands, pupserias—these are landmarks that John’s team captures as they fan out into the area.  There is an element of wistful nostalgia in the project:  the documentation of a disappearing world going the way of the last Mohican.

sin turistas

For John, the story of gentrification is black and white: it boils down to a question of outsiders–white outsiders–coming in and changing a neighborhood. “Neighborhoods are always in flux,” his official respondent, a really smart Art History professor with blocky purple glasses, pointed out.

“The first photography project, which began in Paris, was initiated by the need to document a changing urban landscape in the face of gentrification.”  Another such project occurred in Paris in the 1970’s, a century later, ostensibly to capture that which was to be lost to time.  “There is nothing new to your project.  My question to you, as you formalize an understanding of your practice, is how you position yourself in relation to a tradition.  Are you simply documenting?  Or are you doing something else?”

But beyond this important question, the matter of what exactly constitutes an outsider remains (like the spider tending its cobweb) at the center of the gentrification debate.  For instance, the new businesses that John trumpeted as local Latino businesses were initiated by geographical outsiders who arrived with the know-how that came of advanced degrees that the Salvadorans who run the juice stands and pupuserias just do not possess—MA’s, MFA’s, PhD’s.

Those who own these new businesses can successfully navigate commerce because owning a business represents a corporate affair that moves beyond the fact of skin color:  each business owner is a pocket—a network, a flow of ideas, institutions, tastes and orientations.  These newbies bring to bear a keen knowledge of financial products, professional networks, marketing savvy quite alien to commercial practices dominated by pupuserias, liquor stores and bodegas.

One such business, I know quite well because it is on my jogging route:  Elsa’s Bakery, a panaderia owned for thirty years by the Vargas family.  It was bought by Edmundo, a professor at UCLA who learned of it, not from a stroll through the neighborhood, but from a graduate student’s research paper.

Elsas Bakery

Mr. Vargas, the previous owner, had health issues and it showed in the crumbling paint.  The dereliction all seemed a shame.  I even wrote a Yelp review that said that they should renovate and take advantage of their status as a long-time local business to compete with the hipster coffee shops down the street.

Elsa's Before

Elsa’s Before

Within months of my Yelp review, Elsa’s was vastly retrofitted to look like a Disney version of the failing panaderia.  The walls were painted purple.  Day of the Dead memorabilia now is strewn everywhere:  skulls, paper banners.  An oversize painting of Frida Kahlo is the patron saint of the establishment, looming large over the cash register. The effect is a bit over-the-top.

Since then, the prices have tripled.  They stay open late during the Art Walk to draw in the looky-loos who come from all parts of the city, something that the more established coffee shops just won’t do.   They Facebook.  They Tweet.  They write press releases, allowing them to be quickly featured in the newspaper of record, The Los Angeles Times, in a story that trumpeted change in Highland Park need not force out businesses that are “authentic.”

The new owner Edmundo tells me that the couple–Elsy and Manuel–who sold him the business did quite well for themselves:  they may have made a gesture to keep Elsa’s Latino, but the Vargas’s spent a lifetime amassing property throughout Highland Park at rock bottom prices, which they sold at a hefty margin to finance their retirement.

I’m happy for the success of everybody involved.  I see all the changes but cannot feel self-righteous, unlike my narrator Robert, who would have a field day blasting this outsider.  I still frequent the business.  And I do enjoy the improvements, which more than make up for the price increase.  But, of course, I can’t pretend otherwise:  inasmuch as my people have roots in this community, I am still one of the gentrifiers and I bring my own tastes to this zone of contact.  I like craft beer almost as much as I love me a good oversize Frida Kahlo standing guardian over the environs as I sip my half-caf ice capuccino.

 

 

An Open Letter to a Query about Queer Vietnam

 

You may have noticed my inactivity on this blog over the past few weeks.  There is good reason for this:  my academic book has gone to outside reviewers and I was doing all sorts of last-minute fiddling:  proofreading and proofreading and proofreading.  My eyes are kind of dead.  But this morning, I got a reminder of the wonderfulness that this blog brings to my life—a letter from a college student who is actually taking a class with someone I know! She had a question for me, and so I thought responding with an open letter would be a wonderful way to get back into the blogosphere and wash that book out of my hair!

*  *  *

Hello, I am an Asian American studies major at the University of California, Davis. A couple of classmates and I are writing a research paper on Vietnamese queer diaspora and its different levels of acceptance and how policies are affected by it for a class taught by professor Caroline Valverde. So I was just wondering if I could get your opinion on this topic. What are the differences in levels of queer acceptance in Vietnam and in Vietnamese diasporas? How are these differing sentiments reflected in government policies and in the climate of these queer communities? It would be extremely helpful to get your input on this.

Thank you.

 *  *  *

Dear Miss,

Thanks for contacting me with such a thoughtful question.  I’m glad to hear that you are taking classes with Professor Valverde; she is an innovative scholar and all-around awesome individual…and I really do wish that I could pull up a plastic chair in the room and listen to the fountain of her mind spill forth its tinkling secrets.

That said, I am no expert on Queer Vietnam.

But coincidentally, I just attended a screening of Vietnamese short films at the YXine Film Festival, hosted at USC.  Two of the films addressed the topic of queer Vietnamese issues in Vietnam and they may give you a viewfinder into this world.  One was about Vietnamese lesbianism in the city; the other was about Vietnamese gay identity in the countryside.  I’ll give you a run-down of the stories in a second.

But first, I have some good news and bad news.  Both films appear to document hostile environments in Vietnamese contemporary culture.  Whether it’s in the city classroom or the emerald rice paddies of the countryside, Vietnamese gay youth suffer the usual injustices–queer baiting, bashing, bullying, name-calling.

Vietnamese culture often thinks of homosexuality as a Western imposition.  The word for homosexual—bede—is a corruption of the French pederaste.  During my first trip to Vietnam, straight out of college back in 1993, I remember hearing that word for the first time while walking down the alley with some friends.

Up ahead was a girl.

Bede.  Bede.  Bede.  That’s all my crew said, over and over again.  It was a taunt, said quietly under the breath but loud enough to hear in the tenebrous half-light of that dark alley.  These were my friends—a bunch of upper middle class kids—and I was traveling with them in a pack.  And there was that girl, only a silhouette, and I was realizing that she wasn’t a girl.

Bede.  Bede.  Bede.  It must have been scary and lonely to hear a bunch of low clamoring whispers behind you, like moth wings beating at a light bulb.

“You can always tell a bede.  It’s in their shoulders.”  But my eyes had not yet begun to grow accustomed to Vietnamese proportions.  “Look at that V of her back.”  The girl did not dress like drag queens or transvestites in the United States—Rupaul-ish.  She was going for what they call “realness”: those earrings, the frumpy calico dress—so un-flashy. Had it not been for those whispers, had it not been for the taunting, which I was very much a part of, she would have remained a girl in my mind’s eye.

No, I had not said a word.  But I did not doubt that I was a part of the brooding, male presence behind her.  My body had leant its weight to the words that followed her.

I’d like to say things have changed but I’m not sure; I’m not part of the gay scene in Vietnam.  But the short films suggest that it’s still oppressive there.

The short about a gay tailor in the countryside is told in everybody else’s voice except his own.  The frame for the story—a village ferry—allows us to hear all the rumors circulating around this young man:  everybody knows he is gay and there emerge detractors and defenders.  Even the defenses, though, are tailored around gay stereotypes:

They’re so good with their hands.  There’s a gay guy in the other town who knows how to do my hair. 

The central consciousness of the movie—the nephew of the gay man who has been abandoned by his father—hears all this talk.  He sits in the middle of the boat with his book bag clutched to his chest.  But he is too young, too confused to figure things out.  He just wants his uncle to get married, wants him to be normal.

“Why don’t you marry and be normal?”  He asks this, naively.  The uncle will not marry.  He is waiting for an old flame, whose picture is kept locked away in a cabinet we never see.

The woman in the conical hat who runs the ferry—the uncle’s staunchest defender—refuses the kid’s fare. “Tell your uncle that I’ll apply it to a shirt.”  She adds, “your uncle makes such nice shirts.”  And what she means is gay people are “kheo tay”—good with their hands:   precise, mincing, preening

The boy runs away.  Conflicted by all the rumors about his Uncle.  Motivated by the emptiness of abandonment.  He runs off to Saigon.  The uncle follows.

The final frame of the movie is like an O. Henry story, with the kind of irony that Vietnamese people love:  a handsome young man sits on the ferry, inquiring after the tailor.  “He ran after his nephew who left in search of his father and the city has swallowed them both up.”  It is only then that we realize that the handsome young man, caught between two shores on a flimsy boat, is the tailor’s old flame—the picture locked in a cabinet—whom he will never know came back for him.

If it sucks to be gay in the countryside, it sucks to be gay in the city.  The next movie documents a dawning lesbianism, which emerges in the form of a schoolgirl crush.  Vietnamese people—men and women—are extremely touchy-feely.

When I was in Vietnam, it was not uncommon for men—straight men—to hold hands walking down the street.

So the emerging lesbianism in these two young girls seems almost natural in the many ways Vietnamese same-sex interaction unfolds:  the necessary embrace on the motorcycle is supposed to be meaningless, isn’t it?

The school is one of those solid structures that makes me nostalgic for colonialism.  The French left  some good-looking buildings behind.  And these kids are the inheritors of all that is both good and bad of the lingering colonial presence; they are the well-to-do of an emerging generation that has smart phones, a generation that never experienced war.

The trick of the film hinges on a moment of intimacy, caught with a camera-phone—a kiss on the ear lobe given by one girl while the other sleeps on the desk.  The image is sent to everybody, including the girls (yes, cyberbullying is international!) and the girls become the butt of a joke.

They break up, never having been technically together.  The kisser—she becomes a victim of the usual hate:  desk graffiti, spitballs, laughter, microaggressions.

But in being ostracized, she finds community.  She takes a stab at normalcy and dates a guy who searches her out because, it turns out, he is gay.  She gets a rainbow bracelet, passed to her secretly in the hallway by two thuggish looking guys.  And then voila:  she puts it on and her friend—that girl who is the apple of her eye—slips it on, too.

They end the movie walking hand in hand down the hallway.

So, what do these movies mean about being gay in Vietnam?  The short answer: it sucks.  Just as it sucks, too, to be a gay Vietnamese person in the United States, where you are not allowed full civic participation in community-building events like the yearly New Years parade (I assume Professor Valverde shared with you my Huffington Post editorial about gays being excluded in the Vietnamese Lunar New Year Parade.  If not, here is the link).

But there is a silver lining:  even as these movies document the marginal status of gays in the Vietnam, their very act of documentation shows that this condition is changing.  That the movies are allowed to be produced, that they have shown up within the context of film festivals means that we are not just walking down a long, dark alley, listening dumbly to the echo of those words—bede bede bede bede bede—but that there is something that we can imagine to be a light at the end of it all:  a place where a small path empties out into a boulevard.

I wish you the very best with your studies.  And please do send my highest regards to Professor Caroline Kieu-Linh Valverde.

Sincerely,

Khanh Ho

Folk Music & Politics: Le Cat Trong Ly, singer-songwriter

I recently came across this singer from Vietnam, while exploring the BBC website.  Le Cat Trong Ly is a classically trained musician—a violinist—who decided to become a singer-songwriter.  Her specialty is music with a folksy feel, music that comes from the heart of the heart of the country.

Here is a link to her singing on BBC.

She’s got an interesting look, too.  There’s a Sinead O’Connor quality about her shaved pate.  The sheered locks, a very dramatic look in Vietnam, also lend her a Buddhist priestess quality, too—especially in the drab grey of her clothes (the color of a holy person).

Le Cat

In the video, there is something anti-fashion about her fashion—something pared down and the drab colors make her appear “of the people.”  There is no decoration, except upon her collar, where there appear embroidered grey-on-grey flowers—flowers that look almost as if they were sewn by peasant fingers.

Le Cat’s been tearing up the charts, putting together some pretty amazing music and she has won some accolades in Vietnam that elevate her to that Grammy-like status of Best New Artist.

Of course, I immediately wondered what folks of my parent’s generation would think.  You see:  for Vietnamese refugees who lost everything, one way to continue to fight—to fight a Cold War–was through culture.  And that is exactly what Vietnamese refugees in the United States did, producing a music industry so big that it overshadows anything in the country they left behind.  “Nobody wants to listen to that depressing Communist crap.”  That’s the consensus among folks of my parent’s generation.

Paris By Night--one of the most popular musical television shows--features the Vietnamese American mega-stars.

Paris By Night–one of the most popular musical television shows–features the Vietnamese American mega-stars.

And for the most part, they are right: musicians of the diaspora are flashy and beautiful; the tunes are poppy and catchy; the productions, extravagant and over-the-top.  Little Saigon is only a short distance from Hollywood and this means there’s a lot of spill-over talent in all those behind-the-scenes workers like hair, make-up, lighting, sound, editing:  the production values are off the charts.  And this means that, even in Vietnam, everybody listens to the big songs from abroad, even if they know that it’s kind of unpatriotic.  Why?  Because the music is as addictive as crack.

Le Cat’s return to the folk form stands in striking contrast to the stuff I’m used to.  But the return to the folk form is something that has a long history in the States; we have seen it recently revived, too.  The recent Coen Brothers movie Inside Llewyn Davis  documents the Greenwich Village folk music scene where musicians returned to a music of the people, for the people, by the people.

Inside Llewyn

“This Land is Your Land, This Land is My Land,” that song composed by the late great Woodie Guthrie, came out of that scene.  And though my family came to the United States well after it was popularized, a mimeographed copy of the lyrics is one of the artifacts I remember my mom dropping onto the dining room table when she came home from one of her language classes.  It is only now with the distance of years that I realize that idealistic young activists were most likely the ones who taught her this ditty.  Galvanized by the music of that scene, they would filter into the workaday world to become teachers, social workers, do-gooders. And so folk music, with all its politics, would wind up on my dining room table in the form of a ballad that would reassure my mother that she, too, had a place in the American landscape.

Were these young do-gooders pinko commie sympathizers?  I hardly thought to think that at the time.  I’m sure my mom was oblivious, too.  But many people–artists, activists, fellow travelers–who came out of that scene were Left Leaning.  Many were impacted by McCarthyism and its witch hunts.

Of course, this love of the “folk” involves a supreme act of nostalgia.  This is a cryptic way of saying that that “folksiness” was a pure fabrication.  An invention. Let me explain:  the “folk” never thought of themselves as such.  They never had a category for their music as “folksy.”  Rather, the love of “folk” and, especially, the systematic study of “folk culture” arose during the Romantic era when industrialization brought about the realization that traditional ways of living were about to come to an end.

Suddenly, we had to preserve these traditions with an army of trained scholars.  Suddenly, our art looked to the “folk” elements for inspiration.

The most famous book of poetry to come out of the Romantic era in England was William Wordsworth’s Lyrical Ballads—folk poems, told in the plain style.  He would take long walks in the countryside, encountering the rustic simpletons who would people his poems–beautiful young girls whom he often compared to wildflowers, sad old men who told tales of industrialism’s many woes.   Coleridge, Wordsworth’s friend (later his enemy) often accompanied him on these walks and, when their friendship soured, Coleridge mocked him, saying these poems were put in the mouths of men whose necks were so thick that their heads were even closer to their heart.

So here is the paradox of the “folk”:  to think about “folk” meant to already be distant from those simple people in embroidered skirts; to collect folktales, as the Brothers Grimm did, meant to move them from oral to written tradition; it also meant to impose a structure—a taxonomy, a system—that was never a part of the culture among people who simply wiled away the hours singing songs and weaving stories.

Cinderella

So when folks (as they often do) get angry at Disney for changing the original Cinderella story that the Grimm Brothers transcribed, when they pine for the original folktale, they do not know exactly how much is already lost; they are already quite distant—remote–from the original.

There just isn’t an original when it comes to oral traditions.

I suspect my parents would be very wary of Le Cat, because Communists loved the folk traditions, too.  They thought of it as coming from the people, uncorrupted by the colonizations of the West.  And so they favored folk forms, as opposed to corrupt imitations of the West.  And I wonder if this type of music—instrumental ballads inspired by the countryside sung in a non-flashy voice—is part of a neo-conservatism of a generation born in the cradle of Communism, a generation suddenly seeing a country transform into a bastion of Capitalism, a generation that just might be nostalgic for a certain flash of patriotism.

Of course, the irony of the Communist love of the “folk” as a method to return to a pure, untainted past is this:  the ideas about the “folk” was itself a borrowing from Europe.  Only the most educated minds, quite often those minds that themselves spent time in France, were exposed to these very sophisticated ideas about simpletons.  And they returned not only to Vietnam but many parts of Southeast Asia in order to pursue this agenda, which became bound up with Independence movements throughout the region that, at one time, was collectively called Indochine.

We see this return to the “folk” at its most extreme in the Killing Fields of Cambodia.  Anybody seen to be tainted by the West was executed.  If you wore glasses, you were executed.  If you owned a library you were executed.  In fact, if you were going to be executed or tortured, there was a code phrase:  you were going “to school.”

Killing Fields

These are ideas first and foremost on my mind when I hear the beautiful stylings of Le Cat…but they are ideas, too, that I think about a lot when I write.  I am, after all, working within a borrowed form with its own history, with a lineage not my own.  I often wonder if it’s fair on myself or on other artists that I ask of their work these kinds of questions.  Isn’t this a peculiarly Western question?

Goya Bats

And I guess it is a Western question.  But now it is a question that has spent well over a century hanging upside down like bats in the heads of our finest thinkers, so it is no longer a novelty but very much a concept as common as the flower embroidered on the collar of a peasant girl walking by herself, fiddling with a guitar, in the tall, emerald grass of the rice paddies.

 

LA Art Book Fair 2014

The LA Art Book Fair took place in Little Tokyo during a Superbowl Weekend that coincided with the Lunar New Year.  I decided that, since it was literally in my back yard, I would check it out.  It was kind of awesome—a bit of a mixed bag.  The books were slightly less interesting than the people-watching:  everybody was dressed up in their idea of “artistic.”

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The weather had dipped down to the fifties and this allowed folks in LA the opportunity to wear the dramatic coats and hats they had been saving up all year.  The hall was packed with people who were busy texting, tweeting and sweating.

My pronouncement about the event:  it was a mixed bag.  Some good.  Most mediocre.  Little excellent.

My favorite part was the first exhibit—a curated chronological history of the Queer Zines.  There was care in assembling this material, much of which usually goes uncollected, so it was a rare opportunity to educate myself on these artifacts, which are otherwise so ephemeral.

There were a lot of penises.  Penises everywhere.

When you dump out into the rest of the Festival, it’s mostly vendors:  independents, small publishing houses, retail establishments, local art schools.  Giant Robot, my favorite LA bookstore was there.  They hosted book signings by graphic artists and you could buy pop culture East Asian stuff.

giant robot logo

The Gagosian Gallery did up a space that looked like a miniature gallery.  They did something high-brow.  “It’s a site-specific performance that involved an artist conversation, transcribed and turned into a screen print,” said the smart young woman who manned the desk.  You could buy this souvenir for 200 dollars.  The furniture everywhere was midcentury:   expensive, sleek, modern.

But a lot of the stuff fell into the regrettable category.  I began to pine for all those Queer Zines I left so quickly.  So much more care was taken in the curation.

I’ve been to my fair share of book type events but never to one like the LA Art Book Fair.  Full disclosure:  most of my friends are addicted to books; they are academics and spend their life among them; they haunt archives, usually in not-so-chic draw string sweats and lumpy sweaters that do not show so well as many of the get-ups I saw at the fair.

For me, the defining book lover event is quasi-professional—the hallway of the Modern Language Association’s annual meeting, which is big as a football stadium.  There, most people come to find their own books or their friend’s books.  Then they take pictures next to them and post on Facebook.  Hardly anybody reads anything.  They are there to bump into people they know and pitch their ideas to editors.

Anybody could possibly put in an order for a few hundred books through their university.   They could possibly put the book on a library list and be single-handedly responsible for its dissemination to thousands of libraries across the United States, so the MLA book hall is almost like a trade show:  lots of freebies, books steeply discounted, extremely knowledgeable and serious booksellers.  You are assured of leaving with too many free tote bags.

At the LA Art Book Fair, you must buy your tote bag.  The tote bag was the defining fashion item at the Fair and it was probably the biggest seller, too.

In fact, though this was a book lover event, there was something not-so-book-loverly about it. There was the feeling in which book loving was put on display as spectacle.  People tried to jockey for position to immerse themselves in actually reading books, despite the jostling crowd.  You could even buy this sign to put in your living room to remind people of your commitment to literacy.

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“Look at me.  I’m artistic, reading an artistic book.”  That was the understated message in the dramatic Gothic Steampunk blocky eyeglass squint.  For me, though, the last thing I wanted to do was read a book in such a cluster fuck.

Art books are supposed to be fundamentally different from ordinary books.  They not only have many more pictures but they grapple with the materiality of the book as form.  They self-consciously investigate the book as an artifact.

But so many of the attempts at Art Book-i-ness were caught between being (unsuccessfully) commercial and (unsuccessfully) artistic that they were simply pretentious.  For me, one image summed up the entire show.  It was a book of photographs about Cuba–leather bound, embossed with swirling calligraphy–set in a presentation box made to resemble a cigar box with a tiny stamp: Hecho en Mexico.

cuba

Why Do American Mysteries Suck?

My wife is Korean and she knows all the best Korean movies, so it’s fun to get under the sheets of our big, soft bed…and binge-watch Korean movies with her.  I don’t need to think too hard about what flick to choose.  I also get to ask her all sorts of invasive questions I would never ask a stranger.

I’m politically correct but, lurking inside me, is a secret wooly monster.  It wants to ask all sorts of questions that could be offensive. I’m just curious and I have to know.  Yes:  I was the kid who tugged at a stranger’s pant leg and asked very personal questions about their prosthetic limbs in the elevator.

index

I’ve been binge-watching Korean mysteries.  This is pretty much date night for me and my wife— a cardboard box of steaming pizza and a stream of Netflix.  Gone are the days when we cruised around the city, looking for trouble.

Korean mysteries are interesting because they remain true to the form:  they are fascinated with the exploration of social ills—serious issues that, like termites, gnaw at the soul of society.

American detective fiction has strayed from this key aspect of the genre.  We can now see material that is simply based around the detective as a quirky and interesting character—a central consciousness—that we find adorable and compelling.

Or we see material that depends upon ratiocination—the solving of a mystery, the unraveling of wildly knotted thread.

We see material that is basically realistic, our interest coming from the pleasure of verisimilitude—a realism developed over two centuries of literary history—that is intensely rewarding because we are addicted to it.

But we see less the probing of social ills that, say, a movie like Yellow Sea explores…which is funny because we used to see stuff like that more in American Detective Movies.  Yellow Sea examines the problem of Korea’s immigration policy—one that has created major rifts in a country that modernized through industrialization but, now, relies not on its own citizens but on transnational immigrant populations.

The_Yellow_Sea-p3

At any airport in Korea, you will witness the magnitude of this spectacle, as “guest workers”—often arriving in uniforms—are rounded up in groups by their minders.  Those Samsung phones, those LG Washing Machines,  those Hyundai cars—they are all made by “guest workers,” not workaday Koreans.

20121018132205_labour-exp

The largest group of guest workers are ethnic Koreans from China.  These people are technically Chinese nationals, who live on the borderlands between North Korea and the Middle Kingdom.  They look like Koreans.  They still speak Korean, but with a distinct accent.   And they maintain enough of the basic customs that they are seen as more desirable than the hordes of Pakastani, Mongolians, Vietnamese.

Like America’s Mexicans, they have become vital to the nation’s infrastructure; they arrive illegally and do all the drudge jobs in the service sector:  everything from busing tables to massage to prostitution.  And there’s a lot of prejudice.  Everybody thinks they are involved in crime.

Yellow Sea—a masterpiece—follows one such worker, named Gunam.  We find Gunam disconsolate, alcoholic, bereft at the beginning of the movie; his wife has left him to find work in South Korea. He has mounted such crazy debts, smuggling his wife to Korea, that he is hounded by the local gangster.

Gunam is presented with a golden opportunity that will allow him to make good on his debts and find his wife:  he is smuggled to Korea where he will kill a mob boss and search for his wayward wife.

Do you see the racism in the premise?  Gunam, just an Average Joe, becomes a deadly contract killer upon immigration.  All the Chinese are gangsters in this movie.  They all carry hatchets and meat cleavers and they know how to use them.

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This is not to accuse the movie of racism but to show how the movie is enmeshed in it–troubled, trapped, prey to it–while simultaneously trying to unravel the racial puzzle that is modern Korea.  I won’t spoil the movie by telling you about what happens to the wife:  suffice it to say that she is indeed involved in the sex trade.  I suspect this is taken for granted by the Korean audience, as several characters tell Gunam to forget his wife who has undoubtedly run off with another man.

Yellow Sea is a stunning movie, beautifully shot in a way that even makes housing projects a thing of romantic beauty.   It boasts riveting action sequences.  It’s gritty, grimy.  The man who plays Gunam—Ha Jung Woo—is famous for his acting chops.  And he is well-cast as a sensitive, tormented thug.  Definitely a date night movie for a certain kind of sicko.  I left the movie wanting more…and more is what I got…in the form of a binge-marathon of Korean movies.

But I also left these Korean movies with this question:  why has American Detective Fiction moved so far away from this?  Is it political correctness?  Are we now afraid to offend people?  Are we wary of protest marches and law suits?  Is this good?  Is it bad?