The Parrot Should Be the New State Bird of California

There are parrots in my neighborhood—feral creatures who were once domesticated, tamed, and now free.  If you’ve never seen feral parrots, here is what you need to know:  They are loud mother-fuckers and they fly in great packs of emerald and vermillion, like thugs from a gang with outlandish colors.  If you have ever been in the presence of parrots like these, you will know it.


There was a time when feral parrots wandered all over Los Angeles.  I still remember them as a kid on the posh Westside, making their wild unmistakable ruckus.  It is one of my earliest memories in a refugee childhood where, somehow, through the grace of God and the whim of circumstance, I ended up in a good place with great schools and clean water.  This is not always the case with refugees, something my parents never let me forget.

I still remember playing in my back yard, smelling dinner, but resisting the urge to come in–the sky still had not darkened.  When one of those birds land, all of them land—and they stake out a tree or a telephone wire and, like a meeting of Shriner’s with little red Fez plumage, hang out in the arbor of their make-shift hotel lobby, yucking it up with their chums.

Photography of 2012 July 4th Parade hosted by Shriners in Charlotte NC

Those strange birds pretty much disappeared from the Westside at a certain point—a victim of the overexpansion of the city.  The Ballona wetlands, a marshland that served as a wildlife sanctuary–now covered in concrete, probably their resting place—is now stucco condos and strip malls…despite loud protest from conservationists.   The parrots have been displaced further east and their sanctuary has become the digs of new birds of passage:  tech workers and movie industry grunts who want to build their nests within striking distance of the seagull beaches.

I’ve long since left the Westside and my gritty new neighborhood to the East–Highland Park–still has some open spaces that haven’t been bulldozed.  There is Griffith Park—the largest urban park in the nation—that still is home to rattlesnakes and coyotes and cougars. There is the Audubon Center, nestled up against the hills and bounded by the freeway.  There is Eugene V. Debs park with its man-made reservoir.  And so when I moved to this area just a few years ago, I was surprised to suddenly see, to suddenly hear, these reminders of another time, another place.

Chicken boy is the emblem of the latest hipster transplants in Highland Park!

Chicken boy is the emblem of the latest hipster transplants in Highland Park!

There are 13 species of wild parrot that were brought from South America to the United States as pets.  Some speculate, that a major fire in Bel Air—that rich part of Los Angeles filled with sheiks and movie moguls—is the genesis of these creatures who were released into the urban-scape by their owners who saw no other way to save them in the face of natural disaster.

But to the people who live in my largely Latino neighborhood, the parrots are not the mascots of the wealthy, but metaphors of the immigrant spirit—its persistence, its hardiness, its collectivity.  There is a mural on a portal to one of our iconic stairways, upon which is painted the parrots that are supposed to be stand-in’s for the Mexicans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans that have come from further South to find their home.

This mural sits on the main boulevard and decorates the entry to one of the many stairways in our area. Can you spot the parrots on this mural?

This mural sits on the main boulevard and decorates the entry to one of the many stairways in our area. Can you spot the parrots on this mural?

I am personally tempted to see the parrot as a metaphor of immigration.  The first time I re-encountered the feral parrots–a huge convocation of them–was in the city of Orange, a picturesque little town, anchored by Chapman University in Orange County.  Orange County is the adoptive home to Vietnamese refugees and houses its largest population outside of the United States.  And it is on the bucket list of every Vietnamese immigrant to visit the Little Saigon that is only a twenty minute drive from downtown Orange.

I was also an immigrant of sorts:  I had  just returned to California after a few years in the Midwest and, to be confronted with this spectacle in such a place as Orange County, made me immediately realize that the parrots are some kind of a symbol not only of my own migrations across the continent but, also, of the migration of my people across the globe:  we are the exotic domesticated–the feral and the invasive—incapable of being caged.

But now I realize that this is just me reading into things—reading into things with the kind of chauvinism that centers myself upon the looking glass of myself.  After all, Los Angeles is not just the place where parrots thrive.  Neither is the Southland.  Rather, we find parrots all over California.  And indeed there is even a documentary about the parrots of San Francisco, which makes San Francisco parrots more famous than their thug cousins in Southern California…even though we are so much closer to the movie industry.

Cape-parrot_Poicephalus_robustus-flock_Photo-Colleen_Downs (1)

And so the parrot is really a metaphor of our great state—of migrants in general, whether they are Midwestern bohunks who come to become actors in the machine of the movie studios, or sheiks from Saudi Arabia who buy up mansions that they will demolish and rebuild in Bel Air, or Guatemalans who cross to the other side to find new homes, or Vietnamese who wheel through the world in search of a place to land.  The parrot is our great State Bird.

Vietnamese Food/Vietnamese Art

A few days ago, I found myself in the desert of the city suddenly filled with an incredible thirst that can only come of walking:  I was parched.  I wandered into one of those mega-Ralph’s—bigger and better than your average supermarket—and looked at the long bank of overpriced drinks.  And there it was, next to the Almond Milk and the Kombucha:  “Soda Chanh”—a Vietnamese drink made of all-natural lime flavors.

It says "authentic," so it must be true!

Great packaging, no?

For me, a big sign that you’ve made it in mainstream American culture is when your food becomes turned into a convenience product for the busy-bee worker.  The Italians did it way back in the 80’s when their humble mom-and-pop eateries ushered in an era of carbs.  Now, we have frozen pizza, bottled spaghetti sauce, garlic bread—you name it.  Now, Italians are as American as apple pie.

Growing up as a Vietnamese immigrant among mostly white kids (or Jewish kids who didn’t make a big deal of the religion thing), I was pretty self-conscious of the kind of weirdo items that I brought to school:  their smells, their colors.  And I always made sure to fit in with a nice, absolutely tasteless bologna sandwich on white bread.


So, when all the Asian foods started showing up in the frozen food section, I began wondering:  Will there ever come a moment when Vietnamese food takes center stage?

Well, that day is coming.  We have that Sriracha sauce that has taken the world by storm (so much so that I see people wearing tee shirts with the rooster logo emblazoned on it).  And we have begun to see the slow creep of the banh mi sandwich (there is an entire cookbook dedicated to it, and an incredibly successful fast food chain “Lee’s Sandwiches” expanding from its base on the West Coast).

We even have Sriracha packets now!

We even have Sriracha packets now!

Even the pretty sucky attempts at using Vietnamese flavors by Western chefs is a positive sign–a sign of integration.  So what if Rachel Ray’s “Phunky Pho” is an atrocity that uses canned soup as its base.  At least we’re on television and someone in Peoria knows that we exist.

For me, though, the acceptance of foods also signals an acceptance of the Vietnamese presence in other sectors, namely art.  Will our film and literature take us out of the ghetto of doctoring and computer science?  Will we produce truly great art or compromise our art to pander to a Western palette?


We’ve had some astounding successes, too, in the past few years in terms of art–successes that have mounted and snowballed.  Just this year, the prize-winning writer Vu Tran debuted with a literary detective novel–Dragonfish.  And my good friend Viet Nguyen came out with a book–The Sympathizer–that has garnered critical acclaim.  In fact, he’s won several awards, including the Center For Fiction’s First Novel Award, and he’s an honest-to-goodness nominee for the esteemed EDGAR AWARD.


I feel humbled to be in their orbit in my small space dust way.  Both are luminaries shining bright and professors of English at top-rate institutions like USC and University of Chicago.  Of The Sympathizer, T.C. Boyle writes:  “The Sympathizer is destined to become a classic and redefine the way we think about the Vietnam War and what it means to win and to lose.”  And apparently, both of these novels–and novelists–are teaching the general public more about winning then losing.

I highly recommend these two novels.  The writing is amazing–crisp, clean, delicious. But thinking through this problem of creativity under the rubric of food also brings up some really important questions.  Have we watered down our distinctive flavor to pander to the masses?  Are we substituting flavor profiles for actual flavors?

This is not a question that can be resolved in the moment.  The moment is like that sandwich you bite into and enjoy for all its sensations.  The moment is not really that intellectual.  That only comes later when you can intellectualize the delight of the taste buds and talk about the talk of the mind.

Rachael Ray's Phunky Pho is an atrocity on too many levels.

Rachael Ray’s Phunky Pho is an atrocity on too many levels.

I have no readymade answers.  And I probably won’t have much to say on the topic until a few decades have passed.  All I can say is that I’m glad that there is more stuff out there to enjoy–more stuff that the American public can delight from.

As for that soda.  I bought it.  It wasn’t that great.  It was a watered down version of a drink I’ve known forever.  But it was all natural.  It came in a pretty package.  And it came with a big guarantee up-front that it was “authentic.”

David Bowie: Memories of a China Girl

David Bowie landed on the floating space debris of my consciousness with his big album “Let’s Dance”—the album that made him the kind of rock star that was no longer an asteroid but almost just a planet.  Yes, I know the voice behind Ziggy Stardust was already big.  Yes, I already had a passing acquaintance with his big hits through my college age brothers, but for me those albums were the music of the guys that used to terrorize me with threats and bullying and mean-ness.  This album felt like it was a message in a bottle intended just for me.


We never had cable growing up (another way my parents abused us) but I encountered his music as a stranger in motel rooms when the younger half of us eight kids piled into the family Nissan and took one of my sisters on a road trip to medical school.  Whenever we arrived to that place in the in-between, there he was—an omnipresence—with his electric voice and his neat-pressed neon suits.  The music was so overproduced and shiney, it was like rich silk fabric spun with precious metals and we would sit on the edge of our beds and watch him sing for eternities.

The song my sisters liked was “China Girl.”  They were four beautiful girls—eminently dateable—and I was their youngest brother, their pet.  They weren’t allowed to go off with strange boys.  My parents were very strict.  But they dated anyway, secretly, and I was their alibi.

“I’m taking him to the library.”

“I’m taking him for New Years for a fancy dinner.”

“I’m taking him to see the fire works.”

The music in the car always seemed to be “China Girl” and then they would promptly ditch me with a few dollars in my pocket with instructions to stay put and never breathe a word of this to anyone.

China Girl

It wasn’t until many years later that I found out that “China Girl” was a remake of a song originally performed by Iggy Pop.  And it wasn’t until some time this year that I found out that “China Girl” is not about a Chinese girl at all but, rather, a French-Vietnamese girl that Iggy Pop met at a chateau.  Her name was KueLan—most probably a Vietnamese refugee like my sisters who found herself only a few short years after being a stateless person, suddenly in different orbits–in the sights of a rock star floating through the planetary ether.

Iggy Pop carried on an illicit affair with KueLan (behind her French boyfriend’s back) and their liaison produced these lyrics that some in this PC world now find unsavory—racist, even.  “I’ll give you television, I’ll give you eyes of blue, I’ll give you a man who wants to rule the world.”  And a case can be made—a case has been made by people far smarter, more skilled than me—to this effect.

medschool (1)


But I do know that this was a song that my sisters loved and I loved because my sisters loved.  And I do know that the guys they dated in our mostly white upper middle class community probably had “visions of swastikas in their head” and saw them, not so much as Vietnamese, but as Little China Girls.  And I do know that they were probably okay with that up to a certain point, because these man-boys offered something—something that expanded their worlds:  music, experience, knowledge.

Swastikas appear across cultures. In East Asia, they are a symbol of goodness but in the West they have become a symbol of racial purity. My guess is that both aspects are referenced in the lyric "visions of swastikas in my head."

Swastikas appear across cultures. In East Asia, they are a symbol of goodness but in the West they have become a symbol of racial purity. My guess is that both aspects are referenced in the lyric “visions of swastikas in my head.”

On the trip to drop my sister off at medical school, we were kicked out of the hotel by the manager.  I’m not sure if he was a racist but my father was convinced of that.  In my memory, he was a Vietnamese War Vet who was suffering from PTSD, but childhood memory is tricky and I can’t trust its reliability.  I just remember the feelings of anger, of fury, of turbulence as we stood in the parking lot with our hastily packed bags.  The crazy manager-guy screamed at us to leave the premises and he didn’t mistake us for Chinese.  He got the nomenclature right.  He called us “gooks.”

As we drove off, my Dad turned on the radio full blast.  On came that song with its ching-chong opening.  And I remember thinking that David Bowie’s electric body was left behind in that hotel room and I would never see it in my house but his voice would always be with me—haunting and resonant.



Writing Exercise: What Would You Do If You Won the Lottery?

I’ve got powerball fever. The jackpot is well over 800 million dollars—that’s clams, smackers, duckets. Me: I never play the numbers. Every once in a while for a birthday, I’ll buy some scratchers on a lark. But everybody’s got their eyes on the prize right now, especially in this time of extended recession. So this morning, I made breakfast—a calzone–and walked down to the liquor store, while that sucker was cooling.

At the liquor store, there were two women paying for a pack of cigarettes in loose change. “It’s up to 800 million dollars now, right?”
“I don’t know. It changes by the hour,” said the husky Armenian gentleman behind the counter. “You can check it up on your iphone.”
“I don’t have an iphone. That’s what I’d get first. An iphone.”

I bought three chances–three sets of random numbers–at two bucks a piece. Then, I went home and discussed a future with 800 millions dollars in hand with my wife as we munched on calzones with fork and knife.
“The first thing I’d do is leave this neighborhood. As soon as everybody here found out that we have money, we’d be sitting ducks.” That’s true. Our house is quaint and charming—a craftsman—but a security risk. “Then, I’d move to a better neighborhood.”
“I’d move to the ocean—maybe Santa Monica.” I was born by the ocean and grew up by the ocean.  For a brief part of a long distant childhood, I was a surfer. It’s only as an adult that I told myself that I hated the Westside of Los Angeles—the ocean side.  It was filled with shallow superficial people who snorted coke on their dining room tables and abused their maids.  But now, confronted with all this imaginary wealth, I knew that I would move back to the rich douchey side of town in a heartbeat. I am such a sell-out.
My wife had grander plans: “I’d buy a house in San Francisco, New York, Hawaii, Paris.”

Hawaii House
“What about Chicago?”
“Fuck Chicago.”
“Yeah, fuck Chicago.”
“Then, I’d buy a house for my parents.”
That’s when I started to worry. If she started throwing money around like that, we would soon be bankrupt. People would ask for more and she would not be able to stop herself. And what about all these houses. We would have to hire somebody to take care of them when we were not there and the cost would be prohibitive. What if those people stole from us? Or threw wild parties?
“I’d hire a management agency,” she said calmly, resolutely.
“You know that money doesn’t come to you in one lump sum. It comes in installments.

You can’t just throw away the money like that.”
“Well, what would you do.”
“I would buy a new car. But not a douchey one like those 700 series BMW’s every creep drives in LA. I would buy a low-key car but have it fully loaded—maybe a Tesla or a Volvo but a special edition.”

We finished our meal by filling out the back of our lottery ticket with both our names. Then, we took pictures of it alongside our i.d.’s, just in case somebody broke into our house and stole it. That way: we would have proof that the ticket was ours when they tried to cash it in.
So here is the exercise—an exercise in character development: Identify a character you are having a hard time getting a sense of. Have her win the goddam-mother-loving-finger-licking lottery. And try to have her imagine what she would do.
The sky’s the limit with this exercise and the crazier the better. People become other people when they win their money. But in becoming other people, they are also expressing the true essence of who they are. Did you know one of the most recent lottery jackpot winners did with her 188 million dollars? She forked over 12 million to bail out her boyfriend who was in jail on drug and weapons charges. Sheesh.

My First New Year’s Resolution

This New Year’s Eve, I didn’t do much celebrating…and actually, I loved it…and actually, it was the most fulfilling New Year’s Eve…ever.  What did I do?  Well, I spent the New Years trying to help a local family in my neighborhood whose house was razed by a fire.  Everything was lost for this family of six—their house, their possessions, their Christmas gifts.

Highland Park Fire Frontal

To make matters worse, the family lives near the ground zero of the Rose Bowl, so every hotel in the area was booked.  Those that weren’t—the prices were jacked up to the hilt for maximal profit.  And so on New Year’s Eve, the family could not find any lodging anywhere within a 20 mile radius of their home that fit into their budget:  they were staring down the barrel of a night in their car.

Rose Bowl

“You always get too involved,” a good friend said.  “You need to set firm boundaries.”  But I was raised religious, and even though I am no longer much of a church-goer, a bit of instinct kicked in.  I found myself doing what people of my childhood do:  collecting warm clothes and donations.  The most New Years Eve thing I did was ruthlessly purge my closet and my storage unit:  it was actually exhilarating to get rid of stuff that you were only holding onto but didn’t actually need and giving it to somebody else.

I even did something that I’ve never done before:  I tried my hand at starting a GoFundMe page.  This itself is a major undertaking for a middle-aged man who grew up playing outside, not inside with computers.  But I did it anyway.  And this meant that up until midnight, I was trying to set up a page on the website—a task that a millennial could do in minutes but which took this old fool up until countdown time.

My entire day was sucked up by the running-around and the digital boondoggle and now at the moment of countdown, I was not at a party with my circle; I had canceled dinner reservations; now, my wife and I were sitting in bed, watching Netflix in our pajamas.  And of course, our house was a mess.


The family itself was six people—three generations.  They were happy that at least their three dogs hadn’t perished in the fire.  But the grandmother has health issues and the youngest is physically disabled—wheel-chair bound—and in need of constant care.  They lost all their medication in the fire and their insurance was questioning the need for replacement.

So, I was a selfish person—selfish in my act of giving.  And as my computer counted down to the New Years, I felt better than I have felt in a long time.  You see:  I would do it all over again.  I would do it in a heartbeat.  And for the first time, I actually made a resolution:  to continue trying to think about others, not my own needs.

Happy New Year!  I hope that you enjoy all the successes that the cornucopia of 2016 spills forth!  I hope you act selfishly—always—if selfishness does an ounce of good for somebody else.  If you want to contribute to the GoFundMe page, please follow this link.

Happy New Year