Fighting Poverty with Passion
I’m spending my winter break alone with my mother, for the first time in many years. This holiday season, we are not planning to prepare elaborate dinners or to bake cookies for the neighbors or to drool at the feet of decaying pine trees. Instead, I am using this time to reflect on the history of my family, a conversation that has opened and closed within the confines of my own head throughout my life, one that has given way to more questions than answers, more grief than closure, more frustration than relief.
At the age of fourteen, my mother, the youngest of ten, climbed into the secret compartment of a 20-foot by 10-foot boat that promised freedom from the violence, disease, and famine that plagued south Vietnam after 1975. Along with 79 other people, she and some of her family members saw little daylight for 21 days. During these days, she lived in constant fear that the boat would be spotted by pirates, who routinely raped, abducted, and murdered boat people, and that she would not live to see land again having starved and been dehydrated on a boat that was quickly depleted of supplies. (Later, some statistics reckoned that around 70 percent of Vietnamese refugees died at sea.) She camped for six months on the shores of Galang Island, a camp prepared to receive 4,500 people, overwhelmed by the actual 40,000 refugees who arrived. When my mother finally reached the United States, she was spat on by her American classmates in school and harassed by men who wore “VIETNAM VET” on their shirts and hats. She was greeted with blame that her home country devastated her new one. She wondered if her American counterparts knew that the war was called the American War in Vietnam.
It is tremendously easy to read a story like this one, tsk-tsk at history, and move on. And yet, we turn our heads when scrutinized for the conditions in which Mexican and Central American migratory workers are treated (we clearly haven’t learned a single lesson from 1960’s Harvest of Shame nor from Seth Holmes’ Fresh Fruit, Broken Bodies), the hypocrisy glaring at us from our holiday dinner plates. We pronounce ourselves allies of Black Lives, but we do not hold ourselves accountable for the massive wealth we’ve collected at the expense of generations of slavery. We have completely forgotten about our Hmong brothers and sisters who lived in deliberate isolation from mainstream society consequently from American xenophobia (Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down). We continue to be irrationally fearful of Middle Eastern refugees, eager to shut down our borders despite the American freedom morale (another discussion for another time: the linguistics of migration, such as why some individuals are labeled “refugees” while some are labeled “migrant workers,” when many are escaping the same kinds of conditions).
And in fact, for 38 years, my mother and her family have continued to struggle, not in the same way they did in their home country, but in the systemic ways that America excludes refugees and immigrants, rendering them invisible. For 22 years, my mother and her family watched me grow up in a country that vowed never to allow terror to erupt the same way terror erupted in Vietnam, clinging forlornly to wispy hope that the next generation of our family would forever be safe. This holiday, I desperately wish for understanding among those who are so privileged to not have to understand – the grief that comes from seeking refuge in the very place that wreaked havoc in the place you called home. If Vietnam is no longer home and America does not want to be our home, what does that mean for my family? What does that mean for me?