The first time I encountered the Pacific, my dad believed that its immense gravity would keep me fixed on the shore. I watched, he would note, the water reach past my toes and deposit grains of sand and seaweed before it retreated, swallowed again by the very water which brought it there in the first place. Reach and retreat, the ocean would wash, and wash up again. I wanted to ask my sister — but there was so much sand, how did we have enough to stand on if the water kept swallowing it back in the first place?
The water licked my toes, depositing sand and swallowing it up again. When my dad turned around, he couldn’t find me where I was sitting. My sister said, the water must have washed me away bit by bit just like the sand.
My dad was a good swimmer. I hadn’t been gone long and when he asked what happened, I told him I ran into the waves to follow the sand and seaweed. I wondered where the sand was going.
I don’t remember this, but he tells this story in order to express how he predicted the kind of son he would have to raise. Though it lay beyond the boundary of my recollection, I’ve nonetheless accepted it into the genealogy of myself that I’ve constructed.
I used this story to explain much of my teenage years, where I would take on impossible tasks and locate the impulse in this childhood story. I also used it to narrate becoming the rebel that I always needed to be.
I haven’t thought about this story in a couple of years, since the last time I lived in East Side San Jose, another shore of disturbed sands and seaweed. I finished reading le thi diem thuy’s gangster we are all looking for (a beautiful book that everyone should read by the way) and the epigraph triggered the memory:
In Vietnamese, the word for water and the word for a nation, a country, and a homeland are one and the same: nu’ó’c.
- le thi diem thuy, gangster we are all looking for
Although my dad laughs about the story when he tells me, I imagine now what he must have felt about losing me to the ocean, having been a boat person himself — having seen the ocean reach and retreat on all sides of the Pacific, depositing and swallowing the sand and seaweed of human bodies who had attempted to flee as nation, country, homeland ebbed and flowed. Even now, the sand upon which we stand continues to be washed and washed away by nu’ó’c.
I locate this story to imagine what my dad thinks when he sees me today, especially as I pursue something like Asian American Studies. I’m still watching the ocean ebb and flow, pushed and pulled by nation, country, homeland, wondering what of the sand. Is he afraid? Will I leap again like I did as a child?
I don’t know how to swim. I never had to swim like he did. And when my dad paid for me to take swimming lessons when I was thirteen, it was out of fear that I would fail my high school PE classes. There wasn’t any ocean around. What life choices would I have then?
But still today, out of its immense gravity I stand fixed on the shore, watching the Pacific, wondering how I stand and where the sand comes from and where it is going.
There’s a fetish regarding Asian American Studies wherein engaging in the (inter)discipline is enough. Granted, a lot of folks aren’t into it, but speaking from where I’m at, I’ve noticed that the composition of “Asian American Studies” attracts a range of disciples, especially amongst undergrads.
However, as I’m interested in field formation, it’s important to note that disciples were too producers of rhizomatic branches.
As with all things in any institution, there is a privilege that being an Asian American Studies “major” must acknowledged. Organizing doesn’t grant immunity from “the” complex: all institutions are embedded in multiple complexes.”Consciousness” is formed in all and multiple forms. There are still coalitions which are foreclosed in the process of developing “Asian American Studies” and it’s important to acknowledge the ones that are being developed and why.
Why is “consciousness” heralded as the “answer” in the first place: whether in the academy or otherwise? How is consciousness multiply arrived to, from an infinite number of locations? Should consciousness be an endpoint at all?
I’m too lazy to answer the question myself.
I forget how in San Jose, you can see miles into the sky. Unlike in LA. In grade school, I looked into the hills of Silicon Valley and debated with my friends whether they were real or painted and what was beyond them. I believe it was these hills which cultivated the imagination I so heavily rely upon now in my writing: creative and academic work.
Though since I’ve been back, I’ve found it difficult to work despite the relative quiet I have here.
Over dinner, I asked my nephew how things have been and in between the threads of new workout plans and attempts at resume building in his everyday life are the six shootings that happened in our neighborhood in the last three months. I am arrested by two things: how violence is his quotidien but moreso, how I’ve forgotten that this was mine as well — I am shocked by my shock. I ask him whether one of them was the murder-suicide I heard about in the beginning of the year, and he says to himself, “Oh, I guess that’s eight then.” And continues to ask me whether the pasta he was having was a simple or complex carb.
My father asked for a minute of my spare time and I tore myself away from my work to go through some legal documents he needed help interpreting from English. “Does she want the property?” He asks. Going through the papers my mother served him over a year ago, all I can interpret is irreconciliable differences and I see her signature — the same one that signed my permission slips and sick notes in grade school — and the attorneys she must have gone to during her work day and how they had Vietnamese and Japanese names and how they interpreted the entire process for her and how she had to deliberate in secret for months and planned her strategy in the times that they didn’t see each other. Maybe that’s what was irreconciliable — how they didn’t see each other in the end anyway. I also imagine my father’s desperation to keep the house, constituted of many reasons: the one I see most is his investment in maintaining the normative kinship represented by the house. Leaving here would mean moving into something smaller, signifying his body as unmarried man as it now stated on the legal document.
"So, does she want the property?" But the five to six years I spent cultivating my imagination and arriving at reasons predicated on race, gender, immigration, and sexuality doesn’t translate a word for these documents. Not a single fucking word.
"Sorry dad, I don’t know. You should see a lawyer, I can’t see anything about the property. I don’t understand it." But he responds, oh, are the documents in Vietnamese? and takes the papers from me to inspect it again.
"No, they’re not. I just don’t understand it." But they’re in English! How could I not?
But it’s not English.
I tell him all that I know about the documents, that she doesn’t indicate whether she wants the property or not and he lets me go unsatisfied and I wonder what he thinks about my four years of a BA at UCLA and two years of an MA at the same institution if I can’t even read English.
I return to my room where I am midway through Foucault’s Discipline and Punish for my graduate seminar in Asian American Literature and Culture and reading about the violence of visibility never felt so incongruent. I put my highlighter aside in this bare bedroom in the corner room of my father’s house, where I grew up for 18 years, spent looking into the miles of sky and debating what lay in the hills and beyond them.
By forgetting its familiarity, I notice their differences. Ear-splitting booms sear for miles into the San Jose sky. Nobody stops moving because it’s either firecrackers or a gunwound but I still need to catch my bus to work. My dad shuffles papers and it’s either the Vietnamese newspaper or the divorce papers or something different all together, but he’s always shuffling through them. These sounds melt Foucault in front of me and reassemble into something else altogether: the hills and the miles of sky and the debates as to whether they were real or painted and what was beyond them.
I want to address this message to incoming UCLA Asian American students. If you don’t identify as Asian American, ask yourself how you are a part of this as well, as we are all linked to one another in both deliberate and unsought ways.
Dear Incoming UCLA Asian American Students,
You’ve stumbled upon this because you’re wired in, as has been quite an important way for our community to communicate in the last few years. Whether you came across this message on your dashboard, through searching tags, or other means I have yet to master, I assume you’re reading this because you’re curious to learn all that you can about the school that will constitute a significant part of your life for the next few years.
Congratulations for getting in. You checked the box and now you will be a part of the roughly 38% which comprises the entirety of campus. Given this number, this makes you a majority minority on this campus.
But what will that mean for you?
As soon as you step foot upon this campus, a thousand arms and more will reach to grasp you: dance teams, choruses, youth camps, religious groups, cultural organizations, political campaigns, professional societies, fraternities, sororities, student government, and multitudes that I can’t even begin to name or imagine. But as you fend some off and choose to follow others, I want you to think about what arms aren’t reaching out to you, what backs turn when you walk past them.
Why might this be happening?
It could be many things and I will not deny you of that. I will respect your standpoint and how you came to be there. But my purpose here is to turn your attention to one reality you must reckon with on this campus and in everyday life: the inescapability of your skin. Whether you believe it to be true or not, race has real impacts. Your Asian American-ness sticks and will forever stick to you as you pass through this time and space, shaping how others know you and how you know yourself. Heaving beneath your feet will lie decades of Asian American memories, souls, tears, and bodies who have tread the same earth beneath you and as you step upon them to make your way to Royce, Powell, Kerckhoff, Math Sciences or wherever you go, their breaths will escape their lips long quieted in order to strengthen yours.
But are they there? Do you even feel it? Can you see them? Do they even exist?
Unruly spirits are exorcised from the place that cursed them and UCLA is an unruly campus indeed. You might have heard some ugly things going down at UCLA in the past few years, and if you’ve forgotten, I’ll briefly conjure their names so you do not forget:
In 2010, a video was released by a UCLA student full of hateful slurs toward Asian and Asian American students on campus, dehumanizing us as uncivilized and improperly educated “hordes”. Only a few months ago in 2012, Asian American offices were vandalized with racist and sexist slurs in the very space which inclusion and social justice was supposed to be upheld. In 1992, Korean students were driven out of Los Angeles as the city burned in their name. In 1990, Asian American freshmen on campus had slurs burned into their dorm doors. And the history continues further and further…
These are only the most public gestures of struggle, however. I want you to listen to the private moments on this campus, the ones that occur when only the walls are there to witness them. You will feel struggle and frustration, if not within yourself then within somebody else’s voice. How do others look at you? Address you? Are they surprised when you speak English, with or without an accent? Do they make you feel welcome, or are you just another one? How many times do they ask you where you really come from, or say something in “your language”? Do men say things to you, harass you? Where can you practice your dances, your languages, your instruments that you hope to explore? Who will act surprised when you speak up in class, in a meeting, if they allow you to? Will you wait for a permission that will never be granted? Will you fight for your voice, or will you lose it to the fists that try to beat it out of you?
And when they say, “Wow you don’t really act Asian”, how will you feel? Proud? Ashamed? But the question I’d like for you to ask is: how are you expected to feel in response to that statement?
Or will it come uttering from your own mouth, after years of being dragged across the pavement — “No, I’m not really Asian at all.”
But you are. And you always will be.
Incidents of race, gender, and sexuality predicated upon the multiple -isms of our lives occur every day, for decades now, in different registers on this campus, in every space. These incidents are not surprising, but they are shocking all the same as they are a part of a legacy of Asian American that we carry with us and can never escape from. Though with this pain comes a powerful history of strength in the UCLA Asian American community that can be found nowhere else. Where do we stand when this happens? Where will you stand?
I turn back to our numbers: thirty-eight percent. What does it mean? What connection are you supposed to have to each other, and to the other sixty-two percent?
As I first walked across this campus as a student five years ago, I didn’t see the ghosts of Asian Americans and other people of color who gave up their breaths in order to strengthen mine. But as I was gradually worn down from the slurs and the feeling of alien-ness that came with being Asian American on this campus, their voices spoke to me from my elders, mentors, and peers who came before and who will come after. Graduating after years of organizing on campus with the Asian American community, I hope to lay my back for you to tread upon. How will you lay yours down? Or will you let it be lost to the fists that beat it out of you?
My purpose of this message was not to send you away from UCLA, but rather the exact opposite. No other place could I have learned the things I have learned and experienced the world as it is. It is a unique place with a powerful history and you should take the time to listen to the breaths that strengthen yours as you walk across this campus for the next few years. Here, using technology, I wish to help amplify some of these Asian American voices on campus. They were helpful (and continue to be helpful) in my time and I hope you take the time to explore them as you come to this campus:
- UCLA Asian American Studies Department (Rolfe Hall) - http://www.asianam.ucla.edu/
- UCLA Asian American Studies Center (Campbell Hall) - http://www.aasc.ucla.edu/
- Asian Pacific Coalition at UCLA - http://apcla.org/wordpress/
- Multiple Asian American and Pacific Island student organizations at UCLA - http://apcla.org/wordpress/about-us/member-organizations/
Last night, my dad talked to me about how much it meant for my extended family that I finished my undergraduate education. For my 40+ extended family who have relocated to the States, I am positioned as an indicator of whether our family, our community could truly thrive in diaspora. We survived, we can manage an existence, but can we really make something out of nothing?
I am at a crossroads of multiple generations and waves of movement. I have only three other cousins who are in the same life era as me, with the rest of my cousins well into their adulthood or just beginning elementary school. This means that I am oldest of the children to have begun my educational journey in the states, and yet I am of the youngest to have experienced it at all. I benefited from the mistakes that my older cousins have made and the troubles they’ve experienced: every time one was incarcerated, we learned to avoid his/her decisions.
As he went through each family members’ names, he would point out to me how much difficulty they had making it through school, if they had made it out at all. It got to the point where he pointed out that of the ~30 of us who experienced the American educational system, I was one of the minimal few who had successfully completed his/her undergraduate education.
Now, I would be the only one in our multi-generational family on the path toward a post-bac degree. Looking at the fact that all family before us were in Vietnam, I would also be the only one in our ancestral lineage who achieved such education. This was more significant to my family than I had ever realized: they looked to me as hope that yes, our family, our community could “make it”, could be “successful”, could make something having been given nothing.
With a loving tone, he instills faith in me to pursue a Ph.D because I am already so, so close. I am their only shot at this, he feels, because everybody else had so much difficulty with school and nobody will ever come as close as I am now. My entire family, my grandparents and their parents are all watching, and hoping, and praying. I am grateful for their love and support.
Yet rather than this fueling my sense of purpose and drive, it twists me inside to hear how much they find significance in what I do.
But how do I tell him that my Master’s is not a guarantee of any mobility?
How do I tell him that my education will not translate to any sort of concrete stability?
How do I tell him that my knowledge, in this economy, does not hold as much value as he believes?
How do I tell him that there are significantly more candidates out there than there are jobs for people like me?
How do I tell him that I’m not sure?
That I don’t know?
That I’m doing this out of love and urgency?
But that I’m fucking terrified of screwing this up?
Heaving, I hold up the world of Vietnamese American hopes and dreams upon my buckling shoulders and I fear that one day, I will crumble beneath its immense weight.
Want to make a difference in this year’s election while earning a scholarship?
Want to learn how to engage in the political process?
Want to work with your communities, campus, and peers to create change?
Here’s your chance.
API Equality-LA’s EMPOWER YOU(TH)! Student Civic Engagement Internship serves to provide Asian and Pacific Islander (API) students (ages 18 – 25) the opportunity to do on-the-ground civic engagement and political power-building work with their peers. 2012 is a crucial election year, and it’s vital that API youth are out in numbers and force to vote for progressive causes. This internship will provide interns the knowledge and skills to mobilize their communities for the upcoming election. From student fees and loans to minorities’ civil rights, 2012 is a year that can (re)define our movements and work, and this internship will train student leaders to make a difference.
About the Internship
API Equality-LA is a Los Angeles based civil rights organization that organizes in the API community for LGBT equality. API Equality-LA’s EMPOWER YOU(TH) Internship:
- Is open to any undergraduate student (18 – 25) who is passionate about engaging, educating, and organizing API students around voting and building electoral power for progressive causes
- Awards a $500 scholarship
- Lasts 10 weeks from Friday, September 7, 2012 to Thursday, November 15, 2012 with a commitment of at least 15 hours/week
- Will be based at the intern’s academic institution and at API Equality-LA’s office in downtown Los Angeles
- Can possibly earn academic credit, depending on the institution
To apply or for questions, please contact Brian Nguyen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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I wonder what was going through my kindergarten teacher’s mind when I first told her my name — a thick, dense sound coming from a small five-year-old Vietnamese child, a sound pushing out at the front of the mouth that stops in quietly summoning of the abrupt strength of the back of the mouth.
I wonder whether she asked me to repeat it, whether she thought I was mumbling in native tongue, whether she wondered if she would have another ELD student in her class, whether she felt none of this.
"Chum"; it’s hard to describe. "Cham"; it sounds different. "Jum"; there’s a lot of ways to say it. "Chrung"; I don’t wanna explain it again.
My name was my first insecurity. How it was meant to be spoken by my parents and their ancestors was shamed, taught wrong, domesticated, and re-programmed by necessity. My parents sounded it one way at home, but everybody else around me sounded it a different way. I lived a constant internal struggle day to day as one world would clash with the other.
The way it was transcribed onto paper (“Trung”) was a product of colonial tools onto a colonized people, therefore the sounds approximated the speech of one or a handful of men who needed only to travel uni-directionally. Would it ever be expected that the colonized would one day confront its colonizer (and its later master) and expose it in all its lies, broken promises, and vulnerabilities on its own (stolen) territory?
So when I came here with all my heritage and all my history, my name presented the first confrontation of the traumas of imperialism (the beginnings of which I would feel the rest of my life): “how do we pronounce it? and what is the correct way?” My name would be (re)presented to me in its “proper” interpretation given what was wrought by school and the outside world and not lived until it was reconfigured into a gargoyle of a name that not even my parents recognized. In my name’s mutilation to become more like the dominant, I inflicted violence upon my internal self.
I lived with this (mis)interpretation of my name for a long time. There were times when the weight of this jostling exposure would be too great, that I would feel its strength in the form of small resistances. For example, I fought most urges to “change” my name to something more “American” even when many of my friends were beginning to do so. But it wasn’t until recently where I truly began to feel angry about this.
For 21 years, I lived a colonial interpretation of the letters that poorly attempted to locate the tongue of my grandmothers and their mothers. This realization then became an attempt to recenter the intentions of my family in reconfiguring the tools that were presented to me.
What was translated as a “Tr” was better approximated by something thicker than a “Ch” as in “church” and almost a “J” as in “javelin”.
What was translated as a “ung” was better approximated by something between an “um” as in “decorum” with the end of “ng” as in “ring”.
So in total, my name as my parents intended for it to be spoken and heard has been described and transliterated by many as “Chum”, “Cham”, “Jum”, or “Jomb”, when really, there are no words that may approximate how it was meant to be said. To know it, you must live it.
I used to be embarrassed and ashamed of speaking my name as it was intended by my parents into the public sphere. But when within I found it lay the palimpsest of failed imperial projects, I found the exact opposite of shame toward my name — rather, strength from its counter history and intimate center.
Now, I stand confidently enough to liberate myself from my branded (mis)interpretations and rather, allow the sounds of my ancestors to guide my practice. While these newer revisions — Chum/Cham/Jum/Jomb are not perfect and never will be, they are the best way I could allow my parents to guide me into the world again and root myself in the strength of where I came from and who I am.
I’m quite grateful and humbled to get to this point. Looking at my journey through education, there were so many places where I could have fallen through the cracks.
But it’s official. I’m an MA Candidate at UCLA in Asian American Studies. One step closer to being one of the few Vietnamese Americans in Ethnic Studies research.
Now I just gotta make sure to get through these last two quarters…senioritis is hitting me bad.