Those unaccompanied minors

Summer 1975. Double-digit inflation. Unemployment at 17%. Pennsylvania was just getting out of the Arab embargo, and America out of Vietnam. Imagine people tossing babies over barbed wires at the US embassy, or the chaos that ensued when thousands of people scrambling on those river barges or helicopters. The airport was rendered useless, hence Operation Frequent Wind. Kids got left behind. Kids simply got lost. Kids got killed (an orphan-only flight crashed and exploded in the runway).

Yet we want to make similar mistakes again. Putting them up in now vacated Harvey shelter ( a converted Walmart?).

Microsoft folks took a stand: “we want to see what computer could do, but we also want to see what computer should do” in referring to “boycotting” ICE lucrative contract.

Democrats want to diversify while Republican just want to consolidate and stick together (families). But this issue of separating minors from their parents/guardians – albeit legal or non-legal – causes uproar and upheaval. It’s borderline on civil war.

I was a refugee/evacuee many times over. Two years ago, I stayed in the flood shelter (above pic).

And years ago, on my first week in America, I already volunteered to be an interpreter for then Bureau of Child Welfare. I got paid one time accompanying those kids to Harrisburg court (where the judge would ask each one if they consent to be adopted by suitable families). The rest of the time, I learned on the job – assuring them that where they were going would be better than here-now. Yet the here-and-now was soothing, culturally. At least, they were still surrounded by barrack-mates of the same “feathers”. Sort of getting drafted into the company of Captain Hawkeye. Many couples decided to get married in a hurry.

Our Child Welfare staff were good people, typing away documents on Remington type writers and processed children into receptive homes as quickly as possible. That was, once the kids, the court, and the caseworkers were all doing their jobs. My contribution was minor, but I gave my all, since they all knew I kept wearing the same outfit to work every day.

That $35 check from Harrisburg was my first earning ever as a Court Interpreter.  I spent it all in one place: a cassette recorder and Sony blank tapes.  At night, in our refugee barrack, we would record music from home, for fear we would never had melody for memory.

Coming from a high-context culture to be dispersed into a low-context one, must be quite a shock. In all the rhetoric surrounding migrant minors getting separated at the borders, no one has mentioned loss, shock and long-term repercussion. Everything seemed to be processed through a Western prism: efficiency, law/order, departmental stove-pipes, boycotting and blaming (political correctness – much the same as when President Ford said – aw…sh..t, I am going around Congress on this one and take it directly to the American people, in this case, Voluntary Agencies and non-profit charities).

What about the children? Don’t they need no education, Pink Floyd? No one dares to work on the Emotional damage and ensuing tolls. We were outraged at Boko Haram for abducting bride-child. We were sorry for the Japanese and Jewish concentration camps. Yet we can with a straight face tell the world that those children are well-treated at a tender age.

You tell me. Child Welfare or child abuse? BTW, the case worker in the photo, her name was Mary Ann Pinsky. I remember someone’s name more than 4 decades later because that person was decent, kind and concerned beyond her job duty. People in that Bureau of Child Welfare at Indian Town Gap should all be given commendation for their dedication and decency. Qualities that are hard to find and replicate in today’s tweeting world.



This morning, I learned that five more had died in a chase at the would-be Trump wall.

The other day, in 100-degrees heat, I saw a homeless lady standing under a tree wearing everything she had on her. They could all be my mother back in 1975, when she was left behind in a PA refugee camp all by herself. Only that it was September cold, in a military barrack. Meanwhile, all three of us, sons and daughter (with 4 of her kids) got sponsored away into the four winds: divided and defeated. We were in a hurry to unburden ourselves from the Federal system, after three previous stops: Subic Bay, Wake Island and then Camp Indian Town Gap.

I understand separation well. Especially when it comes to family separation.

And mostly, when it is separation due to immigration.

I was 19. Debut as janitor by night, freshman by day. Yet I still cried my heart out. For being so helpless. For self-recrimination and for survivor’s guilt.  We could not defend South VN. We could not hold our families together ( refugee sponsorships were voluntary, not a Congressional or Executive Order). And I could not work myself up to fill my first grocery card on my $150 government one-time allowance while my mom, retired teacher and fellow escapee, being left behind in the camp without any hope of resettlement (reminds me of team picking, when the opposite captain decides who to be on his/her team: survival of the seemingly fittest). When in graduate school, I was quite motivated to be among the first few to fly back and help fellow Boat People in their plight and resettlement process.

I still held dear to my mom’s discharge paper, dated a few months after all of us had been relocated into neighboring North Eastern  States. Despite the now “happy ending”, our refugee tale has never been told in detail. We “‘bragged” on facebook about my sister’s 80th birthday, with bleached-teeth kids – but not dark tales, model minorities but not about betrayal and skin-shedding, very much like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks ( rack-focus shot from a perfect middle-class green lawn, but once revealed- full of insects and bugs underneath).

My Dad joined us a decade later (1985) while my Mom got picked up after much deliberation by a Jewish D.C. lawyer consortium to reunite with my sister and her family.

I meanwhile worked my way through each Student Union bathroom (where Bruce Springsteen once made a stop to grace us with “Born to run”) at night, and each course reading assignment by day. The campus Jesus freaks figured me for an easy sale, dialectically worked their rehearsed pitch about heaven-hell, Yes-No proposition on how to get to heaven stair-less-ly . To date,  no Christian friends ever asked and learned about my hidden secret: I brave myself enough to ask for my name be put in a separate file, with my newly issued Social Security, so I wouldn’t be a burden to our band of nine, 4 of whom children. Self-separation was painful, gut-wrenching and necessary for survival.

I was that immigrant child that had been “forced” to come of age in a hurry, to re-learn what it means to be human in a world that got tired of giving out spare change. I was initiated into the world of work from the ground up: to wipe others’ toilets waiting for my ship to come. That tale involved voluntary/forced separation (only a few hundred millions appropriated for the evacuation of thousands), while being together would depend on sheer determination and decency in a post-Vietnam society already weighed down after a decade of war and division. I cut my family ties to move on from “Kent State” to Penn State, to find my own voice and my own identidy. The youngest and weakest link would wipe away involuntary tears to become a man of hope and helping hands. I did not know at the time what was awaiting me in Happy Valley, but I know now that I would not be silent when others are going to step into the same deep hole.

“hey, that’s not right!”.

Separation of families always brings horror, and togetherness hope.






Out survive the neighborhood bully

For my Father

“when you got nothing, you got nothing to lose” Bob Dylan

I was 9 with my first bike and first romance.
But not everything was rosy: the neighborhood bully cut my innocence a bit short, if not for my father’s timely intervention.
We called him “Cu Lon” (to this day, I still do not know his real name) to differentiate him from “Cu Nho”. Cu Lon (Big Dick) fittingly was son of a Colonel who lived in a two-story house with an Army-issued Jeep parked in front. Cu Nho, on the other hand, was son of a local nurse. It’s not Small Dick that this story is about. It’s Big Dick.
Cu Lon was used to getting his way: a slick motorbike, the best girl and plenty of brand cigarettes. He hung out with the right crowd, often older than he. Cu Lon, in short, was a poster child: richer, stronger and in the know.
Yet I fought him on one occasion – I just recalled that I stood my ground and kept standing up despite repeatedly being beaten up. He wanted submission, which I couldn’t give.
Before anyone knew what happened, I ran back to the house, and back out with a machete. It must have been divine intervention, since my Dad happened to have just arrived back from work. He was about to lock up his bike when he saw his youngest son with blood, sweat and tears. You have to remember that Vietnam was hot, people were hungry and tired after 1954 when the country was partitioned at the 17th parallel, much like Korea,  having to build a new life in the slum of Ban Co, Saigon.
At least 20 kids followed us to the Colonel’s house at the end of the alley. My Dad with chain in one hand and me on the other still holding my weapon of personal destruction.
Together we marched in front of the crowd. You should have seen the lay-out of this neighborhood, known for its two long winding tombs. On occasion, my cousin who lived next door to the tombs would bring home movies from work, and turned the tombs open space into an outdoor cinema – my childhood Cinema Paradiso or neighborhood Netflix night, for an otherwise dark and haunted alley.
Back to the century’s confrontation.
With unseen intensity, my Dad demanded to see the Colonel. The Army’s driver out front hurried to fetch his boss who was strapping his Colt 45 to receive us, unwanted and unannounced throng. I meanwhile was scared out of my wits, since the situation had by then escalated out of hand.
Yet justice demanded this. And my father had to play the anti-hero in this real-life drama.
He said in unmistaken terms to a slightly intimidated Colonel:
“Your kid is bigger yet he beat my son bloody-nose. From here on out, when this happens, I will give the same sh** right back to your face so you can understand what your son did to mine”.
The crowd fell silent. If someone were to light a match, the high-octane atmosphere perhaps would have exploded.
Indeed, what transpired next flew by like a thin veil. All I knew was that at times, when Cu Lon and I spotted each other, he still threatened me with his clenched teeth and tight fist, but only from a distance. No further fights had ever broken out between us. He simply couldn’t afford the consequences: dragging the two hot-blooded bulls into a lock-horn fight. My father must have meant every word he said that day. At last, we had some peace during war-time.
I was crying throughout the incident. Tears of rage, of having to live as an underdog in a shabby slum known for its trash dump and exposed tombs. Worst of all, of not having running water (I had to hook up a long running hose between my cousin’s house and mine every other day and got all dirty in the process).
My rage also ran deep because I had to pick up broken pieces of porcelain from the floor, every time my parents fought over meals. (It wasn’t illegal for men in Vietnam at that time to practice polygamy, so long as you can afford it.) Somehow, overtime, this madness turned into melody, and my guitar became my guard against the encroaching world. That world was closing fast on us, at the pace of the Northern advancing army. The US 34th Congress was much slower and when acted, it voted against needed aid package to the Southern Vietnamese Army (among which was the Colonel in this story).
Despite my father’s shortcoming, I looked up to him and did all I could for him, from giving him a back rub over siesta to shinning his shoes (salesman/collector for VN Airlines).
Time heals everything, turning rage into rhythm, misery miracle, terror-father protector father. Years later, when I came back to scan the old neighborhood, I couldn’t help noticing that it seemed to have shrunk (people expanded their balcony to the max, creating an almost enclosed dome). I learned that Cu Lon had died of an overdose. He finally lived out his privileged life, while my father managed to out survive the neighborhood bully (his heart gave out on a Winchester winter at age 94).
My father and I both wanted to beat life’s odds. For me, it’s an adrenaline surge each time I recall the incident. Thanks to my father’s courage to face aggression with overwhelming response. Consequently, my life’s trajectory was deflected from its downward spiral (kids were drafted, deformed and died).
But don’t let my penchant for people-pleasing be misconstrued: I wouldn’t guarantee how I might react when coming home from work, seeing my child with bloody-nose and machete in hand. All I know was my father shined briefly that day and still lives on in me today.



Just a blip!

It depends on how far you want to zoom out in space and time: men will look like ants

(Apollo’s first photo of the Earth) and the rise of the Nazis , according to a far-right-party guy – will be viewed as a footnote in German history (his clothes were stolen while he was swimming in the lake yesterday).

WE DON’T WANT TO FORGET!!! Not even amnesia can separate us from our long-term “footnotes”.

Where I live, people double-name their streets: one, the usual, and second name – ethnic hero. In case the grandkids ask.

1968- 2018   Fifty years. A  quick search will tell you that it started with a French student wanting to have a reciprocal right to visit an all-female dorm that triggered unrest in Paris.

Meanwhile, the assassination of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy; the execution of  a Viet Cong insurgent on the street of Saigon; the high-octane Chicago Democratic Convention together made 68 a hot-boiled year.  “He ain’t heavy He is my brother” was a hit that year. Sitting out in the open, I looked up to my upper classmates band, who performed that song flawlessly. I knew then and I know now that I was witnessing history.

After all, the war (Vietnam) brought out everything: the go-go bars and the body bags. I DON”T EVER WANT TO FORGET in case the grandkids ask.

A lot has happened since: people moving in and out of my life, places I have passed by and moved on from…. everything I read and re-read, faces I failed to recognize.

1968 was the year of growing up fast, faster than the drone noise of Operation Frequent Wind in 1975.

Faster than the advancing “enemy”. Faster than I can say “Thank you President Ford”.

But there were other villains I don’t want to forget either. Save that for another time.

When you zoom out, really zooming out, the bad and the ugly both look like blips. Just blips. And goodness somehow shines on, despite the years and places in between. I remember an innocent line in “Saturday in the park” by Chicago ” a man selling ice-cream”. That’s what it’s all about: have an ice cream just like 50 years ago, last year and yesterday.




The girl and the guitar

Young folks always assert themselves:  in the Graduate, plastics, in Santa Fe, TX,  the gun, and in Hanoi, the guitar ( Mai Khoi awarded recent International Prize in Oslo).

It’s an unfair comparison to when I was growing up: a refugee kid repeating his parents’ script. But I know one thing – to use George Harrison’s catchy album title: “All things must pass” including : run the fingers, strike a chord, and mouth the lyrics ( in the hope to connect, to stir up and to move the room.)

We, adults, have failed our kids badly: from being the Graduate to becoming the Mega-rich 1 percent-er, from getting rich with “plastics” to leaving behind an iceberg wrapped in plastics (National Geography’s cover picture), from missing their school play performances to missing tax deadlines.

We are a generation of Someday. Someday we will make good and make right. Occasionally we reflect upon the Vinyl years, wishing it could have been or should have been. While Bill Gates was on the quest for the perfect Third-World toilet, Asian moguls sit on toilets made of pure gold. It’s not enough for evangelists to do their jobs over the airwaves, they now need to do it on the airplanes.

Now comes the fun part: nobody gets hired anymore, but work flow still flows. We care about “what technology wants” more than “what the people want”.  Machine is learning, while man isn’t. (The best major now is Data Sciences). From Adam to Analytics, we have certainly made progress, giant leaps as a matter of fact: self-driving cars, self-healing network and self-cleaning buildings.

Structures and institutions will remain, with new owners and new passwords. But influential people must heed the advice: pride comes before the fall. All things must pass, no option there. Fail not yourselves, your kids and your ideals. No should haves, could haves or Someday. Just now, next and the rest. Press reset. Breathe in/out and Think. The girl and the guitar got me thinking: where has myself gone?









News and Noise

With floods of data, it is not surprising that the number-one skill for living and thriving is how to curate information. Turning trash into treasure. Building our own filters, constructing our own “firewalls”. With the abundance of affordable chipset, people are hoarding images, video, audio and data way above their personal consumption level. Digital glut. At this exponential growth rate, video will be stacked up all the way to Mars in just a few years. Be discernible. Select your battle and be discriminative on how you dispense your meager attention. Start giving instead of just taking (Goodwill data site? Hey, you can read this e-book & watch this video on my dime).

We are to be self-directed and not giving to the sway of public opinion: circle of friends, collection of likes and LinkedIn invites. “Walled-off” postings and homogenous connection lead to cultural insulation. Had the Internet existed around the same time as electricity, we wouldn’t have the American society as we now know. People would be talking in circles and among themselves (tribal groups).

BTW, Best-Buy customer list was recently compromised. So it’s not just facebook that is in hot water. Years ago, it’s Target. Data companies now face their own “recalls”, just like Detroit companies with their faulty airbags.

So, should we stay or should we go. Or do we have any choice living like a two-prong plug in a three-prong society, to paraphrase the late Andy Rooney.

One thing for sure: we miss trusted faces that once were our curators on Morning talk shows, Evening News, and Late Night with so and so. That era has been long gone with no replacement in sight. We are orphans of our own making, with no authoritative figures as guideposts. Current “talking heads” floundered, took to battle-tweet with Parkland survivors ( hey, loser! you can’t even get admitted to Ivy League). Other networks are more apprehensive for fear of finding themselves in similar scandal. One wrong tweet can derail a media career.

Perhaps great men in the past were more discreet or better skilled at partitioning their public vs private lives. Today, amidst all the news and noise, one small slip-up equals a giant step on the road of shame, humiliation without a possibility of parole.


Our weakest link

I am almost done with ” In the Sanctuary of Outcasts” but I am in no hurry. It gives me pleasure to feel the pulse of America’s last “forbidden outpost”. As a society, we are just as good as our weakest link: veterans, homeless, shut-ins and bottom-feeders.  Neil White, inmate-turned-undercover-journalist, tried to give leprosy a new PR spin: he failed at the attempt to call this dreaded disease by any other name.

This reminds me of a biblical story. A terminally-ill man by the healing pool. For 38 years, his repeated attempts failed miserably since other outcasts had always gotten in first.

The fact that we long for a more civil society, a more just regime and a better place is proof that we are coded for an After-Life. At least that’s how the Augustinian argument goes: ” our souls are anchored in the Heavenly….hence we are restless….”

I know restlessness well. I was born restless, with narrow shoulders (my mom was petite) – and big feet. By the time I finished French elementary in Saigon, the Vietnam war took a turn for the worst: the burning monk, the Diem brothers’ assassination, then Kennedys’ followed right after. Heck, the whole earth seemed to be scorching. Yet in the middle of self-immolation, Thich Quang Duc was still (I was standing across the intersection along with some eye-witnesses).

He were like a pebble dropped into the lake, causing ripple effects except for the center. Later, after a limbo in Wake Island, summer 75, I dove right into post-war America, where I felt what Neil White was describing of his incarceration in Carville: he doesn’t belong, just makes believe that he went undercover as an inmate-journalist.

From growing up with huge generational gap ( the other four adults were of WWI WWII generations respectively) to cultural gap in an almost all-white “cow college”, I too went through the motion, like a mail-order bride in foreign land, longing for my eventual home. Unfortunately, similar to the Healing Pool, every time I tried to jump in, others had already beaten me to it. So I ended up with tons of memories, lots of  sorrows and this narrative has yet to find its proper ending. Because of my interrupted life, I can make inference to others’ with deferred dreams: those who were drafted, drained and dejected like spent cases. Veterans of a chain of wars who are struggling with PTSD, drug-abuse, homelessness and frequent successions of VA chiefs.

Later, as I compared notes with counter-parts of the counter-cultures, I realized many shared the “hobo” impulse (On the Road). It is an equivalent of pool-side chat among “the outcasts”, as Neil had observed “the out-of-tuned piano was once played by two lepers whose combined fingers could manage a composition written for players with full ten”. From the underside looking out, I realize we are all different, yet have one thing in common: the rich avoided us for fear of contamination. We are the weakest links.

Yet, America can only be as strong as its last outpost and outcasts.