Birthday Blues

Another year comes to bookmark the journey of this life of mine. For the first time in my memory of birthdays, I am out of energy. Out of breath. Out of patience. Out of motivation. Out of inspiration. Meanwhile, I have an abundance of sorrow, sulk, and tears.

Friends and loved ones ask:

“What are you planning for your birthday?”
“What do you want to do for your birthday?”
“What can I do for you for your birthday?”
“What can I bring you for your birthday?”
“How can we celebrate you?”

I try to be kind. I run through options in my mind.

sunrise beach walks
café mocha talks
breakfast pastry rolls
after brunch strolls
trinket shopping sprees
afternoon charcuteries
sunset excursions
and all kinds of possible diversions
to take my soul to happy places
but nothing replaces
the hollow feeling in my heart.
so I have to reply,
“Nothing.”

It’s truly a blessing, I know. To have too many invitations. How can I possibly say yes to some and no to others? I want to be fair, so I decline them all. Better to see none than to reject some. I’ll spread out my celebrations and push them to dates after this day. Thus today, it is just me and my fur baby Pork Chop.

I’m missing Vu, and it hurts. Knowing the next phone call to hear his laughter, the next letter to read his thoughts, the next visit to see his smile; these will never come again in this life cycle. It wrecks me daily. I need relief from this grief, but I deny relief when it is offered. Perhaps it just feels better to feel melancholy.

I sleep in the a.m. hours and rise before the sun. My eyes are tired. Skin is dull. Silver strands have sprouted in patches around my temples. Several more are sprinkled around the blackness of dry and tangled tresses. Ten months and counting since it was cut. Thirty seven days and counting since he passed.

I eat fine, maybe a little too much, wishing I didn’t, so I could lose some weight. Instead, my body balloons, muscles soften while skin roughens, I hate it, but I do nothing about it. A body that was once in full motion has come full stop, sitting still, in a corner of the couch, under a cotton throw, a state of paralysis, numb. I’m fine with the inertia. Self-care is simply not there, and I really don’t care.

My memories wade through the recent past, a slow pace through the last four months, contemplating how to make sense of all this. I read my Eulogy over again, trying to keep the promises I made to him with hundreds as my witness. Trying to keep the hope, faith, and love alive in my heart. It’s really hard to do.

This morning, I received a birthday text message with a grumpy cat gif. I laughed so hard with my friend about how this grumpy cat gif was the purrrrfect sentiment for my mood. And then I felt light, like the laughter was an injection of a magical happy potion. 

It was like a seed planted in a rich soil, and with a continuous flow of thoughtful messages pouring into me, the petals of joy blossomed from there. I felt that all was not going to be lost in the darkness I was in. Love found its way through the cracks of my heart. I got these incredibly funny birthday memes from some of my gal pals from VAALA (Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association). I laughed so hard. They’re knock offs of Ryan Gosling “hey girl” memes, but replaced by Lien Binh Phat, a Vietnamese actor who had me crushing hard when I watched him in Song Lang, a film in Vietnam about love and friendship set in the backdrop of Vietnam’s fading opera music scene. What a hoot, I laughed so hard as the memes came through my phone one by one.

Throughout the day, a stream of flowers, candies, books, messages, and other gifts rolled in. Then a floral arrangement came from Vu’s sister, Jackie. She wrote the card as if it was from Vu. Recently, her fur baby, Duy, was laid to rest. She already lost Vu so losing Duy was another devastation. I told her, “Maybe Duy will keep Vu company.” So it was a delight to read the card she sent with the flowers. “Happy Birthday, Sweetie. Jackie sent Duy to me for my birthday so I wanted to send something similar to make you smile on yours. Love, Vu”. Check out the flowers. Isn’t it the cutest thing you’ve ever seen?!

Finally, toward the end of the afternoon, a special gift from above came delivered by a special someone. This story is a super special supernatural one, one that I’ll share one day with the mystical details. It’s a pendant, hand cut from a coin minted in Vietnam. The design is a rice plant, representing the country’s staple commodity. The gift of a coin in jewelry form.


With all of these wonderful respites from the gloom, the power of love feeds me and nudges me toward action. I challenge myself to get up off the couch and do something. I do some stretches. I talk to my siblings and my parents. I take Pork Chop for a walk. I’m feeling very grateful, and I smile. But evening comes, and there’s something about the darkness that claims the dark side of me, too. And I feel sadness again.

When it was Vu’s birthday on October, 8, I invited some friends to come over throughout the day and celebrate with honey buns (one of his favorite sweet snacks) and RC Cola (his favorite drink during visitation). One came at 7 in the morning, then another at 9:45 am. It was nice, but by noon, I had to cancel everyone else. A headache took over me, and I ran out of the energy I needed to host. I tried my best. But it wasn’t good enough to make it through the day. And that is what life has been like since he passed. I try my best when I start the day, even though I know it won’t be good enough to make it through the remainder of day without feeling sick or blue.

My sincere apologies to anyone who has asked to treat me to a meal or spend time with me. I know you understand why I declined. I will ask, though, for a gift if you should feel inclined. On this day, October 19, for my birthday, I ask for the gift of memorializing Vu. There are two ways you can do this. 1) I’m going to share my Eulogy so you can read it and remember him in your heart through my words. 2) I’m going to share a link to the Hoang Vu Tran Memorial Scholarship that I established for justice impacted students. Your gift is 100% tax deductible.

I am grateful for your support, and mostly, I am grateful for the patience and grace you’ve given me while I’m a mess of a person right now. Thank you from the depths of my broken heart.

Link to donate to scholarship: https://foundation.miracosta.edu/donatenow-hoang-vu.html

Eulogy for my Beloved, Hoang Vu Tran
Friday, September 25, 2020
St. Maximilian Kolbe Catholic Community Church

Good morning, everyone. I would like to give a very sincere “Thank You” to everyone who is here. My name is Thao. Who am I to Vu that I would get this privilege to speak at his celebration of life? Vu would tell you that I’m his fiancé, and mostly, he would say I was his best friend. He is my best friend, too.

Xin chào tất cả mọi người. Tên mình là Thảo Hà. Nếu ai hỏi Vũ Thảo là ai, Anh sẽ nói Thao là bạn thân nhất của Anh. Anh Vũ cũng là ban than nhat của Thao. Thao muốn gửi lời cảm ơn chân thành sâu sắc đến tất cả những người đã đến ngày hôm nay.

I would like to honor Vu’s life in the best way I believe I know how. Through a letter to Vu. You see, over the 28 years that we had known each other, I think he would agree with me that writing letters and poems to each other was one of our most favorite things to do. We have been writing to each other since 1992.

Before I start the letter, please allow me to start with a few words about Vu with you. Vu was an incredible thinker and a beautiful writer. It was always a delight for me to receive letters, cards, and poems from him. He loved reading letters, too. He would tell me, “I’m always happy to get letters from my family and friends, and I would love it when I got them from you. I try to wait to read it when I have time to myself. But sometimes I can’t help it sometimes. I read it right away, only to read it several more times throughout the day.”

To honor his life with words in a letter is what I feel he would enjoy. It will not be a heartbreaking farewell, but rather, a celebration of a man who lived life filled with purpose and intention, and although there were dark moments of despair, as we all have had in our lives, Vu lived with a vibrant smile and held in his heart a true hope for a bright future.

Vu had many admirers. Girls gushed over his good looks, good hair, and adorable smile. I was one of those girls. Guys everywhere respected his loyalty, strength, and relentless way of protecting them at all costs. He was also a protector of his family. His brothers and sisters each have their own episodes and adventures of when and where Vu came to their rescue. His heart was huge, and he wore it on his sleeve. Everyone could feel the love emanate from his presence.  But people with big hearts also find themselves in situations where they save others at the cost of themselves. Vu did this for many of us, and it brought a series of heartbreaking events in his life. And yet, he stayed true to the nature of his heart. No matter where he went, he always carried himself with composure, confidence, class, humor, and good cheer. Through the years, many people who knew Vu told me he was their best friend. He was that guy. The one who so many felt was their best friend. I find myself extremely fortunate that he considered me his best friend. And so, this is my eulogy letter to my best friend.

My Most Precious Anh Vũ,

I know this letter is reaching you with a smile on your handsome face and that you are in the most ethereal and majestic of places. I would ask you how you are feeling, but I already know the answer – you are feeling the sheer happiness that you fully deserve. You are in the glorious splendor of God and the angels that surround you, and you are now one of those angels, too. I have much to say in praise and celebration of you, but I’d like to share my time with some very good friends of yours who could not be here today. They are often voices missing in this world.

Jordan says, “Words could never truly express how I feel. This whole thing has me broken hearted. I have always looked up to you and have always been able to talk to you about anything. I will always appreciate what you did for me, inspiring me to write and made me believe in myself. It changed my life. I must honor our friendship and keep you in my heart forever, I will keep writing and one day speak to students and always tell people who inspired me to tell my story – you. I love you, brother.”

Cruz says, “Thank you so much for everything you did for me. I will always remember you as a strong person with the spirit of a 20 year old, the poet that would always make jokes and the pillar that would be there to support if anyone needed help. At the end Vu I am so happy you finally reunited with your true love and had many rays of light that made you smile even in your worst moments. I hope you are at peace. I will keep you alive in my heart and mind. See you in Heaven.”

Quik says, “Seriously Vu, you are one of the most unique persons I have ever known. There is no one like you nor will there ever be. Your swag was so turnt-up people were inspired to be like you. Not only are you a realist concerning all things, you are extremely intelligent. You are cool, calm, and your collected demeanor caused everyone to take notice. Most of all, your sense of humor had us all laughing. You are my most trustworthy confidante. I will forever treasure the long meaningful conversations concerning our lives, our families, my wife, and your fiancé. Thank you for being my best friend.”

Charles says, “I miss you, Vu. The way you lived your life, I admire it so much. You were like clockwork, always up early, working hard, working out, and cleaning up. You were super clean and neat! You are one of a kind, and I miss my potna, and I cry for you. When I first heard, it was like the air went out of this place. Everybody is thinking about you. Torres said what’s up. Football season won’t be the same without you. Never thought I’d miss you this much! Miss Mitchell cried when I told her. We all admire your character and your walk. You got a lot of love, bro. We all love you.”

Anh Vũ ơi, you had numerous friends who loved you, who considered you like their brother. They were fortunate to have been graced by your presence in their lives. You were like a brother to everyone. And hence, your real siblings were most fortunate to have you as their eldest brother, their Anh Hai. Your brothers Dung and Van wanted to be like you – strong, cool, loyal, and popular with the girls. Your sisters Judi and Jackie Lan could count on you to watch over them, sometimes with the eyes of an Eagle, constantly scanning and swooping in to lift them and protect them from the troubles of the world. I love when we spent hours talking and the stories of your siblings were always a topic of joy and laughter.

Do you remember the time you told Judi you hadn’t had a banana in so long, and the only time the joint served bananas was if someone donated enough for everyone? Judi wanted to donate thousands of bananas so you could have just one. That was one gesture in a million that you recalled about Judi’s thoughtfulness and generosity. She was like you, a giant heart and wore her heart on her sleeve. You loved her so much because of her love for you. You didn’t get the chance to finish the boots you made her, but don’t worry, Babe, she will get them done and will wear them with pride.

Do you remember the time you asked Van to help you send orchids to me on our anniversary? You said he had to make sure it was delivered on the exact date, July 16, and it had to be the exact kind of flowers – white orchids. He made it happen. You said he was always reliable and dependable. You once wrote that you were on the phone with him and when you two were about to hang up, he said I love you bro. You responded I love you too babe. He said “what was that?” You told him you always said that to me so you blurted it out subconsciously. He then said “Ok I love you too babe” then laughed his butt off as he hung up on you. We laughed so much about that story.

Do you remember the time Dung came to visit you and you gave him a hard time because he wasn’t in top shape. Sweetheart, not everyone is a workout master like you. That you can grab a pole and pull yourself sideways like a flag and hold for a long time is extraordinary. You then realized you shouldn’t have given him a hard time because Dung was working hard and taking care of his family. You said that was more important; in fact, it’s one of the most important things a man can do in this life. I know you longed to have a family to care for, and you would have been an incredible husband and father, just like Dung.

And Jackie Lan… there are too many things to recall. I would be up here all day. We talked about her all the time. My favorite kinds of stories were the many times she tried to set you up with her girlfriends. I’m glad she didn’t succeed. But she was the one who helped reconnect us. So, in a way, she did succeed. She always wanted the best for you. She was your baby sis. The one for whom you had a very soft spot. The one you wanted to spoil and take with you everywhere. The one who was our third wheel when we were together – at the park, at the mall, at the restaurants… she went everywhere with us. When you and I lost touch, she’s the one who was your spy, giving you updates about me. You said she didn’t make things easy for you, telling you, “Thao’s even prettier now than she was then! And she’s a professor with a PhD!” That girl, your baby sis, she’s something else. Your love for her is immeasurable.

Through your siblings, you have 11 amazing nieces and nephews who you love dearly and wished you could have doted on more. You made so many beautiful gifts for them through the years. You bragged about their accomplishments and achievements. You spoke of them with the voice of a proud uncle. Their Bác Vũ…do you remember how we realized we were old because kids be callin’ us Bác now? And then there’s Tasi, your eldest niece, but also your baby girl. The young woman who lifted you from a low point and brought you to a heightened awareness of the preciousness of life. She gave you the strength to keep pushing for a better tomorrow. Her sweet voice, “everything will be okay Bác Vũ”, was something so inspiring to you that you wrote about it in your published essay. The bond between you two will continue, as I know you are watching over her from Heaven.

Your siblings, your nieces, and your nephews – they all come through the lineage of your mom and dad. You always reminded me to visit them whenever I could. You wanted them to know how much you loved them, how much you appreciated their sacrifices, and that you thought of them every single day. You wanted to be better at communicating with mom and dad. It’s ok Babe. It is like that for many of us. Language barriers. Generational gaps. Cultural differences. As children of Vietnamese refugees, we all struggled with that. You are not alone. But now, you can communicate with them through your shining spirit as a guardian angel, watching over them and protecting them. You will always be their beloved eldest son.

Anh Vũ ơi, so many people love you. People who have never met you admire you, respect you, and are inspired by you. That is because to know you is to love you. To feel you is to feel loved. To receive your gifts is to witness your meticulous attention to detail and the love and care you put into doing everything with your best efforts. You taught me so many things. You taught me to love myself, saying to me, “Sweetie, you have to love yourself and take care of yourself. How are you going to help and serve others when you aren’t good yourself?”

You truly are like no other. Your soul is so gentle yet also filled with a fiery passion to love and protect. You lived your best life despite the cruel circumstances you were subjected to. You shined like a radiant star despite being cast into a dark and gloomy place. You soothed and counseled and consoled me through so many of my moments of hardship even though you were living in a constant hardship.  And now, you are still shining, still radiant, still filled with love, still protecting, still consoling all of us. We know you are here with us, I can feel you, and your soul is holding hands with mine.

Meeting you and loving you 28 years ago changed my life because I met my soul mate. Since then, through everything that we have experienced, you have impacted me deeply and shaped me into the person I am, and you will continue to be part of our lives as we continue to learn and grow. You loving me and wanting happiness for me gives me great strength and confidence to go into the world and conquer whatever goals need to be achieved.

It is my hope that through your passing, we will all remember your spirit and celebrate you by living our best life like you did. Maybe we’ll hold our loved ones a little longer, maybe we’ll be grateful for what we have regardless of our circumstances, maybe we’ll look at our partner sitting next to us and know what a precious gift it is to have them right there with us, maybe we’ll serenade love songs directly to the one we want and not sing the songs in our head to the one who got away, maybe we’ll love like there’s no tomorrow. 

Anh Vũ, you loved poems very much. A poem came to me the day after you passed. It reads:

I am watching over you from the stars
Don’t be scared I know exactly where you are
Cause there’s a piece of me and it’s burning in your heart
Even death could never tear us apart.

Anh Vũ, người thương mến của em, you said your favorite poems are ones written by me. And so, I’m gonna end with two that I wrote. The first one is for all of us to honor you. The second one is from my heart to you.

“Vu is Free”

From the Earth, Vu has departed
Leaving us all, so broken hearted

But we must remember, he’s with God in Heaven above
Shining down on us, with his unconditional Love

He would want us to live our lives like today is our last
Do not grieve too much for his painful past

For he is now feeling ultimate joy and peace
His struggles and sorrows have all ceased

He is healed from any disease
And his shackles have been released

He is smiling, trust us, we believe

So find the strength to smile for him if you can
Seek the sweet memories of this incredible man

Who always gave us his best while he was here
And keep him in your happy heart
Because his beautiful soul is always near.

“We Don’t Say Good Bye”

We don’t say Good Bye
It’s not meant for us, my dear
Our connection will continue as it has
We have nothing to fear

I will miss who you were on Earth
But I will look to the kaleidoscope skies
And hear your sweet voice singing to me
Those romantic crystal lullabies

I will whisper back
Sweetie, I hear you, it’s so clear
I’ll close my eyes to see your face
And feel your presence like now, you are so near

I will gaze at the bright moon
And the twinkling stars at night
Thinking of your embrace
Holding me oh so tight

When I’m feeling blue
I’ll think of your good cheer
I’ll remember our precious love
And it will banish my tears

I’ll think of you every day
Until my time here is through
I’ll miss you more than anything
Until I can join you

I know you are my guardian angel
Watching over and protecting me
I know your soul is tethered to mine
Always, forever, in eternity

I know that you are now Glowing in a Radiant Peace
My Love, you are truly now free
You can laugh and dance and sing
As the angel you were meant to be

Be Free, My Love
Soar High
But remember
We don’t say Good Bye

Words Don’t Come Easy

Do you have words for me? Words for Vu? They say the deeper the love, the greater the grief. This is surely my truth. I smile when fond memories run through my mind. I see the sun rise and find comfort that he can finally feel the sunshine on him. I receive his signs, his messages, his gifts to me with an open mind and full heart. I say thank you. I love you.

Then in an instant, I plummet into despair. Moments like when I stare at my screen trying to write his eulogy. I started yesterday, and right now I don’t even have 2 paragraphs. I read his letters to capture his words, as they are a testament to his character and his joie de vivre when he was living. I touch the lined paper, run my fingers over the ink, breathe in the lingering scent of cologne that he smeared on it with samples from GQ magazine, and I miss him so much. I turn to gaze at the stack of letters and realize that’s all I have left of him in this tangible world. The weight of this loss then crushes me and throws what’s left of my strength into the abyss. I curl into myself, arms clasping my knees, and soak in my own tears. Ugly crying. I know it’s okay to mourn. I know it’s okay to cry. But my mind travels to what I know, and I tell myself to suck it up. It’s worked many times since his passing. Tonight, it does not work. I allow myself to not suck up anything and to let it all out.

Maybe now the words I need to find to do justice to his man will come to me. I wrote the obituary, and it’s updated on his funeral site. Please, I ask of you, if you have any words that you’d like to send him or me or his family, use the link to leave a note. Your messages will be compiled into a memory book that the family can keep as a memento in the celebration of his life. The link also provides details for services. The services will be streamed live. We would love to have you join us remotely. And maybe you’ll want to hear me speak the words I’m struggling to write.

https://www.dignitymemorial.com/obituaries/houston-tx/hoang-tran-9366655?fbclid=IwAR0ETpeOVjwUVwy06Zk-z9o6vxw3QQDVC9vlNH0r85_7Z9CC-lLex08uAkI

You Are Free At Last

It is with solemn heart and shattered dreams that I write this last letter to my Love, Hoang Vu Tran. I started writing last night with the intention to update you all, but I didn’t finish it. I woke up today with every intention of posting an update for everyone, especially because I felt the end was near. I was hoping to get prayers and love and hope for a last push to bring him home. The writ was to be filed this upcoming week. But it happened so fast. And while it hurts so much, I think of him, and he is no longer suffering. For me to wish he would hang on longer is only to serve me. I am relieved he is at peace. Thank you to everyone for all the love and support and hope and prayers and generosity and care. This journey is not over because I know he’s watching over us. He’ll be with me as I continue my life by doing exactly what he wanted me to do – to be happy, to love, to care, and to serve.

My Most Precious Vu,

Your pain and suffering are unbearable to me. The physical wreckage of aggressive cancer. The miserable isolation of incarceration. The anxiety of imminent mortality. Every night, I reach for you, yearning for a connection, a word, a sound, a look, a smile, anything at all, just to sense you. Did you sense me reaching out to you? Knowing that you must endure this alone left me with a sick heart and a fiery rage against the cruelty of the system. I wrote you every night despite knowing that you can’t understand my words because the cancer had spread to your brain. I sent you digital photos hoping they convey the words “I Love You, Vu” a thousand times to your heart. Did the words and photos pump any life into you, My Love? Because you needed it so badly. Your blood pressure was dangerously low, and so, your heart could stop, and so, you let me know, through a nurse’s call, “Miss Thao, Vu wanted me to call you and inform you that he signed a Do Not Resuscitate form. He said he wants to go peacefully.” I inhale deeply and exhale with the despair of knowing the end can come any day. I’ve been nothing but melancholy when I realized the end was near.

I look back at this journey with you and recall that in the span of 60 days, we’ve been granted 3 calls. Being deprived of contact, the 43 total minutes felt like I had won the lottery each time. My Love, you’ve never had a chance to do FaceTime before. I’ll always remember the way your eyes lit up when the first call on August 18 connected. I saw the smile in your eyes when that sweet voice of yours uttered these five romantic words, You look so beautiful, Sweetie. You are the ill one, but it is you who soothed me. I hope I soothed you, too. You had just finished your first chemo cycle. Although you were in a wheelchair, I felt so much hope from seeing the brightness in your eyes and the laughter and joy we shared. They said 10 minutes. They gave us 11. Eleven blissful minutes of a FaceTime that will be etched into my memories of us.

I’ll always sadly remember your second call, 18 days later, in the middle of the night, on a phone belonging to a stranger I won’t identify. Thank you, compassionate person, whoever you are, for the extended call. You gave us 19 minutes.

Baby, please help me. I need you to call them and please help me. You’re the only one who can help me.

You were scared because they could no longer help you with treatments. You were scared because they put you in a van to transport you to hospice and you fell. You were scared that no one would take care of you. You can’t walk. You can’t sit. You can’t eat. You are wasting away as the cancer takes over your pancreas, stomach, liver, adrenal glands, neck, and lymph nodes, having lost 40 lbs., 20% of your body weight, cachexia is what they call it. One third of cancer patients die from cachexia. Please don’t let this be the end of you. Baby I’m trying to eat but it hurts so bad. I need help using the restroom. I can’t do anything myself. I just lay here. I’m so sorry that you’re suffering so much, Babe. You still look so handsome to me. You break a small smile. I will start making calls first thing in the morning for you. I will do whatever I can, I promise. I love you.  

My Love, I hear you. I see you. You lay there alone, in a hospital bed, itchy from the cancer that had surfaced on your skin, doped up on narcotics to ease the ache from the cancer that had spread to your bones. My Love, I tried. I called all the numbers I had. I begged them to help. But they are robots, bound by bureaucratic strings that strangle the humanity out of them. I’m so sorry I could not save you. I’m so sorry they could not save you. There’s nothing any of us can do to save you. You’ll go to hospice soon.

I’ll always painfully remember our third call. Our last call. Five days ago. The corrections officer said we have 5 minutes. You asked her for more. She said she got work to do so she can’t. I know she heard every word between us. I know it was emotional for her. Because she couldn’t hang up. She let us say what we needed to say. I looked at the call log when it ended. Thirteen minutes.

Babe, they’re sending me to hospice. I’m in so much pain. I got like 8 cancers. Even brain cancer. I can’t think right. Can’t even read your letters. I don’t think I can do this no more. I tried for you, but I can’t live like this much longer. If I go, they ain’t gonna save me. I don’t want them to break my ribs. I signed the DNR. I’m sorry, Babe.

I see you wipe a tear from your eye. I see you scratching. I see you squeeze your temples and wince in pain. My Sweet Vu, will you remember my words to you as you looked at me so intensely?  

Listen to me, Babe. Do not say sorry. I need you to hear this. Can you hear me clearly? You nod. I love you so much. I have loved since the moment we laid eyes on each other 28 years ago in that dimly lit karaoke room. I will always love you as my future continues to unfold, and never without you, though, because you run through my veins and into my heart and throughout every fiber of my being. I can feel you, Babe. You are always with me. And because I love you more than I could ever convey in words, I want you to understand what my actions are saying when it comes to you.

My Love, I will be okay with whatever you feel is best for you. Please do what you must, even if that means you have to let go so you can have peace. I will stay strong and accept whatever happens, whenever it happens. Fight or go in peace, it’s okay with me. You have fought so hard already. You’ve hung on this long. Thank you for fighting. Thank you for being so brave. You are so handsome and such a beautiful person to me. When it is your time to let go and as you come into the light of a place that will bring you peace and healing, please remember these words as my last words to you here on Earth. Sweetheart, you best damn visit me in my dreams and let me feel your presence. I’ll take you in any form. Know that I’ll be there someday, too. Do you remember the lyrics of that country song you wrote me years ago about a person waiting for another? You nod. You wrote those lyrics because you always wanted to be romantic in your words to me. It was your way of asking me to wait for you. Well, it’s going to be your turn to wait for me now. I promise, when it’s my time, my soul will come search for yours. I’ll see you on the other side.

You smile. I want to cry so badly, but I hold back my tears. I never want you to see me cry because I know it’ll make you cry. I breathe in deeply and fight my heart’s agony. I need you to know, until it’s truly over, I’ll keep fighting for you out here. I still got the lawyers and we are still gonna try to bring you home.

Even in your condition, at the end stage of life, you can still throw your smart ass humor at me. You crack a smirk. Bring me home. Is home Heaven? Then you smile. Your smile makes me smile. Then you laugh. Your laugh makes me laugh. And I say to you, home is to mom and dad. But if you don’t make it there, Heaven is a beautiful home, too. It is a place of love, and peace, and no suffering.

Your eyes get that intense look. You pause, the way you always do before you say something that will usually make my heart swell with emotion. Babe, I just wish I was with you. You are my home. I’m sorry that I’m probably not gonna make it home to you. This shit sucks doesn’t it?  

No, don’t apologize, My Sweet Love. They say home is where the heart is. Wherever we are, since our hearts are with each other, we are home.

You right. You always right. I love you so much.

I thank the officer for the time, she turns the camera on her, a masked face with tears dripping from her eyes. She said, “No problem, sweetie. Y’all take care of yourselves.”

Babe, these are the lyrics you quoted from the song:

If you get there before I do, don’t give up on me.
I’ll meet you when my chores are through;
I don’t know how long I’ll be.|
But I’m not gonna let you down, darling wait and see.
And between now and then, ’til I see you again,
I’ll be loving you. Love, me.

You never asked me to wait for you to get out of prison. You told me to continue living my life the way I want. You didn’t know what you could ever offer me. But we both know, you offered me unconditional love. You taught me how to love myself first so that I can truly love and serve others.

Along with those lyrics, you wrote that it seems like one of us is always waiting on the other. When we were younger, we couldn’t communicate well to each other. So we always missed out on each other even if one was waiting on the other. We could never utter the words that would convey the message, “Come back to me. I’ve been waiting for you.” And now, as mature adults who are still crazy about each other, we have never had to explicitly communicate those words because it was an understanding between us, something we felt in our hearts and held in our minds, a conviction and commitment that we would vow to when the time would come. You always made clear to me that you understood one thing for sure… that I would always come running to you. But that road to you on this Earth is gone. Please wait for me, My Darling Vu. I’ll have to run to you in Heaven. It’s now my turn to send the lyrics to you.

If you get there before I do, don’t give up on me.
I’ll meet you when my chores are through;
I don’t know how long I’ll be.
But I’m not gonna let you down, darling wait and see.
And between now and then, ’til I see you again,
I’ll be loving you. Love, me.

In this journey of love and incarceration, terminal cancer feels like a cruel way to end our story. Distance, time, metal bars, and concrete walls couldn’t stop the love from happening, but cancer wrecked everything. Cancer tortured you physically and mentally. It tormented us knowing you are suffering. Cancer shoved you down a path of rapid deterioration and agonizing hurt. With each passing day, we watched you lose a bit of life. You had been hurting since June, and it wasn’t until July 17th that they finally sent you to the hospital to see a specialist. This is after you collapsed multiple times, were taken to the ER, and had lost 30 lbs. in one month. How much suffering must one endure before the prison system even looks your way?

My Love, when you took your last breath, my hope is that you knew that I am full of gratitude for the time I had on this Earth with you. May you feel the love between us that spanned almost three decades and brought us together now. I write these heavy words with tears flowing and lips quivering. These lips have longed to kiss you one last time and whisper gently to you, “I’m here, Vu. I love you.” But now it will not come to be.

I am angry at this journey you have had to trek. Fuck you, cancer. Fuck you, prison system.

I question in a philosophical way, “did cancer take your life, or did prison take it?” I would say both. Cancer took away the future. Prison took away the past. I remember your dad’s words when you were sent away for 60 years. “They’re burying my son alive.” That is true. But your extraordinary spirit found a way to live in the present. Be in the moment. You once wrote me:

Our time together when we were young was really too short but our feelings for each other are everlasting. In that short amount of time, you touched a very deep part of my heart that I’ll take with me to the grave. I read a philosopher named Schopenhauer who wrote “men spend their lives either reflecting on the past or anticipating the future. They therefore miss the moment.” But I think this saying reflects more on men who are incarcerated. Right now, I am living in a state he called, “ad interim” – in between – which means the moment is nothing. This statement would be very true if you hadn’t come back in my life. Even while incarcerated, I want to live in the moment with you through your work, your love, and your dreams of the future for us. Thao, I don’t want to miss anymore moments with you. I know we can’t foresee the future, but we can always hope for the outcome of what we want. For now, I want you to know I’m living in the moment and feeling alive because of you.

Our moments when we lived fully with each other are precious gifts I’ll hold with me always. Back then in 1992 through now and into the future… letters, phone calls, visits, songs, hugs, kisses. I will continue to live my life the way you always wanted me to… with happiness and joy and service to others. I will get there someday, but right now, my heart is heavy as I reflect on when you started dying.

You started dying from cancer as recent as June. Over the course of days, your pain increased. While you were in a state of immense pain, you limped your way out of your cell into the day room, stood in line with a swollen foot, and made sure you called me on July 16th, the anniversary of my first letter to you after being gone from your life for so many years. You made sure I got my favorite flowers, orchids, delivered to me on that day. They are so beautiful. Thank you for celebrating the anniversary of our reunion and always showing me how much you love and cherish what we have. You’ve always been a hopeless romantic. As tough as you were on the outside, I’ve always known the tenderness in you. Even as an incarcerated man, you always found a way to show me the romantic side of you. I would have never guessed that would be our last call from Beto Unit, the place they forced you to call “home” for the last 23 years.

You left for the prison hospital the next day. 4 days later, I received the news of your prognosis, and it broke us all down into shock and delirium. 9 days later, I received news that your prognosis was even worse than what was told to us before. 6 days later you began chemo treatment. 8 days later you spoke with the lawyer. He called me with a very disturbing update.

“Thao, he is not doing well. He’s in a wheelchair, needs assistance for the bathroom, his voice is very hoarse, he struggles to read your letters and struggles even more in writing, but he did write you a letter. He wants to make sure you got the letter.”

My Love, I saw the struggle in your writing, your once beautiful handwriting is now child-like print. I see you grappling to complete sentences.

August 10
Hi, Love. At the moment, I don’t understand a thing. All I understand is the pain and suffering. It’s very important that I talk to you. Please make it happen because you are the only one who can understand me. I need for things to get back to normal so at least I get back to my unit because if nothing else, at least use the phone and hear your voice. At first, I didn’t know what to do. I wasn’t even able to read your letters or understand. When I did start to understand, all I did was cry. What is true cannot be denied. Every time I picked up the paper, I start crying all over once again.

Throughout our years together, we have bonded over our letters to each other. I had always hoped the last line of your last letter from prison to me would be dated some time in 2027: Babe, I’m coming home to you!

But instead, it is dated August 24, 2020: I don’t really know how long I can live like this, but for now I’ll keep trying for you. I love you very much.

Today, September 12, 2020, marks the end of our road together here on Earth. I am grateful you got a call with your whole family on August 27. You got to say I love you to everyone, and everyone got to say I love you to you. And lucky me, I got to ask you to marry me. With tears in your eyes, you nodded yes. Our family cheered in an uproar of joy. “Congratulations Thao & Vu!” I’m sure you didn’t want things to go down that way. You told your niece Tasi you’d call me wife one day. I think you would have wanted to ask me. You were old school like that. But you once wrote me, I’m very intrigued by this new you. A strong, independent, and bold woman. If I didn’t know you, I would be very intimidated. Good thing we have history. So you know damn well I’m not afraid to ask for what I want. Thank you for saying yes. For a short period of our time together, we had an intention to marry. I don’t regret anything. I know I gave you my all. And I know you for damn sure gave me your all. You always ended your letters telling me to take care of myself. I promise you that I will. Because there is still so much to be done in your name and in your honor. I thank you for being my guiding light here on Earth. I’ll see you in the light on the other side, Babe. No more darkness. No more pain. No more suffering. You are free now. Free at last. May you rest in Radiant Peace.

Love Is All There Is

I really don’t like asking for help. Looking inward, perhaps it’s because I’m afraid to look weak, incompetent, or needy. I want to be seen as independent, capable, and fierce, and sometimes, I think that if I ask for help, it blemishes that reputation. That kind of thinking is harmful, I know.

So, I’m going to ask for your help. But before I do, I’m going to be vulnerable with you and share the secrets of my heart and of my past to explain why I need your help. Let’s take a trip to 1992.

Do you remember your first love? Was it magical and reckless and passionate and wild and tender and agonizing? They say first love is bittersweet. Sweet because you always remember it well; bitter because when it’s over there won’t be another one like it. It holds innocence, youth, naivete, and a belief in ever after. It’s the first dance, a song’s serenade, a joyride to nowhere, and a night at the beach on the rocks of mile long jetty where the salty splashes of waves sprinkle on the honey scented taste of locked lips and a soft embrace.

My first love was all those things and more. Vu is his name. He was handsome, strong, and had an endearing smile that he wasn’t afraid to flash. He wore his heart on his sleeve, doing too much for others and never enough for himself. In the era of our youth, the vultures of Vietnamese gang culture preyed on guys like him. He was physically strong and emotionally vulnerable to those in need. He was the “do anything for your friends even at the cost of yourself” type. He learned Bro Code. Bravado. Honor. Through a series of unfortunate events and loyalty to a friend, he found himself facing a life sentence in prison. We had broken up by then, but I always had a soft spot for him.

His sentence was 60 years for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon. This was 1997. Today, guys are getting 10 years for the same charge. His mother asked the judge if she could hug her son. She was escorted to his holding cell where she held her son and cried.

When he began his 60 year punishment, he wrote me:

Thao, I just want to thank you for everything you’ve done for me. I don’t know how I’m going to pay you back. I know there’s a lot of things that came between us. I hope I didn’t cause you too much pain or anything for you to hold any grudges against me. I’m sorry if I did. I wish you well and best of luck in the future. I hope you find happiness wherever you may be. You deserve it. Please take care of yourself.

Love Always,
Vu Tran

P.S. I’m glad our lives crossed each other. Smile for me.

And that was it for me and my first love. An occasional birthday or Christmas card would come to my parents’ house. But no letters. No phone calls. No prison visits. No maintaining of anything. Just some bittersweet memories of a first love that I had to move on from.

His family dealt with the pain of constant disappointments in appealing the case. Vu’s friend confessed to the family, “Yes, Vu is innocent. I’m the one who did it.” But it takes years for appeals and by the time the trial was set, his friend had started a family. That changes anyone’s life.  He couldn’t honor Bro Code anymore. He was forced to choose, so he chose his family and left Vu to lose his last appeal. Vu and his family were devastated. They thought the confession would save him and he would be home soon. Instead, they cried with heartache that their brother, their son, would be locked away for life.

By then, I had made my way to earn a PhD and a career as a college professor. Through the years, I would think of him. I had loved again, even married, and planned to have children. But through my journey of self- growth and awareness, I adjusted my sails and chose a path that was true to myself and not what the world expected of me. It is a path of being childless and being unmarried. Two years ago, I was on sabbatical and started writing a memoir – a Vietnamese gang affiliated young woman who watched her friends fall one by one and then turned her life around to become a college professor who gives her all to those in need.

I remember my decision to leave that life behind. I had witnessed too many people close to me get steered toward sad endings – drugs, suicide, incarceration, even death. And then myself, getting shot in the middle of crossfire during a pool hall brawl. One after another, we were met with misery in the way life turns out when you’re lost and looking for somewhere to belong, for someone to feel like family, and what you find is a lifestyle that’s thrilling and dangerous and wrong but it feels like home so you think it’s safe. And then it catches up to you and now you’re paying the price for the stupid choices you made and can only understand why you made them after a lifetime of reflection.

In the writing process, I conjured the memories of my youth, and then, the deep emotions for Vu that I had buried began to resurface, brewing back to life the simmering feelings of young love. But young love is sometimes stupid love. Back then, I lost him because I was too immature to deal with hurt feelings, so I abruptly left him instead of having the kinds of conversations that could lead to forgiveness and continued nurturing. After a few months, I wanted him back, but my pride got in the way. He had his pride, too, so he didn’t wait for me to come around. When I eventually did, I told him I still loved him, but it was too late. He had already met someone else. But he always gave me signs that he still loved me. Like when he told me she got so upset that he was looking at our old pictures. Like when he asked me to go to his old apartment to retrieve a drawing of us that he had stashed in the a/c vent because he promised her that he would throw it away but he just couldn’t do it so he hid it. Like when he knew he was in trouble when the cops were looking for him so he called me and asked me to meet him because he needed someone to talk to. When I arrived at our rendezvous spot, I watched from my car as he was being arrested. That was the last day I saw him as a free man. It was always just a little too late for us. These are the kinds of moments that make you wonder, “What if? What if things had been different? What if we had made different choices?”

I sometimes wonder if we had stayed together, would he have been out with his friends that fateful night? I reimagined a different story for us. It could have been date night… maybe we were at the movies or having a late night meal at our favorite Vietnamese restaurant. Or maybe we would have been making out on the beach under the Texas moonlight, and he would not have ended up where he is. It hurt me to think this. I laid up at night crying over these thoughts.

After two decades of not contacting him, I reached out to him in a letter asking for forgiveness. He wrote back:

Your letter was very emotional to me to say the least. I have read it many, many times in the past few days. At the moment I am overwhelmed by the feelings and memories it has brought back of our time together. It made me smile and for some strange reason, it made me feel happy and content with my life.

Why would you think I would ever be upset with you for moving on and living your life? You seem to forget that I was once your friend first. I have always wanted what was best for you with or without me. I am so proud of you and the things you accomplished, through all the adversity it is amazing to me. By reading your letter now, I truly know the true meaning of the saying, “If you love something, set it free.”

And so, in the summer of 2018, a new journey presented itself. It led us to a renewed friendship and an opportunity to explore who we are as people today. We wrote letters every week.

As a professor who volunteers my time to mentor formerly incarcerated students, I’m dialed in to that area of work. When a media outlet had a call for essays from Asian American incarcerated voices, I encouraged him to do it. He didn’t want to, being scared that his 9th grade education meant he wasn’t smart enough. But he did it for me as a gift for my birthday, which is in October, and his is, too. As my gift, I wanted to fly to Texas to visit him.

He hesitated for a bit. I was a bit surprised, thinking that surely, he would want me to visit. He explained:

I do want the opportunity to see you, but at the same time, it scared me. Not that I think it’ll be awkward but because we’ll click and what it’ll do to me. Someone once famous said that love is devastating and for some reason those words always stuck with me. It describes love perfectly, don’t you think? But no matter what the cost is, it’ll be worth the chance to see you.

I really started this journey believing I can just be your friend, but who was I fooling? For some reason, we are connected too strongly. I do hate myself for feeling this way because reality is with every step you take going forward in your life you move further out of my reach. You told me to fight for what I believe in. As you say, we shall see how this all comes to be.

I’m happy to finally get a chance to see you. I can’t wait.

It might devastate me, but I’ll always be fine no matter what. I will continue to love you from afar as I always have for years. I honestly believe that we can still love each other without ever being together again. You might ask, how can I say that? I can say that because I loved you when you broke up with me, I loved you as I sat inside these cold concrete walls, and I love you now while you are in love with someone else.

Yes, I was seeing someone at the time. But it did not have depth. As I processed these emotions that I had for Vu, I started to wonder if I had shut myself off and not been open to being vulnerable with anyone else again. Had the pain of losing him cut so deep that I never wanted to be that deep in again?  Was I protecting myself by always giving someone only a part of myself? I was honest with the guy I was seeing, and we talked about Vu. One night he said to me, “It seems that I have your body, and he has your soul.” I didn’t know how to respond, but I couldn’t refute it. Because the truth was, my feelings for Vu had depth. I was very much looking forward to seeing him again.

Sitting across each other, separated by thick glass and a rusty wired vent through which we talked, it felt like old times. We smiled and laughed. I was so happy at just the mere sight of him. We talked about what we could do to help him make the time go by faster to reach 2027, the year he would see parole. I said, “I can’t wait to kick it with you like good friends do.” To which he flashed that endearing smile and replied, “Oh no, we aren’t going to be friends.”  Then he laughed. I kept saying to him and telling myself, “Only time will tell.” And as time went on, through more letters, more visits, then weekly phone calls that lasted for hours, things blossomed organically. I eventually left the man I was seeing for reasons outside of Vu. It was clear we were not a good fit, and he needed to work on himself.

Over time, Vu and I were bonding – we would write and talk for hours about great works of literature, poetry, philosophical quotes, and lessons learned over the course of our lives. We felt aligned. Could it be that I was falling in love again? I wrestled with this. I recalled a quote he had read to me from C.S. Lewis, “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” I began to envision that perhaps it could be. There was a Texas bill in the pipeline that could give him a chance for parole immediately if it passed. It was a bill that would give inmates like him credit for working while incarcerated. Vu always had a job inside, but the Texas system pays him nothing for his labor. That is correct, $0.00 for his labor. This bill would give him “time served” credit for his labor. He had done 21 years, so if he earned time served, he would be at 31.5 years and would be immediately eligible for parole. I turned to my grassroots activism and got his family involved in speaking out to their legislative representatives to say yes to the bill. I wrote a testimonial letter to the Texas Inmates Family Association, and they wanted to include it in their testimony packet that they presented to the Texas House Committee. I poured my heart into it, but it failed to get out of committee. The bill died, and so did our hopes for his earned time credit.

I was heartbroken, devastated. And that’s my fault. I had expectations and when it didn’t come through, I couldn’t manage my emotions. This is something I’m working on and learning to undo. Expectations only lead to disappointment. I have to be grateful for whatever is in the moment without any expectations of the future. But at the time, I was not there yet. And so, I was cut deeply again. And through my selfish need to self-soothe through someone else instead of myself, I went to the place that would bring me comfort – into the arms of another man, an old friend who had been giving me a lot of attention lately. He was a good man. Not broken like the last guy. This guy had his life together, and he was on a journey of self-growth, which is what I needed. Again, I made it about me. And even though he wasn’t a good fit for other reasons, I made myself adapt to what could make us a good fit. In the course of this, Vu never wavered. He was torn, I’m sure, but he told me I had to live my life to the fullest. His voice, one of the sweetest sounds I know, was firm yet gentle, “You live your life the way you need to. And when that day comes that I’m out, I will never make you choose. You have to remember that whatever you do in life, you have to choose your happiness over anyone else’s. But I lost you once already, I’m not making that mistake again. So, I choose to love you and be in your life no matter what the circumstance unless you don’t want me.”

When I told the new guy about Vu, he was very caring. He cared about Vu and Vu’s situation, and he told me the same thing. “Thao, I would never make you choose. You have to do what is best for you. I’ll always support you.”

F*#+……… I was torn. And so, I carried on with both men in my life, buying myself some time to figure out how this would all work out in the end. I didn’t visit Vu for Christmas so I could spend time with the other person, even though he offered to drive me to visit Vu. Vu didn’t want us to spend our time together visiting him. I made it up to Vu by visiting him in January before school started. Then work started and I was a busy bee again. The one thing that was always a thorny issue with men in my life was how much time I spent with them. My new guy regularly had moments of unhappiness because I wasn’t giving him enough time or attention. For instance, in February of this year, I had an opportunity come up for a huge project. He wasn’t initially happy about it because he knew it would take up a lot of my time. That made me feel suffocated. Also, he has children. They’re really great kids. Well behaved, kind, and loving. But my aversion to being a mother made it difficult for me to want to fully engage. And their mother was not someone I felt a good energy with. This guy was giving me his all, but I couldn’t give my all in return. It didn’t look promising for us. And most of all, it wasn’t fair to him. I do love him, but it’s not the right kind of love that he deserves.

At the same time, what was promising was Vu’s writing journey. The essay he wrote for my birthday, “My Name is Chino” published in February. You can read it here. We felt aligned again – both of us presented with great achievements and opportunities at the same time. We celebrated with a marathon phone call that lasted 8.5 hours. It was like being young and together again when we talked on the phone all night into the next morning and neither person wanted to hang up. But the topics are mature now. One of our life goals was a writing project. We wanted to change the world one story at a time. Vu’s essay was featured in a national literature festival. He had also inspired and mentored several guys in his prison unit to write their stories. They were incredible essays. I had my students read the essays, and they learned about prison life from the eyes of prisoners themselves. They said it was one of their most favorite assignments ever in their college experience. These guys wrote me and told me the experience changed their lives, too. Vu and I made a good team. I had begun to see a vision of love in my future unravel before my eyes.

I had been working a lot on my inner self. Loving myself truly. Only then can I love others in an authentic way. I was making great progress, learning that I could not truly be happy with this man who has children. It was hard to let him go, but it was the right thing to do for me. I was ready to be alone and not rely on someone to physically soothe my emotional voids; voids that could only be filled by me loving me.

And then COVID hit. It gave me a lot of time for my own self and my inner reflections and growth. But prison is a scary place during this pandemic, and I was very worried about Vu. His unit was a COVID epicenter, and all prisons went on lock down. No calls, no visits. Only letters. But even that took a long time because the US Postal Service is being screwed with. I’m not here to get political. I’m just stating the facts. Mail is very delayed.

In our brief moments of contact, we felt confident we could make it through this treacherous time. We adjusted, like everyone around us, as the whole world and as our country traverses through this unprecedented event in history. We had hope and knew in our hearts what we needed to do. He needed to survive. I needed to thrive. I wrote about my worry for him in an essay titled, “Prison Life in the Time of Coronavirus.” It was requested for publication, affirming that when I pour my heart into writing, others value the story. That is how I thrive, by living with my heart and taking care of myself. What this COVID quarantine has done is help me realize that I can be alone. I don’t need to be in search of love because love is always there. It has always been there. It is within me. I just never looked there. I have thoroughly gained a deep perspective of love from this time alone. And having Vu in my life is not something I need. It’s something I want.

Finally, I want someone. Looking back, I was with men for what I thought I needed. A good husband to provide me stability, a family, and a place in the norms of society for acceptance. Vu doesn’t fit any of those. He’s an inmate in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. But he is my family because he makes me feel like home. I don’t need acceptance from anyone because I accept myself, and I accept him just as he is. I lost him once to our break-up. I lost him a second time to incarceration. I don’t want to lose him again. Third time is the charm, they say. 

COVID helped clarify the vision of my life. I can just be me. Help others in need. Share love and joy and happiness. Stand up and speak out for the rights and dignity of others. Teach others not what to think but how to think. I can see myself living this way until my last breath on Earth. Vu will be out someday, and he’ll be by my side.

And just as the shining light of love had paved our way towards freedom, potential, and possibilities, the door of our future slammed shut. It is so dark, my friends. So very dark. And I am drowning in an abyss of tears and heartache.

On July 21, a prison hospital doctor called and gave me the worst news of my life and surely, of his. Vu has stage IV pancreatic cancer. When the call ended, I slumped to the ground and cried with the feeling of a gaping hole in my heart, like someone was taking away the very essence of me, ripping at my spirit and tearing me down, turning me into a little girl lying on the floor with a crushed soul. I was back in those dismal places where I had lost him before and ached, but this anguish is different. We are not young and foolish anymore. We have grown into loving, caring, understanding, and wholesome people. When you see someone young die, you think it’s sad because they had so much potential. We are not young, but we have so much potential.

For days, I stayed in this sorrowful place, paralyzed by disbelief, numbed by the shock, and drained of tears. To make matters worse, he is not able to make phone calls. And because of COVID, his family cannot visit. He is in a prison hospital with no way to connect to any of us as he faces the reality of less than a year to live. When his mother learned of the news, she collapsed, and when she came to, she choked on her tears. His mother, once again, crying for her son, but this time, not able to hold him. 

I have never asked why. I don’t care why. I just know what is. I grappled with this while stuck in the quicksand of anguish. But in my love for him, I felt like I could not stay here. I am not the one with a terminal illness. This man who I love so much and cherish as a best friend is alone. I have to turn my pain into action on behalf of this man for whatever is left of his time on Earth.

Having spent days in paralysis, I finally decided to move. I am prepared to move mountains for Vu. I spent the last two weeks researching medical information on the illness and legal options that might be available to him. Things don’t look good, but there’s always a way to find a glimmer of hope. That’s who I am, an eternal optimist looking for ways to find love and support and encouragement in the bleakest of times.

This is why I need your help. His family and I found an option for a medical furlough through a process called writ of habeas corpus based on his medical condition. It’s rarely used because it’s rarely granted. But we have a team of attorneys who specialize in this, and they think we have a chance. I go by my gut but also by the facts. Based on both, I believe there’s a chance, too. I’m hoping the judge will have compassion for a man who is dying from an aggressive cancer and undergoing chemotherapy in prison also makes him very at risk if he contracts COVID-19. His unit is a documented epicenter of the virus. It is our argument for a medical furlough.

This medical request through legal compassion will cost $40,000 to prepare and file the writ. There are additional costs of investigators, transcripts, scientific tests, travel for the attorneys, and an expert witness who specializes in pancreatic cancer to review his file and affirm the state of his condition. I do not want him to die, but the truth is this cancer is a killer. There is no way out of this prognosis. I accept that. But we have to try this legal writ because I do not want him to die alone in prison. Until there is no way left, I cannot accept it just yet.

This will probably be my last act of Love for him. We are going up against a system that has torn his life apart, torn his family’s hearts apart, and torn us down to the seam, but I am hanging on to even the last single thread because it is what I have to do for someone I love.

Will you help me in this journey? Will you be part of this act of Love for a man who has shown me what Love truly is? A man who has taught me how to love and accept myself. A man who has been beaten by the system but has never let his beautiful spirit succumb to its horror. A man who has overcome his own inner darkness to provide light for others.

With the support and blessing of the family, I have signed the legal services agreement with the attorneys. The process will take 90-120 days, hopefully. If we can bring him home, even for a few months, so he can live out his days with his loved ones instead of dying in prison, that would be a priceless gift. And if it doesn’t get approved, if the judge denies the request, then I will accept that outcome. If that is the eventual outcome, at least this attempt provides a him a sense of dignity and humanity. An inmate facing an aggressive terminal illness should not have to feel alone and unsupported. I hope you’ll be able to support him. You can support in these ways:

His full name is Hoang Vu Tran. Keep him in your thoughts, prayers, and meditations. Positive and healing energies are a powerful collective force when we truly express them.

If you would like to write him messages of compassion, of love, of care, of goodwill, please leave it in the comments and we’ll pass them on to him.

Support us financially for his legal and medical journey. You can donate through:

Venmo @Love4HVT

Zelle @thao.l.ha@gmail.com (if you get an unregistered message, try my cell 760-580-5904, thank you 🙏)

GoFundMe here

If you would like to keep up with our journey, please subscribe to the blog. Click the “Follow+” at the bottom right corner of this page. I’ll be sharing updates here as we go alongside Vu in his legal and medical journey.

Any funds left after he is gone will be donated to http://www.pancan.org

On behalf of his family, I thank you for reading. I thank you for caring. I thank you for any support you can provide. Most of all, I thank you for loving. Love is all there is and all we can hope for when we close our eyes and say good-bye. My wish for him is to feel in his heart that he is loved. Because that is what he has done for me. In his essay, he writes about leaving prison someday, “To be honest, anywhere is better than to live without hope and the feel of sunshine on my face.” And to that, I’ll end with a quote because Vu loves famous quotes, “To love and be loved is to feel the sun from both sides” – D. Viscott.

Prison Life in the Time of Coronavirus

I’ve been incredibly stressed the last few weeks. Pit of stomach anxious. In tears at times. I have a loved one incarcerated in Texas. Decades ago, we were young lovers. Then he was sentenced to 60 years for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, taking the fall for his buddy who pulled the trigger. He refused to testify against him, even if it meant it would free himself. Honor, bravado, bro code – things he says matter no more.

He’s housed at the Beto Unit. It has the highest concentration of positive COVID-19 cases, growing exponentially every few days. He was coughing on the phone when we talked in March. In early April, they began testing. It went from 6 inmate cases to currently 221. In addition, 2547 are medically restricted, meaning they’ve been exposed to those who tested positive. Positive inmates are isolated in the I wing, dubbed the “death wing” by the inmates. A guy who tested positive was sent back to his cell on the first floor to get his stuff for moving to the death wing. No one knows what he understood about this disease, but it’s clear the way he understood it scared him to death. Literally. Instead of going to his cell, he ran to the third floor and jumped. He died of his injuries.

The prison has been on lockdown since April 6. No movement, locked in your cell for 24 hours. No chow hall, no day room, no showers, no commissary, no phone calls. A couple of peanut butter sandwiches are delivered once a day at random times. No soap, no hand sanitizer. The guys take bird baths – using a towel dipped in the water from the toilet in their cell. These things are not unusual. It’s daily life during normal lockdowns that happen twice a year for contraband inspection. But during a COVID-19 outbreak, things have to change. Prior to April 6, there was no lockdown. Men were in close quarters, no distancing, no cleaning supplies. Walking, eating, working, praying, learning, sleeping in close proximity to one another.

A request was made for masks, soap, and hand sanitizers for the inmates. The state said no. A group of elderly inmates sued and won with a District judge ordering TDCJ to provide the items. The state appealed and a Federal court reversed the decision, denying these men the items. Governor Abbott said good, those supplies should be “saved for healthcare professionals during this crisis” – while at the same time going on the news saying there’s no crisis and not issuing a “stay at home” order for the state.

The local news where the prison is located began to cover the crisis through complaints by family members who have been neglected by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. Monitoring the TDCJ website is the only way we can find any information about what’s going on. As we watched the numbers grow, as we got letters telling us how bad it is in there, how scared they are, how the guards didn’t give a shit, how men are sick left and right, how they’re afraid to tell medical about symptoms because they don’t want to be sent to the death wing – our anxieties and fears grew.

We kept making calls, we kept informing reporters, and with the increased pressure, the warden allowed each inmate one phone call for 15 minutes to update whoever they chose from their loved ones on their registered phone list. He called me on Thursday. What an immense relief that he is not positive. Though, he admitted he was very sick in March, but they were not testing then. We’ll never know if he had it or not. We’ll never know if he spread it or not. He could still get it if what he had in March was the flu. For now, I’m feeling much better. Said they cleaned the unit, even painted his wing – it was painted in my favorite color, aqua blue. He said it was awesome but also hated it because it made him think of me. Said it’s easier sometimes not to think of his loved ones.

He said he loved me and thanked me for still being in his life. Said if he died in prison, he was fine with it because his voice and impact were already out there in the free world. He said the greatest gift I gave him was his voice. You see, in the fall of 2018, I encouraged him to write an essay for an online magazine looking for writings by Asian Americans who were incarcerated. He wasn’t interested. Said he dropped out of school in the 9th grade and wasn’t good at writing. I said I disagreed. His letters to me demonstrate very good writing. Said he’d think about it but made no promises.

A month later, for my birthday, he sent a card and the essay. Said it was a gift so do whatever I want with it. I submitted it. Months later, I got word it was selected for publication. The magazine connected him with an editor and through pen pal method, they helped him revise and polish his essay. In August of 2019, the essay was showcased for a display at the annual Asian American Literature Festival in Washington, DC. He started receiving post cards from festival goers who read his essay. The post cards were provided by the festival organizers and sent to him from the magazine editor. One reader said it made her miss her family in Houston with whom she had lost touch due to an argument. Said she was going to reach out to them because the essay moved her. Reminded her how important family can be.

The guys in there with him were impressed. He told them it changed his life. They wanted his inspiration. I had an idea. If other guys could write essays and send them to me, I’d showcase their essays in my class and have students write to them, responding to their essays. Mimic the spirit of the literature festival. The guys were excited but scared, and like him, thought they didn’t know how to write for shit. He shared his journey and started mentoring them to write their own essays with their truths and their vulnerabilities. It was a hit with the students. Their feedback on the assignment was how much they learned about incarceration and how it humanized the way they think about “prisoners”, especially ones who went in for violent offenses. All the authors were doing lengthy sentences for violent crimes. I sent the post cards and letters from the students to the authors along with a thank you card for sharing their lives with us. They wrote me back with messages to the students of gratitude and hope. One guy told my loved one he quit abusing drugs because he felt like something opened up for him that set him free from his demons of the past. That’s the power of writing. That’s the power of voice.

My loved one’s essay was officially published at the end of February 2020. When the editor let me know, the virus crisis was hitting at all angles on campus. I have been too busy, too stressed, too worried, too anxious. I forgot to share the essay with you all as a celebration of the power of writing and voice. I hope you enjoy it. If you’d like to read the other inmates’ essays, leave a note and I’ll share a link.

The weight of my worries has been lifted for now. I am happy he is safe. I am happy to hear his voice on the phone. But mostly, I am happy he understands the power of his own voice.

“My Name is Chino” by Hoang Vu Tran

My Name is Chino

Sometimes I Cry

When the universe aligns itself, the energy it produces cannot be contained. Two events that are thousands of miles apart, collide during a single moment in time. Your mind doesn’t know it, but your heart feels it.

It’s easier for me to be tough and solid and strong and resilient over me being vulnerable and soft and sentimental and emotional. I’ve become very apt at managing my emotions and compartmentalizing when I need to. But sometimes I cry.

There are moments when emotions overtake my stronghold… my voice breaks, and it quivers, and tears swell into the wells of my eyes until they runneth over. They are a heavy liquid, winding downward, until my lips clamp together, and soak up the salty streams.

A lot has happened in the last two weeks. My fur baby had surgery, which got me all frazzled. But I compartmentalized my emotions. So I didn’t cry. I attended an inspiring Academic Senate plenary session with a keynote speech that moved me immensely. But I didn’t cry. I squeezed in two dinners with my sister and her family who were in Anaheim for Disneyland. My nephews greeted me with big smiles and even bigger hugs. But I didn’t cry. I hosted a board retreat for the 6 incredible women of the Vietnamese American Arts and Letters Association. Some shared their recent traumas of loss, of family struggle, of pain, of sadness, of disappointment, of frustration. I felt their anguish. But I didn’t cry.

Seadrift had a sold out screening in San Diego. I had an engaging discussion with adult high school students at the CLC campus. I had a beautiful time with my Social Problems class. Then I took off and had a wonderful time at the University of Texas at Tyler with Professor Bob Sterken and his honors students. Later in the evening, over 100 students came to view Seadrift, and we had a lovely and robust discussion. Those students are brilliant and compassionate. They give me a lot of hope for the future. I then flew home early on Friday, November 15th to tackle the day. It was a big day for a lot of reasons. Bringing Seadrift to my community was a huge deal! I was elated that almost 300 people showed up for the screening. We had a dynamic, intellectual, and emotional Q & A session. I was touched by the praise, the critiques, and the standing ovation at the end. But I didn’t cry.

Now let me take you to the early afternoon of Friday, November 15th. The MiraCosta cafeteria is set up for a celebration. The decor is a gorgeous Phi Theta Kappa (PTK) deep blue and gold. PTK is the community college honors society. James Elliott, our keynote speaker, is international PTK president. The seats are filled with attentive students, staff, and faculty. James is a former felon who turned his life around and made incredible strides. He helped change Delaware legislation regarding prison reform and changed the policies and practices of the Coca-Cola Foundation regarding scholarships that were once not available to people with felonies. His talk had the audience in awe of his inspirational change making activism. His words moved me. I almost cried.

After his speech, we had a panel of MiraCosta, Palomar, and SDSU students who were formerly incarcerated. One of those students is my mentee, Ashley Gerdo. She was abused and abandoned by her parents. As a foster youth, she went to drugs to cope, and by 18, she was serving felony time. She made a choice to get clean and has been sober for 8 years. Two years ago, she came to MiraCosta to change her life. She is well on her way to reaching her dreams of becoming a NICU nurse. The other student panelists shared similar journeys. To hear about their most vulnerable stories of pain, trauma, addiction, poverty, violence, abuse… and how they overcame these dark abysses through education and with people who loved them and supported them and did not judge them for their past — one simply cannot listen and not feel something tug at their heartstrings. Everyone in the room was near tears. I almost cried.

As I listened, my colleague who runs our service learning program and our food pantry, Bea Palmer, comes and stands next to me. She whispers in my ear that her sister is one of the students on stage. Jimmy Figeuroa, one of my former students, a former Oceanside gang member, who went on to Berkeley and then law school, and is now a hometown hero for all the work he is doing to serve the community… he was at the event. He sent Bea a text that her sister was on stage, and Bea needed to come over right away. She continues sharing with me that she could not believe how far her sister had come given her broken past and poor decisions that led her to a life of crime and incarceration. Her voice was quivering, her eyes were near tears. I hugged her. I almost cried.

At the end of the ceremony, the moderator announces my name and asks me to come to the stage to give closing remarks. She says very nice things about me and shares with the audience about the work I’ve done for formerly incarcerated students. She mentions the fund I set up in the Foundation office to help these students for whatever they might need. It’s called the Transitions Fund, to help formerly incarcerated students transition into success. It’s been used for car repairs, rent, food, medical costs… things that life throws at you and you just need a helping hand. She then announces that PTK and an anonymous donor has a check for $500 to give to the Transitions fund. Delores Loedel, my faculty colleague and PTK faculty adviser, comes over to hand me the donation. I am so touched! I almost cried.

I began to thank Delores and PTK for supporting these students with this generous donation. At that moment, I am looking at the audience. But then I turn my gaze toward the stage. I see James Elliott. I see Ashley Gerdo. I see Robert Bennett. I see Ivan Chavez. I see Sandra Mora. I see Martin Montanez. And I start to cry. I try to get the right kind of words out to honor the beauty that I see in each of these individuals. I feel so much love for each one of them. They have been through so much. Yet here they are, in front of all of us, being the most authentic versions of themselves, sharing their broken pasts, their realistic presents, and their hopeful futures. I see Bea Palmer in the crowd beaming with pride for her sister Sandra. So I invite her to the front and give her my time so she can tell her sister how proud she is of her. She cries as she speaks. Her sister sheds tears, too.

When it’s over, we have wonderful laughs and hugs and cheers. We make promises to continue helping each other and caring for each other. We take photos with bright and big smiles. And then we depart. Later that evening, Seadrift happens, and then I go home. I am tired. Very fatigued. But in the last waking moments before I doze off, I remember that it is November 15th. It is the date listed on the Texas Department of Criminal Justice website that marks the parole release of someone who is like a little brother to me. After serving 26 years of a 50 year sentence, getting locked up when he was only 17 years old, my 44 year old little brother was supposed to go home Friday, November 15th. I look at my phone, but I got no message. I wonder if he was delayed again.

With no alarm set, I open my eyes, and it is bright. It felt amazing to sleep in. I always sleep deeply on a day that I cry. It’s like the energy is zapped from me and poured into the exertion and release of such strong feelings. I reach for my phone to see what time it is. It’s 6:45 am. I have a message from 5:29 am.

IMG_5844

I dialed the number and it is indeed him. He is home! Home at last. Free at last. A 44 year old man who completed 2 associates degrees while incarcerated is now home with his family. We talked for hours. This morning, I called him again. We talk for a couple more hours. In the hours and hours of our conversations, one of the most significant things he told me was the time of his release. He said he walked into the door of his parents’ home on November 15th at approximately 2:00 pm Texas time. That is approximately 12:00 pm Oceanside time. It is approximately the same time I was crying for my formerly incarcerated students. I realize now that at that moment, I must have been crying for him, too. Because in that moment, he became formerly incarcerated, too.

 

 

 

 

 

Love, Forever… In A Tiny Prison Town

When we choose to pay attention to our heart, our inner sense of self, and our emotions of love, the universe listens and often sends messages of affirmation. Last weekend, I spent 3 days and 3 nights in 3 cities: 2 film screenings, 2 lectures, 3 social dinners, and 2 prison visits. Big events in big cities. But the biggest events in my mind were my prison visits which took place in a tiny prison town 2 hours south of Dallas – Tennessee Colony, Texas (population 300). The town is home to 5 state prison units – Beto, Coffield, Gurney, Michael, and Powledge.

One loved one, like a little brother to me,  incarcerated at the Michael Unit, finally got parole approved (after 11 rejections) last month! He’s done 26 years, sentenced at age 18 for a crime he foolishly committed at 16. We are thrilled to have him come home soon, hopefully this June when he completes his reentry courses. While he was incarcerated, he earned 2 associates degrees and is ready to find work to be a productive member of society. I am so excited he will get a new chance at life after receiving a life sentence when he barely turned 18 years of age. He will have challenges, but his determination is evident, and we are here to support him all along the way.

My other loved one, an old flame, my first love, is at the Beto Unit, having served 22 years so far of a 60 year sentence for a crime he didn’t commit. Wrongful convictions of vulnerable and/or indigent people are common. Heartbreaking, to say the least. When I learned of his sentence, he was 24 and I was 23. I cried for a long time. His family cried then and still cries now. On occasions when I feel melancholy, I still cry. The pain of a wrongful conviction never heals. We just do what we have to do to endure. For a long period of time, we lost touch – he withdrew into his prison life, and I forged on with my own path in life that required me to shed my old life, which meant shedding my old associations. Seven years ago, his sister reached out to me and encouraged me to write him. I was scared. I didn’t know what to write. As a foolish person, I only thought of myself, and not of him.  His sister told me, “He would be so happy to hear from you.” But so many years had passed. Even though he crossed my mind now and then, it was always sad thoughts. I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to be sad. I let the catchphrase of “the past is the past, leave it there” control my attitude. So I didn’t write him.

In the last several years, I returned to the roots of my past, revisiting memories of the experiences and the kinds of people who are a deep part of who I am – they are what I am grounded in. In the last several years, I had the opportunity to participate in social activism against the injustice of private prisons. I had the opportunity to mentor and support formerly incarcerated students on campus. I had the opportunity to learn from my students and my colleagues that I can revisit my past as a way to heal, rather than a pathway to pain and suffering. When we screened the film, “Life After Life”, I embraced the hopes and wishes for those who have been in for so long. And finally, it was through my memoir writing last year that I decided to write him again. When I was forced to confront my past in order to write about it, the memories and emotions were so powerful that I felt the need to reconnect. And so I wrote him. And he wrote me back. The first line of his first letter, “It is funny how your letters always seem to find me in the darkest places of my life, as I always hoped that you would write me eventually one day.” We have resumed our friendship and our connection, and it is a beautiful thing. One of the most beautiful things I have in my life right now.

It is not often that I get a chance to visit, but when I do, I walk away with the kind of gratitude that is rare. As I hustle and bustle through life, time is something I know is valuable. But the time that you get during a prison visit, believe me, you truly understand that it’s fucking valuable. The first time I visited, I was surprised how scared I was when driving up to the unit. The chain linked fence, the big concrete walls, the barbed wire on top of the walls, the large bright lights, and of course, the tower with the guard and the gun. Very intimidating. After going through the security measures, I sat in the visitation room waiting for him to arrive. As he walked out the door and along the corridor, I saw him through the glass – it was bizarre that I felt so happy and also utterly devastated at the same time. Happy to see him after over two decades had passed, and devastated that he had spent that time locked up for something he didn’t do.

There is no doubt that the time we get to visit is precious. When the guard comes by to tell you there’s 5 minutes left, time becomes even more treasured. It is bittersweet. Saying good bye makes me sad, so I say “Until next time.” And so, last weekend, we said “Until next time,” and I left the Beto Unit feeling happy and devastated.

I had to grab a quick fast food lunch to make it in time for my Sunday evening film screening in Dallas. I decided on Burger King – a nostalgic joint, the choice of my childhood meals when my parents wanted to treat us to something nice. As a small framed kid, I was always proud I could finish a whole Whopper. I ordered a Whopper and onion rings because I never liked their fries. As I savored my rare fast food meal, I thought of the resilience of my loved one who is incarcerated with no parole eligibility for another 8 years.

During our visit, he was cheerful, positive, and philosophical. He seemed lighthearted, asked questions with depth, and responded to my questions with the kind of answers that left me in awe of his worldliness. How could someone who has been trapped inside prison walls for so long have such a broad and deep lens on the world outside of this concrete hell? The answer is that he reads. A lot. I reflected on his circumstance, and I thought to myself, “How he has been able to maintain such a grateful disposition and hopeful heart?”  To survive a maximum security unit, he is sometimes forced to embody a hardened persona, being entrenched in the harshest and most violent conditions as an inmate at one of the toughest units in the state. Yet, after all these years, he can still express love, kindness, generosity, and gratitude to his family and loved ones. Rather than choose darkness and hate, he chooses love and hope. I am in awe of his strength and courage. And so, I learn from him and am reminded from him, that I choose love and hope for myself and everyone else. And especially, I choose love and hope for him, too, even though his circumstance is bleak. If he is ever released, he has a detainer for deportation. The current administration is determined to deport him. In one of his writings, he expresses his plight, “I am terrified to think that my family escaped Vietnam only for me to return there almost 50 years later, in handcuffs. I hope the land of my father feels that I am redeemable. But to be honest, anywhere is better than to live without hope and the feel of sunshine on my face.” No matter where he is or will be, I will always love and have hope for him. This small prison town made me sad, but his ability to have perpetual love and hope reminds me to do the same.  When I stared at the pile of onion rings I had remaining, I noticed that the universe was listening to my thoughts and expressing the essence of his being. In the pile of mostly circle shaped onion rings were 2 that looked like this… Love, Forever.

IMG_3009

Let’s Talk About Race

Let’s dialogue about race. It’s an uncomfortable conversation for most of us. And anytime the topic is raised, the stress level of the parties involved surely go up a measure or two. With my last entry, I got some critical responses of which I was called out for calling out my Father as a racist. What kind of person would call out her own Father and an entire group of people (her own people, Vietnamese Americans) as racist?!  Ummm… an honest one?

But allow me to be clear about how I understand race as a sociologist and as a person of color. I’m not here to appease anyone or to lecture anyone. My hope is that it provides more perspectives for all of us to consider in how we think or feel about race as a concept that is very much alive in the American social fabric.

To begin, there are a lot of well-meaning people who I believe really do not want to see race. You know these people and you may be one yourself.  You want to see the good in everyone. You love those viral videos of black and white kids playing in the front yard together, meaning they live in the same neighborhood with each other, and their parents have pot luck meals together with a multicultural menu that would make delicious ingredients for the hip, fusion restaurants lining the streets of mixed neighborhoods that have somehow thwarted gentrification. You genuinely want everyone to get along, and you strive to treat everyone the same. But ask yourself, what are you ignoring on a larger scale when you see race only through what you hope and wish for?

Then there are the outright racists. These people are the polar opposite of the I Don’t See Race folks. They are the people we see on the news and documentaries about White Supremacists, the KKK, and White Nationalists. They either don KKK hoods or sport khaki pants, red hats, and American flag themed apparel. Their favorite mottos are “White Power”, “White Pride”, and “White Genocide”. These folks are angry. They see a race war coming, and they’re preparing themselves for the race apocalypse. The takeover by non-white folks will be defended to the death. The two images I’ve described reflect a white supremacist of the past and a white supremacist of the present. The white supremacists of the past are easier to write off with their kooky Klan hoods, but the white supremacists of the present are almost alluring. Think Richard Spencer. He is clean cut, sports suits and ties, articulate, and he holds conferences (instead of cross burnings). He presents a panache version of the white supremacist.  Central to the major difference that these folks have from the well meaning I Don’t See Race folks is that white supremacists not only see race, they see race as central to their identity. Race isn’t just a side thing, it’s a core central thing to who we are and how we should live our lives. And to them, clearly, the white race is supreme and superior.

Somewhere in between these two polar opposites are a variety of folks who understand race in some fashion or form. My intention is not to get us into a discussion about this complexity. There are tons of books and stories out there that show how complex the topic of race was and is and will be. My intention is to try to simplify how I think of race in a way that makes it easier for me to live within a society that is so very complicated. Let me start by stating that racism and being racist is about POWER. It’s as simple as that. If you can wrap your head around the idea that RACISM IS ABOUT POWER, you’re off to a good start for simplification.

Let us use my Father as an example, because it’s a real, and not hypothetical one, and because it can hopefully clear the air with folks who are uncomfortable with me calling him out as racist AND with folks who wonder how I can still love my Father unconditionally if I truly believe he is racist.

My Father, like all of us, has prejudices. I, myself, have prejudices. If you say you don’t have any prejudice, you’re in denial. You do. And these prejudices are not a one size fits all kind of prejudice. There’s a concept in the social sciences called the Social Distance Scale where USC researcher, Emory Bogardus, outlines for us in measurable ways how close or far we feel about people who are different from us. His scale empirically measures people’s “willingness to participate in social contacts of varying degrees of closeness with members of diverse social groups, such as racial and ethnic groups. The scale asks people the extent to which they would be accepting of each group.” A lower score means one is willing to have the closest social distance to someone different while a higher score means one is setting themselves furthest from someone different. Here are the categories:

As close relatives by marriage (i.e., as the legal spouse of a close relative) (score 1.00)

As my close personal friends (2.00)

As neighbors on the same street (3.00)

As co-workers in the same occupation (4.00)

As citizens in my country (5.00)

As non-citizen visitors in my country (6.00)

Would exclude from entry into my country (7.00)

If you ask my Father about black men, he would rate himself as 2. Remember I said he didn’t want me to marry a black man? He would not score 1 for black men. But his neighbor and close personal friend is a black man. My Father has helped him on many occasions and has had them over to the house many times. He’s worked and gotten along fine with black people. He would not exclude black men in any way, except for marrying me – I know in his mind he thinks, “Who would want to marry his hard headed, argumentative, bossy daughter anyway?”

Does this make him racist? Where does power come into play? If I listened to him as my authority figure and denied black men a chance to date, court, woo, marry me, then my Father has won. It would be a racist situation because I’ve allowed my Father to have power over my decision making, which then would in turn deny a man based on the color of his skin. Well, too bad, Dad, you lose on this one. Funny how things work out, as he’s not objected to the current guy in my life who is bi-racial, Vietnamese and Black! I laugh out loud at this situation because how is my Father gonna deny this dude? He’s half Viet after all! Even though he’s half black. But it doesn’t matter what my Father thinks. With my decision, I have taken his power away. So I’ll backtrack from my last blog and state that my Father has some prejudice against black men, but I’ve taken away his power to deny me a black man if I should so choose to be with one.

If my Father was a judge, and his job was to certify marriages, and he felt that black men should only marry black women, and he exerted his power to deny an interracial couple their marriage, then he would be racist, like Judge Keith Bardwell from Louisiana did. Judge Keith Bardwell has a prejudice, the same one as my Father does, but Judge Bardwell is racist, enacting his authority and power over other people. I don’t worry about my Father’s prejudice because, truth be told, he doesn’t have a lot of power in society. He’s just an immigrant who worked hard to provide for his family. Luckily his prejudiced beliefs did not stick with me. Now…imagine if a whole bunch of people thought like my Father were able to pass on their beliefs to the next generation, and the next generation practiced this belief. Would that matter? This is where the issue of preference comes in. Are you racist if you prefer to be with someone of your own race? Or what if you prefer someone not of your own race (for example, those Asian women who say they don’t date Asian men)? I would not put this on the level of racism. But the reason why it’s important to point these things out and dissect them is because it begs the question… when does this become a problem, if it does at all? Is there a tipping point when this example becomes racist?

What if my Father and those who thought like him voted on a law that would not allow interracial marriages (this law was real before, it was called miscegenation laws). That’s power. That’s where he and they have power. Power comes in numbers. This is how prejudiced ideas become racist practices and policies in a society. And this is where the panache white supremacists are dangerous. They have money, they are educated, and they are mobilizing themselves in ways that bring power to the table. We should not tolerate these views. We have to keep prejudice in check.

To keep prejudice in check, we need to understand and dispel racial/ethic stereotypes because this is often where prejudice comes from. If we don’t address prejudice, we allow the opportunity for those prejudices to become forms of power. And that’s racist. Individuals can be racist when they have power over others. Institutions can be racist when they operate in a way that purposely harms certain groups (think Jim Crow laws). And structures can be racist when they operate in a way that seems to be neutral but actually harms certain groups over others (the war on drugs, redlining in real estate, voter suppression, etc).

For me, I’m less occupied with my Father’s prejudice than I am with society’s individuals, institutions, and structures that enact prejudice through power and will over others. That’s the racism I’m concerned with. Fred L. Pincus wrote an essay that is easily digestible and helps explain how discrimination comes in many forms. In the essay, he provides examples of discrimination at the individual level, institutional level, and structural level. It is through this lens of power that prejudice becomes racist. In this way, Pincus argues that it’s not possible to have reverse racism at the institutional and structural level. At the individual level, unless someone has power over another, it’s just plain prejudice. On a macro level, the power structure of American society is white (and male to be clear about sexism in our society). If you look at the people in power, not just individuals like Oprah Winfrey or Jay Z and Beyonce, the vast amounts of power in wealth, in politics, in corporate leadership, in government decision making – it is white male dominated. So while individuals who are white can be treated unfairly because they’re white, it is a far less likely scenario than it is for someone non-white. White people have never been banned from voting (white women have). White people have never been banned from owning land (white women have). White people have never been banned from getting a higher education (white women have). White people have never been banned from military service (white women have). Do you see a pattern here? It is no wonder then, that white, college educated women (who are awaken to this historical prejudice turned sexism through power over them) socio-politically align themselves with minorities. A recent poll demonstrates this phenomenon.

IMG_1400.PNG

And while the argument can be made that those laws banning minority individuals and women from equality don’t exist anymore, don’t forget the legacy of those laws AND that there are new policies and practices today that pretend to be neutral but empirically affect women and minorities negatively. In some cases, like the War on Drugs policy, there is evidence that the negative effect on racial minorities is an intentional one. The War on Drugs and Mass Incarceration is an example of a neutral policy (drug enforcement) that has had more of a negative effect on black men, and recently black women, than most anyone else. Do black people use and become addicted to illicit drugs more than other groups? Not so, according to American Addiction Centers – a comprehensive, research based drug treatment network that establishes there is no scientific claim to race based drug addiction. The center’s publications further informs us about the role of race in addiction with compelling evidence of the War on Drugs as President Nixon’s assault on the Civil Rights Movement. Nixon, was no doubt, a racist. He used his power to exert and enforce his ill will and prejudice, destroying entire communities and generations of minorities.

And that is why, my friends, we MUST VOTE! Otherwise, we end up with people in power who have prejudices that can be turned into discrimination. If you think you’re not racist, and you hope for your dreams of equality and equity some day, you will never have it if you don’t vote for your hope. White people in general are not the problem. Prejudiced Asian people are not the problem. Anybody, regardless of the color of their skin, who has prejudice and is in power, and uses that power to enforce their ideals of discrimination – these people are the problem. Do not allow them their power! Vote!

My Road Trip To Mississippi With 5 Trump Supporters

Believe me, this was not something I expected. But sometimes life has a strange way of converging various aspects of experiences into times and places which I find intriguing enough to share. Two months ago, my Dad mentioned that he was going to attend a reunion of his flight school and see his flight instructor for the first time in 47 years. In 1971 he was a member of the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (South Vietnam) and was selected for pilot training by the USAF in the United States. He trained at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. I was intrigued by his reunion event and available to attend since I’m on sabbatical. It’s a part of my family’s history, and revisiting this part of my past would be a rare opportunity. It would surely allow for some deep reflection on stories to be written in my memoir. The event was held Thursday, October 25, at Keesler Air Force Base. I flew to Houston on Tuesday, October 23, and the next morning got in a van with Dad, Mom, 2 of Dad’s Vietnamese pilot buddies also attending the reunion, and the wife of one of those pilot buddies.

It started off quite pleasantly. I knew one of his buddies well, Mr. Tong. Every time we see each other, Mr. Tong teases me about how sad he is that I rejected his son as a suitor. He still refers to me as “dau huc” (missed out daughter in law). I met Mr. Thanh and his wife for the first time. They met my parents through another one of my Dad’s pilot buddies. By the time we got to New Orleans, LA, we took a cool detour through the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge – the world’s longest bridge over continuous water (23.83 miles). As we passed the Mississippi state line, I started to notice the confederate flag flying over various sites. By the time we got to Biloxi, the flag was everywhere. We were near the hotel by Keesler Air Force Base when we passed the museum of Jefferson Davis’ home – he was the first and only President of the Confederate States from 1861-1865. The home was a mansion even in today’s standards, with a distinct plantation style architecture. There were several modern mansions along the coast of Biloxi that undoubtedly maintained the plantation structure and had tall, old trees on the lawn, facing vast water views of the Gulf of Mexico.

My emotions turned weary as the plantation homes and the confederate flag conjured up thoughts of the harsh struggles, devastations, and deaths from the era of slavery – and these struggles, devastations, and deaths that still happen now through slavery’s legacy. The fancy mansions and resort style restaurants on the coast are a stark contrast from the dilapidated homes and overgrown/dried out lawns of the homes and businesses that are inland, just a few miles away. Mississippi is the poorest state in America, dead last by measures of household income and poverty rates. The racial bifurcation was also clear. I observed mostly white folks walking along the beach, frolicking at the parks, and checking in with luxury, valeted vehicles to the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino. Black folks were sitting on their porches, riding the buses, and working as cooks and staff at the restaurants and casino (but notably the casino dealers were mostly white). As a Vietnamese American, my eyes and ears always drift in the direction of other Vietnamese Americans. I saw a few of them in the public spaces, and there were a handful of Vietnamese restaurants, but most of them were at the slot machines and table games of the casino. So another stereotype was observed – the seemingly wealthy Asian person with an affinity, and often times an addiction, for gambling. The Vietnamese in and near Biloxi were immigrants who resettled to the area mostly for fishing and shrimping jobs. Several friends I knew from Houston have parents who were in the fishing and shrimping industry along the coast of Mississippi – Biloxi, Pass Christian, and Gulfport, to name a few. These friends left the Mississippi small towns in search of something else when they moved to Houston on their own as young adults. The Vietnamese community of Mississippi is rich with its own historical and geographic context. If the South is known for its regional sociocultural and sociohistorical flavor of Black and White relations, then where do Vietnamese fall in this binary of a paradigm?

I’m consistently aware of how my life was impacted in various ways because I’m an Asian American who grew up in the South. As a Vietnamese American whose adult mind was molded to see the world through a sociological lens, there is no way for me to escape the notion that the South is consistently understood as a place where race relations are viewed through Black and White. Asian Americans in the South exist, in large numbers, and yet the imagination of those not from the South have a roadblock in seeing Asian Americans as part of the South’s story and landscapes. Living in California now, I am comfortable around the ideological bubble consisting of my progressive/liberal/left leaning friends, co-workers, and neighbors. When I tell people I grew up in Texas, these are questions that often come at me…

“What was that like? Living in the South?!”

“There are Asians in Texas?”

“Wow, you must be really glad you escaped from there.” (Often, my first thought was – you mean escape from Vietnam? Oh, wait, you mean escape from Texas!)

These comments and questions stem from a regional stereotype – that the South is a place known for its racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and evangelical Christianity. I understand why these stereotypes exist. I know many friends from my days in Texas who are racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic, and ultra religious. I confess that I’ve severed ties with many of these folks, unfriending them from social media when I see posts that cause me extreme discomfort or avoiding social gatherings where I know there will be a majority of these viewpoints in the room. In this current climate of vitriol and polarization of social and political views, it is easy to get caught up in a preference, even a need, for confirmation bias. It is better for my mental health to be exposed to views that are similar to mine. It is comforting to disconnect from views that wound my heart because of the attack on my values and world lens.

In the era of Trump, my own view is that we are living under conditions of policies that are harmful to many, cruel words that stroke the flames of violent ideas, and the most sickening displays and actions of such violent ideas – there is no shortage of examples. Woven through the heinous incidents of late is a common thread of the angry, violent, white male who identifies in some fashion or form with the alt-right, misogynist, racist, xenophobic, Trumpian base. I’ll say it loud and clear, I despise Trump, I despise politicians that support and enable his political and social ideals, and I often reject people who are Trump supporters. Note that I use the word “often”. The often but not always is intentional. As progressive/leftist as I may seem to be, I have always seen myself as an independent (politically) and a humanist (socially), and sometimes I even have differences with people who identify themselves as Democrats or liberals. So when it comes to Trump supporters, I used to see varying shades of red, believing that not all Trump supporters are bad people. But I know many people, who I highly respect, view Trump supporters as the untouchable outcasts with whom there is no common ground left. Lately, it has become harder and harder to have any wiggle room for someone who still says they support Trump or that they are in favor of Republican policies.

So what to do when you’re on a road trip to Mississippi with 5 Trump supporters – your parents and their 3 friends??? I have always had a struggling relationship with my Dad. Sometimes I see him as a hero who saved me and my Mom from the aftermath of the war in Vietnam. He’s the man who worked multiple low wage jobs to provide for us. He taught me so many values that I try to espouse today – humility, simplicity, hard work, and generosity. But he’s also a racist and sexist who was socialized through the patriarchal culture of Vietnam, the fundamental evangelical Christianity of Southern Baptists, and extreme views from factions of the Christian Identity Movement (bizzaare, I know – I promise to explain fully in my memoir).  He votes Republican mostly because of abortion and anti-communism. He’s the man who thinks Ho Chi Minh is worse than Hitler. Last Christmas I walked out of my sister’s house because the political conversation with my Dad got so heated. I felt like running away, like escaping Texas and going back to my comfort zone of California.

On the road trip to Mississippi, he didn’t bring up Trump. I was actually feeling warmth and connectedness with him. I admired his USAF pilot certificates, his USAF wings pin, and his renegade casual style of dress at the business casual reunion event (he sported sneakers, dad jeans, white t-shirt, and a black zip up jacket he wears all the time because my mom once complimented him in it; everyone else was in suit, tie, shiny belt, and dressy shoes – see photos at the end for evidence). I was glad that the whole way there he never mentioned politics. It was on the way home that the conversation turned to Trump because my Mom brought him up. She’s not religious. She’s not even political. But she’s very engaged with what is going on in Vietnam. You see, her family is still there. Although her parents are both gone, her siblings and extended family are there. She has made over 20 trips to Vietnam since the country’s economic reforms started in 1986 called Doi Moi. Part of this reform recognized that the vast amount of money that Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) were remitting to their families in Vietnam could be a monetary injection to the country’s economic woes. Mama’s body is here with us, but part of her heart has always been and still is in Vietnam.

Recently, the citizens of Vietnam have been protesting the Vietnamese government’s economic deals with China. Several of Vietnam’s most desirable areas for development have been leased to China for 99 years. This land grab is also happening in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and various other areas in Southeast Asia. The land is developed into high end, luxury resorts and have become enclaves and playgrounds for the Chinese – worst of all, they don’t employ or even allow non-Chinese on resort playgrounds. Vietnamese citizens who protest are arrested and imprisoned. The Vietnamese government has explicitly stated they would punish protestors. They even arrested and imprisoned a young Vietnamese American from Houston who was in MBA school in Singapore and went to Vietnam for anti-Chinese protests. He was released 40 days after his arrest and deported from Vietnam. Upon his return to America, he spoke out about how he was coerced to make an apology on Vietnam’s state television and promising to not participate in any more anti-state activities. There are news stories from Vietnamese American programming airing out the human rights violations that the Vietnamese government are committing all for the economic gains of corrupt government officials who are in bed with China. Needless to say, many Vietnamese, including my Mom, HATE the Chinese. So she likes the fact that Trump waged a trade war against China. The hope is that China will sink and take the Vietnamese Communist government with it. My Dad stayed silent on the matter. I think he didn’t want to ruffle my feathers. Mr. Tong and Mr. & Mrs. Thanh strongly agreed with my Mom.

I learned that Mr. Thanh was one of the pilots who couldn’t make it out of Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon. Left behind, he was arrested and sent to “re-education” camp as a prisoner of war. For the first year, his wife didn’t even know if he was alive or not. Upon learning a year later that he was imprisoned at a camp hundreds of miles away, she wanted to see him. The government allowed his family to visit for two hours, once a month. Her journey to see him took an entire day of travel. Mrs. Thanh told me during the first visit, all they did was cry. Tears and wails from a mixed bag of emotions – joy that he was alive, anguish that he looked so frail from hunger and thirst, anger that he was regularly beaten, and hope that he might someday be released. For 6 years, she took the day long trek once a month to see her husband for two hours. He was eventually released, but they lived in dire poverty and under constant surveillance and fear. In 1989, the US adopted a program known as Humanitarian Operation which allowed those who were imprisoned for their loyalty to either the South Vietnamese or the American government to leave Vietnam. They applied and in 1996 that they were able to leave Vietnam for the American Dream. But it wouldn’t be easy for Mr. and Mrs. Thanh. As a former political prisoner, Mr. Thanh faced daunting financial and social obstacles. He and his cohort of former political prisoner countrymen were old men, with an average age of 58, and struggled with being so old and set in their ways to adapt to a new land, learn the language, and find good jobs. For many, they were unable to cope. We knew several who had committed suicide, often leaving behind suicide letters describing their disillusionment with the reality of their American Dream. Mr. and Mrs. Thanh faced many struggles, but they agreed with my Dad that they were lucky to come to Houston where a large, established Vietnamese community already existed. The resources and networks of people like them assisted them in adjusting to life in America. They are grateful for their working class life and for the opportunities their children took to succeed as the next generation. Mr. and Mrs. Thanh hate the Communists, hate the Vietnamese government, and would like to see the government toppled. My Mom interjected a quote from a Vietnamese government critic, “The Vietnamese Communist government is evil. Either we topple them or we die.” Mr. and Mrs. Thanh, and Mr. Tong agreed.

The political history of Vietnamese Americans reminds us that the vast majority of the first generation of these immigrants vote Republican. The influence of their Catholic membership affirms their anti-abortion stance. The influence of war and oppression affirms their anti-Communist stance. So how did this make me feel after summarizing these things about the 5 Trump supporters? It was tough. I’m still processing it now, one week later. After listening closely and intently to their stories and perspectives, I decided to debate them, just for the hell of it. I know it won’t change their mind about voting Republican, but I just couldn’t sit back in silence without at least speaking my own mind. They had their time, and I listened, so now they should listen to my point of view.

Through my talking points, I got them to agree that the Affordable Care Act was a good thing for them. They didn’t realize that the Republicans are currently trying to dismantle it. I got Mr. Tong and my Mom to agree that abortion is a moral issue shaped by religious views and that there is no place for religion in politics – the separation of church and state. My Dad and Mr. & Mrs. Thanh disagreed given their religious devotions. I got them to agree that Trump lies, but their rationale was that every politician lies. I got Mr. Tong and my mom to agree that Trump’s anti-immigration policies are cruel and that it is negatively affecting Vietnamese Americans. Mr. and Mrs. Thanh and my Dad felt that illegals are breaking the law, and that Vietnamese immigrants who broke the law deserve their punishment even up to deportation. I was baffled by my Dad’s views because my uncle (his youngest brother) was recently released from prison. He gained citizenship prior to being incarcerated. I posed the hypothetical to my Dad, “What if Uncle was not a citizen and was now going to be deported? How would you feel?” He stood by his view that even my uncle should be deported if that was the law. [Ugh. And wow.] None of them care that Trump is racist because they themselves are all racist – it sucks to state this but a lot of older Vietnamese Americans are racists. They learned the racial hierarchy through the saturation of negative stereotypes and demonizing of minorities in the media. My Mom, however, sees the world more through class. She would be ok with me marrying a black man as long as he was rich. My dad would not support me marrying a black man at all. Something about some scripture verse about race mixing being an abomination to God blah blah blah… when he first told me this decades ago, I remember being so angry and yelling at him in my head, “What the fuck ever are you talking about?! You’re fucking crazy!” Mr. Tong and Mr. & Mrs. Thanh agreed that they wouldn’t be happy if their children married someone black. I was so exhausted at this point. I’m just exhausted typing this and rehashing this conversation. I just went silent after the race part of the conversation. I guess I was too hurt and emotionally drained to keep going. I stayed silent the rest of the ride home to Houston. At that point, all I could do was chuckle to myself at my sucky situation, realizing that I was on a road trip from Mississippi with 5 Trump supporters while at the very exact same moment in Oceanside, Ca, at MiraCosta College – the college where I teach – Bernie Sanders, Mike Levin, James Elia, Eric Dean, and a whole host of other progressive champions were gathered to rally young voters and endorse Democrat candidates. Why was I in this energy draining space of cognitive dissonance when I could have been in an energizing space of confirmation bias?

A couple of days ago, I read a piece by Tayari Jones in Time titled “There’s Nothing Virtuous in Finding Common Ground” where the author notes,

“The middle is a point equidistant from two poles. That’s it. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being neither here nor there. Buried in this is a false equivalency of ideas, what you might call ‘good people on both sides’ phenomenon. When we revisit our shameful past, ask yourself, Where was the middle? Rather than chattel slavery, perhaps we can agree on a nice program of indentured servitude?… The search for the middle is rooted in conflict avoidance and denial. For many Americans it is painful to understand that there are citizens of our community who are deeply racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic. Certainly, they reason, this current moment is somehow a complicated misunderstanding. Perhaps there is some way to look at this – a view from the middle – that would allow us to communicate and realize that our national identity is the tie that will bind us comfortably, and with a bow. The headlines that lament a ‘divided’ America suggest that the fact that we can’t all get a long is more significant than the issues which we are sparring… Is it more essential that we comprehend the motives of white nationalists, or is it more urgent that we prevent them from terrorizing communities of color and those who oppose racism? … For the people directly affected, the culture war is a real war, too.”

Yeah, damn straight. I totally agree as a reader. So how do I reconcile this given that my parents are Trump supporters? I ask you, dear reader, no matter where your political views lie, have you decided that in this current political climate, you would shun someone and not engage with them if they are on the opposite side of where you lie on the spectrum? I confess I have done this to many. But my parents. Damn, that’s a hard one. I guess I did it in my own way when I never applied for a job in Texas after earning my degrees. It meant being far, far away from my parents and only seeing them on the holidays – and I was totally fine with that. This was well before Trump came into the political scene. This was just as Bush was destroying us with war and the military industrial complex and Obama was coming on to the scene. It was my escape, to be free of the bond that we might have once had as parent and young child. And now that bond is much looser as parent and adult child. It was to escape the Texas, the South, the Red Republican dominance of ideology.

Needless to say, I’m back in Oceanside and back in my comfort zone. I remain hopeful. My cousin’s daughter, a 19 year old, just voted for the first time in her life, and she voted for Beto. Another group of young Vietnamese I met and talked to in Houston also voted Beto. A Vietnamese American close to me and close to my age who is religious and conservative told me she hates Trump. She is voting for Beto. These examples feed my anecdotal evidence of a wave of change in the Vietnamese American political landscape. And my observations reflect a larger trend – a recent article from NBC News reported that  Vietnamese Americans in Orange County, CA (once largely Republican) are now moving toward progressive policies based on issues they care about – housing, immigration, gun reform, healthcare, and income inequality. Organizations like VietRISE, a progressive Vietnamese community organization in Orange County, are educating the community on the issues. There’s hope. And that gives me the energy to keep doing what I’m doing – to educate people on the issues. Does this mean I’m trying to find common ground with Trump supporters, like my parents? No. I don’t think I’ll ever have common ground with my parents. Does this make them bad people? I say no, generally speaking, but I dare say yes, in the context of politics. Their views are bad for the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the oppressed. But I can’t shun them. It’s much more complicated than that. I just have to reconcile that loving my parents will have to be compartmentalized – my actions will always be true to my values and sometimes those values reflect the good things they taught me. So it means fighting with them, too (like the fight we almost had when I sat in my seat at the reunion banquet during the singing of the national anthem. Boy was my Dad pissed at me for a moment!). And believe me, I fight with them a lot even outside of political issues. It’s a push and pull. Just like growing up Vietnamese in America. There are cultural artifacts of each that I had to negotiate with and then decide on my own which beliefs, practices, and values I would uphold and which ones I would reject.

Let me end by showing you some pictures and sharing their narrative. If I never told you my Dad was a Trump supporter, would you view these photos differently? Would the narrative that these photos tell be reshaped in your mind because you now know he’s a Trump supporter? Hope to hear from you and what you think.

Dad fought for his beliefs and felt the need to save his country from the oppressive regime of the Viet Cong. Being selected to train for pilot certification with the USAF was very prestigious in Vietnam. The Military Assistance Program’s Flight Training School originated in 1958 and was intended to be a 4 year program. As a result of the escalating conflict in Vietnam, in 1967 it was anchored at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, and was at the peak of its operations in the years after. From 1967 to 1973, over 1,100 international student pilots were trained there. Of those, 743 were from Vietnam. During that time, over 200,000 hours were flown with Student Pilots representing 34 nations. Student elimination rate at the height of this training was only 4.7% compared to the American student base rate of 25%. It made me proud of my Dad for his accomplishment. He completed his pilot training in 1971 and returned to Vietnam with flight missions on the C-130 Hercules, a large cargo plane. In 1975, the Viet Cong won and my Dad, my mom, and me escaped – eventually processed as refugees seeking asylum and placing our first steps on American soil at Eglin Air Force Base in Valparaiso, Florida, on May 27, 1975. The local community opposed us and did not want us there. How ironic that a New York Times article reporting from Niceville, Florida, showed how not nice the residents were…[excerpts from the article, “The Vietnamese Are Corning and the Town of Niceville, Fla., Doesn’t Like It” read it in full here]

“Far’s I’m concerned, they can ship them all right hack.” snapped one woman here today—and from one end of town to the other and in the cities around the base, many of her neighbors agreed.

A petition asking that the refugees he placed elsewhere was being circulated here this morning. Children in one local school joked about shooting a few of the refugees. With various adults were making clear that the Vietnamese are not welcome.

In a radio poll taken by station WFTW yesterday, 80 per cent of the people who responded said that they did not want the refugees to be brought to Eglin.

In Grady H. Temberlin’s Barber Shop in Valparaiso, he and a customer were talking about the incoming immigrants. “We got enough of our own problems to take care of,” Mr. Tomberlin said. “You’re right.” his whitehaired customer said, shifting nervously beneath the striped cloth. “They don’t even have enough money to take care of Social Security now—and they want to bring in more people.”

Mr. Tomberlin snipped angrily away behind the man’s ears. “I don’t see why I ought to work and pay taxes for those folks who wouldn’t work over there. They ought to have stayed on over there,” he said.

“Right,” said the customer. “Who the hell’s going to feed them when they get here?”

“We are.” said Mr. Tomberlin. “We are.”

Does this report from May 1, 1975, sound eerily similar to reports we read and hear today about Syrian refugees, Iraqi refugees, and the current “migrant caravan”? My Dad’s flight instructor, Mr. John Heckleman, supported the Vietnamese refugees coming to America. So did thousands of others who even sponsored Vietnamese refugee families so they could resettle in cities and towns across America. My Dad and his buddies probably never read about the objection to our coming to America. Their only experience was receiving the support of their U.S. military connections and the charitable folks who welcomed us with their time, energy, and donations. When I started digging into my past for my memoir, I asked my Dad some details about being at Eglin. After we talked in great depth about it, he asked me to go on the internet and look for someone who he never forgot from Eglin – a young soldier who was stationed there temporarily to help the refugees. Before he left for his next deployment, he handed my Dad a wad of cash – $30; told him to use it to take care of his wife and kid. My Dad wants to find him and thank him. He wants him to know my Dad never forgot his kind and generous gesture. I haven’t been able to locate him. He remains elusive because my Dad can’t recall the exact spelling of his Argentinian name.

Before we left Mississippi, Mr. Heckleman presented my Dad with a gift. When he found out my parents’ house was destroyed by Hurricane Harvey, he was afraid all of my Dad’s photos from his training days were gone. He went through his old photos and reprinted all the ones with my Dad then placed them in an album. My Dad and Mom were so touched. During the ceremony, my Dad was given a reprint of his flight certificate he received at his graduation in 1971, and they pinned him new wings. Not only was my Dad reunited with his flight instructor after 47 years, he was given the gift of commemoration – remembering the honor and the valor of his patriotism to his country and to the United States.

In closing, I’m a harsh critic of the American government when it comes to the Vietnam War. Ken Burn’s “Vietnam” really opened my eyes to a lot. My parents won’t watch it because it features interviews with individuals who fought for the Viet Cong. It is often this duality in experience – leading to a difference in education, a difference in world view, a difference of the generation gap – that causes my rift with my parents. It’s one I’ve struggled with all my life. And as you can see, it is a continuous struggle. I will never turn my back fully on my parents. They gave me life, they worked tirelessly to give me the opportunities I took to better myself, they taught me to help others, they supported me through some of the worst times in my life – but they also gave me the courage to be independent, to have my own thoughts, to fight for what I believe in, and to do what I think is right for me. Those lessons are a double-edged sword for them because the voice and the backbone that I use to fight against them is one they nurtured and developed. As much of a struggle as it is for me, it must be a struggle for them as well. But they’re proud of me, they love me, and they help me when I’m in need. I’m proud of them, I love them, and I will always help them if they’re in need. And there’s no way in hell that I would let that motherfucker Trump come in between me and my parents.

IMG_1193

The barracks where my Dad stayed in 1971

IMG_1191

The halls where he studied

IMG_1365

His class and the plane they trained with, the T-28

IMG_1224

His class reunion 2018 and notice his renegade attire

IMG_1186

The plane he flew for his missions in Vietnam the C-130  Hercules

IMG_1253

With his instructor in 1971

IMG_1250

Graduation day with his instructor 1971

EAAE8E1C-7C19-4F6F-8298-F7C762C6880F

47 years later at the reunion

IMG_1252

1971

87C6C5B1-D9B1-4ED5-9720-21B060AB6E61

2018

IMG_1251

1971

80B03A68-EB72-49C1-A4E2-B6D1D303462C

2018

IMG_1201