Twenty of us sat around an elegant dining table in the Haas-Lilienthal House, San Francisco’s Victorian house museum, on Sunday night, guests at a dinner celebrating the Diasporic Vietnamese Artists Network. The dinner was hosted by its incredible, irreplaceable, relentless co-founders, Viet Thanh Nguyen and Isabelle Thuy Pelaud. Under a 140-year-old chandelier, the carved wooden paneling closing in on me, I stared at the seven pieces of silverware arranged around my plate and wondered which one should properly be used on the first of five courses, prepared by Tu David Phu of Top Chef fame (and featured CAAMFest 2018 guest).
I wondered, also, if I belonged. I felt both out of place and at home here in this fancy space, with my friends, fellow immigrants, refugees, children of immigrants and guests. Which spoon for the Steamed Oyster with pineapple nuoc cham, tomato and chile? A fork or spoon for the Carrot Kho To? And while we’re at it, does change come from the outside in, or the inside out? What change was possible, in this strange and tense clime of immigrant bashing and persecution? I wondered with Isabelle if this was the first Vietnamese meal ever served in this gilded joint. “Are we making history?” I asked Isabelle. I answered my own question before it was out of my mouth. Unequivocally, yes. And DVAN and our Asian American community of artists writ large – are pretty much blowing every available mind while we’re at it, every mind that is paying attention.
I’m not just brown-nosing, btw. By lifelong personal policy, “brown-nose” is a noun I see when I look in the mirror and never a verb to me.
We introduced ourselves around the table, and I told the group that I immigrated to the U.S. from the far reaches of Greater Vietnam, my family changing their names from Tran to Chandra as they journeyed south. This got a good bellow of laughter. Though to be fair, I have claimed to be from Deep South Korea as well. In reality, though, I am part of this tenuous community in formation and flux, called Asian America. We are 18 million strong, and yes, more vocal and vibrant every day, yet sometimes feeling unreal, almost an endangered species. Do we form a cohesive community of diverse family origins? Will we fragment into our ethnic groups, and pit ourselves against each other? Or will we dissolve into the broader culture? Or is it any and all of the above, depending on context and personal choice? I put my hopes on the first possibility, but it takes constant work, hope and homage to our ideals.
At CAAMFest every year, I renew my citizenship in Asian America, swell myself to bursting with our stories, and revel with old and new friends, fellow Asian Americans, in the rapturous unfolding of our visions for ourselves and our world. This is our time. This is the Asian American Renaissance. This is our Enlightenment. Helmed with insightful brilliance by leaders such as Viet Thanh Nguyen, our own Avengers Beginning-Game roster of superheroes, we are boldly going where no man has gone before, to mash our imaginal universes and reveal our nerd core. And we have a helluva origin story, natch.
SEADRIFT, directed by Tim Tsai, brings us right into the heart of that story. Opening in tranquil scenes of a gulf inlet, frogs leaping across still water, and a fisherman going out to sea, we are quickly hit by Walter Cronkite’s voice describing tensions between Vietnamese refugees and whites on the Gulf Coast, and television footage of a woman saying “I don’t like ‘em. They should go back where they came from.” Bobby Vandagriff says – openly, to a news camera, no less – “somebody’s gonna take care of those Vietnamese. Kill ‘em.” The story and tragedy that unfolds is told from all angles: hard-scrabble refugees desperately trying to make a life after losing their country; economically threatened white fishermen, sometimes sympathetic to the refugee plight, and sometimes blatantly racist; and KKK Grand Dragons and their ilk taking advantage of tensions, even as community members protest their arrival. SEADRIFT provides insight into a riveting human drama that must be understood in our modern times, tense with the supposed “threat” of refugees. We must learn history’s lesson, as many in this community did. Beth Aplin-Martin is asked what she would change of this horrible story. She replies, movingly, in compassion for the people with whom she once was in conflict: “I wish that we had not been involved the way we were in Vietnam. So that people had to get on boats…just to live and survive.” Amen, sister. But the arc of this story brings us back to a tranquil Gulf Coast, with many regrets, but also hope, and gratitude.
Keep your Kleenex handy for FINDING THE VIRGO, directed by Barre Fong. Lauren Vuong and her family were rescued at sea from their rickety junk by the LNG Virgo, a commercial natural gas transport, as they escaped the calamitous aftermath of the war and her father’s imprisonment in a re-education camp. Fong follows Vuong, her parents, and siblings as they track down and tearfully reunite with the surviving crewmembers. The Founder and CEO of the shipping company that owned the Virgo was a Chinese immigrant, Dr. C.Y. Chen, who fled his own country’s war and occupation in 1939. He’d made a policy of directing his ships to rescue any refugees on the open ocean. The Captain of the Virgo was a German immigrant, Hartman Wolfgang Schonn, a man committed to aiding others himself.
Every heart is a rescue boat. We’re tumbled into each other, and sometimes, we get it right.
At Lenora Lee Dance Company’s incredible, historic performance “Within These Walls + Dreams of Flight” at the Angel Island Immigration Station (going on for another two weekends), I noticed a woman’s tee-shirt slogan: “Men are trash.” She inspected me for a reaction, but I didn’t oblige. Not enough time. It seems like my whole life is a reaction to the reality of men’s harm to others, including myself – and trying to make up for and avoid any personal harms. BEI BEI is a timely documentary about how the legal system is being co-opted by patriarchal and religious forces to essentially persecute pregnant women. Bei Bei Shuai, 33 weeks pregnant, was depressed, and traumatized when her boyfriend abandoned her. She swallowed rat poison in a suicide attempt. She survives, but her baby dies. The coroner and legal system begin arraying themselves against her, threatening her freedom, immigration status, and sense of self. This story is dramatically relevant now, as several states have just passed laws that ban abortions after a fetal heartbeat is detected – typically two weeks after a missed period, or six weeks gestation. Many states, including California, have feticide laws on the books already.
A WOMAN’S WORK, directed by Yu Gu (WHO IS ARTHUR CHU?, CAAMFest 2017 Centerpiece documentary) showcases NFL Cheerleaders fighting corporate malfeasance and patriarchy. I was shocked but not surprised to hear how cheerleaders have been exploited for years – and amazed to hear how some of them defended the practices, idealizing the “family” they formed with their compatriots. The times have changed; I think family is strengthened, not cheapened, by social justice, equity, and fair pay. Money may not buy you love, but it does pay the bills on the way, and serves as stand-in for societal validation. Another film worth viewing at our cultural moment.
TIGER stars a very buff Prem Singh in the true story of Pardeep Singh Nagra’s fight to compete in boxing as a bearded Sikh. It’s a story of masculinity embodying its protective best, not oppressive worst. Nagra’s story has been transposed from Canada to Ohio, but much of the narrative is intact. Nagra is a real-life Rocky – Rakesh? – whose fights racism and injustice – the essence of the noble Sikh tradition. Singh carries Nagra’s mantle impressively, his performance exuding pain, rage and charisma. And you must not miss Mickey Rourke as his coach – tough guy strut tempered by the chihuahua gently cocked in the crook of his left arm. Make sure Pam Wu (formerly of APICC and now at the Humane Society) and her pup are in the sequel, Mickey! TIGER is a pugilistic film written and produced by the Pugliese’s – who will be in attendance at the Friday night screening.
OUR TIME MACHINE, directed by veteran helmsman S. Leo Chiang with Yang Sun, offers the touching story of Chinese artist Maleonn as he comes to terms with his father’s Alzheimer’s through his art. Chiang documents Maleonn’s closeness to his father and mother, their travails, and his all-consuming quest to produce a poignant life-sized puppet play about memory, loss, acceptance and hope. We see the play in process and in final form, and it is a breathtaking, visually stunning and evocative manifestation of the lives and relationship of father and son. Seeing them after the play, arms wrapped around each other, the father congratulating the son, then, the next day, forgetting all about it…brings us close to the distressed reality of families ravaged by this horrific illness. Constructing puppets and props reminds us how contingent and compounded we are, dependent on memory, fastened by our relationships. We are all puppets, of a sort, mobilized by needs and narratives not always our own, but in the process, bringing each other to life, while we can.
Memory, loss, and being caught in forces beyond one’s control are also at the core of Kavich Neang’s LAST NIGHT I SAW YOU SMILING. In steady, grounded footage, we see Cambodians pull their lives out of the White Building in Phnomh Penh, taking the life out of the building itself. They lived there for four decades, raising family, making art, creating community, after the end of the Pol Pot regime in 1979. One woman likens their eviction to their forced evacuation from the capital city by the Khmer Rouge on April 17, 1975. That deep wound resonates lifelong, is reflected in so many moments. I know a woman who says that even when she eats, she remembers the Killing Fields. This heart-opening, eye-opening film deserves your attention.
As an Asian American community, we bear so many historic traumas. Many of us are caught in ongoing trauma of economy, racism, sexism, and homophobia. Even though I’m probably as comfortable and happy as a concerned citizen can be in May, 2019, I consciously try to keep myself a little off-balance and uncomfortable, by taking in the measured doses of suffering and the relief of suffering so carefully noted by our community’s filmmakers and storytellers.
These doses are the cure for what ails us.
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Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won a 2017 Nautilus Silver Award. You can find out more about him at www.RaviChandraMD.com, where you can read his latest outburst of poetry called 36 Views of San Francisco, and sign up for an occasional newsletter. Read more MOSF blogposts here.