Interview with Brian Doan
J: So I’m here with Brian Doan in Long Beach, and what I wanted to start was from the beginning. If you could tell me about your childhood…Now, where in Vietnam – what is the name of the town that you’re from, Brian?
B: I was born in Quang Ngai, Central Vietnam.
J: How do you spell that?
J: And what year were you born?
B: I was born in the year of Tet Offensive, you know, 1968, I was born in August.
J: Really? Oh my gosh. Um… So what kind of memories do you have of your childhood? What memories stick out?
B: I don’t remember much because when I lived there, I was small and I remembered we went to a private Catholic school, me and my older brother and sister.
J: Was that in the town?
B: Yeah, inside the camp, you know, we lived like in a big military base.
J: Oh, you did? Because your dad was…
B: Yeah. We had kind of like in a green zone, where you have to show your permit to go out. Quang Ngai was like unsafe zone, so…we didn’t go out much.
J: It was like a compound.
B: Yeah. But what I remember the final day…One morning I heard a helicopter all over my house, and suddenly we had to go to school, and my father’s bodyguard appeared in the class. Um, I was in 1st grade.
B: And they pulled all three of us out of classes, and then back home and helicoptered away. I remember that My dad just returned from the U.S. and Okinawa, and we got a lot of toys. And I had a helicopter and airplane. My dad said, just pick one item, we’ll come back in a month, like just a short vacation, and that’s the only thing that I picked – the airplane, and I put it in my backpack.
J: Was it the airplane or helicopter?
B: I don’t remember. One of the things that can fly. And by the time I get out, my mom and my grandma is crying, and I don’t know what’s going on, but I think something is happening, I sense something goes wrong. Usually my dad is calm, you know. I never see my dad in military uniform, but that morning I saw him with the helmet and all the flak jacket, rifle, etc …
J: And what was his position? Was he a general?
B: He was chief of security.
J: So was he a general, or…?
B: Not a general. He was like major colonel?
J: I see, like a lieutenant or something.
B: But his position was important – like a major. In the military it was a very high position. With all his gear, it looked scary to me. My dad very briskly say, “get on the airplane” to Danang. So that’s the last moment …
J: So you all went to Danang?
B: Yeah – that’s the last time I saw my dad, you know, helicopter fly by two Americans. Kind of unusual, because whenever we go anywhere, we fly with Vietnamese pilots, so this is the first time we fly with American pilots. I feel that something is wrong, but I was too young, you know.
J: How old …?
B: Six years old.
J: Six years old. So was it just your family that went?
B: Just my family. And we landed in Son Tra. When we passed mountain on our trip to Da Nang…You see that I pointed to Son Tra. That’s American base…So we landed, and right at the moment we landed, we hear the attack. We had to, you know, duck and hide, you know…and then we hear machine guns everywhere, and we wait for my uncle who was supposed to pick us up, and we wait for my dad and then we’re supposed to go to Saigon. I remember my brother and I, you know, take a walk, and we see a lot of blood on the ground. So that’s why I think something go wrong with the war, you know. So we’re so afraid, you know, and my mom more and more tried to reach my dad, but the road in between had been cut.
J: Been blocked?
B: Been blocked, and again, Quang Ngai/ Da Nang was very unstable area. And then my mom was pregnant with my brother, in her last month, so she was seven or eight months already, so she couldn’t move much. And my youngest-
J: She’s the oldest in the family?
B: The oldest in the family. So we just don’t know what to do, and just waited, and my uncle who keep telling us like, he’s not home. It kind of crazy. Just waiting for my dad. We know that we couldn’t wait any longer. Also, we need to change – transport to Saigon. And my dad of course… show up.
J: So you flew from Danang.
B: No. We couldn’t get a airplane. I mean it become unstable, so, you know, we wait, and then we took a small boat to approach the military ship, but there were a lot of refugees, you know, on the ship already, so the moment we approached the ship, disordered marines just took machine guns to shoot at us, and my dad was so helpless… in everything, but the ship already full, and they shoot at anyone who try to approach the boat. Luckily some small boats would be able to chain, but I heard that, you know, like they chain, and after a day, they cut the chains, and …
J: It sunk.
B: Yeah, Because also lacking of fuel, water and food, and … anything can happen like the last couple days..
B: Chaotic! Totally, People, like madness…
J: So this is ’75?
B: ’75. And my dad said because my mom is about due…my dad said just go back and…and we’ll get a small car, and go on the road to try to reach Nha Trang, because it’s still stable.
J: And it was stable because it’s further south.
B: And I have an uncle there.
B: But by the time we reach Saigon, the capital has already surrender to the VC.
J: Did you know people in Saigon or you were just trying to..?
B: Yeah. Relatives. My remember my dad arrived after two weeks travel on the road. ..and try to connect with us…We arrived in Saigon pretty late because my mom decided to stay instead of go to America. And my dad didn’t want to go because he wanted to know about my family, so we ended up get stuck in Saigon. And a couple days later my dad had to go and report to the new regime. I said the last time I saw my dad in uniform was in Quang Ngai, but I don’t know when he goes to the reeducation-
J: So did they send him away then, when he reported, right away?
B: Yeah. Right away. I remember my mom said he’d go away, “I’ll pack up clothes for a month,” and then that means ten years.
J: So then they took him to prison? When he went and reported like he was supposed to?
J: What did he expect was going to happen when he reported ?
B: I think like most South Vietnamese believe the new government promise, you know, the country united, the people who decide to stay will have the favor.
J: Expected some good?
B: Some good, you know.
J: And he was sent to prison for ten years.
B: Yeah. For ten years. So I think the best is to get out. But what happened, …Some blood from both sides. Maybe the first couple of years the new government tried to control and during that time, you know, like, the most tough time for the Vietnamese, five years later, they still keep the same hardships. Until today, I mean, they are supposed unite the country, and treat people the same, but somehow it didn’t happen. Until today, like you see, the South Vietnam people being mistreat by the government, and nothing happen as good as they said.
J: Then did you stay in Saigon, then, or did you go back?
B: We stayed in Saigon and my mom gave birth do my younger brother and as soon as my brother was, you know, good, and we still have the house in Nha Trang,
J: Oh, Nha Trang?
B: And um, by that time they say we cannot stay in the city …the government say that, you know, people should move back to hometown…because a lot of people gather in Saigon try to escape, or stuck and , you know, like fall behind. My family was one of the families. So the new government say we should go back to where we are, but we know that we can’t, so we don’t have a house,
J: Right, right…
B: So the only house we have is in Nha Trang. So my mom say, okay, if we move to Nha Trang, and then that will reduce whatever years for my dad …if you volunteer to move, that will count … ultimately it’s a lie, you know.
J: People have hope.
B: Whatever the government say, they want to change,everything change. Change, change, change. No one knows who says the truth.
J: They changed the date of his date – of his death? (Ho Chi Minh’s)
B: They change everything. Yeah. He died Sept. 2nd. Independence Day, they changed to Sept. 3rd.
B: for years, and finally they reveal that. Because they don’t want, you know, people to know... So everything from the government it’s really hard to say which one is true and which one is not. But actually we went back to Nha Trang.
J: And you still had your house back there?
B: Yeah, we still had a house, and uh…
J: Could you go to school normally, or no?
B: Because my family’s background, I hate that town. (chokes up) I was in second grade by that time.
J: Mm hmmm. So was this the fall of ’75, like in September? Was the summer over? It was still April? Or May?
B: April. Yeah. So we went back. We went to Nha Trang. We stayed in our house. And, uh, we had some land and we became farmers. My brothers and me mostly worked on the farm, but we didn’t know what to do; we were too young, you know. But it was the point of the new program that everyone had to work. We go to work, but we don’t produce much. And my mom ended up becoming a vendor and uh, she sells thing village to village…
J: Before had she been a homemaker? Had she been at home?
B: My mom before, she…(inaudible) used to meet people, and …
J: Right, social.
B: But she totally changed. I remember one time that we had to go to a small village about ten kilometers.
J: When you were seven?
B: When I was seven. So my brother and I walked with my mom and my mom carried something very heavy, and we heard someone say, uh, he called, like uh, “Madam, madam, madam,” and we tried to walk faster. And the guy tried to run behind us. It was like 5 pm. And we tried to reach the next village… then the man said “You don’t recognize me? I used to work for your husband.” And he just like, bowing in front of my mom. And my mom couldn’t recognize him, who he was, and we so afraid that somebody, like trick us, and because we afraid of how… and everything, so the guy said, “don’t worry, I used to be, you know, like servant.” And finally my mom realized that barely. And he cried. And he looked at my mom, looked at her, and he cried, and he could see how different, my mom.
J: oh, God.
B: I have a picture of my mom before… like, go back to that time. I hate that time. (Brian cries.) I don’t remember anything from that time. The past is the past. But what happened to my mom and um…
J: She changed.
B: She changed a lot. No one recognize her anymore. She became a worker. She cut her hair. She dressed differently, you know. I don’t know why that gentleman could recognize us, but he keeps bringing food to us, even he’s really poor.
J: How many kids in your family?
J: So all of you were walking along?
B: Only my brother and I be able to walk so we had to bring food to my grandma, so…
J: Was she in Nha Trang, too?
B: Yeah. So we, sometimes we couldn’t walk, so we can like jump on the train. So I was seven or eight, we cannot afford the ticket, and my brother and I just like sneak into the train station, sometimes they catch us and they kick us out. One time they kicked us out and I jump and I roll a couple of rolls, but luckily I just got scratch on my body, but we were tough. One good thing is that we never steal anything. All the kids in the village, all day that we have nothing to eat, we go around and try to steal things to eat, and everything that we can eat, we steal, but my brother and I, you know, -
B: similar to re-
J: But that didn’t work…
B: But they just wanted to take away your house. My…
J: They just wanted you to leave so they could have your property?
B: Right. And uh..
J: How old was your brother? Was he much older than you?
B: Three years older. But we’re the backbone of the family. My sister at that time was maybe 18. so most of the work done by my brother and I – we had to gather wood for, you know, and work on the farm. My uncle say, if you go, you’ll not last long. My cousin already died because of disease. My mom went to… If we had to ever leave the house, it would be at night time so the government don’t watch. Kind of scary, more scary than 1975. 1975 just like took off by helicopter,
J: Everybody just left.
B: but now, we have to escape during the night.
J: Right. Yeah.
B: No, I mean with my sister. You know, before that, my mom tried to send us to escape by boat, and somehow we end up get arrested.
B: Yeah. That’s the year before…
J: The two of you she sent or how many? Oh, you and your brother and your sister?
B: I was like nine years old. And my sister… and they shoot the boat, and it’s sinking. I was in the middle
J: You were on the boat?
B: Yeah. When it’s sinking. And I was stuck in the net, you know the fish net, and my feet over there, and I feel the water coming, like coming, and I scream…
J: was this in the middle of the night?
B: the middle of the night, you know.
J: And you’re screaming…
B: I was screaming, you know, and no one came, because the boat from the big ship – the border patrol, they shoot guns, and people screaming.
J: So they’d already shot the guns and you’re sinking, and you started screaming?
B: Oh, they shot the boat already.
J: Already. So you’re sinking, so you started screaming.
B: Then my sister started screaming. One guy just grabbed me and throw.
J: Threw you where?
B: On the ship. On the control boat – the big boat. And I was two months in prison.
J: two months in prison at nine years old?
J: So what was that like?
B: Oh. Man, first of all they slept all over here. The only thing, you know, like, we all hungry. And all the men there all day long, they talk about sex or food. That’s the two things they want.
J: So they put you in together with other men? They didn’t put the children separate?
B: No, they put together. You know, my brother end up, like try to protect each other. You know, prison is totally crazy.
J: So were you together in one room with a bunch of men?
B: It’s all men
J: But in one room?
B: All one room – you can see people naked. You can see everything.
J: everybody’s just sleeping all in one room.
B: It’s …Whoever gets sick, gets diarrhea, and the whole room really smell. And we really hate that guy, you know.
J: How many children were in there? Were there other children?
B: I don’t really recall. But the second time I get arrested again, I remember. Twice. So we end up like two months, and then my uncle sponsored us, you know, then we leave.
J: So you got arrested twice, and then the third time?
B: No. I mean the second time we left Cam Ranh, Nha Trang for a long time, that is a long time, that means…three times. My teacher reports me because I spray black ink on Ho Chi Minh’s photo…
J: Your teacher reported you?
B; Yeah, because I was upset … and I always said things. I was in the first grade or second grade but he reported me.
J: He was reporting a small child??
B: And the principal like called me up, and say, “Your father is in prison, your brother is in prison. You want to end up in prison like your mom, your dad?”
J: Was your mom in prison, too?
B: Yeah. Because at that time my mom at that time she had to become a vendor. But they wanted all the people to become a farmer. But how could we survive as a farmer, you know? So my mom had to sell things, you know.
J: How about your little baby brother.
B: He too young. He had to stay with my sister – My brother grow up not knowing his mom. My sister become his mom.
B: So my brother grow up not even knowing my mom as like his real mom.
J: Is that the one in Japan.
B: No, the one in Japan lived with relatives …
J: the one in Japan is younger than you, too?
B: Yeah. So, I
J: So you were leaving in the middle of the night. How did this escape happen? How did that work?
B: We get into the GMC truck, and we were in the back, with all the furniture, and pig
J: How many of you were escaping this time?
B: I think most of my family, except for my mom and my older brother...
J: But not the baby.
B: Yeah. That time my mom like get into the …mentally you know, like, nervous broke down and she become crazy.
B: She did. So my sister who took care of us… my mom become like crazy, she talk nonsense. She became like different person.
J: During the escape?
B: Yeah, escape. Because they called her up every day and tortured her. ..She just shit there and eat her shit, and it was really scary, and my house, like smell, and every day she called us up, and to say goodbye, farewell; it was really scary, we were so young, and we were so young, we couldn’t deal with that. We’d say, “Mom, we don’t want to hear that you die.” My mom say, you know, “I’m dying,” and you know, my sister just helped us. She said we will move to a place like paradise.
J: Became strong.
B: Became strong, older brother who never home, tried to escape and he end up ... My sister was the one to become the family head. So we escape to Long Khanh(?). The moment we get out of the truck, it’s raining hard, and the soil, kind of like iron oxide…(?) and rain, really scary, and the people look like… somehow we still live in the city…but here people are more like naked. And all the kids look at us and we look back and, you know, it’s not a paradise like you said. Just like, my sister said– we go there and nobody harass us, and they have like corn, and durian, all these kinds of fruits and we have like, no one harass us, and it sound like paradise, so we say, ok, let’s escape, but we all say, “this is not paradise at all.” And we tried to walk but we fell because the soil kind of slippery.
J: Ah, yeah. Muddy.
B: But I ended up loving that time because somehow it’s Catholic village, so they really protect us. They -
J: Oh, you did?
B: Yeah. I was like 11, 12, or 13 years old.
J: So was that in…Who did you live with?
B: I lived with my uncle who had like eight sisters – I mean eight children, and all females, so from 11 to 12, 13 years old they dressed me like a girl because... Not like a girl, but you know, like eight sisters, and I’m the only boy…so
J: that was the only kind of clothes they had?
B: Only clothes they had, so I didn’t know if I was boy or girl. Until the guys, you know, from my class, they called me ‘gay’ and they didn’t want to play with me because they think I’m a girl, and I ended up hating them. But I am a very, very bright kid, I am very smart, but I remember nobody liked me, because, you know… I realized because my cousin, my sisters dress me as a girl, and I’m acting like a girl, and all the games I play were girl games, and I don’t know anything about a guy, I tried to join them, but they pushed me away, and I end up, you know becoming very, very lonely. So…
J: Especially at that age.
B: Yeah. So I talked to my uncle, and said I don’t want to live here anymore; I want to go back to my family, and my uncle said that, and after two years I could decide, my mom come to visit, so I called, and at that time, my mom was getting better.
J: Was she getting better?
B: Yeah, mentally, and she said, time to escape Vietnam for me, and my sister got arrested again. Because somebody reported. That time was Hoi An; we stayed in Hoian. That’s why I hate that town for a while because people there report us. Until the first time last year come back to Hoian. And I actually end up with a friend who was my guide – I still remember the communist cop who beat me up and broke my jaw. He hit me so hard and I broke my jaw. I still remember that guy’s name. When I was in Hoian, I actually talked to my guide and he said if you want, I can find that cop for you. Yeah, that’s the same time we escaped, and I ended up eight months in prison.
J: At thirteen?
J: Eight months?
B: Eight months. So I thought like seven and a half…
J: And was your sister with you?
B: With my sister. She was in different room. That’s how my…I stayed with all men’s room, kind of like 97 people in very small room. I end up you know, I know how to massage people, so they give me food, and I end up with the room monitor, and he likes me so I didn’t get in trouble. I think Bao, you know, another roommate, he was pretty young, and he ended up more a than a year there…
J: How many kids were in there – just few?
B: I was the youngest. Bao was the longest, when I arrived, Bao spent there a year already.
J: For escaping?
B: No, Bao was a political prisoner. And Bao only a year older than me. And why you VB (Viet Bien) – means Escape by Boat – we call it VB – like political, have to go and report to, like every day. So I end up asking him like, “ how come you have to hold you up and sit there and write, like confess,” and…
J: Every day?
B: Every day. He’s so afraid, you know, but he’s the most smart kid in the room, so we end up becoming friends, so I found out that Bao, in the past, he and a friend wrote something on the blackboard, bad words about the government, and then when they found out, he take everything by himself. We all hear that kind of stories from the people, but only a few kids can end up long time there…
J: Get out of prison? Do you know what happened to him?
B: He, uh… When I was there he already spent a year already, he had puss all over his body; he couldn’t hold a spoon to eat. But a month after I arrived, you know, they released him or they transferred him to another camp, I don’t know. In Vietnam, in the prison, if they call you up, you disappear. You don’t know if been released or transferred to another camp. You have to get ready. So, seven months in the prison, and the people say you have no hope, you get ready to go to labor camp, 14 years old doesn’t matter.. I would cry a lot. How can I supposed to get out. All the guys in the prison would make me a messenger bag, brush, a container to keep everything. And Bao was called before me like a month. And then they released me right before Christmas. I carried the messager back and everything. Until I get out the gate, I still cannot believe that. I cannot walk, and you know, the sunlight is too bright for my eyes…
J: Didn’t people get sick?
B: When I get out of the camp I wasn’t able to walk. And then I saw my sister, and then I know that we both released, you know, we tried to run…We were afraid they’d come and get us back.
J: bring you back in.
B: I remember the first time we back to Danang and then a car took us back to Danang, near the river, very close to our hotel, where we stay. Somehow I remember a cousin lived there. And we went to her business. the first thing I say, is “I want to eat three bowls of Pho. And my cousin insist me to eat one at a time, but I said, “No. Three at a time.” Because I was so hungry, but I could die, so she didn’t let me. So I eat one, then an hour later another. The only thing I wanted was to eat, you know.
J: So did you have to go to the camp after that, or did you…?
B: No. They released us, and we went back to Long Khanh…And then nobody knows. The good thing about Long Khanh was nobody reports you.
J: They didn’t, actually? So it was a paradise.
B: They didn’t. And they didn’t know. They may guess something because they see my hair kind of short, and my skin kind of pale, they’re kind of guessing, but nobody say anything. So that was the good thing about that village.
J: So where was it – near Saigon? Near the Mekong?
B: No, east of Saigon, you go to East…not in West as the Mekong, but back. East of Saigon.
J: So when did you – so then you went back there and you stayed there?
B: I stayed there, but I couldn’t go to school again because I escaped.
J: So you had big gaps in your schooling.
B: I had big gaps because we moved a lot you know, and then that’s how I was like 10th grade, and go to 11th grade. I had a record. In Vietnam you have to have a record, like where you go. Everything they control, and we made fake papers, so one of my cousins, like write a letter confirm I study with her in school so I’ll be able to get in high school. You know, when you go to high school in Vietnam, 10th grade to 12th grade, so it’s important to know all algebra and everything... I remember my first year in 11th grade I knew nothing cause I didn’t have the background knowledge; I’d been in prison all the time.
J: You’d been in prison. You had a lot to catch up on.
B: I remember the first few months, teacher called me up and said; “What happened to you? You changed the Ho Chi Minh poem?” I said, “What the heck do I know?” Because I didn’t study his poems at all, because. Whatever the teacher said once, because I was very smart, I tried to memorize and acting like I have already known, I was very good in math, but all the teachers called me up and give me a warning, and I was getting much, much better later of the school term.
J: What a lot of catch-
B: In 12th grade, they kicked me out of school again because I was stupid again, like I wrote against the government.
J: You couldn’t keep your mouth shut.
B: By that time my dad was home again.
J: Oh, yeah, 10 years.
B: And then they called my father up about my trouble and he said, no, he’s very quiet. My dad, said, “No, He’s a good kid, I don’t believe it, he wouldn’t say stupid like that. They had a committee working on my case whether to kick me out of school. By that time my GPA was really high and I’m one of the best students in the program. I’m so good with literature and everything, that they even send me to a national contest. I’d been to a couple of contests, that meant it would secure my position, until I made anti-
J: This time you made it. So did you watch your mouth or did you make it through?
B: I make it through. So like I said when I get out of school, I will kill all his pigs. He was the principal, but he raised pigs, and they all smell. They stink up the whole high school.
J: So he had them at the school?
B: Yeah, he lived there, and he had the pigs near our classroom and they’re stinky. In Long Khanh. I kind of hated him. I would go back and kill all the pigs.
B: To revenge for the time he always called me up and talked bad about me in front of people. Every time he called me up, used me as a bad example of a student. Whenever the political lecture said something about Marxism shit, I always asked some question he couldn’t answer, because I was smart. I was only in 12th grade, but I read lot of books from my mom from the black market. I always wanted her to get me books, so I read a lot and end up knowing a lot. The principal teach History, of course, and always ask him questions, and until he, you know said, “you sit there, and you cannot do anything, or ask any more questions.”
J: So then you graduated?
B: Graduate, and all the national, like, exams…
J: Exams. Yeah, yeah, yeah. The entrance exams.
B: You had to pack up and go to the city.
J: That’s right. To Saigon or Hanoi. Where’d you take ‘em?
B: Saigon. You know, they divide the country into sections and you had to go to certain location for your exam…and you know I write the letter to apply for university, at the time we go to look for the ID, and find out what location we can go to take the exam. I look up and down. I didn’t see my name.
J: You’re kidding!
B: I didn’t see my name at all. All my classmate guys and girls and everyone, like, happy, like, same school, some of them get in the same school they are planning to, like be a roommate…
J: Oh yeah, sure. To take the exam.
B: Everyone want to roommate with me because I’m bright guy. I’m smart. And until like 4pm, I don’t remember exactly, it’s raining and dark, um, most my classmates already left the school and only a couple of good friends say ‘let’s go and find out, you know..’
J: What happened, yeah.
B: We went to the principal office and went to some office, and uh, I tell them my name, I give him my student ID and he gave me a sealed envelope, and we walk out and I sense something wrong, you know, but, and then I’m walking out, and uh, in the balcony and I sit down and I open the envelop and the letter say that I have two brother escape to Japan. My father, you know, served for South Vietnam government that put me in a position that I cannot go into university and cannot guarantee any job in the future. I was crying, crying, crying, you know. It’s like everything, 17, 18 years old. And my friend cries too. Then he says…
J: That was your best friend?
B: Yeah. That was my best friend. We both cry but he say ‘You know, like, let’s go and finding something to drink.’
B: So, we, we go and get drunk, and then, uh, I become very violent person after that. I hate everything.
J: I’m sure.
B: And I destroy everything that I…very upset, and I remember that I study kung fu…and I beat up anyone that made me upset, burn everything. You know, it just end up until my mom send me to Saigon to pay for the school—that time if you have money you can study, you know, in, they call ‘Program B.” ‘A’ that mean you can enter university national and study, uh, the B plan mean that you have to pay everything, and it doesn’t guarantee you get a job. My background…but by the time when I write down, write down my resume to enter the national contact, the moment I ask my mom, like, ‘should I write Catholic or not’ and my mom say, ‘We’re Catholic.’ So I remember, we end up, like, writing out like ‘No religion,’ but somehow they still find out. The system—they’re very clever. Somehow they still find out that we’re Catholic.
J: So what was your major or your study, Literature at that time?
B: No, I really want to study literature but that time we end up whatever school like vocational school. Or you know I end up in, like a vocational school. Luckily, you know, because my background, they call me out a couple time for military training and then I have to go home because my background. I cannot work and go to good school. I’m kind of lucky that I not go to the army but I still not be like my friend in good schools.
J: They got recruited.
B: So I stay in Saigon
J: So did you friends get recruited at 18 into the military?
B: Yeah, you drop out school they immediately call you up. And some friends never come back because the conflict between Vietnam and Cambodia, and China. But later on it’s okay. But I don’t want to end up in military at all. One time when I was in Saigon I stay with my cousin who a writer and a painter. I become a poet. Only I’ve write a short story before, uh, for school magazine. But I have to say I can make a story, really, really nice story. But by the time I, like, I write a lot poetry and paint, and my dad apply for the program to go to the US.
J: This program was through the US government?
B: From the US government, but nobody know anything until my uncle from Danang really encouraged my dad to write a letter to the US embassy. But my dad, then until my uncle get interviewed by the US…
J: So had he been in the military, too, your uncle?
B: Yeah. He’s, like, even longer than my dad, like 12 year. By the time I, like, a year and a half or two years waiting, we couldn’t do anything, uh, I cannot go to school…
J: How did you even afford to live, just waiting More vendor?
B: My mom still, like, working, like a vendor.
J: Was your sister working?
B: My sister that time she is married. My mom, she sell stuff on market and uh…
J: I mean, I don’t know how…
B: I say I’m lucky. By the time we live in Long Khanh, people really love us (love us?). First my dad come back. They didn’t give him a permit, like, live in Saigon.
J: They didn’t allow him?
B: No. He had to report everyday to the local authority because he is still under a probation time—well, he came to Saigon to visit, but not live or, stay in Saigon. We all have people watching us. See, I don’t know until I come back and one guy said like ‘We used to watch your house.’
J: So from the time you graduated, that was how many years before you got accepted for this program?
B: I didn’t accept for the program…
J: To come into the US. That’s like a few years, right?
B: Yeah, I mean during time I was in vocational school, and I couldn’t graduate, because by the time we know that we ready to—the US about to interview us, so I kind of like, why I have to go to school here and study all the years? Secondly, that, you know, we agree to go study English or whatever. So I’m only, you know, 2 year in limbo there.
J: Yeah, right. Just hang around.
B: Hang around, and…
J: And what year was that that you got to leave?
B: ’89. ’90. We came here in Christmas ’91.
J: All of you were able to come at the same time?
B: Yeah. Luckily that my family…to come with the whole family.
J: Oh, really?
B: I’m the only one that trouble, that like stay behind because my household—in Vietnam they control by household, yeah right, the family household book— does not have my name. Because when you go to school, to vocational school, they cut you from the household and then you have to join in the school.
B: So they could control the people. So my name registered in that school.
J: When we go to vocational school is that a boarding school, then? Are you living away from home?
B: Yeah, living away from home. So, I remember the interview they look and they say—they should make sure I’m the one at school, I’m a family member, not living outside try to—because by the time some people try to get in to…to get out. And secondly that, that second question very stupid, like, why I am 22 and I don’t have military record?
(I think we missed something in between because this is the beginning of my life in the US)
J: And it was an orderly departure, then?...And you had your flip-
B: No, at that time we had shoe, but very bad…the landlord doesn’t allow us to bring shoe inside. So we have the shoe outside the next morning it shrink into like baby shoe. I talk to my kid the other day, like, and actually my daughter couldn’t understand, I said how can you can’t get your shoe, I said like the shoe made in Vietnam and here the weather just shrink them, and the next morning I go out ‘Where my shoe?’ I couldn’t find them because I said it looks funny to my eye, but it not mine, it got like only half size, and we have like flip flop.
J: So, why San Jose?
B: Oh, because my brother in law sponsored us.
J: Oh, he’s in San Jose.
B: Yeah, and also the Catholic group that sponsor.
J: The Catholic refugee…what is it? Charities or something?
B: Yeah US…UCCS. So we…San Jose and it’s pretty cold.
J: Your mom was okay by this time; she’d gotten over that.
…..missing some thing here……
B: Oh, my mom, yeah. My dad and my mom. My brother not really happy that his wife stay behind. So I’m like 23…
J: So, how was your English?
B: Horrible. I remember when I go to try to buy stamp to send a Christmas card back to Vietnam, nobody understand what I’m asking. I end up draw a stamp and give to the lady. And I, uh, my sister and me, you know, go to a laundry and don’t know to use the machines…everything is new and different, you know? Everything like totally different.
J: So where did you stay at the beginning?
B: We stay…we divide into three groups, you know. My mom and dad stay in one family, because we had a big family. Until we get some money from my brother in Japan.
J: He was already in Japan…
B: Yeah, he has came like a few years before. Yeah, we bought a car and we’d rent a house in San Jose.
J: Lot of Vietnamese in San Jose.
B: In ’92 we had depression. My mom, my parents went to little Saigon and reported that there are some friends of my dad from his military unit who were very successful…
J: Down here…
B: Down here. And they open some business. So my dad say, ‘Okay, let’s move to Little Saigon. And I couldn’t work for them because like mostly a really tough work. They hire only Mexican who much stronger than me. I was, like, skinny. I couldn’t carry thing like those guys.
J: You hadn’t been eating for years…
B: Yeah, and my dad friend end up like call my dad say you know like I cannot do the job, and he end up like tell my dad ‘Just let him stay home and if you need him I will send you to school.
J: To school instead.
B: Yeah, but you had to wait for a year to go, so I went to the church to study English. And I was the first one in my family get a job.
J: Where did you work?
B: In Buena Park, at an assembly job. And pretty soon I remember that they, uh, I learn thing quick; they put me in quality control—QC. And pretty soon I got a position in office…
J: What were you making?
J: What were you assembling?
B: No, I don’t have to assembling anything.
J: But what were they making?
B: Oh, they making computer board and chip or something.
J: Mother boards.
B: Yeah. And I end up, like, promote to QC, and I work at night shift, and when the guy come to order materials, at first I don’t really understand his English at all. I mean, most of them Mexican work at night shift, but I don’t understand their English. I don’t have enough English to understand…
J: But you didn’t need that for the quality control. You didn’t need English.
B: Right. But still, I always, like, hiding behind a computer, to enter, kind of, data entry. And Rick, a Caucasian guy, receive the order and bring to me. And other one say, ‘Why don’t you go on phone and talk with people?’ I don’t understand what people say. But in six months I realized, in six months I learned very fast, like computer, English and I’ll be able to get the order and promote, you know. By the time I don’t have to do overtime, and I went to school to…and I get involved into all the Vietnamese community activity.
B: It’s called like Bach Viet club, to help the Vietnamese gangs members, to help the young people. I spent a lot of time to help the Vietnamese community, and become a community activist. I work for radio station. I become the Vietnamese student association president for a couple years…And now, I look back I think I should spend, like, concentrate on my study.
J: Instead of doing all those community activities.
B: Yeah. So but, I…
J: So then did you go to Long Beach City?
B: No, I went to Cypress College. By that time, like, almost every Vietnamese guy, study computer. I end up one of them go to computer class, and I took more literature. And I took art, music. I love like all the thing, but…And later on, I went transfer Cal State Long Beach for the EE.
J: You’re kidding!
B: Yeah. I moved to Denver.
J: Why, what’s in Denver?
B: Because I figure that if I stay in California I cannot end up study, because I was so involved with the community, you know, like, everyday I get 20 phone calls about rescue boat people, and we do a campaign to help—this and that, all of this, whatever. I was ideally about helping people, and I spend a lot of time, yeah. And I end up say ‘If I stay in here I’m not, you know, like, graduated. So I move to Denver. I moved and within a year I met a couple of good photographers. I said “What I’m gonna do with photography?’ They say ‘You good. Go find a job.’ Work for newspaper. The organization who I worked for sent me to the camp, to do a report, photo essay. I say, I was working kind of like for newspaper, like, photojournalist.
J: Did you work for a local Denver newspaper?
B: No, I work for Vietnamese magazine, newspaper. Not much money, but I like it, you know. So, but I end up working, like, like, part time computer program and whatever. And by the time I get to graduate with my BFA…
J: Did you do that in Denver?
B: Yeah, UC Denver. I wanted to be an artist.
J: So you did your masters…
B: Yeah, go for 3 year for master.
J: Is that Boston University?
B: No, Mass Art—Massachusetts College of Art. And I study…
J: Why did you decide to teach photography instead of just do photojournalism?
B: The school that I get my MFA—when I was in graduate school, I taught under-
B: Adjunct, actually. Take a train…And I got a job in Santa Monica.
J: At Santa Monica College?
B: No, Santa Monica Art Institute. Yeah, so we move here to Long Beach, and uh, I taught at Cypress at the same time, adjunct. And I took two jobs at same time.
B: East LA College and here—Long Beach. ‘Cause I’m very, very lucky. East LA College they interview I don’t know how many, but 200 application. Here, I heard, like, a hundred applications.
J: I’m sure.
B: Finally, I know like 20 or 30 finalists.
J: Interviews? That many?
B: Yeah. And then finally the second interview was, like, ten people.
J: Oh my god!
J: That’s so many!
B: It’s very many. I walk in and the guy before me, I look at him; the girl after me, I say they look very handsome…Out of all the people…most have very traditional photography background. I’m very good with digital. Most older photographer, they don’t know about digital.
J: Right. You have the computer skills and the traditional.
B: Yeah, and my portfolio is really, really good. But I’m afraid that people speak good English.
J: Well, see, that’s like…
B: But conceptually I think I’m very, very good.
J: It depends on the program. I mean, it depends on the department, I think.
B: So, I was in Vietnam, uh, working on my project at that time, I got a phone call—I mean an email—saying, from the vice president…Long Beach City COllege. But I decided to come back here, study here—I mean, teaching here, Long Beach. Here I teach full time. I don’t need to be adjunct at art school.
J: Doesn’t it cut into your time to create?
B: Yeah. I was happy to get a full time, and then I so depressed, because too much time teaching classes…
J: You have to be on committees, and…
B: Yeah. And the student totally different animal in art school. Here at school have no idea about art, photography, and it’s so hard for me to teach them, you know. But then I get used to it, and I…
J: And there are going to be some students who really are good.
B: Yeah, now is good. But like the first year I totally struggle, say like, ‘Why I end up teaching at community college? Why student here? They don’t know what they want, and…
J: And how many years have you been here now?
B: This my third year here/
J: Third year. Okay.
B: So, now everything is okay.
J: Now, there have been articles about the controversial nature of your artwork.
B: Oh, that thing?
J: Is it much of your art, or is it just a few pieces?
B: I don’t know how that happened. Uh, the year before that I went to Vietnam, and first time...
J: What year was that?
B: 2008. The first time independent, like, teaching and have money, so I travel, like, photographer, not like student, no money. So, I made some work there, and I see the…in Vietnam, all for a group show…in Little Saigon, and my friend is the curator, and I’m not interest to enter, but then she encourage me to enter that piece, and uh, they reject it…I’m working right now. So, portrait of Vietnamese boat over here, and you know, back home they get into the exhibition…a couple other artist, like three, four artist been target, but I’m the strongest one.
J: Is it that one image in particular?
B: Just the one image particular.
J: Just the one.
B: Just one. Like in the beginning they target a couple other artists as well, and then finally all the heat like go to me, and then it become a debate between me and the community and me and my father and my family about ideal, about the communist, you know, South Vietnam or North Vietnam, communist or capitalist—all the issue, you know, like…the Vietnamese community, or stand outside. So, it kind of become a moral issue, and everything. And not only the image…Little Saigon…They been removed from the country. And isolate here. They don’t even speak English. In Little Saigon.
J: They don’t?
B: Vietnamese newspaper, television—everything in Vietnamese. They don’t have to go outside…Vietnam…the time stop in 1975. So that’s why—the newspaper, you open it up, read it, everything from 1975. Every news about Vietnam, and it kind of propaganda and all the thing like military propaganda, like a ghetto. When I was there, when I was doing, like, community activist, I was one of them, but I can moderate, not extreme. But now I been away from the community I looking back I think everything is not make sense. I mean you should open a hand to the Vietnamese people in Vietnam, too. You know? And move on.
J: Well, they also—the people that I talk to there, many of the younger people, they don’t want to talk about that. I mean, young people in South Vietnam or—people that are here now, that have come over now, they don’t want to talk about the war, North and South.
B: There’s two kind of parent: The parent that doesn’t what their children to get any involved to the past…Some parents they want a children to remember.
B: Where they are, who they are. But people point me out because—by that time, they’d request me to prove that I am a community member by denying the communists. I say I’m not. I never liked the communists. I never liked Ho Chi Minh. It’s just one piece of my work; that’s all. The reason I’m not take it down is because of freedom of speech, because that reason we come in here.
B: And because piece itself, like, anti-
J: I also—when I read some of the attacks seemed very personal on you and how you treat your father. And I wonder how that affected you. It seemed very personal.
B: You know, like, um, first of all as a Vietnamese, you know that, you know how your parents feel is a big part of your life. Somehow I’m the only son or family member live away from the family. Or not really involved because when I was young I live with my cousin. Somehow I live with somebody and I not spend much time with…I’m kind of very independent from what my family think and I agree with them. So like every time before the election, I always have a different vote. My dad always say ‘why you vote for this?’ and ‘You didn’t vote for the one that you want.’ I’m teenager. So my father and I always conflict into the area of politic. Catholic…Buddhism. So that is the reason that make me away from my family. Where I can prove I’m a good son to take it down for him. To say that I love him. Regardless to my career, to my student, to anything. But it just like, take it down for him. Your father request that. That’s his last wish.
J: So you took it down.
B: I didn’t.
J: You didn’t.
B: I didn’t. So I think, like, I…I talk to him. I meant to write a letter, but somehow I never write a letter. I say that I think he would understand because they’re strong. Like, we love the country South Vietnam because we so weak compared to America. We had a very weak government who never say yes, they say no for something. You know, like…They win the South because they tough. They have no morality. They can kill the brother. The South Vietnam people, they can’t. My father was…but under him we found out many member was Viet Cong. They’re working for Viet Cong. I know—you know that? This never happen to North Vietnam. So I think, like, here, because my father, and I have to take it out to make him happy, even I think it’s wrong. I think my generation, I think we should say we believe something wrong. And then…so that’s my morality: sometimes you have to say no to your parents and to your community. And I talk to my students. I teach my students that they freedom of speech, that where I came from, they never allow students—I mean, people—to speak anything. Every time I say something I get arrested. I mean, kicked out of school. Here, you can say anything. You know, that’s a beautiful about living here. So here…all student look at me, like, the teacher going to tear the work down because the community request. And all the younger Vietnamese look at me, before everything community request to have it taken down. So they look at me now, like I still follow that tradition to say yes to everything they want. I say no. This is the time to stop that. You know?
B: So, I mean it very hard for me for the phone call and everything become very personal, the attack at my mom, who I love, you know?
J: Your mom, too.
B: Yeah, they call my mom every name.
J: What do they say? What a bad son you are?
B: They say my mom sleep with Ho Chi Minh…And they call my mom every dirty word to woman. And on my phone on—wherever. So I went to radio, and I cry. To television. I say…that’s a scary time that, like, we don’t know who we trust, even family member or relative. Back into, like, Vietnam. He spend ten years in a camp…Ruin my dad in the camp. She take care the children like your wife, you know? And take care all the children and now you target my mom? You know, what type people you are? Even the communists not target my mom. They target my dad. And now you call my mom every name in newspaper and radio, email me. What type people? If I had a chance to join the…I never go back or work for the—I’d rather be with the communists. I compare. In the television I cry, too; I say, stop calling my mom with all the name. You know, I’m not going to take down the work. Target me. You can call me; you can write me, whatever, but please, my mom…your wife. My mom didn’t do anything; my mom didn’t sleep around with communists. You say to my mom, like, you say to your wife…Ten year guy in the camp. All the mom have to work. Who sleep with who? Why you call me? I born before ’75. How can you call my mom sleep with the communists and give birth to me? You know, like, all over internet, or…So, that just, like, made me even stronger.
J: So did they stop, then? Did the attacks stop on your parents?
B: They—after a while they stop. Every once in a while I get an email. And then after LA Times article they start to send email again. But this time not, like, to my family, but to me.
J: And any supportive emails?
B: I had a couple supportive email. But mostly like critic, you know? And people say ‘You’re over your family.’ They don’t understand.
J: That’s so Asian.
B: You know? They don’t understand that it’s not only the family, but…
J: But it is ironic, though, that that’s why people left and came here. Then were you able to reconcile with your father after that incident?
B: Yeah…we hadn’t talked for like six months. And, um, because he was so upset that somehow my family believe in the communists. And I think they been brainwashed by the Vietnamese community there, by the radio. One guy I used to work with him to rescue Boat People. He’s like big brother; he know me so well. I work more than two years…Money from the book sale. He the one that call me hero and everything. He’s the guy that attack me on the radio every day. And, um, he…who I am. And then he met people he paint me very bad guy. I manage to just visit my family. My wife say ‘No’. Especially my mom, who never said anything….Nobody say anything. My mom say ‘You want to eat something?’ And everything become quiet. They’re not looking at me. I talked to me wife, my wife say ‘Why you doing that?’ They still my family, you know? I have to go visit them even they upset with me. She my mom, you know? Still love me, and it been six months I haven’t seen her…So my dad was sick in the hospital, and I took my kids go to visit him. He didn’t want to see. Just say ‘Go home.’ Then he talk to my son. My son the only son.
J: The only grandson?
B: Now we have the one in Hanoi, too. By my brother. But at that time my son the only son. So I give my son to make a connect and bring them to visit and…
J: But gradually.
B: Yeah. But we don’t talk about politics. That happened to my family at ________.
J: You said—that last meeting we had—that the country is united but the people aren’t. B: Yeah. You see, the family—even between the family. You know my father, I know he love me; I love him, but he never forgive…I don’t hate people from Viet—I don’t hate them.
J: So what was it like for you to go back, um, like you went to the DMZ—but just to see it…you’ve been back a couple time—three times since you left?
B: I been back four times, but like I say this is the first time I be able to go back to DMZ and my hometown.
J: What was that like for you?
B: …David say ‘You look not really emotional’, you know? Like Steve, you know, he cry and something. But remember I come back to visit a couple time already.
J: Oh, I see.
B: But the DMZ, that—We’re standing in the midpoint that divide the country, and the river so beautiful…I was thinking how many people die in here…Two million people die, you know? But from the US and South Vietnam. I interview Binh (?) from North Vietnam. He critique the Viet Keoh (?) and all the South Vietnamese people.
J: Who did?
B: My friend…
J: Oh, the one—yeah.
B: He said the country need to educate Vietnam people to follow America. And they just want to live in a good life. And he say it’s not right.
J: Does he think they should go back?
B: No, he critique; he say—I say ‘What you think about Vietnamese living outside Vietnam?’ and he say ‘Now I forgive them. Now it okay. But when I start I really upset because when the country really need them in their hard time they escape to America to follow good life. After the conversation I say ‘Whatever you think is wrong; we have to live. I don’t have a…
J: You didn’t have a choice.
B: We didn’t have a choice. You born here in the North, your family and everything—I can’t go school. I look for my name. It’s in the letter that I can’t go to school or get a job. Where should I go? Stay here and become asleep or what? That’s what I have to do.
J: Hang around in a hammock.
B: You know? So, he say he didn’t know that. He say most people become like follow American. I say not many follow American are dying in the ocean…That’s why I say my project, I really wanna, like, put a weapon in people from the North. They talk like openly. Some totally brainwashed, like…totally brainwashed…
J: Like that woman in the Hanoi boutique hotel…
B: But you know, like, you can listen, you know, like, if you have mind you can know that’s BS. But I kept silent. People kept silent in the South. Very few of them had the courage to talk. They still afraid.
J: Even my friend Hong—just ask him a, the simplest question about why does it cost to go to school? ‘Oh, I don’t know about that.’ Simple question.
B: Anything that’s like, sensitive, they ignore.
J: Nah, he didn’t want to talk about that; just talk about culture. That was it; that’s all I could talk about.
B: Last year when I got back in Hanoi, he say ‘Brian…photograph landscape…Vietnam is beautiful country. Why don’t you photograph the landscape to save yourself trouble? Don’t get involved into politic, man.’ I say, yeah, you know what? I try to escape politics,…okay, just do landscape to make the government happy…99% of Vietnamese photography is landscape.
J: I’m sure.
B: Anything that like, you know, documentation about the people in the show right away they eliminate. And they think that I will try, like the 99% of the Vietnamese and do landscape. No, I wouldn’t trouble. Even in the U.S., people don’t like the work, seems like they don’t understand, but I don’t expect people to. I just know in my heart, you know I need to do that. Some they will say, that I need to…
J: That’s the artist’s need to express…
B: People think I make myself become Ho Chi Minh, that’s why I love him. I say, that’s nonsense. Why do you say that?
J: Okay, I have two questions: One is, you left at a time in your life when a lot of young people are trying to kind of figure out who they are -
B: At this point, I don’t know. I think I’m an American, because my life’s here, my job’s here, and I got education here. Even late, but that’s all I think that I can take…I go to school, I learn whatever I want. I read books. I have the joy to read what I want to read, but not in Vietnam; they all impose the ideas on you. And so,…
J: and a strict sense of values, too.
B: Right. But somehow for the last few years I went back to Vietnam, I become like more understanding, and I feel tied to the people there, and I feel like, yeah, I love them because... When I came here, I say, I never come back to that country, you know I hate it. It changed, I think, in a bad way, but somehow good and bad; people have been better. I don’t know; every time I go there, I want to go here to work, but when I come back, I miss over there a lot. It’s kind of like conflicting, like, some people say, “your father went to a radio station and denounced you.” The Vietnamese community calling you out -
J: Would you consider, or did you used to consider moving back there? Or would you consider moving back there to work?
B: Yeah, like last year, I was thinking, if I had money I would buy a piece of land, and like, let’s say when I retire, I could go and live there and write my book. Whenever I want, when my kids grow up. But when I got a Fulbright-
J: Do you think maybe it has to be another generation?
B: I interviewed people from …Saigon, who say 100 years. (inaudible) A guy say, we don’t ask them to rebuild our house. The dead people cannot come back alive. But … whoever …we don’t want the money, just forget it. We are okay here in the U.S. but they can say sorry that we...
J: It’s like paying reparations to the Japanese-
B: Yeah, right. At least the government begin a lot of … from the Viet Kieu…admit that they were wrong, admit it to us, and put it away.
J: It seems like it will be a long time. Maybe another 30 years.
B: You know, like Kiet, the prime minister, he wanted to do it for a long time, but the rumor is he’s been killed by the conservatives.
J: It’s so corrupt.
B: He say we shouldn’t celebrate April 30th – half the country sad, half the country happy. This is one country. We shouldn’t get anyone sad. That day for uniting the country, but if it brings sadness to the country, then let’s forget it. He’s the first prime minister say that. You shouldn’t call South Vietnam “Nguyi” that’s enemy. Like in English we should call it “e” instead of “he” you know?
J: Which is?
B: Almost an enemy term. Or you call it “the so called” instead of South Vietnam Government. It’s not necessary, it’s just divide people more. And now they’re in power, you know, overturned, you know.
J: When did he die?
B: He died in 2008, the year I was there. I really wanted to interview him. I get a friend who would go to him. He said, yeah, you can interview him.
J: You have a book, or you’re gonna to write a book?
B: I got a book of photography about the boat people.
B: Already published. I’ll give you a copy. I want to do another book about the Vietnamese living here. But since I’m more away from documentary style, I wanted the book about the Vietnamese, typical Vietnamese, inside, outside. What does it mean to be Vietnamese?
J: How would you answer that question?
B: Well, I view myself as Central. Open. What would you feel, you know?
J: Well, you know, Vietnam was occupied by so many different people, and it never…what quality the Vietnamese…? What’s different about Vietnamese than other Asian people? What makes that country different? You know, they’re different than Cambodian, Thai, Japanese, Chinese…What makes a Vietnamese person Vietnamese? You know, there are so many, you know… Oh, you know … family is very important to Asians and this and that. But what is important to Vietnamese?
B: I mean, that’s a tough question. I think they’re Vietnamese because of the history but also the region, all the big powers, because the location, central… the China Sea, the ocean.
J: Why couldn’t anyone…Why did everybody have so much trouble?
B: You know, like the countries that, you know, almost, who had Vietnam, who controlled Vietnam, Americans, no. Chinese, no. So, when someone tried to take over, you know – French – so they can control, whatever they called the government, dominatarian, to control the region, talking to the Communist, and also Vietnam is in the region for the Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Indonesia, all the countries in that region, you know, they have the U.S. so because the location… China always the big country that always swallow Vietnam. The proposal of the 17th parallel, they all had a reason to cut the country, not unite it, and it did so well in that, and the people somehow…for the last 200 years, the country’s been cut, dissected. The people they just follow by leader, by regions, regional, not one king like before. It’s so divided, and that made them, the people tried to survive, the means to survive is more important than anything.
J: Well, also there are so many ethnic groups there; do you think that had anything to do with it?
B: No, the ethnic groups are only a minority. The Viet people mostly, but even the Vietnamese are so divided by religion or anything. Since the Vietnamese moved to the South, so there’s no more king. Even the king says, “let’s fight China.” Or “let’s fight Thailand,” and the whole country follow one cause. Now, nobody listen to anyone. Everything right now, because the war really wounded the Vietnamese, and in their mind, everything, the communists really made people become slaves in their thinking.. The new generation generally doesn’t care about morality or anything; the only thing they think about is making money.
B: Consumerism, and how to make money, and if you look at the country -
J: 50 or 15?
B: 50 years or more after the Communists to make it…now with the younger generation, and the morality, now it’s changing. Somehow the Vietnamese, I mean, they work very hard, instead of intelligent.
J: Don’t you think that’s part of what it means to be Vietnamese? Is to be very hardworking?
B: That’s what I answer your question. They have 1000 years with the Chinese, and the Chinese cannot swallow them. Even the Philippines, they speak English. That’s funny, you know, but the Vietnamese still speak Vietnamese, and 1000 years they dye the teeth, to be different during the French.
B; You know, black. So I mean the Vietnamese, they’re somehow clever to survive, and that makes them Vietnamese, you know, they work a bit harder. Like, you know, it’s funny, I’m not racist or anything; I work in my garage…
J: Very harder – much harder.
B: I work in my garage, and I have two American friends, and one Cambodian, and we would try to help to break the tent, and it’s not only a few things, and I said, “let’s do it this way.” And my friends look at me and said, “Only Vietnamese think that way.” I remember when we were at dinner in the Mekong Delta. And they give a small jar of pepper, you know, like, and no one know how to open up. And we have to put a hole in the jar, and I got a small spoon, and turn it around and get the pepper. And Mike said, “Aha. That’s the way..” I don’t know, It’s just the way to get it. If you can’t do it, you find a way to do it.
J: Clever… You figure out a different solution. Problem solvers.
B: So I think like during the year that we had nothing to eat, people survive for some reason. I don’t know, we still survive. People ask why – I don’t know.
J: You know, I’ve asked that question of other Vietnamese, and they all say hardworking.
B: You know, I’m kind of different Vietnamese, so you’ve asked the wrong person. Most Vietnamese I know, like most friends I know, they already own their own house. I rent.
J: This is a rental? And you’re able to do all that in the back with a rental?
B: Yeah. This lady, she’s 98 years old. Whatever I (inaudible) for her, do whatever you want. If I raise the rent. It makes the house better, you know.
J: Whatever you do for her is going to improve the…
B: Yeah, improves the house. But anyway, my friends, most of the Vietnamese I know – they like, $600,000, or $500,000. They make down payments of like $150,000. I say, how?
J: I don’t know.
B: You don’t even make money like me. They say they borrow from this and that. I say you borrow, $30,000, yeah, but if I borrow another $100,000… But I figure out they save everything, no vacation. I don’t know how, but somehow, like my mom, even...
J: Is she still working?
B: No, but when I ask my mom to do something, like, “Mom, can I borrow…?” Just spend it. I have like $2000. I ask her.
J: Generous, too.
B: Generous. Somehow, I say, “Mom, where’s the money?” She just smile. She doesn’t work or anything.
J: How about your siblings? Do they save?
B: Doing well. I’m the poorest person in my family.
J: The poor artist.
B: They say, “You’re lucky. You travel. You have to work hard.” I say, “You make money, and then you die.”
J: You pass it on to your kids.
B: I travel, and my family, only Sunday they go to church, have parties, family dinners. Once in a while I join them, but mostly I don’t. Nothing new, I get bored, I don’t know what to say.
J: Do they have kids, that your children have cousins?
B: Yeah, my kids can play with the children. But my brother-
J: So, do you have plans to take your kids to Vietnam?
J: So next time. Maybe a little older, too.
B: Yeah, but Nicolas is only 4. I want to spend over the mountainside – you know, Sapa. I want to spent at least six (?) weeks there. Many parts of Vietnam I can stay for a while, but not in summer. It’s too hot. I cannot stand the heat in Vietnam.
J: The humidity.
B: I’m Vietnamese, but you know, I turned the AC on, like even Steve couldn’t bear the AC.
J: The AC? Really?
B: Yeah, but I made it really cold.
J: He didn’t like the AC? He was dripping wet all the time.
B: Yeah, but he say, I made it too cold. I say, no It’s okay. It’s so hot. Later on, he get used to it, but beginning, he say, “Fuckin’ Brian, you know I’m chilly all night. I couldn’t sleep.” But I was thinking, one year I may take them to kick back for the New Year.
J: So it’s okay during the New Year – the weather.
B: Oh. Chilly. I was there last …
J: But I mean, like chilly like California chilly, or…?
B: Yeah, like California. But you need a jacket. In North Vietnam, like Sapa, you need a thick jacket, almost like 40-
J: So do you celebrate that Tet New Year, here with your kids or with your family? Do you like carry on those Vietnamese traditions with your kids, or no? Like that cake with the banana leaf thing?
B: We used to, you know my wife bought that, and my mom, we had to buy something for my mom, but I don’t take them to the festival.
J: Is there a festival down here?
B: Yeah, in Little Saigon. New Year fest, and you know the Vietnamese are very active. You can feel like you’re in Vietnam. Flying kites, lion dance, I don’t care much. We don’t eat traditional.
J: what is that square cake called?
B: Banh Chung.
J: Banh what?
B: Banh Chung.
J: Chung. Well thank you for your interview. Is there anything else you’d like to add?
B: Being Vietnamese is kind of sad you know, because we, like this generation is considered 1.5. My father is the first, or the second. We’re always sad because… Many, many Vietnamese still don’t know what to call…get the idea,
J: You mean the younger ones?
B:The younger generation just carry on whatever their parents did to them without their own…The last couple summers I go to every book, not every book, mostly history. I think that unfortunately, Vietnam like I say is…, but have to realize that you know …is not from the Vietnamese is …why do we have to keep chains. Put it down and forget it, and look to the future. Not many, like look at my family, two, three people died. My best friend 10 years in the camp. People in the north – even they live with the communists in…now they have the benefits from the government even they search them out. In the north.. They’re the victors. They sleep; they don’t realize that this is the time to forgive…let’s carry the brother who fell. Regardless…But now,…the Vietnamese here, like the Vietnamese community still loves the Republicans because they think the Republican help them go back to their country, like Nixon, like Reagan, whenever the war happened. I think Vietnamese are the only community that protests to support Bush in the war in Iraq. I feel so funny when I read the news from little Saigon that help Iraq, the communists make them blind. ..I feel that war …whatever side is wrong. I feel that If you hit me, I don’t have to hit you back. My father fought the communists , and now you think they forgive them? You are a traitor. What happened to your mom, your family. I have not forgot. I am not bitter. But how many people are able to forgive? Not many. Since there are many Vietnamese over here. There is no program to help the Vietnamese Vets.
J: Right. The Vietnamese living here that fought?
B: My father is like 10 years in the camp. And been tortured. And no one to treat him. He always keep that in mind. Been mistreat.
J: But would he go to a psychiatrist if there was a program?
B: Of course. But if he wants to.
J: It would have to be a Vietnamese psychiatrist.
B: Right. Like last year they had a program hosted by UMASS, and they call like, Vietnamese from all sides talking about the war.
J: Where was it?
B: In Boston, at UMASS. But they didn’t invite South Vietnam side. They invited people from North, from Hanoi. Americans.
J: You mean, American GIs.
B: And North Vietnamese. So they treat South Vietnam Vets as… loser. But I think they made mistake, …withdrawal the support by Chinese and Russian was stronger than ever. No one can win, North already made the decision to give up South Vietnamese. They already know that people would die. There would be bloodshed, but when the people, thousands of people would escape. No one would interview them. There was one film director interview me, and say he wanted to interview people from South Vietnam, and I say to interview my father and his friends…
J: What kind of film director – is this an American film director?
B: This guy from Switzerland, independent films.
J: Well, he’s not Vietnamese.
B: Of Course. I say, why don’t you just.. .This is your opportunity to talk. He said, no for the reason it’s psychological, or anything…
J: And your dad speaks English, right?
B: French. He interviewed my dad in French.
J: So he did interview, or he didn’t?
B: He asked him a couple of questions, but my dad said he didn’t want to say anymore. And then they packed up; it was in Boston, and then they said, Brian, can you come video there, to another hour. When I asked him, he said, no. It’s so…
J: What year was that?
B: It’s about three years ago. I mean like that’s why they say…
J: So they didn’t make the film, or what?
B: I contact him, his name is Eric…in South Vietnam. We communicated. The only thing that I wish, you know, for American, is …the only one that can reconcile the people from outside. They have enough power, money, and they hope the country, everything new instead of propaganda on radio, TV, you know, whatever, keeping the fight. You know, being Vietnamese, you have to realize who’s the real enemy, and then, if you cannot fight that kind of enemy, you have to make yourself a break for peace. (?)
J: It seems like a focus on economic growth – even here.
B: When you have something, you lose something. I went to a bookstore, I said, “Oh my God!” I couldn’t find any good books. What happened? Before ’75 in the South, there were many, many books, but now there were no good books at all.
J: Yeah, so you could look in Vietnamese, so even in the Vietnamese section.
B: I interviewed a couple of young people, and they were so sad.
J: So, asking people what they write about, it was sex and love. Of course that might be coming out of that kind of oppressive…
B: You know, when I went to Cambodia, they still keep the culture, they still keep the architecture. Not Vietnamese. The Vietnamese government…You see the hotel, the Khmer style. In Vietnam, you don’t find anything.
J: Like the Cambodiana hotel. Right. You’d have to ask, “Is it Chinese?” You see the Ao Dai. Right. Yeah. That’s a good question.
B: You know, for years, all the sculpture is melted down for...
J: And the sculpture that you see is all that Soviet influenced sculpture; that’s what’s displayed in the art museums.
B: Even in Phnom Penh you see the monuments; still beautiful.
J: Where is he teaching?
B: In Hanoi University. I said, I think you guys have to go to Cambodia and learn from them. “Cambodia has to come here and learn from us.” I say, no. You go there and learn there. At least they keep something from their ancestors.
J: And the Apsara dancing, and..
B: And everything is still very authentic;, but here the literature, the stories, and…
J: They do have the music; we did hear the Vietnamese music. You know I bought the CDs – the DVDs, and the quality is terrible…(irrelevant)
J: (12:35)Is there anything else to add? Can you tell me anything else about being Vietnamese -
B: Vietnamese, I hope that some day, you know they’ll open up the country for Vietnamese to come back.
J: Is it difficult, like paperwork to get back into the country? Is it hard? Or now you have an American passport?
B: To visit it’s okay. But to live in Vietnam is something. They still…
J: They look at your background, like if you wanted to go live there permanently…
B: They just interviewed me last week, one guy, about my friend living in Vietnam.
J: Last week, some guy interviewed you about your friend?
B: Yeah, and they sent me an email, and I said, first of all, you have to tell me your name and why you have to interview my friend who is still living in Saigon. I have a question that make them think I am a reporter. I’m not another friend.
J: what is your friend doing that they need to interview you about him.
B: He’s an artist Vinh Kieu, living in Vietnam, very successful. And …he stay in Vietnam and he bought a house, but I didn’t know him recently, but he’s the one that host…He kind of know a lot of people in the government. I’m sure that you know him. I say, “yeah, Vinh Kieu is my friend.” And then the first question, like, you know, that…Yeah, I’m considered his friend, too, but he has so many friends. I say, who’s asking me the questions. I say, “ let me talk to your friend.” I say, “No. He want to …” The interview’s in English.
J: This is on the phone.
B: On the phone. I call him Big Brother, like “Kanh” I say, “Hey, I feel like funny questions. This is something I not expecting to answer. He emailed me like 10 questions, all I feel from the police, from the investigations – A-
J: So, they interview him when he comes back? Really?
J: I’ll ask him.
B: True. Almost everyone I know coming here comes back, So they call up, “Do you know anything?” Some people will not answer dumb questions. But some people will volunteer. They actually can work for them. So I acting like, should I email Vinh Kieu and let him know? So it just happen like that. So I just answer all the dumb questions that I can pick up from whoever: I say, “I think he left the country. I think he’s successful. I don’t know why…
J: Don’t know his political views, I just know his art…
B: Yeah. So questions like that, just dumb answers. You see that?
J: Like when we were there, it seemed like capitalism was so rampant, you think, well, is capitalism going to take over, and communist party’s just going to go away? It doesn’t sound like it.
B: No. You know who plays the capitalism. Who’s the chair of the, I mean who’s the president of the communists who pockets the most. The Communist party leaders. The owner of the boutique hotel.
J: That’s what I keep thinking of..
B: That hotel is from the army.
J: The sister-
B: You know that brand – LV –
J: Luis Vuston?
B: Yeah. $37,000. My brother got a golf set $90,000. To play golf.
J: That’s what Victoria said; who was in the Naga World hotel – the Vietnamese Communist Party leaders.
J: I think it’s going to be a very long time before they give up any kind of power. They’re living the high life.
B: So I interviewed a guy here from Hanoi. And he looked at me, like, “you guys are so innocent. The Communists are not Vietnamese. They are they Vietnamese, but they been corrupt. They are Mafia group. The communists are totally Mafia organization. So they are not Vietnamese.” Whatever makes them money keeps them.
J: Like that one lecturer from SEAMEO RETRAC said that it’s like, the communist party is like 2 % of the population. It’s like nobody; it’s very, very small. That’s the members, not even the leaders.
B: It’s … economy, to do anything, you have to enroll.
J: You have to enroll; you have to be a party member first.
B: Yeah, be a party member first. My friend that the moment he became a party member, he’s not friends with me anymore.
J: Yeah, you can’t be. Right
B: Well, I say, you always make your announcement, … become really richer, and like, you become a slave for them. Oh well, they don’t bother to buy the people and to work for them. Like the guy, what’s his name?
J: The one that arranged things. Yeah, I forgot his name.
B: Yeah, arranged things. My, he’s so innocent.
J: Well, he just came back from being in New Zealand. He hasn’t even been here but three months when we showed up.
B: But you know he’s uh, his family is big Communists, and he himself working for them. So I interviewed him, and that moment I asked him and he told me about his father, and mom, that he denied to answer my questions …that they would harass the people, and so afraid that I changed my interview into another … Vu
J: Vu – that’s his name.
B: His father, his grandfather worked for the P-
J: And he didn’t know what he was doing.
B: Anything wrong… and his father and his mom, and his grandfather.
J: And the Hanoi Boutique Hotel, and that other hotel, the Ninh Kieu Hotel? Where was it, Can Tho or somewhere? That was the army?
B: Oh, the army. In Vietnam, the army and Party. They are the people who sell land. You know the army, owns a lot of land in Vietnam. All the hotels are owned by the government.
J: The what?
B: Government business. The group that came here with the president two years ago? Everyone bought houses. One or two. Most in Costa Mesa. There’s a communist community.
J: Costa Mesa – a communist community. (Laughs)
B: $750,000, and the guy says, “What the hell! They’re so cheap – cheaper than Hanoi!”
J: Just write a check!
B: You know in the old quarter Hanoi, every house is 2 million dollars.
J: In the old quarter?
B: Yeah. Land in Hanoi is the most expensive land– you know the Boutique Hotel, the land is I think over a million dollars, for sure. In Costa Mesa, I went to one party and I had to walk out. And a guy said, “I bought a house, like three rooms, $750,000, oh, so cheap!” I walked away from the party. And my brother says, what’s going on? I cannot sit with those people.
J: Thank you for your time. I really appreciate it. You have to go to day care.