Andrew Cox Interviews Linh Dinh

Andrew Cox has a most thorough interview with Linh Dinh where the frank conversation covers topics from technology to poetry and takes us through Dinh’s perspective on the State of the Union.

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“I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough.”

Why did you start State of the Union?

In 2005, I taught a writing course called State of the Union at Naropa University, in Boulder, CO. I’ve also taught this course at the University of Montana and University of Pennsylvania. I wanted the students to address the crises afflicting our nation. It’s certainly not easy to make sense out of what’s going, especially since there’s so much disinformation and propaganda out there.

State of the Union is my attempt to track, through images and words, what’s happening to this country. The project has also forced me to spend much more time in the physical world, as oppose to sitting in front of the computer.

Like most of us, I was living a mediated life, I was living mostly through the computer, but, with this project, I’ll walk for miles though the streets, looking and hearing, and sometimes asking questions. Before I started, I had become alienated from much of my home city. I had forgotten the names of the neighborhoods, places I had known as a housepainter.

I was also tired of being an inhabitant of the poetry ghetto. Poets are entirely invisible and irrelevant in this society. As America collapses, poets have nothing to contribute to the general conversation. Few have anything to say, and the ones who do are ignored in any case.

I was tired of being published in books and literary journals that no one reads. My political essays, then, are my attempt at reaching a bigger audience, a more general audience. I want to use all of my skills as a writer to address people who would not likely read my poems. I’m particularly happy that my latest piece, “Mare Mere,” is being run by both CounterPunch and Dissident Voice, since it has elements of the prose poem. It is 2/3 political essays and 1/3 poetry. I’ll try to write more in this vein.

Why do you think poets are ignored? Is it worldwide or just an American phenomenon?

Conditioned by the car and television, we value speed above all. We want everything to be fluid and accelerated. We don’t care about quality, just quantity. It doesn’t matter what we eat, we just want to stuff ourselves as fast as possible.

Poetry is too slow for this culture. The poets themselves are also to be blamed, however. Dodging life instead of confronting it, most of them are ridiculously feeble. They think the ideal life is to be on campus forever, with a break once a year to go to their much-anticipated convention. There, they can suck up and screw down.

Da Vinci said, “A man who looks forward to spring is looking forward to his own death.” To always look forward, then, is to be forever dissatisfied with the present, but that’s the culture we have, we’re always looking forward to next year, next week, next hour, we can’t stand this present second. Our culture doesn’t just anticipate death, it’s living it!

In short, a people who will not reflect and who can’t stand silence will not read a poem. Though this has become a worldwide phenomenon, it’s much more advanced in certain places, like the U.S., for example, where we’ve reached a psychotic state. We hate our own mind, frankly. We don’t want to hear it speak.

Notice how people must turn on an electronic device soon as they enter a room, be it TV, stereo or computer. Sometimes all three are turned on simultaneously. Without these surrogate voices, we’re lost. What I’m talking about goes way beyond poetry, obviously. What I’m trying to get at is the reverence and courage that allow you to hear yourself and other people not just more clearly, but at all.

A quick observation about Vietnam. I went back in 1995, 1998, then stayed for 2 ½ years starting in 1999. While there, I could observe it shift towards the American model, which is all distraction all the time, where serious thinking is drowned out by nonsense, titillation and trivia. Wearing T-shirts with weird or actual English, many people started to listen to loud, recorded music, watch mindless TV and lust after brand names, though few could afford them.

None of this is necessarily bad in itself. I mean, a stupid T-shirt is just a piece of underwear with some moronic writing on it, and I enjoy a good soccer match as much as the next guy, but this rising pop culture was helping to mask many, many serious problems.

There was prostitution on practically every street. In factories, workers were being abused. Likewise, the servants in middle class households. I’m not even against prostitution in itself, only the poverty that forced many young women to become whores.

Top Communist officials became obscenely rich, bought many properties and sent their kids to Western universities, while the poorest sold their bodies and begged. However, with this loud music, exciting soccer matches, constantly flickering TV and many sexy photos, intimate or blown up, it was no longer necessary to arrest serious writers and thinkers. As in America, the Vietnamese intellectual has become irrelevant.

When you first left the office and computer how did you feel getting out into the physical world?

The office sounds so grand! Well, I have a little room with a desk and a tiny bed. I didn’t snore ten years ago, but now I do, so my wife and I sleep in different beds, in different rooms.

In my so-called office, there’s some food stored in the corner: a case of tuna, one of instant noodles and several bags of rice. We don’t have much room, so every square foot must be stacked with something. Where I work, then, where I’m typing this, is more survival bunker than regular office.

If there’s a nuclear explosion or meltdown, my wife and I could lock ourselves in this rat hole of a room and survive until Jesus, Allah or Buddha, whoever’s truly biggest, meanest or asskickingest, knocks on the door to say, Hey, everything’s OK, you can come out now!

By definition, a writer or artist must work in isolation. He must be removed from the world as he writes, paints or whatever, but a writer must also be among other people so he can have something to write about.

My first book, Fake House, was populated mostly by losers, the types I was surrounded with, and with whom I worked and drank. Of course, some of the characters were more or less me. I was a total loser, financially, socially and erotically. I was an embarrassment. Still am. I couldn’t get any of anything.

You asked about the media. Well, the media is all about getting stuff. It’s about having all of your natural and unnatural appetites fulfilled. It’s about whooping it up, partying, fucking and spending, but real life is not anything like that. Well, you might have a few highlights here and there, fondly remembered, but most of the time, it’s incredibly hard just to get by. Just to maintain your basic dignity, you have to exert yourself like crazy; you have to be a physical and mental athlete just to get by.

My first book, Fake House, was dedicated to “The Unchosen.” I’ve always been interested in so-called losers, because that’s the general human condition, if not now, then soon enough. We will all lose, but there’s also dignity and strength in losing. I came from a losing society, South Vietnam, and I’m experiencing a collapsing culture right now.

Anyway, I’ve always been a wanderer, a walker. As a kid in Saigon, I walked all over. When I lived in Italy and England, I’d go to many strange cities, towns and villages and just walk. This project, then, is an intensification of an impulse I’ve always had.

The only time in my life when I didn’t walk was in high school. I lived in San Jose and Northern Virginia then. These two places are heavily car-dependent. I hate them, frankly.

The computer is very addictive. I have never been addicted to the TV, for many years I didn’t even have a TV, but with the computer, I became sort of a screen addict for the first time.

My site, State of the Union, gives me a clear reason to leave the house, so that’s a good thing. I can walk out without going to the bar. I don’t drink a fraction of what I used to.

When you’re among people, you’re always surprised. You think you already know how they look and talk, but you’d often be wrong. People are always inventive because they’re restless, bored and exhibitionistic. They also like to have fun. Packaging themselves, they’re always refining their acts. They’ll come up with the weirdest way of putting on a hat, for example, or of conveying the simplest message.

What surprised you the most when you first started documenting the homeless? What surprises you now?

I’ve lived in cities most of my life, so the homeless is nothing new. There is a lot destitution and squalor in Saigon, where I was born and spent my early childhood, and where I returned to live for 2 ½ years as an adult.

When I moved to Philly in 1982, I saw many homeless living in the subway concourse, and I remember seeing hundreds of homeless in Tompkins Square in New York in the mid 80’s.

Before I started my State of the Union project, I never talked to the homeless, however. It is enlightening to hear people’s stories. I don’t want to generalize too much about the homeless, but it is amazing to observe how tough and resilient these people are. On their faces and bodies are evidences of the very difficult lives they’ve endured, even before they became homeless. Many of these people look beaten up, because they have been. In Vietnam, too, you see these types of faces and bodies.

“Home” is such a physical and emotional necessity. While most of us still have roofs over our heads, I’d say that many of us are emotionally homeless. At best, we are dwelling in emotional halfway houses, or emotional bunkers, with many cans of expired tuna in a corner.

Now, I’d like to shoehorn an umbilical cord mooning monologue about home: I was born in Saigon and have lived there as an adult, but to call that home would be a stretch. I’m most familiar with Philadelphia and do identify with it, but I can’t deny feeling elated whenever I could leave it, if only temporarily.

I was calmest and happiest when I lived in Certaldo, Italy, population 16,000, but I could barely speak the language and didn’t have to make a living there. With the exception of San Jose and Northern Virginia, I’m fond of all the places I’ve lived in, including Norwich, England, and Missoula, MT, but, as Camus said, and I’m quoting from memory and probably butchering it, “He loves all women, which means he loves none of them.”

My mother is from Hanoi, so I can still fake a fairly convincing Hanoi accent, and several times I’ve caught myself thinking, while in Hanoi, “It’d be beautiful to die here,” but of course I’m not dying to live there, so that’s not really home either. I’m OK with being home/less. I’m happiest when I’m on a train, though of course, I’m also anxious to get off.

You said many homeless people have been beat up. Who is attacking these people?

Tyrone, a 45-ish black man who was on the streets for nearly a year, told me he was beaten up by three teens. He showed me stitches on his forehead. A thirty-ish white guy was almost stabbed with a box-cutter by a white, drunken girl, walking with a group of friends. She slashed his bag. The story sounded a bit outlandish, but everything else he said was plausible. He said black women treated him the best, and, sure enough, a young black woman gave him a bag of McDonald’s food while we were talking.

In Richmond, a white former nurse, Tony, also said that black women were the kindest to him. As if on cue, again, a black woman gave him an apple not even a minute later. Tony related how a Mexican homeless man was hit with a stick as he washed his clothes in the river. His attacker was some black guy, maybe another homeless dude. This Mexican guy had a big gash on his head but didn’t dare go to the emergency room because he was illegal. Knowing Tony had been a nurse, he asked Tony for help. Tony looked at it and said it would heal eventually, so that was that.

If you’re lying on the sidewalk, you’re going to be vulnerable, obviously. That’s why so many of them sleep during the daytime, because it’s safer that way, with many people walking around. Even when you’re not attacked, it’s impossible to get a good night’s sleep, obviously, because of the weather, the noise and because you’re lying on cardboard.

Some of your pictures feature images of advertising. What do you think about the relationship between marketing and the homeless?

Much of photography is used to seduce. It sells you on a fantasy so you will buy the product. The glamorous advertising images and catchy slogans serve as an obscene contrast to what’s actually on the streets.

The last time I was Vietnam, in 2001, I often saw the slogan, RICH PEOPLE, STRONG COUNTRY, on government billboards, but this was still old style Communist propaganda. With their heroic, broad shoulders and determined figures, always depicted from below, the Communists sought to inspire, but Capitalism is all about seduction.

On American TV, there’s an ad that shows a famous football player, first in uniform, then stripped down to near total nudity. These female hands then dressed him in slacks, shirt and tie. Only at the end would you discover that this is actually a car commercial!

In any case, photography plays a central role in this come-on economy. There’s photographic seduction everywhere you turn. The system will strip you and leave you with a very cool photo, and it won’t even be yours to own, son, you can only look at it! I’m trying to capture this swindle in my photos.

In your writing you are critical of the spread of casinos. Why?

Casinos are perfect emblems of our non-productive economy. A lot of money changes hand in a casino, but it produces absolutely nothing. Factories are being abandoned in cities and towns across America, but casinos are spreading all over. Fools and crooks who support casinos say they bring jobs, but casinos are net losses in every community.

Do you ask for permission before you photograph anyone? Do you explain what you are using the images for and if so, what is a typical reaction?

If I can get away with sneaking a photo, I’ll do that. Generally speaking, I don’t want my subjects to pose or even be aware of my presence, but since I carry a large camera, this is not always possible.

From each photo, you can generally tell whether I’ve engaged my subject. Sometimes I offer people a bit of money, usually just a buck or two, to take their photos. I gave $10 to a Camden woman, however, so she could buy cans of Sterno for her tent.

In Detroit, I also gave an old man 10 bucks because he was in such bad shape. He said he needed this money for a prescription. Whenever I visited the tent city in Camden, New Jersey, I’d bring 24 large cans of beer, though I’d end up drinking three or four myself. I’ve also bought food for the homeless.

When I talk to people on the streets, I do tell them I’m writing about the economy. Most know full well the economy is in horrible shape and will get even worse, and most of them don’t mind talking to me about their dire situations.

Once, I saw a young woman who was raving and extremely dirty, she even smelled of urine, but as soon as I talked to her, she became sane and radiant. Not to exaggerate but she became shockingly beautiful. I bought her something to drink and lent her my cell phone so she could call a friend in Baltimore to pick her up in Philadelphia.

As an artist, you’re always a kind of vulture when you’re around people, you’re always trying to make use of what they say, how they look or who they are, and since art is always subjective, a kind of distortion, you’re always deforming people to suit your purposes. Although art is always, in this sense, an exploitation, it is also a kind of tribute, and hence, of love. Sometimes I can barely stand how magnificent and beautiful people are.

You mentioned bringing beer or food with you sometimes. A common stereotype is the homeless asking for money or holding a sign by the freeway just want it to buy drugs and alcohol. How accurate is this stereotype?

Well, there are soup kitchens. In Camden, I went with a group of homeless to a very clean and dignified soup kitchen. People sat down at these long tables and were served by volunteers. When this homeless couple left a bit early, I asked them, “What happened? Didn’t you like the food?” The woman was a deaf mute, so only the man answered. He said, “Yeah, we liked it fine, but now we’re going to a second soup kitchen!” Another guy told me, “You have to be a moron to starve in Camden.” The problem is, many of the homeless are at least slightly crazy. Though some started out mentally ill or deficient, I’m sure many more became that way from having to live on the streets.

There’s a guy who wandered around the shopping mall in downtown Philadelphia. His pants were falling apart and sagging. You could literally see his crotch. My wife actually tried to give him a belt, but he wouldn’t take it. He wouldn’t even take cash. He never said a word, not one word, so maybe he couldn’t talk at all. Every now and then, you’ll run into a homeless person who won’t even take money.

In any case, I bring beer to the tent city in Camden because I figure, why shouldn’t these people have a beer? Also, I’d not be so welcome if I didn’t bring beer!

The tent city in Camden, New Jersey has made headlines in the past but I think many people would be shocked to hear tent cities exist in American. Some news reports said the type of people there would surprise you. What was it like when you went there?

It was orderly and safe. In the summer, you could smell the shit in the honey bucket, but it wasn’t terribly dismal. Sure it was bad, but people were making the best of it. They’d hang out in the center, talk and laugh. Sometimes people would fight, they’d scream at each other, but I was there maybe ten times and never saw any violence. I’d hear about violent episodes, however, but these were very rare.

In any case, the rest of Camden was much more dangerous. Jamaica, the head guy of the tent city, kept everything under control. Later, I’d hear from someone, living in another Camden tent city, that Jamaica would charge people a nominal fee to live in “his” tent city. I don’t know if this was true, but I did notice that Jamaica sometimes hoarded some of the beer I brought. Whatever. He was the “mayor” of that place, and a lot of the people I talked to seemed genuinely grateful to him. Rex, 76 years old, told me Jamaica carried him on his back to the hospital. Hardly anyone had a cell phone there, so it wasn’t like you could easily call 911 if there was an emergency.

One time I went there and it was, like, 5 degree out, and there was a huge snowstorm, and this kid, maybe 22, was freaking out. We were standing around the fire, trying to warm ourselves, and this kid was raving because he couldn’t take it anymore. I lent him my cell phone so he could call his mom. He started to beg her to let him come home. “I’ll do anything you want me to do, Mom! I can’t take this anymore.” Jamaica said he’d put the kid on the Greyhound, and he apparently did, because I never saw that kid again.

That tent city got too much publicity, so the city government finally shut it down. It didn’t do anything but chase the people out and put a chain link fence around that plot. As for all the newly displaced, a private organization did take them to a motel, where they could be cleaned up, groomed then assisted in finding a job or housing.

The official unemployment rate of Camden is 25%, however, so I’m sure many of these folks have ended up on the streets again. As for other tent cities, I’ve seen people living in tents or makeshift dwellings in a few other places besides Camden. There must be dozens across the country.

American cities are outlawing sleeping or camping in public. In many places, dumpster diving is also illegal. One should remember that during the 1929 Depression, much food was destroyed even as the nation starved!

In Hawaii, Santa Cruz and elsewhere, you can’t sleep in your own car, and in San Francisco, you can’t even sit on the sidewalk. These cosmetic measures are designed to mask our accelerating economic collapse. And yet, despite all the evidence, the mainstream media trumpet daily that the recovery is here.

To close, I want to quote Texas Congressman C. Wright Patman, as recorded by the great Studs Terkel in his 1970 oral history of the Great Depression, Hard Times, “A dictatorship could spring up here over night, if this country got so bad. If another Depression came, we’d have a revolution. People wouldn’t take it any more. They have more knowledge. The big ones, they’d be looking for somebody that’d have the power to just kill people, if they didn’t agree. When John Doe begins to get up, they’d just go down and shoot him.”

Well, that depression is here!

Linh Dinh is the author of two books of stories, five of poems, and a just released novel, Love Like Hate. He’s tracking our deteriorating socialscape through his frequently updated photo blog, State of the Union.

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Dear subscribers,

The new diaCRITICS site will go live in a few days at this URL ( We will do our best to transfer all email subscribers to the new site. Subscribers who have joined through RSS, however, cannot be transferred. We are also hoping that those who subscribe through Networked Blogs will be transferred.

A welcome post will inaugurate the new site. If you don’t automatically get notification of that post, then it’s most likely the case that your subscription didn’t get transferred. Please make sure to renew your subscription via the new site, either through email or through RSS.

The Editors

Hang on…diaCRITICS 2.0 is coming!

We’re going on hiatus for a week or two as we get our brand-new design ready. Hopefully it will go smoothly and you’ll get a notice (if you’re a subscriber) when the new site is up…if not, check back soon and resubscribe!

Trương Bửu Lâm is the 75th subscriber in our subscriber drive!

diaCRITICS wants to add 100 new subscribers! The 25th, 50th, 75th, and 100th subscribers (and those who referred them) get their pick of prizes. Trương Bửu Lâm is our 75th subscriber and has chosen Kim-An Lieberman’s poetry book Breaking the Map. We‘re a little late getting this information posted, and we have close to 80 new subscribers, so please keep signing up via the email link or the networked blogs option on the right. And if you want to refer people and are on networked blogs, you can invite all your friends on Facebook to join via networked blogs!


“Simply put, this is a wonderful first collection….This is a geography that demands attention.” – Samuel Green, Washington State Poet Laureate

“…whatever forty-year-old image we might still remember from Vietnam or America that is part real and part television, she makes whole, new, and vibrant. She makes us a witness more than reader.”
– Shawn Wong, Author of Homebase and American Knees


A little more information about Trương Bửu Lâm  comes below.

Trương Bửu Lâm

Where are you from?

I was born in Vietnam and grew up in Saigon.

Tell us something else about yourself.

My full name is Trương Bửu Lâm. In the USA, I am known under my given name which is Lâm and not by my family name, Trương. That results from an error I committed when I first came to the US. I wrote my name in the same order as I have always written it on the immigration form which asks for: first, middle, last names. The error has its merit though: it now allows me to write my name as it is and not as it should have been: Lâm Bửu Trương which I would not recognize as mine!

What do you do?

I earned my doctorate in History from the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and from 1957, I worked for the Viện Khảo Cổ of the ministry of Education, Republic of Vietnam. Concurrently, I taught history at the Universities of Saigon and Huế and French and Latin at the University of Dalat. In  1964, a fellowship enabled me to further my training in several American universities until I obtained my first teaching position at the State University of New York in Stony Brook. The University of Hawaii invited me to join its History Department in 1971 to teach Southeast Asian History. I retired from that institution in 2001.

Do you have a favorite Vietnamese or Vietnamese diasporic work of art? If so, tell us about it.

As a student of Vietnamese history, I have always paid much attention to her arts and  literature. That was the reason why I devoted the years since retirement to write and publish a comprehensive history of Vietnam entitled A Story of Vietnam  ( in which I allocated a fair amount of space to the arts and literature.

In that book, I also wrote what I think of Vietnamese diasporic works of fiction. In my opinion, the author of a Vietnamese work of fiction must reside in Vietnam.

I have no favorite Vietnamese work of art for I indiscriminately and equally like all the works I admire – including of course works of diasporic Vietnamese.  Each one has its charm and power of attraction.

 Anything else we should know about you?

I thank you very much for giving me the opportunity to introduce myself to the members of diacritics. I don’t think that I should burden them with anything else.

Trương Bửu Lâm was being far too modest. He is the editor of the collections Patterns of Vietnamese Response to Foreign Intervention, 1858-1900 and Borrowings and Adaptations in Vietnamese Culture, and the author of Resistance, Rebellion, Revolution: Popular Movements in Vietnamese History and New Lamps for Old: The Transformation of the Vietnamese Administrative Elite.


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What Happened in July: Some News and Events

It’s JULY, Tháng 7. Contributor Julie Nguyễn offers a critical recap of July happenings in the general interest of a Vietnamese American. She most likely missed a few things, Vietnamese and not, so if you come across something you think should be shared with the readers, please send them to Julie via this email: ngujle [at] gmail [dot] com.

[Before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? Win an iPod and other prizes!]

July seems to have passed with an interesting mix of the good and bad. Some of us get to celebrate with the newlyweds of NYC with the passing of the same-sex marriage law; and also on that front, the President ratified the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. Meanwhile, on the total opposite side of the spectrum there was the horrifying bombing in Oslo, which sparked consternation about Norway’s immigrants. And then there is USA’s notorious debt plan that precariously passed. Thoughts people?

Vietnamese in the NEWS

Nguyen Cao Ky in 1965, the year he became prime minister.

This title says it better than I can: Vietnamese Americans have mixed feelings about ex-leader’s death, an article about the recent passing of Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, former Prime Minister of the Republic of Vietnam and later, Vice President. If you want to learn more about the man himself, this obituary is more helpful.

I fervently hope that it’s only me, but there seems to be several gun rampages as of late. In Texas, Tan Do gunned down his ex-wife and several of her relatives before turning the gun on himself, at their son’s roller-rink birthday party. The children were not physically harmed.

Out of Garden Grove comes this rather gruesome tale: Woman Drugs Husband’s Dinner, Cuts Off Penis, Throws It In Garbage Disposal. I don’t know what to say.

Ms Tran Khai Thanh Thuy was sentenced to 3.5 years of prison on charges of 'assault ' in 2009.

And then this caught my eye: Trần Khải Thanh Thủy, a Vietnamese dissident journalist, was released in a surprising move from Hà Nội…maybe not so surprising. Rubbing noses with America when China is poking your bordersisn’t exactly unpredictable.

Vietnamese in the ARTS
Foreigners dancing the tango get the cold shoulder in Argentina (And xenophobia gets a kick in the shins! Notice!).

Michelle Phan (make-up guru and Lancôme spokesperson) gets a mention in this NYT article about Asian-Americans on the big screen. It’s a fun read about Hollywack and their insistence that somehow, our Asian American stories are not universal and therefore not very marketable. Youtube can tell us otherwise, in numbers. While mainstream America likes to finance stupid stereotypes (thx Dat Phan…), the rest of Asian America is moving on.

For example: the call is out. Help fund Saigon Electric so it can take over the world. Tired of being labeled with ‘that’ Vietnamese stereotype? Let’s shake things up and put our diverse faces in as many theaters as possible.

Along those lines, if you like to stalk the amazing spoken word artist Bao Phi, check out the APIA Spoken Word Summit happening in the lucky Twin Cities. (Also contributing will be Sahra Vang Nguyen who has some impressing things to say about humanity.)

gratuitous Tila pic

Look out NYC because here she comes! Tila Tequila is on the prowl. You know I’ll be looking for her, lol!

And finally, a short and interesting little documentary about The History of Vietnamese and Nail Salons (streaming video).

(thank you RL and VTN for your help in bringing some of these news pieces to my attention!)

Julie Nguyễn likes toads a lot but only eats vegetables. She kinda loves being Vietnamese even though there aren’t that many in NYC.

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July’s Top Ten Most Critical

Here are the top ten most popular posts published in July (not to be confused with the Ten Most Critical page above, for the top ten most popular posts of all time, which are also updated for this month). Check them out if you haven’t already.

1. Carina Hoang’s ‘Boat People’ — Short Stories, Life-Long Memories

2. Mugged then Shot: Linh Dinh on American Corruption

3.  Paradise Shot — Norway in the World’s Arms

4. Lists of Discovery

5. What Happened in June: Some News and Events

6. Gene Luen Yang & Thien Pham’s Level Up: Review and Comic-Con 2011

7. Dinh Q. Lê’s ‘Erasure’ Opens in Australia

8. Poor Richard’s Rise

9. The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly: Michelle Ton Reviews Three Films

10. Deep Space in Comic Book Artist John Pham’s Sublife 1 and 2


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Paradise Shot — Norway in the World’s Arms

diaCRITICS contributor Trangđài Glassey-Trầnguyễn, a doctoral student in the United States, offers an overview of the Vietnamese communities in Scandanavia while reflecting upon the recent Oslo attacks by Anders Behring Breivik. Her emotions are poignant, after living in Scandanavia during a Fulbright year in 2004-05. “Of all the Nordic countries, Norway is home to the largest and most vibrant Vietnamese community. Oslo is indeed the ‘mecca’ of Vietnamese diasporas in Northern Europe,” Trangđài  explains. 

[before we begin: have you heard about our subscriber drive? win an iPod and other prizes!]

Peace. Paradise. Both.

Paradise Found

I found myself [again] in Stockholm. The beautiful silence. The green forest. The silky breezes. Clear water. The bay. Blue sky. Pure air. The calmness of life itself. The intellectual Phạm Thị Hoài, during a conversation at her Berlin home, recalled how serene it was to drive in Sweden’s nature on a family vacation for hours, finding no soul in sight.

2004. Lappis, the dormitory adjacent to Stockholms Universitet. The dirt road leading to the Stockholm campus smelled of home, redolent of memories of the Mekong Delta, my birthplace.

1994-2004. Ten years in bustling-hustling Orange County, and I had forgotten what silence tasted like. There, in the silence of Stockholm, I found myself. I was coming home.

From bonding with nature to encounters with the Nordic people during my Fulbright year 2004-05, I embraced Scandinavia as heaven on earth, in spite of my difference in opinions on certain matters pertaining to the Nordic way of life.

It was my first time experiencing four-season weather. One of my lifetime mentors, Dr. Craig Ihara at CSU Fullerton, was afraid I wouldn’t survive. “Maybe she’d pack and go home prematurely” was his thought. It was not mine. Though the winter was cold and different, I was excited about it. The virgin snow that fell in early November 2004. The dramatic clouds with silver lining and ethereal colors at dawn and dusk. The nakedness of trees, bare and dormant. I did not survive my first Nordic winter. I embraced it.

I flung open the large windows to my room every morning, letting the biting air in, pure and piercing. I did yoga. Maybe that was the trick. I embraced winter. Winter embraced me. I didn’t get sick. To my surprise, some of my colleagues at Stockholms Universitet –  Viking men towering over me – were under the weather. They caught a cold or something else.

Summer is the most celebrated season of the year. The sun is the reason. But the sun was no novelty to me. After all, I had spent my first two decades in tropical Vietnam.

Vietnamese in Norway

Not every Vietnamese shares my embrace of the Scandinavia, especially the first-generation immigrants living in this region. This land is too cold, too quiet, and too void of Vietnamese life for some of them.

The number of Vietnamese living in the Northern countries is substantial, though much lower compared to the figures in North America, Australia, or Western Europe. Of all the Nordic countries, Norway is home to the largest and most vibrant Vietnamese community. Oslo is indeed the ‘mecca’ of Vietnamese diasporas in Northern Europe. The estimates are 25,000 in Norway, 20,000 in Sweden, 14,000 in Denmark, and 6,000 in Finland.

When they meet, those young Vietnamese students in Nordic countries mix Vietnamese and Scandinavian tongues. In Upsalla, May 2005.

Some Vietnamese immigrants there might think that life in any Nordic country is the same. Tuấn Bá Cao, a Vietnamese immigrant, observed that “The policies on minorities and immigration in the Nordic countries, including Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland, are quite similar. I often wonder why they are not one Nordic country, as it is not easy to find differences between them.” (Translation mine. Original: CHÍNH SÁCH đối với người Thiểu Số và Tỵ Nạn tại các quốc gia Bắc Âu, gồm Đan Mạch, Na-Uy, Thụy Điển, Phần Lan, không khác nhau. Lắm lúc tôi tự hỏi tại sao họ không là một nước Bắc Âu khi khó mà tìm được sự khác biệt của họ.)

While Tuấn’s perspective might have stemmed from the similar life style and some shared histories of the related countries, his observation does not account for the distinctively different trajectories and developments of the various Vietnamese populations in Northern Europe.

During a November 2004 group dinner in Malmo, Sweden, some Vietnamese expressed admiration for their counterparts in Oslo. D., an entrepreneur, exclaimed how you can’t find even one Vietnamese professional in Sweden, but you can find several in any field in Norway, doctors, lawyers, you name it. “Only if we were like them,” he said. “Or like the Vietnamese in the U.S.,” his friend Khánh, also a business man, added.

In October 2004, I conducted an oral history interview in Stockholm with Father Thadeus Trần Chánh Thành, the chaplain for Vietnamese Catholics in all of Sweden and Åland, an archipelago in the Baltic Sea. As a boat person, he had first-hand experiences about the immigration processes in the Nordic countries. He recalled how the Princess of Norway, upon learning about the plight of the boat people, came in person to the refugee camps and helped set up the admission of the refugees to her country. Sweden, however, did not take in the Vietnamese refugees because of her support of North Vietnam during the war, and mostly admitted ethnic-Chinese Vietnamese after the 1979 Sino-Vietnam war when the government of Vietnam purged ethnic Chinese en masse.

The Vietnamese community in Oslo seems to be a frequent visiting point for their ethnic fellows in other parts of Europe. Micae Nguyễn Hữu Xuân Điềm, an exchange student from Vietnam, commuted from Rome, Italy, to Oslo during his years abroad, and spent a few weeks during summer to help with Catholic Youth Camps. He spoke of how generous the social benefits are in Norway, making it possible for some frugal elderly immigrants to spend the six winter months with their families in Vietnam.

The large number of Vietnamese in Oslo makes it more possible for the group to establish a formal social structure, and sustain regular activities that have not been possible for Vietnamese immigrants in the rest of Northern Europe.

Paradise Shot

I think it is cheating to visit Scandinavia during the summer only. You must live through the long winter with little sun and skip through the bursting spring to appreciate properly what summer brings. And though the other three seasons have their own charm and boon, the Nordic people are vested in heliolatry. A hint of summer, and people put on their bikinis to attract the sun. I am never quite sure if the sun comes out for them, or they summon the sun.

Water is omnipresent in Scandinavia - both a charming asset and a natural cooling device during summer.

With or without heliolatry, summer is the most beautiful and fun season in the Nordic countries for many. The celebration of long sunny days can’t ever be emphasized enough. Tourists make their way to Scandinavia in waves during the estival months. That’s when they can have it to themselves, as the locals are spending time away from the big cities like Oslo and Stockholm, enjoying their summer homes or family vacations. Peace!

Then came Anders Behring Breivik. The news took me asunder. It was almost unreal to decode the news stories inundating the media, from print to reel, from traditional to virtual. It was the more shocking to witness the Breivik attacks planned and executed during this time of the year. A nine-year plan.

It is such a cruel act to take the lives of others in this way on any day of the year, but it might be even more cruel because summer has always been associated with sweet times, friendship, family visits, vacations. It is like shooting at a couple on their wedding day. Or a child entering her summer garden. When I lived in Lappis for parts of summer 2005, all my corridor mates went home during summer. They came home and re-experienced childhood flavors.

The author (in light teal shirt) and her corridor mates at Lappis celebrate a late summer tea in 2005

What am I to make of this? It took me days to gather my thoughts for this essay. I was unsure how to approach it. I struggled to put my thoughts into words. I felt violated. It was my home, too, that part of the world. If challenges enrich a person’s perspectives, Scandinavia with its own challenges had enriched me. I took a journey to the North, and there, I [was] transformed.

Reflecting on the Nordic experience, Tuấn thinks that “The kind and humane nature of the Nordic peoples are evident, even though the opportunities for upward mobility amongst the minorities are not as open as they are in the U.S., Australia, or Canada. Reservation is a dominant trait here.” (Translation mine. Original: Bản chất hiền hòa và nhân ái của dân Bắc Âu không thể chối bỏ được, cho dù CƠ HỘI TIẾN THÂN của người Thiểu-Số không được dễ dàng như ở Mỹ, Úc, Canada etc. Bảo Thủ là bản chất của họ.)

Analyzing the recent attacks in Oslo, Tuấn said, “The Breveik event is a result of anger in a small group of native locals towards immigrants who had taken advantage of their generosity and caused social discordances. The fear of losing the ownership of their country.” (Translation mine. Original: Biến cố Breveik là kết quả của sự TỨC GIẬN cuả một nhóm nhỏ của người bản xứ đối với giống dân thiểu số  đã lợi dụng lòng nhân đạo của họ để rồi gây rối loạn xã hội của họ. Sự lo sợ BỊ MẤT CHỦ QUYỀN ĐẤT NƯỚC của họ.)

The Nordic people are polite, quiet, and reserved. Vietnamese immigrants I talked to during my sojourn there often asked how I deal with the violence so prevalent in the U.S. Peace is such an ideal, Sweden prides itself on 200 years of unbroken peace. Phan Hiển Mạnh, a Malmo businessman, told me how a Stockholm postcard prompted him to come to Sweden. He was a stateless person in East Germany, hiding from police raids, running around all the time. He was tired. And saw a postcard of Stockholm. And he wanted that life. He wanted that peace. He crossed the border, entered the refugee camps in Sweden, and almost ten years later, he was admitted.

Peace. It is a dominant trait. It is what touched me the deepest during my year there.

Snow la nuit

Norway in the arms of the world

While the recent shooting has been the focus of world’s news, I do not want to associate Norway with just that. It has been a koan to compose this piece. What approach is appropriate? What useful perspective can I bring? What other conversations can be forged besides the white supremacy, anti-immigrant tirades, anti-diversity volleys, global security, personal responsibility, xenophobia, anti-Muslim violence?

Several issues came to the surface with the onslaught of the Oslo shooting. Islam in Europe, Muslim immigrants in Europe, multiculturalism, ethnic diversity, armed security, civil freedom, white supremacy, etc. But I think the one thing that really surfaced for me, and it keeps resurfacing, has been pain. I don’t know if writing all of this makes the pain less or more. But writing it, it felt like I was swimming/drowning in the water myself, like the victims and/or survivors at the moment of attack.

Before the Breviek moment, I did not know that I would come back to the Nordic countries with a different sense of belonging. That one of my homes has been disturbed. That peace was challenged.

I know that the tension is there, not just for extremists like Breviek, but for people from all different walks of life and from all sides of the society. It is not comfortable for a native, I suppose, to feel excluded in their own land when two immigrants carry on a conversation in a different language. Multiculturalism has several limits. So does human tolerance. But it is the opportunities that we have today – the opportunities to be in each other’s back yard, the opportunities to taste someone else’s space without having to inhibit that space, that make all the tension meaningful, or useful.

Human movements are never one-way, but multi-directional. Over 500 Danes are living in Vietnam today. 22,000 Danes visited Vietnam in 2008. In January 2005, Sweden suffered a great loss when hundreds of Swedes were caught in the Tsunami in Thailand. The Nordic people can be found all over the world. And a fraction of the world can be found in the Nordic lands.

I take pain personally. After all, how else can we manage it? Or grow? But I also believe in human solidarity. It is important to remind ourselves, in the shock of the Breviek tragedy, that there are countless other good-will Norwegians who stand up for the belief in ethnic diversity and inclusion.

Norway has entered the twenty first century – again, this time by itself, in 2011 – with this tragic event. The country as a whole has a chance to have an open and direct conversation with the world about its perspective on the most pressing matter of our time: immigration and integration.

The Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo will carry another layer of meaning, now that the domestic peace has been disturbed. The quietness of Norway has been pierced. When the Norwegians observe a moment of silence in honor of the lost lives today, they will heed a different kind of silence. But they will do so in the condoling arms of the world.

New and renewed conversations stemming from this event will continue to dominate the global discourses in the immediate future. But where is the conversation leading us? The answer depends on how we continue to forge a peaceful, equitable, and meaningful co-existence for all. Each and all of us.

Trangđài Glassey-Trầnguyễn is the only scholar to conduct multi-lingual oral histories and research on the Vietnamese diasporas in the U.S., European countries, Australia, and Vietnam since 1998. She is the very first researcher to collect extensive bilingual interviews with Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon, and has published hundreds of works – both critical and creative – in Vietnamese and English. In 2004-05, she was accorded an exceptional-ranking Fulbright full grant to study the Vietnamese in Sweden. She is also the recipient of numerous awards and recognitions for her artistry, scholarship, and cultural works. She holds a graduate degree in anthropology from Stanford University, and is working on her doctorate studies. 

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