Category Archives: third world


Reasons why–


1. Aunt– full of love, hugs, the power to be so different in this world that tells you not to cry. In this place that tells you that you cannot be– hide your feelings!

Aunt. There is a spirit in you that keeps me going. I honor you.


2. Water meeting land. There is so much that people think when they arrive at this place where water reaches land. They say thank you for the peace. A chance to feel themselves be small and powerless. A chance to see such power. To see what it means to bear witness to movement. Comings and goings. People see this place as a chance to take their lives. Jump from bridges, or the water pulls them in and in and under, over and over. For me, water meeting land is what holds family together. It is a place of possibility. One can combat time by crossing waters. From one shore to the other, just one leap. This place where water meets land is what connects home to home, Viet Nam to California. Just water. As thin and as vast as water.


3. There are 3 persimmon trees my father planted in front of our ancestral home. Just 3 trees. 3 trees bearing sweet fruit, ripening in monsoon winters. He chose them because of love and money. He loves his family so much– his ailing mother and generous sister– that he thought about how these plants would mature, become plump and fill their income. It reminds me that love creates and love works hard, even when it seems like it is not there.


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Filed under asian americans, immigrant, love, memory, prose, third world, viet nam

WOC writing about self-actualization

sometimes change is an uphill battle but luckily books have their way of finding me at the right time. i wrote this a few days before i reached page 45 into gloria anzaldúa’s la frontera. there is a similar tone and analogy. i am inspired and reassured by her writing: her content and its structure (and lack of it).

She left in the end of fall, beginning anew in the dead of winter. Heaving boxes up stairwells in hailstorms and thunder, she challenged the world to open up—to welcome her.

She stirs in bed, alone, fitful and weighted down by the potential of tomorrow.

Inauspicious, yes, but she was one to challenge the spirits. They would hold duels, push and pull. The lightening raised its voice beyond her own. She knew this but would fight before giving in.

“…And though she was unable to spread her limbs and though for her right now the sun has sunk under the earth and there is no moon, she continues to tend the flame. The spirit of the fire spurs her to fight for her own skin and a piece of ground to stand on, a ground from which to view the world– a perspective, a homeground where she can plumb the rich ancestral roots into her own ample mestiza heart. She waits till the waters are not so turbulent and the mountains not so slippery with sleet. Battered and bruised she waits, her bruises throwing her back upon herself and the rhythmic pulse of the feminine. Coatlalopeuh waits with her.”

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Filed under gender, inspiration, prose, third world

Uncovering Haiti

Obviously, there was an earthquake in Haiti this past week, followed by a huge aftershock today. While reports of the earthquake tend to make clear that this is Haiti’s largest earthquake in 200 years, media talking heads rarely explain why these details matters. Homes in the Caribbean are made of cement, protecting people from hurricanes, not earthquakes. As the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, construction can be shoddy because folks cut corners to save money.

More importantly, the constraints around responding to the quake exacerbate the injury done in the short-term and long-term. Problems with aid and its dispersal lay in the lack of Haitian infrastructure to begin with. What happens when a natural disaster hits a region already suffering from “state-of-emergency” conditions? What happens when a country cannot feed itself, let alone weave the safety net it needs? How do we now imagine and approach solutions when media fails to expose underlying causes of the man-made disaster, before and after the earthquake?

The best response I’ve seen so far in the mainstream media has been from the International Crisis Group: “Haiti has sustained what may be the most severe natural disaster ever in the Western Hemisphere. Its historically weak physical and institutional infrastructure, and the sad fact that the earthquake’s heaviest blow was delivered to the capital city’s core, have only compounded Haiti’s vulnerability.” By physical infrastructure, consider this—when I was in Haiti, we drove on a national highway. Portions near the city of Cap Haitien (the second largest city) was paved, the rest was not. Rocks and gravel covered it, restricting our speed to about 30 miles an hour. Institutional infrastructure? Consider that public transportation either did not exist or was not organized. Hitching rides in empty trucks can be a way of life, yet in this situation it cannot save lives. Worse, remember that international loans have pressured the country to invest in exports rather than social services that would have provided the foundation for faster recovery.

The Group also writes: “No matter how much the United States gives, there cannot be enough relief for the desperately needy victims in the time frame that anyone would want.” However, they stop short of critiquing U.S. policy in the Caribbean. They only state that the U.S. has “special obligations” in supporting Haiti because the “two countries have shared long historical engagement, both negative and positive.” This history of engagement includes political and economic policies that has led to weak infrastructure and high population density around one city. I also fear that the title of this response, “In for a decade, not just a year,” would also support beliefs that the U.S. should continue to intervene in Haitian governance. Maybe then it’s alright that this response is tucked in quietly to the NYTimes rather than in the front page as the main analysis of the earthquake.

For more critical, progressive information on the earthquake, check out the links compiled here. Also, as we open up our checkbooks, let’s be smart about what organizations will truly support the Haitian people. Pass it on.

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Filed under essays, haiti, race, third world

I need this voice

“This is the oppressor’s language, yet I need to talk to you.” –Adrienne Rich

I remember sitting on the wooden bed. The U.S. army fatigue blanket rested upon a straw mat. Another decade had passed and I was finally back on the land where my ancestors have lived. Vietnamese swirled around me. I would smile awkwardly at guests. Sip tea to keep my hands busy and my mouth silent. Wear long pants to cover up. Take notes on Vietnamese words. Hide my eyeglasses so I looked like a lady.

I was finally home. Yet no words could fix the problem. In my pixie cut, they joked I was a boy. When bored, they said I was too American. As I ate everything lovingly forced-fed to me, they remembered my blood. Unable to communicate with elders and unwelcomed by peers, I took to myself. I did chores. I visited the guava tree that no longer stands. I would occupy myself with words—English words. I asked questions, trying to recount a past life. And I cried, ashamed and frustrated at my disjointed self for not belonging. Then I hid those tears, ashamed and frustrated because Vietnamese women have learned to cry without tears.

The Vietnamese have a sacred bond with their ancestral lands. So I selfishly prayed for my father to be relinquished of his burden. I traveled into the homeland with him. I left alone.

Andrew Lam reminds me that the Vietnamese are fatalistic. We celebrate death dates, stopping by cemeteries annually. We light incense at relatives’ graves as well as for those “neighbors” nearby. “Have your visited your grandmother yet?” they ask me about my grandmother who has already passed. Vietnamese headstones do not mention individual achievements but rather list the names of one’s children. Filial duties run deep.

With this pain, I still sit here ready to romanticize. I smell the sweetness of ripening rice fields. I imagine myself pedaling into the countryside under a beating sun. I remember my hysterical uncle’s rants and foggy old eyes. I can taste the fresh banh uot as I watch the sidewalk symphony of Honda Dreams and hungry dogs. I listen for lullabies wafting in on a cool evening breeze along the Song Huong.

* * *

I left Vietnam ready to contrast it to the U.S. I thought about James Baldwin’s argument: “The necessity of Americans to achieve an identity is a historical and a present personal fact and this is the connection between me and you.” The Vietnamese seemed to have figured it out and I was not it.

Yet, tonight, I am beginning to understand the issue is much deeper. bell hook’s term “self-recovery” helps me to explore this. hooks quotes Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh as having said: “In the Buddhist tradition, people used to speak of ‘enlightenment’ as a kind of returning home. The three worlds—the worlds of form, of non-form, of desire—are not your homes. These are places where you wander around for many existences, alienated from your own nature.” Hanh argues that “forces of domination fragment, estrange, and assault our innermost beings, breaking us apart.”* To counter oppression, we must restore ourselves to a condition of wholeness. hooks compares this idea to an experience she calls “self-recovery;” through thinking and writing, she began to reclaim and recover herself to become whole.

I recently concluded a personal experience panel by telling the audience (my colleagues) that I often feel like I have no home. I am many different people fighting for the occupation of one body. I am colonized. Few people ever see who I am as a whole person. While teachers must embody a specific persona, the spaces I occupy demand that I remain just various personas. My personhood has been under attack.

I am realizing now that it has never been about destroying the oppressor. Rather, my work and my life are about being able to re-claim my wholeness.

*Andrew Lam calls this estrangement a “psychic disconnect,” but I like “self-recovery” because it focuses on an active response.

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Filed under asian americans, gender, immigrant, prose, race, third world, viet nam

American Lens into Vietnam: Artistic or Voyeuristic?

A quick post to share this recent New York Times article and slide show on the risks Vietnam faces from rising sea levels…

The photos in the slideshow disturb me and strike me as voyeuristic. From the creative point of view, these are some gorgeous photos. From more of a critical cultural studies perspective, the slideshow embodies America’s mystification and romanticization of a former “enemy.” No one’s face is shown clearly. Some figures are hunched or look tense and fearful. The figures physically and emotionally recall the American War in VN, particularly slides number 1 and number 3 where male bodies are distraught, splayed apart. The women make me think of departure and disapora: the woman with an umbrella taking in a last glimpse, the woman walking away from the dog, the woman paddling with her back turned from us. And why would a journalistic photographer capture a veiled view of water? Of all the articles for which slides could have been included– why the Vietnam article? Too beautiful to pass up? Or too easy to romanticize? Thoughts?

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Filed under asian americans, immigrant, pictures, race, third world, viet nam

Third World Women’s Rights— tinged with Imperialism

Last week one of New York Times’ most shared article was “The Women’s Crusade” by Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, a philanthropist. While I was pleased that the piece raised the issue of women rights, the tone of First World benevolence bothered me. Does anyone else see it too?

A few examples include that while the article is entitled “The Women’s Crusade,” the subtitle is the first thing you see in larger print reading: “Saving the World’s Women.” This places the writers of this essay and their audience in the position of those doing the “saving” of women, not the women themselves.

Kristof and WuDunn highlight the story of Saima Muhammad, who turns her life around with a $65 microloan to start a business. Great news. Yet her present life seems to a reification of sexism. I think of women’s “double shift” as I read her obligation to support her family and community while running her business.

When economist Esther Duflo is quoted saying, “When women command greater power, child health and nutrition improves,” I fear this portion of the article reinforces ideas that women are inherently better caretakers than men. The idea that men and women are born innately different undergirds sexism.

The discussion of the illogical spending of (brown/Third World) men, who are portrayed as the enemy, led me to recall Gayatri Spivak’s essay, “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, in which she discusses at length the British abolition of the Indian practice of widow sacrifice. She writes, “The abolition of this rite by the British has been generally understood as a case of ‘White men saving brown women from brown men.’” Spivak points out the paradox of anti-sexist work in the Third World. While she regards the abolition of widow sacrifice as admirable, the British law pre-determines the women’s Indian cultural self (as Subject).

And finally, the desire to do “good” in “Western intellectual production is, in many ways, complicit with Western international economic interests,” tied to our capitalism and imperialism. This line is fitting considering how women’s rights is becoming a new approach to US foreign affairs, particularly as a way to fight terrorism. Is it wrong?


Filed under essays, gender, news, race, third world

Leaving and links

“Not home but… Home” – Bourdain on his No Reservations trip in VN

I’m taking off for a month to Vietnam and am feeling more and more ambivalent. It scares me that French American Anthony Bourdain can articulate my feelings about returning home. I realized whatever reasons I made up for needing to go to Vietnam were just that— pretend. I wanted to fit in there as if the word immigration never existed. But the image of myself as a clumsy, arrogant outsider (a Westerner, in particular) makes that impossible. I would be lying to act as if that was my life. I am frustrated at my own audacity of calling that snake-shaped country home. And further frustrated that I must be frustrated… I am scared that I might simply have to make peace with my difference, my disconnect from relatives. Blood thicker than water? It may not be thicker than the salt water that parts us. Maybe I will finally accept that my ragged American-ness tangles with tradition, causes too many arguments, leaves behind people… Maybe this will be good.

Be back in a month. Until then, some links and ideas that I did not have time to write posts about:

Koreatown Label Irks Some Residents

A tricky line to walk: Oakland needs business revenue but people need to be respected and acknowledged in that endeavor. These developments scare me. I don’t think riots will start over it, but I think if the label of Koreatown stays and more Asian businesses move in, black flight from Oakland will only increase. When will “development” include all poor people of color?

Obama and “Africa Speech”:
Most problematic line for me: “But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants.” (emphasis mine)

Victor Goode defends Obama’s “Tough Love” and boils it down to holding policy accountable:

The point is will the Obama administration change the neo-liberal economic policies of the Clinton years? Or is his promise to support development that “enriches people’s lives” and partners with Africa in “new ways” going to be a new direction for American policy? As with so many of the lofty promises of this new administration, the answers remain to be seen. 

While Goode presents a significant point, I want to highlight Aisha Brown’s take. Brown reminds us of the existence of neo-colonialism in Africa by writing, “President Obama’s speech to Africa, although imbued with hope, still reflected the same arrogance, blame shifting, and paternalism Western leaders have shown since the continent’s independent nations began to emerge.” If we are pushing for a “new direction,” we need to understand the role the U.S., IMF, World Bank, and specifically Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) have played in the (under)development of Third World countries.

Obama’s NAACP speech
I am more satisfied with this one. He implicitly counters post-racial claims by publicizing economic, health, and education disparities between blacks and whites. His ideals are still solidly resting on problematic American ideas of meritocracy, but at least he doesn’t outright lie about history like in his Ghana speech. So bravo big O on the balancing act. “Yes, government must be a force for opportunity. Yes, government must be a force for equality. But ultimately, if we are to be true to our past, then we also have to seize our own future, each and every day.”


Filed under asian americans, immigrant, news, prose, race, third world, viet nam