Ho Chi Minh City

hochiminh

“It all for her, everything. She lucky girl.”

My Viatnamese Lyft driver, Tuan, beamed as he talked about his daughter, navigating the car through the mild hills of San Diego. I smiled back.

“How old is she?”

“Oh, she 12. Her name Lina.” He indicated a photo of her that he kept nearby of a beautiful young Viatnamese girl, black hair and bright smile. “Her mother and I, we work always just for her, just so she can focus on education, have a different life.”

I commented on how beautiful Lina was, and Tuan asked if I had children. I mentioned I had two sons, ages 8 and 5, and he laughed heartily.

“Oh, two boys! They so busy, I guess! Girls more focused, more emotional. You lucky.”

We both laughed.

When Tuan asked, I told him I was a therapist, and he gave a cooing sound for a moment, seemingly impressed. He went on to explain how he worked as a driver all day long, stopping only to eat and relieve himself, and how his wife worked impossible hours as a nail technician. “We both work hard, too hard, but it good for us, for our family. We take care of Lina.”

I looked surprised, raising my eyebrows slightly as we sat at the stop light. “With you both gone all day, who takes care of Lina?”

“Oh! I should have said,” he laughed again. “My mother and father, they live in home with us. Mother is 84, father is 91, but they in good health. They wake Lina, take to school, pick up and feed. We take care of them, they take care of Lina. Wife parents still back in Viet Nam, but we not visit, too far, 20 hours by plane. Lina want to go to Viet Nam all the time, but we cannot go. We cannot even travel California, too expensive, have to pay bills and raise family. Education what important.”

I found myself asking the obligatory American question, the same question any white person has of any person from another country, before I could stop myself. “Oh, how long have you been in the United States?”

Tuan grinned broadly again, the smile almost constantly on his thin face. “We be here almost 20 year. I met my wife back in Ho Chi Minh City, where we grow up. It hot there, too hot, California nice weather. I meet her on a date with another girl, she was dating my friend, but I like her. We get married and move to San Diego, bring my parents here. Have our daughter. We citizens now. Very happy family now, but we work too hard, I think.”

Tuan asked me where I was from, and I said that I’d grown up in the Midwest but that my current home was in Salt Lake City.

He laughed. “Oh, that place have lot of mountains and lot of Mormons. Big families, lots of kids!”

I found myself laughing back. “Yes, that describes Utah very well.”

We drove through several more lights as Tuan talked about the San Diego weather, the seasons, the tourists, and driving. I muttered a few questions from time to time, but had difficulty slowing my own thoughts. I found myself wanting to ask a hundred questions, but refused to ask any of them, thrilled at Tuan’s narration of his own story. I thought of recent immigration policies, of the vastness and beauty of the world, of the rhetoric and fear spreading through the Hispanic and African and Latino and Middle Eastern people I know in central Utah as they wondered what would happen to their families in today’s America.

We pulled up to my lodging, the little Airbnb I would be staying for the weekend, and Tuan gave me a hearty handshake. “You enjoy those boys of yours,” he smiled.

I grinned back. “Thank you, Tuan, it was a pleasure meeting you. Thank you for telling me about your family.”

“I am lucky man,” he said, “but must go back to work. You enjoy vacation in San Diego. Maybe someday I visit Salt Lake City. And maybe someday you visit Ho Chi Minh City, too.”

“I’d like that,” I said, and closed the door as he drove away. I gave a quick wave, one proud dad to another, and both Americans.

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refugee

Muslim1

Look, I get it, I get it. You don’t need to explain. The refugee camp was bad, I know, I’ve seen the reports. But you’re wasting your breath here.

Things are bad here, too. We have religious freedoms being attacked by homosexuals, and traditional families being threatened by very definition. We have cops being attacked by black people. Our political parties are at war. We have poverty, unemployment, people are divided on the most basic issues. Immigration is out of control. And terrorism! Our current political climate is divided between Hillary Clinton, a known and proven liar, and Donald Trump, who is just plain crazy. I’m losing sleep over this stuff. I can barely afford my house payment and my medical insurance for my kids. I had to cancel Cable and my gym membership in order to survive.

You’re still here? You want to be heard, I know, I heard you. We all want that. Will I just review your report? Okay! Okay, fine, but if I review it, then you’ll leave me alone? Okay, deal.

All right, let’s see. Born Muslim in Somalia. Grew up with your mother, brother, and sister since your father left your mother for a younger wife, and you were being bullied by your older brother, who couldn’t be punished because he was male and had authority over his mother and sisters. At age five, your grandmother had strange men come into your home and hold you down so they could cut off your clitoris without anesthesia, then they sewed up your sex organ, so that even though the procedure could kill you and would make it hard to urinate for the rest of your life, this would make sure your husband would know you were a virgin when you married after he forced open the scar tissue on your wedding night. It would also make sure you didn’t experience that particular  type of sexual pleasure in your life again.

It says here that you heard about women who were raped returning to their families who were ashamed of them. Many of these women were killed by their families because they were impure, and some of them chose to commit suicide. It says that women were considered less than men and that Allah created them to be so. It also says that you grew up knowing you must keep yourself completely covered at all times, as the exposure of any hair or skin could tempt men and give them impure thoughts, and that would be all your fault.

It says you grew up with barely any education, except that of the Quran, and that you had only rudimentary nutrition, and barely any medical or mental health services available. No clean water, often isolated for weeks at a time, regularly beat by your mother and sometimes locked into rooms for days for being undutiful.

Says here that when your government went to war, you started hearing even more terrible stories, like your friend who was brutally raped by multiple soldiers, and how she became pregnant, and how after the baby was born one of the soldiers tossed it into the fire and forced the woman to watch it burn alive. You say many starve to death and many others die from superficial wounds because there was no clean water or first aid available. You nearly starved to death.

Okay, let’s see, what next. Your father tried to force you into a marriage with someone you didn’t know, even as some of your friends were being married off to first cousins.

I’m sorry, but I have to skip to the end of this, I have other people waiting. You got out of the war zone and made it into the refugee camp. Some of your friends have been raped by the soldiers here, and now they have been disowned by their families for being unclean. You’ve been waiting for a Visa to another country for five years. But you have basic food and medical care, so that’s something new, right? Oh, you still have family in the war zone. Well, tell them to come here to the refugee camp! They’ll be safer here!

Okay, I read your papers, are you happy now? Look, I don’t mean to be unsympathetic. You’ve certainly had an ordeal. But I have to think of the big picture here. If I started helping everyone who has a story like yours, America’s shores would be flooded with refugees, and we are already stretched to our limits as it is. Come back for your check in in another 90 days, and maybe we’ll be able to help then.

In the meantime, though, here is a copy of the Bible. Seriously, your religion sounds crazy. Maybe you should consider changing? Good luck to you. Oh, grab yourself a chocolate candy on the way out, there is a bowl there on the desk. American chocolate is the best. I like it a little too much, you can probably tell from the cushion around my waist. Haha. Anyway, have a nice day.

Next!

**Thank you to Ayaan Hirsi Ali for sharing her powerful story in her book, Infidel.

 

 

Man in a monkey cage

The sign read:

The African Pigmy, “Ota Benga.”

Age, 23 years. Height, 4 feet 11 inches.
Weight, 103 pounds. Brought from the
Kasai River, Congo Free State, South Cen-
tral Africa, by Dr. Samuel P. Verner. Ex-
hibited each afternoon during September

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On September 8, 1906, the Bronx Zoo in New York City added a new exhibit, a small coffee-skinned African man named Ota Benga. Placed with the monkeys, the man had an open cage to sleep in. Delighted visitors came by the thousands, the tens of thousands, bringing their friends and children to see the African man. Many of the spectators believed him to be some sub-species of man, somewhere on the evolutionary scale between monkeys and human children. And the spectators didn’t just want to see the man, they wanted him to perform. They wanted to see him hunt, play with the orangutan, dance and climb trees. If he hid, they threw rocks against his cage to draw him out. If he sat, they yelled racial slurs and insults to spark him into action, something their children could clap over and tell their friends about later. “Dance, monkey, dance,” they seemed to yell as an adult man sat behind bars, listening to their unfamiliar foreign words, yet their intent all too easy to understand.

Word spread quickly, throughout the country and then internationally: the Americans had an African man on exhibit with monkeys. New York had been a free state long before the Civil War, seeing African American citizens as deserving of equality and equal rights. And now, decades after the Emancipation Proclamation, a man was in a cage.

It took them time to figure out what had happened, and language barriers, direct lies, poor record-keeping, and time have kept many of the details hidden.

The man who came to be known as Ota Benga grew up in the Congo, then under Belgian rule. Under harsh sanctions from the Belgian people, the Congolese tribes were exploited and forced into labor. Samuel Verner, who had served as a Christian missionary in the Congo previously, and who had also spent time in a mental institution, was sent to the Congo to acquire willing men to be brought to America to be put on display at the 1904 World Fair in St. Louis, Missouri. Benga was among them.

A bizarre series of events led to Benga being placed in the Museum of Natural History before he was placed on exhibit at the zoo, exploited and stared at.

Verner told story after story, each contradicting the others, in an effort to make himself sound heroic. He told how he had rescued Benga from slave traders, how Benga trusted only him, how Benga had asked to come to America and be placed on display. Yet in truth, Verner was a swindler and a liar. Not only had he fathered children with women while he was in Africa, he had racked up debts and exploited money. And Benga was not the first Congolese boy he had brought to the United States.

I learned about Benga only recently, when I chose a book about him at random off of a shelf. I read ravenously, devouring the words and images of this story that I had never heard before, these forgotten horrific moments of American history.

How could this have possibly happened, I wondered, in a country that is founded on Christian principles, equality of all men, and dignity of each person. And then I recalled the very founding of our country, a mix of declaring liberty from foreign powers while asserting our foreign power over the Native Americans with violence and blood; a mixture of welcoming foreigners, while building the country on the backs of foreign slaves.

The violent opposition of it all makes my head spin. We who consider ourselves the great democracy, founded on the principles of free speech and choice and religion, the greatest country in the world with equality and opportunity for all, priding ourselves on the American dream, yet we have entire presidential campaigns running on premises of refuting gay marriage, opposing women’s health care options, restricting immigration by building walls, and banning religious groups.

Ota Benga was a small man, but he was not a child nor did he have limited intellect. He had filed his teeth to fine points not because he was a cannibal or a savage, but because that was a custom among his tribe, a rite of passage for men. He communed with the monkeys in the exhibit not because he considered himself one of them, but because they were his only solace and support as the white Americans jeered.

After Benga was released from the zoo, he was taken in by an educated group of black Americans who gave him companionship and work and taught him the language. Benga lived among these citizens, whose ancestors had been forced from their homes to be slaves, belonging and yet not belonging; they had history in America, he was a refugee. It is believed Benga had lost a wife and children in the Congo, a result of cruel white men, before coming to America. He lived in relative isolation here for years, using an American-ized version of his name, Otto Bingo.

Until, in 1916, Benga found a gun and shot himself through the heart, a poetically tragic end to his story.

As I finish this story, and reflect, I’m left to wonder how we, as an evolving society of Americans… how much have we really changed?

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