Sunday, November 19, 2017

In the Autumn of My Life

© Kim Roberts

I am looking at the dead leaves on the ground of Montmorency Park, in front of Château Frontenac. I am in tears, not because of sadness or joy. This intense emotion is from gladness in my heart. Despite all the ups, downs, and arounds, life has been fabulous and I am thankful for this life.

An autumn gust sweeps through like a magic wand that mysteriously makes the leaves roll upward with hesitation, vacillate for a few moments, then dance in mass as if they are being hypnotized. I stare at their movements. I observe their directions. I am mesmerized by the colors of golden and brown with some stubborn green spots that refuse to give in to the brilliant autumn colors edging around them. I see death with a promise of renewal. Then looking inward, I see a glittering sunset sky shimmering down slowly--the twilight of my time on earth. But, unlike the trees losing autumn leaves with a promise of a new growth in spring, I wonder if I will have the same chance of returning. I am in the autumn of my life--the most brilliant time to cherish what life has offered and a time to reflect, to feel melancholic with a touch of nostalgia, and perhaps a few moments to savor the last drops of golden sun rays before the night takes over and life ends.

As I narrow my eyes and gaze intensely at the movements of autumn leaves chasing each other on Montmorency ground, images of the old days begin to emerge. The colorful carpet of leaves turns into a sparkling water surface with thousands of Water Fish wiggling under the sun. They immediately disappear as a breeze stirs up ripples and tiny streaks of sunrays begin to leap and bounce on the water, unaware of the disturbance that has dissolved the fish. And, I am six. Father is holding my little hand and puts in my palm a tiny sapling plum tree with a promise that the tree would grow if I take good care of it. "Water it thoroughly until it can drink from the creek," says Father. The day Father dies, my plum tree dies. I am fifteen. Sister Nhu Anh consoles me, "Trees have souls. They follow Papa."

I am seventeen. The morning I meet an American Officer at a Sunday service at Dong Tam Chapel, he immediately sweeps me off my feet. We go on a helicopter ride to Vung Tau to visit the military hospital there. Over My Tho, along the Mekong River, Viet Cong's shots hit the side of the chopper. I examine the defoliated dead coconut trees, leaves drooping, and trunks in various brownish shades. I turn to him with inquiring eyes and disbelief, "Why? Why? Trees have souls." For years after that day, I often go to bed with images of his eyes that reveal so much feeling. He contacts me frequently by mail. Yet we never get close. We never have even a hug. Each time I open his letter and reply to it, I ask myself, "Why?" Occasionally, I ask myself a different question, "What's the point?" I am eighteen; I experience the effects of teargas and sing Trinh Cong Son's anti-war music along with other students for the first time. I hang out with starving artists in Saigon. My mentor, artist V. Ba takes me under his wing and helps me hone my skills in painting. I meet a pilot, a friend of my sister, on a rainy night. We stand on the porch and recite Le Trong Lu's and Han Mac Tu's poetry until 2 AM. Two years later the pilot is killed during the Khe Sanh Battle. I ask, "Why? Why him?"

I have learned to compartmentalize my life. Everything has its own drawer. Everyone about whom I care is kept in each compartment. I don't talk to anyone. I keep a diary in my head.  Living with poverty and at war, you don't have privacy. The only private part of your life is in your head and heart, your most primitive way to computerize your files. Over time, the files get full and stuck and you can't get most of them out. Among the files I have buried deep inside is the fact that everyone in my family knows I am a target of an obsessive stalker but no one would help me. I often ask, "Why? Why don't they?"

1974, I can see the day I am running away from a shadow that follows me. I crash into a cadet named Tam from Thu Duc Academy. Along with two dozens of cadets temporarily assigned to protect the Presidential Palace, he stays inside the National Library where I arrange an Art show for my office.  For the first time, in the library's secret archive kept in a nine-floor tower, fear of and anger at my circumstance, love of books, and the pressure of a war that is coming to an end have made our relationship the most intense and memorable of all. Three days after we met, he goes back to the Academy, I am deeply torn, "Why? Why life has to be this way?" Each time I think of myself standing by the top window of the library tower wishing I could fly away from the whole Saigon and the war, I have an urge to paint birds. I want wings. That's the reason I have painted so many birds--to me, they symbolize "freedom."

After coming to America in 1975, throughout the years, I have asked myself many more whys.  I doubt that I will ever find the answers to all of them. So I always have more questions than answers. I now face the fact that I am in the autumn of my life. Like everyone else of my age group or even older, it's time to decompress and open up the well-packed compartmental life cabinet to lessen the load on our way to the next chapter wherever or whatever that may be. I have decided that this is the time for me to explore the making of my character and answer most if not all the whys--not to satisfy anyone else's concern but mine, for me and me alone. My primary question is whether I am the maker of my own being, or the muse of my own creation. Or have I been merely the rhapsody of a force of destiny, or a Divine Plan, against which I have fought and surrendered?

A long time ago, in October 2015, I pondered that question when I began my blog. I blog so I don't have to be concerned about editing and publication. They are killers of inspiration. I've been waiting for the right time to explore all possible answers to my life inquiries. That said, I will now reprint my blog "Autumn in My Heart," the very beginning of my personal exploration.
Friday, October 9, 2015
© by Kim Roberts

Vibrant and lucid, the trees are ignited in Autumn blaze.

Return again, the whistling winds in sunlit sky.
The time has come for us to reflect
and to celebrate
the magnificence of today and of this place.

I look not to Winter when the leaves are gone,
nor back, with regrets, jolly Spring
and dazzling Summer funs.
Calm, peaceful, and restored by the glory of nature,
I wish to share with you my happiness, love,
and contentment…

That is how I feel about “Autumn" since Autumn always touches me more than any other season. I was born in Autumn. My father passed away on my 15th Birthday.  My late husband also died in Autumn, exactly 1 month before my birthdate. Yet for me, Autumn is not about dying, it’s about beauty. It’s a time to reflect, meditate, and to appreciate what Nature does to indulge us with magnificent colors, with nourishing rain, and with exquisite and melancholic changes when sea birds fly south for the winter and monarch butterflies migrate. This is an ideal time to give love and to reflect…

END    © Kim Roberts

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Horoscope, My Shadow, and Horoscope As Used During the Vietnam War

copyright © Kim Roberts

I am getting old. Whatever I have in mind is either old-fashioned or outdated. So when I call up memories of the old days and wonder how things could have been done differently, usually they are very old events that not many people remember and others are too young to know. Folks out there, please join me if you're around my age! 

Recently, when Ken Burns and Lynn Novick did the Vietnam War series, I was glad to be reminded of a few things about that war. There were some testimonial pieces from former American officers who said, or perhaps implied, that they admired the fanatic North Vietnamese and Viet Cong soldiers and wished those soldiers were theirs. They also mentioned with caution that the South Vietnamese soldiers fighting along with the Americans were not motivated, if not too laid back to fight.

Well, the filmmakers did not explain what led to that attitude. But I know the causes. I was a South Vietnamese who was familiar with both the American and ARVN military matters. We had always been more relaxed and easy-going people than Vietnamese from other regions. We were taught to believe in horoscope the moment we were born. So to us, everyone had a destiny, similar to a blue print, and everything would happen according to the chart. We must not fight against fate (cai so). Being driven was not our style. One must let things flow. If we planned major events such as marriages, buying new homes, funeral arrangements, we would choose dates and time when all the elements of water, fire, metal, earth, and wood were in a favorable alignment. We did not have "free will." When South Vietnamese soldiers went to the battlefield, they believed on a good day (ngay tot) favorable to their charts, everything would be all right. But, on a bad day (ngay xau) they could get killed.
1969. My sister and me (on right) in front of an American Battle Ship in Saigon
In Plato's philosophy, men who rely only on the evidence of their senses are similar to men imprisoned in a cave with their backs turn against the light coming in through the cave's mouth. As their eyes are fixed on the wall of the cave, they can only see the shadows of moving objects including their own shadow. These shadows, they regard as real, for that's all they know when in fact the real world is outside the cave.  For us, who allowed horoscope to dictate how we lived our lives, horoscope predictions were as real to us as Plato's cavemen believing in the shadows. Of course Plato's view goes further into the senses v. the ideas.  For Vietnamese, we're not that philosophical. We simply let the horoscope predictions lead the way into life.

I am not speaking of this belief, or trend, in my daily lives in the 1950s as a spectator or a research scientist. I am talking about my life as a victim of it. Fortunately, its impacts in my life were not all negative. Someday I will reveal the myth they told about me, a little girl from Sadec and how horoscope has affected my entire life. My sister witnessed what happened to me as she keeps telling my stories over and over. Do I believe in horoscope or myth? No, I don't. Definitely not! Nonetheless, I must say most predictions have been alarmingly closed and they affect me as if they were mind-control devices that suck into my brain functions and refuse to leave. Worse, my family members kept the control button. So, like a pair of magic red shoes, they kept me dancing against my will.

During the years I lived in Saigon I became acquainted with Duong Thai Bang, the celebrity Feng Shui Master and Destiny Analytics who advised only the top leaders in Saigon. Among his clients, President Thieu, ARVN generals, and the wealthiest Chinese business community in Cholon. He was an oracle, or a prophet, to his clients who offered him gold bars just to get his advice. I was a poor law school student, a starving artist, and Thieu's employee but Bang took interest in me as his pupil. He taught me destiny analysis, invited me to lunch, and eventually made me his protégé. That's how I knew about the influence of horoscope at a high level of military and policy decision-making in South Vietnam. In April 1975, the war ended. During chaos, each of us was getting out of Vietnam on our own. I lost track of Bang.

Several months later, in September 1975, I was standing in a food line at Fort Chaffee Refugee Camp in Arkansas to receive my lunch when an old gentleman in front of me suddenly turned around and looked at me. I thought I saw a ghost. He held my hands and I heaved up then my tears streamed out profusely. That was Duong Thai Bang. “You made it. No, we made it. How did you do it?” He asked. “I danced my way out,” I said and cried happy tears, “in the dark.”

After Ft. Chaffee, he joined his children in Texas and I went to California. He contacted me and visited me until he passed away years later. Among letters he wrote which I didn't open until after his death, he mapped out my life in an amazing way. I can't say he was completely right but he was close. I didn't read because I did not want his horoscope reading to become my self-fulfilling prophecy. Growing up, I had enough of horoscope as a shadow that followed me against my will. Nowadays, I am completely free from it but its impact lingers on.

That said, I will now reprint my Blog dated November 11, 2015. This is a true story of Vietnamese Horoscope and the way we South Vietnamese fought the war. I know all the main characters in the story when the influence of horoscope first surfaced militarily on May 1, 1970 then at the end of the Vietnam War, April 1975, when President Duong Van Minh refused to negotiate amnesty for South Vietnam.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Weapons at War That The Eye Cannot See: Fanaticism and Horoscope, Not Military Hardware

November 11th, 2015 is a nostalgic Veteran’s Day and, ironically, also my wedding anniversary. And that is an excuse for my somber writing mood. From the root of the root of my tree of life, I was born at war (Vietnam v. the French), and I grew up with the Vietnam War, beginning in Sadec, and was married to an American veteran who once fought the war in Sadec. My tree of life grows so deep and so high in my heart, soul, and mind that its shadow has enveloped nearly my entire existence. So here’s my most unusual kind of war story—one about fanaticism, horoscope, and military hardware in the war I know best, the Vietnam War.

“I'll be damned.  They’ll never believe this in Washington," said General Creighton Abrams, the commander of U.S. forces in Vietnam, to the commander of the First Air Cavalry Division.

General E. Benton, who planned and commanded the incursion into Cambodia on May 1, 1970, informed Abrams that General Do Cao Tri, the 3rd Corps Commander, had refused to command his 50,000 South Vietnamese troops in the incursion into Cambodia because his horoscope predictions prevented him from planning major military operations during the first four days in May.
A simple destiny Analysis Chart based upon 12 animals. 
The real Horoscope (Tu Vi) has more details arranged in a complicated formula.
To fight the Vietnam War, in addition to conventional military strategies and tactics, the North Vietnamese relied on their fanatic determination to win the war; the Americans, at that time, used military hardware and statistics (Westmoreland’s strategy of attrition); and the South Vietnamese—who always believe heavily in horoscopes—used horoscopes.

Again, on the last days of the war, in April 1975, General Duong Van Minh, the head of the South Vietnamese regime, could have negotiated with the North Vietnamese for an amnesty for South Vietnam.  But he did not.  His horoscope readings indicated that the time was not right—the sun, the moon, and stars were not in alignment.  

 Horoscope predictions, as Tam Pham, a former South Vietnamese officer, explained, "Figuratively speaking, if you have fire in your star, a battle on the day that has water, which can put out a fire, can harm you.  If you have wood in you, a day that has metal, which can cut wood, can destroy you."  

My dear friend Duong Thai Bang, a well-known astrologer and Feng Shui master in Saigon, told me in the early 1970s that he advised President Nguyen Van Thieu that the evil forces of the sculpture of a turtle in the fountain square across from Thieu’s residence in Saigon could, literally speaking, harm his presidency. 

"The turtle was then restrained when Thieu ordered a steel column to be installed on top of the sculpture to keep the turtle’s spirit from harming him," said Bang, when he told me how Thieu survived the war. Bang showed me many gifts he received from Thieu.

Unlike the South Vietnamese, the communist North Vietnamese were not known for their belief in religion or horoscopes. They trained young Viet Cong soldiers to build fanatic’s obsession in fighting thus increasing their devotion and fighting effort by observing strict standards and tolerating no contrary ideas, facts, or opinions. This was confirmed by my relatives and friends who went North to be trained in military tactics before Ho Chi Minh passed away in 1969.
Young North Vietnamese? or Viet Cong soldiers 
who were trained to fight as children. I found this in a propaganda
leaflet distributed by the VC and unsure of the copy righ
Personally, I am one of the South Vietnamese who believed in horoscopes because they gave me hope and comfort while facing fear, anxiety, and helplessness induced by the atrocities and horrors of war. Horoscopes gave us a sense of directions during chaos.  

Luong Van Nghi, a former professor I knew in Saigon who now lives in San Jose, attempted to lend legitimacy to horoscope.

"Horoscope reading —which is based on Chinese astrology—is a science," said Nghi.  "And many things that have occurred prove that the horoscope predictions are accurate."

In the past, I had sat at dinners a few times with President Reagan’s former horoscope teller, J. Quigley, and she too also considered astrology, or horoscope, a science.  “I predicted President Reagan would be shot but survived,” Joan said.

With respect to the accuracy of General Tri’s horoscope after Tri had refused to go into Cambodia in 1970: "Tri’s horoscope must have been off a little bit.  The following February, his helicopter was shot down, and he was killed," recalled general E. Benton when interviewed by Harry Maurer in 1988 for Maurer’s book, Strange Ground. 

Upon reflection, with all the tactical horoscope readings and military hardware that the South Vietnam and U.S. possessed and strategically maneuvered during the Vietnam War, it was the North Vietnamese fanaticism that won the war. It was true then. Could it positively be, speculatively speaking, true again in the war against terrorism?

END      copyright © Kim Roberts

Monday, September 4, 2017

Labor Day 2017: Jobs, Beliefs, and Values.

copyright © Kim Roberts

"If your job requires you to compromise your beliefs or values, you're in a wrong job." My sister Nhu Anh told me in 1970.

Saigon 1970. I was 19, with Baccalaureate I and II in Philosophy, starting my first job as an executive secretary at the Ministry of Defense while going to the law school in the early morning. My short, fat, bald headed supervisor, Mr. Dang, soon realized I could not take dictation, type, or neatly stamp documents. But I could review ledgers and take phone calls. I was so sure he was going to fire me. Then a middle-aged businessman in an elegant suit, Mr. Thanh, came to see Mr. Dang with respect to several government contracts he was awarded. And Mr. Dang called me in later for a talk.

 I was prepared for the bad news. To my surprise, he told me the whole office would go out for a party at the most lavish restaurant in Cholon. "It's your job to order the food. Be nice to your colleague and me, order the most expensive dishes. Make us happy." I was in shock. We had the fanciest party I'd ever been to with food I had never tasted before, hosted by Mr. Thanh who never took his eyes off me. The next day, my boss told me he would have someone to do all my work and I was free to study if I went out on dates with Mr Thanh, the "biggest government contractor" who had been around for two decades and controlled the government contract market, including "American Trash Contracts at MACV" in Saigon.

I talked to my Buddhist nun sister Nhu Anh that night. The next day, I turned in my resignation letter. Mr. Dang stared at me with his glasses sliding down to the tip of his nose, "You're the first." He didn't know I had a sister who insisted that I would never compromise my beliefs and values for anything, not even for my first job.
1974. with my Supervisor at the Literary and Artistic Awards Commission 
and one colleague Tinh and friends working next door
After crying for two days, I searched, found, and tried a series of other jobs until an opportunity of a lifetime fell on my lap. I was working at the Presidential Literary and Artistic Awards Commission, a job I really wanted as I worked directly under a kindly supervisor who reported to Vice President Tran Van Huong and I held the job until I graduated from the Law School and to the last day of Saigon.

January 1977, after I had arrived in the U.S., I began my undergrad study in Political Science at CSUH. To support myself, I took work-study and loans. "We only pay $2.68/hour. You can go outside and make more money," The financial advisor advised me. I replied, "I have. I was offered a job in a cocktail lounge, which pays, with tips, about 3 times of this. But I know this is an environment where I am free from harassment and I can keep my dignity and values. I am happy to get less." The advisor shook her head. She had no idea that when you are a newly arrived and empty-handed refugee, you have no material possession and nothing of market value. So the only thing you have are self-respect, beliefs, and values. And I was protective of mine.

September 3, 2017. One day before the American Labor Day. Today is Tam's birthday. She's my girl, a straight shooter whose goal is serving her office with transparency and earning the public trust. Unfortunately, instead of having a joyous birthday today, a few days ago, her racing partner was struck with a stroke plus Staph infection in the brain and throughout other organs and now bleakly waiting for an open-heart surgery. I've never expected a racer who conquers half and full marathons as comfortable as I run on a treadmill would become a candle in the wind just in the blink of an eye. And that's what life is. Perhaps, that's the reason why we all should cherish and hold on to what we consider the most important things in life: love, beliefs, or values.

Since tomorrow, September 4, 2017 is the official American Labor Day, I am reprinting a Blog I wrote last year for Labor Day. It's all about working.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

© Kim Roberts

September 5th, 2016 is an American Labor Day, a holiday that always brings back memories of hundreds of stories of American working class—stories which I’ve learned and experienced through my work with several federal agencies over four decades. And I remember them well.
January 2010. Lily Ha, the Vietnamese-American witness sitting next to me on the witness stand, nervously laid her shaken left hand on her expensive black silk dress that covered her unusually skinny thighs. “He started by pushing me down and choking me…,” said Lily, in a trembling voice, describing to the 12 jurors her job, a sex act with her former customer, the 41 years old African American male defendant who was sitting by his attorney at the defense table. I glanced at a glassy streak of tear on Lily’s cheek and put my right hand on her hand and, with my left hand, tucked a tissue under her well-manicured fingers with long, red fingernails.  She immediately dabbed her cheeks with the tissue.  

American labor law and labor union groups protect the mainstream American workforce by preventing employers from denying them minimum wage, overtime pay, or prevailing wages when applicable, or other work-related issues. But many workers, mostly from diverse cultural backgrounds, working in traditional or non-traditional professions, have been abused and exploited, without getting much attention from mainstream American media. In 1982, Studs Terkel’s “Working” piqued my interest and curiosity in the meaning of work that American workers, mired down in their quotidian, mundane details at work, still had. Labor Day in America, first observed in 1882, nearly 100 years before I became an American citizen, means more to me than just a day dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. Through my employment, I have become a recipient of many incredible stories told by workers I interviewed. Labor Day has become a day to remember their stories of suffering, abuse, and mistreatment at work—unlike stories in Studs Terkel’s “Working.”

Although Lily, the above witness on stand, looked beautiful and delicate, she was not a female. A transgender prostitute living and working in the Tenderloin neighborhood in SF, she was on the stand at the SF Superior Court, testifying as a witness on a case against a suspect who was accused of killing another transgender prostitute from Nicaragua, Ordenana, in 2007 after the perpetrator raped and strangled her, then left her dead, naked body by the freeway in Potreo Hill. DNA tied him to more attacks on transgender prostitutes. Lily herself suffered the same rape and brutal attacks. Luckily, she survived after she was choked, beaten, stripped naked, and thrown out of the perpetrator’s truck. And she lived to testify against him. In one of my freelance jobs, I was interpreting for her on the stand. I was intrigued by the details of the case, which I took an oath to keep confidential until the trial was over and its details became public. I was also fascinated by other court cases in which working people became crime victims although the personal stories behind each case were my focus, not the crimes.

Lily testified that she needed money for meth. Despite the pain and humiliation, she enjoyed good moments when she had money, sat in a coffee shop, or out for “pho” (soup), or “banh mi” (sandwich), with her co-workers or friends. As we were alone, she talked about planning trips to her hometown in Vietnam and dreaming of home with her people, familiar food, and even the heat. I knew for fact that working people like herself were the most generous ones in donating money to causes or showing care for, and assistance to, those who needed her help back home even though she had become an American.

I came to know endless stories of working class in America, especially those with diverse ethnic backgrounds. In the 1980s and 1990s, during our annual federal law enforcement (MSPA) trips to farming areas in Gilroy, Monterey, and Napa, I witnessed how Mexican farm workers sacrificed for their families by living in inadequate, substandard housing while working up to 12 hours a day, saving money to send home in Mexico. Once I surveyed and uncovered extremely primitive housing conditions in Gilroy where a group of 10 Mexican workers lived together in one room, cooked on a broken old stove, bathed in a creek, and went to the bathroom in abandoned chicken coops. And each paid the Farm Labor Contractor $50 a month for that living arrangement.

However, mainstream American workers also had their share of mistreatment. The bulk of my investigative work was in the area of government contracts. In one case, a group of former police officers reported to me a situation at a former Air Force Base where they worked.  Through my investigation, I discovered that the USDOD, in solving the security situation at a federal housing airbase with some 5,000 individual homes and no MPs (Military Police) due to the base closure, had hired retired police officers, paid them security guard rates, dressed them as DOD police, and assigned them duties belonged to the former Military Police classification, minus the arrest power—a classification that required higher pay. The problem was corrected and I gave credits to the workers who testified.

Interestingly enough, other ethnic Americans often refused to speak up even for their benefits. In one case, a Romanian-American sub contractor working on a construction project under the Davis Bacon Act, at the Alameda NAS, would show in his book that he paid prevailing wage rates. But he had falsely reduced the actual hours worked otherwise the pay would be much less than the required rates, if using the correct number of hours. His workers, mostly Romanian-Americans would not testify, or provide me the facts. But I proved the violations nonetheless.

“How late did you and the crew work during the week of the October 17th, 1989?” I asked the Romanian-American contractor when I interviewed him in 1989. 

“It’s in the book. 4PM every day. We left work even before 4PM,” the contractor answered. I changed the subject and began to talk about the weather, the traffic, then suddenly asked, “Oh, on October 17th, did you feel the Loma Prieta earthquake?”

“Yes, we were shaken by the impact and immediately stopped working. I told the workers, ‘This is a big one. A real big one,” and then we had to go home,” the man said, describing his shocking reaction with raised shoulders, slacked-mouth, and eyes rolled skyward.

Slowly, I looked deep into his eyes, “Do you remember what time the earthquake took place? 5:04PM. How late did you guys plan to work that evening if the earthquake did not occur?” 

Still, I faced another allegation of workers at Your Black Muslim Bakery in Berkeley being abused. The employer, Yusef Bey, was from a cultural background of African American. The situation was brought to my attention through complaints after complaints filed by a non-Muslim employee at that Your Black Muslim Bakery. The complainant kept reporting that firearms being stored in the compound, foreigners being smuggled in, and employees being restrained, physically and sexually abused and intimidated. Yet there was no alleged government intervention to rescue the victims until after Bey’s death. Then, sometime around 2007, the Bakery went bankrupt and closed after the murder of a local journalist, Chauncey Bailey, who was investigating the allegations.

Over the years, I had become familiar with the way workers from different cultural backgrounds viewed their employment situations without taking consideration their legal and constitutional rights. As we investigated Chinese, Vietnamese, Mexican, or Korean sweatshops, or Asian supermarkets, employers stonewalled us while the workers gave us a cold shoulder as if saying, “Leave us alone. You’re not helping us for coming here. You cause troubles for our employer, the business will suffer, and we lose our jobs. We don’t need your help.”  
One day I sat down next to a young Chinese garment-shop worker who was making buttonholes on a piece of garment and told her, “Look, I am not here to help you. I am here to get your help for me to understand why the labor law is irrelevant here. You will do me a favor by telling me the truth and I won’t take it against you and your co-workers. Please help me.”

Without looking up, she continued to operate the buttonhole sewing machine while answering me, “You see how slow I am with these buttonholes? An experience seamstress can do twice faster. Look at the elderly lady with a clipper over there. All she does all day is clipping the loose ends of the threads in each garment. How much do you think the owner can afford to pay us? Whenever I receive a garment for sewing, I can’t read the instructions so the owner has to show me how to do it, and she corrects my mistakes. I am grateful to her. I can’t get another job because I don’t speak English and have no real skills. So don’t tell me about minimum wages. I don’t want the pay. I want a job and I want to belong to this shop and be with these workers.” Then she added, “Where I am from, we accept. We don’t make wave.”

My recollection of the conversation with that garment-shop worker reminded me of another tragic working condition, which I considered worse than slavery in Medieval Times.

In 2007, I had some freelance jobs with the US ICE (Immigration Control Enforcement). They were investigating a Sex Tourism case whereas an American from LA, who went to Cambodia, bought a house and several Asian girls ages 9 to 14 to work in his house and to service his needs. The girls’ parents sold them for $500 (US dollars) each. $200 went to the broker and $300 to the parents. The girls had no schooling. So they performed housework and did what they were required to do to survive. I remember teaching the investigators to understand the cultural aspects of their interviews with the girls. For their birthdates the kids would say, “I was born in the year of the snake, or the rooster, or the cat.”  They did not know the calendar year of their birth. To describe a major event, they would say, “It happened before or after the New Year.” Approximately, a Vietnamese New Year takes place in February whereas in Thailand or Cambodia, it would be in April. And they used a myriad of terminology not found in the dictionary. After the investigation, the perpetrator was convicted on all 7 counts in the U.S. Federal Courts.

These cases are the exception not the norm. For the most parts, mainstream American workers have the option to exercise their rights under the law and/or through Union’s intervention. As the society evolves, some of the abuses have become things of the past. Sometime in 1990s, I trained a bright grad student from UC Berkeley, Dante, to be an investigator. My focus was changing the situations by changing people’s perceptions. After the training, Dante repeatedly told others the story how I had trained him—a story that made me blushed.

Dante would say, “At the Final Conference, I told the couple employers that they owed their employees nearly $20,000. They practically told me to bust off because they had no money to pay. I threatened to send the case to the Solicitors to no avail. I then asked Kim to intervene. She came in, sat down, leaned back, hands steepling showing a large, flashy rock on her ring finger, then told the couple, ‘Look, your employees have given you their time, energy, sweat, and a piece of their life. It’s only fair that you pay them. After all, it’s only money.’ The couple looked at each other. Then the wife told her husband, ‘She’s right, it’s only money.’ And they agreed to pay.”

Perhaps I was lucky.

END    © K. N. Roberts 

P.S.  I touched three most sensitive subjects in my working life when I first mentioned in the above blog the trial of the murderer of a SF transgender prostitute, Ordenana, a trial that hit the SF transgender community very hard. Then I talked about the murder of one of the best Bay Area journalists at heart, Chauncey Bailey, who was murdered to stop his story of Your Black Muslim Bakery. Lastly, I wrote about my work with US ICE in which the perpetrator who went to Cambodia and purchased little girls to service him and he was convicted and sentenced to 210 years in prison.  I wish to express condolences to the victims. I hope the reader would think of them and show them some respect. These are the links to these true stories: