Sunday, January 22, 2017

Freedom and a New American Identity—The 2017 Women’s March on Washington

Copyright © Kim Roberts

“The women’s march tomorrow would not take place if President Trump were Bill Gate or Mark Zuckerberg …,” said one of my clients, Sally Chavez.

It’s January 20, 2017, one day before the scheduled women’s march. We were sitting at a table inside the Sugar Bowl Bakery plant in Hayward, California, waiting to meet some of the factory employees who had questions about 401K. A delectable aroma pervaded the air—a mixture of butter, sugar, vanilla, and chocolate. I inhaled the wonderful scent as the delicious smell of madeleine and brownie cookies teased my nose and tingled my taste buds. Speaking with a group of four other professionals with whom I worked, I summarized President Trump’s inauguration speech, which I had heard over the radio while driving to the meeting.

I added, unsure if others could relate to what I said, “Trump’s speech is rhetorical and dogmatic. Am not sure if he mainly focuses on the traditional values and patriotic theme because he believes in them or he is giving his voters what they want to hear? Does he look for a safe model to run the government? I don’t know.” My conclusion was that the upcoming women’s march would be the dawn of a new identity for the women—a collection of mirrors that has been a long time coming—an identity built upon emotional experiences that have been pushed away waiting to come out collectively. 

“That’s too bad that we don’t have a president Gate or Zuckerberg,” said Mike. Wishfully, he was referring to American billionaires who gave away the bulk of their wealth to philanthropic causes to improve the lives of those who are less fortunate or in need. I agreed that money could be used to build, to destroy, or simply to seek personal enjoyment. But I felt that there were other reasons why the women would march against Trump, other than his money or his attitude toward women. However,  I added some humor, “A Republican? He’s no Reagan. Real or not, President Reagan always impressed me with his ability to express sincerity, humor, and charm. Besides, he had experience. But, with respect to this Republican president, ummm….”

I am no one special, just a refugee in America who was affected by the U.S. government’s decision to go to war in Vietnam five decades ago. And later I became an American and a recipient of many opportunities and benefits in America. With that background, I greatly admire the owners of Sugar Bowl Bakery where I was working for a day. Andrew Ly and his brothers, formerly Chinese Vietnamese, are now Americans. I have done work at their establishment from time to time. They are the business people I always admire and respect. They work hard and have succeeded in a small, honest, humble, and meaningful way. Every time I think of what I read about Andrew Ly’s history of surviving an escape from Vietnam, living as a refugee in a makeshift tent on a floor made of cardboard in Malaysia, tears well up in my eyes. And I was proud of them for gradually building a fairy tale success with Sugar Bowl Bakery and, in the past three decades, providing jobs to hundreds of workers on payroll. 

But this story is not about this particular Vietnamese-American business success. I have known several other successful businesses that were found and operated by Vietnamese immigrants. However, Sugar Bowl Bakery earns my respect whereas several other successful immigrant businesses don’t—especially those who have modeled their business after the Trump Network.

In 2006, I was looking for an opportunity to get back in business after my husband’s death. My handyman of 15 years told me about his sons’ booming loan business in San Jose. He said, “My oldest son, the teenager you met 15 years ago, is now making $300,000 a year selling loans for major lenders. His younger brother also makes over $200,000. They now live in beautiful houses. They follow Mr. Donald Trump’s business model. Of course Mr. Trump is not directly involved in running it but he endorses it, or that’s the understanding. And he’s big and successful. So all the Vietnamese salespeople quit their day jobs and recruited friends, neighbors, and relatives to do the same. Now everyone I know sells loans. If Mr. Trump can make that much money, we can too. Why don’t you do the same?”

He then gave me a drinking mug bearing his son’s business logo. But I thought the business model to which my handyman referred did not sound conventional, or was similar to traditional business practices I knew. Later, while researching on the subject, I read the “Rip-Off” website and learned about complaints people filed against Vietnamese loan salespeople such as the sons of my handyman. Shortly after, dubious lending practices, greedy loan salespeople, bailouts, foreclosures, and finally, news of the U.S. mortgage meltdown became public. My intuition has never failed to warn me.

Scholarly or not, I write what I see, observe, and how I feel. My favorite philosopher Soren Kierkegaard says, “Life is not a problem to be solved, but a reality to be experienced.” This is my view with my limited understanding of the events happening around me, which I have experienced. There are so much more that I don’t know. But, as Kahlil Gibran says, “If I knew the cause of my ignorance, I would be a sage.”

January 21, 2017, as I received photos from a relative and several girl friends, who were in the women’s marches, I reflected on my own feelings. Through the media, I saw President Trump as one without sound judgment, gentleman-like conducts, wit, and intellect—essential elements found in most reputable characters. However, with my legal background, I was concerned that it has not been legally proven that he has committed wrong doings or crimes. And I wondered if an attack on him was warranted. That said, in view of the women’s march, I have looked deep into their cause by reflecting on the historical background of situations that led to terrible disasters in the history of mankind when those who knew did not speak up or take actions. And, it became apparent to me that is a justification of the women’s march.

I recall the American Civil Rights movement, the anti-war demonstrations in Washington DC, the hippies, and the freedom movements. But I did not live in the U.S. then so I don’t know enough to comment. Most of everything I know well and have witnessed is connected with the unpopular Vietnam War. As much as I am reluctant to speak of the war, I can’t keep hiding my feelings toward those who were able but did not stop such a war from happening. So bear with me.

My online research of the events leading to the Vietnam War reveals that, from 1945 to 1946, in 9 letters and messages to President Truman and America, along with Truman’s Secretary of State James Byrnes, Ho Chi Minh repeatedly begged the U.S. for acceptance. Ho sent six letters and messages in 1945 and 5 in 1946. In a letter dated February 16, 1946 to President Harry Truman, Ho wrote, “…What we ask has been graciously granted to the Philippines. Like the Philippines our goal is full independence and full cooperation with the UNITED STATES. We will do our best to make this independence and cooperation profitable to the whole world.” (a quote from History as Weapons site).

The language in Ho’s letter is consistent with my knowledge and belief of the events leading to the war. I was attending high school in Vietnam when the war started. I often wondered why President Truman and those who surrounded him did not consider asking Ho Chi Minh to give up Communism in exchange for independence and financial assistance for Vietnam. As a Vietnamese, I knew Ho would agree. That would be logical but apparently that wasn’t in the mind of those in power in America at the time. The consequences of not avoiding the Vietnam War from the get-go have taught us that, when it comes to people in high power, it is too dangerous to apply the presumption of innocence in which “one is not guilty until the crime is proven in the court of law” and no action could be taken until something has happened.

In my blog of January 26, 2016, about the massacre of Vietnamese in Cambodia during the Vietnam War, I wrote, “Upon reflection, the Vietnam War took away my faith in human decency, dignity, and concern for humanity. Once the news of the U.S. and Vietnamese incursion into Cambodia on May 1, 1970—and Nixon’s announcement of “Vietnamization” following an American troop withdrawal promise—took the center stage, the press did not mention the massacre of Vietnamese in Cambodia, or the secret B-52s bombing of Cambodia. And so they were pushed aside and faded away. Under government crackdown, our student occupation of the Cambodian Embassy in Saigon only lasted two months. Many Cambodians were indifferent toward the killing and ravaged attacks of Vietnamese and their properties including looting and destroying their homes, cutting loose of their houseboats on the Tonle Sap River and pushing them downstream.  Reportedly, up to 300,000 ethnic Vietnamese in Cambodia were either killed or repatriated under Lon Nol. Then, shortly after the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the Khmer Rouge, under Pol Pot, began an unprecedented ethnic and domestic cleansing campaign that led to a genocide. The remaining of approximately 100,000 Vietnamese in Cambodia were either executed or repatriated. During the genocide, an estimate of 1.4 million of other ethnic groups in Cambodia and Cambodians themselves were killed, executed, or died of other causes.”

Undoubtedly, that is an unpleasant historical fact. But I was there. I witnessed. I heard the bombs. I smelled the rotten corpses. I demonstrated against the brutality. I cried for the victims. I blamed, yes, I, too, am not a saint, as I blamed those who could speak up, or stop, if not all, at least some of the killing, but didn’t. Naturally, the realities of the Vietnam War gave everyone plenty of opportunities to witness the evil that those with power or weapons did. And that alone could make anyone paranoid toward American leaders who have so much power and availability of weapons of mass destruction at their fingertips.

Political Science is the first degree I earned in California in 1978. Among the textbooks I read with passion, the first one was Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” My favorite Tocqueville’s quote is, “Nothing is more wonderful than the art of being free, but nothing is harder to learn how to use than freedom.”  The second book I most enjoyed was Erich Fromm’s “Escape From Freedom.” The original title of that book is “Fear of Freedom.” Fromm’s theoretical analysis led me to understand the transformation of a free individual into a submissive member of a totalitarian government.

Totalitarianism is not a form of American democratic government. But, at gut level, unpredictable voters might turn democracy into a totalitarian type of democracy. Therefore, to certain extent, the totalitarian trend explains why and how, on the one hand, millions conservative American have sought to surrender to their religious beliefs, political affiliations, or strong leadership in exchange for hope and comfort. And, on the other hand, the opposing liberal force also relied on a collective power of the masses to ease anxiety. Consequently, American democracy has become more paradoxical and less logical as it is strengthened by a contradiction between two opposing forces. I am beginning to sound like Hegel but the realities of American politics led me to believe that the goal of each major party in America is not merely gaining power but overpowering the other. Thus, to maintain a balance, successful crusaders no longer advocate as individuals but operate under group identities.

Many people have asked me what I write in my blogs and my answer is, “Whatever goes through my mind at the time.” The issues I mentioned above have been on my mind for the last two days. To add some humor to the current political situation in the U.S., I’d like to quote Tocqueville again: “I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run.”

END   © K. N. Roberts

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