Saturday, July 1, 2017

Independence Day 2017, Part II: American Capitalism and Freedom Win At Last

copyright © Kim Roberts

Freedom and the Meaning of Life are often being taken for granted by people in a capitalist society where materialism is predominant. They are two different concepts. Yet different degrees of freedom may lead to different levels of meaning in one's life. Without freedom, one is not afforded with opportunities to make life's meaningful choices. However, for some people, the call for meaning of life is so imperative that under any circumstance, with or without freedom, it is impossible to give up the search for life's meaning.
"Creative works always give me gratification, comfort, and a sense of substance," said my father sometime in 1960 when he pointed to me the most beautiful topiary rose bush he planted and shaped.

"Why?" I asked.

"When you cannot control life's insurmountable circumstances, or do not have sufficient material things for your personal comfort, or when you are not free to decide future directions that fit your needs, you still have the meaning of life. You can still find it through your creative works," said Father. Then he added, "When you don't have much, meaning maybe the only thing. With freedom, you have choices. Without freedom, creativity gives you options to escape from reality. I am happy that you can paint and draw. That's your gift and your means for an escape if you ever need it. Don't ever lose it."

After Father's death in 1965, I remembered his words and understood that material things, however valuable, come and go but meaning, like freedom, is a concept that doesn't leave one's heart and mind. Once it is chosen to be the guiding light in one's life, nothing else can overshadow that principle.

Ten years later, in September 1975, I was in America, land of the free. Excited and hopeful, I euphorically thought I was in heaven. I remembered my sister Nhu Anh whose hope for me was to find my ultimate freedom, or on her scale from zero to ten degrees, the number tenth freedom. With that in mind, despite the prospect of facing a new life alone with much difficulty, I turned down a relationship proposal by a young, handsome blue-eyed radio announcer in Ft. Chaffee, Arkansas, named Benjamin. Ben gave me a necklace with a silver star pendant centered by a small diamond--a gesture of his feelings and seriousness. I was touched but I had to choose the experience of designing, planning, and building my new life on my own. That was my first act of being a free person in a country that offers its people safety, security, and a sense of permanency.

However, like gaining freedom from external forces that has a price tag, holding on to that freedom also has hidden costs for which no one can be prepared. I soon faced a reality of no job, no education, no money, inadequate language skill, and no future directions. Worse, America was so divided after the Vietnam War that I had no idea where I would fit in. It seems America needed healing even more than I did. Many Americans welcomed me with open arms but others looked at me as a reminder of a shame, a mistake by the U.S. government for engaging in an unpopular war that took many American lives and tore America apart. And the sign of the KKK with robes and hoods on streets of Castro Valley reminded me the history of prejudice in America. I was confused, lost.
Vietnam suffered the same dilemma. Winning the war and gaining independence did not mean the country could see the end of struggles. There was a cost to maintain the newfound peace and freedom. Since 1975, Vietnam suffered failed economic policies, a high military budget because of the war with Cambodia, and according to on-line information, Vietnam had a poverty level up to 75%. Globally, Vietnam was considered among the poorest countries.

With respect to life in Vietnam after the war, a friend I met in 1978, Nhung, told me, "When I escaped from Vietnam by boat, several other boats were sunk or being pirated. Your sister's former classmate, Thi, and her family of five were missing at sea. I was one of the lucky ones. Before my escape, I lived a few years under the communist control so I know how starving we were in Vietnam, no food, no clothes, shoddy housing conditions, and inadequate healthcare. In America, if you work, you do make money, however little. At home, in a socialist society, you practically work for free." Consequently, Nhung found her purpose in America as a moneymaking machine--not for herself but for her family of 12 in Vietnam. She sent 80% of her earnings home.

At the beginning of my life in America, I remembered what my father said about my painting skill. Immediately, when I arrived in Kentucky in 1975, I began to paint to ease the sufferings, loneliness, and sadness. After moving to California, I continued to paint but soon realized that escaping into a world of arts wasn't enough. I needed more.

"The deeper meaning of life comes from your heart and soul when you want something so bad that you would take the most difficult measures to get it," said Father. And I never forgot what my Buddhist sister Nhu Anh said about America and freedom from war. "In America, you can make long term choices that you can look back and be proud of yourself later. Do crazy things if you want to but do that for you. Don't compromise. Don't be afraid," she said.

With that in mind, in 1976, I refused to compromise my integrity by turning down financial assistance from two wealthy individuals I knew in SF and humbly earned a living doing paintings with a group of Southeast Asian artists. That did not work out well. A Christian couple I just met, Dan and Elaine Jew, invited me to stay with their family in Castro Valley until I found jobs or study. I adored Dan and Elaine and their children. Their loving kindness was unprecedented. Then during my first semester at CSUH in January 1977, I applied for work-study. The lady I met at the Accounting department wore thick glasses, a brown scarf, and heavy diamonds on her finger. She told me I only got $2.68/hour, or 80% of the minimum wage unless I applied for work outside campus.

As I was searching for my identification inside my wallet, the color of a bluish check struck my eyes. I could feel a shockwave radiating from my brain throughout my body. It was a blank check signed by Elaine. I remembered she said she was concerned that I would need money in an emergency situation so she gave me a blank check. Elaine hardly knew me when she signed the check. In return, I had no intention of using it so I had forgotten about it. But the sudden jolt, created by a reminder that a stranger had trusted me that much and I was strong enough not to abuse her trust, shook me to the core. I realized then it didn't matter whether I made $2.68 per hour or $5 an hour, I felt so good about America and Americans that I could accept anything as long as it was a pure, honest, and trust-worthy endeavor. America was not all about materialism. Americans had heart. Elaine had restored my faith in human kindness and gave me the meaning of life I needed.

Nowadays, Both Dan and Elaine are over 80 years old. We met for lunch not long ago. When I recalled the impact of her blank check, we had a chuckle.

In June 1978, along with my best friend Som, I graduated with a BA degree. The Library Congress did an evaluation of my two Baccalaureate degrees and a law degree from Saigon but could not give me equivalent certificates. I was fine with that as I enjoyed learning everything anew. The American Officer, who was instrumental in helping me move to the Bay Area, was at my graduation. He said to me, " When I met you in Vietnam, I didn't know you're an iconoclast. And, of all the academic majors that can help you find good paying jobs, you chose a tough and impractical degree, Political Science. Why?"

"Because I can. Because I wanted to," said I. Deep down inside, I thought of the indomitable spirits of my sister and father and wanted to keep that alive by doing what I felt were the right things, not the least challenging tasks. 
Gradually, the economic conditions in Vietnam improved by the overseas remittance, which arrived in Vietnam in the billions. As time went by, the World Bank's statistics indicated the poverty level began to drop as Vietnam initiated a socialist-oriented market economy in 1986.  In September 1989, under heavy diplomatic and economic pressure from the international community, Vietnam withdrew over 100,000 Vietnamese troops that had occupied Cambodia (Kampuchea) since 1979. The U. S. established normal relationship with Vietnam on July 11, 1995. The Vietnamese government then implemented a series of economic and foreign policy reforms and the country became flourished.

In 2000, my beloved mother passed away and willed her house and land to me. I let my last sister in Vietnam, another Buddhist nun, exceptionally beautiful but very shy, sell them and trade the money for gold bars. Then she moved into a Buddhist Temple. I continued to support her by sending money and communicating with her regularly. In February 2006, I planned on going to Vietnam to spend time with her. I always wanted to start a small library for children in my village because that was my childhood dream. Unfortunately, my sister Nhu Chieu, suffered a heart attack and passed away three weeks before my visit. The authorities in the city of Sadec somehow found and confiscated two bags of gold from her possession. I was asked to return to Sadec to give legitimacy to the distribution of the gold to different temples and local authorities.

I cried for days for my loss of my sister Nhu Chieu and for my pain and anger due to the insensitivity, blatantly disrespect, and intention of the local authorities to strip me of my inheritance.  They took more than gold, they took a piece of my heart. The following month, April 2006, I masterminded a most daring operation to return to Sadec and snatch two bags of gold that were securely kept there. That was the origin of my blog series under the name "The Caper: Retrieving Two Bags of Gold from Sadec and Zen and the Art of Gold Robbery)," published on 4/8/16, 4/23/16, 5/12/16, and 5/20/16.

Through the years, Vietnam is still a socialist society but the Vietnamese have arrived in the U.S. to gain experience in education, training, and IT. They also seem to enjoy material things and services that a capitalist country offers. In my experience, at least one Vietnamese came for IVF (in vitro fertilization) technology. Others came for advance treatments of illness. Some simply to purchase fashion clothing new products or to send home such expensive food as Kobe beef, lobsters, or abalone. Needless to say, materialism and capitalism have superseded socialism.

I am proud to be an American. This country has allowed me to be who I am and do what I need to do. And that is: it's not enough to fight for freedom, it's also important to fight for principles and for love. I have found the meaning of life.

END of Part II of 2 parts.   copyright © Kim Roberts


  1. great job! you describe wonderfully life in paintings,poetry and writing, you are really a inspirational and motivational personality,thanks for sharing such a beautiful blog.

    1. Thank you so much for your kind, generous compliments. All I humbly do is being myself. I appreciate your motivational gesture. Happy holidays to you.