Category: Environment

Andrew Lam

Two Years on, Remembering The Fukushima Disaster

By Andrew Lam, Mar 11, 2013 10:39 AM

Two years ago the Tohoku earthquake and resulting tsunami devastated the region. They seriously damaged the Fukushima nuclear power plant, sending radiated fumes into the air and leaking radiation into the waters. Nearly 16,000 people were killed by the earthquake and tidal waves, and 2,600 others were missing.

The letter below, written in Vietnamese by an immigrant who was working in Fukushima as a policeman to a friend in Vietnam, was published in newspapers and circulated on the Internet a week or so after the incident. It is an extraordinary testimony to the strength and dignity of the Japanese spirit, and an interesting slice of life near the epicenter of Japan's current crisis, the Fukushima nuclear power plant. I translated and published it on New America Media two weeks after the disaster struck on March 11, 2011. It was subsequenlty translated into at least a dozen other languages and went around the globe. I am reposting it here on the occasion of the two-year anniversary of the Tohoku disaster.


Brother,

How are you and your family? These last few days, everything was in chaos. When I close my eyes, I see dead bodies. When I open my eyes, I also see dead bodies. Each one of us must work 20 hours a day, yet I wish there were 48 hours in the day, so that we could continue helping and rescuing folks.

We are without water and electricity, and food rations are near zero. We barely managed to move refugees to one place before there were new orders to move them elsewhere.

I am currently in Fukushima, about 25 kilometers away from the nuclear power plant. I have so much to tell you that if I could write it all down, it would surely turn into a novel about human relationships and behaviors during times of crisis.

The other day I ran into a Vietnamese-American. His name is Toan. He is an engineer working at the Fukushima 1 nuclear plant, and he was wounded right at the beginning, when the earthquake struck. With the chaos that ensued, no one helped him communicate with his family. When I ran into him I contacted the US embassy, and I have to admit that I admire the Americans' swift action: They sent a helicopter immediately to the hospital and took him to their military base.

But the foreign students from Vietnam are not so lucky. I still haven't received news of them. If there were exact names and addresses of where they work and so on, it would be easier to discover their fate. In Japan, the police do not keep accurate residential information the way they do in Vietnam, and privacy law here makes it even more difficult to find.

I met a Japanese woman who was working with seven Vietnamese women, all here as foreign students. Their work place is only 3 kilometers from the ocean and she said that they don't really understand Japanese. When she fled, the students followed her, but when she checked back they were gone. Now she doesn't know if they managed to survive. She remembers one woman's name: Nguyen thi Huyen (or Hien).

No representatives from the Vietnamese embassy have shown up, even though on the Vietnamese Internet news sites they claim to be very concerned about Vietnamese citizens in Japan - all of it a lie.

Even us policemen are going hungry and thirsty, so can you imagine what those Vietnamese foreign students are going through? The worst things here right now are the cold, the hunger and thirst, the lack of water and electricity.

People here remain calm - their sense of dignity and proper behavior are very good - so things aren't as bad as they could be. But given another week, I can't guarantee that things won't get to a point where we can no longer provide proper protection and order. They are humans after all, and when hunger and thirst override dignity, well, they will do whatever they have to do. The government is trying to provide air supply, bringing in food and medicine, but it's like dropping a little salt into the ocean.

Brother, there are so many stories I want to tell you - so many, that I don't know how to write them all. But there was a really moving incident. It involves a little Japanese boy who taught an adult like me a lesson on how to behave like a human being. Last night, I was sent to a little grammar school to help a charity organization distribute food to the refugees. It was a long line that snaked this way and that and I saw a little boy around 9 years old. He was wearing a t-shirt and a pair of shorts.

It was getting very cold and the boy was at the very end of the line. I was worried that by the time his turn came there wouldn't be any food left. So I spoke to him.

2013-03-10-Japan2011Tsunami.jpg

He said he was in the middle of PE at school when the earthquake happened. His father worked nearby and was driving to the school. The boy was on the third floor balcony when he saw the tsunami sweep his father's car away. I asked him about his mother. He said his house is right by the beach and that his mother and little sister probably didn't make it. He turned his head and wiped his tears when I asked about his relatives.

The boy was shivering so I took off my police jacket and put it on him. That's when my bag of food ration fell out. I picked it up and gave it to him. "When it comes to your turn, they might run out of food. So here's my portion. I already ate. Why don't you eat it."

The boy took my food and bowed. I thought he would eat it right away, but he didn't. He took the bag of food, went up to where the line ended and put it where all the food was waiting to be distributed. I was shocked. I asked him why he didn't eat it and instead added it to the food pile. He answered: "Because I see a lot more people hungrier than I am. If I put it there, then they will distribute the food equally."

When I heard that I turned away so that people wouldn't see me cry. It was so moving -- a powerful lesson on sacrifice and giving. Who knew a 9-year-old in third grade could teach me a lesson on how to be a human being at a time of such great suffering? A society that can produce a 9-year-old who understands the concept of sacrifice for the greater good must be a great society, a great people.

It reminds me of a phrase that I once learned in school, a capitalist theory from the old man, Fuwa [Tetsuzo], chairman of the Japanese Communist Party: "If Marx comes back to life, he will have to add a phrase to his book, Capital, and that 'Communist ideology is only successful in Japan.'"

Well, a few lines to send you and your family my warm wishes. The hours of my shift have begun again.
- Ha Minh Thanh

The above letter was originally published in New America Media where Andrew Lam is one of the editors. He is the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" (Heyday Books, 2005), which won a Pen American "Beyond the Margins" award, and "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres".

His latest book, "Birds of Paradise Lost," a collection of short stories about Vietnamese immigrants struggling to rebuild their lives in the Bay Area after a painful exodus, was recently published by Red Hen Press. He has lectured and read his work widely at many universities.



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Cover of Birds of Paradise Lost

Jessica Cheung

The Weather in The Palm of Your Hand

By Jessica Cheung, May 23, 2012 4:12 PM

Around this time of year when the fogs seems a little less thick and the sun a lot more warm here in San Francisco, I enter the same debate with myself: to go out or not to go out? It is perfectly easy to stay in where the witty repertoire of Tumblr is here to keep me plenty company at the comfort of my beanbag chair. But so long as my laptop is on, Schemer, an activity engine integrated with Google+, and Recreation.gov, a one-stop website with information on federal recreation areas, will be my portals to local excursions this summer.

Zoe Johnson

U.S. Government Not Doing Enough to Curb Climate Change

By Zoe Johnson, May 11, 2012 10:53 AM

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Last Spring, four young people – they are being represented legally by the law firm of Paul McClosky, a co-founder of Earth Day -- brought a lawsuit, Alec L. et. al vs. Lisa P. Jackson, et. al, against the U.S. Government charging them with not doing enough to curb climate change. On Friday, May 11, U.S. District Court Judge Robert L. Wilkins will hear arguments from the defendants – they include the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of Defense, Energy, Commerce, Interior and Agriculture – who have filed a motion that the case be dismissed. If it is not, the litigation will be tried in a federal court.

The author, Zoe Johnson, is an 11th grader at The Urban School of San Francisco. She is a member of the iMatter movement and a Plaintiff in Alec v. Jackson, which advocates have dubbed the “Atmospheric Trust Litigation.”


Every day, I go to school, complain about homework, and think about my own future. But I also think about the future of our planet, and our environment. I don’t think that I should have to worry about whether our planet will still be inhabitable for my grandchildren, and their children when they are born, but I do. My generation, and every generation after us will have to live with the effects of climate change and, if the government does not regulate greenhouse gas emissions, things are only going to get worse. I refuse to sit back and watch it happen.

The public trust doctrine stipulates that the government cannot waste or destroy natural resources such as air and water. However, by not doing a better job of protecting these resources, that is exactly what our elected officials are doing.

The government needs to put a climate recovery plan in place as soon as possible, and at this point, the most direct and most efficient way to encourage that is through the federal courts -- which is why I am a plaintiff in a lawsuit with several other kids from across the country who believe the government must do more to protect the future of our planet.

On May 11th, 2012 the US District Court in Washington DC will hear all the reasons why the government and industry interests believe our lawsuit should be dismissed. If the judge rules in our favor, we will be able to make our case before the court that the federal government must put a nation-wide climate recovery plan in place. According to environmental scientist Dr. James Hansen, if we reduce emissions by a mere 6 percent every year, we can restore balance in the atmosphere.

Our future is at stake and the government has a legal obligation to protect the atmosphere and they are not doing enough. According to a March 2012 report by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, the majority (72 percent) of Americans, across party lines, say that global warming should be a priority for the President and Congress, and an even greater majority (92 percent) think that development of clean energy technologies should be on the government's list of priorities.

Please join me in telling our government that you are one of the majority of Americans who believe in protecting our environment now. Please support our lawsuit and tell the President and Congress to talk to the kids of the iMatter movement and to put a national climate recovery plan in place. We need the U.S. government to take action now, and act as if our future matters.



To send a letter to the President go to: www.whitehouse.gov/contact/submit-questions-and-comments

Andrew Lam

Giving up a car is a new American responsibility

By Andrew Lam, Mar 21, 2012 2:04 PM

  I actually gave up my car a while back but the piece was recently published on Shanghai Daily, so here it is again on a blog, since gas prices are causing pains and sufferings....


San Francisco - For the first time in over two decades, I am no longer a driver. Facing spiking gas prices and much-needed repairs, I finally donated my Toyota Corolla to an organization that takes care of orphans.

It's an odd feeling to be on this side of being green. Without a car, my sense of time and space has been immediately altered. What was once a matter of expediency is now an effortful navigation.

"I'll be there in 15 minutes!" I used to tell a good friend who once lived nearby but who now resides, without a car, at an inconvenient distance. Going to my favorite Asian food market suddenly has turned into another arduous chore: Once a 30-minute event, it has become a two-hour ordeal, with bags in hands, and bus transfers.

Indeed when I came to San Francisco from Vietnam with my family at the end of the Vietnam War, I remember such delight when my older brother bought his first car. We were still sharing an apartment with my aunt and her children, but as we cruised the streets at night, it felt as if we were becoming Americans.

The automobile, after all, is intrinsically American, and owning one largely determines how we arrange our daily lives; it is as essential to us as the train and metro are to the Japanese or Europeans. Indeed, a car is the first thing an American teenager of driving age desires; to drive away from home is an established American rite of passage. Even the working poor are drivers here.

For immigrants, the car is the first thing we buy before the house. Vietnamese in Vietnam marvel at the BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes that their relatives drive in America, and no doubt the sleek photos sent home cause many to dream of a life of luxury in the United States.

It seems a natural progression that the housing crisis should quickly lend itself to a car crisis. Both were readily available at one time, with easy loans and cheap gas. But now, with skyrocketing gas prices and faltering mortgages, many have had to give up one in order to keep the other.

Not surprisingly, the car is often the last thing that downtrodden Americans let go. "I can see losing my house, but I can't imagine losing my van," one unemployed friend told me. "I can live in my van. But not being able to get where I need to go would be worst than not having a house."

Mobility defines us far more than sedentary life, thus, the car is arguably more important than the house. Americans, despite accepting global warming as de facto, are still very much in love with the automobile. On average, we own 2.28 vehicles per household.

Addiction

Our addiction to the automobile is as much a symptom of our nomadic culture as it is a matter of necessity: Urban sprawl, combined with little public transportation, makes the car essential. A job seems almost always to require it. The distance between here and there is daunting without a vehicle at one's command.

The car, culturally speaking, is mobility and individualism combined. It is sex, freedom and danger. Thelma and Louise escaped from urban ennui by hitting the freeway with the wind in their hair, the horizon shimmering chimerically ahead. They found romance on the road. Indeed, their final moment approaches the mythic, as the blue Thunderbird Convertible flies across the Grand Canyon, taking the notion of freedom beyond any open road.

Our civilization, too, is driving toward an abyss. The covetous American way of life in the age of climate change and dwindling energy resources has become unsustainable.

Former Vice President turned eco-activist Al Gore called for a radical change in our collective behavior a few years back. He wanted us to completely replace fossil fuel-generated electricity with carbon-free energy sources like solar, wind and geothermal by 2018.

"The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk," he said. "The future of human civilization is at stake." We are now being called upon, the Nobel Prize winner told us, "to move quickly and boldly to shake off complacency, throw aside old habits and rise, clear-eyed and alert, to the necessity of big changes."

I wish he were exaggerating, but my gut tells me that the green guru is pointing us in the right direction. How and if we'll ever get there, how we'll find a collective will to act, I have no idea. But I do know this: Humanity has arrived at a historic juncture and it now seems that a drastic shift in the collective behavior is called for. If this means finding the will to be frugal and give up certain luxuries, then so be it.

Disposable

America was built on the premise of progress and expansion. Yet our vision of a future of unimpeded opportunities and comfort is now in conflict with the health of the planet. The consumer culture requires continuous acquisition, and it is built on the concept of disposable goods. And it's unfortunate that consumer culture now that defines much of the world. Our way of life has created an unprecedented crisis on a planetary scale.

I can tell you from experience, however, that being on the right side of the green divide is not easy. As I trudged to work this morning, a 40-minute trek, I dearly missed my car. As I budget my time and memorize bus routes and timetables, it seems as if I am returning to my humble immigrant beginnings, repudiating some notion of being an American.

But I'm not. Because I can, giving up the car is my new American responsibility.

New America Media editor, Andrew Lam, is author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres" and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora." His next book, Birds of Paradise, a short story collection, is due out in 2013.

Andrew Lam

Lessons of Anime--How to Cope with Japan's Tragedy

By Andrew Lam, Mar 11, 2012 11:13 AM

It's been a year since the tsunami and earthquake created havoc and destroyed part of the Japanese coast and set the nuclear reactor in Fukushima to burn uncontrollably. This piece, written last year, is reposted here as it remains relevant.

Andrew Lam

--

In Japan’s most popular cultural genres known as manga (comic books) and anime (animation films and series), there’s a recurrent theme in which the country is routinely devastated. 
 
Tokyo, home to more than 30 million people, is destroyed so often in the Japanese collective imagination there’s an alternative version of the ultramodern mega-metropolis: one made of shattered concrete and glass debris.
 
Take the popular animated film Akira, for example. “Tokyo is destroyed by an apparent nuclear explosion, leading to the start of World War III.” So goes Wikipedia’s note on the world-famous manga series turned anime. 
 
Wikipedia goes on, “Thirty-one years after Tokyo's destruction, Neo-Tokyo, a new metropolis built on an artificial island in Tokyo Bay, is gripped by political strife, anti-government terrorism and gang violence.”
 
Or take Desert Punk: “After a global nuclear catastrophe Japan has been reduced to a desert and the surviving humans seek out a meager living in the hot sands,” goes the description of the anime series.
 
“A devastating war fought between two major nations with ultra-magnetic weapons far greater than anything seen earlier brings about total chaos and destruction throughout the world, resulting in several earthquakes and tidal waves,” begins the plot description of the anime Future Boy Conan, in which humanity is on the brink of extinction. 
 
The examples are endless, but you see the point: Nihilistic themes dominate Japanese narratives of itself. 
 
Now try this scenario: Japan has fallen apart. Its towns and villages devastated by such a massive earthquake that the earth’s axis itself is affected and by the subsequent tsunami, its nuclear reactors exposed, sending radiation into the atmosphere. Millions live without water and electricity. Millions more live in panic and fear as the tremors continue and radiation leaks into food and water and land. 
 
Japan is facing a crisis it hasn’t seen since World War II.
 
This, alas, is no scenario at all, but a reality. So, what purposes do these apocalyptic stories serve? And how does one watch these animes, now that their visions have become prophetically superimposed on the real world?
 
I write this as someone who was born into a world devastated by war. As a South Vietnamese soldier’s son – an army brat -- I witnessed much destruction and suffering at a very young age. I saw dead bodies strewn about in rice fields, burned out villages, maimed survivors, homeless refugees trudging along highways, and many begging on the streets of Saigon. 
 
As a teenager in America, I was enthralled by Bugs Bunny and Disney movies showing children laughing. In this world, evil is always conquered. The princess marries the prince, and everyone is guaranteed a happy ending. That is, I bought into the American optimism, bought my own ticket on the little train that could.
 
Now, however, as an adult, as a seasoned journalist who has witnessed tragedy after tragedy around the world, I find myself drawn back to the Far East, and increasingly drawn to Japanese manga and anime. I watch them religiously in middle age.
 
Why? Because many of these stories, albeit far more complex and enticing, are similar to the folktales my Vietnamese grandmother told. On those frightful nights when the bombs fell in villages and their reverberations shook the city, Grandma’s ancient stories with their ambiguous if flat-out unhappy endings were strangely soothing.
 
The princess died and her heart turns into a ruby, which was then carved into a teacup. The fisherman, her true love, came back and cried and his tear fell in the cup, which melted into blood.
 
Or she’d tell of a younger brother, who gave up his love for a beautiful woman so that his older one could marry her. The younger man went to the forest and died, turning into a betel tree. Then the older brother searched for him, died and turned into a limestone. The wife followed, and sat leaning on the tree, when she turned into a vine. When chewing betel nut together with the vine leaf and limestone, your spit will turn into the color of blood.
 
A few years ago in Japan, I interviewed professor Koike Kazuo, the celebrated author of the Lone Wolf and Cub manga series. It is the story of a samurai who walked the path of death while pushing a small cart in which sat his little boy. Their entire clan had been massacred. 
 
The boy watches undaunted as his father stabs and slices their enemies. In the final episode, the boy’s father is killed by their ultimate nemesis, an old man who has masterminded their clan’s destruction. Undaunted, the little boy picks up his father’s spear and rushes to drive it through the old man, who, recognizing the boy’s samurai spirit, embraced him in death, calling him “Grandson of my heart.”
 
I asked Kazuo sensei why such a tragic ending would be considered children’s entertainment. He thought about this for a while before answering, “On the deepest level, serious mangas are about spiritual drama and love.”
 
This struck a chord in me. Despite the age of high-tech wizardry, manga/anime continue to distill an ancient ethos of the Far East; a shared cultural matrix between Japan and East Asia, in which fatalism informs the floating world. It teaches that life is precious, and spending time serving the greater good may be the only control one has in the face of unpredictable calamity and uncontrollable and often violent cosmos. 
 
When one lives life for the sake of others by protecting what one considers precious, then one will achieve his human/spiritual truth regardless of the outcome. 
 
Indeed, if American fairy tales are in the business of protecting children from the reality of a cold and belligerent world, Japanese fairy tales told through certain genre of mangas and animes are doing quite the opposite: preparing their charges for the day in which their normal and seemingly sunny life may be abruptly thrown into complete chaos and destruction. Thus, hidden behind those round eyed and perfect-faced cartoon characters are stories of human sufferings and survival rivaling the tragedy of Job.
 
No wonder these Japanese genres are rivaling the church of Disney, and anime continues to enthrall children and young adults across the globe. It is in part because they don’t belittle their viewers but treat them as adults to be.
 
Now, as I watch in horror the story of Japan in the aftermath of the huge earthquake and devastating tsunami, I see their points more clearly. My grandmother’s old fairy tales, with their countless wars and natural disasters, evolved over the millennia and merge with anime as warning, as an admonitory mythos, and as a way to prepare the next generation for cataclysm and grief.
 
Here’s another inspirational and true story with anime sensibility. The story, which has been widely distributed on the Internet and global media, is told by an immigrant in Fukushima, where the nuclear reactors continue to send radiation out of their broken roofs and walls.
 
A nine-year-old boy watched as the tsunami swept away his father from the balcony of his school. His sister and mother, too, were presumably swept away with their house near the beach. Yet, despite such losses, when given a bag of food, he went to the front of the food line and gave it back to the food distributors. He told the astonished man who gave him the food to nourish himself, “I see a lot more people hungrier than I am. If I put it there, then they will distribute the food equally.” 
 
The adult who told this story wept, “Who knew a boy in the third grade could teach me a lesson on how to be a human being at a time of such great suffering?” The boy, having no superpower, having lost his family, nevertheless becomes a kind of anime hero, someone who sacrifices for the greater good and achieves human truth.
 
A year after the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City were destroyed by terrorist attacks, I visited Ground Zero. There were many visitors and gawkers about, and next to me were a few teenagers with their charming Midwest accents, snapping photos. As they surveyed the terrible destruction before them – shattered concrete and melted steel of what was once an ivory citadel -- one of them said, with reverence in his voice, “Man, this is, like, right out of Akira!” 
 
I watch anime nightly along with news of Japan’s unfolding devastation, and the story lines ring truer now. In this post 9/11 world, where war drones fly and preemptive strikes and revolutions are the norm, where ominous storms keep gathering and growing stronger -- if not at our shores then in our collective unconsciousness – and where the earth keeps trembling, it may very well be that those apocalyptic narratives are the very medicine that could assist us all. Adults and children alike, in Japan and elsewhere, now bear witness to the churning tides.
 

New America Media editor Andrew Lam is the author of East Eats West (Heyday Books, 2011), his new collection of 21 essays. His previous book, Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora won a Pen American award in 2006. 
 
Listen to his radio commentary here.

Andrew Lam

Letter From Fukushima: A Vietnamese-Japanese Policeman's Accounty

By Andrew Lam, Mar 10, 2012 11:38 PM

On the occasion of the first anniversary of the tsunami and Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan, i am reposting this piece, translated a year ago... I wonder how that little boy is doing?

Andrew Lam 


Editor’s note: This letter, written by a Vietnamese immigrant working in Fukishima as a policeman to a friend in Vietnam, has been circulating on Facebook among the Vietnamese diaspora. It is an extraordinary testimony to the strength and dignity of the Japanese spirit, and an interesting slice of life near the epicenter of Japan’s current crisis, the Fukushima nuclear power plant. It was translated by NAM editor, Andrew Lam.

Brother,

How are you and your family? These last few days, everything was in chaos. When I close my eyes, I see dead bodies. When I open my eyes, I also see dead bodies. Each one of us must work 20 hours a day, yet I wish there were 48 hours in the day, so that we could continue helping and rescuing folks.

We are without water and electricity, and food rations are near zero. We barely manage to move refugees before there are new orders to move them elsewhere.

I am currently in Fukushima, about 25 kilometers away from the nuclear power plant. I have so much to tell you that if I could write it all down, it would surely turn into a novel about human relationships and behaviors during times of crisis.

The other day I ran into a Vietnamese-American. His name is Toan. He is an engineer working at the Fukushima 1 nuclear plant, and he was wounded right at the beginning, when the earthquake struck. With the chaos that ensued, no one helped him communicate with his family. When I ran into him I contacted the US embassy, and I have to admit that I admire the Americans’ swift action: They sent a helicopter immediately to the hospital and took him to their military base.

But the foreign students from Vietnam are not so lucky. I still haven't received news of them. If there were exact names and addresses of where they work and so on, it would be easier to discover their fate. In Japan, the police do not keep accurate residential information the way they do in Vietnam, and privacy law here makes it even more difficult to find.

I met a Japanese woman who was working with seven Vietnamese women, all here as foreign students. Their work place is only 3 kilometers from the ocean and she said that they don’t really understand Japanese. When she fled, the students followed her, but when she checked back they were gone. Now she doesn't know if they managed to survive. She remembers one woman’s name: Nguyen thi Huyen (or Hien).

No representatives from the Vietnamese embassy have shown up, even though on the Vietnamese Internet news sites they claim to be very concerned about Vietnamese citizens in Japan - all of it a lie.

Even us policemen are going hungry and thirsty, so can you imagine what those Vietnamese foreign students are going through? The worst things here right now are the cold, the hunger and thirst, the lack of water and electricity.

People here remain calm - their sense of dignity and proper behavior are very good - so things aren’t as bad as they could be. But given another week, I can’t guarantee that things won't get to a point where we can no longer provide proper protection and order. They are humans after all, and when hunger and thirst override dignity, well, they will do whatever they have to do. The government is trying to provide air supply, bringing in food and medicine, but it’s like dropping a little salt into the ocean.

Brother, there are so many stories I want to tell you - so many, that I don’t know how to write them all. But there was a really moving incident. It involves a little Japanese boy who taught an adult like me a lesson on how to behave like a human being:

Last night, I was sent to a little grammar school to help a charity organization distribute food to the refugees. It was a long line that snaked this way and that and I saw a little boy around 9 years old. He was wearing a t-shirt and a pair of shorts.

It was getting very cold and the boy was at the very end of the line. I was worried that by the time his turn came there wouldn’t be any food left. So I spoke to him.

He said he was in the middle of PE at school when the earthquake happened. His father worked nearby and was driving to the school. The boy was on the third floor balcony when he saw the tsunami sweep his father’s car away. I asked him about his mother. He said his house is right by the beach and that his mother and little sister probably didn’t make it. He turned his head and wiped his tears when I asked about his relatives.

The boy was shivering so I took off my police jacket and put it on him. That’s when my bag of food ration fell out. I picked it up and gave it to him. “When it comes to your turn, they might run out of food. So here’s my portion. I already ate. Why don’t you eat it.”

The boy took my food and bowed. I thought he would eat it right away, but he didn't. He took the bag of food, went up to where the line ended and put it where all the food was waiting to be distributed. I was shocked. I asked him why he didn’t eat it and instead added it to the food pile …

He answered: “Because I see a lot more people hungrier than I am. If I put it there, then they will distribute the food equally.”

When I heard that I turned away so that people wouldn't see me cry. It was so moving -- a powerful lesson on sacrifice and giving. Who knew a 9-year-old in third grade could teach me a lesson on how to be a human being at a time of such great suffering? A society that can produce a 9- year-old who understands the concept of sacrifice for the greater good must be a great society, a great people.

It reminds me of a phrase that I once learned in school, a capitalist theory from the old man, Fuwa [Tetsuzo], chairman of the Japanese Communist Party: “If Marx comes back to life, he will have to add a phrase to his book, Capital, and that ‘Communist ideology is only successful in Japan.’”

Well, a few lines to send you and your family my warm wishes. The hours of my shift have begun again.

- Ha Minh Thanh



Andrew Lam is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres and Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.


Andrew Lam

Christmas in Dalat, Christmas in San Francisco

By Andrew Lam, Dec 23, 2011 8:39 PM

I wrote this a few years back but since it's Christmas time, here it is again.. enjoy..


 Wild orchids and colored, painted pine cones – these things I remember of Christmas in Vietnam. It was in Dalat, the mountain city with its persistent fog and whispering pine forests, that I first celebrated Christmas. My father had been transferred there after the 1968 Tet offensive, and he brought the entire family with him.

The distant bombing and the tropical heat of Sadec in the Mekong Delta were replaced by Dalat’s cool fresh breezes and romantic lakes. I was 5 years old, a child running free on fallen pine needles and tall green grass in the forest as I searched for wild mushrooms, pine cones and orchids for Christmas decorations. My older brother, sister and I would each carry a wicker basket and eventually fill them with all that nature had to offer. Those days we never bought any Christmas decorations.

We used to sing. And by singing, I mean spontaneously. As children we were not at all self-conscious and sang with gusto and often off key, but always with gusto. In the woods, early in the morning, we sang Christmas carols and chased each other, and sometimes the neighborhood kids would join in. Afterwards, our sweaters and hair would be embedded with pollen and pine needles. Dalat was a sparsely populated town then, and our laughter and singing echoed and resonated in the dew-covered forest.


At home we helped our mother decorate the Christmas tree. Its fresh pine fragrance brought the whole forest inside with us. My mother would roll cotton into shapes of little chicks and angels with wings and place them on the tree. The cones and mushrooms she painted green and red and blue and hung them everywhere in the living room. These ornaments were all the decorations we needed.

When my paternal grandmother came downstairs all dressed up in her ao dai dress, she would take us to mass. She held my hand and led me and my siblings on the dirt road to a local church whose bells rang out in the air. Though I wasn’t a Catholic, I remember feeling a spiritual devotion in that church. Everyone was smartly dressed and smiling. People sang and read their psalms. Afterwards the priest distributed candy for the children. I remember it was early evening, the sun had sunk behind a bank of fog as we walked home, the world was glowing in a lavender hue.

But before going home we would stop by the Hoa Binh market to buy some fruit and baguettes. Children with pink round cheeks held their mothers’ hands, and young adults in their best clothes walked around to show off their attire. The strawberries and plums we would eat on the way home.

At home, the best part of the Christmas dinner was dessert. My mother, a consummate baker, would make the traditional buche de Noel, a chocolate covered cake in the shape of a log with a tiny Santa Clause sitting on top. Then my father would open the champagne and pour each of us a glass. We didn’t receive any gifts as children did in America, but we didn’t need any and never felt the loss.

That was my favorite memory of Christmas in Vietnam. If you think that such a memory is out of place for a country whose image is full of conical-hatted figures working in the rice fields, then you haven’t been to Dalat. Dalat, built by the French as a hill station resort, was for the most part a peaceful town, until near the end of the war. For those of us who had the fortune to live there, the war was often at a distance. Unlike the popular American belief shaped by Hollywood films, Vietnamese did not always live under constant terror and in half-burned villages. Instead, what we had in Dalat was a gentle, small town life that I haven’t found again living here in America.

These days our Christmas is a big celebration in the San Francisco Bay Area. My paternal grandmother is long gone, but the Christmas trees are heavy with trinkets and baubles at my siblings’ households. We vie to show off to one another how well we decorate our homes. Santa on the roof; reindeer on the lawn. Our Christmas dinner is often replete with seafood and my father’s favorite dish, bouillabaisse, and, of course, roasted turkey and wines and champagnes. It is a testiment, I suppose, to how well we have fared in the land of plenty.

So many years have passed since the war ended, yet it is not the horrors of war that dwell now in my mind during Christmas time. It’s the transcending peace in a tranquil world that is now lost.

Dalat, too, like the rest of Vietnam, is crowded with people and the trees are fewer and the forests thinned. Even the weather had changed, growing warmer with fewer trees.

Still, I bet there are children running and laughing, as before, among the pine needles and singing brooks on that high plateau I once called home.



Andrew Lam is author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora" and the upcoming "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres."  

Jonah Most

Ethnic Americans Consume Large Share of Mercury-tainted Fish

By Jonah Most, Jun 15, 2011 11:50 AM

Ethnic Americans face a high risk of mercury poisoning, but they don’t always know it. New data from a Sierra Club-commissioned study reveals that high rates of subsistence fishing among minorities contribute to high levels of mercury in the body, which can affect the nervous system, especially in unborn babies and children.

Andrew Lam

Japanese-American Organization in SF Raises More Than $2.6 Million for Japan

By Andrew Lam, Jun 7, 2011 11:23 AM

 
Long after the world’s news media moved on, victims of the massive earthquake and resulting tsunami and nuclear reactors’ explosions that rocked northern Japan on March 11 remain on the forefront of Japanese-American communities’ concerns. Fundraising for ongoing relief efforts continue and one San Francisco organization--the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of Northern California--has raised more than $2.6 million to date, reports Rafu Shimpo.


“On April 18, the JCCCNC sent two volunteers to meet with the organizations that have received funds from the JCCCNC and other non-governmental and service organizations to determine the changing
needs and gaps in services,” the paper reported. They visited the Tohoku region and discussed strategies to address needs for mental health and post-traumatic stress counseling.

So far JCCCNC has given $1.75 million to various organizations, primarily YMCAs that work “to provide services and relief for the victims of the earthquake, tsunami and threat of nuclear radiation,”
reports Rafu Shimpo.

You can support the people of Japan by making a donation at www.jcccnc.org.


Andrew Lam is the author of
East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres.

EPA Must Strengthen Smog Standards or Risk Health of Millions of Latinos

By , May 31, 2011 10:01 PM



By Adrianna Quintero and Valerie Jaffee, Natural Resources Defense Council

By 2050, one in four Americans will be Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In the last decade, the total Latino population in the U.S. grew at a rate of 43%, more than four times the rate of population growth for the nation overall. The demographics of our country are changing, and our leaders in Washington must take note. We’re watching and ready to act.

Unfortunately, while our numbers change, some things remain very much the same. This is especially true when it comes to air quality. Latinos continue to live in areas with the highest concentrations of air pollution, and intensely suffer the impacts of this pollution. So when rumors started spreading that big polluting industries might force the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to delay or forego stronger limits on ozone, a precursor to smog, we had to take note.

Ozone is a gas that occurs naturally in the stratosphere, where it protects us from the sun’s UV rays. But ozone also exists in the air we breathe here at ground level, where it’s the primary component of smog. On the ground, ozone is created when pollutants (namely emissions from cars and factories) react in the presence of sunlight. Any of us who have traveled to Los Angeles are familiar with the thick grey layer.

But what you might not know is that close to 50% of all Hispanic-Americans live in counties that frequently violate ground-level ozone standards (smog standards), according to the CDC. That means millions of Latinos – our children, grandparents, brothers and sisters – are at risk of asthma, bronchitis and even death due to this dangerous air pollutant. Since so many Latinos work outside in construction and agricultural trades, Latinos are often at even greater risk of the damaging health impacts of smog. And we’re not alone. The CDC also estimates that Asian-Americans face a similar if not greater threat from smog.

Smog pollution at high levels can cause diminished lung function and inflamed airways, aggravating asthma or other lung diseases. In fact, a recent study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, found that the risk of dying from respiratory disease is more than three times higher in areas with the most concentrated ozone than in those with the lowest ozone concentrations.

As Latinos, we know what’s at stake when it comes to good (or too often, bad) air quality. With unemployment for Latinos still hovering near 12 percent, paying for unforeseen medical bills can be devastating. Taking days off from work to care for yourself or ill family members translates to days of lost pay and often lost jobs. For many employed in construction and agricultural trades, days off simply is not an option. To make matters worse, Latinos are hit especially hard by unexpected healthcare costs from illnesses like asthma since approximately two of every five Hispanics were classified as uninsured in both 2004 and 2008. And for our children, more smog means missed school days, setting our kids back in school and lowering their quality of life.

EPA currently limits the concentration of smog in the air to 75 parts per billion. The agency’s science advisers have unanimously recommended strengthening that standard to a range between 60 to 70 parts per billion. If we truly want to protect our health, experts believe the standard should be at the lower end of that range.

This summer, EPA is scheduled to issue standards that will strengthen protections against smog. The question is whether the Obama Administration will adopt a sufficiently strong standard to genuinely protect the most vulnerable among us—infants, children and the elderly—or bend to the will of Big Polluters who care more about profits than public health.

A truly protective standard would prevent as many as 12,000 premature deaths, 58,000 asthma attacks, and 21,000 hospital and emergency room visits per year. It would help us avoid 5,300 heart attacks and more than 2 million missed school days and 420,000 lost work days. Implementing a weaker standard for smog, just like polluting industries want, would mean more lives lost and more asthma attacks – suffering that Latinos would disproportionately bear.

This is why we are joining together to demand that EPA be permitted to do its job to protect our health, not polluter profits.

Strong standards under the Clean Air Act have improved our air quality for decades, and will lead to even cleaner air in the future for people all across the country. This is an opportunity for us to protect millions from harmful respiratory diseases, regardless of race.

Vivian Po

Chinatown Photo Studio -- Last of a Dying Breed?

By Vivian Po, May 22, 2011 1:00 AM

As high-quality digital cameras become more and more popular and affordable, traditional photography studios are becoming a dying breed. Despite an overall decline, some portrait studios have evolved
to serve niches. In San Francisco’s Chinatown, which has also seen a drop in photography studios, some businesses are buoyed by the unique needs of a specific clientele.

Ngoc Nguyen

Nail Salons Have a Chemical Problem

By Ngoc Nguyen, May 18, 2011 2:07 PM

A new study looks at the ugly side of salon manicures and pedicures: the occupational health and safety risks of salon workers.

Andrew Lam

Oakland Graffiti Pioneer to Create 10 Collaborative Murals Worldwide

By Andrew Lam, May 6, 2011 11:30 AM

 
A local graffiti muralist is commissioning artists to create 10 collaborative murals in 10 different cities around the world -- including one in Oakland -- reports ColorLines. The project, called Water Writes, will use street art to examine the global water crisis and its impact on communities. The murals are
being sponsored by Estria, a foundation started by local street art pioneer Estria Miyashiro, that is dedicated to bringing attention to human and environmental issues through art.

One mural has already been completed in Los Angeles. Other U.S. mural sites include Hawaii (Miyashiro’s home state) and Arizona, and the group is planning other murals in the Philippines, Gaza, El Salvador and Colombia.

In Oakland, Estria Foundation is partnering with young artists from Visual Element Program of the East Side Arts Alliance to create the mural.

The Oakland mural, which is still in progress at Broadway and 21st
Street, can be seen here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/22336189@N07/5647060503/


Andrew Lam is author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres."

Andrew Lam

Japanese Scholar to Bay Area: Please Don't Forget About Us

By Andrew Lam, Apr 11, 2011 9:32 PM

  
With many Japanese afraid to travel to cities they believe to be “contaminated” with nuclear fallout, one Japanese scholar is reaching out to the San Francisco Bay Area with a plea: Please don’t forget about the people of Fukushima.

Takashi Oda, who from 2005 to 2008 was an advisor for community affairs to the Consulate General of Japan in San Francisco and then became a Fulbright scholar at UC Berkeley studying the Japanese-American community in the Bay Area, is calling on his “San Francisco Bay Area Family and Friends” to continue to reach out to the people of Fukushima.

He writes in an op-ed for San Francisco-based newspaper Nichi Bei Weekly that his hometown of Iwaki -- a city of more than 340,000 residents, located less than 25 miles from the nuclear plant -- is now being shunned by the rest of Japan.

“While I am very grateful that my family is safe, my family’s home was severely damaged. But more important than the physical damage is the damage done to us by people who shun us, fearing that all of Iwaki is ‘contaminated’ because of the radioactive leakage. It has gotten to a point where some residents were forced to leave the town because food or water is no longer transported, due to a fear of it being infected.”

Oda writes that his uncle, whom he describes as “a very proud and strong man,” told him, “‘We have been totally left to live in isolation.’”

“People who lost their homes, family and their whole life history now face another challenge of being treated as someone from the ‘polluted area,’” Oda notes, due to their proximity to the radiation.

With his hometown effectively a city under siege, Oda writes that the role the San Francisco Bay Area can play has become even more crucial.

“So friends, I have a favor,” Oda writes. “Please do not forget about us even after the news have stopped covering our lives and have moved on to other things. We need you to remember that our communities will require time, support and love to restart. While some Fukushima products are temporarily restricted, there are many other products that are very safe to purchase and consume. Please reach out to buy Fukushima’s safe products and welcome Fukushima people into your lives
to let them know you care. You have and continue to do that for me, and now, more than ever, I know what real friends are, no matter where they are located.”

Andrew Lam is author of East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres

Ngoc Nguyen

No Methyl Iodide This Strawberry Season?

By Ngoc Nguyen, Apr 7, 2011 12:35 PM

Here's more on the debate over a pesticide that strawberry growers want to use but that many environmental scientists say should be banned.

Andrew Lam

Andrew Lam reading from East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres

By Andrew Lam, Apr 4, 2011 1:23 PM

Author Andrew Lam read excerpts from his new book East Eats West and discussed the unexpected consequences of the Vietnamese diaspora. He concentrated not only on how the East and West have changed, but how they are changing each other. Lam is an editor and cofounder of New American Media, an association of over two thousand ethnic media outlets in America. Followed by a film crew back to his homeland, Vietnam, he was featured in the documentary My Journey Home which aired nationwide on PBS in 2004. His book Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora won a PEN American Beyond Margins award in 2006.

Vivian Po

Big-Eyes' Lens Not FDA Approved

By Vivian Po, Feb 10, 2011 10:02 AM

Popular for a long time in Asian countries, the "big-eyes" contact lens -- contacts that make your pupils look dilated -- is gaining popularity in Asian communities in the Bay Area, especially among girls.

Summer Chiang

Chinese Rice Noodles Get Reprieve

By Summer Chiang, Nov 2, 2010 4:00 PM

Thanks to Sen. Leland Yee’s bill, SB 888, which Gov. Schwarzenegger signed into law, chinese rice noodles can be produced and stored in the traditional way.

Vivian Po

Federal Environment Chief Visits Oakland's Chinatown

By Vivian Po, Oct 26, 2010 1:45 AM

Following on the heels of her first official visit to China, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency chief Lisa Jackson last weekend made a stop in Oakland’s Chinatown neighborhood, where she met with local elected officials and community members to learn more about environmental problems facing Asian communities in the city, according to a report in the Chinese-language World Journal.

Andrew Lam

Trading Physical Space for the Virtual Kind

By Andrew Lam, Sep 9, 2010 12:50 PM

 A while back I overhead two homeless men having a row over a choice spot away from the wind. "This was always my space," one yelled. "No man, it's my space now," the other one replied. A few young, well-dressed people walked by and giggled. "MySpace" as a phrase has a totally different connotation to those who go often online, for it evokes the posh virtual neighborhood where real estate is still plentiful and cheap.

But it is exactly the relationship between MySpace and "my space" that I've been thinking about of late, living here in downtown San Francisco.

The problem is that for the first time in human history, there are more people living in urban areas than rural, and cities have grown like amoeba into megacities -- so crowded that they have become virtual countries with complex ecosystems unto themselves. Tokyo leads the pack with 31 million residents. Seoul has 23 million, followed by New York and Mumbai and Mexico City.

No wonder fewer adults are having children and more and more are spending their time online as if to use the virtual space as a substitute for the shrinking physical space they're in.

The Harris Poll reported recently that Americans 18 and older spent an average of 13 hours a week online, excluding time spent checking e-mail. More are spending time on social networking sites than ever before. And China this year has surpassed the U.S. as the No. 1 country with the number of people having access to the Internet.

Read the rest on AOL...

Andrew Lam is the author of East Eats West: Writing In Two Hemispheres. 

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