Category: war & conflict

Ghost Author

Immigration Stories That Will Belong to America

By Ghost Author, Sep 10, 2013 11:38 AM

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by Anna Challet

Birds of Paradise Lost
by Andrew Lam
Red Hen Press, 2013

For the refugees who left Vietnam on boats and in helicopters, the journey home has been long and strange, if home has been found at all. It has been almost forty years since the fall of Saigon, when Andrew Lam and his family left Vietnam on a cargo plane—a passage that would take them to Camp Pendleton and then to San Francisco. In the time since that passage, Lam has become an award-winning journalist and written three books.

The thirteen stories in Lam’s most recent collection, Birds of Paradise Lost, are populated by refugees of the Vietnam War who came to the Bay Area, as well as their children and friends—but each story is a world unto itself. Lam’s characters are haunted by what they have lost, transfixed by embers that still cloud the air with smoke. What Lam explores is the question of whether they can conquer the ghosts, or at least learn to live with them peacefully.

I met Lam about a year ago, when the collection was in its final stages of editing, and was immediately struck by his disarming sense of humor, with its mischievousness and sharp edge. His stories are informed by the country that he lost, but his lightheartedness buoys words that weigh heavy on the heart. With the knowledge that everything familiar can disappear all at once, he smiles with ghosts and laughs in darkness.

And if humor and loss are bound up in each other in Lam’s work, no story in the collection illustrates this better than “Grandma’s Tales.”

In “Grandma’s Tales,” the parents of two teenage children go to Vegas for a vacation, leaving the boy and girl with their grandmother—who promptly dies. In what seems like a natural move at the time, the kids decide to “ice” her:

She was small enough that she fit right above the TV dinner trays and the frozen yogurt bars we were going to have for dessert. We wrapped all of grandma’s five-foot-three, ninety-eight-pound lithe body in Saran wrap and kept her there and hoped Mama and Papa would get the Mama-Papa-come-home-quick-Grandma’s-dead letter that we sent to Circus Circus, where they were staying, celebrating their thirty-third wedding anniversary.

Now, Grandma has lived a hard life—she has endured three wars and the deaths of four children and twelve grandchildren. To survive all this only to be shoved into the freezer by her American grandkids may be the ultimate injustice. But then, in what seems like a natural progression, she rises from the dead, leaving a trail of water throughout the house. Our narrator, the male child, shows less anxiety than one would expect over this turn of events. Grandma refuses to wait for the parents to come home and give her a proper funeral, and she leaves to travel the world, planning to make a stop at her old home in Hanoi.

Lam never mentions anything about the resurrection having been a dream. We are both sure and unsure. Following Grandma’s disappearance, the family is in mourning:

While the incense smoke drifted all over the house and the crying and wailing droned like cicadas humming on the tamarind tree in the summer back in Vietnam, Grandma wasn’t around. Grandma had done away with the normal plot for tragedy, and life after her was not going to be so simple anymore.

They heard cicadas buzz when Grandma died—the cicada itself a bug of resurrection.

Grandma won’t stay in the freezer and wait for her own funeral, and Lam won’t be held captive by his own experience of Vietnam. He too does away with the “normal plot for tragedy.” He is not imprisoned by his own past or by the label of being an immigrant writer. His memories may provide the fuel, but each story is a very different flame—some burst with unexpected colors, while others are quiet and send up a trail of black smoke into the sky.

In the latter vein is the titular “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a story of self-immolation at the heart of the collection. The narrator’s best friend sets himself on fire in Washington, D.C., to protest Vietnam’s communist regime. The narrator and his adult son get into an argument over what the act meant, his son believing that his father’s friend must not have been “of sound mind” to do such a thing. After they exchange words in the car on the way to Thanksgiving dinner, the narrator, an old man, gets out of the car and walks alone down the twilight streets:

My son’s question plagued me. Where should love for country end and where should common sense begin?

Could I pour gasoline on myself and light a match? Should I? Why should I?

… A car approached. Its bright headlights woke me from my torments. I squinted and thought for a second that it was my son coming back for me, but it passed by without slowing. When it was gone, I felt so disappointed that I nearly wept.

What has it all meant—the leaving, the suffering, the sacrifice? Has it meant anything at all? The self-immolation of the narrator’s friend provides no answers, and the narrator is left wanting only to be with his son. It’s the tension of simultaneous belonging and alienation; the narrator chooses to walk away from his son, and yet longs for his son to come find him. He wants to stand with his friend who has seemingly given his life for his country, but he questions what the act even meant. Home is far away but his son is somewhere nearby. He must keep walking; he must learn to let go.

When I interviewed Lam about Birds of Paradise Lost for a piece in New America Media (the ethnic news organization where he is an editor and I am a reporter), he told me that he writes “with the confidence that these stories, written from the heart, will belong, in time, to America.” In this vein, Lam writes in English, which is his third language (after Vietnamese and French).

Lam’s readiness to “give” these stories to America stands in contrast to much of our public discourse on immigrants. In Lam’s stories, hearts may wander from one place to another when the only option is to survive, but the characters are fully engaged in building on top of the ashes. The most heartbreaking of these stories often involve the separation of parents and children; when Lam and his family left Vietnam in 1975, when he was eleven, they had to do so without his father, a general in the South Vietnamese army. Their family was reunited later that year. There is a depth of understanding in Lam’s stories about parents and children having to leave each other (both literally and figuratively), and about the joy and grace of their reuniting and moving on.

In many ways, isn’t this life as anyone might understand it? We leave, we come home, and we find home is not as it once was. We fear, we hold tightly to the people we love, we learn how to live a different way.

I am hopeful that these stories of America will soon “belong to” America as well.

Anna Challet is a reporter for New America Media in San Francisco. This review originally appeared on

Andrew Lam

Nói Chuyện với nhà văn Andrew Lâm

By Andrew Lam, Mar 7, 2013 3:38 PM

Anna Challet, New America Media

Andrew Lâm, tác giả của cuốn hồi ký "Perfume Dreams: Những Phản Ánh Về Người Việt Hải Ngoại," và biên tập viên thuộc hảng New America Media một thời gian dài hai mươi năm, đã làm nên tên tuổi của mình là một nhà báo và nhà bình luận, nhưng trong cuốn sách mới nhất của ông, quá khứ của mình là một người tị nạn Việt Nam thông qua những câu chuyện ngắn về các nhân vật chạy khỏi Việt Nam và làm lạI cuộc sống mới tại Vùng Vịnh. "Lâm đã ngay lập tức thành lập mình là một trong những nhà văn viễn tưởng tốt nhất của Mỹ,” lưu ý tác giả Robert Olen Butler, trong khi nhà văn Oscar Hijuelos quan sát cho rằng " văn chính xác của Lâm được xuất hiện trong nhiều câu chuyện mê hoặc; và bộ sưu tập là một cương lĩnh hùng vĩ.”

New America MEdia đã nói chuyện với anh Andrew Lâm về việc thu thập, Birds of Paradise Lost (Red Hen Press, 2013), trong tháng này.

Birds of Paradise Lost là cuốn sách đầu tiên tiểu thuyết của anh- làm thế nào anh đến để xuất bản một bộ sưu tập tiểu thuyết sau nhiều năm làm một nhà báo?

Tôi đã viết truyện ngắn cho hai mươi năm nay, từ khi còn học trong chương trình văn bản sáng tạo tại San Francisco State University. Mặc dù sau này tôi tìm thấy một sự nghiệp làm nhà báo và một nhà viết tiểu luận, tiểu thuyết là tình yêu đầu tiên của tôi và tôi không bao giờ bỏ nó, mặc dù đã có không có cách nào dễ dàng để kiếm sống viết tiểu thuyết. Bộ sưu tập này là một lao động của tình yêu và sự tận tâm, và bất cứ khi nào tôi tìm thấy thời gian không bận rộn từ công việc báo chí của tôi, tôi làm việc viết tiểu thuyết hay cách khác, phác thảo về các nhân vật của tôi, và các vấn đề nghiên cứu khác nhau liên quan đến tình huống khó xử của nhân vật của tôi. Sau hai mươi năm và ba mươi câu chuyện, cuối cùng đã được lựa chọn 13 bài và bộ sưu tập đã được sinh ra. Cho đến nay các lời ngưỡng mộ từ Maxine Hong Kingston, Gish Jen, Robert Olen Butler, Oscar Hijuelos, và những người khác rất là khuyến khích.

Anh đã viết nhiều bài tiểu luận cá nhân và tác phẩm phi hư cấu về đến Hoa Kỳ từ Việt Nam. Cảm giác thế nào để mang lại kinh nghiệm đó vào cuộc sống của các nhân vật hư cấu của bạn?

Vâng, tôi luôn luôn nói rằng văn bản phi hư cấu so với viết tiểu thuyết là như kiến trúc so với hội họa trừu tượng. Trong phi tiểu thuyết, bạn phải ở lại đúng với sự kiện lịch sử, có thể là cá nhân hoặc quốc gia... Trong tiểu thuyết, nó là như bạn nhập vào một thế giới trong mơ mà bạn tạo ra, nhưng nhân vật của bạn có ý riêng của họ. Họ không làm những gì bạn muốn họ làm - họ gặp rắc rối, làm người nghiện thuốc, người chiến đấu qua những điều nhỏ mọn, và làm những điều thái quá mà bạn sẽ không muốn trẻ con của bạn làm. Nói cách khác, bạn chỉ có thể cung cấp nền tảng những hạt giống—trong trường hợp của tôi là nền tảng của người Việt tị nạn. Khi một nhân vật trong truyện linh động, người đó không giảng dạy về lịch sử của mình mà sống cuộc sống của mình, họ làm những điều bất ngờ, và làm cho bạn cười và khóc vì sai sót của và những nhược điểm của con người.

Làm thế nào bạn đi lên với tiêu đề?

Birds of Paradise Lost -- Thiên Điểu Phi Xư’- nó là tiêu đề của một trong 13 câu chuyện trong cuốn sách, và nó là một câu chuyện đề cập với cái chết và lòng thù hận và sự phản đối qua cách tự thiêu. Trong câu chuyện, người bạn tốt nhất của người kể chuyện cam kết tự thiêu tại Washington, DC và để lại một lưu ý rằng nói ông ghét chế độ cộng sản Việt Nam và mong muốn cái chết của mình để kêu gọi sự chú ý đến sự tàn ác của cộng sản. Nhưng ông cũng làm bạn bè của mình tại San Jose, California, quay cuồng từ cái chết của ông. Đó có phải là một hành động yêu nước? Một khách du lịch đi qua chụp một hình ảnh của người đàn ông trên lửa, và ngọn lửa nhắc nhở người kể chuyện của hoa Thiên Điểu - như một con chim phượng hoàng, như một ngọn lửa và một đoá hoa.

Tiếng Anh là ngôn ngữ thứ ba của anh, sau khi Việt Nam và Pháp. Làm thế nào mà anh đã đến viết bằng tiếng Anh - "lưỡi mẹ ghẻ" của anh?

Tôi có một câu chuyện vui để nói về tiếng Anh và làm thế nào tôi đã rơi vào tình yêu với ngôn ngữ. Khi tôi đến Hoa Kỳ vào năm 1975, tôi mười một tuổi, và trong vòng vài tháng giọng nói của tôi phá vỡ. Tôi đã tuyệt vọng để phù hợp và nói tiếng Anh tất cả các thời gian. Vấn đề là, trong gia đình tôi nói tiếng Anh đó là một không-không bởi vì bằng cách nào đó nó là thiếu tôn trọng để gọi cha mẹ và ông bà là "you, you" – nó có vẽ như dùng để tấn công bằng tiếng Việt. Nhưng tôi không thể nghe lời.

Tôi đọc quảng cáo như một con vẹt, tôi nói tiếng Anh tiếng không ngừng. Anh trai của tôi một đêm nói là, " mày nói quá nhiều tiếng Anh, đó là lý do tại sao các hợp âm giọng nói của mày tan vỡ. Bây giờ mày nói chuyện như một con vịt.”

Tôi nghĩ đó là sự thật. Tôi từ cậu bé Việt Nam ngọt giọng khi nói tiếng Việt và tiếng Pháp biến thành một thiếu niên lên tiếng vỡ giọng. Tôi nghĩ, "Wow, tiếng Anh là giống như ảo thuật." Nó không chỉ tan vỡ giọng nói của tôi, nó còn thay đổi sinh lý. Tôi tin rằng điều này cho nhiều tháng, tin rằng tiếng Anh kỳ diệu trong ngôn ngữ. Tôi không bao giờ rơi ra khỏi của quan điểm này .

Andrew Lam

Birds of Paradise Lost: Stories about Vietnamese Immigrants in California

By Andrew Lam, Dec 27, 2012 12:03 PM

 The thirteen stories in Birds of Paradise Lost shimmer with humor and pathos as they chronicle the anguish and joy and bravery of America's newest Americans, the troubled lives of those who fled Vietnam and remade themselves in the San Francisco Bay Area. The past?memories of war and its aftermath, of murder, arrest, re-education camps and new economic zones, of escape and shipwreck and atrocity?is ever present in these wise and compassionate stories.

Andrew Lam

Social Media's Reaction to Shooting in Newtown, Connecticut

By Andrew Lam, Dec 14, 2012 4:55 PM

 I've been a writer and commentator for twenty years and have published from NY Times to Mother Jones to LA Magazine, but words failed me when I heard news of the horrific massacre that took place this morning in Newtown, Connecticut, leaving 28 people dead, 20 of them children.

The conversation on social media has been mostly about guns and gun control. So I am reposting what friends are posting on facebook...  

"Too many innocent people have died over the "right to keep and bear arms". The language of the second amendment states, "A well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed". Ok, so this right was intended for an individual or militia to aid the military in case of defense. I haven't seen one news story about this right being used in such a manner. Seems like one reason we preserve this right is because irrational fear by gun owners. Well, if the gun owner has such irrational fear, then we can also argue some mental instability and cognitive dissonance, which should disqualify them from ownership in the first place. Then we have those who preserve this right because it is an “American Tradition”. So what if it’s an American Tradition. Slavery, indentured servants, and women’s suffrage were all American Traditions that were abolished for clearly being against the greater good. It's time for a constitutional upgrade.."

"I think a moderate gun-owner's organization could poach membership from the NRA, and also pick up people who own guns but aren't NRA members. It might well lobby against cities' attempts to ban handguns, as clear violations of the 2nd amendment. It would NOT lobby against restrictions on assault rifles, or any other astonishingly sensible gun control measure."

"If you don’t want to propagate more mass murders, don’t start the story with sirens blaring. Don’t have photographs of the killer. Don’t make this 24-7 coverage. Do everything you can to not make the body-count the lead story, not to make the killer some kind of anti-hero. DO localize the story to the affected community and make it as boring as possible in every other market. Because every time we have intense saturation coverage of a mass murder, we expect to see one or two more within a week."

"There have been a ridiculous number of random public shootings this year-3 or 4 times the usual number. If I were a paranoid conspiracy theorist i would think that the government was staging these to take away guns from private citizens. Seriously, there has been a shooting every 15-30 days. Why so many more than in previous years?"

‎"If roads were collapsing all across the United States, killing dozens of drivers, we would surely see that as a moment to talk about what we could do to keep roads from collapsing. If terrorists were detonating bombs in port after port, you can be sure Congress would be working to upgrade the nation’s security measures. If a plague was ripping through communities, public-health officials would be working feverishly to contain it.

"Only with gun violence do we respond to repeated tragedies by saying that mourning is acceptable but discussing how to prevent more tragedies is not. But that’s unacceptable. As others have observed, talking about how to stop mass shootings in the aftermath of a string of mass shootings isn’t “too soon.” It’s much too late."

‎"Guns don't attack children; psychopaths and sadists do. But guns uniquely allow a psychopath to wreak death and devastation on such a large scale so quickly and easily. America is the only country in which this happens again -- and again and again."

"More than mental health issues, more than a culture of violence, it's the type of weapon used that is the difference between life and death. Guns are extremely lethal, meant for killing. They should be under extreme regulation..."

"I'm seeing FB friends posting their shock at how this is possible in America -- that we're a better people, a better country than this.

I understand this reaction, but I think we also have to get real: As much as we want to think of the U.S. as exceptional -- and yes, there are many ways in which we are -- there are things about this nation, this nation we love and love to celebrate, that are horribly and INCOMPREHENSIBLY backwards.

One of them is our fucking obsession with guns, and the vast, vile lobbying industry that has sprung up around it. These are America, at our least beautiful. When will we simply say...enough?"

"I am saddened again by the american two gun society. i can hear the NRA already...its not guns that kill children, its children who kill children...or if all the teachers and students had freer access to guns, they would have nailed the shooter before he killed so many...i mourn these children and all the children who are falling though the cracks of our very violent two gun society, and endlessly warring world.."

"Twenty-two children injured [in China by a knife wielding assailant]. Versus, at current count, 18 little children and nine other people shot dead. That's the difference between a knife and a gun.

Guns don't attack children; psychopaths and sadists do. But guns uniquely allow a psychopath to wreak death and devastation on such a large scale so quickly and easily. America is the only country in which this happens again -- and again and again. You can look it up...

...For parents, siblings, and families whose lives have been forever changed (or ended), deepest sympathies. For us as a nation .... I don't know what to say."

Andrew Lam

Vietnam, Afghanistan: War, Karma, and Peace

By Andrew Lam, Oct 30, 2012 3:59 PM

 Trying to Google news of my homeland, Vietnam, over the last few weeks has not been easy. The headlines that often showed up were about another country, not Vietnam.

Here are a few headlines from major news organizations:

- Afghanistan haunted by ghost of Vietnam
-Barack Obama must stop dithering - or Afghanistan will be his Vietnam
-The Vietnam War Guide to Afghanistan
-Afghanistan is Obama's Vietnam
-Which is America's longest war, Afghanistan or Vietnam?
-Vietnam and why we lost Afghanistan

Often times, indeed, when we mention the word Vietnam in the United States, we don't mean Vietnam as a country. Vietnam is unfortunately not like Thailand or Malaysia or Singapore to America's collective imagination. Its relationship to us is special: It is a vault filled with tragic metaphors for every pundit to use.

After the Vietnam War, Americans were caught in the past, haunted by unanswerable questions, confronted with an unhappy ending. So much so that my uncle who fought in the Vietnam War as a pilot for the South Vietnamese army, once observed that, "When Americans talk about Vietnam they really are talking about America." "Americans don't take defeat and bad memories very well. They try to escape them," he said in his funny but bitter way. "They make a habit of blaming small countries for things that happen to the United States. AIDS from Haiti, flu from Hong Kong or Mexico, drugs from Columbia, hurricanes from the Caribbean."

Andrew Lam

Eating, Reading, and Writing: An Interview with Andrew Lam

By Andrew Lam, Oct 28, 2011 12:27 PM

By Noelle Brada-Williams

Award-winning author and New American Media editor Andrew Lam discusses his work, contemporary journalism, the complexity of cultural exchange, and what he hopes to see when his work is read in a classroom.

Asian American Literature: Discourses and Pedagogies: I first met you in person when you came to San Jose State to read from Perfume Dreams in April 2007. As we were leaving the reading, a woman asked you for a good place to eat Vietnamese food in San Jose. I was horrified that someone would essentialize this San Francisco-based writer as a native informant for her culinary desires. As I contemplated tackling her, you very calmly suggested several restaurants and even mentioned that you were working on a book on food. Is that a common experience for you?

ANDREW LAM: It is. I usually don't take offense. I do find, however, that it is annoying when assumedly smart, worldly editors would make that same mistake about me. As a writer, I am capable of writing about many subjects beyond the area of my own cultural background and have done so. I've written about other countries and their troubles- Japan, Thailand, Greece, etc. But when I am asked to write something, or when I am interviewed for something, it is only about Vietnam and the Vietnamese Diaspora.

That is the crutch of being an ethnic writer - one is seen as a cultural ambassador from that community, and then a writer. The only way to break out of that mold is to be big enough in the literary circle so that one can address issues beyond one's biographical limitations.

AALDP: Journalists are often expected to cover a certain beat and to thus be an expert on a particular area, while creative writers frequently assert the uniqueness of their voices or perspectives rather than their representation of a whole group. Alexander Chee in Asian American Literary Review last year comes to mind. Do you feel that these identifications are valid?

AL: I think that used to be more valid than it is now. Part of the reason has to do with the fact that the media world has gone through a major shake up and fewer newspapers exist and while some still practice traditional journalism, that space between reporter and commentator (or essayist) is blurring. Reporters have opinions, after all, and the idea that Fox network seems to spearhead with great success is because people want their supposed reporters to have opinions. The Comedy Channel proves that journalism can in fact be practiced with humor and lots of running jokes and gags and biting observations. So while we still need reporters in the traditional sense, I feel many now are moving sideways across the various spectra of journalism. I myself write news analyses, do straight-forward reporting, and write op-eds. I never feel that I need to restrain myself to one genre. I think as long as I am fair and balanced, and honest with my own biases, I fit in with the new media.

AALDP: This next question also feels old-fashioned now that you have me thinking about Fox News: how do you negotiate between being a fiction writer and being a journalist?

AL: Not an easy task. I often compare journalism to fiction as architecture is to abstract painting. In the former, one needs to have all the logic and facts at hand.

One needs to build a strong frame and foundation. One needs all the supporting arguments and examples planned out. In the latter, one immerses oneself into the imaginary - but just as real - world, and one needs to step back to let characters grow into well rounded people with their own will. One needs to accept them and then describe them. One needs to feel deeply, empathize deeply. It's very different.

For me, writing nonfiction has become routine. It is still difficult to do creative nonfiction and ideas sometimes refuse to clarify themselves, but overall the process is not daunting. Doing fiction on the other hand, requires lots of time, and solitude, both of which I don't always have since I work as a journalist and editor. Fiction writing can be a foreboding task. Yet the unfinished story calls out for attention and when neglected, characters show up in dreams, in reveries, as if asking: "When are you going to come back to let the drama play out?" They nag at the soul.

AALDP: In your essay “California Cuisine of the World,” in East Eats West, you discuss how Asian food culture has been embraced by the mainstream, at least in California. You write, “private culture has—like sidewalk stalls in Chinatown selling bok choys, string beans, and bitter melons—a knack of spilling into the public sphere, becoming shared convention” (81). You use this image of the private spilling into the public sphere at least two other times in your most recent collection. Do you think of this in terms of loss or gain—as nostalgic loss of the personal and private space or as triumphant claiming of the mainstream as one’s own?

AL: There is something gained and lost in any exchange and it's inevitable. It's a kind of cosmic law of creation. Often immigrants bring their traditional practices with them - think Chinese railroad workers who introduced bamboo and acupuncture with them in the 1800s - and they are always astounded at how quickly those private practices get adopted and transformed by others as well as by their descendants. If I do feel a certain visceral sense of loss seeing pho soup being made by non-Vietnamese I am also generous enough to know how much my cosmopolitan life is so much the richer because other cultures have been integrated into my own life. I think without that sense of generosity one cannot navigate in this complex world of ours. One would have to hide and retreat behind the walls of Little Saigon and Chinatown and treat the larger world as unknown territory.

AALDP: The title for your book, East Eats West, reminds me of listening to Richard Rodriguez speak in the 1990’s. He talked about interviewing a white supremacist about the man’s views on Mexican immigrants while the man ate a burrito. He described the encounter in highly sexualized terms of the supremacist eating the “other.” Do you see the mainstream popularity of Asian cuisine as a marker of the rising cultural power of Asians or Asian Americans, or is it just cultural appropriation?

AL: The verb “eat” is so loaded. One can swallow the other, and one can also be swallowed by the other, or be transformed by having ingested something powerful. I play with the idea that both is happening at the same time, which is the essence of my collection of personal essays: It is the story of how a refugee boy from Southeast Asia swallowed America - its myriads of food and movies and language and literature and humor - and is in turn transformed by it. Conversely the other transformation is also happening. Since my arrival in America, I have watched the American landscape be transformed increasingly by the forces of immigration from Asia.

As to your question, in the ‘80s we were terribly afraid of the rise of Japan and consequently we became enthralled with Japanese culture - even as hate crimes against Asians became endemic and that famous case of the murder of Vincent Chin (mistaken for a Japanese) united Asian Americans. I remember falling in love with sushi and Japanese anime in the ‘80s. Others I knew were learning Japanese. Nowadays, it's Korean and Chinese cultures that are becoming global phenomena.

In MBA programs, one is strongly advised to speak another language, and usually it's Mandarin. "You know your cultural heritage is a major success when someone else is selling it back to you,” a friend of mine quipped after I noted the irony that Steven Spielberg produced Kung Fu Panda, which became an all-time box-office hit in China. Kung fu and pandas are both part of China’s heritage, but it probably requires the interpretation of an outsider to make you see your own cultures in new ways.

Cultural appropriation happens both ways as well. Hong Kong used to steal Hollywood blind until they started making really original inventive films and then it was Hollywood that started copying Hong Kong. It cannot be helped. There's a lot of exciting things that can happen when things are "appropriated" because they also get reinvented in the process and newness - ideas, tastes, sounds, movements - come out of that "stealing." All writers "borrow" too from their favorite writers and then find their own voice as they grow. Again, I'd say be generous and see that nothing is really original in the first place. The idea of cultural preservation seems to me a little odd. Cultures that need to be preserved are not fluid and are pickled, as it were. The real culture is what is reinvented to fit the present time, the present palate.

AALDP: I went to high school in Orange County and graduated in 1985—ten years and a month after the fall of Saigon. The class valedictorian, David Nguyen, was perhaps the most confident person I have ever met. I have certainly seen Vietnamese Americans of the 1.5 generation do amazing things in a relatively short space of time after coming to the United States, but what amazes me about your family’s story is the fact that not only your generation but your father managed to achieve so much in such a short time: an MBA and an institutionally and economically powerful position. How did he manage to do this as an older man and recent immigrant?

AL: My father, Thi Quang Lam, is something of a super-achiever. He was a three star general in the South Vietnam Army (ARVN) and studied French philosophy. Then he spent twenty-five years in the Army. In America he also wrote three books on the Vietnam War in English (then translated them back into Vietnamese for the community). He wrote his first two while working as a bank executive and raising a family of three kids. He just finished his third at 77 last year. He always mourned the fact that he came to the US in his mid 40s instead of mid 20s- because he would have gotten a PhD at the very least and not an MBA.

One of his secrets to success in America is a military trained discipline – which never left him even though he was forced to leave it, his beloved army, at the end of the Vietnam War, which unraveled in 1975. In America he studied nightly, he got up at 5 in the morning to do homework, and exercise. He went to night school while working full time. When he got his MBA, he moved toward writing his memoir and analyses of the Vietnam War, giving details from the South Vietnamese General’s perspective. That sense of duty is chased with an iron will and became key to his success. I can still see it: my father sitting straight back, ramrod, at his desk for hours on end.

Even after retirement, he went on to teach high schools for seven years, and he taught Math, French, Physics. With a third degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do, he even broke bricks in class to demonstrate he was not lying about discipline. He’s quite a self-actualized person in many ways, perhaps an exception for his generation in the US. But his generation was full of brilliant people who never got a chance to achieve their potentials because of the many wars that took place in our homeland. So many were drafted and killed. In fact, that’s one of Vietnam’s greatest tragedies the lost generations. It is no wonder Vietnamese parents in the US are so forceful about their children making it in America – they are haunted by the robbed opportunities experienced by their own generation and those of previous generations.

In Perfume Dreams, I talked about being a Viet Kieu – Vietnamese expat – in Vietnam and how people measured their lost potentials in my own transnational biographies. They touched me. They marveled at my passport and all the entry and exit stamps. I hear phrases like, “Had I escaped to California…” or “If I came to the US at your age, I would have …” all the time. Their bitterness is extra deep because they know so and so who left and achieved great success in the West. Vietnamese, if anything, are a driven, ambitious and competitive people who are cursed with bad luck for being in a place where the superpowers never left them alone to develop in peace.

AALDP: Although you wrote about your father in Perfume Dreams, I think your second book actually made me think more about your father because of the powerful scene in which you tell your family that you want to be a writer. That passage struck me as an almost archetypal image of the parent-child dynamic with you mirroring your father’s own iron will and writing ambitions even as you distanced yourself from his expectations for you.

In East Eats West you provide a great metaphor for the economic progress of your life: “I left the working-class world where Mission Street ended and worked myself toward where Mission Street began, toward the city’s golden promises—and it is in one of those glittering glassy towers by the water that I live now” (28). Readers do not need to be familiar with San Francisco’s housing market to get a sense of what an achievement this is. How do you think your own class position has affected how you view American culture? How does economic prosperity affect how one deals with issues of assimilation or identity?

AL: I came from a privileged background, growing up speaking French, and with servants, chauffeurs, lycée and country club in Vietnam. Perhaps it’s why, having that experience, I am not particularly interested in wealth and status. I have no romantic notion about wealth and status. But I also remember what it was like to go from having an upper class status to being a refugee subsisting at the end of Mission Street in Daly City with other refugee families, and surviving on food stamps and the kindness of various religious charities. In other words, I have been both rich and poor, and now, yes, I am established, with established friends and so on, and my position as writer and journalist enables me to travel the world.

Admittedly, all that makes me feel connected to the cosmopolitan world and people would often describe me as “worldly.” But I hesitate to bring class into discussion about my writing since it often makes human reality seem abstract. Looking at stories through the “class” lens often makes people jump from one ideological conclusion to another. Often enough it never gets to the real stories – the human stories regardless of your economic status– that I want to tell. Economics play a strong part of everyone’s life and yet it also restrains narrative to some ideological bend, which is not what I’m after.

Besides, cosmopolitanism isn’t part of some upper class experience anymore. The migrant who slips across borders learns new ways of speaking and of looking at the world. His children, growing up with two, even three languages in the household, navigate various cultural expectations all the time. People’s fascination seems to be transnational these days, especially among the young. Kids who want to learn Japanese because they watch anime for instance. There’s a Korean restaurant in Berkeley that’s owned and operated by Mexicans who once worked in Korea – we have become, in some way, the other.

AALDP: You have a very optimistic view of cultural hybridity in much of East Eats West. But when you mention all of the terms we now have for mixed race people, you also include terms that can be used pejoratively. Would you say that there is any negative impact from cultural hybridity? How would you characterize Vietnamese attitudes toward the Amerasian children born during and after the war? Do you have a sense of Vietnamese American attitudes toward racial and ethnic mixing?

AL: That’s quite a lot of questions woven into one. I have been accused in the past of painting a rosy picture of East-West relations, especially in the area of cultural exchanges. It is not that I am not unaware of the more sordid, exploitative side of that equation, but it is because I’m interested in what hasn’t been fully explored. Certainly as a reporter and news analyst I’ve written quite a bit on the problems of globalization – racism, exploitation, human trafficking, unfair trading practices, copyrights infringement, accelerated environmental degradation, human rights abuse and so on. But in East Eats West, I wanted to explore what is barely being touched upon –the space where East and West intersect. And I’m not interested in the parameters that the pessimists would insist upon, where the conversation should take place within certain egalitarian ideals. After all, I am westernized by experience and choice, and am Eastern by original inheritances and my marvelous Vietnamese childhood. Part of that enormous complexity came from terrible tragedies – colonization, war, exodus, life in exile. You can be bitter about it, or you can pick and choose, integrating what’s workable into your own life. It’s all about how you synthesize the differences.

Yes, there are terrible combinations of hybridity that shouldn’t even be repeated. Some food combinations are a disaster. But that said, if one frowns on the mixing, the openness to inter-exchanges, one is missing out on the energy that is fusing the major part of the 21st century.

AALDP: I first became familiar with your work through my teaching. First the two short stories anthologized in Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose (1998) and later Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora (2005). How do you feel about your writing being used in the classroom? Is that a space you envision at all when you write? What would you want students to take away from your texts?

AL: A good essay can be as much a visceral experience as it is one in which ideas are transferred. I want readers to feel what it is like to lose a country and all the cultures and societies and customs that went along with it, then have to learn a new language, a new set of behavior, and reinvent a new self, then thrive – that’s the story I want people not only to understand, but experience. But I’d be happy if students went away from reading Perfume Dreams and East Eats West understanding that identities are not fixed in stone, and that after having gone through epic losses one also gains something as well, and new ways of looking at one’s self in place of history.

Perfume Dreams is sadder because it’s closer to the refugee experience, but East Eats West is more celebratory, it’s a regard of life when East and West not only met but became intertwined, creating a hybrid space, as it were, from which new ideas emerged. It is both an internal space, within me, and a cultural and political force of the 21st century.

AALDP: Is there anything you definitely wouldn’t want teachers and students to do with your texts?

AL: Well, I hope they don’t burn them. But seriously, I think that people often see my work as particularly ethnic and on one level that’s fine. On another, however, I put a lot of effort into playing with language, and structure –and one thing I hope they do pay attention to is the various literary styles in which the essays were written – ranging from the reportorial, to the highly personal, to the little vignettes. I am always thrilled when my work is taught in a literature class because it seems to break some personal barrier for me – to be recognized as a writer in English and not just as an ethnic writer.

AALDP: I have anxiously been awaiting a collection of your short stories. Now I understand Birds of Paradise is due out next year. Will this collect your previously published fiction or will it be pieces we have not seen before?

AL: Many have been published in recent years. But there will be unpublished work as well.

AALDP: Will it include some of my favorite stories such as “Grandma’s Tales” and “Show and Tell?”

AL: I hope so but I fear they might be "eliminated" depending on the tastes of the
editor. But never fear, there are other pieces that might thrill you as well.

Andrew Lam

Documentary Commemorates 66th Anniversary of Atomic Bombings

By Andrew Lam, Aug 5, 2011 11:33 PM

San Francisco - On August 6 and 9 of 1945, the U.S. government dropped an atomic bomb each on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and 210,000 Japanese were immediately killed and many more thousands suffered and died from radiation fallout. One man, Tsutomu Yamaguchi, was unlucky enough to have been
in both cities during the bombing and lucky enough to survive both. To commemorate the 66th anniversary of the atomic bombings, New People, the nation’s only entertainment complex dedicated to Japanese popular culture, is hosting a special screening of the 2006 film “Twice Bombed, Twice Survived,” a documentary based on Yamaguchi himself.

According to Rafu Shimpo, Yamaguchi decided to participate in the documentary at age 90 in hopes
that it would help the movement to abolish nuclear weapons worldwide. Although there are other twice-bombed victims who survived and are featured in the documentary, Yamaguchi was the only person officially recognized by the Japanese government to have survived both explosions. Yamaguchi passed away last year at age 93 after being hospitalized for stomach cancer.

Located at 1746 Post St. in San Francisco, New People will screen the documentary Saturday at 2:00 p.m. Part of the proceeds will go to Friends of Hibakusha, a San Francisco organization dedicated to
supporting Hiroshima and Nagasaki survivors in the United States.

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

Caitlin Fuller

Calderón Address Sparks Discussion on Stanford Campus

By Caitlin Fuller, Jun 11, 2011 6:13 PM


Mexican President Felipe Calderón will be delivering a commencement address at Stanford University on Sunday, and his visit is not without controversy.

Since Calderón deployed federal troops to areas high in drug trafficking in 2006, more than 34,000 people in Mexico have died in drug trafficking-related incidents. His strategy has drawn criticism
from some who say his war on drugs has only led to more violence.

El Mensajero editor María Mejía in February called Stanford’s decision to invite the Mexican head of state “the wrong choice”. But Mejía reports for this week’s edition of El Mensajero that some Stanford students are looking forward to Calderón’s visit.

El Mensajero spoke with several students who approved of the school’s invitation to the president. Cristina, who is from Monterrey, Mexico, told El Mensajero, “As a Mexican, I’m very proud that he’s coming.”

When asked about Calderón’s war on drugs, her friend Laura added, “There are always going to be people who will criticize and judge, but there came a point when something had to be done that wasn’t going to be very popular or well received, but I hope it’s for the best. We won’t know for a few years if [Calderón’s strategy] worked.”

At El Centro Chicano, Stanford’s Latino community center, students were similarly upbeat about Calderón’s upcoming address. “I think it’s a good thing,” said Victoria Robles about Calderón’s invitation.

Robles hopes that Calderón will speak on immigration and Mexico’s drug war. “I know that Calderón’s politics are controversial, especially when it comes to the drug war. But I think it’s important, and is
something that needs to be addressed, and if no one addresses it, even in a controversial way, it will never be fixed.”

Jim Ponce, another student at El Centro Chicano, called himself “neutral” about Calderón’s visit. “I really don’t understand why people are angry. I can understand why there are people who don’t agree with [Calderón’s] policies. But Stanford, as an educational institution, isn’t supposed to favor one side or the other. I think we should welcome people with different perspectives, whether we agree with them or not.”

El Mensajero also interviewed Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, was recently in San Francisco to receive a human rights prize. After his son was killed in drug-related violence, Sicilia has organized marches for peace across Mexico in protest of the government’s policies. When asked whether it angered him that Calderón would be speaking at Stanford, Sicilia responded, “It doesn’t make me angry, but it makes me sad.”

--Reported by Caitlin Fuller

Andrew Lam

Afghanistan Can't Wash Away Vietnam: Obama & the Ghosts of War

By Andrew Lam, May 30, 2011 6:15 PM

New America Media's editor, Andrew Lam, reads from "New California Writing" - An anthology of writing from Californian writers by Heyday Books. He is the author of "East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres" and "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora."

This video is produced and filmed by Steven Chiem.

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

Parvez Sharma

"My friend, Mahmoud Maher, a doctor was killed at Tahrir Square"

By Parvez Sharma, Feb 5, 2011 10:47 AM

At 1:15 am Cairo time on Saturday morning I spoke to my friend Ghassen. His friend was killed at Tahrir Square during the 24 hours of horrific violence we all saw on Feb 1st and 2nd. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time someone has been able to put a name and back-story to a person killed by the regime during this unfolding revolution.

English is not Ghassen’s first language so I have taken the liberty of creating complete sentences from our fragmented conversation, partially in Arabic to enable easy reading. I have no way to confirm the details of this death, but I know Ghassen revealed his friend’s name after some hesitation. (With confirmed reports I have from friends now that the regime is “trolling” the internet, I am also changing his name. Ghassen is not his real name)

Me: How are you feeling

G: I am OK but my country NOT OK, Parvez…I hope people are getting this message about Mubarak Dictator. Mubarak is corrupt and his people are corrupt. I am sad.

Me: Did you go to Tahrir today as well like other days?

G: Yes I did. Ofcourse yaani. Today started after salat elgom3a. It was very powerful. Even the sheikh was crying when he were praying. I prayed too. But I am Muslim, but my Islam are free. Many of my friends are Coptic. They not pray but they protect us.

Me: Every time the praying times end, people seem to feel new energy and start chanting again, right?

G: Yes. Parvez-2 million people say this word in Arabic. ارحـــــــل

Me: Erhal, Leave?

G: Yes. I felt so strong when I pray there today. But also very sad because I remember how friends I lost through this revolution.

Me: Wait! One of your friends died?

G: Yes one of my friends-he is doctor. He was in Tahrir. He was treated patients. His name Mahmoud. People from Mubarak system going to our place, where we standing with horses and Jamel..holding weapons…they hit him on his head many times. He died. But we are peaceful revolution. We did not have any weapons. And through that night also they came from Mubarak system…they want to put us out of Square Tahrir…The fuckn bad system. We lost this night I think 10 people and there were 1000 patients, who hurt. It was night of February 2nd. Night was Magzara. It was massacre night. I donn know if u undersatnd me or not maybe have bad english

Me: I understand. Tell me more about Mahmoud please. It is also important to know his full name because he is already gone, what can they do to him anymore. No one has been able to name people who died you know. Did you go to his funeral? I know this is difficult to talk about. Please forgive me. But it is important.

Me: Are you there? Silence…Can you please tell me his full name…this is important Habibi…

G: His name Mahmoud Maher. I was not there at the moment he killed. I was on my way home. My friends called me to tell. Yes I went to his funeral. It is at Masjed Rabba. It was Mubarak people ofcourse that kill him. They are paid a lot of money to kill us that day.

Me: How are you feeling about all this.

G: I am shock Parvez. I just wake up and go Tahrir and I am shock.

Me: You still live near Heliopolis? Near Mubarak palace?

G: Yes I live in Nozha. You know Masr el Gadida. Near Hosni Mubarak home.

Masr el gadida. Why you asking this question?

Me: Because cameras have been so focused on Tahrir. We have seen no images from that area really. That is all, trust me…

G: OK..yes it is clam place. People have good life so you can see nice car. Calm place, not crowded. No police but you know Mubarak live there so they must save by a lot of Egyptian armys.

Me: Its far from Tahrir. How do you get to downtown everyday?

G: I take taxi. There are taxi when no curfew is happening. I think Parvez we doing the right thing. The Mubarak system are loses. Mubarak should leave now and then in six months we move our system to another in calm way.

Me: Do u think people will give up fighting? Feel exhausted? Tired?

G: Nooooo! There is a lack of confidence in the system lost its legitimacy and Hosni…we have to save our requests if Mubrak will do that or not we dont know yet

Me: How does your heart feel my friend?

G: I feel Square Tahrer is here if he lie or something happen wrong we will going there again …but for now feel we have to start work

Me: Wait so you are saying you want to go back to work and not protest?

G: No .... Mubarak know our requests ....and he get the lesson…if he lie or bad thing happen we will back again to square…donn know yet really am so confused…mubarak he lost his legitimacy from 25-1…why he donn leave egypt

why he still…no one support him…no one like him…no one want him…

people talk here he want to save his money till going out …but I do want to go to work…I go to work and then I join people in Tahrir…tomorrow…

Me: I know. My other friends say they also want to go back to work but also don’t know if they should leave Tahrir to go back to work. Listen how did Tahrir feel like today?

G: Tahrir? Heart of Egypt. Really, Heart of Egypt.

Me: That is true. You said it in three words my friend ;-)

G: No, it true…Layers of Egypt and Dr. workers, professors, judges, Muslims and Christians adults and children…Imagine 2 million people say leave mubarak at one voice…2 million voice Parvez …I have lived one year in one week…No…I feel I am born again…I donn know why media from all the world donn send our voice

Me: No they are. They are sending everyone’s voice. You have no idea how much they are sending the voice.

G: Anyhow it is late. I am so tired. I will go to work and will back after work to square…My work in Zamalk near Tahrer square…and Parvez so much happening in rest of country too—even women were raped in villages on that night…and from Alex there is 2 million going out too…in Aswan there's like 200000

Me: Go to sleep now…Yalla…shukran Habibi…stay safe ;-))

G: Yes. I go now. Please send me interview when they publish on my email. I want to see and show my friends.

Me: Promise.

Parvez Sharma

Egypt in My dreams

By Parvez Sharma, Jan 31, 2011 10:41 AM

Its lonely and I am thinking (and dreaming) in 140 characters or less. The only people I have spoken to in the last few days are friends in Egypt, friends from Egypt in the US, my boyfriend and a few reporters. I have turned down requests to be ferried between television studios in midtown Manhattan. That job is best left to career pundits whose only moments to shine come at times when countries collapse ad the middle east ofcourse is very fashionable.

Un-showered for three days and with little food or sleep it has even become hard to write these pieces, because all I have really been doing is sending out upto 40 tweets a minute into the ether based primarily on the fragments of conversation which till yesterday were all on landlines when friends like the two Yousry’s returned home to Zamalek and Mohandessin after spending entire days at Midan Tahrir, the ground zero of the Egyptian revolution.

Twitter, fortunately and unfortunately has taken over my life to the extent that the hash-tag of Jan25 is the date my mind is stuck on. I had no idea what day it was today. This second conversation with Yousry brings home a few points that I have stated before but are important to repeat.

· The vast majority of protesters on the streets are not “tweeting”. Approximately seventy percent of them are not regular users of the internet and atleast half of them have never had an email account—in Cairo’s slums like Mashriyat Nasser which more than a million poor call home basics like electricity are stolen from over-ground power cables and even then the supply is infrequent. Phone calls are still made from kiosks in the streets, even though having a very basic mobile phone has become increasingly common. The idea of having smartphones like iPhones and Droids is unimaginable—the idea of what “social networking” means or what Facebook and Twitter are is unknown to most

· Friday is the holiest day of the Muslim week and the first day of the Egyptian weekend. On Friday Hosni Mubarak had successfully wiped off the few Egyptians who do have internet access and social networking savvy off the map of the worldwide web. But the revolution in any case was no longer about any of that. People instinctively knew that if you were in Cairo, you needed to leave home. Taxis were not available anymore (a basic taxi ride in Cairo costs 5 Egyptian Pounds—which to many of the protesters by the way is a lot of money) so if you were near downtown you could walk to Tahrir square.

· If you were in the further outposts like Madinat as Sādis min Uktūbar (6th of October City) it became harder to get to Midan Tahrir. If you were in Mohandessin (literally means Engineers) which also now goes by Dokki or its enclaves of Mo'alemeen (Teachers) Ateba'a (Doctors) or Sehafeyeen (journalists) you can walk. It’s a longer walk than walking from the island of Zamalek or other areas where Cairo’s rich live like Garden City or Maadi. Heliopolis where Mr. Mubarak is probably camped out in the Presidential Palace is pretty far from ground zero Tahrir. To walk to Tahrir from the outer areas of this sprawling mess of a city like Helwan, Boulaq, Muqatam, Nasr City or 6th of October city.

· To walk from Manshiyat Naser takes a great deal of courage. Manshiyat means garbage in Arabic and Manshiyat Naser, the biggest slum in Egypt is literally Garbage City. Cairo’s garbage is sorted in Manshiyat by the industrious zabaleen or garbage collectors.

· I now know that Zabaleen from Manshiyat have joined AUC students and journalists/bloggers from Sehafeyeen and Dokki and Zamalek hipsters every day at Tahrir and even the “beards” (as my friends call members of the Ikhwan or Muslim Brotherhood) and in other parts of Cairo. This has never happened before in Egypt. This uprising and this revolt is an unprecedented popular uprising never seen before in Arab lands.

Most importantly—these different classes of people don’t usually talk to each other. They certainly do not tweet at each other or send texts to each other and they would have few if any common Facebook friends (The Zabaleen and the other poor do usually have smartphones)

To me it’s simple, really. In Egypt this is almost entirely a very popular uprising and revolution, not orchestrated by social networking. But outside Egypt this revolution has definitely been tweeted like nothing else in history, and certainly Arab history. (And a very small but critical number of “tweeters” manage to send the most important updates via Twitter, Youtube, Vimeo, Facebook, email and text messages)

Here is a remarkable conversation with Fouad after he returned home at 11:30 pm Egypt time on Sunday night. I have so many friends in Cairo and thankfully I have now spoken to most of them, but Fouad really who does not tweet or speak in camera ready soundbites seems like the most articulate of them all to me.

Me: Have been worried-managed to speak to a few others on their mobiles while they were at Tahrir, but they got cut off

Y: Yes, some mobiles had signal today at Tahrir. I just got home. Today I took the Qasr al Nil bridge instead of 6th October. You know—now all the burnt police vehicles have become garbage cans! And someone had uprooted a stop sign and placed it in the middle of a burnt police car and it said basically-We the people are not the ones who are destroying, please keep the revolution clean, please keep it peaceful…I took a picture but cant email—still have no internet

Me: I have some numbers being passed around for dial up—gave them to your wife earlier

Y: Cool man. Now everyone knows that when you get up in the morning you need to walk towards Tahrir-its instinctive-no one needs to text you or tweet you to tell this, and in any case most of the people anywhere in this amazing country don’t have tweet or Facebook or all that shit. So I got there by 11 and there were army checkpoints…and the men were in one line and families were in another-very organized-the men were being frisked and I asked this soldier why and he said that they did not want police or security forces in plainclothes who might be armed to disturb the “peaceful” people

Me: Fucking unbelievable!

Y: Yup. You know thugs who are probably cops anyway have been looting abandoned or partially burnt police stations and stealing weapons, man. How else would 20 year old boys get Kalashnikovs?

Me: Mubarak wants you all to know that this is what will happen if you get rid of me…

Y: Absolutely…yaani..and then we heard that Baradei was coming…and people got really excited—Parvez this is very important to understand—people are tired and impatient—so many have not slept and have been living there—there is not much food shops open or water around…so they were excited…everybody sat down…and waited…5 minutes…maybe more…no Baradei…and then we started walking away…

Me: Yes, that’s because he was on Al-Jazeera talking to TV cameras

Y: Fucking bullshit man. He lost a huge opportunity—to show leadership. Why talk to TV and not to us? I don’t think he gets it! He has been gone too long to know how really impatient and angry we are…I mean I would probably choose him over Ikhwan but he needs to really talk to people---and this is really important Parvez—he needs to show the people that he, Baradei is as determined as they are. He has been so fucking bland—I had walked away but then someone said that he did speak…I have no idea what he said.

Me: I know. I have been tweeting non-stop about it—and how people may not be imagining him as their saviour right now you know! This guy I spoke to briefly said that he was feeling unwell so I tweeted that and said maybe he should have joined the protestors for Isha or Fajr prayers and they are guaranteed to cure nausea if you pray with true niyat you know…with good intention and focus…

Y: That’s fucking funny! Anyway I think now more than any other day people know what they want. I spent the whole day talking to people—even Zalabayeen from Mashriyat who I have never spoken to! Its like –you know we want this guy to go—we are so glad that the Ikhwan has not been able to piggy-back on this and who the fuck is Baradei anyway—you know they are all saying…lets have a transitional government for 6 months or 1 year and only the army has charge of security in that time—and fire parliament and hold fresh elections and a leader will emerge FROM the elections…the people will decide…

Me: Wow…that’s so true…I just wish Al Jazeera was not focusing so much on pundits and on analyzing every word Baradei or someone says—their cameras even are all on very wide shots of Tahrir, which to me almost looks like the Kaaba sometimes with people circling around…I wish their reporters would climb down some more and walk amongst the people with their cameras…

Y: So true man! So true! Anyway I have barely seen TV. You know you can either sit and watch TV or keep on fucking tweeting or you can go out there and chant slogans! And this is very important the slogans have been changing man! First it was Fall of government-then it was Fall of President…today it was Trial of President…they want him to be punished and not to run away…sorry its hard to translate these slogans in English for me…and then also they were saying Illegitimate Soliman! Illegitimate Shafik! And then they were chanting The People want a civilian government and not a military government! You know I went to a foreign school and so did so many of my friends who are also there…but you know everyone is chanting the same things…Egypt has never been like this before…I am so proud of my country…so proud man

Me: What about all the Salah and all the beards being there? Is this about Islam?

Y: La la la not at all! Its amazing—usually the beards are so righteous and expect you to pray with them and be a good Muslim and all that bullshit…but those who want to pray at salah time, pray…others don’t…yes, when someone chants a slogan then people ask you to repeat it…but everyone respects each other—Muslim, Christian, religious, Niqabi, non –Hijabi…everyone man…There was the big charter of demands in Midan tahrir also today…and also you know that slogan from yesterday…Muslims! Christians! We are all Egyptians! Fucking amazing man…that too all day today…

Me: This really is a peaceful uprising

Y: Yes totally…all the violence is caused by them and their people…this is a peaceful revolution…it’s a revolution of the people…not of the Ikhwan, not of Baradei, not of Soliman, not of Facebook and Twitter…no this is a people’s revolution…that’s it really yaani that’s it…

Me: OK you need to sleep now…but before I go—let me give you all these numbers and things which may help you guys to get online…it will have to be dial up…and there is some tweetspeak thing as well…

Y: No man…no tweet bs for me…I don’t even know how to do it…but getting on internet and putting up my photographs would be fucking amazing…let me get a pen…shit man! Haven’t even written with a pen in so long! So used to typing…thank you Mubarak for teaching me how to write with a pen and for giving me a day off, maybe this whole week off in such a long time!...

Parvez Sharma

On the Phone With an Egyptian in the Middle of It All

By Parvez Sharma, Jan 29, 2011 8:49 PM

My friend Yousry is in his late twenties. He and his wife would be considered affluent because they live in Zamalek. But like so many others, because all barriers of class have fallen away—he has been on the streets for the last 48 hours. He just returned home in Zamalek after patrolling the streets of the neighborhood with his prized Syrian sword that used to just hang up as souvenir in their living room. He had never thought he would have to take it off the wall and actually try to use it to defend his neighbors and his family. He did like to show it off at our late night parties in his apartment.

I have spent the last half an hour with him talking fron his landline at home. This is his powerful account, unedited by me, of each and every moment of the last 48 hours as he experienced it. For a moment I wished that he was live on air on Al-Jazeera or CNN saying all of this—but then I realized that it is better for him to talk to a trusted friend and he perhaps would not say all of this to mainstream news media hungry for sound-bites. I am not going to provide his phone number or his real name to any journalists. He needs to get up in the morning, if he can sleep tonight and go back out.

His wife and he and all his family members have smart phones. They are not tweeting, because they cannot and because no media organization is offering them backing or information on proxy servers to get online.

To me, what he describes is more powerful than anything I have heard on television, with the endless parade of pundits or the unfortunate tendency of even Al-Jazeera (which is doing some great reportage, no doubt) to have their reporters climb up high in tall buildings to show us wide shots of the immensity of the Egyptian revolution.

Yousry is one of those citizens in the middle of the chaos who reporters are not talking to as much as they need to.

Here he is in his own words, unedited and certainly not talking in soundbites. (I have spent some time cleaning up my hurried notes and correcting grammar/punctuation as much as I could.)

His voice sounds very hoarse—I feel guilty but press him on anyway. It sounds like he has inhaled way too much smoke and tear-gas.

Me: Yousry how are you and please if its not asking too much can you just start talking about everything you saw and are feeling. Pretend that you are on my couch or something and that I am some New York shrink.

Y: Ha Ha! That is funny. OK here goes. BTW I am having some Scotch now. I think I need it Yaani. I was in the protest all day yesterday and I started at 6th of October bridge—you remember? You were here so many times—it’s just a short walk from Zamalek?

Me: Of course, I remember, and btw yesterday all day the Al Jazeera reporter had his cameraperson focused on the bridge—so we basically saw it all live. He had a running commentary throughout.

Y: Ha ha! He should have come down and talked to us Yaani. But I am glad that they showed it to the world. I have had no time to watch TV. It’s a luxury—you can either stay at home and get drunk and stare at the TV or you can join everybody out there!I was shocked at how diverse the turnout was. There were so many people from Zamalek and you know how people from Zamalek usually are.

Me: Ha! Like drinking and having all-night parties?

Y: Yes yalla! No one from the Ikhwan was there or any of the organized political parties. It was about 1:30 pm or so I think. Even if any of us picked up a rock to throw at the police everyone yelled Selmya! Selmya [*Selmya means peaceful] and Parvez believe me that till before this bastard gave his speech yesterday that was the word I heard most often on the streets. We were peaceful till 4 or 4:30 I think. Then these police fuckers started shooting these pellets and it suddenly became very difficult to control the injured protesters or their friends. I think the violence must have started around 5 pm—I was not keeping track of time—was not wearing my watch and phone was in my pocket, not working anyway

Me: Were you hit?

Y: Almost, but Inshaallah it just went by me. And then these guys pretty close to me and hurt started throwing molotovs. I didn’t even know till then that they had them. They started stopping cars…

M: And the police?

Y: You must understand this…its important because its been a mix of these thugs and cops since yesterday—most of the thug types who are doing most of the attacks are prisoners who have been released by that bastard Mubarak in return for their services to beat up civilians.

Me: And the army?

Y: Till then there was no army—and then when finally they came and people cheered this one tank—it looked liked they were hesitant to use force. I actually came back home after the violence started—just walked back on 6th of October past these guys setting a police van on fire. I have a wife, family to think of.

Me: I know. I am so glad you are still OK man…today?

Y: I went to tahrir today with other friends at about 11 am and by 2 pm or so we were by the TV station near the Corniche…

Me: Yes, I remember that. I once stayed at the Ramses Hilton right next to it. There was also a small shopping mall there. That’s the one right?

Me: Hey, a lot of guys here have been saying that this revolution is all about the success of social networking? I mean I guess up to a point they are right because someone like me sitting here is tweeting obsessively with updates I am getting from anyone I can reach on a landline really—but is this true?

Y: It's bullshit…I mean, I agree that in the beginning, around the 25th. Twitter did play some kind of role because people were able to throw around ideas on it. But come on—even that! How many fucking people in Cairo you think would know how to use the damn thing or even the damn Internet—and even if they knew how many do you think would have easy access to a computer with a reliable internet connection? I mean, it's bullshit…

Me: I am so glad you are saying this. I thought I am the only fucking idiot repeating this like a fucking parrot.

Y: You said it? Great man! I have no fucking idea anyway about what you are saying? I haven’t bloody seen Facebook or Twitter in a fucking while now…

Me: Man, this is all so fucked up.

Y: Tayyib of course yaani—you see now since yesterday and even Thursday actually after they shut it all down—it is self explanatory—it doesn’t matter anymore—Twitter and all that shit—no one has it anywayI guess maybe some journalist types can still do it? I have no idea on how to get on the fucking internet and I am pretty good at this shit—so if I don’t know—how can others be tweeting--so everywhere u go, Parvez, today there are thousands of people now its come to that…All of Tahrir has been filled with so many people—I have never seen so many people—Tanks were standing at the entrance of Tahrir facing each other as I walked towards it today—All I could hear was this amazing chant that made me so fucking happy—“Alshab Aldesh Eid Wahada” you know…it means “The people and the soldiers are one…”

Me: Alhamdullilah

Y: You still haven’t given up your religious bullshit, I see…and then as we walked closer these soldiers on these tanks were holding like these small bouquets of tube roses I think…some of them were giving like a thumbs up to all of us…I even took photographs which ofcourse I cant fucking email you—but some of the tanks had “Yasqut Hosni Mubarak” spray painted on them…You know Yasqut is like Fall…

They were holding small bouquets of tuberoses

Me: I don’t remember if I saw any images of that? But I am sure there must be…

Y: Yes and then people started clapping in Tahrir and as we walked deeper into this crowd—and Parvez it was amazing…they were people who were carrying an army officer on their shoulders he was holding up his fist…the soldier and people started chanting….because the army officer was chantin

Me: What was the soldier chanting?

Y: I couldn’t hear him…there was just so much noise and smoke and then we started chanting you know the slogan of the last few days…The people will the fall of the government…and we were chanting that and this group of older guys stopped us! And said no the chant has changed now it is The People will the Fall of the President. Amazing man, do you get it? They are making sure that there is no ambiguity anymore after his scam speech from last night…and his fucking new “government” lies…

Me: wow…

Y: and ya today you know I felt Muslim Brotherhood presence for first time—these are what we call the beards you know—they made their way to the front of the protest near me where students were leading—and this elderly man in his 60’s was holding up a flag–he started chanting Allahu Akbar—and the students started

“Muslameen Mesiheen Kolina Masreen” you know… “Muslims Christians we are all Egyptians”

Me: I cant believe it—everyone is saying that the Copts have been looking after the backs of the Muslims when they are praying in mosques, man…it's just fucking unbelievable especially after all that drama a few weeks ago…

Y: yes! And then we heard fire shots from a distance— and these two bodies covered in shrouds were carried in like a ganaza procession, you know…

Me: I think I saw a YouTube video of that…ya they were reciting the Salatuljanaza…the funeral namaz…

Y: Yes. And then this ambulance kind of pulled up and the guy in it yelled out…that he had another martyr and that all three had been killed while they were at that fucking Ministry of Interior which you know everyone has been trying to occupy…you know Parvez how much that bloody MOI is hated in this country…

Me: I know…I know and now second only to Mubarak, I guess.

Y: And, yes, then all these guys were carrying 3 bodies through the crowd and everyone was praying the Genaza…literally everyone….even me…

Me: Ha! So you know the Genaza and you are calling me mr. religious bullshit!

Y: Ha ha! Well I was taught well man…anyway I left Tahrir by 4:30 or 5 I think…You know Parvez…you must understand this…people were initially happy it was Omar Soliman who was going to be a vice president you know…he does have a lot fo respect…you know…but then after he made that bloody Ahmed Shafik the PM…you know…I think we realized then you know…that something is very fishy…its like he has appointed these two guys who are very close to him you know…there is so much anger….

Me: I know…I almost feel its like he will step down maybe by tomorrow but then make sure that he can run the country by proxy through especially this Soliman guy and maybe long distance…because god knows he will not be safe in Egypt!

Y: I cannot believe that President Mubarak is still so tone deaf and clueless trying his same old tricks you know…

Me: Hey Yousry--Why are you still calling him the president, man?

Y: Parvez—because he has not left the seat yet—it's important that people are reminded he is not gone yet…it is important to say President before his name constantly….he is NOT gone yet man…I am so worried Parvez….people cannot feel tired… they cant feel they somehow won and maybe we should settle for this…because really man none of the demands of the people have been met man…at the end of the day President Mubarak needs to go… this-because this was none of the demands that people were met

Me: I should let you go soon, man….you’ve had enough of this shit already…but quickly, what about all this looting now?

Y: The looting in my view is so fucking disappointing, man…and then to see how quickly the cops who are still wearing uniforms disappeared…I mean, you know that so many of those bastards are now pretending to be civilians and walking amongst all of us…bloody traitors….My theory is simple really…The Army and Police have left the country wide open you know---I feel it was deliberate---they are proving that if you guys want democracy and you want the President to go--- then this is what will happen without us…only we have protected you all these years…without us and him you are not safe and will never be safe…This is political blackmail…Everyone is sure that the police is doing all the looting…Egyptains are not stupid and I know that there are so many rumours…I hear a new one every 5 minutes…but I am sure that the police are behind the looting.

Me: So fucked up

Y: You know about the secret service— Police guys were citizen-arrested at the museum and handed over to the army? You know so many of the protestors held hands man and formed like this long cordon around the museum so that these police pretending to be looters could not go in and destroy our history…and then they found out that these secret police guys were already inside and even damaged some Mummies…I mean people were so furious and they just handed them to the army… and handed to the army.

Me: Yousry, it must be getting fucking late there man…what time is it…

Y: Maybe 12 or 1? I don’t know…it's ok…I feel better saying all of this, man…it's like just letting out all this negative shit man…Parvez tell me this…In the 80’s revolt you know…military could secure Egypt in 2 hrs—here it has taken them 2 days and they still have not—Is it because they are protecting civilians or are they proving that this is what will happen if you want the President to go

Me: Listen man…its really fucking late…what about Zamalek?

Y: Well at 10:30 when I was out with my sword…remember the sword?...a few army commandoes came to protect the American embassy compound you know…you know its just walking distance from here…it was a fucking joke…here we are all walking around barricading ourselves…and these guys arrive to the American compound to save the Americans? And guess what… I was standing there so I asked the guard outside if there were any Americans inside…and guess what man…he said they had all left between Thursday and Friday! What a fucking joke! There are no Americans left to protect and they show up to protect them while they have abandoned us?

Me: Disgusting…so fucking disgusting…

Y: I know man…so I asked the commandoes…whats up guys? And one of them says…don’t worry Zamalek is secured...there are so many neighbour guys out there you know…everyone is doing it in shifts…none of them are going back home…I mean what is this one mini van of stupid commandoes going to do?

Me: Hey Yousry…please sleep man…and if phones are still working please lets keep calling whenever you are awake and before and after you go out man…sleep now man…if u can…have any pills?

Y: Well you are the pill supplier usually! I think this Scotch will help…My father in law only keeps the best Scotch..ha ha!