What is authors Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld-- one a Chinese American, the other, a Jewish American, both Yale Law School professors and married to each, with two daughters-- big idea, or, as is the case, big ideas?
They insist in Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, using a great deal of academy studies and anecdotal evidence to backup this claim, that certain groups rise in this country because they process The Triple Package of an ingrained Superiority Complex; Insecurity because of the belief that the WASP majority looks down on them, and don’t consider them real Americans, which gives them a “chip on their shoulders;” and Impulse Control, where strict self-discipline prevail.
It goes without saying that group solidarity is the glue that holds all of this together.
The religious and racial groups they cite include Chinese, Jews, Mormons, Nigerians, Cubans, Iranians, Indians and Lebanese. What all of these groups have in common is that most of the people in these groups are recent immigrants to this country, starting with the lifting of restrictions that favored certain kinds of Northern Europeans that ended in the 60s (thank Senator Edward Kennedy for help making that happen) with the exception of the Mormons and the Jews, both German and Eastern European.
Many Chinese Americans, which strangely, they didn’t note, have also been in this country for many decades, and were the essential key to the building of the western part of the cross-country railroad system in the 1860s.
This is also not the first book that has traveled down this road. For example, Thomas Sowell, the black conservative Stanford University Economist made similar points in a more concise way in his 1981 book, Ethnic America: A History.
Although Chua and Rubenfeld offer interesting profiles of these “rising” groups, in the end, it is their insights into the Chinese and Jewish personalities that dwarf anything they write about the other groups, and it is why this reader realized early on that this book was not just some dry academic study as was professor Sowell’s book.
This was also personal. Almost as if the authors said, if I show you mine, will you show me yours, which made this book almost impossible to put down.
With the insights they have at hand, Chua and Jed Rubenfeld have concluded that what the rest of these striving groups have in common with the Chinese and Jews, is the ability to see their group as better than anyone else, with tons of history to back up that claim; to study hard; put in long hours at whatever line of work they decide on (work that must carry with it prestige, and lots and lots of money). They also are people who closely follow the time-honored rules of the group (the collective unbroken genetic memory) and resist the temptations of a broader American culture.
As they point out, “America today spreads a message of immediate gratification, living for the moment. …Americans are taught that no group is superior to another in any respect…Americans are taught that self-esteem—feeling good about yourself—is the key to a successful life.”
The groups they are writing about will have none of this. For them, it is about money, power and pleasing your parents.
Jewish, Inc. Chinese, Inc. Nigerian, Inc. will always trump the myth of two-fisted individualism any day.
In fact, Thomas Sowell, agreed with them. Or, maybe they agreed with professor Sowell
I couldn’t argue with their basic idea because the evidence is there. Jews are far and away the wealthiest people in America. Followed by most of the groups they mention. The once dominant WASP are now mere shadows of their former mighty selves.
What I did find questionable is how they tried to paint New World groups with the same brush as Old World people.
For example, in their treatment of the so-called Hispanics, they seem to not fully understand why most Cubans hate being lumped in with Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Santa Dominicans.
What they also don’t seem to know is that most Mexicans also dislike being called Hispanic, or Latino.
I should know.
My ex is part Mexican and I have gotten earfuls at the dinner table from her large family about how “you guys” are the illegals, and they have been in this part of the world at least 12,000 years. They also took serious exception at being considered Spanish.
The Cubans that fled Castro were the white elite. Cuba was the second to last country in the Western Hemisphere to abolish slavery. This occurred in 1886, followed by Brazil in 1888.
It wasn’t just that these exiles considered Castro a closet communist, which proved to be the case, but also the fact that he said that blacks were equal citizens of Cuba.
For them, that was unforgivable.
This lumping of all of all these people together is mostly for political reasons and has no basic in any kind of group affinity.
And speaking of blacks, they also trotted out the argument for separate but equal for African Americans as a way for economic attainment; giving more face time to the early version of Malcolm X when he was in the Nation of Islam, than to the latter Malcolm X who turned his back on his old ideas,
Martin Luther King, Jr., with his idea of integration, was not even worth discussing in any length.
But again, I smelled Old World people trying to lump New World people in the only box they know. Try as they may to prove otherwise, the fact is that most African Americans are not Africans with an unbroken genetic memory like the Chinese and Jews.
The One Drop Rule was a grim fairy tale, enforced by the English settlers at the point of a gun because they wanted to hold their mixed race offspring in bondage, as Thomas Jefferson did.
Here is what another law professor, Ralph Richard Banks of Stanford wrote in his recent book, Is Marriage For White People: “For most of American history, the question of whether a black woman’s children would be black was a nonstarter…that was done by the so-called one drop rule…according to this principle, reflected in social practice and law alike, “one drop” of black blood was sufficient to make a person black. In the infamous 1896 case of Plessey vs. Ferguson, for example, the fact that seven out of Homer Plessey’s eight great-grandparents were white was not sufficient to allow him to sit in the white railroad car in segregated Louisiana. “
As law professors at a school like Yale, I would have expected our two authors to know this and add this to their analysis of African Americans; as well as know that, starting in the 60s most interracial children were raised by their white mothers, which was perhaps the most radical change that has occurred in American history.
African Americans are New World people, and our story is just now being written, if we can just avoid Old World typecasting.
Still, the Triple Package was often one of the most riveting books I have read so far read this year, mainly because the authors, bravely in my opinion, faced up the negative consequences of the Triple Package, and didn’t shy away from seeing the dangers inherent in the three traits they claim helped the groups they mentioned gain so much economic power in this country.
As the two authors focused their attention, and zeroed in on both the Chinese and Jewish populations, something they know both intellectually, and most important, emotionally-- we get enormous insight into both groups, and the price they pay for the direction they embarked on centuries ago.
For the Chinese, it is an overbearing culture based on denial, hard work, self-control, and above all, conformity.
A Confucian principle, which still guides many Chinese, teaches that the goal of life is for the good of the group, not of the individual. (Ayn Rand was clearly not a Confucian); they also have to deal with learning by rote, which could end up only suiting them for exact science where two and two is four, with no questions asked.
The authors are aware of this, as well as many in China and the Chinese in America. Recently, in the Bay Area, for example, Chinese business people held a large conference because it was impossible to no longer ignore the fact that although Chinese students now dominate the numbers at UCBerkeley and Stanford, two of the most elite universities in the world, that when they graduate, often with honors, and enter the work world, they rarely rise out of middle management at major corporations in the Bay Area.
They concluded that this was not due to racism, but culture.
“Speak up! Take chances!” one angry businessman shouted to the mainly Chinese American audience.
This book gives us many insights into the inner dimensions Chinese Americans face, and I was glad to see that the author’s face it directly, and with almost brutal honesty.
The Jews also have their own cross to bear. And quite a cross it is. Despite their being, by almost any measure, the most successful Old World group in America, they are still haunted by deep-seeded insecurities, according to the authors. For example they note that “Jews are also awkwardly prominent in Hollywood, a fact that many Jews prefer not to highlight.”
They dislike having this fact discussed with such passion that a non-Jew could be labeled anti-Semitic for writing the same quote you just read
In addition, they question the idea that a single-minded pursuit for money and power is a productive way to spend one’s life. For them, a single-minded focus on money and power could lead Jews into some dangerous waters.
Professors Chua and Rubenfeld are not alone in this observation. This is a recent, soul-searching editorial by Rob Eshman in the Los Angeles Jewish Journal in regard to the movie, The Wolf of Wall Street. “But, just between us (and one lone African American listening in), let’s talk about Belfort-the-Jew — let’s go there. In the movie, you never really understand how someone so gifted can be so morally unmoored. But in his memoir, upon which the movie is based, whenever Belfort refers to his Jewish roots, the diagnosis becomes more apparent.
“He is a kid from Long Island. His dad, Max, grew up “in the old Jewish Bronx, in the smoldering economic ashes of the Great Depression. Belfort didn’t grow up poor by any means, he just wasn’t rich enough. The hole in him wasn’t from poverty, but from desire for acceptance. The “blue-blooded WASPs,” Belfort writes, “viewed me as a young Jewish circus attraction.”
“Belfort had a chip on his shoulder the size of a polo pony, and so did everyone he recruited. They were, he writes, “the most savage young Jews anywhere on Long Island: the towns of Jericho and Syosset. It was from out of the very marrow of these two upper-middle-class Jewish ghettos that the bulk of my first hundred Strattonites had come….”
“It’s not complicated, really. Poor little Jordan wanted to show those WASPs whose country clubs he couldn’t join that he was smarter, richer, better. What he failed to understand is that just about every Jew, every minority, shares the same impulses. But only a select few decide the only way to help themselves is to hurt others.
“Belfort, like Bernie Madoff, is an extreme example. These are guys who feel they have nothing, they are nothing, so they will do anything to acquire everything. They cross a pretty clear line and just keep going.
“The question that gnaws at me is whether there’s something amiss in the vast gray area that leads right up to that line. Are the Belforts and Madoffs unnatural mutations, or are they inevitable outgrowths of attitudes that have taken root in our communities?”
If there is anything that can prove that they make good points in their book, The Triple Package, it is that editorial in the Jewish Journal.
Raised in India, A.X. Ahmad is a versatile writer that has up until now been recognized for his short stories and essays. The Caretaker is the first of a planned trilogy featuring the Sikh ex-Indian military captain, Ranjit Singh. Ranjit was court-martialed for a mission turned massacre. After prison, he flees persecution to America where he worked a short time in a soul-killing job at his uncle-in-law’s convenience store in Boston.
When he could stand it no longer Ranjit decides to make his own way as a laborer in Martha’s Vineyard. He finds some work for an African-American Senator whose wife, Anna, takes a liking to him and manages to convince her husband to employ Ranjit as their caretaker through the winter. Ranjit’s life is looking up until the heat goes out in his shack.
With nowhere to go, Ranjit does what he must to keep his wife and daughter warm and safe. He moves into the Senator’s house, claiming to his wife that the politician said it was okay. With a string of break-ins occurring throughout the island, it seemed only a matter of time before they are discovered.
But when the intruders come, there is something strange about them and what they are after. Ranjit and his family escape but not without leaving evidence. His wife, tired of the lies, takes their daughter back to her uncle’s, while Ranjit slowly discovers just what kind of trouble he has gotten them into.
Haunted by his past, Ranjit uses his military instincts and training to piece together the facets of an international conspiracy to clear him and his family before it’s too late. Ranjit tries to go to the Senator but finds the powerful man deeply involved. Ranjit turns to Anna, and with her help, he finds a passion he hasn’t know in years and struggles to uncover the truth. His journey is one that takes him from the mountains of the India-Pakistan border to the historic streets of Boston.
Ahmad constructed a delightful thriller. The anticipation and questions push the story along through any dull moments or clichés (i.e. the villain gloating about how he pulled it all together and how smart he is) that might give us pause as we listen, or any other time we might struggle to suspend disbelief.
I have heard worse thrillers and I’ve heard better, but what I found unique about Ahmad’s novel were the characters. I have not seen a Sikh (the history and insight into the religion and culture was interesting to me) protagonist before, but I liked Ranjit, as flawed and uncommonly suspicious as he is. And I enjoyed following him around as he fought with every ounce of wit, strength, and strategy to save his family. His military past is revealed slowly and methodically, giving us more insight into the character’s ghosts and troubles, and helps the story unfold.
The narrator, Sam Daster, is unequivocally suited for reading The Caretaker. Being from Mumbai and educated at the University of Cambridge and the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, he is mostly noted for his work on British television, but is experienced reading Indian thrillers.
Here, Daster illustrates the story with accents and voices that bring the characters to life, and with his timing and inflection, he lays out the backdrop littered with mystery and thrills. A.X. Ahmad presents us with a different and inspired novel in The Caretaker. I’m looking forward to the next adventure of Ranjit Singh, Last Taxi Ride, due to be released June 2014.
John Steinbeck is one of the few American writers whose name is iconic.
Decade after decade, specific books of his have been deployed by thousands of teachers across the land; and thanks to multiple generations discovering in classrooms the power of The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flat, or East of Eden (with the occasional maverick instructor assigning Cannery Row or Travels with Charley), the legacy of Steinbeck is robust.
Yet, as biographer Susan Shillinglaw reminds us in her insightful, important, and necessary new work, there was a time when the man who wrote The Grapes of Wrath was a mere struggling writer; an acknowledged talent, yes, but always on the edge of failure with an uncertain future
Thus we have Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage. And in this new book, Shillinglaw makes a powerful case for the idea that Steinbeck’s first wife had everything to do with his ability to persevere, to create a body of work that drew notice to his burgeoning talent, and to carry on despite all the pressures (fiscal, psychological, and otherwise) that plague serious writers attempting to emerge.
Shillinglaw’s tightly focused narrative is a corrective to the tendency of too many biographies to try to be so comprehensive that they become sprawling cradle-to-grave narratives, with crucial episodes reduced to summaries. Instead, we have here a superb example of a significant portion of a great writer’s life being looked at intently, with far more detail and interpretation than one usually finds in standard biographies.
This focus invites readers to apprehend the agonies of growth as well as the periodic bursts of optimistic joy and fulfillment that informed a 12-year epoch forming the first phase of Steinbeck’s long and varied career. Carol Henning Steinbeck was more than a buoy in young Steinbeck’s life. She was his anchor.
Cynics might say that women like her were mere appendages to their men, little more than glorified typists. But that’s not fair. In her own way, Carol Henning Steinbeck was as much of a rebel and just as unconventional as Steinbeck himself.
She drank hard, had her own artistic gifts (creating pen-and-in drawings and as a sculptor, in particular), and her pungent sense of humor was complemented by a pugnacious tenacity and grit.
One of the most satisfying aspects of Carol and John Steinbeck: Portrait of a Marriage is that is illuminates and illustrates how California was a sanctuary in the late 1920s and throughout the Depression-era 1930s for the bohemian, artsy, and eternally yearning kindred spirits who surrounded young Steinbeck.
Long before the San Francisco in the Sixties phenomenon evolved, there were plenty of countercultural streams rippling through California. In the case of Carol and John Steinbeck, between the years 1928 and 1940, they enjoyed the company of then-unknown future legends a’ la mythologist Joseph Campbell, musical composer John Cage, marine biologist Ed Ricketts, journalist Lincoln Steffens and others—all of whom were living on next to nothing and somehow thriving in spite of the miseries invoked elsewhere in the nation
Moving from one place to another (San Francisco to Pacific Grove or Los Gatos to Monterey), the marital odyssey that was capped in 1939 when Steinbeck published The Grapes of Wrath is revealed in this fine new work as a time of creative ferment, audacious ambition, and of course the inevitable sacrifices that Carol made in the service of John’s writing (which was their mutual primary focus).
Much like Hadley Hemingway (Papa’s first bride) or Lowney Handy with young James Jones (she was Jones’s mentor, protector, lover and ally), or myriad other gifted, strong women whose individual talents were rendered secondary by the quests of their men, Carol Henning Steinbeck played a crucial role that faded over time.
However, the richly varied and exceedingly well-researched narrative composed by Susan Shillinglaw argues successfully that it was Carol to whom young Steinbeck owed his decisions to write with singular focus about California and the infinitely subtle complexities of its troubled, itinerant, usually down-and-out inhabitants
By so effectively encouraging Steinbeck to make California the locus of his art, Carol helped him to find his voice. It’s no accident that The Grapes of Wrath is dedicated: “To Carol, who willed this book.”
This wonderful new biography offers plenty of echoes of Steinbeck, but its real value is in restoring to memory the voice, style, and persona of Carol Henning Steinbeck:
More and more John and Carol dressed alike in slacks and work shirts, even though a woman in pants was considered risqué at the time. Traditional gender lines blurred as John and Carol launched their egalitarian marriage . . . She was tough, or at least projected toughness, and thought a great deal like a man in many ways. And John’s rugged exterior shielded a very sensitive, vulnerable man. That fluidity of roles sustained both.
Of course it all ended badly more than 12 years later, with bitterness and shared exhaustion. But the heart of this biography beats with the shared energy of hope. And it’s that forward-looking, youthful hope that made their union briefly perfect.
(M. J. Moore is completing a biography of novelist James Jones and than plans to write the first-ever biography of author Mario Puzo.)
Of all of the key figures in the 1960s civil rights campaigns, Roy Ottoway Wilkins, the leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), was not as popular as some of the warriors in the fight for equality. His low-key persona, coupled with his natural ability to work behind the scenes with elected officials in Washington, kept him out of the national spotlight, while more strident, militant voices hogged the attention of the media.
Yvonne Ryan, the managing editor of The Economist’s annual World In publication, details the life and career of Wilkins, the cool and calm elder statesman, who served forty-four years with NAACP as an essential part of the team which achieved significant legislation, including the Civil Rights Act of 1965 and the Voting Rights Act of 1964.
This is the first biography of the rational, pragmatic, and tireless Wilkins (1901-1981) and one wonders why it has taken so long to document his man’s achievements.
A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Wilkins was born on August 30, 1901 to a proud black family; his grandfather, Asberry Wilkins, was a slave who won his freedom when he was fourteen years old.
Roy’s father, William, was the second eldest of five children. Tragedy struck Roy’s mother, Mayfield, who died of tuberculosis, but she wrote a letter to her sister, Elizabeth, before her death, asking for permission to move her young son to St. Paul, Minnesota.
His early years were spent in a modest home of his aunt in a low income, integrated community there.
His college life was marred with a brutal act of white prejudice. On June 15, 1920, three young black men, driving in Duluth, Minnesota, were accused of raping a white woman. Police evidence gathered in the case stated the trio was a part of a six-man gang involved in the deed.
Shortly after their incarceration, a bitter white mob rushed the jail, grabbed the black youths, convicted them in a bogus trial, and hanged them. This was a cruel emotional slap to young Wilkins’ head because he had never witnessed a hanging, which was very common in the South.
Although Wilkins would later be labeled a moderate, that vigilante spirit engulfing the white mob put him to some realizations. “For the first time in my life, I understood what Du Bois had been writing about,” he recalled of the incident. “I found myself thinking of black people as a very vulnerable us – and white people as an unpredictable violent them.”
Once Wilkins entered the University of Minnesota, he was determined to make a difference. He graduated with a degree in sociology in 1923. The writing bug bit him hard, allowing him to write on social and racial issues, as he became the first black reporter on The Minnesota Daily and later became editor of St. Paul Appeal, a black newspaper with a historic tradition on being on the right side of things.
His father notified him of an opportunity as the editor of The Kansas City Call, and his first plum assignment, was the coverage of the NAACP Annual National Convention, this year held in Kansas City. This launched him in certain circles of the Association’s most influential officials.
Wilkins was very proud that he peddled copies of The Crisis, the Association’s publication, as a boy. At age twenty-two, he served as a secretary at the St. Paul branch of the NAACP, and later assumed the same post at the Kansas City organization. Under his leadership, Wilkins undercut the nomination of Judge John Parker to the Supreme Court, declaring the jurist of making racist remarks. The young secretary wielded a blow-torch approach in his Call column to make the public take a second closer look at the bigoted candidate. He waged a similar battle against another conservative, Kansas senator Henry Allen, turning the tide to the victor, George McGill, a Democrat.
Officials at the NAACP paid attention to the triumphs of the young man from the Kansas City office. Walter White, the Association’s assistant secretary, thought Wilkins had the goods, and a friendship developed between them. Armed with a sense of the organization’s historic watchdog past, Wilkins recognized they knew his skill as a motivator, and understanding he was a man who could get things done.
In 1930, W. E. B. Du Bois asked Wilkins to join the NAACP national staff as the business manager of The Crisis, wanting to get some fresh blood in the front offices of the Association.
Beyond the new opportunities involving work, there was a private Roy Wilkins, and matters of intimacy and the heart could be as tangled and complicated as the betrayals and infighting he would endure in the NAACP turf war. He had a brother, Earl, who he once hired as an advertising salesman at The Call, an emotional pairing so deep that they even dated sisters. Wilkins thought about marrying Marvel Jackson, a college acquaintance, and Earl swept her sister, Helen, off her feet and to the altar.
Meanwhile, Marvel moved to New York to work on the staff of The Call, then to The Amsterdam News, involving in the whirlwind of the Big City’s social life. Though she and Wilkins planned to wed, he met Aminda Badeau, a social worker and a recent St. Louis refugee. Later, Wilkins wrote a letter to his beloved which said he had got Badeau pregnant and pledged to remedy the situation. That suited everybody, for Marvel broke off the engagement and Wilkins married Badeau in 1929. However, his family suspected the woman fooled him, because there were no children born to the couple who remained married to her 1981 death.
At this point, the NAACP organization was in turmoil, pitting the administrators and workers into a conflict between the warring camps of Dr. Du Bois and Walter White, over tactics and expenditures. In December 1931, the split worsened and a move was made to oust White with a Du Bois memo to the National Board of Director of the organization, complaining of his rival’s ineffectiveness in his post. Wilkins signed the memo, along with three of his colleagues. The ill-conceived power play fizzled when the Association’s president, Joel Spingarn, agreed to investigate the allegations lodged against White and Mary White Ovington, its chairman and founder.
The book’s author, Ryan, skillfully handles the inner struggles of the Association, choosing not to avoid the trash talk, backbiting, and plotting of Du Bois and White. She talks about the successes of the early group, such as monitoring the pay and treatment of black workers working on federally levee programs in Mississippi and Louisiana. Ryan also explains how the NAACP was too timid to take the lead in the 1931 Scottsboro Boys case, where nine black youths were charged with the rape of two white women on a freight train.
Despite some major skirmishes inside the Association during the 1940s , the organization maintained its mandate to defeat discrimination in the US military, war factories, and municipal housing. The opponents of the NAACP accused it of hypocrisy for pushing black men to fight for the country while being refused citizenship on its shores.
With the cooperation of the NAAC , A. Philip Randolph, leader of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, demanded a March on Washington to protest bias in the war industries and in the armed services.
President Roosevelt saw the planned march as a loaded gun in the tentative calm of the nation’s capital and signed Executive Order 8802, creating a federal committee to end the prejudice in the defense industry and government.
The book chronicles both the minor and major triumphs in the NAACP career of Wilkins, such as the founding of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), by the Association executive, Randolph and Jewish leader Arnold Aronson in 1950, and the 1954 Supreme Court landmark decision in the Brown vs. Board of Education, outlawing racially segregated public schools. The following year, NAACP worked with those who wanted to bring to justice to the killers of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago black youth beaten to death for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Mississippi.
While Rev. King’s rise to prominence in the civil rights campaign is noted in Roy Wilkins: The Quiet Revolutionary And The NAACP, the author returns again and again to the public and private feud between the Nobel Prize-winning minister and Wilkins, due to their personal styles.
Rev. King could read the Yellow Pages with gospel gusto and drive a crowd into a frenzy, while Wilkins put the listeners to sleep with his polite, mannered oratory. At every significant event during the 1960s in the long road to equality, the two men took notice of the other, and jockeyed for media attention at the 1963 March on Washington, the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches, and the 1966 March Against Fear.
Often, Wilkins was the centerpiece of any civil rights effort to influence elected officials in Washington, because they could deal with his moderate tone rather than hot head militants like H. Rap Brown or Stokely Carmichael. In 1967, he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Johnson. Being an elder statesman from another era, he was ridiculed as an Uncle Tom and a tool of Capitol Hill. Even the young lions of the NAACP rose up against him repeatedly, but he usually outfoxed them until his retirement in 1977 at age 76. The leadership was taken over by Benjamin Hooks.
A year after he left the NAACP, the media accused him of collaborating with the FBI to discredit Rev. King, which he denied. Wilkins died September 9, 1981.
What distinguishes this biography from many of those civil rights warriors is Ryan’s supreme skill at not letting any negative rumors or allegations hijack the memorable achievements of Roy Wilkins. She elevates the life of this disciplined, dignified, complex soul. Wonderfully written and illuminating, this book celebrates a very private man operating in tense public situations under the microscope of the media.
In my reading life one thing often leads to another. So it was that while visiting an older sister in Montana last October we went to the video store and she insisted on checking out Clint Eastwood’s Grand Torino. In it he plays a lonely, old curmudgeon of a widower, who is gently befriended by the Vietnamese family who lives next door. Grand Torino is the make of car sitting in his garage in pristine condition. The movie is set somewhere in Michigan.
It made such an impression on me that recently, when out of a book to read (a condition that produces anxiety in me) I was scanning the shelves of my local library and found Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, written by a Vietnamese woman, a refugee, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thinking of Grand Torino, I checked it out.
I couldn’t be more pleased with my choice, for Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is a charming and funny memoir by a truly gifted writer. What is rich about this memoir is its reflection on middle-class America in the early 1980’s, particularly what we ate then.
She is enamored by all the junk food this nation produced and its zippy packaging—the Twinkies, ice cream drumsticks, chicken nuggets, Pringles, Purple Cow ice cream, and such.
The book takes its title from Bich Minh and her sister stealing fruit from their grandmother’s altar to the Buddha. Ms. Nguyen paints an endearing portrait of her family—her father who had been an accountant in Viet Nam finds work at the North American Feather Company stuffing pillows—it’s a step down from the work he had in Viet Nam but allows him to partially support his family. He is a charming man who soon enough romances and marries a Mexican American lady named Rosa, thus adding another cultural influence to the mix.
When I returned Stealing Buddha’s Dinner to the library I checked out another memoir by a Vietnamese American writer, Perfume Dreams by Andrew Lam.
Both families fled South Viet Nam in the wake of the oncoming North Vietnamese forces that poured into Saigon in April of 1975 ̶ Bich Minh was eight years old when her father, sister and grandmother boarded one of the last US ships leaving for Guam, and Andrew was eleven years old when he, his mother and siblings boarded a cargo plane also headed for Guam.
His father, a high-ranking general in the South Vietnamese Army, followed some time later. Bich Minh’s family was settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, whereas Andrew’s in San Francisco.
Both memories are about their experiences living in the United States as Vietnamese immigrant children. Both write with considerable grace and poignancy—about their sorrow over being displaced people who grieve for the country left behind, the prejudice against them in America, the feeling of being an invisible presence, the difficulty their parents had in adjusting (it was easier for them to adjust and learn English than it was for their parents), the change from being middle-class Vietnamese people of standing, to being helplessly dependent on the United States government, and the humiliation they felt for being on the losing side of the war from which they fled. Both miss the lives they had lived in what, through their children’s eyes, now seems like a tropical paradise…
But the tone of these two memoirs differs. Bich Minh’s is more light-hearted and humorous; Andrew’s is darker with more bitterness. First Andrew writes such passages as, “Our side lost, we became exiles, enemies of history. That despite his [referring here to his father] penchant to tell war stories in the evening, restoring lost glory, it was no longer within his power to restore any one of us, least of all himself, to the nobility that was that was once his… If Father was a defeated warrior, who was I? If he was on the loser’s side of history, whose side was I on? Back in Vietnam I was someone who lived in the center of an ongoing stage, surrounded by servants and soldiers, someone whose father could call thunder down from the sky; in America I was a lonely refugee child whose story is but a footnote in the public consciousness. Vietnamese are faceless in Vietnam War movies in American. They wear conical hats and die shouting as blood spurts from their torsos on the silver screen….”
But those words were written before Mr. Lam as an American journalist in 1991 visited the Whitehall detention center in Hong Kong and witnessed first-hand the lot of Vietnamese boat people who were trapped there.
I didn’t know what happened to the people who had continued to flee Vietnam after the Communist takeover. Mr. Lam’s book enlightened me to the sad truth: the first waves of people who fled were accepted into the United States and other countries, but the later ones who fled when the borders were closed were herded into refugee camps in places like Hong Kong, where they remained living in such inhuman and squalid conditions that some committed suicide and most feared being repatriated to Viet Nam where their lot would be no better.
These were the true victims of the war, a people nobody wanted. If they were returned, they would sent to “reeducation camps” where they would be tortured and forced to work as slaves in the NEZ, or New Economic Zone.
So, as hard as were the lives of those who made it to the United States, they were the lucky ones. In reading of this human tragedy—the lives of all those people who are of no use to the world—my own problems paled in comparison. In the course of history many peoples have suffered such displacements…
So, the question remained in my mind, what has happened to Vietnam since 1975, almost 39 years ago? Here I turned to Wikipedia. I’ll insert its summary here:
1976–present: reunification and reforms
“In the aftermath of the war, the government embarked on a mass campaign of collectivization of farms and factories. This caused economic chaos and resulted in triple-digit inflation, while national reconstruction efforts progressed slowly. At least one million South Vietnamese were sent to reeducation camps with an estimated 165,000 prisoners dying. Between 100,000 and 200,000 South Vietnamese were executed; another 50,000 died performing hard labor in "New Economic Zones.” In the late 1970s and early 1980s, millions of people fled the country in crudely built boats, creating an international humanitarian crisis; hundreds of thousands died at sea.
“In 1978, the Vietnamese military invaded Cambodia to remove from power the Khmer Rouge, who had been attacking Vietnamese border villages. Vietnam was victorious, installing a government in Cambodia which ruled until 1989. This action worsened relations with the Chinese, who launched a brief incursion into northern Vietnam in 1979. This conflict caused Vietnam to rely even more heavily on Soviet economic and military aid.
“At the Sixth National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in December 1986, reformist politicians replaced the "old guard" government with new leadership. The reformers were led by 71-year-old Nguyen Van Linh, who became the party's new general secretary. Linh and the reformers implemented a series of free-market reforms – known as Đổi Mới ("Renovation") – which carefully managed the transition from a planned economy to a "socialist-oriented market economy".
“Though the authority of the state remained unchallenged under Đổi Mới, the government encourages private ownership of farms and factories, economic deregulation and foreign investment, (italics mine) while maintaining control over strategic industries. The Vietnamese economy subsequently achieved strong growth in agricultural and industrial production, construction, exports and foreign investment. However, these reforms have also caused a rise in income inequality and gender disparities. “
Mr. Lam has visited Vietnam a number of times in recent years. He says the youth there are largely ignorant of their history; they are as enamored of new technology, new music and Western clothes as are American youth, actually, as are youth the world over. Tragic irony abounds ̶ wars have been fought and people have died only to have whatever they were about be rendered in time a moot point—communism as an economic system collapses of its own accord. Even if the government of Vietnam is still communistic, private enterprise is encouraged and Vietnam has been rebuilt.