A couple weeks ago I was asked to give a speech and screen a film I did in 2010 about two Vietnamese immigrants' experiences moving to Chicago under very different circumstances.
A few people have asked me to post the film and the transcript of my speech, so I've done so here.
Here is the film:
And here is the transcript of my speech:
It’s difficult to give a speech about anything these days without having it be politicized.
It seems a little ridiculous that this film, which was made seven years ago, two years into Obama’s administration, is as relevant or even more relevant today. I think this is symptomatic of how much progress I thought we’d been making with inclusiveness and equality for minorities and immigrants in this country. The massive post-election sighs heard around the world leads me to believe that I don’t speak for myself when I say, regarding my belief in multicultural progress, that I feel like I’ve had the rug pulled out from under me, a rug pulled quickly and without warning and making me feel like I’m floating in the air, not sure if I’ll shatter into a thousand shards when gravity finally takes hold.
It’s like that feeling when you’re in an elevator that suddenly drops or when you’re in a car that takes a speed bump too quickly or when you’re in an airplane that runs up against an undertow of turbulence, when your stomach pulls up against your heart and a paleolithic panic tells your brain to brace for something painful. Except this is one patch of turbulence that’s going to last for four years. Four long years. One thousand four hundred and sixty days of hitting speed bumps going way too fast--where the driver doesn’t give a shit because it’s a rental anyways.
If you’re like me, an immigrant born in another country but having built most of their life here, then you’ve probably got some minimum part of you that feels anger at what November 8th 2016 revealed.
And that is this: compassion is dying. The very idea of sympathetic pity or concern for the sufferings and misfortunes of others is being drowned in a sea of hate and anger and blame. But it’s not completely hopeless. Swirling around in that sea of hate, compassion is still in there, despite being more dissolved and more difficult to taste. We do have compassion for fellow humans, just not for people who we see as excessively and therefore categorically “other.”
So where do we draw the line?
In creating Nuoc and telling Hai and Khanh’s stories, my hope was to create a space for anyone to feel compassion for their journey, no matter how different the specifics of their stories are to viewers’ own stories. Nuoc is very much about how unique each immigrant’s story can be and how that has a bearing on one’s identity. Nuoc, which means water in Vietnamese, is a metaphor for how fluid and elusive identity can be for new immigrants.
Now that we’ve arrived at this current political mire, I suddenly realize that there is a new “other.” This new other, whose disparate identities have accreted into a unified voice of populism, of hatred, and of blaming that has fueled an uprising of all that is so antithetical to a more inclusive compassion in this country, has suddenly spoken. And while I believe these people are on the wrong side of history, I find it difficult to not feel compassion.
I want to have compassion for all. For the knocked-down working class whose wealth and job opportunities shrink year by year with little to no explanation. People who have been seeing the rich get richer for decades while they feel attacked for a concept of privilege they may never have had the privilege to be educated about in the first place. I want to give these people who bought into the racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic answers that Trump sold them an outlet for their plights other than hate, than blame, than violence. To give them a voice and have their feelings of being misunderstood heard and validated the way that Hai and Khanh’s stories were in Nuoc.
But I thought about this some more and I realized this is problematic too. For herein lies the difference. Hai and Khanh arrived powerless and poor in 1992, with barriers to entry like language, discrimination, a lack of social support networks, and lasting trauma carried over from a war-torn country in large-part war-torn by the very country they were arriving at. These are barriers that the knocked-down working class who’ve bought into the racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic rhetoric have not had to deal with. Job opportunities and wealth have never been a guarantee for Hai and Khanh in the first place. So yes, I am miffed at these knocked-down people who’ve given into the racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic answers that Trump’s administration has sold them.
So my faith and hope lies in the fact that these racist, sexist, xenophobic, and homophobic views are not rooted in unchangeable belief. Just like Hai and Khanh’s fluid formulations of identity, of home, and of being American--we must remember the temporal, ephemeral quality of even a craggly thing as hate. That these views were bought into as an easy out and can, with work and compassion, be washed away.
By using the idea of water. An embracing of the ungraspable, connective sameness that we all share despite the difference in saltiness or grittiness or shade or taste. To look someone “other” in the eye and, despite the absolute hatred in theirs for, if you’re luckier, others, or if you’re not, you, and see that you are connected in the way the Mediterranean is to Lake Michigan, in the way Amazonian rainfall is to Midwestern snowmen. To remember that you both emerged from your mother’s womb not knowing whether it’d be into a world of Southern Vietnamese humidity or Southern Illinois morning dew. To remember how quickly we all evaporate.
To remember, that this moment, quoting Khanh, “belongs to you."