L.A. STORIES -Essential California: 10.12.2021- Tales of Asian American immigration and identity

Los Angeles Times
October 12, 2021
Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Tuesday, Oct. 12. I’m Shelby Grad.

Asians have been the fast-growing group in the United States for several years, but we are still grappling with what that really means. Times columnist Frank Shyong recently talked to writer Jay Caspian Kang about this question.

“Asian Americans have the largest income disparity within a group. There are tons and tons of poor Asians who are undocumented. But Asian American politics largely fails to address that,” Kang told Shyong. “Rebuilding our political identity around solidarity with these people, I think that would lead to a better case for solidarity with other races. What we have now is a lot of bamboo-ceiling politics. A lot of Asian Americans access race through the lens of white liberals, and I just don’t think that’s very effective.”

A new novel about the Vietnamese American experience in Southern California and beyond also tackles some of these issues. It was written by Thuan Le Elston, who in the 1990s was one of the Los Angeles Times’ Vietnamese American reporters and pioneered coverage from Little Saigon.

Her novel is based on her own family’s immigration story as well as that of her husband’s white family.

Q: Your novel tells what has now become essential California demographic stories: The Vietnamese immigration experience, the push and pull of assimilation and also the blending of an immigrant family. What were you hoping to say about these issues?

A: I didn’t set out to write a refugee novel or an immigrant novel. Not even an Asian American novel. It’s an American family novel. I wanted to record for my kids stories they should know about their ancestors, so they’d know where they came from. Inspired by the tales of four grandmothers — mine and my husband’s — “Rendezvous at the Altar: From Vietnam to Virginia” traces Anne’s Southern upbringing to her Mad Men-like married life; Kim’s family as they survive French colonialism and the Vietnam War; Mary’s transformations through the Great Depression and two marriages; and Ty’s migration from Hanoi businesswoman to Arizona matriarch. Through a mother’s journal to her children and the four grandmothers’ narrations, I explore and compare gender roles, parenting, aging and dying in a multicultural family. Bob and I met as young reporters at the Los Angeles Times’ Orange County bureau. And my historical fiction novel opens near San Diego. California’s multicultural demographics from the 1990s are now the U.S. demographics. It’s the only America my children have ever known.

Q: Back in the early 1990s, you were one of the L.A. Times’ first Vietnamese American journalists. Now, you are on the editorial board at USA Today. How have you seen the way journalism and culture in general tell the Vietnamese American story change over those years?

A: It’s a heady thing for a former child refugee to reflect how far I’ve traveled. When I majored in journalism at Arizona State University in the late 1980s, I was the only one among all my fellow Vietnamese American students to do so at ASU. Everyone else majored either in engineering or business. The L.A. Times, through its Metpro fellowship, gave me an opportunity to jump straight to the big leagues of journalism, but because I was fluent in Vietnamese, I also gave The Times an opportunity to cover Little Saigon in Orange County better. I’d show up at breaking news stories and interview people in Vietnamese while my competitors stood there helplessly. That was fun. But it did often feel lonely; there was no social media then to find other Vietnamese American journalists and connect. But soon others joined me at The Times, and now there are so many of us working in big markets and community newsrooms. We reflect the more than 2 million Vietnamese Americans across the USA. This has helped the news media tell the Vietnamese American story better, yes, but we’re also part of the bigger push for the industry to better tell the story of all Americans.

Q: Your novel joins what can only be described as a boom in stories about the Vietnamese experience in America. What do you think of this and where does your book fit it?

A: It’s incredibly humbling. I started “Rendezvous at the Altar” in 2009, when the last of our grandmothers passed away right before the Obama inauguration. Every night, after coming home from work and putting the kids to bed, I’d reopen my laptop and peck at the keys for several hours. I was inspired by Le Ly Hayslip, whose memoirs inspired Oliver Stone’s movie “Heaven and Earth,” in which I had a 15-minute speaking role and from which Le Ly became an elder sister to me. And by “The Book of Salt” from Monique Truong, whose writing is so beautiful I copied passages into my journal. I kept my head down and kept working at my novel, though I was rejected time and again by literary agents. I’d take their critiques and revise and revise and revise. And all of a sudden I look up and Viet Thanh Nguyen has won the Pulitzer for “The Sympathizer”; Monique has written several more novels that are translated into multiple languages; Ocean Vuong’s poetry is in the New Yorker magazine; Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai is this year’s Dayton Literary Peace Prize runner-up for her novel “The Mountains Sing”; social media is full of new English-language books by Vietnamese authors. And here’s my historical fiction novel about two grandmothers from Vietnam and two grandmothers from America. What a party! But the stories we’re telling are not just Vietnamese stories. They’re universal. As my novel asks — “Are you happy? Maybe more important, how do you feel about your pursuit of happiness? Have you earned it, courted it? Or have you had to pursue it in the 14th century definition, as in tracking down a fugitive?” Everybody has to cross Contrary Creek, take Last Chance Road, climb Think It Over Hill.

Some more reading:

— What does Black and Asian solidarity look like? (Los Angeles Times)

— The myth of Asian American identity (New York Times)

— How it feels to be Asian American today (New York Times)

— The ugly ways Asian Americans were treated by the media (Los Angeles Times)

— “We were Orientals” (Boom California)

— The ‘whiting’ of Asian Americans (The Atlantic)

— She paved the way for others to tell their stories (New Yorker)

— The Asian Enough podcast (Los Angeles Times)

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:

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The Orange County oil spill could have been so much worse. Despite significant effects in some areas, the vast majority of the oil remained offshore. And officials used lessons from previous oil spills to protect sensitive areas and suck up crude much more efficiently than in the past. How technology, preparation and luck combined to avert a great disaster. Los Angeles Times

— Beaches reopen but workers are still cleaning the coast. Los Angeles Times

— Huntington Beach: Oil city no more. Los Angeles Times

—The port gridlock off the Southern California coast is “like an orchestra with lots of first violins and no conductor. … No one’s really in charge.” Washington Post

Two people, including a UPS delivery driver, died and two homes were destroyed when a small plane crashed near Santana High School in Santee early Monday afternoon, sparking fires in the residential area, authorities said. San Diego Union-Tribune

The Los Angeles Unified School District — confronted with widespread campus disruption and the firing of potentially thousands of unvaccinated teachers and other staff — has extended the looming deadline for all workers to be fully immunized for COVID-19. Los Angeles Times

The Dodgers’ 1-0 loss on a windy Monday. They dropped behind their storied rivals 2-1 in the best-of-five series. They face elimination in Game 4 at Dodger Stadium on Tuesday. First pitch is scheduled for 6:07 p.m. Tuesday. Los Angeles Times

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Fueled by customers’ growing addiction to one-day delivery and a pandemic-driven surge in online shopping, demand for warehouses has skyrocketed. As land near major ports and cities becomes scarcer and pricier, developers are heading deeper into the Inland Empire and the Central Valley, where temperatures are rising faster than in coastal communities. Low-wage workers, most of them Black and Latino, are facing increased risks as they follow the job boom to some of the hottest parts of California, into warehouses that industry experts say are mostly not air-conditioned. Read the latest article in The Times’ Extreme Heat series and read the entire series so far here.

More than 34,000 Californians could have their electricity intentionally shut off this week as cold, gusty winds increase the potential for fire danger throughout the state. Los Angeles Times

A female mountain lion rescued last year after being badly burned in the Bobcat fire has died, 10 months after her release back into the wild, the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said. Los Angeles Times

What it was like to fight the massive Dixie fire. New York Times

Snow is falling, but firefighters are still battling the Caldor fire. Sacramento Bee


A prison correspondence and meeting between Trino Jimenez and Melvin Carroll, the man who murdered his brother, led to an almost unthinkable friendship. Los Angeles Times

Human remains have been found in the Yucca Valley desert near where Lauren “El” Cho, a 30-year-old New Jersey woman, went missing this summer, investigators said. Los Angeles Times

More concerns about L.A. sheriff tactics in the Antelope Valley. LAist


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