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Conversations with America

Conversations with America: le thi diem thuy

David Schulman

l thi diem thy

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le thi diem thuy
(Edward Judice)
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Seems like, in our sped-up age, it's been a really long time since Barack Obama was elected. Almost 10 weeks. Of course, presidents used to wait four months to take office. That was getting kind of awkward by 1933, when Congress passed the 20th Amendment to shorten the transition. As part of our series Conversations with America, we've been asking writers and thinkers about transitions in their own lives. Le thi diem thuy is a poet and solo performance artist, author of the 2003 novel "The Gangster We are All Looking For." She and her family went through a big transition when they left their native Vietnam by boat in 1978. The family settled in Southern California, but we caught up with thuy on a visit to New York City.

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We are going to 111 Mott Street, which is "The New Chao Chow," and they have two, four, six, eight, 10, 12, 14, 16, 18, 20 ducks in the window. So we have three different kinds of condiments - four, five, six. We have chilies of three different types, and we have vinegar, fish sauce and soy sauce - and that's Hoisin. And I'm going to get what I always get, which is fish cake noodle soup with the fat, white, rice noodles.

It's a place that I feel like I have history with, though I've never spoken with those people about how I feel about the place. But it's just one of my most favorite places on earth. There are usually about six men working, and they have uniform versions of tuxedos. To your right is the cook, and he's got chef's whites on and a big hat. There are all of these vats of broths that he is stirring. But it's like, you know, I go into this place and there are six guys, and all of them could be my father to some extent.

"Could I have extra cilantro?"

"I am sorry."

"No cilantro? OK, scallion is fine. How about, can I have lemon?"

There is a kind of dignity to them that reminds me of my father, even though my father never worked in kitchens. My father was a gardener in Southern California. And I felt, growing up, that his clients didn't know his story. You know, you get into a cab and you don't know the cabbie's story. The gardener trims your hedges, the cook makes your food, and every day we come up against people whose histories we don't know at all. And I think America is really made up by so many people like that. For example, our family, as refugees of the war in Vietnam, we wouldn't have come here if that war hadn't happened. And one of the things that I've put a lot of thought into since my father moved back to Vietnam in 2003, is how he never became an American in the way that, perhaps, he had hoped, but that the hope was that his children would become Americans, and feel at home here.

Any president of mine should be into noodle soup. And I think there are a lot of resonances between Obama going into the White House and people coming to this country as immigrants, in that you have the roar of the a real: the enormous amount of responsibilities, the enormous number of new things to learn. And the enormity of what to do can burden the mind so much that you can't act. I think that the only way to stay afloat is to be in check with the intactness of your own body and your own mind. And so it's important to have a relationship with the body where the mind is able to be quiet and calm. It's like those Chinese ladies who go out early in the morning and do T'ai Chi in the park - I mean, that protects them.

Most immigrants and refugees don't leave their native countries by choice. I am an American citizen, I make my living as a writer, I work in English - which is a language I was forced to pick up very quickly in order to translate for my father. I think that he feels that I've made it here. But for me, the heartbreak is that he couldn't, somehow. For most immigrant children, the parents' generation sacrifices for the children's generation - but the extent of that sacrifice sometimes seems devastating to me.

  • Music Bridge:
    She Walks In A Dream
    Artist: Takeshi Nishimoto
    CD: Monologue (Buro)
More stories from our Conversations with America series

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  • By Nam Huynh

    From Orlando, FL, 01/29/2014

    I think I can related to the comment "..but the extent of that sacrifice sometimes seems devastating to me".

    By Robert Brockman

    From San Diego, CA, 01/23/2011

    "-but the extent of that sacrifice sometimes seems devastating to me":...I am hopeful to gain an explanation and understanding of that comment at her La Jolla book signing on Feburary 3rd. I suspect it is as fulfilling as her novel. Those of us who are so many generations removed that we donot identify with our family immigration would do well to understand her meaning of the comment and even her Dad's and how significantly the "sacrifice" has marked their lives.

    By Steve Sintek

    From San Diego, CA, 01/17/2009

    Thuy's comments are so true. I left Vietnam after spending 66/67/68 on the front lines with the Marines. The whole tour was at the DMZ, the worst place one could be. After fighting for that lenght of time, the most humbling feeling a front line Marine could have is to "look back and see what we left behind. So much destruction". For them to excape this, we could only accept them and give them what we hoped would be a better life. Looking back this past decade here in the US, it is understandable why she feels this way towards her Father. Having made trips back to her homeland, during this period, I have found life more peaceful in Vietnam now. They seem to still have greater family ties than here in the states. Life seems to be more simpler, and with that comes "peace' in one's life again. I would be honored to sit on the curb , in Vietnam, and have coffee with her dad any time and talk "story". We would both be happy again.

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