Sunday, September 12, 2021

Of Monkey Bridges and Bahn Mi Sandwiches by Oanh Ngo Usadi

 Source of book: I own this. 


This book was a nice change of pace from some of the darker and heavier books I have read lately. Simply put, it is the author’s story of coming to America as a Vietnamese child refugee in the early 1980s, and her family’s experiences from the fall of Saigon through their entrepreneurship in Texas. It is a fascinating story, full of good vibes, written by an author with a knack for telling a story. 


Growing up in Los Angeles during the 80s, I was surrounded by a wide variety of immigrants. The neighborhoods we lived in were working class and highly diverse. Also, because my parents grew up overseas, we were taught about the different waves of refugees, including the “boat people” from Vietnam. (One of the books I read as a kid was A Boat to Nowhere.) We also ate food from around the world, including Vietnam and other south Asian countries. Early memories include my first taste of yellow curry from the Thai family two doors down. 


[Side note: one of the most traumatic events of my adult life has been watching my parents, who raised me to be welcoming to refugees and immigrants, who taught me that Christianity and Americanity were not the same, and that colonialism and imperialism exploited the Third World; transform in the post 9/11 world into anti-refugee, anti-immigrant xenophobes. It was such a betrayal of the values I was raised with. Unfortunately, it parallels the general shift in the American Right over my lifetime as well. I’m not innocent either. I hate what 9/11 did to me, and it was hard work to reprogram my mind back to Christ-following values.] 


Oanh’s parents were running a small business - an auto parts store - in Saigon until the Vietcong took over. They managed to hide their life’s savings, and bought an orchard in a small village, and lived that way for a number of years. Later, with increasing hostility from the villagers as an “outsider,” as well as for her father’s role in managing fertilizer supplies for the government, her parents decided to first send her older siblings, then escape with her and her brother. They first ended up in a refugee camp in Malaysia, then were accepted for settlement in the US (due to relatives who had previously immigrated), spent time in a camp in the Philippines, before coming to Port Arthur, Texas. There, after working in a bakery for a while, her father opened a Banh Mi stand, a solid decade before they caught on. 


It is a heartwarming story, to be sure. Oanh’s parents seem like really lovely people, and she has an infectious optimism in the face of hardship. (About the only thing that she never gets over is the death of her childhood friend from dysentery. It is hard to blame her for that.) 


One of the things that has puzzled me over the last decade or so is how many times I have been called a communist, or at least a socialist. I am not sure what to make of this. I have, repeatedly over the course of the decade I have written this blog, made my feelings about communism clear. As Raymond Aron correctly noted, communism in its totalitarian form from the USSR to China to Vietnam, is an ideology - a cultic religion that believes rigidly in its ideas despite proof that they are not working, and thus must eliminate dissidents. It reminds me both of fascism and of the fundamentalist subculture I grew up in. All of them require believing lies and ignoring evidence. And, most centrally, ideology means that they cannot make adjustments to suit new conditions, because that would be apostasy. This is why every communist regime seems to make the same mistake of trying to completely overhaul society according to the ideology, rather than working for reform within the institutions that exist. Often, these institutions arose out of the conditions that existed and continue to exist, and are well loved by those who participate in them. Most notably, the collectivization of agriculture has led to mass starvation in each case. Which is not to say that collective agriculture can’t work: we have centuries of evidence of cooperatives like the Commons in England working fine until they were destroyed for profit. The problem is that such cooperation needs to be built on the foundation of what already exists. So, letting former serfs continue to farm the lands that they did before probably works. But making it all into a collective that eliminates the small chances for enterprise that the serfs had before tends to be a disaster. And thus it was in this book. Subsistence farmers weren’t interested in giving up the little chance for profit that they had had before, particularly as the fruit of their labor seemed to go to the favorites of the regime, not to them. 


But let’s back up even further. Oanh takes a bit of time to explain the background to the Vietnam Civil War (which we Americans just happened to stick our noses in) and why it happened in the first place. Vietnam was colonized by the French back in the “golden era” when all the European powers wanted to be the cool kids with countries full of brown-skinned people to exploit and enslave. So, a country that is one of the most fertile in the world (you would be shocked how much of our own food comes from Vietnam these days) ended up with a starving population any time France needed more rice. This came to a head during World War Two, when all of the great powers battling it out (except the US) started running low on food. First the French, then the Japanese, seized most of Vietnam’s rice crop to feed their soldiers; and the crop was already tiny because of the devastation of war. In 1944 alone, up to 2 million Vietnamese are estimated to have starved to death. Predictably, this led, after the war, to a civil war with the goal of forcing the French out for good, and ending foreign exploitation. 


Three decades later, in 1975, the Vietcong took over. It was expected that finally Vietnam would have enough to eat. Unfortunately, the misguided collectivist policies further cratered rice production. The communists probably should have worked on rebuilding the industry and infrastructure first. But ideologues tend to fall in love with the “big revolutionary ideas,” which are a lot more sexy that things like fixing roads and bridges and using tax money to subsidize improvements by the small growers. (This is a problem here in the US too, honestly. Revolution is always more sexy than reform.) For the most part, progress occurs when you give ordinary people the resources they need to build their own lives - living wages, a social safety net, public infrastructure like roads, courts, schools, and health care, fair prices for what they grow, and so on. Neither central planning nor capitalist profiteering accomplishes this. 


One fascinating example in the book is the way that Oanh’s village repurposed all kinds of leftovers from the war. Everything from scrapped equipment and metal pieces to the bomb casings that were prized for cooking and storage because they were nearly indestructible got reused in some way. 


Another passage that I found truly fascinating is Oanh’s description of her puzzlement at learning English, both at the school in the Philippines and later in the United States. In Vietnamese, which is a tonal language, the same “word” could have many different (and sometimes conflicting) meanings, based on pitch. That’s why there are so many diacritical marks in the writen language. Likewise, Vietnamese has a bewilderning array of pronouns, the usage of which varies depending on who is addressing whom, and to whom they are referring. The details of the relationship between the people is contained in the pronouns. Are they close relatives, friends, or strangers? Are they social equals or not? Are they of the same generation or is their a hierarchy? In contrast, English has a devilishly complex system of verb tenses. (Which, honestly, many native English speakers have yet to master.) Languages are complex, and arise through an organic process, which is why, just like economic systems, nobody has ever succeeded in creating an entirely new one from scratch and switching a population to it. (Ursula Le Guin imagined a society in which that was done, which is definitely the most improbable plot point in the book.)  


Another cultural adjustment that Oanh talks about is the difference between personal and communal space. Which she, as an introvert, found appealing about the United States. The idea that a person, even on public transportation, would have a certain space to themselves that others at least try to respect, is something many of us appreciate. 


Another touching section of the book is about the long-term relationship between Oanh’s family and their landlords, a white couple that was skeptical of having immigrants with a large family in their house. (It didn’t help that they had to fudge the number of children at first, because nobody was renting a small house to those many people.) 


The prejudice that Oanh experienced wasn’t as bad as some, but it was still very much there. 


From school and books, I learned that a person’s race should not matter. Yet around me, race seemed to dominate not only how people perceived us but also how we perceived them. In the abstract, I knew that friendship among people from different races, like success for Asians in America, was possible. But I had limited experience with non-Vietnamese people. 


Likewise, although Port Arthur didn’t seem too bad, in nearby Galveston, the KKK torched Vietnamese-owned fishing boats, and terrorized the community until a lawsuit crippled its ability to function. (This is, by the way, one of the ways we need to be tackling the Proud Boys and the other white supremacist groups that today are today threatening our nation.)


Ultimately, Oanh finds her place in America, which makes me happy. I wonder if she were to come here today if she would find Texas so friendly. Trump’s demagoguery regarding Covid has led to an explosion of hate crimes and harassment directed against people of Asian descent, in addition to his nurturing of hate against immigrants. There are surely exceptions, but “old white people from Texas” these days seem drunk on the bile they imbibed from Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, and less likely to actually build bridges with refugees. (There is a reason that a mere 25% of white evangelicals think we should take in refugees, and that number is even lower among older evangelicals.) If the retrogressive devolution of people like my parents are any indication, our next wave of refugees from a country we blew up, then abandoned (Afghanistan) will not be nearly as warm as the last time. That makes me sad, and it makes our nation poorer. 




Note on Bahn Mi sandwiches:


Colonialism sucked in almost every way, but it did result in culinary cross-pollination and some incredibly tasty food. Case in point is the bahn mi sandwich. Made with fresh french bread (the best places make their own), they are loaded with meat, carrots and pickled radishes, hot peppers, cilantro, and sauce. There are plenty of variations on that theme. The most gringo-friendly is basic bbq pork. My kids have tried some pretty crazy ones, from ham and head cheese (seriously good) to sardines, the favorite of my 13 year old son. (Not my thing.) 


Here on the West Coast, you can find good bahn mi in any major city, and many smaller towns too. (Along with Vietnam’s other bit of culinary heaven, Pho.) Often, the cost is the same or less than corporate fast food, and so much better. 


My favorite place to get them is Huong Lan Sandwiches, in Sacramento, although there are plenty of worthy contenders throughout California. If you find yourself in the area, check out the crazy Chinese herb store, and amazing Asian grocery in the same shopping center, then heading over for some food. I recommend starting with a #5, or a #1 if you are more adventuresome, and get a soursop boba to go with it. 



  1. "One of the things that has puzzled me over the last decade or so is how many times I have been called a communist, or at least a socialist."

    This whole paragraph is gold. I hope you don't mind if I quote it elsewhere (while linking this post, of course) because it so perfectly captures my own feelings on the balance between progress and conservation.