Sometimes I wonder how it is that I got here from a far-flung there. I used to be a different kind of girl: I growled, scratched, ducked my head when I spoke, balled fist always in air. Somewhere along the way I’ve developed some skills I didn’t have before — patience, and a loud clear voice that carries to the backs of lecture halls. I explain poststructuralist feminist theory with (I hope) flare. I’m making an effort here, translating tough girl into academia.
And then I find myself driving around the City, blasting the Blatz/Filth split cassette in my car in a continuous loop, twenty-something mid-term papers on the seat beside me, all of them outlining the trajectory of Asian American cinema to by-now monotonous effect. The “check engine” light blinks at me from behind the wheel and I’m shouting loud and off-key, my words lost out the window, in the wind: “Berkeley is my baby and I want to kill it!”
I feel volatile. I want to take a saw to my furniture and a knife to gut the mattress and shred my clothes like flags. Ransack the room, I’d like to throw all my books out the window. There’s a dumpster conveniently located below my third-story apartment. Only a removable screen between orderly shelf and big metal dustbin, why not?
Are the months of March and April known for violence? Is it a season for storms, for fierce upheavals?
How did I get here again? On the tail of a tornado, or was it a war?
Karina and I have been swapping tales from our respective exile communities — hers, concentrated in Miami and mine, scattered throughout California. (We are distanced from these, ideologically.) She says Elian’s relatives are crazy; the twenty-two year-old cousin is prone to hysteria and the uncle–? Driving while under the influence of alcohol. Even her mother, who is no fan of Castro, believes the boy should go home with his father. Her mother says, “Why knows what kind of people the relatives are?” We discuss the videotape, released by the relatives and which looks like a hostage video, psychological abuse, the mayor of Miami, the crowds in front of the relatives’ home, struck with ecstatic visions and ideological fervor, swearing to die for the cause.
And I remember something Karina once said to me, grinning, “I was taught in pre-school that Castro loves all the little children. When I saw the grown-ups complain, I figured it was just adults he didn. t like and no wonder, I didn’t like them either!”
I tell her I am going to a gallery opening; an American Vietnam veteran and artist has created forty lithograph portraits of Ho Chi Minh in an effort to reconsider Ho both as political icon and political revolutionary. The anticommunist Vietnamese community in San Jose and Westminster (Little Saigon) have promised to protest. I show her year-old printouts from a Vietnamese American on-line messageboard, when the controversy centered around a Little Saigon video store owner who had erected a Vietnamese flag (the red one, with the star) alongside a poster of Ho Chi Minh. The threats and the insults are vicious; they mouth slogans I first heard when protesting the Gulf War: Love it or leave it! Because of racism and poverty, I find their professed patriotism –real or strategic– for America jarring.
Karina says to me, “It’s like looking into a mirror.”
“My people,” I say wryly, “and yours should get together.”
Although we are also refugees, my parents are not inclined to the same fire; I was not raised with the bitterness of lost homelands curdling my tongue. They don’t object when I tell them where I’m going; instead, they’re merely curious, and a little worried.
My practical father suggested I park the car a few blocks away from the scene of the protest, saying, “You don’t want them to know what car you’re driving, you don’t want to have to replace your windows.” And my mother gave me the same thoughtful advice she did when I first told her I was doing clinic defense, “Wear good tennis shoes, so you can run if they come after you.”
It is dizzying, disorienting. (I find out later that there are two thousand protesters here.) Mark and I arrive in the warehouse-business district of Oakland where the gallery is located, driving past crowds and clusters of Vietnamese holding small, paper South Vietnamese and American flags and cardboard signs. We park and approach the block where, it seems, the gauntlet begins: the police have erected barricades behind which most of the protesters are arrayed. The rest wander across the road, with bullhorns, in anticipation of what–?
There is a yellow van painted with three horizontal red stripes. I think a dummy is strapped to the grill — it’s too dark to be sure– and there are hundreds of men in their old South Vietnamese military uniforms staring at the small group of gallery-goers congregating by the police car. Collectively, we all agree to make a run for it — the gallery is at the other end of the block. As soon we start half-walking, half-jogging, the cacophony surges like a wave, or a storm.
I wonder if they will recognize me as Vietnamese, and get especially vicious.
I hold my breath and plow through the crowd behind a bald white man in a leather jacket, Mark’s flash glaring in continuous bursts as young men behind the barricades call out, “Take my picture! Hey, over here!” Is it a protest or a football game?
I look into faces and look away, elderly grandmothers spitting vitriol: “Are you a VC whore?” “Kill communists!” “You belong in the toilet with Ho!” Their mouths open and shut and open, shouting epithets endlessly, the way fish breathe in water. Because it is dark, their features drift in and out of focus, lit-up ghostly and contorted. (I’m starting to panic.) Shock registers when I pass a large placard with a grim, goblin-like caricature of Ho Chi Minh labeled “GOOK HO,” and I wonder briefly if Presidential candidate John McCain taught them the racial slur; I see it repeated once or twice more on homemade signs, printed posters.
A middle-aged man –he is about fifty, or sixty even– in a yellow sweatshirt banded by three red stripes drags an effigy of Ho Chi Minh by a noose, yelling. In the other hand he carries a long, thin stick. He runs alongside our small, beleaguered group and makes eye contact with me before he begins to beat the mannequin with deliberate strokes, and I understand what he is saying: You deserve this too.
Later, my mother says she doesn’t want me to write anything about the protests, either for publication or my dissertation, but not because she necessarily disagrees with me. My mother is afraid I’ll turn up dead, murdered by the anticommunists, which was an often-enough occurrence in the 1980s.
She says to me, “Don’t write anything that will make them mad.” I say, “How can I not?”
I thought I’d purge, like I do every year or two. I hoard things. Newspaper clippings, flyers, whatever. I revisit former selves I no longer recognize, except this one, and sometimes I miss her because she amazes me. Once violence described my everyday and I wonder how I ever made it out, sane.
It’s true: at one point in my life I was surrounded by convicted clinic bombers, stalkers and potential assassins on a weekly basis. It was a game only not so much, calling out names and transgressions loudly, brashly, “Look, it’s Cheryl! Remember? She’s the one who was convicted of bombing a bunch of clinics in San Diego!” Matt Trewhella– founder of the anti-abortion terrorist group Missionaries to the Pre-Born– once admonished a Midwestern Christmas congregation, recommended good Christian parents buy their children SKS rifles and 500 rounds of ammo. One of the Missionaries working with Operation Rescue California is an “ex-“Nazi, Brian Kemper, the “777” of a South African white supremacist organization tattooed on his thick arm. He punched a woman once, entering a clinic, and participated in “minutemen” attacks — bodily rushing clinics and tearing apart furniture, equipment, files, whatever, in a frenzy of righteousness and just as quickly, escaping in getaway cars idling on the sidewalks outside. He organizes Christian hardcore and ska shows in Orange County, makes appearances on Politically Incorrect, once even performed his spoken word at Lollapalooza. In some generic lifestyle magazine —Swing, I think– a recent profile on Christian punks featured him prominently and nowhere mentioned his racist past, or his many convictions for violent harassment.
It was endless. Stone-faced children chanted in their high-pitched, munchkin voices, you’re going to hell. Their parents promised this. We received death threats on our answering machine, we were warned to be careful, to stay away, we were being followed. The disembodied voices were inevitably male, masculine, disguised; they would identify themselves only as friends of the fetus and then, in a furious verbal rush, suggest we stick our heads up our pussies. (I wonder, how did it make them feel to say such forbidden things?) In Redding they etched the names of clinic workers on flat-metal bullets before dropping them on clinic doorsteps, threatening. Godly men pointed their index fingers, squinting along the length of their thumbs, and mimicked the kick-back gesture of a gun being fired.
We would come together for birthday potlucks, go out for beers after work, but the persona of activist became an embodied one, a second skin. While steaming vegetables or playing cards, we would watch the news; at the bar we discussed fundraising. It became woven into the daily fabric of our coming and going. (It was as natural to me as the impatient gesture I brush my hair back with or the way I sometimes cover my mouth when I talk, filtering my words between my fingers.) And when it got to be too much we asked ourselves, quietly, “How much more? Is there a limit to our ability to endure?”
And once, in a strange airport, I picked up a TIME magazine, bored, and faltered upon an investigative account on the anti-abortion movement. It was no different than any other piece of mainstream coverage, full of shoddy background checks and partial histories, but there, in that airport lounge, I became anxious. Wretched, alone, suddenly burdened with a terrible, secret knowledge. I knew who was capable of killing, or capable of convincing others to kill, but who could I tell? Who would understand me? It was an alien language, it would seem as if I were speaking in tongue, hysterical. I looked up at the passive faces standing in line behind me to buy their cheap romance novels and Wall Street Journals and was amazed that this panic of mine could pass among them so quietly. I was so used to other bodies. I felt like crying.
I am always restless these days, not sure what I’m looking for. I prowl the apartment until Melanie calls, invites me over for dinner.
She puts me to work chopping apples and roasted red bell peppers while she sends Sean forth in search of oil-soaked olives, which he finds hidden on a store shelf, covered in a thin layer of dust. It is a full house tonight; Lance, Tom, and Jeff wander in and out while Arwen fills out survey forms for a nicotine addiction clinic, a fat packet of multiple-choice questions and scan-tron evaluations of her moods. (“Do you feel like you need a cigarette right now? What cigarette will be hardest for you to give up? The one you have in the morning? After meals? During stressful situations? Do you feel as if your friends and family are supportive?”) Melanie buzzes around the kitchen, cooking pasta in three inadequate pots and despairing of the household’s one metal fork. (We are so punk.) Multiple conversations shifted around the room –about zines, about advertising, about punk rock, about politics– and we dish gossip and theories about record collectors and creeps along with the food.
We eat with plastic utensils culled from neighborhood restaurants, which are carefully washed afterward, and play a speed-game of Trivial Pursuit. We are ashamed of Sean when he misses the Anne Frank question, and awed by Arwen’s supernatural ability to draw every possible question about fish and sea creatures. We decide to cheat on Sports & Leisure since no one could really expect a bunch of punks, geeks and art students to know who was MVP of the NBA in 1984.
“Who knows that stuff?” We grumble. “Let’s make it a wild card category.”
Later, squatting against the wall in the BART station, I read Tourism and Sustainability: New Tourism in the Third World, pop candy hearts in my mouth and wait for the 10:55 train. Two police officers are standing only a few feet away; they discuss my hair –bleached and dyed pink in stripes– as if I can’t hear.
As I top the stairs coming out of the station I notice a hand-scrawled sign hanging in the attendant’s glass booth: “NO VALIDATION TODAY.” Feeling whimsical, I picture the booth as a one-stop therapy shop on days when validation might normally be offered. The neatly outfitted attendant listening patiently through the speaker, reaching out to touch the glass with a kind murmur, “I hear and understand your pain, and want you to know that your feelings are completely valid. You should do whatever you have to, in order to fulfill your needs. The Fremont train arrives in five.”
Later still, walking the three blocks home through quiet residential streets, I pass a darkened house. A front porch window is lined with gold tin foil and a giant red crepe-paper heart hangs suspended among white Christmas lights. I stand transfixed on the sidewalk across the street: it seems as if the house, all black and angular against the night sky, has been cut open to reveal its warm, carnival interior, the bright gay heart of a home.
The knots in my shoulders turned to stone, I need something drastic to force me past this crisis, this lack of output. Turn over new leaves, throw open doors to china shops, take the pins out from the doll. I’m in a rut, bored, restless. Too much substance and not enough style, maybe. Where did my glitter go? No, never mind, give me my old black jeans, shiny with dirt and grease and ass-patched, I want to tie a black ribbon around my hair and commit small vandalisms, like I used to.
I want to clip photographs of technicolor foods, things like cling peaches and blood-red meatloaf, garish groceries found in the old LIFE magazines I’ve been buying at flea markets and estate stores. (My hands turn black from the dust and dirt.) I will make flashcards and caption each with non-sequiteur slogans from long-dead revolutionaries, like, “No more tyrants!” or maybe, “Rent is theft!” I want to discover the secrets of gelatin molds and that old adage, “If you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb.”
I find that I can’t write anymore; after pounding out ten pages of lecture notes a week, I feel like my quota’s been wasted on reiterating what I already know. (How many different ways can I outline Derrida and differance? How do I explain Lacan, the mirror-stage, and the formation of the fragmented ego to bored, boring seniors?) It’s not that I don’t care about these things anymore, but I feel there must be a better way to teach critical theory to eighteen year-olds. Subliminally, maybe — I could broadcast lectures along the emptied streets at three a.m., pitched at a register where I might trespass their dreams, scrawl Foucault or Spivak like graffiti, all intimate-like.
And maybe all I want to do is this: discover the secrets to spontaneous combustion, catch up on my conspiracy theories and listen to Dutch punk rock with my eyes closed, dreaming.