Friday, March 11, 2016

Book Review of "The Sympathizer"

Tony Tran and Helen Nguyen 
ASA 150E
11 March 2016

The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

A spy for the North Vietnamese communists, the unnamed Narrator of this story works undercover as the General’s loyal aide-de-camp and junior officer of intelligence for the South Vietnamese National Police. Right from the start, he confesses, “I am a spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces...Perhaps not surprisingly, I am also a man of two to see any issue from both sides” (1). Born the son of a Vietnamese woman and a French Catholic preacher, our Narrator believes that seeing life in two lenses is a talent--one that stems from his statuses as occidental/oriental and true communist/professed anti-communist. However, as he confesses to the mysterious “Commandant” throughout the book, “a talent is something you use, not something that uses you” or else it becomes a hazard (1). As we discover in his recount of events following the Fall of Saigon in April 1975, his dualistic way of viewing the world eventually poses many dangers to his life.
April marks the month when the war ended and a future for Vietnam begins-- a time that “meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world and nothing to most people in the rest of the world” (1). As the Narrator watches the city of Saigon fall apart, he feels conflicted over whether to celebrate the communist victory or to sympathize for the Vietnamese people. He imagines how one of the mourning civilians could have been his poor mother, one of whom had no say about the war and did not want any of it all happening at the cost of their own lives (3). After lingering over much thought, he and his blood brothers, Bon (anti-communist) and Man (secret communist), spend one more time together before parting ways. Along with the General and chosen officers, he urgently leaves with Bon and his family -- wife Linh and son Duc--to board an evacuation plane.  
As they prepare to depart, the Narrator shares his struggle with identifying as the son of French and Vietnamese parents. He was hated by both French occupants and the Vietnamese, often nicknaming him “bastard.” As an Amerasian, individuals like him were considered the “dust of life” because they did not have a place in any ethnic group. This is also the reason he eventually befriended Man, Bon, and the General who never sneered about his heritage. In addition to his half-caste identity, the Narrator was educated in America, where he learned to speak perfect English and about the American ways of life. However, he finds America too obsessed with “super” terms--superhighway, supermarkets, superman, and Super Bowl-- as ways to feel superior or super-powerful as a country. This is the same country that forced Vietnam to adapt to 10 years of living in an economy dependent entirely on U.S. imports. Though America’s biggest fault, he claims, is how it went to great lengths to split Vietnam in half and gave rise to the war.
When the Narrator’s group finally reaches their evacuation plane, it gets shot down by the incoming communist army closing in on the airport. He, the General, Madame (General’s wife), and Bon finally make it onto the last remaining plane, but Linh and Duc were unable to reach the same fate and ultimately die in Bon’s arms. Once the group lands in Guam, they are trucked off to a few refugee camps before being sponsored and settling in Los Angeles, California. It was in this time that the General shares with the narrator about potential spies in their rank, sleeper agents-- a shocking discussion for he was the General’s unsuspected, communist target. Then the Narrator obtains a job working in the office of his former college professor, Mr. Hammer. He meets his co-worker, Ms. Mori, and the two immediately form a close, intimate relationship. She confesses how people view her as the stereotypical Asian girl--sexy and subservient like the “Suzie Wong” character. This issue is still prevalent in modern times in a sense that the typical Asian woman is portrayed as petite, erotic, and subordinate across media--a common misrepresentation of Asian women. Mori also brings up another important issue about authenticity when someone guilts her for being a nisei (2nd-generation Japanese) who forgot her culture and has not visited her homeland. Often times, Asian Americans, particularly immigrants, are questioned about keeping ties to their cultural roots intact. However, individuals like she who have lived their whole lives in America tend to identify more with their national identity, which is another struggle in convincing white peers that they’re equally American.
As the Narrator’s journey continues, he is ordered to kill someone from their group whom the General is convinced to be communist spy: the Major. During the grand opening of the General’s liquor store, he runs into Sonny, a journalist he attended college with who works for the local Vietnamese newspaper. Although they shared similar communists ideology and values, he is almost surprised at how differently their paths have led them. After the celebration passed, the Narrator spends time with the Major at a restaurant, and learns that his family is struggling to get by in America and cope with their new identities as “foreigners.” His wife blames him for everything: “Why didn’t we stay at home? What are we doing here where we’re poorer than before? Why did we have a kid we can’t afford to feed?” (92). As the Major continues to share, he wonders how a man who possesses such innocence could be a communist informant.
When the Narrator expresses his concerns about potentially murdering an innocent person, Bon insists that they trust the General’s judgement. He explains that their mission is not a killing, but simply an assassination, which is more than familiar during wartime. Sensing his blood brother’s shock, Bon confesses that the only way for him to feel purpose in his life again is to complete the mission: “I can either kill myself or I can kill someone else” (94). Even after Bon’s reasoning and the General’s demands, the Narrator still secretly questions the action of killing the Major. He struggles to see the boundary between barbarism and civilization, to kill or let live. As Hegal said, “tragedy was not the conflict between right and wrong, but right and right,” and this is an enigma one cannot escape (98). Although the Major has the right to live, the Narrator’s secret mission is to remain undercover, even if it means killing an innocent person.
On the fourth of July, he and Bon set out to kill the Major. As the city’s fireworks bursts loudly in the background, he approaches the Major and gives him a bag with firecrackers and oranges, which is a cue for Bon to shoot him from behind. However, to their surprise, Bon calls after the Major to capture his final attention before ending his life. Although they successfully carried out their task, the Narrator cannot help but feel extreme guilt afterwards, sensing the Major’s ghost in his presence
Following the Major’s demise, the Narrator and Mori attends a Vietnamese wedding. There, he senses some familiarity with the singer, who he eventually realizes is the General’s oldest daughter, Lan. Now known by her American name, “Lana,” she had left Vietnam to attend UC Berkeley on a scholarship, despite her parents disapproval of a university they classify as communist and rebellious. Each time she returned to Vietnam for vacation, Lana replaced a piece of what she once was with her new American sensibilities until she became a complete foreigner to her parents. Lana’s relationship with her parents became estranged, and she ultimately decided to remain in the U.S. as a singer. Watching her perform, he cannot help but notice how different she is from the Lan he knew--not just in her appearance but also in her voice and song choices, which lack the tinge of war-sadness and loss that others felt.
During the wedding reception, Congressman Clark Gable for Orange County pays a surprise visit to express his advocacy for Vietnamese immigrants. Unlike the common ambivalence and distaste towards the refugees for disrupting the Yin/Yang (Black/White America) symmetry and being constant reminders of America’s defeat, Gable congratulates the new marriage on U.S. soil and declares his support in helping the people live their “American Dreams.”The crowd chants “Vietnam Muon Nam” to display their approval. Sonny comments that Gable’s slogan is the same as that of the communist party, to which Mori responds, “a slogan is just an empty suit, anyone can wear it” (115). To her, this political message is just “typical white man behavior” to gain the people’s support. Asians will always be expected to speak perfect English and to assimilate, and despite their years of U.S.-residency, they will continue to be regarded as “foreigners.”
Later on, the Narrator joins Madame and the General to meet Congressman Gable for lunch. The couple discuss their shame in Lana losing her Vietnamese values-- equating her “singer” role to “communist”-- and criticize the lack of moral responsibility among Americans. Gable agrees with their concerns and swear his priority in regulating Hollywood’s movies and music, which are responsible for perpetuating those ideas. However, he argues that “this is not censorship, only advice with teeth” and asks the Narrator to help provide accurate insight for a Vietnam War movie, The Hamlet (119).
In meeting Violet, the movie director’s assistant, the Narrator already gets a taste of the film when she makes assumptions and labels him as a typical, yellow, inferior Asian man. Although he is Eurasian, it did not matter because in America, it was all or none; either you were white or you weren’t (123). Once he meets the director/Auteur, the Narrator demonstrates how to act culturally correct as Vietnamese characters. However, the Auteur dismisses his suggestions and insists that movies do not need to be realistic, just what the audience thinks is realistic. On the way home, he concludes that this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, which is the most efficient propaganda ever created (129).
Despite the disagreements, the Narrator is asked to return and help make the movie more “culturally realistic.” In order to ensure that the Vietnamese people are appropriately displayed in the media, he decides to accept the job. Once at the movie set, he acquires Vietnamese background actors and ask them about the current conditions in Vietnam. Contrast to Man’s words about how the country is positively rebuilding, the actor explains that although foreigners are no longer victimizing and terrorizing the Vietnamese citizens as they did during the war, we are now carrying out the same deeds to our own people. Clearly, Vietnam is not in the state the Narrator thought it was in.
For the next visit on the movie set, the Auteur effected some changes and adds three Vietnamese characters with actual speaking parts to the story: Binh, Mai, and Danny Boy-- siblings who have lost their parents to “King Cong” (the ill-portrayed Viet Cong). Binh is the older brother who serves as a translator for the American military, and Mai is the younger sister who falls in love with an American Sergeant and is then raped by King Cong. Having lost his entire family, their youngest brother, Danny Boy, is ultimately sent to live with the family of Mai’s American lover. After learning about these new changes, the Narrator is surprised that the actors for the characters are not actually Vietnamese. The excuse is that there “weren’t any qualified Vietnamese actors” for the roles so they hired other Asians instead. The fact that his own people cannot represent themselves in the media really struck a chord with him and hints at feelings of hopelessness. Furthermore, he learns that Yoon, the actor playing “Binh,” is a Korean American who is known as the “Asian Everyman”-- an actor whose face most people would know but whose name they could not recall. Not only does the Narrator realize the difficulties in getting accurate or any representation of the Vietnamese people, but he also begins to understand that the presence of Asians in the entertainment world does not translate to how America values them.
Aside from the film, the General shares increasing headlines from newspapers about refugees’ boat experiences: “Drowning! Pillage! Rape! Cannibalism!” (155). He claims that these news stories are evidence that Communist Vietnam is undergoing a purge. This, however, is the first time that the Narrator is aware of such happenings in the homeland, so he wonders what would compel the refugees to escape by sea. In a letter to Man’s aunt, he asks if these stories are true or simply propaganda. Although he has questioned the communist agenda and revolutionary purposes before, these thoughts continue to manifest.
With the continuation of the film production, they run into some problems. For one, all of the extras are reluctant to play the role of the Viet Cong, even if it meant only playing in character once. To these American actors, the stigma of communism causes them to fear any sort of association, especially when the scenes of torturing Binh and raping Mai are so repugnant. Eventually, the Narrator helps convince them with increased pay just in time for the shoot. While the rape scene is being set up, another problem arises when the narrator asks the Auteur if this heavy-handed scene is necessary for the storyline. Annoyed, the Auteur claims that rape happens during war and it is his obligation to give the audience this shock treatment. He goes on to call the Narrator a sellout for disagreeing and a loser for helping the white man. Although he admits to being a loser, he argues that it is only because he believed in America’s promises to Vietnam.
The heated argument eventually reaches a standstill and they continue on with filming. Another problem emerges when the Auteur orders the Viet Cong actors to “act as natural as possible” in the scene with Binh, which meant torturing him and appearing as if they are enjoying it (159). With a very unclear script, they are left to do whatever they thought would fit the scene, even if that meant being extremely sadistic. The actors berate and act as brutally possible to Binh/Yoon, who puts up with the agony in order to not risk his only chance at a supporting-actor Oscar award. By the end of the scene, however, Yoon is completely lachrymose with pain. This whole occurrence was especially sensitive for the Narrator, triggering flashbacks of past encounters with his captured communist comrades.
In a later movie scene, the Narrator is injured by an accidental explosion on set. At the hospital, the Vietnamese extras thank him for speaking on their behalf to the Auteur to receive better work benefits/conditions. Due to his role as a spy, he has never experienced this sort of positive recognition in helping others before, but now that he has, it feels very rewarding. When the filming was completed, he discovers that the General plans to send a reconnaissance team to Thailand that will link up with their forward base and reconnoiter a path overland to Vietnam. While Bon is put on the team, the Narrator is asked to stay and raise funding through the Congressman’s network. Meanwhile, he receives compensation from the movie for his assistance and injuries, which he donates to the Major’s widow instead of using it for revolutionary purposes. At this point, it is evident the Narrator is beginning to shift his perspectives as he navigates the war’s legacy. However, while he developed in character with the filmwork, he also lost his love connection with Mori, who moved on with Sonny.
Some time has passed and the General’s army is growing in momentum. The volunteers were easily convinced to join the Movement, wanting to be recognized and remembered for their efforts in reviving a lost homeland (214). Soon after, the General sees news headlines about alleged operations between the Fraternity and his Movement group. These organizations helped get money and people for the General to make his fight back to Vietnam a reality. In any case, he and the General conclude that it is Sonny’s doing. However, the Narrator is also blamed for being too sympathetic of people who can potentially become ruin their future. Because of all the blame and stress, he and Bon decides to check out a revue called Fantasia, which included Lana. From Lana’s beautiful singing and attractiveness, he builds up the confidence to converse with her and notices how different she is from the Asian female stereotype, being progressive and openly expressive about her opinions. Because of Lana’s open personality, she and Bon reminisced about Saigon, and for the first time since the Narrator, he reveals to her about the death of his wife and son.
Meanwhile, the General orders the Narrator to join his army group to Vietnam, but Man advises his friend to not. To see if he has the guts to do what needs to be done once in Thailand or Vietnam, the General challenges him to kill Sonny. To plan the murder, he consults with Bon and Lana, which brings up past desires to kill his father who never acknowledged him as his son. Once he arrives at Sonny’s place, Sonny brings up Mori, teasing him for having lost his girlfriend. The Narrator avoids that conversation and reveals his status as an undercover communist. He does this to make the killing easier--to give himself a reason to exterminate Sonny. He quickly shoots Sonny and then-- from Bon’s advice--once more in the head to ensure death.
After the assassination, the Narrator feels haunted by the Major and Sonny. Before leaving to Thailand, he apologizes to Man for disregarding his advisement, but explains that he is following with the plan to make sure Bon remains alive throughout the trip. He then watches The Hamlet and notices they had omitted his name from the credits, a failure on the director’s part to make the film reflective of the Vietnamese people. On the way to the anti-communist headquarters, the General and Madame bid farewell to the group, but reveals knowing about his affair with Lana, blatantly declaring they would never allow a “bastard” to be with their daughter. By the time the group arrives at headquarters and review their plan to sneak into Vietnam, Bon confesses doubts in making any sort of revolutionary impact, yet he will just follow them to kill as many communists.
The next night, the reconnaissance team trek through the southern part of Laos toward Vietnam. They stop to take a rest and unexpectedly set off a hidden mine, ultimately blowing up one of the group members. As the group travels onward, the Major’s and Sonny’s ghosts appear to haunt the Narrator again. By the time the team reaches the Mekong River, they are ambushed by an unknown party. Bon cries out for the third time to his friend, in quiet defeat. The Narrator had succeeded in saving Bon after all, but only from death (295). The irony is that there was so many refugees that would die just to cross the Mekong River from Vietnam to Thailand to escape from the communist regime, but this group (Narrator and Bon) is willing to die to go towards Vietnam to get killed.
A year after the ambush, the Narrator is imprisoned in a “hellhole” apart from the General’s army group and finally faces the Commandant. There, he has been forced to write confessions to prove that he is progressing in his “reeducation.”As the now identified Commandant explains,  the whole purpose of reeducation is for prisoners to understand the sorrows and pain that Vietnam has experienced:
“Not satisfied with the camp and your chamber? This is nothing compared to what I went through in Laos. That’s why I’m also puzzled by the unhappiness of some of our guests. You think I’m feigning perplexity, but no, I’m genuinely surprised. We haven’t stuck them in a box underground. We haven’t shackled them until their legs waste away. We haven’t poured lime on their heads and beaten them bloody. Instead, we let them farm their own food, build their own homes, breathe fresh air, see sunlight, and work to transform this countryside. Compare that to how their American allies poisoned this place. No trees. Nothing grows. Unexploded mines and bombs killing and maiming innocents… I try to bring these comparisons up with our guests and I can see the disbelief in their eyes even as they agree with me (302).”

Reading this statement, I personally sympathize for the people in charge of the prison. Every single person there, including the prison guards, has in some way experienced pain and torture that isn’t expressed towards one another, which is a perspective the prisoners don’t understand yet. People like the Commandant have seen all methods of torture--things beyond comprehension--that in his perspective, make of their harsh methods seem almost like freedom. The Commandant asserts another reasoning that only a prisoner like the Narrator can understand:

“I can’t get them to understand that they get more calories per day than the revolutionary soldier during the war, more than the peasants forced into refugee camps. They believe they are being victimized here, instead of being reeducated. This shows how much more reeducation they need (304).”

In relation to modern times, this statement illustrates how Anti-communists in the U.S. today often have their own justified perspective of hating the communists; however, even the anti-communists have their own sensible idea that is only judged in a state of a different perspective. With that, he is led to the Commissar, the highest person in command. It was only when they stood face-to-face that he finally realizes that the person before him is Man; however, he is in a state of complete deformity due to a napalm injury. The cost of surviving was an unrecognizable, burnt body and the constant need for morphine to endure the pain. Man leads his best friend to an actual place of torture, meant for “experimental reeducation.” The Narrator undergoes a series of abuse--no sleep, blinding lights, truth serum, and lastly electrical impulses in order to keep him awake-- until he gives the communists what they want: the last unknown detail in his confessions that only torture can reveal. Only until he confesses will the narrator be absolutely “reeducated.”
Eventually, he becomes aware of the sought-out memory: an early experience with a female, communist spy who compromised her identity. The Narrator at the time was still acting as the General’s right-hand man and kept his identity safe. However, the cost of his secret was the life of a comrade whose fate was within his control. The communists wanted him to confess the mistake of standing by to watch their enemy torture her. Moreover, the communists’ series of torture succeeded in fully re-educating the Narrator, essentially ripping his spirit into two, with the living person inside him now a newly wiped human. Despite all that has happened, Man feels guilty for inflicting the pain to his blood brother and offers a pistol to end both of their personal sufferings. Instead of death, the Narrator begins therapy to become sane but also shaped to be absolutely pro-communist. He slowly reads his own confession paper as if it was written by someone else, and feels sympathy for this unknown man with two minds (i.e., himself). From this whole experience, he learns one underlying theme:
“While nothing is more precious than independence and freedom, *nothing* is also more precious than independence and freedom (360).
In the end, Man goes to lengths to help his two friends get out of Vietnam alive. Now a part of the boat people heading towards the next life, the Narrator will find a way to live on and share his story to the world.

Questions to Consider
  1. What would have happened to the Narrator if he hadn’t gone on the mission to Vietnam? Would he have been “safer” in the U.S. or perhaps subject to the General’s own form of torture for not following through with the revolution?
  2. What was Man's side of the story during the Narrator's entire journey and series of confessions?

Works Cited
Nguyen, Viet Thanh. The Sympathizer. New York: Grove Press, 2015. Print.

Shimizu, Yuko. "NY Times Book Review Cover The Sympathizer." Yuko Shimizu. N.p., 5 Apr. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2016. <>.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Book Review #2 - Tanon San Jai - Jimmy Tran

Jimmy Tran
Professor Valverde
ASA 150E
9 March 2016

Book Review #2
        Bryan Thao Worra book “Tanon Sai Jai” does a good job of establishing a voice in expressing his own past, present, struggles and successes that shapes him to be the individual he is. Bryan was born in Laos during the Laotian War. He has a very interesting background being adopted from an American Pilot who flew in Laos. He is an inspiration to the Lao, Hmong, Asian America and transcultural adoptee communities who also felt and currently feels a displacement wanting to know their biological family. It took Bryan 30 years to be reunited with his biological family. A lot of his poems expresses sadness and sorrow talking to his mother and father and expressing a pain that the readers can relate too. Readers can see that Bryan shows a deep sadness because he wants to see his parents as any other child would want to meet their parents for the first time. Currently, he travels around colleges, schools and community institutions in the United States speaking to audiences. When he came to UCD, he did a good job of explaining the history in Laos, entertain his audience and read his poems with a passion so that the audience can relate to the emotions that he expresses. Additionally, he does a good job of explaining his poems and what extent he went to produce high quality poems in the book.
 Bryan feels that stories is where we learn the most about life. It truly brings meaning to life because stories are what make people who they are as individuals. It’s through those experiences that shape them by their influence, background and their everyday life living on planet earth. He recommends Mong Lan who is a Vietnamese American poet that also writes poems that are similar to Bryans. Additionally, he feels that Mong Lan is one of his inspirations since her poems are skillful and artistic in expressing words to her audience. One thing that stood out to me is when he mentioned the fact that writing a poem is a democratic form which means that it does not have to follow a specific format. Many people have given him criticism for his English because when a person speaks broken or practical English, many assumptions and stereotypes can make cloudy judgements on him. He lets his readers know that by providing a strong foundation of language, it gives the luxury of letting people know your story which is a tremendous privilege to have since there is a lot of censorship for authors to oppress their voice and freedom of speech. A lot of his poems expresses a possible future that gives a sense of hope. On the other hand, Bryan feels that it is important to have diversity, perspective, many voices and an acceptance for multiplicity as it gives the audience a broader perspective to help them open their eyes up rather than being narrow minded. Many elders feels that poets “have to preserve culture” or else it would be lost. Bryan does not feel that this is the case as the culture will always be there since having diversity and perspective gives a fair point of view in different issues that goes on. Bryan does a good job of bringing up “The Betrayal” because he makes a good point about a ritual we have with betrayals and struggles that many Asian Americans face. It’s a cycle that we constantly repeat. Lastly and most importantly, he mentions that any writer including himself will not start out as a perfect one because it takes time to grow and learn the technique on writing successfully.
 The poems that fascinated me and stood out to me the most were “Khao Jai, Midwestern Conversations and Aftermaths as they were the most unique to me. Khao Jai inspired me because it’s an expression of the human heart and strength as every one of us has a unique talent. I feel that as human beings we take failure for granted because failing is how we learn. We must fail forward and learn from our mistakes which is how any human being improves as a person. The quote that states “I’ve seen how much difference one person can make. I don’t want anyone to fall behind in our beautiful city. As a writer, I never want a title, a grade or a sheet of paper To hold a soul back from All of the good they can do in the world. A head of knowledge is worth more than a tray full of gold and jewels. But every head is unique and capable of generosity” (29). This quote makes me realize that as human beings we tend to define ourselves by what we do, what title we are given and what grades we have gotten in the past. Sure, they are all important things but it does not define us as every human being is capable of greater things. To simply be oppressed and dragged down psychologically and mentally by those things listed above is no way for a human being to live life as the sky is the limit. No human being is perfect, we all have strengths and weaknesses. It is those strengths and weaknesses that pushes the human race to keep moving forward as shit happens and sometimes we cannot simply control unfortunate circumstances that may come our way. Another quote that stood out to me states “We fail the world, ourselves, if we don’t seek the best for one another, If we’re unkind to someone whose only crime is they aren’t like us, Or they make their way through the world by a different road than ours” (29). I can relate this to my outrageous comment of saying that #BlackLivesMatter is just a superficial movements to stir up unnecessary riots. At first I honestly felt that color of your skin is no excuse to create tensions among other human beings. I know that African Americans are being racially profiled and are killed because the color of their skin and I also know that African Americans are also killing other people of with different skin colors so I thought to myself, don’t they matter too? Don’t all lives matter? However, Professor Valverde made me realize that their movement is to stand up for something deeper than that. It is standing up for the fact that African Americans are constantly being treated as second class citizens because of their blackness. No matter how educated, smart, credible, polite they may be, they are still seen as thugs who have no place to belong in the world. #BlackLivesMatter is trying saying that black lives matter just as much as any other lives, they are not trying to say that they matter more. Like Bryans quote, the point I am trying to prove that we are all human beings and we all deserve to get treated equally regardless of the color of our skin. The color of our skin is just a skin color hiding behind the heart and soul we possess beneath out physical bodies. We all want to contribute, live life and be happy in an ideal world where we continue to love each other.

       Midwestern Conversations made me realized that Asian Americans males like Bryan and myself are handed expectations to live a certain way. One of the quotes stated “You’re the whitest guy I know,” Nate tells me over a backyard BBQ At the end of high school. It’s supposed to be a compliment. “You speak English even better Than some of the students who were born here,” A teacher tells me after hours” (30). I just want say that I do not like to be given a certain label to act like a certain race or ethnicity, I only know how to act Asian, Vietnamese and American. I personally would be offended if I was told that I was the whitest guy someone knows. How am I supposed to take that as a compliment? What makes me white? Because I treat other people with respect? What makes a white person better than everyone else when clearly all other ethnicities work just as hard as white people? However, I realize that it’s the patriarchal system that is engrained in our heads that were planted in other minorities head to oppress and to keep them in check at a certain level. To make them feel inferior because of their race and to plant a fear that makes them believe that white people are better than them when clearly that is not the case. We have to live with a new attitude believing that we are winners because that is what keeps the human race and Asian Americans going coming into a new generation forming as we speak.

How has the poem "Khao Jai" changed the way you think about yourself and place in your personal life? Do you feel that you have been socially engrained to define yourself based on what you were labled as a person growing up?

Works Cited
Worra, Bryan Thao. Tanon Sai Jai: Poems. Minneapolis, MN: Silosoth Pub., 2010. Print. 

Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 10 Mar. 2016.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Book Review: Tanon Sai Jai by Bryan Thao Worra

Mary Moua
ASA 150E
6 March 2016

Life As Worra Knows It

In the book Tanon Sai Jai, author Bryan Thao Worra writes about his life as a Laotian American in the form of poems where he expresses his thoughts and feelings about a variety of topics including identity and culture, food, nature, his homeland of Laos, and assimilating to American society and culture. He does this by writing the poems in stanzas with many of them being short and just a page long while some others are one to two pages in length. Through Worra’s writing mechanisms, he does an effective job at providing context and details about his life and how his journey as a Laotian adopted individual has impacted his life and shaped the person that he has come to be and embraced.

            While reading Tanon Sai Jai, one comes to gain a better understanding of Worra through the topics and themes that he writes about to describe his feelings, thoughts, and experiences. One topic or motif that was consistently brought up in many of the poems present in the book is change and the idea that change is possible in the world despite the many problems and issues that exist in the world that tries to prevent it. Worra’s persistent belief in change is supported through his optimism and positivity - feelings that he continually emits and expresses throughout the book. His positive outlook on life supports his notions of change because it explicitly demonstrates that he believes in people and individuality and the idea that anyone can make change and be the change that the world needs. His hope for change and progress in society is evident through poems like “Notes Regarding the Living Heart” or “Khao Jai” where he emphasizes on the importance of believing in one’s self as well as others so that the positive change that needs to happen in the world can finally begin. His notion of change implies that with the combination of one’s self as well as with the work and collaboration of others, this change can happen and progress can start to finally happen. In “Notes Regarding the Living Heart”, Worra mentions about the different possible methods one can use or do to start the change that they wanna see, such as meeting a stranger or climbing a mountain. While the poem may seem like it was written to Worra himself as a reminder of the things he can do to elicit the transformation and progress in society he would like to witness, the poem is also written to give the readers suggestions on Worra’s thoughts about change and ideas that may work towards their favor in ending the perpetuation of issues like racism or judgments. Through the words “With a khop jai and a smile, do what you change worlds, even one inch, one hand at a time”, Worra strongly believes that change is possible and that even one little thing can make a big difference in the long run (9). Worra continues to support his opinion on change in “Khao Jai” where he speaks about the different barriers that influences one to stop believing one’s self such as “a title, a grade or a sheet of paper” which can therefore “...hold a soul back from all of the good they can do in the world” (29). Through this poem, Worra demonstrates his belief in individuality and the perception that everyone is unique in their own way, that everyone moves and learns at their own pace, and that self-confidence and self-esteem is crucial in creating change. Worra’s strong belief in change is evident through many of the poems in Tanon Sai Jai and provides a great perspective on the type of person he is and how he feels about the way society is right now.
            Another topic that Worra constantly wrote about in the book was his experiences of racism and the obstacles he came across for being an Asian American citizen living in the United States. As a person of color, Worra was not an exception to negative plagues like racism, stereotypes, and microaggression and wrote about these experiences in his book. In poems like “Midwestern Conversations” and “Surprises in America”, Worra describes his experiences with individuals who teased him and placed in him a box of stereotypes, categories, and labels all because of the color of his skin. In “Midwestern Conversations”, readers are aware through Worra’s story that racism comes in all shapes and forms and can happen to anyone from anyone. From being complimented to speaking “English even better than some of the students who were born here” to being told that he looked like “one of the bad guys”, Worra has been a victim and survivor of microagressions and stereotypes that has affected him and shaped his life in some way or shape (30). Worra continues to share his unfortunate experiences of racism in the next poem “Surprises in America” where he is attacked and questioned for being an American even though he was raised in America and lived there for most of his life. He writes, “It struck me by surprise that many people didn't believe I was an American, when I had lived here all of my life” (32). While other people were questioning him and his identity, Worra was questioning America and whether it was really the “Land of Opportunity” that he had thought it was supposed to be. It is through these few poems that readers discover Worra’s disappointment with America because of all the issues he’s faced as an Asian American individual just trying to make it in the world and his longing to live back in his homeland of Laos - the one place that provides him with happiness and fulfillment that the United States can’t necessarily provide him.

            While reading Worra’s poems, I noticed that he talked about a variety of topics and created his poems to encompass many themes and motifs. I’m curious as to what inspired him to write a book about his life and experiences and one where those experiences are written in the form of poems. Authors usually just write an autobiography about themselves by simply narrating the stories in paragraphs and chapters, but Worra demonstrates his individuality by writing these stories in poems. My question for him would be what inspired him to write about his life, particularly through poems and not the usual common kind of medium that readers are used to reading and writers are used to writing. Since Worra also wrote about the topic of change many times in Tanon Sai Jai, I would like to know whether he thinks there is change being made in society nowadays, what he believes change looks like, and whether or not he believes it’s still possible for change to happen with all that is going on in the world right now, especially with issues like racism and poverty just to name a few.
            Tanon Sai Jai is a book that explores author Bryan Thao Worra’s life experiences and memories. By constructing these stories in the form of poems, Worra presents different stories and memories that he has experienced throughout his life, such as experiences with racism and his beliefs about change, identity, and culture. In the book, Worra is able to weave through and tie all the topics and themes together, ultimately demonstrating proof of his intersectionality and his pride in being a Laotian American individual who will and has made change in the world in many ways - with one of them being this book.


Worra, Bryan Thao. Tanon Sai Jai: Poems. Minneapolis, MN: Silosoth Pub., 2010. Print



Friday, March 4, 2016

Book Review: Demystifying Hmong Shamanism - Linda A. Gerdner

By: Mai Vang, Miggy Cruz, and Hoang Phuong Vy Nguyen  

Demystifying Hmong Shamanism depicts an insightful discussion of Shamanism, a practice that has travelled across borders to help Hmong people maintain cultural identity and provide solidarity in a place far from their homeland. By providing a broad range of case examples, Linda A. Gerdner aims to promote the cultural and spiritual importance that Shamanism continues to play in the lives of Hmong-Americans.
To understand the central values of a certain culture, one must acknowledge the history of that ethnic group and recognize the importance of their religious source. Early written documentations about Hmongs derived from other cultural groups. They mostly located in isolated high-lands of Laos, but when the Vietnam war spread into Northeastern Laos, some supported the Communists, while others served the U.S -- resulting in a diasporic migration to the U.S. or other Southeast Asian countries when the U.S. withdrew its soldiers.
For refugees that resided in the U.S., their family and clan structure provided them support and necessary network for adaptations to the new life and experience. Family unit is part of a larger clan structure as that provides the basic social organization for the community. Hmongs heavily emphasize the concept of interdependence; in families, any life decision that one member makes can directly or indirectly impact the rest of the family. Meanwhile, clans interconnect as they practice exogamy; daughters have to marry outside of their own clan. Gerdner explains that Shamanism plays an integral role in these spiritual beliefs because as individuals practice spiritual well-being, they also form a healthier society where  “individuals are interdependent and collaborative working for the greater whole, in contrast to a “sick” society that is highly individualistic and ruled by competitiveness.” (Gerdner 18)
Shamanism is placed within a greater context of Hmong cosmology. Gerdner expresses that “cosmology is divided into yai ceeb and yeeb ceeb” (Gerdner 11); people are born into the world of the living, yai ceeb, and is assisted back to yeeb ceeb during the time of death.
This represents a strong interdependence between the living and the deceased because as the two desire support for one another; the living pay homage to the deceased, in return, for protection by his/ her ancestors. Moreover, the human body is believed to host a number of souls; the isolation of one or more of these souls can cause spiritual illness. Animals are used as sacrifices to prevent the separation of these souls as their spiritual makeup differs from that of human beings; their one and only soul is equivalent to many of humans', hence, preventing deaths and illnesses. Consequently, sharing this mutual belief system is what unifies the Hmong community and maintain their existence in the U.S. Nonetheless, others may be skeptical towards cosmology as they view this as a form of superstition. Therefore, what is a superstition? How does it differ from tradition? How do we know where to draw the line between the two?  
Shamans are chosen through spiritual calling that can be manifested in forms of  “symbolic death and resurrection, dream or serious illness” (Gerdner 20). A few believes that individuals can also make conscious decisions to become a shaman and “communicate with benevolent spirits to help the Hmong” (Gerdner 28). Regardless, each new shaman will then be mentored by a master shaman, whose role is to mentor him in physical aspects such as preparing tools, setting up and maintaining a permanent altar. During the initiation ceremony, the new shaman will receive his permanent altar, while master shaman and his spirit helpers travel to see Siv Yis, the first shaman, to carefully assign spirit helpers to the new shaman. Although, altars that belong to Hmong-American shamans may differ from that of shamans living in Laos, in general, all shaman altars have basic similarities.

Image 1: Two altars: of Hmong-American shaman (left) and of Hmong shaman living in Laos (right)

Once a Shaman receives his or her spiritual calling, they “[make] a lifelong commitment to the practice of shamanism” (Plotnikoof, Numrich, Wu, Yan and Xiong, 2002, cited by Gerdner 57). Gerdner follows the story of a man who was born in Laos, Mr. T. Mr. T and his family fled Laos in 1975, the same year of the fall of Saigon. They travelled to Thailand and eventually to the U.S., most specifically to Minnesota, as refugees. The U.S. welcomes various religions, but most practice Christianity, Catholicism. Mr. T., after a few years of living in the U.S. converted to Catholicism. Gerdner discusses the differing opinions of the Hmong population in the U.S. The Hmong were grateful to the U.S. for opening its doors to them, but how to express their gratefulness differed within the group. Some felt willing to convert to Catholicism because they were indebted to do so. Some felt pressured, while others were “internally motivated to become Christians” (Gerdner 58). She notes that many were grateful, but the way they would expressed their gratitude.
The Hmong practice animism, or the belief that one cannot separate the spirit from the body, even after death, which proves why the Hmong practice interdependence, not just with their family, but also with their deceased family members. Mr. T. practiced Catholicism for thirty years, until he began feeling bodily pain. This incident caused Mr. T. to return to his shamanistic ways. He contacted a Master Shaman to conduct the induction ceremony. Gerdner goes into a great deal of discussion about the steps it takes to be a Shaman. There is a delicacy in the way a Shaman is blessed. The tools used and the people involved in the induction are particular. During Mr. T.’s induction ceremony, the Master Shaman gave each family member a task that each must perform prior to the ceremony, during, and after. Sacrificial animals are involved, and the entire ceremony is spiritually, emotionally, and most of all physically demanding. Moreover, the construction and placement of the altar is most important. Master Shaman Xiong “warned the new shaman that an altar should never be placed on the lower level of a home where persons walk on the floor directly above” (Gerdner 59). Shaman T. placed his altar in their basement, unwavering to the previous warning by Master Xiong. It was only after he fell ill again did he finally move the altar to the second floor of their home.
There are five ways in which a shaman can be chosen, spiritual calling. In all five ceremonies the master shaman must either write the name of the candidate or chant it. The ceremonies also include rice and a balance egg in the vertical position on top of an inverted glass cup. The shaman performs the selection ceremony three times. Certain severe illness require special physicians, which is why in Western medicine there are specialists such as oncologists and neurologists, to name a few. Similarly, there are also special shamans who perform particular ceremonies for problems identified by the individual and the family members. There are a number of ceremonies, and the most common is the Ua Neeb Kho, or the healing ceremony. The healing ceremony is particular to those receiving the spiritual help, and it also involved animal sacrifice (Gerdner 75).
Furthermore, Gerdner discusses two case studies where a shaman had to perform more than one ceremony to the ill in order to relieve them of their pains. The ceremonies performed takes hours and hours. The preparation itself is extensive and truly a labor.One case study relied purely on shamanism, while the second managed to incorporate shamanism and western medicine at the same time. Note that combining shamanism and western practices is decided by the family. In fact, many of the ceremonies cannot be performed in a hospital setting and must be done by the shaman in their home with a piece of clothing from the patient. Still the Hmong-American community rely heavily on these rituals for healing.
The most interesting was the fact that calling for a shaman to heal costs a good sum of money. For instance, in one of the case studies the family and the shaman made an agreement that the family would pay the shaman $1500. That came as a shock, but also understandable because by Gerdner’s research on how the ceremonies were performed and executed, the tools used and the labor is quite extensive. In particular the shamans, and in general, the Hmong culture, is very particular on their textile. The clothing of a shaman is very symbolic. The color and weaving patterns present in the clothing of a shaman indicate certain things about the shaman. For example, if a shaman were wearing a red hood, the primary spirit helper would be male (Gerdner 111). Both the physical and spiritual health of the Hmong people is important to them, and practicing interdependence means they value their family living or passed.

                   Image 2: Female Shaman practicing healing ritual in her home.

Shamanism still exist today because of the belief that our world is surrounded by the spirit realm. From conception, a life is protected by the shaman. As Gerdner had observed, “the shaman plays a critical role in the spiritual health of the mother and child throughout the pregnancy.” (Gerdner 127) Through case examples, the readers are given a detailed illustration of the setup and events that occurs during the ceremony. Throughout the passage we are introduced to the sacrifice of animals such as pigs and chickens as offerings  to provide the safeguard of the child. During the ceremony, a live pig is placed in front of the shaman’s altar. Through chantings and the use of the divining horns, the shaman seeks to ask for the pig’s life and in return, the shaman will send the pig toward reincarnation. It is a belief that when an animal dies, they are reborn as humans. The pig’s consent to sacrifice his life is known when the divining horn is thrown and face the same direction three times. 
After the birth of the child, another ceremony is performed to protect the child from danger. The soul-locking necklace is an object that is used for spiritual protection. During this ceremony, a rooster is used as an offering to enhance the protective power of the necklace. Like how the pig consented through the divine horn, the rooster shows the same consent. When the pigs and chicken has been sacrificed, the shaman send with them spirit money to help them in the spirit world. The necklace is a string that is tied to the child by the shaman and is to be left on for three days. The string necklace can later be replaced by a silver necklace for protection. Overall, this ceremony is meant for protection, blessing, and providing the child additional bondage to the extended family. 
As a Hmong reader, I am amazed by the information and purpose that the author has provided for the audience. Raised in the ways of the shaman, I have yet to see these kind of rituals but I have seen rituals similar to these. As I know, a ceremony is performed before the birth of the child only when the mother sense complications or uneasiness with the pregnancy. As for the soul-locking necklace, this rituals seems to  be practice less. But a ritual is performed after the birth, hu plig, to ensure the health of the child. Instead tying strings to the neck, strings are tied to the wrist. The meaning behind the soul-lock necklace and the wrist seems to be the same. 
Shamanism is powerful to those who believe in it. In a case study, Gerdner provided the authenticity of the shaman’s power. A family was concern about their son who doesn’t speak. While the shaman was away, the family went to the shaman’s home and left 3 joss stick on the shaman’s altar. When the shaman returned to find the joss stick, he was able to determine the family’s concern. In performing a ritual, he was able to find the root of the problem. It went back to the great grandfather or the child who had died in Laos. His spiritual guidance has allowed him to see that an error had occurred during the grandfather’s burial where the family members forgot to take the coin out of the deceased mouth. The mute son was the result of this punishment. Another reason was that the boy did not like his selected name. When a child is born, they are given a name by the people in yaj ceeb. If the child did not like the name given, they will often become sick or cry very often. After the ceremony, there was a follow up. The child improved on his speaking skills but plateau after three years and was diagnosed with autism. Here we see that the shaman was able to give voice to the child even though it did not last long.
Shamans also play a role when a new year comes around. This new year is often celebrated between October to December and the Hmong calls it, Lwm Qaib. This is a ritual performed to drive out evil spirits with the new year. Family and extended families come together for this event. Those who are unable to attend will have their family members bring a piece of their clothing to represent them there, spiritually.  The set-up is often outside where there are two poles with enough distance for people to walk around. Attach to the poles is a vine, often made from the leaves of lemongrass. While the shaman is chanting, the families walk under the vine counter-clockwise three times to release evil spirits. Once the shaman gives a note to move again, the families transition to clockwise to bring in good luck.
From my personal experience, Lwm Qaib, is pretty scary. The author did not mentioned this but during the walk, after every chants, the shaman sprays water through his mouth and it usually gets on the family members. We always tried to stay away from the sprays. Once the walking and chanting is done, before we are able to dispersed, the shaman slice the chicken’s neck  to kill it for offering and throws the chicken above our heads. Sometimes the blood gets on us too. When this is done, we are to return home directly and enter through the back door, but before we do, our parents will have to call our spirits to go with us.
Hmong Shamanism has survived throughout history, despite the changes in geographic location. Particularly those residing in urban centers of the United States, their access to education and advanced college degrees put them at a greater risk of losing core aspects of their spiritual and cultural heritage. However, these external influences does not seem to have stopped them from maintaining traditional spiritual beliefs of animism and ancestor worship. Thus, Shamanism remains relatively strong. This is because Shamanism fulfills the people's spiritual yearning to participate in a sacred drama that makes life meaningful -- something Western medicine can never do.

Works Cited
Gerdner, Linda, and Shoua V. Xiong. Demystifying Hmong Shamanism: Practice and Use by Hmong Americans Across the Lifespan. N.p.: Bauu Institute, 2015. Print.


1.      Gerdner, Linda A. Photo 4-1 and Photo 4-2. N.d. Demystifying Hmong Shamanism. Demystifying Hmong Shamanism: Practice and Use by Hmong Americans Across the Lifespan. N.p.: Bauu Institute, 2015. 30-34. Print.
2.      Unknown Artist. Female Shaman practicing healing ritual in her home. “What is Shamanism? Where did it come from?” The world of Medical Anthropology. n.p. n.d. Web. 4 March 2016.