Thursday, September 3, 2015

Old Stomping Ground

I recently went back to the restaurant where I had my 1st job in the US as a dishwasher 31 years ago for brunch today. The Inn Kensington (no lodging here) is located on a short strip that makes up the unincorporated community called Kensington, which is up in the hills between El Cerrito and Berkeley.


This restaurant was a foodies' destination, kept secret by food writers who were regulars throughout the 80s and 90s. Many early California cuisine' luminaries worked here, trying out new and exotic, unheard of dishes in those days.
It's known for scrumptious buttermilk biscuits and fluffy omelets, made the ways they're supposed to, and Mediterranean dishes with a California flair. Bruce Aidells used to deliver his freshly-made sausages to the restaurant, then sat down for whatever was being cooked in the kitchen.
Among the most well-known regulars were Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers fame (he ate alone) and Dennis Muren (9 Oscars) and his posse from George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic.
I went from washing dishes to busing tables to becoming a waiter, as my English became more proficient. More importantly, this was where I learned to eat well, as in live to eat, not eat to live. The owners and the cooks were generous, not as concerned about making money. They wanted to cook. It was the freshest ingredients every day. At the end of the night, we all had the same food as what were on the menu. Every night.
However, the most unique, and important, things I learned as a refugee from Vietnam (anti-Communist, Reagan-Republican wannabe at the time) were diversity and inclusivity. The restaurant was owned by a lesbian couple (which at the time I had no preconception) who were social workers by day.
In addition to me, there were two other Vietnamese refugees, and refugees from Iran and Afghanistan, and later immigrants from other parts of the world as well. Some started out as dishwashers and busboys, and many graduated to waiters and cooks at the restaurant.
About 15 years ago, the owners decided to sell the restaurant to their two employees who both started out as dishwashers: One had become the cook at the time and the other was the waiter, both came from Vietnam.
The menu, and the restaurant itself, hasn't changed much. It still doesn't take credit cards, but takes personal checks (remember those?), and the utensils are real silverware that require polishing regularly. The food, especially the brunch, is like no others in the entire Bay Area.
Its address is 293 Arlington Avenue, Berkeley.


Oh, how I got that job? I was one week-shy of my 18th birthday and living with my guardian in Concord, east of San Francisco, at the time. We were informed that as soon as I turned 18, I'd no longer be eligible for public assistance (misinformation). I was attending Clayton Valley High School nearby.
What that meant was I had to quit high school and go to work. Through Vietnamese refugee network, I was told there was a job at the Inn Kensington, but I must figure out how to get there on my own: one train (BART) ride with a transfer to another line and a bus ride, about 3 hours, each way.
After about six months of washing dishes, I had saved enough money to rent an apartment of my own in Oakland, which was much closer, where I've resided ever since.
A few months after that, I decided I needed to go to school, so I asked around. I was told I needed to take a bus to a school called Merritt College, a community college, up in the Oakland hills. And so I did. The rest is another chapter of my life.

Where Is Our Humanity?

I can no longer bear to watch Syrian and African refugees suffering and dying as they try to reach Europe, in search of a better life, free from fear. Has the world become less compassionate & more inured to our fellow humans' suffering?


Photos: "Europe Migrant Crisis," the BBC
Pretty certain that I and the majority of my ONE MILLION fellow Vietnamese refugees would have perished in the South China Sea if we were to leave Vietnam today.
Amid tepid responses from rich western nations, the US included, I'm heartened that in response to the government of Iceland's stingy offer to take in just 50 Syrian refugees, more than 12,000 Icelanders have offered their homes to these refugees.
In the late 1980s a Vietnamese family walked into an Oakland social service agency where I worked seeking help. One of the younger daughters spoke English with an interesting accent. They had just relocated to Oakland... from Iceland.
That family turned out to be part of the 1st 34 Vietnamese refugees that Iceland took in in 1979. Some 300 Vietnamese eventually resettled in Iceland, making up nearly 1% of its population.
At the height of the SE Asian (Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese) refugee crisis, Iceland was one of the smallest countries that opened up their hearts & homes to people like me.

Photo: "Europe Migrant Crisis," the BBC
From the archive of the Office of United Nations High Commissioner 
for Refugees (UNHCR), which operated the refugee camps 
in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.
Just imagine... the many Vietnamese Americans and immigrants that you know or have met, the Vietnamese restaurants, the nail salons, doctors, mechanics, professors, gardeners, artists, engineers and nurses, and myself included, wouldn't be where we are today if you had turned your back on us 30 years ago.

I recently shared with NPR's Here & Now my refugee story.

Vietnamese ‘Boat Person’ Speaks Out About Refugee Crisis

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Xuân Này Con Không Về -- I Won't Be Home for New Year

(The 2015 Year of the Sheep/Goat/Ram begins on Thursday, 19 February. Which animal it is dependent on the celebrants' ethnic and country of origin.)



The above, my 1st for YouTube, is meant for my family in Viet Nam, who now finally has high-speed internet access at home, but hopefully you, especially Overseas Vietnamese, can also appreciate it. 

With the exception of the New Year's pictures, which came from Wikipedia, all other pictures are mine, taken mostly in the early 1990s. I decided to put this together because, for whatever reason, not being able to "go home" for New Year this year hit me quite hard. When seeing writer Chris Galvin Nguyen's tweet about soaking rice for making bánh chưng, it made me realize how much these New Year's rituals I still sorely missed. Thanks, Chris.

Xuân Này Con Không Về
This song was written in the early 1960s by the Trịnh - Lâm - Ngân song-writing trio. Over the years many have sung this song but only Duy Khánh has truly made this his own. For millions of Vietnamese away from home, this is our song. Though it was written, and sung, from the point of view of a young soldier at the front longing to come home for new year, the song has become the anthem for those of us, because of circumstances beyond our control, are forced to be thousands of miles away from our loved ones.

The 20th Century wasn't so kind to the people of Viet Nam, in addition to the devastating war, families were broken up not once, but twice, first in 1954 and then in 1975.


"Operation Passage to Freedom"
Northern Viet Nam's Refugees Boarding US Navy Ship in Haiphong, 1954
When Viet Nam was partitioned into two halves in 1954, it did not just divide the country, but also divided thousands of families. Over one million moved to what-now became Southern Viet Nam from the north, and about 200,000 moved in the opposite direction.

Leaving Home Once Again after 1975
And in 1975, once again the Vietnamese people are forced to leave behind their loved ones, marking the biggest exodus from just one country in the 20th Century.  All told close to 2 million Vietnamese refugees, escaping mainly by boats or on land through Cambodia, were resettled outside Viet Nam.

The Vietnamese people have been scattered to all four corners of the world. Lunar New Year, or Tết, is the biggest celebration, and family reunion event of the year. It's Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year all rolled into one. Being able to go home for this occasion would be a dream come true for those of us who have not been home for it. The hand-to-mouth existence in the developed countries is such that when you have money, you have no time or when you have time, no money.

Mother, I promise, I will be home for Tết one day soon, hopefully next year/Mẹ, con xin hứa, con sẽ về ăn Tết với Mẹ và các em một ngày sớm, hy vọng trong năm tới. Not being able to join you for Tết for 33 years is long enough/Không về ăn Tết được trong 33 năm nay đã đủ dài.