What We Owe
by David Huynh
May 31, 2020. 1:00 AM. It’s been five days since the George Floyd protests began in the Twin Cities. I stand with others in Flatbush, Brooklyn in a standoff with a police force outnumbering us three to one. We’ve been marching the better part of an hour: this small group of protesters being shadowed by a mob of police. I have my hands up in the air; both to show that I am no danger and to appeal to the humanity of the police officer standing six feet away from me. He cuts an intimidating figure, standing at least 6’2” with his baton at full length, ready for forced pacification. Most of his face is hidden by an N99 mask, but I can see his blue eyes through the visor of his helmet.
They’re cold. Pitiless. His colleague walks behind him, spits at the ground, and snarls, “Fuck, just grab him.”
And suddenly this mass of police officers explodes into action, trying their best to grab at the gathered peaceful protesters. We run.
Fear and adrenaline are a potent mixture. I’m vaguely aware of how my lungs burn, but my legs keep pumping. We work almost telepathically, finding escape routes together and then instinctually scattering the group to make it less likely to compromise each other. I hear the thudding of policemen’s boots on the asphalt behind me and feel a rush of relief as they fade into nothing.
Shaken, I go home.
I upload the picture above and share bits of what happened through social media. It does what information does and circulates. Messages of concern and support come flooding back from my friends, but it triggers something else entirely once my family sees it. I, like many Vietnamese-Americans, come from a refugee family. My parents were forced to come here after the fall of Saigon and left their families back in Vietnam. The family overseas sees my posts and it triggers an intercontinental family council meeting. They quickly reach a consensus. A day later, I receive a phone call. It’s my mom.
Hello? “David, ha?” (David, is that you?) Dạ, David đây. (Yes, mam. David here.)
“Mm. Chờ một chút. Cô 7 cũng muốn nói chuyện với con.” (Mm. Wait a second. Aunt 7 also wants to talk to you.)
Together, my parents and my aunt make a case and command.
“You are Vietnamese. What happened to George Floyd was tragic, but what happens to Black people in America is their own business. You must stop protesting and stay home. Keep your head down before you get hurt.” I know it comes from a place of concern. I know it must be a terrifying image to see on the Vietnamese news – American cities burning and rioters clashing with the police. Stories about looting and rampant police brutality. A police officer kneeling on a man’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. It would be easy to stay home and wait for it to pass. But I also know that the easy choice is the wrong choice. I explain that I’m not Vietnamese: I’m Vietnamese-American. This affects all Americans and to hide would be permitting the oppression of another group of people for our own comfort. When racists were targeting Vietnamese people after the war, the Black community stood up for us. We have an obligation to help. We’re in this together. There’s a pause on the other end of the line. I’ve struck a nerve. Then my father speaks. His voice is tired. “Ba, mẹ tới đây rất khó. Mà phải làm để lo cho con. Nó lấy đời sống của con sao?” (We came here and it was so hard. We had to so we could take care of you. What if they take your life from you?)
I’m reminded that they don’t consider themselves American. Their existence here has always been conditional. I remember my mom telling me how a manager would steal her tips and cut her pay because she didn’t “deserve to make as much as a ‘real’ American.” I remember the deckhands who worked on my father’s shrimp boat whispering stories about the KKK along the Gulf South antagonizing them.
My parents are scared for me. They know in their hearts that something is broken in this society. They may not be able to name it, but it made an impression on them early in their time here and gave them all the incentive they needed to be as unobtrusive as possible. Their silence has been their survival mechanism for over 45 years. It’s the only way they know how to protect me.
I tell him simply: no one should be afraid of their home.
I realize too late how crass that sounds. They had no choice but to leave their home after April 30th, 1975. How many of their friends vanished after the war, never to be heard from again? How did it feel to leave your family and be taken to this strange, foreign country? How many years did they scrape by to finally live again? What does that do to you? The weight and cost of their “freedom” presses on my mind, in stark juxtaposition to the “freedom” I was born into. I breathe in and slowly exhale, counting my heartbeats to distract me from the wall of silence building between us. Finally, my aunt gives me the closest thing to a blessing I can ask for.
“Đừng làm gì ngu, nghe không?” (Don’t do anything stupid, ok?)
I say, I won’t disappoint you. She laughs.
My parents are silent.
David is an activist and actor based in NYC. He co-founded the The Sống Collective, a Vietnamese-American Theatre collective. See more at www.david-huynh-actor.com