The Immigrant Sounds of Argyle Street


Bustling three-block street of Argyle

With the rumbling noise and vibration of a CTA train passing through the viaduct

Accompanied by the cacophonic sounds of the Vietnamese language heard

As it enters and exits out of the local grocery stores on a busy weekend day

The rapid chopping sounds of a knife slaying into the lifeless, barbecue-drenched duck on the stain-covered white table as the remaining pig carcass hung by its hook on public display to entice carnivorous customers to consume its remains at one of the local Chinese bbq digs.

The sounds of tongs clasping the body of a lone blue crab as it is pried away from its inmates and into the brown bag. The unforgettable sounds of machinery sawing through the frozen meat in the butcher section.

The sounds of coins shaking from a homeless man muttering for a few more as Vietnamese shoppers obliviously walk by

At Chu Quon bakery, the sound of a cash register impatiently printing out tiny receipts with faded blue ink and concluding with the slamming of the register door as customers take home their desserts filled with rice cakes, flaky wintermelon cakes, and moon cakes.

The slurping sounds from folks basking in the broth of freshly-made Pho at the Pho 777, Pho 888, and Tank Noodle (presumably the missing Pho 999).

The sounds of drivers angrily honking at the intersection of Argyle and Broadway as pedestrians unwittingly mistime their crossing.

The water hose being turned on to feed the mini Japanese bonsai plants outside on display in front of an antique store where walking inside is the sight of bamboo plants, Buddha statues in various poses, and incense used to awaken the spirits of ancestors past ready to be sold.

Walking by the mural, I see this street’s history.

The art depicting the welcoming arrival of my folks who came here to survive after having lost their community during the war, recreating a piece of Vietnam on that very street,and to be built on a place that didn’t carry the sounds of bombs and machine guns.

I step away, and hear the sound of relief.

 

Confronting Death When Our Parents Age

image

On April 16th, during the weekend of the Khmer New Year celebration and Day of Remembrance which marked the 41 year anniversary of the Khmer Rouge genocide that killed over 2 million Cambodians, I hosted a small, intimate roundtable discussion on initiating “end-of-life” care conversations with our loved ones. In the Khmer-American community, the generation of refugees who arrived in America after the genocide are aging and becoming senior citizens. As they transition into elderly status, how do their adult children take on the reality that their parents would soon decline, and eventually pass on? Furthermore, how do elder loved ones in the Southeast Asian communities deal with the issues relating to aging?

I was inspired to take on this subject as both of my parents just entered into their 60s. Both of my parents were survivors of war (my mom’s family escaping from the Vietnam War while my dad survived the Khmer Rouge genocide), and experienced many of the PTSD issues that are connected to those traumas. Four years ago, my mother suffered a stroke. Before I turned 30, I would soon share the responsibilities with my brothers on being her caregiver. Meanwhile, my father has struggled mightily with his own PTSD issues after his escape from Cambodia, and his own mental health struggles would become a major hindrance during my mom’s recovery.

image

Through my experiences being my mom’s caregiver, I was confronted with my own challenges in being able to give her the emotional support she needed. It required confronting my own complicated relationship with my parents. From my teenage to early adulthood years, I rebelled against my parents’ ideals of being an “obedient son”, a family prize that would achieve success in the medical and science field ( a place that my dad once said that “most Asian people” belong to), and bypassing my family culture that I found too oppressing and limiting altogether. I found it challenging for myself to reinvent my relationship with my mom. The years of limiting my emotional accessibility to her has been a barrier in giving myself the opportunity to hold the conversations I am wishing to have.

The reality that for my mom and for our loved ones, they are on borrowed time. When we think of buying eggs or a carton of milk, we look at the expiration date in the back, and think of what meals we can make out of in a specific time. With our loved ones, we don’t have the luxury of knowing when they’ll pass on, and oftentimes, we may not be so fortunate to spend the kind of quality time with them before they expire.

With the current group of US survivors from the Khmer Rouge era aging, there is a growing need to have a discussion on what their needs are, and how they can discuss them with their loved ones. The reality of facing pending mortality is an emotional trigger in the senior community. For the Khmer Rouge survivors, it also triggers memories of facing near death when they were fleeing / surviving from their homeland. As many of their children are now in their adulthood and starting their own families, elderly parents find it challenging to express what their needs are, and how to communicate it to their adult children.

During our roundtable discussion, I first did an ice-breaker where I asked everyone to think about a special loved one in their life, and asked another ice-breaker about a time when they made a decision that improved the quality of their life. This would lead into the main discussion of how empowering it is to be able to make your own life decisions and how you can involve your loved ones in the process. We would share stories on our challenges of initiating “end of life” care discussions with our parents and siblings. Their parents often become reluctant to talk about death with their children. Instead, they would casually joke around, and say “well, you better take care of us when we get old, okay?” One of the takeaways from our story-sharing was that we were conditioned to not become “overly emotional” or sensitive in front of our family as it is a sign of weakness. In typical of most Asian communities, it can be harder to express those vulnerabilities. This hinders our ability to verbalize our own needs, and how we want to be taken care of before we pass.

From my own experiences, I remembered my dad and male members of my family ridiculing me if I started crying, or expressing my feelings to them. By attempting to eliminate that part of my emotion, it created a lifelong struggle with being able to personally connect with my family. I rarely allowed my family access to my personal feelings; I had difficulties telling my family when I was getting bullied in school, or that I ended my friendship with an old high school friend, etc. As my mother’s caregiver, I found it difficult to have that relationship where it required me to be open and vulnerable to her. By avoiding it with my mom, I am often left feeling guilty that I have continued to neglect the many days that I could have had to improve my relationship with her.

In our group, we are left uncertain on how to express our love to our parents, and how we can best support them emotionally as they deal with the hardships of aging. We also see the value of how important our relationship with our siblings are, and how they can play a role in the handling of our parents’ care, and after their passing. We shouldn’t have to shame ourselves of our feelings when it includes fear, anxiety, depression, and anger.

By asking what our parents want and involving the family members, there is a fine line between controlling someone and guiding them to make the right decisions. We also have to be aware of what the end-of-life situation could look like. Do my parents want to stay on a feeding tube or on life support? What is the impact of someone that has a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order? Who are my parents willing to designate as their Power Of Attorney in their family to make health care decisions on their behalf if they are no longer able to? What ways can we educate ourselves and our family about these options? How can we empower our parents to make these decisions on their own? How can we start thinking about the “quality” of care that impacts them? There are also situations when our parents are not willing to have that discussion, or are no longer wanting to make decisions on their needs and final wishes.

With the generational differences heavily prevalent in regards to education, culture, language, intergenerational trauma, and economics between our parents and us, as adult children, do we have enough of a starting point where we can overcome our discomfort in talking about what life would look like without our parents present? Do we have what it takes where we can strengthen our trust and put aside our past insecurities with our parents and siblings? As adult children, we are in the process of establishing our own future, and at the same time, we must also consider how we can support our parents’ future. This can only happen by asking.

Tears of a Rainbow

The LGBTQ community recently secured a victory from the US Supreme Court this past week on its legalization for marriage equality. For many in the LGBTQ community, as well as a growing number of straight allies, this was a historic milestone worth celebrating, just in time for Pride weekend across the nation. However, for others in the LGBTQ community, there are growing concerns on the number of issues that are still left on the table, or have yet to be acknowledged by the community as a whole, and what direction the LGBTQ community will take moving forward.  For some including myself, this historic day has triggered some unhealed wounds from our past during a time when we were in the process of coming to terms with our identity, and the fears that the other LGBTQ issues will not be as supported or advocated now that the marriage equality has come to pass.

On the day of the Supreme Court ruling, I became visibly emotional, not so much out of joy, but in recalling many of the pain that I endured as I was struggling to come to terms with my Asian-queer identity. I first thought about the countless generations of LGBTQ folks that have passed on having never lived to see the ruling, never having the opportunity to see the stronger queer community spaces that’s become more accessible, and that they have had to endure a lifetime of secrecy, disownment from their family and community, public ridicule, imprisonment, and violence.  There are those whose lives ended prematurely because of the power of the homophobia / transphobia resistance had / still has towards our community, which has led to suicide or hate crime violence. Those are people that we cannot bring back, and that their lives are forever attached to the lifetime of hurt & cruelty of their identity(ies) from a society that believes could not co-exist with the accepted hetero space.

I recall the years of childhood and young adult angst of growing up in a predominantly white suburb, coming from a family of immigrant refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia. I remembered the struggles of being socially accepted by my peers as a minority, while at the same time, facing pressures from my family to succeed academically and having to uphold my family culture through that process. As I hit puberty, I remembered feeling mortified when I started to have attraction towards men. I heard the voices of my male peers yelling out the words, “faggot”, “homo”, “you like to suck dick” amongst themselves. I think about the time when my high school English teacher brought up Matthew Sheppard, a gay man that was murdered in a hate crime in the late 90s, and some of my classmates’ responses were downright visceral, “He deserved to die”, “Oh, that’s what he gets for being gay” as they said while others laughed and nodded in unison. I sat quietly in my desk, slowly slumping over knowing that I was already an outcast. I was fearful for my own life for the first time. I could be the next victim. I was so upset with my English teacher for bringing his name up as she stood quietly and did little to interject or disrupt my classmates’ hatefulness. She didn’t realize how much I needed to feel supported, but instead it only validated that my existence was never going to be respected. My parents suspected and raised concerns over my sexuality, and insisted that I should not become that way. I had spent those years into my adult years being forced to “straight-act” and to quiet any suspicions of my own sexual identity. It was for my own survival. Even today, as open as I have become, I still resort to moments of downplaying my identity when I meet with older folks, certain past and present colleagues, and with my own mom whose disability has put me in the position as a caregiver along with my brothers.

I fear the losing of allies and the growing division of the LGBTQ community on issues that are ongoing in the racial, social, gender, economic inequality spectrum. Yes, marriage equality is essentially important as it not only validates same-sex couples’ union, but to receive benefits, to have a family, to have equal rights when their spouse is sick, or facing end-of-life. However, it’s a megabyte among the terabyte of the community’s concerns. We still have hate crime violence issues, especially among transgender folks of color, high LGBTQ homelessness, employment discrimination, immigration, lack of proper healthcare access, gender profiling, hetero / cis-gender sexism towards trans folks, and the list continues to go further. Will any of our other issues hold any weight and momentum on the mainstream level, but more importantly, from within the community whose interests and issues are differed and varied? Will there be a time and space where our community will begin to properly heal from the post-traumatic wounds from the discrimination, violence, shaming, and marginalization that folks have experienced?

My experiences as an Asian-identified queer have made me naturally leery of straight folks that have supported the recent Marriage Equality rights. Were these the same folks that openly shamed LGBTQ folks in my life which have caused me to retreat into an identity that wasn’t me? Would these folks still be there when we need to have another important legislation to pass when we need to once again validate our need for equality? Would they ever take the time to understand and validate the struggles that my queer friends and I still care about? At the same time, I also think about the number of straight allies who became my friends who were the first ones to lovingly support me. They, along with my LGBTQ comrades, were the ones that listened, consoled me, empowered me as I was stammering out the words, “I’m queer,” and reinforced the kind of loving community I have surrounding me.

Within the LGBTQ community is a growing divide. For years in my bisexuality, I remembered hearing ridicule from the gay and lesbian community telling me that there’s no such thing, or it’s just a denial. Having to hear that kept me more in the closet, and contradicted the inclusion and protection that the gay / lesbian community was supposed to bring in. In the mainstream gay circles, we are not recognizing gender pronouns, agender / gender queer, cis / non-cis gender identities. Heck, I learned about gender pronouns only 2 years ago. So the distrust and disconnect is still there in the community, and with it, comes the reality that our current barriers may never be able to change when we are unable to recognize and give light to the severity of these issues, and how we address it on a universal level.

I can’t undo the trauma that I lived through being a queer-identified Asian minority where my queerness, Vietnamese and Cambodian, disabled (left-eye blindness) identities became my barriers, sometimes altogether at the same time. I am mixed in between the eternal optimist who has seen the progressive changes where I can now tell my 14 year old self that it’s okay to come out of hiding, and the eternal pessimist who is still shouting to be heard, and watching his fellow community folks suffer great disappointment. Today, those worlds have collided with the tears of joy and pain rolling off my cheeks.

40 Years is Everyday: Remembrance of Cambodia

killing field

Last week on April 17th marked the 40th year anniversary of the Khmer Rouge genocide, an era that would last only 4 years, but would leave its bloody, traumatic mark in Cambodia in the following four decades since. An estimated 2 million Cambodians lost their lives during that period through imprisonment, harsh labor, starvation, diseases, and execution. My father was among the survivors as he escaped with a few others as all of them risked certain death through the treacherous countryside filled with the presence of Khmer soldiers and land mines nearby to reach Thailand. My dad’s survival ensured that he would be given another lease on life. He eventually moved to the US, and a few years later, meet my mom.  I was born and my brothers soon thereafter. My dad’s life continues, but so does the trauma.

In the days leading up to the anniversary, I was consumed with finding a way to convey my sadness, remembrance, introspection, and somehow reflect a hopeful tone that the Cambodian community, both in Cambodia and elsewhere, will continue to persevere, achieve healing, and reclaim its cultural identity that was taken away during the regime. As each day got closer to April 17th, I think about some of the stories that my dad would share with me in confidentiality, or the survivors who I’ve been privileged to talk to, or the sounds of classic Khmer music that would breathe life into the family living room, or at family parties, but also, of how it’s now been 2+ years since I’ve last been in touch with my father.

The day finally arrived. I felt the sorrow permeating through my veins, and at certain moments, reaching through the optic nerves of my eyes. I come across articles and Facebook posts about the genocide. I saw haunting pictures of human skulls that were once occupied by helpless, terrified Khmer souls lying in a glass case in the infamous Tuol Sleng prison staring at the living. I thought about some of my relatives that I would never get to meet because they were taken away too soon, and wondered how their presence in my life could have potentially benefited me. I think about Cambodia, and what it could have been.

I came home later that night after attending a writer-support group, and got my thoughts on a Facebook status. Since the beginning of this year, I’ve been looking into documenting my dad’s survival, and the intergenerational trauma that’s been carried on that has impacted our father-son relationship. So far, I’ve encountered more mental roadblocks than a Chicago construction season.  Writing, as my friend Stephanie would put it, is like giving light to some of the darker surfaces that we are afraid to see. There are many moments in my relationship with my dad that I would rather not revisit, yet at the same time, I found better understanding in being able to reflect on these experiences, and that by doing so, I can start the healing process for myself and for my family. I also have a sense of purpose in making sure that more light is given on Cambodia’s dark history to the young generations of Khmers, and for many others, both whom are surprisingly unaware of the existence of the Cambodian genocide, and the structural / psychological impact it carries for our current and future generations.

2015 not only marks the year of the Khmer Rouge “Killing Fields”, but it also marks the 70 year anniversary of the Holocaust liberation, the 100 year anniversary of the Armenian genocide which happened today as we speak, the 40 year anniversary of the “Fall of Saigon” which also affected my family, and countless other acts of crimes against humanity that we unfortunately have to remember and revisit.

With the 4/17 date having now passed, I can only know that for many Cambodians, this date has not changed.

© 2015 Randy Kim All Rights Reserved

Uncredited photo used for story