According to Vietnamese tradition, there are four measures of a man: material wealth, beautiful women, heavy drinking, and unyielding masculinity. I was driven to set a new record.
It was my first day of school in America. I was a 9 year-old Vietnamese refugee filled with infinite optimism, sitting in Morningside Elementary.
I didn’t yet know that the American school system would be my first prison. I came to dread it: the harsh language that tortured my tongue, the boisterous classmates who wouldn’t shut up and the bland cafeteria food.
What I had wasn’t a language barrier, but a crisis of identity. My classmates considered me ‘fresh off the boat’ which served as a warrant for discrimination.
A historian noted the only two races of people who have fought throughout their histories are the Vietnamese and the Irish.
I didn’t need the encouragement. I had a lifelong tendency to romanticize this fighting spirit. Occasional school fights and Kung Fu movies no longer sufficed as coping outlets.
One afternoon in high school, I was attacked by a bully and combusted, I lost all dignity. I developed mistrust and disdain for all who disagreed with me-including my parents. I became shortsighted. Tomorrow became a myth.
I was willing to do anything to sacrifice everything. Aggression became my leverage to make the world work. I joined a Vietnamese street gang.
The higher I climbed, the harder I fell. At 19, I was in jail, 22 condemned to 35 years-to-life.
Today at 36, there’s a runaway kid in me, who has to be nurtured and watched over.
I have never stopped running since landing at John Wayne airport in 1993. From motion sickness to motion addict, it will be 10 years of sitting meditation before I learn to stop and ground myself in the present moment.
I step through concrete walls, gun towers, and barbed wire fences, and walk the winding, open corridors of Morningside Elementary to find a boy. I spot him and draw near. I ask permission to sit close. I ruffle his jet-black, Bruce Lee haircut and I tell him, in his native tongue, that he is right about America being a good thing. It is on this land that he will find his chosen method of moving through life: compassion.