Tent Cities

I can’t sleep, haunted by images of children ripped from their mothers’ arms. Frightened, huddled in tents, far away from home. My mind reels, unable to process such brutalist cruelty. Episodes like this are supposed to be increasingly further back in history books, so I understood, without really being told or promised as such.

From where did I absorb this fiction, this dream of an America? Did it ever exist in any point in time of history? This country, foaled in slavery and fueled by war machines – would it ever grow up to be a welcome place for all?

A friend of mine recently shared her own account of life as an immigrant child here, separated from her deported mother. What would an alternate universe childhood have been like for her, without the constant omnipresent anguish of separation? She said that she had experienced the best case scenario of such a situation (for eventually, thankfully, they were reunited), but years of separation still fucked up her developing life. I am lucky in so, so many ways. I was born here state-side. I grew up weird and awkward and teased at school for being strange, but I came home to warm dinners and a dry bed and the knowledge that my parents were taking care of me.

Just don’t come here. This is the general summation of comments from those who support forcibly separating children from parents and placing them into makeshift camps.  Just don’t come here. This is what’s written at the base of the Statue of Liberty, right? Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and let me drown them all in the Hudson.

Just don’t come here. I do not think these commenters (the human one anyway, I can’t account for the bots) have any sense or appreciation of what traumas might motivate  a family to flee their homeland. Have you ever moved? Do you remember what a pain in the ass that was? Now multiply that times ten, remove most of your possessions and monetary assets, add in a dash of war trauma (and loss of one or maybe all of your close family members), subtract linguistic fluency (throw your resume / CV right into the garbage) and add +100 to your sense of uncertainty. That will give you the barest sense of how difficult it would be to uproot your life and start completely over in a new country.

People’s reasons for leaving are myriad and painful. I’ve written about my family’s experiences, briefly. My own mother, lovesick for my father and increasingly horrified by the “disappearances” of people around her, made multiple escape attempts. She took my sister, a mere baby at the time, with her. They were easy prey for scammers and pirates looking to make a quick buck off people’s desperation. She lost all her painstakingly earned savings, accumulated over multiple years for each attempt, and was jailed several times. At one point, she had even contemplated crossing into the jungles of Cambodia – where, unbeknownst to most everyone, the Khmer Rouge were gassing refugees and bashing their infants’ heads on the ground to prevent them from growing up and taking revenge. I’m forever grateful that she did not elect to escape this route.

She made it here eventually, and my sister did too. They were not forcibly separated by some unfeeling border patroller upon arrival. I am lucky, in so many ways. We all grew up and we go over to her house to have family meals every weekend. She cooks way too much food for us to consume, an unshakeable tenet of Vietnamese culture; sometimes she brings food over to the neighbors’ houses to share.

In these brief moments, it becomes easier to believe in that dream of America, that distant possibility. Is this the America I’ve been dreaming, this little idyllic neighborhood of row-homes, freshly mowed grass, summer rolls and little cakes?  Or is this America an armored fortress riddled with bullet holes, stained with the blood of schoolchildren, surrounded by tent cities?

Which America is the real America?

Here; again

Years ago, I lent out my copy of Kitchen Confidential. I forget to whom. I like to think it’s floating out there somewhere, and that it is loved. Instead, today, I’m carrying around my weathered copy of “A Cook’s Tour.” I once went on to Goodreads to post about it and was surprised at how many middling to negative reviews it received. This is a re-reader for me; for a six month stretch of time I’d thumb the pages while falling asleep, hoping to induce dreams of other lands. Of even (especially) uncomfortable and upsetting encounters. Of mountain potatoes and sheep slaughter. Of streets and smells I’ve encountered, via the transportation magic of words.

I read these words as I was stuck working in an office after college, wishing I were anywhere else. I am re-reading these words, now back working in an office, reminiscing about the times I was somewhere else, exploring other sides of the world. I cannot blame Anthony Bourdain for my wandering heart – that’s an inherited trait, some deep restlessness in my bones. I can directly credit Bourdain for translating this desire into words that would inspire me to always choose the more narratively interesting path. The taste of the unknown.

Blurry photo of a talk he gave in 2008, which seems like such ancient past now.

What does Bourdain’s death mean for us, for those who wander? Are we cursed to walk this earth alone? What is home for us? When the many curiosities of the world begin to lose their shine, what’s left?

I am actively choosing to believe that a momentary slip into the darkness, brief and fatal, does not vacate the worth of a lifetime’s accumulation of wonderment. This is a choice, one of many. We choose until we reach the bounds of possibility.

One of the many things I have loved about Bourdain is his enduring connection to Vietnam, my family’s country of origin, a country I’ve had ups and downs relating to throughout my life. At the end of Cook’s Tour, he writes:

“I’m leaving Vietnam soon, and yet I’m yearning for it already. I grab a stack of damp dong* off my nightstand, get dressed, and head for the market. There’s a lot I haven’t tried.

I’m still here, I tell myself.

I’m still here.”

I  still choose to be here. If you’re reading this, know that I hope you do too.

post-script: Of course it would take the death of a personal hero of mine to give me that kick-in-the-ass into actually writing again. Not exactly a fair or equitable trade-off, but we must see silver linings where we find them, even in a pile of abandoned and corroded scrap metal. 

post-post-script: Among the many gifts Bourdain has given to the world of travel literature, the phrase “damp dong” is a treasure.