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Political demonstrations are a regular feature of Little Saigon. But even by Little Saigon's hyperpolitical standards, the events of the past few weeks have been, well, hyper. The street politics culminated in a Feb. 15 demonstration when word swept through the community that shopowner Truong Van Tran would attempt to hang a poster of the late Ho Chi Minh and a flag of communist Vietnam in his Westminster video store.
It wasn't Tran's first go at building a shrine to Vietnam's most infamous communist. For several days early this month, Ho hung in the front window of Hi-Tek Video. But, following a near riot in the parking lot outside, a judge had intervened with a restraining order requiring Ho's removal. Tran's landlord moved to revoke his lease for interfering with the all-important commercial activity around his store.
But early on Feb. 10, Superior Court Judge Tam Nomoto Schumann said Tran's First Amendment right to free speech was at stake, and she dismissed protesters' charges that posting a picture of Ho was provoking the 200,000-plus Vietnamese community with "fighting words." Tran reappeared later that day, ready to rehang Ho and the flag.
I missed Tran's futile attempt to rehang them; missed the dramatic arrival of the Westminster police to escort him; and missed his scuffle with an agitated protester that included Tran's bogus fall, for which the 37-year-old shopkeeper deserves an Academy Award. I did not miss the powerful, angry reactions of scores of my neighbors to Tran's truncated political statement.
I was outside Tran's video store on Feb. 15, the day Tran had promised to try hanging Ho again. Tran was a no-show, but when 150 police in riot gear with batons faced off against 500 anti-Tran protestors, the city declared an end to Orange County's brief experiment in free-for-all political debate. Police Chief James Cook warned Tran that any attempt to rehang Ho would land the businessman in jail.
To many Americans, images of Ho and the flag of Vietnam evoke bitter memories. To many others-like those who called KROQ's Kevin and Bean Show the following morning-Vietnamese outrage is incomprehensible. Between jokes about bad Asian drivers and calls for Vietnamese-Americans to "just get over it," two callers expressing the therapeutic politics of the day defended Tran's speech rights by attacking the rights of his critics to respond angrily. Free speech apparently now means the right to monologue.
But I look at Tran's shrine to Ho and see my father taking his wife, his brother and me-his 2-month-old son-in a military Jeep through sniper fire and past the bodies of unlucky friends and relatives to get to Tan Son Nhut Airport in April 1975.
I see my mother carrying me over barbed-wire fences while being shot at by communist troops as her husband prepares to take off in a stolen cargo plane, cramming in as many people as possible, to escape certain execution.
I see my parents trying to adjust to their new surroundings without being able to speak a lick of English.
I see my dad taking a job in Arlington, Texas, killing rats beneath people's homes just to make ends meet.
I see my family driving to Orange County in 1979 because the eternal summers remind my mom of home.
I see my parents-too proud to take food stamps and welfare checks-struggling every day to put my brother and me through Catholic school.
I see Thai pirates dangling my 2-year-old cousin Anh Tho by her ankles over shark-infested waters, her body used as collateral to loot the tiny boat of half-starved refugees in 1978.
I see the look of distress on my dad's face as his father lay dying in Vietnam in 1997 because he couldn't go home to say goodbye for fear of being jailed-or worse-by the Vietnamese government.
America has been good to our family. Mom owns a successful business in Garden Grove; Dad serves on the cabinet of a local state senator. This country welcomed us, and we have prospered. But Dad never lets me forget where we came from. I came to political consciousness attending raucous demonstrations in Los Angeles, Westminster and other scattered places for as long as I can remember to, as he puts it, "preserve the cause."
Most Americans live with luxury-not just material, mind you, but also the luxury of historical amnesia. With the exception of veterans and their families, perhaps, most Americans can forget-have forgotten-Vietnam. People in Orange County can generally move on and not have to worry about something that happened more than 24 years ago. It's dated, and to the average American, it matters less than that other cultural signifier from the era, The Brady Bunch.
I don't have that luxury.
My family-like many Vietnamese-American families-can't forget why we are here. We are refugees from a regime Ho has come to symbolize, a regime that brutalized and murdered our people because of our beliefs.
This is why letting Tran hang his portrait of Ho Chi Minh and the flag of communist Vietnam meets with such rage, such intemperate displays of political passion. The shrine is a constant reminder of our failure to preserve democracy in a country that was stolen from us. We still fight the war every day.
When the war ended in 1975, Saigon became Ho Chi Minh City. Posters and T-shirts of the man fill tourist shops. Schoolchildren grow up knowing not Ho Chi Minh, but rather a benevolent revolutionary known as "Uncle Ho." In math books, children are asked, "If Uncle Ho has 10 apples and gives you eight of them, how many apples does Uncle Ho have left?"
On a recent vacation in Vietnam, a distant cousin asked me if I was going to see Uncle Ho's body in Hanoi. I told her, "Uncle Ho is no uncle of mine."
She was shocked. And I was, too, as I realized that the Vietnam my dad taught me to revere was dead in this country.
It was almost midnight at the mini-mall on Feb. 10, and a dozen or so protesters refused to quit their vigil in front of Tran's video store. The winter windstorm pounded into Westminster police Sergeant Dwight Moore's face as he tried vainly to control the crowd, telling the demonstrators they must leave because they were on private property.
"Grace under fire," I said to Moore.
"Tell me about it," he replied.
I put away my camera and walked to my car, hiding the film in my pockets. Doing so reminded me of my trip to Vietnam last year when customs officials there ransacked our bags for anything videotaped and confiscated our CDs to make sure we hadn't brought information "compromising national security" into the country.
As the crowd began to disperse, I drove away and quietly wondered what happened in that strip mall that night. Where do we draw a line when it comes to having the right to freedom of speech? Why would a group of protesters who say they represent the impulse for freedom in their homeland be so quick to take away my rights as an American citizen? Why am I judging an otherwise peaceful assembly by a small faction of paranoid thugs?
Why don't I just get the hell out of here and forget about it? Because it's a luxury I can't afford.