Monday, October 16, 2017

Seduced By Fame, I Too Once Aspired To Be An Actor

My first brush with Hollywood’s power & fame came in 1991. One day the receptionist ran into my office & said "someone from Hollywood wants to talk to you." At the time, I was working with at-risk Southeast Asian refugee youth & their families, as well as coordinating special events & communications at a nonprofit in San Francisco Tenderloin District.

I was thinking, "Well, I've been taking acting classes at the Asian American Theater Company & San Francisco State University's theater arts department. I haven't gone on auditions, but Hollywood's ALREADY calling? Nah!"

Turned out it was a representative of casting directors, two white women, who were working on Oliver Stone's upcoming movie, a biopic based on Le Ly Hayslip's "When Heaven & Earth Changed Places," the last of Stone's Vietnam War trilogy, after Platoon & Born on the Fourth of July.

Heaven & Earth movie poster
(Wikipedia cc 2.0)
They were looking for someone to help coordinate local casting calls, also known as open auditions or ‘cattle calls,’ in search of both actors & non-actors for about a dozen speaking roles in the film. The job would include securing venues to hold the events in San Francisco & San Jose, as well as outreach to the local acting & Vietnamese communities. In lieu of paying me & in exchange for using my workplace's space for the auditions, a donation was made to my employer, a Southeast Asian refugee resettlement services provider.

MORE THAN FOUR THOUSAND men, women, children, both actors, non-actors, showed up for three days of casting, Friday & Saturday in San Francisco & Sunday in San Jose. Nearly every local Asian American actor showed up, as well as who was who in the Vietnamese American community (artists, writers, performers, even some political leaders).

In addition to scaring up prospective actors for the film, I was put in charge of screening nearly all the non-actors. Even though my acting experience was limited to class exercises, improv & table readings, I ended up becoming a casting assistant right on the spot due to the overwhelming turnout.

On the first day, I often served as the ‘sparring partner,’ reading lines from the script for those auditioning to act against. Everyone who passed my initial screening was ushered into a room with either one of the casting directors & me or another assistant, usually behind the video camera. They were told that their auditions were filmed for the “director, Mr. Oliver Stone, to review.” Oftentimes the tape wasn’t even running.

All it took was “Give me all you’ve got” or “Action!” & prospective actors lost all their inhibitions & fear. I was punched, pushed, as called for in the script, by my fame-seeking fellow Vietnamese. I was shocked by their ferocity, how serious some got. A few women even showed some flesh. The casting directors, with long credits to their names, were nonchalant about it while my face must have turned blood-red.

Fame is a drug, and just an illusion of it is enough for one to lose one's senses. In these vulnerable moments, I can see how powerful men – Hollywood directors & producers -- could easily take advantage of up & coming actors & those seeking parts in major Hollywood films.

 Long Nguyen, artist & sculptor who ended up with a speaking role,
with Heidi Levitt, the casting director.
(San Francisco Chronicle, Nov 23, 1991)

When the casting call moved to San Jose on the third day, I was confronted by another facet of my very own community that I had not seen before. Every who was who in Silicon Valley’s Vietnamese community showed up. Due to an overwhelming turn-out, people were seated in the auditorium of San Jose State University, where the auditions were held. Like in previous two days, I was responsible for screening most of the non-actors, i.e., those who showed up without headshots taken by professional photographers & acting resumes or portfolios.

One of the casting directors took one side of the auditorium, I on the other, while the other casting director setting up a makeshift auditioning space upstairs, where those who passed the initial screening were sent.

As we started interviewing, I noticed that more people were lining up to see the other casting director than seeing me. Moreover, those who ended up with me simply asked if they could wait for “bà Mỹ” or “American lady,” meaning the white woman. They did not want to be screened by me, probably assuming I had no authority because I was neither white nor “from Hollywood.” Quite a few notable community members – journalists, writers, former South Vietnam government’s high-ranking members -- asked to be seen by “director Oliver Stone.” They wanted Stone to tell their lives’ stories, like he was about to do with Le Ly Hayslip’s. They came with scrapbooks, old photographs; their lives neatly organized in binders.
Annoyed, I loudly announced that Oliver Stone was NOT there & that we needed to keep the lines moving to ensure that everyone had a chance, adding, in Vietnamese, that they had a better chance with me than with the white lady. 

I did eventually meet Oliver Stone a few months later, during the "call backs" with a handful of hopefuls, out of nearly 5,000, at The Ritz Carton Hotel in San Francisco. Our meeting was rather awkward. Needless to say, I haven’t seen any of his movies since.

A few months later I had a much better experience with Hollywood when I was asked to help with local casting for The Joy Luck Club, directed by Hong Kong-born director Wayne Wang, based on Amy Tan's novel of the same name. My experience with “white Hollywood” wasn’t that much better here either, even though Wang was so gracious & pleasant to work with.

This may have been my 1st quotable soundbite, in English.
(San Francisco Chronicle, Nov 23, 1991)

However, thanks to this gig, I was able to go back to Vietnam to visit my family for the first time in nearly 12 years. I got paid on Thursday, bought my plane tickets on Saturday & off I went on Tuesday.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Old Stomping Ground

I recently went back to the restaurant where I had my 1st job in the US as a dishwasher 31 years ago for brunch today. The Inn Kensington (no lodging here) is located on a short strip that makes up the unincorporated community called Kensington, which is up in the hills between El Cerrito and Berkeley.

This restaurant was a foodies' destination, kept secret by food writers who were regulars throughout the 80s and 90s. Many early California cuisine' luminaries worked here, trying out new and exotic, unheard of dishes in those days.
It's known for scrumptious buttermilk biscuits and fluffy omelets, made the ways they're supposed to, and Mediterranean dishes with a California flair. Bruce Aidells used to deliver his freshly-made sausages to the restaurant, then sat down for whatever was being cooked in the kitchen.
Among the most well-known regulars were Daniel Ellsberg of the Pentagon Papers fame (he ate alone) and Dennis Muren (9 Oscars) and his posse from George Lucas' Industrial Light & Magic.
I went from washing dishes to busing tables to becoming a waiter, as my English became more proficient. More importantly, this was where I learned to eat well, as in live to eat, not eat to live. The owners and the cooks were generous, not as concerned about making money. They wanted to cook. It was the freshest ingredients every day. At the end of the night, we all had the same food as what were on the menu. Every night.
However, the most unique, and important, things I learned as a refugee from Vietnam (anti-Communist, Reagan-Republican wannabe at the time) were diversity and inclusivity. The restaurant was owned by a lesbian couple (which at the time I had no preconception) who were social workers by day.
In addition to me, there were two other Vietnamese refugees, and refugees from Iran and Afghanistan, and later immigrants from other parts of the world as well. Some started out as dishwashers and busboys, and many graduated to waiters and cooks at the restaurant.
About 15 years ago, the owners decided to sell the restaurant to their two employees who both started out as dishwashers: One had become the cook at the time and the other was the waiter, both came from Vietnam.
The menu, and the restaurant itself, hasn't changed much. It still doesn't take credit cards, but takes personal checks (remember those?), and the utensils are real silverware that require polishing regularly. The food, especially the brunch, is like no others in the entire Bay Area.
Its address is 293 Arlington Avenue, Berkeley.

Oh, how I got that job? I was one week-shy of my 18th birthday and living with my guardian in Concord, east of San Francisco, at the time. We were informed that as soon as I turned 18, I'd no longer be eligible for public assistance (misinformation). I was attending Clayton Valley High School nearby.
What that meant was I had to quit high school and go to work. Through Vietnamese refugee network, I was told there was a job at the Inn Kensington, but I must figure out how to get there on my own: one train (BART) ride with a transfer to another line and a bus ride, about 3 hours, each way.
After about six months of washing dishes, I had saved enough money to rent an apartment of my own in Oakland, which was much closer, where I've resided ever since.
A few months after that, I decided I needed to go to school, so I asked around. I was told I needed to take a bus to a school called Merritt College, a community college, up in the Oakland hills. And so I did. The rest is another chapter of my life.

Where Is Our Humanity?

I can no longer bear to watch Syrian and African refugees suffering and dying as they try to reach Europe, in search of a better life, free from fear. Has the world become less compassionate & more inured to our fellow humans' suffering?

Photos: "Europe Migrant Crisis," the BBC
Pretty certain that I and the majority of my ONE MILLION fellow Vietnamese refugees would have perished in the South China Sea if we were to leave Vietnam today.
Amid tepid responses from rich western nations, the US included, I'm heartened that in response to the government of Iceland's stingy offer to take in just 50 Syrian refugees, more than 12,000 Icelanders have offered their homes to these refugees.
In the late 1980s a Vietnamese family walked into an Oakland social service agency where I worked seeking help. One of the younger daughters spoke English with an interesting accent. They had just relocated to Oakland... from Iceland.
That family turned out to be part of the 1st 34 Vietnamese refugees that Iceland took in in 1979. Some 300 Vietnamese eventually resettled in Iceland, making up nearly 1% of its population.
At the height of the SE Asian (Cambodians, Laotians, Vietnamese) refugee crisis, Iceland was one of the smallest countries that opened up their hearts & homes to people like me.

Photo: "Europe Migrant Crisis," the BBC
From the archive of the Office of United Nations High Commissioner 
for Refugees (UNHCR), which operated the refugee camps 
in Southeast Asia and Hong Kong.
Just imagine... the many Vietnamese Americans and immigrants that you know or have met, the Vietnamese restaurants, the nail salons, doctors, mechanics, professors, gardeners, artists, engineers and nurses, and myself included, wouldn't be where we are today if you had turned your back on us 30 years ago.

I recently shared with NPR's Here & Now my refugee story.

Vietnamese ‘Boat Person’ Speaks Out About Refugee Crisis

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Xuân Này Con Không Về -- I Won't Be Home for New Year

(The 2015 Year of the Sheep/Goat/Ram begins on Thursday, 19 February. Which animal it is dependent on the celebrants' ethnic and country of origin.)

The above, my 1st for YouTube, is meant for my family in Viet Nam, who now finally has high-speed internet access at home, but hopefully you, especially Overseas Vietnamese, can also appreciate it. 

With the exception of the New Year's pictures, which came from Wikipedia, all other pictures are mine, taken mostly in the early 1990s. I decided to put this together because, for whatever reason, not being able to "go home" for New Year this year hit me quite hard. When seeing writer Chris Galvin Nguyen's tweet about soaking rice for making bánh chưng, it made me realize how much these New Year's rituals I still sorely missed. Thanks, Chris.

Xuân Này Con Không Về
This song was written in the early 1960s by the Trịnh - Lâm - Ngân song-writing trio. Over the years many have sung this song but only Duy Khánh has truly made this his own. For millions of Vietnamese away from home, this is our song. Though it was written, and sung, from the point of view of a young soldier at the front longing to come home for new year, the song has become the anthem for those of us, because of circumstances beyond our control, are forced to be thousands of miles away from our loved ones.

The 20th Century wasn't so kind to the people of Viet Nam, in addition to the devastating war, families were broken up not once, but twice, first in 1954 and then in 1975.

"Operation Passage to Freedom"
Northern Viet Nam's Refugees Boarding US Navy Ship in Haiphong, 1954
When Viet Nam was partitioned into two halves in 1954, it did not just divide the country, but also divided thousands of families. Over one million moved to what-now became Southern Viet Nam from the north, and about 200,000 moved in the opposite direction.

Leaving Home Once Again after 1975
And in 1975, once again the Vietnamese people are forced to leave behind their loved ones, marking the biggest exodus from just one country in the 20th Century.  All told close to 2 million Vietnamese refugees, escaping mainly by boats or on land through Cambodia, were resettled outside Viet Nam.

The Vietnamese people have been scattered to all four corners of the world. Lunar New Year, or Tết, is the biggest celebration, and family reunion event of the year. It's Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year all rolled into one. Being able to go home for this occasion would be a dream come true for those of us who have not been home for it. The hand-to-mouth existence in the developed countries is such that when you have money, you have no time or when you have time, no money.

Mother, I promise, I will be home for Tết one day soon, hopefully next year/Mẹ, con xin hứa, con sẽ về ăn Tết với Mẹ và các em một ngày sớm, hy vọng trong năm tới. Not being able to join you for Tết for 33 years is long enough/Không về ăn Tết được trong 33 năm nay đã đủ dài.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

My Dee Dee Is No More

Last night, for the first time in nearly thirteen years, I came home to no barking sound or wagging tail. My Dee Dee is no more. Even after close to two years of preparing for the eventuality, to lose her to cancer, letting her go yesterday was the most heart-wrenching thing I've ever done in my life. I held her as the veterinarian injecting a high dose of apentobarbital. Death came quickly and peacefully.

Here she was running free at Berkeley Marina's Cesar Chavez Park, aged 4
Dee Dee was adopted from the East Bay SPCA when she was about five months. We had wanted a dog for some time. We visited animal shelters and pet adoption centers frequently but did not find any dog or puppy to our liking.

One day we saw this forlorn-looking ‘Alex, 5 Months Old’ in a cage way in the back of the SPCA shelter. Unlike other puppies and dogs, she made no attempts to be noticed, no barking, no wagging tail, not even coming up to the cage’s wire mesh to say ‘Hi’. Unlike other puppies and dogs in the shelter on that day, she seemed to have given up on being adopted.

But it was her gaze. Directed at you with arched eyebrows. It was like a high-power tractor beam.

So we decided to get ‘acquainted’ with her in the fenced-in yard. We tossed her the tennis ball. No chasing. We tossed her the sticks. No fetching. She did make half-hearted attempts to go after them, but turned around, then came to sit at my feet, looking up at me with those arched eyebrows, deploying her tractor beam at full power.

So we came home with her that day. With the exceptions of throwing up once in the car ride home and peeing on the carpet twice, she was instantly toilet-trained.

Alex, short for Alexandra, sounded good, but she didn’t seem to like the name, never responded to it. We had read that dogs, and cats, respond better to ‘hard’ sounding short names, preferably one or two syllables. We couldn’t think of any names. ‘Dee Dee’ came to mind for two reasons. At the time a colleague at a funding NGO was named Dee Dee and it sounded like ‘đi đi,’ which means ‘go, go’ in Vietnamese. Đi đi, can also be used as ‘let’s go’ or ‘go away,’ depending on the context.

Lo and behold, she responded to Dee Dee!

Dee Dee became the dog I had wanted to replace the childhood dog that I was forced to give up because we were too poor. Dee Dee was loving, gentle, but fiercely protective. Instead of a ‘Border Collie, Medium Size’ dog we saw on the tag at the SPCA’s shelter, she grew up to be a relatively big dog, over 60 pounds/30 kilos, and she was a Pitt Bull mixed with what looked like Labrador Retriever, and possibly Border Collie.

This was at the Irvine La Quinta Hotel
She was well-traveled. She had slept at some of the best ‘pet-friendly’ hotels -- Best Western, Marriott, La Quinta. She walked the streets of LA, San Luis Obispo, Irvine, San Diego, Sonoma, Napa and Sacramento. She ran on the sand of Newport, Stinson, Asilomar beaches, among others.  

She walked among the giant redwoods, oaks and maples in state and national parks up and down California coast. She swam the Pacific Ocean, even taking a dip or two in North America’s largest alpine lake, Lake Tahoe.

She would have become an international traveler had my job prospects in Southeast Asia come through.

About two years ago we began to feel a ‘bump’ beneath her skin, in the abdomen area. We had learned, through friends with dogs, and literature, that cancer is the most common killer of older dogs. We worried, but there wasn’t much we could have done other than keeping her healthy.

Recently we began to feel more bumps in other areas of her body. She had also begun to slow down, and with diminished eye sight. Old age, the usual for dogs, we learned, had begun to set in. But suddenly a white spot on her right nostril began to grow, and quite rapidly, about six months ago. It kept on growing.

We took her to the East Bay SPCA veterinary clinic for a checkups. We were informed it was an infection, possibly a tumor, considering her age. Antibiotics were prescribed to help fight off the infection. Blood test was also done. Nothing alarming came back other than the usual old-age conditions. As the tumor got bigger, and more infected, she was prescribed more and stronger antibiotics. At this point, within the last three months, the cancer had begun to affect her appetite and mobility. On top of those, she also seemed to be suffering from arthritis, the most common old dog’s affliction.

The tumor on her nostril had grown to the point where it not only affected her breathing, but also a constant irritation for her, which she tried to scratch open, causing severe bleeding. It broke our hearts to see our beautiful, yet still somewhat spunky dog, in pain and losing weight.

We were mentally prepared for the eventuality, but weren’t certain when to let her go. If she was in pain, she did not show or whine about it, but we did notice she was often awakened at night by the irritation caused by the infection.

Yesterday afternoon, in consultation with the East Bay SPCA’s veterinarian, we decided to let her go. We're lucky to have had her in our lives for over a decade. She gave us a thousand times more in affection and unconditional love than the food and shelter that we had provided her.

My Dee Dee is no more. She had gone to join her best friend, Dumpling, the tabby, which we also lost last month to a sudden heart failure.

Losing two beloved pets less than one month apart was/is hard. Dumpling, the tabby, was not yet four years old. She was also adopted from the East Bay SPCA. She was healthy, spunky, seemingly in the prime of her life. Then one night last month, a massive heart attack struck, paralyzed her hind legs and causing blood clots. She was in screaming pain. This being pet-crazy America, we were able to take her to a 24-hr pet hospital at 2 am. The vet on duty gave us the bad news, and she was put down there and then.

Keeping me company in the office on cold winter days.
It was devastating because she was still a baby to us, even though we recently adopted a kitten, just a few weeks before Dumpling had the heart attack. It took her just four days to warm up to the kitten, named Dimsum, with whom she began to show motherly instincts, licking the little one, allowing it to cuddle with her.

Dumpling developed a taste for lemongrass when she was about seven months old. She chomped down on all the young lemongrass blades, her catnip. She was my gardening companion. I love that cat.

The family already misses them, but I will miss them most in the coming cold, winter days. 

Dumpling checking up on the zucchini while Dee Dee on the
lookout for pesky squirrels.
I called her my 'gardening assistant,' the lemongrass trimming specialist.
She wanted to be part of whatever I was doing, including 
hooking up the old powered amp. 

Dee Dee with her true bestie, Puca, which was the only dog she didn't 
have a fight with. In fact, she seemed smitten by Puca, who later moved 
with her family to Canada. Thanks for digging this up Judy.