Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Of Dog Meat and Joel Brinkley

(This post is dedicated to Stanford Professor Joe Brinkley who in February wrote a rather bizarre column pontificating why Vietnamese eat dog. I've deliberately decided not to include graphic photos and details.)

“Walking your dinner?” two long-time Vietnamese American friends said when they saw me walking my dog, Dee Dee.
Dee Dee at about two.
It was a Vietnamese in-joke, a pretty funny one, if I may add. However, on that day, I couldn’t laugh, couldn’t even manage a response other than a sheepish nervous grin.

Dog meat consumption somehow has been associated with Vietnamese people, but not as I remembered growing up in the Mekong Delta region of southern Việt Nam. It still carries negative connotations. The perception towards those who eat dog borderlines xenophobia.

"I'm going to call for the dog catcher if you don't stop crying" was a commonly-heard threat to get a child to stop crying, and it worked for this was no ordinary dog catcher. He was catching dogs for meat. Furthermore, he was 'bắc kỳ,' a northern Việt Nam native who was 'different.' He wasn't one of 'us.'

A good part of my childhood was spent in Rạch Sỏi, Kiên Giang Province, a relatively large Mekong Delta coastal town with a good mix of ethnic Chinese and Khmer or Cambodian people. This is my mother’s side of the family. I was born in Tân Châu, An Giang Province, my father's side of the family, not far from the Cambodian border.

The main highway from An Giang to Kiên Giang passes by a town called Tân Hiệp, about twenty minutes from Rạch Sỏi.

Unlike elsewhere in the entire Mekong Delta region, Tân Hiệp’s residents were predominately bắc kỳ, and Catholics. And without fail, each and every time the bus stopped in Tân Hiệp, it was pointed out that the people in this town ate dog.

And that became the stereotype about northerners eating dog.

Tân Hiệp has one of the biggest Catholic dioceses in Việt Nam
It may not be apparent to outsiders, but the cultural divide, and the associated misgivings, between northerners and southerners can be quite a gulf. It was further widened by the years the country was divided, compounded by Catholics versus Buddhists tension during President Ngô Đình Diệm administration (1955–1963).

When Việt Nam was partitioned into two halves in 1954, for fear of retribution and persecution, partly fanned by US-engineered propaganda, nearly one million northerners, 85% Catholics, migrated south to join the now US-backed regime under President Ngô Đình Diệm. Hence those who settled in Tân Hiệp were known as 'bắc kỳ ông Diệm,' Mr. Diệm’s northerners or 'bắc kỳ 54,' northerners who migrated south in 1954. 

The typical dog catcher in the towns and villages neighboring Tân Hiệp was a man with a bamboo shoulder pole and two burlap bags. He either caught the dogs, often rabid and/or sick, that people no longer wanted or bought them from those who were desperate for money.

He was seen as a sinister outsider trading in cruelty who occasionally performed a thankless job of removing dangerous dogs. How the dogs were butchered and consumed were subject of many bizarre stories full of xenophobic conjecture.

Culinary historian Erica J. Peters, in her Appetites and Aspirations in Vietnam: Food and Drink in the Long Nineteenth Century, wrote that “dog meat was eaten on occasion by some Vietnamese, but much less often than one would think from the extent to which the French identified being Vietnamese with eating dog meat.”

According to The Guardian’s Kate Hodal no one knows exactly when the Vietnamese started eating dog, but its consumption – primarily in the north – underlines a long tradition.

Unlike the bountiful Mekong Delta, northern Việt Nam is less fertile whose winter could be bitterly cold, and even snows on occasions. Southerners often surmised that northerners resorted to eating dog out of the need for protein in their diet and a desire for variety.

When the victorious communist north united the country in April, 1975, libraries sprung up everywhere; free books were given out, partly as an effort to indoctrinate formerly capitalist southerners, but also to reacquaint southerners with their estranged northern cousins.

I took to the libraries like a duck to water, reading anything and everything I could get my hand on. I remember reading about the living conditions in northern Việt Nam during the brutal Japanese occupation, especially in the winter of 1944 and 1945. Between 400,000 to two million died of starvation. It was known as the Vietnamese Famine of 1945.

There were many stories of Hanoi residents fighting with each other over crumbs tossed to the sidewalks by Japanese soldiers and French colonialists. All the dogs were eaten, even the starving ones with nothing left but skin and bones.

Subsequently, I read many more stories of harsh winters and failed-crop years when dogs became the main course in northern Việt NamDog meat consumption may have been borne out of necessity, but has devolved into a delicacy, often consumed exclusively by men during drinking binges.

"Operation Passage to Freedom"
Northern Viet Nam's Refugees Boarding US Navy Ship in Haiphong, 1954
(Photo: Wikipedia)
After 1975 my family moved to a rural village outside Rạch Giá to work as farmers in order to avoid the watchful eyes of the new communist government because my father was a member of the old regime. One of the neighbors gave me a beige and white puppy as a welcome gift. We named her Kina, an 'American'-sounding name because of an uncle who had raised three German Shepherds, and a few other purebreds, given to him by his American military advisers. They all had non-Vietnamese names.

I loved that dog. We had quite a bit of land where rabbits and other livestock were raised, which Kina loved to chase as a puppy. She also loved to go hunting field rats, which we ate. (Second part to this post will be on field rat consumption.)

The monsoonal flooding season of 1978 was particularly severe, partly due to the excessive damming of the tributaries that flood water used to escape to the South China Sea. The prolonged inundation of the land wiped out not only the crops and fruit trees, but also the livestock for there was no dry land for them to shelter.

We were at the edge of starvation, forced to cut down to one solid meal a day. Other meals were essentially watery rice porridge, complimented with fish and sweet potatoes from previous year’s harvest. Towards the end we even ran out of sweet potatoes.

Early one day, my dad told me we would have to get rid of my beloved Kina because we could barely feed ourselves. I protested to no avail, but understood their decision. Worst of all, I had to lure her onto the canoe so we could take her to an army garrison nearby to sell.

The soldiers were national army regulars (bộ đội chính quy) who were sent there in preparation for the invasion of Cambodia to drive out the Khmer Rouge. They were northerners.

I cried all the way home and many days afterward. I was about 13.

To this day I can’t bear reading any stories about dog meat consumption, and the reason why I couldn't laugh at my friends’ funny crack upon seeing me walking my now-12-year old mutt, Dee Dee. You might say I’m still traumatized by that experience.

Dee Dee, who is now 12, with Dumpling, the cat.
PS: Some time later my father was invited to a village chief's party where dog meat was served. Both my mother and I anxiously wanted to know what it tasted like. His response was "Everything tastes better with garlic and lemongrass. Besides, I was too drunk."

Monday, December 16, 2013

What Nelson Mandela Taught Me, a Vietnamese Refugee, About Justice and Reconciliation

Seeing and hearing Nelson Mandela speak at the Oakland Coliseum on June 30, 1990 was a DNA-changing experience. He had saved me from becoming a flag-waving anti-Communist Vietnamese immigrant.
To the thousands of Vietnamese refugees arriving in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan was not just the 40th President of the United States, but also our "savior," our champion against communist tyranny and oppression. Or so we thought. I was destined to become a Republican in order to repay a debt of gratitude to him, but then I learned about apartheid South Africa.
For someone who had risked his life escaping Communist Vietnam, it was difficult to fathom that while Reagan was professing to fight communist tyranny and oppression, his administration was aiding and abetting racial tyranny and oppression in South Africa.
I arrived in the Bay Area in 1980 as a 17 year-old refugee during the height of the anti-apartheid campaign on
This "Press Aide" badge has been
with me at all times since 1990.
college campuses, especially at UC Berkeley. Initially, I didn’t yet have the wherewithal to understand what was going on until I enrolled at Merritt College in the Oakland Hills in 1984.
Many of those involved in the Third World Student movement at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State University had now become professors and instructors. Merritt College Chicano Studies instructor Froben Lozada was one of them. He taught a class called “Racism in America.”
I took the class out of curiosity and interest in history and politics. I was still on track to become a Republican so Lozada and I had many fights, even though my English wasn’t quite proficient enough for political debates. For whatever reason, he took a liking to me. He directed me to books, literature and films about the Civil Rights Movement, the Farm Workers Union, the Black Panther Party and, of course, South Africa.
I was shaken to the core. I grew up in what was then the Republic of South Vietnam or ‘free’ Vietnam, America’s ally in Southeast Asia. USA was “Number One” to us. America had come to Vietnam to hold against the tide of communist tyranny and oppression. She could do no wrong.
A moment forever etched in my mind occurred when I found out many black soldiers suffered racist abuse at the hands of their white comrades in Vietnam, and then came back to what amounted to second class status in America. It took me days to shake it off.
Then came the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which had been championed by then-Oakland U.S. Congressman Ron Dellums. When President Reagan vetoed the bill in 1985, which had been passed by both the House and the Senate, it dawned on me that his anti-Communism stance was all politics. South Africa’s racist brutality took a backseat to geopolitics. (The veto was overridden by both Houses of Congress shortly after.)
From that day on, Froben Lozada became my favorite teacher, whom I continued to keep in touch with until the early 2000s. Lozada died in January of this year at age 83, a fighter to the end.
I went on to take part in the Anti-Apartheid Movement at San Francisco State University, where I had transferred, as well as other civil rights issues. When Nelson Mandela walked out of Victor Verster Prison on February 11, 1990, I felt a sense of jubilation and liberation as if I had lived in South Africa.
Upon his release from prison, Mandela and his then-wife, Winnie, embarked on a 12-day, eight-city tour of the United States, which included a visit to Oakland, California on June 30, 1990. I signed up to work the event as a volunteer.
With previous experience working for the Merritt College student newspaper, I was assigned to work as a “Press Aide.” I was able to see his easy smile and folksy manner up close before he took the stage to a rapturous welcome, an indescribable atmosphere.
For a newly-arrived immigrant, one who had escaped his country by boat, it was an experience and a memory that possibly nothing will rival for as long as I live.
After the victorious North Vietnamese overran South Vietnam in 1975, uniting the two halves into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, a communist state, purges and persecutions were carried out against those who were part of the American-backed regime, of which my father was a member.
Millions of Vietnam’s southerners suffered. As many as two million took to sea to escape, to find a better life. I was one of them. Like all Vietnamese refugees, we had resentment and hatred for the regime that forced us out. It had become our sworn-enemy even though we were fellow Vietnamese.
But when Mandela came out of prison after twenty-seven years, his words portrayed none of the resentment and hatred for his jailers or the regime that had tried to kill him. His message was one of reconciliation, of rebuilding a new South Africa inclusive of those who had oppressed and brutalized non-white South Africans. No purges and persecutions. It was a shocking revelation. 
What I learned from Mandela was that hatred and resentment only poison your own mind, not your enemy’s.
The following year, I was able to put aside my apprehension and fear of communist Vietnam. During that time, visiting Vietnam was seen by many in the overseas Vietnamese community as aiding and abetting an enemy state, which needed to be brought down. But I went back to see my family for the first time in eleven years. I was part of the first wave of former boat people to have done so.

This post was originally published at Hyphen Magazine. Would like to thank Momo Chang for coaxing it out of me. Without her persistence and patience, it would have taken me another year to finish it, Mandela's 1st death anniversary.