THE BLOG

Vietnamese Lunar New Year: Time for Racism and Homophobia?

02/08/2013 09:53 pm ET | Updated Feb 02, 2016

It's the Lunar New Year for Vietnamese people, a time of firecrackers and festivals, parties and parades. It's a time for dragon dances and raucous celebration and excess of every design and scope, from the small tangerines handed out to little kids to the kung fu displays put on by mega troupes of skilled acrobats.

Tet is Mardi Gras, New Years and Christmas all rolled into one. The celebration goes on for a month before the actual change of calendar, and it continues, often two weeks later, as people usher in the New Year by visiting friends and families.

Tet is a time of consolidating community and letting go of old grievances. This is the year of the snake, a time to sweep out bad luck, clean house and deal with evil spirits. For those of you who may not know as you pass by the parade routes in your cars, that's what the BLAMBLAMBLAM of firecrackers is about: They are a charm to ward off the ugliness in our world.

So in keeping with this, I'd like to address the old and backward, the evil and demonic, the two-headed monster that has reared its ugly mug in the days preceding our grandest celebration of humanity: racism and homophobia.

The racism, Vietnamese Americans have been quite vocal about; the homophobia, Vietnamese Americans have remained largely silent on. I think, though, that these two are interlinked. And if we don't begin to address this fact, the new year will not be so new; it will be an old, ugly thing, tricked out for a special occasion.

Here's the example of racism -- the latest tempest -- in a nutshell: Stanford Professor Joel Brinkley, a Pulitzer Prize winner, penned an article for the Chicago Tribune about the supposed innate aggressiveness of Vietnamese people, an aggressiveness that is allegedly responsible not only for personal character defects but for national actions, like invading Cambodia or policing a border with China; to him, these all represent personal defects manifest on a national scale. It all boils down to the dietary. Brinkley attributed the so-called aggressiveness to our tendency to eat too much protein. He singled out certain classic proteins, too: dogs and rats.

Brinkley's was an entirely anecdotal piece, based upon no scientific research, no sociological study. It came as a result of a 10-day whirlwind tour-group visit to Vietnam. And so his armchair observations were not so much built around true investigation but a special kind of alchemy cooked up in the meth lab of the racial imagination. You've seen this kind of racial thinking before; it is an oldie but goodie, as vintage as vinyl, and it always furnishes the kind of pithy observation that makes good copy. I wonder what Brinkley will offer next; I'm sure that with his talents he could regale us with some choice words about black people and watermelon.

The second example of New Year sadness comes in the form of a story that has remained a smaller, quieter part of the Vietnamese community: a narrative of homophobia. Little Saigon, the epicenter of Vietnamese-American culture, always hosts a major parade for the Lunar New Year. It's a marquee event. And this year, organizers decided to make it bigger and better by excluding a vital part of the community: LGBT groups. What could possibly top good old-fashioned queer baiting, bullying and shunning?

Of course, the organizers had tried to do this in the past and were told, through a city ruling, that they could not pursue these kinds of discriminatory practices; this occurred in 2010, and you would think that the ruling would be the final word. But the Vietnamese, we are a tenacious people. And so, the snaggle-toothed demon of homophobia has reemerged. In past years, many of my LGBT friends were proud to walk in the parade. Yes, one even told me he was ecstatic to get the occasional tomato thrown at him. "Participation in the parade made us visible and kept our skin fresh and clear" -- those were his words. This abrogation of law is a terrible setback, a sign that time elapses, things change, but they always stay the same.

Is it kismet that these two events have appeared before us in the New Year? The superstitious part of me thinks not, for ugliness rears its twin faces precisely because it deserves to be witnessed. It is only in witnessing that we can vanquish; only in vanquishing that we can banish; only in banishing that we can exorcise what truly ails us.

Here is my New Year's wish: I hope that the outrage that the Vietnamese community directs toward Professor Joel Brinkley will allow us to direct an inward gaze at our own homophobia. And likewise, I hope too that Joel Brinkley will take the time to meditate upon his sad racial comments and see how it upholds a number of oppressions that are egregious. It is the year of the snake, but we don't have to slither and slide. We can shed our skin and become almost new. We can also sign this petition to bring to light the regrettable homophobia that dogs our community; maybe then we can chase down that dog, cook it up and then aggressively beat the crap out of small-minded, mean-spirited bullying.

Happy New Year. May we expel our demons and find our common humanity. May we all march in the same parade. Here are some verbal fireworks to help you get rid of all that ails you:

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