From The Asian Reporter, V28, #19 (October 1, 2018), pages 6 & 8.
Why we canít fix nothing
Jah tentu (yup for sure, in Indo patois) next Saturday early Iím borrowing my
best bud Albertoís cherry 1967 GMC pickup. And Iím hauling a ton of orange
Craftsman power tools, Stanley socket sets, even that vintage pig-iron hand
auger our dear Pop grabbed for some odd reason just before we sprinted for our
lives off our beloved Spice Islands ó off to Tedís Tool Shed they go. Way out on
Of course, me telling you about next weekendís purge is just a literary trick
to seduce your peepers into sticking to my essay. And sure, Why we canít fix
nothing is an attention-grabber. A concession to our shrill times.
Overstated improper English is normal now.
Shameless starts aside, I promise some substance at this essayís core.
Important stuff. Actually, a simple proposition that took me 50 sweaty years to
work into the 1,200 words that follow. Five decades, from our just-arrived
refugee familyís 1968 heartbreaks over the murders of Bobby Kennedy and the
Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., all the way to mayor Tom Potterís 2008
invitation to Portlandís 70 newcomer communities to participate in local
democracy. Right up to last week.
And that proposition is: We cannot fix the unjust and unkind societal
machines weíve built, they daily disable us all. By "we" I mean my generation of
stubborn community mecanicos. By "disable us all" I mean both the dehumanization
of folks on top, the kind leaving no bruises. And the distortion of our families
We are not up to fixing our damaging institutions. Not us refugees from
colonialism. Not our tried- and-true American minority leaders. Not our
mainstreamís elected officials with their armies of 8-to-5 public
administrators. Surely not Oregonís staid captains of finance, manufacture, or
trade. Not now, not here, on our shared northwest corner of this grand
Scaling from the macro to me and you
By leading these institutions, some Americans make billions. By carefully
conforming, most of us make middle class. By just complying, many communities
avoid social and economic isolation. The "others," those startling lot of us who
cannot smooth in ó America shoots dead or locks tight or deports. We all play
our part. My complicity level allows me to buy weekly groceries. New Seasons. To
pay monthly rent. Westside. To dress well our pretty kids, every next school
Our institutions overwhelm. Standing up against one is like standing on any
weekday morning MAX track. Accordingly, my 2018 goals are more modest. My 50th
year as an earnest participant in our American experiment will amount to no more
than a sorting of my contribution to it all. My part, is all I can possibly
know. And all I can manhandle.
This accounting starts with evaluating what all newcomer communities do
amazingly well, year after exhausting year. Everywhere. Which is
adapt-adapt-adapt. My grandparents and parents conformed to four regimes; inside
my and my brothersí lifetimes our family adjusted three more times. We are as
tough and elegant as bamboo. This flexibility plus those knucklehead Craftsman
and Stanley tools Iím trucking to Tedís Tool Shed next weekend, have made all of
us happy and healthy. Alíhamdulillaah. Thank God.
After adaptiveness, the second thing I do well is self-discipline. Our
grandpa, our pop, and his four boys were all athletes. Even though South Salem
High and I failed each other, sports got me into universities. Adrenaline is my
performance-enhancing drug of choice.
The fear hormone has fuelled my over-training for coaches, my over-producing
on cannery and warehouse floors, my over-preparing for courts, legislatures,
downtown boardrooms, Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian frontier provinces. Year
after ferocious year. I love it ó both the drug and my bright superhero tights
My third secret power: In our Indo community, folks called our pop and our
momís older brother "hakim," which translates to justice. Unlike western systems
that adjudicate who and what is right or wrong, hakim reconcile our differences.
We expect hakim to enhance societal harmony, not blame or bless us. The thing
is, our neighborhood still has to stick together after your divorce, after our
business women brawl, after your and my stupid sonsí knife fight.
Downside of brown superheroes
The consequences of ethnic-stream elders like me addicted to our acutely
adaptive, uber-achiever, peacemaker duties, were likely not foreseeable in the
Reagan Eighties, back when our immigrant communities substantially
self-administered the integration of anxious diasporas, one after another from
Southeast Asian nations suddenly abandoned by the United States, from ethnic
states under the dissolving Soviet Union, from genocides in East then Central
Africa. Though okay, the consequences of our old-school ways are obvious today.
Our traditional elders and savvy young civic activists stepped double-time
into what quickly developed into an awfully asymmetrical relationship with our
mainstream dance partners. We agreed to a division of labor and love that
relieved Anglo America of its responsibility to make room, to make ideal, to
make peace. Policy leaders held on to their intermittent appearances to make
Hereís a quick dip into how it works, and how it doesnít, in Portlandís metro
area: We are blessed by about 100 newcomer elder aunties and community uncles ó
analogize their work, if you must, with that of our elected officials and public
administrators. Each of these is supported by their robust volunteer ethnic
army. Across ethnic streams and into our robust mainstream, these crews
integrate our families and businesses, our faith and civic associations, into
the life of our splendid cities. They daily do the publicís business, as is
expected of us. Lots of sorrowing, lots of celebrating. Decade in, decade out.
Pero theyíre doing our public business for nonprofit agency compensation of
about half the bucks plus benefits Iíve been earning since working at City Hall.
After five and on weekends these superheroes keep right on doing it. For free.
About 12 of these community anchors have been dutifully at it for 45 years,
another 12 for 20, easing-in successive flows and ebbs of energetic families,
businesses, civic and faith associations from all over our achy earth. For this
they earn enormous respect and affection. Social and spiritual wealth swell
Oregonís Native-American, African-American, and newcomer communities.
In 2018 the Big Question is: Why would Anglo-Americaís mainstream do anything
materially different to better our ethnic streamsí share of this blessed
continent, given our stubborn elders already working really hard at contorting
our ambitious familias, at cultivating compassion, at making settled and new
Portlanders alike, feel okay about this lopsided arrangement? Name an incentive.
Time to retool
Herein lies the "port" part of Portlandís paradox. Today, weíre at about 20
percent foreign born (25 percent for Beaverton). Nearly half of our packed
classrooms are ethnic minority kids. No City Club study is necessary to project
the cost to all Portlanders in misery and treasury if we donít better share both
the benefits and the burdens of this blessed place.
Itís not only a progressive Pacific Northwest problem. A few years ago, our
daughter Caricia was doing public-health research in post-Katrina New Orleans.
Over a Cajun shrimp PoíBoy, she thought aloud about how little care that old
cityís wet, cold, and now houseless ethnic minority community expect from
their government. Because, as their elders explained, "itís aaalways been like
that" in their personal and communal memories. A long-long time.
Now, if this essay was about Kiev, Karbala, Kandahar, or any other failing
city fled by 120,000 or so of us Portlanders ó or if this were still 1980-1990s
River City, when our really robust refugee neighborhoods never expected
inclusion from national or local leadership ó then doing what our
community elders daily do might make sense. Back there, we knew nothing about
good governance; back then downtown leaders never said they cared about us.
Itís that bad old Jakarta sultan-thing our ancestors and elders told me
about, itís that New Orleans bad-bargain our bright daughters and beautiful sons
try and try to tell us about. It is at last, the good reasoning thatís trucking
all my knucklehead tools to Tedís Shed early next Saturday. Stacked in back of
Albertoís beautiful í67 pickup. Aduhíillaah! (OMG!)
Come Monday morning, Iím clocking in ready to share with settled and new
Portlanders alike, all our responsibilities for making us room, for making us
great, for making us peace. Inshíallaah.
* * *
Read the current issue of The Asian Reporter in its entirety!
Go to <www.asianreporter.com/completepaper.htm>!
Opinions expressed in this newspaper are those of the
authors and not necessarily those of this publication.