Is Ignorance Bliss?


DURING THE VIETNAM ERA the would viewed Indochina through a blood-spattered lens crammed with searing images: napalmed and massacred villagers: a defiant Buddhist monk remaining upright during the final stages of self-immolation; a Vietcong suspect being shot point-blank through the temples; Khmer Rouge soldiers axing civilians; a widow wailing over a body bag.

This horror show fueled outrage among Americans, but did little to enlighten them about the Indochinese themselves. The often violent resentment directed towards the Vietnamese, Cambodian and Laotian refugees who have recently entered our communities shows how ignorant many Americans still are of the extraordinary plight of people whose hearts and minds were a focus of widespread concern little more than a decade ago.

Ted Hartry, director of the Boston office of the International Rescue Committee, said recently that since 1975 approximately 652,000 Indochinese refugees have settled in the United States. According to his estimates, 12,000 to 14,000 live in Massachusetts; in Boston the newcomers are primarily concentrated in the Dorchester and Allston-Brighton areas. Hartry added that as their numbers have increased so has the amount of crime committed against these new groups throughout the country.

Chuck Wexler, director of the Boston Police Department's Community Disorders Unit, which investigates racial crime, confirmed Hartry's comments locally, stating a couple weeks ago that "within the last two years there has been an increase in the number of violent incidents involving Southeast Asians" in Boston proper.

Both men said they believe the settlers' vulnerability stems from the language barrier and their mistrust of police, who in their homelands were often corrupt and actually viewed as an enemy. While the two denied any evidence of a political "backlash" against the Indochinese by Americans, Hartry attributed the local troubles to possible indignanace by "older immigrants" who arrived earlier in the century, when no federal programs existed for anyone, least of all newcomers. Nowadays, he explained, many Americans are voicing disapproval of the "very significant welfare dependency of Indochinese and all refugees."

According to Wexler, 16 reported acts of violence have been committed against Southeast Asians so far this year in Boston. Most notable was a taunting and stabbing incident in Dorchester during the summer which caused the death of a 24-year-old Vietnamese man. The crime problem comes from ignorance. Wexler said, adding, "People in this country have a lot of different ideas about what happened in Vietnam. Something which has been so foreign to them is suddenly hitting them in the face." Despite the violent attacks, "The vast majority of people in this city have been gracious to them," he emphasized, explaining that "mostly juveniles and young adults who have developed a hatred against something they don't know about and that's different from them," have been committing the crimes.

A SAD IRONY SURROUNDS SUCH ACTS of cruelty: in many instances they are being directed against people who once led lives similar to our own. Our detachment as well as ignorance melts into empathy when people ask: what is a refugee before he or she flees?

Lien grew up in a middle-class household in Phnom Penn during the '60s and early '70s (Lien is a pseudonym. She requested that her name and those of her family be changed to protect their privacy). The eldest of eight girls and boys, she worked every day after school in her parents' grocery store, handling bookkeeping and selling such items as Coca-Cola. After work she went home to cat supper, do homework, and help her mother around the house.

girlfriends. Like most American girls, Lien fussed over her wardrobe. Her mother tried to keep the family budget in rein, but her father gave in readily to her Gidget-like pleas for movie and sewing money. In high school Lien ranked third on the honor roll.

Lien's family lived, worked and studied within a Norman Rockwell-like setting; it was a tableau, however, which rested on top of a political volcano.

During Lien's teenage years Lon Nol's anti-communist government troops battled against increasingly intransigent Khmer Rouge forces in the countryside. Although such conflicts occasionally disrupted Phnom Penh city life and the introduction of military conscription placed a cloud over the future for Lien's two brothers, her family carried on as usual.

Eventually the political reality became too intrusive to ignore. Refugees from the strife-torn countryside swarmed into the cities; Lien's bookkeeping included a growing number of customers who "borrowed" food from the store. On one occasion a government soldier threatened to pull a grenade pin after Lien's mother refused to give him free beverages. Lon Nol's corrupt, American-supported regime, coupled with U.S. bombings of enemy sanctuaries inside Cambodia, not only bolstered the communist opposition, but also made Lien and her fellow countrymen long for victory by the so-called "gentle, smiling Khmers."

On the morning of April 17, 1975, that wish was fulfilled as the triumphant Khmer Rouge army marched into Phnom Penh. Lien's family joined townspeople in cheering and waving white cloths to welcome them. Lien's brother, Ty, who was 11 at the time, felt profound relief that be would not have to become a soldier and fight when he grew up. The euphoric citizens believed that the country could now look forward to peace and economic justice.


As Gregor Samsa awoke one morning... he found, himself transformed in his bed into a giant insect... What has happened to me? he thought. It was no dream. The MetamorphosisFranz Kafka