Life as a Refugee and Immigrant

While looking up something on Google, I found this really interesting story posted on July 4th, 2013 by someone who grew up in a poor neighborhood here in Seattle called White Center. During the 1970s and 1980s a lot of refugees from Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos escaped Communism and war and came to the US and other Western countries. I’ve met other Vietnamese-Americans who told me about their youth spent in refugee camps in Thailand.1

Anyhow I thought this was a good story to share. I encourage people on read and reflect:

The below is just my personal experience growing up as an immigrant in White Center. It was a very small, very insulated world. Even now people often think I just recently immigrated over instead of having been here for 20 years. I still don’t understand a lot of American-ism because I never had to interact with anyone who was “American” unless they were a social worker and we tried our best never, ever to get their attention.

Trigger warning for…everything. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

In my experience if you are Caucasian you will only be robbed, and probably scared a little bit but no one in their right mind (PTSD is a horrible, hush-shush elephant in the room.) would do more than that. Southeast Asians, especially the refugee/3rd world kind, who were the main residents of that area at the time, knew better than to bite the hand that fed us.

Back when I heard how Greenbridge was going to replace the old projects I thought, “Really? AWESOME. This place will finally be free of the ingrained violence and culture that allowed the gangs to thrive.” Then I nearly died of asphyxiation I laughed so hard in disbelief when I realized that not only did the community planners gave preferential treatment to long-time residents of the area but invited them back in a lottery when the new buildings were built.

The planners invited the violence back into the neighborhood when it was dispersed between 1998 and 2007.

White Center now is not as bad as when I used to attend a gang-related funeral every five or seven months. Monks in saffron robes with their chanting dully saturating the air and the low murmur of grieving families in plain, homemade white was a daily fact of life. A lot of people who survived genocide, starvation, land mines, diseases and casual human cruelty just dropped dead in the street from gang violence.

It permanently affects a place no matter how gentrified it gets.

I mean no matter what those caught between two cultures did we’ll never be good enough for either of them, so why try? The gangs formed as a way to cope with social and cultural pressure. It was a ruthless, murderous sort of group therapy. This is the attitude that bathed White Center in those years. This was White Center’s cultural heritage.

Hell, I fall back into old thinking/speech habits learned from that place and have to be called out on it, because I don’t notice it. We had a term for those of us who weren’t gangsters. Turtles. As long as you don’t move too fast (make the wrong person have a flashback at the wrong time) or try to shoe in on someone’s territory or try to get authority attention to shut people down, everyone usually ignores you.

My personal history with the area goes something like this: All of my family has those “green cards” that do not have an expiration date. Family was dropped off in South Park first then we slowly…kind of…inched our way up Olson Pl in the 1980s sleeping out of a Nissan minivan and ended up in Side 2 projects. We lived there through the 90s then around 1998 moved out when the “Lake Side Projects” were demolished in chunks, moving every two years for about six years from Upper Side 1 to Lower Side 1 when Upper was demolished then to Sea-Tac as Lower Side 1 went. We managed to get a death grip for about 2.5 years on Tukwila then came back to the new Greenbridge development sometimes in 2007. We stayed until 2011 when my mother passed away. She was in one of the first waves invited back and buildings were still being constructed day and night around her.

Since she was the only link I had with that place I moved so fast I left permanent skid marks behind. *clears throat*

Every single one of my male relatives (and quite a few female ones) were part of gangs. If someone is related (a lot of the times not by blood but by refugee camps) then they were automatically protected even if they weren’t sworn members. A good many of the gang leaders were child soldiers from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and the likes.

I remembered a time when no one needed to know a lick of English to get by. In fact most of the signs were in various Asian languages and when we found an English one we’d…well, ogle it. Like, what is that Safeway doing there smack in the middle of OUR private little hellhole? Not surprisingly it shut down. It’s now the DSHS Dept. of Social and Health Services building.

Oh, and Bartell. Wow, the sheer brain-freezing WTF moment I had when I found out, after fifteen years just puttering around West Seattle, that it’s not only NOT special but that there are a whole lot of other Bartell around. For some stupid reason I always thought it was the only one and our little Asian projects was special because we had a white folk’s store and Rainier Beach didn’t…and no Chubby & Tubby didn’t count. It wasn’t posh. I still remember as if my ear is still pinched how often we (the youngsters) were scolded to be nice to the white ladies and gents working in Bartell. We can’t scare them off. No one will print our photos otherwise.

No, seriously.

Everyone else though? I have no idea. They were never mentioned.

The old projects were called “Side 1” and “Side 2”. Lake Side Projects, I believe, but (maybe it’s only Asian) immigrants who remembered it as that. There’s a tiny arse little lake (Dirtiest, nastiest thing I’ve ever had the misfortune to see/smell on a daily basis. It it clean now? Are M-80s still being lit illegally around the 4rth on the bridge?) in the middle of that city. Cascade Middle School and Evergreen High School are next to it. (Wow, Evergreen. It was all out war in there during the 90s. If you’re Vietnamese and you tried to date a Cambodian or vice versa. You. WILL. Die.) So is White Center library.

Oh, that library is AWESOME. It was neutral ground where all the gangs can go and no one dared make trouble. Unless you’re Asian or African descent from Rainier Beach/Skyway then it’s taken outside and down to that little park.

I still remember my mother accusing me of trying to be “white” and “forgetting who I am”. I remembered how others would say, “no matter how correct your spelling is or how much skin lightening creams you use you’ll never be a white American.”

Half of my family still lives in White Center and I go visit. It’s better now but those cute little mom’n’pop Vietnamese/Cambodian/Thai grocery stores are often owned by former gang members. Yeah, they grew up, had a family. Got a job, opened a business. Trying to survive like normal people instead of the damaged, fractured, barely human things they were.
On the plus side if there ever is a zombie out break I’m heading for White Center. They know how to deal with ravenous, mindless hordes.

When you meet immigrants in your country, it’s important to understand their personal story. Their habits and culture will be different, but maybe there’s a good reason.

1 I remember that the Vietnamese monk, Thich Nhat Hanh, said that many Vietnamese people escaped with only their clothes and a copy of the Heart Sutra (般若心経).


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

2 thoughts on “Life as a Refugee and Immigrant”

  1. That is a very eye-opening story. Once again, thank you for posting yet another great article, Doug.

    I think it’s hard for certain “Americans” to understand and relate to immigrants (unless they are one themselves, check out that paradox. ha!) because they are oblivious or just numb to their experiences that got them here. They [immigrants] came here for a reason, and those stories need to be told, if only to relate to, and foster acceptance for, the very people that made the US of A what it is today. In my opinion, there is an overbearing sense of entitlement that a lot of Americans wear proudly as if it were a fine coat. I wish it weren’t so, but that sense of entitlement is, I feel, what causes populations of immigrants (and those very same Americans more often than not) to feel that they have to protect themselves and their culture by becoming something they should never have had to become to cope with their new surroundings. I have a deep respect for anyone who comes to this country, leaving behind everything they have in some cases, to make a better life for themselves and their families. It’s something that some Americans should consider experiencing themselves before passing judgement on others.

    Just my two cents.

    Thanks again, Doug 🙂


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