Daily Archives: 7 February 2005

Free to Protest, and Nobody Cares

In 1997, Robert Kaplan found the boundary that divides Cascadia into two nations to be a fading anachronism.

YET WHEN I went to dinner at the Portland home of an Iranian immigrant, Jim (Jamsheed) Ameri, it was as if Sousa’s patriotic march music had jumped in volume, as if mid century Industrial Age America had never receded. Jim is a real estate developer and lives with his wife, Goli, in Tigard, on the southwestern fringe of Portland, in an opulent home at the head of the Willamette Valley. From their impeccable lawn, punctuated with majestic Douglas firs in a fine, pellucid mist, the valley, its homes and its gardens, unfurled. This was the bountiful Pacific Northwest as seen by the first pioneers, now savored by this latest migration of Oregon settlers. Jim and Goli had invited a number of their Iranian friends to dinner to discuss their experiences as very successful immigrants in America.

Sipping drinks on the porch in the sunset, Farsheed Shomloo, an immigration lawyer, pointed to a book on the patio table and told Jim, “You should read this new book about Iran, it’s really interesting.” Jim replied:

“I don’t want to read it. I know the outcome already. In Iran, there is beautiful poetry and everything turns out a disaster. Here the poetry is not so beautiful, but people are free to discover the best in themselves; that’s why America has happy endings. Here it’s a negative system: there is no entrenched depotism, no will to dominate. We immigrants can remake the whole country if we want to. It’s ours for the taking, as if there is a perpetual clean slate where nobody is ever owed anything. I’ll tell you, the Iranian revolution was a disaster for Iran and a success for America, because it brought a lot of talented, ambitious Iranians here. Every time there is a disaster in the Third World, it’s a good thing for America, since the best of the middle class finds its way here.”

Farsheed agreed. “What is this country that sucks you up and draws out the best in you, and allows you for the first time to be yourself?” he asked passionately. “Periodically I reread the Constitution. I am amazed. What is this incredible system built by pessimists, yet built so as to unleash the human spirit? You know why I chose to live in Oregon? I looked in a book and saw that there was no sales tax here. In Iran I was oppressed by taxes and everything else. At the University of Oregon in Eugene I used to participate in protests against the shah [in the 1970s]. Then I realized that nobody in Oregon gave a damn about the shah or about me protesting. I was free to criticize U.S. government policy, and nobody cared! You cannot imagine what a revelation that was for somebody from Iran. That’s when I stopped focusing on Iran and truly became an American.”

SOURCE: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1998), pp. 336-337

But look at it from the point of view of someone whose principal involvement in politics is to participate in protest demonstrations and political fund-raising. How discouraging is it to stage more demonstrations and raise more money and still lose elections? Free to protest, and nobody cares!

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Sleepless in Garden City, Kansas

Quang Nguyen owns the Garden City Specialty Cleaners. At night, he prepares federal tax returns for Vietnamese and Mexicans who do not know English well. He files the returns electronically on his laptop computer. I met him for breakfast at a franchise restaurant. In a part of America where people dress informally, he wore a pin-striped shirt and tie and had a collection of newspapers under his arm.

Nguyen was born in 1959 in South Vietnam, the son of a businessman. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, he escaped with hundreds of others on a rickety fishing boat. They drifted with little food or water for three days in the open sea before an American vessel rescued them. Nguyen and the others were sent to a refugee camp in Thailand. In 1981, after years of delay, he arrived in Oakland, California, then flew to Wichita, Kansas, where he knew a Vietnamese family. He soon learned that the new pig-raising plant in Garden City had jobs to offer. “So I came here and never left.

“I came with a friend, another Vietnamese I had met in Wichita. I was young, thin, and short. I was one of the first Vietnamese to come here. The people at the plant wouldn’t hire me. They said I was too small to hack pig meat all day with a knife. My friend and I slept in an old car we had–we had no money to rent a room. We slept all winter of 1981-1982 in the car, by the highway and in the park. We came back to the plant every few days, begging for work. Finally, one of the foremen felt sorry for us. I started working nights at the pig plant and immediately registered for school during the day. I had studied electrical engineering in Vietnam. but I knew that I was not in a position to continue that here: I had to learn proper English.

“I saved money to sponsor my sister to come, and I always studied. I tried never to sleep. I got together with some other Vietnamese to start a restaurant. and I worked there for two years after quitting the job at the feeding plant. But the restaurant was not really a success. So I read manuals about fixing cars and in 1985 opened a body shop. In 1987, I sold my share in the body shop and bought the Rainbow Laundry, then the Specialty Cleaners. After I became a citizen. I studied the U.S. tax system and started preparing tax returns for the other Vietnamese. In 1991, I married a Vietnamese. My wife and I met at a bowling alley.

“My youth was all work and struggle and cold and heat and lonely with a strange language. In this country, if you don’t work hard you either sink or stand in place, which is just as bad. You always have to calculate to get ahead. You know, I have to pay $250 each month for health insurance, and then there are the mortgage payments. I have four children; two are in Head Start programs. If I didn’t have to sleep, I could make more money, though.” He smiled.

SOURCE: An Empire Wilderness: Travels into America’s Future, by Robert D. Kaplan (Vintage, 1998), pp. 259-260

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