The Poet Bao Phi, On Creating A 'Guidebook' For Young Asian-Americans

Jul 20, 2017
Originally published on August 2, 2017 10:12 pm

When Bao Phi's family fled Vietnam in 1975 and settled in Minneapolis with other refugees, he was just a few months old. He was too young to understand the scene at the airport that day: Communist soldiers were firing rockets at planes filled with people trying to escape, incinerating them in the sky. Phi's parent's told him about their family history bit by bit, and he began to form a stronger sense of his own identity.

"You know, just as a man of color, as an Asian-American, like anything could happen to me. I could get hit by a car. I could get hit by lightning," he says. "You know, some racist cop could kill me, or some racist on the street could just decide he doesn't like the way I look and if that happens, what is my daughter going to have to know where I come from and where half of her comes from?"

His new book, Thousand Star Hotel, is a cutting collection of poems about growing up a refugee, becoming a father, feeling surrounded by police brutality and the invisibility of poor Asian-Americans. Phi says that when he was young, he never saw experiences like his taught in schools or talked about. He hopes that his new work might serve as a "guidebook" for his 7-year-old daughter Song and other Asian-Americans looking to see their own experiences reflected.

In his poem "Lead," Phi recounts a time when he was helping his father patch up vandalized property. His father insists he feels the flick of BB gun pellets — that someone is shooting at him. But Phi thinks they're mosquitoes, and that his dad might just be reliving a remnant of war:

"I am sure they are just mosquitoes
even when I see dull lead fragments sticking
into his brown skin.
I didn't want to believe him,
even as I helped him wash his wounds.

You need someone to care for your life,
or at least your dignity.
My dad had a son who believed in invisible mosquitoes
more than the evil of men."

Phi's first children's book, A Different Pond, comes out in August. He noticed, as he was looking for books for his daughter, that there was a dearth of children's literature about Asian-Americans. The books marketed as "Asian" in kid's literature tended to center on East Asia, he said. That left a big hole. And so he took it upon himself to write a book based on his own childhood, drawn from early-morning memories spent fishing with his father.


What's the meaning of the title Thousand Star Hotel?

"Thousand star hotel" is actually a saying by Vietnamese folks. It's kind of a play on the idea of a four star hotel, and Vietnamese folks say that you don't need to have a four star hotel — you have a thousand star hotel every night. Everyone has the right to a thousand star hotel, just by looking at the sky. That's a saying I've heard throughout my adult life — I've heard it from cyclo drivers when I went back to Vietnam. ...

But the reason that I named the book that, was that I was reminded of that phrase reading Viet Thanh Nguyen's The Sympathizer where he brought that up. And when I was reading his book I thought, "That's it. That's the title of my book." And the reason is, I just think it's hella Vietnamese. ... It's sly, it's kind of smart-assed, but it's also about survival and making the best of it.

How do you describe what it's about?

The book has a lot of poems ranging in subject from police brutality to the invisibility of urban poor Asian-Americans to fatherhood and what it's like to raise a child as a refugee from war. [It's about] whether or not I pass on the trauma of war down to my daughter, the lack of Asian-American history in American public schools, and you know, love and relationships.

And basically in a way, I feel like the book is one, me writing in resistance against the erasure of Asian-Americans — Vietnamese-Americans in particular — but also as, I guess, a marker of the life of my parents, my family, people like me that often don't reach any type of visibility in this country.

Can you talk a little bit more about that — "the erasure of Asian-Americans"?

As a father, my child is not in all-white environments here in Minnesota. The majority of her peers are brown and black. At the same time, there is just no awareness of Asian-American history in her school at all.

She's learning about a lot of different people, a lot of different races, a lot of different genders all across the spectrum. But conspicuously, Asian-Americans are left out. And that's not a dig on her teachers. Teachers are hard-working people who get no pay and no recognition. It's more about curriculum, and I think, the larger issue of Asian-American history just being invisible in America.

You know, I think that different races struggle against different types of racism. I think that, Asian-Americans, it's "We're never from here," and so our history is largely seen as irrelevant if it gets acknowledged at all.

You've mentioned before that this work is, in a way, for your daughter.

Hopefully when she gets older she won't find my poetry so boring. [Laughs] You know, just as a man of color, as an Asian-American, like anything could happen to me. I could get hit by a car. I could get hit by lightning. You know, some racist cop could kill me, or some racist on the street could just decide he doesn't like the way I look and if that happens, what is my daughter going to have to know where I come from and where half of her comes from? . ...

I think that the idea of Asian and Asian-Americans is that we're all like valedictorians who get into Harvard and become engineers or dot com — and that's fine, that's part of who we are. But I think for the vast majority of us that's actually not our story. For the vast majority of us, the stories are not about success. ... And I gotta believe that there are people out there who both need to see that and maybe learn from it.

How'd you learn about your own family's story?

So I'm the youngest child. I was born in Vietnam in February [of 1975] and the tanks rolled into Saigon of April of that same year. So I was about three months old when we were forced to flee. ... My father was in the Southern Vietnamese military, which meant we were on the side of the United States. My mother worked in a gift shop in the university in Saigon. ... My dad planned to get an education, war broke out so he and his brother and many other Vietnamese enlisted in the military. We fled that April. ...

So I'm in this strange position where I was present for that but I have no memory of it. Fortunately, my family filled me in on the details as I was older. ... Basically we went from that to refugee camps to being raised in the Phillips neighborhood of South Minneapolis, which at the time was Minneapolis' largest, poorest and most racially diverse neighborhood. My parents still live there, I live nearby in the Powderhorn neighborhood now raising my daughter. ...

Obviously my family was traumatized by war, that was very apparent. ... I remember hearing these stories when I was pretty young. And so, I think to my parents' credit. I think they tried to tell me as much as they could, you know, not to fill me with fear but to let me know that I come from something, you know what I mean? That we come from struggle, and that we come from survival.

They told me bits and pieces throughout, but I still learned. For instance, just two years ago, it wasn't until a friend of mine who's a Vietnamese-American documentary filmmaker from the Bay came to visit us, and talked to my father that my father told me the part about how when we were trying to flee, he ... routinely saw plane loads of Vietnamese people getting killed when rockets would hit, you know, a plane that was trying to lift off, take off, and just incinerating every Vietnamese person on that plane.

He saw that again and again on the night that we were trying to escape. And he was sure that the same was going to happen to our family — he was just sure that we all would get killed. And somehow, when that plane lifted up and a rocket didn't hit us and we managed to escape, he felt like all the luck in his life had just been used up in that moment. And that was why he felt like he put up with all the struggle, the prejudice, the pain that he faced in the United States. Because from his perspective, we were just lucky to be alive. ...

I've been told those, many different stories, of those days throughout my life — beginning from when I was very young.

How'd you learn about your identity?

Growing up where I did, I had the fortune of getting involved in social justice movements early. I mean, I was an idiot, but I was involved — I was soaking up as much information as I could. You know, the American Indian Movement started in my neighborhood. ...

I had the fortune of having a African-American teacher in high school teach African-American studies ... he also happened to be the gym teacher. ... But I wasn't learning about Asian and Asian-American people. ... I was learning about these different movements, but I was like, so what does that make me? . ...

I think especially for Vietnamese people, we're talking about a time when the idea of the war was really raw. And I had learned after I had graduated that many teachers in our system, in our school system, didn't teach about the Vietnam War because it was too painful for them. So I was getting no education about me and my people, aside from things that I would learn from my parents from some community stuff. ... It's especially challenging for Vietnamese-Americans who have lefty politics, you know, a lot of us who are here in America are here because of fear of persecution from the Communist party, and a lot of Asian-American movements, as Viet Thanh Nguyen acknowledged, a lot of them come from a Marxist, third world organizing, socialist kind of brew, right? Of student organizing in the '60s, which is perfectly fine but then that can butt up directly against Vietnamese and Vietnamese-American experience, where we're fleeing from a lot of that ideology, you know what I mean? It was an added layer of complication for me.

I got a full scholarship to Macalester College. I was the first in my family to get a full ride to a private college. I didn't know what that meant when I was young, I was like, "Cool, free school." And there I happened to meet a chemistry teacher, Japanese-American chemistry teacher by the name of Janet Carlson who, [in] my sophomore year, started to teach an Asian-American studies class. ... It's funny, I learned African-American studies from a gym teacher and Asian-American studies from a chemistry teacher. That's basically my life, right?

Talk to me about your new kid's book, A Different Pond.

A Different Pond is my first children's book. It's gonna be published by Capstone, it comes out in August, and it's really a very simple story based on — it's loosely based on fishing trips my father would take me on when I was very young. We would fish for food, we wouldn't usually fish for fun. In fact, I'm pretty sure — I can talk about this now, I hope — a lot of the fishing we did was probably illegal. We didn't have licenses, I'm pretty sure we were fishing in some places we weren't supposed to be at — but we were fishing for food to help put food on the table. Both my parents worked two jobs a piece for as long as I can remember and fishing was another way to cut costs a little bit, you know?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The award-winning poet Bao Phi wants his daughter and other Asian-Americans to know their stories matter. He has two new books out this summer. One is a book of poetry that came out last month, and this week a children's book. His very first book of poetry, 2011's "Song I Sing," is already taught in hundreds of classrooms across the country. Phi writes about being Vietnamese-American and a refugee in the U.S. Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team has this profile.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: When Bao Phi was just a young kid, his family told him about the day they left Vietnam.

BAO PHI: To my parents' credit they, I think, tried to tell me as much as they could. You know, not to fill me with fear, but to let me know that I come from something.

CHOW: His family came from a country mired in conflict. It wasn't until he was an adult when he heard the full details from his father about the harrowing day they left Vietnam. They were at the airport. Phi says his father saw Communist soldiers shooting rockets at airplanes as they tried to take off, incinerating the people who were trying to flee.

PHI: He was sure the same thing was going to happen to our family. And somehow, when that plane lifted up and a rocket didn't hit us, he felt like all the luck in his life had just been used up in that moment.

CHOW: His family was resettled in Minnesota with other Vietnamese refugees. Both his parents worked multiple jobs to support the family. He says they were traumatized by war and trying to make a home with an infant and young children in a city that was unfamiliar and often hostile.

PHI: There was, like, no guidebook for a Southeast Asian from war growing up in the hood in America.

CHOW: He's telling me all this in the Minneapolis apartment that he and his 7-year-old daughter Song share with a roommate. They're sitting at a dining table while the roommate's cat lazes nearby in the sun.

PHI: What do you think Daddy does?

SONG: He writes children's books and makes poems.

PHI: Yeah. Do you like any of Daddy's writing? You can be honest.

SONG: I do.

PHI: Really?

SONG: Mm-hm.

CHOW: Phi says his new book of poetry, "Thousand Star Hotel," might be a little mature for his daughter right now. He reads a couple lines while Song watches cartoons in her room.

PHI: (Reading) Instead I wonder if our daughter is not as far from the war as I hoped she'd be. I wonder what ghosts made of gunpowder and spilled oil and jet stream live in her tiny muscles.

CHOW: Phi's writing is brutally honest and lyrical all at once. His work is about being a dad, growing up Vietnamese in America.

PHI: Just as a man of color, as an Asian-American, like, anything could happen to me. I could get hit by a car. You know, some racist cop could kill me. And if that happens, what is my daughter going to have to know where I come from and where half of her comes from?

CHOW: Phi says he feels there's an absence of his own history, Asian-American history, especially in schools.

PHI: Different races struggle against different types of racism. And I think Asian-Americans is we're never from here. And so our history is seen largely as irrelevant if it's acknowledged at all.

CHOW: He says a gym teacher taught him about black history and that a chemistry teacher taught him about Asian-American history. Those lessons, along with his family's stories, are how he came to understand his place in this country. And so he hopes to give his daughter Song the guidance he never had.

PHI: Basically, my daughter, since she was 5, has been scared of two things - zombies and racists. And the best that we can do is to tell her we're going to be OK and we're doing our best to struggle to make the world a better place for her.

CHOW: That's why his most recent project is a children's book. It came out this month, and it's called "A Different Pond." You could call it a guidebook for his daughter Song and young Asian-Americans across the country. Kat Chow, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.