This story begins in a very different part of the world – a place that is far from what we would consider to be normal. A world where you and I, no matter how Asian or culturally aware we think are will never fully be able to relate to.
For our parents growing up in Southeast Asia, there was a time when life revolved around seasons. When communities gathered together to plant, to harvest, and to celebrate. When the rains brought life to the rice fields and turned the earth from brown to green. When they walked behind water-buffaloes and felt the soft mud in between their toes. When they literally planted, sowed and reaped what they ate. When babies sat with mothers, and mothers with sisters, who hung out with fathers, uncles and cousins, who laughed, argued, and spit beetle-nut with parents and grandparents all together sitting under the shade of one tree. There was a time when time stood still for everything and everyone.
But then it started raining bombs and this world soon came to an end. For many it was a journey from one kind of hell to a new kind of hell. For circumstances beyond human control our parents found themselves thrust into a very different world – a very western world. Different from any picture or film that they had ever seen. A world filled with scary unfamiliar looking people who don’t know your name and say “Hi” when you walk down the street. It was a grey world filled with food stamps, police sirens, cramped apartment buildings, silver-colored Toyota Vans, crappy jobs in factories and meat cutting industries, indecipherable languages, bland-tasting foods and maybe the occasional social worker. No freakin wonder our parents missed home. But they trudged on, trying to make for us what they never had, a future. And into this urban dysfunctional jungle we were brought up.
I think I was 8 years old when I first learned what a “gangsta” was. In fact it wasn’t really the term “gangsta” that I learned but it was actually the word “cholo”. It was the early 90’s and we had just arrived in Baldwin Park, CA after my parents were laid-off from their jobs in Southbridge, MA. Yea, everything we owned was what we brought with us on the airplane clear across the country – the longest plane ride in my life by the way. In my mind a gangster was a Mafioso type dude from the 1920’s with a hat and trench coat packing a tommy gun. I must’ve seen a Pacino movie somewhere. So as my cousin walked me down the streets of Southern Cal on my first day he advised me to watch out for the “cholos”.
“What’s a Cholo?” I asked.
“Look down there. See those Mexicans guys? Those are cholo’s, esse’s, you know, gangsta’s. Watch out for them.” My cousin explained.
Now I was even more perplexed cause I didn’t see any trench coats. Only bald teenagers with tank-tops and over-sized shorts hung past the knee. “What, why? What’s wrong with them.”
“They’ll beat you up and steal your stuff. Stay away from them.” He responded.
More than ever I was intrigued by the whole thing. I really wanted to go back and study them. But I wouldn’t have to because the rest of life would teach me what a street Gangsta really was.
Chapter 2: Kung-Fu