Moving the chains

Domination

(Photo credit: Mikamatto)

“… Without a sense of identity, there can be no real struggle…” 

-Paulo Freire

Whew, now that we’ve got that pesky business of spending time with the family and feasting on the genetically modified turkey out of the way, we can now, as a nation, get down to partaking in the real reason for the season. Whoever came up with all of these Hallmark holidays is a marketing genius and for those about to shop I salute you. However, the purpose of this post is not to discuss consumer capitalism but to open a dialogue on a topic that has long been on my mind. One of the most powerful articles I have come across in my brief time as a blogger was written by Jana-Rae Yerxa, an Anishinaabe social worker and former professor. In her essay, “The Unravelling of a Colonized Mind”, Yerxa describes  the internal struggles she experienced, “With a colonized mind, I believe I know who I am and do not understand that this isn’t so because I’ve become the distorted image of who the colonizer wants me to be and remain unaware of this reality.” She likens the colonized mind to cancerous cells that instead of betraying your body are at work attacking your inner self, one’s core or identity, as “the thoughts in your mind work against you and eat you up from the inside out.” When I first came across her writings I felt like an addict who finds NA, finally someone who gets it, who gets me. And more importantly, someone else who is hurting in such a way that I can relate to some, if not all, of her pain. I have shared before of my experiences and processes in shedding the colonized mindset. Of realizing the government of the country that saved me from an orphanage in Saigon was the same one that destroyed me. So now that I know that I’m not the only one, I have a duty, a burden if you will, to help pass along this declaration of independence that we no longer need to seek our validation from our captors.

¡que trope-o-logical!

(Photo credit: wayneandwax)

To be clear, the purpose of this writing is not to condemn the American government for it’s role in Vietnam, there have been enough articles and essays covering that well-trodden ground. The message, if I can presume to be so bold, is that unless we are part of the elite, ruling class we have all suffered from the effects of colonization in some form or another. My guess is if you’re reading this blog, you are probably not on the dream team of bankers and billionaires who are intent on making all of us serfs on the neofeudal, global plantation. For some readers, this will be a “no shit” moment, “it’s about time you woke up, Jeff Nguyen.” But for others, there is still a nagging sense that something just isn’t right, that the powers that be who claim to only be looking out for our best interests sure seem to be making a handsome profit off our interest in obtaining affordable healthcare, housing and wages. When the spell of our captors is broken, it can be a frightening time as we are compelled to analyze and critically dissect every piece of information spoon fed to us since grade school. Some would prefer to leave that to the gatekeepers in our midsts, the massive corporate media outlets tasked with deciding for us what information we really need to know.  Power we give away is power that does not need to be taken by force and so we make the job of our captors a little easier. Another point I should clarify here is that my intent is not to “blame the victim” for their subjugation. I know all too well that it takes all of our energies to work and feed our families. That leaves little time for leisure much less concentrated thinking and activities devoted to opposing the seemingly indomitable institutions towing over every aspect of our lives. Rather, it is a call to connect to our shared humanity so we can begin healing from the emotional and physical traumas of our captivity.

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like Lennon and McCartney, in my life there are places I remember and places I would prefer to forget. While I am forever grateful for the American family that adopted and raised me as their own, even they could not put Humpty Dumpty back together again. I have walked through the valley of addiction and boxed with the shadows of depression. I have suffered from a form of survivor’s guilt that originated when I was told at a young age that the plane that tried to take off from Saigon before mine crashed in a rice paddy killing 134 people. I have had a lifetime of difficulty in forming attachments beyond (and sometimes within) my own family. Just as recovering addicts share their experience, strength and hope with newcomers, I hope that my not-so-humble writings has helped to bring some measure of comfort or solidarity to others who are still raveled up in the colonized mindset. One of the strongest influences for me as a teacher has been Paulo Freire who recognized, “The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.” When our sense of self is based upon “internalization of the oppressor” and “adoption of his guidelines”, we end up trying to dismantle the master’s house with his own tools, as Audre Lorde once noted. Thus, “No pedagogy which is truly liberating can remain distant from the oppressed by treating them as unfortunates and by presenting for their emulation models from among the oppressors.” It is time to stop allowing our children to be taught that robber barons and slaveowners were the ones who built this country, rather than the hunched backs, calloused fingers and sweat-soaked brows of the immigrant and slave laborers of colonial America. It is time to set the captives free.

Peace and solidarity to all readers.

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46 Responses to Moving the chains

  1. desilef says:

    Essays like this one make me grateful that blogs exist.

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  2. Jeff, very moving post! Yes, we have ALL been captives. Many of us still are. Some of us are not even aware that we are. Then there are those like me, who are still struggling and trying to come to grips with just who we are. I am quite often so extremely angry that I could just spit all day long. I am called ‘Taz’ by many who know me because I am likened to the Tasmanian Devil. I am SO not bragging, just sayin’. But be that as it may, I still try to enlighten people in my own little way. Many times, it is in an outrageous manner and can be a bit of an over-kill situation, but that is how I am.

    I just want to add that I think that it is extremely important for ALL of us to not buy into anything and everything that is shoved own our throat. I believe that we should all question and not just merely accept that what is being told to us is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth as much of what is in the history books has been watered down and ‘whitewashed’ as well. And yes, so many people are hurting because they are being taught not to ‘love’ themselves, but to emulate others. I could go on, but I think you get what I’m trying to say.

    And as I’ve stated before, again, very moving post! Thank you!

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    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      Hi Shelby, ever since we met through our mutual blogs, you’ve been one of the few bloggers who really gets me and I wish you knew how much it has encouraged me. Your conscience challenges us all to face things we would prefer to turn our backs on. I can relate to the anger, it’s still something I have to deal with although part of the healing process for me has been letting go of things I cannot change and speaking out about the things I can (or at least pretending I can).

      You never have to explain your words to me. It takes courage to share your voice with the honesty that you do, especially knowing it may alienate you from people who aren’t ready to hear what you have to say. I only wish I had the self-confidence and cojones to be more outspoken when I was younger and less worried about fitting in. Take care, Shelby, and keep being you.

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  3. smilecalm says:

    perhaps after the affects of stuffing body and mind with gmo’s and other unnatural ingredients. consuming far beyond the bodies needs to the point of over satisfying the most greedy hungry ghost. perhaps after the withdraw will minds be clear and at ease enough to recognize that this is the most wonderful moment to wake up to what is real. quickly toss out those left overs in the compost. :-)

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    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      Much of our alienation stems from our disconnect with our fellow humans beings and the planet we share. This disconnect is fostered by the current brand of capitalism that assigns worth according to the value we bring to the system. Thank you for once again adding to the discussion at this blog, it is much appreciated.

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  4. cthebean says:

    Reblogged this on in search of schools that can change the world and commented:
    This blogger is a gifted writer and a deeply reflective thinker….he is also a teacher….imagine that….
    “The teacher is of course an artist, but being an artist does not mean that he or she can make the profile, can shape the students. What the educator does in teaching is to make it possible for the students to become themselves.” -paulo freire

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  5. ileneonwords says:

    I have taken everything you said to heart, Jeff…I do understand the frustration, the guilt, the addiction, the frame of mind of oppressors and the oppressed, the need to make things right for immigrants… Thank you for sharing. And you know I love Friere!!!!

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    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      Thank you for your expression of support and solidarity. I know that in some ways I’m preaching to the choir here and not saying anything most of my readers already know. But reading your blog and others has helped me to find my long lost voice and one of my motivations is to return the favor to others still feeling invisible and marginalized. Best to you and your family, Ilene.

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      • ileneonwords says:

        Thank you, Jeff. I wish you and your family the same! I agree, we’re probably all preaching to the choir in our blogs…like-minded people, but it’s so good to express ourselves and you never know who is out there reading!

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  6. The sizes of the cages and the length of the chains vary among different people; alas, most yet don’t grasp the cage that constricts them. Convincing people that they live in a castle, not a cage; endlessly distracting them with shiny objects; and making making it ever harder to keep a roof over one’s head is the most efficient way to keep the system humming along. Let us all keeping attempting to teach.

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    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      Indeed, if anyone had a reason to check out and leave the rest of us to our own devices you do, after what you’ve been through professionally. Yet, through your writings and books you keep tossing out life preservers to those of us tired of trying to keep our heads above water. Keep on keeping on, Pete.

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  7. lexborgia says:

    Truth is a tough sell. I often ask myself if it will ever end, if the people will ever wake up from this false dream. I recently watched Elysium, which seemed more than less a somewhat accurate glimpse of the future, and it saddened me, because noone today can’t see beyond their facebook page. ‘Digging your own grave’ has become an artform that we the people relish and have mastered to perfection.

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    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      We may have to just keep flapping our wings not knowing what hurricanes may be unleashed elsewhere. I haven’t seen Elysium but like a wise man (or Morgan Freeman) once said, those who aren’t busy living are busy dying. Here’s to getting busy living.

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  8. “When the spell of our captors is broken . . .”

    . . . can begin at the source. Patriarchy. The hierarchy of dominance and control of weaker species, no matter what that species be.

    “It is not this bloodshed or that bloodshed that must cease, but all bloodshed – all wonton infliction of pain or death.” ~Henry Salt.

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    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      I had to look up Henry Salt. The way we treat animals is indicative of the disconnect and alienation we have from the planet which sustains all of us. Many indigenous societies were matriarchal and only went to battle against one another for specific, localized reasons.

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      • I suspect that Matriarchy only marginally better. Although many households, including mine, are rooted in matriarchy. Husbands, don’t kid yourselves.

        BTW, in my quest, or rather in preparation for the coming Utopia (that some of us shall experience in centuries to come and which by the way should now be worded Ourtopia) our Thanksgiving feast was Tofurkey. Simply because in my uneducated, over simplistic, tho’ perhaps visionary mind I see no way to establish any meaningful or everlasting peace as long as any sentient life form that shares this planet is enslaved, confined, and tortured. And so my ever-guiding principle is to do no harm. My palate is secondary.

        As always, tho’ not always stated, thank you Jeff for sharing your inspiring wisdom and peace be to you and your readers.

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      • Jeff Nguyen says:

        Yeah, my house is a matriarchy as well. At least, according to my wife and daughter. Ourtopia…I like the sound of it. Or maybe an Ustopia and Themtopia.

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  9. I really identify with this as well. It’s extraordinarily painful to realize, yet again, after several decades of political activism that you’re thinking the oppressor’s thoughts rather than your own.

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    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      Would you care to elaborate on your statement, if it’s not too painful? Your thoughts as I’ve come across them in your writings seem far from the “oppressor’s thoughts”. Good to hear from you, Dr. Bramhall.

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      • Sorry, what I should have said is that I often find myself thinking what the oppressor wants me to think. For example, getting down on myself for personal “deficiencies” that are probably symptoms of social problems.

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      • Jeff Nguyen says:

        Ah, now I understand where you’re coming from (I hope). It’s a lifelong process for some of us. That’s part of what solidarity is for, to keep us accountable but also for us to help each other keep our heads up when our worst enemy is ourselves. Peace to you, Stuart.

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  10. It is good when a person finally recognizes that one is free when one decides to be – when one says – “none of this matters, I’m no longer impressed by the ‘important things’ – that are outside of me” – I began questioning why people killed each other when I was a child and questioned the Viet Nam War when in High School and the daughter of an Air Force sargeant. I gave up on my ambition to enter politics when I saw the beating of protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention – and gave up on America when Fred Hampton was murdered a week after I met him. But, then, as a young black woman – black men I admired and trusted as leaders took advantage of that trust and well – in time I cam to realize that the only solution is ultimately a spiritual one – and that was before I became a Buddhist. As long as we believe that we are separate individuals, as long as we have greed, jealousy, pride, hatred the poisons that create oppressive governments and economies all over the world we will continue to have struggles against the colonized mindset. Well, I may have gone in a whole nother direction from your post when all I wanted to say is I know what you’re talking about, I’ve been there, and I know that every person will eventually evolve to taking responsibility for their own freedom – mental, physical, and spiritual – in this life or the next. :)

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    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      I admire your lifelong commitment to social justice, Skywalker. I wish I had been that conscious and aware when I was younger. In high school and the years after, I was too worried about fitting in to stand out. It wasn’t until my mid to late twenties that I started to get in touch with my roots and face the past that was so painful to acknowledge. You are always welcome to go in whatever direction your thoughts take you when you visit here, by the way.

      I learned this Vietnamese saying from a fellow blogger, “Lá rụng về cội”…The falling leaves return to their roots. Peace to you, Skywalker.

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  11. Great article. For some reason I read “the teacher is of course an idiot”, but I like “artist” much better!

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  12. lumar1298 says:

    Thank you for opening our eyes to the truth… Such a great writer and teacher…

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  13. MARK WHELAN'S LITERARY BLOG says:

    I read your latest post as strenuously as my eyes would allow. No, it is not a critique of your writing, I like the way you crafted three giant paragraphs to post your message, simply put, the ream of hate from both sides of the divide, is tiresome, offering no place for a constructive set of dialogue in order to mend fences and meet like minds.

    Nevertheless, the pains expressed by you, in being shackled by colonialism, are heartfelt. We are enduring testing times in Cape Town, SA, and while it is hardly noticed in the USA, i am quite sure that there is more pain than joy.

    I had already formulated my own question in my mind, but an Italian immigrant (in Cape Town) wondered whether the Native American would be celebrating Thanksgiving Day. Somehow I doubt.

    Anyway, as the Biblical scripture says – the truth shall set you free -. If time allows it, I hope we can chat soon.

    Mark

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    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      It seems that the experience of colonization is a universal trait that manifests itself wherever there is an imbalance of power. South Africa still wrestles with the legacy of apartheid just as America claims to be a post-racial society, even when the facts on the ground give away the lie.

      Thanks for adding to the discussion, Mark.

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  14. Pingback: Moving the chains | ΕΝΙΑΙΟ ΜΕΤΩΠΟ ΠΑΙΔΕΙΑΣ

  15. H3nry J3kyll says:

    I share your sentiments on the power of the Colonized Mind essay Jeff. I wish you all the success in the world on your path to healing from within.

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  16. wolfess says:

    Ah yes, living in a matriarchal power structure I learned fairly young that “what she doesn’t know won’t hurt ME!” Sadly, after having children of my own I once again found myself seeking her approval — it has taken many years to realize a) as long as I seek her approval I will never have it; b) why would I want to emulate someone who didn’t see a need to be any different than she was; and c) I am a person in my own right that makes mistakes, loves deeply, and reaches out to others, not because I need approval but to show others that they don’t need it either!

    Pwr 2 the COLONIZED peons!
    GUILLOTINE OPPRESSION!

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    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      I had similar experiences but mine were focused on my absentee (adoptee) father. It took me too long to learn what you did, that seeking his approval was waiting in vain and looking up to someone who was unwilling to change was not healthy for me. Approval will come from those who truly take the time to understand us and, sadly, it may not always be our own parents or extended family members.

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      • wolfess says:

        You know, I was adopted too, and sometimes that can be a double whammy because when I was very young I didn’t understand why my biological mother had let me go, and since my adopted parents had chosen me they didn’t act more like they loved me. It took awhile to understand that my bio mother probably gave me up b/c she wanted more for me than she could give, and that my adoptive parents gave what they could and it wasn’t anyone’s fault they couldn’t do any better. But it sure took a long time for me to make peace with that! :-)

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      • Jeff Nguyen says:

        Hmm, that sounds similar. Different contexts but the same outcome. Having to eventually make peace with the things and people beyond our control. I’m glad you made it to the other side.

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  17. wolfess says:

    “You know, I had a very traumatic childhood; it’s amazing I’m as sane as I am! Bwhahahahaha!” :-) I know we were supposed to root for Robin Hood but the sheriff was still my favorite! :-)
    Speaking of other sides — I live in Nebraska; there’s no further ‘side’ than that! LOL
    Thnx for being out here in the ethersphere where I could find you and grow even further Jeff!

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  18. Thank-you, Jeff. I am both glad that your voice is telling your story, and angry and sad that decades later, the onus still remains on you to do all the explaining. I am sorry.

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    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      Thank you, Claire. I would much rather tell my story than keep listening to more stories about how great Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Jaime Dimon, and their ilk are.

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      • Of course. Sorry I was unclear. I took a huge shortcut based on old feminist “shorthand”,hoping to spare you a long comment. But I’ll probably err on the opposite extreme now.
        Oh well let me try again in a manner at least not requiring the use of a mind reader.
        I’ve been researching issues re Vietnam and America after realizing that there are some gaps in my basic knowledge that are my responsibility to fill. After I read your post, I was quite shaken. Because American child development professionals had the intellectual capital to anticipate the impossible position Vietnamese adoptees were placed in. As you indicated, how can a young child reconcile the fact that he was “saved” from destruction by those who had destroyed what he knew to be the world? Or to accept the US concept of rescuing orphans it had itself orphaned? I thought of how clearly even the very youngest child’s awareness of his utter dependence on adults had been established by that time. And I was really remembering all the two-year-olds I worked with at Head Start years ago. I remembered with a horrifying clarity that two year olds don’t miss anything. So that not remembering that trauma didn’t protect you from experiencing it. It prevented you from accessing it.
        I had not for years considered the SPECIFICS of the relentless atrocities+torture – almost daily war crimes by those who, contrary to one message you received, conveyed an opposite message of danger.
        I should have made it clear that I believe racism prevented social policy designed to provide early intervention for the babies we saw as ours to take, as our last blast of destruction as we fled the scene of the crime. That such social policy did not include educating Americans re. our collective responsibility to the huge impact we had just made on a few generations of human lives is proof of the profound racism that underlie the development of that war. We would never have subjected any white civilian population to those atrocities.
        I apologized personally for not remaining aware of, and sensitive to, issues that people of color do not have the luxury of forgetting. Finally, to the extent that you have a right to expect politically active people to take the initiative in at least sufficient self education to relieve you of a burden you need not always assume – I offered a personal apology because I owe you one.

        If you don’t feel any such burden when explaining your experience, that just means my early political training was flawed and I will have to remedy that if I am as serious about active anti-racism as I say I am.
        Peace

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      • Jeff Nguyen says:

        No worries, Claire. It is ironic that the country that contributed to making me and thousands of children orphans is the same one that patted itself on the back when it “rescued” said orphans. Babies always make for good photo-ops and when so many good, Christian families are waiting to adopt, well, you can see where this was headed. Vietnam is where the corporate media cut its teeth and learned that the public prefers to see pictures of G.I.’s holding babies to witnessing massacres at My Lai and to hear about humanitarian interventions instead of full spectrum dominance. There is a great deal of research on the effects of traumatic bonding which goes a long way in explaining the seeming complacency of the American public. As you stated, the underlying currents of racism are always just beneath the surface of any issue of significance in the American historical record including the Vietnam war. You are absolutely correct that Saigon was a crime scene when the U.S. pulled out, just as Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., are today.

        Here’s an interesting article by a Vietnamese adoptee that addresses many of the issues you bring up:

        http://thehumanist.org/may-june-2009/operation-baby-lift-an-adoptees-perspective/

        Just to clarify, it’s not that I don’t feel a burden, it’s that now I feel the freedom to share or not share my story. When I was younger, I felt compelled to explain my presence in a white family to outsiders and braced myself for the inevitable, “So you’re adopted?” I can choose to let someone in or keep them guessing. Peace to you.

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  19. desilef says:

    I have been reading every comment. Jeff, it is such a testament to the power of your eloquent essay that so many readers need to respond and the conversation goes on and on. I have been moved by everyone.

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    • Jeff Nguyen says:

      Thank you, Diane, again. I really do hope that it doesn’t take others so long to find their voice as it did for me. In the words of Bonnie Raitt…”Turn down these voices inside my head.” At least now I can tell which one is mine and which belongs to the oppressor. Peace to you.

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