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A Vietnamese Iowan's response to Prof. Stephen Bloom's essay

What we think of when we think of Iowa? Farm fields near the Mississippi, May 2007
What we think of when we think of Iowa? Farm fields near the Mississippi, May 2007
Photo by yark64/Flickr (Creative Commons)

University of Iowa professor Stephen Bloom's recent essay in The Atlantic on Iowa, the state that could determine the next president, didn't go over well with everyone who read it.

Among these was KPCC's OnCentral blog editor Kim Bui, a Vietnamese Iowan (yes, there are those), who objected especially to the state's remaining residents being portrayed in the essay as "often the elderly waiting to die, those too peer around the bend for better opportunities, an assortment of waste-toids and meth addicts with pale skin and rotted teeth, or those who quixotically believe, like Little Orphan Annie, that 'The sun'll come out tomorrow.' "

Kim's response below to Bloom's essay, first posted on her Linkage+ blog, takes in her unique Iowa experience as the child of immigrants, reflecting on "why it made so much sense for my parents to raise a family there - it’s akin to the Vietnamese sensibility." 

“Iowa is a good place to be from.”

That’s what I usually say when a Californian asks me how it was to grow up in Iowa.

“What do you mean?”

And here’s where it gets tricky. I just finished reading Stephen Bloom’s Atlantic article on Iowa and I understand parts of what he is saying. And I understand the backlash. So here’s my picture of Iowa, one of the state’s “exports,” as Bloom kindly called us.

I’ve been to a lot of beautiful places — Switzerland, the Czech Republic, my homeland of Vietnam — but it is hard to beat the beauty of Iowa in that glorious two weeks between spring and summer, when the fields are starting to grow, the flowers are blooming and it’s too humid. The summer storms are starting to roll in and the hills look endless.

I grew up in Des Moines, far from a farm, far from rural Iowa. I’ve never been to a farm. I grew up in a suburb of a small, but teeming city. We had sushi (though not until late in my high school days) delicious Chinese, Vietnamese and country cooking. I would play in the woods behind my house daily. The green belt, which stretches through a large portion of Des Moines, was a large part of my childhood. We swung on vines, caught tadpoles and my father and I went on miles-long bike rides (memories of which I still cherish).

It is not a state without issues. Racism was part of my youth, and there is plenty of “nothing to do.” Meth and drugs is and was a huge problem. I was far removed from the farms, but the Des Moines Register brought me stories of farm subsidies and stories of poverty throughout the state.

In the second grade, I was called a “chink.” A boy, who lived down the street and well-known as a bully, turned around on the bus, and said it. Nothing else. Then he stared at me for about a minute, then turned around. When I worked at JCPenney’s in high school, I was asked to follow my mother’s friends around, because security was afraid they would try to steal - regardless of how I protested.

But I had friends who were Indian, white, black and other. I had gay friends. I had straight friends.

Many of my family’s Vietnamese friends were meatpackers. They lived on the East side of town and over time, I figured out my family and others who lived on the more wealthy west side were regarded with dislike. We had made it.

We went to some of the best schools in the state, we had a nice house with a garage and a balcony where I danced in the summer rain. We had a big backyard deck.

Despite that, we were ruthlesslessly lower-middle-class. In junior high, the utility company my father worked for was being bought and he was afraid they would force an early retirement on him. I did not get new gym clothes that year and instead wore my brother’s old shorts, which prompted choruses of “Who wears short shorts? Kim wears short shorts!” as we ran around the field at Indian Hills Junior High.

I spent nights in high school driving around the city, aimlessly. At that time you could drive around Des Moines in 20 minutes, maybe less. We would take a detour and drive around the drag downtown, where boys would park their rides and we would flirt through car windows as we drove through the empty streets of downtown. I would drink coffee in my goth gear late at nigh at Java Joe’s. On Mondays, I would have a mocha and spout angsty poetry at the Poetry Slam.

Everything that I am comes from being Iowan. That is why I reply the way I do to people. Iowans say hello, no matter who you are. They will help if you get lost. Iowans may shop at Wal-Mart, but they will pick up your bag if it bursts while walking to your car.

In the fifth grade, I joined the orchestra. I played the violin until the middle of my college career. In high school, I would often play so much (and type so much at night) that I would give myself tendonitis. Mr. Peters, my orchestra teacher was a sweet man who pushed us to be better. We spent nearly a year putting on a opera. High school kids! We practiced for hours a day with members of the choir. We won a Grammy - the first awarded a high school. Orchestra made me understand why teams are important.

Summers are my favorite thing about Iowa. It mean thunderstorms. It meant more late nights drinking coffee and playing loud metal music. I would volunteer for the local AIDS organization more (my two best friends there were transgendered. I did not care). In August would come the Iowa State Fair where we would mullet-watch, drink sasparilla root beer and eat. I loved it.

I went to Iowa State (take that, Professor Bloom) on a minority scholarship. It was there I found my calling, so to speak. I went in as a microbiology major. I had a wonderful advisor and loved biology lab, but I was terrible at Chemistry. I found my way to journalism and the newsroom of the Iowa State Daily and never left. I gained another wonderful advisor and friends for life. We would eat Chinese Homestyle Cooking and put together a newspaper that won Pacemakers and all sorts of awards I can’t even list. We covered a riot. We covered a disgraced basketball coach. We covered the research coming from the university. I learned to love what I do there. I learned to tel the story, whatever it took. I slept in a semi truck for two weeks, following a solar car racing team. That five-part series is one of the best stories I’ve ever written.

At Iowa State, I met people who grew up in smaller towns. I had a boyfriend from the strange enclave of Fairfield, which is home to the Maharishi University of Management. I visited it with him. It was there I had my first taste of scrambled tofu. I learned about transcendental meditation there. His parents were definitely hippies.

There is a spirit to Iowans. We don’t really like giving up. I think that is why it made so much sense for my parents to raise a family there - it’s akin to the Vietnamese sensibility. Things get bad. They always do. We have wars, we have recessions. But we get up and live another day. Iowans are so strong they are foolhardy at times, and so are the Vietnamese. We will not back down. We are stubborn, but nice to you. We will say Merry Christmas and decorate our lawns. Even if we grew up Buddhist. But we’ll do it while telling you about Buddhism.

I live in Los Angeles now. This is also a gorgeous state with some kind people. It also has issues. I am pretty sure there is enough meth and cocaine here to compete with Iowa. There are meatpackers. There are farm workers. But Californians ignore their issues in a different way. It is the laissez-faire attitude about life that some days is very appealing to me. But as an Iowan, I tackle things head on. I will stand my ground.

I very much miss my home state sometimes. I miss raking leaves, I miss the thrill of finding a violet peeking out of the melting snow. I miss driving and waving with two fingers to a complete stranger. I miss being unabashedly kind to someone without having them try to figure out what my agenda is. Again, much like Vietnam, there is a simplicity to things.

I am an export of Iowa. I left because, yes, there are more opportunities for me outside of the state than in it. That’s a problem. But that does not make me any less proud of being Iowan. I wore my Iowa State sweatshirt to a coffee shop the other day and met another Iowan. We talked for 20 minutes about how we got here and how it was at home. My parents now live in San Diego, but I still have problems calling that home. Des Moines is home.

Last time I went home, for a wedding, I found out there is a dueling piano bar downtown in a part of downtown that used to be reserved for poorer folk and crumbling businesses. There was (more) sushi. It was summer, and the Rose Gardens at the Art Center were starting to bloom. There was a heavy, sticky humidity in the air and no traffic. It rained the night before. My high school has a coffee cart. The economy was failing and plenty of businesses I remembered had closed.

But it was Iowa and I am Iowan, so I was happy.