by Eric Tang - co-editor (with Tram Nyguyen) of forthcoming anthology "Unsettled," and Community Organizer, CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities in New York City.
"Damn, why they wanna stick me for my papers?" So goes the chorus to the classic hip-hop song "Warning," performed by the legendary Notorious BIG (a.k.a Biggie Smalls). Biggie was rapping about the dangers of getting "stuck" (hip hop parlance for being held at gunpoint or even killed) for the almighty "paper" -- cold hard cash. Those after Biggie's money were local hustlers and other wannabes jealous of his sudden fame and fortune. Biggie's warning is clear: the streets that make you, will eventually betray you.
For those of us who think the narrative of street betrayal has become a tired hip-hop cliché, Who I Became offers a dope remix that compels us to listen again. The film tells the story of Pounloeu, a 21-year old Cambodian refugee who embraces his hometown streets of the Tenderloin, San Francisco. Indeed, those who love the streets of the "TL" are African Americans, Samoans, and Southeast Asian refugees from war-torn Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos whose first and only recollection of the homeland are the refugee camps their parents escaped to in the early 1980s. Thus, the TL is what they became: street smart; quick-witted; and well versed in the rhythmic language of hip hop. These days, one cannot engage in an honest and open dialogue about the "streets of America's inner-cities" without running into some neoconservative expert whose treatise begins and ends with thoroughly racist and sexist images of Blacks and Latinos: Black and Brown unemployment; Black and Brown welfare queens; and, of course, Black-on-Black violence. Who I Became takes the neoconservatives head on, revealing to its audience that there is no simple race equation when it comes to America's streets. Pounloeu is at once the brother who hangs on the corner in the evenings and the worker who gets up at the crack of dawn to support his family; he seems like the stereotypical "inner-city child" abandoned by his parents, and yet he emerges as a young father who's trying to do right by his newborn son; he's a young man of color caught up in the criminal justice system and the young dreamer whose about to "make it out" with a career in construction work.
But if race is a complicated matter, then so is betrayal. While Biggie cautioned against the inevitable betrayal of former street acquaintances, Pounloeu's story reminds us that the real betrayal comes at the hands of the American government. The United States played a central role in creating the wars that destroyed Southeast Asia during the 1960s and 1970s, and then -- as a 1980's Cold War gesture - it resettled thousands of refugees in all regions of America, promising "special assistance" programs that would keep refugees from poverty. Twenty years after the initial resettlement of Cambodian refugees, Southeast Asians maintain one of the highest per capita unemployment rates of any race or ethnic group in America, and Southeast Asian youth have become part of the growing prison population. In response, the current-Bush administration has stepped up its efforts to rid itself of the problem by deporting Cambodian youth who have been convicted of aggravated felonies. In 2002, Bush forced Cambodia to sign a 'Memorandum of Understanding" whereby the latter would "take back" any Cambodian youth that America no longer wanted - never mind that the majority of these young people were born in either a Thai or Filipino refugee camp. Pounloeu is on federal probation and is therefore a prime target for deportation; the fear of deportation hovers over him throughout the film.
Like Biggie, it seems that Pounloeu has every right to ask, "Damn, why they wanna stick me for my papers?" But here, "getting stuck" means being sent back to prison for failing to show up at a minimum-wage work program; being harassed by the police for merely being a young man of color who loves the streets; or being stuck on a plane and deported to a homeland that he's never been to. The "papers" are the court documents, the parole evaluations, the green cards, and yes, Bush's funky Memorandum to the Cambodian Minister of the Interior.