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Lac Su

by Susan Henderson on May 6, 2009

Lac Su left his homeland of Vietnam under gunfire, and at age five, began his life in America in an apartment teeming with drugs and prostitutes. His memoir, I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE*, tells the story of his search for a sense of worth and belonging from a violent father and local gangs. It’s a harrowing story, but told with heart, humor, and wisdom. I’m glad to have Lac here to discuss his book, and I hope you’ll leave him a comment at the end of the interview.

*LitPark encourages you to buy books from your local independent bookstore. Click here to find the store closest to you.

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Your wife was pregnant with your first child when you decided to write this book. Talk to me about what it’s like to have the pain from the past collide with your hopes for the future.

It feels like I’m running in place, like someone fashioned a rope around a boulder and tied the other end to my waist. The only way I can break free from this rock is to cut the rope. The only way I can do this is to face my past, come to terms with the baggage I’ve been carrying with me for so long and learn from it. Writing I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE—plus therapy—helped. I sought therapy for the first time in my life while writing the book.

I was half way through the third chapter when reliving my childhood turmoil became unbearable. Gentleman Jack found his way onto the table beside my computer during my late night writing sessions. The book was dragging me back into a dark place where I didn’t want to go. I tried to convince myself that my life was different now. My hard work was beginning to bear fruit—all the blessings that would make a man feel content with life. But my soul had not rest. Unresolved issues left me like an agoraphobic trapped inside his home; he looks out the window, sees a beautiful spring day, but is unable to set foot outside and enjoy it. It was dangerous and unhealthy to continue living this way.

So, I tried therapy. The biggest thing therapy taught me was that I’d been living my life in denial. I always figured if I didn’t think about my past, it would just go away. But on a subconscious level, old memories that were out of sight and out of mind affected me far more than I realized. The embers of pain were still smoldering deep inside me.

“Please make him smarter so he doesn’t have to endure any more beatings. That’s all we ask, great ancestor of ours.” She looks desperate and distressed. I try to make her feel better by staring straight down at my paper, with my pencil poised. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 63)

You were raised by a survivalist—a father wanted by the communists, who once had to eat insects and tree bark to stay alive. How did his perspective on the world shape you?

My world still revolves around this tiny man. In spite of 25 years of bad health, he’s still alive and kicking. He’s even smaller now—doesn’t stand more than 4’ 8”. He molded and shaped the man I’ve become. It was in college that I first began to challenge his perspective on life. College taught me a lot of things that contradicted what my old man had plastered onto me through the years. At first, I didn’t trust what the professors or books were telling me—they were all lies. I remember reading in a child development class about the importance of demonstrating affection. In my father’s house, I love yous are for white people.

My father is a hard man; he’s lived through a lot. Many of his lessons contain grains of truth, as long as you can sift through the twisted parts. Let’s see…a perfect example of this is in the Alhambra chapter when he decided as a 13-year old it was important that I know that, “Money and women are the two most wicked things in the world. The sanest person you know will become lost and irrational the moment he sees cash or smells pussy.”

I walk into the kitchen to tell Pa I’m home. The four beating sticks on the table are various sizes and shapes. One of them is new—a three-foot section of eucalyptus tree branch that’s a good inch thick. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 194)

Talk to me about what it’s like to live in a country when you don’t understand the language or the culture.

Overall, it was a fun experience. The confusion and frustration that I carried bred curiosity, which forced me to look for answers. My parents didn’t provide answers for me, so I had a lot to figure out on my own. People-watching is still a favorite pastime. As a kid, I would sit by the window or on my porch and just absorb the happenings of street life. It was the 1980s in Los Angeles—there was never a dull moment on Sunset Blvd.

English was my fourth language. My father spoke two Chinese dialects to me, and my mother spoke to me only in Vietnamese. I had friends who spoke Armenian, Swahili, Spanish, Spanglish, and Ebonics. Yes, it was perplexing at times. I learned quickly to read body language. Sometimes, words that I understood didn’t have to fall from my friends’ mouths for me to know what they were saying.

Our trips in Pa’s little red Chevette are conducted in the bike lane on the far right side of the road. They are marred by a merciless barrage of honking cars. Pa yells and curses back at them, convinced that he’s done no wrong. He stops every few blocks to check his map—a tattered little number that’s dotted in the red ink he uses to earmark the route. Pa can’t read the English street signs, so the map isn’t much help. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 134)

So much of what’s happened to you is devastating. But there’s a surprising sense of humor in this book (albeit bittersweet)—a little boy chewing on thrown away condoms, the inevitable teasing of Phat Bich, scamming the YMCA Santa, and your uncles—just having emigrated to the U.S.—breaking the necks of geese down at the local park and bringing them home for a feast. When did you start to find the humor in your story?

I started to see the humor in these stories when sharing them with a white friend of mine. As I said before, many of these events I’d never shared with anyone, but as I was writing my memoir I had a friend I’d tell the stories to, just to see what he thought of them. I actually found it funny the way he thought my stories were funny. I find that when you put people from different cultures into one place, you will often get a humorous, dynamic, and irreverent exchange. I hope I was successful in capturing this in my book.

Finally, Ma comes to the table with the main course, a huge glass dish holding the roasted geese. The birds’ heads are still attached, and the birds are so large that their necks hang down over the side of the tray. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 210)

You were taking your family’s food stamps, selling them for well below their value, and also stealing money, and this resulted in a brutal and humiliating punishment. But it’s the reason for the stealing that’s so utterly devastating—to try to buy friendship from someone who gives nothing back. If you found a kid today who felt worthless, hopeless, without a sense of belonging or purpose, what do you think might make a difference to him?

I’d write the kid a letter—a letter that I wish someone would have written to me when I was that kid.

Dear Kid,

The world is not like what you see on television. Things don’t always turn out OK. Real people sometimes feel lost, hopeless, and sad. The pain you feel makes you real. I think you would have a bigger problem if you weren’t feeling what you’re feeling under the circumstances. The psychology books call these people “crazy.” So, be glad you’re not crazy. There are reasons why you feel this way; don’t ignore them.

How much do you hate your life right now? I ask because the feelings weighing you down will remain if you don’t do something about what is causing them. What can I do about them, you ask? There are two important things for you to do:

1. Surround yourself with smart people. I mean really smart people. Learn from them. Soak up everything they have to teach you. Ask them a bunch of questions.

2. Keep these three phrases on the tip of your tongue: “I am sorry.” “Will you teach me?” and “Thank you.” There’s actually another phrase to hold close, but you can’t use this one unless you really mean it. When you do, you better damn use it: “I love you.”

Good luck, kid. You can turn your T.V. back on. Actually, turn off that T.V. and read a book.

Love,

Lac

“Do you remember how to get back to where we were, Big Head?” Pa asks.
“No.”
“Why didn’t you keep track?”
“Because I’m sleepy.”
….”We’re almost there at the old trash bins. You know how I know?”
“No.”
“Because of that big number eighteen on that wall. That’s how I get around. Remember things that pop out at you. Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, Pa.”
“Okay, now you can walk home alone without me. I’m leaving you now.” (pp. 38-9)

You joined a gang when you were a teenager, and I was very, I don’t know, I think the word might be touched to find out it was a graffiti art gang, and all these little thugs had sketchbooks. What’s the connection for you between art and healing?

The beauty of art is that you can dump your negative energy into a medium and make it beautiful. It’s called “channeling”, I think. I understand how the most tortured and grieved writers and painters can create such beautiful masterpieces. When you look at a Van Gogh or Pollack, those intricate scribbles, patterns, and colors come from somewhere. Writers, like painters, tell stories with emotion. For a long time, I had a lot of negative emotions that I kept bottled up inside. Being able to release these bad vibes and make art out of it is soothing. Art says things that you’re unable to otherwise express. Writing is cathartic, and you hope that someone will connect with your art. For someone to say, “I know what that’s like,” serves as a form of healing for me.

My newborn brother never made it home from the hospital. The doctors said the Raid was the culprit. The crib that Pa pulled from the Dumpster—and was so careful to fix and polish to perfection—sat in our apartment collecting dust for nearly two years, until the day that Vinnie came home. (I LOVE YOUS ARE FOR WHITE PEOPLE, p. 74)

The scene of you rubbing Tiger Balm on the wounds you gave your little sister was a really pivotal moment in the book—a wake-up call that you didn’t want to become what you hated. But where does all that rage that was inflicted on you get released? How does your mind find peace when you carry such memories of fear and shame?

There are two things available to me: a quick fix and life-time maintenance. When I was younger, I wrote poems and drew pictures. These days, I paint and garden. Music has always been soothing. These are quick fixes—a bandage to cover my pain. (This is a great question, Susan. I’ve never really thought about this.) For the long haul, the way I heal and reconcile my past is to love people—and do things differently than what my father did to me.

{ 43 comments… read them below or add one }

EllenMeister May 6, 2009 at 5:46 am

Thank you Susan and Lac Su for this incredible interview. So much pain and hope packed into these few paragraphs. I need to read this book!

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SusanHenderson May 6, 2009 at 8:09 am

Isn’t his story fascinating? I didn’t want to give too much away about the father in this memoir, but you’ll see when you read the book…

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Lance Reynald May 6, 2009 at 10:47 am

countless kudos to you, Lac.
I know what kind of push the team at HP gives us to write our best… I’d imagine that your book was an even greater firewalk than my own. The journey seems worth it though, you have probably emerged from it a stronger writer than you ever imagined and a much changed person.
In your words here it seems to me that the end result of the process is that you are many things; a strong writer, a good spouse, an ideal father and flatly… a good man.
I wish you all the best with the launch of ILYAFWP!
the buildup to this very moment deserves more success and accolades than any of us can ever imagine.
good luck out there!

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Robert Westfield May 6, 2009 at 11:38 am

Just as my mountain of must-read books is beginning to teeter parlously above my head, I have another to add to the top. Damn it. This sounds amazing. Congratulations.

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kategray May 6, 2009 at 12:08 pm

Wow, what a story. I’m pretty keen on reading this, I have to say. Where I grew up, we had a fairly sizable Laotian and Cambodian refugee population – but I don’t think any of the friends I had were ever very comfortable discussing the experiences their families had in coming to the U.S. It does make me think that I should look up some of them, though….
Thanks for sharing this book with us!

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Ivy May 6, 2009 at 12:28 pm

Mos def gonna get the book. Your story is the story of my brothers and cousin, except we were in Texas, not Cali. Keep on keepin’ on, Lac.

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Lac May 6, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Thank you all for your kind words and love. Don’t mind the tear drops and blood stains when you see them on some of the pages! And feel free to laugh out loud also.

Love. Live. Laugh. -Lac

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Aurelio May 6, 2009 at 1:44 pm

Lac, as I was reading your interview, I was struck with the thought that those parents who have abused us rarely, if ever, see themselves as abusers at all. From his perspective, your father was “teaching” you, no? My parents never saw themselves as abusive, and were never physically so, but my own recognition of their ill-conceived “guidance,” or whatever they think it was, was my first step in finally learning something useful rather than hurtful from it. Therapy was my key to unraveling my crazy childhood too, and highly recommended.

Your book sounds terrific. Kudos.

Thanks, Susan, for another fine post.

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SusanHenderson May 6, 2009 at 6:46 pm

I love thinking of you two under the same publishing roof. And thanks for the reminder of what an awful lot of emotional work it is, not only to write the book, but to edit it.

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SusanHenderson May 6, 2009 at 6:46 pm

Robert’s here! Yay!

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SusanHenderson May 6, 2009 at 6:47 pm

Let me know how like it!

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SusanHenderson May 6, 2009 at 6:48 pm

Glad you’re here, Ivy. Would love to hear your take on the book after you read it.

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SusanHenderson May 6, 2009 at 6:49 pm

Anyone who can live through what you did and emerge with a philosophy of “Love. Live. Laugh” is pretty amazing.

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SusanHenderson May 6, 2009 at 6:52 pm

Yeah, I think people generally do the best they can; and then balled-up rage, exhaustion, pride, and the simple misunderstanding of what the problem is and what to do about it can lead them down any number of paths.

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robinslick May 6, 2009 at 10:03 pm

What everyone else said but I want to add one thing: From the excerpts here, Lac is just an amazing, amazing writer. Every sentence is perfect and I was riveted. I want more and cannot wait to read this book.

And Susan, you really do ask the best questions of any interviewer, ever.

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Robert Westfield May 6, 2009 at 10:24 pm

Can’t wait to see you at Lance’s reading in June!!

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Kimberly May 6, 2009 at 10:44 pm

The thought of becoming what you hate about your parents/family/upbringing is a recurring theme for me always. SO interesting the way you answered this Lac! (Tiger Balm on cuts??? REALLY??????????)

Can’t wait to add you to my ever-expanding LitPark shelf, Lac!

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SusanHenderson May 7, 2009 at 8:34 am

That’s really nice of you, Rob. Are you coming to KGB on the 22nd?

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SusanHenderson May 7, 2009 at 8:36 am

Funny, I didn’t even question what it was, but according to Wikipedia, it’s kind of like rubbing Menthalatum on a cut: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiger_Balm

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SusanHenderson May 7, 2009 at 8:42 am

So looking forward to it!

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Juliet May 7, 2009 at 10:21 am

Tremendous. I’ve pre-ordered the book, and cannot wait to read it. Thank you so much for sharing your story, Lac. Your “kid letter” is incredibly beautiful and profound. I shall share it with my son.
Please know, all these years of pain and haunting of self have brought forth something of great worth and beauty. Thank you for walking through your grief with integrity.

Susan, always, thank you.

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Lac May 7, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Aurelio, I wish I was given “time-outs” instead. LOL! My Pa was “teaching” AND “beating” me. He taught me lessons and beat me to make sure I remember those lessons. The more important the lesson, the more intense the beating. The beatings served as reminders. :(

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SusanHenderson May 7, 2009 at 2:15 pm

Love what you wrote here, J.

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Kimberly May 7, 2009 at 6:49 pm

Knowing how much it burns on unbroken skin, I can only imagine the agony on an open would – OUCH!

(But what a world of healing it does for sore muscles…)

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Nathalie May 8, 2009 at 5:39 am

That’s another great interview – thank you both – and the book sounds riveting (if an emotionally hard read, most likely). Wonderful letter too.

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SusanHenderson May 8, 2009 at 10:05 am

It’s emotionally powerful – I mean, tough things happen, for sure – but the book, surprisingly enough, lifts and nurtures you as it goes. Lac’s done a wondrous job of telling his story.

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Lac May 9, 2009 at 1:35 am

Hi Susan, I’m a daddy again to a set of twin boys! Mommy is doing fine and so is their Big Sister. I had to cancel my Vroman’s bookstore signing in Los Angeles to drive two hours back to San Diego–with Big Sister in tow–to meet Mommy in the O.R. Thank you all again for your kind words and well wishes.

Love,

-Lac

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SusanHenderson May 9, 2009 at 12:16 pm

CONGRATULATIONS!!!! The best reason ever to cancel a reading. What are their names?

Smiling so big right now. xo

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lac May 9, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Thanks, Susan. It was a no-brainer. I’m smiling SOO big right now too.

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Tony Aldana May 13, 2009 at 3:13 pm

Heavy Javi-now knows of your book and he is looking forward to seeing you quite soon.

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Tony May 14, 2009 at 2:30 pm

Lac -you continue to inspire with your words and the book itself is an excellent account of the struggle and love of life.

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SusanHenderson May 14, 2009 at 7:54 pm

I’m so glad to see Lac getting all these great comments!

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SusanHenderson May 14, 2009 at 7:55 pm

That’s a perfect way to put it: the struggle and love of life!

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Lac Su May 21, 2009 at 8:43 pm

Hi Susan. It’s Lac. It’s been crazy for the last couple of weeks. I just want to take some time out to tell you how much I appreciate YOU. Thank you for having me on LitPark and introducing my debut book to “writers who come here to play.” We do play here, don’t we? Your support and friendship goes a long way for me. It’s something special for someone whom I’ve met a couple of years ago–on Myspace of all places–to do what you’ve done for me and my story. It means a lot.

I love you, Susan. I really do.

-Lac

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Lac Su May 21, 2009 at 8:50 pm

i’m looking forward to reading your book, Lance. For reals. Pop. pop. pop. salvation!

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SusanHenderson May 22, 2009 at 9:18 am

You made my day.

Love you, too. I think your book’s going to change lives!

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Nathalie July 9, 2009 at 6:58 am

Popped in to say that I just finished reading this book and loved it immensely.
Thank you for introducing me to it.

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Lac Su July 9, 2009 at 1:09 pm

I’m glad it was a good read for you. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

Love,

-Lac

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COMA_RT July 27, 2009 at 3:03 pm

What’s up, Lac? I was wandering around the biography section of the B&N in the Bronx and the title of your book caught my eye and made me laugh so I checked out the back and decided to buy it.
I flew through it in a night and I only have 30 pages left. It is an extremely enjoyable book. Congratulations.

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lacsu July 28, 2009 at 2:11 pm

Hey RT, thanks for checking out my book. A lot of drama, ha? LOL. I have to thank my Pa for the title. The old man really knows how to come up with provocative adages…and titles. Looking forward to sharing more stories with you.

-Lac

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Gaby Martinez January 11, 2012 at 8:21 am

Hello,
I love , enjoy, cry, laugh, fell your story. I cannot put the book down, it inspires me so much, hard to find the words to describe it. I know you are coming to de anza on February 7th and I really want to meet you, it would be a pleasure to see who wrote the amazing journey. If you would just come Monday at 1:30 (Feb 5) or Wednesday at 1:30 (Feb 8th). Times I would not have to leave a class.
I hope to get a respond from you, you inspire me

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Diane November 19, 2012 at 10:05 pm

Dear Lac,
I know it’s been some years you published your book. But I would just like to thank you in sharing your story. It was your story that brought my son and me a little closer together. He read it and gave it to me to read. I read it and now we had/have something to share. It opened up his eyes. He was in a similar situation and it has opened up both our eyes. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for you sharing your story. I have some questions of what ever happened to your relationship with “Art”?.
Again, thank you Lac.

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Mary Chen May 30, 2013 at 3:18 am

Brave and beautiful and generous. Thank you, Lac, for sharing yourself with the world and offering hope for those who have gone through similar hurts. Model minority proponents, hope you read this book and get that the Asian immigrant experience is varied–not all thriving professionals– and often rough. And many have food to eat and the trappings of American life only because they and family members have worked despite ill health and bad conditions. Many have no internal life, are emotionally broken, having focused solely on survival. Is this how America defines success?

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