By Debora Gordon
Many, perhaps most, parts of this story have been hard to tell. I often imagine someone who might be personally affected by a particular part of the story looking over my shoulder.
As I write this section, I feel the phantom presence of Qui Lam, Lam Vo’s mother, although I had only met her a couple of times when Lam was my student, nearly seven years ago. I know her pain and sadness are deep, and while I feel this is an important story that should be told, I also can imagine a mother’s wish not to publicize the tragedy of her own child’s actions.
I was interested in talking to Qui Lam to understand more about the circumstances of Lam’s early life, and how his gang membership, arrest and incarceration have affected her and Lam’s brothers. I thought she might be willing to speak with me. But I also suspected that she might not be – because of the language barrier which would require a translator, and because I felt she might simply be in a state somewhere between grief, sorrow and shame.
Speaking no Vietnamese myself, I asked Kieu N., who had been my Vietnamese bilingual instructional assistant when I was teaching writing to adult ESL students in Oakland, to translate. A couple of weeks after Lam gave me his mother’s phone number during my December prison visit, Kieu and I called Qui together. No one picked up, so Kieu left this message on the answering machine:
I am calling on behalf of Debora Gordon, who was your son Lam’s teacher in Independent Study.
Debora said Lam has told you that she is writing a story about Lam for the Oakland Tribune, and that Lam spoke with you about arranging an interview with you. I worked with Debora as in instructional assistant, and she asked if I could serve as translator, since she does not speak Vietnamese. I would also come to the interview and be able to translate between Vietnamese and English for both of you.
Debora would like you to know that her story, which is being published in a series of short reports, is meant to bring a greater understanding of how young people who have other choices wind up in gangs and being involved in acts of extreme violence. She intends to write this story sympathetically in that she will not be trying to paint a negative portrait of Lam, but rather understand what happened.
What she would like to ask you is to talk about your family’s journey here from Vietnam and what Lam’s early childhood was like, as well as how you felt about Lam’s increasing gang involvement, how you tried to help him, and how his crime and incarceration have affected your family.
A few days later, Kieu and I tried again, this time as a conference call. Qui answered, but I was accidentally dropped.
I was surprised when Kieu called me back much later. She had spoken to Qui Lam for nearly an hour. I was sorry not to have at least been able to hear Qui Lam’s voice, but Kieu sent me her notes from the story.
During their conversation, Qui Lam repeated some parts of her story several times, such as the death of Lam’s father, leaving her with three children. Because she never learned to speak English at all, it was hard for her to know what her children were doing in and out of school.
Kieu reported that Qui became very emotional when she talked about what had happened with Lam, saying she had tried to teach her son to do well, and had pleaded with him not to associate with his friends who were obviously gangsters. She would tell Lam that his friends would not help him if they got into trouble, but Lam didn’t listen. She said that sometimes Lam and his friends would do drugs in their home. Now that Lam is in prison, she feels it is too late for her to help him anymore.
Qui Lam did not want to speak to me directly because she does not want her friends to know that Lam is in prison, feeling that people would laugh at her or treat her with derision. Whenever her friends ask about Lam, she tells them that Lam is studying in Los Angeles. I do not think she understands that this story has already been published.
Because of Lam’s arrest, conviction and incarceration, life has been very stressful. Her entire focus now is taking care of her three younger sons, who, Qui Lam said, were doing well at school, and behave well at home. She said it is very hard to share Lam’s story with anyone. It makes her feel extremely sad.
Although I did not get to speak to Qui Lam directly, if I had the chance, I would want to say that there were many social and political circumstances that have led Lam and countless others down this disastrous path. While parents do make a difference, sometimes these forces outweigh even committed and thoughtful parenting. The siren call of the streets is relentless. In a way, Qui Lam is yet another victim of this crime, someone whose life has inexorably altered, leaving deep psychic scars.
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