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KhanhLeKhanh Le

Khanh Le grew up in Philadelphia and is currently working in Vietnam. He hopes to go to gradudate school school next year and continue his research on Southeast Asia. Khanh started coming to the Asian Arts Initiative as a youth participant in the GenerAsian Next theater workshop. GenerAsian Next makes him feel at ease and at home.

Where and how did you grow up?

Growing up in Philly was tough, actually, because I went to school where the majority of the kids are black or white, and I felt like I'm the only one that's Asian. Because my school was like 95% black and 2% Asian. However it was different when I went to high school. I went to Central. And that's when everything changed. My politics changed. At Central, the demographic is different. It's very different-it was really diverse. But everybody sticks with their own group. So the Asians would hang out with Asians, blacks would hang out with blacks, Latinos would hang out with Latinos, and whites would hang out with whites. So there wasn't much interaction.

However, I got politicized at Central. I was taking an Asian American study course. So I remember one of the first issues was saying "No" to the stadium proposal in Chinatown in 2000. I was part of that protest. And that's when I met a lot of my mentors. One of my mentors is Mr. Hung, and he teaches at Central High School-he taught Asian American studies. That's when I was came to know about Asian American issue, like Vincent Chin and Angel Island.

What is your connection to the Asian Arts Initiative?

I came out to Mr. Hung that I'm gay, and he introduced me to some of his friends who work for ASIAC-Aids Service in Asian Communities. And so they referred me to AAI which, at that time, had a youth program called GenerAsian Next. It was at the theater workshop that I realized about my identity, who I am-you know, being gay, being Asian American, being Vietnamese. The first person I met there was Gary [San Angel]. He was great, and it was fun because I got to meet a bunch of cool people. I learned a lot from them. And the workshop was really fun because the workshop asked about pressing issues, or asked you to show your feelings. And I feel like I was able to explore my identity, explore myself, through that workshop.

I did a piece called "Khanh and Teena." It was like "Will and Grace," so it was kind of funny. So that was part of my gay identity. And then I did a performance on Michelle Kwan because back then I was in love with Michelle Kwan and with figure skating-I was obsessed with it. And then I did a piece about my dad. He passed away. Growing up, my dad was, like, the typical Asian dad. He never said he loved me. He never hugged me. He never kissed me. I did this piece about how I really missed him and how I really wanted that. But he doesn't know how to show his love. So that was my performance.

Can you talk about someone at AAI who had a lasting impression on you?

After GenerAsian Next, I did a workshop at AAI where we did spoken word. Marian Thambynayagam led the workshop, and she's another person that influenced me a lot-Marian is also queer. And before this workshop, I really felt uncomfortable about some of the spoken word artists who display themselves as macho and how they fight stereotypes but then, at the same time, put women and the gay and lesbian community down. So Marian encouraged me, and we discussed some of the issues.

For example, some spoken word artists speak against the stereotype that Asian men have small penises. And they were like, "Oh, yeah, we all have big dicks, and we can fuck any woman we want." That's so misogynist and so hyper-masculine. And, I'm just like, wait a minute. You fight the stereotype, but do you have to judge your status by your dick size or by how feminine someone is? Why does it matter? And why do you have to put women down? Why do they have to put black people down? Because historically, black people-stereotypes about their masculinity has gotten them lynched for that because white men were scared they were gonna rape white women. And so now they're being discriminated against. And so why are you fighting back those stereotypes at the expense of gay and lesbians, at the expense of other people of color, at the expense of women?

What issues do you care about in the APIA community?

I feel like Asian Americans are going through that process right now of becoming white. I feel like we, Asian Americans, are moving up at the expense of black people, at the expense of other colored people. And I started thinking about it because you always hear about the relationship between black and white, but not black and Asian. And I wondered how we could hopefully patch that relation, or make progress. I remember when I was assisting Gary with GenerAsian Next, some of the kids were saying something about black kids, or black people in general. I remember thinking, "We face discrimination, but at the same time why are we discriminating against other people?" And then when I go home, I feel like it's the same at home where my parents and everybody are racist. And even though everybody's gonna have those stereotype, I feel like we have to take the time to reflect on those, and to reflect on our own actions.

I think the black and the Asian issue is very important. And I feel like we don't want to talk about it, or have a dialog about it, but it's one of the pressing issues right now. And I would like us to come together-this is very naïve of me to say-but just come together and fight social inequality and social injustices. And I'm not blaming everything on the Asian American community. Of course, the two communities have to make the effort of coming together. But we, Asian Americans can set up stores in black neighborhoods, and make money off of the neighborhoods. But are we giving it back to those neighborhoods, or are we just making money and then just going to our suburban homes and lives at the end of the day? I'm not discrediting the Asian American community because we face violence and crimes when we work and stuff like that. But I feel like we do make money off of black communities, but I don't know if we put money back into the community.

How would you describe your current work?

Currently, I've been doing research, teaching in Vietnam and doing volunteer work on Agent Orange. I've been working with Agent Orange-affected youth in Vietnam and been volunteering there. So, you know, as the American War, or the Vietnam War, whichever you want to call it-from a Vietnamese perspective, then it's the American War-Agent Orange was sprayed in Vietnam, and now there's a lot of health issues going on with that and the U.S. is still denying it. So there's a center in Ho Chi Minh City called the Peace Village, and I go there and I volunteer with the kids. I play with the kids. I feed the kids-because they face stigma from having been exposed to Agent Orange.

And then my other work is HIV and AIDS related in Vietnam also. And, so I work with and interview sex workers. In Vietnamese, we call them "women who sell flowers." We don't call them sex workers. So I've been doing a lot of work about that and human trafficking-a lot of work with Vietnamese women marrying foreigners, especially to men in East Asian countries.

For example, Koreans and Taiwanese are increasingly importing Vietnamese wives. And actually the Korean government gave money to Korean men who want to marry Vietnamese women because Korean men in the countryside are facing a shortage of women to marry. Because if you look at it, the Korean women are in the cities, and they're working, and they look down on these men, so a lot of them do not have wives. So, you know, the government offers up to 50% of their expenses to import a Vietnamese wife. So I call it legal human trafficking. And in Taiwan, also, there've been a lot of marrying Vietnamese women. And I think the Vietnamese side is not addressing the issue nor are the Korean or Taiwanese sides. So that's my research and the dynamic of that.

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