Boat People Prose and Hillbilly Elegy - Learned Optimism or Helplessness and the American Dream in 2017

As 2017 draws to its end, I’m following up on an article I wrote earlier this year, What It means to be a Refugee, on HuffPost on January 31, as a direct response to the first Executive Travel Ban. (We are currently on Travel Ban 3.0 as the federal judge mostly blocked the administration from implementing the latest version.) This is my year-end perspective and effort in understanding the new America in 2017, what it means to be a refugee today and the juxtaposition with the Hill People, one of the demographics who voted for the current POTUS (or 45th in this article) using J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy - A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It is categorically one of the most informative books I’ve read this year that helped me draw a distinct parallel to their ongoing and undying support for 45th, despite the constant falsehoods, hypocrisies, and attacks on our democracy and environment.

In a recent visit and conversations with my father, he shook his head, still with disbelief, a year later, asking me whom I thought voted for the current Commander in Chief. I recommended that he reads The Hillbilly Elegy to draw his own conclusions. Nevertheless, we both quickly agreed that currently, the U.S. Government is reminiscent of the Vietnam that we fled in 1975, whose actions resembled the dictatorship-style regime full of corruptions, dishonesty, and cronyism. I wanted to tell my father about the Hill People. This is what the Author J.D. Vance called himself and his family from a region of Kentucky but I decided that it’s best for my father to read the book and judge for himself.

Boat People and Hill People - Our Choice of Learned Optimism or Helplessness
Boat People and Hill People - Our Choice of Learned Optimism or Helplessness

According to Vance’s memoir, his family’s norms, which he discovered later, were not typical but dysfunctional once he witnessed how other families treated each other. He found that the Hill People’s lifestyles were troubling, among many deficiencies, he had no role models of peaceful conflict resolutions skills. Instead, there were daily shouting matches, regular drugs and alcohol abuse, and child neglect and endangerment. J.D. Vance experienced an unstable family environment including his mom's many revolving-door boyfriends, hair-triggered tempers and cruel revenge, and of taking the laws into their own hands instead of reporting physical abuses to the authority. Many of the Hill People relied on others to provide for them because they believed that no matter what they did, the “System” is rigged to lock them out of their American Dream. He reported that this phenomenon is called, Learned Helplessness. These are the perspectives and beliefs that most of his people held, except for his grandparents, they believed in hard work and education.

The Hillbillies’ familial loyalty keeps them from admitting their relatives wrongdoings, and the daily domestic disputes and violence. Their actions explained their acceptance and excusing 45th’s blatant falsehoods and rollbacks of numerous policies, most of which will be affecting them adversely like entitlement programs, healthcare, taxes, and jobs prospects. In some interviews, they would say, “Well, yes, he did this [insert his dishonest or egregious acts here], but …”, and would go on pledging their continual support. Again, one could draw a parallel in the Hill People’s loyalty and their fierce personal pride, which will keep them from admitting that they had misplaced confidence in the leader whom they voted into office. Or perhaps, it lies in something more profound, if I would dare say, racism, starting with the Birther Movement, to undo everything the previous administration has done, to erase any trace that America has ever had a Black President. Because in my humble opinion, knowingly supporting immoral wrongdoings cannot be explained in any other rational way.

According to the author, most of the Hill People do not like or trust those who are different than them. It’s likened to the fear of someone from the next holler, from a different town, a different country, or culture. Could it be xenophobia? That’s up to the readers to conclude for themselves. Adding further insult to injury, these are minorities or newcomers, threatening their ways of life, their parents’ ways of life, and their economic security. These new refugees or immigrants don’t subscribe to Learned Helplessness. On the contrary, their only ticket to the American Dream is hard work, and most don’t believe that "the deck is stacked against them.” Among these are Boat People, or refugees like my family. We kept our heads down, worked hard, and eventually achieved our goals. We subscribed to the Learned Optimism that we could change our fates with perseverance, just as J.D. Vance did.

I can only weigh in from my personal experience and vouch for this sense of optimism. My family was penniless when we fled the Vietnamese Communists in 1975 and found our home in the United States. Our parents have always instilled Learned Optimism to us, that we could beat the odds and get our sliver of the American Dream. Sure, our family had our shares of troubles, but I didn’t know how good I had it until I learned what a troubled childhood meant from friends, the newspapers or on televisions.

Boat People and Hill People - Our Choice of Learned Optimism or Helplessness
Boat People and Hill People - Our Choice of Learned Optimism or Helplessness

My family, though poor, with only my father working his blue-collar job as a punch press operator on graveyard shift for Vendo in Fresno, California to make more per hour provided a stable environment for us. We had a roof over our heads, three square meals, daily routines, rules for everyone and what to expect when we didn’t follow them. We valued education as it was a mean for us to climb the social-economic ladder, to be counted, heard, and we had pride of self-sufficiency, not wanting to live on the dole.

My parents did argue and were volatile at times. They had their issues, but we never had to endure the revolving-door boyfriends, child neglects and endangerments, drugs and alcohol problems, nor having to lie to protect our parents like the author of Hillbilly Elegy did for his mother. Parents were our earliest teachers. We learned from them, then from our school teachers, neighbors, relatives, and religious leaders; Sadly, they didn't always provide the most stellar examples, as in the author's case.

The Boat People (or immigrants and other refugees) and the Hill People have many things in common. We are marginalized populations of society in America. People demeaned and made fun of us. They made sure we knew that we didn’t belong in mainstream America. For example, in the early ‘80s, two young caucasian males stopped their truck and beaten up my father while he was walking in their neighborhood with my mom. They told my parents that they didn’t belong there and they needed to move. Furthermore, as refugees, we didn’t enjoy the Social Capital from our parents or grandparents and their robust professional network or monies. We learned to navigate the social and economic ladders on our own and with any luck, cracked the codes to financial security and freedom, but not by Learned Helplessness.

But the Boat People are different from the Hill People in that we have no roots in America. We never enjoyed nor reminisced that heyday of our parents’ prosperity, nor resent the absence of it. We started from scratch when we came ashore, literally, scratching to eek out a living and going to schools because if our parents could climb out of poverty, even in Vietnam, byways of education, then what’s keeping us from repeating it to get our slice of the American Dream? We continued to persevere and not blame our misfortune or setbacks on others nor look to them for solutions.

This book is a timely read and gives me a deeper understanding of a population that is vastly different than mine, and whose economic and educational opportunities deemed inequitable mainly because they are slowly being left behind by modernity and technology. Increasingly, their financial and educational needs are not being met nor represented and advocated for by the officials whom they voted in to do just that (if they voted). Ironically, in the 2016 Presidential Election, they overwhelmingly voted for this new administration whose policies will worsen their prospects of employment and advancement because amongst many falsehoods, the deceptions and false promises of coal jobs returning kept many of the unemployed coal miners from attending new job skills training programs.

In the recent wake of Alabama’s victory of Doug Jones elected to the Senate, defeating incumbent Roy Moore, I’m hopeful and optimistic that this administration would take notes that we the people are not standing by idly. We won't accept false claims and protection for any misogynistic officials, pedophiles or otherwise, and who are also anti-Semitic, anti-Islam and Muslims, and anti-LGBTQ community.

Let us be forewarned of the Midterm Election in 2018, as the political pendulum will fully swing against those in office. History has shown that the Letting them eat cake and the tone-deft mentality of this corrupt government will feel the people’s wrath when we are oppressed, sick, hungry and poverty-stricken, while those in power enjoyed their million dollars tax breaks, posing with ominous smirks and holding newly minted bills. I’m sure many were amused at the manure “gift” recently sent to the U.S. Treasury Secretary's residence in protest.

I’m also hopeful that those who voted for the current administration would do some soul searching and reconciliation to put the needs of our nation above that of their party’s politics. I also hope that the Hill People will abandon their belief in the self-fulfilling prophecy of "the deck is stacked against us." If they looked to J.D. Vance as a role model and worked to claim what’s theirs while adopting the Learned Optimism mentality, perhaps then their economic prospect would improve similarly to that of the author’s.

Happy New Year America and Americans. Let us work together for a prosperous future where every one of us can have that sliver of the American Dream. May we be wiser in 2018 and not be pitted us against each other with hateful rhetorics and vilifications of immigrants or refugees. We must be the UNITED and culturally tolerant States of America again.

Related Article by Hoang Chi Truong Smith: What It Means to be a Refugee on HuffPost on January 31, 2017.

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