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Getting to Know My(self &) Neighbors, Part 1

Updated: Jun 1, 2022

Tenderloin neighbors Sinoun Van, Lalaine Favis and Michael Vuong

I spent this year’s Asian Pacific American Heritage Month reflecting on what this commemoration means to me and how I see myself in the communities it is meant to celebrate. I was reminded of the complexity of identity (Do I see myself as Flipina, Asian, or Asian/Filipina-American first? Why does it matter?) and how much I still need to know about the history and culture of other Asian communities, let alone my own. Even the choice for the name to go by to refer to this month was tricky…APA, AAPI, AANHPI? Instead of getting frustrated, I chose to see this month as an invitation to embrace what’s unknown, constantly evolving, and even painful and to be open to what unfolds as a result.

This is an earnest attempt to pause and explore what it means to be Asian in America, particularly in light of the surge in attention to this community brought about by the pandemic and rise in hate crimes. I also found this as the perfect opportunity to get to know people I have known through the Tenderloin for years and interact with frequently but really don’t know much about. I was thrilled when everyone I requested to spend time with said yes and were very generous in sharing their background, what is important to them about their heritage and culture, and what being in the Tenderloin for years has taught them.

Following is a glimpse into the lives of some great humans in the Tenderloin.

Sinoun Van

Business Owner, All Stars

Sinoun with her parents and siblings in Cambodia

I have known Sinoun as a steadfast presence behind the counter of All Stars on Golden Gate and Hyde, my regular source of coffee, fluffy pancakes, and delicious cheesesteak sandwiches. She moved to San Francisco in 1997, leased the All Stars space in 2005 and is now the owner with her husband, Kong. Sinoun has an undeniable strength about her and her family’s arduous journey to the U.S. in 1979 to escape the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia may have instilled a sense of resilience in her at a young age.

Sinoun’s father was of Chinese and Laotian descent, while her mother of Chinese and Thai descent. They did not want to be involved with the communist rule and feared for the safety of their children, so they used the gold they had and hired someone to help the family escape. Sinoun recalls her family had to be separated during the walk from her village to the Thai border and being taught to walk a certain way in order to avoid the landmines. She was reunited with her family at the Khao-I-Dang refugee camp in Thailand where they stayed for a month. During this time they were asked if they wanted to apply for a chance to go to the U.S. as there was “a guy in Chicago who helped Cambodians” and hers was eventually one of the 30 families selected.

Sinoun with her mother & sisters at Khao-I-Dang camp

When Sinoun thinks about her culture, she considers working hard, taking care of others, and practicing Buddhism as some of the most important things passed on to her by her parents. While she doesn’t go to a temple, she always prays in her heart and this helps her not to feel sad or worry and to get up no matter what happens. Having worked in the Tenderloin for 15 years, Sinoun learned that people or places are never only good or bad; she thought people in the neighborhood have been polite even with their challenges, but she has felt a shift in the past year especially with the increased violence against Asians, which she personally experienced. And for that, she wants the world to know that while she is nice, she is also tough.

Sinoun attempted to write down her life story several years ago so her children would know her journey and pass on some traditions. She got to ten pages and plans to find where she wrote this and wants to keep going.

Lalaine Favis

Volunteer Service Coordinator & Tagalog Program Assistant, Curry Senior Center

Four generations of Lalaine's family including her grandfather to granddaughters

Lalaine and I overlapped briefly working at Curry Senior Center in 2018 and I participated in some of the programs she organized for the Filipino group. She and I stayed in touch since and reconnected as neighbors in the Tenderloin and have supported each other’s events. Lalaine enjoys getting to know clients and volunteers stories and deepening her relationships with them. She is grateful for the growth she has experienced at Curry and her cultural background being regarded as an asset to serve the community.

Lalaine moved to the U.S. in 2005 with her husband and two children, fifteen years after her mother petitioned for her family.

Lalaine at Curry Senior Center's Art with Elders class

Her mother was born in the Philippines as a U.S. Citizen because Lalaine’s grandfather was an American soldier; he died when his children were very young and nobody looked into the family’s status until decades later. Lalaine’s mother moved to the U.S. in 1990 but had to pay fees to the Philippines first for overstaying as a foreigner(!) for fifty years. Lalaine was apprehensive at first about migrating to the U.S. as she heard about the “No dogs or Filipinos allowed” signage that once existed when Filipinos and Asians were heavily discriminated against, but she took the leap of faith in changing her home from Malabon in Manila to Daly City in the Bay Area. She appreciates that there is now a month recognizing the contributions of Asians in America, which she considers significant, particularly to the economy – she vividly recalls working the overnight shift for three years at Target so she and her husband could establish themselves, and then spending almost ten years in a demanding corporate environment.

Lalaine fully embraces her Filipino heritage and it is important for her to represent well. Often she is mistaken as Latina for how she looks but this serves as a reminder of the importance of learning about other people and respecting others for who they are. Working in the Tenderloin has given her an opportunity to apply what she learned from her parents: appreciation for what she has, working hard, sticking it out even when things get difficult, and being sensitive to needs. She also feels pretty good about inheriting her mother’s cooking abilities and enjoys sharing her love for food with others.

Michael Vuong Tenderloin Clubhouse Director, Boys & Girls Clubs of San Francisco

Baby Michael with his mom

I first met Michael several years ago through Boys & Girls Club activities and having spent the past couple of years sharing space in community gatherings. It has been a pleasure to witness Michael’s staunch advocacy for the Tenderloin community and his dedication to having people’s voices heard and finding common ground. Who and how he is today stem from having benefited from the sacrifices made by his family and the generosity of other people who cared enough to make his life better. Michael grew up participating in Boys & Girls Club programs and this December, he will complete seven years being on the side of providing programming to youth.

Michael with his parents & siblings and images of their tradition of honoring those who passed away

When Michael started reflecting on his identity, he realized that he exists in a unique, and at times weird, space. Both his parents were from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam but all of his grandparents were born in different parts of China, i.e. he’s actually Chinese with a lot of Vietnamese culture. He is the youngest of seven children but the only one born in the U.S. His family fled Vietnam on a boat in the 1980s to escape the aftermath of war, first staying in another country (possibly Indonesia) before being adopted by a generous family from Minnesota, where he was born. Michael’s family moved to the Bay Area when he was three years old where he grew up mostly having Black and Latino friends. He wishes he could have learned his family’s languages and recalls the frustration he felt when spoken to by elders and saw their disappointment when he couldn’t respond; at times they even misconstrued his inability to speak as shame for his heritage. Today he embraces all parts of his Vietnamese and Chinese identity the best he can, particularly the traditions instilled by his mother, including honoring those who have passed away.

There are still a lot of things Michael would like to learn about his family’s history and culture. He also appreciates having a month dedicated to groups, whether it's Asians or other communities, as this provides an opportunity to focus attention and increase understanding of oneself and others. He acknowledges that it’s important to keep conversations going beyond special months and doing this takes time and patience. Fortunately, working in the Tenderloin has cultivated these in him; being in the neighborhood a long time has shown him that people are not defined by their biggest mistake, nor by what people judge them on. Michael keeps practicing what he preaches by embracing all parts of him and extends the same compassion to all those around him.

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