Back Stories: LA Times, and Alternate Version of Vietnamese Pharmacy Student Matricide

March 17, 2010


Sometimes a girl just can't find a usable blog image in the public domain, dammit. So henceforth, whenever I come up with zero, you'll be treated to Southpark me. Call it branding.

No image could hope to snap the randomness of this post anyway. Which begins with an ode to the LA Times. Stacks of the daily Times sprout in odd corners of my house, because I am so loathe to let them be recycled without first flipping through them. Which means that often I read my news several days, maybe a week late. But the diligence has yielded two happy items I'm pleased to share with you today. The 3rd and unhappy one is from elsewhere.

Happy item #1: LA Times writes story about Poketo (those awesome purveyors of everyday art -- and our Hyphen friend).

Happy item #2:  LA Times writes story about Mr. Takemoto, prop master extraordinaire for East West Players. Need the perfect thing? Apparently they've got the perfect gramps to find it -- or make it -- on the cheap.

What tickles me so much about these stories? They strike me as stories we'd write right here at Hyphen, what with our undying love for Asian Americans who make cool things and make cool things happen -- but they're in the Art & Books and Business sections of the LA Times.

And finally, Unhappy item:  KPCC newsbite on a Vietnamese pharmacy student who (allegedly) killed his mother. Thing is, it wasn't any news service that broke this item to me. It was my mother. Who called me around Christmas in 2008 to tell me about a woman in her circle of Orange County friends who'd just been murdered.

The version I heard from my mom is more detailed, but also at odds with the KPCC version in a very important model-minority way. The Vietnamese grapevine tells it like this:

Son Nguyen's mom wanted him to be an MD. Like his older brother. In fact, she wanted neither of her sons to be anything else. But try as he might, Son could not get admitted to a medical school. He offered his mother pharmacy instead: would that be an acceptable, if very distant, second? He'd managed to gain acceptance into a pharmacy program -- but not in the US. My recall is fuzzy on the school's location, but somewhere in the Caribbean, I believe.

He enrolls, he attends classes, he flails. He hates it. He calls his mom (father is long departed or otherwise not part of the picture), asking to be allowed to drop out and do something else. She says no, but in her very sincere wish to help him succeed, packs up her things and joins him at school. There, for the next term or so, she cooks and cleans and shops for him. Does his laundry and anything else she can take off his plate so that he can study.

It is that important that he, at least, become a pharmacist. But time goes by and he hits a wall again. They argue but finally she yields and accepts that he will abandon this pursuit. They pack up and come home.

This is shortly before Christmas 2008. It is the holiday season and the extended family gathers 'round. Questions fly -- some innocent, some snide. How are your studies? Oh, too hard for you? Mom gets to field her share of inquiries, and so-called sympathies.

She buckles under the scrutiny, the weight of the comparisons. The night of the 20th, she demands he return to school. Re-enroll in pharmacy. Failure is unacceptable.

The rest of the story as I heard it is the same as reported on KPCC: Son strangles mother with his bare hands. Flees into night. Turns himself in at the police station with confession next morning.

So the meaningful difference? According to KPCC, "Son allegedly argued with his mother and became angry she didn't support his desire to become a pharmacist, wanting him to become a physician." That there sounds like Son Nguyen is the Vietnamese Norman Bates, crazed son of a crazy mother.

But if the Vietnamese grapevine knows more, then this isn't a horror flick; it's a cautionary tale. It may have been Son's hands around his mother's neck that night -- but it was the whole child-comparing, MD-fetishizing, model minority-hungry community that squeezed.



erin K Ninh

contributing editor & blogger

erin Khue Ninh is a former blog editor and onetime publisher of Hyphen, who won't seem to go away. She now teaches literature in the Department of Asian American Studies at UC Santa Barbara. Aside from Hyphen, erin believes in recycling, Planned Parenthood, and Type A first-borns.



I felt the pain on both sides. "it was the whole child-comparing, MD-fetishizing, model-minority hungry community that squeezed" - amazing capture of the communal guilt. Great writing.