CAAMFest 36, May 10-24

Memorial for David Phan

May 19, 2013

Photo by: Intellectual Madmen

 

On a cold January day, I drove from my sister’s house in Salt Lake City to Taylorsville, a suburb southwest of the Utah capital. Pulling into a quiet block of neat tract houses, I entered the home of Nhuan Phan and Phuong Tran, the parents of David Phan, the 14-year-old Vietnamese American gay youth who committed suicide last November because of unchecked bullying at his junior high school. Upon entering, I was greeted with the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of a crowded Asian American immigrant household -- piles of shoes in front of the door, children and a barking puppy running amok, someone’s husband chilling in a recliner, the sweet smell of incense wafting from the living room, plates of food passed around. “Are you hungry?” asked Phuong. “We’re just about to eat.”   

I politely declined. Tung, David’s cousin and the family spokesperson asked, “Would you like to see David’s room”?

It was like entering the ocean. The walls were painted seafoam green. The bed that once buoyed David’s body to sleep was draped in a blanket colored the same seafoam green -- the same color as the water that hugs Nha Trang, the Vietnamese coastal city that David’s father, Nhuanh, left as a “boat person” for a refugee camp in Malaysia, then a processing center in the Philippines, and eventually, the snow-dusted suburbs of Salt Lake. At the head of the bed lay a pillow embroidered with an orange-and-black striped cat, an appropriate image for a boy nicknamed con meo, or “kitty” in Vietnamese. Next to his bed stood a small desk, adorned with a computer that was David’s portal to a world much more grand and inviting than the one he faced in the narrow hallways of Bennion Junior High. A world of REI camping gear (“He knew more than the salesmen,” bragged Tung) and information on surviving in the wild (“He wanted to be a boy scout, but he wasn’t white and Mormon, so instead he went hiking, snowshoeing, and camping with his parents,” said Tung), and of a world in need of help from natural disasters. “Hurricane Katrina really affected him,” Don, David’s older brother said. “He wanted to join the national guard to help people.” 

Above the bed, nailed to the wall, was an altar. Framed portraits of the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and Jesus sat on the top shelf. A necklace made by Tung’s children for “Uncle David” dangled off the bottom ledge. “David taught my kids about plants, animals and fish,” said Tung. “He liked to walk with them in the river.” On the other side of the bottom ledge stood a small glass cylinder containing David’s ashes. In the middle of the altar, lay a large portrait of David, frozen at fourteen. He smiled across the room, in the direction of his closet -- in it: an assortment of Coca Cola memorabilia; a US flag; stacks of Xbox games and DVDs, including Rush Hour (“He loved to impersonate Chris Tucker,” said Tung); his clothes, still hanging, most of them Army green. “All green,” said Phuong, tenderly caressing the sleeves of his shirts. “David likes green.” 

Photos by: Intellectual Madmen. Collage by Lawrence Guzman.

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On a cold January day in Utah, I drove from my sister’s house in Salt Lake City to Taylorsville, a suburb southwest of the capital. Pulling into a quiet block of neat tract houses, I entered the home of Nhuanh and Phuong Phan, the parents of David Phan, the 14-year-old Vietnamese American gay youth who committed suicide last November because of apparent bullying at his junior high school. Upon entering, I was greeted with the familiar sights, sounds, and smells of a crowded Asian American immigrant household – piles of shoes in front of the door, children and a barking puppy running amok, someone’s husband chilling in a recliner, plates of food passed around. “Are you hungry?” asked Phuong. “We’re just about to eat.”   
I politely declined. Tung, David’s cousin and the family spokesperson asked, “Would you like to see David’s room”?
They kept it almost the same as it was the day he died. The bed that once buoyed David body was draped in a blanket colored seafoam green – the same color as the water that hugs Nha Trang, the Vietnamese coastal city that David’s father, Nhuanh, left as a “boat person” for a refugee camp in Malaysia, then a processing center in the Philippines, and eventually, the snow-dusted suburbs of Salt Lake. At the head of the bed lay a pillow embroidered with an orange-and-black striped cat, an appropriate image for a boy nicknamed con meo, or “kitty.” Next to his bed stood a small desk, adorned with a computer that was David’s portal to a world much more grand and inviting than the one he faced in the narrow hallways of Bennion Junior High. A world of REI camping gear (“He knew more than the salesmen,” bragged Tung), of information on surviving in the wild (“He wanted to be a boy scout, but he wasn’t white and Mormon, so instead he went hiking, snowshoeing, and camping with his parents,” said Tung), of a world in need of help from natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina, which inspired him to one day join the US National Guard. “He just wanted to help people,” said his older brother, Don, an undergraduate student at the University of Utah.
Above the bed, nailed to the seafoam gren wall, is an altar. Framed portraits of the Virgin Mary, Joseph, and Jesus sit on the top shelf. A necklace made by Tung’s children for “Uncle David” dangles off the bottom ledge. “David taught my kids about plants, animals and fish,” said Tung.  On the other side of the ledge is a small glass cylinder containing David’s ashes. In the middle of the altar is a large portrait of David, frozen at fourteen. He smiles across the room, in the direction of his closet. Phuong shows me the contents of his closet – an assortment of Coca Cola memorabilia; a US flag; stacks of Xbox games and DVDs, including Rush Hour (“He loved to impersonate Chris Tucker,” said Tung); his clothes, still hanging, most of them Army green. “All green,” says Phuong, tenderly caressing the sleeves of his shirts. “David like green.” 

Dear David,

Nothing is the same without you. You should be here telling us jokes and planning our next camping trip.  We should be celebrating your 15th birthday but instead we are grieving your death. The only way we can survive your tragic loss is to hold on to our love for you.

Your pride in all things American and compassion for the less fortunate would have helped you fulfill your dream of becoming a National Guardsman. Your polite manners and your kindness illustrated the values your parents instilled in you. You should never been mistreated because of your Vietnamese heritage or because you were gay. You were absolutely perfect the way God made you.

After the investigation, we understand the truth and why you felt you had to leave this Earth. We need to bring you JUSTICE and peace by eliminating the hate that you suffered at school by both kids and adults. We are fighting so that other bullied kids get help at school instead of being victimized by those who have a duty to protect them.  You deserved better and not a minute goes by without us thinking of you. We miss your handsome face and the joy you brought to our lives.    

Love Always,

Don and your family

R.I.P. David Phan

May 19, 1998-November 29, 2012

The pedestrian bridge near Bennion Junior High School on which David took his life.  Photo by Truc Thantrong

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The Phan family has set up an anti-bullying fund in David's memory at Wells Fargo. This fund will go towards anti-bullying education, outreach, and training, as well as a possible annual anti-bullying conference. The Phan family also needs monetary help to recover from David's funeral expenses, which were more than expected. The Phan family has entrusted the author of this article, Terry Park, with receiving donations -- 50% of which will go toward the anti-bullying fund, and 50% of which will go toward the Phan family. You can also mark your entire donation for either the fund or the family. Please PayPal donations to "parkterry [at] gmail.com."

Also, if you'd like to express your condolences, support, etc, feel free to use the comment box below. The Phan family would also appreciate the support of individuals and organizations as they go through the litigation process against Bennion Junior High and the Granite School District.    

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Special thanks to Lawrence Guzman for creating the gallery of letters. The gallery may not appear on smartphones and tablets.

Contributor: 

Terry K Park

California-born, Utah-raised, and New York-refined, Terry K. Park is a Provost Dissertation Fellow and PhD candidate in the Cultural Studies Graduate Group at the University of California, Davis. He has taught courses in Asian American media, history, theater and 1950s Cold War American culture at UC Davis, Hunter College, and San Quentin State Prison. As a former performance artist, his off-Broadway solo show, 38th Parallels, premiered in New York City with the Pan Asian Repertory Theater.

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