Friday, June 8, 2012

Hotlips, Part 1

I went to a parade on Memorial Day weekend and among the soldiers and vets, Harleys and hot rods, there was a vintage Huey helicopter doing fly-bys overhead.  I looked up in awe and waved to the crew of vets peering down proudly at us from the large cargo door.  It was pretty surreal and with all of the active, reserve, and retired warriors all around, I got caught up in the moment.  I tried to imagine what a soldier must have felt when he or she heard that distinctive sound and looked up to see this steel bird hovering overhead.  How would a soldier have felt looking up at this chopper knowing they were getting picked up, or worse, left behind?  

These thoughts, sparked by this iconic image of the Vietnam War, reminded me of an old friend.  I haven’t seen Tammy for several years now however I’ll never forget her.  We met under the oddest of circumstances: on a busy street in San Jose, CA.  At a stoplight, she pulled up alongside me and, having seen the Johnny Rice Surfboards sticker on my rear windshield, complimented me on my choice of boards.  "I ride one too," she said matter-of-factly.  I had to think twice.  I was in San Jose, almost an hour away from the coast, but my surroundings suggested I was more than 200 hours away.  Not a hint of the beach.  Despite the palm trees, we were enveloped in smog, surrounded by traffic, and alongside people who wouldn't know the difference between a longboard and an ironing board.  Surfing to most of them involved a mouse and a modem.

As unique as our meeting was, I was all the more impressed with Tammy for who she was.  What struck me immediately was the fact that Tammy was Vietnamese.  In San Jose, her ethnicity is nothing special.  The city hosts the largest Vietnamese population outside of Vietnam.  They are a growing minority whose culture and heritage have permeated an already heterogeneous city.  In San Jose, Tammy is merely a face in a crowd.  

Oh, but what a face. Tanned and clear, her face exposes dimples whenever she shares her beautiful smile.  Her long, straight black hair with sun-bleached streaks distracts you from the fact that she's only 5'4".  Her square shoulders and slim build are the result of years of surfing and clean living.  The sparkle in her eye and her bright white smile peering out from those tan, dimpled cheeks reminded me of the Queen of Makaha, Rell Sunn.

But Tammy is so much more than just a beautiful surfer girl.  She is a wonderful person with some very special traits.  First and foremost, she's an anomaly, an amalgamation of traditional and contemporary cultures.  How do you classify Tammy?  She’s a female Vietnamese surfer practicing an ancient Hawaiian tradition in a very fast paced, multi-cultural California city.  Like her parents, Tammy has embraced a culture with vigor while never forgetting or neglecting her own.  Having fled Vietnam shortly after the fall of Saigon, Tammy’s parents immigrated to San Jose and worked hard to fit in.  While they jumped head first into American pastimes like beer and hotdogs and Giants baseball games, Tammy was drawn to the surf culture and adored icons like Tommy Curren, Martin Potter, and of course, Jeff Spicoli.  A number of years ago, I interviewed her and what follows much of our conversation and my insight into a very special and unique person.

How in the world did a Vietnamese girl, living in San Jose, get all caught up in surfing?
Well, let's see. My parents immigrated to San Jose after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and I was born here that same year.  After 10 years of sharing an apartment with another Vietnamese family, we moved into a duplex and the family who lived next door to us had a teenage son who surfed.  I couldn’t have been older than 10 years old at the time.  One day I was out riding my bike, bored out of my mind, when our neighbor’s son, Doug, came out of his house with a surfboard and began doing some ding repair in the front yard.  The board was a Pearson Arrow.  This was like 1985 or so, so it was definitely a thruster with lots of neon and covered with surf stickers. I mean covered!  He put on a dust mask and starting sanding away.
Of course, I didn't know what a surfboard was or what one even looked like.  Oh God, this is so embarrassing.  All I knew was that he looked like a doctor with that mask on so I asked Doug if I could "play" with him.  He gave me this funny, puzzled look but then I think he caught on because he laughed and handed me a dust mask.  He was probably 15 or so and was really cool for just giving me the time of day.  So I just kinda started from there, helping him do ding repairs for him and his friends.  

So you became his gremmie?
Yeah, although I prefer to think of it as "personal assistant!" I'd do some sanding, mix the catalyst and resin, fetch him the different grits of sand paper, cut fiberglass cloth and fin rope for him, all that stuff.  And, of course, clean up too.  Just what a 10 year old needs – acetone fumes! 

How did you get the nickname Hotlips?
This is so lame but, during this time M*A*S*H* reruns were on every night and I saw how important Hotlips was to all the doctors.  I actually kind of admired her because she kept the wheels on at the hospital and the base.  So I’d sit there over these boards on saw horses with my dust mask on.  I pretended it was a patient on an operating table and I’d even hold my hands held up like surgeons do so they don’t pass on any infections.  And because I was shorter than the guys I would just be covered in fiberglass dust, which I pretended was the patient’s blood.  I know, this is all so lame but I was like 10 years old!  Gimme a break!

Were you aware of the irony?  That Hotlips was an American woman fighting in the Korean War and you were a Vietnamese girl whose family fled from the Vietnam War? 
Not at the time, no.  And I don’t remember if I started modeling myself after her and the guys caught on to it or if they started calling me Hotlips and then I got it into it.  Either way, the role just seemed to fit.  Again, I was the one girl in this crew of goofball guys.  Really nice guys but all goof balls.  Whatever the case, I convinced myself that I was a really important part of Doug’s ding repair venture.  It really gave me a sense of purpose and, being just a kid with no friends my age, I now felt pretty important.

Next week I’ll post the remainder of my interview with Tammy.  In the meantime, may your waves be head high and glassy.