The Poet Bao Phi, On Creating A 'Guidebook' For Young Asian-Americans : Code Switch When Bao Phi was a child, there was little literature about Vietnamese refugees in the U.S. Phi hopes to change that with his new poetry book Thousand Star Hotel and a forthcoming children's book.
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The Poet Bao Phi, On Creating A 'Guidebook' For Young Asian-Americans

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The Poet Bao Phi, On Creating A 'Guidebook' For Young Asian-Americans

The Poet Bao Phi, On Creating A 'Guidebook' For Young Asian-Americans

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The award-winning poet Bao Phi wants his daughter and other Asian-Americans to know their stories matter. He has two new books out this summer. One is a book of poetry that came out last month, and this week a children's book. His very first book of poetry, 2011's "Song I Sing," is already taught in hundreds of classrooms across the country. Phi writes about being Vietnamese-American and a refugee in the U.S. Kat Chow of NPR's Code Switch team has this profile.

KAT CHOW, BYLINE: When Bao Phi was just a young kid, his family told him about the day they left Vietnam.

BAO PHI: To my parents' credit they, I think, tried to tell me as much as they could. You know, not to fill me with fear, but to let me know that I come from something.

CHOW: His family came from a country mired in conflict. It wasn't until he was an adult when he heard the full details from his father about the harrowing day they left Vietnam. They were at the airport. Phi says his father saw Communist soldiers shooting rockets at airplanes as they tried to take off, incinerating the people who were trying to flee.

PHI: He was sure the same thing was going to happen to our family. And somehow, when that plane lifted up and a rocket didn't hit us, he felt like all the luck in his life had just been used up in that moment.

CHOW: His family was resettled in Minnesota with other Vietnamese refugees. Both his parents worked multiple jobs to support the family. He says they were traumatized by war and trying to make a home with an infant and young children in a city that was unfamiliar and often hostile.

PHI: There was, like, no guidebook for a Southeast Asian from war growing up in the hood in America.

CHOW: He's telling me all this in the Minneapolis apartment that he and his 7-year-old daughter Song share with a roommate. They're sitting at a dining table while the roommate's cat lazes nearby in the sun.

PHI: What do you think Daddy does?

SONG: He writes children's books and makes poems.

PHI: Yeah. Do you like any of Daddy's writing? You can be honest.

SONG: I do.

PHI: Really?

SONG: Mm-hm.

CHOW: Phi says his new book of poetry, "Thousand Star Hotel," might be a little mature for his daughter right now. He reads a couple lines while Song watches cartoons in her room.

PHI: (Reading) Instead I wonder if our daughter is not as far from the war as I hoped she'd be. I wonder what ghosts made of gunpowder and spilled oil and jet stream live in her tiny muscles.

CHOW: Phi's writing is brutally honest and lyrical all at once. His work is about being a dad, growing up Vietnamese in America.

PHI: Just as a man of color, as an Asian-American, like, anything could happen to me. I could get hit by a car. You know, some racist cop could kill me. And if that happens, what is my daughter going to have to know where I come from and where half of her comes from?

CHOW: Phi says he feels there's an absence of his own history, Asian-American history, especially in schools.

PHI: Different races struggle against different types of racism. And I think Asian-Americans is we're never from here. And so our history is seen largely as irrelevant if it's acknowledged at all.

CHOW: He says a gym teacher taught him about black history and that a chemistry teacher taught him about Asian-American history. Those lessons, along with his family's stories, are how he came to understand his place in this country. And so he hopes to give his daughter Song the guidance he never had.

PHI: Basically, my daughter, since she was 5, has been scared of two things - zombies and racists. And the best that we can do is to tell her we're going to be OK and we're doing our best to struggle to make the world a better place for her.

CHOW: That's why his most recent project is a children's book. It came out this month, and it's called "A Different Pond." You could call it a guidebook for his daughter Song and young Asian-Americans across the country. Kat Chow, NPR News.

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