by Tara Bui
If you hear the voice of Vivian Van Le on any other occasion, you will find yourself smitten by her vivaciousness and playful flirtation. But the past week has depleted her. At midnight in California, what was 3 a.m. in Connecticut, Le called me from the strangeness of her hotel room.
“My child is already dead,” she said.
This was hours after a press conference in which New Haven Assistant Police Chief Peter Reichard confirmed that the body of a female had been found wedged into a metal chase in the basement of 10 Amistad. The discovery, everyone feared, would now end the search for the missing Yale graduate student, Annie Le.
Spooked by the gruesomeness of the situation, and the utter deadness of her voice, I shook the weariness from my head and voiced the only thing that could be clung to.
“They still don’t know who it is 100% right?”
“Well, I know 99%.”
And so the story elevated to a higher level, and the press finally bothered to figure out that Annie Le had been of Vietnamese descent.
They took the real (her Western sounding name, Jewish post-grad fiancé, fancy Long Island wedding, and Ivy League medical student status), and spun it with embellishments.
Annie Le, it seemed, was a super-human who worked 12-hour days, spent ample time with friends, and still smiled constantly as she was, of course, the happiest girl in the world.
The term “American dream” was used as a myth spun around this young woman’s image. But all this spinning kept the story afloat. It kept the woman at the center looking like a model minority, and for whatever reason Asians who work hard and never have issues are endlessly commendable.
But the fact that Annie was raised by a PhD aunt in Placerville while she had a mother who was alive and well in Orange County may have been one minor inconsistency in the dream façade. And the fact that her first wedding celebration was not at a New York banquet hall, but at Emerald Bay, a Chinese-Vietnamese restaurant, was another. The restaurant, for those who don’t know, is the center for many anti-communist fundraisers and gatherings in Orange County’s Little Saigon. Its doors are secured with duct tape, but it is named after one of the most expensive real estate nooks in affluent Laguna Beach. Le’s August 8th reception was most likely loud, with balloons, a Vietnamese MC, and a bottle of Courvoisier at every table.
But the similarities were sidelined as the differences made Annie’s story more worthy of reporting. Perhaps many Vietnamese women thought, “Who would care if that happened to me? My name is hard to pronounce, and I clean nails for a living. I’m nobody.” It is a most legitimate fear. It is what makes Annie’s story so intriguing and frightening to us all.
They try to place Annie Le in the same category as Jennifer Wilbanks and Laci Peterson. But they conveniently overlook the fact that within 24 hours of her reported disappearance; a reported $60,000 dollars worth of city and state funds were used to implement on-foot searches for Wilbanks. $25,000 dollars was what the Board of Trustees at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill offered last spring for information leading to the arrest of their slain student, Eve Carson. In the Peterson case, she was last seen alive in December 2002, friends and law enforcement spanned out to search for her, and her body was found almost four months later; in the meantime, a $500,000 reward was offered for her safe return
And what about Yale? Well, in November 2007, the Office of the State’s Attorney in New Haven sent out a press release announcing that the State of Connecticut and Yale University were pooling together a $150,000 dollar reward for information leading to an arrest in the case of Suzanne Jovin, a Caucasian student who was found stabbed to death on campus in 1998. Of the $150,000 lump sum, Yale contributed $100,000 dollars. That alone has caused some family friends of Annie Le’s to wonder whether the $10,000 reward money offered in her case was actually scrapped together by desperate relatives.
Many eyebrows have risen as to why it took 5 days to find Annie’s body, when cadaver dogs and over 100 law enforcement officials were supposedly searching the 21,000 sq. ft lab. Police have tried to deter questions by stating that the lab was not of focused interest during the first 48 hours because they still believed that this was another “runaway bride” case.
The sexism of that claim is apparent; Women are self-centered, play games, and should not be taken too seriously. But even that has never stopped a sense of urgency before. In the first days of her disappearance, Le did not get as much air time as Peterson or Wilbanks .
So perhaps her story is more common to that of Eridania Rodriguez, a Manhattan cleaning lady who was brutalized and stuffed into an air conditioning vent by an elevator worker of the building she worked at. Surveillance cameras caught images of her working in the building, but never leaving. Her hair clip and cleaning cart were found in a hallway, and her purse was in her locker. Still, the search did not intensify on the building until 4 days later, when missing ceiling tiles and a foul odor lead to the discovery of a decomposing body. The office, like 10 Amistad, was still in use until blood was found dripping from the ventilation system.
Like Rodriguez, authorities did not launch on-foot searches as they did for Peterson and Wilbanks. Family and family friends also feared, particularly in the beginning, that the case would be mentioned in passing and then simply dropped unless tragic revelations soon occurred.
Take, for instance, the case of Kate Sue Yi, a California State University Long Beach nursing student who was found dead in her campus apartment in April 2009. Evidence led to the arrest of her unremarkable Vietnamese boyfriend, but updates on the case have not been reported on since that week.
In Irvine, California, the deceased and burned body of an unidentified African American woman was found in the parking lot of a closed business on September 5, 2009. The woman was also in her early 20’s, though the case has not been brought up much since September 10th.
The saddest part is that no amount of urgency or media frenzy could have turned this case from a homicide back to missing persons. However, changing the way we tackle cases of missing people of color – particularly women – could have significant effect on the way their lives are valued before and after they are met with potential violence.
Annie Le’s death is a personal tragedy for those who knew and loved her. For minority women, it is a blinding reminder that we must personify our double consciousness as a mode of survival. For many ambitious Asian American parents, it is a chance to sit their children down and say, “See? Become a doctor and marry a doctor. Don't make trouble, and you will gain social value.” Of course, the underlying issue here is whether or not we want that to be the bottom line.
Tara Bui is a writer on media & ethnic studies. She is based in Southern California. Write her at: firstname.lastname@example.org .