When Parallel Universes Bump

In this basin of Babel, the killing of a Cambodian refugee caught up in the murderous politics of his homeland would have stirred not a murmur of public response. There are, after all, so many murders, so many refugees, so many causes.

But the murder of an actor who had won the gilded and gelded statuette that the world knows as an Oscar--well, now, that was something else altogether.

He was the same man. Haing Ngor the activist had been gunned down, perhaps for his work in Cambodian politics. But it was Haing Ngor the actor who made it news.

That gold-plated homunculus called an Academy Award made the difference, in a way that a thousand political monographs on the agonies inflicted by the Khmer Rouge could not.

Ngor's death was an intersection between alternate realities, the staggering extent to which 9 million people inhabit one county but also dozens of parallel universes.

We drive the same freeways, inhale the same air, stroll the same beaches, yet the people across the street, in the car one lane over, may be immersed in an utterly distinct reality, one in which Bill Clinton or Pete Wilson holds less sway over their lives and thoughts than Radovan Karadjic or Pol Pot.

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While the powers of L.A. County despair over a health care system on the precipice of collapse, immigrants in L.A. collected $6,000 to buy an ambulance for their Salvadoran hometown.

While the nation was immersed in O.J., the big news for an immigrant nanny was the rumor that La See-Ya, the CIA, was stealing babies in the Guatemalan town she left half her life ago.

Vietnamese businesses are bombed and Little Saigon is riven by finger-pointing over who is a Communist sympathizer. Salvadoran death squads once came and went on the streets of Los Angeles almost as easily as on the streets of San Salvador.

When Russian Armenians and Lebanese Armenians shot it out in Hollywood, it was one more crime on the police log, but passionate politics to the combatants.

Ten thousand Burmese in Southern California, by a recent Times account, work at numbing jobs to devote themselves to a struggle in another hemisphere.

When it intersects us, we notice: When an Armenian teenager, wrought up by the Turks' massacre of Armenians some 70 years before, assassinated the Turkish consul general near the Los Angeles Country Club a decade ago. When the IRA stumps for donations from Irish Americans while its bombs explode in London.

A megalopolis with the critical mass to sustain so many cultures, each with its own newspapers, stores, language, doctors, TV and radio channels, creates a quandary: Are immigrants disenfranchised from the bigger culture and its institutions of power because their own seem self-sustaining? Or do they invest their political passions elsewhere because they are excluded from the mainstream here?

How many people, from how many nations and cultures, are in L.A. but not of it?

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Four hundred different titles in a half-dozen languages--magazines as sleek and heavy as satin, long solemn columns of newsprint, pages devoted to hem lengths in Milan, economics in Beijing and soccer everywhere--go forth from Fernando Serrini's Inglewood distribution offices each night, destined for newsstands from Kalispell to Diamond Head.

Once L.A. was a distant second to New York as a foreign press market; since the 1984 Olympics, it is a close second. Serrini is "trying in our very little way to bring some of that diversity in culture to the newsstands."

He tried out a little cultural diversity himself not long ago, at a Middle Eastern restaurant in the South Bay. They were the only non-Arab diners, and he was puzzled to encounter an indifference worse than hostility. You'd think they'd want to reach out, to welcome new customers, he thought--bring in more business, make more money.

Serrini has nailed it--the American willingness to let go of Old World rancors and suspicions to enlist under the battle flag of getting rich, or at least getting by. Why, Americans wonder, let kings and soldiers 400 years dead run your life? Haven't they heard that living well is the best revenge?

Here, we kill each other over money, not politics. The last time we killed over politics on any scale was the Civil War. It scared the hell out of us, and the consequences of slavery we still live with every day.

American teachers gnash their teeth when students cannot find Chicago, let alone Japan, on a map, and answer that Lincoln was president when we beat the Germans, if indeed they know that we beat the Germans.

Elsewhere in the world, the past is prologue. Every slight and outrage may be as freshly remembered as if it came last week instead of the last century.

When, then, is history baggage, and when is it identity?

At Haing Ngor's funeral, they played "Imagine," the John Lennon song that ended the movie, "The Killing Fields."

Imagine there's no country, he sang. I wonder if you can?

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