Photo Credit: Catherine Karnow
Forty years have passed since the Vietnam War ended and still I struggle to define my constantly changing relationship with my homeland.
I was 11 when my family and I left Vietnam as refugees at the end of the war. Having lost everything when we came to America, we started over from the bottom. There was a period in which we lived as impoverished exiles, sharing an apartment with two other Vietnamese refugee families in the part of Mission Street where San Francisco ends and the working class neighborhood of Daly City begins. We struggled for some time to make it to the middle class.
Vietnam was never an easy-to-quantify topic. The subject of Vietnam keeps changing, but as a writer and as someone who came from that country, I wonder if in so much writing, we really are talking about the same country at all.
Often times when we mention the word Vietnam in the United States, we don’t mean Vietnam as a country.
Its relation to the United States is special: it has become a vault filled with tragic metaphors – it stands for American loss of innocence, tragedy, legacy of defeat, and failure. For the first time in our history, Americans were caught in the past, haunted by unanswerable questions, confronted with a tragic ending.
My uncle, who fought in the war as a pilot for the South Vietnamese Army, once observed that, “When Americans talk about Vietnam they really are talking about America.” “Americans don’t take defeat and bad memories very well,” he added.
My father, who was a general in the South Vietnamese Army, only talks about wartime Vietnam after a few drinks. His memories go back to the time when he was still full of vigor and promise. But he can’t talk about the end of the war and the ensuing humiliation, about his comrades and his own brother sent to re-education camps, about the soldiers he left behind when he escaped.
He holds so much anger still over what happened to Vietnam, to his comrades, that he, like so many of his generation, hasn’t been able to make peace with the past.
I’ve been back Vietnam many times. And as I moved out of my father’s shadow, away from his point of view, I found that there were always new ways of looking at that country.
“Do they hate us?” asked an American in his 60s on the plane some years ago, when I went back to Vietnam to participate in a PBS documentary called “My Journey Home.”
“No,” I offered, “they don’t.” But he didn’t trust my assessment. He might be thinking of the ghosts of the past when he was still a young man and the war raged on, whereas the new Vietnam is a country full of young people. Vietnam’s population has nearly tripled since the war ended, reaching over 92 million today.
A few years ago I did the touristy thing: I went to Cu Chi Tunnel, in Tay Ninh Province, bordering Cambodia, a complex underground labyrinth in which the Viet Cong hid during the war many years ago.
There were several American veterans in their late 60s there – they had fought in Vietnam and lost friends. They were back for the first time. A couple of them cried after they emerged from the visit. One vet wept and said that, during the war, he had “spent a long time looking for this place and lost friends doing the same.”
Yet the young Vietnamese tour guide, born after the war ended, crawled through the same tunnel but did not see the past. She told me that it was tourism that forced the Vietnamese to dig up the old hideouts. Then, in a whisper, she said: “It was a lot smaller back then. But now the New Cu Chi Tunnel is very wide. You know why? To cater to very, very fat Americans.”
She has a dream for a cosmopolitan future. Her head is filled with the Golden Gate Bridge and cable cars and two-tiered freeways and Hollywood and Universal Studios. “I have many friends over there now,” she said, her eyes dreamy, reflecting the collective desire of Vietnamese youth. If she could, she told me, she would go and study in America. She would like to visit Disneyland.
Standing at the mouth of the tunnel, I thought that in the end, there may never be final conclusion to that war.
There’s the northern Vietnamese version of that war where they liberated the south and saved those in the south from American imperialism.
There’ s the story of Vietnamese fleeing as boat people, sent to re-education camps and young men fleeing from a war in Cambodia in which the Vietnamese were the imperialists.
There are the American veterans coming back to look at their losses and to make peace with the past.
And here was a young woman, born after the war ended, who looked at a tunnel that was the headquarters of the Vietcong and what did she see? The Magic Kingdom. “I have many friends over there now,” said the tour guide. “They invite me to come. I’m saving money for this amazing trip.”
My own story is that, through the years, I have made my own peace with Vietnam. It has taken me a long time to come to the realization that for those whose lives have been inordinately altered by forces of history, the personal flows into the historical the way rivers flow to the sea.
James Baldwin’s riddle is rhetorical, after all, when he asked in one piercing essay, “Which of us has overcome his past?” and promptly answered in another: “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”
But one can chase Baldwin’s grim discernment with N. Scott Momaday’s astute counsel: “Anything is bearable as long as you can make a story out of it.”
History is trapped in me, indeed, but history is also mine to work out. So I write.
It is in stories about Vietnam that I find my way home.
And I am not alone.
A young Vietnamese-American friend of mine from Los Angeles, whose sister was killed by Thai pirates while escaping Vietnam, recently returned to Saigon, where she is now a thriving entrepreneur. Another, the son of a colonel who spent 14 years in re-education, spent his honeymoon in Vietnam, despite his dislike of the Hanoi regime. Yet another friend, whose father was governor of Hue and was in solitary confinement for 10 years, has retuned to Vietnam, written a book and now owns a bar in Hanoi.
My cousin whose family was robbed of everything and fled to France has returned to Vietnam where he married a local woman, raised a family, and sells French wine. He’s prospering in the same place his father once suffered through a malaria- infested re-education camp. It was, in a sense, his best revenge.
Another friend went a step further: She was forced to escape as a boat person with her family in the late ‘70s, and has returned to Vietnam with money raised in Silicon Valley, to create a program to prevent impoverished families in the Mekong Delta from selling their children to traffickers. She’s changing the destinies of many of her countrymen for the better.
Having lost the war, these are the people who have emerged as the victors of peacetime.
They’ve managed to remake themselves and go on with their lives. By refusing to be dominated by rage and the need for vengeance, they have become active agents in changing Vietnam itself.
Forty years have passed since America suffered its first defeat. Forty years have passed since the fall of Saigon, which led to the birth of the Vietnamese Diaspora. But when we think of this date we should not simply dwell on the losses. We should celebrate everyday lives. Rather than serving as a metaphor for tragedy, or being held captive in the past, Vietnam is a barely discovered country that will open itself up with the stories of its people.
This essay was produced as part of a collaboration between PRI’s The World and New America Media. It was adapted from a speech given by the author at Athenian School in Danville, Calif. last year. Lam is the author of “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora,” “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” and “Birds of Paradise Lost.”