Tri Ta, the first Vietnamese American elected mayor of a U.S. city, in front of Vietnam War Memorial, Westminster, California, Nov. 9, 2012. Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times
Our Vietnamese Hearts
April 22, 2013
Chúng Con Vẫn
Còn đây (Oh
Mother Vietnam, We Are Still Here)
lyrics from this sentimental song come back to me once in a while, especially
when I think of the Vietnamese Diaspora and its complicated relationship with
its homeland. One bitter evening on April 30, 1976, in an auditorium in
downtown San Francisco, my family and I sang it to mark our first anniversary
in exile. The first of a handful of Vietnamese songs penned abroad after the
end of a war that spurred an unprecedented exodus, Oh
was sung the way a people who had just lost a country would sing it; that is,
with tears in our eyes and a cry in our voices. Some in the audience, I
remember, even wore white headbands, the kind worn at some funerals to mourn
four decades have passed since then. If I were to sing it now, not that I
remember the lyrics entirely, I would sing it with a tone full of irony. So
removed from that emotional juncture, I wonder to what extent is the song’s
declaration still true? Vietnam is accessible now to the Diaspora, but to what
extent are we still here for her? Who, in fact, are we?
book Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine
Success in the New Global Economy, Joel Kotkin describes a quintessentially cosmopolitan
global tribe as an international community that combines a strong sense of
a common origin with “two critical factors for success in the modern world:
geographic dispersion and a belief in scientific progress.” Kotkin’s
primary examples include the British, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, and
Indians. These groups, relying on mutual dependence and trust, created
global networks that allow them “to function collectively beyond the
confines of national or regional borders.” In subsequent writings, Kotkin has
added Vietnamese to his list.
The Trip to Orange County
four million Vietnamese have fled or migrated abroad since the end of the Fall of Saigon in 1975. They have re-established themselves elsewhere, scattered on five
continents. These days you can find restaurants selling pho, banh
mi, and other
Vietnamese favorites in South Africa, Brazil, Dubai, and beyond. I myself
have relatives living in six different countries on three continents.
But the largest numbers of the Diaspora ended up in North America, and the
largest portion of that population resettled in
California, where my family and I, and most of my relatives, now live.
an epic filled with irony: traumatized by wars and bound by old ways of
life where land and ancestors are worshipped, where babies’ umbilical
cords are traditionally buried in the earth as a way to bind them to the
ancient land, we relocated to a country known for its fabulous fantasies,
high-tech wizardry, and individualistic ambition.
example, this bus trip I am on. A comfortable bus going south, with the
nostalgic music of Trinh Cong Son, sung by
the smoky-voiced Khanh Ly, echoing from the overhead speaker. Son was
the most famous Vietnamese composer during the Vietnam War, the master
of love and antiwar songs, and Khanh Ly the most famous singer. The
two old Vietnamese ladies next to me are bragging about their children and
their grandchildren, and how well they’re doing, and so
on. Behind me, a couple of middle-aged men are humming along with
this song of their youth. And up front two kids are playing handheld
computer games while their mother talks endlessly on her cell to someone
about her restaurant business.
rise and fall; I close my eyes and listen. I swear I could be in Hue heading
south to Saigon or Dalat.
am not. I am on the other side of the Pacific, on my way from San José to
Orange County, going down Interstate 5 in a Vietnamese-owned bus. It is owned
by one of three competing Vietnamese companies, which speaks to the
infrastructure of our ethnic community in America.
the two old ladies comments that she cannot get over the fact that her son
and grandchildren live in a big house on a hill in Freemont, California.
“To think my son back home wore shorts and played in the rice field, and
all my kids studied by lamplight. Now, he’s a big shot engineer. It’s
so different, our lives, all these machines,” she says and looks out to
the verdant knolls that blur past us. Then, instead of being relieved, she
sighs and says in a voice full of nostalgia, “We’ve come so far
think of the Vietnamese narrative in America, I think of my mother’s
ancestral altar. In her suburban home on the outskirts of San José with a
pool shimmering in the backyard, my mother prays. Every morning she climbs
a chair and piously lights a few joss sticks for the ancestral altar
on top of the living room bookcase and mumbles her solemn prayers to the
dead. Black and white photos of grandpa and grandma and uncles stare out
benevolently to the world of the living from the top shelf. On the shelves
below, by contrast, stand my father’s MBA diploma, my older siblings’
engineering and business degrees, my own degree in biochemistry,
our combined sports trophies, and, last but not least, the latest
installments of my own unending quest for self-reinvention—
plaques and obelisk crystals and framed certificates, my literary and
mother’s altar and the shelves tell is the story of the Vietnamese
American conversion, one where Old World Fatalism meets New World
Optimism, the American Dream. After all, praying to the dead is
a cyclical, Confucian habit—one looks to the past for guidance,
and one yearns toward that “common origin” to keep him connected to his
community, his sense of continuity. Getting awards and trophies, on the
other hand, is an American tendency, a proposition of ascendancy,
where one looks toward the future and deems it optimistic and
Vietnam, we have survived but we have irrevocably changed. To be
Vietnamese American, one learns to lurk between these two opposite ideas,
negotiating, that is, between night and day.
California’s cerulean sky the newcomers undergo a marvelous transformation. In
the Golden State where half a million Vietnamese resettled, dreams do have
a penchant of coming true. The newcomer grows ambitious. He sees,
for instance, his own restaurant in the “For Rent” sign on a dilapidated
store in a run-down neighborhood. He sees his kids graduating from top
colleges. He imagines his own home with a pool in the back five years down
the line—things that were impossible back home.
night, indeed. The traumas of the initial expulsion and the subsequent
exodus—re-education camps under communist rules, thirst and starvation on the
high seas, years languishing in refugee camps, the horror of Thai pirates and
unforgiving storms—are over the years replaced by the jubilation of a
new-found status and, for some, enormous wealth. A community that
initially saw itself as living in exile, as survivors of some
historical blight, has gradually changed its self-assessment.
It began to see itself as an immigrant community, as a thriving
Little Saigon, with all sorts of make-it-rich narratives.
Sister, did you know the man who
created the famous Sriracha chili sauce was a boat person? He arrived in
America in January of 1980 and by February already started making his famous
green-capped bottles of hot sauce. Now his company rolls out ten million bottles plus a year. It’s the next Ketchup. He’s a very rich man.
Aunty, do you know that the man
who started Lee’s sandwiches started out with just a food truck? He parked
outside electronics assembly plants in San José selling sandwiches to
mostly Vietnamese workers, but he parlayed his business into a
multi-million dollar chain. There are now Lee’s sandwiches shops
in California, Arizona, and Texas, not to mention China, Korea, and
Vietnam itself. It’s an international corporation.
Brother, have you heard about
the assistant to the attorney general in the George W. Bush administration? He
was a boat person and left Vietnam at age fifteen but graduated magna cum laude
from Harvard Law School and was editor of Harvard Law Review. He was the chief
architect of the USA Patriot Act. Can you believe it?
enough houses are bought, jobs are had, children are born, old folks are
buried, businesses and malls are opened, community newspapers are printed, and
economic and political organizations are formed. That is to say, ours is a
community whose roots are burrowing, slowly but deeply, into the American loam.
of longing and loss are thus dulled by the necessities of living and by the
glory of newfound status and wealth. And the refugee-turned-immigrant (a
psychological transition) becomes a naturalized U.S. citizen (more or less a
transition of convenience) and finds that the insistence of memories insists a
little less as he zooms down the freeway toward a glorious chimerical cityscape
to work each morning.
To be a Viet
abroad and changed, and we in turn developed extraordinary influence back home.
The rich, well-fed Vietnamese abroad sent gifts and letters home, kept
impoverished relatives fed. They sent pictures of themselves. “See,
Tree Hang and Hien? They’re Helen and Henry now. Aren’t they so tall? It’s
the American milk and peanut butter, you know. They make your bones
large and strong. Henry has a PhD. And Brother, look… ”
relatives devoured the photographs with their eyes. Beyond those handsome,
smiling young adults who pose with such ease next to their sports cars is,
inevitably, that two-story house with its two-car garage, as if in mockery.
During the Cold War, like sirens, such images were the final tug that lured
some Vietnamese from their shantytown toward the open sea.
yearning for America changes the character of Vietnam itself. Vuot
the border—became a household verb in Vietnam in the 80s. Viet
“overseas Vietnamese,” people of Vietnamese origin now living abroad—became a
powerful symbol in the 80s and 90s for all Vietnamese of their potential, the
future. And it is universally understood that the Viet
Kieu, with their
wealth and influence, can change the fortune of their poor cousins.
decade or so ago, Vietnam’s narrative of herself was that she’s four thousand
years old. Her milk is dry, her hair gray, she suffers from astigmatism.
She has little to offer her numerous children. America, on the other hand,
is young, rich, and optimistic: everything that Vietnam cannot be.
Vietnamese, increasingly a younger population and full of yearning,
inevitably dream of America, a place they imagine of peace, freedom, and
wealth, and of little suffering.
it be noted that, despite the horror and bloodshed of the war, the
Vietnamese missed the Americans after they abandoned the country. Stepping
over broken wings of warplanes and moss-covered fragments of rusty old
tanks, young Vietnamese search for America. The American relics offer
wondrous possibilities. Assemble the broken parts and you might end
up with a car, a bridge, or even a homemade factory. Dig up some missing
bones and crown the assemblage with an MIA’s dog tags and, who knows, you
might turn it into a coveted treasure, an American GI’s bones, to be sold to
Americans for a lot of money.
years ago, I went back to Vietnam to participate in a PBS documentary, and I did
the touristy thing: I went to the Cu Chi Tunnel in Tay Ninh Province, bordering
Cambodia, the underground labyrinth where the Viet Cong hid during the war.
were a handful of American vets in their sixties. They were back for the first
time. They were very emotional. One wept and said that, during the war, “I
spent a long time looking for this place and lost friends doing the same.”
young tour guide told me that it was tourism that forced the Vietnamese to dig
up the old hideouts. She, however, did not see the past. She crawled through
the same tunnel with foreigners routinely but she emerged with different ideas.
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. “They invite me to come. I’m saving money for this amazing trip.” If she
could, she told me, she would go and study in America.
young woman who looks at a tunnel that was the headquarters of the Viet Cong
and the target of massive bombings years ago and what does she see? The Magic
Kingdom. The Cu Chi Tunnel leads some to the past surely, but for the young
tour guide it may very well lead to the future.
Cold War ended, Vietnamese refugees were no longer welcome in the West,
and, as forced repatriation became more or less a new international
policy, boat people stopped coming. But the migration did not stop. In
fact, it continues to this day, albeit in a more orderly
fashion. Relatives sponsor relatives, Vietnamese marry Vietnamese
Americans, political and religious prisoners and Vietnamese Amerasians
come under the U.S. special programs, and, the latest wave, well-to-do and
bright Vietnamese foreign students apply to study in the U.S., and
children of the ruling class of Hanoi and Saigon (now called Ho Chi Minh
City)—all are hopeful for a new beginning in America.
A Bar on Truong Han Sieu Street
sometimes seems almost inevitable in the twenty-first century that the refugee
becomes an immigrant and the immigrant, if he fares well, becomes cosmopolitan,
with multiple languages and cultural-geographical affiliations.
inevitable, too, for many a Vietnamese abroad that at some point he takes the
this National Public Radio story two years ago that began thus: “Many
Vietnamese who fled the communist takeover have returned as visitors since, but
none of them as commander of a U.S. guided missile destroyer, one making port
in the same city where U.S. combat troops first came ashore in Vietnam in 1965.
The symbolism wasn’t lost on Commander H.B. Le of the USS Lassen as he spoke to
reporters pier side.”
Le was five years old when he fled Vietnam in a crowded boat. Returning in his
U.S. Navy uniform, he stood a foot taller than the old admirals who saluted
him, a former boat person, someone they would have readily arrested three
decades earlier if he were caught escaping.
Vuong, a cum laude graduate of Harvard University with a degree in economics,
left Vietnam as a boat person in 1979, but came back seven years ago to help
fight human trafficking in An Giang, her home province in the Mekong Delta. “I
always remember once we came to America my mother saying to my sisters and I
that we were born Vietnamese for a reason, and it is up to us to figure out
what that reason is,” she said. Hers is that she can protect at-risk young
women being sold into slavery.
rich-poor gap in Vietnam has widened with the growth of the economy, human
trafficking has become a scourge. Vuong’s programs are part of the Pacific
Links Foundation’s effort to empower young women by providing education, skills
training, scholarships, and shelter to those at risk. “Increasingly, Vietnamese
Americans are playing central roles in the philanthropy sector,” she said. “As
for me, I can’t just sit and do nothing. Any of those girls being sold to
Cambodia or China could be a cousin or a child of an old friend.”
Qui Duc, a Vietnamese refugee who became an American radio host and the author
of the memoir Where the Ashes Are: The Odyssey
of a Vietnamese Family, has found yet another incarnation in his late-fifties: as a bar
owner and art curator in Hanoi. Why would he come back to the country from
which he once fled as a refugee? “Home is where there’s a sense of connection,
of family, of community,” he said after struggling to find a single answer.
“And I found it here.”
one of at least 200,000 Viet Kieu who return to Vietnam yearly,
many only to visit relatives and for tourism, but a small portion increasingly
to work, invest, and retire. The majority of the people who return are from the
United States, where the largest Vietnamese population overseas resides. Indeed,
thirty-eight years after the Vietnam War ended, the Vietnamese Diaspora is now
falling slowly but surely back into Vietnam’s orbit.
ago, a Vietnamese overseas had little more than nostalgic memories to keep
cultural ties alive. During the Cold War, letters sent from the United States
could take half a year to reach their recipients in Vietnam. Today, however,
eighteen years after the United States re-established diplomatic ties with
Vietnam, and six years after Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization, Hanoi
is but a direct flight from Los Angeles, and Vietnamese at home and overseas
chat online, text message one another, and video call on Skype. Vietnamese
tourists visiting the United States is also increasingly the norm.
Vietnamese play an important role in Vietnam’s economic life. According to
Vietnam’s Chamber of Commerce, in 2008, despite the slowdown in the world
economy, Vietnam received overseas aid of more than $7.4 billion. The
Vietnamese government said that the Diaspora is reducing poverty and spurring
economic development. Official development assistance pledged to Vietnam in
2008 by international donors was $5 billion, whereas the overseas Vietnamese
contributed $2.4 billion more.
In 2010, the total amount of remittances plus investment funds from the Diaspora, according to the Vietnamese government, had reached $20 billion, or 8 percent of Vietnam’s GDP. Hanoi, seeing the Diaspora as a
tremendous resource, is even considering granting dual citizenship
to Viet Kieus to spur further repatriation.
another form of Viet Kieu contribution that is not so
tangible, but arguably just as important: themselves.
Qui Duc’s bar, Tadioto, an elegant place on Truong Han Sieu Street in Hanoi,
has become a gathering place for artists and writers and intellectuals—expatriates
and locals alike. Avant-garde art pieces hang on the wall or stand alone in the
middle of rooms. “Public space is not yet what it should be in Vietnam,” Duc
explained. “I’m aiming to change that—to bring real dialogue between different
Each week at Tadioto, Vietnamese-American poets and writers share
their experiences with their Vietnamese counterparts.
has reached an ideological dead end—but, in the private sphere, new political
thoughts are being formed. If Vietnam still wears the hammer and sickle on her
sleeve, her heart throbs now with commerce and capitalism.
along with a fledgling civil society, a growing middle class, and a slow
erosion of the political barricade as the pressure rises for political reform,
transparency, and pluralism. The return of the Diaspora to the homeland is thus
a double-edged sword: Many bring back financial investment and technological
know-how. Yet with the presence of so many vocal Viet
Kieus in Vietnam,
a complex narrative is being formed, one in which knowledge and ideas of the
outside world permeate the local culture and society. In this private sphere,
and on the Internet, and despite continual arrest of dissident bloggers, the
din of political debate and exchange can loudly be heard.
wake of that bitter civil war and the subsequent exodus is
an irony: those persecuted by Uncle Ho’s followers for being
affiliated with the United States and as “collaborators” and forced to flee
abroad during the Cold War are now being actively solicited to return to
Vietnam to help invest in and rebuild the government that once
spurned them. For having international connections in the post-Cold War
aftermath is now seen as a good thing.
been victims of the war, these people with multiple affiliations have emerged
as victors of the peace. They’ve managed to remake themselves and go on with
their lives, and more important, by refusing to let rage and thirst for
vengeance dominate their hearts, some have become active agents in changing the
destiny of Vietnam itself.
Traditions and Ambitions
reason I am on this bus is this: to see for myself the Vietnam War Memorial in
Orange County that I’ve heard so much about from my parents. My father, once a
high-ranking South Vietnamese officer, was on the advisory committee of this
memorial-building endeavor. On one evening a decade or so ago, the Vietnamese
in Orange County raised more than $200,000 for the memorial. Well-known
Vietnamese singers sang for free and ticket receipts all went into the memorial
fund. The result was two larger-than-life statues, one depicting a South
Vietnamese, the other an American GI, standing side by side in combat fatigues
adjacent to the city hall in Westminster, the heart of Orange County’s Little
in front of it, I am of two minds. I feel something akin to patriotism for my
long lost homeland stir in my blood as well as a deep sadness for the men who
fought and died—and for those who survived but were broken by the experience; I
feel, at the same time, a dire need for distance. While I stand there on a
Saturday evening, a couple of older women light incense and pray and several
older Vietnamese men in army uniforms stand guard nearby. Something somber and
heavy in their stance suggests a collective sorrow that causes me to shudder;
their eyes—eyes that no doubt saw the worst of the old war—convey anger,
hatred, and bitterness. Their faces remind me of my father’s.
occurred to me then that while one strand of history still defines those men in
army uniforms and, of course, my father, another strand of history was
redefining me. My father considers himself an exile living in America, part of
an increasingly small population; I see myself as an American journalist who
happens to make many journeys to Vietnam without much emotional fanfare. For
me, Vietnam, my country of birth, and its tumultuous history have become a
point of departure, a concern, but no longer home.
is that because he holds Vietnam so dear to his heart, my father cannot return
to the country to which he owes allegiance, so long as the current regime
remains in power. His is a rage left over from the Cold War that has no end in
sight. History, for my father and for those men who still wear their army
uniforms at every communal event, has a tendency to run backward, to memories
of the war, to a bitter and bloody struggle whose end spelled their defeat and
exile. And it holds them static in a lonely nationalist stance. They live in
America but their souls are still fighting an unfinished war in Vietnam.
passion lives on, but it must now contend with the new integration: the
Vietnamese Diaspora, no longer in exile, is steadily finding itself in
Vietnam’s orbit. Lan Nguyen, writing for Nguoi Viet, the largest Vietnamese paper in
Orange County, noted that “While the younger generation of Vietnamese Americans
shares with elders a general concern regarding human rights, democracy, and
freedom in Vietnam, they are not as invested in the cause.” Nguyen, who lives
in San José, cites language barriers and lack of experience under communism as
the factors that help widen the generation gap. “The Vietnamese American youth…often
are disillusioned as it seems their every effort to help Vietnam is met with
criticism by those older than them. The elders in turn are horrified to see
young people organize philanthropic missions to Vietnam.”
question remains whether the Vietnamese Diaspora can be an effective agent of
change and find new ways to influence the future of the country. To do so, it
needs to ask tough questions. Is there real freedom for those who give in to
their hatred and are ruled by it? Is democracy for Vietnam possible when those
who live in America often fail to understand and practice it with their own
communities, and the majority of those in Vietnam barely show any interest? And
what does it take to move beyond anger and lust for revenge, and create space
for constructive discussion and dialogue and spur new political thoughts?
true: once the hate is gone, in its place is pain. Those who cling so strongly
to hatred, I suspect, are often those who fear what comes after it. But it is
true also that many of us have moved on beyond the old rancor, beyond that
us-versus-them mentality. We have learned to absorb our pain and grief and are
negotiating our positions between East and West, memories and modernity,
traditions and individual ambitions, old loyalties and new alliances, such that
we are in the process of recreating a whole notion of what it means to be
Vietnamese, a definition that is both open-ended and inclusive.
Mother Vietnam, in a sense we are still here, but we aren’t who we used to be.
The new generations born abroad may still behold that sense of common origin,
may still take pride in their heritage, but they are not bound by the idea that
Vietnam is their destiny. Rather, it’s one of their many destinations.
song is needed, one that describes an individual with multiple affiliations,
with additional homelands, someone who shares a sense of common origin but is
not bound by collective nationalism. The old umbilical cord, unearthed at last,
is transmuted into a new trans-pacific verse, and is an epic in the making.
Andrew Lam is editor and cofounder of New America Media, an association of more
than three thousand ethnic media outlets in the United States. He is the author
Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora, East
Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres, and most recently,
a collection of short stories, Birds
of Paradise Lost. On Twitter: @andrewqlam.