April 30

vietnam war memorial

Vietnam War Memorial in Westminster, CA (via flickr)

Today is what many Vietnamese in the diaspora call “Black April.” For them it is the anniversary of the Fall of Saigon. I understand their feelings. I grew up in a Vietnamese community in San Jose, and I absorbed their memories and their unspoken trauma. My own family was marked by separation and division, by people and property left behind. And yet, I could never wholeheartedly endorse this sense of loss and grievance, could never bring myself to say “Black April” (not least of all because if we were to to speak of mourning, we should say “White April,” but that would not go over so well in a white America). Like my narrator in The Sympathizer, I see every issue from both sides, and so I see that for some Vietnamese people this is not a day of mourning but one of celebration. The Fall is for some the Liberation.

And yet, it is important to mark this day because it is the symbolic moment when so many Vietnamese people became refugees. Many people have described me as an immigrant, and my novel as an immigrant story. No. I am a refugee, and my novel is a war story. I came to the United States because of a war that the United States fought in Vietnam, a war that the Vietnamese fought with each other, a war that China and the Soviet Union were involved in, a war that the Vietnamese brought to Laos and Cambodia, a war that did not end in 1975, a war that is not over for so many people of so many nationalities and cultures. For Americans to call me an immigrant and my novel an immigrant novel is to deny a basic fact of American history: that many immigrants to this country came because of American wars fought in the Philippines, Korea, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. Immigrants are the story of the American Dream, of American exceptionalism. Refugees are the reminder of the American nightmare, which is how so many who are caught under American bombardment experience the United States.

As much as Americans fear refugees and seek to transform refugees into immigrants who fulfill the American Dream, the Vietnamese who stayed in Vietnam have a hard time understanding their refugee brethren. I had breakfast with a former Vietnamese ambassador in Hanoi and she said that the “boat people” were economic refugees, not political refugees. Probably every single Vietnamese refugee would disagree with her, and the ethnic Chinese who were persecuted, robbed, and blackmailed would say that the line between being an economic refugee and a political refugee is a very thin one.

One of my Vietnamese language teachers said that the re-education camps were necessary to prevent postwar rebellion. Perhaps rebellion was in the making, but reaching out a hand in peace and reconciliation would have done so much more to heal the country. The Vietnamese people overseas remember the re-education camps as the ultimate hypocrisy of the Vietnamese revolution, the failure of Vietnamese brotherhood and sisterhood. This, too, is one reason why so many Vietnamese people became refugees and why so many find it hard to reconcile with a Vietnam that will not acknowledge its crimes against its own people, even as it is so ready to talk about the crimes of the South Vietnamese, the Americans, the French, and the Chinese. Nothing is more difficult than to look in the mirror and hold oneself to account. The victorious Vietnamese are guilty of that. So are the defeated Vietnamese.

I’ve heard more than once from Vietnamese foreign students in the United States that the past is over, that the Vietnamese at home understand the pain of the Vietnamese overseas, and that we should reconcile and move on. These students do not understand what the overseas Vietnamese feel–that they lost a country. It is easier to be magnanimous when one has won. But at least these Vietnamese students want to be magnanimous. At least they reach out a hand in friendship, unlike many of an older generation.

The younger Vietnamese Americans need to reach out that hand, too, even as they feel the deep need of filial piety. They wish to acknowledge the suffering and the pain of their parents and grandparents. If they do not, who will? They live in a country where most Americans know nothing about the Vietnamese people, or about Vietnamese Americans, where Americans care little to remember the Southern Vietnamese who they supposedly fought the war for. So the younger Vietnamese Americans feel that burden to carry on their parents’ memories. One day, perhaps, they can let that burden go, but it will be much easier to do so when Vietnam helps to carry that burden by officially acknowledging that every side in that war had its reasons, that every side had its patriots, that we cannot divide the past into heroes and traitors.

As for me, I remain a refugee. My memory begins when I arrived in the United States at age four and was taken away from my parents to live with a white family. That was the condition for being able to leave the refugee camp in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. That experience remains an invisible brand stamped between my shoulder blades. I have spent my life trying to see that brand, to make sense of it, to rework it into words that I can speak to myself, that I can share with others. As painful as that experience was, what I learned from it was not to dwell only on my own pain. I needed to acknowledge that pain, to understand it, but in order to live beyond it, I also needed to acknowledge the pain of others, the worldview of others. This is why I cannot say “Black April,” because it is one story of one side, and I am interested in all stories of all sides.

Category: Essays


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  1. Mai Vu says:

    WOW! What a well written article. You captured all the sides that I seeked to understand and felt over the years on this subject. Thank you. You have done your internal work 😉 I am a fan!

  2. Chau Kelly says:

    I too was displaced, but a couple of years before the Fall, in late 1973 (at the age of four). As a mixed-race child, my mother was particularly concerned that I grew up outside of Vietnam, she knew what my future held for me if we stayed. The balance of my family came over in 1975 and later, all in a variety of harrowing ways. I am also an academic, a historian, but I focus on the history of other colonial spaces, British colonial rule in Africa and India because I have too much anger and sadness to confront my family’s own colonial legacy. Although, your work has helped me to begin, somewhat reluctantly, to consider how I might tell my family’s story.

    Your discussion of the new generation of Vietnamese, those who grew up there, not here, hits a chord with my own questions about what if my family had stayed? My daughter is currently working on her MA in comparative literature in England, where she has made friends with another international student, he’s from Vietnam. So here we are in 2019 with two children of Vietnam, one more mixed and one more Vietnamese (whatever that means to anyone), both attending the same university in the UK. They both love similar foods and share some amusing stories about family, but they are also so different. My daughter inherited my family’s historical memory of loss and hunger for home, her friend doesn’t feel these same aches. He doesn’t see what the big deal is. My brain struggles with what my family lost to war, exile, and struggle in the subsequent 45 years. To what was lost to us, not just our patrimony, but our sense of belonging.

    Thank you for your continued honesty about the refugee experience, it is a hot, painful brand, a scar that continues to itch and burn.

  3. Sherry Caraballo Dorfman says:

    I selected The Sympathizer for my book group this month and I’m preparing for our discussion this evening. Your book was haunting and enlightening. A very dear friend of mine is a Vietnamese refugee. She tells me about her experience as an teen leaving her home, but your book has given me a new frame of reference for understanding. She often sings the songs that she brought with her from her homeland, so your reference to music touched me. I grew up in the 60s and was at UC Berkeley in the early 70s when this war was top of mind. My own life experience prompted travel to Viet Nam and Cambodia to gain more insight, but your novel has broadened that substantially further. Thank you for that. SCD

    • Viet says:

      thanks for the kind words, Sherry.

    • Viet says:

      thanks for selecting the novel for your book group, Sherry! And glad that the novel could provide you with some insights.

  4. Mike Blick says:

    I have wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your book and reading your op ed piece in the New York Times this morning stimulated me to act on it. Thank you so much for both.

    Mike Blick
    Weston, Wisconsin

  5. Lydia Kinda says:

    As a child of Czech refugees from the former Czechoslovakia, trying to understand the past, I find your writing fascinating as it describes things I can relate to, although the countries are different. You are right, the stories need to be told to teach the next generation. Well written.

    • Viet says:

      I’m delighted that the novel speaks across different borders, Lydia.

    • Viet says:

      I’m really pleased that the novel can speak to people with different, if related, experiences, Lydia.

  6. PT and Ken says:

    I believe you have good background on the history, but you probably won’t understand the pains of ones who lived under communists – check out our simple book: Thought you may be interested in reading this short book: http://www.amazon.com/Last-Boat-Out-Triumphant-Vietnamese-American/dp/0975479660/ref=cm_cr_arp_d_pl_foot_top?ie=UTF8. Please Let us know if you would like a limited family only copy with pictures, in exchanged of your signed copy from The Sympathizer. Thank you in advanced.
    PT and Ken

  7. D Nguyen says:

    Dr. Nguyen, I’m in complete agreement with your post here.
    Similar to you, I’m a boat people refugee.
    My dad was a soldier in the SVN Army, and went to the re-education camp.
    However, I also can’t say “Black April” like those who say it as if so sincere. Those who say they come here for freedom and liberty, but yet they suppress and label others as Commies because the others don’t agree with them.

  8. Don S. says:

    I am so curious about your thoughts after reading your work.
    The identity of your home country is so important; has the view of your countrymen toward your home country changed since your youth? And
    How has the identity of your home country changed in your heart since the compilation of your work?
    I’m re-reading your work again this month.