Hosted by Columbia University’s Weatherhead East Asian Institute, panelists Viet Thanh Nguyen, Hoi Trinh, Lan Cao, Hang Nguyen, and John Phan discuss the contested memory of the Vietnam War, the Politics of the RVN flag in U.S. politics, today, and the impact on US-SRV relations moving forward.
Read transcript below.
Eugenia Lean: I’m extremely pleased to welcome everyone to Trauma and Memory in Vietnamese America: Anti-communism, Authoritarianism, and Anti-Asian Violence in a Divided Community. This event is very timely and very pressing, and it’s also very popular. As of five minutes ago, we had 749 registered participants, and we’re so pleased to have everyone here with us today. We’re also extremely excited about featuring this webinar. The Weatherhead East Asian Institute is sponsoring the webinar and the East Asian Institute is very much promoting Vietnamese studies at Columbia. Traditionally, Weatherhead East Asian Institute focuses on the traditional aspects of east Asia, China, Japan, and Korea. But more recently, we have been much more ambitious in our scope. And as the reality is the case, that Southeast Asia and Vietnam are now extremely important in the global world order and Columbia is seeking to really develop its expertise and its knowledge on Vietnamese studies.
Eugenia Lean: I hope that many of you listeners will continue to work with us and partner with us to continue to build. We are hoping to fund and establish a center for Vietnamese studies at the Weatherhead East Asian Institute. This panel is just one example of many exciting things that such a center could continue to support. One of the reasons why Columbia is at a position to develop Vietnamese studies is because of two fabulous recent faculty hires. Two prestigious leading scholars of Vietnamese studies have joined Columbia faculty within the past five years. And the two of them have been working to really make a… develop Vietnamese studies on the ground at Columbia. And they are the two who convened today’s webinar. Let me just give their quick introduction and then they will in turn, introduce our all-star panel.
Eugenia Lean: First, I’d like to introduce Lien-Hang Nguyen. She is the Dorothy Borg Associate Professor in the history of the United States and East Asia. She is the author of Hanoi’s War: An International History of the War for Peace. She is currently working on a comprehensive history of the Ted Offensive. She is the general editor of the forthcoming three volume Cambridge History of the Vietnamese War. Indeed, she’s a leading scholar in Sino Vietnamese relations and modern Vietnamese history.
Eugenia Lean: The second person who I’d like to introduce, is a rising star in the field. His name is John Phan, and he is an Assistant Professor of Vietnamese Humanities in the department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. He is a historical phenologist, specializing in the history of the Vietnamese and Chinese languages, as well as the history of Vietnamese vernacular literary development. He is a 2021, 2022 ACLS research fellow and his first book entitled Lost Tongues of the Red River, Annamese Middle Chinese and the Origins of the Vietnamese Language, is currently under contract with Harvard Asia Center Press. It is now my honor to turn the panel over to Professor Nguyen.
Lien-Hang Nguyen: Thank you, Eugenia. Thank you everyone who’s made this possible. So again, holding trauma and memory in Vietnamese America, an event that seeks to understand the community’s collective past, to shed light on its divergent present, and perhaps inform a shared future on this very day is particularly poignant to me. Today marks the 46th anniversary of April 30th, 1975, an event most commonly referred to in America as the Fall of Saigon, officially in Vietnam as [foreign language 00:04:23] or Liberation Day, but among many in the Vietnamese American community as [foreign language 00:04:29] or loss of country. How one refers to it, of course, reveals the contested memory of that war and its enduring legacies. This day for most Vietnamese Americans does not, and here I cannot repeat myself enough, my students know this, does not reside in the distant past, but enjoys many spirited afterlives as we’ll see today. Yet tomorrow marks a very different day.
Lien-Hang Nguyen: May 1st is the first day of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, in honor and recognition of the contributions of the community to the history, culture, and achievements of the United States. As we watch the course of this deadly pandemic, confluent spread of authoritarianism and seemingly unfettered rise in anti-Asian hate, we’ve never needed this upcoming month more here in America. So, this tough but necessary conversation will be divided into three segments. First, we’ll address the role that memory of the war and April 30th and how the role of the memory of the war and of April 30th has informed Vietnamese American political participation in the United States since 1975.
Lien-Hang Nguyen: The second segment will focus on the shifting representations and significance of the waving of the South Vietnamese flag, [foreign language 00:05:48], during the storming of the US Capital on January 6th. And the third and final segment explores how Vietnamese Americans see the rise of authoritarianism and the concurrent recent spike in anti-Asian hate. Before I turn things over to John, who will introduce our esteemed panelists, I’m only hoping for two things of this event. First, I hope to put on full display, the diversity and the strength of our community of 2.2 million Americans of Vietnamese descent. Second, I hope that this conversation will only be one of many more to come to promote greater dialogue and exchange within the community and form a basis to build coalitions outside of it. If we achieve those two aims, I will declare this event on April 30th, 2021, a complete victory, and this is live from Columbia university. So with that, John.
John D. Phan: Hello everybody, and thank you, [Hang 00:06:51]. First. I can’t help but admit that as a specialist on historical linguistics, I feel terribly unqualified to participate in this conversation. Nevertheless, these are issues that deeply impact us all within, across and beyond the Vietnamese and Vietnamese American communities. It feels like a moment in which Vietnamese history, Vietnamese American history, have collided with broader American history in explosive, sometimes tragic, but also perhaps hopeful ways. It’s unquestionably a moment of reckoning within the Vietnamese American community, where we must confront the forces that divide us as well as reexamine our roles in American society.
John D. Phan: Therefore, in addition to the three topical segments that Hang has introduced, I would like to emphasize a running theme for today’s event, and that is inter-generationality. It has been 46 years since the end of the war and Vietnamese Americans and the broader Vietnamese diaspora now comprise of multiple generations. From those who fought and bled in the war, to those who arrived as children, to the children of the children of who first took helicopter, plane and boat to come to these shores. The multiple tragedies and the challenges of the past two years has revealed to us how destructive divisiveness can be and how important it is to create dialogue within and across different communities.
John D. Phan: And perhaps ultimately to find solidarity and common ground, despite our differences. Each of our speakers today stand between the oldest and the youngest generations of the Vietnamese diaspora. And each have held diverse life experiences that inform their visions and their understandings of anti-communism, of authoritarianism and anti-Asian violence in our communities. Trinh Hoi is an Australian lawyer of Vietnamese origin, a former refugee and a reeducation camp survivor. Hoi graduated from Melbourne University Law School, and also completed an MA at Oxford University in 2002. He is co-founder of Voice, a regional NGO that was devoted to developing civil society in Vietnam. and in addition to his well-known work in the entertainment sector, Hoy has done extensive work on human rights and was recently awarded a fellowship from the US government to complete a course at the Harvard Kennedy School entitled Leading Nonviolent Movements for Social Progress.
John D. Phan: Our second speaker, Lan Cao, is the Betty Hutton Williams Professor of International Economic Law at Chapman Law School. Lan was a Ford Foundation scholar in 1991 and joined the Fowler School of Law in 2013 after serving for over a decade as the Boyd Fellow and Professor of Law at William and Mary Law School. Her scholarship focuses on the rule of law, economic and political development, culture and law. And she’s the author of Made in the USA: Race, Trade and Prison Labor, as well as Informal Institutions and Property Rights, among many other works. She is also the celebrated author of the novel, Monkey Bridge, and writes fiction on the side.
John D. Phan: Finally, our last panelist, Viet Thanh Nguyen, is a writer and a scholar who teaches at the University of Southern California. He holds the Aerol Arnold’s Chair of English and is the author of Race and Resistance: Literature and Politics in Asian America. His novel, The Sympathizer, is a New York Times best seller and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. He has also earned the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction from the American Library Association. His current book, The Committed, which is now available, is the highly anticipated sequel to The Sympathizer.
John D. Phan: As diverse members of a middle generation, our three panelists are uniquely situated to begin what we hope will ultimately be a dialogue across the generations. Therefore, in every question that we pose today, we ask that both the panelists and the attendees consider not merely our own individual generational or sociocultural point of view. Not simply the deficiencies of one group versus another, nor [inaudible 00:10:59] the messaging each one of us might hope to bring to the wider community, but also how one generation might speak to another, how one generation might learn from another and how we might proceed in a matter that deepens our understanding of ourselves as Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans of the first, 1.5, and second generations and beyond.
John D. Phan: Before I turn things back over to Hang to begin our first segment, just a couple practical notes that I want to inform the audience of. First, we’re very thankful to [inaudible 00:11:28] [Ving 00:11:28], member of our Vietnamese studies program here who is standing by in case anyone from the audience would like clarification in Vietnamese and/or would like to pose their question in Vietnamese during the Q&A. Mr. Ving will be standing by to translate those questions for the broader audience. Mr. Ving will also be supplying formal subtitles of our recorded event that will be released later on in some form, so please stand by for that. Finally, in terms of questions and answers, please feel free, audience members, to write your questions in as they occur to you over the course of the event, into the chat box. Lien-Hang Nguyen and I will be moderating and selecting from that body of questions when we get to question and answer at the end of the event today. All right, with that, I’d like to turn things back to Hang, who will lead our first session on contested history and memory of April 30th and of the afterlives of the Vietnam war.
Lien-Hang Nguyen: Thanks, John. So, most Americans think of US narratives of the Vietnam war. Notions of a quagmire, of a stale mate, of a possibly an Imperial venture that led us to war in mainland Southeast Asia, of how a Vietnam syndrome descended over the United States in the eighties and nineties. And even up to presidential elections, up until the election of Barack Obama, where every candidate had to count on what they were doing during the Vietnam war era. Now, these are American touchstones. These are US narratives. But few people, few non Vietnamese Americans, recognize the continuing trauma and distinct narratives of South Vietnamese afterlives of that war. I want to ask each of you, how do you see the memory and trauma of the war as present in modern Vietnamese, American identity culture and political performance?
Lan Cao: Let me start. I’m Lan Cao, and thank you so much, Columbia University and Hang and John for organizing this. It’s strange, I’ve been here for 40 something years and still very emotional this topic for me. So, I’ll speak a little bit about my family’s experience and how April 30th has defined my identity in both my scholarship and in my fiction writing. My father was a, I think of him mostly as a commander of the Airborne Brigade. He was away on various battlefields. I think he was in 54 altogether, and had been badly wounded and I think got a wrong blood transfusion. The war was just like an omnipresent identity. It’s like its own character in our lives. But at the same time, I had an uncle who was in the National Liberation Front of Vietnam, which means that as I was growing up, we were immersed in just all the nuances and strands of the war, socially, politically, and it entered our lives at dinner tables. I never grew up really having a demonized view of anybody that were in that conflict.
Lan Cao: Also, my father was [inaudible 00:15:00]. So [Laos 00:15:02] was in the background mountain and how the war affected Laos [inaudible 00:15:13] but very important how I, being a child of war… Chinese enclave, where the Chinese were the majority. And at the same time, some of the fiercest soldiers in my father’s battalions were [foreign language 00:15:31] soldiers. And I grew up with, in our gardens and mingling with them. So, the Vietnam war was like an end of China War to me. It was just all over in our lives. The Fall of Saigon was a cataclysmic event for us. And when we left and came to the US, there was lot of, kind of like, what happened? How did it happen? Why did it happen? And a lot of this was directed internally, as well as externally. And I think my parents were unlike other parents in the sense that they were willing to talk to me about things that I had questions about.
Lan Cao: And as I grew older, I was very curious about all the historical events and did have a lot of conversation with them about it. In terms of the war being present in the Vietnamese American culture, I feel [inaudible 00:16:31] and even April 30th, is not dead. And I think of Faulkner’s statement that the past is never dead, it’s not even passed. It’s very, very much something that’s applicable to me. I feel like it’s imprinted in my very being. And so, it’s informed my fiction writing for sure. I feel like I am… There’s a very wonderful book called This Bridge Called My Back, which is written by third world women. And I always feel with respect to Vietnam and April 30th and the war that I am the bridge that tries to make connections among all the different groups of Vietnamese, as well as non-Vietnamese who are affected by the war.
Lan Cao: And in my fiction, I do want to, of course, talk about the war, but not make it be so defining that all of Vietnam is the war. So, sometimes I go against my own grain because the war is so dominant. But what I try to do is also bring in some other representation of Vietnam that is non-war, even though the war is such a resounding ever present part of my life. Hoi?
Trinh Hoi: Hello, Lan, and thank you for that. Lan, if I may add, because I’m not a writer like Lan, but what I… Well, before I start, I just want to say that I’m so thrilled to be at this talk because it’s kind of like a bucket list on my part. I mean, finally, I get to have a talk at Columbia, even though I don’t have any degrees in the US, and I’m surrounded by four professors. So thank you, Columbia, for inviting me to share my story today. I wanted to add to what Lan says regarding April 30th. And that is, I think the trauma or the memory of April 30th really depends on one’s own personal experience as well as what one has gone through the family exodus.
Trinh Hoi: So for me, I stayed back in Vietnam. I was born in 1970, so I don’t have any memories of the war, but I have all the memories after the war. My first memory as a child was of visiting my dad in reeducation camp. I want to give the audience a bit of a glance at Vietnam. So Vietnam, right now we have roughly a hundred million people. We have about four million Vietnamese overseas, and we have about 97 million inside the country, so roughly a hundred million. And that is the 14th most populous nation in the world. It’s a fairly large population, that’s number one. Number two, because the war is still pretty fresh. I mean, if you look at the Armenian genocide or the debates regarding the Civil War here and slavery and all that, the war only ended in ’75 as Professor Nguyen said. It’s really only 46 years ago.
Trinh Hoi: The war is still so fresh in so many minds, including mine, because I guess, out of all the three panelists, I’m the only one who stayed back in Vietnam for 10 years. I didn’t go to Australia until the age of 14 with my family. I know that the memories that I have of Vietnam after ’75 has everything to do with what I think of April 30th. Without April 30th, I wouldn’t end up where I am today, and neither would any of us, would end up here whether we like it or not. I mean, Viet might still be in Vietnam. [Ti Lan 00:20:34] might still be in Vietnam. And both of you might still be in Vietnam. So for me, first, it depends on one’s memory of Vietnam and how long you were there when you were born, and whether you have gone through life under communism after the war in 1975.
Trinh Hoi: So, my dad went to reeducation camp, like hundreds of thousands of other Vietnamese soldiers. My youngest brother died in a new economic zone when our family, after my dad’s release, was not allowed to live in Saigon anymore where we were from, but we were banished to a remote island after his release in ’77. And then that’s where he escaped from Vietnam in 1979. That’s the first point that I want to make regarding that memory. The second thing I want to talk about is, I guess it also depends on the education that each of us receives, because like the next panelist once said, he said something like, “War is fought once on the battleground, but the next one is in memories.” And that is why I think that if people don’t have specific memories of the Vietnam War and of April 30th, usually then they will have to learn it through memories of others. And so our education, whether it is in the UK, in Australia or in the US, will then shape us and help us understand what it means.
Trinh Hoi: I wanted to talk a bit about the differences between the communities, the Vietnamese communities in Australia and in the US, and then in Europe, because I have traveled and worked as a human rights activist around the world. So, I want to share with that, but I want to leave that to the next segment, over to you, Viet.
Viet Thanh Nguyen:
Thanks so much. I want to thank Lien-Hang and John and the Weatherhead East Asian Institute for hosting us on this important occasion. And it’s also a thrill to be here with [Gi 00:22:56] Lan and [inaudible 00:22:57] Hoi as well. My background is that I’m probably the most Americanized out of our three panelists here today because I was four years old when I came to the United States. My background with my parents is that we’re Vietnamese Catholics. So. My parents fled in 1954 from the north to the south, they were anti-communist, as most of the Catholics are. And then they fled again in 1975. So, we were lucky, ,in our own way to be able to leave in that first wave. And we settled in Fort Indiantown Gap in Pennsylvania. That was our refugee camp of resettlement. And that’s really where my memories began.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I was four years old at the time. And in order to leave one of these refugee camps, you had to have an American sponsor. And what happened to our family was that there wasn’t a sponsor willing to take all four of us, so one sponsor took my parents, one sponsor took my 10 year old brother, one sponsor took four year old me. And so, my memories begin in a refugee camp, howling and screaming as I was being taken away from my parents. Now, that was being done for benevolent reasons to give my parents the time to get on their own two feet, but I experienced that, obviously as a four year old, as a sense of abandonment. And I’m still working out my emotional issues today as a writer. Being a refugee is not all bad. It gave me the requisite emotional damage to become a writer, so I’m thankful for that.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I grew up obviously aware of being Vietnamese, aware of the war and its legacy and April 30th and all that. But I also grew up, my intellectual formation was as an Asian American when I went to UC Berkeley. And I think that that has had a huge impact on the way that I see the war in Vietnam and the way I see many of the issues that we’re going to be talking about. I’ve always been concerned about that war and concerned about what Gi Lan brought up that obviously we shouldn’t think of Vietnam only as a war, but nevertheless, that we still need to think of that war in our own way, because I grew up obviously saturated with American versions of the war in Vietnam. On the one hand, mass popular Hollywood versions, and on the other hand, I also grew up deeply immersed in the Vietnamese refugee community. And so I’m very familiar, I think, with the sense of April 30th being what many Vietnamese Americans, anti communist refugees, would call Black April.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: My own feeling on this, is that I wanted to investigate this war in fiction and in non-fiction in a way that would be different than how Americans have typically remembered it and how Vietnamese Americans have typically remembered it. I wrote a book called Nothing Ever Dies: Vietnam and the Memory of War, and a gesture was towards one of the things that Gi Lan talked about, which is that the Vietnam War was really an Indo-China war, that it was fought in Laos and Cambodia as well, to equally devastating effect at the very least. And so, in Nothing Ever Dies, I wanted to talk about the war as something that involved Americans, South Koreans, Laotians, Cambodians, Hmong, and the Vietnamese, and not just Vietnamese Americans or anti communist Vietnamese or south Vietnamese, but also the communist Vietnamese.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And what I think that I saw looking at all these communities, that one thing they all shared in common is that they all thought of themselves as victims. Everybody thinks that they were the victims in this war and that terrible things were done to them. And in fact, that is what happened. But when we think of a war in that…
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Viet Thanh Nguyen: The fact that is what happened. But when we think of a war in that way, how do we account for who might be responsible, if everybody’s a victim then who is the victimizer? Is anyone the victimizer?. These are pretty complex, moral and political kinds of questions. In my own feeling in that, is that I wanted to look at what I call the ethics of recognition and nothing ever dies, and by that I meant that it would, that it was crucial from both a political and historical and then also ultimately in artistic perspective, from my own fiction, to think about the fact that we are all, no matter what side we are on, capable of humanity and inhumanity.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: This to me seemed to be a crucial distinction because when I look at American perspectives and Vietnamese perspectives, typically everybody’s eager to proclaim their humanity, their goodness, their bravery, their patriotism, and so on, and to accuse the other side of atrocities and inhuman behavior and so on, without being able to acknowledge that the other side might be motivated by good ideals of patriotism and idealism and all of that, and that our own side might’ve been capable of committing atrocities and doing terrible things, because that’s usually what happens in war.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Bringing up these kinds of perspectives is obviously complicated because no side really wants to see that aspect of themselves or that aspect of the other side. So in “The sympathizer”, my novel, the way it opens up is by me saying “It’s April 30th, it’s the end of the war”, which is either the fall of Saigon or the liberation of Saigon, depending on your perspective. Well, growing up in the Vietnamese American community, there is no possibility of such a perspective. It is the fall of Saigon. It is black April, and to bring it up as anything else is to automatically risk being seen as a communist. So that’s sort of in this context, that’s sort of what my work risks, but I think it’s absolutely necessary to do that.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So this is a very Vietnamese American event and I just want to end by talking about Vietnamese Americans and growing up in this Vietnamese refugee community. I do feel that the dominant tone of the Vietnamese American community has been defined by this idea that Vietnamese Americans, Vietnamese refugees, south Vietnamese people have suffered tremendously under communism, and that communists are evil and inhuman. That is the dominant public perspective and it’s very difficult to deviate from that, and it does lent a certain kind of emotional tenor to Vietnamese American conversations and memories about the war. I would characterize this emotional tenor as being marked by anger, bitterness, melancholy, sadness, and resentment. I’m not criticizing that I think these are really important valid emotions and those of us in the 1.5 and second generation have absorbed these emotions and have struggled with them as well.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: We see this in the literature and tonight I’m hosting an event on April 30th for a dashboard Vietnamese artists network. I’ll put the link in the chat, but it’s bringing together writers like Lan Cao, Duong Van Mai Elliott, Le Ly Hayslip, and Marcelino Truong, from France to talk about this from the perspective of literature, but we’re all struggling still with the war and what it means. It’s so defined our lives as Vietnamese people and as artists. But I’m hoping that the second generation and beyond won’t be defined by this kind of historical and emotional legacy. It’s not that these legacies aren’t important, but the second generation needs to be able to shape its own future and to shape its own reality. Now we are into the next question.
John D. Phan: So should we move on to the next segment then immediately? Okay, this is a brisk pace, but we will have time for Q and A and a little bit more of a relaxed discussion later on. I’m going to pose the question for the next set of things that Viet Thang had mentioned at the beginning of the event. And once again, please do type in your questions as they occur to you. We will be coming through the chat box for the Q and A session at the end. We’re going to move on to, I think the event that initiated the organization of this panel, which is the January six insurrection and the presence of the RVN flag at the storming at the Capitol. I’m sure I don’t have to say that for many in the Vietnamese American community, the presence of the RDN flag at the January 6th morning was really shocking.
John D. Phan: For others, it clearly was something else. Former president Trump’s challenge to the legal election of President Biden, felt like a call to action of some kind. Such polarized responses to the January 6th insurrection forced us to question the nature of Vietnamese American political identity. I think in the last discussion we just had, it’s clear that the ghost of the war in our community, then there’s the hope that our community is going to grow beyond it, but that growth, in some ways it’s been said that that growth is impossible without a kind of reckoning. I think that’s the sort of theme of this second set of questions. In some senses, the traumas of the 20th century are foundational to Vietnamese diaspora community and political performance specifically. Furthermore, the oldest generation of those who were citizens of the Republic of Vietnam are by no means a model and that the community, but rather an intellectually, politically, socially and culturally diverse group.
John D. Phan: I think as is increasingly clear, that diversity is matched by sometimes radically different positions on race, culture, and power held by the 1.5 and second generations of Vietnamese American kids. So, the question is really as follows. What we can say is that an attraction to performance as a political will and strong man theatrics, whether staged as outsider intervention or party strength is particularly arresting, if it occurs within the Vietnamese American community, as these are elsewhere recognizes hallmarks of authoritarian regimes such as evidenced by Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. So given these facts, what appears to be an attraction to those very kinds of performances among parts of the community. How do each of you understand the origins and nature of the current political divisions among the Vietnamese American community, particularly the device that response to the insurrection and what explains that specifically Vietnamese American attraction, if there is such a thing, just strong man or authoritarian political performance. And finally, how does the culture of anti-communism within our community interact with his apparent attraction to authoritarianism? So I think we’ll start with Hoi this time.
Trinh Hoi: Thank you, John. Before I answer the questions, I just want to talk a bit about what Viet just said. I think that the Vietnamese American community’s memory, and then understanding of April 30th, isn’t just about the war, but it is directly related to the situation in Vietnam right now. Therefore, it’s not just about the past, but it’s also about the present and the future. I just want to make that point. I guess, before I talk about my perspective as a human rights activist and what I understand about the Vietnamese community around the world. Again, I want to go back to the makeup of the communities around the world first, right? As I said, at the start we have about 97 million Vietnamese in Vietnam and about four million overseas Vietnamese.
Trinh Hoi: Now around two million are in the US. However, there’s a difference between the Vietnamese community in Australia or in Canada, where there are approximately about 300,000 to 200, 350,000 Vietnamese in each country, most of them come from the boat people exodus, and therefore they pretty much have one common identity and therefore one common understanding of the war and the trauma they went through.
Trinh Hoi: The US, not just because of the size, but because of the makeup, the community is different. Number one, in 1975 within, I think two or three weeks before the fall of Saigon on April 30th, 140,000 Vietnamese were able to leave Vietnam and resettle in the US within a few weeks and a few months. That’s huge number. That was the biggest humanitarian undertaking by the US army at the time. So that particular group is large and because they left 46 years ago, they and their family members don’t have that many memories of Vietnam and what happened there-after, compare that group with the HO group. The US took in roughly 40,000 Vietnamese and their family members, and these people were in prison in Vietnam after the war, because of their involvement with the south Vietnamese army. Because of that, that particular group still holds very strong views on Vietnam, on anti-communism and on what the Vietnamese American community should be.
Trinh Hoi: Right. That view is very different from, what I call the boat people view, right? So, that’s a third group. And the fourth group that doesn’t exist in Europe, in Canada or Australia is the immigrant group. Under US immigration laws, brothers and sisters can sponsor each other, moms and dad can sponsor kids over, and then the kids can sponsor the kids over, right. And because of the family reunion program in the US and it’s quite generous, right? As a result, you have a fairly large number of Vietnamese in the who didn’t come here as refugees. They pretty much came here as immigrants, and therefore they don’t have that many political views or that strong of a political view that made them leave Vietnam in the first place, and because of the four distinctive groups in the US that are very different from the Vietnamese community group elsewhere, that’s why you tend to have all these views that are, that seems to be conflicted.
Trinh Hoi: But did you really look at the groups and how they were they given birth, then its understandable, the immigrant Vietnamese who came to the US 10 years ago, we probably don’t think that much of April 30th, because their entire life, they grew up in Vietnam and April 30th is a huge long weekend holiday for them, right? It’s liberation. What are you talking about? losing country?, unlike the ones that came out as former political prisoners in Vietnam, they suffered so much in Vietnam. The families are still being split and because of that, even though it seems like the divisiveness is really a lot in our community, it’s actually quite understandable given what happened in Vietnam, the past, and what’s still happening right now in Vietnam.
Trinh Hoi: The fact is Vietnam is still a one party state, right? The fact is that the difference and the divisiveness came not just between the Vietnamese communities, but also between human rights defenders, which include human rights defenders who do the work because of that universal human rights values that they hold as opposed to ideological understanding of it, or ideological values that they have. The last thing I wanted to say is that the divisiveness came also not just from the political differences, it’s not just Democrats versus Republicans and there is an element of that, but it’s also about our cultural differences, right? I just wanted to mention that when what happened at Capitol hill on January 6th, I wrote an article in Vietnamese for the BBC denouncing such an attack on democracy and I was criticized by a lot of my supporters for my human rights work in Vietnam.
Trinh Hoi: Why?, because to many of them, you don’t criticize government, right? Criticizing government is something that is frowned upon in our culture and I still remember distinctively how one, my dad’s friend, would write to me and said, “Hey, I am your dad’s friend and who are you to criticize someone who’s as old as your dad?” I mean, being Trump. And it struck me as something like, oh, wow, I’m so this is not about the political differences. It’s not about even democracy. This is about age, you’re not supposed to criticize the elderly. So if you understand the Vietnamese community and now cultural differences, then you understand why the divisiveness has to take place and like Viet said, “We hope that the second generation or the third generation of Vietnamese will continue to have this dialogue and this talk so that we can understand April 30th and what it means, better.” All right. So over to you.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’ll have to admit being very Americanized because one of the things I don’t understand about this idea that you’re not supposed to criticize your elders, how did the Vietnamese in Vietnam ever change anything? If you can’t criticize your elders, how was there a revolution? How was there a civil war when people were afraid of criticizing the older people who they disagreed with politically. Anyway, someone’s got to explain that to me at some point, but I’ll start off with a little, I mean, thanks to Hoi for all these, the nuanced conversation about the differences within the vast diasporic community. I’ll just add my own little anecdote about this around the war and memory, which is that you’re all probably aware that the flag is a controversial issue. Is the yellow flag with a red flag, the right flag to fly on certain occasions, et cetera.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: At my university, University of Southern California, I didn’t even pay any attention to this, but in our international hall, the flag that represents Vietnam is the red flag and I became aware of this about 10 years ago, when an Orange County, Vietnamese American activists came to campus and stapled the yellow flag over the red flag and so then I thought compelled along with my colleague, Janet Hoskins, to organize an event to talk about this and we brought together the Vietnamese students, and they came in two groups. One was the Vietnamese student association, composed of Vietnamese Americans and one was the Vietnamese international student association composed of international students from Vietnam. And it was really interesting to hear their conversation because the Vietnamese international students said, “We understand your pain. We understand your trauma. We want to reconcile with you” and the Vietnamese American students said, “we don’t want to reconcile with you. We respect our parents and our elders and everything they’ve been through and we can’t let go of this past and what they’ve been through and that emotional trauma”, and the way I interpreted that was that for the Vietnamese international students, and I’m just homogenizing their background, they came from the victorious society.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So in some ways, it’s a little bit easier if you won the war or won something to extend the hand of magnanimity and reconciliation. Whereas for a lot of Vietnamese Americans, I think some of them are still focused on this past and on the question of loss. So, one thing I want to point out in addition on this question of diversity, when we look at the Vietnamese American community, oftentimes we think of it as being totally, anticommunist totally conservative and so on, but it’s always been politically diverse.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I mean, since Vietnamese people started to come here in the 1950s and the 1960s as students and as military trainees and the like, there have been political factions. So in the 1960s, during the height of the war in Vietnam, there was a pro war, pro government part of the Vietnamese international student population and there was an antiwar anti-government part of the Vietnamese student population, but that political diversity was completely overridden after 1975 with the arrival of mass numbers of anticommunist Vietnamese refugees and that really set the political tone for the community for the next few decades. I think there was always political diversity beneath that, but people who might be described as being left of center liberal, progressive in some way, learned very quickly to be silent about their attitudes. At least when it came to the question of Vietnam. They could be political and speak out about other issues, not related to the war in a progressive way, but not about the war in Vietnam.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think that pretty much defined the public tenor of the community when it came to these questions of communism, Vietnam, human rights and so on. But I think something did change in the previous presidential administration because the general divisiveness that pervaded all of American society and culture and politics affected the Vietnamese American community as well. And so the general political divisions that all Vietnamese Americans felt one way or another, whether they were Democrats or Republicans also attached itself to all the various questions that we’re talking about today, around the war and communism, and how to deal with these things. The thing that came up in the last few years is more and more younger, Vietnamese Americans, more and more liberal to left Vietnamese Americans have been willing to speak up and they’ve found themselves sometimes in conflict with an older generation or with a pro-Trump or a deeply anticommunist population and I’m really generalizing because it’s not simply that all older Vietnamese are pro-Trump or anticommunist. I think there are liberals and leftists in that population.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: And it’s not as if all younger Vietnamese Americans are liberals or leftists or Democrats, there are obviously anti-communist and pro Trump supporters there as well, but that’s the tendency in these two generational directions. So I think it’s a real challenge for the Vietnamese American community and what I’ve seen is that the generational differences make it more difficult to talk about the political and cultural differences. So younger Vietnamese Americans, many of them do feel a genuine sense of appreciation and respect for what an older generation has gone through and what it has experienced and what it has sacrificed for the younger generation, but they still feel the need to speak out, and it’s complicated to try and figure out how to make these two things possible at the same time to speak out and still be respectful. And for the older generation, I think from my perspective, it seems that there’s a tendency to dismiss the younger generation as being naive and inexperienced and that makes it very difficult to have a conversation across generations. I don’t have an answer for how to achieve that conversation, but that seems to be the dilemma that within the Vietnamese American community we’re facing, and now it’s onto [inaudible 00:46:00]
Lan Cao: Okay. So since 1995, I joined legal academia, and the issue that has animated, almost all of my scholarship is really on the issue of why are some countries poor and why are some countries rich and the legal infrastructure and system that may facilitate political economic development. And the term development is a very contested term in the literature, right? Some will just say development is simply increasing your GNP. Others would say you need that and political development. I think most people say development includes political development, not just economic nowadays, but the issue of sequencing is always a point of debate, which is, if you look at the countries that have moved up the economic ladder, claim is that they focus on economics first and then they follow through with political development. So the examples would be most of the east Asian countries, that’s the conventional standard in the literature.
Lan Cao: In recent years, there’s more of a sense that development should be understood holistically. One of the biggest proponent of that, and I’m from that school, is by my guest Sen, who is the Nobel Laureate in economics, and he talked about how democracy is extremely important simultaneously for economic development as well. So politics is not something to be in the background until economics can be launched. I think the issue of democracy is something that should unite all of us who are in the Vietnamese diaspora, because democracy is what we left everything to come too, right?. To have freedom. And I think a communist system, it’s not just authoritarian, but totalitarian and there’s a difference because it’s a little bit more hegemonic. So it was shocking for me to see the yellow flag in the position that it was seen, because I felt given my 40 plus years of study on rule of law and democracy, that you cannot have democracy through strong men tactics, right?
Lan Cao: It’s not like you can say the best way to protect democracy is to be authoritarian. The way to protect democracy is to be democratic. It’s also for Vietnamese Americans, okay. We came to America and the shining city on the hill, that mechanism is an American style of democracy. I think it’s important to understand what American style democracy is. It is not majority rule and it is not about monolithic strength. In fact, if you study the constitutional system, every single clause and structure of the constitution is designed to dis-aggregate power. So it is poignant for me and somewhat paradoxical to see a people that thirst for democracy and freedom, not understand that it’s really antithetical to strong men politics, right? Because you look at the American constitutional system, everything is about separation of powers in the federal system itself. So you’re talking about the executive, the legislative and the judiciary.
Lan Cao: There are separate [inaudible 00:50:00] four branches and power is not concentrated in any one of them in any one of the branch. On top of that, the American system is a federal system so that the federal government vis-a-vis the state government is also not ruling over the state. Now this can play out politically in different ways. And if you are Republican or Democrat, you may view federalism differently, but organically speaking, right? Federalism is about the federal government being a government of limited power with very specifically enumerated powers of the federal government can exercise jurisdiction over and anything that is not enumerated in the constitution, that is for the federal government is to be retained by the state and the people. Then even within the executive branch, you know, in, in the tug of war between the executive branch and the congressional branch, even in areas where there is overlap like immigration, or even in areas where there is not a lot of overlap, where the president is considered the commander in chief, even there is no unitary power.
Lan Cao: So if one yearns for freedom and democracy, it would seem to me that we should be really cognizant of the system that we are joining, which is a system that is very much designed to disperse power, and in fact, it can very well be stated that the way the system has been built you may have deadlocked, right? So the founders preferred that lock over unitary power, and that’s the way the system is supposed to work. Then you have the bill of rights, right? Which is that the individual have rights against the government, which means you can criticize the government and we leave everything to come to a system where we can criticize the government and that means [inaudible 00:52:03]
PART 2 OF 4 ENDS [00:52:04]
Lan Cao: Government, and that means, where does it say we can criticize the government? First amendment. Freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of religion. So, I think the idea that there can be no dissent that would create weakness is just not a democratic idea. On top of that, the American system is designed to be in many ways, anti majoritarian. So you may think that that is an oxymoron because you think of democracy as majority rule, but there are many strands within the constitution that are established in order to make sure that, even when you have a democratic government and a democratic legislature, enacting laws that are a reflection of majoritarian will, that that law can be struck down by non-democratically elected, article three judges so that they are not subject to the demagoguery of the majority. That’s why article three judges have tenure for life, so that they do not have to run for election and maybe [inaudible 00:53:16] to the majority will.
Lan Cao: And I think that’s very important for us, especially. I think it’s a great system, nonetheless, but for minorities, it is important that we have a system that is not purely [inaudible 00:53:30] majority, not that version of democracy, but a version of a democracy that has majority oriented inclinations, but also very, very robust protection for the minority.
Lan Cao: So to me, that understanding of democracy and of American constitutionalism is what I hope would be appealing to Vietnamese Americans, especially because we fled in order to come to this country. Whether or not, over history, it has had departures from that is a different issue, but in its structure, its aspiration is no strong man, no emperor, disperse power, protection for the minority against majority will. I understand the older generation maybe, as Viet says, I am painting a broad stroke here, there are exceptions. And I try to realize that, for those of us who have the luxury of having benefited from our parents’ sacrifice so that we can go and study these things, that we understand also that there’s a sense that we are where we are because we were weak. So, we need to be strong and to be strong means no dissent. But that to me is a very thin veneer understanding of strength, because the strength we’re talking about is a constitutional strength, which is what I think and I hope that we will all understand and work towards, to establish rule of law in our own community and in this country.
John D. Phan: Thank you so much. I have [crosstalk 00:55:24]. Oh, go ahead, [inaudible 00:55:24].
Lan Cao: Oh, sorry, to all three of you. We’re moving to our third segment and this is a great segue as I am watching and the chat basically blow up. We’ve gotten so many questions. I’m going to scrap what I had planned and tying together all of the comments made in the first two segments and then bringing in the genesis of how the five of us had conceived of this conversation today, in which, when we planned this, the current rise in anti-Asian violence had not yet come to its full scale. We were really reckoning and dealing with January 6th and the Insurrection and storming of the capital and Vietnamese American complicity in it. But with this rise in anti-Asian violence, the stakes are much higher. The rubber meets the road here.
Lan Cao: The question I have, and this ties together contested memory of April 30th of the war, the inability to communicate across generations. What did our heterogeneous, very diverse Vietnamese Americans do leading up to the election and on January 6th, the debates that we had, was there an argument, or could you make the argument that those who did attend were there on January 6th? Are they complicit it in basically the flourishing of white supremacy? Should they have seen that direct line from their actions to where we are now in this spring of hate? And if you add onto that particularly, and I’m pulling from your comments about being unable to speak to our elders, right now, our elders are the ones that are most vulnerable.
Lan Cao: If you look at the cases of anti-Asian violence and anti-Asian hate in general, it’s our elders we need to protect, but it’s also our elders who we cannot communicate with. There’s a silencing because we don’t understand the history. We have a different view of that history. We may or may not, but I’m wondering if we can bring the two threads that we had discussed in Segment One and Segment Two to bring the [inaudible 00:58:03] for Segment Three in terms of how do we understand our role as a community in the recent rise of anti-Asian hate?
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think I’m supposed to start off here, and let me just say that, I think there are two vastly different kinds of responses to one’s own personal tragedy, whether it’s the tragedy of the war in Vietnam, or whether it’s the tragedy of anti-Asian violence. One response is to say, again, we’re the victims, and to isolate our experience in that fashion, and unfortunately, I think that does characterize how a lot of people respond to tragedy. They focus on their own victimization. They don’t see the connections to a systemic problem.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The other response to anti-Asian violence is to say, yes, we are the victims of anti-Asian violence, and anti-Asian violence is not an accident in the country. It’s systematic to the country, and it’s systematic both in terms of how the United States has dealt with Asia and with Asian immigrants and Asian refugees, and how the United States deals with Asian immigrants and refugees and Asian Americans in relation to other populations in this country.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So, from my perspective, you cannot talk about anti-Asian hate in this country without looking at the long history of anti-Asian violence domestically in this country and its connection to the histories of American wars in Asia, which I think are acts of anti-Asian violence. When millions of Asians are dying because American foreign policy decisions, and because of the racist practices and attitudes of American policy planners, soldiers, and generals, and so on, that’s anti-Asian hatred, and it comes back to the United States and it circulates back out to how the United States conducts itself.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now, Vietnamese people, in particular, they come to this country as refugees or as immigrants, and they discover that there are at least two ways to accelerate their process of Americanization. One way is to shut the door behind them. So, this is how some Vietnamese refugees come here, are accepted, and then say, we are the good refugees. These new people, Muslims, or brown people are the bad refugees. Don’t let them in.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: That’s a deeply problematic response, but it’s not unique to Vietnamese people. Every immigrant and refugee group that comes to the United States, some of them have done the exact same thing. Once they get here, they shut the door behind them. So the Vietnamese are simply continuing in a very time-honored American tradition of shutting the door after they get in.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The other way that you can become Americanized very quickly is to participate in anti-black racism. That anti-black racism is fundamental to the United States and new immigrants who come here and discover that they are stigmatized for being the other, can deflect some of that experience by participating in othering others, namely black people. But it’s not just anti-black racism that’s fundamental to this country.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Of course, we have to talk about how this country has been built on genocide, slavery, colonization, and war. Every population of color in this country is subjected to its own particular form of racism and exploitation. And that’s a part of how this country has been built on two things, both the wonderful idealism that Lan talked about, about democracy and its possibilities, and on the brutality of genocide, slavery, colonization, and war that are wrapped up with white supremacy.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Now you have to accept that argument. If you don’t accept that argument, as I think a lot of Vietnamese refugees and immigrants would not accept that argument, then you don’t see the systemic connections. If you do accept that argument, then you see the necessity to locate a response against anti-Asian violence, in relationship to response to other forms of racist violence. That’s why you can’t separate anti-black violence from anti-Asian violence, because basically we all take our turn. Right now, it’s the Asian turn, but it would be a mistake to think that, somehow, what’s happening to us is separate from what’s happening to black people in this country. But if you don’t accept the white supremacy argument, then you do, in fact, see these things as being completely separate. You don’t see how it is that you, as an Asian person or as a Vietnamese person being subjected to violence, that you share something in common with a black person. And instead, then we have the devolution into anti-black feeling and anti-black racism within Vietnamese and Asian American communities.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think Lan is next.
Lan Cao: I think that most refugees, and especially Asian and maybe Vietnamese refugees and immigrants, return to the culture as a sanctuary to try to make it in America. So, for example, the culture in Confucianism has always respected education, and there’s a long history in Vietnamese history that says, even if you are a boy from a very, very poor village, in a hamlet somewhere in Vietnam, you can be part of the emperor’s court if you pass this amazingly difficult test that will make you a mandarin and a scholar. So there’s this long history that if you follow, like a certain recipe, and the main ingredient in this recipe is education, you can make it. And so, many of us take the ingredient in that recipe and apply it to, how are we going to make it in America? And education became a very, very important part.
Lan Cao: I think it became shocking for many who take that route and take it with blinders, thinking that this is my root, and I’m not seeing the broad context, to suddenly be faced with horrific anti-Asian violence. Not microaggression, that may be “where are you from?” And you say “New York” and they’re never happy with that? So those are the little things. But when you see your elders suddenly now being attacked, it is a shock because it’s like, well, we are the good refugees. We follow the rules. We play by the game. We are not threatening. And yet, why are we being attacked?
Lan Cao: I remember, I clerked after law school for Judge Constance Baker Motley, who is the first female African American judge, federal judge, appointed by President Johnson, and she was a lawyer for Martin Luther king. She worked in tandem with Thurgood Marshall, with the NAACP legal defense fund, and argued against Jim Crow laws in the U.S., argued 10 cases before the U.S. Supreme court and won nine. And my personal experience with her, she’s also an immigrant from Nevis, so we have that immigrant connection, was absolutely eye opening to me in a way that no book about African American history could ever open my eyes in the same way.
Lan Cao: I think that Viet is very right, that there’s a sense that when we assimilate, we are going to assimilate into the most obvious mainstream standard there is, using the recipe of education, and that means, we want to become as close to American whiteness as possible. And I’m not saying that people are doing this consciously, this could be a very unconscious process. And, in so doing, you tend to detach yourself from the background history of that country that is not about whiteness. And that means that you don’t really see your commonality with other ethnic minorities.
Lan Cao: Viet said, if you don’t buy that argument, then you’re not going to take the next step, but I don’t think you have to buy the argument. You can just say, “Hey, these are historical facts.” How you connect those historical facts together to come up with your theory, you can have a different theory, but it is a historical fact that there is slavery and there is a lot of anti-Asian immigrant laws. So, what do you say about those facts? You don’t even have to say that they add up to a systematic and structural system of white supremacy if some people don’t want to go there. You don’t need to. You just need to know that you can be very good and still suffer violence.
Lan Cao: So, it is important in many ways that those of us who have studied many layers of American history and not just the shiny glittery part that we are drawn to, and I understand why we would want to be drawn to it. It’s normal to want to be drawn to it, because it’s the way that you feel like you can be accepted, but if you did deeper and you just see these facts, these are not hidden facts. We don’t live in a communist system or an authoritarian system where there’s only one version of history. Google it, it’s all there, and you will see, “okay, these are the things that have happened.” There are commonalities between you and African Americans, and more importantly, to me, given our cultural background about debt.
Lan Cao: All the Vietnamese is about debt. Those are very, very strong, deeply seated Vietnamese attributes. All Vietnamese Americans and Asian Americans, when we entered this country in 75 and thereafter, owe a tremendous debt to the African American civil rights movement. You would not be going to integrated schools, but for the amazing fortitude and strength of the African American community. So pay your debt. It’s not a political statement. It’s a historical fact. Use your culture that is about debt repayment and understand that there are other people in this country that have suffered tremendously and you have benefited from their struggles. And I think, we need to take politics out of it.
Lan Cao: It is not Democrat, Republican, black, white, Asian, it’s just what’s right. And you will see that your suffering is very similar. It’s a similar struggle for inclusion and for fairness. And if you see it that way, and you see that you have been the victim of discrimination and it’s very painful, you do not want to replicate it. And I think that is very understandable to most of our elders who always teach us to pay debt, [foreign language 01:09:06], make good karma.
Lan Cao: So, I think the anti-Asian violence is very much tied to the sense that we are different, being shocked by anti-age violence. We’re different because we’ve played by the rule. We’re not threatening. We’re model, we’re silent, we’re passive, we integrate. It works up to a point, but at some point, it’s going to rupture, and I think the rupture can be shocking, but in moments of crisis, doors open, and I hope that both our elders and our younger generation can see how the door open for a very different kind of community that we can work with together and bridge the generational gap as well, relying on well-worn wisdom from our own elders about how to conduct ourselves as humans.
Trinh Hoi: Thank you, Lan. I am mindful of the time. So, I would just make two brief points before we open up the floor for questions and answers. I agree with you, Lan, and then also partly with Viet only, especially on the refugee issue and how you think that we would just shut the door once we in. I think that it is a bit more complicated than that, and number one, I’m speaking from the perspective of someone who didn’t grow up in the U.S., and therefore I, myself, couldn’t quite understand the strong sentiments attached to some of the issues in the U.S. until recently, such as gun control, healthcare, abortion, and then race.
Trinh Hoi: I never quite understood why the issue of race is so dominant here. I only just found out later that it’s not just because of the vast geopolitical differences between the 50 U.S. States, but it’s also because everything is so big here, and therefore, it can be so easily amplified. I’m not saying that there’s no racism in Australia, but because the Aboriginal people’s population in Australia is so small compare to the African American community here, therefore, their voice didn’t really matter. So, we didn’t really have that much of a discussion regarding race in Australia as compared to in the U.S.
Trinh Hoi: So, I think that it boils down to education, as well, because I think to a lot of Vietnamese Americans, they couldn’t see the racism on the surface. They felt like they came here and they were given a fair go, and then they benefited from that system, so why dismantle it? When we talk about racism these days, I think we talk about structural racism, about systematic racism, which then goes back to history, goes back to education. I feel like the more educated we are, the more we learn about a country’s history, say in the U.S., the more we would understand the underlying issues confronting the nation.
Trinh Hoi: Unfortunately, most Vietnamese Americans of the first generation don’t necessarily have the same education level like us, and therefore, they don’t know much about slavery. They don’t know much about how the African American community were even denied voting rights. So, I think that it’s about education. So, that’s the first point I want to make. The second point I want to make is that, for Vietnamese, at least in my experience over the past three decades of advocating for refugees from Vietnam, the Vietnamese community has always been supportive of my work, starting in Hong Kong in the nineties to the Philippines in the early 2000s, and then until the last chapter of the Vietnamese boat people that were [inaudible 01:13:16] only five years ago. Many of them were stuck there for nearly three decades, and it was the Vietnamese community that not only advocated for their resettlement, but also donated so much money. And I’m talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars being donated, donated to Voice to help with the resettlement process.
Trinh Hoi: So, I don’t think that the Vietnamese people, as a people, wanted to close the door, but here’s the new ones. Many of them feel that they’ve been lining up. So many Vietnamese refugees, even in Thailand these days, we line up. We line up to go to the state department, to go to Congress and beg for their understanding and let us in. So we follow the system. For many, they don’t understand why others can just come here and apply for refugee status. It is a right. It’s a legal rights for all asylum seekers to just go to the U.S. and apply for asylum. It’s a legal right. But not a lot of people know that. I mean, for many Vietnamese Americans, in fact, if not all Vietnamese Americans, they all went through the legal, proper channel, which means they would flee Vietnam, they go to a camp, and they would wait for a few months, for a few years, and then they wait for their turn. So they feel that it is a bit unfair in the sense that people can just come here and apply for asylum and then they get in. So, I think that it is those nuances, those differences in their own refugee experience as compared to other refugee experiences, and that’s why they feel that they not as welcoming as we would like them to be. So, on that note, I would like to give it back to either professor Nguyen or Phan.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think that point about education is important and the nuances that you’re talking about. And obviously, if we are wanting to mount up a political campaign, we have to address people where they are and talk about the issues that you raised, Hoi. But I’ll depart a little bit by saying that, of course the Vietnamese people gave money to helping Vietnamese refugees get in. So, when I say shut the door, we don’t want to shut the door on other Vietnamese people because we understand where they’re coming from. What we see there is an expression of empathy. We’re Vietnamese, they’re Vietnamese. We’ve got to help them out. As important as education is, and that might help empathy, there is a particular issue here around our capacity for empathy. Just because we’re ignorant about someone’s situation or someone’s history doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be empathetic about where they’re coming from and what they need. So that would be one place where I would depart.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Another issue is, in fact, there was an exception made for Southeast Asians in 1975 and afterwards for the so-called boat people generation and refugees from Laos and Cambodia, they were let in without having to wait, at least in those early years. So you’re talking about a slightly different situation where people did in fact have to wait for decades and so on. So, I think that for many Vietnamese people, perhaps they, like a lot of other Americans, don’t see that refugees, people who are coming to the south of the border, for example, and being characterized as illegal aliens or undocumented migrants, could also be seen as refugees fleeing from circumstances that the United States has had a direct impact on. And so, there’s a variety of different kinds of issues that are happening here.
John D. Phan: All right. Well, we have an enormous set of questions in the Q&A chat box, and I think there’s also, we have a stunning array of topics that have come up over the course of the past 60 minutes or so.
John D. Phan: What I’m going to do is, I’m going to pose a question that congeals a couple of the themes that we’ve seen in the chat box, first of all. So, for the most part, I’m going to reformulate a question from a student named Alexis. They’re one of my students and I’m going to privilege their question because it’s pretty excellent. So, what they ask is, in response to some of Lan’s points from the previous segment about constitutionality and the ideal of democracy, I think this intersects with the conversation that we just had. Alexis raises the issue of, what happens when refugees of any stripes, but particularly Vietnamese Americans, come to America and start to recognize that the practice of democracy in America, particularly because of systemic racism, there’s a disjunction. It doesn’t work that way. There are minorities that in fact are systemically-
PART 3 OF 4 ENDS [01:18:04]
John D. Phan: … it doesn’t work that way. There are minorities that in fact are systemically oppressed. Even if we are able to educate on the ideal of how U.S. style democracy is meant to work, there’s a distance between that and the way it is experienced, particularly by marginalized people in the U.S. So I guess what I’d like to ask you, it reminds me of Lan Cao’s statements because many in the audience reacted to Lan Cao’s concept of [foreign language 01:18:36] but you have to be a [foreign language 01:18:37] before you can [foreign language 01:18:38]. So in some ways, I think Lan, you started to speak a little bit about a way to have a dialogue about how to speak across the generational experience. But one of the things that really divides that generational experience is the reaction to a perception of how democracies actually practiced.
John D. Phan: Viet, mentioned many about hot button issues that are in fact the divisive ones, such as Black Lives Matter, such as the concept of law and order, such as, as we talked about earlier the response to former President Trump’s challenging of the election. So this is becoming long-winded, I’m going to cut myself short. But just to clarify can all of you think a little bit about, or comment a bit about beyond educating the ideal, how does the diverse feeding these community respond to the reality of marginalized experiences in the U.S.? Because the difference in that response seems to be part of the divisiveness. We don’t have an order first, but maybe I can invite Lan Cao. I don’t know if she’s frozen or not to begin the discussion because in many ways it was her comments that raised it. Lan I’m not sure if you’re frozen or not, you look a little frozen?
Lan Cao: John, you, we’re going in and out, so I only got some snippets. Can you hear me?
John D. Phan: Yes, please. Go ahead.
Lan Cao: I’m not sure if anybody can hear me. Okay. Well, I think the point that there is a discrepancy between the ideals and the reality, I think that’s just a state of life in any country and even in a person, right? I mean, if you look at your own life, you may have a certain set of aspiration for your own conduct, and sometimes you don’t yourself live up to your own moral compass for yourself.
Lan Cao: So I think just an issue of failure of a country and of human beings. Since countries are made up of human beings, no matter how great the laws are, there’s going to be that disconnect between the reality of how things really are on the ground and the aspirations. But at least in this country, I guess it’s because I’m a lawyer and I have a lot of faith in participating within the legal system. Maybe its incremental improvement, but I think that progressively we do get to the place that we want to be. I think you also asked something about the January 6th event again, right John? I’m not sure?
John D. Phan: That’s right. Let me also add part of Alexis’s question is pointed to the idea that, that mismatch that you’ve just described that is maybe part of what drives many different types of people to embrace things like outsider figures because there’s a loss of hope in the system in some senses. So I wonder if you can speak a bit about maybe that loss of faith in the system as a part of the experience of a being marginalized in the U.S. Is that an ingredient in what’s happening in the Vietnamese, American community? [crosstalk 01:22:30].
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Maybe I can jump in during this little pause here. If I understand the question correctly, I’ll answer it in my own way. Which is I’ve always felt a little bit out of place in the Vietnamese American community. So the fact that we’re witnessing dissension and disagreement within the Vietnamese American community doesn’t bother me so much. This idea that some people have that, “How do we bring the Vietnamese American community together?” Maybe we can’t. Maybe the only thing that unifies us is pho. Even then we like, “oh, Northern pho, Southern pho”, then we have another civil war over that issue. So there are some things that unifies and that are important, but I don’t know if we should be looking for political unity, the Vietnamese people in Vietnam, certainly didn’t agree with each other.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: For me one of the things about being Vietnamese, that’s obviously very important to a lot of us is this idea of familiality, piety, debt, and so on, kinship, all really important. We feel bound and close to each other by the cultural and personal, emotional heritages that we have. But I think that when it comes to politics, maybe we should leave some of that behind. There are reasons to organize as Vietnamese Americans, but then there are reasons to oppose other Vietnamese Americans we disagree with. On some very fundamental political issues around some of the things we’ve talked about today, I would rather choose my kinship. I would rather choose an affiliation with people who I agree with, but who don’t look like me, versus trying to agree with people who look like me but who we are never going to agree on certain kinds of issues. I think it’s perfectly fine to do that. That’s part of the political maturation process to feel that we don’t have to be together simply because we’re Vietnamese.
Trinh Hoi: Can I jump in right now?
John D. Phan: Yes.
Trinh Hoi: All right. That’s a good point to make Viet and it’s true. Sometimes I do struggle and ask myself why do we have to unite the community? But to many elders out there, they feel that we should, because the fight for them is still somehow to bring democracy to Vietnam. I think that if we talk about democracy and about the Vietnamese American community, I think there are three things that we should bear in mind. Number one, through my work as both a TV host and as a human rights activist, everywhere I go, whether Australia, Europe, I hear the elders blaming democracy for the loss of South Vietnam.
Trinh Hoi: They would say like, “Because we try to install democracy while we have a war, that’s why we lost because things were just out of hand.” So many in our community don’t necessarily share the same democratic ideas as us because they blame it for it. Number two, I think that even democracy for someone like me, I don’t necessarily think that democracy in the U.S. and the political system in the U.S. is the best system for democracy. I mean, coming from Australia where the Westminster system for me, and shows better democratic ideas to be practiced. I would even dare to say that it wouldn’t be possible to have Trumpism in Australia. It just would be impossible for such a leader to be elected in Australia, through the Westminster political system.
Trinh Hoi: So that’s the second thing I want to talk about is democracy, as a principle, may seem not so great to quite a few people outside of the U.S, given what happened in the U.S. The third thing is for many Vietnamese Americans, when they talk about democracy, it’s not democracy in the U.S., it’s democracy in Vietnam. So what they would say is “Why do we have all these differences? Why can’t we have one voice speak with one voice, so that the U.S. can somehow help Vietnam become a democracy? So those are the three points I wanted to mention over to you [Gi Lang 01:27:05].
Lien-Hang Nguyen: Actually, if I can jump in here just to add on that question and then give it over to Gi Lang. When I ask it, there’s a question in the chat, this is leaving aside Viet’s point about should we even come together? Maybe it’s good to disagree and to let many different opinions and perspectives flourish. One comment or one response could be that as mainstream Americans, non-Asian Americans and non-Vietnamese Americans put us together, one of the things that I really resisted in the run up to the election was to speak for this homogenous monolithic Vietnamese, American community, and how we vote. So that’s in a sense that that people are going to make some of us spokes people for it. You are a very good example, Viet you’ve had to do that.
Lien-Hang Nguyen: But the question that a lot of the audiences asked is about fake news. So this seems to be a major obstacle for us to reach the various generations in our community. What is your response to battling this phenomenon that I think, while it is not unique to the Vietnamese American community, given the unique role that Vietnam plays in the generation of fake news, its impact in terms of in the Vietnamese American audience, and our inability to form bridges and connections and networks outside of our community is I think something that is actually unique to Vietnamese Americans. So if I could turn it over to Lan first to talk about the impact of fake news?
Lan Cao: Well it’s inevitable that news, just like any other entity is going to have a certain bias, whether it be subconscious or not. But that is very different from fake news. Okay. I think that the term fake news may have some emotional resonance to some elders in the Vietnamese American community, because… Let me backtrack a little bit before I follow through that thread. There’s a lot of problems with news that is indeed fake, that is as part of a propaganda that is being used by subgroups in the U.S. and by foreign groups outside of the U.S. to influence what’s happening. I think that’s been pretty much established. So I want to say that I’m not talking about that kind of fake news, right?
Lan Cao: So if you encounter that on your Facebook or on the internet, when you’re just Googling, and if you check and see that it’s not picked up by any other legitimate sort of mainstream channel… And there’s a diverse group of them, The Economist Time, Newsweek, even all the mainstream one, then you could look at that and say, “I need some backup before I just go around and repost that.”
Lan Cao: But setting that type of fake news aside where some person just in the shadow of some corner is just posting something on social media. The press may be bias just like anybody else is biased, but that’s not the same as fake news. As I mentioned, when I spoke about rule of law and democracy, democracy is liberal democracy. When I say liberal democracy, I’m not talking about liberal Democratic or Republican, but I’m talking about a kind of John Stuart Mills kind of liberal democracy.
Lan Cao: It is not about monolithic voice, so you need a press and it is the first amendment in the U.S. The reason why the fake news may have resonance to the elders in the Vietnamese community is that there’s a sense, right? That the American press was against South Vietnam, or was being used by the communist side and was being leveraged and manipulated. I think that is very much something that can be legitimately discussed, right? So for example, how the Tet Offensive was presented by the American press, to the American public, we can debate that, but that’s not the same as fake news.
Lan Cao: So with respect to [inaudible 01:31:52] that CNN is fake news, the New York Times is fake news, everybody is fake news, except the people that you agree with. I think that is a very big disservice to liberal democracy system of the U.S., is designed to take that into account. Because the first amendment does not allow the government to abridge any news or any information that it doesn’t approve of. In fact whether you agree with this or not, the first amendment of the U.S. as [inaudible 01:32:35] Supreme Court does not consider that there many Western European countries categorize hate speech, like Germany, and does not allow it, especially if it relates to the Holocaust, but that’s not the position taken in the U.S. So there is a great reverence in the U.S. to… Again this is aspirational and I am mindful of John’s student who talk about the discrepancy between how things are supposed to function, versus how it is in reality.
Lan Cao: But in the U.S., there is free speech, free press, and there’s a belief in marketplace of ideas so that even odius ideas can be put there on the table, not suppressed, even hateful speech, even hate speech. And that there will be a marketplace of competition of ideas. Then of course, you can talk about what, whether or not the powerful has greater voice, but that’s a different issue. So I am very much against the notion that everything you disagree with is fake news, because if you are interested in a liberal democracy, you can’t sweep everything away as fake news. I think it’s a very catchy term, unfortunately,
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’ll just jump in here then, I’ll just add one more thing. Which is, I think in the generalize, again, there is a linguistic difference along with the generational difference. So that older Vietnamese people tend to speak Vietnamese and younger Vietnamese Americans tend to speak English. Obviously, they’re younger Vietnamese Americans who speak Vietnamese and older Vietnamese speak English, but generally that’s what’s happened. What’s happened over the last 40 years or so is that we’ve developed two different kinds of media worlds in the Vietnamese American community, one based in Vietnamese and one based in English. I’ve chosen the English route for better and for worse. What that means is even when we talk about literature and the importance of Vietnamese American literature, to telling our stories and all of that, there’s a big difference between the kinds of stories that Vietnamese American writers tell in English and what they tell in Vietnamese. That there’s a whole separate world of Vietnamese, literary publishing and news, and all of that going on. So really regrettable divide in the community.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: The creation of a Vietnamese line, which media has been absolutely important to the development of a Vietnamese American community here, because it’s allowed Vietnamese Americans who speak Vietnamese only to obviously tell their own stories, report their own news, because they’re neglected by English language media. The new challenge for us now, I think is obviously the development of a bilingual Vietnamese-American culture. It’s kind of hard to do because I look at people like Lien-Hang, and John, you guys are totally fluent in Vietnamese, you’re bilingual. But your work is oriented, so far towards Vietnam. That also reflects these divisions as well within scholarship. Some Vietnamese Americans have done English language work based on the United States and some have done Vietnamese language work, but it’s usually about Vietnam.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: So I think our challenge, one of the ways by which we fight against fake news is to develop bilingual methods of speaking to each other. Some of that work is already taking place with PIVOT the Progressive Vietnam Network and with their organization, Viet Fact Check, and The Interpreter. There are younger Vietnamese Americans out there who are bilingual, who are trying to do this. But what I would say is that it’s beholden on all of us to give money, to support these organizations to start these kinds of institutions that can actually lead to a bilingual Vietnamese American media and community.
Trinh Hoi: Thank Viet. I just want to add to what Viet just said. That’s what each of us is doing right now. I know that John and Hang are helping us by having this talk, being translated into Vietnamese with Vietnamese subtitle. I, myself am hoping to do an hour long special report on this talk for [Vietface TV 01:36:41] where I’m working at the moment. That is each of us, it’s our own attempt to bring this dialogue to the community. But in respect of fake news I think that apart from the language barrier, what we should also notice is that even with Twitter and other social media platforms. It took them quite a while to then tag whether a particular website is government being media, or in independent media, that’s only a recent phenomena.
Trinh Hoi: For Vietnamese, it doesn’t even exist because many Vietnamese Americans don’t speak English, they have to rely on Vietnamese speaking hosts, right? The Vietnamese speaking hosts, knowing the sentiments of their audience usually will say things that will jive their audience. That’s number one. Number two, numerous studies have shown that the more controversial your comments are, or the more controversial the issue becomes the better the view ship, right? For all these YouTubers or Vietnamese hosts want to be, they want to earn as much money as possible on YouTube, right? They want to have as many clicks as possible, so it is in that interest to talk about fake news and to really make the issue sound so ridiculous, but it’s not because they really care about the issues, it’s just because they want to make more money. So I think that if we bear that in mind and with each of us attempt to correct that path, I think there is hope for in the future. Yep.
John D. Phan: All right. We are already past the official end of the event. I just wanted to acknowledge that there are an enormous number of really interesting questions and topics that we did not get to questions, including a couple audience members raised the issue of the dynamic relationship with Vietnam, for example. I think Hoi and Viet both talked to the diversity of the Vietnamese American community but the question was, how does that have to interact with a changing Vietnam, particularly after [inaudible 01:39:10], something we didn’t quite get to. We had several second generation and third generation students also pose the direct question, quite movingly of how specifically to speak to the older generation, along the lines of the last topic we’ve just mentioned. So I just wanted to say, first of all, that I think particularly Viet’s description of the diversity of the Vietnamese community… I’m sorry, Hoi’s description of that.
John D. Phan: Then to Viet’s point that we need not necessarily all be homogenous. In fact, one of the major I think, outcomes at this meeting has been to state the diversity of the Vietnamese American community to great effect, I think that’s great. But I just wanted to say that in some senses, being a member of a community is a kind of excuse to exercise and cultivate the empathy that we had also mentioned. I think Lan Cao’s comments about debt, and about finding a language cultural language to expand, and to engage in dialogue, is another great sort of outcome of this conversation over the past hour or so. So we apologize to all of the attendees for not lodging all of your questions, but I’m going to turn now over to Hang to end our event.
Lien-Hang Nguyen: I’m just going to end it by saying thank you. I think I saw somewhere in the chat about 30 minutes ago, that I think we can declare April 30th, 2021 as a victory here from Columbia, because we have shown the full diversity and strength of the Vietnamese American community. The second thing is, I think we started a conversation. This has to be the start. We will address these questions that you have. Possibly after the pandemic, we can bring Hoi, Lang, and Viet to New York City and have a zoom element, but have them here in person and we’ll continue this conversation. In response to those of you who’ve asked if we’ve recorded this? This is a recording. As we stated at the start, that [Vin 01:41:14] will do Vietnamese subtitles for those of you who would prefer to read what we’ve said in Vietnamese. So with that, thank you so much for everyone who’s tuned in today. That’s it. Thank you so much.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: I want to say thank you again to Lien-Hang [crosstalk 01:41:32] and John for organizing this and Weatherhead East Asian Institute for hosting us. Also, to Hoi and Lan, and I just really love this conversation. We’re all in Southern California. So you can also do it here at USC, not just Columbia as well when the pandemic is over.
Trinh Hoi: Yeah. I like that suggestion Viet. I also want to say, thank you-
Lan Cao: [crosstalk 01:41:50] New Yorker [crosstalk 01:41:53] here.
Trinh Hoi: I also want to say, thank you so much for-
Lan Cao: Mohammed can come to the mountain.
Trinh Hoi: Yeah. Thank you so much for attending this event. The audience out there, I couldn’t quite see you guys… Thank you to the organizers. Finally, one bucket list of mine is crossed and I’m so happy because I’m sure my dad and mom would be so proud. I’ve been surrounded by four professors, they would never dream that I would be able to do that, but I’ve done it. Thank you.
John D. Phan: Thank you so much. We’re coming to California. So get ready.
Trinh Hoi: Yay. Bye.
Viet Thanh Nguyen: Bye all.
John D. Phan: [crosstalk 01:42:30] Take care everybody.
Lien-Hang Nguyen: Bye.