The Vietnamese with Kenneth Nguyen | Podcast with Viet Thanh Nguyen

Kenneth Nguyen is in conversation with Pulitzer Prize Winner and Novelist to discuss what it means to be Vietnamese with The Vietnamese.

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Viet Nguyen:
Hi. I’m Viet Thanh Nguyen. I am a professor at USC, a scholar, and a writer, mostly known as a novelist, but also non-fiction writer as well.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Welcome to The Vietnamese. I’m your host, Kenneth Nguyen. Being part of a culture of nearly a hundred million Vietnamese people in the world today comes with a lot of pain, proud history, and privilege. Join me as I highlight and explore the Vietnamese experience from all over the world.

Kenneth Nguyen:
When you began teaching at USC, I was on my way out. I think we overlapped for one year and throughout those years, we’ve run into each other. I’ve run into you at a different book signing events or at the mall even. I never really had a chance to tell you how much I appreciate the work that you do, because when I was growing up, we didn’t have voices to turn to.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Young men like me, we were constantly looking for heroes that we could turn to, to make sense of the chaos that we went through here in the US after our parents re settled here. I want to thank you for the work that you’ve done, and I’ve never been able to tell you that. Thank you so much. It’s changed a lot for men like me.

Viet Nguyen:
Well, I mean, you were nice, Ken. You didn’t mention that we also saw each other at parties as well. It wasn’t all just like high minded stuff, but when you showed up at USC, it was with your brother as well, Tom. It was very clear that you guys were Marines or at least with you. I was like, “Oh, wow, this is interesting. These are Vietnamese American veterans.”

Viet Nguyen:
Given my experience with Vietnamese veterans, I wasn’t quite sure what to make out of the two of you, but you both became creatives and artists in your own right and have been a part of this slightly younger generation who have done their best to look past some of the issues of the past, the war and all the divisions between Vietnamese people to try, to create Vietnamese communities and also to return to Vietnam and to build these ties of commerce and art. I feel, like if I played a small part in that, then that makes me feel great.

Kenneth Nguyen:
You played a huge part in inspiring a lot of us to continue when things get hard along our journey. We look up to that and we actually have discussions about it constantly in our groups. What does being Vietnamese mean to you? How has it changed or has it even changed for you throughout the years?

Viet Nguyen:
Well, I grew up in the United States. I came when I was four. I grew up in a very Vietnamese household. It was my parents, my brother, and me. My parents told me all the time that I was 100% Vietnamese and sent me to Vietnamese language school on Sundays. We went to Vietnamese mass. I grew up in a Vietnamese refugee community.

Viet Nguyen:
Part of me was very Vietnamese and still is, in the sense that I feel a great attachment to Vietnamese people, Vietnamese culture, and so on. I think it was partly due to the fact that I was also born in Vietnam and spent the first four years of my life there. Even though I don’t remember Vietnam, the fact that all that happened and that I grew up in this Vietnamese community and language have been very important.

Viet Nguyen:
Now, at the same time, when I was growing up in San Jose, California in the 1970s and 1980s, and then when I went to school at the University of California, what was also very clear to me was that I was also quite American at the same time. I was fluent in English. I was an English major and my Vietnamese was not that great. When I came to the United States, I was fluent in Vietnamese at a four-year-old level and I’ve stayed fluent in Vietnamese at a four-year-old level.

Viet Nguyen:
In the ’70s and ’80s, almost every Vietnamese-American that I knew of my age was actually pretty good in Vietnamese. They grew up in Vietnamese households where there were a lot of relatives and so on. They all knew at least some Vietnamese. I think they saw on me as an American or as a whitewash or a banana, whatever you want to call it.

Viet Nguyen:
I look around now at the current generation of kids in their teens and 20s, and I feel like I was ahead of my time by about 20 or 30 years because none of these kids speak Vietnamese or speak very little Vietnamese and they all have American names and all that kind of thing, but I was ahead of my time, okay?

Viet Nguyen:
What that made me think about was exactly this question that you asked, what is Vietnamese and how do you define authenticity and everything? I had parents saying I was 100% Vietnamese. Then, in the 1990s, as soon as the United States ended its embargo of Vietnam, my parents went back twice and then after the second time, they came back over Thanksgiving dinner. My father said to me, “We’re Americans now.”

Kenneth Nguyen:
Wow.

Viet Nguyen:
Even just 20 years after the end of the war in their return, they discovered that they themselves had changed and maybe the country itself had changed. I think that for a lot of Vietnamese people who come to the United States, they hang on to these notions of authenticity of being Vietnamese and it’s very important to them for obvious reasons, right?

Viet Nguyen:
Then, they need people who are not Vietnamese to define themselves against, their kids, their grandkids or people like me. I was one of those people who was not Vietnamese in their eyes. Yet, I felt that I was Vietnamese of some kind another. I learned to distrust from an early age of the question that you’re asking, because it leads people to define Vietnamese-ness in one way or another and to define other people as not being Vietnamese enough.

Viet Nguyen:
Of course, that can be because of culture or language or politics. I think it’s all just very dangerous once we get into this question. I think, for me, anybody who has Vietnamese ancestry is Vietnamese. We each make being Vietnamese our own thing. When we’re in exile or in the diaspora or whatever we want to call it, when we’re outside of Vietnam, the attachment to being Vietnamese and defining it in a particular way, takes on added urgency because we don’t want to lose our culture, our heritage or whatever, but then we create others and that’s dangerous.

Viet Nguyen:
Then, when you go to Vietnam, I think the, I don’t know if the Vietnamese go around spending all their time thinking how do you define being Vietnamese? I think in Vietnam, it’s like in the United States, Americans don’t go around, most of the time, thinking how are we Americans? I mean, it comes up obviously sometimes. When it comes to casting people out, now in the United States, it was like, “Oh, these people are Americans, these people are not Americans” and that’s bad. That’s dangerous. Most of the time, Americans, whatever they do is being American.

Viet Nguyen:
You go to Vietnam and there’s so many different ways of being Vietnamese. You could be Vietnamese, you could be poor in a village, and never gotten on an airplane or you could be Vietnamese in a city and drive a Lamborghini. How’s that being Vietnamese? I don’t get it, but that is being Vietnamese.

Viet Nguyen:
Being Vietnam is just like being American. It’s like a thousand different ways of doing that. Why do we, as Vietnamese refugees or Vietnamese Americans, feel the need to ask that question? I want to ask the question of your question, because I think it is very logical and for people to want an attachment and to want to define their culture, but people have to really think about how that’s also really dangerous when we get into defining who is or isn’t a part of something, who is inside and who is outside.

Viet Nguyen:
It can be very innocuous, obviously, because we make jokes about it all the time. Tell me where the best pho restaurant is. Don’t tell me where the white people eat their pho, right? Then, the bad part is, we cast people outside of our community and that can be really, really dangerous. Ask the question, it’s a good one, but also be aware of the implications of it.

Kenneth Nguyen:
In the beginning, setting out to ask that question, we realized that there’s so many similarities to other diasporas, other exodus stories. There’s a body of words that describe what once was a very unique experience right after the war. That’s sort of like the impetus of the question for me.

Viet Nguyen:
Let’s draw a distinction between being Vietnamese in the diaspora and being Vietnamese in Vietnam. If we were Vietnamese in Vietnam, we would be the majority, right? Vietnam is a diverse country. There’s lots of different ethnicities and so on, but I’m Vietnamese. I think you are too, right?

Kenneth Nguyen:
Yes.

Viet Nguyen:
Which means that in Vietnam, we would be the equivalent of the white people in the United States. We would be the majority, right? Therefore, we wouldn’t generally go around asking the question, what does it mean to be Vietnamese because we’re like, “We’re Vietnamese. We’re the ones in charge.” Well, we never would question it just like white people here until times of crisis, wouldn’t question their whiteness or their American-ness or anything like that.

Viet Nguyen:
It’s only that we’re in, it’s only during times of crisis of national identity, whether it’s in Vietnam or in the United States, that the people or the majority start to ask this question, what does it mean to be Vietnamese? What does it mean to be American? But we in the diaspora are in the minority.

Viet Nguyen:
Therefore, when we’re in the minority, the question that you put, the issue, the solution that you post, we’re all human is a solution to a problem. The problem is that when you’re in the minority, the majority sees you oftentimes as not being human or not being fully human.

Viet Nguyen:
When you are of the majority, you assume your humanity. You take it for granted and therefore your identity is not in crisis, which means that you could, when we say that we’re Vietnamese as a majority, we implicitly understand that being a Vietnamese of a majority can be incredibly diverse. You could be a saint or you could be a serial killer, but it doesn’t reflect on being Vietnamese. That’s just a part of your humanity.

Viet Nguyen:
In the diaspora as a minority, being a saint or a serial killer takes on huge weight because you represent the diaspora to the rest of the country, to the majority. That is the crisis. I really want us to reject the crisis because if we go around thinking my humanity is in question, we’re already admitting to our inferiority from the majority, right?

Viet Nguyen:
The first step we have to take in answering your first question is we have to assert that we should not be in crisis because of our identity. We should not feel that our humanity is in question. The most defiant thing we can do is to assert our humanity, but, and this is very important, by asserting our humanity, we shouldn’t idealize being Vietnamese.

Viet Nguyen:
I think for a lot of Vietnamese people in the diaspora or any so-called minority, that is what they do. They say, we’re human and then they idealize it, which is the answer to your question. When you say, what does it mean to be Vietnamese, a lot of Vietnamese people or other people have so-called minority backgrounds would go into some kind of idealized response. I love my parents. I love pho, all this kind of stuff.

Viet Nguyen:
Well, all that is true, but there are a lot of Vietnamese people who do bad things as well, right? We should embrace that. We shouldn’t reject them and say those people are not authentically Vietnamese or they don’t represent us or anything, because in Vietnam we wouldn’t raise that issue. We’re saints and we’re serial killers and we’re everything in between.

Viet Nguyen:
If we’re in the diaspora, we should embrace the broad spectrum of our humanity, not just the idealized part, the good part, but everything; the good, the bad, everything in between. I think for a lot of people of the diasporas, it’s hard to do that because they know that their humanity is under question. Then, they just want to assert their humanity. I’m just very, I just think it’s so crucial for us to acknowledge that our humanity is very complex. If we can embrace that, then we can embrace everything about us.

Kenneth Nguyen:
To jump and to scale that fence of believing, is a very difficult thing for somebody like me, right? That time period and I talked to a lot of my friends that are from 40 to about 55 who grew up in the ’70s in the United States, ’70s, ’80s. ’90s, the emasculation. We were dehumanized in media. We were all of these things that happened, and listening to you, I understand what you’re saying, but to go through American society and to believe it and to have the courage and the intestinal fortitude to say, “You know what, I’m going to stand up and be part of,” and be not other than myself is a difficult thing.

Viet Nguyen:
It is difficult, I think. I’ve struggled with it too, but I grew up again, in this Vietnamese refugee community and looking around, I thought we are actually very complex. If we say we’re Vietnamese, what does that mean? Again, it’s not just about singing the National Anthem, we’re speaking the language or knowing our customs and all that kind of good stuff.

Viet Nguyen:
I grew up in a community where I looked down and I said, “Hey, they’re gangsters here. They’re welfare cheats. There’s abusive husbands. There’s fathers who left their families.” All this kind of stuff. Vietnamese people are embarrassed about it. We shouldn’t talk about this kind of stuff outside of the community, because we don’t want to draw attention to the bad things that we’re doing, but the bad things that the Vietnamese people did that I knew growing up, they’re no different than the bad things that the rest of the United States was doing.

Viet Nguyen:
All the stuff that I just mentioned, a lot of other Americans were doing it too. Why cover it up? Why pretend it doesn’t exist? In fact, that’s why I insist that being to talk about us in our full complexity of the good and the bad is so crucial. I know what you’re saying, the defensiveness, saying, “Oh, look at,” if we’re just talking about Vietnamese men, the emasculation, the fact that we’ve been dehumanized through racist caricatures and stereotypes and movies and whatnot, and how that might impact how we personally behave with other people.

Viet Nguyen:
I understand the emotional and psychological damages that that does, and maybe I was lucky. Maybe I grew up not feeling that quite as intensely as other Vietnamese men or Vietnamese-American men did.

Siri:
I didn’t get that. Could you try again?

Viet Nguyen:
Was that my phone or your phone? I’m not sure. Oh.

Kenneth Nguyen:
It’s your phone.

Viet Nguyen:
All of a sudden, Siri is-

Siri:
I’m not sure I understand.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Siri doesn’t understand our conversation.

Viet Nguyen:
[crosstalk 00:14:23]. That was a Karen. Oh my God.

Kenneth Nguyen:
We’re going to have to keep this in the episode. It’s so funny. This has never happened before. I was talking to Mai Elliot last week and she said, when she got here at 19, went to Georgetown, she missed that bullet. My brother doesn’t have it either. I think the problem is when you’re born here, something psychological is like, “Okay, well I’m American,” and you grow up and you’re like, “Wait a minute. That’s not how America accepts you or receives you.”

Kenneth Nguyen:
There is a, for you or for Tom being born in Vietnam, it’s like, “Well, fuck it. I was born in Vietnam.” There’s this weird dynamic that happens to somebody who like this early in 1975 in November, for me, being born in Fort Indiantown Gap, it’s where you’re from, where you stayed and-

Viet Nguyen:
Wait, wait, wait, November you said, in Fort Indiantown Gap?

Kenneth Nguyen:
November 28, 1975, Fort Indian, I was born right outside the Chambersburg.

Viet Nguyen:
Okay. Okay. I’m going to go back [crosstalk 00:15:38]…

Kenneth Nguyen:
Yes.

Viet Nguyen:
… actually a couple weeks.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Yes. I saw your post on that.

Viet Nguyen:
[crosstalk 00:15:42] for the first time.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Yeah, yeah. I went back when I was… Say again?

Viet Nguyen:
I could have been there watching your birth.

Kenneth Nguyen:
I went back at 21 to thank the sponsors because my parents just took off and never said thank you or anything. When I was my last year in the Marine Corps, I still had the haircut, I was still fit and went back in my dress blues to thank the family that sponsored us in.

Viet Nguyen:
See, my impression of you is that you are a patriot, because then I must have seen you like a year or two after that, or a couple years after that maybe, and I thought, “Oh, here’s this very fit, macho fellow and still wearing,” as a matter of fact, I saw you at a party once wearing your marine jacket, I believe. I thought, “Wow, we’re very, very different,” because I never felt the need to prove, I don’t know what your motivation was, but my [crosstalk 00:16:38]…

Kenneth Nguyen:
To prove, for sure. It was to-

Viet Nguyen:
… American or whatever.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Definitely to prove it. I think the shame of not being white for me, was heavy. It was heavier than Tom’s by a lot. I think that’s what drives this work that I do. It’s a never ending source for me because I just need to prove that [foreign language 00:17:03] we’re worth something in the world.

Kenneth Nguyen:
It’s a funny question because when I ask people in Vietnam, what does it mean to be Vietnamese, they look at me like I’m from another planet there. What do you mean? What do you mean, what does it mean to be Vietnamese? In my naive mind all the time, I’m thinking, well, aren’t we Vietnamese against the Koreans, not against, but put up against the Koreans or some other dominant culture like Vietnam, I mean the US, and they all had this blank stare and it’s wonderful because they explain it to me.

Viet Nguyen:
Well, when I go back to Vietnam, oftentimes how I know I’m Vietnamese is when people grab me and say, “You’re Vietnamese.” I mean, this happens actually more in North Vietnam than the Southern part, because I think in the Southern part, they’re used to [inaudible 00:17:51] who come back, but my experience in Hanoi and places like that in the north, at least when I went back, the last time I was back was in 2014, when they discover I’m Vietnamese, they’ll be like, it’s like a lot of, “Wow, welcome back.” We’re all Vietnamese together.

Viet Nguyen:
There is that sense when they [inaudible 00:18:10], but for you, maybe it’s different, and I think also because when I go back in the north, they don’t think I’m Vietnamese initially when they see me. When they hear me speak Vietnamese, they’re like, “Oh my God. Your Vietnamese is so good for a Korean.” Then, [inaudible 00:18:26], “I’m actually Vietnamese.” They’re like, “Oh welcome back brother.” That’s actually very heartwarming in some ways to be welcomed back.

Viet Nguyen:
In Vietnamese-America, I’ve often encountered that. I think one of the great things about being Vietnamese-American when I was growing up and in my 20s and so on, is the fact that there was a lot of hospitality when people welcome you into their house or their cultural circle of whatever kind, it was very much about being Vietnamese. Here we are together in this household for whatever reason, welcome into my house. Let’s eat some Vietnamese food. Let’s speak some Vietnamese and all that kind of thing.

Viet Nguyen:
That’s how I knew I was Vietnamese, establishing these cultural bonds in the context of being a minority in the United States or in Vietnam in the context of being an overseas Vietnamese being welcomed back to the origins, right? Very heartwarming, but I’m very distrustful of it because all of that stuff being wrapped up in the bosom of your culture always has an inverse, which is we’re going to kill you, if you’re dating us or you’re an outsider or whatever.

Viet Nguyen:
You can’t take one without the other so far as I have experienced and maybe in some ideal world, we could have the, let’s all be Vietnamese together and not kill other people, but so far, I haven’t seen that in history.

Kenneth Nguyen:
No, I think, yeah, it comes with so much drama and so much baggage that we experience as any culture, I guess, as the ins and the outs of it all.

Viet Nguyen:
Yeah. We’re not unique. Every culture does it. Americans very much do that as well.

Kenneth Nguyen:
I want to go a little bit a less heavier topic, which is drinking. I got into mindless drinking when I was in the Marine Corps and a teenager, mindless drinking, but in the last maybe decade, I’ve slowed down a little bit and it’s maybe the economy and the efficiency of, well, I can only drink a little bit because of health reasons. If I’m going to drink, I’m going to make it count. Because of, I’m going to drink and I’m not going to stop it and I want to make a count, I become a little bit more mindful of what I’m drinking.

Kenneth Nguyen:
I know that the culture of alcohol matters. If I was to ask you, your son Ellison, if he was of age, what kind of program, how would you get him started along the alcohol program that you know in your life?

Viet Nguyen:
When I was growing up, my father would have one beer every night, a can of Coors. I was always kind of curious about it. He’s a hardworking man. This is like his one reward in the day. One night when parents went out for whatever reason, and I can’t remember how old I was, maybe I was 12 or something, 12, 14, I thought, “Oh, I’m going to drink that course can.” I said, “He’s not going to miss it.” They’re from the fridge, right. I opened the can and I took a sip. I was like, “Oh, this is disgusting. I threw it away. I wouldn’t drink again until college.

Viet Nguyen:
I think, literally my first night in college, my friends and I got together and we drank a lot of Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers. I mean, this generation has no idea what that is. Bartles & Jaymes are the big thing in the late ’80s, then I was, I drank so much and we went to the movie theater across the street and then I threw up. That is not a good thing to do.

Viet Nguyen:
I think with my own children, I have a very different approach. My house is full of liquor. My kids see me drinking. My 8-year-old son, 2-year-old daughter. I was making a martini right before this event, as a matter of fact, I was getting all the ingredients together, my daughter two years old was like, “What are you doing, daddy?” I was like, “I’m making a drink. I’m making a martini.” Ellison knows that I drink scotch. He says, he knows the word scotch and he sees it all.

Viet Nguyen:
I think that it’s important to set an example for your kids. Don’t treat alcohol, like it’s something terrible or forbidden or whatever. Then, when they’re of the right age, you can say, “Hey, if you want a little bit of wine or whatever, do that.” I think that’s much healthier attitude than the Catholic upbringing that I had, which was all or nothing, right? Don’t do anything forbidden, whether it’s sex or alcohol or dirty words or whatever.

Viet Nguyen:
I think when Ellison is curious, we’ll talk about it. I’m perfectly happy with giving him a little bit. Again, the lesson is moderation, because alcohol can be a beautiful thing. Alcohol can be a terrible thing too, obviously. I would do my part and say, “Don’t drink too much. Don’t drink and drive,” but a little bit of alcohol or even a lot, actually, I know I drink quite a bit, can be good. Again, my advice here is drink the best alcohol you can possibly afford because it does get better. The more you spend up until a certain point.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Now, where would you start?

Viet Nguyen:
Wine. Wine. Yeah, because I think wine is very civilized. Wine is very civilized and you can drink it in small quantities and you get a taste for it and then beer, and then a little bit later, some over the hard liquors and everything. I look forward to establishing a relationship with my children where we can have a nice drink together and I can make them a cocktail and all of that.

Viet Nguyen:
Again, it’s a matter, I think the Vietnamese attitude towards things is much more about hierarchy. Here are things that the adults can do and here are things that the kids can do, but there’s nothing in between or here are things that men can do and women can do and there’s nothing in between. I’ve never liked that. I actually I like hanging out more with women than I do with men, for example.

Viet Nguyen:
When I visited a Vietnamese household and the men are in one room drinking and the women are in the back washing the dishes or making the rice or whatever, I feel this is weird. I’d rather be hanging out with the women.

Viet Nguyen:
Likewise, I think, again, as a Vietnamese-American father, even the term Vietnamese-American, it’s about breaking down the boundaries. I hope I have a healthy relationship with my children, which apparently a lot of Vietnamese people do not have with their parents because…

Kenneth Nguyen:
No.

Viet Nguyen:
… we’re not supposed to talk to them or have friendships with our parents or things like that.

Kenneth Nguyen:
There’s real barriers. There’s no, the fact that a lot of them cannot say sorry, it’s a big thing. My mom, you she’ll say to me, I feel bad, but it’s just not in my culture to say sorry to you. She openly admits it and I tell her, “Mom, I’m really hurt by what you’re saying.” It’s just, just don’t be so complicated. [foreign language 00:24:46].

Viet Nguyen:
Yeah. Well, I actually don’t expect, my mother’s passed away, but I don’t expect my dad to ever say I’m sorry to me because it’s all like, the balance sheet. My parents sacrificed in order, all our parents did. Maybe along the way, they did things that were damaging to me in one way or another because they’re under stress and all that and there’s a cultural differences and all that, but in the larger scheme of things, it’s not important, for me personally, to hear my parents say I’m sorry.

Viet Nguyen:
What my brother and I, my older brother and I, have done over the last 10, 15 or 20 years is to work on our parents on a different emotional level, which is to say to our parents, I love you. That’s what I want to hear. I don’t want to hear my parents say, I’m sorry. I want to hear my parents say, “I love you.” In fact, I don’t remember whether when I was growing up, my parents never said I love you, but I do know that they expressed their love in the different ways that Vietnamese parents do by taking care of us and everything.

Viet Nguyen:
In the last 10 or 15 years, my father, in fact, has, and my mother too, in fact have said I love you in Vietnamese and in English to me and to my children. I think that’s the important part, that we can reach some kind of emotional [inaudible 00:25:56] with our parents, just-

Kenneth Nguyen:
How did you arrive at that point with them?

Viet Nguyen:
Wearing them down. I would just say it, [foreign language 00:26:03], I love you. Then, I think, especially when they started having grandkids, then it became different for them. My brother had kids first, but you can clearly see that they were softening up by that point.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Jumping off to say I love you to my mom, and my father’s passed away, but jumping off to say love you to my mom is like, I think it’s for me, even scarier than jumping into a frigid ice cold pool.

Viet Nguyen:
Yeah. It’s hard when you don’t have that type of relationship or the words, it can be literally very difficult to get it out, but again, someone has to be the first one, right? Maybe when we’re kids, we expect, and when we’re Americanized or American, we expect our parents to be the ones to say that, because that’s supposedly what American culture does, but someone’s got to take the lead. You have to be the one if she won’t do it to say it in Vietnamese or in English and just put [crosstalk 00:27:02].

Kenneth Nguyen:
Yeah. How old were you when you did it?

Viet Nguyen:
Well, I was an adult. I think, I grew up in a very reticent household where we didn’t talk a lot to begin with them. We certainly didn’t talk about our emotions or anything like that. Vietnamese, my parents, I think, like other Vietnamese parents probably expressed their affection through, number one through their sacrifices and all the work that they did and making sure we were taken care of, but also through their pride, whatever their children were accomplishing.

Viet Nguyen:
I knew my parents loved me. Maybe I had that kind of security that maybe other Vietnamese kids didn’t have. My parents expressed their love in different ways, but I think at a certain point as I got older and I started to realize that I was emotionally damaged in various ways, partly due to being Vietnamese, but partly just my own weird self, I realized, I had a partner, a wife, and then I had kids, I got to work on my emotions and my capacity to express love and affection just because I didn’t receive it in a certain way, is no excuse for me therefore not to give of those feelings.

Viet Nguyen:
Someone has to change the cycle. We just can’t wait for other people to do it. I think that I have grown emotionally over the decades in a good way for the most part, right? I think that, that is a very positive thing. Just because we’ve all been damaged in one way or another by history, by circumstance, by our own individual weirdness, doesn’t mean we have to replicate that. We’re conscious of our limitations. We can’t actually overcome them.

Kenneth Nguyen:
I have to go further with this question because I am imagining myself in saying, I love you or [foreign language 00:28:47], but I can’t do it. I can’t even imagine it. For you, did it take time or did it just blurt out at, just came naturally one day or you were at a graduation, they were at your graduation and you just felt like they loved you so much that it was like the right time or did you plan it?

Viet Nguyen:
That’s a good question. I don’t remember actually when the first time I said it was, but I don’t know. I remember at least it was awkward, because the first time you say it, or the first time I said it to my parents and they were like, “Hmm, okay.” They didn’t say it back. Well you just keep it up.

Viet Nguyen:
Another thing is that at least in my family, the parents, they age. They get vulnerable. They get physically weak, psychologically weak, all these kinds of things. Unfortunately, that’s when you know that time is running out. There’s that pressure too. If you don’t say it now or sometime soon, are you going to have the chance to say it?

Viet Nguyen:
When you’re little, your parents are everything to you. They’re these giants and everything. When you get older and the situation’s reverse, is very human and they become the weak ones and you have to take care of them in some way or another. Then, you have to be the responsible one. You have to be the one to take action.

Viet Nguyen:
That’s the stage of life that I’m in now. I have to both take care of little kids and I have to think about my parents or my dad and the state of mind that he’s in. In both directions, I have to be the one who’s proactive emotionally.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Thank you for sharing that with me because it is a, it’s not even hard. It’s just impossible almost. I’m just looking for that crack in the door, through whatever you’re not instructing me to do, but I just need a little, not a little, I need a big push. I mean, I think, I’m speaking for a lot of men my or women in my generation, we just know that our parents love us, but we just, but saying it and having the words, because my mom says it to my kids. I sometimes really wish that we had that, her and I had that. Thank you. I appreciate it.

Viet Nguyen:
Well, I think that it’s also very common to express affection laterally, I guess. She’s saying I love you to your kids, but she knows you’re listening, right? That’s how she’s communicating. I think that’s very, very normal actually. She has, in fact, actually given you an opening because she said, I mean, she’s actually said the words, just not to you.

Viet Nguyen:
I mean, my recommendation would be, hey, just ambush her. Kids are in the car, you buckle them in, mom’s waving goodbye. Just say, “[foreign language 00:31:37],” and get in the car and get out of there. You don’t have to wait for the reaction. Just get out and then keep doing it. Keep doing it. She will be shocked. She’s like, “Oh my God, what did he say?” Keep doing it and sooner or later, sooner later, I think the walls will come down a little bit.

Kenneth Nguyen:
That says a lot about who you are. Keep doing it, keep doing it and the walls will come down. When you first got to USC and to today, there’s been a lot of discipline that you’ve probably had to struggle with. Even going back to a lot of the posts that you talk about, sleeping in class at Berkeley, how did you find the energy or the mindset to stay so consistent to produce all this work?

Viet Nguyen:
I grew up watching my parents. My parents, I greatly admire my parents because even though I disagree with them in many ways politically, culturally, religiously, they were very, they were not hypocrites. They raised me very Catholic and they talked about the values of hard work, but they did all that too. They were very good role models in the sense that they walked the walk, and talked the talk.

Viet Nguyen:
I grew up watching them suffer and sacrifice working 12 to 14 hour days in their grocery store for myself, my brother, all the relatives in Vietnam, that they were sending money back home to. I admired my parents for that. Then, I felt that I, myself, was kind of a failure when I was growing up because I was not very authentically Vietnamese. Then, I was a sort of mediocre high school student. My brother went to Harvard and then I went to my last choice university.

Viet Nguyen:
When I got to my last choice university, which actually I’ll not name, it’s actually a pretty decent university, but in my mind, I didn’t go to Harvard. I didn’t go to Berkeley or whatever. I thought, I’m a failure. That was actually my wakeup call when I was 17 and a college freshman. I realized I’m a failure. Look at what my brother did. Look what my parents did. Here I am, bringing shame to the family.

Viet Nguyen:
That was the turning point in my life where I thought I have to work my butt off, basically to leave this place, this last choice university to go to my first choice university, which was UC Berkeley and I did it. I did it by working really hard and getting good grades and all of that. Basically, I’ve never stopped since then. Even in the moment at that you talked about where I was falling asleep in class at Berkeley, it wasn’t because I wasn’t working hard, in fact it was because I was working hard.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Wow.

Viet Nguyen:
I was student. I was an activist. I was doing all kinds of stuff and I wasn’t getting enough sleep. I fell asleep in class but I was also dealing with personal and emotional things, but the point is that, that was where the early, the sort of the drive to work hard came in for my parents [inaudible 00:34:25] of being a failure and then, to succeed in academia as is probably true for other professions, you really can’t be lazy. You got to work all the time.

Viet Nguyen:
When I met you, I was probably in my mid to late 20s, because I just started at USC. I was like, “Oh, I have to really prove myself here because I’m so young and I need to, there’s no way for me to succeed as a university professor, as an English professor who is Asian-American and Vietnamese refugee without working my butt off,” because I just implicitly assume that people would be judging me in every possible situation. There was plenty of evidence that that was happening.

Viet Nguyen:
That was where the drive came in and that was just to survive, but also to become a writer, I was very stubborn. Again, I didn’t want to be a failure. I saw my parents working hard, doing their thing, I didn’t want to be a grocery store owner, but I wanted to be a writer and a scholar, which meant I had to do the equivalent amount of work, the equivalent amount of suffering in that area.

Viet Nguyen:
Finally, for me as a Vietnamese refugee to become an English professor and a writer, was an act of defiance because we’re not expected to do this, right? We’re expected to be the doctors and the nurses and pharmacists. Vietnamese people expect it. Americans expect it. I felt that, for me to claim my place in the United States, the way that I was going to do it, was through mastering English and the language and the storytelling. This was where I was going to carry out my struggle.

Viet Nguyen:
For a lot of Vietnamese-Americans and refugees, their struggle was to be, we’re going to become doctors and lawyers, et cetera, and become respectable citizens. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I’ve always felt that that’s not the only thing that we have to do. In fact, if that’s all we did was become respectable citizens, we would lose in the long run because to be an American is to own the story of this country.

Viet Nguyen:
It’s about storytelling in addition to all the career things and whatnot. We would never be come Americans if all we did was just get a good job and raise kids. We would have to contest this country at the level of the story. I think that maybe that was part of what you were doing. You became a Marine, prove my American-ness that way. I was trying to prove my American-ness through the cannon of the literature and the language.

Viet Nguyen:
No one could to say to me, “You’re not really an American,” because I could always say back, “My English is better than yours.” That was where the determination came in.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Yeah. I live that way by proving or trying to prove that my American-ness through the Marines and trying to read a lot of books in English, but also I had that problem in my Vietnamese identity. I have to learn, I had to learn singing Vietnamese. I had to learn words in Vietnamese because I have this dying, this need to prove that I’m Vietnamese as well. These two things don’t ever go away for me. It’s always popping up.

Kenneth Nguyen:
I’m just an insecure guy. I mean, let’s face it, right? I’m insecure that I’m not American enough and I’m insecure that I’m not Vietnamese enough. These two things are constantly in battle with each other in my mind. As you’re giving me this, we got to rethink this Vietnamese question in the beginning, I’m sitting here going, how would I even do that?

Viet Nguyen:
For me, I think growing up, I felt implicitly that I had to make a choice. I don’t think I ever articulate it to myself, but I think I understood it. I could be doing what you did, which is to feel torn and then I was afraid, I think implicitly that if I was torn in that way, me between being Vietnamese and being American, I would be equally bad at both. I know people like this. Their English is not great and their Vietnamese is not great. That sucks.

Viet Nguyen:
I thought [inaudible 00:38:40]. It’s not a good thing to feel like you have to choose, one or the other, but I feel like I did choose. I’m going to be really good at English. I know I can do this, but to be really good at Vietnamese was too hard for me. There was all this cultural baggage around being Vietnamese and learning the language and so on.

Viet Nguyen:
I felt I’m going to make my commitment to English, but I never forgot being Vietnamese. I would always do what you said, which is periodically feel guilty and I’ll take Vietnamese classes and all that kind of thing. I went back to Vietnam as an adult, for example, as a 30, 32, 33-year-old and I enrolled in Vietnam National University. I did seven months of academic Vietnamese language training there.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Wow.

Viet Nguyen:
I never forgot being Vietnamese or the connection and so on, but I think I was strategic. I can’t dilute myself. I’m going to take care, make sure I become really good at one thing and then I can worry about the Vietnamese part of things. I think that’s really, I mean, the advice I give to younger people is, think of your life as a trajectory.

Viet Nguyen:
You don’t have to do everything in 5 years or 10 years. Do what you can in 5 or 10 years, whatever’s important, but you have your whole life to think of yourself as a whole person. For me, as a whole person, it means like I have my whole life to learn Vietnamese and reconcile myself with all the conflicts that we’ve just been discussing because it is very complicated.

Viet Nguyen:
For me, personally, for example, I feel rejected not just by Vietnamese-Americans, but also by Vietnam because some of my work is translated into Vietnamese, but The Sympathizer is not translated into Vietnamese. The Sympathizer TV series that we’re doing, we learned of this a few weeks ago, Vietnam is not going to allow us to shoot in Vietnam.

Viet Nguyen:
How can I be Vietnamese if my own country, that country, that culture is rejecting something so important to me, which is my novel, which I feel like I wrote this novel for Vietnamese-Americans, but also for Vietnamese people in Vietnam as well. Now, the Vietnamese, at least one, the official Vietnamese government is not having it.

Viet Nguyen:
It’s a very complicated relationship that I have. I think maybe you do too with Vietnamese-American culture, but also with Vietnam itself. Vietnam, the country, which is not the communist party, but also the communist party and the government and all that it represents.

Kenneth Nguyen:
That is why this conversation about the narrative of the April 30, 1975 day for me is so complicated. I’m exhausted and year after year, I’m exhausted. I’m just so tired of talking about it and thinking about it and hearing about it. I don’t want to be accused of being lazy, but at this point, it’s getting to that point where I just, I don’t want to hear about it anymore, but then it comes around every year and it’s like in Vietnam, it’s celebrated and here it’s a day of mourning.

Kenneth Nguyen:
That’s why I reached out to you. I’ve been thinking about reaching out to you for all these months since I started the podcast, but I’ve never really felt like I had the scope of all of these things. There’s so much that you and I share and can talk about, but this one particular thing is something that nod at me for weeks. Just the anxiety of this day that comes up and talking about it is something that I wanted to ask you about. How do we frame this? How do we look at this complicated day?

Viet Nguyen:
Well, I think a lot of things are mixed up in this. One is the nationalism of what this day represents. For Americans, it represents defeat, for the south Vietnamese and their descendants represents defeat and loss of a country, for the victorious Vietnamese, it represents victory and independence and liberation, but it’s all tied to nationalist identity, right?

Viet Nguyen:
The United States, Republic of Vietnam, the North Vietnam and my conclusion to all of that is I reject nationalism. That’s one of the reasons why I reject Black April because the very connotations are deeply nationalist. I don’t think that the kind of nationalism that drives us to war is a good thing. It doesn’t matter whether it’s our nationalism or somebody else’s nationalism. All the nationalisms need to defeat and to conquer and to have another and so on and so forth.

Viet Nguyen:
That’s why I don’t feel a huge affiliation politically with the South Vietnamese and their efforts to have a Black April. I feel an affinity culturally and personally, but by which I mean, look, I have a lot of affection for Vietnamese refugees and South Vietnamese-Americans and South Vietnam and I think I have a pretty deep emotional understanding of all of the things that we’ve been through and our parents and our grandparents and all the resentment, and anger and bitterness and love and all that kind of stuff.

Viet Nguyen:
I get it, I think, but I reject the politics of the nationalism and that makes me different than a lot of other Vietnamese refugees and Vietnamese-Americans for whom the emotions and the loss and the culture can’t be separated from the nationalism. I just cannot be a part of the Black April narrative and the celebration, because I don’t believe in a world of good and evil of communism and anti-communism where we are the good ones and they’re the bad ones, because I think history is too complex for that, because I can look at the Vietnamese communist and I can acknowledge, yes, some of them did terrible things, some of them still do terrible things.

Viet Nguyen:
All the things that we, as Vietnamese-Americans, Vietnamese refugees, Southern Vietnamese people value in terms of loyalty, and honor, and patriotism, and sacrifice, all these things that was true for the North Vietnamese and the Southern Vietnamese who are part of the National Liberation Front. They didn’t do it because they were evil. They fought because they love their country and they love their people just as we think we ourselves do.

Viet Nguyen:
How do you reconcile these two conflicting visions? You can’t. You cannot. What is it that we are struggling and fighting for? I think for nationalists, the answer is the nation. We want to have our nation, we want to validate our heroes, and we want to demonize those enemies, and so on. I’m not interested in that.

Viet Nguyen:
I’m interested in a sort of a utopian future where we don’t, we’re not killing each other over national identity, where in the utopian future being Vietnamese or communist Vietnamese or anti-communist Vietnamese or American, is no more important than whether we root for the Dodgers or the Giants or whatever. Are we from Los Angeles or Sacramento? Who cares? That’s a nice rivalry, but we’re not going to kill each other over it. [inaudible 00:45:37] kill each other over nationalism. Why? It’s absurd.

Viet Nguyen:
That’s what I think is wrong with Black April. It’s not the love, the culture, the affection that we have for each other as Vietnamese exiles or refugees. What’s wrong is that we use those feelings to hate and to demonize other people. If we don’t like being demonized by the Vietnamese communist, why do we think it’s good for us to demonize the Vietnamese communist? It’s the same thing, but it’s very hard for people to overcome these emotions and this nationalism, especially if it’s tied to, for us as a younger generation, tied to whatever obligations we think we feel for our parents and our grandparents and what they’ve been through.

Kenneth Nguyen:
That explanation, to me, takes a lot of courage to say. I think that you’ve probably been thinking that for many years, many days, many nights to include it into the work that you do. Where do we, as the younger generation like myself, or younger kids find courage or the confidence to say, this is how it is and not be afraid of retribution. Right now, I’m literally, I’m thinking about the retribution that I might get as a result of having this conversation. That’s how imprinted and ingrained within our society, Vietnamese-American society. We should be able to talk about this.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Then, I talked to Le Ly Hayslip and [inaudible 00:47:15] about my mom’s generation. She always says, “Well, they have to die off.” Well, that’s fucking sad, but if they don’t die off, I’m living in fear because there’s a lot of, there’s just a lot of energy, bad energy that gets directed at people like us that are wanting to have a different narrative. Where do you find the courage? Where did you find the courage?

Viet Nguyen:
When I was growing up, I felt like a coward because my parents wanted one thing, I wanted another thing, and I could never stand up to my parents because I love and respect them. I had to, I couldn’t live without them. They were paying the rent. I was in their house, right? What was I going to do? That always made me feel really terrible because I felt like I was a coward. I would always submit myself to my parents.

Viet Nguyen:
I grew up in a household where my parents were under a lot of stress. I think once my father beat me very badly when I was a little kid and I was terrified of him after that. He was not of a terrible man. No, no, he’s a very good man, but you put someone under enough pressure, and they can break and they can be violent.

Viet Nguyen:
After that one time, whenever there was a possibility that he might beat me again, I would always run into the bathroom, lock the door and wait until he calmed down and he would always calm down and then beg me to come out. It always left me the impression that I’m a coward. I could never stand up for myself in what I believed in.

Viet Nguyen:
Then, I think when I went to college, I wanted to become a writer. I wanted, the writers that I admired were writers who were really, they were great artists. They were also really committed publicly to their political, intellectual, artistic beliefs. They took huge risks. That was the kind of writer I wanted to believe, wanted to be. I’ve always fluctuated between keeping myself silent in the face of my parents and swearing that I would never be silent in any other context.

Viet Nguyen:
I totally get it when people feel afraid because I have, and I do feel afraid, but I only feel like I owe that fear to my parents. I owe them something, but I don’t owe the Vietnamese community anything. I don’t owe the United States anything either or if I do owe them, it’s a very complex debt. With the United States, I’ve said it everywhere, including at West Point, I’ve said, “I do feel gratitude to the United States, but I wouldn’t feel the gratitude for being rescued by the United States,” and we hadn’t been bombed by the United States in the first place.

Viet Nguyen:
If I say that in the Vietnamese context, the Vietnamese people will freak out, “How dare you be a communist,” and all that kind of thing. Well, I don’t owe you anything just because we’re Vietnamese? We love pho, okay, cool, but beyond that, I don’t owe you my silence or my respect or anything like that. I think about Vietnam, it’s like, Vietnamese, we fought the civil war together. We killed each other. Where was our reticence then? Where was our filial piety then?

Viet Nguyen:
I think it’s very complicated how we feel this debt and a lot of it is, again, due to being a so-called minority feeling obligation to our refugee parents, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, but in Vietnam, we were killing each other. We had no problem standing up for our beliefs against each other.

Viet Nguyen:
I do feel fear. Every time I give a speech to an audience, I feel fear. What are they going to, how are they going to respond because everybody has a reason to hate me in different ways. I get hate now from Americans. I know like a lot of Vietnamese-Americans refuse to read my work because I think I’m a communist. Then, my work is not allowed to be published in Vietnam because they think I’m an anti-communist and all of that.

Viet Nguyen:
I think that, for me, as a writer, my identity is first and foremost as a writer, and you can’t be a writer if you’re not committed to the truth, you know? Why bother being a writer if you can’t be true? That’s, I think, my one strength is to believe that I will always say what I believe in, and I will say it to you personally, I’m a very honest person, a frank person, and I would say it in my public speeches and in my art and all that.

Viet Nguyen:
I don’t think I’m brave. I don’t think I’m brave because I think there are a lot of people who suffer worse consequences than I do, but I am always struck by how oftentimes people remark to me, “Oh, you’re so frank, and you’re so honest,” as if they’re not used to people being frank and honest. What’s going on? Are people habitually not frank and honest? Have I say certain things [crosstalk 00:51:46]?

Kenneth Nguyen:
Yeah. I think, because we all have things to lose. We all have careers that we are worried and we’re guarded where we all have family positions with our cousins and our uncles and aunts. We don’t want to be ostracized at parties. That’s what I lived through for many, many years. Yeah. We have a lot to lose.

Viet Nguyen:
Then, maybe I was different. Maybe because I was willing to walk away from the Vietnamese community and maybe because like I was already rebellious against the Vietnamese community as a kid because of like, I don’t believe in Vietnamese Catholicism. I don’t even like a lot of Vietnamese people. I could see some of the limitations and I was willing to walk away. I think that’s very important. You have to be willing to walk away. If you’re not willing to walk away, then of course you have a lot to lose.

Viet Nguyen:
I think each of us has to define when are you willing to walk away from what it is that gives you comfort? It’s very difficult. I never could do it with my family. I think I was insulated because my parents, I mean they could speak enough English to do the work they needed to do, but they weren’t going to read my stuff in English, you know?

Viet Nguyen:
Then, I was insulated from them because of that but if you’re not insulated, then I understand how difficult it can be. I don’t hold judgements against people who feel deeply afraid of losing something, losing the community or family that’s very important to them.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Processing this. Yeah. It’s, yeah, I’ve always been inside the community and I’ve always valued the relationships of two, three decades of people in the community. Oftentimes, it’s voices that are on all sides. My father, thank God, he had this [inaudible 00:53:31] again. He’s passed away. I can, I can say it without fear of anybody, there’s any retribution against him.

Kenneth Nguyen:
At 17, he jumped in at the bottom of a French merchant ship, a big merchant vessel on the river or on the ocean and he tried to slip and escape when he was 17. He always would tell me, he said, because the idea of the flag and being a certain nationality was a problem, and I say this a lot in my podcast, he always said to me, “There’s only one language. It’s the language of intellectualist.” Everything else, just every other language is transports ideas.

Kenneth Nguyen:
He said, “If you get married and if you get too closed in to this idea of a language or your language being the best,” because we would sit at the dinner table with his friends and they would always debate if Vietnamese was the best language because and my father would always say, “No.” That’s not, that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work that way.

Kenneth Nguyen:
He said it to me when I was, as we were growing up, but I always feared what people would say when I said that in the family, because they’re staunch Vietnamese and here I am doing this work called The Vietnamese. I question and examine this all the time and maybe as I get to talk about it more and more and more and more with people like you, the stigma eventually goes away and the Vietnamese podcast would just be us talking about the work that we do and it’s not so heavy on the shame or the scars that I’m feeling, right?

Kenneth Nguyen:
Because a lot of the topics that I’m talking about right now, I still feel very cringy when I listen back to some of the guests because I’m working out my shame and I’m working out my guilt and my identity still. I think it’s going to take some time to kind of get to the point where I have the courage to really isolate myself and say, I really have to come out of the shell and really identify with things that are just that mean, identify with things that are just the truth for myself.

Viet Nguyen:
Well, I think part of what’s related to this is that it’s very human to want to be inside; inside your family, inside your community, inside your nation, because when you’re inside, you’re part of a group and you have all that affirmation, right? Then, if you don’t fit into the consensus, you fear being cast out. A lot of people are afraid of that. That’s why, and this is true regardless of nationality or culture or ideology, I think it’s just generally true.

Viet Nguyen:
For me, I grew up feeling like I was already outside. I was outside of the United States because I was American, but I knew I was different. I was outside of the Vietnamese-American community because I knew I was Vietnamese, but I was also different and that’s not a comfortable situation to be in. It’s great for being a writer.

Viet Nguyen:
The other thing, as a writer, you should be built inside and outside. You should be inside in the sense that you can be empathetic to whoever you’re writing. I’m empathetic to the Vietnamese. I’m empathetic to the Americans, but you should be outside because you have to be outside in order to see the foolishness and hypocrisy and the absurdities that go with every in group. I’m not making a judgment that Vietnamese people are American. I’m saying it’s true for every group of people.

Viet Nguyen:
I think, I grew up feeling comfortable with being uncomfortable, but I think for a lot of people, they just want to be comfortable with being comfortable. It’s hard to be brave when you’re in that situation.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Yeah, but having these conversations do open up ideas and they do open up, it does open up a new avenue of thinking for me. As you were saying it, I was always on the inside. I always felt like I was always on the inside. We had family that would come over from Vietnam every year of ’80s and ’90s and they would stay at the house and I would be inside because I spoke Vietnamese.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Then, when I got in the Marine Corps, I was born here. I felt like I was, but the danger with all of that inside-ness is being afraid, as you’re saying, of losing the Vietnamese families that I grew up in and then not being part of white America. God, this is, yeah. I never thought about why I’m so cowardly about stepping up and voicing what I really feel up until today. Being the inside has been my shackle of my culture and just being insulated in all of these safe zones of my identity.

Viet Nguyen:
Well, let me just say, look, I mean, to be outside does not mean that you’re alone. All right. One of the reasons why I feel like I can try to take up this position of being a truth teller and being committed to my own principles and all that is ironically, because I was raised as a Catholic. I’m basically an atheist, but I was raised as a Catholic. I know Vietnamese, I know Catholic lore and everything.

Viet Nguyen:
My feeling was always, hey, I actually admire Jesus Christ. Here’s a guy who was telling the truth, regardless of the consequences. He was both inside and outside, right? He paid the price for that, but when you’re raised Catholic, I felt like, “Hey, to be Catholic means you’re willing to be martyred. You’re willing to be sacrificed and to sacrifice yourself.” That’s what I saw with my parents, right?

Viet Nguyen:
I felt like even though I was not religious and not religious, I do believe in the idea of martyrdom and sacrifice for your principles and your belief and your truth, but the other thing is that Jesus Christ did not die alone. I mean, he died alone on the cross, but he forged a new community through what he did. I think this is very important, that I think people who are afraid of being cast out of whatever group they’re in, fear being alone. That’s what it means to be in exile. You’re thrown out of your community and you’re left to die.

Viet Nguyen:
In the old days, they’re like, “Oh, you’re out in the wilderness. You’re going to die,” but there’s another way of thinking about it, which is that you can choose to leave and you can choose to find your own community or build your own community so that you’re not alone. I think that’s what we’ve done as Vietnamese-Americans, we’ve forged our own community so that we’re neither Vietnamese nor Americans or something else.

Viet Nguyen:
I think people forget that part, that to step outside of a group doesn’t mean that you have to be alone. To step outside of a group means you can find or build another group that is closer to what it is that you feel and what you believe in. That, actually, is enormously empowering because it doesn’t mean, that means that you’re no longer shackled by fear to the group you’re a part of. You can leave and be brave and forge a new community that can do something different and something better at least by your standards.

Viet Nguyen:
I feel like I’m a part of movements. I feel like I have tried to find my own people, people who are closer to what I believe in, that I’m not stuck being a Vietnamese Catholic or a Vietnamese refugee or whatever. I’m not stuck feeling I have to go back to Vietnam to find out who I am, because I can build my own family, build my own community. That’s empowering.

Kenneth Nguyen:
You spoke at a, it was at a college event a few years ago with Mai Elliot. One of the things you both talked about was without the pain inside of your life experiences, there would be no writer. This idea of wars and humanity has gone, has been a parallel for since the humanity has shown up on Earth, this diaspora culture of the Vietnamese, the Jews, the Ukrainians, and the list goes on, without wars, and I don’t think wars will ever go away, but without wars, this utopia that you talked about, what would artists, what do you think we would create?

Kenneth Nguyen:
When we have this wonderful way of raising our children and without any of the struggle that we had, and the wars that we lived through, what kind of things will they… What do you think that they will create if there’s no struggle?

Viet Nguyen:
Well, I have a creative son and I think, “Wow, do I want him to be a writer?” Because for me to be a writer meant, I have to feel really weird and out of place and all these things. I would prefer him to be happier. I think it’s hard to be a writer, an artist if you’re fully happy. There has to be some discomfort, some alienations, some difference of some kind that you’re working with.

Viet Nguyen:
I think that going back to the war and diaspora issue, when you’re forced to flee and you or your family have suffered the consequences of disaster and war and so on, you’re given a choice. The choice is can you retreat back to the same mindset that produced the war in the first place, again, that nationalist mindset us versus them. A lot of people retreat to that because it’s very comforting or could you try to imagine a future that doesn’t repeat the same dynamic that made you into a refugee? That’s a little bit harder, a lot harder to do.

Kenneth Nguyen:
A lot harder.

Viet Nguyen:
I think that’s a choice that all of us get to make as people who have been cast out by history and by war and all that kind of thing. I think that’s what I want to pass on to my children. I want to, I mean, with my son, for example, he knows that his parents and grandparents are refugees, he knows the words war, colonialism, the French, and that’s just a starter. He’s only eight years old.

Viet Nguyen:
I think that I want to raise him with the knowledge of his past so that he knows why he’s here in the United States. He thinks of himself as an American, but also as a Vietnamese. Increasingly, I think, he’s more conscious of being Vietnamese. I don’t want him to think that way, so that he’ll want to retreat to some idealized notion of what being Vietnamese is. I want him to be aware that his very existence is the result of these terrible histories that preceded him. I want him to make a choice. I want him to be aware enough to make a choice, and I’m not going to tell him what to do. I think I’ll tell him what I think he should do, but it’s up to him.

Viet Nguyen:
I hope he chooses the path of thinking about a future that is not bound by national identity and nationalism and resentment, and these kinds of things that are attached to Black April, as we talked about because black April is not about looking to the future. Black April is about looking to the past and be angry and mournful and resentful, I think, unless I totally misunderstand the emotions around this day of commemoration.

Viet Nguyen:
Black April is, to the extent that black April looks to the future, it’s about, let’s go back and take Vietnam back that we can build a country that looks like Westminster, California, which is completely dysfunctional, even though the Vietnamese are in charge of Westminster, right? I don’t want that. That’s what I hope and whether or not my children become artists or not is sort of irrelevant to me.

Viet Nguyen:
It’s really the issue whether they can imagine themselves as people whose humanity is not defined by their ethnicity or their nationality, but their humanity is defined by their willingness to embrace other people and their willingness to sacrifice themselves for that idea of humanity as being something that’s so capacious that includes everybody but it also includes a recognition of our own failures and our own weaknesses and our own capacity to do terrible things.

Viet Nguyen:
I think black April is deeply problematic for me also because the Southern Vietnamese who are attached to it absolutely refuse to recognize the possibility that the Southern Vietnamese might have done some things wrong. I’m not saying that they did all things wrong. I’m saying some things wrong. You cannot say that.

Viet Nguyen:
Instead, all the things that make us weak and vulnerable and frail, we project that onto the communist. They’re the evil ones and we’re the good ones. That’s just not reality. Black April is an illusion that just perpetuates itself and makes us attached to our own victimization. I don’t want to be a victim and I don’t want to be deceived into thinking that we’re all ideal and that all that’s terrible is attached to our enemies and not to us.

Kenneth Nguyen:
This is such a fresh way of thinking for anybody whose mind is caked into this idea of Black April and you have so many friends and good family members that are on this one track mind and this fresh way of, it’s not a fresh way really, because you’ve really paid attention to what you’ve been saying but you could still see Black April everywhere in social media, but we have to turn the page now. We have to really say to ourselves, this is the time to really start thinking freshly about the future of humanity, not just the Vietnamese, but of just people of evolving to a place where we’re not having to divide the lines.

Viet Nguyen:
Well, I think that’s absolutely right, because if we look at the wars that we’ve been through and are going through, we just say Afghanistan and Ukraine, everything we’ve been saying, I think applies to these two countries and the politics around them and everything. We look at Ukraine, we, the entire world, the West, that is Western Europe, the United States is being pressured to think of this war as good versus evil. It’s a radical over simplification.

Viet Nguyen:
Now, we can be opposed to Putin. We can be opposed to Russian invasion and Russian atrocities, it doesn’t mean that we have to buy into a world view that says all that is evil and all that the United States and Western Europe and Ukraine represent our good. No, it’s obviously geopolitics, as you know, as a Marine are deeply complicated with lots of self-interest going on and everything that the American media and the Pentagon and the White House are saying that the Russians are doing, Americans have done pretty much all those things as well.

Viet Nguyen:
We just like, “Whoa, we just totally forgot that we did these things in Afghanistan and Iraq and Vietnam.” Our last act in Afghanistan was to fire a drone missile that killed 10 innocent people, including seven children. We did that. We did that. Is that any different than the Russians going in and doing whatever they’re doing? I don’t think so.

Kenneth Nguyen:
You brought up a term right now and this is another three hours that we get into that what you just said, radical simplification. We are living in a world of radical simplification through the algorithms of our social media. I think we’re fucked unless we can unfuck that radical simplification issue because otherwise, it’s just polarization that creates monetization and add dollars being whether it’s Twitter or Meta, radical simplification is eating up humanity. Do you see a way out of this?

Viet Nguyen:
Yeah. Delete your social media profiles. I delete, okay, look, I mean, honestly, I’m human and all that stuff you talked about affected me too. During the height of the Trump administration, I had 90 something thousand followers on Twitter and 90 something thousand followers on my Facebook author page. I realized that a lot of everything you said was true for me.

Viet Nguyen:
I would be validated by my fans and then I would be egged on by them and I would feel good. Then, I would like say something stupid and then people would attack me and all that kind of thing. That is a very, very bad dynamic, that feeds into the worst aspects of the human ego. I was very glad to delete Twitter.

Viet Nguyen:
Now, the Facebook author page is really relevant to this podcast because for whatever reason, my Facebook author page, the overwhelming majority of people were either Vietnamese-Americans or Vietnamese diaspora, or Vietnamese in Vietnam.

Viet Nguyen:
I don’t know how it turned out that way, but there was so much… I would talk about some of the same things we talked about and then on the one hand, it was very validating to think that there were thousands of people, Vietnamese people, various kinds, who were saying, “Oh, this is so important that Vietnamese person is saying these kinds of things.” Then, there were moments when I was like, I would also jump on the social media bandwagon and attack somebody or be highhanded in some way or another. I’m like, I don’t like that. I don’t like being this kind of a person.

Viet Nguyen:
I think that the issue that you’re talking about, about the radical simplification, the us versus them dynamic, the feeling of affirmation when we belong, when our opinion is validated, which oftentimes involves demonizing somebody else, attacking them on social media or worse, all of that very human dynamic, that social media amplifies. Then, it’s a mesh in the politics of this country at the moment. We all have to take a step back. We all have to take a step back and figure out for each of us, how we both understand and hate that dynamic and then we can internalize it because it’s so human to give into it.

Kenneth Nguyen:
The world seems like it’s getting worse. I’m just so pessimistic about the algorithm and how it’s related to radical simplification. The nuances of long form conversations like what we’re having it’s not being and that’s why I just have to keep doing this because the long form side of things is so important to really nail down a lot of the ideas.

Viet Nguyen:
Well, I mean, what you’re talking about it’s like climate catastrophe, oh my God, if we think about the bigger environment, like I can’t do anything about it. I can’t do anything about social media and the algorithms. I can’t do anything about climate change and over consumption and all that. That’s a separate conversation, but what we’re talking about is what each of us can do as an individual and in terms of building our own communities, hey, we can actually individually walk away from this.

Viet Nguyen:
No one’s forcing you to be on Twitter or Facebook or whatever. No one’s forcing you to participate in the herd mentality. No one’s forcing you to buy the SUV. That’s up to you. Let’s start with our own individual choice, our own recognition, our own complicity and let’s take the next step, which is to remove ourselves from the things that are poisonous and then to build a community that provides a different kind of affirmation.

Viet Nguyen:
You’re not forced to pick up your phone and just read Twitter. You can pick up a book instead. You can engage in your own long form conversations with yourself and with other people. That’s the first step.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Viet, thank you today for taking our first step on this podcast. I really appreciate the words that you’ve shared with me today and all the thoughts that you’ve shared with me.

Viet Nguyen:
Yay. I was like 90% sober during the entire… I had a couple of cocktails before this event, honestly, but I think I came off as relatively sane. Hey, Ken, good talking to you. I’m glad we had this conversation after all these years that we’ve known each other. Good luck with the rest of the podcast and all of you [crosstalk 01:14:00]…

Kenneth Nguyen:
Thank you so much.

Viet Nguyen:
… continuing growth.

Kenneth Nguyen:
Thank you for listening to The Vietnamese with Kenneth Nguyen. The Vietnamese is produced by Brittany Tran Brittany. Special thanks to Jane Nguyen, Catherine Nguyen, Tina Pham, [Sydney Jamie 01:14:12] and Crystal Trinh. Please find us on Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok at The Vietnamese podcast. You can also find us on YouTube, where you can subscribe, like, and comment. Please rate and give us a review wherever you find our podcast. Thanks again for listening.

Category: Interviews

 

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