0

Transformed

Before I begin writing, I ground myself in my family, biological and political.

I refuse to forget whose blood I share. We are survivors and revolutionaries. We are resistors and we are strong.

I give thanks to those in struggle with me. I have these photos I keep on my desk of the Seeding Change and of the Hai Ba Trung cohorts of 2015. I remember when I told this story in tears. Looking at these photos reminds me that I am not alone anymore. And to the others who know my story, even people I’ve had to remove from my life since then, I honor how you supported me through this journey.

I remind myself that I write this out of love and humanity.

“For a Vietnamese revolutionist, dedication to humanity must always constitute the foundation for the politics or policies or struggle. Know why, or a sense of historical process, must precede know how, or technique, principles, must precede programs and plans.” – James and Grace Lee Boggs, Revolution and Evolution in the 20th Century

—————————–

It was a bit inevitable. Me being triggered around this date by some throwback I see on social media. I didn’t think that I would cry though. Of all the times I tell this story to people I trust I haven’t cried in a while, not since July I think. Then again, I always carefully watch what I say so I don’t end up crying in a coffee or bubble tea shop. I cry a lot now and sometimes I am just tired of crying.

Despite being triggered as the cause for writing this, I feel like now is the best time. I tried writing this sometime last spring and I gave up. I wasn’t ready to share my story. But now, now is the best time. I feel a lot of love and healing; and I feel safe enough with the people that surround my life to write it down.

I am tired of selectively telling my truth. I have been coddling white fragility by not publicly sharing my experience. I was holding back because I did not want to make myself vulnerable to a system and social setting that was built against me. I was ashamed to let people know that the system had broken me, had made me depressed, physically ill, and reckless. It is time for people to know what I really went through on my study abroad to Southeast Asia.

Continue reading

Advertisements
0

Cu Chi and Cao Dai [Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Tay Ninh, Vietnam]

On Saturday we had our group regional tour into the suburbs of Ho Chi Minh City into Cu Chi district to visit its famous tunnels and a bit further into Tay Ninh to see the Holy See temple of Vietnam’s indigenous Cao Dai religion. One of our assigned readings for class was the Tunnels of Cu Chi by Tom Mangold. I love history but military history must be my least favorite to read about. I dread reading about battles and weaponry. Military strategy completely bores me. However, the book had some interesting bits, particularly the individual accounts from both Vietnamese and American soldiers that fought in the war.

IMG_5774

These people are wax/plastic, FYI.

My favorite chapter was on the female Viet Cong fighters, as I have always prided myself on the role that Vietnamese women have played in history since pre-colonial times. This is the feminist blood that runs through my veins.Our first stop on Saturday was to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which is one of the biggest tourist attractions around Ho Chi Minh City nowadays. Perhaps there is something exhilarating about crawling through a former enemy’s territory. Perhaps the usual tourist is so far removed from action of the war, neither veteran nor Vietnamese refugee, that they feel little emotional connection to the battlefield they now walk upon.

Tourists are able to put themselves into the tunnels and enclosures, although they have been widened from their original diameter. The students were initially reluctant to try out the tunnels, more afraid of the dark and small animals than Vietnamese rebel fighters, but eventually the majority of the group wanted to go in. While I was not afraid of any actual fighters, I was anxious about their ghosts. I stood around the perimeter and imagined myself in the place of the Viet Cong fighters that crawled these spaces.  With women actively digging and fighting in the Cu Chi Tunnels, the visualization of it was all too close to reality.

I have navigated two decades of questions of whether I was from north or south Vietnam. A question, I suppose, for Americans to decide if I was an “ally” or “enemy” Asian. “Are you Viet Cong?” by seemingly innocent pre-pubescents. I have had a enough uncomfortable encounters with Vietnam War vets to hide my clearly Asian face when I see one proudly wear his service on a baseball cap or jacket. “It’s nice to be in a room full of Asians that are not pointing guns at me.”

I have navigated two decades of denying my association with the Vietnamese communist party (while simultaneously forming politics that explore communism as a viable solution for social problems). Under the guise of claustrophobia, I passed on participating in the first activity. I felt that if I put myself in that hole I would negate every denial I made throughout my life and affirm support for a group of people that have had a hand in much bloodshed. Yet, I could not help but admire the skill and cleverness that was required of the Viet Cong tunnel fighters. They stumped the American forces and the tunnels were key in ending the war. These Vietnamese people liberated themselves from imperial powers. How could I not have some feelings of admiration? I did at one point crawl through a tunnel from one opening to the next, proof that it was in my genetics that it had to be a Vietnamese who mastered the art of tunnel crawling.

At another point in the attraction, visitors are offered the opportunity to shoot guns of the same type that were used by the Viet Cong in a shooting range for a couple ten thousand dong. Again, literally putting a gun in my hand would make me a too realistic image of the war, and an image of a fighter who would have persecuted my own family. All the while, I felt misunderstood by the other students who only sounded disappointed to find out that I did not participate (for the photo opp), and frustrated that they could not understand the possibility of feeling uncomfortable with the activity. Overall, my mood at the tourist site was generally uninterested and borderlined melancholy. I wanted to move through there as fast as possible but everyone wanted to linger at every spot. After having visited three tourist sites commemorating the Vietnam War and seeing that there was not much else out there in Ho Chi Minh City that wasn’t focused on the war, I decided that it was not a particularly interesting place to be as a Vietnamese American visitor. There is nothing there that we as a diasporic community don’t know and it’s really unnecessary (and unrecommended if you want to save some emotional pain) to visit those parts of the city.

I would much rather spend some more time at our second stop of the tour, the Holy See temple of the Cao Dai religion. Cao Dai is an indigenous Vietnamese religion that combines aspects of many world religions from Buddhism, to Catholicism, to Confucianism. The conceptions of the religion is so interesting, as can be seen by its three saints, Sun Yatsen, Victor Hugo, and Nguyen Binh Khiem. The temple is the center for this religion, which has approximately 2 million followers, one of which is my uncle, who I did not know was Cao Dai until I talked to my mom a couple days ago. The followers all originate in Tay Ninh provide, where Cao Dai was founded.

You can see that they have a head religious leader figure, unlike Buddhism which is practiced individually. Men and women pray separately and the synchronized bowing and perfect rows remind me of an Islamic mosque.

IMG_5830

I found this symbol, the eye in the triangle to be so interesting. I had a brief moment in life (a really late summer night) while I was intrigued by the Illuminati, whose symbol is the all-seeing eye. This symbol, seen by other major world religions as a sign of the devil, would be very disapproving of the use of it. Yet, here it is used in one of the most beautiful religions that I have ever observed, which appeals to the Roman Catholic-born yet Buddhist-interest in me. Cao Dai is mesmerizing and I want to learn more about it. These are the parts about Vietnam that I wish foreigners would know more about. Vietnam is so much more than a country defined by war.

0

Catfish and Mandala Reflection

Today we have a quiz on one of our assigned books, Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham and while a large handful of students are struggling to finish the book purely with the intent to perform well on the quiz, I wish that they would take the reading more to heart because it must have been the best book I’ve read in a really long time. I saw the book as an exploration and affirmation of my identity and for non-Vietnamese Americans, an opportunity to understand the challenges that a Vietnamese immigrant family, particularly 1.5 and second generations face. It was recommended to me by my uncle before I found out it was an assigned reading and I can see why he valued the book.

[Warning: The next couple paragraphs contain vague references that could be construed as spoilers so proceed at your own risk. Summary, I give this book a big thumbs up.]

I saw many parallels to the author’s story to my own family’s story. Fathers that were persecuted and jailed, escape by sea to asylum southeast Asian nations, the struggle to adapt to American life and the English language, family secrets. I have not lived through all this myself but I have heard the stories on the rare occasions they are told. I have such a privileged life but I know that my family has lived a dark past that we try to forget with every new generation. My grandparents have 18 grandchildren, with the youngest not more than two years old. Is our origin story a legacy or a memory we’d rather forget?

I found comfort in An’s story because now I don’t feel so alone in wanting to make our Vietnamese American experiences concrete through writing. While I was reading, I could mark specific quotes from the book that were paraphrases of my own work, with my medium being poetry. I want to pull some of them out to make a comparison (and to shamelessly promote my poetry which I want to continue to work on).

An, Chapter 1:

Tyle says, “I was in Nam.” I have guessed as much. Not knowing what to say I nod. Vets — acquaintances and strangers — have said variations of this to me since I was a kid and didn’t know what or where Nam was.

Me, Black April:

When I was 15 years old a man asked me,
“Where are you from?”
I gave him my normal response in situations like these,
“My parents are from Vietnam.”
He responded,
“I have a hard time with your people.
I served in the war, but you – you’re okay.”

An, Chapter 7:

She prided herself on the lightness of her skin. “Don’t plat in the sun in the middle of the day! You’ll be dark like a peasant’s kid. And don’t forget to pull on your nose three times a day.”

Me, Selfie:

I stare down the girl in the mirror
Eyes too dull
Nose too wide
Lips too full
Skin to yellow

An, Chapter 44:

I see that we Vietnamese Americans don’t talk about our history. Although we often pretend to be modest and humble as we preen our successful immigrant stories, we rarely admit even to ourselves the circumstances and the cost of our being here.

Me, Black April:

The air is filled with the sounds of helicopter blades
And American officers’ commands
Children latch onto their mother’s hands
The city is in a state of panic

Or so I’ve heard
Our history is not really something we talk about

An, Chapter 44:

“It’s very hard being a tour guide. Sometimes I feel like a pimp.”

Me, Tonight I am in Bangkok:

… i am privileged enough to walk the streets
in which you lay making the most meager pieces of change
at the sake of losing your humanity

 

[Warning: The next paragraph contains massive book spoilers to plot twists so proceed at your own risk. Summary, I stamp this book with intersectional woman of color feminist approval.]

Yet, how could I read this book without my own feminist woman of color critical lens? Andrew Pham as a heterosexual Asian male could not have encompassed a complete Asian American experience, but I must applaud him for making his transgender brother (assigned female at birth, although referred to as “sister” throughout the book to preserve the mystery in the storyline) a critical character in his story. Not only that but two of his brothers are gay. Ten points for queer people of color (QPOC) representation! The queer community has not always been the most welcoming to QPOC and I rarely ever see queer Asians in the discourse but Pham’s representation was nice and subtle in the way that didn’t completely focus on it, but also did not erase them from the story. They were just queer people of color going about their daily immigrant lives, which is a story in and of itself without the intersections. It would have been so easy for him to completely neglect to mention the fact that he had queer siblings but he made them an integral role in his character development.

So if you can’t tell by now, Catfish and Mandala is a wonderful read. I highly recommend it to any Vietnamese American and anyone wanting to learn about our experiences. A definite addition to my Asian American literature library that I’m attempting to build except that I bought this in e-book format. I’m going to need a physical copy.

 

0

Saigon District Tour [Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam]

On Wednesday (January 21st if you’re keeping track of my calendar days, because I know I’m not), our group took a tour of the immediately surrounding area of Ho Chi Minh City. We visited the Independence Palace aka the Reunification Palace aka the the Norodom Palace, the location of the Fall of Saigon attacks that ended the Vietnam war, and the War Remnants Museum. We also had a quick stop at the Notre Dame Cathedral and the Saigon Central Post Office for a photo opp (and ATMs, yay!). Oh and a quick trip through Ben Thanh market as well.

This is not in chronological order because I have additional comments to add on some places and would not like to disrupt my flow.

Notre Dame Cathedral was a beautiful sight. Born Roman Catholic Vietnamese, I was glad I got to see this.

The post office was a huge yellow building. I love how Ho Chi Minh City is so colorful, a remnant of French colonialism. Inside there are a couple souvenir shops, ATMs, and tourist information, as well as actual post office services.

I went back to Ben Thanh market several times after the first time we went on the tour. On the first day was when I realized I could sneak around as a Vietnamese person. Unlike my white American peers, no one grabbed me by the arm and asked me to buy things, although I did hear an endless “Em kiem di? Em muong coi nay?” The vendors here were so much more aggressive than any ones I’ve encountered in Asia.

The Independence Palace was where the president of the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam), Ngo Dinh Diem and later Nguyen Van Thieu, lived and worked between the times of the Geneva Accords and the end of the Vietnam War. After the end of the Vietnam War, the palace was renamed the Reunification Palace. The building as it is now is set up like it was during the war as a center for military commands.

The War Remnants Museum had mainly photographic exhibits of wartime atrocities committed by the American troops and various wartime artifacts. As a government sanctioned museum, all views portrayed are filtered through the agenda of the communist party of Vietnam. Many of the images, especially in the agent orange exhibit, were horrifically graphic, meant to foster an appropriate amount of anti-American sentiment.

IMG_5685

As an American, going through this museum is an eye-opening experience to a side of history that is censored in American textbooks. We watched a portion of a propaganda documentary in which the war was referred to as the Anti-American war. This made me think of how names give meaning to events. Was it the Vietnam War, in which Americans/westerners were fighting Vietnamese? This neglects to address the fact that the American troops were supposed to be assisting one side of the Vietnamese. Was it the second Indochina War? This lumps together the region. Was it a Vietnamese civil war much like the U.S. Civil war, north versus south? This fails to mention the large role the U.S. played. Was it an Anti-American war? The north Vietnamese communists and Viet Cong forces in the south surely believed they were helping their kindred brothers and sisters in liberation from U.S. imperialism.

As a Vietnamese American, going through to museums not just “history” in the old dead white men sense, but a more colorful and jarring depiction of the actual realities of my family and relatives. It was not so long ago that it happened. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the war’s end. In terms of other wars, it has not been that long. Yet when it has already happened I can think about these things in retrospect and it is easy to expand my perspective, especially because I have both benefitted and struggled because of the outcome. However, when things are happening now in terms of heavily politically charged issues, is it possible to see multiple viewpoints when you are not largely affected by it? This is a question of privilege.

My favorite exhibit, as a burgeoning political activist was the section on third world people of color solidarity for Vietnamese liberation. There were posters and photos, evidence that the Vietnamese people that overwhelming support all over the world from likewise oppressed people. I thought it was appropriate given the proximity of Martin Luther King Jr., Day that I could read these words.

IMG_5684

It made me think of today’s struggles for liberation, from Justice for Palestine to Black Lives Matter, that throughout history, people of color and other oppressed people have banded together in acts of solidarity and support. Back to the point I was making earlier, it is important to assess the benefits and harms of a situation and make an effort to be on the “right” side of history. It may not be completely clear what that is now, but with an expanded perspective we can do our best.

I had written in the first post of this blog, that for me, this trip would be a different type of exploration than for my white American peers. It has occurred to me that it is not only because of my Vietnamese heritage, but also because of my immense passion for history, politics, feminism, and activism. Everything I observe are through those lenses. They make me interpret tourist sites differently, even diminishing their enjoyment, but I will speak more about this in another post.

0

Wat Phra, Doi Suthep Temple [Chiang Mai, Thailand]

I got so excited to start writing about Vietnam that I forgot about one of the very last things we did in Thailand: visit the Wat Phra (Temple) on Doi Suthep mountain. We went as a group after our last class. From our hotel the trip by taxi van took about 45 minutes to an hour depending on traffic. However, I wished that when I went I wasn’t with such a large group because I felt rushed and that I could have spent more time in the area.

Wat Phra is located on the mountain and leading up to it is a market that winds down the terrain. It was definitely catered to tourists but I still would have liked to walk around a bit and hike further up the mountain. However, what I saw was definitely amazing. The temple was very actively used for worship from what I observed. There were many monks around the premise, blessing visitors, or chatting with fellow monks. Visitors were taking part of some sort of ceremony.

On the temple grounds, there’s a point that you can climb up using stairs to see a breathtaking view of Chiang Mai below.

IMG_5602 IMG_5603

I don’t have much else to say except that Thailand has so many temples and I’ve already written about plenty of them.

0

To Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam]

After a day of traveling from Chiang Mai and back to Bangkok, we finally arrived in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam around 9pm/21h. I wasn’t really sure how I was feeling and people kept asking if I was nervous or excited throughout the day. What was supposed to feel? Some profound, magnetizing energy to the country of my parents’ birth? It felt like traveling to any other country by plane. I just hoped to arrive at my destination safe and would worry about the rest later.

When we walked out of the terminal maybe I was hallucinating or maybe it actually smelled like pho. I was starving from barely eating all day because of the traveling and I was dying for a Vietnamese meal. I was tired of Thai and I had no appetite for any Western food. But, we had to get through customs and immigration first.

Something about the whole thing made me nervous. I have read horror stories of Vietnamese Americans coming to Vietnam. We had to read Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham for the trip (which I will write about extensively later) but his story of his first visit back to Vietnam made me anxious about how I would be viewed and treated as a member of the Vietnamese diaspora. When I came up to the immigration officer I handed him my passport and visa and waited.

Bui Truc Vi, ah?

Da. Affirmative. Yes, this is me. This is my full name, completely Vietnamese and un-Americanized. I could feel my heart beating faster. Worst case scenario I was going to get locked up for trying to enter the country as a traitor of a war I did not exist during. Maybe I should just pretend I am a visitor of a different Asian ethnicity for the rest of the trip. Granted, Pham’s story took place in the 1990s and we are well past that decade but how was I to know how much or how little the country’s treatment of Vietnamese American’s had changed.

But I got through in what seemed like quicker time than the white American students that went just before me. Once everyone got through we boarded our bus to the hotel to check in and finally have a real meal. It was a really late dinner. We had reservations for the buffet in the hotel. I walked in and browsed the available dishes. They all seemed Western or Western-influenced generic Asian food, and sushi. It was amazing and delicious food, but not exactly what I was looking for. There was a small, hidden portion of banh cuon cha lua, or wet rice noodle with Vietnamese pork sausage/baloney/ham-thing, so obviously I scooped that right up. There was also a great seafood selection with crabs and lobsters, but all I could eye was the mounds of tropical fruit. I piled up and as I skipped to the table I said “I have been waiting my entire life for this plate of fruit.”

IMG_5622

I honestly can’t think of anything I want to do more in Vietnam than eat.

A lot of the tourist attractions around Ho Chi Minh City are geared towards the Vietnam War and I feel like that is the only thing people know about Vietnam. It is the only reason some people can place it on a map. The only point of relevancy in a America-centric society.

When I think about what it means for me to be Vietnamese, sure, coming from families that have lived through war and colonization is part of it, and from time to time usually brought on by well-meaning Americans, I struggle with this origin story. However, my most Vietnamese state is when I’m surrounded by relatives chattering in a language I can only half understand and I know that somewhere in the near vicinity, there is a table full of Vietnamese food nearby. In this state, my Vietnamese-ness is not a distinguishing characteristic of my differentness that causes me discomfort. Rather, it is a unifier to my family that nourishes me with the strength to remain strong and resilient, to live for the present day and press for the future.

Food is important to the Vietnamese. I am Vietnamese. And I am hungry.

0

Elephant Park! [Chiang Mai, Thailand]

On Sunday we had a day trip to Baan Chang Elephant Park. Everyone was looking forward to a chance to ride the elephants! When we pulled up to the site, we were in awe of the sheer number and size of the elephants in this park.

We got to feed the elephants sugar cane and bananas. Some of them were quite picky with their food and some of them were quite greedy.This one stole the bunch of sugar cane right from my pocket!

IMG_5535

The elephants in this park have been rescued from previously bad experiences. Some of them have been abused by their previous owners with visible scarring. Elephants are very social animals, so hearing this was very sad.

Then we got to learn how to ride them. We learned verbal and physical commands which were in Thai and Burmese because the trainers in the park were from both Thailand and Burma (Myanmar).

After lunch we got to take them for a ride around the park. Unfortunately, because elephants are easily scared by sudden noises, the group I was in was not able to take them all the way around because some locals were lighting fires.

And last of all we got to help bathe them. There are no flattering photos of this process. The one I was bathing loved to spray water!

IMG_5515

Baan Chang Elephant Park was one of the best days in Thailand! I’m so glad it was already included in our group itinerary and it was tuition/program fee well-spent.