Viet Nam: Journey/Journal (Feb 1999)

by mimi thi nguyen

A series of journal entries, this was published in  Punk Planet no. 29. Some of these were also published in my zine Slander.

______________________

I was born in Viet Nam in 1974. I left in 1975 in a US military cargo plane, days before Saigon “fell.” (Maybe you’ve seen the pictures in high school textbooks.) Physically, I haven’t been back to Viet Nam since, but I can’t get away from it. Viet Nam follows me around, this phantasm that makes demands for something –I don’t know what– from me.

I’ve become obsessed with finding out what it wants.

The following are from journal entries I started to take down about Viet Nam –as syndrome, as “home”/”not-home,” as cultural dumping ground, as political icon– beginning in 1994. It’s not a “travel diary,” in the sense that I’ve spent 16 hours on a plane or walked down the cobbled Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City street where I once lived (I haven’t done either). But it is about travel in the sense that I write about the war, forced migration, and refugee status: it’s about travel in the sense that I’m still considered alien in some places here, thought I’ve been in the United States for more than 20 years now.

feburary 17, 1994.

The jingoistic insults –Love it or leave it!– hurled at war protesters in the sixties and seventies are echoed at my high school in 1991. I, as Vietnamese refugee here by the machinations of continued US military intervention in Viet Nam, joined ten other students in a sit-down protest against continued US military intervention in the Persian Gulf. Having squatted the sidewalk in front of the administration building, we were approached by one hundred angry war supporters, many of them military “brats,” spitting and screaming.

Why don’t you go home? someone asks me directly. It’s an ironic question. And why aren’t you grateful?

Where do I begin?

february 13, 1995.

I got a letter in the mail the other day from my friend Dzung. I think he’s brilliant.

Mimi-

I spent December and January in Viet Nam, mostly in Hue and some in Hanoi. It was a crazy trip, a really good but difficult experience. I got to know a lot about my (deceased) grandmother, a lot about the countryside. It gave me insight into why my dad is the way he is, why I went through what I did growing up. I have a lot of respect for it now and I think it’s totally beautiful. But the question is, what does it mean for my life? Here and now?

It was also a little weird because on the one hand my relatives totally accepted me as family and loved me. But on the other hand there was a definite sense (especially on the streets) of “He’s a foreigner – viet kieu.” It’s so fucked up no matter where I am: always a foreigner.

My mom tells me that when we visit Viet Nam (we always say we’ll go), I’m going to have to dye my green hair black and dress like a girl — a “normal” girl, she amends.

I answer, “They’ll know I’m a foreigner, it doesn’t matter if I was born there. No disguise is gonna work, ma.” She disagrees, but I think it’s obvious — something that goes way down, this distance from where I began, down to the wet of my cells.

march 4, 1995.

I read this in a book about Indian immigrants in Great Britain: We Are Here Because You Were There.

(It’s the return of the repressed.)

june 30, 1995.

I grew up in a white working-class town outside of Minneapolis city limits. Not only was my family the only non-white family in the neighborhood, but we were resolutely bizarre, foreign, and refugee. I think I exuded this, enacted my alien-ness unconsciously, a disjuncture of speech, dress, and gesture; something about the way I held my head, maybe, or inherent in the way my limbs were attached.

Growing up there produced a litany of adverse conditions I could recite as instrumental: after-school fights; blood trickling from my younger brother’s ear; poverty re-upholstered in yards of cheap discount fabric; mailboxes regularly victimized by baseball bat or cherry bomb; and hate letters from the blonde, blue-eyed twins next door.

Instrumental in the sense, then, that when I first saw mohawked, leather-jacketed punks on t.v. (the ’80s version of youth-gone-bad before the now well-worn discovery of black, Asian and Latino gangs) terrorizing high school populations and decent, law-abiding American citizens I knew what I wanted to be. Vengeful, I wanted to be an aggressive spectacle and offend “good” (white) people with the doubled assault. I thought to compound my Other-ness, to control the character of my freakish-ness in a way I couldn’t then pretend.

Never mind, for a moment, all the issues I have with punk, I tell this story when people suggest that punk is for white kids and anyone else is just white-washed. It’s pure arrogance, of course: why assume that I want everything the West (or whiteness) has to offer? That I don’t make my own meanings, that I don’t negotiate, counter-appropriate or re-define these things?

That is (pay attention), my involvement with punk has everything to do with being an angry refugee-alien me.

august 8, 1995.

The fifty-year remembrance exhibit of the dropping of the Nagasaki/Hiroshima bombs triggered a response. (You know they say “we” should’ve just bombed Viet Nam back to the Stone Age, ka-fucking-boom.) A charred, burnt body in stark black and white stirred my latent hysteria: I forgot to breathe. You were there when I stumbled, fell to the floor, shaking with the violence of my will to re-surface, to break the spell. There is nothing to say. Only the cavernous absence of the heart stilled in skewed recognition, if only for a moment.

august 25, 1995.

I am trying to establish the contradictory conditions under which I have had to come to terms with my history and politics, since you won’t.

I’m uncomfortably watching arch-conservative Vietnamese-Canadians publicly burn copies of left intellectual icon Noam Chomsky’s Necessary Illusions in the bio-documentary Manufacturing Consent. They are protesting both the renewal of diplomatic and economic relations between the West and still-communist Viet Nam and Chomsky’s own political analysis of the Indochine conflict. I’m angry because of the coarsely-drawn, racialized caricature of Cold War anticommunist hysteria they’re made to reincarnate here, spitting, disheveled, and heavily accented, a bizarre alien foil against the casual, almost beatific calm of the senior Noam, a lanky white professor infinitely comfortable in the midst of his homey MIT office. (I only notice this scene the third time, sitting in a hotel room with my parents, feeling foolish for not having noticed before this uneven-ness.)

Even if I’m at odds with their political agenda, I am made to feel sharply uncomfortable, watching Chomsky off-handedly dismiss their protests. (It bears mentioning that at the time of the Cambodian conflict, he suggested that reports of atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge were mere right-wing exaggerations.)

I recognize the colonial discourse being reproduced by an ostensible Left blind to the representational cultural politics of their media imagery (backwards, emotional Third World natives, civilized, rational Western intellectuals) and again I feel that distance between myself and the white American Left growing.

Did I say this yet? I am trying to establish the contradictory conditions under which I have had to come to terms with my history and politics, since you won’t.

october 5, 1995.

When I was ten and living in Plymouth, Minnesota, a white woman approached me in a Red Owl supermarket. She told me, quite calmly, that I had killed her husband before turning on her heel and clack-clacking away while my baby girl’s heart drummed in my chest. While I didn’t remember killing anybody from before, I was awed that this woman believed that I was so amazingly powerful that I might’ve killed grown men, or be mistaken for another ten year-old who had.

april 16, 1996.

Last time I was home, my parents showed me a video my mother’s cousin sent. Filmed by shaky hand-held camcorder, the worthy occasion being thus immortalized on celluloid is the dedication of a “historical location” or shrine to an eighteenth-century ancestor of ours in Hanoi, Viet Nam, at the family house where he was born. He was apparently the Vietnamese equivalent of a mandarin and a poet to boot. I come from a long line of these, according to my parents. As I watched it, I wanted to be moved by the auspicious weight of History and ancestry, but it screened badly — just another long family function where I know none of the distant cousins and the speeches last painful hours. I watched as the amateur video-maker moved outside the house, panning down the street past willow trees and ponds. My father said he’d been down that street when, at sixteen, he and his family retreated to the countryside after his first and only three days of fighting with the Viet Minh against the French. He said, for all he knew, my mother might’ve been at the house at the time. (She couldn’t remember.) Meanwhile voice-over wandered in and out of earshot as lingering minutes were spent, unfocused, on a yellowed portrait of said ancestor and a hand-drawn family tree pinned to one wall that fell from ceiling to floor. I canvassed the wrinkled faces of stranger-family capped under scarves and misshapen hats, women my age in white ao dais carrying baskets of fruit wrapped in red cellophane, the occasional communist officer in distinctive olive uniform. I could have been one of the young women, my father said, if we’d stayed.

But of course, we didn’t and I’m not.

june 26, 1996.

A year later my brother sends me a set of photographs: the face of a young Vietnamese woman through the window of a Vietnam-era combat helicopter; the skyward view from beneath old-tarp tents; my father and me sitting on a hard canvas cot under those tents, scratching at insect bites; a bright banner reading, exultant, THANK YOU, AMERICA! hanging from the lip of the main stage.

They are photos from the twenty-year refugee camp commemoration at the U.S. Marine base Camp Pendleton, coordinated by the Vietnamese Student Association of Southern California. Officially, it was called “Operation Homecoming” or, in Vietnamese, “Nhay Tre Ve.” (Literally translated, it means “Day of Going Home .”)

Feeling something like an experimental monkey come back to the lab of my original indoctrination (measured, inoculated, tagged), I imagined myself subject to the pseudo-scientific scrutiny of my former “guardians:” how well have I, after approximately twenty years, adjusted to conditions of x, y, and z? If I were truly paranoid, I might still check my body for a microscopic computer chip implanted just beneath the skin, disguised as an innocuous mole or freckle, its artificial memory bank saturated with all kinds of obscure logarithmic data tracing the path of my migration.

I was –and am– disturbed by the invocation of that perennial “American” mythology: that immigrants and refugees are born again once on U.S. soil, cleansed. I’m frustrated by the amnesia: we are on a military base where U.S. soldiers were trained to kill Vietnamese in a civil war, escalated to monumental proportions by the U.S. government, and yet it’s claimed as “home”?

I’m made dizzy by the implications.

I read somewhere that the most toxic effect of imperialism is its ability to portray itself to its colonized subjects as a gracious, righteous benefactor.

On a field “they” (I don’t know who) had erected oil-tarps and cots in a re-enactment of the refugee camp. (I try to imagine a hundred or more of these.) We wandered beneath the heavy aroma of petroleum, trapped. “It was exactly like this,” my dad declared, sitting down. I had nothing to say.

My brother took a picture.

october 24, 1996.

My mother says at the refugee camps I refused to drink the canned milk the base provided. She says this is why I’m skinny now. She says, affectionately, I’ve been nothing but trouble since.

april 4, 1997.

I picked up this white girl’s zine in a local record shop because I didn’t have any with me. I am in a new town and hating it because I’ve been here before. I hate the ugly, squat buildings, the smallish feeling of the so-called downtown blocks swarming with undergraduate college students and not-so fresh-faced gutter punks. Later I sit down on the mattress on the floor of my naked room and skim its contents and I can’t help it, I’m uneasy. She’s written about her European trip as an “American abroad,” making broad statements about “not belonging anywhere” and perhaps, maybe, it’s not about the where but the who. Nothing, she writes, changes when you travel.

I’m slightly resentful, chewing on a thumbnail. The 22nd “anniversary” (it seems an inappropriate word) of my family’s flight is approaching and I can’t let it go, I mean this. She assumes “you” (me) is like her. She can because she’s not like me, because she doesn’t have to acknowledge that maybe, just maybe, not everyone “doesn’t belong” the same. That there are different levels specifying how I don’t belong and how she (imagines she) doesn’t belong. I get annoyed at the unacknowledged privileges of race and nation she invokes in these sweeping “truths” and maybe I’m jealous because I don’t have the privilege of her kind of angst.

I protest. Everything changes when I travel.

april 15, 1997.

I found this quote by a 26 year-old white woman, a resident of South Oklahoma City, buried in an old beat-up journal, while unpacking. I can’t remember what book I pulled it from, something sociological, I’m sure.

I don’t like them people [the Vietnamese refugees] being here. They have some strange beliefs and they can kill you with their feet.Can’t we do something about them?

I am stunned all over again, reading this.

april 24, 1997.

Twenty-two years ago yesterday I became a refugee from a war-torn Viet Nam. This year, a white Vietnam veteran sent me an e-mail wishing me a good anniversary. In some ways, he wrote, it was a revelation of sorts to be able to wish me this.

(It is something of a revelation to be wished this by a vet.)

I feel a little old because I’ve been thinking about these things so much lately — realizing that my personal small h-history is such a huge chunk of big-H History, and still being this invisible, unacknowledged thing, this disease, this “Vietnam syndrome,” this national will to amnesia, to forget, to move on. The enormity of “Vietnam” looms so immense, so intimate; I can barely watch it –as dramatic background, as generational icon, as national Wound– without feeling robbed, cheated of my due.

june 7, 1997.

Did you know you could buy “The Vietnam Experience” as a series of Time-Life books? Today I had the opportunity to own the whole of it when I found the 20-volume set for seventeen dollars at a local library book sale.

It’s the real deal.

But I didn’t have seventeen dollars on me that day, so all I have is this journal. It’s not good enough for the box office or richly-illustrated series that can be ordered, late at night, by phone with Visa, American Express, or Mastercard, payable in monthly installments.

june 29, 1997.

For my 23rd birthday, my mom of course thought: a family trip to Disneyland!

And at the shooting range in Frontierland I learned my daddy is a sharpshooter, trained by the French. He hits every mark, making the white cowboys dance, the saloon whores sing and the ghosts! They move behind the night-sky screen, mouths like drooping donuts, moaning.

I never knew this about him, and can’t imagine how I would’ve ever found out otherwise. That I did find out at Disneyland –the theme park that specializes in good ol’ Americana, sugar-coated fairytales and shiny surfaces– makes it even more bizarre but, weirdly, I think, appropriate.

Funny how two minutes and fifty cents reveal incendiary histories buried beneath the familiar amnesia of exile.

july 26, 1997.

Because I’m obsessed with the idea of travel –as leisure, as “discovery,” as luxury, as immigration, as exile– I checked out Lonely Planet’s “Vietnam Experience” (available on video) from the local library. I go home, make some popcorn and sit back to watch. A young white woman stars and narrates, looking solidly collegiate, outdoorsy and girl-next-door. Stepping onto the street in front of a skinny Vietnamese cyclo driver, she warns viewers –me, for now– to set the price for a round-trip pedicab ride before climbing aboard. She settles on 10,000 dong, or one US dollar, in her own pidgen-English haggling. She sets an example for shrewd, tactical tourism: otherwise, she says in voice-over, you might end up paying four times as much. This said as she sits backs, the cyclo driver steadily pedaling away from the camera.

Four dollars is a fortune in Viet Nam. The average yearly income, estimated optimistically, is equivalent to 250 US dollars. Watching, I think, God forbid your globe-trotting, rich white ass should pay more than a dollar for a cyclo driver’s sweat.

november 14, 1997.

In skewed conversation with a white male co-worker, he describes his mini-safaris through the florescent-lit jungles of Little Saigon’s markets, journeying into unknown territories far afield from comfortable Orange County suburbs. With relish he, a suburban Indiana Jones, maps culinary exotica, sweeping across continents of aisles and dipping into the vocabulary of adventurism to ponder the benefits of “visiting” other cultures, made available through encounters with live squid or fermented bean curd. He expects this gives us something in common. I, in a Marxist mood, think murderous thoughts about the numerous phantoms involved. We are here because you were there. But instead of delivering devastating pronouncement my aunt does piecemeal work for a sweatshop in Little Saigon making the confectionery dresses your fellow suburbanites wore to Spring Fling I walk away.

Some people can’t see those ghosts.

In stellar convergence (speaking of food) the local weeklies have recently reviewed several area Vietnamese restaurants. “Indochine” as French colonial hegemony in Southeast Asia is casually referenced by way of baguette and beef stews. The “American presence” on the other hand is positively spectral in culinary historical memory; the cooks just turn up here (by war, by whim, by wave of a genie’s wand). It inspires in me facetious comments: Never mind the war, where’s the lemongrass beef?

february 19, 1998.

I’m sitting in a restaurant, eating fries. I have Foucault’s Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison with me, but forego the Panopticon and the “political anatomy of the body” for Raymond Feist’s cheap fantasy novel Darkness at Sethanon.

–Excuse me, where are you from?

I turn. The middle-aged black man in the booth next to mine is talking to me. He is also looking me up and down, surreptitiously. Inwardly I groan because it is a familiar opening gambit, I’ve heard it mouthed enough times to recognize its motive, nothing short of “hey baby” in disguise. I think to myself, M— is so not the place I would go to make new friends or cruise for dates. I decide to forego the smart-ass answer (Minnesota) for a curt, “Vietnam.”

“Oh,” he replies, “can you recommend any good Vietnamese writers of Vietnamese history?”

For a second I stare. I think, Oh, man, that’s weak. I’m reminded of another pick-up line a friend of mine hears all the time in cafes around campus. Once it’s confirmed that she’s Chinese, she’s asked if she can help with Chinese translations.

I say, “No.”

He plows on: “Do you know any good French writers?”

“No.” I turn back to my book, hoping he’ll take the hint.

He gets resentful. I can tell he is fuming, it’s common enough, men expect you to be available, flattered by their attention. They want you to jump when they speak, open wide, they imagine you to be public property just because you are out in public. We are supposed to make nice, be grateful, be submissive. I’m used to this. I expect the usual “bitch” or similarly derogatory muttering. I expect, why don’t you smile? a suggestion that automatically inspires frowns. I expect to be accused of unfriendliness, another complaint about women I always hear. I don’t care, I hardly want to be the accommodating Asian woman just to assuage a stranger’s wounded male ego.

I am unprepared, however, when he says, angrily, “You know, a lot of men died fighting for your country.””

For a split-second I am too stunned to say a word. I am caught in that contraction of muscles and tendons, suspended. Flinching.

Slowly. “So what, you want me to be grateful? Does that mean I’m supposed to fuck everyone who survived?

march 23, 1998.

In Little Saigon I was a novelty, “exotic” with wallet-chain wrapped around my neck trapping dirt and sweat, truncated green hair, even though Little Saigon is as “American,” as much a fiction as I am: a city council-designated site for reimagining “home.” We are both nothing like we might have been elsewhere. I can’t preserve, even as possibility, what’s been irreversibly destroyed in the process of war, migration, and decolonization. And still I manage to elude Authenticity –big-A intact– or more, it eludes me.

And so I wear my history of trauma differently, what of it–?

june 13, 1998.

My father wants to go “back” to France where he’d spent his college years motoring up cobbled streets on a Vespa, sharing a tiny apartment overlooking the Left Bank with two other graduate students, also originally from Hanoi, displaced to Saigon after 1954.

We are talking about the World Cup soccer games and I am rooting for Brazil in the finals, while he takes the other team. “France,” he says, “is my country.”

I look at him strangely. Say, “What about Viet Nam?”

“They’re both my countries,” he amends.

So I want to know (France or “America”): How does a colonizing nation become “home”?

october 5, 1998.

I was looking for a reference when I re-stumbled upon this quote, underlined and starred –twice– in red ink, by Black British theorist Stuart Hall, a Jamaican transplant to Birmingham:

The classic questions which every migrant faces are twofold: “Why are you here?” and “When are you going home?” No migrant ever knows the answer to the second question until asked. Only then does she or he know that, really, in the deep sense, she/he’s never going back. Migration is a one-way trip. There’s no “home” to go back to. There never was.

I think, yes.