Thursday, the last day of April, is the 40th anniversary of the end of my war. Americans call it the Vietnam War, and the victorious Vietnamese call it the American War. In fact, both of these names are misnomers, since the war was also fought, to great devastation, in Laos and Cambodia, a fact that Americans and Vietnamese would both rather forget.
In any case, for anyone who has lived through a war, that war needs no name. It is always and only “the war,” which is what my family and I call it. Anniversaries are the time for war stories to be told, and the stories of my family and other refugees are war stories, too. This is important, for when Americans think of war, they tend to think of men fighting “over there.” The tendency to separate war stories from immigrant stories means that most Americans don’t understand how many of the immigrants and refugees in the United States have fled from wars — many of which this country has had a hand in.
Although my family and other refugees brought our war stories with us to America, they remain largely unheard and unread, except by people like us. Compared with many of the four million Vietnamese in the diaspora, my family has been lucky. None of my relatives can be counted among the three million who died during the war, or the hundreds of thousands who disappeared at sea trying to escape by boat. But our experiences in coming to America were difficult.
When I first came to this country, at age 4, I was taken from my parents and put into a household of American strangers who were supposed to care for me while my parents got on their feet. I remember a small apartment, or maybe a mobile home, and a young couple who did not know what to do with me. I was sent on to a bigger house, a family with children, who asked me how to use chopsticks. I’m sure they meant to be welcoming, but I was perplexed and disappointed in myself for not knowing how to use them.
As for Vietnam, it is both familiar and strange. I heard much about it as I grew up in San Jose, Calif., in a Vietnamese enclave where I ate Vietnamese food, went to a Vietnamese church, studied the Vietnamese language, and heard Vietnamese stories, which were always about loss and pain. My parents and everyone I knew had lost homes, wealth, relatives, country and peace of mind. Letters and photographs in Par Avion envelopes, trimmed in red and blue, would arrive bearing words of poverty and hunger and despair. My parents had left behind my older, adopted sister, whom I knew only through one black-and-white photograph, a beautiful girl with a lonely expression. I didn’t remember her at all. I didn’t remember the grandparents who passed away one by one, two of whom I never met because they had stayed in the north while my parents had fled to the south as teenagers in 1954.
My father would never see his mother again, and not see his father for 40 years. My mother would never see her parents again, and not see her sisters for 20 years. And the violence they sought to escape caught up with them. My father and mother opened a grocery store and were shot and wounded in a robbery on Christmas Eve, when I was 10 years old. I was watching cartoons, waiting for them to come home. My brother took the phone call. When he told me what had happened I did not cry, and he shouted at me for not crying.
I would not return to Vietnam for 27 years because I was frightened of it, as so many of the Vietnamese in America were. I found the Vietnamese in America both intimate and alien, but Vietnam itself was simply alien. How I remembered it was through American movies and books, all of them in the English language that I had decided was mine at some unspoken, unconscious level. I heard broken English all around me, spoken by refugees whom I couldn’t help but see through American eyes: fresh off the boat, foreign, laughable, hateful. That was not me. I could not see how I could live a life in two languages equally well, so I decided to master one and ignore the other. But in mastering that language and its culture, I learned too well how Americans viewed the Vietnamese.
I watched “Apocalypse Now” and saw American sailors massacre a sampan full of civilians and Martin Sheen shoot a wounded woman in cold blood. I watched “Platoon” and heard the audience cheering and clapping when the Americans killed Vietnamese soldiers. These scenes, although fictional, left me shaking with rage. I knew that in the American imagination I was the Other, the Gook, the foreigner, no matter how perfect my English, how American my behavior. In my mostly white high school, the handful of Asian students clustered together in one corner for lunch and even called ourselves the Asian Invasion and the Yellow Peril.
Such stories are common among the Vietnamese people I know. For many, like the southern Vietnamese veterans who will not find the names of their more than 200,000 dead comrades on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, the war has not ended. That is because they are not “Vietnam veterans” in the American mind. Our function is to be grateful for being defended and rescued, and many of us indeed are. The United States welcomed hundreds of thousands of refugees from Southeast Asia in the years after the war. You would be hard pressed to find a more patriotic bunch than us, from the law professor who helped write the Patriot Act to the scientist who designed a bunker-buster bomb for the Iraq war. You can also count among our numbers many veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But at the same time these Vietnamese Americans fought for America, they also struggled to carve out their own space in this country. They built their own Vietnam War Memorial in Orange County, Calif., home of Little Saigon, the largest Vietnamese community outside of Vietnam. It tells a more inclusive story, featuring a statue of an American and Vietnamese soldier standing side by side. Every April, thousands of refugees and veterans and their children gather here to tell their own story and to commemorate what they call Black April.
This Black April, the 40th, is a time to reflect on the stories of our war. Some may see our family of refugees as living proof of the American dream — my parents are prosperous, my brother is a doctor who leads a White House advisory committee, and I am a professor and novelist. But our family story is a story of loss and death, for we are here only because the United States fought a war that killed three million of our countrymen (not counting over two million others who died in neighboring Laos and Cambodia). Filipinos are here largely because of the Philippine-American War, which killed more than 200,000. Many Koreans are here because of a chain of events set off by a war that killed over two million.
We can argue about the causes for these wars and the apportioning of blame, but the fact is that war begins, and ends, over here, with the support of citizens for the war machine, with the arrival of frightened refugees fleeing wars we have instigated. Telling these kinds of stories, or learning to read, see and hear family stories as war stories, is an important way to treat the disorder of our military-industrial complex. For rather than being disturbed by the idea that war is hell, this complex thrives on it.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, an associate professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, and the author, most recently, of the novel The Sympathizer.