Making Meaning of the Past by Going Back to Vietnam to Live.
When I was 21, I "discovered" Vietnam.
Let us ignore that Vietnamese culture had existed for thousands of years before me, that Vietnamese people had been living, surviving, struggling, fighting, and striving here long before I had gleaned any meaning from what was called "Vietnam."
Yes, let us ignore that fact. Because when I was 21, I stepped in Vietnam for the first time, and because I, the whitewashed boy born and raised in the States, had to make meaning of my past by coming back to the country of my parents, my grandparents, and my ancestors. Vietnam needed to be rediscovered.
This "discovery" of Vietnam as the missing part of my identity allowed me to view all of my experiences in this stretch of land in the romantic. Oh, what a beautiful country! The smell of nước mắm wafting through the street vendors! The bustling of kind and warmhearted people who have traversed the trauma of war and are now living peacefully in the society they built! The temples, pagodas, and shrines remind me of a rich Vietnamese past filled with warriors, heroes, and sages - ancestors who I could claim as my own!
In hindsight, I rediscovered Vietnam as part of my identity and self-conception in the same way that the Europeans "discovered" the so-called New World. A place to reestablish one's sense of self. A place to reassert one's destiny from one past. A place where exoticness rules, and the values on which I have placed upon this new land defeat the wide diversity of conceptions cultivated for thousands of years by the peoples that have lived there and are still living there.
For many of the Vietnamese diaspora like me who have taken steps to return and explore Vietnam, this exoticness has taken a variety of essentialist forms. After reading one or two books on Vietnam, we feel confident to make wide claims about its complex and diverse history - could it be history is appropriated to fit our individualistic values and desires? It makes us feel good when we constantly talk about our family histories as fragments that have been broken and cracked by war, while on the other side of our mouths, we snicker and judge the white man who talks about Vietnam as a War just as much as we do.
Every single story we tell about our identity is a story that has already been crafted and weaved by mainstream American society - "I am the child of refugees. My parents sacrificed everything to bring me here, to find opportunities here. Here I am, back in Vietnam, hoping to reconcile myself with a new Vietnam that is prosperous and developed. Hopefully, I can put back together the broken pieces my parents, affected by the trauma of war, refuse to put back together. I, a Vietnamese American, have broken free from the intellectual shackles that imperialism has put upon my parents, allowing me the freedom to see Vietnam in a new and different light."
Now that I am older and have the opportunity to dive deeper into the many aspects of Vietnamese culture, history, politics, and language, I sometimes ask my younger self: why is the empowerment of my self in regards to Vietnam so tied to the lack of agency I must place upon my parents and the people who live in Vietnam? Is the Vietnam I am experiencing a Vietnam of diversity, fragmentation, and realism? Or is the Vietnam I am experiencing simply an imaginative construct that I have placed in the environment around me to see Vietnam in a way that fits me?
Edward Said says this about Orientalism: "The Orient has a kind of extrareal, phenomenologically reduced status that puts them out of reach of everyone except the Western expert. From the beginning of Western speculation about the Orient, the one thing the Orient could not do was represent itself. Evidence of the Orient was credible only after it had passed through and been made firm by the refining fire of the Orientalist's work."
I often wonder if I fall into the trap of "self-orientalizing" my identity and past. I find it to be quite "edgy" to see myself criticize the so-called "Western experts" of Vietnam while forgetting that for the first 21 years of my life, I have never stepped in nor studied Vietnam, but yet assert a greater claim to Vietnamese identity and knowledge regarding Vietnam because that is the place my parents called home.
Vietnam never has, nor is it now, been a place of wonder and imagination. From the beginning of its history that leads to the present, Vietnam has been a battleground of people fighting over its land, a site of political, religious, ideological, and genealogical clashes, and a place, like the rest of the world, where stagnation and growth have oscillated between each other, often at the same time.
Vietnam has never asked me to defend it from my parents as a land of peace and prosperity, nor has it asked me to follow my parents in denouncing its poverty and authoritarianism. Vietnam had continued to develop and change long before I had decided to claim Vietnam as my own. Vietnam will continue to grow and change in the same way regardless of my individual designation of it. Vietnam will not accept me as more "Vietnamese" just because I have proudly declared, "Tôi là người Việt Nam" for the first time, nor will my assertion of such an identity - half to prove to my American side I am not just some invisible minority, half to prove to my Vietnamese side (and its members that have always questioned by Vietnameseness) that I am truly a part of them - make myself more Vietnamese.
So three years later, upon my return to Vietnam and staying here for a year, how shall I reimagine my concept of Vietnam and self? I think the best answer to this question is no answer. I make no definite conclusion about Vietnam, nor of Vietnamese identity, or Vietnamese history, for it is tumultuous, pluralistic, and full of fragmentation. My only goal is to listen.
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Joseph Nguyen is teacher living in Vietnam as part of his Fulbright Scholar PWhen I was 21, I "discovered" Vietnam.When I was 21, I "discovered" Vietnarogram,
Photos credit: Joseph Nguyen