Do you remember April 30, 1975? Do you recall the time before and after that day in history? As a Vietnamese American who was 18 months old on that day, I am only able to understand the experience through the lens of my parents – my father, the Vietnamese C-130 Hercules pilot for the South Vietnamese Air Force; my mother, the seamstress who tucked my ill infant body under her wings and ran like a running back during their escape. My own memories are in the years after – some of the earliest are from when we settled in San Antonio, Texas in an attic of a sponsor’s home. I peered out the attic window in silence as my mother tended to my twin baby sisters who were born in San Antonio in 1976. I watched the people passing by, not yet understanding the difference between us and them – White Americans who experienced the Vietnam war in their own way. I can’t put my finger on a sense of how much time I stood looking out the window waiting for my father to come home on the bed of a truck with other workers who toiled with him on a watermelon farm. With no toys, no television, no anything, all I did was stand.
Mom asks, “Thao, what are you doing?”
I reply in toddler words, “I’m doing standing.”
When the police sirens would blare, I would dash under the bed. As a 3 year-old, my sense of fear and the trauma of war was already very real.
I reflect back on my parents’ lives during the immediate aftermath of April 30, 1975. Thrust into a world turned upside down, they did what they had to do. Survive. As with many others in the same chaos, somehow, slowly but steadily, they survived. And then they thrived. I’m grateful, yet melancholy at the same time. Oh the struggles they must have endured… the fears, the worries, the fatigue, the fight… day in and day out. Do what you gotta do.
They gave me a rich life.
Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1977 – my first major self-inflicted boo boo and my experience living in low income housing with poor African Americans. My boo boo was on a Big Wheel with a black girl in the housing complex.
Cedar Rapids, Iowa, in 1978 – my youngest sibling, a brother, is born and baptized into the Catholic Church. My sisters and I were given saint names. Mine is Theresa. I rode the bus to pre-school in the snow and cried when mom made me stay home when I was sick. At 4 years old, I already loved school.
Houston, Texas, by 1979 – our home, our hood, our place, even until today. Growing up in the South has been a complex experience with so much in terms of growing pains. Yet I realize that the American phrase “no pain, no gain” has truth to it. Everything that happened to me here has taken me to places I had only dreamed of, and yet here I am – thriving in Cali-forn-i-a! I was California Dreamin’ on many Houston winter days.
As a professor of Sociology, living in Southern California for 11 years, I’ve come to current realizations of my past. The Vietnamese American community absolutely has a vile vibe for the Viet Cong and its leader – Ho Chi Minh. Through my years of studying and exploring the social, historical, political, and economic facets of society, I’m constantly fascinated with documentaries and thinkers that examine issues through a lens of social justice. I’m particularly interested in how “truth” is told. Too often, we learn in an echo chamber, being exposed to things that reaffirm what we think we already know. So here I am now, confronted with new information on a framework I’ve been given pretty much all my life. Ho Chi Minh is evil. Communism is corrupt. Vietnam, today, is corrupt because it’s run by the Communists.
So I ask you and I ask myself –
Why is Ho Chi Minh evil? What were his motivations? What were his ideals and values? Are we sure some of him is not in some of us?
Is Capitalism also not corrupt?
Do we not live in an America today (and in its past) that is corrupt?
As I delve into the socio-political history of Vietnam, the Vietnam War, and Ho Chi Minh himself, I have to reflect on these locations, these events, and these individuals through a lens that is outside of the mainstream. Sure, the mainstream is a great source. But it creates an echo chamber of confirmation bias.
And so today, I am confronted with how to understand all these things with a broader, more inclusive lens. I realize that Ho Chi Minh was, in his own right, a revolutionary. In my support of civil rights and human rights, in America and all around the world, I have to reconcile that Ho Chi Minh might not be very different than those revolutionaries in the United States who fought and continue today to fight for rights, freedom, and civil liberties. Ho Chi Minh was in line with many of the revolutionary figures in the African American Civil Rights Movement, and they, with him.
I will be sharing a lecture tomorrow, May 1st, on campus about my personal journey and academic exercise regarding this reconciliation of “truth” from a new lens. Here’s a sneak peek into what my lecture will hinge upon…
“Dating back to at least 1924, the man who became known as Ho Chi Minh (Nguyen Ai Quoc) lived in upper Manhattan as an activist among the African-American community during the period known as the Harlem Renaissance. Ho worked with the organization led by Marcus Garvey known as the Universal Negro Improvement Association and African Communities League, headquartered in New York City at its zenith in the early 1920s. Ho reflected on his observations conducted just six decades after the conclusion of the U.S. Civil War and the legal dissolution of chattel slavery, in a period of extreme state repression, widespread institutional racism and arbitrary violence, in a 1924 pamphlet entitled ‘On Lynching and the Ku Klux Klan.’ The work documents various aspects of social conditions prevailing in African-American communities throughout the U.S.
He states, ‘The Black race is most oppressed.’
Ho Chi Minh left the U.S. and traveled to other parts of the world including Europe. In 1930, the Indochinese Communist Party was formed, encompassing revolutionaries from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia who were battling French colonialism. Later Vietnam was occupied by both France and Japan.
Eventually, the United States entered Vietnam’s experience.
African-American opposition to the Vietnam War and solidarity with [Ho Chi Minh] were embodied by Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz) and the Nation of Islam (NOI). They had been against U.S. involvement in Vietnam since the early 1960s. After leaving the NOI, Malcolm X adopted a decisively revolutionary position related to world revolution and spoke frequently of solidarity with the Vietnamese Revolution.” (https://www.workers.org/2018/02/05/black-liberation-and-the-vietnamese-struggle/)
—— So I ask myself, is Ho Chi Minh so vile? I understand why Vietnamese Americans (those who escaped Vietnam to run from Ho Chi Minh’s takeover of the Motherland, which includes my parents and myself) see him as such. Yet I also must confront the uncomfortable and unpopular view that he was fighting for an ideology and value system that rejected the imperial dominance of Vietnam by France, Japan, America, etc. His values advocated for the rights of oppressed African Americans. I share these values. For me, a Vietnamese American refugee, to state that I share values with Ho Chi Minh, is problematic. What will my father think? What will his military buddies think? What will my community think? ——
Did you know that in 1999, a Vietnamese American man named Truong Van Tran was beat up and harassed by Vietnamese Americans in Orange County, CA, for hanging a picture of Ho Chi Minh in his video rental store?
“[In March 1999] a crowd estimated at 15,000 gathered around Tran’s store, Hi Tek, an electronics-cum-video-rental outlet in a cramped mini-mall in Little Saigon–the unofficial name of Westminster, which lies about an hour south of Los Angeles. The demonstrators unfurled signs declaring, ‘our wounds will never heal! be aware! communists are invading America!’ They are not angry about some controversial video (the rental shelves carry nothing questionable; the most popular tape, Tran says, is a martial-arts epic in which a student of Buddha’s sends a monkey angel from heaven to fight evil on earth). Rather, the demonstrators started milling around Tran’s store in January after he defiantly displayed a flag of the communist government of Vietnam and a poster of the regime’s founder, Viet Cong leader Ho Chi Minh. That explains the effigies of Ho displayed above the shop; the gigantic flag of defunct South Vietnam hiding the storefront (and the offending poster); and the sign that reads, Ho Chi Minh is a second Hitler.
Two weeks prior, police in riot gear arrested nearly a dozen protesters after 300 people stormed barricades to attack Hi Tek during Tet, the Vietnamese New Year. Some activists vowed to set themselves on fire, emulating the suicidal monks of the 1960s. Last week’s larger but more peaceful crowd chanted slogans criticizing Tran as the sounds of mortar blasts and machine-gun fire boomed from loudspeakers. An elaborate shrine of candles, flowers and incense rests in front of two mock coffins bearing American and Vietnamese war victims. All that’s missing is food vendors. Nope. Here comes someone hawking doughnuts and soymilk.
‘We respect his freedom of speech, but he abuses that freedom’, says a protest leader and immigration consultant Ky Ngo.
‘Exercising your First Amendment rights is one thing; causing dissension in your community is another’, says Vietnam vet Larkin Kennedy, whose forearm is tattooed with the image of a Vietnamese lady he left behind.
‘I used to rent videos here, and I regret it deeply’, says Linda Nguyen, a student at the University of California at Long Beach. She sniffs: His videos were copies and so blurry.
At home, Tran insists he displayed the flag because it’s his country’s current symbol. Ho, he says, was a hero who helped liberate his people. And America is a liberated country, with real freedoms. I wanted to show the Vietnamese community that freedom means accepting an opposite opinion. – http://content.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2054075,00.html
It’s 19 years since that incident happened. Am I safe to speak my truth? Will I be treated with vilification as an ungrateful refugee who supports the Vietnamese Hitler???
I don’t know. But what I do know is that being an American has taught me to speak MY truth. The advocacy for human rights is never a safe space. It requires us to be uncomfortable. It requires us to be thought provoking. It requires us to take steps back and reflect with humility when we are presented with new information – even new entire paradigms for how we might see and experience the world in which we live. My academic voice tells me that academic freedom will allow me to explore controversial knowledge. But academic freedom and the 1st amendment won’t protect me from public opinion. Today, our current environment of public dialogue rests upon a divisive context. But today, more than ever, I am confident in myself as a professional and a human being who voices my perspective with conviction and intention; while at the same time, I am willing to dialogue with opposing voices. No matter how fierce, no matter how nasty, no matter how mean those voices might be…I must be willing to listen. My hope is to lead by example, and my optimism rests in the hope that those oppositional voices would give me a chance and listen to me, too.