Believe me, this was not something I expected. But sometimes life has a strange way of converging various aspects of experiences into times and places which I find intriguing enough to share. Two months ago, my Dad mentioned that he was going to attend a reunion of his flight school and see his flight instructor for the first time in 47 years. In 1971 he was a member of the Republic of Vietnam Air Force (South Vietnam) and was selected for pilot training by the USAF in the United States. He trained at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, and Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi. I was intrigued by his reunion event and available to attend since I’m on sabbatical. It’s a part of my family’s history, and revisiting this part of my past would be a rare opportunity. It would surely allow for some deep reflection on stories to be written in my memoir. The event was held Thursday, October 25, at Keesler Air Force Base. I flew to Houston on Tuesday, October 23, and the next morning got in a van with Dad, Mom, 2 of Dad’s Vietnamese pilot buddies also attending the reunion, and the wife of one of those pilot buddies.
It started off quite pleasantly. I knew one of his buddies well, Mr. Tong. Every time we see each other, Mr. Tong teases me about how sad he is that I rejected his son as a suitor. He still refers to me as “dau huc” (missed out daughter in law). I met Mr. Thanh and his wife for the first time. They met my parents through another one of my Dad’s pilot buddies. By the time we got to New Orleans, LA, we took a cool detour through the Lake Pontchartrain Bridge – the world’s longest bridge over continuous water (23.83 miles). As we passed the Mississippi state line, I started to notice the confederate flag flying over various sites. By the time we got to Biloxi, the flag was everywhere. We were near the hotel by Keesler Air Force Base when we passed the museum of Jefferson Davis’ home – he was the first and only President of the Confederate States from 1861-1865. The home was a mansion even in today’s standards, with a distinct plantation style architecture. There were several modern mansions along the coast of Biloxi that undoubtedly maintained the plantation structure and had tall, old trees on the lawn, facing vast water views of the Gulf of Mexico.
My emotions turned weary as the plantation homes and the confederate flag conjured up thoughts of the harsh struggles, devastations, and deaths from the era of slavery – and these struggles, devastations, and deaths that still happen now through slavery’s legacy. The fancy mansions and resort style restaurants on the coast are a stark contrast from the dilapidated homes and overgrown/dried out lawns of the homes and businesses that are inland, just a few miles away. Mississippi is the poorest state in America, dead last by measures of household income and poverty rates. The racial bifurcation was also clear. I observed mostly white folks walking along the beach, frolicking at the parks, and checking in with luxury, valeted vehicles to the Beau Rivage Resort and Casino. Black folks were sitting on their porches, riding the buses, and working as cooks and staff at the restaurants and casino (but notably the casino dealers were mostly white). As a Vietnamese American, my eyes and ears always drift in the direction of other Vietnamese Americans. I saw a few of them in the public spaces, and there were a handful of Vietnamese restaurants, but most of them were at the slot machines and table games of the casino. So another stereotype was observed – the seemingly wealthy Asian person with an affinity, and often times an addiction, for gambling. The Vietnamese in and near Biloxi were immigrants who resettled to the area mostly for fishing and shrimping jobs. Several friends I knew from Houston have parents who were in the fishing and shrimping industry along the coast of Mississippi – Biloxi, Pass Christian, and Gulfport, to name a few. These friends left the Mississippi small towns in search of something else when they moved to Houston on their own as young adults. The Vietnamese community of Mississippi is rich with its own historical and geographic context. If the South is known for its regional sociocultural and sociohistorical flavor of Black and White relations, then where do Vietnamese fall in this binary of a paradigm?
I’m consistently aware of how my life was impacted in various ways because I’m an Asian American who grew up in the South. As a Vietnamese American whose adult mind was molded to see the world through a sociological lens, there is no way for me to escape the notion that the South is consistently understood as a place where race relations are viewed through Black and White. Asian Americans in the South exist, in large numbers, and yet the imagination of those not from the South have a roadblock in seeing Asian Americans as part of the South’s story and landscapes. Living in California now, I am comfortable around the ideological bubble consisting of my progressive/liberal/left leaning friends, co-workers, and neighbors. When I tell people I grew up in Texas, these are questions that often come at me…
“What was that like? Living in the South?!”
“There are Asians in Texas?”
“Wow, you must be really glad you escaped from there.” (Often, my first thought was – you mean escape from Vietnam? Oh, wait, you mean escape from Texas!)
These comments and questions stem from a regional stereotype – that the South is a place known for its racism, homophobia, sexism, xenophobia, and evangelical Christianity. I understand why these stereotypes exist. I know many friends from my days in Texas who are racist, homophobic, sexist, xenophobic, and ultra religious. I confess that I’ve severed ties with many of these folks, unfriending them from social media when I see posts that cause me extreme discomfort or avoiding social gatherings where I know there will be a majority of these viewpoints in the room. In this current climate of vitriol and polarization of social and political views, it is easy to get caught up in a preference, even a need, for confirmation bias. It is better for my mental health to be exposed to views that are similar to mine. It is comforting to disconnect from views that wound my heart because of the attack on my values and world lens.
In the era of Trump, my own view is that we are living under conditions of policies that are harmful to many, cruel words that stroke the flames of violent ideas, and the most sickening displays and actions of such violent ideas – there is no shortage of examples. Woven through the heinous incidents of late is a common thread of the angry, violent, white male who identifies in some fashion or form with the alt-right, misogynist, racist, xenophobic, Trumpian base. I’ll say it loud and clear, I despise Trump, I despise politicians that support and enable his political and social ideals, and I often reject people who are Trump supporters. Note that I use the word “often”. The often but not always is intentional. As progressive/leftist as I may seem to be, I have always seen myself as an independent (politically) and a humanist (socially), and sometimes I even have differences with people who identify themselves as Democrats or liberals. So when it comes to Trump supporters, I used to see varying shades of red, believing that not all Trump supporters are bad people. But I know many people, who I highly respect, view Trump supporters as the untouchable outcasts with whom there is no common ground left. Lately, it has become harder and harder to have any wiggle room for someone who still says they support Trump or that they are in favor of Republican policies.
So what to do when you’re on a road trip to Mississippi with 5 Trump supporters – your parents and their 3 friends??? I have always had a struggling relationship with my Dad. Sometimes I see him as a hero who saved me and my Mom from the aftermath of the war in Vietnam. He’s the man who worked multiple low wage jobs to provide for us. He taught me so many values that I try to espouse today – humility, simplicity, hard work, and generosity. But he’s also a racist and sexist who was socialized through the patriarchal culture of Vietnam, the fundamental evangelical Christianity of Southern Baptists, and extreme views from factions of the Christian Identity Movement (bizzaare, I know – I promise to explain fully in my memoir). He votes Republican mostly because of abortion and anti-communism. He’s the man who thinks Ho Chi Minh is worse than Hitler. Last Christmas I walked out of my sister’s house because the political conversation with my Dad got so heated. I felt like running away, like escaping Texas and going back to my comfort zone of California.
On the road trip to Mississippi, he didn’t bring up Trump. I was actually feeling warmth and connectedness with him. I admired his USAF pilot certificates, his USAF wings pin, and his renegade casual style of dress at the business casual reunion event (he sported sneakers, dad jeans, white t-shirt, and a black zip up jacket he wears all the time because my mom once complimented him in it; everyone else was in suit, tie, shiny belt, and dressy shoes – see photos at the end for evidence). I was glad that the whole way there he never mentioned politics. It was on the way home that the conversation turned to Trump because my Mom brought him up. She’s not religious. She’s not even political. But she’s very engaged with what is going on in Vietnam. You see, her family is still there. Although her parents are both gone, her siblings and extended family are there. She has made over 20 trips to Vietnam since the country’s economic reforms started in 1986 called Doi Moi. Part of this reform recognized that the vast amount of money that Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese) were remitting to their families in Vietnam could be a monetary injection to the country’s economic woes. Mama’s body is here with us, but part of her heart has always been and still is in Vietnam.
Recently, the citizens of Vietnam have been protesting the Vietnamese government’s economic deals with China. Several of Vietnam’s most desirable areas for development have been leased to China for 99 years. This land grab is also happening in Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, and various other areas in Southeast Asia. The land is developed into high end, luxury resorts and have become enclaves and playgrounds for the Chinese – worst of all, they don’t employ or even allow non-Chinese on resort playgrounds. Vietnamese citizens who protest are arrested and imprisoned. The Vietnamese government has explicitly stated they would punish protestors. They even arrested and imprisoned a young Vietnamese American from Houston who was in MBA school in Singapore and went to Vietnam for anti-Chinese protests. He was released 40 days after his arrest and deported from Vietnam. Upon his return to America, he spoke out about how he was coerced to make an apology on Vietnam’s state television and promising to not participate in any more anti-state activities. There are news stories from Vietnamese American programming airing out the human rights violations that the Vietnamese government are committing all for the economic gains of corrupt government officials who are in bed with China. Needless to say, many Vietnamese, including my Mom, HATE the Chinese. So she likes the fact that Trump waged a trade war against China. The hope is that China will sink and take the Vietnamese Communist government with it. My Dad stayed silent on the matter. I think he didn’t want to ruffle my feathers. Mr. Tong and Mr. & Mrs. Thanh strongly agreed with my Mom.
I learned that Mr. Thanh was one of the pilots who couldn’t make it out of Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon. Left behind, he was arrested and sent to “re-education” camp as a prisoner of war. For the first year, his wife didn’t even know if he was alive or not. Upon learning a year later that he was imprisoned at a camp hundreds of miles away, she wanted to see him. The government allowed his family to visit for two hours, once a month. Her journey to see him took an entire day of travel. Mrs. Thanh told me during the first visit, all they did was cry. Tears and wails from a mixed bag of emotions – joy that he was alive, anguish that he looked so frail from hunger and thirst, anger that he was regularly beaten, and hope that he might someday be released. For 6 years, she took the day long trek once a month to see her husband for two hours. He was eventually released, but they lived in dire poverty and under constant surveillance and fear. In 1989, the US adopted a program known as Humanitarian Operation which allowed those who were imprisoned for their loyalty to either the South Vietnamese or the American government to leave Vietnam. They applied and in 1996 that they were able to leave Vietnam for the American Dream. But it wouldn’t be easy for Mr. and Mrs. Thanh. As a former political prisoner, Mr. Thanh faced daunting financial and social obstacles. He and his cohort of former political prisoner countrymen were old men, with an average age of 58, and struggled with being so old and set in their ways to adapt to a new land, learn the language, and find good jobs. For many, they were unable to cope. We knew several who had committed suicide, often leaving behind suicide letters describing their disillusionment with the reality of their American Dream. Mr. and Mrs. Thanh faced many struggles, but they agreed with my Dad that they were lucky to come to Houston where a large, established Vietnamese community already existed. The resources and networks of people like them assisted them in adjusting to life in America. They are grateful for their working class life and for the opportunities their children took to succeed as the next generation. Mr. and Mrs. Thanh hate the Communists, hate the Vietnamese government, and would like to see the government toppled. My Mom interjected a quote from a Vietnamese government critic, “The Vietnamese Communist government is evil. Either we topple them or we die.” Mr. and Mrs. Thanh, and Mr. Tong agreed.
The political history of Vietnamese Americans reminds us that the vast majority of the first generation of these immigrants vote Republican. The influence of their Catholic membership affirms their anti-abortion stance. The influence of war and oppression affirms their anti-Communist stance. So how did this make me feel after summarizing these things about the 5 Trump supporters? It was tough. I’m still processing it now, one week later. After listening closely and intently to their stories and perspectives, I decided to debate them, just for the hell of it. I know it won’t change their mind about voting Republican, but I just couldn’t sit back in silence without at least speaking my own mind. They had their time, and I listened, so now they should listen to my point of view.
Through my talking points, I got them to agree that the Affordable Care Act was a good thing for them. They didn’t realize that the Republicans are currently trying to dismantle it. I got Mr. Tong and my Mom to agree that abortion is a moral issue shaped by religious views and that there is no place for religion in politics – the separation of church and state. My Dad and Mr. & Mrs. Thanh disagreed given their religious devotions. I got them to agree that Trump lies, but their rationale was that every politician lies. I got Mr. Tong and my mom to agree that Trump’s anti-immigration policies are cruel and that it is negatively affecting Vietnamese Americans. Mr. and Mrs. Thanh and my Dad felt that illegals are breaking the law, and that Vietnamese immigrants who broke the law deserve their punishment even up to deportation. I was baffled by my Dad’s views because my uncle (his youngest brother) was recently released from prison. He gained citizenship prior to being incarcerated. I posed the hypothetical to my Dad, “What if Uncle was not a citizen and was now going to be deported? How would you feel?” He stood by his view that even my uncle should be deported if that was the law. [Ugh. And wow.] None of them care that Trump is racist because they themselves are all racist – it sucks to state this but a lot of older Vietnamese Americans are racists. They learned the racial hierarchy through the saturation of negative stereotypes and demonizing of minorities in the media. My Mom, however, sees the world more through class. She would be ok with me marrying a black man as long as he was rich. My dad would not support me marrying a black man at all. Something about some scripture verse about race mixing being an abomination to God blah blah blah… when he first told me this decades ago, I remember being so angry and yelling at him in my head, “What the fuck ever are you talking about?! You’re fucking crazy!” Mr. Tong and Mr. & Mrs. Thanh agreed that they wouldn’t be happy if their children married someone black. I was so exhausted at this point. I’m just exhausted typing this and rehashing this conversation. I just went silent after the race part of the conversation. I guess I was too hurt and emotionally drained to keep going. I stayed silent the rest of the ride home to Houston. At that point, all I could do was chuckle to myself at my sucky situation, realizing that I was on a road trip from Mississippi with 5 Trump supporters while at the very exact same moment in Oceanside, Ca, at MiraCosta College – the college where I teach – Bernie Sanders, Mike Levin, James Elia, Eric Dean, and a whole host of other progressive champions were gathered to rally young voters and endorse Democrat candidates. Why was I in this energy draining space of cognitive dissonance when I could have been in an energizing space of confirmation bias?
A couple of days ago, I read a piece by Tayari Jones in Time titled “There’s Nothing Virtuous in Finding Common Ground” where the author notes,
“The middle is a point equidistant from two poles. That’s it. There is nothing inherently virtuous about being neither here nor there. Buried in this is a false equivalency of ideas, what you might call ‘good people on both sides’ phenomenon. When we revisit our shameful past, ask yourself, Where was the middle? Rather than chattel slavery, perhaps we can agree on a nice program of indentured servitude?… The search for the middle is rooted in conflict avoidance and denial. For many Americans it is painful to understand that there are citizens of our community who are deeply racist, sexist, homophobic and xenophobic. Certainly, they reason, this current moment is somehow a complicated misunderstanding. Perhaps there is some way to look at this – a view from the middle – that would allow us to communicate and realize that our national identity is the tie that will bind us comfortably, and with a bow. The headlines that lament a ‘divided’ America suggest that the fact that we can’t all get a long is more significant than the issues which we are sparring… Is it more essential that we comprehend the motives of white nationalists, or is it more urgent that we prevent them from terrorizing communities of color and those who oppose racism? … For the people directly affected, the culture war is a real war, too.”
Yeah, damn straight. I totally agree as a reader. So how do I reconcile this given that my parents are Trump supporters? I ask you, dear reader, no matter where your political views lie, have you decided that in this current political climate, you would shun someone and not engage with them if they are on the opposite side of where you lie on the spectrum? I confess I have done this to many. But my parents. Damn, that’s a hard one. I guess I did it in my own way when I never applied for a job in Texas after earning my degrees. It meant being far, far away from my parents and only seeing them on the holidays – and I was totally fine with that. This was well before Trump came into the political scene. This was just as Bush was destroying us with war and the military industrial complex and Obama was coming on to the scene. It was my escape, to be free of the bond that we might have once had as parent and young child. And now that bond is much looser as parent and adult child. It was to escape the Texas, the South, the Red Republican dominance of ideology.
Needless to say, I’m back in Oceanside and back in my comfort zone. I remain hopeful. My cousin’s daughter, a 19 year old, just voted for the first time in her life, and she voted for Beto. Another group of young Vietnamese I met and talked to in Houston also voted Beto. A Vietnamese American close to me and close to my age who is religious and conservative told me she hates Trump. She is voting for Beto. These examples feed my anecdotal evidence of a wave of change in the Vietnamese American political landscape. And my observations reflect a larger trend – a recent article from NBC News reported that Vietnamese Americans in Orange County, CA (once largely Republican) are now moving toward progressive policies based on issues they care about – housing, immigration, gun reform, healthcare, and income inequality. Organizations like VietRISE, a progressive Vietnamese community organization in Orange County, are educating the community on the issues. There’s hope. And that gives me the energy to keep doing what I’m doing – to educate people on the issues. Does this mean I’m trying to find common ground with Trump supporters, like my parents? No. I don’t think I’ll ever have common ground with my parents. Does this make them bad people? I say no, generally speaking, but I dare say yes, in the context of politics. Their views are bad for the poor, the disenfranchised, the marginalized, the oppressed. But I can’t shun them. It’s much more complicated than that. I just have to reconcile that loving my parents will have to be compartmentalized – my actions will always be true to my values and sometimes those values reflect the good things they taught me. So it means fighting with them, too (like the fight we almost had when I sat in my seat at the reunion banquet during the singing of the national anthem. Boy was my Dad pissed at me for a moment!). And believe me, I fight with them a lot even outside of political issues. It’s a push and pull. Just like growing up Vietnamese in America. There are cultural artifacts of each that I had to negotiate with and then decide on my own which beliefs, practices, and values I would uphold and which ones I would reject.
Let me end by showing you some pictures and sharing their narrative. If I never told you my Dad was a Trump supporter, would you view these photos differently? Would the narrative that these photos tell be reshaped in your mind because you now know he’s a Trump supporter? Hope to hear from you and what you think.
Dad fought for his beliefs and felt the need to save his country from the oppressive regime of the Viet Cong. Being selected to train for pilot certification with the USAF was very prestigious in Vietnam. The Military Assistance Program’s Flight Training School originated in 1958 and was intended to be a 4 year program. As a result of the escalating conflict in Vietnam, in 1967 it was anchored at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, and was at the peak of its operations in the years after. From 1967 to 1973, over 1,100 international student pilots were trained there. Of those, 743 were from Vietnam. During that time, over 200,000 hours were flown with Student Pilots representing 34 nations. Student elimination rate at the height of this training was only 4.7% compared to the American student base rate of 25%. It made me proud of my Dad for his accomplishment. He completed his pilot training in 1971 and returned to Vietnam with flight missions on the C-130 Hercules, a large cargo plane. In 1975, the Viet Cong won and my Dad, my mom, and me escaped – eventually processed as refugees seeking asylum and placing our first steps on American soil at Eglin Air Force Base in Valparaiso, Florida, on May 27, 1975. The local community opposed us and did not want us there. How ironic that a New York Times article reporting from Niceville, Florida, showed how not nice the residents were…[excerpts from the article, “The Vietnamese Are Corning and the Town of Niceville, Fla., Doesn’t Like It” read it in full here]
“Far’s I’m concerned, they can ship them all right hack.” snapped one woman here today—and from one end of town to the other and in the cities around the base, many of her neighbors agreed.
A petition asking that the refugees he placed elsewhere was being circulated here this morning. Children in one local school joked about shooting a few of the refugees. With various adults were making clear that the Vietnamese are not welcome.
In a radio poll taken by station WFTW yesterday, 80 per cent of the people who responded said that they did not want the refugees to be brought to Eglin.
In Grady H. Temberlin’s Barber Shop in Valparaiso, he and a customer were talking about the incoming immigrants. “We got enough of our own problems to take care of,” Mr. Tomberlin said. “You’re right.” his whitehaired customer said, shifting nervously beneath the striped cloth. “They don’t even have enough money to take care of Social Security now—and they want to bring in more people.”
Mr. Tomberlin snipped angrily away behind the man’s ears. “I don’t see why I ought to work and pay taxes for those folks who wouldn’t work over there. They ought to have stayed on over there,” he said.
“Right,” said the customer. “Who the hell’s going to feed them when they get here?”
“We are.” said Mr. Tomberlin. “We are.”
Does this report from May 1, 1975, sound eerily similar to reports we read and hear today about Syrian refugees, Iraqi refugees, and the current “migrant caravan”? My Dad’s flight instructor, Mr. John Heckleman, supported the Vietnamese refugees coming to America. So did thousands of others who even sponsored Vietnamese refugee families so they could resettle in cities and towns across America. My Dad and his buddies probably never read about the objection to our coming to America. Their only experience was receiving the support of their U.S. military connections and the charitable folks who welcomed us with their time, energy, and donations. When I started digging into my past for my memoir, I asked my Dad some details about being at Eglin. After we talked in great depth about it, he asked me to go on the internet and look for someone who he never forgot from Eglin – a young soldier who was stationed there temporarily to help the refugees. Before he left for his next deployment, he handed my Dad a wad of cash – $30; told him to use it to take care of his wife and kid. My Dad wants to find him and thank him. He wants him to know my Dad never forgot his kind and generous gesture. I haven’t been able to locate him. He remains elusive because my Dad can’t recall the exact spelling of his Argentinian name.
Before we left Mississippi, Mr. Heckleman presented my Dad with a gift. When he found out my parents’ house was destroyed by Hurricane Harvey, he was afraid all of my Dad’s photos from his training days were gone. He went through his old photos and reprinted all the ones with my Dad then placed them in an album. My Dad and Mom were so touched. During the ceremony, my Dad was given a reprint of his flight certificate he received at his graduation in 1971, and they pinned him new wings. Not only was my Dad reunited with his flight instructor after 47 years, he was given the gift of commemoration – remembering the honor and the valor of his patriotism to his country and to the United States.
In closing, I’m a harsh critic of the American government when it comes to the Vietnam War. Ken Burn’s “Vietnam” really opened my eyes to a lot. My parents won’t watch it because it features interviews with individuals who fought for the Viet Cong. It is often this duality in experience – leading to a difference in education, a difference in world view, a difference of the generation gap – that causes my rift with my parents. It’s one I’ve struggled with all my life. And as you can see, it is a continuous struggle. I will never turn my back fully on my parents. They gave me life, they worked tirelessly to give me the opportunities I took to better myself, they taught me to help others, they supported me through some of the worst times in my life – but they also gave me the courage to be independent, to have my own thoughts, to fight for what I believe in, and to do what I think is right for me. Those lessons are a double-edged sword for them because the voice and the backbone that I use to fight against them is one they nurtured and developed. As much of a struggle as it is for me, it must be a struggle for them as well. But they’re proud of me, they love me, and they help me when I’m in need. I’m proud of them, I love them, and I will always help them if they’re in need. And there’s no way in hell that I would let that motherfucker Trump come in between me and my parents.
The barracks where my Dad stayed in 1971
The halls where he studied
His class and the plane they trained with, the T-28
His class reunion 2018 and notice his renegade attire
The plane he flew for his missions in Vietnam the C-130 Hercules
With his instructor in 1971
Graduation day with his instructor 1971
47 years later at the reunion