Viet Thanh Nguyen writes: 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. [Continue reading…]