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Sunday, December 29, 2019

What a Vietnamese-American Immigrant Wants All Americans to Know

Credit: CBS News

The following list isn't exhaustive. The initial four listed are just a beginning and more will be added in the future for educational purposes. Any updates will be noted. I wanted to start recording down issues about Vietnamese Americans that too many of my fellow Americans get wrong. They are also matters I'm simply tired of having to explain over and over again. (I'm looking at you Twitter!) This blog post probably won't be without disagreement from other Vietnamese Americans. We're certainly not a monolith. What I offer is another Vietnamese-American perspective hopefully grounded on good reason and relatable experiences.

1. Use the South Vietnamese flag, not the current flag of Vietnam

Not so much with young Vietnamese Americans but if you don't want to inflame the ire of Vietnamese Americans who risked their lives and livelihoods to escape communist oppression and persecution, then use the flag of South Vietnam. It's the flag with the three red stripes on a yellow background. See the photo at the top of this blog entry for reference. The design was created in 1890 by Emperor Thanh Thai and was used in official governmental capacity until the fall of Saigon in 1975. I call it the Vietnamese Adidas flag to make it more memorable for other Americans.

Don't use the flag of the current government of Vietnam. That's the one with the yellow star with a red background. When I was boy, I drew a boat with a flag that had a star. No colors. When my mother saw my drawing she was immediately distraught. I can still remember the incident because it's rare for her to be in such a state. So I learned very early on that the starred flag was toxic, and as I grew older and educated myself, especially given our family's history fighting against communism, I can understand why my mother was so upset.

Again, other Vietnamese Americans might disagree philosophically with me on this, but in practice, I know of no Vietnamese American born in Vietnam who is displaying the red star flag at the front of their store. Back in 1999, two Vietnamese video store owners, Truong Van Tran and his wife, put up the flag of Vietnam and a portrait of Ho Chi Minh in Westminster, California. The reaction was swift and massive. About 400 Vietnamese Americans protested outside of their store daily until a Orange County Superior Court Judge required him and his wife to remove the offending flag and portrait since they violated a provision of their rental agreement prohibiting displays that create a public nuisance. Also, the building owner had begun eviction proceedings. The Los Angeles Times reported at the time:

“This guy betrayed the community,” said Tony Nguyn, 52, who spent 10 years in a Communist re-education camp after serving in the South Vietnamese army. “He stabbed us in the back.”

The crowd cheered wildly as Tran’s wife left the store, holding the flag up in a final gesture of defiance.

“I’m really happy today,” said Bao Duong, 16. “I’ve been here four days. My throat hurts from yelling for freedom and human rights.”

It was a hard lesson learned for the video store owners. For their business's sake, they should have displayed the South Vietnamese flag instead. For Vietnamese Americans to fly the South Vietnamese flag that was also flown during the rule of the inept Bao Dai and hated French, you can get the sense of how much Vietnamese Americans despise the current government of Vietnam. But even more than that, the South Vietnamese flag symbolizes Vietnamese Americans' unique path of sacrifice, struggle, and success.

So when their children use the communist flag, I hope you can understand by now why their parents are at least disappointed. It's not the same as Mexican Americans displaying the Mexican flag, for instance, because their personal history with Mexico and its government is most likely not as painful. It would be more analogous to the children of American Jews displaying the flag of the German Reich. Given the many Vietnamese-American refugees who were tortured, imprisoned, and raped, and those who drowned and perished -- according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, between 200,000 and 400,000 Vietnamese boat people died at sea, or as much as an horrific 70 percent of Vietnamese died in their attempt to escape from communist Vietnam -- my comparison isn't a flippant one.

2. Vietnamese Americans are both Vietnamese and American

This would seem obvious but it's more subtle than that. If I received a dollar for every time people have asked me "Where are you from?" I could buy four Peloton bikes on a raised Macassar ebony platform overlooking Aspen. I get it. Several years ago at a special event, I was the very first person to greet former US President Jimmy Carter, a man who I respected as a person. The four words out of President Carter's mouth were, you guessed it, "Where are you from?" Depending on my mood, my answer ranches from my actual birth place to simply the city where I currently live. The latter was what I chose as my answer to Carter, refusing to fulfill his curiosity. My conversation with Carter on another subject (nothing serious) only exacerbated my already poor impression of him. They say to never meet your hero. I learned it the hard way that day. Thus I appreciate the sophistication of individuals getting to know my interests first, inquiring about the fountain pen I'm writing with, for example, before asking me to share the source of my Asian features. One US Congressman took the time to shake my little child's hand and chit chat saying, "You have the best handshake!" He then said to me I looked like an Asian doctor he knows. I expected him to treat me like any American constituent but because he treated my child so kindly, I didn't take offense.

If you still wonder why I don't like being asked "Where are you from," then you probably don't look Asian because rarely do I ever see a white person being inquired about his race, surely not within the first minute of meeting him. It can come across as rude and intrusive. I don't do that to anyone, and I expect others to show me the same courtesy. So don't be that guy.

Having said all that, I can't deny I am Vietnamese. Because I was born in Vietnam. I love that I'm Vietnamese. Just one-half of one percent of all Americans are of Vietnamese descent, even fewer who were born in Vietnam. When I first arrived in America, Vietnamese Americans made up a minuscule one-tenth of one percent of the total US population. Therefore while I understand the desire of Vietnam-born immigrants like myself for everyone to see us as full-fledged Americans, we must consider the fact our roots are still in Vietnam, to which we cannot entirely sever from. Only our children who are born in America can demand without qualification that others consider them full-blooded Americans, much like the children of German, Chinese, Irish, Italian, and Japanese immigrants before them. But I believe our direct roots are a source of great pride. When Americans debate whether to bring in new poor refugees, it's inevitable they evoke Vietnamese Americans as a model to why we should bring in more. Some day when our children run for public office (if they haven't done so already!), they can proudly proclaim they are the sons and daughters of Vietnamese immigrants, a serious badge of honor in America. If you listen carefully, notice the emphasis and immeasurable value they would place on the word Vietnamese. This wasn't always the case when I was growing up as a Vietnamese American because we haven't proven ourselves as successful Americans yet at the time. It wasn't until we fully embraced both Vietnamese and American aspects of ourselves did we prosper.

3. America was fighting alongside South Vietnam, not against it

Hollywood and war crimes aside, South Vietnamese wanted Americans in Vietnam. We needed allies and resources to defend against northern Vietnamese communist forces seeking to invade South Vietnam. Too many people ignorantly believe American imperialists invaded Vietnam as if all Vietnamese were on the same side. That is clearly false. But I do understand that it can be confusing. There were many variables, and when mixed in with government propaganda from all sides, it can muddy the truth. To boil it all down, there were two sides: the South Vietnamese and American forces versus the Viet Cong (southern communist sympathizers) and northern Vietnamese communist forces. North Vietnam believed in communism. The South Vietnamese were anti-communists, albeit there was also support for communism, hence the Viet Cong. There was indeed concern that if free elections were held, there was a possibility South Vietnam would have elected Ho Chi Minh. However, there was much poverty and education was lacking. Educated Vietnamese, however, knew what we all know now: communism in practice is autocratic. It would be similar to North Korea and South Korea holding an election today and Kim Jong-un came out the winner. Would we accept that? Even if it was legitimately democratic, the result would be disastrous.

When my family was still in north Vietnam during the 1950s, we were in the minority as farm owners. My ancestors have been in north Vietnam for generations. But soon private lands and properties owned by families like ours were confiscated by force by Ho Chi Minh's government and redistributed to supporters of communism. Poor and landless, most northern Vietnamese supported this unethical policy. My grandfather and many others fought back. He, along with an estimated 13,500 northern Vietnamese, died as a result. This is quite ironic, since my grandfather was a kind man who helped any villager who asked for help. A family story tells of a time when a villager asked for rice but my grandmother refused. My grandfather, on the other hand, secretly gave the rice behind the house later on. This happened frequently, which upset my grandmother.

A total of close to one million northerners would eventually migrate to South Vietnam by the end of the 1950s. My widowed grandmother and other family members were among them. Of course I believe in democracy, but not blindly, because it sometimes leads to the abuse of the minority. Jim Crow laws in America were also examples of this. Strong leaders with moral integrity must be present to ensure such abuses don't take place. Thus, checks and balances, along with free elections, must be part of any benevolent government's foundation.

To this day, the Vietnamese government has yet to hold free elections, much less checks and balances. Now that more Vietnamese are educated, they realize their support has waned considerably. Critics posting on Facebook regularly receive sentences of six years or more in prison. In the effort to hide human rights violations from the world community, some authorities in Vietnam have stopped charging dissidents with "anti-state propaganda" and instead are charging them with more common crimes like destruction of government property, accepting bribes, and "unauthorized use of rudimentary weapons." This indicates weakness, as was the case back then as well. Only when most of the American soldiers left in 1973 did the communist forces finally were able to break through into Saigon two years later. After Saigon fell, hundreds of thousands of South Vietnamese like my father were arrested and sent to communist "re-education" camps. In actuality, they were more like concentration camps. The conditions were inhumane and appalling. According to academic studies conducted by American researchers, a shocking total of 165,000 South Vietnamese died in those camps. Who knows how many more were brutally tortured and mutilated. Therefore, the enemy wasn't the Americans. The enemy was our own Vietnamese people.

4. Vietnamese food is more than pho and banh mi

For modern everyday Americans, I'm thankful that Vietnamese are now known more for our food than our war. Vietnamese restaurants can be found in numerous US cities. From my observation, Americans universally love pho and banh mi. But as a Vietnamese American whose mother cooked mostly Vietnamese food at home, I ate much more than pho yet rarely banh mi. Furthermore, the pho at all the Vietnamese restaurants I've ever been to falls well short of what I'm used to at home. The same goes for banh bao, cha gio, and other common Vietnamese menu items. But I understand. The economics of operating a restaurant don't compare with the mindset of loving parents who aim to provide the very best for their children. Banh mi is more of a store-bought item in my family. Overall, eating out at Vietnamese restaurants for our family is mostly for convenience not quality.

Besides, Vietnamese food, if I can describe it more accurately, is geared more toward fish and seafood, since much of Vietnam runs along the sea. It is also focused on vegetables, like bittermelon, the bane of my childhood. Beef, chicken, pork, and duck during 1970s Saigon were expensive and thus unattainable for most Vietnamese households except for holidays and other special occasions. One small cut of beef is normally shared among all family members, likely in soup or stew form, rarely for one individual. In contrast, fish and vegetables were relatively affordable and plentiful. There were also squid, eel, and escargot. The elephant in the room is whether Vietnamese eat dogs and cats. Unfortunately there are a few Vietnamese who eat dogs and cats. But it's as common as Americans eating squirrels and opossums; they're relegated almost exclusively to country folks. Of course I'm obligated to mention nuoc mam, which is fermented drippings from salted anchovies left in wooden barrels under the hot Vietnamese sun for months, the salt two years, if done right. Pour me some more nuoc mam on my banh xeo!

Since Vietnamese food has a lot fish and fish-based sauces, expect Vietnamese dishes to smell like ... fish! For whatever reason, many Americans I encounter have an odd aversion to the smell of fish. Many years ago I heated up my Alaskan salmon at the office and by my coworkers' harsh reaction you'd think I just murdered someone. So I wonder when Americans say "I love Vietnamese food!" or "I had authentic Vietnamese food!" do they fully realize what they're saying? Until I see fast food chains offering mαΊ―m tΓ΄m packets, sick people are eating plain chΓ‘o instead of chicken noodle soup, and children screaming for more durian dessert (a wonderfully aromatic and delicious fruit I screamed for as a kid), only then would I be perfectly pleased with how far Vietnamese food and thus Vietnamese culture in America have progressed. πŸ’›

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"Irrigators channel waters; fletchers straighten arrows; carpenters shape wood; the wise master themselves." The Buddha