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    Monday, April 16, 2007

    A Tale of Two Peoples

    "IT WAS the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way ..." Charles Dickens, Tale of Two Cities, pg.1

    Two weeks ago a Thai court overturned an extradition ruling for Ly Tong and made him a free man. For many people, they may say, "So what?" and they'd be right. Ly Tong is whom??

    I would bet that most people in Vietnam don't know who he is. I would also bet that most older Vietnamese in America do know who he is. You see, Lý Tống has made a life trying to get the Vietnamese to rise up and throw off communism.

    This message reverberates through Vietnamese-American communities. Most of the adults -- the older generation -- came to America as refugees after 1975. When they talk about Vietnam today, there is still sadness, a tinge of bitterness and invective, when refering to the current government. Over ten states and numerous communities in America have recognized the "Vietnamese Freedom and Heritage Flag" as the official flag of Vietnamese-Americans.

    Also,organizations use it in their logos.

    So you can see, that the war, democracy, and the hurt from years of fighting and exile from your homeland is still very much ingrained in the lives of Vietnamese-Americans today. I remember visiting a house of a man who had a big picture of Lý Tống on his wall and the words "FREEDOM FIGHTER" printed above it -- and I didn't think anything of it.

    the exact poster he had on his wall

    But this is a "Tale of Two Cities" so to speak. Before my first trip to Vietnam, I'd never been out of America except to the border towns across the Rio Grande in Mexico, and they don't really count. My only Vietnamese experience was with Vietnamese-Americans, so I naturally based my expectations on that prior experience. In other words, I half expected Vietnam to be a poor country where everyone lived in fear of the government, rushing to and fro quickly, speaking in hushed tones, and hiding as the police rode by.

    In Ho Chi Minh City, I saw a different Vietnam--a Vietnam where people really came and went as they pleased. It was markedly more open than in the North, and NOTHING like what my naive brain had envisioned before I left America. The Vietnamese in Vietnam don't know or care about Lý Tống because they are satiated with what they have. Those in the North fought for the communists. They will not go against it. Those in the South are too happy not worrying about bombs, or standing in long lines for handouts, being in "reeducation camps," or buying things on the black market.

    Economic prosperity has quieted the masses. People are happy because of the foreign investment, the jobs, the opportunity, and the paychecks. Ultimately, the human mind has a very short attention span, and in a world of "what have you done for me lately," the communist government has done quite a lot.

    Foreign investment in Vietnam

    My wife still bristles at seeing that yellow and red flag flying. It isn't her flag. Her flag is the red field with the single yellow star. To her, that is not communism, that is Vietnam--her country, the country she loves. Her feelings mirror most of the other young adults and youth in Vietnam today. They are happy for the progress Vietnam's made, excited about the future. Some are level headed and wish for better, but the majority are quieted by the relative opulence that Vietnam now enjoys.

    And so it is truly a tale of two cities--two peoples. The Vietnamese look at the Việt kiều as another nationality, because in a sense they are. Although they call themselves "Vietnamese" in America, they are at most Vietnamese-American. Their culture has become wholly different. Their history is different (after 1975). Even their language is different (speaking half Vietnamese, half English or "Viet-glish" and using Vietnamese vocabulary circa 1975).

    And in Vietnam you have a new young population that doesn't remember war and food shortages, and who's youthful optimism is buttressed by economic progress and growth of a new middle class. They are learning English as a second language, working for foreign companies, and worried more about the new CD by Mỹ Tâm than the latest actions of Lý Tống. In many of their minds, it truly is "the best of times ..."


    layered said...

    Triet, your analysis is the most balanced report on the subject of the loyalties of the Viet Kieu community that I have seen in a long time. It seems in most of the Vientamese forums I drop into once in a while that the flames and heat quickly destroy any reasonable discussion among the community.

    And it is really too bad because the Vietnamese homeland is growing rapidly and could be a great source of opportunities for many returning Viet Kieu. I am not Vietnamese -- but I live in HCMC, and I love my life here. And the Vietnamese love Americans, so I am treatted very well by everyone I meet. I am under no illusions about the Communist government I now live under, but I see that government as being too preoccupied with encouraging investment and improvements to the infrastructure of the country to worry much about controlling people's lives. I can see the growth of the Vietnamese middle class daily.

    It therefore pains me greatly that American towns and cities would take sides in this divide. I am not surprised, but over time, I hope the Viet Kieu community and Americans would come to understand the mutual aspirations the two countries share.
    -- Mel

    xanghe said...

    Very nice, sir. First, I'm going to take a guess at where you saw that flyer for Lý Tống: Chú Thông? :)

    Ahhh.... the delineating lines between the Vietnamese here and the Vietnamese there. I've started writing about it several times - how Vietnamese Americans imagine their homeland in relation to what Vietnam really is - but it's so slippery a subject that I get stuck. No, stuck is when you don't know what to write, so then I must get swamped with thoughts and theories. Ngập đầu luôn. The long and short of all my musings is this: Vietnamese Americans aren't stuck in the past, they're engaged in the constant construction of community. The reason they (or shall I say we) imagine Vietnam as a pastoral, pre-1975 society (or pre-1954 or pre-colonial or pre-Chinese, depending on who you're talking to) is because that's what they want to remember. In fact, just a few months ago, my wife and I had a bunch of friends over for dinner. These guys and gals are some of the movers and shakers of the community here in socal, and dinner with them never melts into talking about fashion or movies or gossip, but transforms inevitably into "what project are we going to start now to get this community going?" The current topic was the phenomenon of Vietnamese American men traveling to Vietnam to enjoy a few weeks with their bồ nhí, vợ bé, then return home to wife and kids and act as if nothing happened. The conversation turned to the fact that such extra-marital relationships are very accessible and cheap, and one of the ladies exclaimed in disgust "What is happening to my Vietnam?!" This surprised me, because I thought it was mostly the older generation who remembered Vietnam as a pure, chaste, independent country that did not stoop to such levels for economic gain, not the youth who receive education and life experience in America. But the memory of Vietnam is passed from generation to generation in this community, and even those youth who are most aware of the discord between that memory and the reality in Vietnam (come on, foreign men have been taking advantage of poor Vietnamese women and Vietnamese women have been taking advantage of lusting foreign men for centuries, it's not "happening" to your Vietnam more now than before) play along because the essence of this community IS a Vietnam that is stripped of politics and war and pain. Those who ran from the Communists in 1975 had already been running for decades, and they knew that they couldn't stay and would never be welcomed back once they stepped off the shore. Once disowned from the motherland, these people needed to construct a community of their own. Vietnam didn't want them, and for the most part, America didn't want them either. In the mid-1980's when they were finally economically able to mobilize and centralize their community geographically, they congregated around the richest Vietnamese Americans who had already built a small economic center. Now that they were united geographically, they took the next step in creating community by unifying their identity as "Vietnamese Americans." What was the common sentiment back then? "My brother's still in a refugee camp, my father's in reeducation camp and my mother won't get out of bed because she's traumatized - all because of the Communists!" Hence their identity - all things anti-Communist. And ever since, any threat to the longevity of the community as it stands now is met with rekindled anti-Communist protests and demonstrations because maintenance of a community requires not only common background, but constant re-emphasis of that background and even reconstruction of that background. Vietnamese Americans aren't stuck in the past - "stuck" implies an unintentional situation and the inability to get out. They/we are "swamped" with self-imposed anti-Communist sentiment and memory, surrounded by the constant construction of an "identity community" - they choose to hang on to the past because it is the only thing that holds their sense of community together.

    The unfortunate thing is that, as you mentioned, the community has chosen to not transform and evolve with the country it claims as quê hương - home. But I have bright hope. The loud minority that publicly condemns Communism is dwindling in numbers. Certain movements and groups that formerly sought to "free Vietnam from the Communists by force" have now evolved into positive outlets for anti-Communist sentiment, sending individuals to lobby in DC instead into the jungles of Vietnam with grenades (true story). I see small changes here that give me hope. So that's what I'm doing - hoping.

    Wow, this is definitely more long than short. But thanks for being the catalyst of my thoughts. I might even post this on my blog. :)

    Triet said...

    Your comment about being "swamped" vs. "stuck" has led in to another post I have in my head and haven't got down on paper, but I will address some specifics in this comment.

    First, yes, Chú Thông.

    Second, I understand your choice of semantics and can see the logic in the use, but ultimately, I feel that if someone is "swamped" in something, they are currently "stuck." Hence whether the Vietnamese-American community exists in its current "communo-phobic" (excuse my coining of words) form due to its choice or its nature, it exists like a club of DOS programmers constantly writing programs and hacks. Sure, they are building and developing a community, but every day they do brings them more out of date and obsolete.

    This reality makes the Vietnamese-American a far different person from a Vietnam national, and although the vocal anti-communist voices are slowly fading, I feel that any change will not be from DOS 5.0 to 6.0 but a radical change from DOS 5.0 to WIN XP.

    Why? Because, thirdly, (and this will be my segway into the post written in my head but not yet on paper) most of the new generation of Vietnamese-Americans are not like your friends. Those who are active in trying to elicit change in the world are a small minority (among every subpopulation). Our generation of Viet-Americans are more concerned with cars and money than Vietnam--they are more American than Vietnamese--and each generation will become more so. That is the blessing/curse of America.

    Fourth and finally, the new phenomenon of the vợ bé, I feel, is neither new nor a phenomenon. But that is yet another post.

    VietPundit said...

    Hi Triet and Phuong,

    Both of you made some good points, and some I disagree with. Will respond when I get some time.

    Triet, just FYI, Minh-Duc's state-of-flux blog is back up, so I guess he's doing OK? I left a comment there.

    xanghe said...

    Blogs existing only in head land - that's the story of my life. It's just that pumping out a decent post is hard right when I'm laying down to bed or taking a shower.

    Yes, I agree that the Vietnamese American community is largely "communo-phobic." (excuse my use of your patented word :) DOS is, as you say, out of date and obsolete (unless you need to run ipconfig, which I think is still more convenient than anything in Windows) so those who pursue it are running backwards. Perhaps the Vietnamese Americans here are running backwards in that sense, chasing Communists that don't exist anymore, "freeing" a country that is doing a decent job of slowly freeing itself. However, by stating that "Vietnamese Americans aren't stuck in the past, they're engaged in the constant construction of community," I am not validating their communo-phobic mentality. In the construction of community - notice I don't say "a" community because I'm not referring to a specific geographic, political or business center - the adhesive agent is identity, that intangible essence of one's "exist-ness" in relation to everyone else on the planet. So whether or not their ideas and expectations of Vietnam and the current Vietnamese government are true or false, those ideas are real enough for many Vietnamese Americans to base their common identity on them. Wait, does that make any sense?

    I totally agree that Vietnamese Americans and Vietnamese nationals (even those living in the US) are very different. I makes for a scary situation for the foreign exchange students in socal. The hard-core anti-Communists know you've been singing about Bác Hồ since you were a kid, and you never know when another demostration will pop up, maybe at your doorstep. But, it's the same for Vietnamese Americans in Vietnam. I know personally a Vietnamese American individual who was stopped on the way into Lăng Hồ Chí Minh in Ha Noi, lead to an office in the back and interrogated. Why? I don't know, except that they had probably seen that individual's face in a picture of some Vietnamese American community function.

    Wow, so much to talk about. I'm looking forward to hearing from Vietpundit.

    Triet said...


    thanks so much for the FYI on Minh-Duc. I'm gonna race right over there after this.

    Secondly, I definitely want your opinions because you occupy a different position than Xanghe or I in the Viet-American community--having lived in Vietnam before immigrating here.


    Ok, I see your point, and raise you this: Perhaps the communist government does rotten things. Perhaps they did stop your friend. Perhaps that stoppage was the exception not the rule? I've been to see good ole' Uncle Ho twice now, and the second time was a much worse experience than the first.

    The soldiers that stand guard over the tomb were quite belligerent and pushed me and others often because we were "out of line" when (as you know from experience) it is nearly impossible to be out of line in the lăng. But they didn't stop us.

    Also, let's both not forget the other side of my first post: the Vietnamese don't know who Lý Tống is. Yes, I feel the communo-phobic center of much of Vietnamese-America is obsolete and flying the freedom flag is not necessarily helpful to the relationship between America and Vietnam. I do understand how dear it is to those who fought for it (holy cow, how strong of feelings I would have for the stars and stripes were I a displaced American longing for freedom!!).

    Yet regardless of those actions, the people on the other side of the ocean are moving as well. I cannot count anymore the number of times I've heard "việt kiều" come out of someone's mouth as a derogatory comment. It strikes me as absurd, given the money and help việt kiều have pumped back into their motherland, but I've heard it nonetheless. Many of the Vietnamese see Viet-Americans as just another American, or more specifically, as pockets full of money.

    Also, the government has done a great job of indoctrinating the youth. This is tempered some in the South, where parents spit invective at home, but overall, most of the young generation sees almost nothing wrong. They are satiated by the wealth, the CDs, the concerts and movies, the ability to shop at Parkson and Diamond Plazas, and eat great food.

    At school Hồ Chí Minh is a hero, the George Washington of their country, and nobody would ever think of having more than two children ... "that's irresponsible."

    So, in a way, the Vietnamese and Vietnamese-Americans are moving apart by moving together. Both are becoming entranced with the relative prosperity of their new countries. Both are melding into a new society. Both have young generations brought up in vastly different political, economic, social, and educational climates than their parents.

    But in the end, the Vietnamese are Vietnamese mới and that exacerbates the divide that separates them from their cousins, the newest generation of Americans.

    See, look, you've gone and started me off on that blog in my head...

    xanghe said...

    Triet, you better write that blog soon. Your comment about việt kiều intrigues me - can't say it surprises me - since your 2nd trip to Vietnam offered you something I haven't experienced (yet hic): being in Vietnam with a Vietnamese American. I know that the term việt kiều is not appreciated by its recipients, namely the Vietnamese nationals living overseas, largely because the Vietnamese government originally coined it to mark those fleeing the country as traitors. As I understand it, the term itself sounds nice but the connotation is that those who "escaped" are still Vietnamese, as in under the Vietnamese regime and therefore forever subject to prosecution under Vietnamese law. This is the last thing that the escaping Vietnamese wanted, so they established a term that simultaneously confirms their allegiance to Vietnam the mother country, but not the current government: "Người Việt Hải Ngoại" ("Overseas Vietnamese"). I believe hải ngoại was first coined (in this sense) by Phan Bội Châu in his publication "Hải Ngoại Huyết Thư" which he wrote while abroad in Japan for training. Phan Bội Châu is revered for his activism and commitment to democracy, and his version of hải ngoại is viewed by many overseas Vietnamese as an accurate description of themselves: not currently in Vietnam, but still loving the country and fighting for its "freedom." Again, something to base the common identity on, a common cause to struggle for.

    Alright, I'm waiting for your post. I need something to look forward to, especially because my wife and I have a bunch of free movie tickets and all the movies out in theaters are pretty lame. The lull before the summer storm of blockbusters...

    Triet said...

    Ok, I'm gonna formulate that post. Grrr... the things you make me do...

    Seriously, about movies, have you see "Journey from the Fall" yet? It is rated R, which typically I don't see, but I'm rationalizing it because it's about the Vietnamese and tells a story I've heard countless personal versions of.

    So far, I've heard and read good things about it, but it's only being shown on a few screens in heavily Viet areas, so I'll have to drive a good distance to Bellaire to see it...hence I haven't yet.

    xanghe said...
    This comment has been removed by the author.
    xanghe said...

    It's funny that you mention Journey from the Fall because I've been pretty much on the fence about it up until, well, yesterday. I've heard both opinions of the movie - that it's great and that it stinks - but my reluctance was more because I know that once I see it, every time someone tells me their story I'll just be seeing a rerun of the movie in my head. That wasn't quite enough to prevent me from going, but yesterday when I found out it was rated R, that kind of knocked me off the fence - onto the "I'll-wait-for-Pirates-3" side.

    Jennie said...

    I've seen Journey from the Fall on its opening night in San Jose, CA.

    I had my doubts about the movie too (you can see my full review of it here), but it was quite good. What I liked best was that it gives a comprehensive story of the post-war experience -- the re-education camp, escaping on boats, assimilating in America during the first years. It was depressing for me, but I'm glad to be reminded of these events so that I won't let myself forget.

    Jennie said...

    Well, that sucks -- I wrote a super long comment and I guess I accidentally closed the window. Bummer.

    Thanks for mentioning Ly Tong.

    When I visited Vietnam for the first time in 2005 with my mom, I was "culture-shocked" and felt similarly to you the first few days in Saigon. But upon returning and having time to reflect, it has perhaps been the most meaningful trip for me in my life.

    Despite the fact that I know the Vietnamese in Vietnam view me differently, I love them. I love us. Underneath all the social conditioning and 2% reduced fat milk I drank grewing up, we are the same.

    I have a coworker from Vietnam visiting, and I could tell she gets confused when I say "Saigon" instead of Ho Chi Minh City and when I speak Vietnamese to her even though I don't look it. But there is something undeniably familiar between us.

    Sometimes I think this is all just a random draw. If she and I were to have traded places, I would be fanning myself with a coconut drink in my hand, and she guzzling loads of soda. I would be the one cringing at the sound of "Saigon."

    And I even feel a little guilty. There are people in Vietnam now who are not communist and wanted to escape, but had no way out. Now all they can do is to live and try to be happy. If not be happy, then what else?

    It does make me sad that the spirit of the revolution has died with our parents generation. Now, Vietnam just wants more prosperity and peace. Let's just hope the government can shape up and provide for its citizens.

    Triet said...


    I think this post is officially my post most commented on.

    How do you feel about Ly Tong? What feelings do you get when you hear his name or people talking about him?

    I think I've decided to err on the "wait and see" side of Journey of the Fall as well. I've read your post about it, and it partly swayed me to see it, but in the end, I've got a week of classes and three weeks of exams coming up.

    Thanks for your comments about returning to Vietnam and your feelings of kinship with the Vietnamese. Again, you, like Xanghe, are pushing me to write my next post--the inevitable continuation of this dialogue--which will now be two. Originally I wanted to talk about the new Viet-American generation vs their parents, but I think that will be prefaced by a discussion of the Viet kieu that Xanghe elicited, tempered by your comments.