diaCRITICIZE is the periodic editors’ note or guest editorial. Here, Nguyen Qui Duc reflects on some legacies of war.
The war’s over. I am so glad. I can go back to sleep. I haven’t been able to for most of April.
All of last month, the war raged on. Yes: that war. You know what I’m talking about. That little annoying thing that made no sense to so many people. The one that changed America, and Viet Nam. It won’t friggin’ go away. That stubborn thing ended in April, 35 years ago, but it’s still here.
Public loudspeakers have been a feature of life here in Ha Noi for decades. Government news and directives. Productivity and corruption. The week’s social campaign. Party meetings. Neighborhood alerts to new trash and parking policies. Martial music.
When I moved here three years ago, the public loudspeakers stopped being so loud. The people were complaining. No one really listened to them. They disrupted the buying and selling. The loudspeakers interfered with many of us trying to read other news on the internet. They contradicted what people experienced in their real lives.
I’m told some people sneaked up to their roofs at night like thieves and reached out to cut the wires. Others paid workers to point the thing skyward and waited for the rain.
For a while, it seemed the loudspeakers listened to the people for a change. They just simply shut up, or faded away.
Little did I know. The wire were still live. This past April, the loudspeakers were at it again. It was the war, all over again. 8am. 4pm. 8pm. War, war, war.
During the war, the loudspeakers must have been helpful. Sirens, air attack alerts, orders to evacuate and seek shelter. Last month, as the loudspeakers went back to work, they might have reminded the older generation of those difficult and hurtful days when American aircraft sent bombs exploding all over the place. Rolling thunders, or some such awe-inspiring war campaign slogans.
Now, there’s a new generation. And what comes out of the loudspeakers is simply a bothersome, irritating chatter. It keeps you from sleeping or enjoying your coffee, it makes it difficult to listen to your i-pod.
And it talks about something no one really wants to hear in this town. The Vietnam War.
They sure like to make a big deal of that victory. And believe me, 35 years later, that victory—the ‘liberation of South Viet Nam’ and the ‘nation’s reunification’ is a big deal. Some say it’s just a way for the party to maintain moral authority. We did it. We defeated a big country. We reunified the nation. That just went on and on and on on the loudspeakers for most of April.
Doesn’t matter that some people also think ‘we’ defeated the country only to surrender to its economic and Kentucky Fried Chicken power a couple of decades later. And some have also been talking about reunification, except that they wonder what would have happened if the nation had been reunified under a different regime.
Visiting Saigon, a Ha Noi friend wistfully said, “Sometimes I wish the Americans, and the French could have stayed longer. Give the North some of the openness of Saigon.”
She was referring both to architectural openness, the wide streets and more orderly construction. And she was also referring to the cafés, the shops, and the sidewalks where people openly go about their business, enjoying themselves, with little apparent interference from the police, and the bureaucrats. And she was referring to the attitude of the people, saying what they mean, and meaning it.
She’s of a generation that hadn’t really thought about the war, other than the stuff told in school. The hard sacrifices and the determination of her parents’ generation, the heroic exploits to defeat a big and brutal enemy. Some of that is true, but as time passes, she’s learning other things.
Back in Ha Noi, she and her friends came to hear three Vietnamese American writers read at the gallery and café I run. She says her English wasn’t good enough to get it all, but she was beginning to get a sense of what it meant. For the people who weren’t victors. Who sought refuge in America and worked hard to create jobs, new roots and new identity for themselves outside the country.
That was the stuff writers Ben Tran and Andrew Lam talked about one night in the gallery . They talked of defeat, of new opportunities, of memories of another Viet Nam.
Not too many people attended the reading, but those who did walked away saying nothing like that had been said in public in Ha Noi. Damn right, you wouldn’t hear this stuff on the loudspeakers. (Watch for another post when I tell you what happened when Andrew Lam and his journalistic colleagues left my joint. Friends were questioned, people I don’t particular like showed up at my place. That’s another saga.)
And my Ha Noi friends also said, you guys overseas—you Viet Kieu—are obsessed with the Viet Nam war.
Damn right we are. I didn’t quite respond that way. But I tried to explain that it’s a situation forced upon us. While many Vietnamese artists and writers overseas don’t like to dwell on it, others are asked to do so all the time. Give us your war, give us your experience, your poor history, your personal tragedies, so we can understand what we did in the war, so we might figure out what to do with this vague guilt. Some of us overseas artists definitely feel a need to tell that story—it isn’t really told anywhere else.
I was sticking to my Irish whiskey, and noticed my friend was drinking a definitely American thing, a Kentucky bourbon. She kept going, but why won’t you move on from the war?
We tried, and we are still trying. But that’s our identity, partly, I said. It’s who we are, who we were forced to be. A displaced, uprooted people with the word war imprinted on our face, in our heart, and on the stuff we produce as filmmakers, journalists, writers, painters, etc. We remember the war.
I’ve always thought it’s the people inside that don’t remember. First it was the harsh post-war life that didn’t allow people to indulge in the past. No sense thinking about some other misery when you’re struggling inside another. Then, as the country opened up and became richer, a younger generation’s looking to the future, where there are SUVs and i-pods and foreign universities and hip-hop music.
The loudspeakers may remember that war, and their victory of 35 years ago. But some here in Viet Nam have seemed to adopt the American habit of simply thinking of historical dates as a chance for a short vacation, and some discounted shopping at the local mall.
Maybe in the countryside, things are a little bit different but here in Ha Noi, it’s no use living in the past.
And so after le thi diem thuy, another Vietnamese-American, finished her performance, and read from her book The Gangster We Are All Looking For, my local friends repaired to their Jack Daniel glasses and bar stools, and commented on our obsession.
It would have been tough for them to understand the irony in the fact that the obsession with the war also drove people like le thi diem thuy mad. America’s obsessed. And we needed to talk. Le thi diem thuy wrote a poem with the line “Vietnam is not a war,” in bold.
I explained to my local friends that we artists in the diaspora have a dual role. We have to keep the memory alive, while speaking to another audience who doesn’t seem to get that Vietnam is a country, a nation, a culture, a people. That, boy and girlfriends, is a loud problem for us. How to make people understand we’re not all peasants in black pajamas running around trenches with AK54s, being blown up by guys named Rambo. We’re a nation, not a ready metaphor for new American experiences in places like Iraq and Afghanistan.
Now that I live here, I’m glad to have the opportunities to bring diasporic voices to audiences inside the country. We come back, and through our artistic work, some of us correct the image of Viet Kieu as enemies of the people, or as moneyed idiots. We talk to them of our defeat inside Viet Nam 35 years ago, of humility and of hardships and triumphs elsewhere in the world.
It’s a small audience. Nothing compared to the amount of people literally losing sleep because of the loudspeakers. We’re all taking about the same thing.
That war that won’t go away. Especially at the arrival of anniversaries.
But people like Ben Tran, and Andrew Lam, and le thi diem thuy, we’re talking about that past in different ways. We aren’t the loudspeakers. And the loudspeakers don’t talk like we do.
It’s not quite a war anymore between us. No more shouting match: it’s been 35 years. But we’ll be talking for another 35 or 40 or 50 years before we speak the same language. Who knows, maybe the Vietnam War will never end.
Nguyễn Quí Đức
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