Guest author Cara Van Le reflects on how memories are either forgotten or not shared, resulting in ambiguity that is often misconstrued.
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I’m not a social butterfly. I like the warmth of my cocoon. It was only after a year of dodging invitations and one particularly difficult teaching day that I agreed to attend a happy hour with my co-workers. We arrived at the bar, assembled tables together, shuffled chairs, and before I knew it, I was locked somewhere in the middle, unable to make a getaway without getting my chair’s legs tangled with those of someone else’s. We exchanged the usual pleasantries. Work, weather, drinks of choice. And like clockwork, exactly what I was expecting to happen did.
“So,” she said, shifting her gaze from her cocktail to my face, “What… is your ANCESTRY?” My coworker’s eyes got wide and the sleeves of her dress shirt swept up and around, reflecting a loose timeline of how far back she wanted me to go.
My initial reaction was to challenge her, but I reeled myself in because she was someone who worked above me and anyway, she seemed tobe choosing her words carefully. Most of all, she seemed nervous, and I kinda like making white people nervous. So I was about to answer politely, but before I could utter a single word, another coworker interrupted me.
“She is a Viet cong,” she said, taking a long gulp of her beer. And she laughed. I stated as firmly as I could that I didn’t consider it funny, which made her laugh even more.
I listened to her laugh echo in the bar. It was as if something about my face was a riddle, a joke, and Viet cong was the punchline.
* * *
Surely you have seen the photograph. On February 1, 1968, south Vietnamese troops captured a suspected officer from the north by the name of Nguyen Van Lem. The police chief from the south, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, held a gun to the head of the soldier from the north, and in that moment there was the sound of two clicks: first the gun, and then of Eddie Adams’ camera. Nguyen Van Lem’s face was twisted in utter fear while the police officer’s face remained stoic. The shock value of violence held still long enough for examination made this photo infamous. It was used as a message against the war in Vietnam. Eddie Adams won a Pulitzer for it. When I was a teenager, I saw Dave Navarro give a tour of his crib on MTV. In the entrance of his home, not far from wherever the magic happens, he had a wall-sized image of this execution. He said something along the lines of being reminded that he’s living, or some shit like that. Humanity and whatnot.
My dad worked as a photographer during this American war and told me that he got more money if he fit soldiers from the north and south into the frame. 100 USD.
* * *
Early last year, I saw an item go up for sale on Etsy. It was the identification card of a young Vietnamese girl, whose black and white portrait was pasted on the left-hand side of the card. She bore no expression on her face, which was framed by hair parted down the middle. On the other side were her fingerprints. The description said:
MAKE ME AN OFFER I CAN’T REFUSE!
Female’s date of birth: October 1, 1958
The card was issued in Tan-Binh, Vietnam on December 18, 1973. These cards were issued to civilians in South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. After the fall of Saigon in September 1975 they were no longer issued and are now invalid. This is one of the many ID cards that my husband had in his collection. He served in Vietnam with 3rd Marine Division in 1965.
Due to the age of the card the corner on the lower back has started to slightly curl.
Identities for sale. I wondered if that woman were still alive. She would have been around my mother’s age. My lip curled, slightly.
* * *
I could talk to my coworkers about how my parents were both refugees and about the life or death decisions they had to make at ages younger than ours. I could talk about the My Lai massacre, about the systematic rape of entire villages that meant even less than “just making a point.” Agent Orange, burning skin, landmine amputees, and all the dead children. But I won’t satisfy her with the gratuitous imagery of a war I never knew.
The violence, after all, is written in her everyday lexicon: These chips are bomb. I raped that test. I killed that job interview.
I speak that same language, fluently. And even though I wasn’t alive during the war, I’ve been living through it since I was born.
Part of memory is forgetting. In Vietnamese, there is no verb conjugation; we understand a sentence is in the past by the context of the words around it. I have kept my ear close to the floor of our house for years now, listening for anecdotes of my family’s history. It wasn’t until recently that I realized that silence was the biggest clue.
Part of memory is forgetting. U.S. history books triumph the 60s and 70s for the peace movement and advancement in journalism — literature and film critics hail this as an artistic renaissance, changing the ways in which stories are told, stories that reflect the ambiguities the Americans felt in fighting the war.
Make the other poor bastard die. Good morning, Vietnam. Five dolla. The horror, the horror.
And now I suppose my coworker’s calling me a Viet cong could be a punchline, but about bombing and maiming a country already broken, and then calling it art.
* * *
At the bar, I let the flow of the conversation wash over me. They had already begun on a new topic, sports or travel or work minutiae. As more people arrived, it turned into a shouting match of life experiences.
I participated at a minimum and gave short responses to their inquiries. I found it useless to give answers to people who seemed to have them already.
I took the bus home, enveloped myself in the memory of the night, and searched for the language I would use to write it down.
Cara Van Le is an LA-based introvert, an Angry Asian Intern™, and a food eater/lover/bff. She spends her free time writing her ass off and thinks that both black coffee and your stories are amazing.
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