diaCRITICIZE: On motherland (re)turns

Fear of ambivalence, Tây Ninh, 2001

As I typed “This is the second editor’s note for diaCRITICS, which we’ve decided to call diaCRITICIZE: The Stuff Vietnamese People Like,” I began to have some heart palpitations, within a sense of ambivalence. What if I am not “Vietnamese” enough to be talking about Stuff Vietnamese People Like? Or to be talking about whatever other title I might use? And would you care if I am not Vietnamese enough? Should I? And here my mixed race war baby authenticity fear guilt begins to swell like a pufferfish, and I wonder how to convince you that I should be here, writing anything at all. Do you need to see some papers? How about some photos? Archival? Family? Can you give me a sec? And before you run off, know that this trepidation isn’t entirely about you. This actually goes back, way back, to sixth grade, when I was stuck in an Oklahoma suburb in the mid-1980s and overheard the name of a Vietnamese kid in my music class.

If you were surrounded by Vietnamese folks when you were eleven years old, you might have to struggle to understand what this one name might mean to me, then and there. At the time, my white American father had custody of me, and I didn’t live with my Cham-French mother (from Việt Nam) and younger siblings anymore. A couple of years before, I’d moved away from that suburb of Houston and hadn’t seen anything even resembling a Vietnamese part-of-town since leaving Texas at age nine. Or any Asiatown, for that matter. No more lemongrass or bitter melons–what my mom called bitter lemons–in the produce aisle. No more preserved plums, pickled mustard greens, sweetened soy milk, savory phở. And what about my little siblings? Or that country where my older siblings still lived, waiting for that elusive “family reunification”? I wasn’t even unified anymore, with the family. And I was in this new state, where there was no one with whom to talk about these places I’d left behind—as a diasporic daughter separated from her mother and from all references to her mother’s land—when I departed from my family near Houston, Texas, and went to go live with my dad in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.

Until I heard his name, V., in music class. Music to my ears! Finally!!! I rushed up to him and nearly knocked him over, repeating his Vietnamese name twice, first and last. Although there was no mistake, I then asked with anticipation, “Are you Vietnamese?!” He looked around nervously. He’d probably been doing everything he could to fit into this mostly white suburb, and this offwhite girl knows, a little too loudly, where he’s from. He may have quietly stammered, “Yeah,” but the floodgates of opportunity and connection opened for me. “My mom is from Việt Nam!” I announced as I pulled out her old picture. He skeptically looked at me, and at the black-and-white photo of my Cham-French mother that held before him. And he didn’t quite believe any of it. “Sài Gòn 1973,” I repeated loudly, reading the back. “See?” But he looked somewhat blankly at her, at the handwriting, then at me. I don’t blame the kid. We didn’t look like any Vietnamese folks he knew, that’s for sure. Hardly surprising now, but at the time I just didn’t understand why I didn’t seemlike a new cousin for him or something. I departed him hoping to gather some more photos, so he could believe that I really do have a connection to what we’d eventually just call the motherland.

Irrefutable evidence of my Cham-French mother in Sài Gòn, 1973

Within a couple of years we were good friends, V. and I, despite our other differences. I was a little rough around the edges, in ways, and he was always very dapper. I teased him for ironing his designer socks, and he teased me for being unkempt. Yet apparently we had a lot more in common—we both got into the advanced art class early, we were both in the gifted/talented program, and we both took challenging literature courses. We ended up together in repeated classrooms at school, and on field trips, over and over. I suppose I grew on him, in time. Eventually he began to let me read his fiction—masterful short stories with complex themes, all set in Việt Nam, which he had escaped from at age five. He’s better than the authors we read in honor’s lit class, I told myself, after reading a huge stack of his stories in exchange for some of my own poems. Wow. I was privileged and blessed to see this deeper side of him, though his own work—there he struggled with the contradictions between religious tradition and the impiety of the young, between history and memory, embodied in these parables set in Sài Gòn, from where my parents had evacuated the year before I was born.

So the first writer I ever met was this preternaturally gifted Vietnamese American kid in Oklahoma who invited me back to the motherland with him, through these stories he’d share somewhat clandestinely, while we were students at Sequoyah Middle School. He let me into what I had never known, as I had been born in Missouri after my mom evacuated with my father, and as I would not visit Việt Nam until my early twenties. And so he was a bit of a culture bearer, for me, as I lived in Broken Arrow away from my Việt family. I read between his lines for the scent of the air in Việt Nam, and for the sound of children’s laughter while playing in the morning, as they left their muddy footprints behind on the tombstones. Through the writings of V., I hadn’t completely lost this connection to the place where my own siblings, grandparents, and extended family still lived. Granted, I still occasionally broke the unknown rules by talking about Vietnamese food at the lunch table in front of our white classmates, who “wouldn’t understand,” V. warned. And he was probably right. We were in middle school, after all. Not exactly known as a bastion of humanity towards anyone. So I hoped to not trespass too conspicuously upon what was sacred to him as a Vietnamese American boy acculturating to the suburbs of Tulsa by day, and writing masterful short stories by night.

•••

Six years after high school graduation, I hoped to return to Việt Nam on a post-war study tour. I wanted V. to come with me on this second trip to Việt Nam, after I’d visited my family two years before. I was sure he’d love the trip, but I also knew to go for the soft spot, for maximum effectiveness. “You always write about the countryside, but you never go there! How do you feel about that?” I asked him, during a phone call from Seattle.

“What?” he replied, from Iowa City.

“When you go back, you always stay in Sài Gòn with your family. But you write about the countryside so much. How do you justify it? Aren’t you worried about authenticity?”

He was perplexed by this line of questioning, as I centered his writing. Since our childhood, he’d continued his work, obtaining a BA and an MA from a private university in Oklahoma before moving on to acquire his MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, which he was then attending. I was hoping to playfully and somewhat sarcastically twist his arm, using that old claim to authenticity, but I chose to twist his plot sequences instead. By this, I urged him to come on the trip, where he would see the rest of Việt Nam with me. Beyond the invite from an old friend, he was soon affirmed by some funding from school. So he relented to my encouragement.

That summer we spent nearly a month in Việt Nam as part of a tour of professors, students, veterans, activists, and Vietnamese Americans hoping to learn more about the war. Along the way, he teased that I had just needed someone to help carry my film equipment. Apparently a fiction writer needs less gear than a filmmaker and photographer. But oh, the things we both carried, as we traveled through parts of Việt Nam learning about the war, from all perspectives, and seeing places we’d never been, since we’d each only stayed with our own families during previous visits. And just as he’d taken me back to Việt Nam through his stories, in middle school, I took him back to Việt Nam, quite literally, in our mid-twenties. He’s since told me that it was the best trip of his life. As far as I see it, one good motherland (re)turn deserves another.

Hội An shore, at dusk, 2001

•••

This childhood friendship with V. began a series of monumental lifelong relationships with Vietnamese American writers and artists, whose accomplishments stunned me in my early youth and whose talents stun me still. V. is achieving everything I expected for him, with his first novel currently under contract, and with many well-deserved writing awards earned. The Vietnamese American diaspora has now published an incredible amount of literature—profound, heartbreaking, unsettling, and affirming. And yet for me, my first taste of this literature was through a boy I was fortunate to have met and befriended, in an unlikely town. These days—especially during the last five years—I’ve also gotten far closer to creating that wider community of Vietnamese Americans that I seemingly lost when I left home as a child. It has helped that I finally moved to California for graduate school, where a high percentage of Vietnamese Americans has settled, alongside existing Asian enclaves. Yet before I moved here in my early thirties, I was struggling with still feeling a sense of disconnect from those who knew and understood Việt Nam. By chance, I didn’t really know any Vietnamese folks in my cities of residence in the Pacific Northwest. And I didn’t even know any other children of refugees, from anywhere.

To alleviate this isolation, during the 30th anniversary of the Fall of Sài Gòn, I began to share my own creative work with Vietnamese American artists, scholars, and activists. At a commemorative conference organized by Fiona Ngo and Mariam Lam, I exhibited and spoke about my own Cham documentary photography, as a debut. However I had initially approached this community as tentatively as I’d learned to approach Vietnamese Americans—and even this diaCRITICIZE post—afraid that the mixed race war baby authenticity guilt would leave me scrambling for paperwork and photographs, for evidence. You could say that I have been a bit scarred by the skeptical looks all people have been giving me, for years, when I say that my mom is from Việt Nam, or even that she is Cham and French. Yet for this anniversary gathering, I was gravely mistaken that I might not be welcome. Even when I voiced the disclaimers about our mixed race family to people I met, some consoled me and admitted things like, “We’re not just Vietnamese, in my family, either.” I could hardly conceal my relief, then or now, to be accepted into the fold—within all the complexity and dynamism of the Vietnamese diasporic community in the United States.

I might not be screaming “Sài Gòn 1973” anymore but I have been given a spot at the table anyway, in ways I’ve never anticipated. And so have you, even if you don’t realize it yet.

Fear of losing what’s sacred, Đà Nẵng, 2010

While celebrating the recent 100th post for diaCRITICS, we wish you a few days of holiday hiatus from new material. Instead, savor your friends and family—or your time away from them—whatever is most sacred to you. Get some much-needed sleep and put some delicious food and laughter in your belly. Whether its walking meditation or playing Wii, you know what you need to do. Then at the year’s end, our three managing editors will each feature our own top ten diaCRITICS picks, giving you a chance to revisit the mind-blowing creative works of the Vietnamese homeland and diaspora, with our regular posts resuming bright and early in the new year. We can’t wait. Because Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “Without music, life would be a mistake.” I’ll amend it slightly, away from the fatalism, in the interest of holiday cheer. Without art and culture, we wouldn’t have such deep ways of letting each other in, across time, space, and place. We wouldn’t understand history or politics, nor ourselves or one another. So let’s meet here, over these shared meals, where we’re not afraid to speak our memories and to live out loud.

Julie Thi Underhill, managing editor for diaCRITICS

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About Julie Thi Underhill

Julie Thi Underhill is an artist, photographer, filmmaker, writer, historian, and doctoral candidate in Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley. She specializes in Cham studies, diasporic studies, memory studies, Asian American film/video, Asian American history, and transnational feminisms. She is a managing editor for diaCRITICS.
This entry was posted in Art, Cham, Columns, Diacriticize: The Editor's Note, History, Julie Thi Underhill, Literature, Memory, Most Critical December 2010, Refugee experience, Travel, USA, Vietnam and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to diaCRITICIZE: On motherland (re)turns

  1. Thao W. says:

    I loved this article. People can be so judgemental, Vietnamese people included. I’ve always grown up being stared at as a half-Vietnamese American. And I am guilty of using the Alias Tina at Starbucks also :). I’m aspiring to write about my childhood stories now as you can read on my modest blog thaowake@blogspot.com. Stories like this, touch my soul and inspire me to reach out to other Vietnamese artists. Merry Christmas everyone.

    • Hi Thao!

      And as mixed race people, we can help to challenge the notions of authenticity which separate people from one another. Thanks for sharing your blog and your story. I love how writing and art both function to connect us to one another, and to humanize our experiences so that others can relate to us.

      Keep writing and sharing!

      Best wishes,
      Julie

  2. Asiroh Cham says:

    Thank you for sharing yet another beautiful, eloquent, and touching piece. Thanks for making me cry… and you know this is NOT a pretty sight. I wanted you to know, that you have always and will always have a spot at my table.

    Sincerely,
    Asiroh

    • Hi Asiroh ~

      I appreciate your emotional response, and the full-circle quality of this conversation. Because I remember having similar fears when talking to you about my own mixed race Cham identity, back in the day, when we finally met up in San Jose. You made a spot at the table for me, and even found me a hammock or two to rest in along the way, and I have been deeply grateful ever since.

      Thank you for your friendship, for inspiring me, and for collaborating on our research in Cambodia, and beyond. It’s been an honor, in fact.

      Couldn’t have done it without you, laydeee!

      Love,
      Julie

  3. Dan Duffy says:

    Julie, this is so wonderful. Best wishes –

  4. Lucy DeVries Duffy says:

    Julie,
    Lovely article,
    Lucy Duffy

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