In this exclusive new diaCRITICIZE, Julie Thi Underhill offers an in-depth introduction to the sometimes fraught relationship between Chăm Americans and Vietnamese Americans. She raises difficult questions, including why Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans would rather forget the conquest of the Chăm, the continuing existence of the Chăm people, and whether or not the Chăm can be compared to Native Americans. She concludes on a hopeful note whereby Chăm Americans and Vietnamese Americans can begin filling in together the “blank pages” of shared history and memory.
Although Julie Thi Underhill has previously written for diaCRITICS about Democractic Kampuchea’s Genocide of the Chăm during the 1970s in Cambodia, this provocative diaCRITICIZE essay is the first essay published in English, since 1987, which exclusively centers the Chăm in Việt Nam and their communities and identities in the US.
A few years ago I wrote a memoir essay called The Gift Horse of War, during which I critiqued the palpable traces of my birth country’s reluctant benevolent paternalism towards migrating refugees from Việt Nam. This reluctance is especially evident in certain European Americans in the US, the so-called “nativists” who think that “America” should be purified of its darkening stains. In that critical memoir essay, I centered my first job after earning my undergraduate degree, when I worked in Seattle as a video editor and graphic designer for a production company specializing in natural history documentary films. One day, I learned that war itself was the “gift horse” I wasn’t allowed to stare into the mouth with anything other than utmost gratitude, because I wouldn’t “be here” in the US had war not allowed my mother’s migration to the US with my father, an American working in Việt Nam as a civilian contractor. I recalled how during that conversation, in my boss’s glare, “I was just my mother’s daughter, with the US nation-state an unwilling rectifier of the problems associated with spilling not only blood, but also seed, in a quagmire of a nightmare of a memory.”
My boss completely disregarded that I was born here and preferred to consider me akin to how some Vietnamese think of the Amerasian bụi đời, or ‘dust of life,’ for being children of the enemy, children of the other. As I wrote in The Gift Horse of War, “In that moment I realized that my boss’s wife looked at me and saw bar girls gyrating, US soldiers patronizing prostitutes, the shame of having one’s unsolved problems coming home to roost.” Apparently, I am not home here. Although I have earned both jus soli and jus sanguinis citizenship rights in the US, when born in Missouri to a US-born citizen father, my boss considered me someone who really doesn’t belong in the US, as the daughter of a mother in Việt Nam and from a shamefully ‘lost’ war, at that. When she said spitefully, “You’re going to have to remember that if it wasn’t for war, you wouldn’t be here,” she reminded me that I didn’t deserve the privileges afforded to those born here, simply because my mother is a refugee from a war I should be thanking everyday, no matter how that war (and the war before it) negatively affected my family. And unlike well-mannered white racists in the Pacific Northwest, who often remain closeted in their hatred of the other, my boss even had to tell me her resentment about having to grant asylum to those like my mother and me.
The people I worked for that year in Seattle also had difficulty paying respect to the native inhabitants of North America, whose histories and cultures accessorized the documentaries their company produced for national monuments and state parks. In their films of Native American sites, the company reduced each indigenous nation to a “ghost image,” a translucent graphic effect inserted into footage of archaeologically and spiritually significant locations. To achieve this end, a person in a costume is first filmed in front of a blue screen, a screen later removed in post-production by someone like me to make the person into a silhouette that can be inserted over background footage. When the opacity of the person is then reduced in post-production, they are made into a ghost. So a “ghost image” is a standard video production term, yet for me it became a double entendre, since ghosts also signify a spiritual entity lingering after someone dies. By placing Natives as “ghosts” in documentary footage, as figures vague like mist or distant memory, their “mysterious” disappearance is both romanticized and hastened. The company owner even got annoyed when Native Americans contacted him complaining that their nations didn’t actually dress that way or carry that particular object. The owner then shrugged and laughed off these complaints, to my horror.
The sense of commensurability between peoples was made even more glaring when the company owner pressured me to turn myself into a filmed motion graphic effect—a ghost image—in a documentary about Chaco Canyon, the ceremonial, administrative, and economic center of ancestral Puebloan culture, in present-day New Mexico. My theoretical training in reflexive ethnography, as an undergrad studying experimental and documentary film and video the year before, had never prepared me for the possibility that I’d be turned into a living-while-dead prop during an unfortunate encounter with the worst aspects of salvage ethnography. The horror! The horror. The cardboard boxed “INDIAN KIT” contents aimed to flatten me to a grotesque nightmarish caricature of a Native North American, in order to give myself a blue-screen-removed motion graphic to shrink down and place into the ruins at Chaco Canyon. In that cardboard box, the witch’s wig, conch shell, and craft store baskets accompanied a burlap potato sack to mock every complaint ever received about the inauthenticity of their actors’ wardrobe. With my brown eyes, hair, and skin, it seemed I’d look great in that potato sack, holding that conch shell to my lips to call across vast terrains to my relatives in another kiva.
My employer wielded the most exploitative weapons of salvage ethnography, as his company continued to benefit from the eradication of this continent’s natives, while holding no actual respect for their specificity, diversity, autonomy, or continued survival as distinct peoples. I was horrified. I’ve always thought it important to pay respect to the ancestors of the land here, whether or not “my” ancestors had anything to do with their eradication. Call it a spiritual belief, something innate and learned, if that makes more sense. As someone with also some Scottish, Irish, and French ancestry in me, I have benefitted from the Euro-American settler colonialism that eradicated Natives in the US. The land I live on in the Bay Area of California once belonged to the Ohlone, before Manifest Destiny reared its head with divine right justifications for swindling the territory. How can our recent residence here as settlers even come close to usurping over 40,000 years rightful residence on this continent? This honor for the indigenous peoples deepens, the older I get and the more I learn about the original nations of North America. When I meet other European-descended people who withhold their respect for the Natives, I always find it jarring—painful in its blatant racism. Yet in my first job after college, both Native Americans and I were regarded as lesser than white—the All-American racial “norm”—by that production company’s nativism, a verdict enunciated when my boss asked me to dress in that horrid costume.
Besides being flattened into the same “brownish” person by my boss, however, Native Americans and I also have something else in common—the shared history of having survived settler colonialism as indigenous peoples—something my boss would have disregarded or mocked, if even I’d explained it. Although my mother is from Việt Nam, she is actually from the indigenous Chăm people, on her mother’s side. We are descendants of Champa, a kingdom that long occupied what is now known as central Việt Nam, from Quảng Bình to Đồng Nai provinces, even extending into Cambodia and Laos. Ethnically and linguistically Austronesian, the Chăm have lived in present-day Việt Nam for over 2,000 years, incorporating the religious and cultural influences of Hinduism and Islam into their indigenous spirituality, while maintaining their matrilinealism. The Chăm kingdom was an important stop on the maritime Silk Road trade routes between China and India, as Marco Polo and others have attested in their travel logs. Although its population was centered predominantly along the coastline, as a kingdom Champa was a mandala formation, a multi-centered confederation embracing both coastal Chăm and multiple ethnic highlander peoples, those indigenous to the central mountains, known during French Indochina as the Montagnards but often known today as Degar.
The Chăm lived south of the Vietnamese, with whom they warred on and off over the dividing line between territories, as the Vietnamese encroached upon Champa from the north. In 1471, Vietnamese armies under emperor Lê Thánh Tông invaded and massacred the northern Chăm capital, Vijaya, slaughtering up to 60,000 Chăm and enslaving several thousand more. According to historian Ben Kiernan in Blood and Soil: A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Sparta to Darfur, the sacking of Vijaya (contemporary Bình Định) was a campaign of genocide by the Vietnamese. Kiernan writes that after the defeat of Vijaya,“[s]ome of the Cham prisoners were enslaved on the estates of Vietnamese dignitaries and others ordered to adopt Vietnamese names, marry Vietnamese, and start ‘correcting themselves’.” Thereafter Chăm territories were “absorbed” by successive Vietnamese dynasties moving south into regions occupied by Champa and the Khmer empire. The Khmer once held the delta of the Sông Mê Kông, or Mekong River. With the Vietnamese as a mutual aggressor, the Khmer also welcomed some Chăm refugees who sought asylum with their neighbors to the west. The Chăm who remained in their original territories attempted to preserve themselves and their autonomy. Historian Danny Wong Tze Ken analyzed the Chăm/Việt frontier in 2004, noting a continued struggle during the process of conquest. “Subjugation of the former land of Champa was incomplete, however, as Cham resistance—often armed —became the central theme of the relationship after 1693. Resistance was based on the desire to be free of Vietnamese rule and to reinstate the kingdom of Champa,” Wong Tze Ken wrote. “Contributing to this desire was the friction that existed between Vietnamese and Chams, often at the expense of Cham rights and well being. It was not until 1835 that Cham resistance was finally broken.”
The lived effects of the nam tiến, the euphemistically named ‘march to the south,’ deeply impacted and eroded the numbers and cultures of the Chăm, Khmer Krom, and other groups transformed by conquest from indigenous majorities to ethnic minorities. In the 1830s, the Nguyễn emperor Minh Mạng dissolved the last Chăm principality of Paṇḍuraṇga. The emperor’s decision came on the bloodied heels of hundreds of years of massacres, assimilationist policies, and forced relocations of the Chăm. Through the decision to dissolve the last autonomous Chăm territory, Paṇḍuraṇga, Chăm resistance was “broken,” Wong Tze Ken assesses in reference to the final step of the 364-year “absorption” of the kingdom of Champa. Although I do not agree that Chăm resistance was broken in 1835, for a variety of reasons, certainly this time period had devastating effects upon the people. During the 1830s, my maternal village of Palei Uu—known in Vietnamese as Phước Lập—was forcibly moved inland by Minh Mạng, away from the life-sustaining shores of the Biển Đông or ‘East Sea,’ named on US maps as the South China Sea. According to a Chăm anthropologist I know, Minh Mạng moved our village to prevent our possible seaborne contact with other kingdoms. He didn’t want us to access the overseas networks we’d sustained for over 1,500 years as skilled maritime seafarers and merchants on the heavily traveled routes between China and India. So the Vietnamese emperor resettled us inland, in a desert punctuated by prickly pear cacti, where it remains difficult to grow crops to survive.
Our forced relocation in the 1830s severed us from our traditional means of trade in coconuts and subsequently impoverished our village in such a way that we are still one of the poorest Chăm hamlets in the vicinity of present-day Phan Rang-Tháp Chăm, the city named after the southernmost Chăm principality Paṇḍuraṇga and the Chăm towers built there in the 13th century. It is true that our village of Palei Uu has also been impacted by latter-day land seizures and redistribution, since 1975, as have other people across Việt Nam who have voiced complaints to Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and humanitarian agencies. Yet in many ways, the post-1975 deterritorialization of the Chăm has been merely extended through time and place through bureaucratic sanction, as the latter-day features of the longue durée of settler colonialism. That the Chăm became and remain concentrated in the country’s most arid region—where it is most difficult to sustain life—also aligns with standard practices of settler colonialism, where the most fertile and desirable lands are reserved for the ethnic majority population, for those who are meant to survive. Even during my childhood my mother made parallels to how Native Americans live in the US, saying the Vietnamese did to the Chăm what the US government has done to natives here through the reservation system. “We are the Native Americans of Việt Nam,” she taught me, as I tried to understand what differentiated the Urang Campa (or “Chăm people” in the Chăm language) from those residents in Houston’s thriving Vietnamese district, with whom my mother was friendly.
Looking back, I’m not sure how my mother learned about the lives of Native Americans on reservations, as a fairly recently arrived refugee without the ability to read English. Perhaps it was her constant attention to documentaries on PBS, as she became fluent in English while watching TV. However, her analogy helped me to realize that the Chăm shared a particular struggle with Native Americans, well before I had any awareness of concepts like indigeneity or settler colonialism. On a global scale, the Chăm certainly weren’t the only ones dislocated and forced away from our ancestral lands and our means for survival, during the past five hundred years. The same decade that Minh Mạng annexed the last remaining Chăm principality in Việt Nam, Native Americans in the US became subject to President Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act of 1830, which had devastating effects. The Cherokee, Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muscogee-Creek, and Seminole were subsequently uprooted from their ancestral lands and forced to march the brutal Trail of Tears to Indian Territory. The disastrous consequences of the violence and death accompanying this process are still felt today, by the ancestors of those who marched to what is now known as Oklahoma and Kansas. The dispossession of indigenous territories is indeed a defining feature of settler colonialism—how else to create terra nullius, or empty land, the key resource sought by settling colonizers? Previous inhabitants must either be killed or forcibly evicted, and often in retrospect all that physically remains of the Natives in their original territories are the buildings built in stone and brick and the sacred monuments which somehow withstood the ravages of war and time.
In both Việt Nam and the US, accusations of indigenous “barbarism” also justified the massacre and assimilation of native inhabitants, despite the irony that campaigns of eradication are the epitome of barbarism—hence the unspeakable horror contained in the very idea of genocide, the systematic and planned extermination of a national, racial, political, or cultural group, a theater of continuous killing that generally constitutes the worst moral and legal crime to commit against a population. A glut of sources attest to the intentionality of the North American genocide, including Columbus’s own travel diaries which outline his plans to enslave the native inhabitants of the Caribbean—“with fifty men I shall subdue them all,” he wrote in anticipation, as he commenced the worst known genocide in human history in hopes of funding the reconquest of Jerusalem. These aren’t the historical details that schoolchildren learn about on Columbus Day, however. As a result, many European Americans and other US settlers and newcomers have inherited a historical amnesia about the origins and the lived effects of genocide in the US, and so remain quite ignorant about the complexity and range of Native American peoples. Many are clueless to the fact that over 500 distinct peoples occupied present-day US for tens of thousands of years before Columbus’ arrival to the so-called New World, and that their descendants continue to live among us. Similarly, many Vietnamese in the US and some in Việt Nam remain uninformed about the existence, complexity, or history of the Chăm kingdom or about the continued imprints of Chăm culture upon the Vietnamese.
Even when settler colonialism implements an official historical amnesia about the effects of conquest, negative stereotypes and prejudice about subjugated peoples often remain, due to the racial hierarchy that persists within the colonial context. My mother’s first husband’s parents, themselves Vietnamese Catholics living in Sài Gòn, did not want their son marrying a Chăm woman when my mother married her first husband in the early 1960s. My mother tried her best to fit in, converting to Catholicism from her native indigenized Hindu faith as Chăm Bà-la-môn, yet her first husband’s parents made life difficult for my mother. Her in-laws later mistreated my eldest brother when my siblings took refuge with their paternal grandparents, after his father was killed in combat and after our mother evacuated Việt Nam for the US in April 1975. My mother attributed this mistreatment to their “looking down” upon us for being Chăm, deduced from previous experiences. Even those not patrolling their family’s bloodline might also express negative perceptions about us. During our childhood, a Vietnamese American friend informed me that the Chăm are “dirty” and “unkempt” according to his parents, the same language used to decry the supposed savagery of natives of North America during Manifest Destiny-fueled civilizing missions to eradicate, assimilate, or otherwise “kill the Indian, and save the man,” in the words of the infamous Captain Richard H. Pratt, founder of Carlisle Indian Industrial School.
Many non-Natives in the US seem to know little-to-nothing about real Native Americans, outside of Hollywood-implanted “cowboys and Indians” fantasies, the Land O’ Lakes lady offering us butter and land and everything else to her name, and other distortions of mass entertainment and advertising. In all honesty, however, many Vietnamese Americans seem completely unaware that the Chăm even exist, in the past or present, as a hallucination or as a reality. This total lack of awareness is a by-product of the settler colonialism that’s attempted to inhibit our survival in Việt Nam by minimizing and omitting our presence in the historical and cultural record of the country, and a by-product of the lack of education in the US about the multiple ethnicities inhabiting every country in Asia. The Vietnamese often write their history of their campaigns of eradication, wrought by the southern push of the nam tiến, as an inevitable aspect of “escaping” the grasp of China, by doing unto others as they complained China did unto them—including wield accusations of “barbarism” a little too loosely. The way it’s generally told the nam tiến is bloodless, to evacuate moral culpability, or else celebratory for having won. However, the longstanding omissions in Việt Nam about conditions of conquest in the bloody borderland between Champa and Đại Việt has followed the refugees and immigrants from Việt Nam across the Pacific to the US. In the US, the Chăm presence in the Vietnamese American community is often met with blank stares, in the better cases, to sheer incredulity in having actually met an “extinct” people.
Last fall, at a predominantly Vietnamese American gathering in San Francisco, I saw one case of incredulity bolstered by someone’s spontaneous bravado that my people’s kingdom had “lost.” It was a social event for an organization. As we went around the room and introduced ourselves, I explained (among other things) that I am Chăm. I added that we are an indigenous ethnic minority in Việt Nam, to those in the group who didn’t already know. After I spoke, a man from my parents’ generation announced to me, “I didn’t know you were Chăm! You were vanquished!” I sat there for a moment, looking at the stunned faces of those around me, as I gathered my thoughts and considered my options. I wasn’t sure if he just had “no filter,” as the kids say these days, or if he really thought this was an appropriate exclamation after an indigenous person of his motherland acknowledges her presence next to him, even in our shared overlapping US diasporas. I wasn’t there during conquest, though, either in place or in time. So whom was he talking to? My ancestors or me? Through his pronouncement of the subjugation of my ancestral kingdom, through his use of “you” to invoke the inhabitants and descendants of Champa, the word vanquished was meant for all of us, dead and alive, wherever we may be, geographically and temporally.
Even if I am expected to assume a position of defeat in the presence of the conquerors’ descendants, becoming an object lesson—a racial silhouette, with minimal chiaroscuro, that pops up within someone’s tunnel vision when looking at me—has never been my forte. So I had a different take on the matter. “I am not vanquished!” I replied. “I’m sitting right here, aren’t I?!” Subsequent conversations revealed that he had much more insight into the situation of the Chăm than I realized, I am relieved to say, and it shifted something in me to have those follow-up conversations with him. I felt seen and recognized. But bringing up the earlier exchange is fruitful, I think, for others who might also be taken off guard when they meet us. We don’t consider ourselves “vanquished” as a people—and especially not in a way that makes the violence bloodless—just because we no longer hold territory to our name. Our existence as a politically autonomous people is not the only enduring measure of our cultural and historical significance, since the word Champa on a map is not the only measure of our survival or relevance. Some people might claim that an indigenous people’s cultural memory atrophies and disintegrates once we’re “unmapped,” once we lose autonomous territory, and that somehow we disappear into the pages of ancient history rather than deserve ongoing recognition and self-representation. Such a view reinscribes the reductionist logic of the nation-state, a political formation of recent centuries, sometimes erroneously privileged as the only viable container of bodies, identities, and memories.
When the names etched on any political map determine who is meant to survive, when those names decide whose histories and cultures are worth remembering and writing, people deny the lived complexity of the cultural memories of most nations in this world, which are largely multi-racial and multi-ethnic in composition, in favor of a supremacist and nativist perspective that denies the endurance of indigenous peoples and the long intercultural exchange between peoples. Such individuals also deny the permeability, mutability, and arbitrary nature of politically autonomous regions and their borders, something observed in-depth by scholars and commentators. The phenomenon of diaspora, something shared by both Chăm and Vietnamese in the US, challenges both of these denials. Has the cultural memory of those from the Republic of South Việt Nam disappeared—or has it become more enhanced—after the “removal” of South Việt Nam from the political map and the global relocations of hundreds of thousands from the former South? And why should any sort of defeat, conquest, or subjugation, the key ideas within the concept of “vanquish,” be an enduring factor for determining the worth of a people and the viability of their memories, whether cultural or historical? If Southern Vietnamese hold tight to an awareness of their history and culture, hold respect for themselves despite their own so-called defeat in battle, why shouldn’t the Chăm?
Riveted? Stay tuned for PART TWO of You Didn’t Kill Us All, You Know, which continues in a few days here on diaCRITICS.
Julie Thi Underhill has previously written for diaCRITICS about the lived memories of Democractic Kampuchea’s genocide of the Chăm during and after the 1970s in Cambodia. Since 2010, her historical, cultural, and photographic essay has remained one of the most visited posts on diaCRITICS, generating dozens of comments by those interested in Chăm history and culture. She thanks diaCRITICS editor Viet Thanh Nguyen and the many commenters on her 2010 article for encouraging her to write more for diaCRITICS about the Chăm, and for entering into difficult conversations about the past. Her bio continues below.
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