Confessions of a Vietnamese Refugee
October 10, 2008
Los Angeles, CA
Yesterday, my history professor ordered me to stay after class and then apologized to me.
“We are sorry for everything that we did. Vietnam was such a beautiful place with beautiful people.”
I shifted awkwardly, unsure if this was the beginning or the end of the conversation. I adjusted my backpack bringing it up to my tense shoulders. Not sure of what else to do with my hands, I touched the split ends of my hair. I folded the corner of my final exam booklet back and forth, creasing the edge between my sweaty fingers until it ripped off.
“You know, Vietnam was my home. I knew immediately on the first day my boots touched that red earth. I was just a little over 20, but I knew that Vietnam would change me forever.”
I glanced around the now empty room, my eyes tracing the peeling pale blue paint around the door. All of a sudden I felt eyes directed downwards at me and I became acutely aware of my small stature under his gaze. “I was just about your age probably. Where did you say your family was from?”
I never said anything, I thought to myself. Instead, I politely told him everything he wanted to hear.
My family is from Biên Hoà.
“Oh of course! I flew out of ‘Bin Wa’ airbase there many times.” Looks at me for some confirmation or…was it affirmation (?) of his Vietnamese pronunciation.
I came to America on a boat.
“It was horrible, horrible what we did. How could we abandon so many good, honest, hard working people? It was the American government, they lied to everyone, especially the troops.” Proceeds to sing that worn down American tale, a familiar tune that goes something like,
doo da corruption, liberal press, threat of Communism…
dee dee Now what they want you to believe is…
doo da We learned our lesson there in Nam…
Actually, I do not remember saying much at all come to think of it. I nodded silently while he spoke. Sometimes I submitted those signals that said we were in a conversation by sprinkling in ‘hmm’ and ‘oh really?’ When he looked at me and paused to take a breath or to let the heaviness of his words sink in—I hurriedly wrinkled my lips to convey empathy and understanding as a substitute for looking him in the eye.
I was not sure which social cues and staged behavior a situation like this required. What did he want me to say? Did he want me to say anything? Did it matter what I said? Did it have to be me or any other representative of Nam would do?
Then suddenly he interrupted my looped performance of hmms and frowned lip wrinkling with another “We are sorry for everything we did in Nam.”
Before I could even take a breath and stop the words from escaping, spilling out from my lips, I mechanically muttered.
Film & Poem: https://youtu.be/Nmv6YfGQIW4
What year did that happen?
Before liberation. / Trước khi giải phóng
When did you go to school?
When did you become a farmer?
When did you meet dad?
When did you want to leave?
And when was I born?
After liberation. / Sau khi giải phóng
What is liberation?
Liberation was a time.
It was a demarcation
of what came before
and what came after.
Liberation was a place.
where everyone was invited
and forever remained guests.
Awaiting an alternative future.
Liberation was a friend.
a neighbor, a brother
a believer, a dreamer
familiar, familial, filial.
Liberation was a sound
repeated, whispered echoes
to cleanse and empty
the evils of the past,
the errors of the past
the past, the past, the past.
Ngày xưa, ngày xưa, ngày xưa.
My collection of texture poems grasp for something lost, misplaced, empty. I wrote these pieces while living in-between Hanoi, Saigon, and Little Saigon 2016-2019.
Cindy Nguyen is a subversive artist-historian who works between film, poetry, and visual narrative. Her work defies dominant narrative and meditates on the subtle textures of translation and memory. “The Undeniable Force of Khó Khăn” film is part of “Mẹ, Translated,” a project on intergenerational language and love. Nguyen’s other major project includes MISS/MIS, a feminist exploration of all things deemed ‘mis-’ –wrong, dirty, defiant, or ‘abnormal’. Her art experiments on translation, categorical impulses, and misreading emerged from her Ph.D. dissertation (UC Berkeley) on Vietnamese libraries, print culture, and reading.
Nguyen’s work bridges the diverse fields of history, technology, education, art, and language. As a refugee from the Vietnam War and English as a Second Language Learner, she is committed to advance the understanding of the complex history, culture, and language of Vietnam and its diaspora. For speaking engagements, workshops, and creative collaborations contact email@example.com.
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