Sunday, June 10, 2012

the evolution of my experience [entry #1]: understanding why i am here

Lâu ngày, không gặp. Long time, no see. No real excuse for not posting, but I have so much to catch you guys up on. And seeing as there are only 12 official days remaining in my grant, I better get started. Since the end of March, I have been on two hardy field trips to the rugged mountains of Da Lat, took another field trip at Binh Chau, flew up for a final trip to Hanoi, visited and thoroughly enjoyed Central Vietnam, accepted admittance to a PhD program, and many more events in between--all deserving of their own blog posts.

However, those will have to wait. I am feeling a tad nostalgic as we just had our final Fulbright conference in Huế this week. It gave me a chance to ponder about how much I have changed since I have been here. I was able to see the transformations in the other Fulbrights, as well. Vietnam means something different to all of us. Our interests cover everything from history to lobster farming, ethnic minorities to mosquitoes, bride trafficking to bird biodiversity. For many (like myself), it was their first time being in Vietnam and had no idea what they were walking into. For others, they were returning to Vietnam after a very long hiatus, also having no idea what they were walking into.

Before coming here, telling people that I will be moving to Vietnam would often bring an element of surprise or confusion. It goes without saying that the first thing people (in America) think of when you say Vietnam is the war. I remember hearing "when I was your age people were doing everything they could to NOT go to Vietnam". Well, life is curious like that.

I was shamefully unaware that two of the Fulbright scholars were Vietnam war vets. To even think about returning to a country that had once brought nightmares and sorrow to them takes an incredible amount of courage and forgiveness. I also need to shamefully admit (and I think this speaks for a lot of people of my generation) that I have never formally learned about the Vietnam War (or the American War in Vietnam, as it is called here). We always seemed to "never get to it" by the end of the year in my history classes. I have various theories as to why this is so, but I think it mostly comes from the naivete of the generation before mine, meaning that they were alive while all of the drama unfolded and it does not quite feel like history to them. It seems like a natural stopping point for an American History class. The war sits on a silver lining of international current affairs and post-civil war American history. Therefore, most of my understanding of what happened here has come from my observations and conversations with people here, my own research and reading (which definitely takes proactive effort), Forrest Gump, and my dad, of course. And needless to say, many things need to be taken with a large grain of salt. A trip to the War Museum (formerly known as the American War Crimes Museum) certainly presents the government's perspective of the war and the impression it wishes to leave upon people. I RARELY have discussions about it with Vietnamese people here in Saigon. Names and battles were often hard to keep track of when trying to read literature, making the task rather daunting and dense. Full Metal Jacket  is also another extremity of a resource. I decided to take the approach of just simply listening to what others had to say and rely on personal, first-hand accounts to slowly piece together a level of understanding that would allow me to be able to engage in a conversation about it. This is juxtaposed next to the typical Vietnamese student my age. The government makes damned sure they learn about the war and in the exact manner in which they are supposed to learn it.

One of the scholars, Ron, (who is a Vietnam vet)  is actually a history professor and his project entailed teaching the American War in Vietnam to Vietnamese students in Saigon for a semester. I nearly fell over when I heard this was his task. Not only would this involve presenting the topic in a way that the student's have never heard before, but it also sounded illegal. Because I was so fascinated at how this unfolded, I want to share his experience. He approached the topic as "American History" and began the course with the Revolutionary War, which I found rather clever. When the long-awaited day of the American War arrived, the police actually pulled aside the TA of the class and "wanted to meet for coffee" regarding Ron's class. In order to ease any opposition or controversy, Ron invited the police officers to sit in on the class and I guess that nipped things in the butt. What is most touching about Ron's experience is that Ron's students were both sons and daughters of parents who fought in the war on both the North and the South.

Although, of course, a unified country now, I have personally experienced contrasting opinions about the war from the North and South. From my friends in the South, I often encounter comments such as "We lost a lot in the war, but that is not what is important any more", "the US was only here to help", etc. (and often times not even wanting to dwell on it at all). While on various trips to Hanoi, I have run into comments such as (in response to saying I have never learned about the war) "your government just doesn't want to admit they were wrong" and "I think you learned wrong why the US came to Vietnam. They come to try to divide one country of Vietnam into two. But we are strong and remain one country". In response, I just keep my mouth shut. Although I have never ONCE felt a drop of hostility towards myself for being American, I have picked up on elements of tension and regional differences. Tying this into Ron's experience, I can only begin to imagine the challenge he faced to tread carefully. However, at the final conference he shared the comments of some of his students about their reaction to his class that were so gut-wrenchingly profound that it was very difficult for everyone to choke back tears. Knowing that he was able to present such a personal topic for everyone in the room (including Ron) in such a mature, truthful manner demonstrates everything this program stands for. I felt so honored to be hearing his story.

The other veteran in our group, Cal, also presented his reflections on his experience here. In contrast to Ron (who had returned to Vietnam many times since the war), this was Cal's first time returning since he first arrived in 1970. He shared his own photographs he took as a soldier, journal entries, and excerpts from letters home. Seeing his photographs from his experience here now struck hard. I, of course, was bawling by the end of it. But in all seriousness, the amount of bravery it would take to return to a place that was often referred to as a "hellhole" with the intention of teaching and rebuild bridges shows the immense amount of integrity. It put into perspective how unique having a Fulbright in Vietnam is as opposed to other countries. I now see the importance of bringing home my experiences and sharing them in America. There are still many people who will take the image of Vietnam as a "hellhole" with them to the grave. I would only hope to change this impression that so many Americans cling to. Let go of the past, and focus on the future.

In closing, I'll leave this one last thought that Ron shared. He teaches the Vietnam War in both America and Vietnam. To both sets of students on the first day of class, he asks everybody to write down the first words that come to mind when they hear the word "America" (in Vietnam) or "Vietnam" (in America). Almost 99% of American students write the word "war". Almost 99% of Vietnamese students write words such as "Hollywood", "money", and other words with positive connotations. It may take several generations, but I hope that one day people will write "phở" or "motorbikes" or "insane traffic" when they hear the word "Vietnam".

2011-2012 US Fulbright Scholars & Students


  1. You have hit on the key task for American Vietnam veterans as well as young Americans -- we need to look beyond our past history and built-up misconceptions to see the modern American and Vietnam working together now to achieve common goals.
    Douglas Young, an American Vietnam war veteran, has recently written and illustrated with beautiful photographs a book that bridges the war experience with American and Vietnamese culture now. He and his wife, who was also a Vietnam war veteran, returned to Vietnam in the mid-2000 years to teach at the university in Hue. His book has brought healing now to many Vietnam veterans, but also helps non-veterans to see the modern Vietnam that has grown far beyond its war years. The book is titled "Same River, Different Water: A Veteran's Journey from Vietnam to Viet Nam" and can be found at Amazon.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I will definitely check out that book!

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