Uncontained Rants...

Friday, April 29, 2005

remembering

Who Will We Remember?
by Ky-Phong Tran

This Saturday, April 30, 2005 marks the 30th anniversary of the end of the American War in Vietnam, also known as the Vietnam War.

A number of media outlets are preparing for the day with articles, op-ed pieces, features, and special spreads. The Orange County Register and the San Jose Mercury News, which cover the two regions with the most Vietnamese Americans in the country, have extensive sections to commemorate the Fall of Saigon and Black April, as called by some in the community.

In my reading, I have found tales of escape from refugee families, coverage by ex-GI's and former war reporters, stories of return trips to Vietnam, and most of all, stories examining the successes of the Vietnamese American community: its diverse population of educated professionals, a world champion martial artist, CEO's, elected officials, and the rise of Little Saigons.

In an open and fair society, I do not advocate censorship and would not ask for these stories to be subtracted. But, what should be added? I think a balanced perspective needs to be added to both the occasion and the Vietnamese American community.

So, as the 30th anniversary pulls near, I ask: What will we do for the occasion? Will we seek to honor ourselves only? To pat ourselves on the back and move on?

My answer is this: We should create a new path for the memorial. Redefine it. Own it. Make it ours. And in that new memorial, we not only celebrate our glories, but we remember our struggles--past and present. We look at ourselves honestly, and in totality.

For me, this anniversary is not just a Feel Good Day. It is also a time to remember, reflect, and acknowledge the struggle in our communities today. Yes, we have doctors and lawyers and engineers and astronauts and a professional football player.

But we also have a large segment of our community living in poverty. We have those with limited access to affordable housing and adequate health care and proper schools. There are closeted queers afraid of their own parents. Those struggling with language access and in indecent working conditions. Domestic violence and depression are not discussed. What of those struggles? Those on the margins? Will we sweep them under the rug for the occasion?

There is a part of our own culture that hides our troubles and sorrows in order to not burden others. Dung co lam phien. How long can we bury our problems and hope they will just go away?

Politically, I am concerned that the intimidating, at-times McCarthy-like, anti-communist portion of the Vietnamese community is leading us astray, turning off potential leaders, and occupying too much space for discourse.

I am concerned when local and state Vietnamese American officials run on nationalist, anti-communist platforms. What are their stances on education, local business, senior and youth programs, health care, transportation, land use? What will they do for us today and in the future?

I am concerned that so many of us were so easily led to support the invasion of Iraq. That we could so readily dismiss other people across the planet as if we knew nothing of war. That the bunker buster bomb and the Patriot Act came from our ranks, like we had no previous experience with shrapnel and the curtailing of human rights.

Within ourselves, our tinh than, I worry about us often. I see the domestic violence. The social isolation of our seniors. The faraway eyes and empty silences that hide so much sadness. Frankly, I am tired of hearing how completely happy and re-adjusted we are. It's not true. We all know we smile when we are happy AND sad, so smiles are no clue.

I know my mom misses her family in Vietnam so much that she cries herself to sleep. That my neighbors and cousin fear homelessness and annual budget cuts to Federally subsidized Section 8 housing. I see the lost youth and violence of gang life. I know that I am not over growing up without grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins.

I can feel the loneliness, the confusion of who we are and who we aren't. The more we hide it in ourselves, in our private space, or in our public space--our art, literature, media, policy--the more I feel the post-traumatic stress disorder, the high rates of mental illness eating at us, gnawing on our spirit.

I'm sad about that. It's okay to be sad about it. And it's okay to say it or write it. Paint it and sing it. Share it and talk about it. There is no shame in it.

Our sadness is our humanity singing.

Last, I ask: How will we measure our progress? By the first of us or the last of us? In our rich history, we as a people have demonstrated an intense unity in the face of invasion and colonization. We have also divided ourselves brutally, literally in half at times. What tradition will we cultivate here in the US?

I hope for the former and believe our progress is measured by how the first of us treats the last of us. I hope that we leave none of us behind. How long can we brag about cheap pedicures, while adult education is being cut for our foot massager? How long can we praise pho Vietnamese soup, and ignore the server who has no health insurance?

I am not a cheerleader. I am, however, a writer. One voice, one pen among billions. A community artist and a community builder. A fighter. A rememberer. A seer. A doer.

And on this important anniversary in the history of the Vietnamese Diaspora, I cannot rah-rah all the way through and pretend our problems don't exist. I love my community with passion. When I look critically at the Vietnamese American community and the way it is presented, it is so that we can better ourselves. So that we can honor ourselves and face our challenges. Teach ourselves. Heal ourselves.

So we can know ourselves. All of us. The well-to-do and the marginalized. The astronaut and the fish butcher. To see our smiles AND our scars.

Ky-Phong Tran is a former legislative aide in the City of Oakland, helping to pass the first municipal language access ordinance in the nation. Raised in Long Beach, California; he is now a writer working on a novel, napalm's children, and short story collection, 562. He is a founding member of the Vietnamese Artists Collective and will be a Graduate Fellow in UC Riverside's MFA Program in Creative Writing beginning this fall.

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