Ong War 2

Grandpa, or ông (top row, second from the right) with his American and Southern Vietnamese colleagues, Sept. 13, 1973.

Time and time again, as if we all needed some sort of reminder, April’s last few days are drowned in various think-pieces and op-eds about the utter calamity that was the Vietnam War.  And as a means of procrastination during my finals week, I have been perusing many of these aforementioned pieces.  While some include Vietnamese voices, a majority reiterate the tried-and-true (?) tale of Vietnam being the epitome of American tragedy.  After all, as a friend put it, “America lost and that’s just something we don’t do.”

True, the US lost (or withdrew? Whatever).  But what about what the Vietnamese lost?  Past the US-fed rhetoric of freedom, liberty, and all things ‘Murrica, is there ever any dialogue on what the people of an entire country lost other than a few passing phrases?  What else do we know about the hundreds of thousands of Boat People who died at sea?  Or, of those who survived, the traumas endured?  The misguided delivery of Vietnamese “orphans” to American soil?  The infamous, but never nearly talked enough about, Mỹ Lai massacre?  The scores of Vietnamese men, women, and children still dealing with the repercussions of the indiscriminate bombing of Agent Orange by the US?

Under what circumstances is it enough to view the Vietnam War as not only American but as intrinsically, inherently Vietnamese?

My family fled Vietnam just a few days prior to the “fall” (according to Americans) or the “liberalization” (according to the Northern Vietnamese) of Saigon.  With my grandfather, or ông, being a strategic analyst for American forces during the war, the fear of persecution and probable death drove my family’s decision to get out of the crumbling country as quick as possible.

Ong War

Ông (second from the right) collaborating with American armed forces in Hanoi, circa 1974

Good-byes were difficult and in most situations, everlasting.

My mother never heard from her best friend again after 1975, despite various attempts to find out what happened to her in the years following the American evacuation.  In past conversations she’s lamented the lost connection and has often times guessed her friend’s fate.  Every prediction has a bleak ending.

For so many others, they weren’t only leaving behind friends, but also parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins.  In ông’s case, they were his mother, siblings, and home in Bắc Giang, a province of sorts two hours away from Hanoi.  And it wasn’t until a call in the early 1990s that his departure felt so permanent.  Employed as a social worker in the Bay Area, California, ông was the embodiment of humility and selflessness, oftentimes putting the comfort of his wife and children before his own.  So when he heard about his mother’s ailing health, he – understandably – figured it was time for him to focus on himself.  And even in this supposed selfishness, he was only thinking of his mom.

Applying for all the necessary paperwork and visas, ông was seemingly set to finally return home and see his mom for one last time.  This, however, never happened.  With tensions between the US and Vietnam still relatively rough and bureaucracy being the way it is, my great-grandmother passed without ông ever stepping foot onto a plane.

Camp Pendleton, 1975.

Various family members and fellow refugees at Camp Pendleton, 1975.

Both my mother’s and ông’s stories are not unique.  There are countless experiences that are similar and far worse than theirs.  But of course, none of them are ever heard unless told by family – and even then, wrestling the truth out is a futile task since many of the Vietnamese diaspora refuse to speak on their ordeals pre-and-post-1975.  When it comes to these things, there seems to be some form of unofficial cathartic tabula rasa.  “Out of sight, out of mind” and all of that.

Very rarely do you hear or read of stories of the perseverance of Vietnamese men and women when the media focuses so much on what the US lost in the war.  But for those who do want to share their stories, what medium is there for them to turn to?  (You know, other than self-made blogs that receive minimal readership at best).

On Thursday it will be 40 years since the Vietnam War ended.  And while I’m not writing to discredit or discount the experiences of Americans who served their country (as misguided as this may have been) during the war, it would be pretty nice to have more Vietnamese voices participating in its remembrance.