the war after the war

This post is going to be of a more personal nature…

I spend my mornings (usually) trying to write. Lately, and as usual, I am poring over details involving my family history, as I have been doing – it seems – for the 15 or more years that I have spent pursuing (or nursing?) these ghosts – attempting to articulate, to draw, them – that  pretty much have defined my identity as an “artist”: exodus, migration, displacement, mothers and silences, motherland and denials, the same tired old themes that some of us Vietnamese appear to be obsessed with; and, yes of course, (do I even need to mention it?) also I have been trying to write about The War.

Or, more precisely, for me at least, perhaps it is The War after The War — The Aftermath ((which is like ever wider but fainter concentric rings rippling out across a surface of water moments after the rock that initiated the splash has sank)) — that I am more preoccupied with.

Anyway, I am working and then there is a knock on the door. So I go to open it and there is the postman, with a box, sent from my sister in San Diego, to my home here in Portland, Oregon. The postman is Asian, cheerful and friendly, and he asks me, “Are you Vietnamese? I see Vietnamese name here,” pointing to my name addressed on the box. I say yes, and he says, “So am I! Nice to meet you!” And then we are smiling at each other in this happy moment of recognition, this automatic camaraderie, all due to knowing we have this critical characteristic in common.

We are of Vietnam but now we are here – we know it without saying it – for the same reasons. Those same tired old themes. War, displacement, necessary wanderings. And occasionally we will spot each other, noting through the traffic of our present daily lives, our similar, disguised differences.

Since I often spend a lot of time alone, in my own house (usually with only my 11-year old son to keep me company), caught in the writer’s obsessive habit of solipsism, the small interactions I do have with outsiders in the course of a day can sometimes resonate with more weight than they probably would for people whose lives are perhaps more normal (read:social) and less reclusive. So I went back upstairs to my work, musing over this little exchange, how this moment of contact initiated over “I see a Vietnamese name here” had made me feel, briefly, positively, in some way connected to something larger. It had made me feel almost good about myself. And I thought maybe I would write about it, but then the day went on. Errands, my son’s activities, etc. I decided it was not an important enough moment to write about after all.

But then it is the next day, and my son’s baseball coach calls with news about the baseball schedule. This is Coach Joe, whose son, sometimes when he goes up to bat, other mothers on the sidelines will turn to me and say, “There’s your son, he’s so cute,” or something to that effect. This is because this boy and my son in fact look  a bit alike. They are both half-breeds: this is apparent. Brown-haired, olive-skinned, with slightly Asian eyes. Both of them, need I say, are adorable.

My son, though, because of his long hair, also sometimes garners the assessment: “He looks just like a little Indian boy.” (By this, they usually mean Native American.)

Now, on the phone, Coach Joe stops to ask me how correctly to pronounce my name. When I tell him, he then asks if I am Filipino or where I am from. I say that I am Vietnamese. And then in surprise he says that his wife is Vietnamese – his son is half-Vietnamese. And we laugh over this and say, “Oh, how funny,” and he says he will have to tell his wife to come over and talk to me at the next game. And this, too, like the exchange at the door with the postman, is a small bit of recognition that resonates with me. And because it has happened twice now, in two days, I have decided after all that I will write about it.

They are such small moments of recognition, but for some reason they do matter.

I grew up in a rural, mostly-white, quite conservative part of northern California; I grew up with a Danish-American father and a Vietnamese (though rebellious, non-traditional) mother. I do understand that it was with our best interests in mind that our parents raised us to be dismissive, even callous, toward the past, and toward our past cultures. Proudly, they would push the notion that we were more like “mutts,” and that being a “mutt” was something quintessentially American. (Our favorite family dog was a mutt, which my father swore contributed to his intelligence, not like those in-bred pure-breeds… as he saw it.)

My mother, for her part, told us little about Vietnam; and I never learned the language. I learned instead how to argue, to deny, to be cold and detached, to intellectualize – for many years I wrote stories from the viewpoints of enigmatic characters (a hitman, a kidnapped girl, so many people I simply was not), until at last something happened. I broke; I became – god forbid – sensitive and concerned, even curious, about the events, both personal and political, that had brought people like me here.

So I guess I don’t know, can’t really say, if the war is ended for someone like me. It is over, certainly, but there are no official dates to mark the end of aftermaths. There is no anniversary for the end of The Aftermath.

Thus we are still sifting through the ashes, through the smoke of it, some of us at least.

We are looking for artifacts or lost treasures or reminders, or just for something, perhaps because we like to search and to recover and look at old things, that we might be able to repair or re-use, in some aesthetically interesting fashion, or just because it helps us to feel a little better about ourselves, connected again, or useful. Perhaps. Or perhaps, yes, we just need to get over it.

– dao strom

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  1. There is a fragment of social theory that I have found helpful walking around. In one clear moment in a turgid argument with the tradition of philosophy engaged with socialism in Europe, Louis Althusser spoke of “hailing”, of being called out to in a public place as Dao was by the delivery man at her doorstep. A doorstep is the “limen” we refer to in “liminal”, a boundary to cross, while Althusser used the image of a cop calling your name in the open street. The French word he used, “interpeller”, is used in the same legal sense as the English “hail”, as when a judge sends an officer to hail you into court for a jury. But in English it has the cheery sense as well of “hail fellow well met” while in French the connotation is of scholarly argument, as in the academic English usage o f “interpellate.” I can rattle on like this for an hour. It’s an idea endlessly interesting in its details, but the general idea is: who can call you? who will you hear? what will you do? In my case, cops have been calling me “Duffy” all my life, meaning, oh we’re both Irish, get out of here before I have to arrest you. I’m not, actually, in the same sense that I am not Vietnamese, but yesterday I heard all about counter-insurgency in the Mekong in 1970 from the guy fixing my teeth. Not a veteran, either, but I get hailed as all kinds of things. It’s a connection to the world I enjoy, and one in my case that constitutes citizenship in a community imagined around all the things that “Viet Nam” can mean.

  2. thanks for the replies, all of you…. much to think about. Sometimes I wonder if there is not something about Viet humility, even a degree of shame, still at play in our reluctance to claim it is important to remember even the horrors of the past – is there something we are still denying when we say we must get on with it, move on, stop mulling over the war, etc? Because, yes, the world is still necessarily processing the Holocaust and perhaps it does take a long spell of time, generations even, to fully put perspective on events of history. I think there is a difference between let’s forget and move on, and let’s still remember but also move on…

  3. I enjoyed your post. I’m not sure those themes are tired, or something we need to get over. Maybe it’s just that the themes need something other than the same tired treatments. I bring up the Holocaust because this blog references Jewish history. How many stories, how many books and movies and how many people continue to talk about it? An endless number, because the point is to never forget. There must be some wisdom that comes with how much time has passed since the war. Maybe we (as a loosely defined diaspora) are becoming, with time, more able to reflect on the war and its aftermath without the rhetoric of one side or the other.

  4. Maybe because I grew up among many Vietnamese, I shy away from being recognized as a Vietnamese. I don’t like going to new places and having someone say to me, “Ua, nguoi Viet ha?” (almost always with a southern accent). Usually I have the opposite problem, anyway. I go to Viet Nam and people have a hard time believing I’m Vietnamese. I get a lot of compliments on how great my Vietnamese is because they think I’m Korean. So the flipside of recognition is confusion, when someone doesn’t look like what they’re supposed to look like. Once my identity is established in Vietnam, however, the Vietnamese will always say, “You never stop being Vietnamese.” But in the States, Vietnamese people are more suspicious. Sometimes they’ll say you never stop being Vietnamese but other times they’ll say you’re just not Vietnamese enough, and they’ll say it to your face, too.

  5. Thanks for this piece, Dao. I’ve had similar experiences of, let’s call it, “diasporic recognition.” That strange falling into sudden familiarity. These came after I left my rural, mostly-white, conservative but tolerant hometown in west-central Wisconsin. (Perhaps it’s different for folks who grew up in places with tons of Viets?) Before experiencing the kind of diasporic recognition you evoke so well, more common were my encounters with Vietnam vets who would at first “recognize” me as Vietnamese and then inevitably disclose their identities as veterans, often just making some passing comments about their respective tour “in country,” but sometimes launching into deeply personal testimonies. I felt like I was listening to modern-day Ancient Mariners giving witness to all the beauty and terror they had seen and experienced as young men. Dispersals of the traumatic…


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