Generation Trauma: a different kind of war story

The stories we hear and the stories we tell shape who we are.  There are those full of sorrow and those full of joy.  For a generation of Vietnamese, the stories are full of trauma.  Julie Nguyen dared to tell her story.

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My mom knows how to keep her head down because for years, her language wasn’t good enough. Don’t answer the door, they’ll make you sign something. Don’t answer the phone, they won’t stop talking. Petitioners and telemarketers haunted her like restless ghosts.

Burn some incense. Rest in peace.

I am not only a child of immigrants, I am a child of refugees. My parents didn’t actually make a conscious decision to go somewhere, they had no dreams of bigger things, no dreams of America, none of that stuff. A war was fought on their homeland, a war between democratic America and communist China, no harsh feelings of course.

April 30, 1975: My dad was hustled out of his house by his mother; she crammed her savings into his hand and told him to get the hell out of the country. He left behind both parents, six little siblings. From another part of Sài Gòn, my aunt led my mom and her siblings to the boats in the harbor where they sold all of their belongings to get past a fence and clamber into an overcrowded boat. My aunt thought she could go back. She left behind five children. It’s just what they did, what they had to do, caught in a powerful current and floating helplessly like so much bèo on the stream. So they ended up on American shores.

The Trường Xuân, seen from the Clara Maersk
Trường Xuân, view from control tower

Trải qua một cuộc bể dâu – Truyện Kiều / There passes a time of turbulent change – Tale of Kieu.

For me, Việt Nam is a place where my parents are from, where my dad snuck around to swim in public fountains, where my mom freaked out about caterpillars falling onto her head, where my grandparents’ ashes lie. This is the same place where my anh chị em, my brothers and sisters, were maimed, raped and killed in the name of democracy and communism.

Hard to keep that chin up when, so often and for years, you been keeping your head down cos your culture was being stripped. 1000 yrs stripped. It didn’t end there. Kings, patriarchy, colonization, shame. Their seed is inside you already, you have already swallowed their culture. It’s a part of you now. You fight, we fight. We fight ourselves, we fight our sisters and brothers, ALL of us trying to break free but we get stuck in labels of nationalism. Lots of -isms to navigate but because of those we killed. And killed so many. They burned books, re-educated, and worse. They were displaced across the sea into a hostile racist land. They are we. Did we really escape? The color of democracy and communism is the same shade as my skin. Real bodies imprisoned, real bodies torn, real blood spilled and the Red River floods.

Trường Xuân when it departed

This story isn’t singular. Your head is down now, a thorn through your tongue threaded with guilt and pain. You say nothing when your daughter wants to join the army. You say nothing when we vote in favor to instigate a war in Iraq. You smile vaguely when veterans try to connect with you though the last time you checked, they carried guns through your childhood. You know how to keep your head down.

It’s called trauma. The Việtnamese people say nothing. Our parents do not tell us the stories. How was I to know that the beautiful old gentleman that gave me cookies and snuck me red envelopes every time he saw me, had been tortured for years in a prison camp? How was I to know that my crazy gangster cousin wasn’t really crazy, he was just abandoned by his parents when he was 5 and then transplanted into freezing hostile Montreal to be reunited with strangers, some ten years later. Death was so close, too near. So many did not make it— who am I to ask these people to look back to the time of despair, to relive their darkness, just to fill my ignorance?

Meanwhile, knowing no better, we 2-Gens say, “I am not Việtnamese.”

(Trigger Warning: Most Việt Kiều are a product of a war, we are refugees, we come from the darkest places of humanity. Be aware that there is spoken graphic violence and violence against women in this performance.)

We don’t know ANY stories. Not the story about the ugly Frog who shook the gates of Heaven and can summon rain with a single croak, not the story about charred tiger stripes…don’t recognize the name Lạc Long Quân. Âu Cơ who-the what-now? Don’t wanna listen to corny 70s pre-war songs and would rather not endure looks at school when we have orange and white pickles in our sandwiches, make peanut butter next time. We’ll moan and groan when they stuff us into tight áo dài for the cousin’s wedding, we correct them with impatience when they still, after 35+ years don’t speak perfect English.

This story is not singular. How many generations has it taken for the Native American people to heal? How long before Slavery is ended? It has not healed. No mission accomplished. War does not heal. It is happening again. And still we say nothing.

…But you can say something. You can write yourself one of these and tell your part of the story. It might take courage.

Julie Nguyen likes toads a lot but only eats vegetables. As you can see, she’s not a very serious person. She enjoys drawing and writing, and has been self-educating herself on Vietnamese history, both the documented and the mythological, as well as improving her comprehension of the language so she can pass it on to her three-year-old daughter. She resides in NYC.

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  1. I really enjoy this video because it is relevant to the 2nd & 3rd gens of foreign Vietnamese (Viet Kieu) today. They are losing their identity as Vietnamese…as Con Rong Chau Tien. I’m glad there are the conscious few Viet patriots who are resilient toward the idea of cultural needs to be reminded of and restored. This is why since 1985, I have created the 1st Vietnamese Beer outside of Vietnam, called Con Rong Chau Tien Beer. See I will share this to my sisters and her children, and to let them know that they need to do a better job educating their kids to history and what they’re made of.

  2. How was I to know? No, it’s more precise to ask this: How was I to FEEL? To feel the way you feel? To see the way you see? My childhood wasn’t a traumatic history of war but communist stories of “those people” who “fled” the country, supposedly in shame and fear of the great and kind communism coming. I stood on this side (is there any side?) of the map and was supposed to believe so. If I was never to grow out of that blind nationalism environment, how was I to know? How are the other people permanently residing in that mentality ever to know?

    I try to self-educate, I try to erase my ignorance. I try to understand “the other side” of the story from a political and historical point of view. But then what? What am I supposed to FEEL? Three years ago I got the role of Ha in The History of Water (Noelle Janaczewska), a refugee in the Oz. Ha tells her story of leaving the South of Vietnam and struggle to adapt to the new country. I tried to get into character but still couldn’t really SEE it. I was (am?) still ignorant like ever.

    It is only from first-hand, personal, sans political motive stories like yours, Julie, that I can start to feel it, to overcome all the distance on the map and time and most importantly prejudice and ignorance to walk in your shoes. Please keep writing. Please keep telling your story, even just to fill some stranger’s ignorance. You’re right, it takes a lot of courage, and also compassion. I want to be on the same side with you.

    Wars can heal. Its losses won’t heal, they leave permanent scars on all of us, but we can live on. We choose to live, so let’s live good lives. We choose to live together (even just virtually on diacritics), so let it be only us and not us-and-you-and-them. And you’re right, wars can only heal if we’re courageous enough to look at the past and act on the presence so they won’t happen again. We must say something.

    Thank you for writing.


    P.S: I also saw Jennii’s “I’m not Vietnamese” some time ago and thought it was a powerful piece too!

    • Thanks for telling your story too, Hiền Nga <3 I wish we had learned to speak out sooner. I grew up with conflicting ideas, like you. I don't know who Ho Chi Minh is, but I grew up hating him. If that's not scary, I don't know what is…to hate a person because you were indoctrinated to. I've worked very hard to overcome these prejudices, but I still say Sai Gon instead of HCM… what does that do to me, to us? So much left to do.

      I have several beloved cousins in VN that my parents hate talking to because they are proof of what was lost. My dad used to get so mad at them. I wish he would have told me why, I wish I had known more to understand. I didn't feel anything back then.

      My feelings didn't really come until I started reading about oppression, silence, erasure. I had to reach out to pain before I could feel anything—you have to burn yourself first to know how to relate to fire. I read blogs about racism, womanism, adoption, transgender, disability, first hand stories with real people and real situations, real conversations, real anger, real pain. I was so thankful to these people for Telling their story, I learned so much.

      Keep telling your story. It has helped me too! I'm listening.


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