Jade Hidle: On a Vietnamese American suicide, what I want to say is…

How do you say what is in your heart when a stranger dies?  What is appropriate when that stranger takes his own life?  These are questions raised in an introspective essay that weaves the author’s past struggles with suicide and the present events that bring them, sharply, into relief.

At the community college where I teach, a student recently committed suicide on campus. The news came in the way that such tragedies usually do. On first notice, the information was vague, yet startling in its sudden and numbing bareness, like the moment at which the wind is knocked from your body and sends all your senses thrumming. The email stated something to the effect of  “the circumstances appear to be a suicide” and “the campus remains safe.” Appears? Remains? What do these words really say? Are words enough? Slowly, murmured information reawakened senses muted by shock. Details unraveled. A veteran. A male. A first-year college student. A Vietnamese American.

Later, a campus-wide email circulated. Cards would be collected and delivered to the family.

At Target, I flipped open and shut sympathy cards. Some assumed too personal of a connection with the aggrieved, promising shoulders and comfort. I had never met this student, nor his family. Other cards bore biblical passages that are unfamiliar to me but were, in my eyes, just promises that rang empty in their certainty, almost hurtful given the uncertainty of the circumstances. I settled on a generic one with flowers embossed in a gold that reminded me of my mother’s meticulously maintained altars. But I chose it mostly because its interior provided plenty of room to write, where my unsettled students and I could offer our condolences.

All of that space, though, was at once too much and not enough. When I sat down to write, I was overcome with thoughts yet at a loss for words to fill the space. For three days, the card read, “Dear Nguyen family.”

Manuel Alvarez Bravo, "The Daydream" (1931)

Oftentimes when my students come to my office with their pen caps chewed to mutilated plastic nubs as a result of writer’s block, I tell them to write “What I want to say is…” at the top of a blank sheet of paper and talk to them about their ideas and watch them write, write, write. They write because they always have something they want to say but rarely feel there is someone to listen. So I ask them what they want to say as a way to tell them that I want to listen. It sounds so simple, but the tactic never fails. That phrase cracks open what is sutured shut by the misperception that writing is the controlled act of a sophisticated android, when really it is the writhing of a messy, snarling beast. I decided to take my own advice and write this post, in hopes that someone will want to listen.

This is what I want to say about the things that don’t get talked about, that didn’t belong in the card because it has nothing to do with me, that are most likely selfish of me to share now. But I want, need, to say these things because this student has wrenched at my heart and stomach and mind since I first heard of his passing. For him and his family, for myself and my family, and for anyone who has suffered suicide in some capacity, this is what I want to say.

What I want to say is that it is awful. So fucking ineffably awful.

I want to say to his family that memories of him will be a comfort, but how could I? How many memories could they have? Never enough. Of course not.

What I want to say is that because he was a veteran, my students and I shouldered aside our class plans and talked about how no one, at any age, should have to face the atrocities of war. We could not fully talk about war. But we talked about treating veterans as the civilians they want to become (as so many of my veteran students have shared their flinch-inducing experiences of being asked, upon introduction, “How many people did you kill?”), but also to respect the sacrifices they have made that no civilian could possibly understand.  I told them about our campus counselors and the veterans’ center. I offered my ear because I grew up in a house with veterans from both the Vietnamese and American sides of that war, shared a house with their room-filling spectrums of sadness and loss. And my veteran and non-veteran students alike reached out to thank me for having this open dialogue; others came to vent to me, to release and connect. In this way, the family’s son was nurturing his peers. As death often compels us to do, we connected.

I want to say that I am a Vietnamese American too. Because I have inherited some of my mother’s traumas suffered during the war that robbed her of so much, I am against war, regardless of how politicians attempt to rename or justify it. I wonder how this family’s son felt about serving in the military, of fighting yet another war in the name of the country that invaded his family’s homeland. I wonder how many Vietnamese American soldiers are serving today, but I honestly hesitate to find this number, if it’s even recorded anywhere by a government that has historically proven to include people of color as citizens, as patriots, during war time when someone needs to die. I think of Danny Chen, the Asian American soldier who committed suicide last year after being harassed by his “comrades,” and how being Asian American—and the long, racist history that has legally and socially excluded Asians from this country—compounds the difficulties of serving in the U.S. military. I want to ask, how do Vietnamese Americans feel about serving today? How do they negotiate their histories? Immigrating to this country meant a great deal of loss for so many Vietnamese families. How it must ache to suffer a loss like this.

Long Nguyen, from "Tales of Yellow Skin" (1991)

I want to say that I also know suicide. This is certainly not to suggest Vietnamese Americans are tragic or that we are bound by shared inclinations to suicide or anything like that, but it is part of my family history, as it is now part of this student’s family history. And I am sure that we continue to be affected by the larger history of which we have been a part; suicide so often gets narrated as a pathologized cause and effect of “snapping” that reduces the act to an individual “illness” or “madness” that is easier for society to write off, when in my experience suicides have reflected the larger social issues that few are willing to confront. (It is no coincidence that recent studies have addressed how suicide rates among Asian American women are higher than other ethnic groups.) Growing up, I was told stories of ancestors in Viet Nam who did it out of the honor of refusing to submit to invading forces, of others who did it because they had been raped, socially ruined. What I really want to say is that suicides happened in the U.S. too, after my family immigrated to the country that promised a better life. As a young girl, I imagined myself pressing my lips to my uncle’s temple to suck the bullet from his brain. I long to watch him smoke a cigarette while picking his nose and his belly button all at the same time. For another uncle, I wanted to squeeze the poison from his core to his limbs until it seeped out from underneath his fingernails, toenails. I could have washed his feet and hands clean. This uncle, my namesake, would have cupped my face in his clean hands, pulled it toward his and inhaled my cheek, swift but sweet, in the way that Vietnamese kisses do. I want to say that if I had personally known this family’s son, I would have wanted to embrace him and turn his face sunward.

Guillermo Meza Alvarez, "White over the Nopal" (1947)

What I want to say is that the Vietnamese word “nhớ” means both to remember and to miss.

I want to say that suicide became part of my language early on. This is not to say that my family openly talked of the suicides to impose a moral judgment upon the act or, conversely, to help each other to grieve the suicides in our family and to get through our respective bouts of sadness. Suicide was part of our language in that it was an unspoken expected course of action to cope with, and opt out of, life’s pain. It was a go-to thought. It was an understanding between us, despite the pervading silence of our household. Suicide became the way we said important things without knowing how, a language that wasn’t. When my mother came into my room and whispered to me that she was too sad and wanted to die, she told me that, if she decided not to live anymore, she didn’t want me to go on living without her and, so, I should die too. After that, I began to sleep in the room that my toddler siblings shared—an unspoken love for them, protection for all of us. Over the years, she expressed similar sentiments in countless letters slipped under my bedroom door, in voicemails left in the middle of the day. I suppose that this was a kind of love, articulated through our language of suicide. When my mother and I fought, I threatened to kill myself too, at which she would shake her head and ignore, even when I did actually hurt myself. This is, perhaps, how she told me with silence that suicide was not an act worth committing. And that was love too. We are all alive today. That is love unspoken.

Luis Gonzalez Palma, "El Silencio" (1998)

I want to say that, since I was a child, I have often rolled visions of self-inflicted death around in my mind, like turning a dirty fly’s blue-green body to catch the sun, like the round moment when a wave lifts feet from the sand and the body goes afloat. These thoughts suspend time. They are respite. They help me escape myself, all of the confusion and alienation of growing up mixed, of not belonging to some group or another because I was too Vietnamese, too white, too poor, too tomboyish, too wild, too angry, too quiet, too serious, too something. More recently, thinking of suicide has offered me perspective on the ever-cementing fact that lovers do not commit to me because, they have told me, I am too “intense,” my moods too “tidal,” too “heavy” and “hard” because I cannot disentangle myself from all of the pain I have inherited. My friends, as committed and patient as they are, confess it is difficult to be around me for too long because my inherited sadness manifests in debilitating silences, bouts of which are impenetrable and ultimately hurtful. In trying to protect my loved ones from my ragged-edged inheritance, I hurt them anyway. I make them worry, just as I worry about my mother. And so it cycles.

What I want to say is that I do my best to break the cycle. Every day, I try.

James Jacques Tissot, "October" (1877)

What I want to say is that in my self-inflicted solitude, I feel less alone when I read literature, or, at least, I am drawn to pages addressing suicide more than any others in their works. Ishmael opens his tale in Herman Melville’s Moby Dick by confessing that his pursuit of “the watery part of the world,” the sea and the ship, was his “substitute for pistol and ball.” Virginia Woolf, in her last diary entry before she drowned herself, wrote, “A curious sea side feeling in the air today. […] Everyone leaning against the wind, nipped & silenced. All pulp removed.” One of the chapters in Lac Su’s memoir I Love Yous are for White People opens with a description of his “suicide jar,” a concoction of liquor he mixed and drank to escape his father’s abuse and his participation in gangs as an attempt to carve a sense of belonging in the streets of Los Angeles:  “as the poison takes hold of my mind […] I feel like I’m supposed to feel. […] The next morning, nothing has changed.” In her short story “Hell-Heaven,” Jhumpa Lahiri renders a mother who dresses herself for self-immolation, stands for hours in the middle of the yard with matches in her hands, only to go inside “boiling rice for dinner, as if it were any other day.” It is these passages’ cleansing quality and their connective tissue across time and space that always kept me from suicide. They made me realize that the metallic shine of that buzzing fly and the buoyancy of those imagined waves were merely fleeting, idealized ephemera of a desperately lonely mind. These literary works prompted me instead to anchor myself with concrete possibilities, realities:  my sister weeping when no one is looking, my dad sitting alone at his dark wood dining room table, all the students I would not meet.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, "Nocturne in Black and Gold, The Falling Rocket" (1874)

I want to say to you that these were reasons to fight, fight for life as long as possible. These reminders of my capacity to hurt people sent me showing up on doorsteps of the people I loved and who loved me. They sent me to play hide-and-go-seek with the children in my family; doing so reminded me of when my cousin Nam first arrived from Viet Nam and I, an only child at the time, was so excited to have someone to play hide-and-go-seek with, to not be alone, that I peed my pants every time he discovered me behind a door or tucked in a cupboard; and I mean every time because for awhile he thought that American-born girls suffered some incontinence problem. These reminders sent me to fight by sometimes just going to the movies, where I could listen to others’ laughter and the sound of Raisinets tumbling out of their box, and to escape to a world where life was narrated according to a soundtrack, where someone had decided what was going to happen. I also watch Bart and Joe of Just Kidding Films who make me laugh about things that have pained me. These reminders made me dance—hard—to French electro-pop and early ‘90s hip-hop (and, yes, now “Gangnam Style” too) until I was too tired to feel sad anymore (dear reader, I seriously hope you take fifteen minutes of your day to dance out any of your own stress and sadness with those golden videos). When it got really bad, I reached further. Starting at twelve years old, I sought help from counselors through school or work where I refused pills, for better or worse, and insisted on being listened to. Though I encountered some disappointing therapists who were better at checking off boxes than listening, the good ones got me through the worst of times, and I would urge any one who experiences similar strains of sadness to do the same:  to reach out. (If you don’t have access to counselors or therapists, you can reach out, or refer others, to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). I wonder if the student who committed suicide ever reached out to anyone. I wonder what the last book he read was, perhaps even for a class at our school, and how he felt about what he discovered in those pages. I wonder if the words therein made him feel more or less alone.

But, of course, I did not say any of this. All of this is not really what the card was about.

What I did write in the card was that during the campus-wide moment of silence for him, my students and I bowed our heads. A couple of minutes in, I glanced up to see all of my students’ beautiful young faces thinking, praying. Brows were furrowed, eyes closed, lips moved silently above clasped hands. I tried to put this into words for the family. Then I added something my last lover told me when I was missing him even though he was right there with me. As I always tell my students about writing, the phrase was powerful because it stated a very complex idea in a very simple way. I wrote, You are not alone.

Do we speak enough about suicide?  Are Vietnamese Americans more prone to it because of our history?


  1. Thank you for sharing your personal experiences and encouraging message with us. I commend you for having the courage to reveal your personal history as a mean of helping others. Given that Vietnamese families, historically, tend to hide their mental health problems from outsiders, your willingness to expose yourself in order to help others is truly magnanimous. It is often the case that when we read or hear about another person’s experience that we come to feel a connection with that person and, in reflection, we come to understand our own problems. Your reaching out is a much needed message of hope to those who are suffering hopelessness in their lives. We are responsible for our troubled Vietnamese American brothers and sisters. If we don’t extend our hands to help them, who will?

  2. This is beautiful, Jade, and heartfelt. I have gone through so many bouts of suicidal ideation, so many times of threatening to kill myself, so many self-inflicted injuries, so many tests of self compassion that I can recognize the shape of intimacy and pain. While in my experience, words don’t ever seem enough when it comes to discussing suicide or pulling someone (me) out of the trough in the tide-change of moods, actions, even the smallest ones, mean so much. Sharing your moments of isolation and connection, despair and empathy is one of those small actions that can mean so much.

  3. Hi Jade,
    Thank you for sharing so honestly and with such beautiful words. Though I cannot relate to everything you shared, I do relate to this deeply held sorrow and despair which has followed me around for most of my life and which only in the past year or so has begun to subside in favor of greater freedom and joy. It is startling once you begin to recognize some of the cultural paradigms (I am Chinese American) which have bound your people from ages past. It would be overwhelming for me, if not for a deepening trust have been learning to have in One who is greater than me and knows and has carried all of my sorrows when I have tired of holding on to them any longer. I believe that He is, in fact, carrying them away from me and replacing them with a truer me.
    Learning to let go of false images and expectations and hurts and pains and the sadness of the world around me.
    But, of course, there is much I don’t know and may never know. But I feel that I have the strength to go on and to trust that blue skies are ahead for me because the One who loves me says so.
    In other news, I hope that my middle school students can learn to do this: “They write because they always have something they want to say but rarely feel there is someone to listen.”

    • Dear J.D.,
      Thank you for sharing your lovely sentiments. I am touched and glad to hear that you have experienced a positive turn in the past year. It often takes much strength to do so, and I find it both frightening yet comfortingly humbling when we realize, as you say, that there is much we don’t know and may never know. I commend you on working with middle school students. I spent a day with a classroom of them recently and they sure did wear me out! 🙂 Thank you again for your adding to the discussion!

  4. @J.H.,Thanks for a very moving, evocative piece about death and dying, it saddens me not to the point of morbidity or suicidal thoughts, but justifies and ennoble the idea of ending one’s life without enlightening the readers the facts surrounding the student-vet’s suicidal death. Somehow the philosophical dwelling in one’s own self-indulgent, pitiable reflection about the depressed state of suicide seems a luxury to a Vietnamese. More to the point, haven’t pain and suffering persecution become the pathos of the Viet race over the greater part of our existence? To deny that our resilient bloodline have survived and continue to survive “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune” is to alienate oneself from the current tragedy of Vietnam, but to blame imperialist America for our dysfunctional diasporic existence -however obsequiously – is disingenuous.
    I don’t see the scourge of the bastardly Communist cum-Capitalist regime push its poor, deprived folks to end their miserable, morose existence, but I see more suicidal deaths here of Vietnamese-Americans. What gives? Perhaps the pampered and privileged existence of some Vietnamese-Americans here who bemoan the deaths of others and forward the haughty supremacy of U.S. military invasions reflective of their own cowardice and consider these suicidal deaths a luxury. Like a Hamlet soliloquy, it begs the author to “rather bear those ills (she) has, than fly to others that she know not of/Thus conscience makes coward of us all…”

    • To Thai Nguyen-Khoa,
      Thank you for responding to the piece. I would like to comment on some of your remarks. In response to your statement that my post “justifies and ennoble[s] the idea of ending one’s life,” my purpose is, on the contrary, to connect with people in order to prevent suicidal acts, which I believe is stated rather explicitly. As far as not fulfilling your expectation of “enlightening the readers [with] the facts surrounding the student-vet’s suicidal death,” that is not my information to give, and I purposely excluded details that would infringe upon the family’s right to privacy in their time of grief. The only topic I feel I have the right to discuss in detail is my own experience. To make assumptions beyond that (whether about the student or about Vietnamese people) would be irresponsible. You deem my focus on my own experiences to be a “self-indulgent, pitiable reflection,” and though I agree that it is a luxury to be able to reflect upon and write about such experiences, I must emphasize to you and others that what my family has experienced since immigrating to the U.S. has been difficult. Poverty, violence, discrimination, suicide—these are all serious realities that you trivialize by referring to the lives of Vietnamese Americans as “pampered and privileged” or reflective of “cowardice.” It is counterproductive and divisive to imply that Vietnamese in Viet Nam and Vietnamese in America are engaged in some sort of competition of suffering. I do not write about Viet Nam because I do not, and would never assume to, understand living in that context. I only write what I know about growing up Vietnamese in America. I certainly do not “blame imperialist America for our dysfunctional diasporic existence” because not all Vietnamese Americans have the same experience, but I do know that my family has struggled in America, and many of those struggles, in my view, are quite evidently connected to ongoing U.S. imperialism. When you ask, “What gives?” I believe we need to look at those social conditions. Those struggles are real, and it is important for me as a writer, educator, and community member to share my experiences and connect with others because it has been healing for me to forge such connections with not just other Vietnamese Americans, but individuals from diverse backgrounds, especially my Chicano/a and Mexican American brothers and sisters. You may still see that as “privileged,” but, if so, I find it ironic, then, that you quote Hamlet to sum up your message to me. Nevertheless, thank you for engaging in the discussion.

      • Dear Jade,
        Well reasoned counter argument, but your distorting the essential truth regarding the human condition, whether here or in Vietnam to delve into your own particular emotion does not excuse your whitewashing someone else’s motive for taking his own life. Least of all, his or many other Vietnamese-Americans’ who’ve opted to join the military.
        My point here is suffering: “poverty, violence, discrimination, suicide” IS NOT a singular privilege experienced by you or your family alone. Surely, I trivialize no such thing, because suffering, discrimination, death and dying are the ethos of the Viet race. Conversely, I would however, decry your using a Vet death to provide you a soap box to rant about the war-addicted chauvinist America. Then on your recent reply to me you try to champion and invoke “my Chicano/a and Mexican American brothers and sisters” in the struggle for equality, as if this is all about forging a united struggle of the oppressed v. the oppressor. If this does not smack of Marxist ‘class struggle’ then what? Your implying that I meant Vietnamese in Viet Nam and Vietnamese in America are engaged in some sort of competition of suffering? What a sick, pathetic suggestion!
        In the end I remain convince that although you claim “I do not write about Viet Nam because I do not, and would never assume to, understand living in that context”, your permissive, gratuitous borrowing the death of one Vietnamese-American and not knowing enough about his social condiiton to lunge head on into your dismissive of the social condition writ large is less than honorable or justifiable. And btw, i hope you’re not talking about the suicide of the young man in San Jose.

  5. im sitting right now in a tutoring center on my college campus and around me is the buzz of stressed out and tired students studying for their finals. every day i greet students and sign them in and when they leave we say goodbye. sometimes there are polite pleasantries. this post reminds me of my own silent struggles with family trauma and suicide. i think too often we relegate these painful parts of our everyday to the back hidden under deadlines and work schedules. thank you for sharing your life and thoughts. this post is a reminder for me to reach out, to open up, and behind short hellos and goodbyes are people who shoulder more than just school books and id cards.

    • Thank you for reaching out and sharing your experiences with students. It is truly the little things that make a big difference.


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