Vietnam Post #7: The Heart and Soul of Vietnam
Posted on November 30, 2019
Content warning: In this post, I talk about colonialism, war and intergenerational trauma.
I’m not going to lie. The longer I stay in Vietnam, the harder it is to articulate how I’m feeling, especially as a Chinese American from the US. I have barely scratched the surface here but I have felt the warmth, generosity, and optimism across many segments of society. I am amazed by the country and culture but nothing can compare to the people I’ve met.
I spoke to different folks out here and had a lot of rich conversations but some of the most profound moments have been my time with the youth and the elders. Last month I had the good fortune of meeting OG* revolutionaries in Hanoi (the capitol in the North) and group of 6th graders in Nha Be (a working class district in southern Ho Chi Minh City). They were truly inspiring and grew my soul.
Before I continue, there are some obvious but not so obvious things to say. Many know Vietnam for its natural beauty. It also has amazing food and is a great place to travel and live. But sometimes there is so much left unsaid like… the ravages and legacy of war inflicted on this country by the United States for over 20 years — across both parties… the 80+ years of French colonialism before… the thousand+ years of Chinese colonialism and feudalism before that… None of this can be ignored.
Being here for 5 months, I could really feel this horrific legacy but also the resilience of the people. While the US leaves a legacy of genocide killing and wounding millions in the American War (called the Vietnam War in the US), it was the tremendous will and the spirit of the people that brought Vietnam to independence, not to mention their incredible vision and strategy.
This shameful legacy of the US continues today in so many ways but we should also be proud of the people’s movement in the US and globally that opposed the war and took to the streets. We should all take note that it took the strength of the Vietnamese people and an international anti-imperialist movement that led to end of US aggression, peace, and reunification.
Yet, the trauma of war continues to each generation with victims of agent orange, unexploded bombs, and toxic waste left behind from the war, among other things. And even after 50 years, refugees in the US are still deeply scarred by the war. Although this is changing, it will also take generations to heal. As Vietnam continues to build its nation, it still needs to be vigilant and strategically maneuver the threats from China and the US. Much of this can apply to all of Southeast Asia, as well.
As tiring (and maybe a bit triggering) it is to say all this, it must be said and honored. I appreciate the thoughtful conversations I was able to have with movement elders, who paved the way for today and the young people, who will carry this forward in their own ways.
The OG* revolutionaries and solutionaries.
I was fortunate to spend time with comrades who fought for Vietnam’s independence and re-built the nation towards the path of socialist development. They rebuilt this nation from the utter destruction of the country’s infrastructure and environment leaving millions homeless and traumatized. I also felt the deep pride and determination. I saw the depth and scale of leadership and leaders needed to govern, build and run a nation. It was truly humbling.
They openly shared about the contradictions not just in the moment but throughout the country’s path of development. It is hard to imagine that it was only 30 years ago that Vietnam became a socialist oriented market economy. We discussed the contradictions of capitalism, democracy, corruption, massive labor strikes, and climate change. I was moved by their humility and the grounded assessments.
But what was most eye-opening was that I could feel their love for the people and see the rigor in their eyes. For them the long arch of change spanned across generations. They lived through some horrific times and made some BIG revolutionary changes. They developed solutions in realtime — from guerrilla warfare to governing a new society — while keeping their eyes on the prize. One asked me what I thought society would look like in 100 years, in the 22nd century, given all these contradictions? What is our generation doing about it?
There is more to say and write here of course and a lot to process. I’m grateful for the intergenerational conversations and grateful for Merle Ratner, a long time internationalist and revolutionary who bridged these relationships.
At the same time, it was grounding to hear from the next generation of leaders. I had the honor of meeting a group of 6th graders. I didn’t know what to expect and if they could relate to someone 30+ years older than them. They were bright, inquisitive and open to the world of ideas. They did not romanticize America either. In fact, knew they very little about America or Americans. Instead, K-pop, Asian spicy food, and video games were at the top of their list. Take note that American hegemony is indeed crumbling!
On different occasions, I shared about worker exploitation and bullying and racism in the US. (I know, some heavy topics for 11 year olds.) I didn’t know how they would react. They were not getting any of my cultural references or attempted jokes but they were soaking it all in. They were also shocked to hear about the poor working conditions in the US.
I was very touched by this reflection from one of the students, Tuệ Mẫn, who is 12 years old.
But what was most profound for me was when we talked about bullying and racism in the US. After sharing about my own painful and powerful experience with the KKK and white supremacists, I asked how many of them had been bullied. To my surprise a majority raised their hands but I was even more surprised that only few had shared about their experience with others. We talked about body shaming, emotional and physical violence and the lack of support from adults. It was a deep and powerful for me. I hope in that brief moment, they could see how they have power and are not alone.
Even with everything that is going on in their lives and the world, I could see their open hearts and feel the fire in their bellies. They are also fortunate to have such positive and thoughtful role models and teachers. Thank you to Sally and Abel for inviting me to their class and being great friends, language partners, and comrades. It has been truly inspiring <3
Asians as a critical force in the 21st century
Being here in Vietnam the last 5 months has made me think more about the role of Asians in the 21st century. This phrase was inspired by Grace Lee Boggs in 2012 when we celebrated her in San Francisco Chinatown. For all the internationalists in the US and beyond, progressives and leftists need to understand and learn about what is happening on the ground in the Asia Pacific Region.
But it is complicated. Not all Asian nations are evenly developed and there are conflicts within that are not merely ideologically defined. The ability to hold nuance and contradiction is beyond the basic rubric of the western “left to right” paradigm. It is also not just “intersectionality.” It is a form of multi-dimensional global justice that will most certainly define the 21st and 22nd century.
“The ability to hold nuance and contradiction is beyond the basic rubric of the western “left to right” paradigm. It is also not just “intersectionality.” It is a form of multi-dimensional global justice that will most certainly define the 21st and 22nd century.”
Given China’s encroachment in the East Sea, the Hong Kong protests, the China-US Trade War, there may not appear to be a through line. But I see it here in Vietnam because they live it day-to-day. As daunting as it may be, the solutions are always from folks on the ground. It will take time to build new frameworks and alternative approaches to internationalism in the 21st century. Even if it takes years or decades, we need to start now to lay the foundation for the generations to come.
SO what do we need to do in the US? “We need to fight offense and defense at the same time,” as Bruce Lee would say. What we do now is inseparable from the future. Can we fight Trump and Trumpism in 2020 on a local and national level while building towards a new kind of internationalism? It is possible and necessary to do both at the same time.
The context in Vietnam and Asia is very different but much can be learned. The path to peace for Vietnam was over 70 years; they had strength as a people and international solidarity but most of all they had the optimism and belief that they could transform their conditions. This was, and continues to be, at the heart and soul of Vietnam and this is what I will remember the most.
*OG is an endearing term I’ve used for our movement elders. It is also known as the “Original Gangster” which was popularized by hip hop culture in the 1980s.
I was not able to capture everything in this post but here are pictures of some of the other good people I met in Vietnam:
Ton Duc Thang University, which is a public university operated by the Vietnam General Confederation of Labor (VGCL). Thank you also to Professor Vinh for graciously inviting our family to her home for a delicious Vietnamese meal! (Image captions above.)
It was great to re-connect with an old friend, Daniel Nguyen, while I was in Hanoi. After doing social justice work in the Vietnamese community in New Orleans, he relocated to Vietnam and is now working with folks in the Highlands. He started Song Cai Distillery, the first gin distillery in the Highlands. It is awesome to see him in his element and continuing to innovate his ideas and concepts.
Linh Phan is a Vietnamese-Canadian who has been in Ho Chi Minh City for over 10 years. After working with locals around art, media and storytelling, she started the Hidden Saigon, an alternative type of tour that is based on locals sharing their history and story. Folks should check it out if you are ever in HCMC!
Vietnamese Language Studies with our teacher (Cô Hầng) and my friend, drinking buddy and classmate Jo, who is originally from Mauritius. He and his wife Yumi have relocated to HCMC to start an architect firm and to be closer to family.
Little Saigon Kindergarten. He LOVES it there! As the only English speaking child, the teachers have been so patient, loving and caring to him. We will miss the school, the teachers and Collin’s new friends.