I, like many other first-generation Vietnamese Americans, am a child born from the aftermath of war. We are the healing remnants of our parents’ and our grandparents’ broken identities and war-torn pasts. We grow up at the intersection of two vibrant cultures: the ubiquitous American culture in our schools and communities contrasted with the ethnic practices and traditions we cultivate within our homes.
It’s the middle of April — a significant month for the Vietnamese people. We call it Black April because the color black symbolizes the pain, suffering and defeat of Vietnamese refugees, as they fled their nation in Saigon’s historic fall to communism on April 30, 1975. I remember acknowledging the significance of this month while reading The Sympathizer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning book on the Vietnam War written by USC professor Viet Thanh Nguyen: “[April] was a month that meant everything to all the people in our small part of the world and nothing to most people in the rest of the world.”
April and the Fall of Saigon are historic dates; however, they are only commemorated by those who hold roots from this “small part of the world,” even if millions of Vietnamese people are now scattered globally, with thousands living in cultural centers worldwide. The fact that such a momentous war, one that shook both Vietnam and America decades ago, was taught with brevity and lack of depth in school surprised me.
My father’s lonesome refugee experience remained ingrained in my mind as I grew up. He was a proud survivor of a journey that killed many; he told stories of suffering, self-sacrifice and willful determination for a better life in an idealized nation of tall men and tall buildings.
My mother, however, flew over to the United States with her
entire family under a sponsor. She doesn’t speak of the war often — or about her past at all, in fact. This dichotomy strikes me every time I think of my parents’ past and of the war that displaced them.
Although I was well-versed about the war from my father’s experiences, the first time I learned about the Vietnam War in school was during my junior year in an AP U.S. History class. It was a small chapter within Lyndon B. Johnson’s presidency: a mere five pages in a thick 500-page book. Yet, that was enough for me to recognize that my present identity was a result of a history so detailed and complex, a history I did not necessarily agree with in regards to U.S. interventionist policy.
I realized my identity, alongside the identities of thousands of other Vietnamese Americans of my generation, holds the history of so much bloodshed, suffering, pain and destruction. It’s a difficult concept to grasp, especially in a commemorative month like April when the current events on the world stage draw parallels to what happened in Vietnam decades ago.
My parents were refugees. Today, the stigma against refugees or immigrants seeking refuge in the United States remains, and I realize most of these stigmas are formed through the lack of education and representation of non-European immigrants in history books. I sympathize with the refugee experience and understand the depth of their stories because I am the result of this history. It’s hard to sympathize if one is oblivious to it all.
I’m writing this column in commemoration of Black April — something I had never done before back home. When I used to live near Little Saigon in Orange County, I thought the observation ceremonies and marches were excessive, but now, as I study at a school where I constantly get asked if I’m Filipino or Pacific Islander, I want to do the month and its consequent events some justice. April is a sad month, a cruel one for the survivors of the war. But without it, I wouldn’t be here, as an American or even born at all.
Terry Nguyen is a freshman majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the lifestyle editor of the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Fémmoirs,” ran every other Monday.
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