Memory, Revisitation & Healing
Profilers: Monika Langarika, Alain Peschard, Jiheun Tak
A collection of highlights from Father Nguyen’s interview.
Father Nguyen shared his experiences in Vietnam and as a refugee to our group. He touched upon the stark reality of war, including streets lined with dead bodies and the constant bombings. He then speaks about how the scars from the war experience never left him, even after he came to the United States with his family
Us: Can you give us your name, age, and some background information about yourself?
Truc: My name is Truc Nguyen. I came to the United States right after, right before, the fall of Saigon in 1975. I came here in April 30 when I left Vietnam. I’ve been living in Southern California ever since, so it’s been 35, 36 years.
Us: What are you doing now?
Truc: I’m a Catholic priest at the moment.
His Family’s Involvement in the War
Us: Could you share with us the extent of your family’s participation in the Vietnam War?
Truc: My dad was very involved. He was an officer. When he was younger, he served as a Green Beret. So, he spent probably the first 10 years of his military experience on the frontline fighting. And he has like three best friends together, and two of them died, and that’s when he decided that it was just too much of risk for the whole family, so he moved and changed and joined the Marine Corp instead. So, he served the military as one of the officers, I think he was major at the time, at the end of the war. Colonel or something, I don’t remember exactly.
So, we moved from different part of Vietnam. Mom and Dad go from North Vietnam and we into moved to South Vietnam. Because of Dad’s service in the military, we moved and lived in different part from central part of Vietnam, Hue, Nyet Chien, and then back to Saigon where we last lived.
As far as personal experience, we hear a lot of bombing shell almost every night, at least once or twice a week. We live, I lived, and we used to live in a military base. So, it’s like, every house, especially toward the end of the war from 1970 to ‘75, almost at least 85% of the house have to have bunker. So whenever there is a major explosion or bombing somewhere, you just automatically learn how to run into the bunker and shelter out either for an hour or two hours, however long that would be. So that’s my personal experience.
In 1968, there was a major called Tet Offensive by Communists that actually penetrate right into heart of Saigon. I was only 5 at the time so I don’t have much memory of, but I hear stories of what people used to say, my mom and dad, my older brothers. They said you could see, you know, dead soldiers communist soldiers like all over the street, and they would use truck to unload them and load them off and take them away. So I think that was the closest in fighting we ever experienced for those who lived in the city.
Us: What members of your family came to the US?
Truc: Mom and Dad had 10 children, and 8 of us survive. Three of my brothers would have been drafted, I don’t know how, but they didn’t get drafted, but they would have been drafted at that time. So I was 12 at the time, my three older brothers, they were in there late, early 20 or late 17, 18, 19 or something.
Us: Were you all boys?
Truc: No, I have 4 brothers and 3 sisters. At least that I grew up with.
The War Experience: Civil War and Propaganda
Us: How did you choose to end your participation?
Truc: Leaving Vietnam or ending the war?
Us: Please talk about how you ended your participation in the war, which may be one and the same with leaving Vietnam.
Truc: It’s a civil war in a way, right, because it’s been North and South Vietnam. If you belong to this side of the country, all the people participated in many way directly or indirectly because you’re psychologically or emotionally all involved, and you see family members, neighbors next to you, aunt and uncles maybe, cousins die from the war. So, you’re all affected in many ways, and participated indirectly in some ways. So I think most, all of us, who lived in the South all participated in some way. You hear news everyday, and you hear either propaganda against the war from time to time or soldiers, since I grew up pretty much in the military base, so you directly see service men, young people as 17 year olds being drafted, probably within 6 months, you see them in the body bag. Probably like many American witnesses here. So we, I mean, the extent of what you experience is only probably like 25% and 75% of the death/casualty because of war suffer much more. So both part of the country, North and South, so it’s like war is never a win-win proposition.
Us: Did your dad survive the war?
Truc: My dad survived the war, thanks be to God.
Us: So you said it was everybody except two of your two siblings.
Truc: Yes, one died in North Vietnam and one died in South Vietnam not related to war, just related to health illness.
Lingering Memories after Leaving Vietnam
Us: In your own memory, would you say your involvement in the war ended when you left Vietnam or did it carry over to your experience in the United States?
Truc: War has great traumatic as well as post-traumatic effect on everybody psychologically and emotionally, so I don’t think it ever ended, it always lingers inside of you. Especially the first 10 years when we just came to United State, it was much more psychologically affect you a lot more you know because whenever there was a special celebration you always have nostalgic feeling, what’s happening, what I used to do, what we used to do. For example, with New Year’s, either European New Year or Chinese New Year or Vietnamese New Year, all those memories bring back to you. And then, I guess being Vietnamese refugee is kind of unique in a way.
The memory of the war never left us, you know because, we left, and we were the first batch of Vietnamese refugees who came in ’75 to ’78, right? As the bulk people period, from like the early ‘80s to late ‘80s, so they had much more dramatic experience. So you get to hear their stories, right? And in the ‘90s you get them, military officers, like my dad’s comrades you know people who served with him who had been put into concentration camp for so many years after the Communist took over. So now they get to go back, after they’re released, now there was a special program here that would bring them over here to the United States.
Then you continue to hear stories of after the war, what happened to them, how they were being treated in concentration camp, how it affect their entire family from that whole period from 1975, maybe, to 1990, that children growing up then in South Vietnam might not have any direct experience with their dad. Then they retell stories what happened, you know, I have aunt, uncles, and cousins who come back, who came to the United States afterward, and you get to hear their stories, like we get to hear stories what happened to our home on the day after the fall of Saigon. We left on the 29th, the fall of Saigon was the 30th, then we get to hear stories what happened to the destructions of our home, they went and looked my dad, and so that was another experience we didn’t have direct experience, we get indirect experiences, and they still bring back memories of the war.
Emigrating to the United States as Refugees
Us: Can you tell us the process of migration for your family? How did that happen so quickly, and was it a positive or negative experience?
Truc: You know, it’s never been a positive experience for anyone who had to leave their country, leave their home, leave life, their livelihood, leave everything. You know, as refugees, it’s so different from being immigrants right. Many immigrant people, you know, they know ahead of time they will go to America. So, they kind of prepare ahead of time.
Being refugees, meaning you are forced to leave, and your country, some may leave on free will, but in many ways you are being forced to leave. And so, there’s a lot of dying, and a lot of letting go, and there’s a lot of pain that’s involved in that whole journey. You know, we were between the unfortunate and also the fortunate. Where many families ended up breaking apart, you know, going different route to escape Vietnam. Like four of my sibling were left behind in Vietnam, and then we got reunited within two months later. So that was the fortunate situation. But many families end up separating the family and will not have any chance of reunion, maybe 15, 20 years later. So, it was not a positive experience for me as far as I was 12 so I had a lot of memories both good and bad.
Us: Did you come straight to California?
Truc: Yes we knew California weather was most accommodating for us being Asian, plus Dad had been here before as a military officer exchange program. So he had been to different parts of the United States so he knew California would be the only state that we would want to come out to, after leaving the refugee camps. There are different refugee camps at those times.
Coping with War Memories
Us: Would you say your experience as well as your family’s collectible memory influenced what you do now? Or separately?
Truc: Like I said, it greatly influenced you, both positively and negatively, everybody handles stress differently, post-traumatic syndrome differently, I think its been a positive experience for me here, especially seeing, what life was, what life could have been, and what life is now. So it makes you work a lot harder, but also makes you reflective of how much people suffer, how much you had suffered. It also being a priest, in many ways helps me to reflective in my own reflection with the people of God sharing’s the word in my own journey experience, so it’s been both good and bad.
Us: Do you have a family?
Truc: No I am a catholic priest, I am not allowed to be married, we do have a large family.
Us: Present day, how is your family’s memory of the war, is it spoken about?
Truc: From time to time it does come up again. Tell stories of childhood of what it used to be like. You of my grandmother or my aunt and uncles, where we used to live and what life used to be like and so we do talk about it but not now, 36 years later, not like it was before a constant reminder.
Lasting Effects of Memories from the War
Us: Do you have anything you want to share with us? Our class has an emphasis on memory and recollection of stories.
Truc: Looking back, you know war is never a pleasant memory for people who participated in it, or people both victims, both sides there’s no win-win situations. As Vietnamese refugees, looking back, we were very grateful with American government in many ways, hosting us and allowing us a place to stay and adapting to a new environment. In a way I would have calan to say I am very grateful to those who helped us along the journey.
You know there are a lot of people still have suffering from the war, even thought its been 35 or 36 years, there been tremendous ramifications to decision going to war and even after the war is over that sometimes it never made it into history, so I just hope that with the current war that is happening in the middle east or anywhere else there are children who grew up without having family, who grew up being greatly injured because of the war, both children and adult. My mom was injured not from the Vietnam War but from the previous war, so I have seen victims of war, there’s great prices to pay. That would be my reflections on war in general. There is also great hospitality with people who cares both before and after the war.
Returning to Vietnam and Giving back to the Vietnamese-American Community
Us: Did anyone in your family or you go back to Vietnam?
Truc: I have been back to Vietnam just two years ago for the first time. My younger sister went back four years ago, but she only stayed three days because of family health issues she has to fly back. But I had a wonderful two weeks back to Vietnam, it was a very experience, it was also very difficult at time. I get to visit my home, where it used to be the military base, which is no longer the military base, I get to see my aunts, my uncles, my cousins, after 36 years I don’t recognize who they are, they recognize who I am because of my ordination pictures as a priest we sent back, but otherwise I recognize my aunts and uncles faces, I get to visit my grandmother burial place, I was looking for my oldest brother cremated remains because after the war all cemetery sites in South Vietnam at least a lot of them were being exhumed or excavated up so the government were using it as either their bases or changing them to commercial building. During those period of 1975 to 1980 a lot of burial sites had to be exhumed and excavated and be cremated so my brother had to be cremated and put into the catholic church or Buddhist temples become another new burial place, plots basically for cremated remains. I enjoyed the experience but it was also not an easy experience at times.
Us: How are you involved within the Vietnamese community in California?
Truc: I was very involved with Vietnamese youth and young adult life all of my life. Just the past three years I have not had much involvement because of ministerial responsibilities, but I still go to priest meetings and every now and then I go down to Little Saigon because that is where my family lived anyway, but as far as direct community involvement, not as much as I was doing three years ago.
Assimilating into American Society
Us: What are your feelings about being a refugee and assimilation into American society?
Truc: I am not a sociologist or a psychologist, I’m just lucky because I came here when I was 12 and I was able to assimilate and incultrate into the country much easier than my older siblings are. People can look at me very Americanized, in my way of doing things, but deep down in me I am very Vietnamese, I am intact with my culture, I keep certain traditions of respect, traditions not only from elder people’s but also to certain Vietnamese traditions or cultures that we have. I am very grateful that when I came here at my age I was able to bridge between the two cultures. I think age makes a big difference, from language adaptability to culture adaptability.
Also you have to look at what period in time when you come to United States too. People who came in 1975 have a different experience than boat people who came in the mid 80’s, when they escaped Vietnam in a 19 foot boat with 50 to 60 people and half of them end up dying at sea or they could have their sibling on the same boat with them and yet their sibling could be raped by sea pirates, so you know completely different experiences as far as their assimilations, people who came much later is different because they grew up in during the communist regimes. I don’t have any experiences living with communism; my first experience was when I came back, two years ago.