My Family's Experience in the Vietnam War
Profilers: Justin Yong Jia Tan, Laura Liuxuan Gao, Adam Boyang Lu
Stories of the War
Did you go to middle school and high school in Vietnam?
Yes, I did, but I actually went to an American international school, so it’s a bit different from the public Vietnamese schools.
How is it different?
For the international school over there, they don’t really teach much about the Vietnamese culture or the Vietnamese subjects, such as math or literature or physics in the way related to the Vietnamese way of teaching. The school system and the grading system is also influenced a lot by the American way of teaching.
When you learn about the Vietnam War in your history classes in the international school, do you think it was more from a Vietnamese perspective or a western perspective?
Well, we have a Vietnamese history class, but it’s really general. We also learn the Vietnamese perspective of the war, but everything is really general.
Do you think you learned more about the Vietnam War from school education or from your family’s own past experiences?
I learned more about the Vietnam War from my family, because they actually were in the war. They told me a lot of stories about it, but I don’t really learn a lot about the Vietnam War in textbooks or from my professors or from school. That’s just me, personally.
What kinds of experiences did your family tell you about the Vietnam War? And what was your reaction?
My mother and my grandparents were actually in the war. My grandmother was a stay-home housewife, but she was supporting my grandfather when he was a soldier on the field. He was one of the people who helped one of the generals to write down all the important information for the Vietnam side. For my mother, she was an on-location soldier, so she was holding guns and everything.
What are your feelings on the fact that your mother and your grandparents had to go through something as momentous as a war, something that seems so farfetched from your own life?
I’m very lucky that I don’t have to experience war, but my parents say that it’s really intense. It’s something that you don’t want to go through. My grandfather and grandmother told me that war is something that just destroys you emotionally and physically, so I’m really lucky that I don’t have to go through that, but it’s kind of great to have people who tell you stories about it, so you know what happened in the past so you don’t repeat it in the future.
Would you like to share some of the stories that your family members told you?
I heard one story from my mom. She told me there was one time when she was on location with her guns and everything, and they were telling people in groups to go hide in one of the locations they set up for people to hide in. There were two groups, one group went to the A location and the other one went to the B location. My mother was really little, and she tried to go to the A location, because she heard that it was safer, but when she reached the A location, they said there was no more room for her, so she had to run to the other location and the airplanes were everywhere up there, and they were bombing. When my mother finally got to the B location to hide for safety, she heard a “BOOM”. When they finally get up and get out of the hiding location, the location A is totally bombed. Everyone in there is gone, you don’t even see bodies, everything is just gone. It was a pretty amazing story for my mother, because if she went there, she could have died.
There’s another story. When she was little, whenever she went towards a different village, there would be hundreds and hundreds of dead bodies on the sidewalk. Because she was little, she didn’t know, so she would go and just look at it. There was blood everywhere, and a bunch of bodies stacked on each other. My grandmother always had to go out and drag my mother in because she didn’t want my mother to get sick from the dead bodies. There was so many dead people that they don’t even have time to bury them, so even when you hear it, it’s just horrible, so imagine actually seeing it.
Aftermath of the War
Were your mother or your grandparents traumatized by the war, or changed as a result of the war?
Well luckily, I didn’t lose any family members for the war, but my mother said that because of the war, all of my family members became stronger in a way, they know how to protect their family. I think it’s a good thing for that aspect, but I don’t think being in a war is a great experience. Whenever you think of it, it’s not a good experience to think about. I asked my mom, “How it’s like to be in a war?” and she’s like, “You don’t want to even think about it” because it’s so horrible. You can die anytime. When you are on location and people are fighting each other, you see guns and bullets on the field, it’s beautiful in a way because there’s just so many bullets going across each other, it’s just so crazy.
Were there any stories that you heard of about the consequences of the war?
It’s not directly about my family, but since in Vietnam I work close to the entertainment industry, we go to charity events. Most of the time we come across people’s families that were affected by the war. One of them was “orange disease” which comes from the bombs of the Americans, and its effect carries through generations. It makes them suffer from Down syndrome, and a lot of people are still suffering from that. They are getting support from the government, but even if you get support from the government, it’s just money, but they are physically suffering from those diseases, so it’s really sad.
Moving to America
Did your family come to America because of negative experiences during the Vietnam War?
For my family it’s kind of the opposite because we were for privileged in Vietnam, because we were the people who stood for the Vietnamese people during the war, and we won, so after the war, we get privileges from the government, so over there it’s better for us, but my mother loves the weather here, so she came here! However, I know a lot of stories that people who immigrated here don’t like Vietnam at all. Whenever you mention Vietnam or ask “Do you want to go back to Vietnam?” they would say no, because during the war, they supported the Americans, so that’s why when we won the war, the government took everything away from them, all of the privileges they got when they were supporting the Americans. There’s no bad and good during war, it’s just the way it is. They got everything taken away from them, so that’s why they came to America and why they don’t like Vietnam.
After you came to America, how did you feel on the opinions on the Vietnam War from the American friends around you?
When I say I’m Vietnamese, there’s two things people talk to me about. One, do you speak French? I’m like, no. So, do you know about the Vietnam War? I’m like, yeah, my family was in it but I was not in it, because, you know, I’m twenty. The interesting thing is, for different people they have different opinions on the war and different experiences of the war. Some people, when they hear I’m Vietnamese, it seems like a bad memory for them, something that affiliated with the war and Vietnam. Some people are like, we’re sorry we came to your country. Others were like, oh, we were trying to help you, so we came there, but it didn’t work out, so we left. There’s different stories about the war, and it’s interesting to hear, because there’s no true story, you don’t really know what’s true and what’s not. I hear a lot about it, I think they know more about the war than I do, even though they are not Vietnamese.
Have your family’s impression on Americans changed throughout the years?
When I was little, they thought Americans as being close-minded, because that how they saw the Americans when they were in Vietnam during the war. They thought Americans are strong, and they are trying to take our country away, but now, the way they see Americans are different. They’re like, they’re just friendly people, and I think that one of the reasons my mother decided to immigrate to America, because their lifestyle matches to my family’s style.
Did your family ever hold a hatred towards America, and has it changed now?
My grandparents recently passed away, but when I got a chance to talk to them about that, they didn’t mention anything about hate. They mentioned about what happened more, how everyone was scared, they didn’t really mention anything about hate.
War in the Media
Have you been to any exhibitions or museums dedicated to the Vietnam War?
I’ve been to the museum where they have airplanes from the war, and I’ve been to the cemetery for the soldiers who were in the Vietnam War. When I went to the museum, it felt kind of strange, because you’re seeing these things that were actually in the war, you just feel that it must have been intense. You see helicopters, parts of bombs, it’s really crazy. When I went to the cemetery, it was sad in a way, but I also feel very grateful to the people who sacrificed their life to protect ours.
Did you ever come across some sort of western media that portrayed Vietnamese in a way you found uncomfortable?
I saw this in the 201 cinema history class. Most of the time when I see movies or anything that has any mentioning of the Vietnam War, they just use the Vietnam War as a time period in history instead of portraying it, but there was one movie that I watched, I forgot the name, but there was a scene between two American people where they try to make money, so they try to create a play where they were playing the American people and the Vietnamese people. The American person who portrayed the Vietnamese had a performance that was over exaggerated. For some reason, I felt kind of offended by that, because they were not speaking in Vietnamese, they were making very high-pitched noises, and dressed in costumes that looked ridiculous, and that’s the only movie I found to be offensive to the Vietnamese culture, because that’s not how we look like and how we sound like. The way the person runs in that film just makes Vietnamese people seem to be always afraid, but that’s not true, because we won the war, right, so we did something right.