Nguyễn Thanh Việt came to the U.S. when he was four. I left Vietnam when I was twelve. We are both refugee. Yet neither of us has any idea about the war. He explored the subject through novels and movies. I learned about it through Asia Entertainment, a Vietnamese music production that released documentary and music video about the war. Its perspective is mostly from the Republic of Vietnam.
In writing this book, Nguyễn returned to the homeland to visit war-related places and museums, which are now mostly tourist attractions. Like him, I went into Vịnh Mốc tunnels and paid Hồ Chí Minh’s body a visit. From a refugee perspective, Nguyễn offers a fair and balance analysis of the war. He draws his studies from literature, film, and art, which are kind of odd for a nonfiction book. I wonder why he hadn’t studied Vietnamese music. We must have thousands of songs about the war. Nguyễn’s assessment on identity resonates with me:
Having carried ourselves over, or been brought over, from the other side—we Gooks, we goo-goos, we slopes, we dinks, we zipperheads, we slant-eyes, we yellow ones, we brown ones, we Japs, we Chinks, we ragheads, we sand niggers, we Orientals, we who cannot be distinguished between ourselves because we all look alike—we know that the condition of our being and our self-representation is that we are both ourselves and others. We are never without identity and never without ideology, whether we like it or not, whether we acknowledge it or not. Those people who believe themselves to be beyond identity and ideology will, sooner or later, charge us with identity and ideology if we dare to commit that most unnatural act of speaking up and out. (p.63)
He was lucky that no one had ever called him these names to his face. As a kid, I was called Ching Chong and chink even though I am not Chinese. Then again, we all look alike.
A compelling and beautiful read if you don’t mind Nguyễn’s academic writing style.