Haunted

Jul. 7th, 2009 11:57 pm
dmp: Taking a stroll in my finery (Default)
Robert McNamara passed away this week, may he rest in peace. Reuter's titled this article "McNamara dies, haunted by Vietnam war." Poor man, one of the most publicly remorseful men of that era. I'm not being sarcastic. If I directly contributed to the lives of millions of people dead and gone (thousands of Americans, millions of natives), then I'd be angsting for the rest of my life too.

But part of me, as Vietnamese-American, is tired of seeing America's greatest neurosis in the media once more.

I cringe a little every time I see a Vietnam War exhibit or see another New York starving artist making a statement by using images of villagers running away into the rice paddies or hear about the tragedy of Mai Lai or see the girl who ripped her burning clothes off during the naplam attack mentioned as the perpetual victim. Because I'm reminded, again, of what my family went through, of the cost my motherland paid. But I'm also reminded that this is all most fellow Americans see of my ethnic culture -- that is, not my culture at all, but a sad history lesson. When they ask, "But where are you REALLY from?" in one of those inevitable, awkward conversations (another topic for another day), and I finally reply, "My family is from Vietnam," I can see the little "Ah...aw..." connection, like a light switch in their faces. A little passing flinch. But it only lasts for a second, and the conversation moves on. Quickly.

Whenever it comes up, it's like the movie Groundhog Day, except instead of a repeated day, I get repeated emotions and thoughts that I can never escape because the guilt of others won't let me escape them. It was a mistake. They shouldn't have gone there. The government lied to them. And they feel bad.

I'm sorry you feel bad, but why must you always feel bad when we were in the middle of talking about something else entirely? Am I a poster child for America's failed war? Do you feel atrocities painted on your face by looking at mine? Even for a split moment, I was your object of national guilt, an earmark of historical shame, and knowing that made you feel even worse, didn't it? Well, it puts me in a bad spot too. I don't walk around moping about my family history 24/7, though I suspect I think about it more often than other people do, especially when it comes up in politico talkinghead comparisions or a certain revivial comes to Broadway.

It's like when I visited the Vietnam Memorial by myself when my family visited DC, in secret, because I was too embarrassed ask them to take me. There should be no shame in seeing a memorial for soldiers who died in war. But when you come from a family who doesn't talk about the war this memorial acknowledges (out of sight, out of mind, thinking forward, thinking about the future, not the past, that is the survivor mindset), it becomes embarrassing. When I ask to see an American monument for soldiers who failed my family's former country (and my current country too -- double-whammy there), what do I say? What do I feel when I see a monument dedicated to those who died, when other Vietnamese war dead will never be commemorated? How am I suppose to I feel staring at this monolithic black stone (American guilt, Vietnamese silence)?

Eventually, I'd like to see our own memorial in America. Athena Tacha designed a model for a Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia Memorial, representing all the war dead, Asian and American.

But for now I remain, haunted by other people's guilt.

December 2012

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