Friendship Foundation of American Vietnamese

Embracing Vietnam

By Volunteer Phuong Le
Project V Participant

In the aftermath of the war in 1975, distrust between the South Vietnamese and North Vietnamese people was infectious. Sometimes these suspicions fostered an atmosphere of apprehension. Reminiscent of McCarthyism, anything that could be taken as anti-Communist was reported. At any time soldiers could ransack people's homes in search of evidence to support their suspicions. As their victims watched helplessly, all their money, gold, and other valuables were taken away.

My family in particular was the focus of such repeated visits, because my father was the Deputy of Arms, the second highest official in the South Vietnamese government. After the fall of Saigon in 1975, he voluntarily turned himself in to the new authorities, under the false pretense that imprisonment would only be a year. That one year turned into thirteen. Fueled by my father's prolonged absence and the apparent injustice of the new regime, my mother secretly devised a plan of escape, despite the pleadings of her family not to take such an enormous risk.

My father was the Deputy of Arms, the second highest official in the South Vietnamese government.

Although a failed first attempt landed us in prison, my mother's unrelenting determination would not be abated. In 1978 under false Chinese identities, my mother along with my brother, my sister, and I successfully fled war-torn Vietnam. After a year in an Indonesian refugee camp, we were given refugee status by United States immigration and brought to Virginia, where we have since lived.

Building a new life in a foreign culture was not easy. For my mom, she had the endless task of raising three young children by herself on top of juggling a full-time job, three side jobs, plus night school. However, she was willing to endure the long days at work and even longer nights helping us children with homework if that meant a brighter future was in store. Not only did she stress the importance of a good education in order to realize our dreams; she also instilled in us a sense of Vietnamese ideals. For my brother, my sister and myself, however, these traditional views clashed with the new environment that we were struggling to fit into. At school, the difference in our attitude and especially in our appearance welcomed the jeers and taunts of classmates. These embarrassing moments made me even more eager to assimilate to the American way of life.

As there were few Vietnamese youth in our area, I could easily absorb myself in being "American", burying the pain of the past through forgetting the culture and the language. Over time, America felt less like a hostile environment and more like a comfortable way of life. However, in my overzealous pursuit of an identity within America's great melting pot, I lost sight of my own Vietnamese identity. In college I learned to accept intellectually both my Vietnamese culture and my American upbringing, but the struggle to find a healthy balance between the two still loomed.

Not until I went to Vietnam on the Children's Project did my bi-cultural upbringing become more real to me. Even before I started the journey, my brother warned me about taking care of myself. "Whatever you do, make sure you stay physically, mentally, and most importantly emotionally fit," he said.

It didn't mean anything at the time, but now the meaning is so clear. Keeping this in mind, I stepped off the plane at Ho Chi Minh City Airport with a measure of anticipation and reservation. Nothing though, I believe, could have prepared me for the whirlwind of emotions that has left me still sorting through the pieces. After a week, I was still in tip-top condition, unfazed by the little hours of sleep and the jam-packed days, scurrying here and there. However, I could feel myself slowly slipping in the emotional department. Until this point, I was still basking in the new sensation of actually being back in Vietnam. After several visits to various schools, orphanages, and centers for the elderly and the physically disabled, the security of being detached gave way to the sentimental.

I felt a war was taking place inside me.

Likewise, our sightseeing excursion to the Cu Chi Tunnels left me somewhat perplexed. Crawling through the tunnels and watching the film about the VC's ingenuity in creating the complex network of tunnels was indeed interesting; however, walking through the war memorabilia area was difficult for me.

I found myself questioning the information I was reading. Were we being told the truth or were we being fed propaganda? What would the other side say? What about the atrocities towards men like my father, not only during the war but lasting well after it ended. What about the torture that he endured in prison, not to mention the separation from loved ones? The brainwashing that he was fed was not disclosed, nor was the forced manual labor. Or how about the fact that they were fed only once a day and to survive some even caught rodents to eat. What about the mental anguish and emotional scars that has left many still fearing for their lives, or withdrawn from the world around them? These were the facts that I wanted to know. I was seeing the pictures and actual artifacts related to the War, and I felt a war was taking place inside me.

Even now I'm still struggling to piece the puzzle together. A lot of questions have been answered, yet now I am left with others. What I do know is that after having seen what we saw, and done what we did, I'll never be the same. I will always carry with me a deep connection with the land and people that can never be lost, because it is an energy that flows through every vein in my body. It is a connection to a life of unimaginable hardship that I would have had to endure had it not been for my mother's act of heroism and self-sacrifice.

This experience has challenged me to make sense of the past, accept it, and to move towards the future. Before I was content with merely accepting my cultural heritage, but now I am aware of a greater responsibility, the responsibility to learn more about Vietnam in order to share it with others. Not only has the Friendship Foundation of American-Vietnamese given me the opportunity to gain a deeper appreciation for Vietnam, but also to realize my social responsibility as an American-Vietnamese.

Thank you, coordinators and participants of Project V, for sharing your ideas and talents with the children of Vietnam, for the patience to endure the bureaucracy of the political system, and for the flexibility to adapt to difficult situations. Thank you all for showing me how to embrace Vietnam.

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