Race, Policy, Social Justice

History books will never be able to tell what it’s really like to be a child of the Vietnam war

I am just as much of an American as anyone else. Except I’m not.

Ever since I can remember, I have known about the war.

50 years ago, war broke out in Vietnam between the South and North Vietnamese. My family on both my father and mother’s sides were refugees from the war that migrated stateside. I grew up hearing the stories of Vietnam before the war, during the war, and then life as refugees in America. The Vietnam War irrevocably changed my family’s life. But learning about the Vietnam War in schools and again in the media, just makes me feel confused.

In my U.S. history course, we covered the Vietnam War briefly.

I was taught a single fluid narrative of the Vietnam War: hawks and doves in Washington arguing for different policy and the young people who didn’t want to go to war. I remember my freshman year of high school, I read Tim O’Brien’s story, On The Rainy River, that recounted his urge to evade the draft. What a privilege, I thought, to even consider not going to war. For my family, we didn’t have a choice–the war came to us whether we liked it or not. And the war indiscriminately hurt Vietnamese people regardless of their political convictions and changed our lives forever. In college, I learned about the My Lai massacre and felt more confused. How could the Americans have just slaughtered innocent Vietnamese people? Weren’t the Americans on our side?

In my family’s nearly five decades of American life, we have clung to memories of a Vietnam that no longer exist. On my father’s side, it was the second escape from communism. They had fled China amidst Mao Ze Dong’s communist rule in the 1940s and then again in the 1970s during the Vietnam War. On my mother’s side, her father fought in the war for the South Vietnamese army and after the war, the U.S. helped them migrate stateside.

In my family, there is only life before the war in Vietnam and life after the war in the U.S. For me, the Vietnam War marks the end of an era in my family that I only know through pictures and stories.

Growing up, I heard countless stories about the war, life before it and the grueling experience of coming to America. I heard stories about fear and bravery, familial duty, and new beginnings. I could almost feel the hardship of starting life afresh in a foreign country.

But to me, the U.S. doesn’t feel foreign at all.

The only language I am fluent in is English. I had to learn Mandarin in school and I am still not even close to fluent. The only political system I really understand is the American one and I hold the American values of freedom, life, and liberty close to my heart. I am just as much of an American as anyone else. Except I’m not. My family is not. And my history isn’t the one that’s taught in history classes.

My bicultural identity as both an American and a child of Vietnam War refugees has shaped my view of the Vietnam War. But I am not the only one. The Vietnam War created a diaspora of Vietnamese people around the world, many of whom ended up in the U.S. And our stories are rarely told. After reading a series of pieces that remember the Vietnam War in The New York Times, I felt as if my life and experience were not told– the stories of refugees, the stories of a diaspora community connected to a place that no longer exists, and the confusion that surrounds patriotism to the U.S. I don’t know how I am supposed to feel when learning about the May Lai massacre.

Am I supposed to still love my country? Am I supposed to still feel like a proud American? It could have been my grandparents, aunts, uncles, or cousins killed in that massacre. What am I supposed to think when I hear the stories of draft evaders– the stories of people who had the privilege to not be affected by this war?

I don’t have any answers to these enormous questions. But I think it’s okay to feel confused. Gaining the American perspective and politics helps me better understand what happened in the war. Hearing the stories of my family’s journey to America, helps me know my own history. I will forever be caught between two worlds: my Asian identity and my American one. I have come to accept that my bicultural identity affects all parts of my life from customs and traditions to remembering the past.

And the history you’re taught won’t necessarily tell your story, so sometimes you have to tell it yourself.