Livermore, CA, USA
I left Viet Nam a nine-year-old boy in the belly of a Hercules cargo plane rumbling across the night sky. Crowded into the that dim space were the faces of people utterly uncertain of what the future held for them. Tan Son Nhut Air Base, where we departed, came under attack from enemy rockets while we were still in the air. Since then, I had become an American, so much so that my mother warned me that no Viet Namese girl would want to marry me. I've gone through so much of the highs and lows, ins and outs of an American life that sometimes I forget I was once one just like those boys I see in photographs from Viet Nam. Like all who were affected by the war, I have some reconciliations of my own to make.
I will always be grateful to the people and country that gave my family a new life. My father could have met with a doomed fate for his close association with the US military. But instead, he be became a computer programmer. I could have been drafted and sent to fight against China or Cambodia. But instead, I spent my teenage years preparing for college. My family could have been struggling under a bumbling totalitarian government. But instead, we have freedom and opportunity. I worry about overconsumption instead of poverty. The fateful events that inextricably entangled the histories of my adopted and birth countries leaves me with some mixed feelings. I think like a Westerner, but I still feel something like a child of the third world. Whenever I see those boys in those pictures from Viet Nam, I still see myself.
I see images of the Viet Nam War, and though it is in the past, I take it too personally. I feel sad seeing children suffering from the actions of the Americans, be it through mistakes, malice or simply the normal casualty of war. I feel sad for the villagers trying put their life back together while the visits of war kept tearing it apart. I feel sad for the American soldiers dying for a cause they did not understand, for a country that forgot to be grateful. I feel angry at the invading North Vietnamese Army for destroying the place I lived--I see them trying to kill me. I allow myself to take it too personally, because it helps me appreciate the gift of being able to live here today.
A friend told me of a man she saw in church when she was growing up. She had an image of him sitting on the church bench on Sunday mornings, his hat twirling around his finger. One day he stopped coming. She did not wonder. Not a year later, she learned. He went to Viet Nam and died there. I know of a Marine pilot who lost his life over Chu Lai. His daughter, who was in our wedding, still honors his memory, as do I.
Fifty-eight thousand Americans died in Viet Nam for no good reason. It feels strange that they had died where I should have, and I am living here, where they should be, like I have stolen one of those 58 thousand American lives. But I don't want to be a thief. I try to be a good American citizen. To be any less would be an insult to those who sacrificed. I still feel like a Viet Namese, a visitor in this country. So I try to be a good ambassador from that little understood place, to show the American people that those they tried to help were worthy of their good intentions and sacrifices. For the people who gave me my new life, I want to redeem some of their madness.
I visited Viet Nam last year with a lovely blond haired, blue eyed American bride. There, we were also the best ambassadors we could be, because as Americans, we thought we had some making up to do. Everywhere we went, we were greeted with unconditional friendship and hospitality.