HOST: When the American war ended in Vietnam in 1975, thousands of Vietnamese fled to the U-S. These refugees learned to live in a new country, building a vibrant community from coast to coast. But the legacy of warfare and post-war trauma still haunts them 30 years later.
Vietnamese American writer and journalist Nguyen Qui Duc (Nwin-Kwee-Duhc) reflects on the formation of a Vietnamese community in the US, and his own ties to his homeland.
Chapter Two. “Home is always somewhere else” by Nguyen Qui Duc,
SOUND: BELLS, MONKS PRAYING
My uncle just died. It was cold, even inside the funeral home as the monks prayed. A heart attack killed him at 75. He was just 45 when he left Viet Nam, coming to America and responsible for a wife, three kids, a stepmother, and me. I was 17, and without parents, so after the Vietnam War, my uncle took me with him. Saved my life, really.
An hour after we cremated him, a blizzard turned Maryland, where he lived, pristine white. It was such a strange landscape.
I left my uncle soon after I came to America and drifted around California.
START FADING OUT MONKS AMB
As a kid, I grew up in a time of war.
Before I became a teenager, America had already come to my country.
Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, or the Doors. That was what I understood America to be.
The music came with men in army fatigues—hundreds of them tore through our town in central Viet Nam—their trucks noisy, dusty, their rifles a scary sight. The year I turned ten, things really changed.
Tet, the lunar new year, had arrived. But the sound of firecrackers celebrating the year of the monkey in 1968 was replaced by gunfire and explosions.
North Vietnamese troops invaded several cities and towns in the south.
In the city of Hue, where our family was on holiday, thousands died in a month of house-to-house fighting. Thousands disappeared—among them, my father. It would be 16 years before I saw him again.
SCHOOL AMBIANCE/KIDS/TRAFFIC/POP MUSIC
I carried on with school, but for years, my father’s absence loomed over us. And the war grew worse.
When the war ended in 1975, an estimated 3 million Vietnamese had died. America was mourning the 58 thousand it had lost, and would come to relive the nightmare of defeat for years. Viet Nam plunged into extreme poverty.
SOUNDS FROM MOVIE GREEN DRAGON
About a hundred thousand Vietnamese ended up as refugees in America including my uncle, his family and myself. The churches, charities, and families that sponsored us did all they could to welcome us, and create physical comfort. What they couldn’t give was a sense of home.
SOUND OF BUS
At 17, I was riding the bus to school and always the feeling gaze of others. It was as if they could see the shame of defeat on my back, and the guilt of having left my parents and a sister behind.
SOUND FROM MARKET/STORES
For the first couple of years, we had no news of home, but we eventually learned to live with our pain. People I knew were getting married, building new families, new identities. At some point we began to accept that we were “Asian Americans.” Time passes. We spoke more and more English, and then came time to apply for American citizenship. A sensible thing to do, but we did it with a measure of shame. Being American seemed a betrayal of our roots, our nation, our real selves.
DUC’S RADIO SHOW IN VIETNAMESE
I ended up in northern California, with a radio show for the Vietnamese that had formed a community here. We were settling down roots, in our little Saigons, replenished by the arrival of boat people–those who risked their lives escaping from communism.
SOUND OF LITTLE SAIGON
Watch one of their popular entertainment videos now: you wouldn’t know these are people who’d been in labor camps, who’d lived in near hunger in the 80s, and who’d escaped on boats across the Pacific.
TV ENTERTAINMENT IN VIETNAMESE
It’s estimated that between a third to half of those who left this way died at sea.
After 12 years in prison camps, my dad was sent home, and four years later came to America with my mom. My sister had died. She too was cremated, her ashes placed in an urn and left with monks in Saigon, now renamed Ho Chi Minh City.
My parents settled in San Francisco–we learned to be a family again. They never thought of going back to Viet Nam, I was desperate to. They were afraid of all sorts of danger. Prison and the years of communism had done terminal damage.
I went back to Viet Nam nearly 15 years after coming to America. No American Dream could hold me back. Home was home, and I pined for it.
SOUND OF BELL MONKS PRAYING
I found former classmates, and the old home, but the country had changed– and I had changed. In a temple in Ho Chi Minh City, I cried and cried. I’d found my sister’s ashes. I sat with the monks for a while, and then I brought her ashes to the U.S. The family was whole again.
PAUSE – KEEP MONKS GOING
The Vietnamese in America still carry some wounds, but there’s a generation born here that’s graduated from college. In corporate boardrooms, on TV and in government offices, there are Vietnamese faces. In their homes, they’ve set up altars with pictures of the ancestors: remembrance of the dead and the past.
AIRPORT – AIRLINE ANNOUNCEMENTS
I can’t stay away from Viet Nam. Since leaving, I’ve been back 20 times, sliding back into the old culture like a jewel thief into his favorite velvet gloves. Thirty years ago I followed an uncle, and crossed the Pacific: the ocean separated us from our birthplace.
Millions of Vietnamese have died, millions have survived. Some in one country, some in another. And some of us cross back and forth.
AIRPLANE FADES OUT
A month before he passed away, my uncle visited Viet Nam for the first time in 30 years. The family thinks the long trip, the dire conditions, and the terrible shape of his childhood home, finally did him in. My aunt thinks of bringing his ashes home in a few years.
SOUND: FLUTE FADES IN
Maybe he’s there already, in the way that we Vietnamese think of how souls can travel to a birthplace. I fly back and forth, the ocean beneath the wings of the airplane, beneath the clouds. I’ll visit my uncle’s ashes wherever. The ocean doesn’t separate. It connects my two homes.
SOUND: FLUTE FADES UP AND UNDER
HOST: “Home is always somewhere else” by Nguyen Qui Duc. He’s host of KQED’s Pacific Time – distributed by Public Radio International. With help by Peter Breslow, Arthur Laurent and Nina Thorsen.”