People wave from along the street as President Barack Obama passed by in a motorcade after arriving in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, May 24, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

An Interview with Author Viet Thanh Nguyen on His Hopes for U.S.-Vietnam Relations

This week, President Obama became the third U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the normalization of relations began just over 20 years ago and the first president to come to the country who came of age after the Vietnam War. The visit has invoked reflection on this history from President Obama, the Vietnamese people, and Vietnamese Americans who bridge both sides of our history.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, 2015 Library of Congress National Book Festival, September 5, 2015, Washington, DC (Photo: Fourandsixty)

Viet Thanh Nguyen is one of those Americans. Now a professor at the University of Southern California, Nguyen first came to the United States as a refugee from the was when he was four years old. He and his family were settled as refugees in Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania. To leave, they needed a sponsor but no family would take his entire family of four. His brother went to one family, his parents went to another, and he was sent to live with an American family by himself. “And that’s when my memory begins,” he told NPR.
Professor Nguyen has spent a lifetime unpacking what that experience has meant for him, his family, Vietnamese Americans like him, and the American people. His novel, The Sympathizer, explores the legacy of that war. And this year, his work won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, just a few weeks before President Obama visited his home country.
We asked Professor Nguyen to share his thoughts on this visit and his own hopes for the future of U.S.-Vietnam relations. Here’s what he had to say:

Q: You’ve said that your experience in America is less as an immigrant and more as a refugee. What do you remember about the country your family fled? How did that experience shape you as your grew up in America?

I remember almost nothing of Vietnam, but like many other young refugees, I grew up influenced by secondhand memories. By secondhand memories, I mean that the memories of my parents, and all the other Vietnamese I knew, suffused my daily life. Sometimes they spoke of their memories. Even when they didn’t, those memories influenced their unspoken behavior — the food they ate, the music they listened to, the communities they built. Inevitably, the war and the refugee experience of being displaced and of loss were formative for me and everyone else of my generation.

Q: President Obama will be the third U.S. president to visit Vietnam since the normalization of relations just over 20 years ago. How do you feel about the President’s visit? What do you hope it accomplishes, if anything at all?

It’s obviously better for a U.S. President to visit a country than ignore it, or worse, to bomb it. Many Americans and Vietnamese are delighted at the visit of a President whose views are enlightened compared to some of his predecessors, as am I. Many Vietnamese in Vietnam and outside hope that he will help the country move towards more political and religious freedom, and towards greater transparency and equality. For many, these would be gestures at peace. But as someone with more utopian ideas, I worry that these gestures are outweighed by the political and military calculations that the U.S. and Vietnam are making as they possibly align in trying to contain or restrain China.

Q: Vietnam has more students studying at U.S. universities than any other Southeast Asian country. Why do you think that is? What do you hope they take away from their experience here? How do you think their experiences in the U.S. will be different from yours, having been brought here right after the war?

The reputation of U.S. universities is still powerful across the world. The Vietnamese are familiar with the U.S., as they were familiar with France and flocked there to study during the years of French colonialism. I hope they absorb not only the content of their majors and disciplines, but the best habits of American thinking, a genuine commitment to tolerance, pluralism, dialogue (and not the worst ones in terms of overconsumption and militarism). They learn American culture as foreigners on a temporary sojourn, rather than as refugees who have lost a great deal to come here. I have taught several of them in my class on the Vietnam War, and we’ve learned from each other. I get to see how young Vietnamese view the world, and they get to see the complexity of a war that is only studied via state propaganda in Vietnam.

Q: This trip will bring a lot of attention to our current relationship with Vietnam. What do you hope Americans understand about the Vietnamese people? And what would you hope Vietnamese people understand about the American people?

I hope both Americans and Vietnamese understand that there is a difference between the people of these countries and their governments. During times of war, governments help to foster inaccurate portrayals of the enemy, and their peoples come to believe these portrayals. In times of peace, or at least not conflict, it is easier for people to see how much they actually have in common. What both Vietnamese and American people can now see, hopefully, is that they have much more in common than in difference.

Q: What is your hope for the future of Vietnam? And the relationship between our two countries?

My hope for Vietnam is my hope for every country, including the United States — that it can achieve genuine peace, democracy, equality, and justice, in fact and not just in name. If that is the case, then the relationship between the two countries can be based on true generosity in addition to, or in place of, self-interest.