A Rose by Any Other Name but That of Your Oppressor
I lost my country before I was born.
April 30th, 1975 — no doubt the date resonates with many Americans, if only to mark the first grand-scale military failure in American history. The Republic of Vietnam ceased to exist that day; the red-striped yellow flag crumpled and torn beneath the wheels of stolen tanks, and from the ruins of Saigon emerged a crimson field and a golden star.
My parents, children at the time, were raised in military households. Both of my grandfathers fought for the South Vietnam Army, with my maternal grandfather a high-ranking officer. Let your imagination wander as to their fates after Saigon fell — I will, of course, revisit this narrative. But let me fast-forward a few decades and cross the Pacific Ocean to Brisbane, Australia, in early April of 2016.
A restaurant had been erected in a trendy neighborhood, built in the style of the type of cafés commonly found in the North of Vietnam. The owner, a white woman, claimed to have been inspired by the popular “bia hoi” — fresh beer — culture when she visited the country a few years back. Of course, any effort to popularize Vietnamese culture and cuisine should be lauded, even if the restaurateurs were foreigners. And yet, the restaurant drew critics. And critics turned into peaceful protests, and peaceful protests drew death threats. The restaurant was forced to close down for a few days in fear of violence to its proprietors and customers.
I should mention that the restaurant was named “Uncle Ho,” and its décor of choice featured heavy propaganda-style war posters of Ho Chi Minh and the Viet Cong soldiers enjoying fresh beer and calling for others to join them in their quest. Australia is a popular destination for Vietnamese refugees and later economic immigrants, with its position as an Anglo-centric country situated in a location convenient enough for Southeast Asia access. It is little wonder, then, that the local Vietnamese-Australian community of Brisbane was none too pleased with this establishment that lays a claim to the Vietnamese heritage and yet makes light of the most painful moments in the memories of millions of Vietnamese worldwide, both in the diaspora and within the Vietnamese border.
The restaurateur was unapologetic. Allegedly, by her own admission, she was fully aware of the controversial nature of the selection of such a name. Many Vietnamese-Australians visited the restaurant, enjoyed the cuisine, and were not offended by the name, she claimed. But inherent in that claim lays the assertion that any member of the community could represent the whole. That any person of color could speak for other persons of color, that the invalidation of pain and heritage is acceptable if such invalidation comes from people of that heritage. That the community is homogeneous, sharing nothing but the color of our skin and the land of our ancestors, and yet shares everything in the way we perceive the world.
The legacy of Ho Chi Minh — in Vietnamese naming convention, the family name goes first — is a controversial one, even in certain parts of Southern Vietnam. I cannot claim to speak for all Vietnamese people, or even all Vietnamese-American, or even anyone else in my own family. I can only offer my personal narrative and lay out my personal pain, neatly lined up with others who have shared their narratives before mine, and ask for understanding.
What I do know is that, having grown up and finished my elementary education in Vietnam, I was a proud member of the Junior Communist Party. By the time I graduated from elementary school, I was in command of all junior members in the school, the red scarf around my neck supplemented by a laminated insignia pinned on my sleeve to signify my position. As any child with even the smallest taste of personal authority, I was proud. I buried myself in work to glorify the Party, singing and dancing and extolling the virtues of Uncle Ho and the heroes of the Revolution, reading his biographies and sighing in admiration of the great leader who had unified the country. And throughout all of this, my parents looked on in silence.
Only when we had safely settled into our home in New Orleans, Louisiana, did my mother begin to unpack the burden of that secret history. I learned of my capitalist great-grandparents’ disappearance, of the empty graves that bear their names, of the untold hunger and poverty suffered by their eight young children following their presumed deaths. Of the land robbed from our family, of my grandfather’s rise to power within the Army, and then of the Fall of Saigon and his subsequent capture by the Communist Army. My grandfather spent ten years in a re-education camp, tortured and starved and forced to recant all that he had dedicated his life to. When he died in 2003, an autopsy revealed a long crack in his skull — evidence of the torture through which he lived, concealed from the rest of the family.
And I learned much more. My mother was never able to attend a four-year university even though her entrance exam score was well above threshold to attend Vietnamese medical school. In 1980’s Vietnam, the family history was a required component of any college application, and applicants were sorted into categories of undesirability based on the position of their fathers. My grandfather’s rank was that of a Major by the time Saigon had fallen, and no offspring of his would ever be admitted to a prominent state institution. My mother chose, instead, to attend a two-year nursing college and began working immediately to support my father, then a medical student, whose family history was just shy of the admittance threshold. She chose to stay in Vietnam for him while the rest of her family immigrated following my grandfather’s release from prison — under the Humanitarian Operation, which sought to evacuate former members of the South Vietnam regime who had suffered prosecution following the war, only unmarried children could accompany their parents to the United States. And thus began a longer process of immigration for my immediate family, and my brother and I were born into an education system that introduced Uncle Ho as an avuncular figure, convinced us to wear beautiful red scarves around our neck, and indoctrinated us into eulogizing the virtue of the Party that massacred thousands of Central and South Vietnamese during the war and oppressed millions more lives after their 1975’s victory. It is never wise to be on the losing side of history, but I am sure none of us chose to lose.
I don’t blame my mother for choosing to stay; had she done so, I would never have been born. I am grateful she had stayed. But sometimes I think of the silence my parents endured while seeing their child with that red scarf proudly tied around her neck, and I wonder how they must have felt. I never asked. The knowledge simmered just under the surface, dull as the pain of an old, puckered scar.
For my part, I feel anger. I am angry at the regime that had committed such atrocities against my family and families like mine, and I am angry that it had suppressed the voices of my parents, unable to educate their children about their own bloodied legacy in fear of persecution. I am angry at those who trivialize that painful history as promotional materials for a restaurant, and it would be arrogance of the highest order to believe that my pain can compare to that of someone who had actually lived through those experiences. My pain is an intergenerational one, already far removed from the source. But forty-one years are not yet the length of an average human lifespan. Survivors of the war still speak of that visceral pain of losing their families, their homes, and their country. And the name of the dictator responsible for it all, wielded by a foreigner only interested in exploiting that heritage for profit, is yet another reminder that those who lost the war are also erased from recorded history.
Lest anyone think that the past lies buried under tomes after tomes of history books, forgotten beneath the thickening of scholarly work — to those people, I can only congratulate their privilege. Privilege is ambivalence about social injustice that does not directly affect them. Privilege allows them to not pay attention, to cling onto tradition for its own sake. Privilege is the ability to dismiss another community’s pain to preserve traditions; privilege is putting convenience and discomfort above deep-seated pain.
On this day of South Vietnam’s fall, I think of another group whose voices have been silenced, one whose struggles are multifaceted and ongoing. I speak of the black community; specifically, of the black community of Yale University.
As a recent Yale alum, I was informed through an alumni newsletter of my alma mater’s decision on the renaming of Calhoun College, one of the twelve residential colleges on campus. The college’s name is polemical; its namesake is John C. Calhoun, a Yale alum, prominent 19th century statesman, and 7th Vice President of the United States. Scholars of history may also know Calhoun as a leader in the secession of the Southern states from the Union. An extraordinary politician in terms of personal influence and ability to accomplish his vision, Calhoun was also known for his fervent defense of slavery, calling slave trade “a positive good” and sought to preserve white supremacy in the United States. In honoring his name, Yale honored his personal strength and accomplishment — and yet, the wider impact of his influence must be carefully considered in a full evaluation of Calhoun’s merit as the namesake of a residential college that many black students — past, present, and future — call home.
Throughout my time at Yale, Calhoun College was headed by Master Jonathan Holloway and Dean Leslie Woodard, both African-American professors whose chief roles within the college revolved around organizing college life events and overseeing students academics, respectively. My friends in Calhoun loved, and still love, their college. They are proud of their community and proud to be known as Hounies. And that, I understand. My own residential college community was my pillar of support during those four years. What’s in a name? What matters is the meaning associated with that name, and in this case, the Calhoun community is full of love. But I also think of my visceral reaction to Uncle Ho’s restaurant, and at last, I understand the anger and pain surrounding the student body’s protests against the university decision.
A rose is a rose by any other name but that of your oppressor.
And so, on the 41st anniversary of South Vietnam’s fall, I would like to write a letter to another group whose voices have been silenced and whose pain disregarded by those who can afford to do so.
To the black students community at Yale,
I have a specific day in which to indulge in my anger and pain, compartmentalizing the trauma in contained intervals and moving on with my life in this land far away from the blood-soaked earth where my ancestors lie undisturbed. You don’t. Your history is undated and filled with approximations, a long passage of voiceless oppression with countless generations toiling for the wealth that was never theirs to own. Your pain is pervasive and your anger vast, and you have every right to be.
I don’t claim to understand. We are recipients of intergenerational trauma, but our traumas are of different flavors, and of course I cannot understand. The social dynamic of Vietnamese-Americans and African-Americans in America cannot be compared in any meaningful way; our heritages too different, the sources of our hyphenated pain too disparate. But here I stand in solidarity, because, I, too, understand the power of a name. I, too, have felt the phantom daggers of history pressing into my flesh, suspended carelessly by people who, well intentioned though they may be, have no access to that lived and transmitted experiences that inform our identities. No one should profit from your pain, monetarily or otherwise. Any tradition that inflicts pain is a tradition that should be critically examined and abolished.
I dream of a day when the Uncle Hos and Calhouns of the world are removed from their places of honor within the annals of history, with their downfalls more than mere blemishes on their otherwise flawless biographies. I hope for inclusivity to be more than mere lip service to satisfy a liberal public; true inclusivity is respect, and that means not silencing, with total disregard, generations of voices that cry out in pain.
My Facebook newsfeed has been inundated with a common mantra. “I stand with Yale students who refuse to tolerate the continued disrespect of people of color in a place that calls itself their home. Their intergenerational pain is an injustice — it should not be continued for the sake of your history lesson. Together, we rid this campus of what John C. Calhoun represents. In the face of administrative failure, Calhoun College will now be#FormerlyKnownAsCalhoun.” I am proud to be a member of such a community — this beautiful community of students and alumni in which affirmation and acknowledgement, not dismissal, reign.
On this day of South Vietnam’s fall, I stand with you in solidarity.