KUOW’s “Second Wave” isn’t for me, and that’s okay.
Second Wave is a new podcast from KUOW Public Radio and PRX about Vietnamerica. I ended up listening to five episodes before unsubscribing, and I (sub)tweeted a bit about it.
Their producer was thoughtful enough to ask for elaboration, but I’m not concise enough to do so via Twitter — so, here goes!
As mentioned in my original thread, my dissatisfaction with the show wasn’t due to there being anything particularly wrong with it. Rather, it was a poor fit of intent and well — me, as an individual listener. Each episode is a half-hour introduction to topics like phở or the South Vietnamese flag, pointillist dots in “an American story that begins in Vietnam,” in a cadence for people who haven’t spent their whole lives asking these questions. Each episode felt to me like thumbing through the back pages of middle school novels, where the book club discussion prompts are. I don’t doubt that Second Wave is a valuable resource for people who never had any reason to know that Vietnam used to exist under a different flag or who didn’t grow up listening to Trịnh Công Sơn (or don’t cry on a weekly basis about the erosion pains of losing the language you were first lulled to sleep in). I see why it would be hard for a project to both 1) be revelatory, for people who’ve never engaged with its subject matter, and 2) put new names to unexamined experiences, for people who have.
I hope I’m correct in thinking the former is Second Wave’s primary goal. If so, I think it should continue to be.
All the same, here are just a few vaguely-worded complications I haven’t encountered that much analysis in pop discourse, that I think are significant in Vietnamese-America, that I’d be interested in hearing about, that are coming to mind as I throw this together.
Vietnamese-American people should be wary of intra-ethnic, generational appropriation.
What if, say, a well-meaning college Vietnamese Student Association “Culture Night” were to involve a series of stunted skits performed by non-actors (which I would normally support with gusto because you can’t ever make anything without daring to start and daring to suck, and making things is wonderful — but the stakes are a bit high when the narrative you’re trying to build is “refugee flees war via boat, loses brother, is traumatized”), interspersed with asynchronized dance routines, some of which are loosely based on traditional dances researched through YouTube, the others being completely novel fever sequences irrelevant to Vietnamese culture (looking at you, “Lyrical Dance”)? The juxtaposition between attempted gravitas and ribbon-twirling is whiplash-inducing. (If ya listen real careful, I think you might be able to hear me shriek in disbelief when the barefoot boys brandishing bamboo sticks come marching in.)
Maybe it’s unfair to be a stickler for stagecraft in a cultural showcase, but surely we can ask where the responsible line lies between creating fiction and diluting stories that aren’t ours in the guise of broadcasting them. For example, Viet Thanh Nguyen’s spoken about what it means for the war sequences in The Sympathizer, and his short stories, to be fictional. Qui Nguyen’s Vietgone fictionalizes his parents’ love story, asking all along the way: who gets to tell this?
Taking a step away from the generational lens, I fear where Americentrism intersects with Vietnamerica. I am frustrated by rhetoric that assumes singularity with other segments of diaspora — French, Canadian, Czech, German, Korean, Australian, just to name six because I probably shouldn’t go on listing countries where there are a lot of Vietnamese people—and overlooks Vietnamese people who are nationally Vietnamese.
Even within the United States, I’m distrustful of rhetoric that conflates the visible activities of structured communities, à la Little Saigons and Hội Văn Hóa Khoa Họcs, with universal experiences. What of people who chose to distance themselves from South Vietnamese sentiment, loyalty, and organization once they got there? What’s it like being Vietnamese-American away from Orange County and San Jose and southwest Houston? What’s it like being Vietnamese-American in rural America? What’s it like to raise children who are just as Vietnamese-American as the rest, but don’t go to temple or church or Vovinam or language school, who celebrate Tết and Tết Trung Thu only at home and not downtown?
For instance, to loosely bring it back to the podcast, I was disappointed the “Flag” episode did not get into whether playing the anthem/raising the flag of the former RVN at community functions alienates people who immigrated to the United States decades after 1975. In the episode’s tone, I perceived the assumption that the use of cờ vàng ba sọc đỏ in Vietnamese-American community functions should be preserved, that younger people don’t give it the import it deserves because they impatiently, naively don’t recognize its significance (as opposed to because of their having grown up with northern grandparents who also missed their country, or because of their identifying with an ethnicity independent of a political state). The first 98% of the episode, I wanted to ask: “But what specific traumas belong to individuals? Not only what reason, but what emotional right would someone like me have, to respond to a symbol like that, like someone who stood under it as a child does?” And as soon as Thanh Tan finally got to those questions with her concluding monologue, it was her concluding monologue, and I realized this was a survey course I didn’t need.
Many Americans aren’t aware of the historical dynamics between Vietnam and other Asian nations, or the differences in how different Asian-American populations came to exist in the United States.
For example, the relationship between Vietnam and Cambodia sure is different from those between Vietnam and China/Korea/Japan. This surfaces both blithely and painfully.
On the side of levity, I often joke that Chinese-Americans are the white feminists of Asian-America, and Ali Wong does this incredible bit in her Netflix special, Baby Cobra: “My husband’s half-Filipino half-Japanese, I’m half-Chinese and half-Vietnamese, and we spend a hundred percent of our time shitting on Korean people”. There’s plenty of fatalistic delight to be found in growing up humming folk songs that go “A thousand years under the Chinese/A hundred years under the French/Twenty years of civil war.” In the 8th grade, I had to explain to a classmate that China and Asia are different entities, at like, different levels of taxonomy.
Less comfortable are memories of spending a summer in Beijing and being told more than once that I must have a Han grandparent, that I was too [positive characteristic] to be Vietnamese. Less comfortable are times when someone rounds up a bit too generously in the name of a United States of Yellow, equates their experience in the 6th generation of a Chinese-American family a bit too eagerly, a bit too knowingly to ones in which parents and children do not speak the same language. Less comfortable is learning about the Vietnamese military occupation of Cambodia and Laos, and its resulting abuses.
How do these forces act upon, say, middle school students, Vietnamese and otherwise, studying the Vietnam War in a classroom setting for the first time? Or Vietnamese-American political candidates? Or Vietnamese-American people studying or working in other countries? Or Vietnamese-Americans who are ethnically Chinese? Or performers in race-conscious casting processes?
To my admitted utter horror, my aunt, who actually grew up in Vietnam, loves this show. I struggled for a long while to write something coherent here about the Second Wave-relevant questions this musical might prompt (maybe about whether theater like it can attain value in the hands of Vietnamese performers/creators in a way that films can’t be), but I cannot because when I try to think of actual words that have meaning in real languages spoken by millions of people, it seems that all I can hear, over and over again, is — huh.
I mean, it’s just gibberish.
But I can try to transcribe.
Let’s go with…dju vui vay vao nyay moy.
Like I said, just gibberish.
Vaguely Oriental, I guess.
Definitely nothing you’d ever write into a musical that ran for a decade each on its first West End and Broadway runs.
Anyway, I do, however, have many general questions, such as “Can I neutralize the stomach acid in my mouth with my love for Lea Salonga?,” “How did this get made?,” and “Why?”
These are a few other things I’m also curious about, but more in the vein of how Gimlet shows seem to frame questions (specifically, Reply All and The Nod).
- Whatever happened to Dalena? Or Trish Thùy Trang?
- What’s best: phở, bún, hủ tiếu, or mì?
- How do traditional Vietnamese instruments work? How/where do young people learn to play them?
- Commercial establishments (e.g., supermarkets, restaurants) run by Vietnamese people but that pretend to be Chinese/Japanese/etc. to cast a wider, less confusing net: is this admirably scrappy or gross?
- How do Vietnamese newspapers/radio stations/TV stations in the U.S. even…work? How did they even start, how big are they, who works for them, how sustainable are they?
- Asia versus Thúy Nga Paris By Night.
- How might people decide to use a non-Vietnamese name — or to start using a Vietnamese name later in life? How do parents name their children? Do they try to keep both American and Vietnamese naming conventions in mind, and if so, how?
- What are the most absurd/memorable/significant times you’ve passed as non-Vietnamese?
I recently had an enlightening conversation with two other Asian-American friends about clichés within “ethnic” media (and whom to which these situations even read as cliché at all), in which we realized we were all sick of the once-compelling pan-ethnic embarrassing-food story that’s been trodden into toothless inefficacy: “I brought [italicized name of food item, untranslated to signal that I have Evolved™ and am now Proud™ to be of the culture that produces said food item] to school! Classmates gawked and were rude and cruel! I realized I was Other™! I was ashamed! I told my [parent/guardian figure]™ and they either: were perceptibly hurt, or reassured me that I come from a Rich Culture™ and should Love Who I Am™! (Or both!)” I know first-hand what solace these stories can give, how sky-opening and un-alone it can make a young child feel the first time they encounter it outside of their own brain and heart. But life goes on after second grade and lunchboxes, and you can’t subsist on a single narrative template alone, Xeroxed thousands of times into tiresome over-accessibility.
In brief, with all due respect for the work it takes to make anything, ever, what I‘m looking for is either a) lighthearted rabbit-hole-y explorations of very, very specific pop culture points that illuminate more general diasporic phenomena but might be initially less accessible, or b) post-lunch-food discussion of second-wave experiences, which isn’t really what a 25-minute podcast is meant to deliver.
And that’s okay! I can just call my sister.